Saturday, April 18, 2015

Morality, consensus, commitment, and axioms

By Mathew Goldstein

The distinction between a definition in the abstract and a practical operational method for applying that definition is sometimes important, yet it tends to be under appreciated.  As Jason Rosenhouse argues in his recent blog article A Few More Words About Morality "One of the most overwrought questions in moral philosophy is the question of whether morality is objective or subjective."  Following the abstract definition "... something is objectively true if it is true independently of what anyone thinks about it."  However, to apply this abstract "objective versus subjective" distinction we need an operational method to render it concrete.

Jason Rosenhouse makes the following argument:  "The point is that appealing to the consensus is just the best we can do when trying to distinguish what is objectively true from what is a subjective belief.  I see no reason why we cannot apply the same standard to discussions of morality."  Thus, by comparing the laws of different democratic countries we can find consistencies regarding what is deemed criminal and cite this consensus to establish an objectively moral baseline.

Obviously consensus is a flawed method of determining what is true.  Consensus has historically been wrong in the context of morality.  Therefore being moral entails rejecting the consensus when it fails the “don’t hurt people unnecessarily” standard underlying morality.  Since consensus is a flawed method for concretely applying the abstract principle, this result does not mean that morality as a principle lacks objectivity.  Instead it means that humans are, for a variety of reasons, imperfect in distinguishing what is moral from what is immoral.  

Furthermore, in the context of reaching a consensus there is also a question of commitment.  Lack of commitment plays some role in historical failures of the consensus to uphold morality, particularly when people perceive a conflict with their own self-interest.  Jason Rosenhouse briefly addresses the lack of commitment issue by acknowledging that commitment is where morality becomes more subjective.  He says "Moral assertions have to be defended on some basis, and in any system of reasoning something has to be taken as axiomatic."  Mr. Rosenhouse is correct.  His article is short so, if you have not done so yet and are interested and in this topic, go ahead and take a few minutes to read it.

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