[extropy-chat] In defense of moral objectivism: answers to objections

John-C-Wright at sff.net John-C-Wright at sff.net
Thu May 5 20:40:42 UTC 2005

Jeff Medina offers a counter to certain of my assertions, which, I think, in all
fairness, I should answer to the degree that my poor powers allow. 

Let me respond seriatim:

Q: Given that others consider your 'axiom' is not absolute or objective, what then? 

A: My question is whether or not these others have serious as opposed to
frivolous reasons for rejecting the axiom as objective. 

The axiom in question is that moral standards are uniform. There are several
ways of phrasing this axiom: “Do As You Would Be Done By” is merely one way of
phrasing it. The several other ways of phrasing it you yourself list later in
your letter, quoting Confucius, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Vayasa, and so on. Even Peter
Singer (whom you mention later) adheres to axiom, for he reasons that pain is
evil, and that no one enjoys or should enjoy pain, therefore no one should
inflict pain.  

An axiom is the beginning point of deduction, not the conclusion. Those who do
not or will not make any statement of right or wrong, ought or ought not, need
not provide the axiomatic base for those statements; but, by that same logic,
they cannot make any normative statement. 

I submit that this axiom of uniformity is one which is (if only tacitly) is
accepted by all men. You can see it in their behavior even when you do not hear
it in their speech. 

Now, I do not claim that there are folk who can deny, with their lips, this
axiom or its equivalent. Men can deny anything they wish, whether they are
serious or not, merely by stringing meaningless words in a row. But such a row
of words cannot serve as a system of moral law. 

My point here is that one cannot erect a rational account of morality without
adopting such an axiom.  

Axioms are accepted or reject based on induction rather than deduction. In order
to convince you that this axiom is correct, my task is to point to a number of
cases which you accept, and to urge you to see the property they all have in
common: the general rule. There are two specific cases given by you in this
letter where you rely on this axiom without acknowledging it. 

The first case it this: in writing this letter, you seem to be assuming that I
ought to behave in a certain way in responding, that is to say, honestly and
honorably, treating your arguments with respect. 

Indeed, in your closing paragraph in the letter you ask just that of me. You
insult me and ask that I forgive your insult and instead address your questions
on their merits. 

Why should I honor your wishes? Is there a moral standard that should govern my
behavior, even in so simple a thing as writing a letter? If there is a moral
standard, are we both bound by it, you and I, or is it just me? 

If you say one moral standard embraces the both of us, you accept the axiom of

Once Mr. Prisco has announced his disinterest in moral reasoning, he may retire
from the debate. But after that point, he cannot, without self-contradiction,
say that anyone else “should” or “ought” to do likewise; nor can he warn us of
the bad consequences should we not, because such statements would themselves be
species of moral reasoning, that is, normative statements rather than statements
of mere empirical fact. 

Q: Giulio was quite right, and your failure to provide a justification in terms
of -absolute or objective- morality is further evidence of his point. 

A: I notice that the justification I give in my first letter (explaining that
this axiom of uniformity is universal, in that moral reasoning is not possible
without it) is neither quoted nor addressed. 

Q: Demanding that your personal moral beliefs be acknowledged as absolute does
not make them so, John.

A: Beg pardon? Where have I made any such demand? My argument was that if you
accept the axiom “do as you’d be done by” the conclusion “don’t push grandma
under the bus” follows from the premise “I’d rather not be pushed under a bus
when I get old.” The two possibilities here are: take the axiom or do not. 

Mr. Prisco does not. He stated that such moral reasoning was impossible (and
uninteresting). I suppose he is correct, sort of. If you reject the axiom of
moral reasoning, moral reasoning is in fact impossible. This is exactly what a
moral relativist does: he throws away the key and complains that the door is

Had he said this and no more, I would not have controverted him. My objection to
him was that he embraced a contradiction, by saying we none of us “ought to”
have moral convictions, because convictions lead to atrocity, and atrocity is
morally wrong. (His argument is overbroad: all need say is that, as a moral
principle, men should not resort to violence when reasonable arbitration on an
issue is possible.) 

