Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense

Whether morality is an objective property of the universe, or instead the subjective opinion of humans, is one of the longest running issues in philosophy. Jerry Coyne recently returned to the theme, arguing that morality was subjective, and, as I usually am, I was surprised by the number of commentators arguing the contrary.

This debate seems hampered by a lack of clarity on what “objective” and “subjective” moralities are. Coyne gave a sensible definition of “objective” morality as being the stance that something can be discerned to be “morally wrong” through reasoning about facts about the world, rather than by reference to human opinion.

If morality were objective, it would have to be conceivable that the statement “George’s actions were wrong and he deserves to be punished” would be true even if every human in the world were of the opinion, “George’s actions seem fine to me, perhaps even laudable”.

Thus, if morality were an absolute set by a god, something could be immoral even if every human disagreed. If, instead, human feelings and desires are what ultimately count, then that is a subjective morality.

Thus, a subjective morality is strongly preferable to an objective one! That’s because, by definition, it is about what we humans want. Would we prefer to be told by some third party what we should do, even if it is directly contrary to our own deeply held sense of morality?

Given that an objective morality would be highly undesirable, why do so many philosophers and others continue to try hard to rescue an objective morality?

I suspect that they’re actually trying to attain objective backing for what is merely their own subjective opinion of what is moral. This is the trick the religious have long played, inventing a god in their own image who can back them up by turning “I want …” into “God wants …”.

Secular philosophers should not play this game by hankering after objective morality, we should have confidence in the simple and honest “I want …”. We humans have a lot to be proud of: by thinking it through and arguing amongst ourselves, we have advanced morality hugely, with Western society today giving vastly better treatment to individuals, to women, children, religious minorities, foreigners, those of other races, the disabled and mentally ill, criminals, etc, than any previous society.

So why are we all so afraid of admitting that, yes, morality is subjective? I suggest that this owes to several misconceptions.

Subjective does not mean unimportant. A subjective morality is one rooted in human feelings and desires. These are the things that are most important to us, indeed the only things important to us!

Subjective does not mean arbitrary. Human feelings are not arbitrary. It is not arbitrary that we love our children while most of us dislike and fear spiders and snakes, nor that most of us like the taste of chocolate while shunning excrement. Our feelings and attitudes are rooted in human nature, being a product of our evolutionary heritage, programmed by genes. None of that is arbitrary.

Subjective does not mean that anyone’s opinion is “just as good”. Most humans are in broad agreement on almost all of the basics of morality. After all “people are the same wherever you go”. Most law codes overlap strongly, such that we can readily live in a foreign country with only minor adjustment for local customs. A psychopathic child killer’s opinion is not regarded as “just as good” by most of us, and if we decide morality by a broad consensus — and that, after all, is how we do decide morality — then we arrive at strong communal moral codes.

But still people hanker after “objectivity”, and worry that a subjectively decided communal morality is somehow insufficient. Here, then, are six reasons why the whole notion of “objective” morality is nonsense.

(1) Our morality is evolved.

Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, said Dobzhansky, and morality certainly makes no sense except as the product of our evolutionary heritage. Our moral sense is one of a number of systems developed by evolution to do a job: the immune systems counters infection, the visual system gives us information about the world, and our moral feelings are there as a social glue to enable us to cooperate with other humans.

As a product of blind Darwinian evolution, our morals will have developed solely from the pragmatic consideration of what works, what enables us to benefit from cooperation and thus leave more descendants. For interacting with another human, what matters is not what is “objectively” moral (whatever that means), but what that human considers to be moral.

Human intuition that morality is objective is really the only argument (if we are honest) that that is the case. And yet evolution doesn’t operate according to what “is moral”, it operates according to what helps someone to have more descendants. Thus, even if there were an “absolute” morality, there is no reason to suppose that it would have any connection to our own human sense of morality. Anyone arguing for objective morality by starting with human morality and intuition — which of course is how it is always done — is thus basing their case on a non sequitur.

(2) Humans are only one species.

An objective morality must, by definition, be independent of human opinion and thus be independent of humans. There are trillions of galaxies in the known universe, each with trillions of stars and trillions of planets, and for all we know there may be millions of species on many of those planets.

And yet, surprise surprise, the “objective” moral systems that people argue for are all about human welfare and just happen to bear a striking resemblance to the morals of that one species of ape on just one planet around a fairly unremarkable star in a fairly unremarkable galaxy. This is simply projection, human hubris.

Medieval theologians placed humans at the centre of the universe; aren’t we above projecting our own parochial notions of social interactions into some sort of objective property of the universe? Isn’t it obvious that our social interactions (and thus our moral senses) will depend on the details of our species and our ecological niche?

A K-selected species would have very different morality from an r-selected species. A haplodiploid or eusocial species would have very different morality from us. So would species where hareems are normal. Morality would be very different in territorial animals than in non-territorial animals. And who knows what variations there are strewn across the trillions of galaxies in the visible universe? And yet people want to consider one species alone from one planet alone and project that onto everything else!

(3) Starting from “well being” is subjective.

Many attempts at establishing an objective morality try to argue from considerations of human well-being. OK, but who decided that human well-being is what is important? We did! This whole enterprise starts with a subjective leap. Yes, human well-being is what morality is all about but human well-being is all about human feelings and preferences, and is thus subjective.

(4) Aggregation schemes are arbitrary.

So you’ve decided that well-being is what matters. Good start. But, if you want to arrive at an objective morality you now need a scheme for aggregating the well-beings of many creatures onto some objective scale, such that you can read off what you “should” do and how you “should” balance the competing interests of different people.

The beauty of accepting that morality is ultimately subjective is that you reject the whole concept of objective aggregation onto an absolute scale, and thus an otherwise insoluble problem disappears.

Of course many people have proposed their own schemes for aggregating, based on their own preferences, but no-one has derived one from objective reasoning. You might consider it “obvious” that everyone counts equally. But then your “objective” morality would require you to treat your own family identically to an unrelated stranger in a distant country. That’s flat out contrary to human nature (and illustrates why we wouldn’t actually want any of these “objective” schemes).

And of course you also have to aggregate across species (I’m presuming the “objective” morality is not medieval-theological enough to think that humans are the centre of the universe and the only thing that counts). Could there really be an objective weighting scheme for aggregating the interests of different species? How is this going to work concerning predators and prey?

Accepting that morality is subjective avoids all this by simply accepting that our morality is indeed subjectively about us, programmed into us to regulate interactions with our own species, and thus that our morality is only about us. Other social species would then have their own sense of morality for interactions within their species (which of course they do).

(5) Rooting morality in “God” is still arbitrary.

A favourite argument of the religious is that you can’t have objective morality without a god. And they are right. What they don’t realise, though, is that you also can’t have an objective morality with a god. After all, plumping for “God’s opinion” instead of human opinion is equally subjective. Who says that God’s opinion about morality is better than Satan’s opinion? The answer that God says that God’s opinion is better is simply circular. The answer “might makes right” is a non sequitur, as is the unsubstantiated claim that being the creator conveys rights to dictate morality.

The traditional response would be to argue that God’s nature is good, which is an appeal to some supra-God objective standard of goodness against which to measure God’s nature. Of course this begs the whole question as to what this objective standard is and where it came from, and so doesn’t begin to actually establish objective morality. And if there were this supra-God objective standard then we wouldn’t need God. Theologians have got nowhere is addressing these problems in the thousands of years since Plato pointed them out.

(6) No-one has any idea what “objective” morality even means.

Lastly, and actually the strongest argument of all, no-one has ever proposed any coherent account of what “objective morality” would even mean! Yes, humans have an intuition about it, but that intuition was programmed for purely subjective and pragmatic reasons (see 1), and thus is a hopeless base for establishing absolute morality.

When asked, the advocate of absolute morality explains that it is concerned with what one “should do”, regardless of human opinion or desire. When asked what “should do” means they’ll replace it with a near synonym, explaining that it is what one “ought to do”. But if you press further they’ll simply retreat into circularity, explaining that what you “ought” to do is what you “should” do, and thus beg the whole question. They can’t do any better than that, though they’ll likely appeal to human intuition, which won’t do for the reasons above.

The subjectivist has a clear answer here. The “oughts” and “shoulds” are rooted in human opinion, they are what people would like to happen. Thus morality is of the form “George is of the opinion that you should …” or “human consensus is that you should …” or “people have an emotional revulsion to …”. But, without the subject doing the feeling and opining, morality would not make sense. Morality is all about what other humans think about someone’s actions — that is why evolution programmed moral senses into us. Remove that subjective human opinion and the result is — literally — nonsensical.

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278 thoughts on “Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense

  1. ROO BOOKAROO

    Dear Coel:

    This is clear and lucid as usual.
    What I find missing in this analysis is:

    1) first of all the acknowledgment of the vital importance of words when discussing abstract concepts. Reviewing the origin (etymology), development and contemporary range of meanings of an abstract word is vital to avoid getting lost in tangents or the clouds of arbitrary comments.

    This is even more vital in the areas of religion, beliefs, philosophy, common sense, etc…where the use of vague words is the rule and the major tool for keeping the debate alive.

    This is not a rule to review the full history of philosophical discussion on what is human understanding, but a reminder of a primary linguistic concern for words.

    A simple introduction could be a book such as G.A. Wells, “What’s in a Name? – Reflections on Language, Magic, and Religion” (Open Court, Chicago, 1993), where examination of words and an understanding of their use of pitfalls is emphasized for a balanced and grounded discussion of abstract notions. This book does not cover the debate on morality, by the way.

    A simple refresher could the Wikipedia article on Mos Majorum, (ancestral custom), which illustrates the origin of the word “morality” in “mores”.
    The same consideration applies to the meaning of “religio”, which is the set of beliefs that reconnect the present social group to its past.

    2) the acknowledgement of the vital role of shared beliefs to insure the cohesion and sociability of any group. This point was highlighted by, for example, Emil Durkheim, in his books founding modern sociology (1895, 1897, 1912) .

    Morality, religion, cults, clubs, fads, special interests, etc…are all ingredients for groups to live together and function together. Morality is a key ingredient in this social cohesion. If you don’t like it, you go to court and prison, or are executed, or simply excommunicated, ostracized, or expelled.

    All this confirms the subjectivity of morality, but not at the level of the individual living in personal isolation, but at the level of the individual as a member of a certain group, tribe, clan, nation, civilization, or religion.

    Cordially Yours
    ROO

    Reply
  2. Duncan

    The thing is, biology is a set of rough, ‘good enough’ adaptions to a set of real-world conditions. The optimal behaviour to maximise sociatal progress can, in principle be found via means other than slow, suck-it-and-see approach of evolution, which also has a habit of getting stuck in local maxima.

    /If/ there is an objective morality, then I suspect it can be found in something like game theory analysis. It certainly doesn’t require any higher power.

    As an example, there have been game theory analysis done on past moral actions, like duelling to settle certain disputes; at least some have shown that the system should break down both as the speed of general communication falls, and as population rises. This suggests that any attempt objective morality needs to take some of these factors into account.

    It also suggests why certainly religious rules feel ‘wrong’ now – what made sense for a nomadic society wandering round the desert with no refridgerators and a limited gene pool makes far less sense in today’s world… Yet I suspect we’ve evolved a desire to hang on to old traditions precisely because this has been so useful in the past.

    Reply
    1. Vee

      “/If/ there is an objective morality, then I suspect it can be found in something like game theory analysis. It certainly doesn’t require any higher power.”

      Video games have limited rules or parameters. Reality has either no rules or an infinite amount of rules, depending on how you look at it, pretty much making such a task impossible unless you are completely omniscient.

    2. Vincenzo La Mela

      “/If/ there is an objective morality, then I suspect it can be found in something like game theory analysis. It certainly doesn’t require any higher power.”

      Video games have limited rules or parameters. Reality has either no rules or an infinite amount of rules, depending on how you look at it, pretty much making such a task impossible unless you are completely omniscient.

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  6. oiscarey

    New to your work, liking it a lot.

    One quibble: “Starting from “well being” is subjective. Many attempts at establishing an objective morality try to argue from considerations of human well-being. OK, but who decided that human well-being is what is important? We did!”

    The claim that moral discussion is by necessity a discussion about well-being and suffering is not an attempt at getting people to agree, but a definitional move. It’s actually saying something very similar to what you are saying, that it is rooted in subjective experiences, but the claim is that because there are objective facts about subjective experience thus there is an objectively right and wrong way to be moral. The reason people would claim someone is immoral is because the person is not sticking to the maximize well-being/minimize suffering, and while these experiences are by nature subjective, the facts about these experiences are objectively true or false.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi oiscary,
      Thanks for your comments. I agree with everything you say, and I agree that *if* you define morally as about well-being then morality becomes objective (since you can make objective statements about human subjective well-being and suffering). However, that, to me, doesn’t make morality objective unless you first provide an objective reason for that definition (not one that is a human subjective opinion about what is moral).

      To make a comparison, *if* one defined “tastes good” as “what chocolate ice cream does”, then it becomes an objective fact that chocolate ice cream tastes good. To me that is cheating, and taste is still a matter of human subjective opinion, unless you first provide an objective reason for the definition.

      Of course in my subjective opinion human morality is indeed all about human well-being and suffering, but I prefer to come straight out and accept that as a subjective opinion.

  7. LightOfReason

    “Thus, if morality were an absolute set by a god, something could be immoral even if every human disagreed. If, instead, human feelings and desires are what ultimately count, then that is a subjective morality.
    Thus, a subjective morality is strongly preferable to an objective one! That’s because, by definition, it is about what we humans want. Would we prefer to be told by some third party what we should do, even if it is directly contrary to our own deeply held sense of morality? ”
    WOW, how completely barbaric this statement is.
    Subjective morality is great for the person that has power and can force their will over others; however, find yourself on the flip side of this coin and you are a slave or dead.
    This is the end result of deciding for ourselves what’s good and what’s bad.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      I disagree. Democracy, human rights, the abolition of slavery and such are all precisely the result of people thinking for themselves about what is good or bad and deciding such thing for themselves. Democracy, constitutions, the rule of law, limited government, and respect for individual rights are all about the common people banding together to protect themselves against any powerful tyrant.

