Moral Relativism and Subjective Value

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Moral Relativism and Subjective Value

Imagine a universe in which there are no sentient, conscious beings. How valuable would gold be? How long would a meter be? What would be the meaning of good or evil or beautiful or ugly? With no one available to ascribe those values, what value would any of these concepts hold? Indeed what is meaning, itself, without sentience to assign it?

These questions lead to the inevitable and inextricable links between moral relativism and subjective value. Ultimately, I believe there is no difference between the subjective values used to perform financial and economic transactions, and the subjective values used to determine morality. In both cases, individual actors make determinations, act on those judgments, and make them available to society as a whole as beacons for the rapid and productive growth of knowledge.

Note: for a more thorough understanding of the concepts in this article, you might consider reading The Intrinsic Value of Nothing (two part series), and Approaching Certainty.

For centuries, people have debated the notion of whether or not morality and ethics must be defined deontologically and objectively. Must religion define ethos and mores? Or can science do it better? And if science can do it better, must it be a universal, absolute set of rules (as is the case with religion) — or can morality be defined subjectively, by individual actors?

In 1960, the great free market economist Murray Rothbard wrote a response to an article by Ludwig von Mises. Although Rothbard was heavily influenced by Mises, he criticized Mises’ position of ethical relativism. Both of these economists are giants in the economic tradition to which I subscribe — the Austrian School. Rothbard’s response article to Mises was crucial because Austrian economic discipline is explicitly defined by its contraposition to the postmodernist/egalitarian tenets of objective value.

Specifically, Austrians hold the belief that value is only created subjectively — at the instant of an exchange. Whereas Objective Value Theory — as proposed by Marx (among others) — holds that values exist as part of reality, independent of sentient interpretation and perception. As with all socialist theories, the idea sounds pleasant at first blush: our labor has value no matter what, and therefore — regardless of our pursuits — we should be compensated for our work.

Unfortunately for proponents of the Objective Theory, it breaks down fairly quickly; if you spend 40 hours in your backyard digging a hole that serves no purpose, what value does it have? Socialists would maintain it has value simply because you did it. Austrians claim it only has value if someone is willing to pay you for it. In other words, Austrians believe that value is created because of usefulness and productivity. Socialists see usefulness as ancillary and almost completely unrelated to value.

We know with no doubt that both Rothbard and Mises held and promoted vigorously this idea of subjective value — that the worth of something could only be determined by two parties agreeing at the time of exchange on its relative value. And yet, Rothbard observes:

“To Mises, there is no such thing as absolute ethics; man, by use of his mind, cannot discover a true ‘scientific’ ethics by insight into what is best for man’s nature. Ultimate ends, values, ethics, are simply subjective, personal, and purely arbitrary. If they are arbitrary, Mises never explains where they come from: how any individual arrives at them.”

This is a problematic position for Rothbard to take, because we know he has already answered the question about the derivation of value — at least in financial and economic contexts. And yet, he seems incapable of applying the same derivation of value to moral and ethical positions.

In his criticism of Mises’s article, Rothbard goes on to make the claim that “…economics is neutral to ethics…”

“The man who understands economics and then chooses liberty is, or should be, considered by Mises to be just as ‘arbitrary’ as the man who chooses egalitarianism, after accepting, say, the economic consequences of lessened productivity. And since either decision, according to Mises, is ultimately arbitrary, he cannot finally refute the interventionists in this way.”

I doubt Rothbard would disagree that subjective financial and economic decisions are anything but arbitrary in almost every case; praxeological applications are nearly universally derived from a number of inputs and considerations. And yet, he claims that Mises’s claims of ethical and moral relativism are based on arbitrary decisions. The question is, why is it perfectly reasonable to claim that economic and financial decisions are not arbitrary, but ethical and moral decisions are not? This seems like a glaring inconsistency, and a terminal flaw in Rothbard’s reasoning.

Moral and ethical determinations (or transactions, if you will) are no different from financial or economic transactions: they require more than one actor. Rothbard pointed out a flaw in Mises’s thinking, in that Mises believed all actors in an economy always act rationally — i.e., irrationality in financial and economic transactions doesn’t exist. Assuming that we are all working from the same definition of the term rational, I agree with Rothbard in this case — that Mises was incorrect to claim actors in markets and economies always act rationally. Mises’s conclusion is simply absurd, and easily refuted.

It is this propensity for actors to make decisions irrationally that lead some to criticize Austrian theories as weak: markets and economies are, after all, incomprehensibly complex — certainly, at least to some degree, due to irrationality. Thus the argument is made that it would be foolish to conclude individual actors are more prepared to understand value than the “wisdom” of a paternalistic state. But then one must ask what gives the state more credibility than individuals who are deeply intimate with their own conditions, circumstances and needs?

