Objectivity

Samuel Scheffler

  • Natural Reasons: Personality and Polity by S.L. Hurley
    Oxford, 462 pp, £40.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 19 505615 9

To many people it seems obvious that science is objective in a way that ethics is not. Without being able to characterise the contrast between the objectivity of science and the subjectivity of ethics as clearly or precisely as a professional philosopher might wish, many people would nevertheless regard it as absurd to deny that such a contrast exists.

The prevalence of this attitude testifies both to the enormous intellectual prestige of modern science and to the extent of contemporary scepticism about traditional ways of understanding the sources and authority of our moral values and precepts. These two factors are hardly independent, of course, since it is precisely the rise of a broadly scientific worldview that has, more than anything else, served to weaken the systems of belief in which people’s values and principles have traditionally been embedded. The recent growth of religious fundamentalism, which might at first seem to constitute an important exception to these trends, appears upon reflection to be better understood as a reaction against them, a desperate attempt to reverse them, and as such it provides additional evidence of their power.

There is another factor that also helps to explain why a contrast between the objectivity of science and the subjectivity of ethics has come to be taken for granted by so many people. Facts about cultural diversity have always been appealed to by those who doubted the objectivity of ethics. Never before, however, have those facts been so widely and so insistently disseminated. The technological developments that have, in this century, revolutionised travel and communications, have undeniably promoted a certain amount of cultural homogeneity in the process: but, at the same time, they have also made it virtually impossible for anyone to be unaware of the rich and continuing diversity of human religions, ideologies and cultures. Technology has made amateur anthropologists of us all, for it has given us no choice but to inhabit a world that is awash in evidence of its own pluralism. Since facts about cultural diversity have always seemed to many of those who confronted them to cast doubt on the objectivity of ethical values and principles, it is hardly surprising that in such a world these doubts should have grown more widespread. And since scientific beliefs, unlike systems of value, appear relatively immune to cultural variation, it is equally unsurprising that their objectivity has not seemed similarly under threat.

Interestingly enough, the awareness of pluralism also contributes in another way to the popularity of ethical subjectivism. To those who take pluralism seriously, subjectivism often seems to constitute the only humane and tolerant response. For subjectivism seems to imply that all of the various ways of life and systems of value that we encounter have the same kind of legitimacy: each is validated, for those who accept it, by the fact that it represents their preferred conception of how to live. No way of life is objectively superior or privileged. To claim otherwise may seem arrogant, narrow-minded or intolerant.

Now this train of thought, although seductive, is nevertheless confused. For when it is taken as a recommendation of subjectivism that it constitutes a humane and tolerant response to pluralism, humanity and tolerance are themselves being treated, not merely as subjective preferences, but as values worthy of allegiance. Our objection to inhumanity and intolerance is not that they don’t happen to appeal to us, but rather that they transgress authoritative values and norms. And this is just the type of thought we purported to be repudiating as narrow minded and intolerant when we embraced subjectivism.

The fact that we may seem to be driven toward subjectivism, not only by scepticism about our values, but also by those values themselves, helps to explain the powerful appeal of that doctrine. However, the idea that subjectivism about values receives support from certain of our own values is untenable, and the often unrecognised influence of that idea is symptomatic of a deep instability in contemporary attitudes towards morality. For, on the one hand, a broadly subjectivist understanding of morals has never been more widely accepted. Yet, on the other hand, we continue to make moral and evaluative judgments all the time, and those judgments purport to be communicating something other than our subjective preferences. For most people, moreover, the disposition to make such judgments is so deeply embedded in their personalities that they could not cease making them even if they wanted to, nor would they be likely to want to if they reflected on the many important ways in which such judgments help to structure human emotions and attitudes, as well as interpersonal relationships and social arrangements.

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