    2. Luis

      ”Subjective morality is great for the person that has power and can force their will over others; however, find yourself on the flip side of this coin and you are a slave or dead. This is the end result of deciding for ourselves what’s good and what’s bad.”

      Some shockingly terrible assumptions went into this paragraph. The first is that you can objectively glean ‘objective morality’ from a religious text, but this is a subjective judgement call on your part. The history of religious debate and conflict gives us no hope that an objective starting point is within sight. One need only look at the discord between religious camps each vying for the podium of ‘the true interpretation of God’s will’ to be dissuaded that these people are dealing with immutable truths. Secondly, you assume, without justification, that objective morality won’t involve oppression or what we would feel in our bones to be injustice were it not tethered to a supreme being. We have seen, time and time and time again, that the most disgusting and barbaric actions can be gleefully performed by people when they have removed from themselves any pretense that they are answerable to their fellow human beings and that their only judge is an invisible man in the sky. Third, on what CRITERIA do you judge religious texts to contain access to ‘objective morality’? What criteria do you use to say that one passage is relevant and that another one isn’t relevant? The book itself? But then how do you decide which passages have precedence over others, and what the correct interpretation for them is? Trying to do this will only draw you into disagreement with countless other people who are themselves deadset on a certain interpretation. So, you see, the problems that you cite for subjective morality come back with a vengeance for your ‘objective morality’, which turns out to be anything but..

      ONLY be deciding for ourselves what’s good and bad based upon experience, shared consent, compromise, analysis and our perceived needs can we even begin to come to a sensible morality. If morality isn’t to serve human need and development, then does it deserve the name? What’s certain is that no such morality can be got from an ancient book written by people who thought that snakes ate ‘dust’. Why on Earth would you want morality to be truncated into so miserable and limiting a framework?

  8. Michael J Ahles

    Hi Coel,
    Morality is founded between object and subject at a infinite place of absolute justice, a place of truth, equality, freedom, or Oneness. This morality or goodness is equally self-evident as it is Universal. To see it, or be it, remove the flaw of measure. =

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Michael,
      This is what we call a “deepity”, meaning that is sounds impressive and profound, but doesn’t actually mean anything — sorry!

    2. Roo Bookaroo

      Coel:

      This statement could be tongue-in-cheek, a satire, mocking profundity.
      It cannot be serious. In any event, for a parody, we have other terms than “deepity”. Like a peach, a beaut, a lulu, a doozy (my favorite), a lollapaloosa, a corker, a wowser.
      At all events, it belongs to an anthology of philosophical verbiage and nonsense.

  9. Mark Sloan

    Coel, I read this post after I submitted my response earlier today to your 2011 post “Science can answer morality questions”

    https://coelsblog.wordpress.com/2011/12/12/science-can-answer-morality-questions/

    To avoid repetition, I will start from where I left off there.

    Again, there are important elements here we agree on, such as:

    “A K-selected species would have very different morality from an r-selected species. … Morality would be very different in territorial animals than in non-territorial animals…
    (3) Starting from ‘well-being’ is subjective.”

    Yes, choosing well-being as the ultimate goal of moral behavior is subjective. But that does not imply that there is not a cross-species universal (and fully objective) function of universally moral behavior, increasing cooperation by means of in-group cooperation strategies such as direct and indirect reciprocity.

    I had not thought of my view of morality as having a subjective ultimate goal (end); I thought of its ultimate goal as simply being unspecified by science. But I am warming to the idea of specifying that the goal of moral behavior is subjective as a matter of science.

    Consider your example of George.

    “… it would have to be conceivable that the statement ‘George’s actions were wrong and he deserves to be punished would be true even if every human in the world were of the opinion, ‘George’s actions seem fine to me, perhaps even laudable’.”

    Let’s say that within George’s in-group (family, friends, or the like), George exploited others’ efforts to cooperate with him in ways that reduced the future benefits of cooperation due to others refusing to cooperate with him. I argue that George has violated what universal morality descriptively and objectively ‘is’.

    Now is it possible (conceivable) that “every human in the world were of the opinion, that George’s actions seem fine to me, perhaps even laudable?” No. I don’t see that it is possible. It is impossible because our universal moral values were selected for (as I argue in the other post) by the benefits of in-group cooperation strategies.

    As I have sometimes put it, morality as cooperation strategies fits people’s moral sense like a key in a well-oiled lock, because this key is what shaped the universal portion of our moral sense.

    Yes, a K-selected species could have very different morality from an r-selected species. What that means is that very different acts, depending on biology and environment, would overcome (or not prevent overcoming) the universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma and therefore be moral.

    My favorite example of strange morality consistent with my brand of objective morality is drawn from a desert frog (r-selected species) I heard about, though I have lost the reference. Apparently its tadpoles eat algae which the frog cannot eat and there is insufficient other food. So these frogs live by eating most but not all their offspring who have fattened up on algae. If they were an intelligent species they should, quite correctly, see no immorality in eating their young as long as it does not reduce the benefits of cooperation in their in-groups.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Let’s say that within George’s in-group (family, friends, or the like), George exploited others’ efforts to cooperate with him in ways that reduced the future benefits of cooperation due to others refusing to cooperate with him. I argue that George has violated what universal morality descriptively and objectively ‘is’.

      I don’t see how this establishes a “universal” or “objective” morality. All it establishes is a moral judgement common to all humans.

      Even if every single human comes to the same subjective judgment, that is still their subjective judgment rather than anything objective or universal.

    2. Mark Sloan

      Coel, by testing my hypothesis about a cross-cultural universal function for human moral behavior (and finding it true in the normal sense of truth in science) against what I consider the most appropriate data set (repeated below for convenience), I have shown that this function of morality is universal for people.

      To me, the word objective refers to “mind-independent” in the sense that truth from science is (ideally at least) culturally independent and “mind-independent”. Since my hypothesis is provisionally true based on the normal criteria from science, my hypothesis about a universal functional aspect of human morality is objective, not subjective

      (For convenience in our conversation here, that data set is: past and present enforced moral codes, our ‘moral’ emotions such as empathy, loyalty, guilt, shame, and ‘righteous’ indignation, and our sense of right and wrong as defined by empirical data such as Jonathan Haidt’s six cross-culturally universal “moral foundations”.)

      Also, if your point was that I have not shown this function of morality is universal for all intelligent species, I argue how that is done in my June 5, 2014 at 9:18 pm comment at

      https://coelsblog.wordpress.com/2011/12/12/science-can-answer-morality-questions/comment-page-1/#comment-7447

      So what is your basis for claiming my proposed function for moral behavior is neither objective nor universal?

    3. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      So what is your basis for claiming my proposed function for moral behavior is neither objective nor universal?

      Let’s grant that you have established that humans all have the same moral senses, that their ideas, judgments and feelings about morals are all consistent. (This may not be true, but let’s grant it for the sake of argument.)

      That is not an “objective” morality. It is a subjective morality with many people making the same subjective judgments. The moral judgements still derive from each person’s feelings and opinions, and are thus entirely the product of their minds.

      What you would have done is arrive at an objective *description* of humans’ subjective morality. Your *description* of humans is objective (true, regardless of what anyone thinks of it), but their moral system is still subjective.

      Further, your moral function would not be “universal”, it would only apply to humans.

    4. Mark Sloan

      Coel, I expect we agree that humans do not all have the same moral senses.

      I argue though that we can use the defined data set to objectively confirm a universal aspect of human morality: that universally moral human behaviors are components of in-group cooperation strategies such as direct and indirect reciprocity.

      Since in-group cooperation strategies exist independently of human minds (in the same sense their simple mathematics exists independently of human minds), they define a mind independent (objective) human universal morality.

      I am not following how you are understanding in-group cooperation strategies such as direct and indirect reciprocity to be subjective rather than objective. I see nothing subjective about them.

      Further, due to the huge benefits of reliable, sustainable cooperation, it seems at minimum highly likely that any intelligent species that faces the dilemma of how to obtain the benefits of cooperation without being exploited will enforce moral norms to maintain that cooperation. (Here “enforce” means that violators are commonly thought to deserve punishment of at least social disapproval.)

      Perhaps you are thinking of morality as being answers to questions such as “How should I live?” and “What is good?”, I expect we agree such questions have no mind independent answers and therefore might be called subjective.

      However, the data set for the science of morality shows this now common understanding of human morality is objectively false. “How should I live?” and “What is good?” are interesting questions worthy of study, but enforced human moral codes are only one aspect of these much larger questions.

      Do you remember Plato’s account of what the pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras’ said morality was? (See Plato’s dialog Protagoras.) Protagoras said, in effect, that morality objectively, not subjectively, was means of enabling cooperation – which is fully consistent with the modern science of morality. Unfortunately, Plato has Socrates reject this understanding of morality as (apparently) too commonplace and not intellectually interesting, and that was the start of most of the trouble in moral philosophy since then.

    5. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Since in-group cooperation strategies exist independently of human minds (in the same sense their simple mathematics exists independently of human minds), …

      I agree so far …

      … they define a mind independent (objective) human universal morality.

      This means that they objectively describe that moral system of in-group cooperation strategies. But this is purely descriptive, not an objective description of what we “should” do.

      I am not following how you are understanding in-group cooperation strategies such as direct and indirect reciprocity to be subjective rather than objective. I see nothing subjective about them.

      To the extent that we are describing such strategies we are indeed being objective. Those strategies do indeed objectively exist. This is an entirely different question from whether we “should” adopt them.

      it seems at minimum highly likely that any intelligent species that faces the dilemma of how to obtain the benefits of cooperation without being exploited will enforce moral norms to maintain that cooperation.

      I agree again, and this is again a descriptive statement.

      Perhaps you are thinking of morality as being answers to questions such as “How should I live?” and “What is good?”, I expect we agree such questions have no mind independent answers and therefore might be called subjective.

      Yes, agreed. And if we’re describing human morality then science can do that.

    6. Mark Sloan

      Coel, thanks again for responding.

      When I say an objective morality exists, all I am implying is that 1) human morality solves the species independent universal dilemma of how to sustainably obtain the benefits of cooperation without being exploited and 2) all intelligent species who both compete as well as cooperate in in-groups also face this universal dilemma and therefore can be expected to have a morality with the same function.

      I understand you to be correctly pointing out that these cooperation strategies have no inherent binding power on us (they are not innately prescriptive). They are only claims about what morality descriptively is. We agree.

      But I see it as misleading (not useful) to say “There is no objective morality” just because there is no objective source of innate binding power.

      There does not need to be such a source. If a group agrees that they want to sustainably increase the benefits of cooperation, then the purely descriptive science of morality is instrumentally useful in defining moral codes that are most likely to achieve those goals. The bindingness of those moral codes can be more than adequately supplied by our ‘moral’ biology (which was selected for to implement these cooperation strategies), social pressure, and instrumental oughts.

      I see it is as much more useful to say “There is a universal, objective morality whose binding force comes from biology, social pressure, and as instrumental oughts.”

    7. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,
      I think we are pretty much agreed on the substance of this, though we are using somewhat different terms.

      The phrase “objective morality” or “moral realism” is usually taken to indicate a prescriptive morality such that a statement: “Doing X is morally wrong” can be true and is an objective feature of the world independent of any subjective opinion. It is in that sense that I reject objective morality.

      If we do have a morality rooted in everyone’s subjective preferences and opinions, then it is indeed true that one can make objective statements describing the moral system that arises from our subjective preferences. It’s also true that such moral systems will have strong similarities across different groups in the same situation.

      I agree with you entirely on the latter, though this is not what is generally regarded as “objective morality”.

    8. Mark Sloan

      Coel, I think we agree that (1) “There is no objective source of binding morality (what we ought to do) independent of our needs and preferences.”

      But, to me, this claim is not denying the reality of an objective source of morality; it is denying the reality of this strange kind of bindingness.

      Indeed, science shows that there an objective source for morality. That source is in strategies that overcome the universal dilemma of how to sustainably obtain the benefits of cooperation without being exploited. But that source has no innate bindingness. People would use knowledge from this objective science to refine moral codes because they think the society will better meet its needs and preferences. Innate bindingness is not required. Of course, once these strategies are advocated and enforced as cultural moral norms such as the Golden Rule, they, like all moral codes, may have no problem gaining adequate bindingness due to our biology, social pressure, and rational choice.

      Not distinguishing between an objective source of binding morality (which is not real), and an objective source of morality that is not innately binding (which is real) seems to me to be an important philosophical error.

      For example, I argue (2) “Doing X is morally wrong” is true and is an objective feature of the world independent of any subjective opinion when X = exploiting other members of your in-group’s efforts to cooperate.

      If people say they just define morality differently, then they are talking about a different subject than morality as it is commonly understood outside of philosophy (morality as defined by the data base I mentioned of past and present moral codes, our sense of right and wrong, and so forth).

      So I object to people saying morality is subjective, not because I think there is an objective source of bindingness (“magic oughts”?), but because I know morality as it is commonly understood does have an external, objective source, which I see as potentially highly useful knowledge.

    9. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      For example, I argue (2) “Doing X is morally wrong” is true and is an objective feature of the world independent of any subjective opinion when X = exploiting other members of your in-group’s efforts to cooperate.

      It depends what you mean by “Doing X is morally wrong”. If you mean that “Doing X is morally wrong as judged by the moral system that that cooperative group will have developed”, then I agree, that can be a statement that is objectively true. It is also a descriptive statement about that moral system.

