Against Blackburn's moral objectivity

Against Blackburn’s moral objectivity

In his 1999 article titled “Is Objective Moral Justification Possible on a Quasi-realist Foundation?”, Simon Blackburn outlines various interesting positions possible in his ethical quasi-realist framework. I found the article interesting, though I did not agree with its arguments. Especially Blackburn’s argument in section two (II) “Objectivity” did not sit well with me.

Blackburn’s argument goes as follows: 1. There are certain denotations of the absence of objectivity 2. Bias is such a marker of absence of objectivity 3. Arguments that use non-objective ingredients (such as bias) are therefore objectively wrong.

Blackburn goes on to give an example. Blackburn believes women should be allowed to join education institutions. A bias against them based on their gender is objectively wrong. The Taliban does not allow women to study, therefore they are objectively wrong. This is because they are “sensitive to the wrong considerations” (Blackburn 1999, 221).

The problem I have with this argument is that it relies on a foundation where there are objectively relevant considerations. According to Blackburn, gender is objectively irrelevant in educational considerations, but why is this so? And what then is relevant to education?

Certainly, if there is any objective consideration in applications to an education institution, “the ability for a student to follow the given education” is relevant. In other words, it would not be wrong to reject a student who does not have the right preliminary education. Nor is it wrong to reject a student who, due to physical disabilities, is incapable of following the programme. Now, let us take an argument occasionally put forth by the Taliban as to why women are not allowed to study: “Women in a classroom will distract the male students”. In other words, women influence the ability for the other students to follow the programme. Certainly, this would justify not allowing them in educational institutions. Now, you might say: “Surely women are not so-distracting”, “This certainly is not the fault of the woman, but of the male students” or “Many educational institutions allow women without the male students being distracted”.

I agree with these points almost entirely, the problem is that these viewpoints are not (and cannot) be objective. What is- and is-not distracting to a given person is inherently subjective. Furthermore, whether this is the woman’s problem or that of the male students (and/or teachers), is also not objectively verifiable. Following Blackburn’s method, what considerations would be irrelevant to this discussion? Is it irrelevant if all the male students express the distraction they experience? Is it irrelevant how this woman decides to dress and what the clothing norms are in the given society? Surely not. Distraction (an inherently subjective effect) cannot be separated from those who are distracted. Furthermore, often what is distracting is what is out-of-place. While students in European universities may not be distracted by a girl in class with exposed shoulders or ankles, if this is a sight no-usually seen by the other students, it may very well be distracting. Just as European students would be distracted by a fully-nude colleague (a sight not often seen in the universities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting) or the presence of various wild animals in the classroom (another uncommon sight).

I have here given but one example of an argument Taliban spokespeople use to justify their restricting the education of girls and women, however, there are more. Taliban arguments I am aware of include: The country is not safe for women to go outside at the moment, Sharia forbids women from being educated alongside men, Sharia forbids women from being taught by anyone other than women and elderly men and others. While I personally find these arguments weak and unconvincing, I see not how we can prove that the considerations listed (safely, law and scripture) are objectively irrelevant to the issue of education.

This is generally the problem with many objective moral frameworks. Their entire foundation must be objective-too, as well as its foundation and the foundation below that. At some point, we will get to the bottom of ethics where we find either a subjective value judgement or some ontological self-objectifying-objective-particle.