Is morality objective or subjective?

Should you think about your duty, or about the consequences of your actions? Or should you concentrate on becoming a good person?

Moderators: AMod, iMod

Post Reply
Peter Holmes
Posts: 723
Joined: Tue Jul 18, 2017 3:53 pm

Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Fri Jul 06, 2018 10:35 am

The key to answering this question is the difference between factual and moral assertions – and how this relates to what we call objectivity and subjectivity.

We use the word objective to mean to ‘relying on facts’. And facts are true regardless of what anyone believes or claims to know, and regardless of their source. But all factual assertions are falsifiable, because they assert something about reality that may not be the case. So evidence is needed to justify them.

By contrast, we use the word subjective to mean ‘relying on judgement, belief or opinion’. Judgements can be individual or collective. They can be more or less rationally justifiable. And because they express values, we often refer to such judgements as value judgements or just values.

The difference between objectivity and subjectivity has been called the fact-value distinction. But discussions about specifically moral values are about how we ought to behave, so here the difference has been called the is-ought distinction.

Given this understanding of objectivity and subjectivity, moral assertions are subjective, because they express value judgements, rather than make falsifiable factual claims. And two examples illustrate the distinction.

1 The assertion people eat animals and their products is a fact – a true factual assertion. But the vegan assertion eating animals and their products is wrong expresses a moral judgement, not a fact. The two assertions have completely different functions.

2 That some states execute some criminals is true. But that states should execute some criminals – that execution is morally justifiable – is a judgement. If there were a moral fact of the matter, we could not argue about the judgement.

An argument that objective morality is evidence for the existence of anything – let alone a god – is unsound, because morality is not objective. It is rational to have sound reasons for our moral judgements, such as wanting to promote individual well-being. But they remain judgements, so they are subjective.

Trouble is, the assertion morality is subjective seems wrong and offensive. It seems to mean that whatever someone judges to be morally right or wrong is indeed morally right or wrong – so that anything goes, and moral relativism and anarchy is the result.

But that is to forget the is-ought distinction. To say an action is morally right or wrong is to express a judgement, not to state a fact. So an action is not – and does not become - morally right or wrong just because someone believes it is.

The expressions objective morality and moral fact are contradictions – or they could be called oxymorons. But our moral values and assertions matter deeply to us, so the mistake of believing there are moral facts is easy to explain. It is an understandable misunderstanding.

But, ironically, if there were moral facts, their source would be irrelevant. The assertion this is good because I say – or a god says – it is good has no place in a rational moral debate. An argument from authority is as mistaken for moral as it is for factual assertions. So the theistic argument from objective morality undermines itself.

The full version of this argument is at: http://www.peasum.co.uk/420676773

surreptitious57
Posts: 3838
Joined: Fri Oct 25, 2013 6:09 am

Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by surreptitious57 » Fri Jul 06, 2018 4:12 pm

Objective means mind independent but morality cannot be objective because only facts are. That there exist different and
conflicting moralities within philosophy and religion is also evidence of this. So there cannot be any such thing as objective
morality. The very term itself is an oxymoron. Morality can therefore only be subjective or intersubjective and nothing else

surreptitious57
Posts: 3838
Joined: Fri Oct 25, 2013 6:09 am

Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by surreptitious57 » Fri Jul 06, 2018 4:25 pm

Peter Holmes wrote:
But all factual assertions are falsifiable because they assert something about reality that may not be the case
There is no such thing as a factual assertion because anything that is fact cannot be an assertion
Facts are non falsifiable by definition and are statements of truth rather than assertions of truth
And any asserted fact which has subsequently been falsified was not actually a fact to begin with

Peter Holmes
Posts: 723
Joined: Tue Jul 18, 2017 3:53 pm

Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Fri Jul 06, 2018 7:13 pm

I'm distinguishing between factual and non-factual assertions. So that true factual assertions are what we call facts, because they correctly assert something about a feature of reality. (I prefer the word 'assertion' to the word 'proposition', for various reasons.)

