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The subjectivists I speak with seem to treat the topic of morality as though we can have a reasoned discussion in the same way we might about facts of reality.  I think many times the moral anti-realist doesn’t fully appreciate the problems with this view.   I explain why I think the subjectivist will have trouble with the very notion of having any sort “good reason” to believe here and here.

There I argued that there are 3 general types of “good reasons” to believe something.  First are theoretical reasons, second pragmatic reasons (see this blog for a philosophical explanation of the distinction) and third we would have good reason to believe something if not believing it caused a contradiction in our beliefs.  In the earlier blog I merely said that it is simply too low a bar to only ask that the views not lead to logical contradiction.   But I want to discuss the coherency condition more fully here.

I do concede that the constructivist can at least appeal to internal coherency as a way of preferring beliefs.  Overall, I think this bar is too low but it is especially low when we understand that objective reality itself will not constrain the beliefs we do come up with.  This blog will explain how the rational quality/virtue of consistency/coherency is trivially easy for the subjectivist.

Consider the fact that many people thought Hitler had many internal inconsistencies in his thought.  A subjectivist might say this would prevent them from following his moral scheme.  But let’s consider one such inconsistency that we often hear and see how that really would not be a problem for the subjectivist.   Roughly the argument is made that Hitler was inconsistent in saying

  1. The proper German must be, blond haired, blue eyed, and have great genes for athleticism.
  2. Yet he had none of those traits

and still he thought

3.He was a proper German.

Now if these were the views he held, and for the sake of argument let’s say they were, then I would agree they are inconsistent.

So what could he do?  Well he could just add to the first claim that “…. unless that person was Adolf Hitler.”   There that takes care of that inconsistency!  You might say well there might be another Adolf Hitler that he wanted to exclude from being a proper German.  And we can just say that “…. unless that person was Adolf Hitler who was born on such and such a date and hour at such and such a place…”  We could also make these exceptions for Goering and Himmler etc.

These exceptions seem dubious because they are “ad hoc.” Ad hoc additions to a theory are those that seem irregular from the overall theory but they are included for the sole purpose of saving our theory or view.  Normally we frown on ad hoc explanations.

One of the reasons Kepler’s heliocentric theory of elliptical orbits was preferred over the Copernican system involving perfect circles (the Greeks like Ptolemy thought circular motion was more perfect) was because the Copernican system had epicycles.  Smaller circular motions of the planets were added as well as the larger orbit.     http://www.astro.sunysb.edu/fwalter/AST101/keplers_laws.html

Epicycles are I think it is fair to say another example of ad hoc reasoning.  In that I am sure Copernicus would agree he was only including the epicycles to shoe horn his theory of perfectly circular orbits into the reality he observed. That was the sole reason to posit the existence of epicycles.   If the math and observation worked without epicycles then Copernicus would not have suggested them.   Once Kepler showed that the math works with ellipses (no epicycles needed) people tended to prefer that system.   This was all before Newton and his theories about inertia etc.

Why should we be suspicious of ad hoc reasoning?  It is because as the products of the culture of Athens and Jerusalem we tend to think A) that reality/truth is not created by our beliefs about it so it is not going to be different so it suits our beliefs, and B) Copernicus was making a claim about objective reality.

Of course, if you are subjectivist you think differently.  Subjectivists think the truth about morality is dependent on our view of it.  So in that case A is not something we accept.    To the extent you think our moral constructs are unconstrained by objective reality then you also reject B.     There is no objective reality we are trying to explain.   Rejecting either A or B seems to take all the sting out of the charge or ad hockery.   Morality is what we make it – or so they say.    So there is no reason to prefer the regularity we see in objective reality.

I mean I can’t like and dislike the taste of the same pickles at the same time in the same way, but it is just fine that it used to be those pickles tasted bad but now they are good.  No explanation is necessary.  My mental state makes it “good” and that can change in an arbitrary way.   And once we break from objective reality and its apparent regularity, it is ridiculously easy to be consistent.  It was OK for me to kill a minute ago but I wouldn’t do it now?  Ok no problem, it’s just that my relevant mental state is different now.   We are not saying our beliefs about morality corresponds with any objective reality – indeed we are saying no such objective reality exists for them to correspond with – so there is no reason to be against ad hoc views.

Do we see ad hockery in moral theories?  Yes I gave a few examples that I think are common.

We should care about well being of all sentient creatures except when we don’t.  See animal rights 

In suffering being the key – except when it is not.  Oral Surgeon case. 

Empathy is great even though it seems to add suffering – well we like it anyway!

Of course, people, especially anti-realists, can have all sorts of views on morality so it is hard to explain any case that will apply to everyone.  But for me it was just a matter of really thinking through moral issues and being honest with myself about the grounds I claimed to have as a basis.  I think most people try to be honest with themselves, but I don’t think people often try to think through moral issues that frequently.

In law school we study a huge number of cases involving difficult moral issues. How much the students tried to understand the reasoning as opposed to just learn the law seemed to vary.  Moreover, law school and legal cases do not usually dive into the deep understanding of moral concepts but rather just tends to refer to vaguely worded values.     And, of course, most people have not gone to law school or had any similar exposure to the variety of moral cases that are involved.    Coming to this realization (that creating your own morality with no objective anchor is extremely arbitrary) requires both an inclination and experience that are both uncommon.   So I am not surprised that many people think the amount of ad hoc reasoning might be rare.

When what we decide defines a very concept like “pickles are good” means, such and such fact about my view toward them, then we hardly need to come to any principled reasons for why pickles were “bad” before but now they are “good.”    If I didn’t like pickles yesterday but do today, it’s no big deal.

I see no reason for the subjectivist to reject ad hoc explanations.  But for me it made this whole exercise of supposedly “deliberating” about morality in order “decide for myself what matters” too much of a charade.  I am constantly reminded of the people in allegory of the cave who keep insisting to the philosopher who saw reality that what they are doing with the shadows is important.  I simply have no interest in playing.  My missing out on this involves extremely low stakes.

So yes it may be correct that there is no objective moral realism.  So I don’t discount that possibility.    And if I live my life based on a false belief in moral realism then I agree it was in vain.  But if I just missed out on this big charade, I am perfectly at peace taking that risk.   In fact, I am not sure I can fully express how much at peace I am about taking that risk.