Subjective and Objective Morals and Morality

This article is to define and discuss objective and subjective, morals and morality. As with any article on AiR we don’t always agree. Where science is concerned and the evidence is irrefutable we of course accept and believe it to be true. When it is opinion or something philosophical we may have differences. As such I am glad we have a philosophy masters student in our midst. He has helped me bridge the gap between some ideas and misconceptions I had with academic definitions. My fellow authors may not agree with me on this but we pride ourselves on our reason, reasoning, and being reasonable. Hopefully this article will give us pause for thought and we will all learn something from it.

Self improvement and scepticism

I’ve been on a bit of a self improvement kick recently. I’ve noted a number of faulty arguments and definitions we atheists and agnostics seem to use. A few years ago Kriss put together an article on faulty atheist arguments. I have been undertaking my conflated and misunderstood terms series. We consider ourselves the more rational, as we hold the more rational position, but I have noticed serious resistance when pointing these faulty arguments and definitions out.

There seems to be something that prevents us from looking in to our position again. I think one element is respect. I think another element is wanting to know more. When we have looked in to something a lot can lose interest. We assume we know everything on the topic, forgetting the nuance. Sometimes we don’t respect the person or their position and we don’t listen to them.

{Dave’s Notes: Part of being a sceptic is to question our own deepest held beliefs, knowledge, and what we claim to know. Checking that our beliefs are correct, coherent, and consistent, is something that all sceptics should do. Often times we pick up information from various circles that we travel in, and from people that we hold a lot of respect for. Sometimes that information is wrong. That it comes from someone we respect, or is a commonly held belief in whichever circle we belong, sometimes tricks us into thinking it must be accurate, and this leads us to not question it, and even defend it. These are the beliefs, ideas, and concepts that people that consider themselves to be sceptics should be questioning. It is a good idea to question these kinds of beliefs, ideas, and concepts even if you do not consider yourself to be a sceptic.}

In fact to quote the co-author of this article:

The first step towards the acquisition of knowledge of course is an interest in the topic at hand. If we are not interested in the topic then we will rarely seek out the knowledge. Sometimes it is curiosity, other times it is necessity, but it is usually some kind of interest that begins our journey.

Dave Mark Rowlands
Changing A Mind: Respect Matters (Nov 2016)
https://www.answers-in-reason.com/misc/changing-mind-respect-matters/

Contents

My Personal Journey into Objective Morals and Morality

I admit that my journey and conversations in to objective morality and morals were hindered by a lack of interest, and a lack of respect. The only arguments I heard in favour of objective morality were arguments from theists claiming the morals were from God. I had no respect, because they were arguing from an irrational position.

The best conversation, prior to one with Dave, I had with someone about objective morals was when I stated, “the closest thing I can see to an objective moral is a scale of harm from an evolutionary survival perspective, with a level of nuance, as well as the general well being of the populace.”

The person then responded, along the lines of, “and where do you think that comes from?”

They were arguing from a God perspective, trying to make it that my morals “were written on my heart”, given by God.

I concluded that because:
1. the thoughts came from my head
2. others did not agree with my scale
My scale was subjective, not objective.

In fact this is a faulty understanding of what objective is. So let’s cover the definitions, and delve deeper in to their meaning.

Definitions of Objective, Subjective, Morals and Morality

You should note the words below have many definitions and those supplied are the ones that relate specifically to this topic.

Subjective and Objective Morals and Morality
Objective vs Subjective

Objective

Not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

Subjective

Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.

Moral

Standards of behaviour; principles of right and wrong.

Morality

A particular system of values and principles of conduct.

Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour.

In short, the overarching group of morals.

An Objective Standard

So, the standard of morality I had provided was an objective standard. It wasn’t a personal opinion, it was based in part on science, our survival, and the general well being of people where there is no harm.

I also had the misunderstanding that an objective moral had to be correct – but how could something be correct without a subjective view?

Well, it isn’t about right or wrong, it is about an objective standard.

