This subject has been on my mind the past few weeks. I wanted to write about it for a few reasons. First, I wasn’t really sure about my own position on the subject. A lot of times, sitting down and having to write my thoughts helps to organize and clarify them. Secondly, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about both morality in general and objective morality in particular. Hopefully I can add something interesting to the conversation; but before I get into the core of the topic, I think it’s important to define a few terms I’ll be using.
- Morality: A set of principles, standards or systems of behavior that are considered right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust. Morality—just like any other aspect of humanity—is complicated. I don’t believe morals are binary but probably more like a gradient which is primarily gray.
- Objective Morality: This is a set of morals that are “absolute”. Meaning, they are always true, regardless of space and time. It is independent of the observer. There is another way people define this term that falls more along the lines of “moral principles that everyone agrees with”. I’ll talk more about that later.
- Subjective Morality:—Also known as moral relativism, is a set of moral principles that are relative. It’s dependent on the observer and doesn’t exist without him or her.
The prerequisites for morality
This is one of the most important point’s I’ll be making in this article and the premise that my entire argument relies on. In order for morality to exist you need two things: consciousness and free will. Without both of these things, morality simply can’t and doesn’t exist. So for example, if you were to remove all conscious beings from the equation, any concept of morality no longer applies.
This can be demonstrated by the fact that nature is amoral. Animals don’t function under the same principles of morality as humans do and this is due to a lack of consciousness and free will. The same applies to natural events such as earthquakes, avalanches, meteors, droughts, floods, etc. All of these events occur outside of any framework of agency and are therefore amoral. Even when they have a devastating effect on life, still the concept of morality does not apply.
With this understanding alone, I reject the definition of objective morality that says morality is absolute and exists independent of ourselves. Unlike the laws that guide our universe, morality has no manifestation in reality outside the actions of a conscious being. Morality is formatted, judged and ultimately acted upon based on individual and society as a whole. By this line of reasoning, morality must in fact be subjective.
Here is the argument in the form of three premises and a conclusion:
- Premise 1: Morality cannot exist without consciousness.
- Premise 2: Consciousness is subjective and cannot exist without a mind.
- Premise 3: We form and judge moral values with our minds
- Conclusion: Morality is subjective.
But, what if objective morality does exist?
Lets say, for the sake of argument, that there is an objective morality. Even if that were the case, the concept is still useless. This is because even if objective morality exists, we still only have our subjective minds to analyze any morality whether it be objective or otherwise. If there’s no objective method to determine the difference between a moral principle, then the distinction can’t be made.
We, as humans, are limited to the faculties of our minds when evaluating morals. With only having our critical faculties and subjective experience as tools for analyzing morality, we’re bound by subjectivity. So by that line of reasoning, even if some objective morality did exist, there would be no way for us to know the difference.
That’s often why I find a more useful definition of objective morality to be: “a set of moral principles that are widely accepted as true”. But even under this definition, morality still wouldn’t be considered absolute. A quick example is the issue of slavery. It’s true that the vast majority of people today believe it is immoral to own another person as property. But you don’t have to go very far back in time when the inverse was true. I personally hold the view that there is no context where owning others as property is moral but would I hold that same view had I been born 300 years ago? This is true of all moral principles I can think of in that they have a history of evolution and conforming to their time and context.
But, what about divine authority?
In “Mere Christianity”, C.S. Lewis presents a moral argument for the existence of God. The premise of his argument is that there is an objective moral standard that we appeal to and that this standard points to a perfect standard which is contrived by God.
I don’t agree with his premise, but lets say it’s true for the sake of argument. Lets say that God exists and he has a perfect set of morals that he wants to impart and expects us to follow. Now what? How do we find out what that standard is? Is it through personal revelation? What happens when one person’s revelation contradicts another? Is it from an appeal to holy texts? What happens when two contradicting set of morals are derived from the same texts because people interpreted them differently? How can we trust that those revelations were authentic to begin with?
This is the reality of the world we live in. Even if God exists and he’s revealed to some of us a moral standard, those standards are regardless judged by subjective beings either on the bases of whether or not they are authentic or if they are in fact moral. So we are still left empty handed using the same subjective tools I’ve already mentioned. This is why anyone who claims they have a specific moral value that is “objective” based on the claim that God revealed it to them adds no value or authority to that claim. It still needs to be judged in the framework of subjective moral standards and either adhered or rejected.
There are other issues that arise from “morality by fiat”, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Isn’t subjective morality bad?
Often times, people object to moral relativism because they view it as weakening morality. Their impression of it is that it’s no different to someone’s preference or mood in a given day and is subject to change just as easily. But I disagree completely. I think the opposite is true. If you believe a moral principle is “objective” or “absolute”, it means you don’t have to think about it. The implication is that the work has been done for you and you can just trust that it’s true.
But my view is that a world where subjective morals is all we have, then we have to do the work of justifying them. We can’t simply say “it’s true because the dear leader told me so”, be it an authoritarian leader or deity. You have to provide an argument, evidence, a framework, a standard that gives ground for it’s adherence. Subjective morality doesn’t mean your standards are arbitrary; it’s an admission that we’re fallible humans and we need to be open to changing and improving our ideas of the world and how we treat one another.
Subjective morality means I don’t accept a moral principle based on presumed authority. For this reason, I can accept some moral principles found in the Bible while rejecting others. It’s because these values, if they can’t be justified, should be rejected. So when I read in the Bible:
“And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?”
— Matthew 7:3 (NKJV)
I whole heartedly agree. To me, the idea that we should apply to ourselves the moral standards that we expect from others aligns with the principles I believe in of justice and equality. But when I read endorsements for slavery (Exodus 21:20-21), the subjugation of women (1 Timothy 2:11-15), violence against children (Proverbs 23:13-14) or appeals to vicarious redemption (1 John 2:2), I reject those on the grounds that they violate those same core principles.
Thomas Paine in his writing of “Rights of Man” appealed to a deity. He was a Deist after all, but his claim for universal human rights was not on the basis of authority. He gave sound justifications for his belief in human rights and it’s on that bases that he convinced others of what he viewed as God given rights. The same can be said of Aristotle, Plato, Rousseau, Emma Goldman, Bakunin, Adam Smith or Gandhi. All great philosophical thinkers set forth their own views of justice and morality and offer their justifications. But it’s up to us to determine their merits, they aren’t self justifying.
Where do we go from here?
I think for me, I take very seriously the idea that moral values have a burden of proof. If we apply moral standards to others, we better be ready to meet that burden. If not, we should think twice before trying to force our views on others. An appeal to authority should never be justification enough.
The way we apply this idea in our own lives is to think hard about the laws we want passed in the state we live in. For the same reason I don’t want morals enforced on me based on poor justifications, I shouldn’t advocate my own unjustified morals on others. It means that when I teach my children about morals and they ask “why?”, it would be a failure on my part to say “because I said so”. That’s not enough; we rob the autonomy of others when we appeal to such shallow rationale.
The sober truth is that we’re humans and we aren’t perfect. Far from it. As we study history, it’s crystal clear that our morals aren’t set in stone. We’re constantly refining them and providing clarity to our reasoning. Morality—like all human endeavors—is complicated. But it’s vital we continue our attempts to improve and apply a moral standard that is equitable and just for all. It’s worth the fight.
“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
Lets continue the discussion, I’d love to hear what you think. Do you believe objective morality exists? Why or why not? Also, where do you draw your moral inspiration from?