There is nothing wrong with morality being subjective!

Whenever I argue that morality is subjective I encounter people who regard that idea as so unpalatable that they are determined that we must find a scheme — somehow, anyhow — in which morality can be regarded as objective. The term “subjective” has such negative connotations. I argue here that such connotations are not justified.

If we ask what morality actually is, the only plausible answer is that morality is about the feelings that humans have about how we act, particularly about how we treat each other. This was proposed by the greatest ever scientist, Charles Darwin, who in Chapter 3 of his Descent of Man stated that that “moral faculties of man have been gradually evolved” and says that “the moral sense is fundamentally identical with the social instincts”.

He explains that in social animals such instincts would take the form that in each individual:

… an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed the one impulse rather than the other.

The world’s greatest ever philosopher, David Hume, had earlier arrived at the same conclusion. In his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals he explained that “morality is determined by sentiment”, saying that “in moral deliberations” the “approbation or blame … cannot be the work of the judgement”, but is instead “an active feeling or sentiment”.

Hume continues:

In these sentiments then, not in a discovery of relations of any kind, do all moral determinations consist. . . .

… we must at last acknowledge, that the crime or immorality is no particular fact or relation, which can be the object of the understanding, but arises entirely from the sentiment of disapprobation, which, by the structure of human nature, we unavoidably feel on the apprehension of barbarity or treachery.

No-one has ever suggested any alternative account of morals that makes the slightest sense. The main alternative suggestion is that morality is about the values and feelings of gods, rather than of humans, but we have neither hide nor hair of any gods, whereas we know that humans exist and evolved.

Given our evolutionary past in a highly social and cooperative ecological niche, we will inevitably have been programmed with moral feelings (feelings about how we act towards each other). Thus morals are rooted in human values and in what we like and dislike. That makes morals, at root, subjective, since the term “subjective” means “based on or influenced by personal feelings, values and opinions”.

Whether an act is regarded as “morally good” or “morally bad” must, in the end, be a statement about how humans feel about the matter. No viable alternative has ever been proposed. Continue reading

T. H. Huxley, James Clerk Maxwell, and the divorce of science from religion

A review of “Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon:
from theistic science to naturalistic science”,
by Matthew Stanley of New York University,
University of Chicago Press, 2014

At the beginning of Victorian-era Britain, science was so thoroughly entwinned with religion that “it was expected that men of science would take religious considerations into account”, says Matthew Stanley. But by the end of that era things had changed so much than now “it seemed impossible that they would do so”.

Stanley explores the decades when science changed from being theistic — with most scientists taking it for granted that a god was an integral part of the world and how it worked — to being atheistic, no longer having any need of gods as part of the explanation. The contrast is exemplified in the theistic James Clerk Maxwell (“I have looked into most philosophical systems, and I have seen that none will work without a God.”) versus the anti-clerical Thomas Henry Huxley (“Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science …”). Continue reading

Critics of the New Atheists and the curious case of Vridar’s Neil Godfrey

voldemort The Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz calls it the “Voldemort effect”: we must follow Obama’s lead and refer to “extremism” and never mention that we actually mean “Islamist extremism”. For most people, the idea that Islamist theology contributes to the extremist nature of Al-Qaeda and ISIS is obvious. But, to others, this idea is anathema: since criticism of ideas can be misinterpreted (deliberately?) as condemnation of people, any critique of Islamist ideology can be disallowed and dismissed as “racist”. For wanting to reform his own religion, Maajid Nawaz has, bizarrely, been labelled an “Islamophobe”.

New Atheists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris get called worse. Many people delight in denigrating New Atheists whenever they can, accusing them of everything from a lack of scholarship to being unthinking “fundamentalists”.

At this point, let’s state the blatantly obvious. The causes of ISIS-style extremism are never simple, with multiple factors always being involved. As Nawaz and Harris agree in this recent discussion, the factors leading someone to become radicalised are multiple, and include: (1) Western foreign policy and interventions in Muslim-majority countries; (2) their own personality; (3) their friends, social groups and exposure to radical preachers; and (4) their theology and their interpretation of their theology. The combination of all such factors is important. It would be quite wrong to say that any one of these factors, by itself, would always lead to violent extremism. Human beings are never that simple.

If one is a critic of US foreign policy, as many liberals are, one might tend to discuss and emphasize the role that US foreign policy plays. If one is a critic of religion, as New Atheists are, one might tend to discuss and emphasize the role that religion and theology play. That is all fair.

