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.

The Place of Human Rights in Morality

Morality can be divided into three parts:

  1. the good thing to do
  2. the proper thing to do
  3. and the right thing to do.

1. What you do can be a good thing without it necessarily being the proper or the right thing to do. If your neighbor is ill and you’re washing your own windows, it would be very good of you to also wash his. You would be beneficent. However, it’s obviously not your moral duty to wash his windows and no one will condemn you if you don’t. 

2. A somewhat more demanding type of action is something that you should do (or ought to do, which is basically the same in English). It’s strongly advisable that you help strangers in need. It’s the proper thing to do. You should do it. If you don’t help a stranger in need when you can, you’ll be condemned for your inaction. However, helping a stranger in need is probably not a duty as it is formulated here. It’s too vague. Helping all strangers in need is impossible, and a duty requires the capacity to fulfil it. 

3. Hence a duty is more specific. It’s something you must do – not merely something you should do – and something you have the means to do. Contrary to the good and the proper, it’s compulsory and obligatory. It’s the right thing to do, and you have a duty to do it. In some cases, this duty is based on someone else’s right. You must do something because someone else’s right requires you to do it. For example, you must help the homeless stranger on the corner of your block because that person has a right to a decent standard of living; and you have a duty to pay taxes that will fund a national healthcare system because people – your neighbor but also strangers – have a right to healthcare when they can’t afford it themselves. Or, negatively, you have a duty not to invade your neighbor’s privacy while washing his windows because he has a right to privacy.

However, not all moral duties in this sense have a corresponding right. For example, you have a duty to keep your promises and respect the terms of the contracts you engage in. Like respecting human rights, keeping your promises is not merely a good thing to do or something that you should do. You must do it (unless of course there are good reasons not to; nothing I’ve said here implies that duties should be absolute). But no one has a human right to kept promises. Hence, the class of right actions is larger than the actions (or omissions) required by human rights.

So we have three types of moral actions, each more demanding than the last: the good, the proper and the right. The place of human rights is within the class of right actions. Respecting people’s rights is not merely a good thing to do because you will be condemned if you don’t. It’s also more than the proper thing to do. It’s not just something that is strongly advisable or something that you should do. It’s a duty. You must do it.

Morality is much larger than the duties imposed by human rights, even though respecting people’s rights is obviously a part of morality. Morality is about more than duties, and the duties that are moral are about more than the duties imposed by human rights. 

[This post has been slightly edited post-publication after a remark by ]

The Ethics of Human Rights (63): Human Rights and Moral Subjectivism

Human rights seem to be vulnerable to a common argument in morality: how can we objectively determine that some action is morally wrong? I may think it’s wrong, but you may think something else. Which one of us is correct? There seems to be no way of knowing. Morality is therefore subjective: if something is wrong, it’s wrong for me, for my religious group, my culture etc. If you, your church or your culture thinks it’s OK, then go ahead and do it.

This subjectivism and relativism seem inevitable in our age of moral and cultural pluralism. Western societies are no longer characterized by a quasi-general agreement on the precepts of the Bible, and our colonial hangover has made us weary of supposedly objective morality. There’s no more “true or false” about moral norms, just “ours” and “theirs”. This coexistence of different and often incompatible and contradictory norms or moral systems should be accepted in a spirit of tolerance, and should even be celebrated as part of the richness of human life.

It’s not clear what if anything is left of human rights once we’re done with this. Since these rights are also moral norms, it seems as if they too should be demoted to the rank of personal or group preferences, with no moral force over people holding other preferences. If human rights aren’t true and objective norms, but merely our norms, and if these norms lack any backing more sophisticated than our subjective preference for them or the fact that they are in our holy book, then there’s no point in talking about human rights at all. Drop the “human” part and replace it with “ours” or “mine”. The only good that human rights can possibly do is symbolic affirmation of group membership (“Free speech is a right!” – “Ah, yes indeed, you must be a liberal! Welcome!”). They’ll offer no protection at all, since all violators obviously have different subjective norms, and have an equally valid justification for those norms, namely that they are theirs or that they are in their books.

Fortunately, none of this is inevitable. We may never be able to say that it is objectively “true” that people have this or that human right, or that it is “true” that a particular human right is an important moral norm. However, there’s considerable space between such objective truth claims on the one hand and merely personal, subjective, cultural and relative claims on the other. We may produce good arguments and make a reasonably convincing case that rights claims are good claims. Not true claims, but good claims in the sense that they are strong and difficult to argue against. Rights claims will then perhaps be accepted by people who initially held anti-rights preferences, not because they are forced by the objective truth of those claims – as they may be forced to accept the laws of gravity when the truth of those is demonstrated to them – but because they have allowed themselves to be convinced by the force of our arguments.

More posts in this series are here.