As Dave explains:

{Dave’s notes: Joe explains the differences very well here, but let me throw in a couple of comments. There are many that claim that morality is subjective because it comes from a mind, and anything that comes from the mind is subjective. While this statement is not technically incorrect, because one of the definitions of subjective is ‘that which comes from a mind’, that is not how the term is used in moral philosophy. In moral philosophy, when we speak of ‘subjective morality’ and ‘morals being subjective’, what we are speaking of is morality being based on personal opinion as per the definition given by Joe here. So, in other words, whatever the moral agent believes to be moral is moral.

This means that if morality is subjective in nature, then a person that believes that kidnapping and raping small children for fun is a moral act, then when that person does said act they have behaved morally. One could argue here that there are those that do not believe that kidnapping and raping small children for fun is a moral act, and so that means that the other person has behaved immorally.

However, that would be misunderstanding what subjective morality actually is. It is true that it would be an immoral act for the person that believes that it is not moral to kidnap and rape small children, however that has no bearing on anyone else. No matter how many people believe that kidnapping and raping small children is immoral, if morality is subjective then it is a moral act for anything that believes it is a moral act. To argue against it is not to give a normative statement, it is not to say ‘no, you have behaved wrongly’, it is simply to say ‘well I believe it is wrong’.

If morality is subjective then it also means statements like ‘the Bible is not a good source of morality’ are false statements. All sources of morality are just as good as each other if morality is subjective. For all that it takes to be a good source of morality is for an agent to believe that it is a good source of morality. There are no standards of judgement to appeal to so that it could be said that anything was not a good source of morality. The Bible is as good a source of morality as the Qu’ran, which is as good a source of morality as secular morality, which is as good a source of morality as the code of an organised crime gang running child prostitutes.}

So what does that mean for my standard on harm?

So my moral standard on harm, is not subjective, it is objective.

However, it does not fully qualify as a correct objective standard. This is not because it is wrong, there is enough evidence to back it up, but it IS incomplete.

A vaccination causes harm, but is ultimately amoral or even moral.

For example a vaccination causes harm in the short term. You get a small prick in your arm (oi oi). You can feel sick for a few days after. However it not only protects the self but others around you from disease. We are protecting the species. The long term effect outweighs the short term harm. The short term harm is amoral, and the long term effect makes it a moral action.

So we can modify this standard to being a reduction in harm for the long term benefit of the species.

Amoral Harm

We then have other forms of harm, that largely harm the self. Drinking, Smoking (except for 2nd hand smoke), and even drugs, all in moderation are neither moral or immoral. They are amoral. The same can be said for BDSM.

Again we have to modify our objective standard on harm. An objective standard, especially a correct objective standard, is completely nuanced. In fact I am oversimplifying it, but in short if a moral is built on more than personal opinion, e.g. using scientific evidence, then it becomes objective.

Conclusion 1: Morals are objective

Whilst people might have a subjective moral, they are not ever held in this regard. If they were, anyone could do anything because they felt it was moral. An Objective moral might start subjectively but is built on by so much more.

Remember Dave’s example above. If morals can be held to a subjective standard, anyone can do anything and claim it is moral, and this just isn’t the case.

A subjective moral example

“I don’t like people doing x. I think x is icky. x is immoral.”

Pure opinion.

An objective moral example

“I don’t think it is right to do x. x not only affects the person, but folks around them in a negative way. In fact it can have an ongoing effect that lasts for generations which we can see by studies in psychology that prove the x behaviour causes an insurmountable number of issues.”

Has a basis outside personal opinion.

So Morals are Objective, what about Morality?

Again this one seemed like such a puzzle to me that morality was objective. Even if we had objective morals, surely the standard of morality provided came from us? Does that not mean they are subjective?

{Dave’s notes: The standard of morality provided does come from us, kind of. More specifically it comes from moral philosophy, and arguments for moral systems. Morality is, essentially, the study of right and wrong behaviour, what are good and bad actions. So, the standard of morality comes from a mind. However, this takes us back to the different definitions as stated previously. Bearing that in mind, what makes morality objective rather than subjective.

