Jan 11 2013

Objective vs Subjective Morality

I am fascinated by the philosophy of ethics, ever since I took a course in it in undergraduate school. This is partly because I enjoy thinking about complex systems (which partly explains why I ended up in Neurology as my specialty). I also greatly enjoy logic, and particularly deconstructing arguments (my own and others) to identify their logical essence and see if or where they go wrong.

In a previous post I wrote about the philosophy of morality. This spawned over 400 comments (so far), so it seems we could use another post to reset the conversation.

The discussion is between objective vs subjective morality, mostly focusing around a proponent of objective morality (commenter nym of Zach). Here I will lay out my position for a philosophical basis of morality and explain why I think objective morality is not only unworkable, it’s a fiction.

First, let’s define “morality” and discuss why it is needed. Morality is a code of behavior that aspires to some goal that is perceived as good. The question at hand is where do morals and morality come from. I think this question is informed by the question of why we need morals in the first place.

I maintain that morals can only be understood in the context of the moral actor. Humans, for example, have emotions and feelings. We care about stuff, about our own well being, about those who love, about our “tribe.” We also have an evolved sense of morality, such as the concepts of reciprocity and justice.

Further, humans are social animals, and in fact we have no choice but to share this planet with each other. Our behavior, therefore, affects others. If we had no cares at all about what happens to us or others, or our actions had no affect on anything but ourselves, then there would be no need for morality, and in fact morality would have no meaning.

We can take as empirical facts, however, that humans have feelings and our actions affect others – these are therefore well-founded premises for a moral system. Philosophers have tried to derive from there further premises as a starting point for a moral system. The goal is to derive the most fundamental principles, or determine the most reasonable first principles, and then proceed carefully from there.

Much of the previous discussion has centered around the validity of these moral principles, such as “harm is bad” and “it is better to be fair than unfair.” Are these “self evident,” can they be objectively proved, or can they be derived from something that can be proven?

I think, in part, they are taken as self-evident and given, but that does not mean they are entirely without justification, because they are rooted, as is the need for morality itself, in the human condition. Because humans are feeling social animals, we need morality, and certain principles are necessary for a moral system for a social feeling species (such as reciprocity). This is partly a logical statement, for without reciprocity you don’t have a moral system that helps us live together (again – the very reason for the system in the first place). Also, these principles can be evaluated empirically, in terms of their universality, their neurological basis, and the effects of their implementation in a society.

Because we are talking about values, a moral principle can never be a completely empirical fact, and therefore cannot be completely determined by scientific investigation. That science can determine morals is the position of Sam Harris and others, which I have rejected in a previous post (echoing the thoughts of Massimo Pigliucci, a professional philosopher).

Much of the prior discussion came to an impasse over this issue – are moral first principles, therefore, objective or subjective. This, I maintain, is a false dichotomy. They are complex, with some subjective aspects (the values) and some objective aspects (explorations of their universality and implications).

Further, this is the best that human can do. What is the other option?

Well, there are those who maintain that the other option is an objective source of morality. In my personal experience, everyone that has made taken this position with me used their religious faith in God as their “objective” source of morality – a “lawgiver.”

There are also those who (probably unintentionally) argue that the laws of nature dictate a certain morality. This is the “it’s not natural” argument, which in my opinion is nothing but the naturalistic fallacy. This line of argument has mostly been rejected by philosophers as an is/ought confusion. Just because nature is a certain way, that does not mean it is a basis for human morality. Even human nature does not dictate morality, although at least it can reasonably inform it (as I describe above).

Is it even possible to have an objective morality? I would argue that it is not possible, and even if such existed it would be irrelevant because we could not know about it. Further, there is no compelling evidence that anyone, any group or society, has access to an objective morality.

The notion of an objective morality assumes that morality is something that can make sense apart from the context in which it is used (in our case, human society). Is it objectively wrong, according to some moral law of the universe, to harm another creature? If you try to justify this moral position, then you are actually engaging in moral philosophy – the complex and messy human understanding of morals.

This is what leads proponents of objective morality to the conclusion that objective morals require a lawgiver (actually, I think they work backward from their desire to prove a lawgiver, but that is a separate point). This does not solve the problem, however, just removes it one degree. How, then, does the lawgiver derive their morality? This leads to Euthyprho’s dilemma – are the morals of God right because God says so or does God say so because they are objectively right? Of course, it can be both, but that does not really solve anything. We are still left with the problem of what possible basis there can be for objective morality. If it’s not “God says so” then what is it?

One might argue that we should not worry our little primate brains about such problems and just listen to God, but this is unsatisfactory. This reduces all of morality down to one rule – do whatever God says.

There is also an unsolvable practical issue – no one has a direct line to God. There are those who claim to, but no one can demonstrate that they actually have objective access to the true moral rules of the lawgiver. In fact, different societies have all had their prophets claiming such access, and dispensing moral codes that are suspiciously primitive and derivative of their time and culture, and also incompatible with the moral codes dispensed by other prophets.

The only possible basis for preferring one set of “revealed” rules over another is faith. There is no way to resolve differences of such faith-based moral codes – it’s just faith vs faith. Any attempt to argue that one set of faith-based rules is superior to another again resorts to moral philosophy. Without some appeal to moral philosophy, what can people say except that their God and traditions are the True ones, and everyone else’s are false.

None of this, the objective moralist will argue, proves that there is no god or that there is no objective morality, but this is irrelevant (a non sequitur). The point is, even if there were, humans have no way to know about it in any verifiable way that can be universalized. This necessarily leads us to tribal warring over whose beliefs are correct?

Further, any tradition about what God’s morality is, is just that – a tradition. Adhering to such traditions can be nothing but an argument from authority, which further locks in whatever moral code is in the tradition to the time it was codified. This prevents any progress or evolution of human moral thinking. I guess the best we can do is wait for the invisible lawgiver in the sky to update us.


Moral philosophy is the only workable option for a human moral system. Philosophers have been thinking about and arguing about such moral systems since Aristotle, and have come quite far in working out how such systems can work. This is far preferable to a system based upon conflicting traditions about what an unprovable lawgiver allegedly told members of a primitive agrarian society about how he wants people to behave.

Having said that, however, I do think there is much wisdom to be had in the religious traditions of the world. Many moral philosophers did their thinking within a religious belief system, and we should not reject the fruits of their wisdom because they are couched in religious terms. Neither should we accept them. They should be evaluated on their own merits according to the best moral philosophy we have so far developed.

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