On Morality: Part 1 – Defining Our Terms

Introduction

Definition of morality from Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

Welcome to part one of the series On Morality.  In this short series of articles, we will cover the topic of objective and subjective morality, how the various terms are used, and the pros and cons for each stance.  This series is a follow on, and supplement to, Davidian’s excellent article on objective morality posted previously, as well as episode three of the Fresh AiR podcast.  This series of articles will expand upon much of what Davidian spoke of, and discuss various ideas in greater detail.  Originally when writing this the intent was to write a single article, covering the basic ideas.  However, as more and more of the argument was covered, the article began to grow to a size that was larger than most people would be probably be willing to read.  So instead of writing one long article, the choice was made to break it down into more digestible sizes, covering each step of the argument in detail.

This is because one of the problems when having an online discussion about morality is that large chunks of the conversation that are necessary end up not happening.  The conversation starts sort of in the middle of the argument, and often happens in a way where those that hold to the idea of objective morality are dogpiled, and expected to defend various accusations without actually getting time to explain the necessary foundations.  Of course, this may still not change anyone’s mind, and there are some that may still walk away believing that morality is subjective.  There is little that can be done about that, unfortunately, but at least this way the argument can be laid out in a deeper way, and certain counterarguments can be gone over in a more formal and more expansive manner.  While the reader may not agree at the end, there will, hopefully, at least be a deeper level of understanding about the arguments for objective morality and counterarguments against subjective morality.  The best place to begin this argument is at the very foundations, and while it may seem tedious to most, some definitions should, and will, be offered first.  This is to make sure that we are all ‘on the same page’ so to speak.  Often times in discussions about objective morality people talk past each other, using different definitions for terms, so it is important first to explain how the various terms are used.

Defining our terms

It may seem somewhat trivial to most people, though those that have studied or read philosophy will know that defining terms is pretty standard.  In this case though it is in response to claims made about what the words objective and subjective mean.  We often come across people that misunderstand what those two terms mean, and ironically some of those that misunderstand have also claimed that it is others that misunderstand what those two terms mean.  The first thing to understand here then is that words are polysemous, meaning that words often have multiple meanings.  Objective and subjective are both polysemous words, meaning that in different contexts these words have different meanings [1][2][3].  Many times we come across people arguing that subjective means ‘from a mind’, or ‘of subjects’.  The word subjective does mean this of course, and it would be foolish to deny that. However it would be just as foolish to argue that the word means only this.  Another of the definitions of the word is ‘of, relating to, or emanating from a person’s emotions, prejudices, etc’.

Defining subjective

Definition of subjective
Definition of subjective

So, as we can see, subjective is a polysemous word, it is a word with multiple meanings [2].  The meaning that is used depends on the context it is used in.  The same goes for the word objective, it can be defined as ‘external to the mind’, or ‘of objects’.  However, the term objective is a polysemous word too.  It does not simply mean ‘external to the mind’ or ‘of objects’, it can also mean ‘undistorted by emotion or personal bias’ [3].  Just as with the term subjective, the different definitions come into play in different contexts.

Defining objective

Definition of objective

Here we can see that the words subjective and objective have multiple meanings.  According to one of those meanings it would be true to make the statement ‘morality is subjective’, because morality does indeed come from the mind.  Morality is a concept, and concepts come from the mind.  However, as stated, different definitions come into use according to different contexts, and it is often the case that certain disciplines and fields use words in a different context to how the average person might use that word.  A good example of this is the word theory [4].  The word is used very differently when discussing science to how the average person might use it.  In the case of science, it is often used to mean ‘a set of hypotheses related by logical or mathematical arguments to explain and predict a wide variety of connected phenomena in general terms’.  Whereas in general usage it is used to mean ‘a speculative or conjectural view or idea’.  So, as can be seen, certain disciplines can use a definition that is different to common usage.  This holds true in the case of subjective and objective also, as the words are used to mean ‘based on personal opinion’ and ‘undistorted by emotional or personal bias’ in philosophy, at least in the case of something like ethics.  To say that morality is objective, philosophically speaking, is to say that there are standards of judgement that are independent of personal bias and feelings when it comes to morality.  So to say that morality is subjective, philosophically speaking, is to say that the standards of judgement for morality are based on personal feelings.

