Tuesday, July 2, 2013

On Universal Moral Reasons

In my previous post, I made the claim that moral judgments are necessarily universal. It strikes me that this might be a surprising or confusing claim, so I thought I should clarify what I mean.

By universal, I do not mean absolutist, at least not in the sense that is an overly rigid interpretation of morality. This kind of absolutism might suggest an unwavering prohibition against lying, or stealing, even if the circumstances are extreme and potential losses great. This kind of theory is not very appealing or helpful, and has largely fallen out of favor. While there are some values that demand high levels of respect, any good moral theory ought to be flexible enough to accommodate the complex variations of circumstance.

When I say that moral judgments (and therefore judgments about reasons) are universal, this is not a purely substantive claim about how we ought to deliberate morally. It is a claim about what constitutes moral judgments and beliefs. In my view, all judgments about moral reasons must be about what we take to be universal reasons, that is, reasons that would apply to every (similarly situated) person.

Contrast this with what many people claim to believe, which is that morality is "subjective." By "subjective," people often mean that it is up to one's own judgments, and everyone can have different judgments without disagreeing. Just as it is subjective whether or not I prefer chocolate to vanilla, or rice vinegar to balsamic vinegar, so our judgments about morality are just reflective of our individual preferences. This fails to capture the distinctive nature of moral judgments, why they are so important to us, and why we intuitively understand them so differently from our other desires or needs.

It might be easiest first to see the universality of reasons in the case of reasons we have for belief. If I come to my house, and see smoke coming off the roof, feel heat radiating from the building, and see a flickering orange glow from the windows, I would take these observations as sufficient reason to conclude that my house is on fire. In doing so, I don't think they are just reasons that I, in particular, should think my house is on fire. I think anyone who observes the same thing should also take it as a reason to believe my house is on fire.

What would it mean for reasons not to be universal in this way? It would mean I'd come upon the scene, come to the conclusion that there was sufficient reason for me to conclude that the house was on fire, but that any other given person might rationally conclude something different, given the same evidence. But then, it's hard to see in what sense I feel compelled to believe my house was on fire. If other people might take the same evidence and reach an entirely different conclusion, shouldn't I be worried that they might be right? I must believe that the reasons I have to believe my house on fire would constitute reasons for anyone else to reach that conclusion, or else it does not seem I am really convinced of my conclusion. I might as well conclude that my house is underwater.

The case of moral reasons is the same. To see this, consider that some people believe abortion to be very wrong. Others disagree, and think that abortion is often permissible, perhaps even sometimes required. Subjectivists about moral reasons would want to say that there are reasons against allowing abortion for the anti-abortionists, and that there are reasons in favor of allowing abortion for their opponents.

However, for there to be any true disagreement here (and who can deny that there is true disagreement between pro-choice advocates and pro-life advocates?) they must both be making claims about universal moral reasons, reasons about whether or not we ought to defend or oppose the right to abortion that apply to all parties. Moral reasons must function this way, or else they're not moral reasons. When you say you prefer chocolate and I say I prefer vanilla, we don't take ourselves to be disagreeing, and thus our basis for these preferences is subjective. Since those in moral disagreement take themselves to be contradicting each other, they must take the reasons they're considering to be universal. And in this way, they parallel reasons for belief.

There's a sense in which the pro-choice and pro-life advocates share more ground with each other than either share with the subjectivist about moral reasons. They both agree that the issue is important, and that there is something to decide. The subjectivist, on the other hand, thinks they're making a mistake in even discussing the subject, because she doesn't think they're even talking about the same thing. On the subjectivist view, we each have our own private reasons, which don't apply to other people. The subjectivist can't even understand what all the fuss is about, because morality drops out of the picture entirely; all that's left is personal preference.

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