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Must Values be Objective?

by D.R. Khashaba

Must values be objective? The answer to this question of course depends on what we mean by objectivity. It might appear that the simplest definition would be that the objective is what is independent of the subject. But quite apart from the consideration that any line drawn to separate the subject from what lies beyond the subject must be ad hoc, that definition and the very question which gave rise to it apparently assume that only what is independent of the subject is real. I believe that the problem of the objectivity of values is a pseudo-problem generated by a false conception of reality.

If reality is not to be found in what is outside the mind but in what is within the mind, then values will be real not so much in spite of their being subjective but precisely in virtue of their being subjective. And they can be real and everlasting and eternal — that is, in a significant sense absolute — in spite of being variable in their particular formulations. In other words, the relativity of particular realizations of value does not contradict the absolute reality of the source of all value. Defenders of the absolute reality of values defeat their own cause when they accept to fight for it on the terms and under the presuppositions laid down by the prevailing empiricist attitudes.

In what follows I seek to clarify and justify the position outlined in the preceding two paragraphs. I must beg the reader's indulgence for the repetitiveness, as I am daring the Sisyphean task of challenging an inveterate and nigh-sacrosanct tradition in philosophical thinking.

Military people know that if you let the enemy choose the battleground, you have practically lost the battle. I believe that defenders of absolute values defeat their own cause by accepting to carry out the discussion in terms of the empiricist conception of what is real. In the Sophist Plato distinguishes two types of Weltanschauung resting, it would seem, on two types of mentality or personality. Plato designates them the Gods and the Giants. Let me quote here this passage, for I believe this is the true basis on which the problem can be resolved:

STRANGER What we shall see is something like a Battle of Gods and Giants going on between them over their quarrel about reality.


STRANGER One party is trying to drag everything down to earth out of heaven and the unseen, literally grasping rocks and trees in their hands; for they lay hold upon every stock and stone and strenuously affirm that real existence belongs only to that which can be handled and offers resistance to the touch. They define reality as the same thing as body, and as soon as one of the opposite party asserts that anything without a body is real, they are utterly contemptuous and will not listen to another word.

THEAETETUS The people you describe are certainly a formidable crew. I have met quite a number of them before now.

STRANGER Yes, and accordingly their adversaries are very wary in defending their position somewhere in the heights of the unseen, maintaining with all their force that true reality consists in intelligible and bodiless Forms. In the clash of argument they shatter and pulverise the bodies which their opponents wield, and what those others allege to be true reality they call, not real being, but a sort of moving process of becoming. On this issue an interminable battle is always going on between the two camps.
(Sophist 246a-c, tr. F.M. Cornford.)

It is an observable fact that rules and standards of acceptable conduct differ from society to society and from age to age. Thus these rules and standards may be described as time-relative and place-relative. This indicates that they are formed by the human beings living in the respective places and at the respective times. Thus they may be described as subjective. All of this is indisputable. Now those rules and standards presumably embody certain values, certain ends seen as desirable. Then the question is posed in some such form as this: "Are those values and ends (underlying the rules and standards of conduct) devised by individuals and/or groups, and therefore unnatural and time- and place-relative? Or are they objective, with a foundation in reality?" Once this formulation is accepted, the case is lost. For, as we have already admitted, there is plenty of evidence that values — particular exemplifications of values — are time- and place-relative and are the product of individuals and particular societies. But who said that that makes them unreal? Who said that the real is what is not grounded in the mind? Of course we know who said that: the materialists and the empiricists have been dinning it into our ears, from Democritus and Leucippus to our present day. But the problem is that those who should know better are accepting these presuppositions without question.

The question, when thus formulated, involves a fatal fallacy and conceals a deadly trap. Defenders of absolute values step into the trap blindfolded when they accept this formulation without question. So the controversy proceeds on the presumption, first, that there is a radical opposition between objective and subjective, and, second, that objective means real while subjective means unreal. So, when a writer asserts that 'morality is a purely subjective phenomenon', that is taken to mean that there is no ultimate standard of right and wrong in morality, or, in other words, that there is nothing above and beyond the conventions forming the body of any particular moral system.

To be objective is taken to mean to be external to human beings, to be independent of mind. And according to the presumed definition of 'objective', this is interpreted as meaning that to be real is to be independent of mind, and that the things of the mind are unreal. Defenders of absolute values must cut the Gordian knot by declaring that it is the subjective that is real and that the subject (mind) is the abode of all reality.

