An Argument Against Subjectivism about Moral Wrongness

Here’s an argument against subjectivism about moral wrongness I’ve been kicking around. (By ‘subjectivism’ here I just mean any theory which is not “objective”—that is, a subjective theory is one that has it that that in virtue of which one’s behavior is wrong (when it is wrong) is either one’s beliefs about, or one’s evidence concerning, one’s situation.) I thought I’d post it and see if it has any legs.

 

Here goes. The argument starts, as do many, with a case. (I apologize in advance for the length and complexity of the case—as with all complex cases, the bells and whistles are meant to forestall a number of possible replies and objections; despite the case’s complexity, the intuition I have about it to which I appeal in my argument seems fairly robust to me.) Here’s the case:

 

APPLE: On Monday evening I villainously programmed a robot to kill Bloggs on Wednesday morning (Bloggs beat me out of first place in the local chess championship and I was, shall we say, quite a bad loser.) It’s now Tuesday morning and I’ve come to repent my horrendous behavior the previous evening. I now desperately want to stop the robot from killing Bloggs tomorrow morning. Unfortunately I can’t now do anything to stop the robot. I do know, however, that one way of preventing the robot from killing Bloggs on Wednesday morning is to press a certain button—button B—later this evening (i.e., Tuesday evening) which will deactivate the robot (the button is, unfortunately inactive right now (i.e., Tuesday morning)). There are only two things that I can do now on Tuesday morning: (a) eat the apple I have in my hand or (b) not eat the apple I have in my hand. My nemesis, the nefarious Jones, is present and tells me what he will do if I do either of my options. (Jones is a weird dude, but he always can do and does what he says he’ll do.) So, of each of my options I know now, on Tuesday morning, what will indeed happen between now and Wednesday morning if I choose it. Here is what I know:

(a) I know that if I now eat the apple, between now (Tuesday morning) and later this evening (Tuesday evening) I am going to forget entirely about Bloggs and the fact that I set a robot in motion to kill him. (I know this because Jones has told me he’ll make me forget between now and then if I eat the apple.) I also know that if I eat the apple, later this evening (Tuesday evening) I will believe falsely, though justifiedly and in accord with all my evidence then (on Tuesday evening), that pressing B will have one and only one effect: causing Smith to be electrocuted to death. (I know this because Jones has told me that if I eat the apple he’ll rig things up so that all of my evidence this evening will indicate that pressing the button will electrocute Smith to death.) I hate Smith—my spouse, over the past two years, has engaged in an affair behind my back with him, an affair Smith had no idea he was engaging in (my spouse never told Smith about me) and about which I have only recently found out. I know it would be wrong to kill Smith (he’s entirely innocent) and am now (on Tuesday morning) not at all inclined to kill him. But I also know that if given the opportunity to kill him later this evening I will nonetheless then do so. Because of all of this, I know that if I now eat the apple I have in my hand I will later this evening press button B, justifiedly believing at that time that I am killing Smith by doing so. (I also know I’d be able then to refrain from pressing the button then; but even so, I know I’d press it nonetheless.) Finally I also know that if I do eat the apple and then go on to press button B this evening thinking I am killing Smith by doing so (but, in fact, unbeknownst to me then, saving Bloggs from being killed by the robot Wednesday morning), no one will know I did so and I’ll forget having done so one minute after doing it. (Let’s say Jones has told me he’ll ensure this as well (remember, he’s a weird dude)).

(b) I know that if I do not now eat the apple both (i) I won’t have the option of pressing button B later this evening (Tuesday evening) because Jones will destroy button B between now and then and also (ii) later this evening Jones will give me the opportunity to save Bloggs from the robot I’ve set in motion to kill him Wednesday morning, but at the cost of my leg. (Nefarious Jones will deactivate the robot himself if I chop off my own leg, but not otherwise.) I also know that if I don’t eat the apple now and Jones does make me that offer later this evening, I will chop off my own leg and thereby save Bloggs from being killed by the robot Wednesday morning. (I also know now (Tuesday morning) that were I to chop off my leg to save Bloggs later this evening (Tuesday evening) I’d be able to refrain from doing so then; but even so, I know I’d chop it off to save Bloggs nonetheless.)

