Morality is one of my favourite topics so I was overjoyed when someone posted this question in our debate group. It made me realise that I think about morality in a different way to what I used to.
Whilst I used to be firmly in the subjective camp, learning more about morality and moral language got me to realise many folks were not really talking about it properly, just like I wasn’t, and as I learned more I moved through being firmly in the objective camp to a place where I have concluded morality is far more complicated than a simple objective vs subjective. Even though some of my conclusions are the same, I think about them in a different way, so I thought it would be good to write this down in more detail.
This article is going to provide some background and information about issues with discussing morality then head into justifications for my particular stance on ethics. I will provide links to previous articles, videos, and other content I have referenced.
- What We See
- How it ought to be
- Descriptive vs. Normative Morality
- What’s the Meta With You?
- Justifying Ethical Positions
What We See
Descriptively speaking we can see all sorts of morality playing out. Different cultures have different standards of morality. Individuals have their own standards. People used different normative ethical theories, and so on. Out in the world, we can see morality applied in different ways, and spoken about in confusing ways that seem to contradict peoples positions.
Part of the confusion is down to moral language, and the terminology used having different applications not only outside morality but within morality too, consider how theory and hypothesis have very specific uses within science, but colloquially just mean ideas and conjecture.
Subjective & Morality
So, whilst subjective could mean “from a mind” it’s largely considered a useless distinction, especially with something conceptual like morality, logic, or truth.. hell, even the scientific method came from a mind and I doubt anyone would say it was subjective.
It should be noted a phrase like ‘subjective morality’ could relate to Moral Subjectivism or the various forms of Non-Cognitivism. Moral Subjectivism is also considered a subset of Moral Relativism by some too.
Objective & Morality
Objective has multiple meanings, especially within morality, and often is misunderstood. I’ve known people think Objective means absolute, universal, or correct… and that isn’t necessarily true. What it does mean, in most cases, is above personal opinion or based on faces.
Ethics vs. Morality
One of the most common mistakes in language I see when discussing morality is people presenting a weird version of Ethics and Morality.
They describe morality as your personal morals and values and ethics as your per societies/institutionalised morals and values.
What’s the problem?
The problem with this use, other than it being akin to a creationist insisting evolution means a change in kind, is it pigeonholes the topic of ethics and morality into boxes it doesn’t really belong in. It essentially relegates ethics to moral relativism and morality to moral subjectivism. I will come to these terms later on, but it would be like saying science is just directing animals and math is just counting.
So how should we understand ethics and morality?
Morality is the principles of good and bad or right and wrong behaviour.
Ethics, especially in western english speaking cultures, can mean the same. Though the terms are used interchangeably ethics also has a larger application. Ethics is the study of morality and moral values and the questioning and justification of moral principles and ethical standards.
One way to think of it is:
- It is immoral to steal: is morality as it is a principle stating the wrongness of a behaviour.
- It is immoral to steal because [enter justification]: is ethics as you are justifying the principle.
That said, this distinction is rarely used in English-speaking cultures, especially in general conversation outside of a classroom.
Summary of Linguistic Confusion and Morality
There are clearly problems when discussing morality that come down to the base elements of moral language, let alone people arguing for or against a particular ethical position and I haven’t exhausted all the problems in the language above, thought TrolleyDave(@trolleydave) and I covered some of the major talking points in the below video
How it ought to be
‘Normative ethics’ is an enormous field. It is concerned with the articulation and the justification of the fundamental principles that govern the issues of how we should live and what we morally ought to do. Its most general concerns are providing an account of moral evaluation and, possibly, articulating a decision procedure to guide moral action.Driver, Julia, ‘ Normative Ethics’, in Frank Jackson, and Michael Smith (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy (2007; online edn, Oxford Academic, 2 Sept. 2009), https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199234769.003.0002, accessed 21 Sept. 2023
Normative ethics deals with various systems of morality that talk about how we ought to view and calculate moral behaviours. So from this perspective, there are different objective standards. They’re not necessarily correct objective standards though.
