Subjective morality – not what it seems?

Religious apologists claim morality is objective and moral truths or laws need a divine lawmaker. But, in my last post, Objective or subjective laws and lawgivers, I suggested if a divine lawmaker imposed the laws of nature on reality that would make them subjective – arising out of the whims, desires and fancies of the lawmaker and not out of objectively existing matter/energy and its interconnections.

Similarly, the “objective mortality’ or “divine command ethics” of the religious apologist really describes a subjective morality. A morality based on the whims and fancies of the divine lawmaker and open to the charge of relativism. (This interpretation is consistent with differing moral codes of different religions. Their lack of consistency has all the hallmarks of arbitrary whims and fancies).

Religious “objective morality” is caught in a dilemma here – the Euthyphro Dilemma. Is what their god commands good because their god commands it (a subjective morality open to relativism)? Or is what their god commands good for some other reason (providing for some sort of objectivity, and the possibility that we humans may also discover that objective basis for our morality).

So, while religious apologists love to talk about “objective morality” this is a misnomer. Their morality is actually subjective – and usually relativist. On the other hand, some (but not all) non-religious commenters describe their morality as “subjective.” Are there also problems with the way they use that term?

First off, I think some people may use the term simply as a reaction to claims of “objective morality” by the religious. Mind you I think some non-religious also describe their morality as objective (eg. Sam Harris) because they do not wish to concede objectivity to the religious alone.

Subjective confusion

But I want to consider the discussion of subjective morality by Zach Weinersmith (see Pankration Ethics) and Sean Carroll (Morality and Basketball). Weiner thinks subjective moral “rules are conceived of and agreed upon by humans, but have no existence outside of humans. That is, if humans perished, the rules would go with them.” In contrast he quotes Matt Dillahunty, a US atheist who who defines objective ethics, “nicely by saying (paraphrased) “If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now.” That is, the ethics are outside of humans. Slavery is wrong. Even if every human being thought it was right, it’d be wrong. When pretty much everyone thought it was acceptable practice, it was wrong.”

We can come back to the example of slavery and changes in human attitudes later. But meanwhile I really think Weiner’s use of “subjective” is confused. Dictionary meanings are usually clear that “subjective” refers to “existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought (opposed to objective ).” Sure, for humans to conceive ideas and formulate rules is subjective. But that normal humans usually have two legs, two arms, one mouth, two eyes, one heart etc., is are objective facts. If humans perished those objective facts would no longer be relevant, except as a description of an extinct species. But that does not make them subjective.

Weiner does seem to allow for at least a bit of objectivity in ethics. This may prevent his subjective morality being a bit more than just human whim and fancy. He says “we observe that when we kill each other, it generally makes us sad. So, in general, ethics systems favor not murdering.” Being sad, like with other emotions and feelings, requires more than just exercising the mind.

He ruins that a bit by going on to say: “If we lived in some sort of video game universe where killing didn’t make you sad (and in fact got you coins or points or something), I suspect we wouldn’t have the rule.” I find such thought experiments very naive. Humans don’t live in video games – no real creatures do.

However, by vaguely considering emotions as a factor in moral beliefs he has moved beyond the subjective mind, he has opened the door, a little,  to the influence of objective facts on the human mind via the human body and its interaction with its environment. Perhaps there is, at least to some extent, an objective basis for these apparent subjective decisions. Decisions which seem to arise simply from whim and fancy of the individual.

“Subjective” but not arbitrary

Sean Carroll also rejects “objective morality:”

“I don’t believe in objective morality; the universe just is, and there’s nothing “out there” that judges human behaviors to be good or bad. These categories of good and bad are things we human beings invent. And in that sense, in my version of the analogy, the rules of morality are exactly like the rules of basketball!”

“The point is this: the rules of basketball were not handed down by God, nor are they inherent in the structure of the universe. They were invented by James Naismith and others, and fine-tuned over time. We could invent different rules, and we wouldn’t be making a “mistake” in the sense we’re making a mistake if we think the universe was created 6,000 years ago. We’d just be choosing to play a different game.”

