Sunday, December 7, 2008

C. S. Lewis's Three Arguments for Moral Objectivity

C. S. Lewis’s arguments for moral objectivity in Mere Christianity

First, an account of subjective vs. objective.Something is objective just in case there can be real disagreements in which one party or the other must be mistaken. Both sides can’t be right. If I say O. J. killed Nicole and Ron, and you say he didn’t, one of us is mistaken. Even if, as the defense argued at the trial, there wasn’t evidence to settle the question beyond a reasonable doubt, the fact is that either O. J. did it, or he did not. So the question of O. J.’s guilt is an objective, not a subjective matter.Something is subjective just in case there are no real disagreements and no one is really right or wrong. If I think McDonald’s burgers are better than Burger King’s, and you like Burger King’s better, we both can be right for ourselves. It’s a matter of what tastes good to us, and there is no grounds for dispute. As the Romans used to say “De gustibus non est disptandum” (in matters of taste there is no disputing).

Bertrand Russell said:“The theory which I have been advocating is a form of the doctrine which is called the “subjectivity” of values. This doctrine consists in maintaining that, if two men differ about values, there is not a disagreement as to any kind of truth, but a difference of taste. If one man says “oysters are good” and another says “I think they are bad,” we recognize that there is nothing to argue about. The theory in question says that all differences as to values are of this sort, although we do not naturally think them so when we are dealing with matters that seem to us more exalted than oysters.”

This is the position that Lewis is criticizing both in Mere Christianity and in the Abolition of Man.

Lewis's first argument is the argument from implied practice. People are, at best, inconsistent moral subjectivists.

He writes:

"But the most remarkable thing is this. whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking on to him he will be complaining 'It's not fair' before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties do not matter, but then, next minute, they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they want to break was an unfair one. But if treaties do not matter, and if there iis no such ting as Right and Wrong--in other words, if there is no Law of Nature--what is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature just like anyone else?"

1. If ethics is subjective, then we should expect people to recognize that actions which they are inclined to think of as "wrong" are only wrong from their point of view.
2. But invariably, people view wrongs against themselves as actions that are really wrong.
3. Therefore moral values are objective and not subjective.

Some examples may help:

1) A student once wrote a paper for a professor defending moral subjectivism. He made extensive use of anthopological and sociological evidence and the paper was well-written. He put the paper in a blue folder and gave it to the professor. The professor returned it with an "F" and said "I do not like blue folders." The student, of course protested, pointing out all the effort that went into the paper. the teacher replied "Your paper argues that moral values are subjective, that they are a matter of preference?" Yes, replied the student. Well, the grade is an "F" I do not like blue folders. Of course the student could say "But that's not fair," but to do so would, of course, compromise his subjectivist principles.

2) A fellow philosophy teacher, who was an opponent of abortion and relativism, was having trouble with her 14-year old daughter. The daughter said "I think abortion is OK. That's my opinion. And if you don't think so, that's your opinion." I suggested to her (this is better philosophy than parenting)that she tell her daughter, "So long as you are under my roof, you do not have a right to your own opinion on abortion. So, until you change your mind, you're grounded." Of course, the daughter can reply "But that's not fair...I have a right to my opinion" but to do so would, once again,undermine her subjectivist principles.

3) In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin was proclaiming that he didn't believe in ethics, that it's a dog eat dog world, that if someone is in your way you have to push them out of the way to get ahead, and that the end justifies the means. All of a sudden, Hobbes shoves Calvin to the ground. Calvin yells WHY DID YOU DO THAT? Hobbes replies, " You were in my way. Now you're not. The end justifies the means."

By the way one way of defending objective moral values, which we have discussed earlier on the Dangerous Idea blog, is from the standpoint of rights. If we have rights, that means there is an objectively binding moral obligation on the part of others to allow you to exercise those rights. Otherwise, the idea of rights makes no sense. If I have a right to life, that only makes sense if you have a moral obligation not to kill me.