This one is a little trickier than objective morals. There are several normative moral systems that exist, like hedonism, utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, preference satisfaction, and more. One could argue here that the fact that we choose our preferred system makes morality subjective. While it may be true that we end up choosing our preferred moral system, this still does not make morality itself subjective. Why is it still not subjective though?

It is still not subjective because while the individual may be convinced by particular arguments for what morality itself is, it those arguments that define morality; and the agent may even be convinced by an erroneous version of morality. For example, Hedonists define morality as being defined by actions that produce pleasure, happiness, and/or remove suffering (depending on their version of Hedonism). However, this may not be an accurate definition of what makes something moral. It may be virtue ethics that is correct, or utilitarianism, or preference satisfaction, or it may be more cosmopolitan. Us choosing what defines something as moral does not necessarily make what we chose correct, which would have to be the case if what defines morality is subjective. What defines morality is beyond personal opinion, even if we have not yet come to the correct conclusion.

Another way to look at it

To add to what Dave says, if we consider morality to be a group of behaviours (morals), even if all of these individual behaviours were held to a subjective standard, the over arching group on their definition would still be above opinion. So really, no matter if morals are subjective or objective, morality is still objective.

Conclusion 2: Morality is Objective

{Dave’s notes: There are obviously many different arguments around morality. There are those that argue that morality is subjective, relative, objective, and some even argue from a more Nihilist point of view; declaring that talk of morality is meaningless. However, these are the reasons why I consider morality to be objective (not based in personal opinion), rather than subjective (based on personal opinion):

1) Morality is the study of right and wrong actions. If morality is based entirely on personal opinion then it can never tell us what actually are right and wrong actions. It can only tell us what people’s opinions of right and wrong actions are.

2) If morality is based entirely on personal opinion then raping and torturing small children for fun and pleasure is moral so long as the agent believes it is moral, slavery is moral so long as people believe it is moral, and throwing homosexuals off of tall buildings simply because they are homosexual is moral so long as people believe it is moral. This could be considered a fallacy of affirming the consequent of course, because we are saying P must be true because otherwise p.

However, we argue as if these things are categorically wrong. So therefore there is a certain intuition about morality that makes it appear as though there are standards of judgement that exist beyond personal opinion. We argue that these things are wrong because of P, with P being the standards of judgement for moral actions. So we are not necessarily arguing that morality must be objective because otherwise these things would be considered wrong. We are argument that this things are generally considered to be categorically wrong, so therefore there must be standards of judgement to morality that exist beyond personal opinion.

3) As stated above, we behave as if there are standards of judgement to morality. For example, we find many atheists stating that the Bible promotes slavery and therefore it is not a good source of morality. We also find many atheists stating that God is a moral monster, or that they have better morals than the God described in the Bible or the Qu’ran. This could only be the case if morality had standards of judgement that went beyond personal opinion. So we behave as if there are standards of judgement to morality that are beyond the agent’s personal opinion, we behave as if morality is objective.

Considering all these three things together it gives us good reason to believe that morality is objective in nature. The most important point being the first. For if morality is the study of right and wrong actions, and a way to normatively tell us what those right and wrong actions are, then subjective morality can never fulfill the goal of morality. Subjective morality is self defeating.}



However, we argue as if these things are categorically wrong. So therefore there is a certain intuition about morality that makes it appear as though there are standards of judgement that exist beyond personal opinion. We argue that these things are wrong because of P, with P being the standards of judgement for moral actions. So we are not necessarily arguing that morality must be objective because otherwise these things would be considered wrong. We are argument that this things are generally considered to be categorically wrong, so therefore there must be standards of judgement to morality that exist beyond personal opinion.

