Objections to Objectivism – Part 1: Three Popular Objections

I have many textbooks, handbooks, and readers on ethics, so I didn’t really need to buy another introduction to ethics this weekend. But I glanced through Russ Landau’s textbook The Fundamentals of Ethics (hereafter: FOE) and the third and final section of his book caught my attention: “Part Three: The Status of Morality”.  In Part Three, he has a chapter on ethical relativism, a chapter on moral nihilism, and a chapter on objections to ethical objectivism.

Objectivism is relevant to philosophy of religion because the objectivity of moral principles and moral claims comes up in discussions about moral arguments for the existence of God, and also in discussions of the problem of evil, and even just in discussions about the meaning of the word “God” (Christian philosophers sometimes define “God” as being the source of moral standards, or as being one source of moral duties).

Landau’s general conclusion about objections to objectivism seems right to me:

As we’ll see, some of the most popular arguments are also the least plausible.  But others represent deep and serious challenges. …My goal in this chapter is simply to show that, despite widespread doubts about ethical objectivism, none of the most popular skeptical arguments is obviously correct, and some, indeed, are pretty plainly unacceptable. And to those that represent more significant challenges, there are potentially promising replies that objectivists can offer.  (FOE, p.306)

I would like to review the ten objections that Landau presents and criticizes, in order to reinforce his conclusion that the most popular arguments against objectivism are bad arguments, and that the better arguments are far from conclusive.

First, some clarification of the viewpoint in question:

Ethical objectivism is the view that there are some objective moral standards.  Given my understanding of objectivity, this amounts to the view that these standards apply to everyone, even if people don’t believe that they do, even if people are indifferent to them, and even if obeying them fails to satisfy a person’s desires.  Moral claims are objectively true whenever they accurately tell us what these moral standards are, or tell us about what these standards require or allow us to do.  (FOE, p.305)

I agree with the criticisms that Landau makes against the ten objections to objectivism that he examines.  However, I will not merely recite his criticisms of these objections to objectivism; I will add some objections of my own.  Landau fails to point out some obvious and very serious problems with some of the more popular objections, so I will be pointing  out those other problems, in addition to presenting Landau’s criticisms.

Objection 1: Objectivity Requires Absolutism

1. If moral claims are objectively true, then moral rules are absolute.

2. No moral rule is absolute.

3. Therefore, moral claims are not objectively true. (FOE, p.306)

Landau is uncertain about premise (2): “I don’t know if there are any absolute moral rules.” (FOE, p.306).  So, he focuses his attention on premise (1):

That first premise tells us that if moral standards are objective, then every moral rule is absolute.  But that isn’t so.  The moral rule that forbids us from lying is probably not absolute; in some cases, morality would probably allow us to lie.  For all we know, though, that rule could be objective.  Ross [W.D. Ross (1877-1967)] thought that the fundamental moral rules are objective.  But he denied they are absolute. …There is nothing in the very idea of an objective morality that requires moral rules to be absolute.

…The objectivity of moral rules has to do with their status: with whether they are ever true, and if so, with the role of human beliefs and desires in fixing their truth.  The absoluteness of moral rules has to do with their stringency: with whether it is ever okay to break them.  There is no direct connection between matters of status and stringency. (FOE, p.306-307)

Landau concludes that premise (1) is false, and thus that this argument is unsound.

But there is also a very serious problem with premise (2) that Landau fails to mention.  The standard argument given in support of premise (2) involves giving examples of moral rules that have exceptions, such as the very example that Landau uses: “The moral rule that forbids us from lying is probably not absolute; in some cases, morality would probably allow us to lie.” (FOE, p.306).

This conclusion about the moral rule against lying is usually defended with a description of a specific scenario, such as the following:

Suppose that you lived in Nazi Germany, and suppose that you were friends with a Jewish family in your neighborhood, and that you had invited that family to come and live in your attic, so that they would not be taken away by the Nazis to be enslaved or murdered in a Nazi prison camp.  Suppose that a Nazi official knocks at your door one day and asks you if you have seen any Jews in the neighborhood recently.  Should you tell the official the truth, that you have a Jewish family living in your attic? or should you lie, and tell the official that you have not seen any Jews in the neighborhood recently?

This sort of specific scenario is offered as providing a good reason to believe that there are legitimate exceptions to the “moral rule that forbids us from lying”.  This is how one typically defends the view that “No moral rule is absolute”.

