"If ethics is objective, then there should be widespread ethical agreement.
But there isn't widespread ethical agreement.
Therefore, ethics is not objective."

The title quote has the form of a modus tollens deductive argument.  (If P then Q; not-Q; therefore not-P.)  As such, it is clearly a logically valid argument.  But it is not a sound argument for a couple of reasons: firstly, in the absence of a particular context of discourse, the key term employed ("ethics") is open to various possible interpretations, making the argument quite ambiguous;  and secondly, because on almost any plausible interpretation of "ethics", both of the premises are empirically false.

In this essay, I will first provide the historical context of the quoted argument, and its intended role.  Then I will discuss the empirical evidence that demonstrates that the two premises are in fact false.  Finally, I will explore some of the ways in which the meaning of "ethics" is vague and undefined.

The quoted argument in the title is known as the "Argument from Disagreement".  It argues that the fact of ethical/moral disagreement implies ethical/moral relativism.  If we look at the world around us, we find that different people and especially different cultures appear to have different, and in some cases radically different, ethical/moral opinions and codes.  The argument suggests that if ethics was objective rather than relative, we would not expect to observe this.  Instead, the argument suggests, we would expect to find general inter-personal and cross-cultural consensus on ethical/moral matters.  The alleged fact of widespread ethical disagreement thus implies that ethics is a product of personal opinion or culture, that there is no one objective ethical code.  Some presentations of the argument, such as Mackie's(1), represent it as an argument to the best explanation.  The best explanation of why there is apparent wide-spread ethical disagreement is the hypothesis that there are no objective ethical facts.

The argument is employed by two different schools of thought.  The Anti-Realists employ the argument against Ethical Realists to allegedly prove that there can be no such thing as moral realism.  The Moral Relativists employ the argument against the Moral Absolutists to allegedly prove that moral standards and principles are relative and not independent of people's beliefs.  Moral relativism is the ethical theory that different ethical truths hold for different people.  It comes in two forms: ethical subjectivism and cultural relativism.  Ethical subjectivism holds that ethical truth is relative to individuals; cultural relativism holds that it is relative to culture.  Both deny the existence of moral absolutes, of ethical truths that hold for all people in all places at all times.

Ethical relativism, and its associated cultural and religious tolerance, has been a popular position in the latter half of the 20th century.  For example, in 1947, on the occasion of the United Nations debate about universal human rights, the American Anthropological Association issued a statement declaring that moral values are relative to cultures and that there is no way of showing that the values of one culture are better than those of another.(2)  The modern political pressures for religious freedom and multi-culturalism are its latest manifestations.  Common as this reasoning is, however, there is plenty of room to doubt its coherence. 

Firstly, we may challenge the connection, presumed in the first premise, between objectivity and agreement.  A claim of objective truth does presuppose that there would eventually be agreement among fully informed and completely rational thinkers, after a sufficiently long iteration of critical challenge and response.  For the argument in the title quote to be operative, therefore, it would be necessary for ethical disagreements to persist in principle -- to persist between fully informed and completely rational thinkers after an indefinitely long iteration of critical challenge and response.  In other words, the argument works only if no amount of reasoning between fully rational thinkers could resolve the dispute.  But to suggest, as does this argument, that the existing observed differences of ethical opinion are the result of such a lengthy process among such informed and rational agents is quite implausible.  Actual ethical agents are anything but fully informed or completely rational. 

An alternative interpretation of the argument that has been offered by the Relativist, is that the ethical disagreements in question are unresolvable in principle - because they derive from incompatible and/or incommensurable fundamental premises (eg. "Honouring God is the mark of the Good" versus "The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number is the mark of the Good").  But it is debateable that the necessary critical challenge and response process has progressed sufficiently to certify that these premises are in fact irreconcilably fundamental.  And while it may remain possible that two people might persist in their disagreement despite an extensive iteration of challenge and response, to make the title argument work one must assume that such a persistent disagreement in fundamental premises cannot in principle involve an error on the part of one of the participants.  Fully informed and completely rational agents might still make mistakes.  One would have to add infallibility to the list, making the argument less and less plausible.