      I entirely agree with you that we can make objectively true descriptive statements about moral systems. What we cannot do is prescribe morals, except as originating in someone’s subjective feelings. In short, we can be objective when we are being descriptive about morals but have to be subjective when we are being prescriptive.

      The term “objective morality” is usually take to mean a system of objectively prescribing morals (not just describing them), which is why I reject the notion of objective morality.

    10. Mark Sloan

      Coel,
      I said “For example, I argue (2) “Doing X is morally wrong” is true and is an objective feature of the world independent of any subjective opinion when X = exploiting other members of your in-group’s efforts to cooperate.”
      You replied “It depends what you mean by “Doing X is morally wrong”. If you mean that “Doing X is morally wrong as judged by the moral system that that cooperative group will have developed”, then I agree, that can be a statement that is objectively true. It is also a descriptive statement about that moral system.
      I entirely agree with you that we can make objectively true descriptive statements about moral systems.”

      Yes, we so far agree. But perhaps I go further in saying descriptive science can identify the external objective source of morality – in-group cooperation strategies.

      You continued: “What we cannot do is prescribe morals, except as originating in someone’s subjective feelings.”

      Here we disagree.

      I understand you allow at least the possibility that there is a descriptive fact of the matter about what is morality ‘is’ in an absolute sense, completely independent of one’s subjective feelings. (I can show there is, but for now, just the possibility there might be will suffice.)

      This fact of the matter allows me to say “This is what you ought to do if you wish to act morally in an objective sense.” What is moral or immoral is then independent of your subjective feelings. Perhaps you would say this is not prescribing morals since no objective source of binding force has been identified.

      But if I say “This is what you ought to do if you wish to act morally”, I think I am making a prescriptive claim. The lack of an objective source of binding force is irrelevant.

      You continued: In short, we can be objective when we are being descriptive about morals but have to be subjective when we are being prescriptive.
      The term “objective morality” is usually take to mean a system of objectively prescribing morals (not just describing them), which is why I reject the notion of objective morality.”

      Your position is not unusual in main stream moral philosophy.

      However, I argue it is not a useful position. It is highly misleading to confound the lack of objectivity of bindingness regardless of our subjective feelings (‘magic’ oughts do not exist) and the cross species objectivity of what morality descriptively ‘is’ regardless of our subjective feelings.

      I argue that this fact of the matter about what morality descriptively ‘is’, is sufficient to make prescriptive claims about whether or not an act is objectively moral.

      This lack of a an objective source of bindingness is to me essentially irrelevant to the task at hand, defining moral codes in the form of in-group cooperation strategies that are most likely to meet group needs and preferences. Our biology, social pressure, and rational choice will provide adequate bindingness regardless of our subjective feelings in the moment of decision about whether to act morally or not.

      Thanks for the opportunity to have this discussion, which at least I am finding useful.

    11. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      This fact of the matter allows me to say “This is what you ought to do if you wish to act morally in an objective sense.”

      How about if we phrase that: “This is what you ought to do if you wish to act morally in accordance with the objectively existing moral system of your group”?

      A question: why does it matter whether we manage to pin the label “objective” on a moral obligation? Most of the things we value most are subjective, for example the taste of a good meal, the love of family, the aesthetic appreciation of beauty, all of this is subjective. It doesn’t demean morality in any way for it to be subjective.

    12. Mark Sloan

      Quoting from your post,
      This fact of the matter allows me to say “This is what you ought to do if you wish to act morally in an objective sense.”
      “How about if we phrase that: “This is what you ought to do if you wish to act morally in accordance with the objectively existing moral system of your group”?”

      Coel, “the objectively existing moral system of your group” is irrelevant to what “morally in an objective sense” refers to. The “objectively existing moral system of your group” could be forms of theism, or any other cultural morality. That is not what I am talking about at all.

      My “…morally in an objective sense” refers to only in-group cooperation strategies, strategies that solve the cross species universal problem of how to sustainably obtain the large benefits of cooperation without exploitation.

      So when I say the following is prescriptive “This is what you ought to do if you wish to act morally in an objective sense”, I mean that in terms of what is objectively moral in a cross-species, universal, eternal sense, not what morality a particular group happens to descriptively have at a point in time.

      “A question: why does it matter whether we manage to pin the label “objective” on a moral obligation? Most of the things we value most are subjective, for example the taste of a good meal, the love of family, the aesthetic appreciation of beauty, all of this is subjective. It doesn’t demean morality in any way for it to be subjective.”

      It matters that we pin the label “objective” on the function of morality because what it descriptively ‘is’ provides a basis for a cross culturally universal morality (though there could be very different implementations of such a function for morality). A cross culturally universal function for morality is inherently useful because it provides a basis for resolving moral disputes and aids in cooperation simply due to a shared understanding of what morality’s function is.

      The things we value are subjective, vary from culture to culture, and from one point in time to another. Morality’s universal function is not subjective; is as a objective as other natural phenomena.

      Starting with Socrates, moral philosophy’s chief error was to assume that morality tells us what to value. Then if values are subjective, then morality is subjective.

      This is wrong; Protagoras had it right. Morality has an objective function – increasing the benefits of cooperation; it cannot objectively define what we ought to value. Modern science is clarifying that this function is universal and eternal in-group cooperation strategies that are as objectively real as their mathematics.

    13. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      My “…morally in an objective sense” refers to only in-group cooperation strategies, strategies that solve the cross species universal problem of how to sustainably obtain the large benefits of cooperation without exploitation.

      In stating that you are declaring that maximising the benefits of cooperation without exploitation is what morality is “about”, and that what is “moral” is whatever leads to those benefits. That’s fine, but it is entirely your subjective opinion to do so. Many other people might agree, but if someone else says: “No, in my opinion morality is about pleasing God” then all you can do is state your difference of opinion. You can also make descriptive statements about how people came to arrive at their opinions, and you can make descriptive statements about the consequences of implementing any particular moral systems, but the root of all this is still a subjective preference.

      A cross culturally universal function for morality is inherently useful because it provides a basis for resolving moral disputes and aids in cooperation simply due to a shared understanding of what morality’s function is.

      Here you are trying to prescribe what society should do, based on your ideas of what society should aim for. Again, many people will concur and share your ideals.

      Morality has an objective function – increasing the benefits of cooperation

      Who decided that increasing the benefits of cooperation is what is moral?

    14. Mark Sloan

      Coel, is the emerging objective conclusion from science of the last few decades that the function of morality (the primary reason morality exists) is to increase the benefits of cooperation. See, for example:

      Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame by Boehm, Christopher
      A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution by Herbert Gintis, and Samuel Bowles,
      And Evolution, Games, and God edited by Martin Nowak

      I am not aware that the above, or any other mainstream work in the science of morality, contradicts my position I have described here.

      However, one important element I have not seen elsewhere is my claim that this descriptive science (which has no innate binding force) may be understood to enable making a prescriptive claim of a peculiar form.

      That is: “You ought to act according to in-group cooperation strategies if you wish to act according to what morality objectively is as a natural phenomenon.”

      I have recently begun to argue this instrumental claim is, in addition to be being true in the normal sense of science, also a prescriptive claim.

      For the most part, the above authors talk about morality in terms of cooperation, virtue, altruism, and emotions such as empathy, guilt, and indignation. Authors in the field largely avoid talking about implications of their work for moral philosophy, I expect just to avoid the nuisance of the inevitable howls of protest from philosophers.

      Obviously, you might sensibly say that your needs and preferences lead you to wish to NOT “act according to what morality objectively is as a natural phenomenon” and you wish to define morality differently. Fine, but then you would be defining a subjective morality (to the extent it contradicts what morality is as a natural phenomenon), as I expect you might agree.

      It seems to me that whether a group choses to advocate a subjective morality or a morality derived from what morality is as an natural phenomenon is simply a matter of choice. One basis for making such a choice would be which can be expected to be more likely to meet the group’s long term needs and preferences.

      (Just as a reminder, confirmation of the hypothesis that morality is a natural phenomenon defined by in-group cooperation strategies is achieved by testing against the data base I described earlier consisting of past and present moral codes, our biology based ‘moral’ emotions and sense of right and wrong, and so forth.)

    15. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Evolution has equipped us with a whole range of attitudes and behaviours, including cooperation and aggression, love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, charity and selfishness, et cetera. Some of these behaviours get grouped together under the collection “moral” behaviour. How do we decide which?

      I see two possibilities relevant to our discussion: (1) we decide based on our subjective feelings about what we ourselves judge to be moral; (2) we take the set of things that advance in-group cooperative benefits and say that they are what is moral. (Of course there will be a large overlap between (1) and (2) but they are conceptually distinct.)

      Treating (2) first: since (2) can be objectively established we then have an objectively established morality. It then does indeed follow that your statement: “You ought to act according to in-group cooperation strategies if you wish to act according to what morality objectively is as a natural phenomenon” is indeed correct. Of course this also becomes tautological: “… you ought to act according to in-group cooperation strategies if you wish to act in accordance with in-group cooperation strategies”.

      The problem is, who says that (2) holds? What is your argument for that starting point? You can say that those attitudes/behaviours are naturally occurring and will inevitably occur in any evolving cooperative group. But then so do all the behaviours left out of (2). The concept of an Evolutionary Stable Strategy tells us that there will always be tension between the behaviours in 2 and not-2.

      Thus, in adopting (2) you have an entirely valid *descriptive* scheme based on the axiom (2), but you have no more than that. Any prescription, any “ought” is simply a tautology resulting from the prior adoption of (2).

      The alternative is to go for (1) — or equivalently say that adopting (2) is a subjective choice based on human feelings, which then reduces (2) to (1). That is also an entirely sensible choice, but it makes the whole scheme subjective. In reply to a prescriptive “you ought to …” the question is “who says so?” and the answer is that people say so.

      Thus, I assert, that any prescription in morals can only rest ultimately on the opinion and feelings of some person or people.

  10. Roo Bookaroo

    “Even if every single human comes to the same subjective judgment,”
    Daniel Kahneman and the dozens of professional psychologists mentioned in his latest book would consider such a statement unrelated to any concrete examination of human minds. Each experiment designed to test the answers of a group of people to simple or less simple questions does collect a huge variety of opposed responses, either intuitive or reasoned.

    To generalize from a small group to the immense set of human cultures is a pure leap into abstraction without any foundation on reality, or “evidence” (if such “evidence” could ever be physically collected).
    To generalize from ONE personal intuition to the attitudes of a whole group is foolhardy without very thorough, large-scale investigations that include thousands of participants, even hundreds of thousands, if physically or financially feasible.
    Some experiments can be done in various countries, say Western countries. But even then, it would be unacceptable to professional psychologists to extend whatever Western conclusions are reachable to markedly different cultures and histories, say India, China, Japan, and some specific Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Indonesia.

    Statements that claim to pronounce on general traits applicable to all members of the human species seem to be incorrigible abstractions, played out in the solitary minds of philosophers or writers on morality. It is already pretty hard to find identical psychological traits in the behavior or reactions of all species of dogs. Human diversity is too extensive to warrant blanket statements that are not supported by strong empirical experiments, polls, or censuses. In any investigation, the problem of the small sample, or the quality of the sample, remains preponderant.

    Even simple biological rules such as “all human parents love their children ” are not corroborated by the facts, as examples of hatred, or neglect, of children are very easy to identify. “All human children love their parents” is not a universal fact either, far from it. A lot of children do hate their parents.
    Switching to a normative statement that children “should love” their parents, and to brand such a judgment as the universal form of a moral judgment applicable to all children is also the choice of the writer, the supervisor, the regulator, or the law-maker looking into the issue.
    In sum, I find it impossible to jump from the isolation of one writer’s mind to universal statements valid for all members of the human species.

    Reply
    1. Roo Bookaroo

      Mark Sloan:
      Absolutely correct.
      I thought the address was self-evident because it referred to the quotation.
      But you’re right, one is never cautious enough in making one’s intentions super-clear.

  11. Solidus Aurelius

    If it is about what we humans want, then can one choose to have an objective morality? If morality is truly subjective, then the answer must be ‘yes’ because it is what this person wants. However, if one has an objective morality, then one will impose that morality on others. Proponents of subjective morality would be opposed to these objective standards being thrust on others. The problem is that if these proponents try to stop (enforcement) the objective morality, then they are using objective motivations to stop objectivity. Where ‘should’ we go from here?

    Reply
  12. mogguy

    Hi Coel,

    Morality is easy of definition if one believes in supernatural omniscience/enforcement: you are simply ‘told’ what is ‘Good’ and ‘how to live’. The awkward questions arise when beliefs are more empirically based. Three quotes from your post (29.7.13) all of which link morality with evolution:

    1. “..evolution doesn’t operate according to what “is moral”..(but)..what helps someone to have more descendants.”
    Doesn’t it? If ‘moral’ means behaviour that evolution has naturally selected as aiding survival, (“programmed into us” as you say at 2,3), it does!

    2. “..programmed into us to regulate interactions with our own species, and thus that our morality is only about us.”
    Each species ‘selecting’ its own set of moral behaviours. There is no “weighting scheme”: evolution seems completely disinterested vis-a-vis different life forms.

    3. “…evolution programmed moral senses into us.”
    Tantamount to saying the evolutionary process ‘blindly’ selected ‘Good’ behaviour.

    Therein is my answer: behavioural survival-fitness grounds all morality. Each species has a set of reactions performing intuitive ‘moral reasoning’: attributes such as self-preservation; phenomenal curiosity; sexual/familial/group bondings; emotions; altruism; all inherited, involuntary and powerful and not especially reserved to humanity. This inborn system I would like to call “evomorality”.

    Human behaviour, “interactions with our own species”, is the sole concern of human morality. How I and others behaved yesterday affected how I and others are today: how I,etc. behave today will affect how I,etc. will be tomorrow. What my forebears all did still affects my life… I wouldn’t BE here otherwise!

