On Morality: Part 2 – Subjective Morality

Socrates on subjective morality

Introduction

In the first part of this series we discussed, and argued for, certain definitions that were important in any discussion about whether morality is subjective or objective.  This part we will be discussing the topic of subjective morality, and we will cover what it means for morality to be subjective, including how subjective morality is defined, arguments for subjective morality, and rebuttals against subjective morality.  The argument that morality is subjective is one that is popular within the sceptic and atheist community, especially in places like Facebook groups and YouTube.  So the arguments for subjective morality in this article will be based on those common arguments that are seen in places like that.  The best place to start is with an explanation of what subjective morality is, and means.  So, what is subjective morality?

One argument that is put forward by sceptics and atheists in many Facebook groups is that morality is subjective because it comes from a mind.  So, according to that account, subjective morality is morality that comes from a mind.  However, this is not how subjective morality is actually defined in philosophical terms, though we will come back to this idea later in this piece.  In philosophical terms, if morality being subjective means that it is personal preference that determines whether or not something is moral [1][2].  In other words, something is moral if the agent performing the action believes said action is moral.  This is slightly different to the idea of relative morality, where it is argued that morals are relative to a particular social group or society. 

Subjective means from a mind argument

Those who here argue that subjective means ‘from a mind’ and only ‘from a mind’ should refer back to the previous part of this series where it is argued, and shown, that the word subjective is polysemous, and one of its multiple meanings is ‘based on personal feelings or tastes’.   With subjective morality now defined, let us explore some of the common arguments for subjective morality, beginning with the first common claim of ‘morality comes from a mind, so therefore morality is subjective’.

http://www.philosophy-index.com/ethics/meta-ethics/subjectivism.php

This claim is true of course, morality does indeed come from a mind.  Even if we concede that God exists, we could still argue, using this definition, that morality is subjective.  The problem here though is that this is something of a category error, using an incorrect definition of the terms subjective and objective.  Essentially, it is speaking of something entirely different to what is being spoken about by most people when they claim that morality is objective, or are asking the question ‘is morality objective or subjective?’.

Different ways of examining morality 

What is generally being spoken of in discussions about whether morality is objective or subjective is whether or not moral truths are based entirely on personal opinion, or whether or not moral truths are beyond personal opinion.  So, while the argument ‘morality comes from a mind, therefore morality is subjective’ may be true, and may be an argument for a particular claim about morality, it is answering the wrong question.  It still leaves untouched the question of whether or not moral truths are based entirely on personal opinion.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/

This question is touched on by another popular argument put forward by many atheists in various Facebook groups, however.  That popular argument being ‘different people believe different things are moral, therefore morality is subjective’.  This argument uses subjective in the correct context, and is discussing morality in the correct context as well.  Is this a good argument for showing us that morality is subjective though?

Everybody’s morals are different 

When taken at face value this does seem to have some grounding to it.  Different people do indeed believe that different things are moral and immoral, or right and wrong.  However, upon deeper reflection we can see that there are several problems with this argument.  It is important to note here that there are two distinct ways that we can discuss morality.  We can discuss it descriptively, and we can discuss it normatively [3].  This argument is discussing morality in a descriptive way, rather than a normative.

Different people believe different things are moral and immoral

Morality ‘out there’

It describes how morality works ‘out there’, in other words, in the real world.  There is nothing wrong with discussing it in this manner of course, it is a perfectly valid, and important, way to talk about morality.  We could, of course, grant this claim.  However, to say that morality is subjective ‘out there’ is to give too simple of an answer.  The answer, when discussing morality ‘out there’, is far more nuanced and complicated than that.  What should be declared is that morality ‘out there’, is multileveled and both subjective and objective. 

Morality is also…

Consider this, at the individual level one could argue that all right and wrong is based on personal opinion, because ultimately it is the individual agent that makes that assessment.  However, we also need to remember where those morals have originated.  For the most part, many of our morals, and even our morality in general, is socially constructed.  There is a common morality and set of morals taught to us through friends, family, school, television, films, books, and much more.  We learn those morals, and come to believe those morals are correct, through these things. 

Morality itself, to a certain extent, is socially constructed, and there are morals ‘out there’ in our society, and in our nation, and other nations, that are beyond our personal opinion.  For instance, it is generally believed by most in somewhere like the UK that raping, torturing, and killing, a small child for fun is immoral.  You would be considered a moral monster by most, based on a certain nationally threaded moral, and even if you declared that you believed it was moral, you would be seen as immoral.  The same as something like slavery, or theft, and many other cultural morals.  Or think of something along the lines of Saudi Arabia, where the average morality is fashioned from collective beliefs, based on the teachings of the Qu’ran and the country’s clerics.

Are morals relative?

Both subjective and objective

So, one could say here that there is something of an objective element to morality even at a descriptive level.  We could say that morality is both subjective and objective ‘out there’, depending on what the lens is framed on.  Again, though, that would be too simple of an objection.  For morality, descriptively speaking, is also relative.  We could describe morality as being relative to a particular country.  What may be moral in Saudi Arabia may not be moral in the UK, which may or may not be moral in the USA.  The previous example of morality in Saudi Arabia is another good example of how morality could also be considered relative. 