3) As stated above, we behave as if there are standards of judgement to morality. For example, we find many atheists stating that the Bible promotes slavery and therefore it is not a good source of morality. We also find many atheists stating that God is a moral monster, or that they have better morals than the God described in the Bible or the Qu’ran. This could only be the case if morality had standards of judgement that went beyond personal opinion. So we behave as if there are standards of judgement to morality that are beyond the agent’s personal opinion, we behave as if morality is objective.

Considering all these three things together it gives us good reason to believe that morality is objective in nature. The most important point being the first. For if morality is the study of right and wrong actions, and a way to normatively tell us what those right and wrong actions are, then subjective morality can never fulfill the goal of morality. Subjective morality is self defeating.}

Does the Bible provide an Objective Morality?

Theists like to wave the Bible in your face as an objective standard, but does it truly hold up as one? Does it make a difference if you are a theist or an atheist? I’m going to pass this over to Dave to field.

{Dave’s notes: The Bible does provide an objective framework for morality. The morals within the Bible are not supposed to be open to personal interpretation, they are standards of judgement that are supposed to give us a normative framework for how we behave. That they are interpreted differently by different people does not necessarily make them subjective. It makes those that interpret them in a way they are not supposed to be wrong. However, just because the Bible provides a framework for objective morality that does not necessarily mean that this framework is correct. There are many problems with Divine Command Theory that show it to be a faulty moral framework. It would also have to be shown that the god of the Bible actually exists, and this god’s existence is something I believe can be argued against and shown to be false.}

Even though it is used as an objective framework, it seems evident that these morals were not from a god. This might be hard to understand as to why they are considered an objective framework. To a Christian these morals are above personal opinion. They come from a complete external source. These morals may have been created either objectively or subjectively but due to the way Christians perceive them, form an objective framework.

As we have said a number of times, objective does not mean correct.

Arguments for subjective morality

We must of course acknowledge there ARE arguments for subjective morality and felt we should present them here.

The following are a list of arguments we have compiled. If you have any others you feel should be included please submit them.

Knowledge and evidence comes from/is processed by our mind so nothing is truly objective. Even if you were to provide something that fits the definition of an objective standard, you are subjectively making a distinction on if the scale is right or wrong.

Error Types: Misunderstanding, Application

This argument poses a number of issues.

  1. Objective Morals do not have to be right or wrong
  2. It is a misunderstanding of objective. If you are using that knowledge and evidence to present a well formed moral standard rather than it being something more subjective like “I don’t like it” it is an objective moral. Yes, there could be some subjectivity to it or the application of objectivity could be flawed, but it would still be an objective moral.

Objective means anything that exists outside the mind, and subjective is anything that exists inside the mind. As morality comes from a mind, morality is subjective by definition.

Error Type: Definition

  1. This simply does not fit the definition of objective or an objective moral, definitions provided above.
  2. By using a faulty definition, you are of course right by that definition.

Different people believe different things are moral, so morality is subjective.

Error Type: Misunderstanding

  1. People can approach morality both subjectively and objectively, but a normative moral standard will only be accepted in an objective sense.
  2. The fact people have a different belief in their morals does not make them subjective, if morals were truly subjective anyone could claim anything was moral and do it. The fact that people are held to a standard above their own personal belief(or opinion) of what is moral shows that morality is objective.

Different cultures believe different things are moral, so morality is relative.

Error Type: Misunderstanding

  1. I actually agree morals can be relative, but the approach to both would be objective. Objective morals can and do change the more evidence we present. If a culture is lacking the knowledge of certain things, then its scale of morality would be different. However the scale would still be presented objectively.
  2. Bare in mind an objective moral does not have to be right or wrong, just outside personal opinion whilst considering the facts. If your facts are faulty or incomplete, your morals will be faulty or incomplete, but that doesn’t make them any less objective

Morality changes over time, things like slavery were considered moral in the past and immoral now, so morality is subjective/relative.