It is similar complexity from which the same criticisms appear against moral relativism. But as with the case of economies and markets, “complexity” is not a suitable argument against moral and ethical relativism. If anything, attempts at universal deontological solutions are toxic because they oversimplify the complexity of ethical and moral decisions — leaving no alternatives for the infinite number of possible decisions that could (and should) be made, considering prevailing conditions and knowledge.

Some might propose that moral relativism would lead to the justification of acts like murder and theft. Technically, I suppose this would be correct, but here we must distinguish between moral definitions and judicial laws; they may overlap, but humanity has certainly seen many secular societal legal applications — absent of any absolute moral imposition (like religion). There is no reason to believe that legal constructs couldn’t be applied across society, within the purview of moral relativism — any more than it is rational to state that markets cannot exist without a paternalistic overseer. In fact, I maintain that deontological moral institutions are nothing more than charades whose objectives are to mask the fact that morality and ethics are (and always have been) derived by individuals, in the moment. The same is true for markets — everywhere, in every context, at all times.

A person in today’s relatively free societies is well within his rights and abilities to purchase and consume cigarettes. If his goal is long life and health, this may not be the wisest decision. Over time, the context and results of his theory will be compared to billions of others. Ultimately, this will result in genetic and memetic evolution, in which the fittest ideas and traits will survive, while the worst will fail to reproduce themselves.

Likewise, it is true that moral relativism might lead to poor, detrimental decisions. But moral relativism is, by definition, flexible; it prepares the actor to perform upon the unique circumstances of his particular environment much better than a fixed, absolute set of rules would — simply because static, immutable codes cannot anticipate or account for the unpredictable and unique details of every potential situation. For this same reason planned economies fail: they cannot anticipate or prepare for shortages created by the trillions of inputs in any economic environment.

Further, there is no reason to believe the results of moral relativism wouldn’t be treated appropriately by society — from a legal perspective. There is also no reason to believe the ethos and mores of society would fail to evolve to foster better moral theories — meaning those that benefit the greatest number of people — and to eliminate inferior ones. Obviously, things like murder and theft are not valuable to humans in the aggregate, but this is by no means incompatible with moral relativism. In fact, the more alternatives available to aggregate opinion and judgement, the more likely the best theories will quickly prevail and proliferate. Again, this is the same argument made for free markets.

It is possible that some societies would choose to allow slavery, based on moral relativism. I am not, of course, advocating slavery, but this argument does not lend support to the notion of moral absolutism; slavery has been part of the status quo for the history of human existence (and remains so in some places today). If anything, I argue that moral relativism would engender competitive epistemological and legal environments that would more quickly recognize the detriments of such conditions — and thus the practices would be eliminated more quickly. In other words, because morality would be determined by the prevailing circumstances of any context — and not by a set of immutable rules — those moral decisions could be more readily and efficiently changed.

There are theories in this universe that exist only as constructs — that is to say, they have no value in the universe other than as figments of the imaginations of sentient beings (humans, almost exclusively, for now). For instance, the concept of altruism certainly exists. In practice, however, it is impossible for human beings to perform any act — even one of suicide — in which the objective doesn’t serve the actor first. As such, I believe altruism is a myth. We can debate it, but we cannot demonstrate it, because in praxeological terms, human beings are compensated for every actual or conceivable action.

I also do not believe value can be determined objectively. Many economists have debated and defended the Marxist theory that value exists independent of human interpretation. But the notion is easily falsified; there is no way to objectively measure value without a participant actively and subjectively expressing that value, and acting upon it. Again, in a universe absent sentient beings, it is impossible to conceive of value for anything, objectively. Indeed, who would be doing the valuing?

Now more to the point of this article: I don’t find any value in debating the derivation of morality; it seems moot, simply because morality is always a product of subjective application. To be sure, we can debate ontological systems of morality, but in the end — despite the existence or absence of these rule-based axioms — human actors will apply morality and ethics selectively and subjectively. Even if these actors apply morality based on deontological premises, the application is still subjective.

Going back to my earlier thesis: without sentient beings to apply morality, what would be the meanings of right and wrong? Thus, the notion of Kant’s intrinsic good — which is perhaps the foundation of objective deontology — becomes meaningless. Even Kant assumed axiomatic “truth,” and I cannot subscribe to any notion of absolutes claiming to emerge from resources independent of sentience.

It is deeply troubling to me to consider adhering to any system that derives from assumptions, or “givens.” From whence do they come? You may be inclined to say “God,” but that argument is more specious than any other. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is still an application of subjective, personal impetus and perception that (ostensibly) leads to an outcome which adheres to the purview of the practitioner. Again, how can anyone claim that Kant’s work — originally, or subsequently applied — is anything but subjective? If it is not, then from what objective source did it derive? You may, once again, respond with “God,” but there exists absolutely no falsifiable evidence for such a conclusion.

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