After reading the comments on a previous post, it has become apparent to me that some people who take seriously the subjectivity of value and the incoherence of free will are led to the position of moral nihilism, or at least something very close. While I do believe that value is subjective and that free will is incoherent, I am not a moral nihilist. Moreover, I do not think that the validity of either of the aforementioned positions commits one to moral nihilism. In the comments on my last post I recommended that someone read John Rawls’ first published paper, "Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics" because I think Rawls’ theory of justification is neither contingent upon the objectivity of value nor upon the possibility of free will. I do not expect that I will convince any reader of this blog to become a Rawlsian by reviewing the paper, but I do hope to make the case here that a coherent account of moral justification is not contingent upon the objectivity of value. I plan to follow this post with a subsequent account of how contractualism is coherent even conceding the problem of free will.
Ethicists often cash out different moral theories in terms of the "right" and the "good." The standard view is that in deontological systems (e.g. Kantian moral theory) the right is logically prior to the good because the consequences of an action can only be considered to have positive value (good) insofar as the action itself was right, meaning that the agent complied with a moral maxim (most commonly Kant’s categorical imperative), had the proper moral motivation, etc. In consequentialist systems (e.g. J.S. Mill’s utililitarianism), the reverse is true: The good is logically prior to the right, meaning that the rightness of an action can only be determined in light of the value (good), that the action is expected to promote. The thesis that value is subjective- that nothing is intrinsically or objectively valuable- poses two problems for consequentialism. First, if value is subjective, then any particular value is unlikely to be universally held. If a value is not universally held, a rule to promote that value cannot be justified on the grounds that it promotes a "common good" because there is no such common good. Second, even in those rare cases in which each individual values the same or some similar object, the universality of a value does not translate into the intrinsic value of an object. For example, it may be universal that each of us values our own happiness, but this does not make happiness itself an intrinsic good- it is perfectly compatible with me valuing my own happiness and you valuing your own happiness that we wish each other extreme despair.
Most contemporary philosophers* consider Rawlsian contractualism to be a type of deontological moral theory, not a form of consequentialism. This would arguably insulate contractualism from the threat of value subjectivity, however it still begs the question of how to ground a system of moral right objectively. In the Decision Procedure paper, Rawls concedes the problem of value subjectivity and sets his sights on finding an alternative route to grounding objective moral principles. He explains his project as follows:
"the objectivity or the subjectivity of moral knowledge turns not on the question whether ideal value entities exist or whether moral judgments are caused by emotions or whether there is a variety of moral codes the world over, but simply on the question: does there exist a reasonable method for validating and invalidating given or proposed moral rules and those decisions made on the basis of them?"
Rawls, of course, thinks the answer to this question is yes, and he spends most of the rest of the paper articulating the method for validating and invalidating moral claims. It isn’t an elegant work, but the decision procedure he develops in the paper is the seed of arguably the greatest work in metaethics of the 20th century. One fundamental feature of the decision procedure is Rawls’ description of moral reason and moral reasonableness because, in the contractualist view, the principles of justice are those rules which a group of reasonable judges would consistently determine under specified conditions* of deliberation and reflection. What is striking about this view, much more than Rawls’ specific conclusions, is the argument that Rawls uses for the validity of appealing to the "reasonableness" of a hypothetical judge. The argument turns on an analogy drawn between the empirical sciences and moral inquiry. Rawls says:
"the present method of evidencing the reasonableness of ethical principles is analogous to the method used to establish the reasonableness of the criteria of inductive logic. In the latter study what we attempt to do is to explicate the full variety of our intuitive judgments of credibility which we make in daily life and in science in connection with a proposition, or theory, given the evidence for it. In this way we hope to discover the principles of weighing evidence which are actually used and which seem to be capable of winning the assent of competent investigators."
Rawls’ notion of "moral reasonableness" in ethics is analogous to epistemologists’ notion of epistemic virtue. In both cases, the substance of the view- actual moral values or views about what constitutes knowledge- is much less important than identifying those who are committed to justifying their beliefs and actions, moral or otherwise. A commitment to reasonableness may, of course, be seen as a value itself, but contractualism does not hinge upon the objectivity of this value any more than epistemology hinges upon the objective value of truth. This is because the moral rules themselves do not derive from a foundation that specificies that reasonablenss is objectively valuable, only from a foundation that specifies that reasonableness is a prerequisite for for determining moral principles. This is analogous to the observation that certain sensory perceptions may be a prerequisite for having knowledge about the external world but having these sensory perceptions does not, by itself, constitute knowledge. This opens the possibility of grounding objective moral principles (rules) without postulating the existence of any objective moral value.
*I feel compelled to note here that some critics of Rawls have argued that his Theory of Justice amounts to a consequentialist political theory because certain political (property) rights are justified on the grounds that they are likely to promote a certain outcome. I think the substantive conclusions of Rawls’ theory are much less important than the metaethical project of contractualism, but I leave it to the reader to research right-wing criticisms of the Difference Principle.
**Over the course of Rawls’ work, these conditions eventually evolve into what is known as "the original position."