User avatar
Immanuel Can
Posts: 7520
Joined: Wed Sep 25, 2013 4:42 pm

Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Immanuel Can » Fri Jul 06, 2018 7:16 pm

Peter:

There are a multitude of problems with this line of thought. Without seeming gratuitously fractious, perhaps I could point them out to you, and you might consider how you want to plug the gaps. If you can do it, I would be very interested.
Peter Holmes wrote:
Fri Jul 06, 2018 10:35 am
...we use the word subjective to mean ‘relying on judgement, belief or opinion’. Judgements can be individual...
Well, if they are subjective and totally individual, then they have no force at all. Only one person even thinks they are "right" -- but because they are also totally "subjective," he is not correct with reference to any external or shared standard. In other words, such a person is a solipsist, and has no actual understanding of what the word "ethic" implies -- for any ethic is inevitably a guideline for relationships among people: it has no meaning at all, if used as an entirely individual term.

In short, the critique here is that we don't need "ethics" if you're the only person in the world who "counts" in the situation. You only have to ask yourself what you happen to want, never what you "should" do.
...or collective.
A different problem, but no less intractable, appears if we opt for this position.

If it's subjective and collective, then an ethic can only be backed by power. (Nietzsche saw this clearly, then Foucault picked up his song.) Then the story of human morality reads like this: the bigger, more cunning or more aggressive groups get to impose their "master morality" on the "slaves" who are composed of the weaker groups and of anyone fooled by the larger group's phony rationalizations. But there's no reality to such a morality, but power, since again, we have already denied the possibility of an external criterion by which the morality of the powerful group could be evaluated. Might makes right.

We are then, to use Nietzsche's term, "beyond good and evil," and have no access to morality or ethics at all.
They can be more or less rationally justifiable.

I'd love to see this. But in my searches I have discovered that there is not one case of this being achieved in the history of the field we call ethics. There have been attempts, to be sure -- Kant, Mill and Aristotle being the most celebrated of these -- but they have all failed, and all are capable of producing wildly contradictory rationalizations for action.

When this is no longer the situation, I'm certain that we will all know. For the discoverer of the key to universal ethics will have the Nobel Prize for sure, having performed the greatest service to humankind that any person has since the discovery of fire.

But I have not read the news bulletin yet. And ironically, if anyone ever achieves this, he or she will have shown morality to be universal, singular and binding from the facts...and hence objective, not subjective.

It seems that if your claim there ever "won" it would instantly "lose" too.
...they express values, we often refer to such judgements as value judgements or just values.
Okay; but if true, then really, this would be an empty truism. People "value" stuff, so we call their assessments "values." But absent any binding, universal, rational standard for arbitrating between values, we are no further ahead at all, whether we call them "values" or merely "preferences."
The difference between objectivity and subjectivity has been called the fact-value distinction.
This statement is actually factually incorrect. It's called "the objective-subjective" distinction, and is more general than ethics. The fact-value distinction deals with facts and values. Whether values are subjective or facts are objective, are both issues of current debate in ethics and epistemology. But they can't be mixed without confusing the issue.
But discussions about specifically moral values are about how we ought to behave, so here the difference has been called the is-ought distinction.

Closer. "Is" refers to material facts, and "ought" to moral duties.
An argument that objective morality is evidence for the existence of anything – let alone a god – is unsound, because morality is not objective.
Non-sequitur. That does not follow. You've assumed the conclusion, and mixed your terms. Only if you had already proved that morality is not objective, and the debate were entirely over, could you make such a conclusion. But how, exactly, would you go about to prove such a thing?

On the other hand, if you were wrong, the existence of an objective morality would be a very powerful argument FOR the existence of God. So that has to stay a worry, it seems.

