Objection #8. In the absence of an absolute criterion to measure it against, it is misleading to talk about moral objectivity, as there is no way of distinguishing it from subjectivity.
This is the kind of objection that might be made by some philosophers who object to any non-absolute use of the word "objectivity". They might argue that any source of knowledge that is not absolute must be subjective, and that partial or incremental knowledge is only subjective belief because we do not know what it is partially working towards. This kind of view is also reflected by Buddhists who think that the Middle Way only makes sense when guaranteed by the Buddha's enlightenment. Otherwise, they argue, how can we know that progress towards enlightenment is possible?
This is a view that dooms us to relativism. If there is no objective justification for belief that is not an absolute justification, all we have are a lot of competing claims that are as good as one another. As has often been remarked, this is a self-contradictory view, because the relativist view itself would then have no more justification than any other view. Relativists also do not, in practice, fail to justify one view over another. The jump from relativism to absolutism depends on a fragile faith dependent on constant group reinforcement, and cannot be supported by anything other than faith.
There is a true dilemma here: we either resign ourselves to this depressing dualistic analysis of the justification of ethics, or we choose an alternative view of objectivity that gives us hope. Such an alternative view appeals to our experience of moral progress, not to falsely justify any final guarantee, but simply to conclude that progress is possible. It is not misleading to talk about incremental moral objectivity if we experience it in our everyday lives, as we do. We do not need special revelatory experiences, or a belief in the enlightenment of the Buddha, or the guarantee of any authority figure. We do not need categorical imperatives known through reason or an ultimate knowledge of the universe. All of these are just distractions from facing up to uncertainty. All we need to justify incremental objectivity is to give credence to common experience such as even a child has, of the process of growing from something narrower to something bigger.
It is true that any specific judgement we make about a particular person or approach being relatively more objective than another must be provisional. The practice of the Middle Way itself demands that we be prepared to reconsider in any specific case. However, the general point can nevertheless be asserted that progress is possible. It is not any final guarantee that makes progress possible, but simply the choice of experience over metaphysics as a basis of judgement. Given this choice of standpoint, subjectivity is distinguished from objectivity incrementally, in experience, not any other way.
Links to further discussion relating to this objection:
The recognition of imperfection
The philosophy of the Middle Way (from thesis)
Return to list of objections
Return to moralobjectivity.net home page