Thursday, February 19, 2009

Morality debate, part 2 of 11

Cheetah's opening statement

Thanks to WeirdBrake for offering to moderate and ephphatha for participation. This is a controversial subject and I hope and anticipate this that conversation will be valuable.

In this post, I hope to further outline the nature of subjectivity and ask some critical questions about objectivity.

Morality is subjective

Morality is a product of human consciousness and is open to be changed by human consciousness and will. Morality varies among people depending on their personal feelings, which are influenced by the peculiar situation in which morality is judged.

However, this doesn't mean that all actions are equally moral or allowable; it simply states that allowability and equivalency are not established outside of human perception, but within it. It does not value all actions as equally ok simply because there is not an objective standard of what is ok and what is not. Nor does it condemn anyone for judging others simply because there are “different strokes for different folks.”

What it does do is describe how the system of morality in human civilization works. I liken the human moral system to contracts. We contract with each other based on what we wish to accomplish for ourselves and society. This comes from our biological drive to preserve the organism (ourselves) and our species. Based on this self-interest, many civilizations (though not all) have concluded that establishing a proscription against killing others would facilitate a society. We give up killing others, but we gain some security for ourselves. As children are raised by parents and others, they learn by modeling and conditioning that killing is wrong, which does lead to an enduring idea in that culture that killing is wrong. Contracts in human civilization are sometimes based on agreement of a plurality or majority, sometimes by a powerful minority (or dictator) and sometimes are never agreed upon. Nevertheless, morals are always a product of human perception and judgment and typically evolve based on rational thought of humans in the furtherance of some goal for society.

Points of disagreement on subjectivity

Moral objectivists and subjectivists both make moral claims, but they each mean something different by them. When moral subjectivists say, “Rape is wrong,” they're not actually referring to rape. They're referring to their own feelings about rape.
Minor disagreement. They may be referring to their own feelings, but in common acts like these, they are often evaluating based on their own cultural construct. So similar to your example below, a moral subjectivist could find rape to be a good thing personally, but still think it is wrong and feel bad about it because their cultural construct is that rape is bad, and they have grown up being indoctrinated to that view. This is an idea I will return to several times in disagreeing with your assumptions, which I shall henceforward refer to as SC (social conditioning or social contract).

They find it objectionable. But there's nothing wrong about rape itself.

SC. In this way, there is still something wrong in rape, though only because humans have decided so in this situation. As I asserted above, moral subjectivism does not require that all views be evaluated as equal, it just states that all judgments of moral value stem from human perception.

When you say, “Rape is wrong,” are you reporting autobiography—that you don't like rape? Are you just describing your personal preferences? Or are you talking about the act of rape itself? If you're talking about the act itself, then you're a moral objectivist.
SC. Moral subjectivists can still evaluate moral actions outside of their own feelings, because their culture has decided to condemn that action.

Suppose somebody says, “Rape is virtuous.” Would you say, “Different stroke for different folks”? Or would you think that person was mistaken? If you think he's mistaken, then you're a moral objectivist. The only way to be mistaken is if there is some objective truth to the matter.
I strongly disagree. People can disagree with another's morals for purely rational reasons that still are not indicative of an objective morality.

In fact, in this sense, objectivism doesn't make sense. Morality dictates what one should do. But, saying something should be done begs the question, why should it be done? If the answer to the "why" question is "because you should" or "because it's the right thing to do," then it sounds a whole lot like moral subjectivism, because such answers are usually associated with personal preference and not opinion about facts. Other answers, like, "because if you believe human life has value, you shouldn't kill that guy," make morality conditional. If you want X, do Y. What if I don't want X? Am I immoral for not wanting X? If yes, WHY? In the case of "human life has value" we come to another "because."

I see that I am quickly running out of words, so I must for now skip over an individual response to your 5 theories. Suffice to say that I feel each of them, including your conclusion, can be adequately addressed with the social contract/conditioning theory and rejection of the idea that subjectivism does not allow the moral agents to make judgments on superiority of different moral ideas, both of which I have addressed above.


We come to this problem with objectivity: There are two questions, at least one of which must be fully answered, before there can be any evidence for objectivity:
1. Where does objectivity originate? What are the origins of this mysterious doctrine,that we may know that it is superior to our own varying thoughts and is a valid thing to apply? Or
2. How do we know the objective moral code? There is some agreement on some morals, but widespread disagreement on most. Even the most basic morals that we subscribe to have not been consistent over time or around cultures. The Aztecs killed innocent people frequently, because they felt it honored their gods, so they did not subscribe to a moral code against killing innocents. Throughout history, an invading army has raped women in the invaded civilization, and this was taken as a right of the invader. Even now, in some Muslim cultures, the rapist is not wrong, but the victim of the rape is immoral. Therefore, if there is a moral code, we must have a way of knowing what it is and that we are indeed subscribing to the correct one. Because a moral code is not a concrete thing, like a tree, we cannot just go check if it is there. But, it would be the worst kind of disingenuity to tell people, “I don't know who/what the moral authority is or where it comes from, nor can I show you what the moral code is in a satisfactory manner to prove that we are actually sticking to the letter of this moral code, I can only tell you that I know killing is wrong, and since most of the people on the planet agree with me, it must be so.

Secondarily, I would be interested in what we might call “second degree morals,” ones that are not widely agreed on. For instance, “pornography is wrong.” Some people ascribe to this and some people don't. How do we know the objective morality on this? Where do we go to get an answer? Who is our authority? Or are some morals subjective while only some more important ones are objective? And if that is the case, how can we know that we are correctly implementing objective morals while not missing any that we think are not objective? Humans have been wrong about a lot of things in the past (you pointed out the flat earth theory), so it is not acceptable to merely take certain people on authority that they have deduced what is objectively moral and immoral.

The crux of the problem with objectivity is its circularity:

Q: What is moral, objectively?

A: It is X

Q: How do you know?

A: We feel in our minds that some things are right and some are wrong.

Q: But, Culture #2 feels that X is immoral.

A: Humans can sometimes be wrong and it does not take universal agreement to know that something is objective.

Q: Well, how do you know YOUR view is right?

A: Because we feel in our minds that X is immoral.


This is why subjectivity is not only more rational, but more consistent. Subjectivity acknowledges that we may never be “right” in the morals that we implement in our particular society, but that we can commit resources to continue to refine and provide rationale for morals in order to achieve what we deem to be the greatest benefit to society or an improvement to society. It acknowledges that morals can be crafted using objective facts about the natural world (i.e. improved technology) and situational factors that may result in varying degrees of acceptability to the moral agents.

Part 3


At 2/23/2009 2:29 PM , Blogger Leanne said...

I wrote a refutation of the subjectivist's final argument, if that helps at all.
It's on my blog at It is currently the first post, but is filed under Christian Arguments -> Refutations -> Morality. Please feel free to comment on it.

At 2/23/2009 5:09 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Thanks for the link. I left my comments on your blog.


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