Self, Meaning, and the World

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The search for a philosophically satisfying account of the self and meaning is partly the search for knowledge and understanding: knowledge of what there is and how those things are related, as well as understanding the significance of things. When we propose to confer about the search for meaning, we usually have in mind the quite specific project of determining what features of the world depend on us and which do not. This is not quite the same as determining what is subjective and what is objective, even though this is a common way to think about such matters. In this paper, I will trace the outline of one central issue for many concerned with both the search for meaning and the search for objectivity: the status of morals.


The Pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras famously is to have said that man is the measure of all things. Christian philosophers have resisted the Protagorean position. The source of resistance is not hard to find. At least some things are not up to us; we do not measure them; we do not set their boundaries or scope; we do not have choices in some matters, which perhaps we should were we the measure of all things. Christians maintain that not only the cosmos and its orderings, but also the moral domain is something to which we are answerable, not the other way around.

To begin, note a currently fashionable criticism of religious theoretical frameworks, particularly Christianity. It is alleged that Christianity is an arrogant religion because it puts humanity at the centre of all of creation. Theologically, it is dubious that Christian theology involves any claim regarding the centrality of humans to all of creation. If God created to exhibit divine grace, as claimed in Romans, then creation is more likely for God’s sake, than it is for ours. Exhibiting grace may be one of the reasons for creation, but it need not be even the central reason. Furthermore, even if the prospect of exhibiting magnanimous grace is itself central to God’s creative intentions, it does not yet follow that humans are central to the particular project. For all Romans says, there may be other much more significant exhibitions of divine grace than all of what is extended to us. The story of human redemption need not be even the lion’s share of the story of divine grace. What is more, even if creatures sufficiently like us are necessary components of that creative project, the human race itself is not necessary for that project. We may be, at best, a minor part in the entire creative scheme of things. If there is arrogance in Christianity, it is not to do with the place of humans in creation. We are cosmically insignificant to begin with; we have been ruined by their own hands; and we are saved while undeserving by one under no obligation to save. Those are key components of the Christian message, meaning that one who hears human arrogance in Christian theology is not listening. If there is arrogance afoot, it is in the Protagorean programme and its successors. That is not an argument against the Protagorean programme, merely a plea for truth in advertising. I am interested in the question of arrogance only to show it to be thoroughly unfounded as a criticism of Christian theology and, now, to set it aside. The far more important concern is whether some version of the Protagorean project is tenable.

Protagoras’s programme begins with two components: (1) we measure things and (2) when we do so we are correct in our measurements. You say it’s hot; I say it’s cold. Hot-for-you entails that it is hot; cold-for-me entails that it is cold. Qualities like hot and cold are, then, subjective. Truth, beauty, justice, and virtue are qualities, too. Hot and cold are qualities of ovens, truth and falsity are qualities of beliefs, beauty and ugliness are qualities of art, justice and injustice are qualities of courts, while virtue and vice are qualities of agents. The relativity of hot and cold shows the relativity of qualities, which in turn, entails the relativity of truth, beauty, justice, and virtue. Of this list, we, many generations later, may be content to think that judgements of beauty are judgements of taste and preferences, but few are willing to think of truth, justice, and virtue as merely matters of taste and preference.

Much of the subsequent history of Western philosophy has been consumed with discerning the scope of the objective. The subjectivity of preferences about ice cream might be fine, but both pragmatic and intellectual chaos threaten to ensue, if not only do all do what is right in their own eyes, but even more so if it is right that they do so. Your preference for one kind of ice cream does nothing to delegitimate my ice cream preference, whatever it may be. Likewise, on this development of the Protagorean programme, neither does your assessment of qualities, including moral qualities, delegitimate mine.[1] That all are correct has the apparently happy consequence that none are wrong, but since our correct judgements sometimes conflict, actions cannot be harmonised in any corporate manner. Two people correctly pursuing justice may correctly do all within their powers to thwart the other’s pursuit of “the same” goal. This is neither a recipe for success nor is it a clear marker that we are genuinely pursing the same goal, under our current understandings of ‘same’ in this context.