By my juxtaposition of subjectivism and relativism I may be thought to be confusing the distinction between subjective and objective with the distinction between relative and absolute. I answer that, quite on the contrary, I am trying to show that the problem arises from such a confusion.

We have three distinct sets of opposed terms: relative-absolute, subjective-objective, and internal-external. The terms in one of these sets do not necessarily have the same correlation to the terms in another of the sets in every context.

In the controversy relating to moral values, moral judgements are admitted by all parties to be relative to time and place. Thus they are not absolute in the sense of holding for all times and places. This is taken to mean that they are subjective in the sense of mind-dependent, which is all right in this context. Hence they are opposed to objective. That too is all right when subjective and objective are correlated to internal-to-the-person and external-to-the-person respectively. But error steps in when 'objective' is at the same time equated with 'real' as opposed to unreal, illusory, and so on. (All of these terms are very fluid, meaning various things for different thinkers and in different contexts. But for the purposes of this essay I do not find it necessary to explore these differences in detail.)

I think I am not unjust in laying the blame for this error on empiricism. Hume, who consolidated the empiricism of Locke, may be regarded as the founder of the kind of subjectivism that can easily lead to the view that moral values are not real. And it was Hume who gave possibly the first and definitely the most sharp-cut formulation of the question in the faulty form which I consider the source of all the confusion we are in. In the Treatise Hume writes, "But can there be any difficulty in proving that vice and virtue are not matters of fact, whose existence we can infer by reason?" Hume speaks of 'matters of fact' and of 'existence', presumably as verifiable by empirical means. Certainly virtue and vice as such are not 'matters of fact' and certainly their 'existence' in the 'objective' world can neither be inferred by reason nor be detected in any other way. But this is not the question. The question for moral philosophy should be: Are virtue and vice things whose significance for the meaning and value of human life can be shown by reason? In other words, Are they things that have reality in the moral sphere?

Hume himself in the same context affirms, "Nothing can be more real, or concern us more, than our own sentiments of pleasure and uneasiness; and if these be favourable to virtue, and unfavourable to vice, no more can be requisite to the regulation of our conduct and behaviour." I am not here evaluating Hume's moral philosophy and Hume may possibly have been grossly wronged by his followers, even the best among them; but in any case it is not his affirmation of the 'reality' of our sentiments — whatever he may have meant by that — but his denial of the factuality and the existence of virtue and vice which those followers emphasize, to say the least. Or have Hume's followers not wronged him after all? For when Hume goes on, still in the same context, to draw his classic distinction between 'is' and 'ought' — however just and important the distinction may be — he seems to have left the 'ought' hanging without any support in reality; it was, as far as he cared to show, 'subjective' in the most shadowy sense of the term. After all, he did expect his distinction to "subvert all the vulgar systems of morality [probably meaning all systems that are not 'scientific' according to his criteria]; and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely [= purely] on the relations of objects [= is not objective], nor is perceived by reason [= is not an analytical truth]." (All the above quotes from the Treatise III (i) 1.)

The error of the advocates of absolute values whom Hume implicitly and Humeans explicitly criticize for proceeding from 'is' to 'ought' does not lie in their unjustifiably grounding 'ought' in 'is', but in thinking that they have to do so, that they have to ground moral principles in facts. Moral principles do not depend on facts but add a metaphysical dimension to the factual. Their reality is independent of all fact; they are creative expressions of the reality that is our very being; we, as humans, have no being apart from that reality; that reality is our metaphysical being, just as our body is the whole of our physical existence. I know that to minds schooled in the empiricist outlook that has come to dominate the modern intellect, all of this will be sheer balderdash so long as those minds take the presuppositions of that outlook to be unquestionable. I keep repeating my apparently enigmatic assertions in so many formulations in the hope that someone here or there might suspect that these presuppositions could perhaps be questioned after all.

There have been and there will be many different theories of ethics, because these theories are nothing but a conceptual re-presentation of the reality of the moral life. These theories need not be mutually contradictory any more than different landscape paintings of the same location are contradictory. A theory does not report 'facts' but creates an ideal pattern which gives intelligibility to its content. But ethical theories fall into two opposed types: outward-looking theories that look for the good in 'the world' and inward-looking theories that look for the good in 'the soul' (mind, personality). To find the good in a transcendent reality (say, God or the Form of the Good) is equivocal; it is neither a third way distinct from both the outward-looking and the inward-looking nor is it prima facie identifiable with the one or the other. Here we have to bring in the all-important distinction introduced by Socrates in the Euthyphro: if the good is good because God decrees it, then that is an outward-looking stance; if God demands the good because it is good, then that is an inward-looking affirmation of absolute value. Outward-looking theories (such as Utilitarianism. for instance) can be very helpful and even indispensable in such areas as political philosophy. But they cannot explain ultimate notions such as that of moral obligation or absolute values. And they become positively harmful when they presume to usurp the whole field and claim that they are in possession of the whole truth.

