Don’t be objective about your subjectivity

“Morality is just social convention, so torture isn’t wrong.” Hearing that thought was a sobering recent experience, especially when you’re trying to get people to care and worry about existential risks. But that’s just a vivid and extreme example of a more commonly expressed sentiment:

P: “If there is no objective morality, then anything goes.”

Now, call those who express that sentiment P-expressers. Who are these people? In my experience, these are individuals who have subjectivised their ethics, but not their meta-ethics, and ended up nihilists as a result.

Let me develop that idea. For idealised moral realists, P is vacuously true; the premise is false, since there is an objective morality. But few indeed are those who have this level of sophistication in their, often implicit, meta-ethics. And P is connotationally close to the non-vacuous:

R: “If there is an objective morality, we should follow it.”

My thesis is that the majority of P-expressers are ex-moral realists, who used to accept P without realising it was vacuous, and have now lost their beliefs in objective moral truths but have preserved their belief in P. In fact, I’ll go further: they still believe, implicitly, that P is objectively true, despite having lost their belief in objective morality for lower level moral questions. In this situation, they have no choice but to be nihilists.

On what foundations of sand to I build this thesis? On nothing more than personal observations of P-expressers, on the internet and in personal interactions (one can expand the sample quite drastically if one includes religious or ex-religious people who use God to play the role of objective morality in P-like statements). They generally seem to exhibit behaviours compatible with the thesis:

  • They often come from a moral realist background.
  • They express disappointment in their nihilism, and often yearn for the certainty and meaning of objective morality.
  • In terms of the implications and correctness of P, they agree with those moral realists who use P as a warning to those who would ‘stray’.
  • When asked questions such as “why is murder wrong?” they respond by talking about social conventions, self-interest or the subjectivity of morality. But they do not respond in the same way to questions such as “why is P true?”. Indeed, they often react as if the possible falsity of P is something they hadn’t ever considered before.
  • They often follow a ‘deconversion arc’: after a while as a P-expressing nihilist, they adjust to a more standard subjective morality, and lose their belief in P. At this stage, they may still profess P if pushed, but it no longer guides their ethical decisions.

The plural of anecdote is not data. Personal experience is no substitute for scientific experiment. Your mileage may vary. More research is needed. But I think this is model worth digging into, and remember: if you’re going to take your moral beliefs as subjective, be sure to go all the way.

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11 Responses to Don’t be objective about your subjectivity

  • Sebastian Hallward says:

    What is P if not an instance of affirming the consequent?

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Hello Stuart
    I think you're claiming that the proposition “If there is no objective morality, then anything goes” is vacuous
    You write : "For idealised moral realists, P is vacuously true; the premise is false, since there is an objective morality."
    I'm not sure that I follow this.
    To be more precise, I don't see why a proposition of the form "If A then B" is vacuously true. And if the premise is false (not A) B can still be the case.
    What's vacuous about this ?

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      The statement "If there is no objective morality, then anything goes" is (formally) vacuously true for anyone who actually believes there is an objective morality. Or A -> (¬A->B), whatever B is. So "If there is no objective morality, then Nelson Mandela is president of Italy" is equally vacuously true.

      But very few people use it as a vacuously true statement; connotationally at least, it seems to have actual meaning, even for believers in objective morality. Maybe as a type of counterfactual statement?

  • Peter Wicks says:

    P is clearly false. In fact it's logically inconsistent. "Anything goes" is itself a moral statement (albeit a nihilistic one).

    If there is no objective morality (as I believe), then it is up to each of us to decide on our subjective morality, and we are free to judge(the actions of) both ourselves and others on that basis.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      I agree with your sentiment on objective morality, but I have to disagree with what you say about P. As I said above, for a moral realist, P is vacuously true (false antecedent). And for nihilist subjective moralities, it's also vacuously true (true consequent). In some moral systems, P is certainly logically inconsistent, but certainly not for all.

      • Peter Wicks says:

        P cannot be vacuously true "for moral realists" but not "for moral subjectivists". P is vacuously true *if the moral realists are right*, which is not the same thing. Since there is no evidence to support moral realism (or even any linguistic/logical clarity as to what it could really mean to talk of "objective morality"), surely it is reasonable to assume that moral realists are wrong.

        I agree that if the phrase "anything goes" is taken to be an expression of subjective nihilism then P would, strictly speaking, be vacuously true, where by "strictly speaking" I mean "in logician-speak". In actual usage the statement referred to as P is clearly intended to imply that the truth of "anything goes" is a logical consequence of "there is no objective morality", and this is clearly not the case. Furthermore the implication (again according to actual usage) seems in any case to be that "anything goes" is intended to be taken as a statement of objective fact, which is what makes the statement logically inconsistent.

        That said I think we agree on the essentials. Essentially P is a straw man put up by moral realists and recently-ex moral realists who haven't yet got comfortable with the idea of making moral choices, who still somehow want to believe that there is a "right answer" independent of their own volition. That is also a choice, of course, but one that has consequences: reduced receptivity to alternative points of view, anxiety about the lack of evidence, wastage of effort trying to prove the unprovable, to derive the underivable, rather than just deciding what one wants and being flexible about it.

  • Sebastian Hallward says:

    Moral realists commit the fallacy of denying the antecedent, nihilistic subjective moralities the fallacy of affirming the consequent.

  • Sebastian Hallward says:

    What does "anything goes" even mean?

    • Peter Wicks says:

      I think (in common usage) it would mean something like, "There's no good reason to act morally or take moral positions at all. Everything is acceptable." To me it's questionable whether either the premise or the conclusion in P are even truth-apt: in the end the way we use words, and the meanings we assign to them, are also choices. Another reason (other than the ones I mentioned above) why moral realism is tempting is that once we *have* decided what we want, believing that it is objectively "the right thing to do" can help to reinforce our own commitment and convince others. So maybe I'm just jealous of their moral clarity! But the problem of total absence of evidence (or even logical possibility of there ever being any evidence) and the negative consequences of such positions that I mentioned above remain. In this context P is not only false, it is also a dangerous fallacy.

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