Thursday, July 17, 2014

On morality: objective or subjective?

Is morality objective, or subjective?

If it's objective, it seems that it would need to be something like mathematics or the laws of physics, existing as part of the universe on its own account. But then, how could it exist independently of conscious, social beings, without whom it need not, and arguably could not, exist? Is 'objective morality', in that sense, even a coherent concept?

If it's subjective, how can we make moral judgments about, and demand moral accountability from, people of times, backgrounds, belief systems, and cultures different than our own? If it's really subjective and we can't make those kind of moral judgments or hold people morally accountable, than what's the point of morality at all? Is 'subjective morality' a coherent concept either?

Take the classic example of slavery, which today is considered among the greatest moral evils, but until relatively recently in human history was common practice: could we say it was morally wrong for people in ancient times, or even two hundred years ago, to own slaves, when most of the predominantly held beliefs systems and most cultures supported it, or at least allowed that it was acceptable, if not ideal? Does it make sense for us to judge slave owners and traders of the past as guilty of wrongdoing?

From an objectivist point of view, we would say yes, slavery was always wrong, and most people just didn't know it. We as a species had to discover that it was wrong, just as we had to discover over time, through reason and empirical evidence, how the movements of the the sun, other stars, and the planets work.

From a subjectivist point view, we would say no. We can only judge people according to mores of the time. But this is not so useful, either, because one can legitimately point out that the mere passage of time, all on its own, does not make something right become wrong, or vice versa. (This is actually a quite common unspoken assumption in the excuse 'well, those were the olden days' when people want to excuse slavery in ancient 'enlightened, democratic' Greece, or in certain pro-slavery Bible verses.) In any case, some people, even in those eras of the past, thought slavery was wrong. How did they come to believe that, then? Was the minority view's objections to slavery actually immoral, since they were contrary to the mores their own society, and of most groups, and of most ideologies?

Morality can be viewed as subjective in this sense: morality is secondary to, and contingent upon, the existence of conscious, social, intelligent beings. It really is incoherent to speak of morality independently of moral beings, that is, people capable of consciousness, of making and understanding their own decisions, of being part of a social group, because that's what morality is: that which governs their interactions, and makes them right or wrong. Morality can be also viewed as subjective in the sense that moral beliefs and practices evolved as human beings (and arguably, in some applications of the term 'morality', other intelligent, social animals) evolved.

Morality can be viewed as objective in this sense: given that there are conscious, social beings whose welfare is largely dependent on the actions of others, and who have individual interests distinct from those of the group, there is nearly always one best way to act, or at least very few, given all the variables. For example, people thought that slavery was the best way to make sure that a society was happy, harmonious, and wealthy. But they had not yet worked out the theoretical framework, let alone have the empirical evidence, that in fact societies who trade freely, have good welfare systems, and whose citizens enjoy a high degree of individual liberty, are in fact those that end up increasing the welfare of everyone the most, for the society as well as for each individual. So slavery was always wrong, given that we are conscious, social, intelligent beings, because as a practice it harmed human beings in all of these aspects of human nature. Slavery is destructive to both the society and the individual, but many people did not have a reasonable opportunity to discover that fact, other than through qualms aroused by sympathetic observation of so much suffering.

In sum: it appears that in many arguments over morality, where people accuse each other of being 'dogmatic', or of 'moral relativism', or various other accusations people (I think) carelessly throw at each other, is due to a basic misunderstanding. To have an 'objective' view does not necessarily entail one must have a fixed, eternal, essentialist view of morality which does not allow for moral evolution or progress. Likewise, to have a 'subjective' view of morality does not entail thinking that 'anything goes', or that morality is entirely relative to culture, religion, or belief system. Here, as is the case with so many important issues, simplistic, black-and-white explanations do not lead to understanding, nor to useful solutions to life's most pressing problems.

Amy Cools
Department of Philosophy Alumna
Sacramento State


  1. D'oh! I had a bit of a better comment typed out but blogspot seems to have eaten it.

    Thanks for the interesting post, Amy! To the objectivist about morality, you say: "But then, how could it exist independently of conscious, social beings, without whom it need not, and arguably could not, exist? Is 'objective morality', in that sense, even a coherent concept?"

    I don't see why the contingency of moral laws should count against them being objective. The claim that we need conscious, social creatures to exist in order for morality to exist seems to beg the question against the objectivist. After all, it seems just as weird to think that "Slavery is wrong" would suddenly have no truth value if all life were to cease existing.

    However, even if we accept the controversial premise that morality need not or cannot exist without conscious creatures, it doesn't seem to be a strike against their objectivity. Physical laws may well require physical stuff in order to exist, but we don't think that this contingency makes physical laws any less objective - right?

  2. "Morality can be viewed as objective in this sense: given that there are conscious, social beings whose welfare is largely dependent on the actions of others, and who have individual interests distinct from those of the group, there is nearly always one best way to act, or at least very few, given all the variables."

    So it seems as if this view of morality is a bit teleological (what we morally ought to do it what we need to do to best achieve the goal of welfare for social conscious beings).

