The CARM rejection of subjective morality

I’ve been pointed by a reader to a critique of the idea that morality is subjective written by the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry. CARM is the website of Matt Slick, a conservative Christian who believes in the infallibility and literal intent of the Bible, and thus, for example, in the literal existence of Adam and Eve.

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What struck me about Slick’s arguments against morality being subjective is that he doesn’t really address whether it is true that morality is subjective, he discusses whether he wants it to be the case that morality is subjective. He then sort of assumes that what he wants to be the case must then be the case.

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This is, of course, a hallmark of Christian apologetics, but is also symptomatic of those arguing for objective morality more generally. Having discussed the matter with many people, the main objection to the idea that morality is subjective is simply dislike of the idea or its consequences, coupled with an intuitive insistence that there must be some way in which we can regard morality as objective.

Slick argues:

But, we can justify our absolute morals that apply to all people; they [moral subjectivists] can’t. The Christians absolute morals are rooted in the character of God, not the subjective preferences of individual.

Of course rooting morals in the subjective preferences of the Christian god is just as subjective as rooting them in the preferences of Fred Blogs from Little Rock, Arkansas. Slick gives no reason why God (as opposed to anyone else) gets to be the one whose opinion counts. “Might makes right” is not an argument. And it doesn’t get you around Euthyphro: if a God were a sadistic monster who enjoyed torturing children for the fun of it, then — according to Slick’s account — torturing children would be the objectively moral thing to do.

Slick then gives six reasons for rejecting subjective morality:

1. Without absolute morals, nothing is really right or wrong

By “really” right or wrong, he means objectively right or wrong independently of anyone’s opinion. And he’s entirely right. But all he’s done is restate what morality being subjective means. He’s given no actual argument against moral subjectivity or non-cognitivism (the idea that moral claims do not have truth values). He is, it seems, assuming an implicit: “… and because this conflicts with my intuition and because I don’t like that idea therefore it is untrue”.

2. Moral values are assigned [by] individuals who often contradict each other

Again, he is entirely right. Again, though, this does not constitute any sort of argument against morality being subjective. People so often just misunderstand subjective morality. They are so intuitively wedded to the idea that moral claims have objective truth values that they then get all baffled as to how one gets objective morality and objective moral truth values out of subjective morality. The answer is of course, that one can’t, and the quest is misconceived. But Slick asks:

It would be a problem to determine what actually is right and wrong when morals are subjective and people disagree all the time

Yep! And that’s because there is no such thing and because the very phrase “what actually is morally right and wrong” has no meaning, it being the delusion of a preference that is objective and independent of anyone doing the preferring.

Furthermore, if people were to appeal to something “just being wrong”, then they are not appealing to the subjective preferences but to a standard outside of themselves. This would be inconsistent with the idea of subjective morality …

Again, that’s entirely correct! And yet none of this is an argument against non-cognitivism being the truth about morality. Slick is just giving his emotional reaction to the idea and rejecting it for that reason.

3. If moral values are subjective, there can be no moral absolutes

Yes indeed Mr Slick, well spotted! Slick is just re-stating the same thing again and again.

4. Moral subjectivity would work only in a world where people are nice

By “work” Slick presumably means “… lead to a world in which everyone was nice”. Again, indeed so! Slick correctly points out that only in a world where everyone was nice would everyone be nice. Subjective morality will indeed not automatically produce such a world. But, you know what, we don’t live in such a world! In asserting that morality is subjective, I’m trying to state the truth about how things actually are, not dreaming of a Utopia about how we’d like things to be.

5. History condemns moral relativism

Slick makes the usual apologetic claim that subjective morality leads to mass murder, pointing to Stalin, Mao and Hitler. But, he’s simply wrong. Hitler, for one, believed in an objective morality ordained by God, just as Slick does. It was precisely because he believed that objective moral standards ordained by God mandated the removal of Jews from society that he decided to kill them. After declaring that the Aryan race were the “highest image of God among His creatures”, Hitler stated in Mein Kampf that the state had: “a very high mission indeed to preserve and encourage the highest type of humanity which a beneficent Creator has bestowed on this earth”. Thus he declared that: “In opposing the Jew I am doing God’s will”.