Let me make this clear: your objection is that my argument rests on an axiom.
Any deductive proof rests on its axioms. No axiom justifies itself. Therefore my
argument, if the axiom be not granted, is not justified. 

Well, if your objection were valid, it would apply not merely to my specific
case of moral reason, but to all reasoning whatsoever, including, by the way,
the argument you use here in your rebuttal. 

I should also like you to lend some weight or present some evidence that “Do As
You’d Be Done By” is merely a “personal moral belief.” I also happen to believe
that the theory of relativity is a better description of the behavior of the
physical universe than the Newtonian: does this mean I have a “Personal Physics

Q: Thanks for letting us know you don't have a clue concerning the reasoning of
modern intellectuals and socialists. It helps to see the context of your other

A: Since about the 1830’s intellectuals, particularly in Germany and France,
have been enamored of notions of Eugenics, Social Darwinism, and other specific
cases of sacrificing individual rights and freedoms in return for a general
social good: one might call this the scientifically organized society.
“Scientific Socialism” was and is popular among intellectuals of the continent,
and it follows the same type of reasoning as the Spartan on matters of how to
organize society. 

Socialism is the correct term for any number of theories that would abrogate the
right to private property and turn the means of production over to the state. 

You may take that or leave this comment as you will: it is entirely possible
that you are familiar with the intellectual history of the West, and merely do
not see the connection I see between ancient Sparta and its modern epigones. The
point is hardly central to the discussion. 

An "intellectual" is generally the term I’d like to use for people who reason
from theory rather than practical experience. It simply happens to be the case
that impractical theories, but which have a specious self-consistency (such as
socialism) hold out particular temptations to men who reason from theory alone;
a temptation to which men of practical experience are less prone. 

Q: (quoting me) These reasons for doing in the useless old lady are each a
species of utilitarianism, which holds that we should value other men only
insofar as they can serve as means to our ends.  (responding) Bentham, arguably
the founder of utilitarianism, proposed his theory out of consideration for the
interests of all beings capable of suffering…. This sort of consideration is the
bedrock of utilitarianism (and more broadly, of consequentialism, of which
utilitarian theories form but a subset), and it has not the cold flavor you
attribute it.

A: This is tangential to our topic: I will answer nonetheless. 

My reading of John Stewart Mill left me with a different impression. I was
careful to say that the Spartan reasoning given above was a “species” of
utilitarianism. I did not say, as you attribute to me, that Bentham would push
an old lady under a bus because she was past child-bearing years. However, the
sacrifice of the individual to service the good of the community is an
utilitarian idea. Mr. Prisco was giving an exaggerated or heartless example of
such reasoning. 

Mr. Prisco’s example simply was not a case of a man choosing to help a smaller
as opposed to a greater number of old ladies across the street. His example
(which he correctly rejected as “bullshit”) was that the type of reasoning where
little old ladies are sacrificed to the greater good in the name of social or
evolutionary necessity. Whether you chose the term “utilitarian” or
“consequentialist” to describe the heartless type of reasoning used where the
ends justify the means is of no matter to Mr. Prisco’s argument, nor mine. 

Q: Another classic source on utilitarianism, if you care to understand that
which you denigrate at least at a basic level, is Singer's Practical Ethics,
which you comment on later in your message (calling him an infanticide advocate,
which he clearly isn't, if you read his work rather than the nutjob religionists
who've slandered him in the press). You needn't go further than the first
chapter to find Singer declare that ethics demands equal consideration of the
interests of others -- they are explicitly not means to our own ends. 

A: This is irreverent to the topic. Also, I did not call Singer a Utilitarian,
you did. He is a Epicurian, for he holds pleasure to be the ground of ethics. He
is also (by the way) a moral objectivist: he believes that reason uncovers
truths, not opinions, about how men ought behave. 

