Sam Harris, in his book The moral landscape, argued that morals are objective, and he has recently issued a challenge inviting people to refute him. Richard Carrier supports Harris’s claim, though prefers his own formulation of it.
I regard morals as subjective rather than objective so want to address Carrier’s argument. I summarise that argument here, though note that I am re-ordering it and partially paraphrasing. Carrier gives a series of propositions:
1. Humans attempt to achieve satisfaction with their life.
2. What will maximize such satisfaction is an empirical fact that science can discover.
3. Such things are often common across humans.
I agree on all 3 points so far. “Satisfaction” here should be interpreted broadly, as a well-being that gives emotional satisfaction and contentment. It’s also true that humans worldwide are very similar, and that what will lead to contentment overlaps strongly between humans. Note, though, that people also differ in their personality, and can have different preferences.
Carrier’s argument then continues with:
4. All “oughts” are hypothetical imperatives of the form “if you want to achieve X then you ought to do Y”.
Again, I agree. This point is crucial to the discussion of morality and Carrier does well to emphasize it. “Ought” statements are not abstract, they are about achieving a goal, and without that goal being specified they don’t have meaning.
So where are we so far? First, everything above is descriptive rather than normative. We have asserted that humans seek a goal of well-being. If you are seeking that goal then you “ought” to purse certain actions to achieve it, and science can tell you which actions. Since you are seeking that goal then you ought to follow those actions.
Then Carrier puts forward the crucial step:
5. The moral is that which you ought to do above all else.
This is where I part company with Carrier’s argument. He has correctly proposed that “oughts” relate to goals, yet in this premise he treats an “ought” as standalone, as divorced from the goal. Whether the action that you “ought” to do is moral depends entirely on what goal resulted in the “ought” and whether that goal is moral. For example, “if you want to commit genocide, then you ought to invest in some weapons of mass destruction”, does not lead to that investment being moral unless the goal is also moral.
But, a defender of this argument might reply, we’re considering here the goal of pursuing well-being and satisfaction, because that’s what humans do, what they want. Yes it is what humans do, but one can’t leap from “humans do that” or even “humans want that” to “pursuing that goal is moral”. That is begging the entire question.
Sam Harris, in his version of the argument, accepts this and just declares by fiat that the pursuit of well-being is what is defined as “moral”. I disagree with Harris, in that I consider this step to be subjective, and thus incompatible with a claim to an objective system of morals, and I don’t see that Carrier has got round that difficulty either.
Yes, humans do seek well-being and satisfaction, and they seek lots of other things (food, sex, power, children, friendship, fame, etc), and some of these things are compatible with and increase long-term well-being, and others decrease it. Still, I don’t see an objective justification for singling out one over-riding human goal and declaring the pursuit of that one to be what is “moral”. Even if it is what humans want overall, that is still referring to an entirely subjective standard — human opinion, preference and feeling — at the root of the moral system.
Carrier asks “Which of these premises do you reject?”, my answer is that it is the premise: “The moral is that which you ought to do above all else”, and I reject it because it is incompletely stated. As Carrier himself says: “all ‘ought’ statements are hypothetical imperatives”, they are “if, then” conditionals. Thus Carrier’s premise is incomplete without specifying the “if” goal, and thus begs the whole question. Once you try expanding that premise to include the goal, then it becomes either arbitrary or subjective.
Carrier defends his premise saying:
“Because if you mean something else by “moral,” I will have this other thing, this thing which you really ought to do above all else, which means above your thing, too, whatever it is. So I will have something even more imperative than yours …
But, whether that thing is more imperative, whether you “really ought to do it above all else” depends entirely on what one’s goal is! Yes you can say that pursuing human well-being and satisfaction is the goal, from which morality derives, but that is an extra premise, an axiom, not something that either Carrier or Harris have derived from fundamentals.
I should say at this point that I do agree with Harris and Carrier that — in my opinion — pursuing human well-being and life satisfaction is indeed what is moral. But I recognise that this derives from my feelings, my opinions, what would satisfy and please me. Thus, it is subjective (though, of course, given the similarities between humans there would be strong overlap between what I and what others would consider to be moral).
Indeed, I don’t see how any moral system that is about promoting human well-being and satisfaction can be anything other than subjective. From Oxford Dictionaries:
Subjective: (1) based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions …
For something to be “objectively” moral it would have to be in-principle possible that something could be “morally virtuous” even if every human hated it and even if it made humans miserable. If that is considered to be self-contradictory, if pleasing humans is considered the goal of morality, then that is the very definition of a “subjective” moral system. (And note that saying that morals are subjective is in no way to denigrate them; this paragraph surely shows why a subjective moral system is far better for us than any objective one.)
Other objections to the Carrier/Harris argument (which have been widely discussed so I’ll just state them briefly) include:
If you ask why we have moral sentiments, why we are moral animals, it is because evolution has programmed them into us. And evolution will not have done that to maximise human satisfaction or well-being (evolution couldn’t care about that), it would have done it to maximise reproductive success (by facilitating social interaction and cooperation). Thus, the claim that morals are objectively about human well-being is at odds with what morals are, where they came from.
Secondly, under Carrier’s scheme pursuing one’s own interests and well-being would be just as “moral” as advancing someone else’s. This seems to me a category error, in that morals are “about” how humans treat each other, not about how one treats oneself. There’s nothing wrong with someone seeking self-advancement and ones own ends, but this is not generally considered to come under the category of “moral” consideration.
Third, if one is asserting an “objective” system of morals then one would need some way of quantifying well-being and life satisfaction. That is necessary since you often have to play off one consideration against another, and in order to choose you need to know which counts for more. No objective scheme for numerically quantifying these things has been proposed, and I don’t see how it can be, particularly since humans are different and will value different things differently.
And lastly, any objective system would need a method of aggregating “well-being” across different humans (across families, friends, local communities, national communities, and international communities). Again this is necessary since one will have to trade one group’s desires against another’s, and again no objective system has been proposed for this.
You may indeed offer an opinion of such a scheme, but if you want an objective system then you need to arrive objectively at such a scheme. Thus, you would arrive at questions such as “If the action will harm and displease George by 8 moral units, but lead to greater well-being of six other people by 2 moral units each, should I do it?”, and you’d have to supply answers such as “yes, since 12 is greater than 8”.
The whole advantage of accepting that morals are subjective is that it follows that there are no objective ways of quantifying such things and no objective ways of aggregating across people (though of course that doesn’t stop you from offering an opinion about whether an action is moral; and nor does it stop you supporting your opinion by pointing to evidence about the well-being that such an action would lead to).
I don’t see any disadvantages to accepting that morals are subjective, and I see much advantage and clarity of understanding in doing so. The hankering after the idea that morals are objective (or the idea that we somehow need objective morals) is a total red herring.
Update: After discussing the matter with Dr. Carrier on his blog, and after reading his chapter Moral Facts Naturally Exist, from the compilation The End of Christianity, where Carrier presents his argument more fully, I have written a