I recently watched an excellent interview-style debate between professional philosophers over the objectivity (or lack thereof) of moral propositions such as “Murder is wrong.” The program, “No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed,” discussed the issue in an episode titled “Beyond Morality,” named after a book by one of the guests, Richard Garner out of Ohio State University.
I was vaguely aware of Garner’s book at the time, and so knew who Garner was by reputation. (I’ve subsequently learned that his book has a much more historical flavor than I anticipated, and so is not simply a recasting of the sort of arguments one might find in J. L. Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.) I also knew one of the other guests, Russ Schaffer-Landau, from his discussion of these sorts of metaethical issues in the most recent edition of Joel Feinberg’s introductory philosophy anthology Reason and Responsibility.
The host, Ken Knisely, leaned toward the sort of subjectivist position Garner advocated, while Russ Schaffer-Landau and the other guest, Bryan Van Norden, defended the objectivity of ethics. The show is available from streaming over the Internet here:
As the ensuing discussion shows, the rumors of error theory’s death have been greatly exaggerated. It is interesting how the two “moral objectivists” inadvertently liken belief that any given action is morally right or wrong, in a sense, to Alvin Plantinga’s position that belief in God is properly basic (by comparing belief in moral propositions to an axiomatic belief in an external world outside of one’s own mind, for instance). At the end of the day, as the NDOPA discussion illustrates, those who accept the objectivity of ethics are asking moral skeptics like myself to simply “have faith” that certain things are right or wrong independently of anyone’s opinion. That’s an available response, of course, but not a particularly satisfying one.
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