Last updated on March 16, 2016
Recently I read “The art of a successful argument” in The Settler. The editorial includes this: “A prime example of a waste-of-breath argument is any argument over moral issue[s]. … because morals vary from person to person and are not easily changed through an argument. … There is no right or wrong answer in the end because the argument is … based on individual views.”
Such statements veer toward moral subjectivism, the view that each individual arbitrarily differentiates between just and unjust acts. In that case, we should be aware of that view’s implications. For instance, why should rape be punished? Well, rape is illegal! But why should it be unlawful? If we can’t rationally distinguish between just and unjust laws, how are we to decide which laws are morally binding and which aren’t? Without rational moral arguments, the only “moral” standard by default would seem to be “might makes right”—justice is whatever is in the interest of the stronger party. (See Thrasymachus in Plato’s dialogue, The Republic <http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html>.) That position resembles social Darwinism, a now generally discredited theory.
The fact that there are moral disagreements does not imply that there are no sound moral arguments. Genuine moral disagreements presuppose objective moral realities about which people might disagree, just as people might disagree about a dress’s color. If colors aren’t real, then we can’t really disagree about a dress’s color. For the disagreement wouldn’t be about anything “out there.” One can’t be mistaken about what’s purely subjective, e.g., the subjective experience of pain.
Furthermore, if rational argumentation fails, it doesn’t follow that respectful rational arguments aren’t worth making. Better to change minds through rational argumentation than through physical force. If force is unavoidable, it should be regulated by sound reasoning, not the capricious will to power.
Dr. Peter Pagan
Professor of Philosophy