Continuing the conversation . . .

Published Date: July 7, 2010 | Topics: Philosophy

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By Robert George

I’m grateful to Michael P. for continuing the conversation about a “dictatorship of relativism.”  Michael thinks that Pope Benedict’s talk of such a “dictatorship” is “less than clear.”  It does not strike me as especially obscure or unclear, and I’ve indicated what I believe Pope Benedict meant by it.  Of course, I could be wrong, but Michael has offered no reason to think I am. The Pope’s words make good sense if we interpret him as criticizing what I described in my previous comment as “a cultural ethos in which many people live by (and the media of communication and entertainment frequently promote or valorize) the philosophy of ‘the heart wants what the heart wants.’ Where such an ethos prevails, one who challenges it risks being labeled a reactionary and even a ‘bigot’—and being treated as such.”  If that’s so, then I think it is a mistake to belittle the Pope’s concerns or dismiss them as hand wringing. 

Michael and I also seem to disagree about how properly to classify and label John Mackie’s view about ethics.  I said:  “One of the most powerful and influential defenses of the subjectivist position was written by John Mackie of University College, Oxford.”  Michael responded by saying that “I doubt that it clarifies much by calling [Mackie] a ‘subjectivist.'”  I must say that I’m surprised and puzzled by Michael’s response.  Let me say why.

The opening chapter of Mackie’s influential book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong is entitled “The Subjectivity of Values.”

The first sentence in the book is:  “There are no objective values.”

Later in the chapter, Mackie expressly accepts the label “subjectivist” for his view (he also accepts the label “moral sceptic,” though he warns that any label is simply a shorthand and is therefore of limited utility).

In support of his self-acknowledged subjectivism and skepticism about values and ethics, Mackie offers two main arguments.  The first is what he labels “the argument from relativity” (viz., the claim that the diversity of moral opinions across cultures and, sometimes, even within cultures, renders plausible the claim that objective values do not cause moral beliefs).  The second argument is “the argument from queerness” (viz., the claim that objective values, if they exist, are utterly unlike anything else in the universe, and require a special faculty of perception or understanding that is utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing things). (For those who are interested, John Finnis, in his book Fundamentals of Ethics, provides compelling responses to both of Mackie’s arguments for subjectivism.  Finnis knew Mackie and his work very well, the two men having been longtime colleagues as Fellows of University College.) 

Michael says that Mackie “is best understood” as a “moral fictionalist.”  I think Mackie is best understood as what he himself said he was, namely, a subjectivist—someone who believes that values are projections of feeling and other subjective states, not objective truths that provide more-than-merely-instrumental reasons for choices and actions.  If there are no objective values—if all values are merely subjective—then there is no rational basis for ethics, eudaimonistic or otherwise.  Eudaimonistic accounts of morality, in particular, rest rather obviously on the belief that there are indeed certain ends or purposes that we can understand as providing more-than-merely-instrumental reasons for choices and actions—objective human goods.

Michael says that “the serious disagreement between Pope Benedict and Robby (and Catholic moral-theological traditionalists generally) on the one side, and some Catholic moral-theological dissidents on the other, with respect to the issue of same-sex sexual conduct, is a disagreement about the requirements of human well-being.  This is a disagreement between two groups neither of whom is relativist (or subjectivist), both of whom are fiercely anti-relativist.”  Well, I think this is too simple a characterization of the disagreement.  Michael and I should debate it.  It seems to me that the overwhelming majority of those Michael characterizes as Catholic moral-theological dissidents (I’m assuming he has in mind people like Joseph Fuchs, Louis Janssens, Bernard Hoose, Charles Curran, and the late Richard McCormick, SJ) embrace a consequentialist (“proportionalist”) method of moral decision-making.  In an effort to render the method workable, most adopt a psychologistic conception of value.  This method and conception, according to critics such as Finnis, Bartholomew Keily, Paul Quay, SJ., Anselm Mueller, and (for what it’s worth) me, tends to relativize morality by eliminating the rational basis of exceptionless norms (or “moral absolutes”), such as the norm against directly killing innocent human beings or the norm against engaging in sodomitical and other intrinsically nonmarital forms of sexual conduct.

Earlier in our careers, Michael and I debated proportionalism, value psychologism, and related issues in an exchange that, I believe, remains illuminating of differences among people who wish to promote and defend eudaimonistic understandings of morality—that is, understandings of morality as deeply connected to the well-being or flourishing of human beings.  See Michael Perry, Morality, Politics, and Law (Oxford University Press, 1990); Robert P. George, “Human Flourishing as a Criterion of Morality: A Critique of Perry’s Naturalism,” Tulane Law Review, Vol, 63, No. 6 (1989), pp. 1455-1474; Michael J. Perry, “A Brief Response,” Tulane Law Review, Vol. 63, No, 6 (1989), p. 1673 and following; Robert P. George, “Self-Evident Practical Principles and Rationally Motivated Action: A Reply to Michael Perry,” Tulane Law Review, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1990), pp. 887-894.  Christopher Kaczor has done a good service by publishing a fine collection of readings by leading proportionalists and their critics.  See, Kaczor, Proportionalism: For and Against (Marquette University Press, 2000).

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