    I think with this viewpoint, you essentially have to "hard-code" the definition of morality to be: "That which is beneficial to the welfare of other creatures". Otherwise, one could very easily attack the objectivist argument by saying "Well what if one simply doesn't value welfare or other beings in general?".

    Not that I think this "hard-coded" definition is unreasonable. It actually seems pretty fitting to what most people generally mean when they speak of morality. But then on the other hand, morality is objective because you essentially just define the word 'morality' as being objective. I don't personally have a problem with this, and would probably accept it, but some people who believe morality to be a "thing" that is more than just a definition might reject it.

    Disclaimer: I was an emotivist when I graduated, but now I don't even see any sense to talk in "moral terms".

  3. Hi Matt!
    I actually don't think that the contingency of moral laws counts against them being objective, as I indicate later in the piece, when I outline examples from a moral objectivist viewpoint.
    The main point of the piece is to critique common arguments from either 'camp' in popular discourse, for example, those that hold that for morality to be objective, it must exist entirely independently of the existence of human beings, or those that hold that for morality to be 'subjective' (or 'relative', the terms are often used interchangeably), it means that 'anything goes'.
    This piece is meant to be a conversation starter more than anything. Thanks for joining in!

  4. Hi Stephen,
    I personally do think the welfare of human beings is at least one of the foundational values of a moral system, I tend to the moral pluralist view. My example of the welfare value in this piece is by no means exhaustive, however, and is one of many that could be in its place instead, an example from the utilitarian perspective, for instance.
    Why do you think it no longer makes sense to speak in moral terms?

    1. Hi Amy,

      So the reason I don't think it makes sense to speak in moral terms is because, if morality is just the description of a certain course of action (or actions from your pluralist view) and not some metaphysical idea/entity that actually exists, then I think it kind of just makes more sense (and is more to the point) to reference those actions directly rather than referencing 'morality'. E.G. "She is nice to people, and volunteers at charities. I like that." rather than "She is a morally good person."

      So the position is essentially the same as emotivism, except more accurate/representative of what is being meant, in terms of language.

    2. (Of course this is just my personal preference. Someone may prefer to use a generic word like 'morality' because it's easier. However, they would still be meaning the same thing from my view.)

    3. I think speaking in terms of morality is in fact useful, because people know what you're talking about; I don't think reducing the issue to describing behaviors helps us much. In your example, the use of the word 'nice' is pointless unless there's something on which that judgment is based, namely, that there are standards or mores by which we judge actions 'good', 'bad', or 'neutral'. I think it's just as sensible to speak in moral terms as it is to speak, for example, in terms of 'species': there's a pointy-eared animal here that looks like the pointy eared animal over there, which looks like myriad others which are similar as well. I think morality does exist, in an emergent sense, not prior to and independent of conscious, intelligent, social beings .

    4. So I would actually say that using the term 'morality' actually obfuscates what we mean, and my approach actually specifies what we are talking about (as in your "species" analogy). Saying something is "morally good" is generic, where as saying someone is "Charitable to less fortunate" is actually way more descriptive of that person and their actions. So I think in this case, "reducing" the issue actually helps us get to the bottom of what we're talking about. Thus, I don't think the word 'nice' is based on a value judgement. 'Good' or 'bad' are not used in the moral sense for me (because I don't believe such a thing as 'morality' exists), they are used in the teleological sense.

      Of course if you, as you say, there is some metaphysical "form" (as Plato would put it) of morality, then what I said wouldn't apply. However, then I think you run to a whole host of new issues (Where is the evidence for the existence of this form...or anything non-physical for that matter?, What exactly is morality if it isn't merely just a certain prescription/course of behavior? Because if it is, then we're just back to the teleological sense of good/bad and morality really is just a description of behavior).

  5. Hi Amy,

    I suppose I am bit confused if you do not think that the contingency of morality is a strike against it being objective. You wrote: "Morality can be viewed as subjective in this sense: morality is secondary to, and contingent upon, the existence of conscious, social, intelligent beings."

    You also indicate that morality can be considered subjective because it evolved. My worry is that this is not how moral subjectivists are using the term. Moral subjectivists are arguing that morality is subjective because it depends on individual or cultural preferences, tastes, or norms (see here: The fact that morality evolved or is dependent upon the existence of conscious creatures won't really matter to them when considering whether or not morality is subjective.

  6. Throughout the essay, I'm making the point that the terms 'subjective' and 'objective' are often used in a misleading way in popular discourse; I think morality can be viewed as objective in the sense that morality follows from and is constrained by states of affairs in the world, which follow from 'natural laws' (physics, etc). Remember that this is a piece written for a popular audience, not only for a student or specialist in philosophy, so I'm not limiting the use of the word 'subjective' in a technical sense, referring to a particular moral theory, as one would in a philosophy class. I'm using it in a broader sense, which would include moral relativism, as I often see those terms used interchangeably in popular discourse.

  7. this is very interesting.