 

Now here’s the argument: If I am a morally conscientious person on Tuesday morning, it seems to me, it need not be the case that I’m strongly motivated not to eat the apple. (Of course I wasn’t morally conscientious the night before, when I activated the robot, and I won’t be morally conscientious later this evening if I do eat the apple now, for I’ll attempt to kill Smith then if I eat the apple now. But despite all of that, surely it could be the case that on Tuesday morning I’m being morally conscientious.) But if any plausible subjectivism were true and I knew the true moral theory, then I’d know that I’m facing a choice on Tuesday morning between doing something (viz., not eating the apple) that will neither be wrong nor lead to my doing anything wrong at any time—not eating the apple surely isn’t wrong and later chopping off my own leg to save Bloggs’s life certainly wouldn’t be wrong then—and doing something (viz., eating the apple) that will lead to my doing something horribly morally wrong—eating the apple will lead to my later doing something horribly morally wrong by the lights of any plausible subjectivism (viz., doing something I believe, and all my evidence indicates, will kill an innocent person (and gruesomely to boot!)). But here, it seems to me, is a conceptual truth about moral conscientiousness:

 

(*) Necessarily, a morally conscientious person, if faced with a choice between doing something that will result in her not doing anything wrong then or ever after and her doing something that will result at some point in her acting horribly morally wrongly, she will be strongly motivated not to do the thing that will result in her acting horribly morally wrongly.

 

It follows, then, however, that if (i) I am morally conscientious on Tuesday morning in APPLE, (ii) any plausible subjectivism is true, and (iii) I know the true moral theory on Tuesday morning in APPLE, then I am strongly motivated not to eat the apple. But since it has to be possible that I both be morally conscientious and know the true moral theory on Tuesday morning in APPLE, it must not be the case that any plausible subjectivism is true.

 

Here’s the argument, I believe, a bit more rigorously (and pedantically) formulated:

1. Necessarily [a morally conscientious person, if she knows she is faced with a choice between doing something that will result in her doing nothing wrong ever and her doing something that will result in her acting horribly morally wrongly, she will be strongly motivated not to do the thing that will result in her acting horribly morally wrongly]. (Premise—Purported conceptual truth (*))

2. Necessarily, [if [subjectivism is true & I believe the true moral theory on Tuesday morning in APPLE], then in APPLE, I know on Tuesday morning that I face a choice between doing something that will result in my doing nothing wrong then or ever after (not eating the apple) and doing something that will result in my at some point acting horribly morally wrongly (eating the apple)]. (Premise)

3. Therefore, necessarily [if [subjectivism is true & I believe the true moral theory on Tuesday morning in APPLE], then [if I am morally conscientious on Tuesday morning in APPLE, then I am strongly motivated not to eat the apple on Tuesday morning in APPLE]]. (from 1 & 2)

4. It is possible that [(i) I believe the true moral theory on Tuesday morning in APPLE & (ii) I am morally conscientious on Tuesday morning in APPLE & (iii) it is not the case that [I am strongly motivated not to eat the apple on Tuesday morning in APPLE]]. (Premise)

5. Therefore, it is possible that [it is not the case that [subjectivism is true]]. (from 3 & 4)

6. Necessarily, [if [it is possible that [it is not the case that [subjectivism is true]]], then [necessarily [it is not the case that [subjectivism is true]]]. (From the necessary truth of whatever moral theory happens to be the true one)

7. Therefore, necessarily [it is not the case that [subjectivism is true]]. (from 5 & 6)

 

*(This argument depends for its cogency on my having knowledge at one time about how I will voluntarily act (i.e., act in such a way that at the time of my so acting I could have acted otherwise) in the future were I to choose a particular option now that I don’t in fact choose. This is middle knowledge, and some think it is contentious that I could have it. (Some deny that God has middle knowledge!) I don’t think it’s implausible at all that I have this kind of knowledge—for instance, on election day 2008 I walked into booth #1 and pressed the booth #1 lever for Obama; however, before entering booth #1, I then knew both that I could instead have walked into booth #2, and also that were I to do so I would voluntarily press the booth #2 lever for Obama. That said, some might still balk at anyone’s having this kind of knowledge of counterfactuals of freedom. (I should also note, in passing, that the possibility of this kind of knowledge is presupposed by the actualism and possibilism debate in ethics. If appealing to it there is fair game, so too should it be here.) All of this notwithstanding, I believe an argument for the same conclusion, one without any loss of force, could be given that only made appeal to the probabilistic counterfactual knowledge I have about my own future actions. Surely I know myself well enough to have some such knowledge about my future actual and counterfactual behavior!)