Your further difficulty is this: that since subjective morality is either an empty concept (if individual entirely), or merely a synonym for power (If subjective and collective), it's meaningless to call what anybody or any group does "immoral." In other words, reason leads to you moral nihilism. if you don't want to go there, I understand completely. But then you'd face two bad options.

One would be to "taxicab" your beliefs -- following their logic only until you see an unpleasant consequence looming on the horizon, then jumping out, paying the driver and running off in a less rationally-consistent direction. Not a great philosopher's option, I think you'll agree. But if it's not that, then you'd have to say why subjective morality has a meaning beyond de facto power. And that, I have not seen done.
It is rational to have sound reasons for our moral judgements, such as wanting to promote individual well-being.
But as Aristotle understood, you can't say what "well-being" is, whether collective or individual, without already imposing your arbitrary conception of "the good" or of teleological purpose.

When we think about it, we realize that things are not "rational" without being specified in terms of the outcome to which they tend. For example, building a boat of wood is rational for flotation, and building one out of lead ingots is not rational for that purpose. Likewise, there may be actions that are rational in terms of producing a certain human outcome -- but first you need to show people that you've selected the outcome that nobody could disagree with, the "right" outcome. Otherwise, however "rational" your argument may be, it won't be rationally compelling to anyone else; because the people don't want to get where you think they ought to want to go.

Really, "rationality" is a process, not a set of specific precepts. But without substantive content being plugged into the process, rationality has no work to do, and cannot conduce to any specific conclusion at all. To speak of rationality without specifics is like speaking of mathematics without numbers -- you do have something left, but it's only a set of abstract, purely theoretical operations undisciplined by any content.
But they remain judgements, so they are subjective.
Again, your conclusion is here assumed, but in no way yet demonstrated true.
The expressions objective morality and moral fact are contradictions – or they could be called oxymorons.
The same again here: you've not shown this, and we have no sense of what rationale makes you think it's so.

If you're like most people, the probably your reasons might be no more than to say, "Well, people disagree about moral issues," so they cannot be objective. But that's to mix up what people want to believe with what is true to believe, or else to suppose (for some less-than-obvious reason) that all people have the same access to moral truth. But since people don't even all have the same access to factual truth, it's hard to see why you'd think this reasonable to suppose.

Belief and truth are separate. For even if every person on earth believed the earth were flat, it would still not be; and even if every person on earth had a different belief about the atomic weight of gold, it would not change the facts one bit. Thus "people disagree" only means that (some, but not necessarily all) people are mistaken, not that either the shape of the earth or the weight of lead were different than they are.

And please understand that in saying this, I am not asking you just to assume the objectivity of morality. I'm just pointing out that if the question of whether or not something IS objective cannot be settled with the irrelevant observation "People disagree." Certainly, it has no value in deciding whether or not morality is subjective.
But our moral values and assertions matter deeply to us,
This might be true: but what of it?
...so the mistake of believing there are moral facts is easy to explain. It is an understandable misunderstanding.
Here again, you've just assumed it without showing why. People may have motives to believe things that "matter deeply" to them: that does not answer the question as to whether they are objectively right or wrong to think they matter. You appear to want to say that they are objectively deluded, and their desire to see the values that "matter deeply" to them confirmed is the explanation; but you haven't shown that's right. Actually, all you've made is a kind of ad hominem fallacy, that would read something like, "If people deeply want to believe something, that must mean it's not true." But you can see that's not logical, right?

You might care deeply about the fidelity of your spouse. And you may believe she is faithful. But if she is, she is without you believing it; and if she's not, your "deep caring" will not make her so. So this point would again simply be irrelevant to your case.
But, ironically, if there were moral facts, their source would be irrelevant. The assertion this is good because I say – or a god says – it is good has no place in a rational moral debate. An argument from authority is as mistaken for moral as it is for factual assertions.
Actually, the opposite is very manifestly true. If the only fact behind morality (because it's subjective, as you say) is power, and there is no power (or authority) behind a particular moral precept, then what is there to make it into a moral duty? Nothing obvious comes to mind, does it?
So the theistic argument from objective morality undermines itself.
This isn't evident. You've required us to assume that morality is subjective, and that having any authority behind morality makes it somehow not moral. But that's your key weakness: you need to prove those suppositions, not just to tell us to assume them, and then build your case out of them. If we doubt you, you don't even get your case off the ground there.

