Mutable Morality, Not Subjective Morality. Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

I hope soon to engage a few of the specifics of a debate going on at our friend George’s blog Misplaced Grace which started when a Christian apologist named Peter tried to argue that atheism has no way of ruling out pedophilia as immoral.  Peter’s first remarks were critical of posts at Jason Thibeault’s blog Lousy Canuck. While I would like to address Peter’s remarks themselves at some point, in this post I want to critically disagree with a point in Jason’s first rebuttal to Peter’s claim that we need “universal, invariant laws of morality based upon God’s character” in order to ground morality.  In showing what’s wrong with Jason’s rebuttal, I hope to also make a better rebuttal to Peter’s claim that moral laws need to be “universal”, “invariant”, or, as he puts it later “unchanging”.

So, first, Jason’s comment:

Atheists dislike the idea of pedophilia because children are vulnerable, and it is in human nature to protect vulnerable members of our species. They are not sexually mature enough to make an informed consenting decision, and therefore they are not “consenting adults”, and therefore do not count as someone you can “have sex with and enjoy it because sex is fun”. It has nothing to do with objective morality, because all morality is subjective. Just look at all the commandments you’re ignoring in the old testament because they’re supposedly not applicable any more. That is the very definition of subjectivity.

It is inaccurate to call the changes in religious values and moral codes “the very definition of subjectivity”.  The changes in the biblical and subsequent Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpretations of morality do not necessarily reflect moral subjectivity but moral mutability.  It is possible for moral standards to rightly change with changing circumstances.  Certain practices or rules might in some circumstances be highly useful for manifestly improving human happiness and flourishing in ethically relevant matters and therefore be morally estimable and enforceable in those times and places, whereas in other times and places those same practices or rules might be counter-productive or outright harmful to human happiness and flourishing and should rightly be denounced as immoral.  Even though they will not put it this way and instead claim they have a God of invariant moral laws, fundamentalists like Peter implicitly believe in moral mutability and it is this which Jason is rightly pointing out but wrongly calling “subjectivity”.

To say that not only do moralities change but that they should and that even good moralities may not be permanently and at all times good is not to say that morality is subjective. To call morality subjective risks falsely implying that it is based on purely personal, idiosyncratic, arbitrary, or otherwise publicly unjustifiable premises—something I do not think Jason wants at all to commit to if he wants to consistently be able to morally condemn the pope and not simply say “I just don’t like what the pope does, but that’s only my personal feeling”.  Morality, even if mutable, need not be just a matter of arbitrary feelings or tastes that admit of no argument for persuading those who happen to feel differently.

But good moral judgments and moral codes are to some important extent context dependent.  They can change with different circumstances.  What was genuinely good in Old Testament times may not have still been so in New Testament times and what was genuinely good in New Testament times may not still be so today.  And what is genuinely good today might not be so tomorrow.  But this does not preclude us, in theory, from doing an analysis of all the various factors at work in Old Testament or New Testament or contemporary times and discerning that x or y was, or is, genuinely effective at making life better, or worse, on various cross-culturally valid measures of human flourishing.

I think there are broadly definable human goods—intellectual power, social organization and cohesion, artistic prowess, physical health, athletic prowess, aesthetic sensitivity and complexity, technological capability, technological achievement, emotional satisfaction, pleasure, political efficiency, virtues, etc.—which stem directly from human nature.  We can judge different cultures by how well their practices for attaining these fundamental goods actually succeed in the final analysis.  We can ask how well they progress or retard both general humanity’s and their own specific culture’s attainment of these goods.

In this context, we can say with no inconsistency that some things rightly stigmatized as immoral in our own culture was, or still is, actually rightly treated as either permissible or obligatory by their moral standards.

This position moral mutability and context dependence must be clearly distinguished from moral relativism.  What I am endorsing is moral pluralism, not relativism.  Moral pluralism acknowledges that differing moralities, which in particulars may formally contradict each other, can each be ethically approvable given variations in circumstances or given their respective abilities to meet certain thresholds of valuable contribution to life.

Moral relativism would allow for no cross-cultural assessments but would say that the only standard a morality has or needs is the endorsement of a particular individual or culture.  A moral relativist would say moral standards are only valid for those who adopt them and for as long as they adopt them.  Moral relativists treat all of morality as binding only the way that personal rules or the rules of private organizations are binding.  If I make a rule for myself, I may excuse myself from it at will since it is only my rule.  If a group makes a rule for its members, members may run the risk of expulsion from the group or other practical penalties inflicted by the group if they deviate from it, but they have no further, more principled, reason to feel obliged to adhere to it.

Obviously moral rules take cultural and  legal forms and can be analyzed as cultural artifacts from this perspective.  Anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists will look at moral schema as they relate to group dynamics and individuals, often without making normative judgments.  From the social scientist’s perspective what is interesting is often only how moral norms function as sociological, psychological, or anthropological phenomena.

But from a philosophical, metaethical perspective, we should be concerned with questions of what values are best and what moral codes best realize them.  And from this context, while moral codes and their particular social and psychological force are historically relative to particular cultures and other conditions, we can also analyze each varying moral practice and code’s actual value for actually attaining those things that philosophically, metaethically, biologically, anthropologically, psychologically, and sociologically, we can discern constitute human flourishing and happiness.

