I've been thinking to myself lately that no objective truths exist. That everything is subjective. Especially morality.

I've been moving away from the idea that objectivity exists at all, and instead thinking that maybe everything we think of as an objective truth is actually an illusion.

For example, take Descartes' "I think, therefore I exist."

It's a leap here that to say because you have a subjective experience of rational thought, there's an "I" that "exists." This is where Descartes went wrong.

What if there is no I? No self? What if the thinking that you're experiencing is actually part of a larger entity: say, the consciousness over the universe itself? Maybe you're not an individual thinking thing, you're just one aspect of a greater universal consciousness that contains all consciousness.

If this were the case, then you couldn't say that there's an "I" that exists. And if we call into question whether there's a self, then we also call into question this idea of separate individual existence at all.

Apart from our subjective intuition, there's no obvious reason why we should assume there is an I that exists. As rational beings, we can't trust intuition alone.

So, we're left with nothing. Just the subjective illusion of an individual self, with no objective truth to back it up.

In fact, this idea is prominent in Hinduism: the idea that in order to attain moksha (literally liberation or release) from the cycle of death and rebirth, one must come to realize that there is no self. That there only exists a universal self of which all of us are just one small part. And the paradox here is that attaining this realization requires rational thought. Some rational thing must come to the conclusion that there is no I.

No statements can be absolutely true

All of this is what makes me a bad philosopher. A bad philosopher is someone who doesn't believe objective truths can exist.

This implies that nothing we say can be fully true. And if we can't say true things, then is anything worth saying?

I saw this on Twitter today, from another philosophy podcaster:

The idea that we can have objective truths about morality.

Intuitively, there's no disagreeing with this. Across the spectrum of human experience, all of us would agree that slavery is wrong (apart from a few benefactors of slavery, I'm sure).

But this is far from being an objective moral truth. Maybe as close as we can get to what an objective moral truth might look like (because we would mostly all agree with the premise), but it doesn't quite meet the criteria for a couple of reasons.

First, how is "slavery" defined?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a "slave" as:

a person who is legally owned by someone else and has to work for that person

This might be a little bit too broad. Imagine three scenarios:

  1. Could parents count as legal 'owners' of their children? The rights of a parent would seem to confer ownership, though in convention we know it by a different name ("guardianship"). So if someone owns a farm and has children, and requires their children to work on their farm, would that constitute slavery?
  2. We could also call into question the idea of 'personhood'. What if a corporation owned an AI, and that AI was determined to meet all the criteria of what a person is. Would that AI then be a slave? Would the corporation who built the AI be required to release it, because technically the AI is now a person?
  3. What about animals? Can some animals be persons? It seems so. But where do we draw the line? Can all animals be persons? If so, then that would mean our system of farming constitutes a system of slavery.

Given a large enough survey of the population, you wouldn't be hard-pressed to find people who are sympathetic to any or all of the above scenarios.

Now, the statement slavery is wrong would appear to mean different things to different people. So how can it be an objective truth when not everyone would agree on whether the above three scenarios constitute slavery or not? In essence, this "objective fact" becomes meaningless if we submit that "slavery" might mean different things to different people.

A second problem is this idea that something can be objectively wrong. This would imply that everyone who disagrees with an objective moral statement is either mistaken or an evil person.

Here come the thought police: Did I hear you correctly? You don't think slavery is always wrong? What do you mean there might be "exceptions!?"

For example, maybe I agree that scenarios 1, 2, and 3 above all constitute some form of slavery. And maybe I think that scenario 3 is the only one that warrants serious concern (I am, after all, a shameless vegan). Does this mean I'm a monster for saying that some forms of slavery are less wrong than others? Because it would certainly seem to be the case that I'm breaking the slavery is wrong maxim.

Or maybe it's just the way I'm using language that's the problem. Maybe I shouldn't be calling scenarios 1 and 2 a "form of slavery" if I don't see them as being so much of a problem. Maybe they need different terms. By submitting that scenarios 1 and 2 do not constitute slavery, but scenario 3 does, then I would still be holding true to the objective maxim that all slavery is wrong.

But if scenarios 1 and 2 don't constitute a kind of slavery, then what are they, exactly?

All "objective truths" are language games

The crux of the problem, to me, is that language is imperfect. We can't be totally precise about what exactly constitutes slavery, because everyone will have differing opinions. We also can't be totalitarian about "right" and "wrong" because all moral facts are inherently subjective.

We might intuitively believe something is wrong; but that doesn't make it absolutely wrong. Therefore, it's not straightforward to claim that objective moral truths can exist.

This gets back to Kant. Kant said that through our capacity for reason, we should be able to come up with some universal moral laws that everyone would agree with. And yet, such universal moral laws remain elusive.

Human beings are natural dissenters. There's always going to be someone out there to argue against something that everyone else agrees with. I guess I'm just that guy...


P.S. I do think slavery is wrong. I also have a broader view of slavery that encompasses animals as well as people. My belief is far from being objectively true, and yet, from my perspective, it seems difficult to argue against.

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