Against Objective Interpretations of Moral Claims by Patrick Phillips

Posted on October 3, 2020

Yesterday I was in Berlin. Of the many breathtaking things I saw, there was this massive memorial titled: "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe." Thousands of stones roughly the size of graves sat still. The stones were colored the natural dull grey of the stone. The memorial was full of sharp corners and sharp edges. Who knows what it meant, if it meant anything. It didn't count the number of murdered Jews, the number actually murdered far outnumbered these mere thousands of stones. 


Of course of the many things I wanted to say, one was "the Holocaust was wrong" or something like this. More specifically, I wanted to say more than just that the Holocaust was wrong to me, as in I believe it was an absolute nightmare, and it seems to me horrid and evil to try to systematically slaughter an entire people. Instead, what I wanted to say is that the Holocaust was wrong absolutely and objectively. In other words, I wanted to say that the Holocaust seems wrong and evil to me because the Holocaust actually was wrong and evil.

Upon reflection, I think all I can say truthfully is the first set of claims along the lines that, “I believe the Holocaust is wrong.” This sort of claim simply states that it is my intuition, my personal judgment, my belief that the Holocaust was abhorrent. The key difference is that I am not saying there is something fundamental to the Holocaust itself, nothing about the state of the world, that is making the Holocaust wrong. In this new sentence, it is my judgment that is doing the work; it is my judgment that “the Holocaust is wrong.” To reiterate, there is nothing separate of human judgment making the Holocaust wrong. Ultimately, it is we humans constructing these judgments, constantly, fluidly, variably, which make actions or events morally reprehensible. Thus we humans are constructing morality.


Now let me start to flesh out the distinction I am making here. What is the claim “the Holocaust is wrong” saying that I disagree with? Well first, to be clear, when people say the uncareful claim “The Holocaust is wrong”, they might actually just be trying to express that they believe the Holocaust is wrong. This view is the one I support, and in fact the interpretation I usually assume when I hear such a generic claim about the way things ‘are’; people are really expressing the way they believe things are. What is the interpretation of the claim “the Holocaust is wrong” that I disagree with? Well it is the view that an individual can perceive something about that nature of the Holocaust itself, something fundamental and intrinsic, something absolute and objective, something prior to human knowledge and understanding which exists in the universe and makes the Holocaust unquestionably and unchangeably wrong. 

(I also disagree with views that say they are making claims about what God or some other entity deems morally right/wrong, however this disagreement is on different grounds)

To a naturalist, myself more or less included, this objectivist interpretation requires that there must be something about the state of matter, the combination of a jumble of bouncing particles, charges, and energy that constitutes the Holocaust and this combination itself is irrevocably wrong (the fundamental ontology may not look like the particles and energy I described, but the argument follows nonetheless). To reiterate, for this interpretation of the claim "the Holocaust is wrong" to be correct (the interpretation where this is an objective claim), there must be something independent of human understanding, intuition, and judgment that makes the Holocaust wrong. It must be some fact of the universe. 

Lets take for granted the difficulty in deciding what state of particles exactly could be described as “the Holocaust”. My quarrel is not with this difficulty. The issue I believe is that there is just no conceivable way for there to be something fundamental about the state of matter that can make a thing “wrong.” There is nowhere in the laws of physics or nature that could possibly make an act or object “wrong.” We could construct a coherent rule that said to identify certain combinations of a jumble of bouncing particles, charges, and energy as "wrong." For example consider the rule “all subsets of spacetime where a person is in pain are morally wrong” (where ‘in pain’ is defined in terms of physical processes). Of course, the rule need not be this simple. However, whatever this rule was, it would just be a reflection of our judgments and moral intuitions. There is no scientific way to discover this rule because it is extraneous; it does not help explain anything and so there is no verifiable way to determine its truth. Thus there is no way to make a claim such as “the Holocaust is wrong,” unless wrong was given some definition constructed from human judgment and intuition.


Of course you may wonder are our subjectively constructed notions of right and wrong really enough? How can we live in this world of constructed morality? How can we live where we can't say that Nazis and the Holocaust were evil and wrong absolutely and objectively? 


Imagine if a neo-Nazi had walked up the memorial and began praising the Third Reich for the great good deed they attempted. MY line of reasoning does not prevent us from condemning this neo-Nazi. We can call him a terrible individual, question his upbringing and capacity for empathy, spit on him, send him to jail. (Of course we could even say that he is wrong absolutely and objectively, but I believe if we are using the interpretation I have highlighted, then you would be incorrect. You would in fact be the one who is incorrect in absolutely and objectively). So once again are these notions of right and wrong really enough?


I guess my answer to the previous question, and the earlier ones are all a simple 'yes.' This notion of good and evil, of right and wrong, of morality, is enough. It's enough for us to survive as a society and develop conventions and laws, its enough for me to be satisfied with my personal moral compass, and its enough for me to accept every single action others make with peace and love. Its fortunate when the truth is enough.

Leave a Comment (it first will be emailed to Patrick for approval):