The history of science is a history of finding what is objective about the cosmos. We developed measuring devices, but the development of such devices enables us to harmonise our judgements about temperature and actions regarding the central heating only if we previously concede that we are not each the measure of all things. If we retain the Protagorean programme, we conclude not that one (or both) of us is wrong in our judgements regarding warmth; we conclude that 17° C. is both hot and cold. The room is 17° C. The room is hot because you judge that it is. The room is cold because I judge that it is. The conclusion follows validly. It is doubtful that there are cogent arguments to move someone from relativism, save showing individual relativists that they are not—not really—relativists about some domain about which they care. If they are not also content to maintain contradiction involving that component of their thought and/or conduct, their advocacy of universal relativism crumbles. If they concede that it crumbles in one domain, it is easier to get it to crumble in others.

Plato, again famously, argued that while there is insufficient objectivity in the physical world of change—and, hence, no knowledge of that world—there is sufficient objectivity in the abstract world of the Forms or Ideas or Ideals. Some theists treated these as somewhat less abstract, even if not physical, by maintaining that this objectivity was located in the mind of God. Not all are content with either solution. David Hume wished to think about morals in a way that provided understanding of how morals are not only objective but also connected with human motivation so that judging something to be right automatically provided one with a reason to advocate or to do that thing (Hume, 1751/1957) (Hume, 1888/1975). The main question for the remainder of this discussion is whether an adequate route to objectivity is open to advocates of the Humean variation of the Protagorean programme.


To have one’s cake and to eat it is good, if you can manage it. Hume and his contemporary ideological descendants, such as Simon Blackburn, maintain that there is something right about the Protagorean dictum that man is the measure of all things (Blackburn, 1993). What is right with the dictum is that the domain of the moral is not an abstract domain divorced from human interests, values, and concerns. It is also right, they maintain, that the moral is not especially about the commands of God or human-independent, irreducibly moral properties that we, somehow, manage to discern. Thus, they also take it to be correct that all moral judgements are analogous to judgements of taste and preference. What is wrong is the interpretation of the dictum that makes individual people the respective measurers of moral qualities. Correcting this last component is supposed to permit Humeans to avoid the following consequences of Protagoreanism: (1) being right in one’s own eyes and being right come to the same thing, (2) there is no prospect of being wrong about such matters, and (3) there is no prospect for genuine disagreement where one party is correct and the other incorrect.

The default positions for most is that in matters of morals, thinking it so and it’s being so are not equivalent. One can be wrong and others can be right and vice versa. The projectivist seeks to reclaim this portion of our thinking about the moral by preserving the Protagorean dictum, but by interpreting Protagoras’s ‘man’ to mean the human race, or at least something more like that. Doing so promises to make it possible for one both to judge that an action is just and yet to be mistaken in that judgement.

In early portions of the 20th Century, many philosophical problems were framed in terms of meaning. The meaning of ‘just’ would have been the subject of philosophical scrutiny. Were the projectivist committed to this construal of the problem, the projectivist programme would fail almost immediately. To say that an action, A, is just does not mean that the human race finds it to be just or that members of the race do, or that the educated members do, or that the wise members do, or anything of the sort. That is just not what ‘just’ means. Philosophical issues do not need to be framed in terms of meaning, however. The “linguistic turn” as it was known, was not quite all that its proponents had thought. What we should be more concerned with is what it is to be just. We may permit a mismatch between the meaning of a term and what it is to be the kind of thing to which the term applies, a just law, a just ruler, or a just judgement.