The individual and collective beliefs about morality, in the UK differ from those of Saudi Arabia, and also differ from those in Canada.  This means that rather than saying that descriptively, morality is subjective is far too simple of a conclusion, and does not tell us the whole story about how morality is distributed in moral agents.  Our morality is socially constructed, based on our country, our country’s history, our personal history, our environment, and much more.  It is relative, objective, and subjective all at the same time, and how we describe it depends on what exactly we have our lens focused on when asking the question.

definition of moral objectivism
https://slideplayer.com/slide/4357305/

Moral objectivism

Which leads us to another objection to this claim.  The argument that morality is objective is not being argued in the descriptive sense, it is being made in the normative sense.  It is arguing that there are moral truths can that be made that are not based on personal preference, and that the morality ‘out there’ could be wrong [4].  Those arguing that morality is objective are arguing that even if a country, or some other social structure, or individual, believes that something is moral, they can be wrong. 

The argument for objective morality is about standards of judgement that exist independently, and we can make arguments that certain behaviour can be considered moral, or immoral, regardless of an individual’s, social structure’s, or country’s opinion.  So, even giving the argument that yes, descriptively, morality is subjective at a certain level, that answer still does not dispute the answer to whether or not morality is objective in the normative sense.  It does not answer the question of whether or not there are standards of judgement concerning moral truths that exist independently of personal opinion, and that we can use to judge a moral agent’s behaviour as right or wrong.

Asking moral questions about right and wrong.

Another problem with subjective morality

Before moving on though, another objection to the descriptive account should be brought up.  The claim that there exist some moral truths beyond personal opinion can help to highlight other objections to this account.  First is that a descriptive account of morality cannot actually give us definitive answers to questions about right or wrong.  It can only tell us what moral agent’s believe is right or wrong, or what various social structure believes.  It cannot, however, make judgements about those beliefs. 

A descriptive account of morality can tell us that in the UK it is immoral to throw a homosexual off the roof of a building, and that it is moral to throw a homosexual off the roof of a building in ISIS controlled territories [5].  It can give us contradictions, but it can never answer the contradictions on way or the other.  It also means that those in UK cannot say to those in ISIS controlled territories that throwing a homosexual off of a building is wrong, or immoral.  For that sort of statement to be true, an objective normative account must be put forward.  Which brings us to another different type of objection to the claim that morality is subjective, the normative claim.

https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2017/08/14/horrific-photos-show-isis-terrorists-throwing-a-gay-man-off-a-roof/

At a normative level

If morality is subjective at the normative level, as well as the descriptive level, then we still have no way of judging whether an action is right or wrong.  The normative version of morality has similar faults to its descriptive version.  There is no way of telling right or wrong, as what a moral agents believes is moral is moral.  So, normatively speaking, in the case of ISIS throwing homosexuals off of buildings we are at the same standoff.  Their actions are moral, they may not be moral for a different individual in a different country, but they are moral actions, nonetheless. 

When a declaration like ‘throwing a homosexual off of a building is wrong’ is made by a moral agent in somewhere like the UK, the claim may be true for them, or in their country, but the claim cannot be made any further than that.  The atheist that declares themselves to be ‘more moral than God’ because ‘rape, slavery, and child abuse’ are wrong, is making a faulty claim, one that cannot be argued from normative subjective morality [6].  There is no such thing as ‘more moral’ in normative subjective morality, nor is there such a thing as ‘the Bible is not a good example of morality’ or ‘the Bible contains bad morals’.  There must be an independent and objective moral system in order for those statements to exist without them being absurd and meaningless statements.

All morals are equal

This means that we either must accept every moral statement made by every moral claim, all at the same time, and we must forfeit our rights to call other’s immoral.  Or we must argue for either the non-existence of moral truths, or the absurdity of moral truths, or the objectivity of moral truths.  That is if we want to have some sort of consistency or coherence in our ethical beliefs anyway.  Which should lead us into a discussion about the arguments for and against objective moral truths. 

Before we move on to discussions about objective moral truths though, it should be said that an argument can also be made that moral truths are simply emotional reactions of joy and repulsion to certain actions, and these emotional reactions are put into propositions, and this is what determines morality at an individual level.  This is an argument from psychology, and is a good descriptor of what morality tends to be at a psychological level.  Even if we grant this truth, that there is this subjective element to it, it is far too simple an answer to the question of whether or not there are objective moral truths.  While it may be important to any moral theory, just as a descriptive account is, it still leaves unanswered questions about normative moral truths.

Conclusion

So, what can we conclude from all this?  Are there arguments that hold up for subjective morality, and allow us to declare that morality is subjective?  There are indeed ways of looking at morality that can allow us to say that there are times that we can declare morality to be subjective.  However, that is an incredibly simplistic answer, and as stated earlier, an answer to a question that is not the one being answered by those that argue that morality is objective.  Those that make objections like ‘different people believe different things are moral’ have answered a question about normativity giving a descriptive account.  Those who argue the same thing about normative morality, cannot make moral judgements either.  All moral truths are equal.  In order for moral truths to not be equal, one must argue from a normative perspective, and therefore give a normative account of morality, and go beyond simple morality into a moral theory.  However, arguing against subjective morality is not the same as arguing for objective morality.  At best it can argue that we have good reason to examine objective morality, and perhaps discard subjective morality is a useful account for moral truths.  So, can an argument for objective morality be made?

References

[1]: Philosophy Index on Moral Subjectivism: http://www.philosophy-index.com/ethics/meta-ethics/subjectivism.php

[2] BBC on Moral Subjectivism: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/subjectivism.shtml

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

[4] Philosophy Index on Moral Objectivism: http://www.philosophy-index.com/ethics/meta-ethics/objectivism.php

[5] Pink News article on execution by ISIS: https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2017/08/14/horrific-photos-show-isis-terrorists-throwing-a-gay-man-off-a-roof/

[6] More Moral Than God style meme: https://me.me/i/ithink-rape-slavery-child-child-abuse-and-genocide-are-always-6752800

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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.