Subjective universalism

One of the more irritating questions I’ve been confronted with in the discussions I’ve had in my life is: “But what if everyone acted that way?” This kind of objection tends to get thrown up against everything from someone choosing not to vote all the way up to its most grandiose manifestation as Kant’s categorical imperative. And of course sometimes realizing that you wouldn’t necessarily want other people to behave the way you do leads to the realization that it’s not a very upright thing to be doing in the first place, which is the essence of the Golden Rule. But at the same time it’s pretty obvious that not everything you do in life is somehow an expression of the conviction that everyone should be doing the same thing. If a general orders his troops into battle, no one would conclude that all the soldiers should hence start ordering each other around. Nothing would ever get done. Not only are exceptionless general rules too clumsy to deal with every unforseen occurence in life, they tend to undermine the conscience as a guide to integrity and decency in the world in favor of inflexible dogmatism.

Something similar comes about from the continuing belief in some quarters that ethical rules somehow represent objective existing things in the world. 100 years ago the logical positivists, soaking in their hermetic stew of scientism, were claiming not only that all of language describes things out there in the world but that in some sense the representations were actually equivalent to the things they represented. Then Wittgenstein came along and received all the accolades in the world, as well as becoming the golden calf of idol-worshipping college students ever since, by pointing out that this obviously isn’t true, a common reward for those that happen to be in a position to puncture ridiculously over-extended theories and bring them back to earth. One would think that “you should” statements would be a pretty clear example of an area where the theory lacked, even if it hadn’t been for J.L. Austin and the “speech-as-act” school. To claim that such a statement is really a description of something existing, as opposed to an assertion in favor of something ideal, makes about as much sense as claiming that ordering a beer at a restaurant is a description of an existing reality. It goes against the very essence of proscriptive statements. To erase the distinction between them and descriptive statements loses the meaning of both.

I understand the impulse to ground claims about what should be in objective reality, but this attempt shows no courage, no confidence in the strength of subjectivity. Something should be because I believe it should. No one else need share my belief, and my subjective conscience grants me license to judge the actions of others. The mania for “objective” moral truths is consensus-building shit. There’s no use appealing to a higher source of affirmation than one’s conscience, because it doesn’t exist. Anything else is just deference to authority. Surely even the religiously-inclined might be persuaded to trust to the conscience God imparted to them, the divine flame, as surer guidance than various statements issued in the past that, as issued by mortals, could not have anticipated every twist of fate in the future. Of course people often lull themselves into equating their own self-interest with righteousness, but the problem isn’t exactly dismissed by shuffling the responsibility off on someone else. When people choose which parts of doctrine to obey and which to ignore, it all comes back to personal affinity and intuition in the end anyway.

3 Responses to “Subjective universalism”

  1. John Goes Says:

    Yes, but confidence in the strength of subjectivity is a virtual ethical guileline anyway. If you believe in an objective good and evil (whether it is fully knowable in all instances being another question), that doesn’t commit you to believing in some hypothetical book of moral rules that are applicable to any foreseeable case. More prudent to suggest that rules are guidelines that admit of exceptions, probabilistic frameworks that may break when confronted with unusual events to which we must rely on our subjective perception. We have competing obligations, but we always have the obligation to choose the best one.

  2. mock Says:

    I don’t believe most people are comfortable with the notion that ethical claims are in the end adjudicated within the political sphere, although this certainly appears to be the way things are. For some, this is probably unbearable to the point of striving incessantly for the universal validation of a certain morality, which I suppose could be the impetus for most of the Enlightenment’s treatments of the subject. Conservatives such as Roger Scruton have hailed Hegel for showing, against Kant, that ethics is in the end grounded in community and institutions, but one does not have to look long at the American political landscape for this notion to become as depressing as the Kantian position is implausible. This is why I don’t pay much attention to politics these days.

  3. Curt Says:

    The problem with the law is that, even if one accepts it as a moral authority, it makes no distinction between laws that really are expressions of ethical values, laws that are simply supposed to contribute to the smoother functioning of society and laws that primarily exist to serve particular interest groups (which of course all laws do to some extent). So defenders of legal ethics have a hard time defining where the source of the law’s authority comes from, or why murder, practicing medicine without a license and speeding all fall within the same category. Of course more sophisticated naturalists often try to ground morals in natural laws rather than simply governmental laws, which are more vulnerable to corruption and self-interest, to say the least. But in my opinion there’s a fairly basic contradiction between the determinism implied by natural laws and the supposition of free will which is a necessary precondition of a meaningful ethics. Which is not to say that natural laws themselves are incompatible with free will, but if morals are natural laws, like gravity, then presumably one doesn’t have much choice as to whether to follow them.

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