 

**(For those who are inclined to split senses—those who think that there is an objective ‘morally wrong’ and also a subjective ‘morally wrong’—construe this argument as an argument for the claim that the ‘morally wrong’ that is of interest to the morally conscientious person in her deliberations about what to do is not the subjective ‘morally wrong’.)

 

***(The cogency of this argument may well depend on the falsity of consequentialism. I assume for the purposes of this argument that consequentialism is false. (I also believe that consequentialism is false.))

5 Replies to “An Argument Against Subjectivism about Moral Wrongness

  1. Hi Peter, fun case! As someone inclined towards “splitting senses”, I’m ambivalent about the purported conceptual truth (*). It seems true if I have in mind the objective sense of “wrong”, and false otherwise.
    Does the case show that “the ‘morally wrong’ that is of interest to the morally conscientious person in her deliberations about what to do is not the subjective ‘morally wrong’”? I mean, I don’t really think the morally conscientious person should be interested in the ‘morally wrong’ (de dicto) at all. But for one who thought otherwise, the most I can see them concluding from this is that the subjective moral status of their future actions is deliberatively irrelevant. I’d expect them to still hold that, regarding their current action — the choice they are currently deliberating over — its subjective moral status is of greater deliberative import than its objective moral status (for mineshaft-style reasons, say). Does that seem right?

  2. On second thought, (*) seems false even for objectivists.
    Construct a case where (i) one may permissibly radically impair one’s future capacity to do good, say because failure to do so would involve great personal sacrifice, and (ii) if one refrains from so impairing oneself, one foreseeably will in future perform an act that is (a) pitifully inadequate compared to what would could, at that time, instead bring about, and yet (b) is nonetheless much better than the best that one could have done if one had previously impaired one’s capacity to do good.
    In that case, it’s morally better to refrain from impairing oneself, even though (i) as a result you will in future act morally horribly wrongly (woefully failing to do as much good as is minimally required in the situation), and (ii) if you had impaired yourself, you would never act wrongly (since the impairment itself is excusable on grounds of avoiding great personal sacrifice, and in future your capacity to do good is so impaired that you always do the best you can, which isn’t much).

  3. Hi Richard, thanks for engaging with my argument. First things first. Your counterexample may scotch my argument entirely. I need to think about it more and see if anything is salvageable. If indeed your case is a counterexample to (*), which I think it very well might be (you present it abstractly and so I’ll need to concretize it to fully convince myself, but if in fact you have refuted it, I’ll have to see if there is a non-ad-hoc revision of it that will do the work I need it to do. (For it to be non-ad-hoc, of course, I’ll have to provide some independent motivation for whatever revision I propose. I don’t kid myself that this will be an easy task at all. But I’ll try.) (Also, I’m inclined to think, again, in advance of any real in depth investigation, that the actualism/possibilism debate is going to rear its ugly head here. But, then again, I think, on independent grounds, that the subjectivism/objectivism debate is inextricably intertwined with the actualism/possibilism debate anyway.)
    As regards sense splitting, here are a few thoughts. (1) I’m not sure what you mean exactly between “‘morally wrong’ de dicta” (as opposed to “‘morally wrong’ de re”, I presume), so I can’t say whether I agree with you that the morally conscientious person should be interested in one rather than another. Can you say what you mean by ‘morally wrong’ de dicto? (2) And I’m skeptical of sense-splitting because I don’t see the motivation for it. Why split senses if we don’t have to? And if we do split senses what justifies splitting senses between a “wrong(objective)” and a “wrong(subjective)” and not also a “wrong(Charles Barkley)” where ‘wrong(Charles Barkley’ is a sense of ‘wrong’ according to which an action is wrong given Charles Barkley’s evidence at that time, and not also a “wrong(Hellen Keller)”… etc.? Surely some explanation of why there are these two senses, but ONLY these two senses, must be offered by those who want to split senses. Is there a relation between the two senses, or are they completely independent of one another? I’ve not yet seen an adequate answer to these and other questions, and so I think the burden on the proponent of sense-splitting to justify splitting senses remains undischarged. (The best attempt at discharging this burden, it seems to me, is Dorsey’s “Objective Morality, Subjective Morality, and the Explanatory Question” (JESP 2012). However, Dorsey’s account is subject to decisive objections.) Now you might think, as you say, that mine-shaft cases do the very work I’m claiming the sense-splitter needs to do to justify splitting senses. But that argument works only if it’s not the case that there’s no way the objectivist can adequately accommodate the data in those cases. I think the objectivist can. It’s a little bit of a long story, but I try to show how an objectivist can do this in “In Defense of Objectivism about Moral Obligation” (Ethics 2010). (In that paper I discuss the argument based on Jackson’s Dr. Jill case and not Parfit’s mine-shafts case.)