Similarly, Stalin and Mao believed that they had an overriding moral duty to impose their system on society. It is the person who believes in objective morality, who considers that he has an absolute moral mandate, regardless of what other humans think, who is dangerous. A person who considers that morality is subjective, and that his moral opinions are his own individual moral opinions, and that he does not have objective or Divine backing to impose them on others, is much less dangerous.

Finally, Slick argues against the idea that:

6. Morals are based on reducing Harm

Slick says that:

… when reducing harm is the standard all that people have to adhere to, then the moral relativist is appealing to a universal moral standard. But that means they are appealing to something outside of themselves which contradicts their subjective morality.

Again, I agree, but there he is arguing against the objective system of utilitarianism. Many atheists, recoiling intuitively from the idea that morals are subjective, do indeed attempt to construct an objective utilitarian morality (Sam Harris is a prominent example). I consider all such attempts to be misconceived, and suggest that morality makes much more sense once we accept that it really is subjective. Thus morality is often about reducing harm simply because that’s the sort of society most of us want to live in.

There really are no problems at all associated with subjective morality — Slick has not pointed to a single one, other than his intuitive rejection of the idea.
Yes, one cannot start from subjective morality and then map it onto an Absolute Shouldness Scale, but that’s because the very request is a misconceived mashing together of subjectivism and objectivism. Many of Slick’s comments are actually entirely correct, but are in no way arguments against morality being subjective.

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17 thoughts on “The CARM rejection of subjective morality

  1. Neil Rickert

    Show me a moral absolutist, and I will show you a moral relativist who absolutely wants to impose his relative morality on everbody else.

    That’s my standard response to the idea of an absolute morality.

    I’ve followed a number of discussions of moral subjectivism vs. moral objectivism. And the only conclusion that I can reach, is that the subjective/objective dichotomy is a poor fit for morals. And that’s why such arguments never resolve anything.

    Reply
    1. Patrice Ayme

      Indeed. Natural ethology is established in part from logic, and logic depends to some extent, upon circumstances. Thus natural human ethology is relative, precisely because it’s absolute. In the end, like Brownian motion, it all averages out (absolutely). Moral outliers, like Nazism, get eradicated by evolutionary processes.

  2. Patrice Ayme

    There is a God, and it created us in a little more than four billion years. Its name is biological evolution, and it made it so that we come endowed with a natural morality, ethology. ethology is more developed, more plastic, more variable and intelligent in human beings than in any other species.

    Ethology is experimentally established: Capuchin Monkeys have a sense of fairness, for example. That sense of fairness can override more primal urges necessary for survival (like hunger, or safety).
    Recently, ethological studies were extended to rats. Rats can override their primal urges to help a fellow rat.

    So we don’t need a god invented in the last 32 centuries to explain why we have a sense of right and wrong. There is an absolute morality, but its application can be extremely variable according to circumstances. That is clear when studying the ethology of lions, say, which is all over the place: lions can be fair, tender, devoted, demented, cruel, vicious, selfish, generous, and even protecting of other species… The same pretty much can be observed with chimpanzees (who, after all, have to scare away lions…)

    Absolute morality is a mix of what our bodies find pleasurable, and logics (which we learned from the environment, as a sort of proto-physics), as it interacts with the circumstances at hand (see the famous Melian dialogue where Athens explains to Melos why Athens has to be cruel and demented in the Athenian will to annihilate Melos, if Melos won’t submit…)

    Logics (again, a proto-physics discovered by the baby interacting with the world) is an integral part of what enables us to make our natural ethology operational. Those who “believe” in superstitions which stretch plausibility beyond the breaking point (son of god being crucified, as if that was going to save us, or Muhammad going to Jerusalem, carried by a winged horse, now that the Archangel Gabriel finished instructing him in Arabic, in the name of god…) are violating the law of logic.

