Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Four Essays on Objective Morality

Thanks to Roderick Fitts, guest blogger at Noodlefood, for bringing the availability of the January 2008 issue of the Social Philosophy and Policy journal to my attention. That particular issue focused on the subject of "Objectivism, Subjectivism, and Relativism in Ethics" and featured numerous esssays of which I have read four that interested me.

Tara Smith's The Importance of the Subject in Objective Value: Distinguishing Objective from Intrinsic Value is a thorough review of the crucial distinction that Ayn Rand makes between the her concept of objectivity, which argues for a relational view of concepts, including moral concepts, and what she calls "intrinsicism," which is in fact what many people assume objectivity to consist of, but is in fact a failed attempt to divorce the subject from the object which ultimately and inevitably collapses into subjectivism.

Darryl F. Wright's Evaluative Concepts and Objective Values: Rand on Moral Objectivity attacks a related aspect of the same question. He discusses in some detail the underlying Objectivist epistemology and defends it from some critics. He then proceeds to show that what exactly moral objectivity involves, including its link to the goal of self-preservation.

Tibor R. Machan's Why Moral Judgements can be Objective attempts demonstrate the Ayn Rand approach succeeds in providing an objective morality, or as he puts it "there seems to be nothing amiss in the Randian idea of objectivity in ethics." While the overall thrust of this essay is reasonable, and it is clear that Machan is sympathetic to Objectivism, I couldn't help noticing an unfortunate lack of commitment to the very ideas that Machan presents. For example, he concludes that
...it is most likely true that objectivity is possible in ethics, provided that knowledge is conceived in an essentially non-Platonist, non-idealist fashion and provided that “objective” is not taken to mean that moral values are intrinsic.
It seems to me that Machan concedes too much to rather unworthy critics with the above statement.

Finally, I thought that Douglas B. Rasmussen's The Importance of Metaphysical Realism For Ethical Knowledge was probably the most interesting essay I read. Rasmussen discusses the views of philopher Hilary Putnam in some detail. Putnam claims that moral objectivity is possible despite denying any underlying metaphysical reality in way similar to Kant. Rasmussen carefully lays out Putnam's sometimes varying positions on the matter and shows conclusively that Putnam's attempt to present an objective morality without an objective reality fails. What was most fascinating about this particular essay is that the political implications of Putnam's views are also discussed. Thus the essay serves as a good illustration of the power of basic philosophy, including metaphysics and epistemology, to influence both ethical and political ideas.


Tibor said...

It says here: "It seems to me that Machan concedes too much to rather unworthy critics with the above statement." But this assertion is given zero support. Talk of conceding "too much to unworthy critics," ones who do not care about arguments at all.

Gideon said...

Thank you Dr. Machan for commenting on my blog.

I did not give much support to any of my assertions about the various articles involved. This post was simply meant as a brief indication of my reaction to the essays I read.

Ironically, for your article I did provide a brief quote to illustrate what I meant. I was referring to the hedging evident in such phrases as "most likely true". As to the "unworthy critics," I refer to any intellectuals of a skeptical orientation to whom confident assertions of truth and certainty smack of dogmatism, and to the apparent requirement to qualify otherwise well founded and established arguments.

A fair criticism would be that I am perhaps forgetting that the likely audience of the article consists of academic philosophers for whom such language is necessary. I concede this readily but nevertheless, I think my point remains true.

Tibor R. Machan said...

Whenever I cannot provide a full demonstration of what I am claiming, I hedge; it is the most honest hting to do, much better than some kind of cocky certainty I have no earned. Of course, in the course of my numerous books I do manage, I am sure, to defend fully my central claims. But in a piece like that on Objective morality one can only do so much and ought not to claim more, even in one's tone!