But he adds:

“The crucial part, however, is that the rules of basketball are not arbitrary, either. They are subjective in the sense that we can make them be whatever we want, but they are non-arbitrary in the sense that some rules “work better” than others. That’s pretty obvious when you hear basketball fans arguing about the proper distance for the three-point line, or the niceties of hand-checking or goaltending, or when a crossover dribble is ruled to be traveling. People don’t merely shrug their shoulders and say “eh, it doesn’t matter, the rules are whatever, as long as they are fairly enforced.” The rules do matter, even though the choice of what they are is ultimately in our hands.”

While the rules of baseball are human intentions, therefore apparently subjective, they are also influenced by some objective facts about reality – the playing field, the size and power of the individual players, etc. Again, my point. At least to some extent Carroll’s description is acknowledging some sort of objective basis for the rules of basketball and human ethics.

He puts it more clearly here:

“The rules of morality are ultimately human constructs. But they’re not arbitrary constructs: we invent them to serve certain purposes. People are not blank slates; they have desires, preferences, aspirations. We mostly want to be nice to each other, be happy, live fairly, and other aspects of folk morality. The rules of morality we invent are attempts to systematize and extend these simple goals into a rigorous framework that can cover as many circumstances as possible in an unambiguous way.”

Morality may not be “inherent in the structure of the universe” but it may be inherent in the nature of a social species like ours.

Objective basis for human morality

Both Weiner and Carroll  have agreed a role for human desires, feelings, emotions, etc., in human ethics. They are acknowledging that morality is more than about rules. Here they are supported by most scientists currently investigating human morality. They see a key role for emotions and feelings – to some extent rediscovering what Hume outlined 350 years ago. Many don’t even consider the question of moral rules or laws. They are interested in what actually motivates and drives humans on moral issues. And this turns out to be largely, and in most situations, unconscious emotional reactions and not intellectual consideration of each situation.

We can go further away from the subjective mind. Emotions and feelings are the body’s mechanism for motivating and initiating action or reaction. Feelings of pain, cold, warmth or hunger motivate us to move or otherwise react. And these are just feelings we are conscious of. Most of the work done in regulating the body, its homeostasis, occurs below the level of conscious awareness.

Emotions and feelings are probably the modern expression of more mechanical mechanisms used by simpler organisms. In the early stages of evolution simple cells may have reacted to heat and food gradients detected by simple sensors. This early ability to react to the environment is an expression of biological value. Organisms which evolved sensors and reaction mechanisms were the ones that survived to reproduce. They had a value system or mechanism to aid survival. An objectively based value system.

Evolution of species with neuronal structures, brains, and eventually consciousness and self-awareness, has enabled a clearer biological value system. Rather than simple mechanical reaction our body produces complex reactions to stimuli – often involving mental and physical feelings or emotions. Here we have an objective basis for human moral behaviour.

Moral questions are differentiated from many non-moral ones because they evoke strong moral reactions. Emotions and feelings. In fact the feelings of “right” and “wrong” are very strong feelings. Perhaps this is why some people see them as objective – they must be because they are so strong.

Morality in the “auto” mode

This objectively based values system and the emotional feelings and emotions it causes do not need conscious deliberation. Just as well as the system has evolved to enable rapid reaction to situations we face. Not only in reacting to danger – but in reacting to other members of our species. We are social by nature and this has meant evolution of systems to enable efficient and rapid reaction to social situations. We have the ability to communicate, assess other individuals, judge them, etc., all without conscious deliberation. Effectively this is like using your camera in the “auto” mode. You can go ahead and take photos without thinking – the camera does your thinking for you. And much quicker than you could do it.

Joshua Greene compared the human brain to a camera during a discussion titled “Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality.” The trouble, argued Greene, is that the ingrained automatic responses that guide some judgments may not be as effective in addressing modern complex moral problems, such as global warming.

Of course we can also use our camera in the “manual” mode – and we can do moral “arithmetic,” consider situations, deliberate over moral rules and laws etc. consciously. In a “manual mode”.