But again, I'm keen to see you patch this up, if you can.

Peter Holmes
Posts: 723
Joined: Tue Jul 18, 2017 3:53 pm

Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Fri Jul 06, 2018 8:07 pm

Thanks, Immanuel Can.

I think you've misunderstood my argument, and primarily the distinction between falsifiable factual assertions with truth value, and unfalsifiable moral assertions, which express judgements and therefore have no truth value.

But you've written a great deal, and it'll take more time than I have at the moment to unpack where I think you make mistakes.

I apologise and hope to respond soon. Many thanks for your thoughts.

Peter Holmes
Posts: 723
Joined: Tue Jul 18, 2017 3:53 pm

Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Sat Jul 07, 2018 3:34 am

Hi, Immanuel Can.

I've been going through what you say, and I think you may be stuck with a misconception about value, so that you're tilting at a giant straw man.

(By the way, 'objective-subjective', 'fact-value' and 'is-ought' are different but complementary names for the same distinction.)

Think about aesthetic value. Beauty and ugliness aren't properties like shape, size, colour and texture - features of reality about which we can make falsifiable factual assertions. Instead they summarise and express aesthetic judgements or values. And that there's no factual foundation for those judgements - no guarantees - doesn't mean aesthetic discourse is pointless or useless.

Moral value is exactly the same. Right, wrong, good and bad aren't properties of actions. Instead, they express moral judgements or values. And that need not be a source of anxiety or concern for the legitimacy of ethical discourse. Words mean what we use them to mean.

Most importantly, who makes a value judgement is irrelevant. One individual may judge a thing to be beautiful, or an action to be morally good - or those may be everyone's judgements - and that has absolutely no bearing on whether the thing is beautiful or the action is good - because beauty and goodness aren't properties about which we can make falsifiable factual assertions.

In other words, my argument addresses and answers all of your objections. Or rather, you're criticising a different argument.

Judaka
Posts: 162
Joined: Mon Jul 02, 2018 5:24 pm

Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Judaka » Sat Jul 07, 2018 10:52 am

Objective truth as a concept extends beyond the level of perception, we determine fact through intersubjective validation but that isn't always possible. Morality does not exist on the level of perception, it's necessarily subjective if you limit the definition of objective truth as being only evidence-based.

As a concept, however, objective morality treats itself as though it were acting under the rules of the physical world. When we measure say, a rock, the result we get invalidates any other idea about how much the rock may weigh. You're not free to believe what you want, you either agree the rock weighs that amount or you're wrong. Being wrong carries real consequences, the interactions where the weight of the rock is a factor, simply won't go as expected if you have the wrong weight.

You can't say the same for subjective distinctions, a moral distinction can't make another moral distinction wrong, they can exist in opposition but the whole idea of a distinction between behaviour is prefaced attaining desirable results on a value system or a belief of intrinsic goodness. These can simply be rejected, there's no real explanation of what it would mean if you couldn't reject them in the way you can't reject the result of what the rock weighs.

If God, for example, is objective no matter what and he says blue is the objectively best colour, what this means can't even be conceived. The idea of being "wrong" here and preferring another colour can't be compared to anything that has ever been played out in our world before.

I feel like objective truth in morality is an unfinished concept, it doesn't even achieve being coherent.

Peter Holmes
Posts: 723
Joined: Tue Jul 18, 2017 3:53 pm

Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Sat Jul 07, 2018 11:08 am

Agreed, Judaka. Nothing in reality can verify or falsify a moral assertion, because it has no truth-value.

