Objective Moral Claims

If moral claims have truth values, does that mean that morality is truly objective?

If something can be measured in the world then it is generally taken that this is an objective state of affairs. If evidence from such a state of affairs can be obtained then this can be considered to lead to an objective truth value. However, whether or not truth values are applicable to moral claims and whether or not that means that morality can be objective is a divisive subject.

If the claim is that there is a certain amount of water in a jug, then we can refer to physical reality by measuring the volume of the water in the jug. Because we can gather evidence in physical reality to confirm or deny the claim this is stated as an objective fact.

Let’s say we have a gallon of strawberry flavoured water. We can test if it is water or if it is some other liquid. We can test to see if strawberry flavouring has been added to the water. We can test if the volume of the water is one gallon. For now we will ignore the complexities of if the water is partially mixed with some other liquid, and such, and assume that we’re dealing with a binary truth value to confirm or deny the claim. These are examples of objective truth values.

If we now make the claim that Johnny likes strawberry flavoured water, many people would make the case that this is a truth value in that it can be confirmed or denied, but that it is a subjective truth value because there is not a reference to measure in physical reality, only the communicated experience of Johnny and/or observation of Johnny’s behaviour. This is often referred to as taste or preference. The claims are stated in the declarative tone, but the reference is internal to Johnny rather than external.

However, it is possible to say that the internal workings of Johnny’s mind are measurable references in physical reality through various types of testing of the workings of his brain. Therefore, if the demarcation between objective and subjective is whether or not there is a measurable reference in physical reality the subject becomes less clear as more such technology develops. It could be that there is a measurable reference in physical reality that we simply don’t have the current capacity to access. This same situation has held in history. Before humans were able to do molecular sampling to determine whether flavouring had been added to water, was this a subjective truth claim, that then after the technology had been developed became an objective claim? I think that’s a difficult position to defend.

Let’s say that Johnny says he likes strawberry flavoured water. Susie has heard him say this. She has also noticed that he does regularly buy and drink strawberry flavoured water, and appears to enjoy it. We now have two reasons to support the claim that Johnny likes strawberry flavoured water, his own communication and his observed behaviour. The primary quality of his own experience isn’t accessible to Susie, but the secondary qualities that lead her to assess his behaviour as enjoying the water are accessible to her. So, to a limited degree Susie has measurable references in physical reality, e.g. his time, effort, and money used in obtaining the strawberry flavoured water in comparison to other available drinks, his facial expressions when drinking said water. Do these parameters move the situation toward having more objectivity? I think the case can be made that they do because of the shared reference framework.

If Johnny wants to go get strawberry flavoured water, we can say that this is an objective process, e.g. go down Main St. and take the first left on First St. to get to the convenience store. Is this good for Johnny to do? In an everyday sense we would determine this by asking why. This supporting reason would then lead to a determination of the moral status of the action in question. For instance, if Johnny’s reason for going to the store to get strawberry flavoured water is because he’s trying to not drink soda to lose weight, and drinking the flavoured water helps him in this endeavour, then most people would deem this as a good action because there is a good reason. And the case can be made that whether or not this is an effective approach is measurable with references to physical reality, possibly through statistical studies of groups of people, and therefore could be considered an objective claim, although whether it’s objective to use statistics in application to a singular case and consider it objective is controversial because we’re dealing with probability analysis rather than a one to one cause and effect.

For everyday actions and communications this level of analysis works in a pragmatic way. However, all we’ve really done is add another layer to our moral claim. We are left with the question of why the reason is good. If we say that losing weight will probably increase his life expectancy, this is generally accepted as a good reason. This too can be shown in various studies that have measurable references to physical reality. But what makes this reason good? Why is an increased life expectancy good? An increased life expectancy allows us to spend more time doing the things we value. Okay. Why is that good? Doing more of the things that we value allows us to achieve meaning in our lives. Why is that good?

This ability to expand the need for an answer to what makes something good is a problem for all theories of morality. At each level we have a claim that could be confirmed or denied and therefore has a truth value, but whether or not such claims can be addressed through measurable references in physical reality is uncertain and will remain uncertain into the future because of the potential for the development of measuring technology as well as the ongoing debates in philosophy.

Having truth values alone does not make a claim objective. However, what can and cannot be considered objective is an ongoing discussion across multiple areas of philosophy and science. A discussion that will surely continue to develop and evolve.



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