    Rejection of supernatural/fabulous belief saddles us with this daunting prospect of making educated guesses about a behaviour’s probable results to form more rational moral beliefs/precepts. Additionally, humanly reasoned moral judgments of culpability usually introduce another component -“intentionality”: humanely acknowledging that a ‘Bad’ result can be by accident, ignorance or despite the best of intentions. Hence we can forgive, mitigate or mercifully excuse an offence. This leniency is significant moral action in itself whose affect may be sufficient to outweigh the initial immorality: the exercise of such forgiveness, mitigation or pardon giving advantageous communal benefits to our species. One isn’t obliged impose these beliefs/precepts on others though they may be made into enforceable prescriptive CODES/LAWS, consciously-reasoned, therefore subjective. This subjective cultural system I would like to call “ethomorality”.

    So, is artificial abortion of a foetus morally justifiable? Subjective judgment about this will depend at least in part on whether one believes life is sacrosanct (must be sustained at all cost -using every means -in any condition) or that a life may in some circumstances be expendable or shortened. Is raising and killing animals for meat consumption humanly immoral if/when those animals obviously suffer fear and pain? Though perhaps helping enforcement, consensus of subjective belief certainly doesn’t make it objectively evolutionarily (‘good-for-my-species-behaviour’) Moral.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi mogguy,

      Doesn’t it? If ‘moral’ means behaviour that evolution has naturally selected as aiding survival, (“programmed into us” as you say at 2,3), it does!

      Evolution “cares” about the set of things that facilitate survival and reproduction. That set of things might indeed overlap with the set of things labelled “moral” (according to whoever’s opinion is establishing that set), but it is still the case that evolution doesn’t “care” about them because they “are moral” but because they facilitate survival and reproduction.

      Tantamount to saying the evolutionary process ‘blindly’ selected ‘Good’ behaviour.

      Evolution selected all sorts of behaviour. Whether someone wants to pick some of those behaviours and label them “good” is their subjective opinion.

    2. mogguy

      Hi Coel,

      Coel (15.6.14 12.20): “evolution doesn’t “care” about them because they “are moral” but because they facilitate survival and reproduction.”
      “Evolution selected all sorts of behaviour. Whether someone wants to pick some of those behaviours and label them “good” is their subjective opinion”

      I didn’t mean to suggest that evolution somehow subjectively “cares” nor that only “some of those behaviours” are ‘good’.

      My hypothesis is: Moral value for species X (i.e. humans) is directly proportional to its survival value for species X.

      First if you would indulge me: a quote from from my own blog (seeingthelight@wordpress.com), its first entry (25 Feb 2013) “Strong religious conviction can and does achieve in humans much civilised, altruistic and empathetic behaviour which was consciously intended to be of immediate benefit of others. It works quite simply and easily by making ostensibly self-SACRIFICING actions into self-SERVING behaviour as it provides, for the truly faithful individual who is obedient to his supernatural power, possibly greater personal valour and self-respect: also promises of divine commendation and (eternal!?) reward after death. And, very conveniently, these latter promises cannot be disproved! There is a downside in that some religious fanatics will produce and justify, in their religion’s name, violent enmity and cruel persecution against those holding differing beliefs. These extreme actions are maybe due less to religious belief and more to an excess of Nature’s inborn, brutishly intolerant, mobbing instinct at work, creating urges to fear, oppose, fight and even eradicate those opposing, or different from, one’s own group. Not that this should excuse such barbarism and intolerance, living as we do in huge inter-dependent civilised groups.”

      My teenage rejection of religion removed its definition of good/bad. Because *I* thought a behaviour was ‘good’ was not rationally sufficient when all too often my and others convictions are proved quite wrong, why should *my* moral ones be the exception? Utilitarianism suggests “happiness”, Sam Harris suggests “wellbeing”, as a goal to aim for but what exactly is “happiness or “wellbeing”?
      Science now is pretty sure that we are a part (top?) of a continuum of evolved animal life, even more, no longer God’s special creatures.
      Much puzzling about how brains work and whether all knowledge is empiric (See my reply, June 11 2014 11:29 am, to your blog “Defending Scientism..”) has spawned this heterodox idea of what ‘moral’ might be: that ‘moral’ behaviour, far from being a transcendent prerogative of the human animal, is likewise a continuum and exists (in differing sets) for other (even all?) animal life.
      Your blog and its replies provoked me into my response, intended to suggest a sweeping redefinition of ‘moral’ to mean all behaviours which “facilitate survival and reproduction”.

      Moral Behaviour==Survival Behaviour
      This hypothesis does not establish “THE Moral Truth” but at least does rationalises intuitive moral reactions which have been so philosophically paradoxical.

      The instinctive survival (‘moral’) behaviour of a chicken is to peck corn -to lay eggs; a fox instinctively eats chickens -to rear cubs; a man farms chickens, kills foxes, eats chickens and eggs -to rear babies. All are survival-behaviour suited to their own species. The hen’s brain is tiny, the fox’s bigger, but ours is huge by comparison with the unique evolved capacity of communication in complex detail with its own self and its fellows using Language and Arts. Our inter-personal relationships and behaviour are consequently much more sophisticated, elective and co-operative. They are the basis for our human moral CODES which instruct, guide and enforce individuals and community into behaving so as to benefit our own lives, those of our family, companions, nation and ultimately survival of humankind.

      Mark Sloan (16.6.14 00.07, small edit by me) “Modern science is clarifying that this function, (increasing the benefits of cooperation), is universal and eternal, in-group cooperation strategies that are as objectively real as their mathematics.”

      Arthur Morris

    3. Mark Sloan

      Arthur, I strongly disagree that

      Moral Behaviour==Survival Behaviour

      All the biological inclinations we have, including greed, pleasure in dominating others, and xenophobia arguably exist because they increased the reproductive fitness of our ancestors. But that does not make them moral.

      You are free to claim that is your definition of moral behavior but that would only be your subjective opinion. Note that my claim is that only in-group cooperation strategies are objectively moral. Acting morally is only one of countless human adaptations that increased reproductive fitness.

  13. mogguy

    Hi Mark,
    Your reply which, though not changing my opinion, did make me think: -about “greed,etc”.

    “All the biological inclinations we have, including greed, pleasure in dominating others, and xenophobia arguably exist because they increased the reproductive fitness of our ancestors. But that does not make them moral.”

    Arguably, food being scarce and very uncertain, a powerful desire for the satisfaction of appetite to excess was a ‘selected’ survival-enhancing behaviour for a lone predatory ancestor. But, also arguably, because selfish greed demonstrably wastes both the material wealth and the human resources of an interdependent group, it’s NOW a survival-harming strategy for “in-group cooperation”. Thus, greed becomes immoral for objectively rational reasons: -not because it breaks a God-given Moral Commandment; -not by consensus; -nor because it *obviously* isn’t “moral” to you or your neighbour.

    Behaviour which is species-survival harmful==Behaviour which is immoral.

    What human activities are there that could be termed “subjectively immoral” which are not a detrimental behaviour for our-species survival?

    General obedience to the biblical Ten Commandments worked well enough and their followers flourished throughout a very long period. Their moral guidance has demonstrably provided strongly cohesive large scale “in-group cooperation”. At least it did, but only whilst that vital belief in their God and His religion existed and was unquestioned.

    My previous Comment would have more correctly read Species-Survival Behaviour==Moral Behaviour, both sides being dependent on prevailing circumstances. What was moral 2000+ years ago is not necessarily moral now, -let alone in pre-history. Moral rules can never be *Absolute*: one weakness of *Omniscient* Codes.

    Arthur

    Reply
  14. mogguy

    Coel,
    From your response to Mark (23.6.14)

    “..morals can only rest ultimately on the opinion and feelings of some person or people.”

    Your “sensible subjective” morality means “resting ultimately on some person/people”.
    To form this as a statement phrased similarly to Mark’s statement it might read:
    “I/we ought to act according to the way I/we think if I/we wish to act morally.” Or: “I/we ought to act according to the way I/we think if I/we wish to act in accordance with the way I/we think.” This seems to be no less tautological.

    Doesn’t subjective morality allow the perpetrator of a heinous crime to think he has acted morally because, as a person, it was his “opinion and feelings” that the act was moral? This obviously is just as applicable to a group. It makes nonsense of the words “a heinous crime” or makes them as as vague as “a thing of beauty” also purely subjective. I think that morality must be more than merely a matter of taste.

    Arthur

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Arthur,

      Or: “I/we ought to act according to the way I/we think if I/we wish to act in accordance with the way I/we think.” This seems to be no less tautological.

      Yes, that sentence is tautological. However sentences such as these are not: “I like people being loyal and dislike treachery”. “I think people caught stealing should be punished.” “I applaud charity and selflessness.” Et cetera. Thus “You/we ought to …” simply means “I would dislike it if you/we don’t”.

      Doesn’t subjective morality allow the perpetrator of a heinous crime to think he has acted morally because, as a person, it was his “opinion and feelings” that the act was moral?

      Yes, it does. Of course there is nothing to stop someone thinking like that whatever. Indeed, many of the worst crimes around are from people thinking like that.

      It makes nonsense of the words “a heinous crime” or makes them as as vague as “a thing of beauty” also purely subjective.

      It doesn’t make nonsense of those words, they simply mean “a crime that I find heinous” or “a crime that most people find heinous”. Or, if you like, “an action that I (or most people) find emotionally revolting and strongly deplore”.

      I think that morality must be more than merely a matter of taste.

      That’s because evolution has programmed you to think like that! It does so as a quick-and-easy way to make our moral senses work more strongly, by programming the illusion that they are “absolute” and thus more than “a matter of taste”. By the way, there is nothing “mere” about our subjective tastes. What matters to you more than they do?

  15. mogguy

    Hi Coel,

    To quote your blog. Near the beginning you say:
    “Thus, if morality were an absolute set by a god, something could be immoral even if every human disagreed. If, instead, human feelings and desires are what ultimately count, then that is a subjective morality.
    Thus, a subjective morality is strongly preferable to an objective one! That’s because, by definition, it is about what we humans want. Would we prefer to be told by some third party what we should do, even if it is directly contrary to our own deeply held sense of morality?”

    1. I do not agree that morality can be “an absolute, set by a god”. By the way, I have no “illusion” that morality is “absolute” in any way. Morality can, and probably must, change if prevailing circumstances significantly alter as I said an earlier reply to Mark.
    2. I do not agree that “human feelings and desires are what ultimately count”: despite the fact that evolution has already tested, selected and given us a fairly reliable intuitive (but variable, especially from person to person) set of moral values.
    3. I do see that it might be advantageous to me, as a unit of an inter-dependent society, to accept that I should “be told by some third party” how to behave. Although there is sometimes inestimable value in vociferous opposition, even heroic martyrdom, to effect changes in publicly accepted norms where they are, or have become, wrong morally in an *objective* sense.

    Coel(June 23, 2014 at 4:35 pm): “Indeed, many of the worst crimes around are from people thinking like that.”

    Define “worst crimes” please. Does this again simply mean “crimes I find heinous” but not that they are *actually* wrong? That one’s own feelings and opinion or communal votes are unquestionably the final moral arbiter? The people committing them, are they not just legally but also morally culpable in some non-mind-dependent way?

    In fact, I find myself at a loss to understand what it is that subjective moral ideas do. How do they affect one’s actions in any way at all? You apparently feel it ‘moral’ for one to do exactly as one feels or opines (see 2.above): one has Carte Blanche to do whatever one wants/whatever a consensus (with which one also agrees!) wants.
    Do you really think there is no difference between indulging a ‘taste for chocolate’ and indulging ‘tastes for (say) female circumcision’ or ‘medically-assisted suicide’: that all three have equal moral importance? A taste for chocolate will be hardly likely to impinge very much on any other human: the other “tastes” will be likely markedly to affect many people.

    Arthur

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Arthur,

      I do not agree that “human feelings and desires are what ultimately count” …

      So what does ultimately count in your view?

      Define “worst crimes” please. Does this again simply mean “crimes I find heinous” …

      Yes. It means either “crimes I find heinous” or “crimes most people find heinous”.

      … but not that they are *actually* wrong?

      I don’t understand what you mean by the concept “actually wrong”, unless you mean something like “judged by most people to be wrong”.

      That one’s own feelings and opinion or communal votes are unquestionably the final moral arbiter?

      I don’t understand what you mean by the concept “final moral arbiter”; it seems to refer to the concept “actually wrong” which I also don’t understand.

      … but also morally culpable in some non-mind-dependent way?

      They are morally culpable in the minds of other people. That is the only actual meaning of “morally culpable”.

      I find myself at a loss to understand what it is that subjective moral ideas do.

      They do just about everything in terms of regulating how we interact with each other in society.

      How do they affect one’s actions in any way at all?

      I’m baffled by the question. Our subjective feelings are the very things that motivate all our actions. If I feel that I want an ice cream I buy one. If I feel that something would be morally wrong then I’m less likely to do it. If I feel that someone else’s action is morally wrong then I support society having penalties for the action in order to deter it.

      … one has Carte Blanche to do whatever one wants/whatever a consensus (with which one also agrees!) wants.

      An individual certainly does not have carte blanche, because other members of society will have opinions about it. The consensus of humans certainly does have carte blanche to organise society as we see fit. That’s exactly what we do. It is not the case that anything supra-human imposes this on us.

      Do you really think there is no difference between indulging a ‘taste for chocolate’ and indulging ‘tastes for (say) female circumcision’ or ‘medically-assisted suicide’: that all three have equal moral importance?

      No, my personal opinion is that those three do not have equal moral importance.

      A taste for chocolate will be hardly likely to impinge very much on any other human: the other “tastes” will be likely markedly to affect many people.

      Agreed.

