Words, Sometimes Thoughts Jacob Pfau

Meta-Ethics Matters (kinda)

By turn too abstract and too exacting, theories of meta-ethics appear disconcertingly unmoored from the practical business of doing good. My own preferred breed, subjectivism 1, seems to have it even worse… how can we conclude anything about what we ought best do if we concede from the get go that our reasoning is entirely subjective? For the purposes of this post, let me side-step the arguments for and against subjectivism and instead address this last question: Does subjectivism have anything to say about what we ought do? In short, yes.

Subjectivism and moral fact

Let’s first reclaim some lost ground, subjectivism does allow for moral facts. Assuming subjectivism, moral beliefs are determined by experiences, perception and a few neurons thrown in. In the context of morality, this seems worrying, but don’t these three suffice for most of our other purposes? If someone were to point at a glass of calpis (a white-ish soda) and call it milk, they would be wrong, factually wrong. Their being wrong does not depend on any biological, or chemical fact about milk and calpis, but rather we English speakers use ‘milk’ to refer to mammalian milk and imitations thereof, but not calpis. In a sense this fact is subjective — having little to do with particles and spacetime — but nonetheless we call it a fact. So too for morality! If someone points at a crashed biker screaming in pain and says ‘good’, they are factually wrong, because of their experiences, perceptions, or perhaps their neurons (e.g. psychopaths fall under this category).

Learning from Subjectivism

Almost everyone agrees about crashed bikers, so meta-ethics is hardly needed here, but when it comes to abortion, vegetarianism, or war, there doesn’t seem to be a straight line reliably connecting non-aberrant experiences and neurons to some moral fact of the matter. To clarify what’s going on in these cases, return to our biker; her experience is eminently relatable, we’ve all fallen before, lost some skin, hit our head, etc. For some other cases, however, it is harder to relate. I personally have never had a migraine, I’ve heard they can be terrible, worse than tripping for sure, but I have to rely on others’ accounts. This is subjectivism’s take on moral disagreement: The moral fact is determined by the relevant experience. So, how bad a war is cannot be fully understood by us who live in peace, and the suffering of animals penned in, force-fed, and slaughtered has never been felt by a human.

It’s tempting to say, if no one knows, there’s nothing to know, but that’s a mistake. None of us took our above biker’s fall, yet we all empathize, understand. Having similar experiences, hearing of similar experiences, even imagining moral goods and bads can approximate the truth. In short, moral judgement under subjectivism are prediction problems: Predict how you would react if you were to have had that experience. Some of these prediction problems are easy (bike accidents), some hard (abortions), some intractble (population ethics). Now, I can deliver on the promised explanation, why subjectivism matters, I have a moral responsibility to inform myself about the consequences of my actions. I am completely ignorant of farm animal suffering, but I have the means to inform myself, so as my small bit of practicing what I preach, I’ll watch ‘Cowspiracy’ 2.

Subjectivism and Effective Altruism

Orthogonally to subjectivism, I subscribe to the ideas of long-termism, that the greatest good we can do lies in improving the lot of the innumerable future generations’ whose wellbeing matters just as much as the children born tomorrow. Central to understanding our effects on the long term is population ethics which addresses the question: How do we compare futures in which different people, and different numbers of people are born? From the subjectivist point of view, I suggest that we can rule out total utilitarianism as a theory of population ethics. All of our experiences: deciding whether to have children, spending time with other generations, standing in solidarity with those who choose to have an abortion, provide evidence for the prediction “Deciding not to have children is not worse than having children”. Any subjectivist arguing for total utilitarianism must find commensurately strong experiences supporting the contrary. Instead of total utilitarianism, I propose that Meacham’s ‘Person-affecting views and saturating counterpart relations’, and certain variants of average utilitarianism fit nicely with all of the experiences available to us.

Exploring Subjectivism

I’ve sketched a couple applications of subjectivism, but I believe that subjectivism has many more implications. I’ll point out a couple of others to chew on:

Subjectivism suggests moral education involves experiencing and being exposed to diverse sets of circumstances, more so than sitting through Phil 251. I’ve also black-boxed the argument for subjectivism, but even allowing for a different meta-ethics, I believe that much of the above could be put on a psychological or sociological footing and still carry force, but this remains to be explored 1.


1 I try to keep philosophical jargon minimal in this post, and I’m using ‘subjectivism’ loosely to refer to my own particular variant; there are certainly others. For those interested, the ideas in this post are mainly inspired by Putnam’s ‘The Many Faces of Realism’ which is in turn inspired by ‘Philosophical Investigations’. As for the ethics literature, I’m not well read on meta-ethics, but the universal prescriptivist school of thought is the most appealing to me, and I believe that the above arguments probably fit into that theory to form a fuller picture.

2 I watched half of cowspiracy, but it doesn’t offer the sort of empathy building exposure to farm animal conditions I expected it would. Instead I have found a few other documentaries which come closer to that goal Dominion, Land of Hope and Glory and Lucent.

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