Divorcing Morality from Metaphysics

by Benjamin Studebaker

Religious deontologists and subjectivist relativists have something in common–both believe that they can derive moral conclusions from their metaphysical theories. This is the most significant mistake made by both groups.  Here’s why.

Lately I’ve been reading Ronald Dworkin’s Justice for HedgehogsIn this book, Dworkin identifies two hypotheses relied upon by any moral philosopher seeking to link a metaphysical position to a moral one:

  1. Causal Impact Hypothesis (CI)–our beliefs about morality are derived from objective moral facts that exist in the universe.
  2. Causal Dependence Hypothesis (CD)–unless CI is true, we have no good reason for claiming objective moral positions and must yield to subjectivism/scepticism.

In the case of the religious deontologist, CI and CD are both accepted. The religious deontologist believes that an act is moral or immoral because a deity exists in the metaphysical realm and has made that act moral or immoral, and that if there existed no deity, there could exist no good reason for claiming objective moral positions. Consequently, religious deontologists inherently believe that a godless society is an amoral society. They see no good reason for non-believers to behave morally outside of subjective personal preferences.

In the case of the subjectivist, CI is denied but CD is accepted. For subjectivists, the metaphysical absence of any god, moral particles, or other measurable objective indicator of moral truth makes it impossible to establish any objective ground for a moral position. For them, morality becomes a mere personal or societal preference, dependent on perspective.

Dworkin however provides compelling reasons to reject both CI and CD. Dworkin points out that it is impossible even to devise an experiment to establish the truth of CI. There is no way to know that one’s moral beliefs are derived from objective moral facts that exist in the universe. Dworkin gives an example. If you believe that say, affirmative action is immoral, we cannot sensibly pose the question “would you believe that affirmative action were wrong if we lived in a world in which everything else were the same but affirmative action were right?” We are completely incapable of conceiving of universes in which the moral truth value of a belief is different because we cannot make sense of what it is in the universe that would change. As such, even if we assumed that there were moral truths that existed metaphysically, we could never prove or establish that our moral beliefs were derived from them in the first place–how would we then account for differences of opinion? If you think affirmative action is moral and your friends thinks it is immoral, which of you is deriving your view from metaphysical moral entities and which is not? There would be no way of knowing. Even religious deontologists can disagree on what their deity morally requires. Whose view of the divine will is divinely inspired and whose is not? There is no way of adjudicating it.

The subjectivist agrees that CI is misguided but then takes a leap and claims that this means that morality is not an objective endeavour, that this is no truth in the matter. This is due to their assumed truth of CD. Dworkin however also disputes CD on several grounds, the first being that, without CI, it is self-refuting. If we’ve ruled out  CI, on what grounds can we accept CD? If  there are no metaphysical moral entities that make a moral judgement true or false, and therefore there are no grounds for having objective moral views, how can we have CD as a moral view? No subjectivist has encountered any metaphysical truths that give any reason for being a subjectivist, and therefore, by CD, they have no evidence for CD. On what evidence could we support a theory that, on its own terms, condemns itself?

There are more problems with CD. Subjectivists believe that our moral opinions are produced by our perspective, by our personal histories, and that consequently they are subjective insofar as they do not come from a metaphysical truth. But this presumes that merely because we come to our moral views by luck and accident means that our reasoning for them is irrelevant. Dworkin provides the example of a brain scan that causes people to change their opinions about a given moral issue. In this scenario, it is impossible for metaphysical moral truths to have any influence on one’s view–one’s view was entirely determined by the accident of the brain scan. Nonetheless, even if you became aware that you had this brain scan, you would still remain incapable of changing your view, presumably because the brain scan would give you reasons for believing what you believe that you find yourself genuinely believing. Yet this would not cause you to disbelieve your new conviction–by definition, it is your conviction, and you cannot disbelieve it. Knowing that your opinion was the result of a brain scan can only cause you to think that the brain scan corrected flaws in your previous moral reasoning.

All moral beliefs are in this way accidental, insofar as if our lives were drastically different, we would have different moral beliefs. This however is irrelevant to what we deem the truth value of these beliefs, because the justification does not come from the metaphysical origin of what we believe. If I think affirmative action is wrong, I do not think it is wrong because of metaphysical truths existent in the universe. While my opinion is the result of my perspective and history, those do not provide the reasons for what I believe either. When asked why I believe what I believe, I make no appeal to metaphysics or sociology, I give a value justification. I do this because morality is fundamentally different from scientific enquiry. We are not attempting to determine what is, we are making value judgements, and value judgements do not rely on  metaphysical propositions, they rely on other value judgements. If I think affirmative action is wrong, I think it is wrong because it violates other values and principles to which I subscribe. Insofar as all of my values and principles are mutually constitutive of one another and there are no contradictions among them, my view is a candidate for objective moral truth. It must be, because I cannot escape the belief that I think what I believe is true, because what I believe is, by definition, what I believe.

There is an inevitable circularity, in that all of one’s positions on some level will both support and be supported by all the other positions one holds. But this is fine, because morality is not metaphysics, it’s not scientific. Insofar as both religious deontologists and subjectivists continue to base their objective moral beliefs (or lack thereof) on the presence (or absence) of some ultimate metaphysical cause, they miss the point of the moral inquiry. In the final analysis, we appeal to Hume’s Guillotine–just because we have a belief about the metaphysical content of the world, the way it is, does not mean we can make any claims about the truth value of moral judgements, the way we ought to act. Metaphysical truth and moral value are independent from one another; they do not rely on each other. In science, we seek what is and seek to avoid prejudicing our conclusions about what is with any appeal to what humans would prefer those conclusions to be. In morality, all that comes into the question is what is useful to people and what is useful to people exclusively. What is moral is what is useful, whatever we can consistently and coherently argue that to be.