Despite that this is a side-issue, let me pause to assure you that I have read
Singer’s Practical Ethics. He advocates that it is morally acceptable to kill a
child under the age of three or so if it would serve the greater happiness of
his parents, and if the killing is done swiftly and mercifully. I read it. I saw
the words with my eye. 

I would hesitate to call any book a “classic” that has not stood the test of
time. Mr. Singer’s book is a little young and green for that, thank you. 

Q: Another smidgen of information on Singer's heart being in the wrong place; he
donates a minimum of 20% of his earnings to charities each year. How much do you
help the less fortunate each year, John?

A: This is irrelevant as well as being ad Hominem. 

However, I owe you an explanation. I am a Christian. My master has ordered me in
no uncertain terms not boast about my charitable giving. “Do not let the right
hand know what the left is doing” and all that. So I am prohibited by my
personal moral beliefs from answering the question, lest I be numbered among the
Pharisees who pray and do good works in public. 

Rest assured, however, that I am sincerely delighted Mr. Singer gives away so
much to the poor. It is a good deed, whether or not he advocates cruel practices
in other areas. 

But I do not see how the one excuses the other. 

Despite his charity to the poor, Mr. Singer is still a perfect antitype to Mr.
Prisco. Mr. Singer certainly does not have a sentimental attachment to kindness
of the type Mr. Prisco describes. 

Notice, for example, that Mr. Singer proposes abolishing domestication of cows
on purely theoretical grounds, not because he has pets or feels sympathy for the
Little Fuzzy Critters. He boasts of this lack of sympathy in his book; and
specifically identifies his reasons as being theoretical. A typical
intellectual, he ignores the practical outcome: animal populations would fall,
not rise, were they not domesticated. Human populations in poor countries would
also fall due to starvation if farmers released all their livestock. 

( I must mention that Mr. Singer does not give away as much as he SAYS people
should give away. He says we should all give away so much that only our basic
means of subsistence is left.) 

Q: (Quoting) Axiom: Treat others as ends, never as means. Term One: Pushing the
old lady under a bus to serve the social good is treating her as a means, not as
an end. Term Two: Therefore I should not push the old lady under a bus.
(Responding): We can keep your axiom and reverse the conclusion, exposing the
axiom for the confusion it is.

(Premise 1) Treat others as ends, never as means. (Premise 2) Allowing various
members of society to suffer and die [ which I take to be a plausible result of
not doing that which serves the social good, but other examples of social harms
would suffice] to serve the good of the old lady is treating all of those
members as means to an end. (Conclusion) I should not let those people suffer
and die.

A: Sorry, but your second premise is simply false. No one who helps an old lady
across the street does so *for the purpose of* inflicting a harm on the social
fabric by encouraging overpopulation. 

While I do not agree with Kant on most things, I think he has correctly
identified a fundamental axiom of moral reasoning here, what he calls, in
technical terms, a category: do not use men as means to your ends. 

Q: (quoting) A moral standard is not a standard unless it is a fixed standard,
that is, the same for all men. (Responding) Just men, eh? What a fine moral
outlook you have indeed. Please, speak on, fellow manly man! You're living in
the wrong century for that sort of language, John. 

A: Thank you, and you may call me Mr. Wright. The century you claim as your own
is a nice place to visit, but I would not care to stay. The native life is
quaint and colorful, but your speech taboos of your local tribal idols confound
me, and you are not as tolerant and civil as my century. 
The language of my century, the current century, is called English: a language
both courteous and bold, precise and flexible, fair to the ear and fit for the
tongue of free men. You cannot make a similar claim for the cant of political
correctness, which is famed only for being craven, weaselish, gaseous,
stereotyped, awkward, slavish. 

Your jargon is certainly not a hundred years old. 

Q: "... a fixed standard,that is, the same for all people." would be rather more
appropriate. Or should we move in the other direction, and specify not just men,
but straight white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men? 

A: I am the only one who finds this little diatribe slightly astonishing? 

I assume Mr. Medina cannot seriously be setting himself up to correct my
manners, or improve my English. The crow will teach the nightingale to sing? 

