Monday, December 15, 2008

Ethics and Subjectivism

By Hanno

I just finished teaching Ethical Theory for the nth time, and this time I was struck by the (in)consistency of the finals I received. After going through several conceptions of ethics, I introduce my students to Logical Postivism, the critique of philosophy through the verificationist theory of meaning. On this view, a claim is meaning if and only if it is verifiable, i.e. if and only if there is some empirical test to determine if the claim is true or false. AJ Ayer defends this view and uses it to develop his own anti-ethical theory, namely that almost all claims in ethical theory are either non-verifiable nonsense, or empirical claims suitable more for psychology or sociology than ethical theory. The view Ayer ends with he refers to as "hyper-subjectivism," namely the view that "Theft is bad" expresses a subjective feeling, but makes no claim at all. It is like someone saying "ice cream, mmmmm" with all sorts of yummy sounds, which Ayer claims does not make any claim about ice cream, not even that I like it. Instead, it evinces a feeling.

Subjectivism is the view that the claim "x is good" means "I like x." It is properly an ethical theory. Such a theory makes criticism of ethical claims moot, since no one can show that someone else ought to like ice cream. It is just what they feel. There are many critiques of subjectivism, but that is not what I want to discuss.

Instead, on my finals, I ask my students to consider the critique and then answer the question of whether ethical theory is worth studying. If we only make nonsensical claims where there is no way of determining who is right, what is the point? Now in this particular class, the response was overwhelming: The all said Ayer was right, more or less, both that ethical theory was non-verfiable, and in his hyper subjectivist analysis of ethical claims. But they also all claimed that ethical theory was still worthwhile as an activity, pointing to how much they got out of the course, for example. Other than that, however, they argued passionately that there was no right answer to which ethical theory was correct, that each individual had to decide for themselves (on the basis of what, if Ayer is right, they did not say). At the same time, they said frequently that you can be either Kantian or Humean about ethics, since it is all subjective. But Kant or Hume's theory is not subjective. If either are right, the subjectivist is wrong, as is Ayer, since accoring to Ayer, Kant and Hume are being nonsensical.

So how can all these differing opinions fit? How is ethical theory worthwhile if ethical claims just say what you feel? How can you be a subjectivist and a Kantian? I think I know the answer.

Philosophers separate the theory from a "meta" theory. The words come from advanced logic, where Tarski overcame problems in theories of truth (like the liars paradox) by separating claims within a theory, and claims about a theory, similar to questions within a game, to questions about a game. According to Tarski, "Grass is green" is a statement within a language. But the claim "Grass is green is true" is properly a statement about a statement, and hence is properly written "The sentence "Grass is green" is true." Truth is a meta concept, part of a theory about theories. Armed with this view, he showed that the liar's paradox ("This sentence is false") is rooted in an ill formed sentence.

So now here is my thesis: My students may think Kant is right about ethics, or Hume is right, but they are subjectivists at a meta level. That is, they think which theory you adopt is a subjective choice, and hence there is no theoretical criteria for choosing which theory you adopt. Hence you are perfectly free to be a Humean as well. But within the theory, you are bound to its dictates. Ethical theory may then be worth while to spell out the details of each particular choice, but do not confuse that somehow getting to the truth. Within a framework, you can determine what is ethical, and what that means, but there is no outside framework to choose which theory to choose, since that is all a purely subjective matter of choice. So Ayer is right in part. Its not that ethical claims are nonsense. Within a framework, they make sense. What is nonsensical is to argue about which framework is right. And that was part of the non-sense Ayer objected to: arguing about things where there is no way of determining who is right.

I plan on taking this blog up again at the beginning of the next semester. Enjoy the break.


Steve Gimbel said...

I think they are meta-Humeans. On the ethical level, they (and we) are alternatively utilitarians, virtue theoriest, deontologists, care-based-theorists, and rights-based theorists. Different situations bring out different types of justification. The question then is when do we prefer which?

For this, the answer seems to be sentiment. We do give reasons for moral decisions beyond sentiment, but the question is which sort of reason to give when. We recognize the different approaches and when we face difficult, semingly unresovable issues, it is a meta-conflict -- we get mixed signals from different ways of thinking about it and we are not sure which to give priority to. I know what my duty is, but it produces undesirable consequences. Which trumps which? It is here that we find the play that differentiates our intuitions.

ce said...

Meta-ethics is like practicing kissing. It's probably helpful, but 'tain't much fun.