A response to the Dunedin School's 'Thinking in Tatters'

Recently, “the Dunedin School” posted an article against Matthew Flannagan (one of our contributors, and the co-author of MandM), titled ‘Thinking in Tatters: Moral Relativism and Hidden Objectivist Assumptions’. The article largely addresses a talk Matt gave against moral relativism, and is rather uncomplimentary. It describes Matt’s arguments as “a mish-mash of illogical nonsense and rhetorical scaremongering” (as opposed, one assumes, to articles in which such descriptions are written); while Thinking Matters is a “conservative think-tank”—which turns out to merely be a “euphemism” for a group “of frustrated and atavistic reactionists who want to take away rights from women, homosexuals, and other minorities and restore power to the patriarchy.” I’d like to respond directly:

Hi “The Dunedin School”. Is this article representative of the quality of research and reporting on this blog? I hope not.

Firstly, Thinking Matters is not run by Matt Flannagan. Matt Flannagan is merely a contributor. Thinking Matters is run by Jason Kumar, Stuart McEwing, and myself.

Secondly, “frustrated and atavistic reactionists”? Seriously? You’re breaking open the ad hominem vial to poison the well in your second sentence?

Thirdly, could you please document where Thinking Matters has ever taken a stance which could be construed, even by great contortions of the imagination, as favorable to the removal of rights from women, homosexuals, and other minorities—let alone the restoration of “power to the patriarchy”? I’m not aware of any such desires on the part of our fairly diverse contributors. As the co-founder of the organization, I really feel I ought to be made aware of whatever it is you’ve discovered. I mean, you do have proof for these allegations, right? Coz otherwise that would be, you know, libel. (That’s where you knowingly lie about people so as to harm them or their reputation.)

Fourthly,

His arguments are a mish-mash of illogical nonsense and rhetorical scaremongering. There is much to take issue with in his presentation, so there is no need to dwell on his sleight of hand in presenting obviously unsound arguments for relativism and then (marvelously!) disproving them to his captive evangelical audience – which he does for more than half of his talk.

It’s a lot easier to just smear your opponent by claiming that his arguments are rubbish than to actually show it, isn’t it?

Fifthly,

Their commitment to moral objectivism is such that they fail to properly conceive of a world in which every moral duty is simply the result of cultural norms. They can’t do it. And as a result, their protests already – circularly – assume moral objectivism.

This rather begs the question that it is possible to conceive of a world in which every moral “duty” is simply a result of cultural norms. Matt might argue that, to the contrary, this is not possible because any claim to such a conception implicitly presupposes objectivism. So your allegation of circularity is somewhat ironic.

Sixthly,

A prevalent problem with moral objectivists such as Matt is that they haven’t ever grasped what a purely subjective morality looks like, how it operates.

Given Matt’s credentials, it seems more likely to me that the problem here is that you haven’t grasped something. Perhaps that a purely subjective morality is incoherent and cannot operate. It also seems to me that, far from burning the strawman you suggest, Matt is interacting with a highly prevalent position found in New Zealand society. How could you not have noticed it when so many people hold the exact views he interacts with? The fact that you don’t hold it, because you’re “more consistent” in your moral relativism than the average Joe, hardly deflects Matt’s critique of it. It just means his critique isn’t aimed at you.

Hoping you’ll either provide some answers, or retract your fibs;
kind regards,
Bnonn

7 replies
  1. angus
    angus says:

    This rather begs the question that it is possible to conceive of a world in which every moral “duty” is simply a result of cultural norms. Matt might argue that, to the contrary, this is not possible because any claim to such a conception implicitly presupposes objectivism. So your allegation of circularity is somewhat ironic.

    Yes, the claim presupposes that people do objectivise their morals. Subjective morals can be objectivised by measuring them objectively. People hold to a morality objectivised to their religious and cultural beliefs. There are many religous beliefs held by other people and other ways of objectivising morality (including the Platonic). These myriad beliefs are used to provide relevent objective measures to subjective moral decisions, however this argument assumes there is no singular objective morality.

    Subjective morality holds that people choose to act morally based upon their own beliefs, thus explaining why almost everyone can morally justify their actions.

    You on the other hand hold to an objective morality existing independent of human choice, therefore must demonstrate a singular objective morality to exist which you fail to do.

  2. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Yes, the claim presupposes that people do objectivise their morals.

    That’s an interesting redefinition of what I said. Actually, the claim presupposes that it is possible to not treat morality as objective.

    Subjective morals can be objectivised by measuring them objectively.

    What does that even mean? (a) How does objectively measuring something subjective thus objectivize it? How could the mere act of measuring something subjective somehow make it objective? That doesn’t even make sense. (b) How does one go about objectively measuring something subjective to begin with? What metric are you proposing we use?

    People hold to a morality objectivised to their religious and cultural beliefs.

    I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

    There are many religous beliefs held by other people and other ways of objectivising morality (including the Platonic).

    Do you mean other ways of construing morality in objective terms? Other theories of objective morality?