    Babies discover at some point fellow humans don’t always tell the truth, and “belief” should not be absolute, except for excellent reasons. Faith based on unbelievable beliefs deny this. Those unbelievable beliefs used to be more much believable than they are now. Thus they violate logics, the basic of our natural ethics, much more than they used to.

    That violation of ethics, coming from a violation of basic logic is precisely why Roman emperors imposed Christianity (under the penalty of death found in the edicts of emperor Theodosius, 390 CE). That enabled to make god in the image of the emperor, and the emperor’s rule, divine.

    The same basic reasoning established Islam (the ferocious part of the Qur’an was written as Muhammad finally became dictator of Mecca, hence in the same position as Theodosius, 242 years prior).

    By violating logic (not believing in anything whatever), the Abrahamic faiths are in violation of absolute, evolution given, ethology. Amen.

    Reply
  3. Phil

    I’m as uncomfortable with adamant claims about subjective morality being a “one true way” as I am with adamant claims about objective morality being a “one true way”.

    It seems to me the adamant knowers on all sides of the question seek each other out for battle so as to reinforce their respective fantasy knowings in combat. This is the phenomena that should concern us, for at times in history both sides have gone completely out of control in their certitude and engaged in vast waves of violence. The problem is not either position, but the degree of certitude to which some of us can take either position.

    I would agree there is currently no proof of objective morality, and have no problem with those who choose to decline the assertion that it exists. But that’s rather a different matter than proving objective morality doesn’t exist. Until proof can be provided one way or another to settle the question, it seems the sensible thing to do is admit that we simply don’t know.

    Reply
    1. Kitestring

      What sort of proof are you looking for? Cole, among others, presents some compelling arguments that objective morality doesn’t make any sense. Have you been able to find some flaw in those arguments? You haven’t provided any justification for the statement that “we simply don’t know.”

      Also, can you provide any historical instances of ethical subjectivists committing atrocities? I can’t think of any.

    2. Coel Post author

      Yes, as Kitestring says, it’s hard to say what a “proving objective morality doesn’t exist” would amount to. All we can say is that no account of objective morality (one independent of humans) makes sense, and nor is there there any evidence for it.

  4. Phil

    Hi guys,

    No one on any side has proven they have a methodology qualified to answer the question, thus, we don’t know.

    As example, if I said I had found the answer in my XYZ machine, you would very understandably ask for proof that my machine was qualified to deliver credible answers on the topic in question. If I could not provide such proof, then the conversation is over.

    We present this test to holy books, they fail, we walk away. I present the very same test to human reason, it fails, I walk away. There is ample proof that reason, and holy books, are both qualified to speak to a variety of human scale issues. That’s an entirely different matter than the scale being discussed here.

    Yes, I can “provide any historical instances of ethical subjectivists committing atrocities” but if I have to do so then there’s no point in doing so.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      But how does one show that something doesn’t exist? We can only point to the total lack of evidence for it. Everyone treats unicorns as non-existent, but that’s only because there is no evidence for them, not because we have a method to rigorously prove their non-existence.

      We have ample evidence of the existence of *subjective* moral feelings, and such feelings explain everything about morality that needs explaining. What more can we do in discounting objective morals?

  5. Phil

    Hi Coel,
    Well, let’s see. Objective morals would have some source. Could be an intelligent source as theists claim, or perhaps an evolutionary source. That is, maybe there is some set of morals which have greater survival value. Or, could be both together. Or, could be something else entirely.

    To discount all these possibilities one would first have to demonstrate that one has a methodology which is qualified to examine the environment. As example, I might be judged qualified to search my refrigerator for mustard because I have done so many times and always delivered the correct answer.

    If I understand your position, it appears that you wish for us to declare human reason so qualified. The problem here is that human reason has repeatedly not seen things that later turned out to be there. That is basically the history of science, right? So why should we accept this authority which you are asking us to reference?

    Have been watching a great show on Amazon called Everything And Nothing, an excellent exploration of the nature of the void (vast majority of reality) for non-scientists. Is the void really empty? They’ve changed their mind about this quite a number of times.