I will discuss the role of conscious moral deliberation in the next post. Together with Matt Dillahunty’s assertion “If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now.” See Drifting Moral Values

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18 responses to “Subjective morality – not what it seems?

  1. “If we lived in some sort of video game universe where killing didn’t make you sad (and in fact got you coins or points or something), I suspect we wouldn’t have the rule.”

    Hmmm. Sometimes killing people does give you coins, or gold, or sheep, or grain, or oil…. not just in a video game universe but in the real one as well. And I suspect that is why some people do not have this rule.

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  2. And these horrible features of human nature which lead to some people doing this have an objective basis. That is the point. The apparent subjective moral decisions do have an objective basis because we are real people – members of a social species.

    Avatars in a video game are not real individuals, not members of a biological social species. The fact that their apparent morality can be completely arbitrary is irrelavent and it is silly to use the example.

    You have given some of the objective reasons which will drive people to kill. Those aren’t arbitrary decisions.

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  3. Do doubt. I wonder, just as an intellectual exercise (not saying this is true) if the sort of ethical theory you are talking about is incompatible with morals having a divine origin.

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  4. *No doubt…

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  5. Another question though. Since I have as you say “given some of the objective reasons which will drive people to kill”, and that “those aren’t arbitrary decisions.”

    Does this mean that killing for money is ethical?

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  6. Max – is my model compatible with a divine origin of morals? I think not. It advances an objectively based ethics whereas divine ethics is completely subjective – at the whims and fancies of one’s chosen god. (Which is only a puppet anyway so I should say at the subjective whims and fancies of the religious leader).

    The whole progress of science has relied on looking at reality to discover how reality works. Following the evidence. Just as these days there is no need to postulate gods to understand nature, and the fact that any attempt to do so is inconsistent with reality, I think this is the same with a scientific understanding of social reality and morality. The modern scientific evolution quickly lead to abandonment of a theistic god – only a deistic god – the retired engineer, appears to be consistent with the facts.

    But those are only my ideas. You, or anyone else, are of course free to develop the model any way you wish. But for credibility this should rely on evidence not wishful thinking.

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  7. Remember the naturalistic fallacy. Just because it happens doesn’t mean it is good. I have suggested an objectively based source of moral values. This provides a rationale for reasoned thinking and decision – morality in the manual mode.

    You ask if killing for money ethical? I guess you really mean can it be good. I imagine that in some situations individuals can feel that it is good. After all cigarette manufacturers have a number of reasons for feeling good about the money they make and a number of ways of intellectually rationalizing away the harm they do. Their moral systems have adjusted to the objective situation of the money, life style etc. The auto mode on their moral camera is screwed up from my perspective – it produced a horrible colour cast which they are now unable to see because of the filters they have installed, or let grow, in their perception.

    I am not claiming that the auto mode produces an accurate emotion of right or wrong in the individual. Instead we need to use the manual mode – and collectively. Even then we are still influenced by feelings and emotions – we are not really a rational species. (Great example of this in Parlament last night).

    So we may not get our moral decision right in the auto mode – or even in the manual mode. But I think the fact that our morality is objectively based means that in some, if not many, issues there is an objectively correct decision. We sometimes get it right – and perhaps our collective skill in getting it right actually improves with time. For example the apparent overwhelming support for marriage equality certainly did not exist 10 or 20 years ago. Moral progress.

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  8. I think you are thinking specifically of a \”divine command theory\” of ethics. And you may be right that your thoughts are not compatible with this. But that is not the only way that morality could have a divine origin.

    And Ken – you don;t have to throw your catch phrases into every sentence!

    \” The auto mode on their moral camera is screwed up from my perspective\”

    Yes – but there\’s the rub. Your moral camera is screwed up from their perspective – they probably can\’t understand why people like us would not sell poison if it meant we got richer. But the source of their \”camera\” is the same as the source of ours. And we may not even be in the majority historically speaking.

    And the manual mode probably does not help you out much either – as you know there are philosophers who use the manual mode to justify genocide and other evils.