Again, we are back to the language issue here. Objective simply means above personal opinion. Simply disagreeing with a normative ethical theory doesn’t change that theory. It might be wrong, or not the whole picture, but it is still objective.
Normative ethical theories also have an objective, or more accurately they have some basis for their calculation. The objective of utilitarianism is to maximise pleasure and minimise suffering, for example.
Descriptive vs. Normative Morality
A descriptive statement is one that describes what we see, and how something is being applied.
A normative statement is one that has gone through the process of normalisation, hello is normatively a greeting, for example. When it comes to ethics, the statement refers how we ought to be acting.
A culture may believe it is moral to abuse babies or own slaves. Descriptively speaking “it is moral to own slaves and abuse babies” is part of their culture.
Normatively, we could say one ought to see owning slaves and abusing babies as immoral regardless of what the culture says. This would be based on any number of justifications and part of normative ethical theories.
Descriptive Morality: Describes how morality is being applied; what people and cultures believe is right and wrong regardless of what is.
Normative Morality: Describes how morality ought to be applied; What is right or wrong regardless of what people believe.
What’s the Meta With You?
The person’s question actually pertained to metaethics. Everything up until now has been providing some context for moral language and how some people might have interpreted the question.
Metaethics is a branch of analytic philosophy that explores the status, foundations, and scope of moral values, properties, and words. Whereas the fields of applied ethics and normative theory focus on what is moral, metaethics focuses on what morality itself is.Metaethics | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (utm.edu)
Meta Ethical Positions
For anyone who wants more info, this is a quick overview of metaethical positions… it’s not exhaustive, but covers the main ones you’ll hear spoken about:
My Moral Leanings
I lean towards moral realism, sometimes referred to as Moral Objectivism or Ethical Objectivism, and is what is usually meant by the phrase “Objective Morality” though, as described above, could relate to other things like normative ethical standards.
The following video is just a quick overview of Moral Realism and the common mistakes people make when discussing it.
However, I am not strongly in the realism camp and sometimes I not only go anti-realism but into fictionalism/quasi-realism. Still, I am always pulled back to realism and some days my belief in it is stronger than others.
What type of Moral Realism?
I lean towards non-naturalistic moral realism, aka ethical non-naturalism.
- Ethical sentences express propositions. (Moral cognitivism)
- Some such propositions are true. (Not error theory)
- Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion. (Objective morality/moral realism)
- These moral features of the world are not reducible to any set of non-moral features (ethical non-naturalism)
Why Ethical Non-Naturalism
I lean towards non-naturalism over naturalism as I don’t think there’s anything under a moral judgement that makes something good… we can’t simply say pleasure = good or X needs y therefore it’s is good for X to obtain y, at least in a moral sense.
We can’t point at a behaviour, feeling etc. and see it is “morally good” like we can point at something and see it is “hard” or “smooth” – yes, there are certain qualities to pleasure that make it of value and therefore good in some way, but I think we need more justification to say something is a moral good.
To really understand what a moral good is, we first have to question what ‘good‘ is.
What is good?
What is ‘good’ is that which has benefit or is of value to something or someone. Pleasure is good in the sense that it gives the person a positive experience… they feel good, so pleasure has value in and of itself. Pleasure might make someone more productive at work or more positive in interpersonal relationships, so there is an instrumental benefit to pleasure too. But what about pleasure, or anything else, signifies this as some sort of moral good?
When it comes to morality what is good is that which benefits the goals or purpose of morality. Without a goal or objective, there’s nothing to actually base what is good or bad on at all, it’s just conjecture.
What’s the purpose of Morality?
Morality as a concept seems to have “flourishing” as its primary purpose. This can be broken down into smaller pieces such as survival, collaboration, greater goods, Reducing/preventing suffering, Increasing pleasure, Collaborative and cohesive societies, Keeping Order, Fulfilling Duties and obligations, and satisfying preferences (that don’t harm others).