For a simple, well-known example from science, transport yourself to a time prior to any usefully detailed atomic chemistry. Perhaps, consult the Oxford English Dictionary for the meaning of ‘water’ in, say, 1500. Many things might be in that dictionary entry. Water is a colorless, odorless, transparent liquid found in oceans, seas, lakes, ponds, rivers, springs, and wells. It is necessary for human survival, covers 70% of Earth’s surface, is a solvent for salt, for sugar, and much, much more. What that dictionary entry for ‘water’ will not contain, however, is that water is of H2O. With our current knowledge of chemical constitution, we might well think that it is and always was true that water is composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. We might also think that Earth’s orbit might have been sufficiently different that it never became a watery planet and, thus, so many of the components of the dictionary entry for ‘water’ would not have applied to water. We might also think that we can now see that having the chemical composition that it does is of the essence of water. There might have been no water in the basin of Lake Superior, but water could not have failed to be H2O. So, what composes part of the meaning of a term may be inessential to what the term labels and what is essential to the labelled may be omitted from the meaning of the label.

Projectivists, thus, rightly take advantage of this difference between meaning and facts of being. ‘Just’ may not mean the things to which we have the right sorts of attitudes of approval, for instance. Nevertheless, to be just is, according to projectivists, to be the things that we respond to in certain ways. In so responding to them, we project something of ourselves onto the world and in so projecting we take the justness of an action to be worldly in a way that it is not. We take it to be a characteristic of an action or an institution when, in fact, what is distinctive about why we judge something to be just or unjust are our responses to it and not the way that it is in itself. There is nothing intrinsically just or unjust about it; it is our responding to it as we do—it is our measuring it as we do—that makes it so.

One advantage of the projectivist project is that it seems to permit a solution to the problem of moral knowledge that other views do not promise. If moral qualities are inherent in some things, then how exactly do they relate to other qualities and how do we come to know about those moral qualities? They do not seem to be observable, as do some others. We can see that snow is white or that grass is green. We can observe the orbits of the planets and the breaking of ocean waves. We do not observe that one institution is more just than another or that someone is more virtuous than another. We do judge them to be so, but we do not observe them to be so. Moral properties seem to be “queer” in a way that the properties that the natural sciences traffic in are not. If the basis of or moral judgements ultimately derives from our responses to or attitudes about things, then at least the basis for the judgement is both rooted in scientifically respectable qualities of agents and is internal to us. The problems of both moral knowledge and moral motivation are thereby dimished.[2]

By shifting the meaning of ‘man’ in the Protagorean slogan, do projectivists obtain all that they want? My characterisation of the Humean shift in the Protagorean programme was imprecise. I said only that the shift was in moving the meaning of ‘man’ from each individual to the human race. ‘The human race’, though, hides a tacit quantifier. If we take ‘the human race’ to mean each and every human, then one virtue is secured, but another lost. If moral relativism is to be avoided while morals are a matter of human measuring, then there is no relativism if we all judge the same way on a particular matter. There is no “true for me” that differs from the “true for you”, since if we all judge alike on that matter, what is “true for me” is the same as what is “true for you”. If this obtains for the domain of the morals, then there is no moral relativism. If it is merely possible that judgements differ, then one is not thereby committed to moral relativism. Morals are not relative, even if they could be. Were the projectivist to uncover features of humans that are both so deep that they are essential to being human and inextricably linked with our attitudes, judgements, and projections, then relativism is not only false, but necessarily false because no one could be human and fail to possess the relevant attitudes, to make the relevant judgements, and to make the relevant projections.[3]

This specific way of avoiding relativism is at the perfectly obvious cost of moral disagreement, though. There is none, if there is uniformity of attitudes and judgement. The sophisticated Humean must contemplate a different interpretation of ‘man’ in the Protagorean dictum, if the ordinary facts of moral disagreement are to be accommodated. Suppose, instead, that one judges a given way and everyone else judges a different way. We do sometimes try to talk someone out of their being out of step with others by saying, even if somewhat imprecisely, something like “everyone disagrees with you!” Strictly speaking, not everyone disagrees with that person, since they do not disagree with their own position and they partially constitute the human race. We mean, of course, that the rest of the human race disagrees with them. So, disagreement is possible regarding the moral when it is possible that one’s attitudes and resulting moral judgements are not in accord with the remaining consensus. Those who reject relativism in favour of objectivity in a given domain do so because, among other things, they wish to make sense of what they take to be the phenomenon of genuine and not merely apparent disagreement. Eliminating relativism without securing the possibility of genuine disagreement would, even in the eyes of most Humeans, fail to account for sufficient objectivity to be satisfactory.

