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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6 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

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