I think not. His purpose is condemnation. In the midst of an argument defending
moral nihilism, Mr. Medina interrupts to condemn a violation of the latest
fashion in speech-codes as an absolute moral prohibition, zealously upheld.

Mr. Medina, tell me, when you say something is “appropriate” what exactly do you
mean? Do you mean that there is a standard to which I should adhere? Is it a
standard that is the same for you and me, or, in other words, a uniform
standard? If it binds me and not you, why should I be loyal to this standard? 

This is the second example in your letter of your loyalty to an axiom of
morality which you deny with your lips and show in your acts.  

Q: I'm quite glad that you recognize the argument fails on rejection of the axiom. 

A: This same holds true for all argumentation of the deductive type. 

Q: It's a pity you don't take the next step in recognizing that you haven't
provided any objective or absolute reasons for us to agree with your version of
axiomatic morality.

A: Except that they must be self-evident, otherwise you yourself would not be
calling upon such axioms in writing this letter to me, or when you ask me to
conform my speech to your speech-code. You are assuming that moral standards are
uniform between us: otherwise you would not bother writing as you have written. 

Q: (quoting) He has taken a stance of radical subjectivism: he calls a thing is
good merely because he wants to do it. (responding) You're oversimplifying
unacceptably. Your statement implies Giulio would call theft good if he wanted
to do it….

A: No. I said that Mr. Prisco himself says his adoption of the value “be kind”
is arbitrary. This is not a simplification, and the deduction that follows from
it is self-explanatory. 

Q: Giulio can correct me if I'm wrong and he actually does fit your caricature.
But it remains that none of what he said requires the straw-man you've
constructed to be accurate. 

A: You may re-read his letter to satisfy yourself as to what he said and what my
deduction about the comment was. His stance is that “be kind” is a personal
preference which he has no interest in debating. If I have misunderstood Mr.
Prisco’s comment, I welcome correction. 

Q: (quoting) But where did that culture come from? Where and when did the idea
arise, absent in the ancient pagan world, that individual human life was sacred?
(responding) So not only are you ignorant of moral philosophy, you're ignorant
of pagan and other pre-Christian religions as well. That bit about "Do unto
others"? Think that originated in Christianity or even Old Testament Judaism and
then spread out to other religious and secular mindsets? Wrong, John. (quotes
several sources, etc.) 

A: The comment is irrelevant. I said that the value of holding individual human
life sacred was absent from ancient pagan cultures. You respond by saying that
the axiom of moral uniformity, “Do Unto Others” is universal. This value is not
the same as this axiom. 

I will accept your testimony on this point that Confucius, Menciusm, Vyasa,
Tathagatha, and Lao Tsu all agree with me that the basic axiom of morality, the
Golden Rule, is self-evident.  

I am a little surprised, but very pleased, you call all these esteemed
authorities to the witness stand on my behalf. I would not normally propose an
argument from authority, but since you have proposed it, I cannot help but note
that all the authorities on this point agree overwhelmingly with me. Not one of
them proposes moral subjectivism. 

You are so eager to denigrate Christianity that you fail to note that this
passage in your letters supports and affirms my main point of our debate. Your
list will serve as evidence that the axiom is accepted by men of all eras and
all lands. 

Now, show me where these same authorities agree that individual human life is
sacred. Most of these great ancient thinkers, including others you have not
mentioned, agree with Ananias that it is batter that one man should die for his
people than that the whole nation should perish. As far as I know, the Christian
and Mohammedan uniquely disagree with this sentiment, and say that to murder an
innocent man is as grave a sin as to kill a world.  

Q: (given the example of German and Russian socialism) neither of these two
positions are examples of moral relativism. Proponents in either case could
consistently hold the views you attribute to them *and* also that their moral
views are absolutely and objectively true.

A: As far as I can tell, your statement is merely false to facts. Both the
German and Russian socialist writers were polylogists, and explicitly said so. I
cannot refute it any more than I can refute a man who says that noon is night.
Readers may read the original sources and come to their own conclusions. 