  4. Hi Richard. Here’s one more quick thought before I get back to thinking about your counterexample to (*). In your first comment, you write:
    “[T]he most I can see them concluding from this is that the subjective moral status of their future actions is deliberatively irrelevant.”
    I agree, but in the absence of a reason to be a sense splitter, and thus in the absence of a reason for thinking that there isn’t one and only one kind of moral wrongness that is of concern to the morally conscientious agent in her deliberations about what to do, given that a morally conscientious agent will think that the moral status of her future actions (in whatever sense sense of ‘moral status’—objective or subjective—is the correct one) is deliberatively relevant, then the fact that what feature of her future actions seems to be deliberatively relevant to the morally conscientious agent is their objective moral status and not their subjective moral status gives us reason to believe, once again in the absence of a reason to be a sense splitter, that the kind of moral wrongness that is of concern to the morally conscientious agent in her deliberations about what to do is objective wrongness.
    That the moral status of her future actions is indeed deliberatively relevant to the deliberations of a morally conscientious person is, it seems to me, is easily shown by cases such as: Jones is deliberating between eating an apple or not eating an apple. If he eats the apple now, he knows he’ll later chop up one innocent person to save five others without that person’s permission. If he doesn’t eat the apple now he’ll chop up another person to save the five but this time with that person’s permission. It seems clear that the morally conscientious agent will be strongly motivated not to eat the apple in this case. What tips the scales in the morally conscientious person’s deliberations in this case about whether to eat the apple now it seems is the deontic status of her future action.
    (What’s more, I think, this kind of case can show that it is the objective moral status of her future actions that the morally conscientious agent is interested in (just make eating the apple have the result that when she later chops the person up she’ll (falsely) believe (though all of her evidence will indicate) that she is chopping her up with her consent and make not eating the apple have the result that when she later chops up the other person she’ll (falsely) believe (though all of her evidence will indicate) that that person hasn’t given her consent to be chopped up to save the five.)
    (What’s even more, I think these kinds of cases can also be used to try to motivate a denial of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, though here, admittedly, things get even trickier (because of issues having to do with cross-temporal ability). Here, make eating the apple lead to her later chopping up the one person (who hasn’t consented) to save the five while at that time not being able to do otherwise and make not eating the apple lead to her not saving the five and not chopping up the innocent person. (I think it is clear that a morally conscientious person would be strongly motivated not to eat the apple here.) A lot more ancillary premises are required to make this argument against OIC go through, I admit; but, nevertheless, I think this kind of argument might also have legs.)
    (By the way, in my initial thinking about your counterexample to (*), it seems to me that the issues here may connect up with the phenomenon of secondary permissibility—another issue in normative ethics in which I’m very interested. Very interesting stuff!)

  5. Hi Richard. Thanks once again for your thoughts on my argument.
    I think your case may well be a counterexample to my principle (*). So I think I may well have to ditch it. But perhaps my argument can be resuscitated by appealing to a principle which is, I believe, strictly speaking, weaker than (*) and by slightly revising my case.
    Here’s the principle:
    (&) Moral conscientious never requires one to choose that option available to one which will lead to one’s acting more morally wrongly overall than one would had one chosen any other of one’s options.
    Now I revise the case as follows:
    APPLE*: On Monday evening I villainously programmed a robot to severely though non-lethally pummel Bloggs on Wednesday morning. (Bloggs beat me out of first place in the local chess championship and I was, shall we say, quite a bad loser.) It’s now Tuesday morning and I’ve come to repent my horrendous behavior the previous evening. I now desperately want to stop the robot from pummeling Bloggs tomorrow morning. Unfortunately I can’t now do anything to stop the robot. I do know, however, that one way of preventing the robot from pummeling Bloggs on Wednesday morning is to press a certain button—button B—later this evening (i.e., Tuesday evening) which will deactivate the robot (the button is, unfortunately inactive right now (i.e., Tuesday morning)). There are only two things that I can do now on Tuesday morning: (a) eat the apple I have in my hand or (b) not eat the apple I have in my hand. My nemesis, the nefarious Jones, is present and tells me what he will do if I do either of my options. (Jones is a weird dude, but he always can do and does what he says he’ll do.) So, of each of my options I know now, on Tuesday morning, what will indeed happen between now and Wednesday morning if I choose it. Here is what I know:
    (a) I know that if I now eat the apple, between now (Tuesday morning) and later this evening (Tuesday evening) I am going to forget entirely about Bloggs and the fact that I set a robot in motion to pummel him viciously. (I know this because Jones has told me he’ll make me forget between now and then if I eat the apple.) I also know that if I eat the apple, later this evening (Tuesday evening) I will believe falsely, though justifiedly and in accord with all my evidence then (on Tuesday evening), that pressing B will have one and only one effect: causing Smith to be killed gruesomely by being hanged, drawn, and quartered. (I know this because Jones has told me that if I eat the apple he’ll rig things up so that all of my evidence this evening will indicate that pressing the button will cause Smith to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.) I hate Smith—my spouse, over the past two years, has engaged in an affair behind my back with him, an affair Smith had no idea he was engaging in (my spouse never told Smith about me) and about which I have only recently found out. I know it would be wrong to have Smith hanged, drawn, and quartered (he’s entirely innocent and it certainly wouldn’t not be wrong even were he guilty!) and am now (on Tuesday morning) not at all inclined to have that done to him. But I also know that if given the opportunity to have him hanged, drawn, and quartered later this evening I will nonetheless then do so. Because of all of this, I know that if I now eat the apple I have in my hand I will later this evening press button B, justifiedly believing at that time that I am having Smith hanged, drawn, and quartered by doing so. (I also know I’d be able then to refrain from pressing the button then; but even so, I know I’d press it nonetheless.) Finally I also know that if I do eat the apple and then go on to press button B this evening thinking I am having Smith hanged, drawn, and quartered by doing so (but, in fact, unbeknownst to me then, saving Bloggs from being pummeled by the robot Wednesday morning), no one will know I did so and I’ll forget having done so one minute after doing it. (Let’s say Jones has told me he’ll ensure this as well (remember, he’s a weird dude)).
    (b) I know that if I do not now eat the apple, later this evening I’ll voluntarily refrain from pressing the button, knowing that in doing so I’m refraining from having Bloggs saved from being pummeled on Wednesday morning by the robot I set in motion Monday evening.
    I think it is clear in this case that, necessarily, if I am morally conscientious on Tuesday morning in APPLE* I will eat the apple then. In other words, necessarily(conceptual), I am morally conscientious on Tuesday morning in APPLE* only if I eat the apple. What’s more, it also seems clear that if subjectivism is true, on Tuesday morning, choosing to eat the apple is choosing to do something that will lead to my acting more morally wrongly overall than I would act were I to choose any other of my options at that time. These claims in conjunction with (&) should yield the desired conclusion, namely, that subjectivism is false.
    Perhaps there is an objectivist counterexample to (&) in the offing, but I can’t think of one off-hand. (Actually, there may be actualist objectivist counterexamples to (&) (however, those actualist objectivist views are implausible, I’d maintain, precisely because they deliver very counterintuitive results regarding degrees of wrongness), but I can’t think of any possibilist objectivist counterexamples to (&). And, as I think possibilism is true, I don’t think there are any objectivist counterexamples to (&) simpliciter. Then again I well may be overlooking something.)

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