Confronting some objections

Definition of theory
Definition of theory

There will probably be those that will now argue that the words are being used incorrectly in philosophy, and by philosophers, even after being presented with evidence that the words themselves are polysemous and one of the multiple definitions is the way it is used in philosophy.  It is not only in philosophy that these definitions are used though, one could offer here other disciplines using the words in this way, including science.  However, the easiest way to dispute that these words are being incorrectly in philosophy is to show that they are used in this manner in regular conversation too.  For example, when we describe a reporter, or a judge, behaving in an objective manner, we do not speak of them behaving ‘external to the mind’.  We speak of them behaving ‘without being affected by personal bias or feelings’.  One could also show here examples of things that come from a mind, but would still commonly be referred to as objective.  One such example is that of a fact.  A fact is a proposition that comports to reality, in other words a fact is an accurate statement describing some element of reality.  Facts are also described as objective in nature, with the word objective here meaning ‘not influenced by personal bias or feelings’.  It would be ridiculous to say that a fact is ‘external to the mind’, as facts only exist because of language, and language can only exist in and from a mind.  Mathematics are also considered to be objective in nature, and as with facts, mathematics come from, and exist in, a mind.  Facts may describe things that exist externally to the mind, but the fact itself only exists because of a mind; and sometimes facts also describe states of mind, or thoughts, or emotions.  States of mind, thoughts, and emotions are things that do not exist externally to a mind.  Yet facts are still considered objective, as facts are ‘undistorted by emotional or personal bias’.

Defining morality

When most people speak of morality they speak of right and wrong actions, or a systematised moral code that a moral agent might follow.  Both of these are correct, because like the words objective and subjective, morality is a polysemous word [5].  The correct definition being determined by context.  Within the context of discussions about whether or not morality is objective or subjective, morality is usually defined as a systematised moral code that a moral agent might follow [6].  As this is the definition that is typically being used during on-line discussions, then this is the definition that will be used in this series of articles.  When the need to diverge from this definition occurs here, further clarification will be given.

Conclusion

So, as can be seen, it is irrational to claim, and to hold to the idea, that subjective only means ‘from the mind’ or ‘of the subject’, just as it is irrational to claim, and to hold to the idea, that objective only means ‘external to the mind’ or ‘of objects’.  The words themselves are polysemous, and have different meanings in different contexts, not just depending on discipline but also in terms of common language.  To continue to argue that objective only means, and can only mean, ‘external to the mind’ or ‘of objects’ would be to ignore evidence to the contrary.  There will be those that argue here that they are still correct, that morality is subjective in the sense of the definition ‘from a mind’, and technically they would be correct.  This leads to a couple of problems though.  The first problem is that the claim that morality is subjective in the sense of ‘from a mind’ does nothing to dispute the claim that morality is objective in the sense of ‘undistorted by emotional or personal bias’.  Stating that morality comes from a mind does nothing to counter the idea that it is undistorted by emotional personal bias.  It answers a very different question.  The second problem is that it is also committing a strawman fallacy.  Arguing that morality is not objective because it comes from a mind is attacking an argument that is not being made.  When arguing that morality is objective, the argument is not that morality does not come from a mind, it is arguing that moral judgements should be undistorted by emotional or personal bias.  So, for someone to argue here that they are still right, and that morality is subjective as it comes from a mind, is to claim a very hollow victory, and to leave the actual philosophical arguments untouched.

With the terms subjective and objective defined and argued for, as well as a definition given for morality, we reach the end of the first part of the series On Morality.  In the next part we will explore the idea of subjective morality.  Thank you for reading, and we hope to see you in the next part!

References

[1] Definition of polysemous: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/polysemous

[2] Merriam-Webster definition of subjective: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/subjective

[3] Merriam-Webster definition of objective: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/objective

[4] Merriam-Webster definition of theory: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theory

[5] Collins Dictionary definition of morality: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/morality

[6] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on The Definition of Morality: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/

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About Dave Rowlands

Hi there! I'm Dave, as my username suggests. I am a life long atheist, having never developed a belief in God. That is not to say that I do not enjoy a good discussion about God, and discussions involving the philosophy of religion; I just do not believe in God. I have an undergrad degree in Philosophy and Psychology, though my heart lies more in Philosophy than it does Psychology. Which is why I am currently doing a masters degree in Philosophy, which I (hopefully) should finish next year. It is also part of the reason I enjoy discussions involving God and the philosophy of religion, so long as those discussions are curteous and two way. The question of whether God exists is a large one, and impacts our foundational beliefs, and much of what we believe is impacted by whether or not we believe God exists. However, my interests go much further than simply philosophy of religion of course, and I enjoy discussing a wide range of philosophical topics. With some of my favourite topics being things the self, philosophy of mind, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics. I spend much of my time studying, but I also enjoy reading philosophy outside of my studies too. I also enjoy reading horror and scifi. I am also a big fan of films, with my favourite genres being horror and scifi there too. There are also lots of TV shows and video games that I enjoy too. While I don't do quite as much of it these days, I also like writing my thoughts, with the best of those writings being published here on AiR. I would also be happy to discuss any topics with any of our readers, so long as those discussions were courteous, two way, and with the intention of exploring topics, rather than simply talking at me. For those that have taken the time to read my work, I thank you, and am very grateful that you have given me a slice of your time.