October 16, 2010
By Hagop Sarkissian
Moral philosophers disagree about a lot of stuff. They disagree, for example, on whether moral properties exist and, if so, what the heck they are and how we have knowledge of them; on whether one can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ and, if not, whether this really matters or not; on whether moral judgments are the deliverances of affective or purely cognitive faculties; on whether moral omissions have the same status as moral comissions; and a whole lot besides.
One particular claim, though, seems to have widespread endorsement—the claim that ordinary folk are objectivists when it comes to morality. According to this view, ordinary folk believe moral issues admit of a single correct answer, and reject the idea that two people with conflicting positions on a moral issue may both be right. This claim of ‘folk objectivism’ enjoys a surprising degree of consensus, and can be found in the works of a diverse range of moral philosophers with disparate theoretical commitments (e.g. Blackburn 1984; Brink 1989; Gibbard 1992; Mackie 1977; Shafer-Landau 2003). It is a datum that most metaethical theories try to vindicate or accommodate. But is this claim correct? The answer would seem to be important, as the claim of folk objectivism has played a significant role in theorizing about the nature of ethics.
For example, metaethical objectivists sometimes argue that their theories have a leg up on non-objectivists because their theories can better account for the objectivity in normal moral discourse (Brink 1989; Shafer-Landau 2003). Non-cognitivists, by contrast, feel compelled to provide a story that would explain the objectivity in normal discourse while claiming, at a general level, that moral judgments are not beliefs but are expressions of emotions and desires (Blackburn 1984). And error theroists claim that ordinary moral discourse is in massive error precisely because it refers to moral properties that are objective and not contingent upon any person’s desires or preferences (Mackie 1977).
But are the folk objectivists about morality? I’ve been exploring this issue using experimental methods with the help of my colleagues John Park, David Tien, Jennifer Wright, and Joshua Knobe. Our findings bring the claim into question.
For example, in one study, we asked subjects to interpret a disagreement on the moral status of the following action: “Dylan buys an expensive new knife and tests its sharpness by randomly stabbing a passerby on the street.” Subjects were asked to imagine that one classmate thinks Dylan’s act was morally wrong, whereas another thinks Dylan’s act was morally permissible. When asked whether these two individuals could both be correct in their judgments, the folk were predictably objectivist. They rejected the notion that these individuals could both be correct.
Things began to shift, though, when we depicted the disagreeing individuals as belonging to different cultural groups. When the disagreement was between an American classmate and a member of an Amazonian warrior culture, or a member of an extraterrestrial species called the Pentars, objectivity levels dropped in turn (as measured through subjects’ agreement with the claim that at least one of the disagreeing individuals must be wrong).
It seems as though subjects think that there could be objectively correct moral judgments within cultures, but not across them. The greater the disparity of the cultural groups, the more the folk started to embrace a relativistic conception of morality.
The effect came up in studies done at Duke, the College of Charleston, Baruch College, and even the National University of Singapore. It came up when the moral violations were described as occurring in the subjects’ own neighborhood (as opposed to some unspecified location). It came up when every subject was given all three culture conditions in random order (instead of just one of them). And it fits into a pattern with the results of other recent studies examining the same phenomenon. So it may turn out that people aren’t actually objectivists about morality after all.
If so, should this affect how metaethicists go about their business? For example, is ‘folk objectivism’ a datum that philosophers can safely put aside when theorizing about the nature and status of morality? We’d love to hear how specialists in moral philosophy would interpret these results.
Full paper here.
Many thanks to Matthew Liao for the opportunity to share the results of this research project on this blog.