  16. mogguy

    Hi Coel,
    In my subjective opinion this is what ultimately counts:
    There is no ‘Absolute Morality’ possible. In any given set of prevailing circumstances and actions, the inescapable effect of the evolutionary process is always operating. On the basis of past successes, evolution selects ‘that-behaviour-whose-result’ produced a better survival advantage to the behaving species. This process is quite callously supra-imposed willy-nilly on every species, us included.
    Therefore, it is this ‘naturally selectable’ behaviour which is THE behaviour that is ‘moral’ and is ‘good/right’. Dispassionately, evolution in no way obligates us to do it, nevertheless, rationally, it is what we ‘ought’ to do or attempt to achieve, even if it is not what we personally ‘desire’ or what is found comfortable or easier to do. Whatever action we may think we do freely, we cannot resist ultimate evolutionary constraints.
    Often, we all-to-fallible humans will act (in accordance to our personal opinions including ‘moral’ feelings and ‘best’ intentions) only to find later, perhaps with bitter feelings of shame, that the result of that behaviour was regrettably not what was intended or had been foreseen.
    Moral ‘feelings’ are by definition part of our overall feelings and the latter (I fully agree) do unarguably motivate all our actions. But the outcomes of those actions can still contravene the implacable ‘principles’ of evolution and are therefore ‘wrong’, -which gives MY meaning for that word. (A crude ‘litmus-test’: if a behaviour by most people most of the time is judged to worsen the survival chances of humankind, then that behaviour can be counted as wrong.)

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi mogguy,

      Therefore, it is this ‘naturally selectable’ behaviour which is THE behaviour that is ‘moral’ and is ‘good/right’.

      How does that “therefore” follow? It seems to me to be a complete non sequitur.

      … rationally, it is what we ‘ought’ to do or attempt to achieve, even if it is not what we personally ‘desire’ …

      Why is it what we “ought” to do? And what do you mean by “ought to do” there?

      A crude ‘litmus-test’: if a behaviour by most people most of the time is judged to worsen the survival chances of humankind, then that behaviour can be counted as wrong.

      Not only does that not follow, it is not even in line with evolution, since evolution does not act for the good of the species, and is not about “the survival chances” of the species, rather it is about competition within the species. Indeed, evolution often drives species to extinction (for example where sexual selection drives a trend to massive horns which harm the survival chances of the species).

  17. mogguy

    Hi Coel,
    Why do you think there are no wolves wild in this country? It certainly wasn’t massive horns! Any animal species we see as endangering our safety, let alone survival, doesn’t stand a chance in competition with our more knowledgable, better -fitted species. Natural selection by competition admittedly begins at the level of individuals but continues to operate on every level via family v. family..tribe..nation..species, and -I’m certain- between us and alien life if there were any threatening our existence. Sci-fi is full of such plots.

    I don’t think evolution acts for anything’s good: it just destroys, often brutally, those ‘selected’ as less fit. Evolution will ‘let’ humans use myxomatosis to eradicate rabbits, then enables rabbits to survive by breeding resistance to it. Every individual and every species is locked in to this inscrutable and, as far as I can understand, purposeless system continuously. Are we Life in its most advanced form but what comes next? Are we just a biological solution which had to exist to design and create non-biological computers, biological beings able to much more rapidly evolve things biological evolution cannot manage to do: the creation of mechanical ‘life’ formed out of matter but less dependent on the ‘goldilocks’ ambient conditions of Earth?

    One vital element in the evolutionary process is selection that is based on behaviour. Therefore what I call ‘naturally selectable’ behaviour is ipso facto of fundamental importance to our future, -from individuals through to our species. What I thought I had made clear was that I equate such a behaviour with my concept of ‘moral’ behaviour.
    Therefore, practically and mundanely it is this behaviour which is THE behaviour that is ‘moral’ and is ‘good/right’ -follows logically if ‘moral’ is used as an adjective meaning ‘essential to our continuance’. I realise that this use of the word ‘moral’ is heterodox and very possibly outrageous to you. The word ‘moral’, historically, has not only close association with ‘supernatural’ religion and its codes, it carries also much philosophical baggage linked to transcendence, souls, duality and the hubris that we are unique, putting us in a different class from all other life. But to me it has none of these connotations: we may have unique qualities but are animals nevertheless. In my first reply to you, I proposed the even more heretical suggestion that it would be rational to expand the term ‘moral’ to describe similar behaviour in other, possibly much other, life on Earth even going so far as wishing to include reflex, instinct and ‘gut’ emotion as ‘involuntary moral’ reactions. For a start it removes the puzzle of other animals apparently behaving morally -acting like humans.

    I fancy that I said “‘ought’ to do” conscious the prescriptive ‘ought’ is notoriously a philosophically prickly word and provoking. I think the meaning was clear enough -“we ‘would be wise’ to do”!
    E.g. There is no philosophical absolute proof that tomorrow will come, -but we ‘ought’ to prepare for it, -we (and the Cosmos) are in big trouble if it doesn’t!

    Arthur

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Arthur,

      What I thought I had made clear was that I equate such a behaviour with my concept of ‘moral’ behaviour.

      If you are simply stating your personal and objective opinion about what is moral and what we “should” do then fine, that is entirely consistent with my view.

  18. mogguy

    Hi Coel,

    Many of your views seem not far away from mine. I think we can agree that morality relates to inter-human behaviour, is not absolute and that at every level it is vital for social structure and harmony. I was particularly interested by one of your related blog posts: “Can Science answer morality questions (12.12.2011)” because that post seemed to me to drift away from subjective morality. Answers provided by Science are hardly likely to be subjective. To briefly paraphrase statements you made in this blog: ‘To enable fitter social cooperation within our species, moral sense and judgment developed as a part of our evolutionary programming, cobbled together, because they worked.’
    Moral sense and judgment is that which affects one’s behaviour. If what worked for our species behaviourally was selected by evolution as ‘fitter-for-survival behaviour’ and this is also the behaviour we term ‘moral’ then I can suggest:
    Species-Survival Behaviour==Moral Behaviour, equally dependent on prevailing circumstances.

    The comments I made were not “simply stating” opinions but some *hypothetical* arguments and these are NOT entirely consistent with those you make for your view.
    If I have understood you correctLy, when FD&E indicate to you that an action is immoral then that action IS immoral for YOU. You do have free-will to choose the *actual* way you act, yet the ‘moral’ part of that choice is fixed by your FD&E. That is, in my view, your moral choice will be fixed by a moral sense and judgment programmed by evolution in the distant past when the prevailing circumstances were very different. If your moral choice is a in any way a conscious one then it is at least partly cultural, the result of knowledge acquired during life not FD&E.

    I note that my FD&E for things like sugar, salt, material comfort, sexual appetite… have been all too unreasonable, selfishly short-term and greedy. I am forced to resist them and make consciously-reasoned contrary decisions based on objectively-acquired cultural knowledge sourcing a risk-assessment of possible foreseen (but as yet unknowable) results. I cannot accept FD&E as being trustworthy because they are often out-of-date with regard to contemporary moral requirements. Hence I puzzle about what there is alternatively or additionally on which to base feasible moral (behavioural) decisions (and have been doing so for about 78 years! E.g. See my Answer to “The Big Question” in Philosophy Now Issue 97.)

    Arthur

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Arthur,

      Answers provided by Science are hardly likely to be subjective.

      Science would supply objective answers about people’s subjective moral senses.

      … then I can suggest: Species-Survival Behaviour==Moral Behaviour, …

      I would not agree, since: (1) that equation is not warranted (unless you are merely stating it as your own subjective opinion); and (2) evolution is not about “species survival”, it is as much about within-species competition, so your argument does not follow, and (3) I for one disagree that “species survival” is the only important thing. For example I’d put quality of life as of high importance. As another example, caring nothing for animal welfare might be good from an our-species-survival perspective but is not (in my opinion) a good thing morally.

      If I have understood you correctly, when FD&E indicate to you that an action is immoral then that action IS immoral for YOU.

      I don’t understand what you mean by the concept “…. then that action IS immoral for YOU”. If what you mean is that when I feel something to be immoral then I feel it to be immoral, then yes that is the case.

  19. mogguy

    Hi Coel,

    You say:
    “Science would supply objective answers about people’s subjective moral senses”
    Science is suitable to supply not only objective answers about people’s subjective moral senses but other objective answers in the form of factual data about the resultant actions inspired by those moral senses.

    “I for one disagree that “species survival” is the only important thing. For example I’d put quality of life as of high importance.”
    I for one concur with your disagreement.
    Species-survival begins at unitary self-survival. Humankind’s evolution entailed a whole spectrum of selections: not only competing individual self-survival but competing group-survival up to and including competition against other species, with evolutionary processing occurring at all levels, -quality of life being an important strength. The lower levels of the spectrum together make the human species a fitter one to compete against all other species. I thought it obvious that when I say ‘species-survival’ I mean the whole complex process not just that inter-species top level.

    “As another example, caring nothing for animal welfare might be good from an our-species-survival perspective but is not (in my opinion) a good thing morally.”
    That response seems somewhat ill-considered. To procreate, a species needs to be ruthless for its own ‘self’ if/when endangered by other species. Caring nothing for SOME animals’ welfare isn’t just “might be good”, but essential from “an our-species-survival perspective”, e.g. humans in competition with such as wild tigers, wolves, rats, locusts, mosquitoes, even diseased cattle, and many, many other varieties of life-forms. But for much life, including animals which pose little or no threat to ‘our’ existence, we can afford to be neutral or even kindly disposed. It has been of great advantage for ‘our species’ to do this, to domesticate many animals for power or food, to preserve wild species in Game Parks, Seed Banks, etc. Acting humanely generally where possible in respect of our ‘neighbours’ (and that includes other life-forms) has made us an evolutionarily fitter communally-bonded species. This is ‘good’ behaviour, demonstrably true by observation: Naturally true whether ‘we’, individually or in consensus, hold the opinion that it is ‘moral’ or not.
    In other words this is one of many non-subjective, personal-opinion-independent human behaviours naturally selected because they aided our individual-up-to-species survival, i.e. it was fitter, conforming to what evolution entails of us as a species. Behaviours that have been tested over aeons by definitely non-subjective evolutionary suck-it-and-see processing as being previously-effective ‘moral actions’ and programmed into brains to variable extents giving varying innate individual ‘moral opinions’. These ‘moral opinions’, which are (of course) subjective to each of us separately, do not necessarily entail ‘moral actions’: i.e. actions which provide us and/or our fellow-humans and afterbears with quality and quantity of life and make us stronger as a species. ‘Moral’ has a meaning that applies not only to opinions but, perhaps even more germanely, to actions.

    Arthur

    Reply
  20. Homer

    This is an argument about the meaning of words. Morality is not “subjective” in the sense that one’s favourite colour is subjective. Nor is it objective is the sense that the physical properties of water are objective. They depend on human opinion, but these opinions have a high degree of uniformity and are deeply ingrained, although gradual changes do occur as societies develop. Morals are amenable to objective reasoning if they arise from higher principles on which humans agree – e,g, ‘The Golden Rule’.

    Reply
  21. Whrect

    If morality is tied to the well being (whose?) then we have a huge problem because we have to take into account future actions and scenarios.
    Morality is rendered useless in this case. Any simple action, that apparently can be categorized as morally good or bad, can be disputed.
    I usually use this example: charity for a street beggar. Is it morally good or bad? I say it depends. If you later find out that the beggar is using your money for an action that you consider immoral then your previous action would be rendered as immoral too. Would you have helped him if you knew he was a pedophile in the first place? Your apparently good action affects the well being of others or even your-self’s.
    In fact, I challenge anyone to give me a specific example of a morally good or bad action that can not be disputed. I bet Hitler was giggling a lot and he was very cute when he was 2.

    My point is, not only there is no objective morality but no person can make moral judgements; only moral assumptions. When categorizing an action as morally good or bad, a person will use his common sense, which is nothing else then a subconscious probability calculus for future scenarios and consequences, based on personal knowledge and past experience.

    Reply
    1. Roo Bookaroo

      Whrect:

      You are confusing two things.
      First my throwing some loose change into the box of a sidewalk beggar when going to the subway in the morning is an action motivated by a spontaneous feeling of compassion for the unfortunate person stranded on the sidewalk of Lexington Avenue. This action is simply the expression of my feeling surfacing from my unconscious into the System 1 of my mind. If I have other things blocking my mind, I may even pass by him without experiencing any surge of sympathy.

      There is absolutely no mental discussion, no deliberation about good or evil, about what’s moral or not, or even any connection with morality. No consideration of what he’s going to do with this money. First guess, probably get some breakfast.

      I get into that discussion about consequences and categorizations only after the action, and while reflecting on it, and wondering about causes, consequences, unintended or unknown, etc…all the sophistry deployed in your discussion. This is the work of the reflecting and analytical ability of the System 2 of my mind. I may even feel tired and decide to dismiss all this sophistry as useless and a drain on my mental energy early in the day when facing a full list of things-to-do.

      Later, all this become fine for a posting on the Web, when we can imagine all kinds of things, and make learned decisions about categories, what the hell is good or evil, and what can we say about my little action. All this is a fine exercise of System 2 elucubrations and distinctions, which have nothing to do with my immediate feeling of sympathy for a miserable guy who has to live on the sidewalk of Lexington Avenue.
      Any nuances of “morality” are wrapped on my spontaneous expressions of my feelings, they are tacked on later in a nice exercise of reflection, which has a life of its own and is secondary to the life of my feelings and emotions.

  22. Roo Bookaroo

    Of course, you have to read :
    “Any nuances of “morality” are NOT wrapped on my spontaneous expressions of my feelings, they are tacked on later in a nice exercise of reflection”.

    Reply
    1. Whrect

      Thanks for the reply!

      While I do agree with you, I was hoping you would refute my main point of the argument, not the, I admit, superficial example I have given. I will stress my idea once again: a human being does not posses sufficient information as to establish, in absolute terms, if an action is morally good or wrong, if morality is tied to (his?) well being. He can only use probabilities, and that would not constitute a premiss for objectivity.