User avatar
Immanuel Can
Posts: 7520
Joined: Wed Sep 25, 2013 4:42 pm

Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Immanuel Can » Sat Jul 07, 2018 2:51 pm

Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Peter.

Bear with me, if you would, while I sort through your reply a bit.
Peter Holmes wrote:
Sat Jul 07, 2018 3:34 am
(By the way, 'objective-subjective', 'fact-value' and 'is-ought' are different but complementary names for the same distinction.)
Not so, I would suggest. "Objective-subjective" is an ontological distinction, not per se a moral one in its own right: it has no moral adjectives in it. "Fact-value" is an epistemological distinction (since a person must "know" facts and "choose" values), and "is-ought" is what we might term a deontological dichotomy, because it imputes "moral duty" or lack thereof. So while I would agree that all three certainly do get involved in moral discussions, I would suggest that only if we are cautious to preserve their distinctions in usage are we going to avoid confusion of thought.

For example, we cannot assume from a subjective observation that any moral duty ensues. Likewise, we cannot say that if something objective that it comes automatically bundled with an "ought." The three dichotomies are not the same, therefore.
Think about aesthetic value. Beauty and ugliness aren't properties like shape, size, colour and texture - features of reality about which we can make falsifiable factual assertions. Instead they summarise and express aesthetic judgements or values. And that there's no factual foundation for those judgements - no guarantees - doesn't mean aesthetic discourse is pointless or useless.
Well, aesthetics and morality are certainly not analogous, and not really even guaranteed to be similar at all.

Some people, like certain Emotivists, believe that moral judgments are nothing more than aesthetic ones, but that's a minority position at best, and remains a problematic and contentious way to try to look at morality.

Personally, I don't think it works at all: for if morality is merely aesthetic in the same sense that preferring certain sizes, shapes and colours are, there is absolutely no way to defend any moral statement, any more than to defend a preference for a Picasso or Braque over scrawls on an outhouse wall. If aesthetics are all there is, then who can really say whose "taste" is better than anybody else's? Perhaps you have a taste for peaceful coexistence; but perhaps another man loves the taste of blood. Absent any objective standard, who is to say which taste ought to be preferred?
Moral value is exactly the same. Right, wrong, good and bad aren't properties of actions. Instead, they express moral judgements or values.
I see what you're saying, but it's worth realizing that that's still a disputable claim. If I might test that theory, would you be willing to say, Peter, that cold-blooded murder or slavery aren't actually inherently "bad" actions? That their whole perceived negativity is not a product of objective truth, but merely of present tastes, whether individual or corporate? If not, why not?
And that need not be a source of anxiety or concern for the legitimacy of ethical discourse. Words mean what we use them to mean.
I don't think that's really true. If it were, then we could simply take from each other's words whatever we wanted to "use them to mean." In which case, you and I would be agreeing merely because I wanted to read those words that way.

But I think you'd (rightly) contest that, just as you have here, and say, "You've got me wrong, IC: you're after a straw man," which must surely mean you expect me to take your words as YOU intend them, not merely as I might like to use them, no? So the flexibility of language has its limits, even in regard to moral precepts like, "Thou shalt not misrepresent thy conversation partner on the PN board." :D If it's "wrong" for someone to "straw man" you, there must be a right way to understand you, and that person must have a duty to understand normatively, if he can, no?

That sounds like a moral claim, based on at least a fair level of objectivity of meaning. So we must be modest, I think, in any claims about the infinite flexibilities of language.
In other words, my argument addresses and answers all of your objections. Or rather, you're criticising a different argument.
Well, as I say, I think the "aesthetics" analogy simply won't work, for the reasons I've suggested above (and some others I haven't yet listed). Certainly the general field of moral philosophy has not landed on your proposed solution.