The problem comes from those who want either to exonerate religion entirely, or just to sneer at New Atheists for the sake of it. Such a person might then claim that Western foreign policy is the only relevant factor leading to Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and that the presence of religion is irrelevant. Continue reading

Assisted dying: Whose life is it anyway?

choiceThe religious might say that your life belongs to God, not to you. Ending it before God wills is thus a blasphemous sin. Most secular people would hold, instead, that your life is your own. If, through an incurable medical condition, your life has become so insufferable that you wish to end it, then that should be your choice. Further, given that your condition is likely debilitating, it would be decent and compassionate for society to assist you if necessary.

Christianity has long had the defect of seeing suffering as somehow virtuous, to be endured for the good of your soul. This attitude was exemplified by “Mother” Teresa, who explained that:

There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.


All that suffering — where would the world be without it? Innocent suffering is the same as the suffering of Jesus. He suffered for us and all the innocent suffering is joined to his in the redemption. It is co-redemption. That is helping to save the world from worse things.


We need a pure heart to see the hand of God, to feel the hand of God, to recognize the gift of God in our suffering. He allows us to share in his suffering and to make up for the sins of the world.

People like Teresa actually want the dying to endure suffering, and for that suffering to continue for however long it takes. You would not treat a dog like that. Quite literally, you would not treat a dog like that; if things got bad enough you would have the compassion to end that life early. Continue reading

David Cameron’s speech on “extremism” and segregation

Stop extremismDavid Cameron has recently given a major speech on “extremism”, and the full transcript can be read here. Here is my reaction to parts of the speech.

The title states that “Prime Minister David Cameron set out his plans to address extremism”. What sort of extremism? Well, we all know that we’re referring to extreme versions of Islam, though many politicians are reluctant to spell that out. Let’s see how Cameron fares.

Early on he declares that “Today, I want to talk about … how together we defeat extremism”. It is another nine sentences before he overcomes the “Voldemort effect” and actually names it:

“And because the focus of my remarks today is on tackling Islamist extremism — not Islam the religion — let me say this.”

Well done! Islamist extremism (even if it is accompanied by the hasty and obligatory assurance that Islamism is nothing to do with Islam). Continue reading

Debate with Anthony Freeland on Objective Morality: Second Post

This post continues my debate with the Christian blogger Anthony Freeland over whether moral values and duties are objective (independent of human opinion) or subjective (being reports of human opinion). See Anthony’s first post, my first reply, and then Anthony’s second post.

Was the Holocaust evil?

Anthony feels that I hadn’t properly answered his question: Was the Holocaust an act of evil? He also complains that “with subjective morality … nothing can be considered evil”.

It’s clear that Anthony and I interpret the word “evil” differently. I had considered that my statement: “most humans regard the Holocaust as among the vilest and most abhorrent crimes ever” answered the question. Yes, subjectively, most people feel the Holocaust to be evil. But Anthony is presumably asking something different. Continue reading

Theos’s Ben Ryan: your attack on free speech is not the answer

Free speech is increasingly under attack. We in the West thought that the issue had long been settled, but it is being reopened by those arguing that free speech must be used “responsibly”, and that it must be tensioned against the feelings of anyone who might be offended.

Such notions would, of course, negate free speech. Anyone could censor anything by claiming they were offended. And who gets to decide what is “responsible” speech? Clearly Martin Luther was irresponsible in nailing ninety-five theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, given that they attacked the Catholic Church which had provided leadership and stability through all of Christendom. And clearly William Wilberforce was highly irresponsible to start attacking the system of slavery which underpinned the whole economic system.

The fashion for denigrating free speech is typified by a blog article by Ben Ryan, a researcher for the Theos think tank. Headed “Your unfunny t-shirts are not the answer”, it starts:

A blog was recently drawn to my attention by one Dr Chris Moos that tries to paint the LSE Director Professor Craig Calhoun as a “faith warrior”. By deigning to argue that religion ought to be taken more seriously in academia in a range of different subjects as an overlooked cause Calhoun is displaying some sort of scary Christian zeal (apparently).

Well that’s rather pompous writing. And the word “deigning” doesn’t mean what Ryan seems to think it does. And the grammar is wrong (the blog post was not drawn to his attention by Chris Moos, the post was written by Chris Moos). OK, maybe it’s bad form to attack the writer, rather than his ideas, but people who are so ready to give up principles of free speech rather annoy me, given how central the right to criticise is to the Western way of life. Continue reading