On the current proposal, though, one can make a mistake by having attitudes that are out of step with the rest. This is the kind of objectivity available regarding the use of language. To get the grammar of a sentence or the meaning of a word wrong is to be out of step with the practice of other users of the language.[4] To make a moral mistake, according to this version of projectivism, is to have attitudes toward something that is out of step with the relevant attitudes of everyone else. Moral objectivity without irreducibly moral facts that are radically independent of human attitudes and motivations is the projectivist’s goal and this is another step towards it.

This revision is insufficient, however. Two sides of one coin indicate that it is not all that we would like, ideally, for the objectivity of morals. On the one side of the coin, we want to leave space for the voice of one calling us from our collective moral darkness into the light. If moral error is judging differently from the rest, then there is no room for the prophet. There would be no prospect for the beginning of moral awareness that can grow into a widespread awakening. The other side of this coin is that at any given time at which there is sufficient consensus, those so consenting cannot be wrong. There can be no corporate error. In the same way that the individualistic version of Protagoreanism makes the individual automatically correct, the corporate version does the same for the group. If corporate moral error is possible, then we have our first reason to reject this version of projectivism.

Our second reason is that the consensus picture fails to account for our moral knowledge, as well. If the substance of moral matters is the uniform way in which humans respond, then we do not really consult those relevant facts when we form moral judgements. We do not check to see if there is a consensus. The moral epistemology associated with this picture is most plausible when the theory focuses on the individual, which renders an account of objectivity implausible. When the account of objectivity is more plausible by placing the focus beyond the individual, the attending moral epistemology is less plausible. We must search for a yet more nuanced version of Protagoreanism for the projectivist

I assumed in my formulation that the near consensus of attitude and judgement was ipso facto correct. To make sense of a moral mistake as the mere divergence of attitude and judgement from the consensus I made the analogy with syntax and semantics in natural languages. I ignored the crucial differences between two quite different approaches to the facts of language: the platonist and the nominalist approaches. According to linguistic platonism, the facts of language are abstract, objective facts not determined by the practices of language users. Language users get the meaning of ‘bachelor’ correct, for instance, when their use of ‘bachelor’ or their mental associations with the word are appropriately related to the abstract object that is the meaning of ‘bachelor’. On this account, majority use or opinions certainly do not constitute the meaning of the term. Accordingly, it is possible for the majority to be wrong about its meaning, while the lone outlier is correct. Only with some substantial background assumptions would the majority opinion even good evidence for the proper meaning of the term, according to this platonist option. On the nominalist view, there are no abstract objects to constitute the language or the meaning of words. Though many different views are possible, let us consider only that the consensus use of ‘bachelor’ constitutes its meaning. Using a term differently from the rest just is—and not merely evidence for—making a linguistic error.

We can now see that the projectivist is in a bit of a bind. If it is agreed that the morally correct prophet is possible, projectivism should be most analogous with linguistic platonism, with its attending external facts to which our judgements are responsible and which the prophet might grasp more clearly than do the rest of us. If projectivism is the modern formulation of Protagoreanism, then it must be most analogous to linguistic nominalism, with its attending lack of external facts or standards to which our judgements are responsible. Our linguistic practices, i.e., our linguistic measurings, make meanings what they are according to the latter model, but not according to the former. Linguistic nominalism is the linguistic version of the measurement thesis on the social level. The social version of the moral measurement thesis can avoid relativism and it can secure the possibility of moral disagreement, but it renders the prophet and wide-ranging error impossible, as does linguistic nominalism render the linguistic equivalent to the prophet and wide-ranging error impossible.

