Tag Archives: objective morality

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.

The evolutionary argument against moral realism

Having abandoned Divine Command Theory around the age of 12, when I realised that I was an atheist, I then read John Stuart Mill at the impressionable age of 14 and instantly became a utilitarian. I remained so well into adulthood; it seemed obvious that morality was a matter of objective wrong and right, and that utilitarianism — the greatest good of the greatest number — was the way to determine such facts.

Of course I also became aware of the unresolved problems with utilitarianism: there is no way to assess what is “good” except by subjective judgement, and there is no way to aggregate over sentient creatures (should a mouse count equally to a human?) except, again, by subjective judgement. Both of those rather clash with the desired objectivity of the scheme.

Periodically I would try to fix these flaws, but never succeeded. Such mulling led me to the realisation that I didn’t actually know what moral language actually meant. “It is morally right that you do X”, can be re-phrased as “you ought to do X”, but what do those mean? I realised that I didn’t know, and had been proceeding all this time on the basis that what they meant was intuitively obvious and so didn’t need analysis.

But that’s not good enough if we’re trying to solve meta-ethics and understand the very foundations of morality. And so, I eventually arrived at the realisation that the only sensible meaning that can be attached to the moral claim “you ought to do X” is that: at least one human, likely including the speaker, will dislike it if you do not do X. “It is morally right that you do X” then becomes a declaration that the speaker will approve of you doing X and disapprove of you not doing X. Continue reading

Debate with Anthony Freeland on Objective Morality: Second Post

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

Was the Holocaust evil?

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

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

On objective moral values and duties: A reply to Anthony Freeland

The Christian blogger Anthony Freeland has invited me to debate the topic of whether morals are objective or subjective. Anthony has written the first post, arguing that objective moral values and duties do exist.

I’m arguing that morals are subjective, and will structure this post as a reply to Anthony, though elaborating on my wider views at times (for more of which see these three posts). To start with, I’ll concur with Anthony’s definition of the terms. Subjective morals derive from and are dependent on human feelings and opinion on the matter. Objective moral values and duties need to be independent of human opinion (though, as below, more broadly they need to be independent of the feelings of any sentient being). Continue reading

The Sam Harris Moral Landscape Challenge: Part 2

Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge had a 1000-word limit, and thus to accompany my entry I’ve written this additional (and rather longer) piece, essentially a response to Harris’s Response to Critics article. This piece is best read after my first part and is intended to clarify where I agree and disagree with Harris. Indeed I do agree with Harris on much, probably more so than many of his critics. However, I consider that Harris goes wrong in hankering over the label “objective” to stamp on his account of morals, and that this gets him into a mire while gaining little. Continue reading

My entry for Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge

Sam Harris has issued an essay challenge, calling for 1000-word pieces that try to refute the main thesis of his book The Moral Landscape, essentially the idea that morals are objective facts about human well-being. Here is my entry (with some bits similar to my previous posts on the topic).

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, wrote Dobzhansky, and we can’t understand morality except as part of our biology, programmed into us by evolution to do a job. That job is to facilitate cooperation. Morality is a social glue that enables us to collaborate with our fellow humans and so benefit from a highly cooperative way of life.

Evolution had long programmed feelings and emotions into us (hunger, fear, disgust, love, satisfaction, pain, etc) so it adapted that mechanism to police our interactions. Thus we have notions of loyalty and comradeship, and treachery and ostracisation, of fairness and exploitation, of pride and shame, punishment and forgiveness.

Morals are opinions about how people should should treat each other; morality is our feelings and emotions about inter-human behaviour.

These feelings do not reflect any deeper and more objective reality about how we “should” behave or treat each other. Why would they? Evolution has no such concern; all that matters for evolution is whether someones moral feelings assist cooperation and enable them to leave more descendants. Even if there were such a thing as “objective” morals evolution would not care one hoot about them and thus they would bear no relation to how we feel, to our evolutionarily-programmed sense of morality. Continue reading