    I agree that our morality has an objective basis – the problem is the morality of different individuals, with different bodies and brains, will not always line up. One person\’s objective morality says its OK to shoot a stranger and take their diamond watch. Another person\’s objective morality says this is not OK. And you can\’t say the second one is right and the first one is wrong… unless you have some other meta-objective morality to fall back on. Which you don\’t.

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  9. Max, I am using metaphors, not catch phrases. They are more Haidt’s and Greene’s than mine but I do think they are very useful for a subject which a lot of peope gave difficulty with. So I will continue to use and develop them (as you will see in my next post).

    You point about the difference between different person’s “objective morality” is the very one I made – this so called “objective morality” turns out to be subjective and can be used to justify the worst forms of moral relativism.

    You are quite welcome to introduce divine origins into these ideas – good luck, I personally can’t see how it would be done. But don’t criticize me for not doing it.

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  10. Santa is the ultimate meta-objective morality to fall back on. He’s got a list and he’s checking it twice.
    He knows who’s been naughty or nice.

    Are you more moral than God? – The Atheist Experience 578

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  11. (the metaphors are good and fine.. not what I was talking about)

    I am not sure that you really answered my point. Basically you are agreeing that any action can be deemed to be moral if it seems right to the person? When slavery seemed right to most people was this moral? If not why not.

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  12. Max you have the whole thing arse about face. it’s exactly what I am not saying. Perhaps you had better go back and read it again.

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  13. Fair enough. Can you just answer the question then and make it clear?

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  14. Max, I think my article made this very clear. Or at least read the next post on Drifting Moral Values, where I repeat my points.

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  15. Yep. Its clear.

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  16. Pingback: Moral evolution in today’s society | Open Parachute

  17. You say that we don’t live in video games and thus the murder isssue with regards to that is irrelevant, but what if it wasn’t? Say that dying just made you respawn. The act of murder now takes on a completely different meaning. Where as now it is destroy a single unimportant shell, it did mean, to completely obliterate a lifetime of experiences working as a whole in a unique machine that will never exist again.

    The “crime” is not so much the same. Hell death becomes a momentary inconvenience. Human becomes a food source.
    If morality means a way of interacting that optimizes and maximizes happiness, safety, and free will for all the most sustainably, then by that definition, morality IS objective. Whether or not it is possible to determine the golden ratio is irrelevant. A perfect balance does exist.
    It is my OPINION though an experienced and researched one that it s only through exhaustive research, time, and thorough examination of the human condition and the world around it that we can best determine that perfect ratio.
    This also means something else, morality is situational. Murder may be wrong but killing to stop your own death or that of others may be acceptable. What maximizes happiness, safety, and free will for the most people in the most sustainable manner?
    This means that morality is a long game and mutes the fragility of human life in terms of “Im dying in 24 hours, I can do what I want.” Things like this remain immoral and are not personal issues because therein lies the problem, morality is not singular. It is only when interacting (even with the self) that it becomes relevant. It is defined by interaction. It is meaningless without it, and because the repercussion of all actions reverberate infinitely, every action could ultimately be judged as moral or immoral based on those reactions. To which point, the ultimate morality of any action going forward is separate from its directing force allowing you to kill a rapist but stop him from fathering the child that would have cured cancer.

    To this end, we are limited by our perspective and our ability to predict and any punitive action on our part is ultimately hugely uninformed and not to scale with any real loss or benefit on the whole by humanity.
    Does this mean that instead we should not punish any crime at all? Indeed based on this idea, all criminal action under some paradigms of human development could be considered compulsory, ingrained in every molecule of one’s being, every action, in fact a reaction for which the party only played its part. Do we simply allow things to play out?

    No. As beings trapped in one path along times arrow, we are defined by that situational modifier as all others and punitive or corrective measures at the moment seem the best way to promote morality. Regardless of the truth of a deterministic universe, we unable to determine its path ourselves and must make our “decisions” from this end going that way.
    What I am saying is that there is a functionally ideal way for each entity in the universe to interact with every other and that it is not based in opinion but could with sufficient information and time be reasoned out and implemented. Time is always too short, but our archive of universal interactions is ever expanding. We need only continue to explore.

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