Ethics can be seen as one of the most important fields of philosophical inquiry. Unlike most others, it is intended to guide our actions in life and tell us what is and is not correct. In metaethics we discuss the terms of the debate in ethics. How we can discuss ethics, what we can know and how we can know it about ethical or unethical behavior. One of the most important issues in metaethics is the ontological status of moral norms, are there objective, “real,” moral norms or are norms subjective if existent at all? This paper will argue that there is no reason to claim the objective moral norms exist because there is no successful argument for objective moral norms. An important part of this argument is that supporters of objective moral norms must positively establish their existence and have not.
The existence of the specific moral norms of our society is contingent upon our history. That is to say the normative claims about specific actions that we may or may not choose to take, killing, stealing etc., is contingent upon the historical path of our society. Had we a different history then we would have different norms. This is clearly evidenced by the fact that different societies with different histories have different specific moral norms. One could argue that because of the contingency of moral norm upon history there is a lack of objective moral norms. But this would be too quick of a conclusion, for it is entirely possible, and if they exist it is likely, that objective moral norms are not specific in nature, but general. For example, in some places it is not polite to burp after dinner, in others it is considered a compliment. It may be that the manifestation of the norm is contingent, and there is a deeper moral norm that says one should respect one's host. So the argument that the historical contingency of specific moral norms indicates that there is a lack of objective moral norms is a weak argument at best.
There is however a strong argument against objective moral norms. That is that there is no reason that we would accept their existence if it were not for historical reasons. Put simply, were we never made aware of the idea of the moral norms of our society, be they general or specific, we would have no reason to believe that they existed nor that they were objective. To illustrate this point let me use an analogy. There are likely no people who believe in the objective reality of the god Zeus. This has nothing to do with his actual ontological status and everything to do with our history. Were the Roman empire not to have adopted Christianity as its religion in the fifth century then there is a fair likelihood that there would still exist today people who believe in the literal existence of the god Zeus. In the same way, we have inherited not only the specific moral norms which we have today, but also the idea of objective moral norms, from our social history, and more specifically from Plato. It seems clear, given that there are a great number of philosophers who argue against the existence of objective moral norms, that there could certainly be a society that lacks any belief in objective moral norms, just as our society lacks any belief in the literal existence of Zeus.
It should be noted here that none of the previous arguments are necessarily arguments against the existence of moral norms; it is entirely possible that the historically contingent belief in objective morals matches up with the actual existence of objective morals. One could argue that this is the case with a number of our other beliefs. For instance, the fact that we believe cats to exist is contingent upon our history, specifically the part of history where we determined that cats exist by seeing cats. However, this case differs from the case of objective moral norms in that we cannot posit the existence of any kind of cat that exists in the same way as objective moral norms and observe said cat in the real world. We could argue, and people have, for an objective ideal cat, similar to the Platonic cat form, but this seems to be putting the cart before the horse. We are back again at the fact that the only reason that we would argue for the existence of a cat form is because of historical contingency. How is this different from my knowing that a real cat exists?
There are two possible answers here. The first is that it is not different. Both are obviously cases of historically contingent knowledge and are thus equally valid. But ,given the example of the belief in Zeus' literal existence as historically contingent knowledge I think that this is an unsatisfying answer, unless we wish to put Zeus and cats in the same ontological category. The second answer is that in the case of the cat I have an objective experience of cats. That is, I have seen, heard, touch, and, unfortunately, smelled cats. Whereas I have never had any direct experience with objective moral norms, only with specific moral norms, which we have established above as clearly not objective. The point here is not to prove that there are no moral norms, but to establish that we only believe in them for historically contingent reasons that differ from those historically contingent reasons that we believe in things like cats. Therefore, objective moral norms need not exist for us to have a belief in them, indeed, neither do cats. It could be the case that I believe in cats and have never experienced one, but merely heard stories. And if it is the case that we can believe that something exists for reasons only of historical contingency, such as the existence of Zeus, then we must marshal a stronger positive argument than mere assertion of existence. From this we can see that an argument for objective moral norms must not simply refute the general arguments against moral norms, but must positively establish their existence. In fact, the only reason that this is not more recognized, as it would be were someone refuting arguments against the existence of Zeus or unicorns, is because the belief in objective moral norms is so culturally embedded in our society.