But, wait! There’s more! I have mentioned, so far, only atemporal issues. Morally relevant attitudes and judgements can change over time from incorrect to correct. What we once held to be just or virtuous we might now hold to be unjust or vicious. What we once found to be grotesque and abhorrent, we now rather approve. Temporal relativism threatens. Instead of the community once being blind and now seeing, it goes from seeing one thing perfectly clearly to seeing something else perfectly clearly, perhaps with a stage of uncertainty in between. Moral blindness for the group is not possible at any particular time, which entails that there is no possibility of moral conversion. Of course, anyone hoping to make sense of the possibility of the moral prophet is likely to want to make sense of the possibility of moral conversion where moral conversion is something other than being correct in making inconsistent moral judgements regarding the same thing. That is conversion after a fashion, but not what one in pursuit of objectivity—or even moral improvement—seeks. One pursuing moral objectivity or improvement is pursuing not merely the possibility that at one time we might have attitudes and judgements that are inconsistent with those we might have at some other time. Such a one is searching for a difference in moral correctness. If change of mind can never bring error or the correction of error, then the introduction of the temporal dimension reintroduces the prospect of relativism for a single dynamic group over time, instead of over multiple groups.

The projectivist purchased the possibility of moral correctness with the coin of consensus. Of course, such consensus is rare, even on what any one of us takes to be the most blindingly obvious moral matters. Most typically, there are more than the few outliers who disagree with the majority—if there even is a majority judgement on a given issue—so, getting objectivity by consensus would be quite unlikely and cannot be the substance of the correctness of our typical current judgements. If there is objectivity in morals, consensus does not constitute it.[5] The failure of consensus is merely a variation on the theme raised by the twin possibilities of the moral prophet and corporate conversion from error to correctness. If the vast majority can be morally defective while the smallest majority can be upright, there seems to be no theoretical barrier to many being wrong in many different ways. All acquainted with the range of contrary opinions regarding what it is morally best to do in complex circumstances and who nevertheless thinks that their own respective opinions are (likely to be) correct, cannot avail themselves of any account—projectivist or otherwise—that finds objectivity in consensus. To the degree to which anyone of the general Protagorean persuasion seeks to recover moral objectivity as we ordinarily understand it as obtaining even when there is great diversity of opinion, attitudes, and judgements must face the at least the occasional mismatch between consensus and objectivity. Any who claims that under conditions of diversity there is no moral objectivity will still face the consequence of the impossibility of conversion. Any transition from diversity to uniformity will not be any great awakening, it will be an exercise in corporate creation of the moral where before there had been nothing moral or immoral.

If moral correctness is a matter of neither consensus nor diversity, the Protagorean measurement thesis fails as a general account of moral objectivity. The modern versions, of course, take ‘consensus’ loosely to cover not so much uniformity of opinion, but uniformity of attitudes of (dis)approval and the like. No matter. What has been said applies to that uniformity as well. There are ways to link the desired objectivity of projectivism with the portions that it sometimes eschews, but those links will not provide any solution to the difficulties above.

One might think that projectivism links concerns about attitudes of (dis)approval, moral judgement, and moral epistemology with perfectly non-psychological features of the world as follows. What constitutes moral correctness is judging moral matters rightly. Judging moral matters rightly is approving and disapproving of things appropriately. Appropriateness is a matter of labelling ‘just’, for instance, all and only the just things. The just things are all and only those things that share some (relevant) characteristics independently of our attitudes of approval or our labelling them just. Precisely what those characteristics are may be opaque to us and that just things possess those characteristics may form no part of the meaning of ‘just’; nevertheless, those characteristics are what constitute justice. This seems to give all that anyone could want from a meta-ethical theory.