Lewis’s second argument is the Argument from Underlying Moral Consensus:
1. If morality were a subjective matter, we would expect to find sizable differences of fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
2. But there is, in general, agreement concerning fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
3. Therefore, morality is objective rather than subjective.Yes, there are differences in moral codes. However, some differences in moral codes can be explained in terms of differences about the facts.

People don’t burn witches today (Lewis’s example) not because using Satan’s supernatural powers wouldn’t a serious offense against humanity to warrant severe punishment, but because we no longer believe people actually have and use such powers.

Consider also the differences concerning human sacrifice. (Ollie’s example) The ancient Aztecs thought it was right to sacrifice humans, we do not. However, the Aztecs and ourselves both believe that we have a prima facie obligation not to kill people. The Aztecs, however, believed that there were gods who had the right to demand human sacrifices, and when they are demanded, the duty not to kill is overridden by the moral requirement to do what the gods command. The Abrahamic tradition, going back to, well, Abraham, maintains that the true God does not make those sorts of demands.

Other differences can be explained in terms of how widely we expand the concept of “neighbor.” Moral codes require that we treat our neighbor with respect, but we may limit the concept of “neighbor” to one’s fellow tribe member, or countryman, or a member of one’s own race, etc. It is Jesus’s contribution (in the parable of the Good Samaritan) to our moral understanding that we ought to assess the question “Who is my neighbor” from the bottom of a ditch.

“I only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of doublecrossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might as well imagine a country in where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.” (p. 19 in my edition).

The third argument for moral objectivity is the Argument from Reformers. There have been reformers in the history of the human race whom we believe to have improved our understanding of what is right and wrong. An example (mine) would be Rosa Parks. Parks challenged the principle that African-American people should acquiesce in being treated as inferiors and challenged the Birmingham bus system’s policy of requiring African-American riders to give up their seats. Because of her stand, and that of Martin Luther King and other leaders of the civil rights movements, laws were changed in such a way as to require equal treatment under the law.But if you think that the laws of the state of Alabama are more just today than they were when Rosa refused to give up her seat, then you are applying an objective standard of justice. If on the other hand, you maintain that morals are just social conventions, then Rosa’s actions would have to be considered wrong, because they contravened the social convention of the time.

So the argument is:
1. If moral values are subjective, then moral codes cannot improve, since there is no objective standard by which to judge one code better than another.
2. But the work of people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks shows that moral codes can be made more just
.3. Therefore, moral values are objective rather than subjective.


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Anonymous said...

I feel like there are other ways to incorporate these arguments than the conclusion Lewis makes.

For subjective vs. objective, the assumption that a subjective moralist should not think actions against them are morally wrong seems specious as a part of the argument. Anyone who has lived in a society over time would begin to expect certain behaviors from other people. If they radically changed those behaviors, like in the "sudden subjectivity" examples, this would go against the expectations of anyone.

Also, when a person is injured, they are not a perfectly rational being. Injury to self means that a person will want that injury to stop no matter what, that person could easily be appealing to someone else' subjective morality as much as an objective morality.

More, likely, the person is appealing to the general set of codes of conduct that society has developed over thousands of years.

That brings me to the second argument about underlying moral consensus.

Is it not possible that we all share common threads of morality because we are all the same frail creatures at heart? Lewis called this herd instinct, I believe, but it is more than that. It is a rational choice of "if I do good by this person I will benefit." That benefit can either be a physical benefit (rewards) or it could be a social benefit (being lauded as someone brave) or it could simply mean that you are trying to push a certain type of action, you are trying to inspire that same type of action in return.

The witch argument: what about the belief of the death penalty vs. the belief that the death penalty is not deserved, no matter what? This is a rather large disagreement about the morality of an action between different cultures. But, this path leads to squabbles about trite things. My main rebuttal to this second argument is one of human condition, as previously stated.

Then the third argument from reformers.

I think that this argument can be dealt with in terms of changing social mores. According to the morality of the time, what Rosa Parks did was wrong. According to current views, it was right and it was enlightening. But, are we necessarily reaching for an objective morality to say that things are better now? It seems equally possible that we are using the measuring stick of today to measure actions of the past.