Thus it is clear that the first premise holds true only on the presupposition that if ethics is objective, then the objective truth should be readily recognizable and acknowledged by the average moral agent.  But on almost any existing theory of ethics, this is not the case.  Consider three diverse ethical systems: (i) Religious ethics, wherein ethical truth is provided by the dictates of a deity;  (ii) Utilitarian ethics, wherein ethical truth is provided by the utilitarian principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number"; and (iii) Evolutionary ethics, wherein the ethical truth is provided by the Darwinian principle of "greatest inclusive fitness".  In each of these systems, the ethical truth is realist and objective.  But discerning just what that truth might be in any particular circumstance is anything but a simple matter of perception or intuition.  Discovering which alternative is a best fit to the dictates of the deity requires an exhaustive search through the available evidence on the dictates of that deity, and a resolution of the oft-times conflicting interpretations of that evidence.  Finding out just which alternative would deliver the "greatest good for the greatest number" or the "greatest inclusive fitness", requires an exhaustive investigation into the probable consequences of one's actions.  Not being omniscient beings, it is not at all surprising that we should find numerous persistent ethical disagreements, even granting an objective system of ethics.

Secondly, when it comes to the second premise about the absence of widespread ethical agreement, the empirical evidence and some of the results from the philosophy of language, would argue that in fact what we actually find is that only some ethical disagreements have persisted in the face of a limited amount of reasoning amongst not-fully informed and not-completely rational agents, while many more such disagreements are successfully resolved against a background of general agreement in ethical principles.

Donald Davidson(3), for example, argues that the existence of any disagreement at all presupposes considerable agreement in the background.  Davidson(4), Cooper(5), and Myers(6) all argue that there cannot be extensive disagreements about ethics, and that the agreements must be more significant than the disagreements.  Otherwise there would be a recognition that there are incommensurable (and hence untranslatable) ethical concepts across cultures.  This is simply not the case.  For example, some equivalent of the Golden Rule ("Do unto others …. ") can be found in most cultures.  And we readily translate the ethical language of one culture into another (not without the occasional difficulty, of course).

To provide a reason for this general wide-spread background of agreement, Foot(7) and Scanlon(8) argue that there are conceptual limitations on what could count as a moral code.  There are basic elements of human nature that sets limits on what might count as a "ethically good life".  Nussbaum(9) likewise argued that there is one objectively correct understanding of human good.

When exploring the ethical disagreements that do exist, one must distinguish between a descriptive analysis and a normative analysis.  A descriptive, cum anthropological, analysis would document what differences of opinion there are without passing judgement on the nature of the disagreement or the basis underlying the disagreement.  An "ethically tolerant" catalogue of existing disagreements would therefore not be able to probe beneath the apparent conflicts to discover what might be their cause.  If two people bring opposing fundamental premises to the disagreement, then that is the end of the analysis.  That one of them might be in error is not an available descriptive option.

In trying to translate the empirical observations of different ethical opinions into a deeper meaning of "a system of ethics", ethical theorists do not adequately distinguish between two sets of "data".  For roughly 8,000 generations, Homo sapiens has lived and learned in small family tribes ruled by chieftains and shamans.  So it is to be expected that we have been socially indoctrinated with the habits of belief that these leaders find useful.  These customary beliefs need have little to do with what a non ethical relativist theorists would identify as the "proper moral beliefs", whatever their own ethical theories might be.  So what non-relativist theorists fail to properly consider is the probability that at least some of our "ethical opinions" belong not to "ethics" but to the other field of "social habit" (mores).  Thus when ethical theorists point to apparent irresolvable moral disagreements as evidence in favour of moral relativism, they fail to consider the possibility that these disagreements might be in the area of "social habit" (mores) rather than in the area of "ethics".

A normative analysis of such disagreements, on the other hand, would approach the superficial catalogue of existing ethical disagreements from the perspective of some specific ethical system.  From a normative perspective, one can examine the opposing fundamental premises and judge whether one (or both) of them are wrong, why they are wrong, and in what direction they have made the error.  A normative approach can distinguish between "ethics" and "mores" in a way that a descriptive analysis cannot.  For example, a descriptive analysis of the abortion debate would end at the observation that the two sides bring incompatible fundamental principles to the floor.  A utilitarian normative analysis would identify the anti-abortion side of the disagreement as fundamentally mistaken about the nature of what is ethically right, and as a victim of erroneous religious mores.

Which brings us to an analysis of the key term -- "ethics".  In the context of the title argument, just what is being referred to by "ethics"?  If what is being referred to is a description of what people actually do maintain as their ethical principles, then the truth of subjectivist ethical relativism is blatantly obvious.  It is beyond question that as a matter of empirical fact, different people do hold different beliefs as to what is ethically right/proper/good.  It is an objective fact, for example, that Putnam and Nozick disagree about government welfare spending(10).  So here is a case where the facts of the matter are objective and yet there is no agreement.  Alternatively, the ethical opinions involved are clearly subjective and individually relative, hence the disagreement.  So is the ethics that is being referred to the empirically observed opinions of different people?

