Subjective morality – not what it seems?

By Ken Perrott 29/08/2012 17


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

Similar articles


17 Responses to “Subjective morality – not what it seems?”

  • Struth Ken. “Euthyphro Dilemma”. Yaaa waaahhhh????

    Christians dealt this a death blow almost 2000 years ago.

    And another tidbit:

    “No ultimate foundation for ethics exists.” Will Provine

    “Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory.” Michael Ruse

    “Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.” Thomas Huxley

    Why then does Ken have such strong moral impulses ????

    Soon you will be dead Ken and your life will then be as meaningless as it is now… except for the pretending that is going on in that chemical cell called your brain.

    Say hi to all your imaginary friends too Ken — yes, those who are also just friends through chemical association and quantum entanglement.

    • “Christians dealt this a death blow almost 2000 years ago.” Easy to claim but obviously impossible to support as you make no attempt. You must think I am an idiot to take your word for it – an anonymous commenter who calls himself Mr Bean!

      As for a foundation for ethics – you didn’t read my article – or was it too complex for you. “Divine command ethics” is arbitrary, dependent on the whims and fancies of a god – a recipe for the worst sort of moral relativism. But I argue against that and my point is that we can see an objective basis for human morality.

      And why these out of context one line quotes? An excuse for your own lack of ideas or unwillingness to consider my ideas?

      Have another read and see if you can understand now.

      You have an extremely perverted concept of reality if you think our lives are meaningless. Mine certainly isn’t.

      And why the anger? This is a serious subject. I am making a serious effort to explain my understanoing based on reading the science of morality. I welcome honest and serious critique if my views – that would be helpful and provide a basis for learning.

      But such spiteful anger – where does that come from? Do we know each other personally?

  • It never ceases to amaze me how Anglophone scientists think they have something novel to contribute to this subject by applying their reductionist analytic pseudo-philosophy.

    Morality and Subjectivity have had rigorous philosophic treatments since the Enlightenment yet none of these treatments are mentioned in your post. How can you write about morality without referring to Kant, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Satre? How can you discuss subjectivity without Derrida?

  • What’s with the “anglophone scientist” slur OS? I don’t get it.

    And I see you fulfill your own requirements by mentioning names – but you don’t say anything about their work or it’s relevance. Nor do you address the content of my post. Long meaningless (in this case) words like “reductionist analytic pseudo-philosophy” seem to show a desire to impress – certainly they don’t seem to have any other purpose.

    Come on OS. I exoect something more for my labours. Critique the content of my post. If you think I am mistaken say where and why. Then we can have a reasoned discussion and we possibly might both learn something.

  • Anglophone scientist is in reference to the analytical/continental philosophical divide. It is simply the acknowledgement of a predisposition to a certain philosophical school, namely, analytical. There is no slur, just correct diction.

    I’ll assume your know what reductionist and pseudo-philosophy means in this context. Analytic in this context refers to analytical philosophy. If you don’t know what that is then you should look it up on wikipedia. It has a very specific use in western philosophy. These terms don’t strike me as impressive, they are the simplest of domain terminology when it comes to philosophy.

    It’s not my job to summarise 200 years of western philosophy for you. I just expect you to apply some academic rigor to your musings. If you publish about philosophy then you may wish to understand something about it. The names I mentioned would be a good start.

  • So OS you actually have no comment on the content of my article (which summaries ideas I have picked up from scientific investigation of morality – not philosophy).

    Why bother then – you have not made any contribution?

    Do you think I am just repeating what philosophers have already written?

    And finally, is your real bitch an objection to scientists investigating human morality? Do you think they should leave that philosophers?

  • Your statement “I have picked up from scientific investigation of morality – not philosophy” is a non sequitur and ridiculous. You cannot have an investigation of morality outside of philosophy. Science is a philosophical framework (i.e. science cannot define science).

    Everything that is written in this post has had rigorous treatments by western philosophers since the enlightenment. Yes you and your sources are repeating others, but in a very naive way. My problem is, is that you don’t realise it!

    I does not concern me as to what people self-identify as e.g scientist or philosopher. I just expect a coherent discussion on modern morality would start with post-enlightenment philosophy. It would be like presenting general relativity without acknowledgement of Newtonian mechanics (please don’t liken your presentation to the success of Einstein’s).

    People that self-identify as scientist can investigate and publish whatever they want, philosophy included! But if you are going to publish about such topics as morality, then actually know something about how it has been previously examined and conceived! Don’t be so ignorant!

    My contribution is that I’ve taken my time to tell you that you should move past Sam Harris and Sean Carroll best sellers and engage in the topic at a more academic level if you wish to publish about it. Morality didn’t start at Sam Harris. This is why I kindly recommended some scholars for you to read.

