Real Subjects Have No Arbiter
By Bryan Caplan
When you challenge the morality of the status quo, people usually leap to its defense. After a few rounds of argument, though, defenders of the status quo often retreat to meta-ethics. Maybe immigration restrictions do seem wrong. But how are we to decide? Who precisely is the arbiter of right and wrong?
Faced with this question, I’ve long given the same answer: no one is the “arbiter” of right and wrong. Individuals just have to consider the moral issue and form their best judgment. That hardly makes morality subjective. There’s no arbiter of scientific or historical truth, either.
I now realize that my answer could have been stronger all along. Yes, there’s no arbiter of scientific truth, of historical truth, of moral truth. But what truths – if any – do have an arbiter? When, if ever, is there a Decider of truth?
There is a simple answer: arbiters do indeed exist – but only for purely social truths. If your question is, “Are Jack and Mary married?,” an arbiter might exist. After all, to be married is nothing more than to be considered married by a society. If the people in a society accept the Grand Poobah as the arbiter of marriage, then whatever he decides about two people’s marital status is their true martial status.
Similarly: If the people of the United States accept the Supreme Court as the arbiter of constitutionality, then it is the arbiter. If people play a game where the rules say the Game Master is always right, then the Game Master is the arbiter of that game. Etc.
What do all these arbiters have in common? Simple: Their subjects are all make-believe to begin with! That’s why one person’s judgment can be decisive: One version of “let’s pretend” is “let’s pretend that whatever X says, is true.” Fake subjects can have arbiters because there are no underlying facts to get in the way.
The converse is also true: If a subject has an arbiter, that subject is fake. The fact that one person’s say-so decides an issue reveals the make-believe nature of the issue. Picture how you’d react if someone claimed to be the Arbiter of Math. Impossible, right? But why? Because math is a real subject with real answers that are right or wrong no matter what anyone thinks.
When people ask, “Who’s the arbiter of morality?,” the correct answer is indeed “No one.” But this answer, though correct, it is woefully incomplete. The critic’s insinuation – morality is a subjective because it lacks an arbiter – is the opposite of the truth. If morality had an arbiter, that would be a conclusive sign of its subjectivity. The fact that morality lacks an arbiter is one sign – though hardly a conclusive one – that morality, like science, history, and math – has answers that no one’s mere say-so can undo.