By Michael De Dora

A couple months ago I had the fortune of attending an exceptional philosophy discussion hosted by Massimo Pigliucci, with featured guest Jesse Prinz, a philosopher of mind at the CUNY Graduate Center (where Massimo also teaches). The topic was an essay Prinz recently wrote in the magazine Philosophy Now, called “Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response.” Our conversation included exchanges on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Sam Harris, the is-ought gap, the connection between emotion and reason, and even abortion and female genital mutilation. But the central theme was Prinz’s position that moral relativism holds sway more than moral objectivism (well, that and the delicious Thai food that accompanied the discussion).

Prinz’s basic stance is that moral values stem from our cognitive hardware, upbringing, and social environment. These equip us with deep-seated moral emotions, but these emotions express themselves in a contingent way due to circumstances. And while reason can help, it has limited influence. It can only reshape our ethics up to a point, and cannot settle major differences between different value systems. Therefore, it is difficult, if not impossible, to construct an objective morality that transcends emotions and circumstance. As Prinz writes, in part:

“No amount of reasoning can engender a moral value, because all values are, at bottom, emotional attitudes. … Reason cannot tell us which facts are morally good. Reason is evaluatively neutral. At best, reason can tell us which of our values are inconsistent, and which actions will lead to fulfillment of our goals. But, given an inconsistency, reason cannot tell us which of our conflicting values to drop or which goals to follow. If my goals come into conflict with your goals, reason tells me that I must either thwart your goals, or give up caring about mine; but reason cannot tell me to favor one choice over the other. … Moral judgments are based on emotions, and reasoning normally contributes only by helping us extrapolate from our basic values to novel cases. Reasoning can also lead us to discover that our basic values are culturally inculcated, and that might impel us to search for alternative values, but reason alone cannot tell us which values to adopt, nor can it instill new values.”

This moral relativism is not the absolute moral relativism of, supposedly, bands of liberal intellectuals, or of postmodernist philosophers. It presents a more serious challenge to those who argue there can be objective morality. To be sure, there is much Prinz and I agree on. At the least, we agree that morality is largely constructed by our cognition, upbringing, and social environment; and that reason has the power synthesize and clarify our worldviews, and help us plan for and react to life’s situations. But there are some lingering questions I have after the article and conversation.

Suppose I concede to Prinz that reason cannot settle differences in moral values and sentiments. Difference of opinion doesn’t mean that there isn’t a true or rational answer. In fact, there are many reasons why our cognition, emotional reactions or previous values could be wrong or irrational — and why people would not pick up on their deficiencies. In his article, Prinz uses the case of sociopaths, who simply lack certain cognitive abilities. There are many reasons other than sociopathy why human beings can get things wrong, morally speaking, often and badly. It could be that people are unable to adopt a more objective morality because of their circumstances — from brain deficiencies to lack of access to relevant information. But, again, none of this amounts to an argument against the existence of objective morality.

As it turns out, Prinz’s conception of objective morality does not quite reflect the thinking of most people who believe in objective morality. He writes that: “Objectivism holds that there is one true morality binding upon all of us.” This is a particular strand of moral realism, but there are many. For instance, one can judge some moral precepts as better than others, yet remain open to the fact that there are probably many different ways to establish a good society. This is a pluralistic conception of objective morality which doesn’t assume one absolute moral truth. For all that has been said, Sam Harris’ idea of a moral landscape does help illustrate this concept. Thinking in terms of better and worse morality gets us out of relativism and into an objectivist approach. The important thing to note is that one need not go all the way to absolute objectivity to work toward a rational, non-arbitrary morality.

Indeed, even Prinz admits that “Relativism does not entail that we should tolerate murderous tyranny. When someone threatens us or our way of life, we are strongly motivated to protect ourselves.” That is, there are such things as better and worse values: the worse ones kill us, the better ones don’t. This is a very broad criterion, but it is an objective standard. It seems Prinz is arguing for a tighter moral relativism – a sort of stripped down objective morality that is constricted by nature, experience, and our (modest) reasoning abilities.

I proposed at the discussion that a more objective morality could be had with the help of a robust public discourse on the issues at hand. Prinz does not necessarily disagree. He wrote that “Many people have overlapping moral values, and one can settle debates by appeal to moral common ground.” But Prinz pointed out a couple of limitations on public discourse. For example, the agreements we reach on “moral common ground” are often exclusive of some, and abstract in content. Consider the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, a seemingly good example of global moral agreement. Yet, it was ratified by a small sample of 48 countries, and it is based on suspiciously Western sounding language. Everyone has a right to education and health care, but — as Prinz pointed out during the discussion — what level of education and health care?

Still, the U.N. declaration was passed 48-0 with just 8 abstentions (Belarus, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, USSR, Yugoslavia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia). It includes 30 articles of ethical standards agreed upon by 48 countries around the world. Such a document does give us more reason to think that public discourse can lead to significant agreement upon moral values, even if debate will inevitably persist.

Reason might not be able to arrive at moral truths, but it can push us to test and question the rationality of our values — a crucial cog in the process that leads to the adoption of new, or modified values. The only way to reduce disputes about morality is to try to get people on the same page about their moral goals. Given the above, this will not be easy, and perhaps we shouldn’t be too optimistic in our ability to employ reason to figure things out. But reason is still the best, and even only, tool we can wield, and while it might not provide us with a truly objective morality, it’s enough to save us from a complete moral relativism.

Note: this essay was first published on the blog Rationally Speaking in March 2011. In the coming months, I will be republishing many of my articles that previously appeared elsewhere in an effort to house more of my work here.