Unfortunately, the usual tack of those in favor of the existence of objective moral norms is mostly to simply argue against the naysayers and assert that because people believe in moral then they must exist. Shafer-Landau is an exception to this, he both argues against the negative view and for the positive view. In his piece Ethics as Philosophy: A Defense of Ethical Nonnaturalism he begins by laying out his argument as follows:
1.Ethics is a species of inquiry; philosophy is its genus.
2.A species inherits the essential traits of its genus
3.One essential trait of philosophy is the realistic status of its truths
4.Therefore moral realism is true.
He takes both one and two as “extremely plausible – so plausible that [he] will proceed here by assuming, rather than arguing for, their truth.”[p62] Herein lies a major error. That is to say, unless we assume realism, Shafer-Landau must first show that all species in a genus have a trait before he can show that that trait is essential. Moreover, to say that philosophy has essential traits beyond the obvious and trivial needs to be supported. It certainly makes clear that he is a realist, but it does not advance his argument. To build a convincing argument he must build from a more solid base.
His argument is problematic in two ways. The first is that Ethics is a species of philosophy not necessarily so but contingently so. It is a historical aspect of the genus philosophy that makes ethics a species thereof. That is to say, it is only because the great Greeks included it, centrally in fact, in their study of philosophy that we consider it a part of our philosophy. It could also be considered a species under the genus theology, which talks about things related to God or gods, and thus we could say that ethics is related to God. It is only when we assume moral realism that we can say that ethics is a proper species of the genus philosophy. This is the case for of a number of reasons. The first reason is that if we allow for proper species of a genus then we must have a method of determining what those species are. The only method for doing this other than relying on historical contingency is to determine whether the species has the essential trait of the genus. In this case we see that if an essential trait of philosophy is the realistic status of its truths then it must be shown that ethics possesses this trait before we can determine whether or not ethics is a proper species of the genus philosophy.
The second though related problem with Shafer-Landau's argument is that the second premise is not true. Species do not necessarily inherit anything from their genus. Shafer-Landau seems again to be assuming a sort of categorical realism. For as noted above, we can only stake out the extent of a genus with knowledge of the species.
In response to the negative arguments he brings up two interesting points, but ultimately his points fail to rescue his argument from the problems in the earlier discussion on objective moral norms. The essence of his argument is that arguing that disagreement on the existence of objective moral norms is no more an argument against their existence than disagreement on other issues, say whether there are cats, is an argument against the existence of cats. This is obviously correct, as if it were not, the whole history of philosophical discourse would have been for naught as the mere act of disagreement, all too common among philosophers, would indicate the lack of any truth behind any position. Again, I note that this in no way establishes the existence of objective moral beliefs, it is the equivalent of saying “but, you cannot prove that Zeus doesn't exist.”
He further argues that disagreement also does not rule out epistemological access to objective moral norms, assuming they exist. This is an important point because if objective moral norms existed and we had no epistemological access to them they would be about as useful as a planet full of unicorns five galaxies away, which is to say not useful at all. His primary point is that our agreement or disagreement on things now does not necessarily mean that we will never have epistemological access to them at some point. One example of this is the existence of planets around other worlds. Prior to ten or fifteen years ago we had no epistemological access about the existence thereof. And people disagreed. Yet, now we do know where the planets are and how big and such, equivalent to knowing what the actual objective moral norms are, despite the prior disagreement. But this is no argument for the existence of said norms, only that if they exist it is possible that someday we might know them.
Ultimately, the arguments in favor of the existence of objective moral norms are weak and generally, as pointed out before, focused around arguing against the disproofs. Of those norms. If one merely argues against the disproofs of something, one can never hope to prove the existence thereof. I have shown herein the errors inherent in the present arguments for objective moral norms.