Maybe my own arguments are flawed, but Lewis' arguments by analogy, while much more rhetorically powerful and erudite than mine, seem to fall short in terms of logical proofs. To many, I'm sure they have the feeling of correctness. To me, it feels that his moral mathematics are the equivalent of measuring the height of a tree by sticking your thumb out, squinting and saying "that tree there is 30 feet if not an inch."

Jonah Emmons said...

Mr. Anonymous,
I have a couple points that I must disagree with you on. Firstly, in your post, you said in your first example that "more likely, the person is appealing to the general set of codes of conduct that society has developed over thousands of years." My question to you is, "Where did such a code come from?" If you were called upon to make reforms to the current set of laws, right this second, would you have any idea what could be better than what we now have? Your reforms would be influenced by your beliefs, yes? So, if you were an evil person, you would say that murder could be right. Yet, 'the general set of codes of conduct that society has developed' says that murder is wrong. Therefore, none can remain completely objective, which means that the essence of right and wrong had to come from Somewhere or Someone who was beyond and above evil, in order that the base morality of the world could be good. This is Lewis' point.

My second point that I must disagree with you on is this: you also said, "It seems equally possible that we are using the measuring stick of today to measure actions of the past." If this were true, than what do you think the measuring stick that Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King, or any of the hundreds of reformers in our history, was? If we are measuring the moral actions of the past as right by today's standards, then we can assume that those who looked at the current moral code, believed that it was wrong, and decided to change for "the better" were doing the exact same thing you say that we do to them: they looked at the past with the measuring stick of the present. Therefore, to say that doing this is in any way wrong is to discount the human race's entire reach for goodness over the ages. You are, in essence, declaring that those who risked their lives for "something better" really had no idea what that "something better" was.
Those who desire change, especially for the good of all, will always be required to look to the good of the past and base their actions on that. So, we are never really changing anything new, we are merely attempting to return to something that we've lost- which, all of a sudden, makes the story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man look that much more reasonable.

AcidDC said...

This inspired me to write this rebuttal:

AcidDC said...

"1. If ethics is subjective, then we should expect people to recognize that actions which they are inclined to think of as "wrong" are only wrong from their point of view.
2. But invariably, people view wrongs against themselves as actions that are really wrong.
3. Therefore moral values are objective and not subjective."

Just because certain moral instincts are shared by all humans doesn't mean that there's an objective morality. Why would it?

Jonah Emmons said...

Mr. AcidDC, I read your rebuttal, and an enormous flaw in your logic stuck out to me. I will do my best to not be offensive. You said, first of all, "There is no objective standard for morality." However, in your very next sentence, you said, "There are plenty of objective standards for human well being." My question is this: if there is no objective standard for morality, but there is plenty of objective standards for "human well being", then how do you define morality? If you define morality as doing the right thing, then morality is a standard to produce human well being. You went on to prove that the only way that there are "objectively better and worse ways to produce the outcomes that we want" is to decide whether or not you care about people. You used the example of firing a machine gun into a crowd of people. I assume you are referring to a religious extremist of some kind, because religion seems to be one of the biggest producers of such things. I agree with you that doing such a thing would be a stupid way to produce morally right outcomes that will ensure human happiness and health. However, I must ask you: Do you think that the person firing the machine gun in the crowd is intentionally doing something he believes to be wrong? I would think that such a man would believe that firing a machine gun into a crowd of people would be 1. saving them from a much worse fate, 2. removing the world of sinners and blasphemers, thereby creating greater human health and happiness, or 3. doing what God believes to be right, whatever God they are serving. (I mean no offense to any religion, whatsoever. I am simply using the example in order to prove a point.) So, if your premise is that there is no objective morality, then what is your explanation for where we get our "certain moral instincts"? Would you rather save people from eternal horror, death, oblivion, or fire (depending on what religion you believe), or would you rather believe in an absolute morality that is absolutely good, and choose to share it with others, thereby producing greater human happiness and health? Because, if you are truly working for the greater good of mankind, then you must find an objective morality. Otherwise, the evils of our everyday lives will continue to exist. Forever.

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