People, even when subscribing to the same general values and principles, may pursue different ends and may in any given situation make different judgements in good conscience as to what is right, what is desirable, what is beneficial. I think that this is inevitable, since in making a practical judgement it is strictly impossible for any human being to comprehend all the relevant factors. Consequently I believe that in debating any practical issue — in politics, say, or bio-ethics — it is arrogant to try to prove one's position right; all one can do is to show one's position reasonable in that it gives their due weight to important relevant considerations. But this remark is just by the way; this is not what we are dealing with here. That we will make different judgements in a given situation means of course that any such judgement is relative and subjective. How then can we say that such a judgement may be a moral judgement, if by that we mean a judgement involving absolute values and not merely valuations in terms of expediency or conventional or legal requirements?

My answer is that a judgement is moral when it is dictated by the inexorable need to preserve the integrity of the moral agent. Socrates' insistence that our highest good is our phronesis (intelligence), Kant's affirmation that the only absolutely good thing is a good will, the common idea of conscience, the teaching of Jesus which is summed up in: love God (the ideal of all goodness) and love thy neighbour, all express the same insight. And I do not say that my formulation is an improvement on any of the others. It is just another expression of the same insight. Hence I affirm that moral judgements, even though their particular exemplifications are patently shot through and through with relativism and subjectivity, yet involve absolute values in being grounded in the one reality of which we have immediate knowledge, in the one value which constitutes our whole dignity and worth, in the integrity of our active, creative, intelligence.

I would draw a sharp distinction between ethical (meta-ethical, if you wish) relativism and moral relativism. I believe there will necessarily be numerous ethical theories that may be enlightening in various degrees, yet I believe there can never be any one ethical theory that cannot be shown to be defective in certain ways. That is ethical relativism (but not scepticism, because I maintain that the various theories complement and elucidate one another, and they all reveal some aspect of reality; it is believing that one theory must be true and the others false that leads to scepticism). But moral relativism denies that there are values and principles that are grounded in an absolute reality. That relativism is death to humanity.

Advocates of moral relativism argue that morality is a subjective phenomenon and think that they have thereby shown morality to have no foundation in reality. They are permitted to get away with this because their opponents concede to them the presumption that to be objective and real is to be non-mind-dependent while to be subjective is to be a figment, a will-o'-the-wisp. This is the empiricist, physicalist, reductionist dogma that has come to dominate modern thinking, a fallacy that has been institutionalized into a foundational academic credo.

There is another ineluctable form of relativity: moral values are not real for everyone. They are only real for persons in whom humanity has come to full fruition. What are we to do about this? We know that there are people bereft of conscience; we know that there are people who are motivated by a morbidly constricted conception of self-interest. I do not think that these facts militate against the reality of moral values. These people have simply not developed into human beings; their development has been impeded or their humanity has been mutilated by certain influences. Our duty is to work for a world where all children born to the human race develop into full human beings. Should the reader object that I am not proving my case but daydreaming, I would answer that in conformity with my view of the true nature of philosophy, my aim is not to establish a factual truth but to proclaim an ideal and to offer a world view that gives meaning and value to life.

When Kant laid down the principle, "So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means" (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 4:429, tr. Mary Gregor), he was not enunciating a demonstrable proposition, but affirming an ideal — one of the most precious treasures of our human heritage.

The error of empirical relativism does not lie in maintaining that all specific moral judgements are relative, but in denying the reality of the moral life that is the source of those judgements. That reality is the absolute value in virtue of which those particular judgements have a share in the absolute.

I maintain that the reality of creative intelligence is the ground and fount of absolute value, which is actualized in particular, variable formulations. We can generalize from these particular formulations and enunciate maxims and principles of varying levels of universality, but only the reality of what Socrates referred to as that in us which is benefited by doing good and harmed by doing ill is absolute. The relativity and mutability of its particular manifestations no more militate against its reality than the imperfection and transience of all actual phenomena does militate against the reality of an ultimate, eternal ground and source of all being, however we may name it.

© D.R. Khashaba 2003