Friday, February 8, 2013

Objective and Subjective Morality, with reference to Kierkegaard

Steven Novella has a post on objective and subjective morality at his blog here.  He introduces the discussion this way:
The discussion is between objective vs subjective morality, mostly focusing around a proponent of objective morality (commenter nym of Zach). Here I will lay out my position for a philosophical basis of morality and explain why I think objective morality is not only unworkable, it’s a fiction. 
First, let’s define “morality” and discuss why it is needed. Morality is a code of behavior that aspires to some goal that is perceived as good. The question at hand is where do morals and morality come from. I think this question is informed by the question of why we need morals in the first place. 
I maintain that morals can only be understood in the context of the moral actor. Humans, for example, have emotions and feelings. We care about stuff, about our own well being, about those who love, about our “tribe.” We also have an evolved sense of morality, such as the concepts of reciprocity and justice.
and later describes his position in this way:
Much of the prior discussion came to an impasse over this issue – are moral first principles, therefore, objective or subjective. This, I maintain, is a false dichotomy. They are complex, with some subjective aspects (the values) and some objective aspects (explorations of their universality and implications).
Novella subscribes to the Enlightenment derived fact-value distinction (empirical facts only describe the way things are, not the way they should be), which is the reason he says values are subjective. By "subjective" he means not rationally justifiable in a way that is publicly compelling, i.e. the way math and science are rationally publicly compelling.

Kierkegaard is invaluable in understanding what is really going on in these kinds of discussions. For we learn from Kierkegaard that this way of using "subjective" and "objective" obscures the truth, the existential truth, of our situation, and in that obscurity ethics can never appear. In fact Novella's entire discussion is taken objectively, and subjectivity is only considered objectively, when in truth subjectivity can only be understood subjectively.

There is only one truly subjective paragraph in the post, and that is the first:
I am fascinated by the philosophy of ethics, ever since I took a course in it in undergraduate school. This is partly because I enjoy thinking about complex systems (which partly explains why I ended up in Neurology as my specialty). I also greatly enjoy logic, and particularly deconstructing arguments (my own and others) to identify their logical essence and see if or where they go wrong.
The subject of a truly subjective statement can only be me; if I speak about someone else's subjectivity, I am speaking objectively about subjectivity. Truly subjective statements inevitably involve a story of becoming, as Novella mentions how he ended up in Neurology. And that is not by accident, because the basic truth of our existence is that it is one of becoming. This is the existential truth that is obscured by speaking about subjectivity and objectivity from a purely objective standpoint, for there is no becoming in objectivity. And it is the truth that provides the only genuine foundation of morality.

"Morality is a code of behavior that aspires to some goal that is perceived as good" Novella informs us. This is perfectly stated from the objective standpoint, but it will never result in an ethics that is subjectively compelling. For what does such a code have to do with me? At what point does the objective discussion of such a code end, or get to the point that I must stop debating it and start following it? Kierkegaard, in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, shows us that objective thought can never result in something that is subjectively compelling, precisely because the subject is removed at the outset. The only way to get the subject back in, that is, to make the results of objective thought subjectively compelling, is for the subject to reinsert himself through an act of the will; I must choose to apply the results of objective thought to my life, and that act of choice is beyond reason, for it is "subjective" in the modern (non-Kierkegaardian) sense. This is the real reason for the "fact-value distinction" in modern thought. 

Better, Kierkegaard tells us, is to never lose the subject in the first place. Rather than beginning with a fictitious objective origin to morality in facts about our feelings or evolution, which isn't really a beginning at all, a subjective origin may be found in the fact that I am becoming. This simply means that my being is not static but dynamic. Everyday I wake up I am a day older; every act I do or avoid doing changes me in some way. I am becoming something; the process is unavoidable, and the only question is what am I becoming.  

There is an analogous situation with dieting (or, rather, dieting is a response to the physical fact of becoming). I must eat to live, and what I eat determines what I become. Eat too much or the wrong things and I become fat; do not eat enough and I become weak and underweight. There are people who take a great deal of interest in what they eat and investigate various diet plans to achieve certain physical outcomes, and others who take no interest at all. But whether one takes an interest in diet or not, the existential fact of "becoming what you eat" remains nonetheless, and existence forces one to deal with food one way or the other. There is no mystery, then, in the origin of dieting. I don't need to look for an evolutionary explanation concerning our feelings about food, about what I care and don't care about. I need only recognize that eating is a fact of life, my life, and the only question is whether I will eat well or poorly. A response to food (which is what dieting is) is inevitable given the nature of our existence.

The point may be made general. Life forces me to act, and my actions change me in one way or another, and the only question is whether I will act well or badly, i.e. what will I become through my actions? Note that I become something through eating whether or not I take an interest in what I become. The man who is not interested in dieting and eats nothing but coke and chips all day will get fat and ruin his health; he is not exempted from the consequences of his eating simply because he does not acknowledge that eating has consequences. Similarly, I become something or other through my actions in general, and those consequences follow whether or not I acknowledge them. Ethics is my response to the fact of becoming, just as dieting is my response to the fact of eating.

One criticism of Kierkegaard is that in works like the Concluding Unscientific Postscript he spends very little time debating what most moderns consider the important ethical questions: Rules of behavior and how to tell right actions from wrong ones. This is because, contra our modern view, the answers to those questions are really the easiest part of ethics; they only seem hard to us because we have lost the true starting point for ethics in subjectivity. This becomes apparent when we are brought to a point of approaching ethics subjectively (despite ourselves) through art.

An example of this is the film It's A Wonderful Life, which I explore in detail here. At each critical moment in his life, George is faced with a choice between fulfilling his own ambitions or sacrificing those ambitions for the sake of others. At each point, he denies himself and does what we all know is the right thing to do, sacrificing his own ambitions for the sake of others. The film works because the filmmaker can count on the fact that his audience knows what the right thing to do is in each successive dilemma; the drama is found in whether George can meet the ethical challenge, not whether the ethical challenge can meet some inappropriate "objective" standard of ethics. 

And it is not an accident that Hollywood tends to make films with a pro-life message (e.g. Knocked Up) despite its leftwing political bent. For a film is a story, and therefore a story of becoming, and therefore a story of becoming good (at least if it is a comedy rather than a tragedy). Knocked Up wouldn't work if Seth Rogen abandoned Katherine Heigl, for whatever "objective" reasons he might offer, because we know it is the wrong thing to do and Rogen would just be rationalizing. Similarly, Katherine Heigl can't get an abortion, because the audience, whether or not they are politically pro-choice, cannot but admire a woman has the child more than one that aborts it.

We can agree with Novella that morals can only be understood in the context of the moral actor. But that context must start in subjectivity, not end there.


Quyen said...

This is awesome!

Anonymous said...

Wow, thank you for writing this!

David T. said...

Glad this was helpful and thanks for stopping by.