There seems to be a common misconception about Ethics, based on the notion that, as the subject-matter of ethics is in values and norms, it is a discourse of opinions and values judgment, and thus unfit of objective evaluation. That is :
[1 – There is no way to objectively evaluate opinions and values judgments
2 – Ethics essentially makes claims, propositions and theses about norms and values.
3 – Claims, proposition and theses about norms and values are opinions and values judgments.
4 : (2 ^ 3) – Ethics essentially makes values judgments and opinions.
Conclusion : (1 ^ 4) – There is no way to objectively evaluate ethical claims.]
My purpose is to challenge premise 1 of the argument, to show that opinions and values judgments are, in fact, worthy of objective evaluation, allowing there to be objective evaluation in the field of Ethics.
But first, let us observe in more details this claim I’m about to reject, see what reason do we have to believe it is true, so that I can show that these reasons are not decisive, and so do not outweigh the reasons for believing it is false.
Let us observe that we live in a pluralist world – a world in which there is a variety of irreducible and irreconcilable valid conceptions of values and goodness. A worldview is reducible to another when its implied commitment is contained within the other – an hedonist, a person who believes that good is pleasure, could attempt to reduce a deontologist’s worldview (in which good is the fulfilment of duty) to theirs by claiming that fulfilled duty are, in fact, valuable because they bring pleasure. We would say that the two worldviews are reconcilable if and only if none of the actions that are forbidden in one worldview are mandatory in the other.
Us – we live in a pluralist world, a world in which there is a variety of irreconcilable valid conceptions of values and goodness. A world in which some people hold beliefs so divergent that the exact same action is morally mandatory for one person and forbidden for the next person. For example, in the case of assisted suicide, some people believe that assisted suicide is an act of mercy for people whose life is no longer worth living, while others believe that it is but a thinly veiled excuse for murder. In this case, the views are irreconcilable, because opponents to assisted suicide not only wish to abstain from performing it themselves – but further want those who perform it to be punished as murderers. The views could still be reconcilable if the divergence was based on a divergent of factual assessment – opponents, for example, holding that the life they wish protected still being worth living, that the person who requests an assisted suicide is underestimating the worth of their life – or maybe yet it is them who overestimate the worth of such a person’s life. But this is not the case – some opponents to assisted suicide opposes it on the grounds that life is inherently worth living – that their conception of value and goodness does not allow for such a thing as a life not worth living. In that case, the views are fully irreconcilable. One cannot hold that both are valid at the same time because that would entail that there exist a proposition p such as «Assisted suicide is morally defensible» that is both true and false at the same time.
For anyone motivated to think according to standard logical principles, as most of us are, this is a problem.
In a pluralist world, we can avoid this problem by denying that normative propositions of the sort «[X] is morally defensible» has any content susceptible of logical evaluation. We could hold that normative propositions of this sort have the appearance of a logical construction, but, in fact, lack it. Defenders of this view remind us that our ability to write language also allow us to write meaningless things, such as «This married bachelor lives in a cubic house that is spherically shaped». They claim that the verb «to be» is metaphysically significant as to be implicitly contradictory with the predicate «morally defensible» in much the same way that bachelor is implicitly contradictory with married (or «cubic» with «spherically shaped»).
If they are right, then it follows from their claim that propositions such as «Assisted suicide is morally defensible» truly are, in fact, meaningless. The trick is that it does not suffice to say that «to be» is metaphysically significant, no matter how, one also have to provide a suitable theory of meaning to support that «to be» really means the one thing they intend to show it means. Empiricism and positivism are theories that attempt this strategy. Both rely on the unknowability of morality to support their assertions – as we don’t really know anything about morality, as we don’t know who’s right and who is wrong about good and evil – everything we would say about morality is potentially based on defective assumptions and inferences from absurd premises. As an inference from an absurd premise is meaningless as in «The actual king of France is bald», then any claim about morality is, in the same way, meaningless.
The problem with this strategy is that even if something is potentially based on defective assumption it doesn’t mean that it necessarily is in fact. Until it Fermat’s last theorem was finally proven, any mathematical claims that relied on it was potentially based on a defective assumption while it wasn’t in fact. The claim that claims of morality are meaningless is dubious when we all have our own, meaningful understanding of morality. Much more likely is it that we all mean something – each something different, perhaps, but each something nonetheless – when we talk about morality.
Another popular, not unrelated, strategy to avoid moral pluralism to entail that our world is logically incoherent is to assert that claims of morality are, rather than claims about the objective nature of good and evil, claims about the individual properties and preferences of the person who makes them. This is the view that assert that morality is subjective. If morality is subjective, what is morally defensible for me may not be the same as what is morally defensible for you – thus is the problem that our world is logically incoherent avoided.
However, this view becomes untenable when faced with the existence of truly evil people. As no one seriously suggests that a person could hold the belief that kidnapping, cooking and eating innocent human babies would be a moral position as valid as any other, we seem forced to admit at least some degree of objectivity to claims about morality, with which we can deny would-be cannibals their ethical legitimacy. It might have been tempting to hold that allegedly evil people are, in fact, afflicted with some kind of mental disease. Yet this approach becomes quickly self-defeating when one realizes that predicates such as «Is healthy» translate a value of goodness as much as they translate a conformity with an idealized version of biological processes – «Is healthy» is never merely descriptive, it is also essentially desirable. This is why neurodiversity, LGBTQA+ and religious advocates lobby to make doctors depathologize neurodivergent, LGBTQA+ and religious experiences. These advocates claim that their experience is not a disease, that they are healthy just the way they are – that there is no need to «fix» them. Whether we agree or not, their advocacy makes sense – have a tangibly understandable meaning – because «is healthy» has a normative component in its meaning.
There exist a third strategy, to bite the bullet, so to speak, and to reject pluralism. This is not to say that we start molesting people who disagree with us in any way. If that is our instinct, we would do well that we can also simply reject pluralism and be content to arrogantly hold the belief that people who disagree with us are likely wrong.
Autodeterminationism – the idea that, when free individuals decide for themselves, this free action endows their decision with some measure of objective goodness conciliate most of the worldviews within a pluralist world, with the caveat that freedom must be protected at all costs – because it is this freedom that allows good to manifests in our ethical actions : without freedom, we can’t endow our actions with goodness, so they cease to be good. This view is mostly consistent with moral subjectivity, except that, by elevating freedom as it does, it gives a conceptual rampart that allow us to defend against freedom-destroying people without sacrificing our ethical worldview in the process.
I suggest any ethician who believes that morality is subjective to move toward autodeterminationism, as it promotes the same ideals of tolerance and live-and-let-live that moral subjectivity does, without asking a commitment to tolerate the intolerable.