While I apparently have some philosophical readers, I expect that my last two substantial posts might have bored any readers who came here for politics. This post will not return to politics directly, but will address an issue often raised in the context of political debates. I want to talk about ethical subjectivism (sometimes people use "relativism" to refer to the same thing) and ethical realism, and eventually connect that to larger philosophical issues.
It seems to me that the view that ethical principles are objective is not nearly as problematic as is often argued. There's a view of how objective ethical principles can be discovered which has long been a part of the utilitarian tradition and which is, so far as I can tell, now held by many in other ethical traditions. We can view our ethical intuitions, our judgments about particular moral cases, as data, and we can try to construct theories which serve to explain and unify those judgments. It is difficult to see anything in such a procedure which is more problematic than the way we proceed in the sciences, by treating our observations as data and constructing theories to explain those observations.
Of course, people don't all agree about the data, but that's true in science as well. Some phenomena are extremely difficult to observe, and some people simply have disfunctional sense organs. Further, treating ethics on a par with science in this way certainly doesn't rule out reform; our scientific theories sometimes lead us to reject some of our observations, and likely a good moral theory will similarly entail some revision of what we count as reliable moral judgments. Similarly, disagreement about what theory really does best explain the data is not much of a disanalogy; there is widespread agreement in some sciences about some issues, but certainly not in all sciences about everything. If ethics is similar to science, it's surely similar to a science in which we haven't made much progress, but that's a far cry from an argument that there's nothing objective in ethics at all.
Still, having said all this in favor of the reasonability of ethical realism, I do not endorse that position myself. It seems to me that everything which might make us think ethics is objective can be adequately handled by some kind of Humean view. If what's right is determined by our individual feelings about things, that does not eliminate the need for ethical investigation and debate; very often, our feelings concern what outcomes we desire, and it can be very difficult to determine how to bring about or avoid particular outcomes. It is unclear that productive ethical debate very often includes much more than that.
Of course, it is philosophers who worry if subjectivism accurately characterizes ethical debate. The more common worry outside the seminar room is that if ethics is just a matter of our feelings, doesn't that mean whatever feels right to someone is right? But surely lots of horrible things we don't want to endorse feel right to all sorts of bad people.
Partly, I think this is already answered by looking at the need to evaluate not only our feelings about outcomes, but the empirical questions of how those outcomes can in fact be brought about. That doesn't resolve the whole issue, though; likely some people act in ways we'd want to condemn because they have fundamentally different feelings, not because they disagree about the methods for bringing about particular outcomes. However, even in those cases, I'm not sure how badly off the subjectivist is.
It is often emphasized by ethicists that ethics is supposed to be a practical endeavor; the goal is to figure out the right way to live, and encourage people to follow it. So I think it is instructive to ask, as a practical matter, what can be done about people with fundamentally different feelings. Hume said sympathy was the most fundamental feeling relevant to morality; consider someone who lacks that, a sociopath. To be consistent, it seems a Humean must say that when such a person engages in theft, say, or murder, they are in a sense not acting wrongly; their feelings don't oppose the actions they are taking. But this sense is not very important to how the rest of us should deal with a sociopath. Surely we need to defend ourselves; that the sociopath considers his actions justified is irrelevant to our concerns. Many possible options are available, such as prison or simply killing the sociopath. I have never been able to determine why anyone would think subjectivism rules out dealing with such problems in the same ways as other moral theories would recommend.
If I can't see where the problem is for the subjectivist view, it should come as no surprise that I equally can't see the advantage for the objectivist view; they are two sides of the same coin. Sure, on the objectivist view the sociopath is just wrong about some moral facts. But as far as the practical matter of how to deal with him, I can't see how that helps in the slightest. Does anyone really think a sociopath could be brought around by being subjected to Kant's proof of the categorical imperative, or Mill's arguments from Utilitarianism? Mill didn't think so; indeed, even for much easier cases he had doubts about how much could be done for the sufficiently morally confused. That was why he emphasized early education so much. And of course Plato, to take another prominent ethical objectivist, clearly believed that there were hopeless cases; part of the point of Gorgias and of book I of Republic is that Callicles and Thrasymachus are just such hopeless cases (and in the case of Thrasymachus, we're also shown how to deal with a hopeless case. Thrasymachus is treated as a wild animal, pretty much how I say a Hume-style subjectivist should view a sociopath). The practically available options are pretty much the same, either way; if someone's moral outlook is just too fundamentally off, you're pretty much left with brainwashing or violence as a response, whether you think that the outlook being off involved factual error or distorted feelings.
Because of this absence of any practical difference, I tend to favor subjectivism simply because it seems to make less extravagant claims. However, the absence of a practical difference means I also don't think this issue is very important, certainly not nearly as important as some of the debates over it might have led one to believe.
I claimed I'd try to link this to larger issues, but I think this post is already pretty long, so I'll do that very briefly. It is my suspicion that objectivity in general, at least in the deep metaphysical sense many philosophers intend, is not of any more value than the objectivity in ethics I discuss here. So, in the end, I agree with Bentham and Mill that ethics is something like science, but not for the same reason.