I was happy to see Steve Hays provide some explanation at Triablogue for how I got labeled an “ethical subjectivist”. Unfortunately by offering an explanation he ended up typing himself into a deeper hole. Let’s look at his comments and then consider how deep the hole is:
iii) And it’s not as if his “absolute moral axioms” are self-evident or universally shared. Indeed, it’s striking how so many of his axiomatic moral intuitions just happen to coincide with the politically correct orthodoxies of the liberal establishment. The sort of folks who sit on Human Rights Commissions or Human Rights Tribunals, persecuting evildoers like Mark Steyn.
(See “The Ethical Subjectivist” http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2011/09/ethical-subjectivist.html#comments)
First a quick note on i). Hays seems to suggest that Chan called me an ethical subjectivist because he was following the lead of Steve. Patrick, that disappoints me. It suggests that you have no familiarity with my writing on ethics and thus that you saw fit to adopt and propagate on the internet a completely spurious charge. As we will see, following Steve Hays’s lead in these matters is a case of the blind leading the blind if ever there was one.
Next, let’s turn to ii). Steve says it is “funny” that I describe myself as an ethical objectivist because I defend “that self-classification by appealing to [my] moral ‘intuitions.'” As best I can surmise, Steve thinks this is “funny” for two reasons: first, he doesn’t understand what the terms “ethical objectivism” and “ethical subjectivism” mean, and second he has a woefully naive and unreflective moral epistemology. Let’s consider both charges.
How Steve Hays confuses and conflates moral ontology with moral epistemology
Let’s begin with the first issue by allowing some professional ethicists to define our terms.
Ethical objectivism: “the doctrine that universally valid or true ethical principles exist.” (Louis Pojman, “A Defense of Ethical Objectivism,” in Louis Pojman and Peter Tramel, Moral Philosophy: A Reader, 38, emphasis added)
Ethical subjectivism: “there is no ideal or uniquely correct resolution to ethical disagreements, because there are no ethical standards that are objectively correct, no standards to which all rational or fully informed people must agree.” (Russ Shafer-Landau, “Ethical Subjectivism,” in Reason and Responsibility: Readings in some basic problems of Philosophy, Landau and Joel Feinberg, eds.), 555, emphasis added.
As we can see, ethical objectivism and ethical subjectivism are both theoretical accounts of moral ontology. That is, they seek to provide an ontological account of the nature of moral facts. Moral objectivism claims that there are moral facts which are true irrespective of whether any individual accepts them as true. Moral subjectivism denies this. For a moral subjectivist moral facts are true only relative to the individuals that hold them.
By calling me a moral subjectivist, Hays and Chan are identifying me with the position that objective moral facts do not exist. But as I pointed out, this is false. I have always argued in ethical matters based on a robust ethical objectivism. For example, in my article “Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive” (Philosophia Christi, 2009) I critique moral defenses of biblical genocide by appealing to the intuition that you ought never ever bludgeon babies (the NEBB intuition). I argued that the NEBB principle is an objective fact which is known synthetic a priori: “It is not simply that I cannot see how bludgeoning a baby could be a morally praiseworthy act; rather, I can see that it cannot be.” (34)
Given that I am an uncompromising moral objectivist, why would Steve be saddling me with moral subjectivism? The problem, it would seem, is that Steve has confused moral ontology with moral epistemology. Consider again this revealing passage:
“[Randal] can talk about ‘absolute moral axioms,’ but that’s grounded in his subjective intuitions. So it’s no more ‘absolute’ than how he personally feels about anything.”
Here Steve has succinctly summarized his confusion. The sentence begins with moral ontology (absolute moral axioms) but then moves seamlessly to how we grasp those objectively true moral axioms. Steve avers that the way I seek to grasp them (i.e. through reflection on moral intiution) is unreliable. But whether my moral epistemology is successful or not is irrelevant to the fact that I believe objective moral facts exist. So Steve made an unwarranted leap by assuming that because my moral epistemology is allegedly flawed that I am a moral subjectivist. This is as erroneous as calling a politician an anarchist because his economic policy is not viable.
To this point Steve’s false testimony has been rooted in his own confusion on the relationship between moral ontology and moral epistemology. Now that I’ve cleared up that confusion for him I would challenge him to do the Christian thing and use his platform at Triablogue to offer an official retraction.
Steve’s naive and unreflective moral epistemology
Let’s now turn to the second issue. Steve said that my ethical reflection is rooted in my “subjective intuitions.” And as a result, “it’s no more ‘absolute’ than how he personally feels about anything.”
I’m going to respond to this in two ways. First, Steve seems to suggest that I engage in an individualistic exercise of reflection upon moral intuitions. This is false, for all reflection is embedded within a thick cultural and communal context.
Second, Steve fails to recognize that he is hoist with his own petard. You see, we all have moral intuitions. And the Christian tradition has explained those intuitions as our grasping of a natural moral law through a form of general revelation (see, for example, Romans 2:14-15). Steve might look to C.S. Lewis’s famous appendix to The Abolition of Man for a succinct statement of what Lewis called “The Tao of Religious Morality”. In that appendix Lewis provides ample evidence for the universal recognition of moral norms through culturally formed intuitions.
This leaves Steve Hays on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, he could continue to insist that he has no innate moral intuitions at all, in which case he finds himself on the horn of psychopathology. On the other hand, he could admit that he does have moral intuitions and they play a role in his moral reflection, in which case he finds himself in the same boat as the rest of us.
It’s your choice Steve. Are you a morally deficient psychopath or do you also reason ethically in part based on a moral intuition of the natural law?