Error Type: Misunderstanding

  1. This is one of the reasons I too though morality was subjective. As discussed and objective moral does not have to be correct. As such, morals can be self correcting in the sense that as new evidence comes to light, our understanding of certain topics changes.
  2. “our understanding” does not make it subjective. If I had 3 pieces of evidence that indicated men should rule over women, but then later discovered 4 pieces of evidence that showed how there should be equality in the sexes I made both distinctions objectively, I just corrected my standard when new evidence came to light.
  3. Consider science. As new evidence comes to light we might modify our understanding and change a theory. It doesn’t mean that theory was wrong, whilst it could be, it was likely just incomplete. It doesn’t mean that theory was subjective, it was still based on evidence above personal opinion, we just didn’t have all the evidence.

The same action can be considered moral in one context and immoral in another, so therefore morality is subjective and contextual.

Error Type: Misunderstanding

  1. What you are looking at here is what is known as a ‘Nuance’. Morals are far more deep than stating a single action is right or wrong. Lets take a single action. Killing. Now killing is never moral, but you could consider in some circumstances it to be the lesser of two evils. The situation might be initially subjective but the standard you hold it to would be done objectively. What were the reasons for killing? If you hadn’t killed that person what would have happened?

Morality is a concept, and concepts come from minds, so morality is subjective.

Error Type: Definition, Misunderstanding, Conflation.

  1. Here we are conflating something that “comes from mind” with something that has been “processed by mind using facts and evidence”
  2. Objective does not mean “comes from outside the mind” – that’s a common misunderstanding. I feel it is linked to the theological approach on objective morality, that morals come from God.
    An objective Moral is built by considering the available facts and evidence without personal opinion. The facts are the facts regardless of what your opinion is.
    e.g. Has abuse ever been shown to have a positive effect?

Morality is not an intrinsic/inherent property of the universe, and is created by subjects, so therefore morality is subjective.

Error Type: Misunderstanding

  1. It doesn’t matter who it was created by, just how it was created.
    “it’s not the destination, its the journey”
  2. It sounds like you are arguing against universal morality rather than objective morality.

Morality is an emotional response to things that either please us or offend us, so therefore morality is subjective.

Error Type: Misunderstanding

  1. Rape is pleasing to a rapist. Rape is not pleasing to a non-rapist.
    If morality was subjective then rape would be ok for the rapist to perform but not ok for the non-rapist to perform.
    Is rape ok for anyone to perform?
  2. What makes us have an emotional response? Does simply being offended make something immoral? Some people are offended by homosexuality, yet over the years we have come to realise love between two consenting adults is just love. There is nothing wrong with it. In fact homophobia, and other forms of bigotry, have become immoral.

Whilst there might be an objective standard, you are deciding if that action is moral or immoral, therefore even if a moral is built on an objective framework, morality is subjective.

Error Type: Misunderstanding

  1. Whilst I do understand that this is an area that could lean to an area of subjectivity, this too is approached objectively. Consider abuse, let’s use child abuse in this example. Has this ever been shown to have a positive effect? What do all the studies on child abuse say?
  2. Deciding something that is shown to have a negative impact, immoral does not make it subjective. Simply look up the synonyms of immoral; bad, vile, depraved, wrongful etc and consider if child abuse fits this definition. This isn’t opinion, you are comparing a behaviour to a definition. Again your decision is objective.

Most arguments for subjective morality are either empirical based or like you say, based on a misunderstanding/misrepresentation of what subjective actually means. There are no actual arguments for why morality itself should be subjective.

So does subjective morality exist?

Whilst people can build subjective morals, or have an opinion on an objective moral, in that they disagree with it for personal reasons rather than intellectual ones, the overarching element is a comparison to a standard, either subjective or objective, which is not based on personal opinion.

Based on a correct definition and understanding of what constitutes an objective moral and objective morality, I now understand objective morals and morality do exist. In fact no subjective moral has any bearing on anything else.

How will you choose to agree or disagree?

I also understand that folks who disagree with this will either do so subjectively, “I don’t like the sound of that!” or objectively, “based on x body of evidence I find your conclusions to be misplaced because of y.”

Every argument I see in favour of subjective morality revolves around either objective morals requiring a deity, objective morals being unchanging, or objective morality not existing because it requires human input making it subjective. In other words, every argument seems to revolve around a faulty definition.