The linkage, however, works best when there is sufficient uniformity and stability of judgements. Making the redness of a rose and a fire engine and t-shirt a matter of non-psychological characteristics of roses, engines, and shirts that produce the right responses in observers seems plausible to the extent that observers do not vary widely in their responses to those objects and others of different colours. The application of this strategy to the moral case is problematic precisely because it is the moral domain that lacks the requisite invariance of response. We can conclude, then, that Protagoreanism, in both its ancient and modern formulations, will not deliver moral objectivity.

One way to object to versions of Protagoreanism is to consider counterfactual situations. We have the attitudes and the judgements that we do. Those give ‘just’ its content and/or those fix what it is for something to be just. We might have had, so goes the objection, different attitudes and we might have made different judgements. Were we to have different attitudes and attending judgements, would not the just be unjust and the unjust just? No, goes the standard reply. ‘Just’ means what it does and/or justice is what it is in light of the attitudes we actually have and the judgements we actually make. It matters not what our attitudes and judgements might have been; what matters is what they are. When we consider counterfactual situations, we do so with our current attitudes and our current judgements. We speak our own language and not some other. So, when we assess other possibilities, we do so ourselves as we are not how we might have been. So, in alternative possibilities, the very same things are just and unjust as they are in our own circumstances. Even if we might have used ‘leg’ to include not only the walking appendages of sheep but their tails as well, sheep would still have only four legs, even under those circumstances. We speak English. Those who use the broader meaning for ‘leg’ speak another language. Sheep have four legs, even if, in their alternative languages, others would answer ‘five’ to the question: “How many legs does a sheep have?” In our vocabulary, sheep have four (genuine) legs. As we report the linguistic behaviour of those other language users, sheep have five so-called legs, or “legs”. Our alternative selves can speak as they like; the facts are what they are and we convey those facts using our language. So, sheep have four legs, regardless of how any speakers of other languages use ‘leg’.

However successful this line of thought is for accounting for hypothetical situations and what is just and unjust in them, its analogue is no help for us in ours. It is a variation of “we call it ‘just’ and they do not”. Instead of comparing actual multiple groups at a given time or comparing an actual single dynamic group over time, we are comparing things as they actually are with how they could be. That such situations are possible needed no defence, since they constitute the threat of relativism that contemporary version of Protagoreanism seeks to avoid. It saves us from having to say that introducing a modal dimension to our considerations introduces a new source of relativism, but the success of this defence of Protagoreanism depends on what we have already seen is not established, i.e., that Protagoreanism can provide sufficient objectivity, sufficient correctness, to provide the beginning point for the strategy for handling counterfactual situations. Worse, if the counterfactual strategy suffices, its advocate should give reasons for thinking that its analogue does not in the simpler situations. It is, after all, a version of “each is right in their own eyes”. If the theoretician denies this gloss on the position, it is perhaps because it is part of the unstated background that each privileges their own attitudes and judgements and when considering the views of others, we call things as we see them. If we judge differently, we declare the others in error. It is a commonplace in epistemology that whatever we believe we believe to be true, if we ascend into a metalanguage to consider the matter. In any act of judgement, we tacitly take ourselves to be accurate. Any basis for thinking ourselves not accurate is itself a basis for withholding relevant judgements. To “rigidify” the content of our moral terms in light of our current attitudes and judgements is to treat ourselves as accurate and our counterfactual selves as wrong or else it is to declare that we and our counterfactual selves talk past each other. If this must be built into the very nature of the strategy for avoiding counterfactual relativism, it is no different from treating ourselves as authorities in the actual cases we considered. Such a privilege is warranted only to the extent that the very same privilege is extended to all and landing us back into the original troubles with Protagoreanism or the account must say why with my/our specific case(s) the moral authority lies. If the substance of that authority is nothing more than a version of the Protagorean measurement thesis, those same troubles are not avoided. If its substance resides elsewhere, Protagoreanism has been forsaken.