I came to this conclusion from reading up on various moral theories and considering the pre-morality state to the state of morality today. Whilst my positions and thinking have changed slightly since I first looked into the topic, the result is largely the same, so for more justification on my thinking, please check Does Morality Have a Purpose?
But Morality is A Concept…
Morality is conceptual, so some people think this is automatically subjective, especially from those that use subjective to mean “from a mind”, but logic, numbers and so on are not subjective.
The rules of logic describe objective truths (outside of manmade systems) so morality *could* be the same, and seems to be.
…It changes though
Yes, morality is a concept. And as a concept, it is one that has changed and is often viewed differently by other people. It has evolved as our understanding of morality has evolved, much like we understand more about logic or realise that in specific contexts there might be an exception like in a man-made system you might end up with a true contradiction.
Things changing, improving, being discarded or humans understanding more about things doesn’t mean they are subjective. Science is constantly changing as we perform more experiments and technology improves allowing us to investigate things. So why would learning more and altering logic, morality or any other concept necessarily make it subjective?
In it’s pre-morality state, it was likely akin to Hume’s emotivism but these built into more robust rules.. we entered a more relativistic state doing what was right for the time and the cultures… but we look back on things like slavery and say “it was never moral to own slaves” which speaks to truth above culture and time, or an error in phrasing.
People Disagree though…
Let’s go back to another concept for a second, the rules of logic.
I don’t think these rules exist in some sort of platonic form, but they describe things as they actually are.
The rules of logic only exist because of minds, which in turn lead to or caused observation and language, which in turn lead to us conceiving the rules, but they are still objectively true.
A=A is still true even without a mind to state it and if someone disagrees they are just wrong.
It is immoral to rape and torture even without a mind to state it (though if there are no minds it does lose anything meaningful) and if someone disagrees, they are just wrong.
If it were not for minds we would not even have the concept of truth. There would only be what is. Truth relates to how close a statement matches reality.
So, truth is conceptual. Logic is conceptual, and the rules of logic are true.
Morality is conceptual. Broadly speaking it’s purpose is flourishing but we could break it down into smaller parts like i mentioned before e.g. :
- Greater goods
- Reducing/preventing suffering
- Increasing pleasure
- Collaborative and cohesive societies
- Keeping Order
- Fulfilling Duties and obligations
- Satisfying preferences (that don’t harm others)
And we can make objective statements about what best fulfils these ends. We might sometimes get it wrong, we might not have all the information but that doesn’t make the statement any less objective.
Objective doesn’t necessarily mean correct, it just means above personal opinion / based on facts.
There may be different contexts that change the statements, but that doesn’t mean they are not objective, that that context might make something, usually immoral, permissible or even moral.
Objective is not the same as absolute or universal, and it doesn’t mean something cannot be contextual.
The rate at which water freezes in your freezer will change based on the temperature of the water before you put it in and how cold and sealed your freezer is.
It doesn’t make the rate water freezes any less objective, just that there are contexts that can change this rate of freezing.. and if the freezer is off or broken, the water won’t freeze at all
Same for moral statements.
Morality doesn’t have to be wholly objective!
To be a moral realist is not to say morality is wholly objective. It’s just that to say there is at least one moral fact/objective truth.
I think morality is more complex than it being a simple objective vs subjective, there’s even the potential of conflicting facts in situations where you have to choose between values or the lesser of 2 eviles.
Justifying Ethical Positions
At the start, I said you can see all sorts actually playing out. Descriptively, morality is definitely a mix.
Normatively, there are normative ethical standards.. which are objective, they are just not necessarily correct objective standards… and even then there is a subjective element if someone is “choosing” a particular standard to follow.
From a metaethics point of view, I lean towards realism, but I am not sure any ethical position is wholly justified.
