Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Floris van den Berg's Universal Subjectivism

Dutch philosopher and environmentalist Floris van den Berg combines the concept of John Rawls' original position with Peter Singer's expanding moral circle in an ethical theory he calls "universal subjectivism". He wrote his doctoral thesis on this subject and a popularized version, entitled Philosophy for a Better World, is due to be published by Prometheus next year. One of Floris' students, Joep Meindertsma, has prepared this poster to give a simple overview of his theory (click to enlarge). Universal Subjectivism in poster form I find the concept of universal subjectivism appealing because it accords with my view that morality, by definition, is subjective. Morality is usually discussed in terms of human flourishing. In the words of Irish philosopher John Denahar: actions and states of affairs that constitute or contribute to human flourishing are thought to be morally good, and actions and states of affairs that constitute or contribute to human unhappiness are thought to be morally bad" (source: Morriston on God and the Ontological Foundation of Morality - Part 2). van den Berg's theory urges us to expand the envelope of moral concern beyond mere human flourishing to include the flourishing of future generations and nonhuman animals. To "sell" the idea, he asks us to imagine that we design the rules to govern our society without knowing what person we would be in that society. It's a logical extension of Rawls' original position and undoubtedly a utopian approach. I consider it to be a kind of Golden Rule on steroids. Perhaps philosophy can make the world a better place after all ....

3 comments:

  1. TAM:
    Thanks for the interesting post. I'm curious about two things you wrote: (1) "I find the concept of universal subjectivism appealing because it accords with my view that morality, by definition, is subjective." (2) "Perhaps philosophy can make the world a better place after all." By "subjective," I take it you mean "dependent on individual opinion or taste rather than something one could get objectively right or wrong." Regarding (2), then, "A better place in what sense? Better from whose perspective?" For a foie-gras-loving species chauvinist, expanding the moral circle to include geese makes things worse. I'd also wonder where you got the definition that makes morality subjective "by definition"! One of us has a defective dictionary. Cheers.

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  2. By "subjective," I take it you mean "dependent on individual opinion or taste rather than something one could get objectively right or wrong. Yes, I'll go with "subjective" meaning that which proceeds from or takes place in a person's mind rather than the external world. My view is that morality cannot exist without the perception of a subject. Do you disagree?

    "A better place in what sense? Better from whose perspective?" Steve, I understand Floris to be saying that the perspective is from that of a sentient being, capable of suffering, who does not know (à la Rawls) whether they would be a goose or a foie-gras-loving human. If that perspective were taken, I would think that the person might develop a taste for vegan curry over foie-gras. The real question is why would a foie-gras lover adopt this perspective and I have no answer to that. After reading Floris' thesis, I'm not sure he does either.

    BTW, my next Irreligiosity column features your Does God Destroy our Duty of Compassion? (with attribution, of course). I'll post it here - hopefully I didn't butcher it.

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  3. By "subjective," I took you to mean something different than "proceeding from or taking place in a person's mind rather than the external world." I took you to be using "subjective" to characterize the truth-conditions of judgments. After all, when people say that aesthetic judgments "are all subjective," they mean that your judgment that a work of art is beautiful is no truer than my judgment that it's ugly. But if I have a headache, surely it's an objective fact about the world that I have a headache, even if it's a fact about my mental state (of pain) rather than a fact about the world external to my mind. When I have a headache, anyone is objectively wrong who denies that I have a headache. When I hear people say "Morality is subjective," I take them to mean that the truth and falsity of moral assertions is just a matter of individual opinion. I see now that you weren't intending to say that. Thanks for the clarification.

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