Q: See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_relativism for definition

A: Here is the quote to which this link leads: “Moral relativism is the position
that moral propositions do not reflect absolute or universal truths. It not only
holds that ethical judgments emerge from social customs and personal
preferences, but also that there is no single standard by which to assess an
ethical proposition's truth. Many relativists see moral values as applicable
only within certain cultural boundaries.” 

I don’t see what point you are making.   

1.	Mr. Priscio did not use this definition. He did not say he prefers to help
old ladies across the street because and only because his culture favored that
value. He said he did it because he chose to do it, and he said that there was
no point in discussing the whys and wherefores thereof. 

2.	Even granting this definition, my comment still stands: The National
Socialists said that their logic and their morals, as Aryans, differed from the
logic and morals of the Jews, a culture (folkway) alien to theirs. The Marxists
said that logic and morals (and economics) were an ideological superstructure
produced by the material effect of the means of production on the minds of the
various classes in the economy, so that, proletarian logic and morals differed
from the logic and morals of entrepreneurs and landowners. In both cases, the
existence of absolute or universal moral truths was denied. 

3.	This definition, if accepted, would allow persons within the same culture to
assess the morality of each other’s acts, and such assessment would be valid.
Mr. Prisco’s formulation (which I identified as more radical than mere cultural
relativism) is, however, individual. He said he does what he sees as right
because it suits his taste: he embraces the value called kindness because such
is his choice, and for no other reason. 

Q:  See  http://majikthise.typepad.com/majikthise_/2005/05/whats_wrong_wit.html
for some clarificational remarks made by someone trained in moral philosophy at
one of the best programs in the world.

A: Sorry, as best I can tell from following this link, these comments were
written by a character in a Douglas Adam’s book. Only he is not as funny as Adams.

Mr. Medina, if you object to the use of the term “Moral Relativism” to describe
Mr. Prisco’s position, you will have to take that up with him, not me. My
objections are the same no matter what label you affix to this philosophy. It is
the properties of the philosophy, not of the label, that concern me.  

Q: The Nazis believed in their absolute superiority; they didn't acknowledge or
respect the distinct moral views of other cultures.

A: Acknowledge, yes; respect, no. The Nazi belief was that a “Will to Power”
formed the basis of morality, and that Christianity was weak and foolish. Their
basic argument was the same as Thrasymacus: that “justice” was the will of the
weak overcoming by trick the will of the strong. Now then, anyone who says
morality is a matter of individual (or racial) will-power is not saying that the
moral rules are objective and standard for all men. 

You introduce a novel concept here into the discussion. Erenow, you and I were
using the phrase “moral relativism” to refer to the doctrine that moral
standards were not objective. Now you add the concept that “moral relativism”
refers to the doctrine that the moral standards of other cultures are worthy of
respect. This is not quite the same thing. 

A pagan of the Nordic humor might disagree with my Christian conceits on many
topics, and might want to burn my churches, but he hopes for Valhalla as I hope
for heaven. My respect for such a ferocious and hardy philosophy is great. He
and I both believe God hung on a tree, a sacrifice of himself to himself. I
would much rather have the stalwart Viking at my back in a foxhole than a modern
intellectual, who might run away if he decides that "courage" is not a value he
choses to accept that day or hour or minute. I know at least that the honest
Asatru will die with his weapon in his hand. So just take my word for it: I have
great respect for men of other cultures. But I am in no wise a moral relativist. 

This respect for alien cultures is also not conspicuously displayed in your
writing to me. I am from the culture of Christendom, English-speaking Western
European tradition. I do not know where you are from, but if you are not from
Christendom, your rules forbid you to condemn my speech or actions. 

Q: (quoting)  The most famous moral movement during the Eighteenth Century was
the world-wide abolition of slavery, which was done by Christians who thought it
absolutely the case that God hated the institution of slavery. (responding)
Except for the Scripture that speaks in favor of slavery, eh? (several quotes
follow from antiabolitionists who held that Slavery was an institution favored
by God). 