One of the problems with justifying an ethical position is the fact there are no tangible facts. There are facts that can be fed into some ethical calculous or used as examples, but there isn’t anything we can point to and say “this is a moral good” like we can “this slope is steep”.
Whilst I provided some of my justification about concepts having the ability to be objective, that doesn’t really make a concept necessarily so either, even the laws of logic are sort of “self-justified” by fiat of how they are describing exactly what is.
So how do we justify Moral Realism?
If we briefly consider how morality developed among humans, we can imagine early man in that pre-morality state, they observed how people’s behaviours affected them and theirs affected others and sometimes how doing X resulted in a negative outcome like being chased or beaten.. and how working together made people strong and so on.
This evolved into these principles of right and wrong as we evolved and our understanding of morality evolved and what morality ought to represent.
This is why fictionalism is sometimes a strong pull for me, because it could just be a useful fiction like “the sunrise” – the sun doesn’t rise it just appears that way, our language describes how it looks, but most of us understand what is actually happening.
So moral language could just be a useful fiction…
But… societies flourish and people tend to be happier where moral behaviours are encouraged, and I’m not talking about strict adherence to divine command theory, I mean with those cultures that have continued to develop their understanding of morality and create a more equitable and happy environment.
So, there is some truth in the sense that the principles, when followed and thought about by a majority, tend to result in happier people, collaborative and cohesive societies, more order, less riots and so on.
Just like if the “sunrise” was never conceived the sun would still appear in the sky and warm the planet and it would still look like the sun was rising from the equator, if morality was never conceived and people acted in a way that would be in line with what regard as moral behaviour, societies would still flourish. If the purpose of a concept is fulfilled by acting in accordance with that concept, then doesn’t that give it some kind of objectivity?
There are lots of different ways you can push back against any ethical position and whilst I won’t be exhaustive, these are some common ones I get in conversation.
Flourishing is a subjective goal
One could push back on flourishing and say that’s a subjective goal, even though that’s what all moral theories seem to represent much like rationality seems to pertain to logical thinking… and even subjective goals can have objective best ways to achieve them, consider a goal driving to Scotland in the fastest time possible without breaking any laws, depending on the time of day there may be better routes, but there will still be an objectively best route unless there are any unforeseen circumstances…
Even if in its conception the purpose of morality was a wholly subjective idea from a single individual so is ultimately subjective, disagreeing with that purpose doesn’t change it, you’re just wrong, so that purpose is still objective.
Consider any political theory – disagreeing with the tenets of conservatism or liberalism or communism doesn’t change what they are, saying capitalism is about giving everyone a free ride and the help they need doesn’t make it so. These concepts are established, they are objective. We can disagree with a concept from a value perspective, but that doesn’t change the concept, just that we have an opinion that the concept is flawed or grotesque in some way.
Of course, there are various takes on morality, and some might argue that flourishing isn’t the goal. However, from an examination of normative and metaethics and the way morality has affected us over the years, it seems that this is the ultimate purpose, even if some of the underlying theories only deal with one side of the die.
It’s a subjective judgement that happier and more productive = good
“It’s a subjective value judgement that people being happier, more productive and so is a good thing!” is commonly said here. There is a clear benefit to the society from which I infer the goodness, which in turn fits in with the purpose of morality and is therefore a moral good.
Benefit is a Subjective Judgement
They can be even more reductive and say that benefit is a wholly subjective judgement and I get to the point where I think they are just dancing around language and what is meant by these words to avoid reconsidering their position.
Even if one is a moral subjectivist I don’t know how they could say the advancement in medicine showing a benefit in increased life span and better health etc. compared to 4k years ago is not a benefit I really don’t know… but they can and will say that it’s still a subjective judgment that is good or of benefit…
And if I resist the to totally face-palm and still want to engage… I might address, as I did earlier, that what is of benefit is that which improves something in some way or adds value to it.