    These myriad beliefs are used to provide relevent objective measures to subjective moral decisions, however this argument assumes there is no singular objective morality.

    It’s like you’re trying to turn a philosophical discussion into a marketing lesson. What are you actually trying to say?

    Subjective morality holds that people choose to act morally based upon their own beliefs, thus explaining why almost everyone can morally justify their actions.

    No, subjective morality holds that there are no truths about right and wrong which exist independent of the beliefs of individual persons. Any view of morality will accede that people choose to act morally based on their own beliefs; and that people can attempt to justify any action based on those beliefs. That is not a distinctive of subjectivism. It’s a facile truism.

    You on the other hand hold to an objective morality existing independent of human choice

    Sure…depending on what you mean by “an objective morality”. That’s a rather imprecise choice of words.

    therefore must demonstrate a singular objective morality to exist which you fail to do.

    Why must I demonstrate this? And by whose measure have I failed?

  3. Rob
    Rob says:

    Angus writes: “… Subjective morals can be objectivised by measuring them objectively….

    Why do I have so many problems just understanding the statements being made here? Is obfuscation the new way to win arguments?

    Perhaps you could explain your seemingly ridiculous claim Angus…

  4. angus
    angus says:

    Apologies, I am not trained in philosophy please have patience and educate me.

    Do you mean other ways of construing morality in objective terms? Other theories of objective morality?

    Yes.

    Does the Koran define objective morality? Is someone in submission to the teachings of the Koran objectively moral?

    Does the Bible portray objective morality? Is someone following the lessons of the Bible objectively moral?

    Rinse and repeat for every other religion.

    So many different people follow a moral course that they might each define as objective. However this cannot make them all objectively moral actors, if the morals in fact vary.

    How can we tell which of the myriad moral sets is (for want of a better term) objectively moral?

    No, subjective morality holds that there are no truths about right and wrong which exist independent of the beliefs of individual persons. Any view of morality will accede that people choose to act morally based on their own beliefs; and that people can attempt to justify any action based on those beliefs. That is not a distinctive of subjectivism. It’s a facile truism.

    Yes, subjective moralists hold that there are no moral truths (or that the moral truths of the creator are unknown by man). They define the various moral interpretations of various beliefs as being equally non-objective.

    Matt has described Platonic morality as non-objective and some bunch from Dunedin* have said “Ah-ha silly objectivists, dismissing one form of objectivism doesn’t disregard subjective morallity, ah-ha”. Which like you point out kind of misses the point:

    How could you not have noticed it when so many people hold the exact views he interacts with? The fact that you don’t hold it, because you’re “more consistent” in your moral relativism than the average Joe, hardly deflects Matt’s critique of it. It just means his critique isn’t aimed at you.

    However in passing you mention that:

    Perhaps that a purely subjective morality is incoherent and cannot operate.

    Yet the morality taught by the religions/cultures of the world varies and they therefore cannot all be objectively correct, so what are the pan-human objective moral truths?

    * A bunch from Dunedin I have no connection with and had never heard of until you posted about and winteryknight linked to.

  5. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Angus, the fact that different religions all claim different moral codes as objective is merely a side-effect of the fact that different religions all claim different views of God. Objective morality can only be grounded in a transcendent, personal God. That eliminates most contenders right there. From there, it’s not too hard to evaluate the various options and see which is most likely.

  6. angus
    angus says:

    For objective morality to exist does require a transcendent power, the simple power to create the universe and within it an enduring morality is sufficient. There is no requirement that this power be a personal God, all religions are contenders and we can probably even count in abstract deism.

    Actually any requirement for a personal relationship with God in deducing morality would surely do more to jeopardise the practice of objective morality as it would leave interpretation up to the free will of each person. Living with an impersonal God, under a known set of moral laws would perhaps be more moral.

  7. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    For objective morality to exist does require a transcendent power, the simple power to create the universe and within it an enduring morality is sufficient. There is no requirement that this power be a personal God, all religions are contenders and we can probably even count in abstract deism.

    On the contrary, morality entails obligation, and obligation by definition is to a law-giver. Thus, objective morality entails an objective law-giver. Besides this, what kind of transcendent power could create the universe aside from a personal God? The universe exhibits regularity and design, and contains rational, moral beings. Those are not things produced by an impersonal, non-rational, amoral “power”. Such a view is absurd.

    Actually any requirement for a personal relationship with God in deducing morality would surely do more to jeopardise the practice of objective morality as it would leave interpretation up to the free will of each person. Living with an impersonal God, under a known set of moral laws would perhaps be more moral.

    Leaving aside that an “impersonal God” is a contradiction in terms, I really don’t understand your argument. What kind of personal relationship with God do you believe I’m advocating for the purposes of establishing the objectivity of moral truths? You seem to be speaking of practicing objective moral laws, rather than the issue at hand, which is whether any moral laws are objectively true—but then you bring free will into the question. Why? How does the freedom of the will (and bear in mind that I reject libertarian free will as absurd) entail a freedom to interpret how one should practice objective moral laws? You seem to be trying to impose a subjectivist paradigm onto an objectivist view.

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *