The Ethics of Human Rights (91): Moral Realism vs Moral Subjectivism

Proponents of human rights are often cast as moral realists, and opponents as moral subjectivists. Let’s start with the latter. Opponents of universal human rights tend to be cultural relativists who believe that moral standards and values derive from – “are relative to” – different cultures. When those standards and values are incompatible with human rights, then human rights should give way. Giving priority to human rights would mean imposing the standards and values developed in and by one particular culture onto another. And that would be cultural imperialism and disrespect for human diversity.

My use of the word “developed” is intentional: it indicates that most relativists are also constructivists who argue that moral values are constructed and transmitted, rather than discovered. Not necessarily consciously constructed – more often unconsciously and without planning or intent. Relativists/constructivists argue that cultures refine throughout the ages what is best for them. It’s probably best to call this meta-ethical view a form of subjectivism in the sense that moral standards and values are

  1. rules of conduct specific to a particular subject – a culture in this case – rather than universal and objective, and
  2. subjective in the cognitive sense, meaning created by human subjects rather than a fact that can be discovered in the world.

I personally conform to the standard representation of a human rights proponent since I have my quarrels with cultural relativism as a form of moral subjectivism. I believe in universal rights that should override certain cultural norms. Human sacrifice for instance is wrong. Culturally sanctioned gender discrimination is wrong. And so on. However, this doesn’t mean that I have to reject moral subjectivism tout court and adopt moral realism. I don’t want to claim that statements such as “human sacrifice is wrong” are true in an objective sense, even though I have strong beliefs about such statements. Most moral realists do make that claim. Let’s have a closer look at moral realism and then try to loosen the link between moral realism and human rights theory.

Moral realism is a cognitivist and objectivist theory about morality: some ethical propositions are objectively true, independent of subjective opinion, like some propositions about the world are objectively true. And we can know and discover these objective moral truths. The implication is that true ethical propositions are true independently of culture. “Honesty is good” and “slavery is bad” are moral facts according to moral realists. If some – or all – cultures were to reject these facts and adopt contrary moral values, then that wouldn’t change the true nature of those moral facts. Morality is “out there”, but individuals or cultures can decide to ignore it. A moral realist who is also a rights proponent will say that human rights are true and that opponents of rights are simply mistaken about what is objectively right (or lying about what is right).

I don’t have a very strong conviction about the relative merits of different meta-ethical theories (it’s a tough problem), but I do have my suspicions. I tend to believe that moral realism is wrong. Maybe it’s not, in which case it would be perfectly OK to be both a proponent of human rights and a moral realist. Moral realism certainly isn’t incompatible with human rights. I want to argue against the conventional wisdom that it is necessary to be a moral realist in order to believe strongly in human rights. It’s not. And it’s good that it’s not because it may turn out that moral relativism is wrong, as I suspect.

I defend a position which we could call universalist intersubjectivism (and I’m terribly sorry for the ugly term; I’m sure it’s as catchy as everything else I write). Intersubjectivism means that morality is about opinions, but not about subjective opinions, unfounded opinions or opinions that evolve more or less unconsciously and automatically throughout the life of a culture or a nation. Moral opinions can be good or bad. They are good when they are tested in common deliberation and exchange of arguments between rational subjects – hence intersubjectivism. The goal is to come to some form of agreement – hence universalist intersubjectivism. Intersubjectivism is universal rather than relative, and it’s also a weak rather than a strong cognitivism: we can distinguish good from bad opinions because we have the test of the marketplace of ideas, but the good opinions will probably not ascend to the level of truths. Morality is not (only) the product of cultural development, traditions or evolutionary psychology, but also of reasoning and argumentation. Reasoning, however, that will – most likely – fall short of truth claims.

So I don’t believe in the realism of moral realism. There’s only intersubjective agreement about justified opinions, no objective moral truth. Moral claims such as human rights or the foundational values that require human rights for their realization (e.g. “peace is good”) are not objective moral truths or moral facts but justified opinions that have withstood the test of argumentation in the marketplace of ideas. For example, it doesn’t have to be true that individuals should be treated as moral agents with a right to think for themselves. All we need is that this view about individuals is reasonable, justified and able to survive deliberation and argumentation. It need not even be a very common view, since argumentation may not be close to what it can ideally be. The intersubjective agreement that we aim at is limited to what rational actors can decide to agree to in a setting that is favorable to argumentation. In many circumstances in real life, this setting is absent and actors are less than rational.

When that is the case, intersubjective agreement on the importance of human rights may be a minority point of view. I believe, however, that we can improve social argumentation and extend intersubjective agreement as long as we make the effort of designing and protecting the marketplace of ideas. And as long as we depart somewhat from the moral realist position. The moral realist who maintains that moral truths are “out there” waiting to be discovered, is unlikely to view argumentation as very important. Those, on the other hand, who claim that morality is about argued opinions that can withstand the test of controversy will be more favorable to fostering institutions for argumentation. Moral realists are also more likely to be dismissive of people with the “wrong” views, and dismissiveness has never convinced anyone.

More on the same topic here and here. More posts in this series are here.

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6 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (91): Moral Realism vs Moral Subjectivism

  1. Great post – I often try to reconcile this issue, and this was one of the most concise reads I’ve come across.

    I was on board until this: “In many circumstances in real life, this setting is absent and actors are less than rational.” And particularly, the last bit.

    Two questions:

    1. Aren’t all actors rational actors?
    2. If not, what maxim(s) do we use to measure rationality?

    Thanks, I very much appreciate your blog.

    1. Well, psychology has unearthed dozens of biases, hasn’t it? Not all of them affecting everyone in the same degree at the same time, but sufficiently for emotions, prejudices, self-serving distortions of discourse etc. to stop us from achieving full rationality in the sense of reasoned debate and objective assessment of the quality of arguments.

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