      I feel I have to use a more extreme and personal example now:
      My moral dilemma arose when I saw a video of some extremist group member showing a video of his children, killed in an explosion. He was sorry that they could not join his jihad anymore and they can no longer kill kufurs. My common sense tells me that my personal and family’s well-being was not affected negatively with the death of those children; on the contrary. Does that makes the killing of those children moral (my well being positively affected => morally good)? Am I immoral if I think that was a morally good thing to do? I always knew that the killing of a child will be objectively immoral. Now, because I am not omniscient (I’m an atheist, btw) I can only say that I have insufficient data to establish if any action is morally good or wrong and, as a result, I never make moral judgments. I can only make assumptions.

    2. mogguy

      Hi Whrect

      Wh: “I challenge anyone to give me a specific example of a morally good or bad action that can not be disputed. I bet Hitler was giggling a lot and he was very cute when he was 2.”

      This may seem ridiculous, but is not intended to be facetious.
      To kill all male (and/or female) human babies at birth would be undisputedly immoral *for Humankind*…..though it might do wonders for the well-being of a whole lot of other life on Earth. Immoral for us, moral for them. (‘My’) Objective morality is not a Universal Reference Code of Behaviour but peculiar to each particular Species of life, is not absolute, i.e. may be affected by the actual circumstances at the place and the time of each individual action. (see my previous comments)

      I agree that “When categorizing an action as morally good or bad, a person will use his common sense, which is nothing else then a subconscious (I would say: “and conscious”) probability calculus for future scenarios and consequences, based on personal knowledge and past experience.” The person, using moral assumptions, is making a subjective moral judgment about foreseen benefits or otherwise for self, -family, -group, -nation or even (though probably veryrarely) -humankind. The occasional act of generosity to a street beggar certainly is unlikely to be of any import to most of the rest of us presently or ultimately though it might affect one’s own personal moral ‘character’!
      Even the second sentence (quote above) whilst making the point that Hitler was not an entirely immoral man does imply that some of his adult behaviour, though considered moral to himself and other Nazis, was immoral from the point of view of other beliefs. These are two opposing subjective opinions about what is moral but I suggest only one of them will further the survival of Humanity.

      Re: your second comment:
      Wh: “Does that makes the killing of those children moral (my well being positively affected => morally good)? Am I immoral if I think that was a morally good thing to do?”

      This event is “morally good” depending which is the belief that is more likely to better enable its group adherents to survive and reproduce, -a Religious conviction or a non-religious one?

  23. Pingback: Being A Christian Does Not Make You Moral | hessianwithteeth

  24. J.M. Seaman

    Without a God or creator life has no meaning. Yet philosophers continue to live as though life does have meaning. For example, Satre argued that one May create meaning for his life by freely choosing to follow a certain course of action. Satre himself chose Marxism. Now this is utterly inconsistent. It is inconsistent to say that life is objectively absurd and then to say that one may create meaning for his life. Without God, there can be no objective meaning to life. Satre’s program is actually an exercise in self-delusion. For the universe does not really acquire meaning just because I happen to give it one. Suppose I give the universe one meaning, and you give it another. Who is right? The answer, of course, is neither one. For the universe without God remains objectively meaningless, no matter how WE regard it. Satre is really saying, let’s just “pretend” the world has meaning. And that is just fooling ourselves.

    Reply
    1. Roo Bookaroo

      Sartre borrowed his main ideas from Heidegger and Kierkegaard, with some additions from Nietzsche and others. Whatever meaning Sartre wants to give, it’s certainly not to the universe, to which he never gave a thought, and for which he never cared.
      His meaning was first for his own life, and he achieved it by becoming a writer, and an avid consumer of young women. His central preoccupation was not meaning, but freedom and choice of one’s individual life — another interpretation of “will”, following Schopenhauer. What could be argued is that he may have believed a little too much in “free will”, at least in theory, and probably not practice. The problem is that he had no scientific learning or background. He was a pure product of Continental “humanities”, as Heidegger too was, dealing in pure abstract concepts.

      This kind of confused posting by J.M. Seaman is a clear demonstration of why I refused a career of teaching philosophy and the history of ideas to undergraduates. The perspective of confronting and battling similar ideas all my life filled me with horror, as I sensed that too much of it would destroy the little sanity I had left. I always wanted to learn from the top brains, not try to combat the confusion and mishmash of uninformed learners to restore simple ideas in their original context. In this field, right or wrong is not the criterion of excellence, but dedication, insight, communication, acceptance of criticism, drive for correctness and “Gründlichkeit”, that is depth, honesty and clarity.

      One of the drawbacks of dealing with undergraduates is that they have no notion of the environment of ideas, especially of the past, and often the present as well. Most ideas have already been expressed, investigated, defended, criticized, etc. by a lot of people. Knowing by whom, where and when is the business of scholarship.
      I have read the key books of Sartre, including his plays, and I don’t recognize his fundamental thesis in this poster’s comment.
      Coel will do a better job in tackling with it, if he so wishes.

  25. Madnomad

    This is the article that you linked. My responses are in parenthesis.

    [This comment quoted the entire post in order to add replies. It was thus way too long for a “comment”. I’ve edited out some of the quoting. — Coel]

    (I find this to be a non-sensible definition since objective morality requires no input from man. What you are referring to is another definition of subjective morality. Human reasoning fails on every level in defining morality.)

    (I whole heartedly agree with this. This is exactly what objective means. It Makes no difference what humans think about an act. And since there is no free will without God, there is no such thing as reasoning. We come to the conclusions regardless of evidence, but by what is required in our cause and effect existence. Looking at this from the point of subjective morality, if only one person alive believed “George’s action were wrong and deserved to be punished,” that one person would be just as correct as everyone else on earth who disagreed with him. In other words, no one is right and no one is wrong, no matter how many people believe it to be one way or another. George’s actions were neither right nor wrong.)

    (Not sure why you even mentions this. Of course morality based on feelings and desires is subjective. In other words there is no truth. We are free to decide for ourselves what is acceptable or not.)

    Thus, a subjective morality is strongly preferable to an objective one! (what?) That’s because, by definition, it is about what we humans want. (by who’s definition? You must be asserting that “since God does not exist, we are left with what humans want.” Ridiculous.) Would we prefer to be told by some third party what we should do, even if it is directly contrary to our own deeply held sense of morality? (Yes, if that 3rd party happen to be the ultimate force who designed and created life and morality. Yeah, I would trust him. I would not trust human opinion or reasoning where no one is right or wrong. That offends my sensibilities.)

    Given that an objective morality would be highly undesirable, (says who? More baseless assertion) why do so many philosophers and others continue to try hard to rescue an objective morality? (because it is true. And far superior to no morality such as subjective morality is.)

    (argument from ignorance. How about “subjective morality is a trick the atheist plays by removing God and turning “I want…” into “What most people want is, regardless of truth…”)

    Secular philosophers should not play this game by hankering after objective morality, we should have confidence in the simple and honest “I want …”. (Honest but incredibly arrogant. Are we the supreme beings in the universe? We decide for ourselves what is right. Each man to decide what is true for himself.) We humans have a lot to be proud of: by thinking it through and arguing amongst ourselves, we have advanced morality hugely, (how, exactly is this possible without free will?) with Western society today giving vastly better treatment to individuals, to women, children, religious minorities, foreigners, those of other races, the disabled and mentally ill, criminals, etc, than any previous society. (thanks to Christianity and free will given by God. Looking at the world as a whole though, we are still in the pit of evil and immorality.)

    So why are we all so afraid of admitting that, yes, morality is subjective? (Fear has nothing to do with it. Subjective morality is self defeating. Really, what it means is there is no such thing as right and wrong, it’s just one man’s opinion vs another’s. And neither are correct. That goes against everything we know to be true.) I suggest that this owes to several misconceptions.

    Subjective does not mean unimportant. A subjective morality is one rooted in human feelings and desires. These are the things that are most important to us, indeed the only things important to us! (No. And what is important to one man may not be important to another. And who said our feelings and desires are the only important things? Certainly that is non-applicable to the Christian. Another baseless assertion.)

    Our feelings and attitudes are rooted in human nature, being a product of our evolutionary heritage, programmed by genes. None of that is arbitrary. (Fine, but there is no evidence to claim that the arbitrary is any less right than the common things. My son hates chocolate (bizarre but true), does that make peoples opinion of chocolate better or more correct that my sons? Absolutely not. The subjective is only important to one individual and is not right or wrong. Because something is more common to men, does that mean it is right? Certainly not. Perhaps unacceptable at a particular time is the best we can say for SM.)

    Subjective does not mean that anyone’s opinion is “just as good”. (That is EXACTLY what it means.) Most humans are in broad agreement on almost all of the basics of morality. (so what?) After all “people are the same wherever you go”. (really? Been to the middle east lately?) Most law codes overlap strongly, such that we can readily live in a foreign country with only minor adjustment for local customs. (Irrelevant) A psychopathic child killer’s opinion is not regarded as “just as good” by most of us, (ok, not regarded as “just as good” but in reality it is just as true as most people’s opinion, which is untrue in both cases.) and if we decide morality by a broad consensus — and that, after all, is how we do decide morality — then we arrive at strong communal moral codes. (Is that consensus of our culture, our community, our city, our state, America, the west, the whole world?)

    (1) Our morality is evolved. (Wrong. What was wrong 5000 years ago, is still wrong. And what was right then, is right now. Nothing has changed except people’s opinion, which is meaningless. Opinions have no basis in truth)

    Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, (that’s a joke) said Dobzhansky, and morality certainly makes no sense except as the product of our evolutionary heritage.(quite the opposite. Meaningless morality, the kind of which evolution offers, makes no sense) Our moral sense is one of a number of systems developed by evolution to do a job (really? Prove it): the immune systems counters infection, the visual system gives us information about the world, and our moral feelings are there as a social glue to enable us to cooperate with other humans. (Is he serious with this? Morality is an abstract concept. There is also a key missing ingredient to ALL this. Free will. Without free will, why are we even discussing behavior that we have no choice in. It’s like discussing the rightness or wrongness of defecating. It is what it is. We have no choice. It is neither right nor wrong, we just do it because we have to.)

    As a product of blind Darwinian evolution, (which is an assertion) our morals will have developed solely from the pragmatic consideration of what works (without free will), what enables us to benefit from cooperation and thus leave more descendants. For interacting with another human, what matters is not what is “objectively” moral (whatever that means), but what that human considers to be moral (without the free will to consider anything?).
    Human intuition that morality is objective is really the only argument (if we are honest) that that is the case. (Assertion, I don’t subscribe to objective morality intuitively, although it is highly intuitive. Rather the abundant evidence for the existence of God and the reliability of the bible is what makes me believe that. Intuition merely confirms that truth.) And yet evolution doesn’t operate according to what “is moral”, it operates according to what helps someone to have more descendants. (Of course. So what helps us have more descendants is what is right. Actions are amoral, the goal of more offspring is what we must say is good. Therefore all types of deviant behavior can be justified to meet the goal of more descendants. Remember, evolutionary selection does not apply to groups, only to individuals. A mutation does not happen at the group level. So each individual is trying to increase their own chance for procreation, with no regard for anyone elses. That is the evolutionary way. So raping and murdering others may fit very nicely into increasing chances for procreation, and there is no evolutionary moral that would condemn this behavior.) Thus, even if there were an “absolute” morality, there is no reason to suppose that it would have any connection to our own human sense of morality. (Although most objective morality is exactly what we sense to be true. Murder, rape, lying, stealing are wrong. Objective and at the same time intuitive)Anyone arguing for objective morality by starting with human morality and intuition — which of course is how it is always done(assertion and false) — is thus basing their case on a non sequitur.

    An objective morality must, by definition, be independent of human opinion and thus be independent of humans. (which, of course, it is) There are trillions of galaxies in the known universe, each with trillions of stars and trillions of planets, and for all we know there may be millions of species on many of those planets. (actually, statistically speaking, the chances of any life anywhere else is a negative number. Life on our planet, based on odds, is so improbable that intelligent design for our planet, and hence the universe, is what the evidence overwhelmingly supports)

    And yet, surprise surprise, the “objective” moral systems that people argue for are all about human welfare (this is not what objective morality is. OM is not based on anything other than what God says it right and wrong) and just happen to bear a striking resemblance to the morals of that one species of ape on just one planet around a fairly unremarkable star in a fairly unremarkable galaxy. (assertion and statistically incorrect) This is simply projection, human hubris. (Hubris is saying we are the supreme moral authority and we cannot bow to a 3rd party no matter what the evidence is)

    Isn’t it obvious that our social interactions (and thus our moral senses) will depend on the details of our species and our ecological niche? (no that is not obvious in any sense. Isn’t it obvious that right and wrong are so ingrained in us that we don’t need to say, oh this behavior will lead to less descendants so it is bad. Attempted murder is wrong, because it is wrong to attempt to murder someone. No effect of the behavior is necessary to deem it wrong. Subjective morality is ALWAYS based on the outcome of behavior, never the act itself.)

    Many attempts at establishing an objective morality try to argue from considerations of human well-being. (No that is exactly what those who subscribe to subjective morality argue) OK, but who decided that human well-being is what is important? We did! This whole enterprise starts with a subjective leap. Yes, human well-being is what morality is all about but human well-being is all about human feelings and preferences, and is thus subjective. (of course! I’ve never heard anyone try to argue objective morality based on well-being.)

