I want to briefly comment on Jonathan MS Pearce’s post My Atheistic Moral Philosophy; Objective, Subjective and Theistic Morality. Recently, in a comment thread on his site, I made the comment that many atheists do not have beliefs that can provide a foundation for objective morality. A group of atheists responded by saying I was ignorant and/or evil for saying such a thing. What is ironic is that in the linked post the very host of the site indicates he is just such an atheist who does not have beliefs that can provide a foundation for objective morality.
What follows is not a refutation of his beliefs nor a defense of my beliefs. It is a contrast of two belief systems illustrating that denying the existence of God often has other correlates we do not think about regularly.
Concerning abstract ideas, Pearce says he is a conceptual nominalist while I consider myself an Aristotelian realist. Pearce does not believe each individual human shares humanity with every other human because humanity is only in the mind. I believe humanity exists both in each human being as its essence and in the mind of God. This difference between us plays out in, for example, discussions of abortion. Pearce will try to construct an idea of personhood and say it does not apply to the fetus. I will try to discover the essence of the fetus and determine that it is as human as you or I. He’s pro-choice and I’m pro-life. Pearce’s position does not provide an extra-mental reality to discover when deciding what things are while mine does.
Pearce believes reason can help us determine the best course of action to achieve a particular goal. However, the goal we try to achieve is, he says, subjective not objective. Apparently he believes there is no objective reason to choose one goal over another. I believe the prescribed ends for each person are instilled into our very nature. Our mind is for knowing, our eyes are for seeing, our ears are for hearing, etc. We can consider two possible goals: (1) getting glasses to restore our sight or (2) gouging our eyes out because we want to be blind. Since the natural end of the eye is sight the first option is the objectively good action to take. Note how our different positions will not effect only morality. It will effect things like health and well-being. The idea of an organ functioning properly relies on an idea of what its proper function is.
Near the end his post Pearce writes: “I am not a subjectivist but more of an ideal observer theory adherent: the view that what is right is determined by the attitudes that a hypothetical ideal observer (a being who is perfectly rational, imaginative and informed) would have.” He does not want to be called a subjectivist but the problem with the ideal observer theory he summarizes is that there is no ideal goal. It is this element of his belief system that appears subjective even if he thinks there are objectively better ways to achieve some goal. But when I think of objective morality I think of objectively good goals/ends, not just objectively better ways to achieve subjective ends.
Human rights don’t exist. By this, I mean, as I so often state, they do not have ontic existence – they do not exist outside of our minds. Like all abstract ideas, for a conceptual nominalist like myself, the existence of such mental entities (labels, morality and so on) is entirely in our minds. . . .
I, and most other humans, often talk about human rights as if they exist as objective entities. However, this is lazy language. They, like any aspect of language itself, are arrived at by consensus. When we agree on the meaning of any word, we codify that by putting it in a dictionary. . . .
Human rights, therefore, are the philosophical underpinnings of moral thought that form the foundations to law. As we grow into a global society, the term “human right” takes on a more transcendent quality that dismisses borders in favour of the human race: it becomes a universal term.
Keep in mind when reading that last paragraph that humanity has no ontic existence. Who is or is not a member of the human race is not something to be discovered but to be constructed. Rights also have no ontic existence. So, on Pearce’s view, the foundations of the law have no ontic existence and exist entirely in our minds.
The law works to enable an entity within its jurisdiction the capacity to do, have or be something. Without that, you just have one person or people making moral claims to another person or people. Law makes these things binding.
But isn’t the law then just one people (political majority or strongest side) making rules for another people (political minority or weakest side)?
The reality will be that we arrive at these agreements by consensus. Hopefully, the consensus utilises the tools of logic and reason, observation and data analysis.
“Hopefully” is right because, according to Pearce, not even seeking the truth is an objective good.