While it is true that moral judgments are made by humans, and in that sense are sometimes called "subjective," this does not answer the question as to whether there are external, objective realities to which the subjective moral assessments of humans are attempting to approximate. In other words, it may be that we happen to subjectively "value" slavery as "wrong" because slavery really IS objectively wrong.

The fallibility and approximateness of our subjective assessments would not be any indicator that they weren't responsive -- or shouldn't be made responsively -- to actual, objective moral truths. To realize this also requires us to know a difference between moral ontology (i.e. what exists actually in regard to morality) and moral epistemology (i.e. whether or not we humans are very good at knowing the truth about morality).

Thanks again for your response.

Belinda
Posts: 2980
Joined: Fri Aug 26, 2016 10:13 am

Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Belinda » Sat Jul 07, 2018 4:58 pm

Peter Holmes wrote:
Agreed, Judaka. Nothing in reality can verify or falsify a moral assertion, because it has no truth-value.
If, and it's a huge if,it were known what the human being is, the total of what constitutes the human being, would a moral assertion then have truth value?

User avatar
Necromancer
Posts: 405
Joined: Thu Jul 30, 2015 12:30 am
Location: Metropolitan-Oslo, Norway, Europe
Contact:

Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Necromancer » Sun Jul 08, 2018 4:26 am

How can one not say that Human Rights (UDHR) are not objective and an objection to crimes against people, such as slavery and other?

Further, there are psychological consequences for doing (severe) immorality that I think the OP ignores.

So why Kantian Ethics as objective? Can it be that it compels the World toward greater well-being and more lawful happiness, also for the children as they grow up?

Conclusion: there is no way around Objective Kantian Ethics unless equally good! :mrgreen:

Peter Holmes
Posts: 723
Joined: Tue Jul 18, 2017 3:53 pm

Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Sun Jul 08, 2018 5:03 am

If, and it's a huge if,it were known what the human being is, the total of what constitutes the human being, would a moral assertion then have truth value?
No, because knowledge (expressed by means of facts - true factual assertions) is completely different from moral judgement. So omniscience has no moral entailment. That's why we can't argue about facts, but we can and do argue about moral value judgements.

For me, it took a long time for this penny to drop. I was convinced that morality is objective, so that there are moral facts - true moral assertions. Moral objectivism is pervasive and powerful, simply because moral judgements matter deeply to us - as they should - and that's a moral judgement too.

User avatar
Greta
Posts: 4389
Joined: Sat Aug 08, 2015 8:10 am

Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Greta » Sun Jul 08, 2018 5:23 am

Morality appears to be objective if one's worldview is entirely anthropocentric - that reality consists of humans plus "stuff".

If, however, one sees humans as part of the developing biosphere full of life forms, many of which have their own flegeling moralities, what is right or wrong is less clear. Are humans agents of destruction or of change? We have no precedents to draw on, aside from a could of ostensibly destructive species over a billion years ago that caused mass deaths and thus facilitated life as we know it.

Peter Holmes
Posts: 723
Joined: Tue Jul 18, 2017 3:53 pm

Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » Sun Jul 08, 2018 6:49 am

Thanks, Greta. I agree that the scope of our moral concerns is itself a matter of moral judgement: who are the others we should try not to harm? The scope has been widening - from the family group, to the tribe, the 'nation', and sometimes to humanity - through our history. And I think it should - and eventually will - widen to include at least some other species. Our moral anthropocentrism is convenient but unjustifiable, in my opinion.

You're right to say morality only 'appears to be' objective. But my argument is that it isn't the scope question that determines whether morality is objective or subjective. It's more fundamental than that. It's because we mistake moral judgements for facts that we even think morality can be objective. So when we reach (what I call) moral maturity as a species, and our moral concerns become truly and consistently universal, our moral judgements will remain judgements - not moral facts.
Last edited by Peter Holmes on Sun Jul 08, 2018 6:56 am, edited 1 time in total.

Post Reply

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest