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 ]

Truth vs Reasonableness in Politics

Some will disagree, but I believe that many of the important questions in politics, society and morality aren’t matters of truth, knowledge and certainty. For example, it isn’t “true”, in any sense of the word, that justice means the equal distribution of goods, that abortion is wrong, or that free speech is important. Those who advance those propositions may use facts, data and logic in their arguments, but ultimately the propositions are value judgments rather than statements of fact or knowledge. They are about right and wrong, not about true or false. (I made a similar case here).

This view of morality is known as moral skepticism. The opposing views are often called moral intuitionism or moral realism, and state that there are objective facts of morality independent of human opinion. I’ll do these views an injustice and summarize them in the question: “Don’t you know that slavery is morally wrong?”.

I can understand the attraction of such claims, but still I think moral skepticism holds because political and moral matters are fundamentally different from mathematical or scientific claims based on logic, data gathering, experimentation, statistical analysis, falsification etc. In politics and morality, we’re stuck with mere opinions; opinions which can be better than others, based on the reasoning and the arguments supporting them, but which nevertheless cannot pretend to be the truth. There will always be people with other opinions which may be supported by equally good arguments. Of course, also in matters of scientific or mathematical truth will there always be people with other opinions – take the example of global warming, or the vaccination skeptics – but these other opinions can be easily dismissed by facts, experiments, proofs etc. (which doesn’t mean that these opinions will go away; many people are immune to facts and proof). The same is not the case for basic political and moral questions. These questions may also be supported by data and experiments, but ultimately they rest on arguments for or against value judgments, and hence they can’t be settled on a purely cognitive or scientific basis (in other words, they aren’t – or better don’t have to be – caused by the mere ignorance or stupidity of one of the parties).

So, if data aren’t sufficient and truth and certainty aren’t a possible result of politics and morality, and if, as a result, there will always be a plurality of contradicting opinions, should we just keep on arguing indefinitely? Obviously we don’t. We decide on these questions all of the time. A large proportion of political activity is taken up by decisions on moral matters. And many consider those decisions not only necessary but also urgent. But then how do we decide? How do we distinguish good from bad decisions? We decide, not simply on the basis of facts and experiments, and certainly not on the basis of proof or a priori given truth or knowledge. Instead we use reasonable procedures guaranteeing the best possible decisions in a situation of uncertainty and urgency. These reasonable procedures produces reasonable decisions, not true or certain decisions. It is not because truth and certainty are unavailable that we have to find ourselves at the other extreme of arbitrary, impulsive and purely individual decisions. It is not because we cannot be certain of something that we cannot act in a reasonable way. There’s space between moral realism and moral nihilism, or between moral subjectivism and moral objectivism.

Reasonable decisions have at least the following six characteristics:

  • First of all, reasonable decisions have to have a high level of acceptability and have to be relatively easy to attain and to execute. The decisions of the majority of the people are more difficult to attain but also more acceptable and therefore easier to execute than the decisions of an individual, a monarch or a minority. A decision by consensus is, of course, even more acceptable, but it is also much more difficult to attain. The system of majority decisions seems to be the most reasonable one because it strikes the right balance between the two different criteria of acceptability and ease.
  • However, a reasonable decision has other characteristics as well. A decision of a majority can have terrible consequences, even if it is highly acceptable to the majority and easy to attain and to execute, especially when it is directed against a minority. A decision is a solution to a problem and should not cause problems that are worse than the one it tries to solve. The consequences of a decision should be taken into account. In other words, a reasonable decision is a responsible decision, in the sense that responsibility means taking into account and being accountable for the consequences of your actions.
  • A reasonable decision must be the best possible one under the given circumstances. This means that all possible decisions must be allowed to appear and to be defended in public before the actual decision is taken. The advantages and disadvantages of each one must be compared to the advantages and disadvantages of all other possible decisions. The choice between competing decisions must take place in public and as many people as possible should participate in this choice, otherwise we may not find the best possible decision. If we exclude some people, we may exclude some possible solutions or some arguments against or in favor of some solutions. In order to be able to identify the best solution, the choice of a solution should be preceded by thorough examination of every possible or proposed solution and by public argumentation and deliberation. A maximum number of people should consider every possible solution. Reasonable decisions or reasonable solutions to problems should be public and should involve massive and free participation. Dictatorial, secret or impulsive decisions can only by chance be the best possible decisions.
  • We should not be impulsive, but some things are urgent nevertheless. Sometimes we do not have time for massive participation and for thorough consideration of all possible solutions and arguments. Timeliness is also a characteristic of reasonableness. A decision that comes too late can never be called reasonable.
  • The characteristic of timeliness is balanced by the characteristic of provisionality. Every reasonable decision is provisional, experimental (but not in the scientific sense) and therefore possibly transitory. It must be possible to correct or revoke a decision if it turns out to be the wrong one, if better arguments for other decisions turn up or if the circumstances change. This makes the speed of some decisions more acceptable. Regret and self-criticism are important democratic values. There is a Scottish rock band, The Proclaimers, that sings: “what do you do when democracy’s all through, when ‘minority’ means you, when the rest can’t see its true?”. The members of the band are Scottish nationalists who favor independence. However, there seems to be no Scottish majority ready to follow them. The error in their argument is that democracy is never “all through”. You can always continue to advocate your case and maybe, some day, you will find the right argument to convince a majority.
  • The provisional character of a decision should, of course, be balanced against the need for stability and continuity. Decisions that change all the time are not the best possible decisions either.

These remarks indicate that democracy and freedom of speech are necessary or at least very helpful to arrive at the best possible decisions. Of course, massive participation and free discussion are also important in the discovery of scientific truth. But the “massive participation” is limited to scientists with knowledge of the domain in question. No one will propose a nation-wide referendum to decide on the correctness of the theory of relativity for example. Moreover, scientific discussions rest heavily on data, proof, experiments etc., which doesn’t have to be the case in moral and political matters.

Politics is not concerned with an a priori given truth. Political decisions do not exist because someone declares them after contemplation of the truth. They exist because a democratic majority has taken a decision with its limited knowledge of the moment and after reasonable, public and large-scale discussion, and because afterwards experience has shown that the decision has done what was expected and that arguments for other decisions have remained unconvincing. Reasonable procedures and experience, rather than truth, data, proof etc. give legitimacy to decisions.