An Old Alternative

If the foregoing is roughly correct, then naturalists must forsake either modern Protagorean theories or else forsake any claim on moral objectivity. To the extent that modern Protagoreanism is recommended because moral properties are thought to be queer were they to reside in the non-psychological character of the world, the naturalist moves to an error theory. Strictly speaking, there are no moral facts or moral properties; moral declarations assume that there are such facts or properties, so moral declarations are false. Those not tempted by an error theory must continue the search for a basis for moral objectivity without the measurement thesis.

It is worth revisiting the famous “Euthyphro” dilemma (Plato, 1969). The dilemma is that the moral is a matter of the commands or will of God or not. If it is, then to the extent that God is changeable either temporally or modally, so is the moral. If it is not, then God is not the creator of all and is not supreme over all, since God too is subject to an independent domain of the moral. Consider each horn of the dilemma in turn.

Only if God is “unstable” can the problem arise. If God’s character is both temporally and modally stable, then it is not the case that God might command or might have commanded otherwise. If God’s divine character is essential, then it is both temporally and modally stable and there is no possible prospect of the just being unjust precisely because there is no possible prospect that the relevant divine commands will be or would have been otherwise. The underlying assumption was that God’s character is contingent and there is nothing in the dilemma alone that warrants that assumption. Maintaining the temporal and modal stability of the moral is merely a matter of maintaining the temporal and modal stability of God. Furthermore, unlike the options discussed above, nothing in this horn of the dilemma that raises any problem of undesirable relativism. It is not that there is no possibility of relativism. God might have actually commanded for me differently than God has commanded for you regarding a given class of actions. Whether relativism ensues in light of the divine commands requires accounting for the specifics of God’s commands. It is not the nature of the theory that relativism is inevitable, which was the substance of the repeated charge above. Note, also, that even if there is divinely-instituted relativism, there is at least the degree of objectivity that my thinking moral matters are thus and so does not make them so and neither does yours. This form of relativism clearly permits space for moral error, as well as space for the prophet. If we are convinced by Protagoreans that the important aspects of moral objectivity are moral error and by extension the prophet, then divinely-instituted relativism is not objectionable.

The second horn of the dilemma is that an independent moral law makes God subservient in a way inappropriate for one worthy of worship. Again, this assumption is dubious. God being subject to laws to which others are not might be problematic, assuming such differences are differences in greatness in some respect. One not seeking some version of the measurement thesis regarding morals should maintain that the domain of the moral is part of the domain of the necessary. Murder (of one human by another) is wrong, even if there are no humans. Likewise, for other fundamental moral laws. If such laws are necessary truths, then they are what they are independently of God’s commands. As necessary truths, they are laws to which all are “subject”. No difference in greatness is to be found in God’s being subject to what any being at all must be subject. Not to be so subject is not to be, not to be a being at all. Even if one is loath to declare existence a great-making attribute, it is hard to see how it is some metaphysical or moral greatness not to be. So, on this score, metaphysical life is tough all over. Even more, to be and not to be subject to the moral law is to be amoral or a moral monster and neither being amoral nor a monster is a sign of greatness that befits one worthy of worship. So, even if the moral is not to be commanded, permitted, or prohibited by God and even if God is subject to the same moral necessities as are all others, this alone does not impugn God’s standing as one to be worshipped.

There is, of course, the necessary qualifier that even if the moral laws is a set of necessary truths to which all are subject and not even God can alter them, it does not follow that the actions of all are subject to identical restrictions. Some may be permitted to do what others are not, as a matter of necessity. This, in itself, is not problematic. We are troubled by moral differentials only when there is no good reason for them. That is the typical case when one person thinks they are exempt from the moral demands shouldered by the rest of us. As Roman emperors were allegedly wont to do, some forget that they, like the rest of us, are just human. So long as there are morally sufficient grounds for different demands, there can be no legitimate source of objection when God, for instance, is permitted to do what we are not. Since the kind of theory we are considering is that moral laws are necessary truths, there is no real prospect for the differences being morally insufficient.