A: Irreverent. I did not write that the Anti-abolitionists were not Christians.
What I wrote was that the Abolitionists were moral absolutists. They believed
that they were the defenders of an absolute moral imperative, that it was wrong
for man to enslave man. 

This was in response to Mr. Priscio’s comment that people believing themselves
to be the defenders of an absolute truth *always *(emphasis his) leads to
mass-murder. I was giving an example of a group who, without question, were not
moral relativists, and who, without question, did a great moral good (perhaps
the greatest in history) rather than commit an atrocity. 

In your eagerness to mock Christianity, you missed the point of the comment. 

Q: (quoting) Likewise, the great blooming of human liberty across the globe, the
end of Monarchy, was spearheaded by men who wrote a document that begins: "We
Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident."  (responding) Men like... the
non-Christian Thomas Jefferson?

A: Same again. Jefferson was not a moral relativist. He was a man who swore on
the Altar of Almighty God eternal enmity to ever form of tyranny over the minds
of men: this is not the language of men who lack conviction. He defended what he
took to be an absolute truth. 

Refer to Tom Paine’s AGE OF REASON. The Deists were men of religion, but who
relied on an argument from design to worship only so much of God as could be
understood through natural reason, rejecting revelation and an instrument of
priest-craft. A Deist is not an agnostic nor an atheist (thought Paine was
falsely so called); and, more to the point, not a moral relativist. 

Q: Or John Adams.

A: Same again. Adams was not a moral relativist. 

Q: Or James Madison.

A: Same again. Madison was not a moral relativist. (And the context of this
statement sounds like a rejection of Roman Catholic Clergy: In other words, that
he was a Protestant, not an Agnostic.)

Q: Yeah, they may have been moral objectivists. They needn't have been, though. 

A: (spitting coffee down his shirt front) cough, cough. Gasp. Um. Well, I
suppose they could have been Eskimos too, if they had been living in the Arctic. 

Look, Mr. Medina, I don't mind you being rude to me, but I do mind you being
silly. The Founding Fathers signed a document saying that it was a SELF-EVIDENT
TRUTH that all men are created equal. They are exemplars of the Enlightenment,
men of Reason first and foremost. You seriously misjudge the tenor and mood of
their day and age if you can imagine that any of them would have heeded an
argument saying that human reason was insufficient to distinguish good from bad,
right from wrong, proper from improper. That was the whole point of the
Enlightenment. To argue that they, these arch-rationalists of the age of reason,
would accept this modern post-rational, post-moral, post-modern, post-Christian
nihilism and intellectual defeatism is preposterous. 

Q: You can be a moral subjectivist and still assert what you think should be the
foundations of a good nation. 

A: No. A moral relativist can only state that his personal tastes prefer one to
the other. He cannot have a notion of a “good” (morally good) nation. He perhaps
can say that a certain law would be efficient for some certain purpose and not
for others; or he can say an institution conforms or does not conform to ancient
and established practices. He can report his own personal preferences in the
matter. But he cannot say that one institution is “better” or “worse” than
another, because such statements presuppose a normative standard against which
the judgment is made.

Men do not vow their lives, fortune and sacred honor on the position that “you
have your opinion and I have mine.” Men only make such vows when (1) they
believe vows carry moral weight and (2) they believe they have honor and (3)
their honor is sacred.  These three propositions are logically incompatible with
moral relativism. 

Q: You can agree with your contemporaries on various moral matters without
declaring said morality a universal truth .

A: Agree with your contemporaries----on what grounds? 

Q: If any of what you said were true, I'd be just as up-in-arms about it. But it
isn't. So, just as you hope to be pardoned for your tone, I hope you'll pardon
me as well and engage the ideas (however impolitely I've presented them) rather
than dismiss them because of my umbrage at what I see as misguided piety,
ignorance, and fundamentalist propaganda.

A: I forgive you, Mr. Medina. 

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