    So you’ve decided that well-being is what matters. (Actually I couldn’t care less about well being. If destroying someone’s well being in the process of doing the right thing, then oh well) Good start. But, if you want to arrive at an objective morality you now need a scheme for aggregating the well-beings of many creatures onto some objective scale, such that you can read off what you “should” do and how you “should” balance the competing interests of different people. (can’t be done)

    The beauty of accepting that morality is ultimately subjective is that you reject the whole concept of objective aggregation onto an absolute scale, and thus an otherwise insoluble problem disappears. (the unfortunate part of accepting subjective morality is that it is meaningless. To call it morality is a farce. Morality does not exist in any subjective sense. Either morality is objective or there is no such thing. Only behavior that we find acceptable or unacceptable at the moment, based on a multitude of meaningless and subjective qualifiers that ALWAYS allow for deviant behavior, and without any tool to support justification of condemnation of any behavior is what it leads to. This is a huge disadvantage that is insurmountable)

    That’s flat out contrary to human nature (and illustrates why we wouldn’t actually want any of these “objective” schemes). (wouldn’t it be great if we did treat strangers like family? It would be a better world indeed)

    (Of course humans are the only ones subject to morality. Are we to abuse animals? Of course not. The bible clearly defines animals role in our world and they are under our subjugation. Are we better than animals or more important? Of course. If my dog and a complete stranger are drowning, I’m gonna save the stranger as human life is inherently more valuable to our Creator. I love dogs, but my first allegiance is to that which God holds above all else.)

    Accepting that morality is subjective avoids all this by simply accepting that our morality is indeed subjectively about us,(no hubris here) programmed into us to regulate interactions with our own species, and thus that our morality is only about us. Other social species would then have their own sense of morality for interactions within their species (which of course they do).

    (5) Rooting morality in “God” is still arbitrary. (incorrect)

    A favourite argument of the religious is that you can’t have objective morality without a god. And they are right. (hey! We agree on something!) What they don’t realise, though, is that you also can’t have an objective morality with a god.(do tell) After all, plumping for “God’s opinion” instead of human opinion is equally subjective.(that is irrelevant to whether objective morality exists.) Who says that God’s opinion about morality is better than Satan’s opinion? (That’s a stupid question. If you are to accept the God of the bible, then you know God created Satan as well. The creator is who decides.) The answer that God says that God’s opinion is better is simply circular.(ok. It’s not God’s opinion. That would be to say the behavior existed before the law of morality was written, and He then opines about what is right and wrong. He made morality at the beginning, so it is not an opinion of what is. It is inherent in the action. Murder does not exist without the immorality of it. It is because He says it is.) The answer “might makes right” is a non sequitur, as is the unsubstantiated claim that being the creator conveys rights to dictate morality. (oh there is plenty to substantiate that being the creator gives Him the right. Is it not the right of the author to say the main character of a story is handsome? Who’s right is it? Ours? That is hubris.)

    The traditional response would be to argue that God’s nature is good, (again, this shows a complete misunderstanding of God’s nature. It is not good, it is holy.)which is an appeal to some supra-God objective standard of goodness against which to measure God’s nature.(Again, this is folly. God creates the standards which reflect who He is. And that is what He requires of us. If you want to call that good, fine. But holy, like God Himself, is what we are called to be) Of course this begs the whole question as to what this objective standard is and where it came from, (There is no character that is supra-God, so there is no need to ask where it came from) and so doesn’t begin to actually establish objective morality. And if there were this supra-God objective standard then we wouldn’t need God.(ok, but irrelevant)

    Theologians have got nowhere is addressing these problems in the thousands of years since Plato pointed them out.(Perhaps the author is just ignorant to how we are well beyond these fallacious arguments)

    (6) No-one has any idea what “objective” morality even means. (untrue)

    Lastly, and actually the strongest argument of all, no-one has ever proposed any coherent account of what “objective morality” would even mean! (huh? Then let me enlighten you, it is what God says it is. It is objective because all are held to the same standard regardless of what they believe. Everyone will give an account)Yes, humans have an intuition about it, but that intuition was programmed for purely subjective and pragmatic reasons (see 1), and thus is a hopeless base for establishing absolute morality.

    When asked, the advocate of absolute morality explains that it is concerned with what one “should do”, regardless of human opinion or desire. When asked what “should do” means they’ll replace it with a near synonym, explaining that it is what one “ought to do”. (incorrect again. Objective morality is what you are commanded to do or not to do by the author of morality). But if you press further they’ll simply retreat into circularity, explaining that what you “ought” to do is what you “should” do, and thus beg the whole question. (who has this guy been talking to) They can’t do any better than that, though they’ll likely appeal to human intuition, which won’t do for the reasons above. (Complete strawman. I don’t know anyone who argues like this)

    The subjectivist has a clear answer here.(Ha! Now that is the height of arrogance on over reach! What could be more confusing than “every man decides for himself what is right or wrong.”) The “oughts” and “shoulds” are rooted in human opinion, (and what are those?) they are what people would like to happen. (Everyone wants something different) Thus morality is of the form “George is of the opinion that you should …” or “human consensus is that you should …” or “people have an emotional revulsion to …”. But, without the subject doing the feeling and opining, morality would not make sense. (Again, morality has nothing to do with feelings. If it did, morality would mean something a little different to every human alive and therefore would be absolutely meaningless) Morality is all about what other humans think about someone’s actions (no, morality is what God says is moral. What humans think is irrelevant. And thank God! As Isis thinks murdering and torture, rape and crucifying children is just great. Without objective morality, there opinion carries the SAME weight as anyone who finds that repulsive. And neither are really right or wrong. That would be real cruelty) — that is why evolution programmed moral senses into us. Remove that subjective human opinion and the result is — literally — nonsensical. (evolution does not program anything. That is factually incorrect. Morality is an abstract concept and not subject to mutation or selection. Morality is taught by those with intelligence. And intelligence only comes from intelligence.)

    Bottom line, without God, morality is subjective. With God, it is objective. What subjective morality actually is….
    1. Does not relate to right and wrong. Simply refers to the ever changing tide of public opinion of what effects of behavior are desirable or undesirable.
    2. All behavior is amoral. Increasing the chances for offspring is the main focus. All behavior that leads to more offspring, no matter how deviant is appropriate.
    3. Justification for criticizing any behavior is gone. It is no more than one man’s opinion vs another man’s opinion. And means nothing more than saying vanilla ice cream is the best.
    4. Without God, there is no free will, and therefore subjective morality is not based on human’s ability to reason. It is baseless and meaningless and random.
    5. Without God, any argument you put forward is not a reasoned argument as you have no free will to choose your argument.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Madnomad,

      Yeah, I would trust [God]. I would not trust human opinion or reasoning where no one is right or wrong. That offends my sensibilities.

      Interesting that you point to your own subjective sensibilities in order to argue for an objective morality. The only reason you like the idea of a God-given morality is that your god is invented in your own image, where you have projected your own ideas of morality into that god.

      Honest but incredibly arrogant. … We decide for ourselves what is right.

      No, the idea that there is no objective moral right or wrong is not the same as saying that we get to decide what is objectively right or wrong.

      … how, exactly is this possible without free will?

      Advancing morality is possible through us thinking about what we want, what sort of society we would prefer to live in. We can do that without libertarian notions of “free will”.

      there is no such thing as [objective] right and wrong, … That goes against everything we know to be true.

      Really? In what way do we “know it to be true” that there is objective moral right and wrong? You are confusing your own subjective opinion for what is actually known.

      … does that make peoples opinion of chocolate better or more correct that my sons? Absolutely not. …

      Of course it doesn’t! The whole point is that there are no objective preferences, only subjective ones.

      The subjective is only important to one individual and is not right or wrong.

      Exactly.

      “Subjective does not mean that anyone’s opinion is “just as good”.” (That is EXACTLY what it means.)

      No, not at all. “Just as good” implies that there is an objective “goodness” scale, and that two different things rank the same against that scale. That is very different from saying that there is no such objective scale and that the whole notion of anything such is mistaken.

      “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” (that’s a joke) …

      Are you a creationist? A literalist Christian? That would explain a lot.

      Rather the abundant evidence for the existence of God and the reliability of the bible is what makes me believe that.

      I guess you probably are a literalist Christian. I suspect we’re going to totally disagree on any evidence for God or for the reliability of the Bible.

      So what helps us have more descendants is what is right.

      No, that is the naturalistic fallacy. That is how evolution works, but that does not mean it is “what is right”. The whole point is that there is no objective “moral right”.

      Therefore all types of deviant behavior can be justified to meet the goal of more descendants.

      No, that is again the naturalistic fallacy.

      So raping and murdering others may fit very nicely into increasing chances for procreation, and there is no evolutionary moral that would condemn this behavior.

      Sure, there is no evolutionary moral that either condemns or approves of that behaviour. There are, however, plenty of human moral ideas that condemn it.

      Although most objective morality is exactly what we sense to be true. Murder, rape, lying, stealing are wrong. Objective and at the same time intuitive)

      And what is your evidence that those things are “objectively” wrong? What you “sense to be true” is a subjective argument.

      Actually I couldn’t care less about well being. If destroying someone’s well being in the process of doing the right thing, then oh well

      This is why religious-based ideas of morality can be very dangerous and why they have often been very harmful.

      “Who says that God’s opinion about morality is better than Satan’s opinion?” That’s a stupid question. If you are to accept the God of the bible, then you know God created Satan as well. The creator is who decides.

      And who decided that “the creator is who decides”?

      ok. It’s not God’s opinion. That would be to say the behavior existed before the law of morality was written, and He then opines about what is right and wrong. He made morality at the beginning, so it is not an opinion of what is. It is inherent in the action.

      This is self-contradtory. If God “opines about what is right and wrong” and creates morality, then morality is merely God’s opinion. So, who decided that God’ opinion is what counts? If God did, then that is circular.

      Then let me enlighten you, it [morality] is what God says it is.

      OK, but who decided that “[morality] is what God says it is”?

      morality is what God says is moral.

      So, is this all rooted in your opinion? Your opinion is that what God says is moral? OK, but rooting the scheme in your opinion on that is hardly objective.

      Morality is an abstract concept and not subject to mutation or selection.

      I don’t agree. There is ample evidence that other social species have notions of morality for governing social interactions within those species. There is abundant evidence that the human moral sense evolved.

    2. PeterJ

      I would just want to note that an objective morality does not actually need God, so theism would be slight red herring here. A Leviathon would be just one way to solve the problem.

    3. Coel Post author

      Hi Peter,
      So far, no-one has proposed any scheme of objective morality that is even meaningful, so we don’t really know what is required for such a scheme.

    4. PeterJ

      Coel – I see that you would deny Buddhism or Taoism as an objective moral scheme. I wonder what your objections would be. It would be a clue to something important and relevant that for the perennial philosophy ones moral duty would be to know thyself, for only then would one know the truth about the universe and our situation and thus how to behave. I know you will not believe this would be possible, but logically the idea that the truth can be known, and once known must be enacted in our responses to the world and our fellow creatures, works.

      Schopenhauer explains altruism as the breakthrough of a metaphysical truth and it may be impossible to rule out this possibility. For myself, I’m not sure what value an ethical scheme could have if it did not follow ineluctably from the nature of reality. It might be socially useful but it would have no metaphysical significance.

      I cannot argue with you directly because for me these issues are more subtle than can be captured with adjectives like ‘objective’ or ‘subjective as applied to morality; They assume that it has to be one or the other, that we must choose and argue back and forth, and in metaphysics this is usually a fatal mistake. I believe it would be such a mistake in this particular case. For a fundamental theory of ethics we would have to go beyond the subject-object distinction.

      So I see no future for exclusively subjective or objective theories. As you say, none of them work. .

    5. Coel Post author

      Hi Peter,

      I see that you would deny Buddhism or Taoism as an objective moral scheme. I wonder what your objections would be.

      I’m not at all expert in Buddism and Taoism, but surely, as with all religions and philosophies, their moral declarations and prescriptions derive in the end from people’s opinions, and are thus subjective. I don’t see how they have arrived at “moral truths” that are independent of human opinion. Indeed, has anyone even conceived of what a “moral truth” (that is independent of human opinion) even is?

      For myself, I’m not sure what value an ethical scheme could have if it did not follow ineluctably from the nature of reality. It might be socially useful but it would have no metaphysical significance.

      I agree that our ethical schemes do not have metaphysical significance. Why would we expect them to? The functions of our livers and kidneys are not “metaphysically significant”, they just evolved because they were evolutionary beneficial. Our moral senses are much the same.

      Schopenhauer’s “altruism as the breakthrough of a metaphysical truth” seems to me a false conclusion based solely on human intuition, an intuition that is not reliable on this matter.

      So I see no future for exclusively subjective or objective theories. As you say, none of them work.

      The subjective theory, that our moral sentiments are programmed into us by evolution to do a job (enabling social living), in the same way that our visual system is evolutionary programming to to a job — but that neither have metaphysical significance beyond that — works fine.

    6. PeterJ

      Hmm. It seems to me, Coel, that you have little interest in the facts. I will again cite Buddhism as a counter-example to your view of morality and religion. If you do not know it then I think that maybe you should check it out given the strength of the views you express. That you believe the Buddhist view is based on opinion betrays a lack of interest in the topic. You can’t make an argument about religion by simply conveniently mischaracterising it. Well, you can, and you have, but there’s little point. .

      I just don’t see how someone can form such strong opinions on the moral issue and not know Buddhism or Taoism. I would even debate whether you know Christianity well enough to justify your conclusions. It leaves your argument empty. If you ever read A Course in Miracles you’ll notice it describes a non-subjective moral scheme derived naturally from the facts of our situation and the reality of our identity. . .

      But don’t mind me. I’ve made my objections now.

    7. Coel Post author

      Hi Peter,

      That you believe the Buddhist view is based on opinion betrays a lack of interest in the topic.

      Can you point to Buddhist moral claims that do not ultimately derive from a human opinion or desire?

      If you ever read A Course in Miracles you’ll notice it describes a non-subjective moral scheme derived naturally from the facts of our situation and the reality of our identity. . .

      How does it achieve the leap from “is” to “ought”?

    8. PeterJ

      “Can you point to Buddhist moral claims that do not ultimately derive from a human opinion or desire?”