    I don’t see why you’re so intent on nailing down a “one true way” absolutely correct answer. What’s so bad about simply saying, “I don’t see anything that could be described as objective morality”? This is a quite different statement than “there is no objective morality” and it leaves the question open for further investigation.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      Objective morals would have some source. Could be an intelligent source as theists claim, …

      OK, so let’s suppose that there are objective morals, such that “it is immoral to do X” and “you should not do X”.

      What does “it is immoral do do X” actually mean? *Why* should we not do X?

      If all you mean is that some entity, such as a god, would be unhappy if we did X, then that doesn’t really answer the question of why we should not do X (except for the practical matter of maybe getting zapped by god if we did X).

      That is, maybe there is some set of morals which have greater survival value.

      Of course there are! It’s quite obvious that human moral codes help us cooperate better and lead to us surviving better, which is why evolution programmed such codes into us. But, that only matters if we care about our survival, and that is a subjective matter rooted in our human preferences and feelings. Any morality based on that is then a subjective morality.

      What’s so bad about simply saying, “I don’t see anything that could be described as objective morality”? This is a quite different statement than “there is no objective morality” and it leaves the question open for further investigation.

      All matters are always open to further investigation, but there’s nothing wrong with arriving at conclusions as best we can. If we didn’t do that we’d never do anything.

  6. Keith Mosher

    If two small children grow up free from other human contact… and one strikes down the other with a rock killing him, will the child feel any sense of regret or sorrow for his action? Or is the idea that murder is wrong something that is taught? Something LEARNED or something BUILT IN to all of us?

    While this example is impossible (because human children have somehow “evolved” to be completely helpless for about the first 10 years of their lives… unlike the entirety of the animal kingdom, but I digress…) the idea is one I would like to explore. It is my belief we have a built in moral compass that guides us through life. Can this be changed and distorted through teaching and circumstances? Obviously. But left unguided, where would it lead? To mass murder? Child Rape? All other sorts of evil? Unlikely.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Keith,

      Or is the idea that murder is wrong something that is taught? Something LEARNED or something BUILT IN to all of us?

      We all have moral ideas built into us. This is part of our evolutionary programming, such that we are programmed to be cooperative and social animals, to have empathy for others, et cetera. Evolution programmed us like this because in our ecological niche we were more successful being social and cooperative.

      So yes, small children will grow up naturally to be moral. Indeed, the most important part of that is not instruction from adults, it is playing with playmates of the same age and learning to get along with them.

    2. Keith Mosher

      Hello Coel,

      Thank you for your response. I must be honest with you, while your theory on “evolutionary programming” is quite interesting… it falls short of the truth.

      I only share this with you because I was an atheist for 35 years until one day that God revealed himself to me in a very supernatural way. A way I could not ignore or explain away with science. That was 10 years ago. Now I know the truth and have been taken down a path that regularly reveals the spiritual realm around us. Just last night I laid hands on a demon-possessed man that fled in the name of Jesus Christ. This was the second time this week I have encountered a possessed soul.

      Evolution is the greatest lie ever told, it has convinced countless people that God does not exist. I know these words will have little to no effect on your worldview. But I just wanted to share them with you.

      I will be praying or you.

      Have a great day!

  7. Phil

    Coel is right, as far as he goes, but there’s more to it. There is a natural built-in sense of morality, agreed. But it doesn’t stand alone free of any environmental influence. Morality is reinforced continually by the community, a never ending process of reminding us what the social contract is, attempts to enforce compliance via rewards and punishment etc.

    As this process piles up in the culture over thousands of years it becomes impossible to fully escape. As example, Catholicism dominated western culture to a degree that is unimaginable today for 1,000 unbroken years. A thousand years. Think about that. And so we see weird phenomena such as hard core atheists adamantly rejecting religion, using values pounded in to their heads by centuries of Catholic priests. Point being, it’s not really possible to entirely opt out of moral value systems which have been so profoundly anchored in a culture.

    Anyway, it’s not as simple as morality being built-in and natural.

    Reply

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