It makes a good for b… but doesn’t necessarily mean a moral good.. even a knife has more benefit than an eraser for slicing someone’s throat .. that doesn’t mean it is good to slice someone’s throat just that the knife has more instrumental value than the eraser for this task.
For the concept of longevity, what is of benefit is what increases life span, so medicine is good in this regard.
It’s objectively true that medicine has increased life span.
Moral behaviours have benefited societies and individuals by making people happier, more productive, more collaborative and cohesive and so on. We are a social species and working together has helped us survive and thrive.
Moral behaviours have objectively benefited homo-sapiens… and sure, we can still point to bad moral theories like DCT and many of the lessons within the Bible and Qur’an, but even then those have had a net positive historically and now the world knows and understands more they should be put to bed..
So morality has benefited humans, even if morality is but a fiction, orders, expressions of emotion etc., morality has played a part in our flourishing.
All the moral theories I have looked into seem to have a few if not all the qualities I mentioned resulting in a net flourishing. Some even outright mention it, consider Aristotle and Eudaimonia.
So, the goal of morality seems to be flourishing in some way shape or form.. morality has and continues to help… and as our understanding of morality and what it ought to represent evolves it gets better at doing that.
So even if “it is moral to help others” is meaningless, in the propositional sense that moral is just a fiction and therefore the statement holds no truth, it is true that those behaviours we have called moral benefit people/societies/homo-sapiens.
If the purpose of morality is flourishing (or similar), and a behaviour helps us flourish, then that behaviour is moral, objectively so, even if ultimately “moral” is but a mere fictionalised label.
X is moral essentially means X helps us flourish and if we can see a behaviour consistently helping this in say an 80/20 sort of way, we have enough evidence to conclude that that behaviour objectively helps us flourish (though is sometimes misplaced – consider virtue ethics and balancing the scale to be brave between cowardice and stupidity).
Like logic describes things that are, the way I see morality is it describes how things are… Broadly speaking, things that help us flourish as a species are moral, like a statement without contradiction is logical.
Moral and logical are just shortcuts in language to describe certain concepts.
Morality is without physical form and there are no atomic particles of morality. I don’t believe in platonic forms, so I don’t think morality, logic, numbers etc. have a form in another realm. I don’t think morality is necessarily part of the fabric of the universe, though it does seem to be born of social and empathetic creatures then firmed up through rationalisation, understanding, and additional evidence from consequences etc.
Whilst empathy seems to be at the heart of morality, it is not the totality of the moral experience, and sometimes through reasoning, we can see that empathy can be misplaced.
As a concept, morality seems to have an ultimate purpose of flourishing, and considering this end we can make objective statements based on the evidence of what will help us achieve this goal.
Moral facts exist, they are derived from comparing behaviours and consequences to the purpose.
- Moral Metrics: An AI’s Attempt to Quantify Philosophical Systems
- Where Do You Stand On Morality? What Are Your Justifications?
- Exploring the Intersection of AI and Ethics: Who’s Responsible?
- The Truth of it All
- Subjectively Wrong
- Free Will & Determinism
- Morality, Agency and Intent
- The Evidence – The NonSequitur Court Proceedings: Part 2
- Fresh AiR – Season 2 – Ethics and Morality
- The Brief – The NonSequitur Court Proceedings: Part 1
- The Morality of Forced/Rejecting Vaccinations.
- Sin-onyms; The sinful use of synonyms – CMT: Volume 9
- Does Morality Have a Purpose?
- On Value
- Virtue Ethics: The Super-Man
- A Response to YouTuber PigPuncher
- Fresh AiR – Season 1 – A Different Lens
- On Morality: Part 2 – Subjective Morality
- On Morality: Part 1 – Defining Our Terms
- Objective / Subjective – Morals / Morality – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms – Volume 3
I’m Joe. I write under the name Davidian, not only because it is a Machine Head song I enjoy but because it was a game character I used to role-play that was always looking to better himself.
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