      Sure. All of them. Buddhism is all about overcoming human opinion and desire. This is the purpose and goal of the method. The idea is to discover what is actually the case. Buddhism (mysticism generally) is precisely the claim that human desires and opinions must be transcended for truth, knowledge and truly ethical behaviour. The idea that Buddhism relies on opinions and desires is the exact opposite of what is the case and as an approach it would be immoral. Morality for the wisdom traditions includes the acquisition of knowledge and the abandonment of desires and opinions, since how can one behave well if one has no knowledge or understanding of ones true situation?

      “How does it achieve the leap from “is” to “ought”?”

      Good question. Quite easily in fact, although ‘ought’ may not be exactly the right word. What is discovered by practitioners (so they say) is that all sentient beings share a common identity. The world would be a unity. Thus altruism becomes an act of selfishness or, rather, the distinction between selfishness and altruism is broken down. This is what Schopenhauer was getting at in that quote,. that the truth of our situation is known to us intuitively even if we are not fully aware of it. . For it to become knowledge would require some work, but we cannot change our situation and cannot get away from who we are. .

      This would be the point really, that we cannot understand what it means to behave ‘morally’ until we understand who we are, and thus who everyone else is. Then we would behave as we are bound to do under the circumstances, and would have no need for any external rule-book or scriptural commandments. Our behaviour would be rooted in what is the case, and not in some conjectural set of rules or social conventions.

      Not everyone believes that this achievement is possible but nobody knows that it is not. Hence it is possible that morality may be based on knowledge of reality and follow naturally from that knowledge.

      Regardless of the plausibility of this we should at least forget all about human opinions and desires. These tend to change from week to week.

    9. Coel Post author

      Hi Peter,

      Sure. All of them.

      OK, can you, then, give an example moral claim, and show how it is arrived at without any reference to human opinion?

      The idea that Buddhism relies on opinions and desires is the exact opposite of what is the case […] What is discovered by practitioners (so they say) is that …

      This seems somewhat contradictory. If all we have for the validity of these moral claims is the say-so of Buddhist practitioners, then that does not suggest that the validity is objective.

    10. PeterJ

      Hi again Coel

      “OK, can you, then, give an example moral claim, and show how it is arrived at without any reference to human opinion? ”

      Sure. We would treat other people just as well as ourselves since we would know that they are ourselves. Imagine you are in a virtual reality game as more than one character. Would you mistreat yourself? Would you need to be told not to mistreat yourself? You just wouldn’t do it. Unless, that is, you did not know it was you.

      So knowledge would be required for this form of moral response. Thus for a Buddhist the beginning of moral behaviour (as opposed to just following some set of rules) would be a knowledge of the facts. The behaviour would follow ineluctably from a knowledge of the facts.

      Human opinion has NO role in the teachings of mysticism. This is the entire point, that they are not opinions. The first task for a practitioner would be to abandon their opinions, and this is consistent advice across all the traditions. What is true and false is not an opinion, and any opinions we do have are likely to work as obstacles to progress. . .

      The idea that Buddhism relies on opinions and desires is the exact opposite of what is the case

      “This seems somewhat contradictory. If all we have for the validity of these moral claims is the say-so of Buddhist practitioners, then that does not suggest that the validity is objective.”

      I see your objection but there is a crucial issue here. A meditative practitioner is seeking to transcend the subject-object distinction, So we cannot speak of subjective and objective in the way that western philosophers usually do. A practitioner seeks Truth and Knowledge, not opinions and conjectures.

      A clue here would be Aristotle’s observation that true knowledge is identical with its object. It would not consist in knowing relative truths. This secure form of knowledge must be sought in practice rather than from books, and at the limit it would be a knowledge of our origin, the origin of the space-time world prior to any distinction or division such as that between the subjective and the objective. Reality, for the practitioner, would lie beyond any such coincidence of opposites,

      It would be from an immediate knowledge of the unity of all things from which would arise the ethical practices of traditions like Buddhism. That is, it would arise directly as a response to the nature of reality. Anything less would be robotic behaviour conditioned by our psychology, upbringing, society etc. and have little moral import.

      This is all off-the-cuff and not clear but at least it suggest that the situation is not cut and dried. We may not believe what Buddhists claim about reality but it would represent an approach to morality that transcends the idea that it must always be either subjective or objective. This distinction MUST be reduced for a fundamental theory. The possibility of this reduction would be the ‘metaphysical truth’ spoken of by Schopenhauer.

      Hmm. May have wandered off a bit there.

    11. Coel Post author

      Hi Peter,

      Imagine you are in a virtual reality game as more than one character. Would you mistreat yourself? Would you need to be told not to mistreat yourself?

      You are appealing here to how we feel about ourselves. We would not mistreat ourselves because we care about ourselves, we want ourselves to prosper and be happy. Appealing to this is appealing to human feelings and opinion! You are not even attempting an objective scheme, you are just rooting it in human feeling, which is — by definition — subjective.

    12. PeterJ

      I am not appealing to human feelings. Feelings are inevitably relevant to any moral scheme, but there is no appeal to them. I am appealing to the truth about reality, as I would see it, and the shared identity of sentient beings. The appeal is to ontology. Either the ontology is right or wrong. If it is right then the moral scheme would inevitably follow from the knowledge that it is right. if it is wrong then for me morality would become a lost cause as I know of no other moral scheme that works.

    13. Coel Post author

      Hi Peter,

      I am not appealing to human feelings. Feelings are inevitably relevant to any moral scheme, …

      If feelings are inevitably relevant to any moral scheme then morality is inevitably subjective (subjective: “based on or influenced by personal feelings …”). An objective morality would be one in which it were moral to do X totally regardless of any human feelings on the matter.

      I am appealing to the truth about reality, as I would see it, and the shared identity of sentient beings.

      OK, so let’s start from all sentient beings being one, so that any act towards another being is an act towards oneself. Now, explain from there why and how we “ought” to act. No reference to any feelings of any being allowed!

      If, though, you simply describe what beings will in fact do, owing to feelings that they do have, then that is a descriptive account of subjective moral feelings, not an objective and normative moral scheme.

    14. PeterJ

      I’m sorry Coel. but this is too complex an issue for me to try to deal with it from scratch. The explanation is there in the literature if you want to chase it up. All I wanted to do was suggest that there is this other explanation, even if it is usually ignored. Thanks for the chat. We’ll no doubt cross paths again. . .

  26. mogguy

    Madnomad 24Jan
    Quote: “Morality is an abstract concept and not subject to mutation or selection.”
    Quote:”Without God, any argument you put forward is not a reasoned argument as you have no free will to choose your argument.”

    But which God? There are quite a few alternatives.
    Even within the Christian Religion, with faith in the same God, there are many detail differences of Moral Codes. 2000 years ago for example, Jesus knew nothing about modern methods of medical artificial contraception,-how could he. Oh I forgot, omniscient, He knows everything.

    If you, Madnomad, chose one particular God your moral code was still effectively a subjective choice, wasn’t it? It must be what the “subjective you” thinks is right, even if that is accepting without question its rules.

    Reply
  27. G-Bo

    I’m 18 years old and just getting into this whole discussion, so bear with me if I make some foolish statements. I have a couple questions.

    First, why is subjective morality more desirable? Isn’t that based on the assumption that humans are inherently “good” or “pleasant” creatures? Human desires are definitely what count, but most of these desires aren’t applicable to the debate. My desire for food, a family, etc. don’t help me understand morality. My desire to further my own benefits, however, definitely applies to the morality debate, but if everyone acts “rationally” in this way, that tells us that morality is the worst kind of subjectivity! Human desire dictates that the ends justify the means. Is that really preferable?

    Second, arguing that morality is subjective because evolution explains it seems an unsatisfactory argument. Sure, evolution can explain morality. But that doesn’t negate the existence of objective morality. From my understanding of this debate, most people on the “religious” side (I think that’s the other side…) would argue that a supreme being dictated an objective morality and we created our own subjective morality within that framework.

    Third, I’m not sure I understand the well-being argument. After all, isn’t the point of morality the fact that this code tells us when to sacrifice our own individual well-being? If you argue that morality really dictates the well-being of a species, not the individual, wouldn’t it no longer be subjective, based on the individuals? You say that it’s a matter of majority rule. Couldn’t you argue that such majority rule stems in fact from an awareness of an objective morality?

    A definition of objective morality I’ve found is that objective morals are values that are true independent of the beliefs of human beings. Morality is prescriptive, (a matter of what George ought to or should do), but also descriptive. Morality is a list of moral facts, like scientific laws. Does that make more sense?

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi G-Bo,

      First, why is subjective morality more desirable?

      Because if there were an objective morality, and if it were totally misaligned with our human nature and preferences — which is entirely possible — then we would not like it.

      Human desire dictates that the ends justify the means. Is that really preferable?

      Does it? Ask yourself, “Do I, personally, think that the ends justify the means?”. From your comment it seems that your own answer is “no”. Most other people would also answer “no”, in which case human subjective morality does not say that the ends justify the means.

      Sure, evolution can explain morality. But that doesn’t negate the existence of objective morality.

      What it does do is remove any good argument for there being an objective morality. Afterall, the only such arguments ever advanced rely on human intuition about morality. If evolution explains human intuition and moral feelings in a subjective-morality way, then we are left with no pointers towards any objective morality.

      If you argue that morality really dictates the well-being of a species, not the individual, wouldn’t it no longer be subjective, based on the individuals?

      Yes, if you could establish an objective moral scheme, in which what mattered was the well-being of the species, then that would indeed be objective and not subjective. However, no-one has any good arguments for any such scheme.

      A definition of objective morality I’ve found is that objective morals are values that are true independent of the beliefs of human beings.

      Yes, agreed. Now argue that such an objective morality actually exists. Of course you’re not allowed to refer to any human feelings, or beliefs about what is moral, in making that argument.

      Morality is prescriptive, (a matter of what George ought to or should do)

      What do those phrases “what George ought to or should do” actually mean, if they’re not a reference to human feelings on the matter?

      Morality is a list of moral facts, like scientific laws. Does that make more sense?

      It makes sense in the sense that that is what an objective moral scheme needs to establish. But, first, no-one has explained what that even means. (What is a “moral fact” if it is not a reference to a human preference?) And, second, no-one has proposed how one would establish any such facts. Third, there is no good reason to suppose that there are any such “moral facts”, whatever they are supposed to be.

  28. mogguy

    Hi G-Bo, Bravo. Congratulations on a deeply thoughtful and well-argued and written comment. Glad Coel responded and, please, don’t be too put off by Coel’s somewhat arbitrary refutations. You have probably read my exchanges with Coel starting at June15 2014 [I have just re-read them and noticed an omission (Jun30) in that I suddenly started to refer to FD&R without first defining what I meant: it was Feelings, Desires & Emotions.]

    Three points:
    (1) His reply claiming that subjective morality is more desirable because:
    “..if (objective morality) were totally misaligned with our human nature and preferences — which is entirely possible — then we would not like it.”
    Note that he does not consider and ignores that it is likewise entirely possible for OM to be “aligned with our… etc.”: we would then LIKE it. Human objective morality by definition is FOR the human species: objective only in the sense of not being set by each individual’s personal choice. It is an intimately connected and evolving part of our own species continuing existence and evolution. It is NOT objective in the sense of being external (like water) nor is it a fixed absolute scheme.

    (2) G-Bo: “Human desire dictates that the ends justify the means. Is that really preferable?”
    I think that when we use our personal moral Feelings, Desires and Emotions these are the *means* we use to justify an action (the *ends*) to ourself but by so doing we do not necessarily make that action a moral one.

    (3) Coel later says “if you could establish an objective moral scheme, in which what mattered was the well-being of the species, then that would indeed be objective and not subjective. However, no-one has any good arguments for any such scheme.”
    Can I suggest there is at least one morally successful version of an objective moral scheme that was imposed on people which was possibly/probably/largely against innate subjective feelings? Namely, the Moral Code of the Christian Religion and the law-making that has been founded on it! Surely even Coel will agree that this is/was an objective morality. For centuries countless Christians had to obey it or be damned, which was a very efficient form of enforcement but does require conviction in its adherents to work. During its successful operation, whilst conviction was widespread and doubts were few, it did its job in controlling and inspiring overall beneficial behaviour and providing moral grounds for jurisprudence. It created what is effectively a large cohesive group of related sub-groups. Consequently, and as a result of that Code, Christians have increased by enormous numbers on theIr false assumption that it was omniscient, absolute and infallible -which of course it was not. But it must have matched (at least to more than 50%) what was required in its time. Some very wise collected human reasoning about what constituted morality -better behaviour- must have been involved somewhere along the line. In fact its ability for cultural development in the Arts, Music, literature, Architecture and Learning later sowed the seeds of its own failure as Scientific Understanding and Knowledge began to damage the possibility of conviction in an Omniscient Personal Supernatural Parent.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi mogguy,

      it is likewise entirely possible for OM to be “aligned with our… etc.”: we would then LIKE it.

      True, but of all the possible alignments of objective morality, it would be rather a coincidence if it just happened to align with human preferences, and thus in general we would not prefer an objective morality.

      Human objective morality by definition is FOR the human species: objective only in the sense of not being set by each individual’s personal choice.

      Is there actually a definition of “human objective morality”?

      Namely, the Moral Code of the Christian Religion and the law-making that has been founded on it! Surely even Coel will agree that this is/was an objective morality.

      No, I won’t agree that it is objective morality. The Christian moral code was invented by the originators and leaders of Christianity. It is simply the subjective opinion of the people who produced that code.

      In fact its ability for cultural development in the Arts, Music, literature, Architecture and Learning later sowed the seeds of its own failure …

      It is a common argument that Christian morals enabled such things, but I don’t buy it. It seems to me that people do not get their morality from religion, rather, religions get their morality from people.

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