  • So OS you don’t like Sam Harris. (It is OS isn’t it – it is bad manners to change usernames mid conversation you realise). A lot of people have made specific criticisms of Sam’s Moral Landscape (not you as far as I can see). So have I – and I don’t actually use any of his ideas in this series of posts. My ideas owe more to Haidt (who has arrived at some silly conclusions but has been active in restoring the role of emotions argued by Hume and largely ignored since), to Pat Churchland, Antonio Damasio, Frans de Waal and others.

    Yes I did refer to one of Sean Carroll’s blog posts and if you were attentive you would have noticed that I criticized his advocacy of subjective morality. I am not aware of any best seller of his on morality you claim – it would surprise me if he had one. I have read his recent book on time and am aware of his upcoming book on the Higgs field. His comments on morality have, as far as I know, been made in discussions, interviews and blog posts (yes he was also a critic of Sam Harris).

    I don’t know where your anger is coming from. You have not critiqued any thing in what I wrote specifically. (Are you able to?) Yet you accuse me of ignorance (“Don’t be so ignorant”) of non-attribution (you are aware this a a blog post – not an academic paper aren’t you), naivity and repeating others (please provide specific examples).

    Do I know you personally? Have we a record of conflict?

    I am at a loss to understand where you are coming from. You have not engaged with my article, referred specifically to any of their contents or made any other intelligent critique. Just general angry comments. And have done so anonymously – which puts me at a disadvantage. You seem to have an agenda or history regarding me.

    If you are saying that morality should not be investigated by science – give your reasons. I, and many others, obviously disagree with you on that but as you don’t give reasons you cannot do anything to alter my current opinion – can you.

    I would love to have an honest and specific critique from you and look forward to the possibility of a sensible discussion.

    It’s up to you.

  • Yes Ken, your life has meaning. To you. Now. But reality is that the meaning that you are talking about is really just chemistry isn’t it?

    A billion billion stars and one minuscule planet, and a click of the fingers and your time is up Ken. You will fade into darkness and never be remembered 20 years later.

    And eventually the planet will die along with the sun and it will all be over. All that time. All that effort. But for what end?

    Unless you can connect to something beyond yourself Ken, you cannot have real meaning. Just chemistry.

  • Mr Bean, the fact that you feel compelled to come here and accuse others of having a meaningless life suggests to me that you have no meaning in your own life. Sounds pretty empty to me. Your portrayal of life even sounds desperately inhuman. If you think you do have meaning tell us what it is so that we can judge how worthwhile it is.

    Mind you, it can’t be worth much if you refuse to even make a meaningful comment on my post or critique its content.

  • If I was an atheist like you Ken then I would believe that my life is ultimately meaningless. It would be consistent with my atheism, and I could get to share the same bathtub as Dr. Dawkins.

    But for you, just keep on pretending that you have chemistry if it makes you feel better. Which is also chemistry.

  • So, Mr Bean, you have no meaning to your life. Or at least not one that you want to admit to.

    My guess is that you get your kicks from your judgmentalism and from abusing people on line.

    Personally, I think you could get more from reading the material and joining a reasoned discussion.

    Just imagine how you will be remembered in 20 years time. Not very flattering is it?

  • Wow Ken, that was a pretty impress misreading of what I wrote.

    I said IF I was an atheist… then meaninglessness.

    “Judgmentalism…” is that what you are doing to me Ken?

    “Joining a reasoned discussion…” —– are you admitting that this is NOT a reasoned discussion? I would’t go that far Ken.

    “20 years…” —- Well who cares Ken. In 20 billion years the whole planet will be gone. What’s the diff between 20 years and 20 billion years in light of eternity? Ergo it is all meaningless unless you can connect to something beyond the material world.

  • I don’t know how you can’t simply answer the question mr Bean – what is your meaning in life? Still, I guess you are not used to speaking for yourself and need to quote from your instruction manual.

    Now, if your purpose in life is to “glorify” and “enjoy” your god, how are you doing so by making personal attacks in me?

    I have posted an article which makes a serious attempt to understand human morality. Only my own deas and open to comments and serious criticism. That is how I hope to lean.

    But you refuse to engage with the article, instead making silly personal attacks. And you call that glorifying and enjoying your god.

    What a strange idea you have. You can do as much glorifying and enjoying as you wish but please not here.

    Come on Mr Bean – enough of this silliness. We have had our distacting fun. Critique my posts or bugger off.

    What you are doing at the moment is childish trolling. It’s a distraction from an important issue. I am happy to receive proper comments from you but if you continue with the personal attacks I will arrange fir your comments to be recognized as spam.

Site Meter