In this essay I have examined Protagoras’s thesis that man is the measure of all things and found it wanting. Not only was his original version insufficient as an account of the moral domain that permits moral error as well as moral loneliness, more contemporary versions of it suffer similar deficiencies. Though the divine command theory may not be mandatory for Christians, the standard Euthyphro dilemma is insufficient to undermine that theory. If there is moral relativism, it is neither inevitable nor morally objectionable on that theory.

For those who think that philosophical theories are warranted on the basis of inferences to the best explanations, we have a small component of such an inference that prefers theism over naturalism. With the rejection of theism, naturalists must search for other foundations of morality. If it is agreed that moral properties, if such there be, are too queer to be properties that are wholly independent of moral agents and their attitudes and judgements, the problems for naturalism noted above are significant. Naturalists are left with the options of error theories or the search for natural properties that are the moral properties. From neither option does the basis of morality fall out naturally. In contrast, the foundations of morality can fall out quite naturally from the very nature of theism. One worthy of worship is morally perfect and essentially so. Whether the substance of the moral is the commands, permissions, and prohibitions of God, any such are reliable guides to the moral. This plank of the inference is only a small portion of the best explanation, but it is one that falls out of theism quite naturally and that is significant.


[1] To make the main point, I omit fairly obvious complications concerning expertise and how the judgement of experts on matters about which they are experts legitimately undermine the confidence in contrary judgements on those same matters by amateurs.

[2] The easy, but ultimately incorrect, way to think about the projectivist programme is to say that we mistake something subjective for something objective. This way of making the distinction is not quite right because there are objective facts about subjectivity. When I rank flavours of ice cream and rank vanilla higher than maple walnut, I do so on the basis of my own—subjective—preferences. It is, though, a perfectly objective fact about me that I prefer vanilla to maple walnut. The objective is not the same as the mind-independent and the subjective is not the same as the mind-dependent.

[3] I note here and then set aside a question that pertains to the entire discussion of the general Protagorean program. The unqualified, universal statement of the measurement thesis seems to be against the assumption that all facts end in measurement facts. So stated, measurement facts end in measurement facts. Even though that appears trivial, it is not. The unqualified version of the measurement thesis is that things are the ways they are only to the extent that they are measured to be those ways. This covers the measuring agents as well as the items measured by those agents. This appears to result in a regress. A room is hot only to the extent that some agent judges it to be hot. The agent measure the room to be hot only to the extent that the agent is measured to measure the room to be hot. And, so on. The regress can be halted at the first stage of measurement, only if facts of measurement are “self-standing” facts that depend on no further measurements. The Protagorean faces a dilemma: either an infinite hierarchy of distinct judgements must be legitimized for any of the usual judgements to make the world the way it is or what appears to be an hierarchy is not but is a single self-standing judgement by an agent. The first horn preserves the initial form of the measurement thesis, with every fact dependent upon some (further) measurement. The second horn requires both a revision to the initial measurement thesis as well as some justification for the key difference between the original and the revision: that facts of measurement demand no further measurement.

[4] Platonists maintain that languages are abstract entities not of our creation. Nominalists deny this. Each, however, can affirm this claim. Within the context of a given linguistic community, speakers try to speak the same language. Being out of step, on a Platonist view, means that one fails to be correct about the user-independent fact about syntax or meaning, assuming that the rest are correct. On the nominalist view, the use of the language determine the meaning, if anything does. So, being out of step is, again, to be incorrect, to misalign one’s linguistic judgements and behaviour with what constitutes the linguistic facts.

[5] It is an interesting sociological question whether projectivists hold their own moral judgements hostage to those of others.