Since this thread is cited often in discussions on the foundations of morality, it maybe useful to address here for the record some concerns in such discussions about whether the use of the term 'intersubjective' here may be non-standard and hence counter-productive or misleading. In particular, a concern expressed is whether an 'intersubjective consensus' may end up ratifying and dignifying as moral some practices that may be incompatible with human flourishing or human freedom.
Exploring the origins of the term 'intersubjective'
'Intersubjectivity' as a philosophical concept
seems to have emerged as a counterpoint to 'solipsism' (the notion that the Self is all there is
, common for example in Vedantic traditions), and seems to only later have been applied to Ethics and Politics. Its application to Ethics is encouraged by the realization that morality is neither objective nor arbitrary.
Intersubjective morality seems to be a less common term than say 'contractarian ethics' (which is the term preferred in political philosophy
as the foundation of democratic values) or 'consensual morality' (which happens to be the term used most often, and disparagingly, by the religious right-wing in America
to distinguish consent-based morality from an ordained 'divine command' morality).
Dealing with the objections of 'immoral consent' and 'making a virtue of a necessity'
Unease with the notion of intersubjective morality
, often comes from an understandable unease with the seemingly unprincipled expediency of making rules as one goes along
, which if uncritical of the company one keeps may result in as clandestine codes of conduct as honor among thieves
. This is the unease that underlies the religious mind's distaste for 'willing adulterers'. Another source of unease less likely to emerge from religious quarters, and perhaps more nihilistic, is that any process of intersubjective deliberation is a primate activity whose consequences are determined by yet-to-be-elucidated laws of nature, and to consider the results of such a process to be 'morality' amounts to a romanticizing of just one more aspect of ethology. This is similar to a view in evolutionary psychology that what is now called 'moral reasoning' emerged from justifications of behaviors
that were evolutionarily determined without any prior reasoning. While both the religious and the nihilistic refuse the equivalence between the 'intersubjective' and the 'moral', the former do so because they think that the two occupy different realms namely the human and the divine and the latter do so because they consider it to be an equivalence between a descriptive construct and an irrelevant fictional construct.
Mindful of those objections, a case for a theory and practice of intersubjective morality can be made as follows.
Relevance of the intersubjective framework in theory
: The nihilists are right to the extent that morality is at best a human construct, but this construct is an abstraction of something real: of empirically discernible human flourishing or human freedom. Historically, both the conceptions and deconstructions of the notion of 'morality' reveal that underlying it are these very notions: human flourishing (in Virtue Ethics and Utilitarianism, or for that matter in Divine Command Theory's assumption of a rewarding afterlife) and human freedom (in the notion of the autonomous reasoning being in Deontology, or even the Libertarian notion of rights as sacrosanct). So 'ethics' is as good a name as any other, and not a particularly objectionable shorthand to study how social primates regulate non-instinctive, learned behaviors in a manner that is compatible with flourishing or the prevalence of a 'preferred' state of affairs. The outcomes of these behaviors of course are subject to the test of evolutionary fitness
that are an obvious natural constraint to flourishing of any sort. However, since the current level of understanding does not permit a full deterministic account of these behaviors, it remains useful to describe them in a level of abstraction where functions such as those mediated by mirror neurons
are abstracted as 'empathy' and where observed behaviors of reciprocity and solidarity are described as 'intersubjective' to convey the group context in which these operate.
So even if one were to take a vantage of scientism whose near-emptiness of assumptions or premises is for practical purposes nihilistic, an intersubjective framework remains relevant as a phenomenologically useful one, even in a description devoid to the extent possible of normative elements.
Practicability of intersubjective consensus
To be practicable (or at least less susceptible to degradation as feared by the religious) mediation of intersubjective consensus must not be synonymous with simple majority rule nor must it be devoid of due process without which the writ of influential insiders and special interests may prevail as law. Quoting from here
Quote:Intersubjective premises are not simply a matter of brute majority votes later ossified into fiat, but the provisional results of a process of public reasoning subject to peer review. Peer review is emphasized here over any notions of expert review, because as humans we aren't exactly more or less expertly sentient than others and it is sentience that in some way underpins most contemporary notions of human rights.
There is no absolutist stance in the intersubjective framework where the epistemic limits of the reasoning process are well-acknowledged. Declaring someone immoral without allowing a chance to participate in the process of public reasoning does indeed amount to the worst form of disenfranchisement, but this is precluded almost by definition as the intersubjective approach is itself meant to universalize inclusiveness into the process of deciding what is moral.
The indeterminate connotation
of the term 'intersubjective' itself provides some realism to the discourse and serves as a useful reminder of the nature and challenges of evolving a morality that is always provisional yet always practiced, considerately inclusive without ill-considered populism
, corrected by History
but not dictated by tradition, and informed by Science
without mistaking its findings as norms in themselves.