Consider this, when has a subjective moral, that is to say one built from opinion e.g. “I like killing therefore it is moral” ever had any bearing or relevance against an objective standard?

Can we ever eliminate the element of personal opinion from a moral or morality? Doesn’t that make morality ultimately subjective?

This is a good question. This is something I have been pondering and one that kept me on the path of subjective morality. Whilst you might agree with the evidence, and therefore your opinion is the evidence is correct, the moral has still been built in an objective way. Unless you are ignoring credible evidence you don’t agree with, the moral is objective. Your personal opinion on an objective moral does not make it any more or less objective.

Equally you can approach the correct/incorrect element objectively. Consider the harm standard, specifically abuse in this instance. Is there an example where we can show abuse to have a positive effect on anyone? As there are only negative effects from this, would the behaviour not fit the definition of immoral?

Think about it this way:

Even if every moral was indeed subjective morality as a whole would still be objective.

Why? Because you are holding each moral to a standard (or definition) that is outside of your mind. It wouldn’t be your opinion if the moral was subjective or objective, you would be comparing that moral to an objective standard. . This makes MORALITY objective even if all morals were subjective. This of course isn’t the whole argument, but I feel Dave explained it clearly above.

Many folks who read this article will still be of the opinion morality is subjective. Perhaps they will be using a definition or understanding that doesn’t quite fit the actual definition that I haven’t covered off here.

I would love any feedback, or any great arguments for subjective morality, so please feel free to add a comment below and let’s have a discussion. Or even better, let’s have a full blown debate in our facebook group!

Final Thoughts

I was wrong before when I said morals and morality were subjective.

Using a faulty, erroneous definition, I thought objective morals had to be correct and were unchanging. Mistakenly, I believed if any part of the moral came from my mind, it was subjective. Objective, when concerned with morality is defined as means based on facts, in the same way we have an objective truth of an apple being an apple, vs the subjective, “I like the taste of apples,” which I misunderstood. I thought an objective moral meant it came from God. Because people had different morals, I thought they were all subjective. As you can see from this article, they are common mistakes.

I have, because of this faulty definition and understanding, hammered the old “morals are subjective” train.

Sorry!

I must apologise to anyone who I belligerently went on about how morals were subjective. Equally I hope those who knew morals were objective (excluding the god creature) can now explain to others in a way that they may accept.

As a sceptic we need to constantly reassess and reevaluate things when new evidence and arguments are presented to us. There is nothing wrong with admitting we are mistaken, though I do understand it is hard for some to swallow their pride.

I am happy to discuss this further and hope that folks respond to the article with any evidence for or against the argument.

Thanks Dave!

I’d like to thank Dave, for answering all my questions and helping me reference and correct my faulty definitions in this article, previous articles and others I have on the go. Whilst interested in Philosophy, I’ve spent far more time researching science and battling pseudoscience and faulty religious arguments.

My pleasure, Joe! Thanks for actually listening to what I had to say, rather than simply getting angry and yelling! 😀 – Dave

Online Discussions of Morality vs Ours

I’ve found online most folks are either flexing their ego or recycling something they don’t fully understand themselves. When you probe for answers they can’t give you them (unless it is something like “morals are from god” – and then they can’t answer why the morals are so poor in the Bible). This in turn has made me hold on to faulty definitions myself. Being told you are wrong without correction or direction is useless.

These conversations just result in people shouting their opinion on something without providing sufficient reasoning either way. How many times to we see atheists just shouting “Morality is subjective” at a theist who uses their Bible as an objective standard. When questioned they either can’t explain why, or use one of the faulty arguments/understandings above.

The arguments seem to be around folks arguing for ideological purposes rather than to understand the topic of morality. Folks are so concerned with arguing the conclusion, and against God, they don’t take the time to truly educate themselves.

I’ve really enjoyed our conversations and thank you for the inspiration to write again.

Read Again?