Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?

It’s Halloween. Wanna hear something scary? There may be absolutely no objective standard of moral right and wrong. Good and evil might be entirely subjective, or merely a social convention, or might even (shudder) be entirely meaningless and only trick-or-treating in the costume of meaningful concepts.

The status of moral statements, like the idea of free will, is under a philosophical cloud. Most everyone believes in their heart of hearts that they have free will, but when you look up close at the philosophical arguments for and against it, it looks wildly implausible. Similarly, when people argue about moral values, they almost always are arguing against a background assumption that some values are just plain right — not conventionally right, not mere opinions or exhortations, but facts. But this too looks very implausible on close examination.

In Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? Russ Shafer-Landau tries to rescue moral objectivism (the idea that certain moral judgements are indeed objectively correct or incorrect, always and everywhere, and independently of who utters them or what culture they come from) from a variety of forms of moral skepticism: nihilism (the idea that moral judgements are meaningless or refer to nothing at all), moral relativism (the idea that moral rules are social conventions, like the rules of grammar or of baseball), and moral subjectivism (the idea that moral judgements are personal evaluations, like disgust or erotic attraction, and are only true or false to the extent that they are sincere or insincere).

Shafer-Landau does this in a peculiar way. Rather than trying to make an affirmative case for moral objectivism, he instead tries to demolish the case for the following two propositions:

  1. Some form of moral skepticism has been logically proven.
  2. Any form of moral objectivism can be logically disproven.

This form of logical argument, though, at best only demonstrates that moral objectivism remains logically possible — it doesn’t actually make a case for it being true. (Though Shafer-Landau has written a larger book, Moral Realism: A Defence, that may make this case: I don’t know.)

So in part one, he describes a number of arguments for moral skepticism and shows that they each have weaknesses that make them unable to successfully win the day. And in part two, he looks at various take-downs of moral objectivism and shows that they don’t succeed in leaving moral objectivism without a logical escape route.

He does a pretty good job in part two, though I’m not convinced that he has successfully attacked the best versions of the best of such arguments. Part one, though, is a complete mess. Many of his arguments there mostly reduce to “this argument for moral skepticism must be incorrect because it leads to conclusions that are incompatible with moral objectivism” — in other words, assuming what he means to prove.

Moral objectivism is reassuring, intuitive, and allows ordinary moral discourse to have a point. I often find myself wishing it were true. I’m pretty sure, though, that it’s incorrect, and after reading this careful defense from a convinced believer, I’m more sure than before.