But notice that this reasoning is filled with moral assumptions.  First of all, this whole line of reasoning ASSUMES that it is indeed wrong to lie sometimes.  But if it is SOMETIMES wrong to lie, then morality is objective, and ethical objectivism is true.

Second, in scenarios like the one about lying to the Nazi official, there are clearly other moral considerations and assumptions (besides the wrongness of lying) that are the basis for believing that this particular case is an exception to the norm.  The enslavement and killing of Jews  just because they are Jews is ASSUMED to be morally wrong.  But if that is true, then morality is objective, and ethical objectivism is true.

Third, there seems to be various moral rules and principles operative in our thinking about this scenario, that goes something like this:

  • You have a general moral duty to help prevent the Jewish family from being enslaved and/or murdered by the Nazis.
  • Inviting the Jewish family to hide in your attic created a specific moral duty to make a serious effort to keep them hidden, and telling the Nazi officials that they are living in your attic would be a morally wrong betrayal of that family.
  • It is more important, in terms of moral considerations, to prevent the enslavement and murder of this innocent Jewish family, than to be honest to the Nazi official about the presence of Jews in the neighborhood.

These assumptions are all moral in nature, and our conclusion that it is OK to lie in this particular circumstance is based upon these sorts of moral assumptions.  But if these assumptions are true, then morality is objective, and ethical objectivism is true.

Therefore, the reasoning that is typically used to support premise (2) is based upon various moral principles and assumptions, and thus this reasoning presupposes the truth of ethical objectivism.  The reasoning that is used to support premise (2) presupposes the truth of the very idea that the argument is supposed to prove is false.  Therefore, this is a self-defeating argument, unless someone can come up with some plausible alternative way of supporting premise (2), other than the usual way that people argue for this claim.

My objection to this argument can be put more simply this way: This argument assumes that acting in accordance with absolutism is morally wrong, and leads to morally wrong actions (such as telling the truth to a Nazi official even when one knows this will result in the enslavement or murder of an innocent family).  This argument, therefore, assumes that ethical objectivism is true.  So, this argument assumes the exact opposite of what it is trying to prove.

Objection 2: All Truth is Subjective

1. There are no objective truths.

2. Therefore, there are no objective moral truths. (FOE, p.307)

Landau argues that premise (1) is false:

Premise 1 is either true or false.  If it is false, then the argument crumbles right away.  So suppose that it is true.  But this is impossible. The premise cannot be true.  For if it were, then there would be at least one objective truth–premise 1.  And if there is at least one objective truth, then premise 1 is false!  No matter how we look at it, then, this premise is false.  (FOE, p.307)

So, the one, and only, premise of this argument against moral objectivism is false, and it shows itself to be false, because the premise refutes itself.

Objection 3: Equal Rights Imply Equal Plausibility

1. If everyone has an equal right to an opinion, then all opinions are equally plausible.

2. Everyone has an equal right to his or her moral opinions.

3. Therefore, all moral opinions are equally plausible.

4. If all moral opinions are equally plausible, then moral objectivism is false.

5. Therefore, moral objectivism is false. (FOE, p.308)

Landau believes that premise (2) is true, so he focuses on premise (1), and argues that premise (1) is false:

From the fact that we each have a right to our opinions, nothing at all follows about their plausibility. …

There are countless examples in which people have an equal right to an opinion–that is, an equal right not to be forced to change their mind–even though their views are mistaken.  Some historical claims are true and others false, even though we each have an equal right to our historical opinions.  The same can ber said of our opinions concerning economics, trigonometry, basketball strategy, or beer brewing.  Most people know more than I do about each of these things, and so my views on these subjects are far less plausible than theirs.  And yet, my right to hold the views I do is just as strong as anyone else’s. (FOE, p.308-309)

So, this argument against ethical objectivism fails because premise (1) is false, and thus the argument is unsound.

But there is also a very serious problem with premise (2) that Landau fails to mention: if this premise is true, then that implies that ethical objectivism is also true.  In other words, this argument against objectivism is another self-defeating argument.

To assert that “Everyone has an equal right to his or her moral opinions.” is to assert the truth of a moral claim.  This claim implies, for example, that it is morally wrong to force someone to accept a moral opinion that he or she does not currently accept.  This would, according to premise (2) involve violating a right of that person.  But if people have rights concerning their opinions, and thus it is morally wrong to violate such rights, then that means there are some objective moral truths, and thus that ethical objectivism is true.

Therefore, premise (2) implies that ethical objectivism is true, and thus this argument against ethical objectivism is a self-defeating argument, just like the previous two popular arguments against objectivism.