Objective moral values or personal world-preferences?

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People sometimes misinterpret their experiences and project onto things in the world certain qualities that are actually residing in them, the people themselves. Here is an example. Suppose you try to lift a certain weight and find that you can’t lift it. You then say to yourself: “This weight is unliftable.”

Is that quite right? This sentence on its own makes it seem as if you are predicating the simple quality of “being unliftable” to the weights. But this is obviously false. The weights would certainly be liftable to someone much stronger than you, or Archimedes with a long enough lever and a fulcrum in the right place. Anything with a limited size could presumably be lifted in principle. It would therefore be truer to say that the weight is unliftable-for-you, which is another way of saying that you are unable to lift it.

This is a significant example. It illustrates the tendency that human beings have to “objectify” their own subjective experiences by attributing to things in the world properties that really belong to them. This happens often enough. People reach a “limit” in their ability to interact successfully with things that appear in experience, and they turn the experience of this “limit” into an objective property belonging to the thing itself. For example, a person might call the speech or writing of another “unintelligible,” when really it is just that he or she cannot make sense of it. Or someone might call certain foods or drinks disgusting, when really it is just that they do not resonate well with her own taste preferences, etc. Or someone might call grass green, when really this is just how grass appears in conditions of sunlight to a person who has a certain visual-perceptual system.

Given that this kind of thing happens so often and many times without a person noticing it, I am intrigued by the question of whether the same thing might not also be true in the case of moral judgments. Some people feel very strongly that certain things are right or wrong. But what does moral experience actually suggest? Do we simply “see” that certain things are right or wrong? Or do certain possibilities of action considered in the abstract simply “resonate” with us differently?

Some people think that there are obviously objective moral values. They might point to examples of things they think are plain. They might say that torturing children for the fun of it is obviously evil, while helping the poor is obviously good. Or they might point to examples of recent things they have experienced or heard about that strike them as plainly good or evil. But what exactly is being disclosed in these experiences when we consider these things? One might suggest that what a person is “feeling” or “sensing” in these hypothetical examples is not the objective evil or goodness of the real or hypothetical scenarios themselves, but the way they “fit” or not with his or her preferences for what the world should be like. What they are experiencing is the (strong) consonance or dissonance of their own preferences with the way things are or could be. They are seeing a world that is (or is not) one they want to live in.

Even if moral values are really subjective world-preferences, it wouldn’t follow that there couldn’t be agreement among human beings about certain things. That is because we are all human beings! The kind of thing we are explains why we prefer certain things rather than others. But then again, if bears and fish or wolves and chickens and the rest could talk, they might also largely agree about their own preferences among their own species while finding the preferences of other species radically evil.

On the other hand, it is also a plain fact of experience that some people simply can’t be morally “educated.“ They can’t be taught or made to see the “goodness” or “evil” of some things. That is apparently because they themselves are such that these things do not “resonate” with their own preferences in that way. They have to become different “on the inside” somehow, in their hearts, in order to “see” what everyone else is seeing, in other words in order to experience things as everyone else is experiencing them. This makes perfect sense if what people call objective moral values are really just the resonances of things with their own, particular world-preferences.

I think this way of understanding things is helpful in addressing the problem of evil in philosophy of religion. Is it true that God would not have created a world like the one we presently live in? Or is it rather that some of us do not have the same world-preferences as God, so that things do not “resonate” with them the way that they might with Him? Is it true that this world would have been better not to exist? Or is it rather that some of us are simply such that they cannot see the value in things as they are? I think this is a serious and important line of questioning. I am interested to pursue it further.