On the other hand, the Argument from Disagreement is employed by Anti-Realists and Ethical Relativists in support of a conclusion that is grander than the simple observation that different people actually do hold different opinions.  They attempt to employ the argument to demonstrate something deeper -- that there is, in fact, nothing more to ethics than simply one person's opinion.  In other words, they must be employing the term "ethics" in a sense deeper than simply an empirical description of the world.  We can thus see that in the hands of the anti-realist and ethical relativist, the essay's title argument commits the fallacy of equivocation - "If ethics (deeper meaning) is objective, then there should be widespread ethical (descriptive meaning) agreement. But there isn't widespread ethical (descriptive meaning) agreement. Therefore, ethics (deeper meaning) is not objective."  The fallacy is only avoidable if one assumes that there is a premise to the effect that ethics (deeper meaning) determines ethics (descriptive meaning).  This is the premise that we have been challenging all along in this discussion.  And this is the premise that raises the question of just what it is that the relativist conceives beneath the label "ethics (deeper meaning)".  It is not at all obvious.  The Realist/Absolutist has an answer to this challenge.  The Anti-realist and relativist does not.

The Argument from Disagreement has been sufficiently criticized in the literature that it is no longer seriously employed in philosophical debate.  I have covered here only some of the more widely expressed challenges to the argument.  It is generally agreed that in isolation (as it appears here), the argument is not a sound deductive proof of its conclusion.


Notes & References

(1)  J. L. Mackie, j.l.;  Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977.

(2)  Gowans, Chris;  "Moral Relativism" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/moral-relativism/>.

(3)  Davidson, D.;  "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 183--98. 1984.

(4)  Davidson, D.;  "Expressing Evaluations" in Problems of Rationality, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19--37. 2004.

                        "The Objectivity of Values" in Problems of Rationality, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 39--57. 2004.

(5)  Cooper, D.:  "Moral Relativism" in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol 3 (1978), 97--108.

(6)  Myers, R.H.;  "Finding Value in Davidson" in Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol 34 (2004), 107--36.

(7)  Foot, P.;  "Morality and Art," in Moral Dilemmas and Other Topics in Moral Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 5--19, 1972.

"Moral Relativism," in Moral Dilemmas and Other Topics in Moral Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 20--36, 1972.

(8)  Scanlon, T.M.;  Fear of Relativism" in Virtues and reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory, R. Hursthouse, G. Lawrence, and W.Quinn (Eds.), Oxford, Clarendon Press. 219-246. 1995.

(9)  Nussbaum, M.C.;  "Non-relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach" in The Quality of Life, M. Nussbaum and A. Sen (eds.), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 242--69. 1993.

(10)  Horgan, Terry & Timmons, Mark;  "From Moral Realism to Moral Relativism in One Easy Step" in Crítica: Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía, Vol. 28, No. 83 (Aug., 1996), pp. 3-39, URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/40104750>.]


Jones, W.T.;  "Philosophical Disagreements and World Views" in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 43 (1969 -1970), pp. 24-42. URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/3129951>.

Loeb, D.;  "Moral Realism and the Argument from Disagreement" in Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 90, No. 3 (Jun., 1998), pp. 281-303. URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/4320853>.

McCloskey, H.J.;  "Toward an Objectivist Ethic" in Ethics, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Oct., 1962), pp. 10-27. URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/2379796>.

Taylor, Paul W.;  "Four Types of Ethical Relativism" in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 63, No. 4 (Oct., 1954), pp. 500-516. URL=< http://www.jstor.org/stable/2182287>.

Tolhurst, William;  "The Argument from Moral Disagreement" in Ethics, Vol. 97, No. 3 (Apr., 1987), pp. 610-621. URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/2381182>.

Shafer-Landau, Russ;  "Ethical Disagreement, Ethical Objectivism and Moral Indeterminacy" in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Jun., 1994), pp. 331-344, URL=< http://www.jstor.org/stable/2108492>.

Wellman, Carl;  "Ethical Disagreement and Objective Truth" in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Jul., 1975), pp. 211-221, URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/20009577>.

Wikipedia contributors;  "Moral relativism" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Moral_relativism&oldid=470569910>.

Wong, David B.;  "Coping with Moral Conflict and Ambiguity" in Ethics, Vol. 102, No. 4 (Jul., 1992), pp. 763-784, URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/2381553>.


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