And this means that we can discern that a particular culture’s moral judgments, codes, and practices was, or is, to some greater or lesser extent either counter-productive or outright harmful for the people in that culture themselves or for humanity itself.  This means that we can, if we have enough historical understanding, assess in what ways Old Testament morality, imperfect as it manifestly is for today’s more progressed way of life, was in its own time the best and most progressive advance for the people who adopted it—and in what ways it failed and could have been better conceived even for its own time, in what ways it may have proved lamentably counter-productive in the long run, and in what ways it may have been regressive and harmful, etc.

In other words, to properly assess the relative worth of the Old Testament morality historically, we need to understand how it advanced the people who adopted it, what negative side-effects it had, and whether those drawbacks were on net more costly in the long run than the gains that came with them.

And to assess the viability of the Old Testament as a moral guide for today’s world, we can simply imagine what applying its value priorities, beliefs, and attitudes to modern problems would look like–and realize pretty quickly it would be a regressive, destructive disaster.  And we can also compare its brutal, authoritarian, theocratic, Draconian, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and inegalitarian value priorities, beliefs, and attitudes to our own contemporary ideals of democracy, openness, tolerance, freedom of thought and speech, scientific rigor, egalitarianism, pluralism, etc. and judge that our values manifestly have produced and can be expected to produce greater advances in knowledge, aesthetics, technology, emotional health, politics, geopolitical cooperation, athletics, social cohesion, general happiness, and numerous other human goods than reverting to the Old Testament’s archaic values possibly could.

On those grounds we can and should (and all of us—even the fundamentalists—implicitly do) dismiss the Old Testament as irrelevant to a contemporary context.  And yet still we may possibly, from a neutral and open-minded historical perspective, praise the book if the facts were to bear out the thesis that it was a progressive landmark for its time, which, for all its repulsiveness by modern civilization’s standards, really did advance the condition of its miserable adherents in their day.

This does leave puzzles though for the Christian or the Jew who wants to assert that the Old Testament contains the “invariant” moral code of a morally perfect divine being and not merely the best and most progressive code a particular archaic tribe was able to come up with.  It is puzzling how anyone could claim that the values of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and contemporary American Evangelical Christian are all the same when they each are manifestly different and calibrated rather finely to wildly different cultural contexts.  Jewish and Christian moralities have rightly changed drastically with new conditions and cultural shifts which have necessitated the rethinking of values.  And this makes perfect sense, for it is what all vital, strong, adaptable institutions do when faced with new circumstances.  They evolve.  If they do not, they go extinct.

But it is a laughable and plainly false attempt at revisionism to say a God with an unchanging morality gave his people an unchanging moral code they have retained for thousands of years.  Jewish and Christian values have to their credit rightly evolved and the primary hindrance to their further, proper, evolution is the fundamentalist’s insistence on reading (conveniently only a select some) of the Bible’s more obsolete value judgments as necessarily binding for all time.

It is also wholly unpersuasive to claim, as some try, that God’s values have always been the same even as he has given his people moral codes that fit their times or their understanding at each of their stages.  Such a claim quite conveniently, but with no evidence so unpersuasively, reads divine guidance back into what is observably a haphazard, unguided, organic process of cultural evolution, indistinguishable from other naturally explicable processes of social progress.

Such a claim leaves us with a truly weird kind of “morally perfect” God who first creates humans totally unequipped by their nature to figure out how to be morally ideal and civilized on their own and then guides them towards greater culture only through the use of barbaric, inferior, training-wheels moral codes which are so crude and awful by ideal standards that in a few thousand years they look outright embodiments of evil.

But since I have already more thoroughly picked apart this attempt to salvage the Bible as a divinely inspired book by a progressive reading of its morality in my post, Why Progressive Interpretations Of The Old Testament Still Do Not Justify Its God Morally, I will refer you there if you would like more discussion of that topic and get on with my day.

In future posts, I hope to come back to the metaethical and sexual ethics questions Peter raised and to address the question of his presuppositionalism which subsequently became a center of his debate with Jason and George.

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

Drunken Mall Santa
Talk to Me For Free About Philosophy of Love, Philosophy and Suicide, or Nietzsche
A Photographer On Why The Same Dress Looks Black and Blue to Some and Gold and White to Others #DressGate
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Terie Spencer

    Reading this was like taking a long cool drink of water, Thank you!!

  • George W.

    The problem in this debate, and with presuppositionalism in general, is that it plays off of subtleties of terms. Peter calls morality objective, but makes that term synonymous with divine command, then asks the atheist to argue against divine command by arguing against objective morality. When Jason or I refer to subjective morality, we are not arguing that morality is just a personal opinion or even necessarily a pluralism of opinion. We are arguing that morality has a context and is therefor subject to the context it is put in.
    I appreciated reading this post because it summarized everything I have come to reason myself over the past week or so. I am sure I couldn’t have condensed it quite as well as you have Dan. I am proud that I was able to come to a very similar conclusion based almost entirely by unraveling Peter’s arguments.
    I have a slightly different avenue I followed that got me to a very similar conclusion. When one says that morality is subjective, what they mean is that morality is not universal and immutable. Our morals are informed and transcended by our humanity- by those things that define us as H. sapiens. Our moral attitudes might shift with the importance our culture places on individual characteristics of our nature, but our morality is ultimately a slave to our nature. It is part of our humanity.
    If you would Dan, please take the time to read through my answers to Peter’s latest post, “Intermission”, and see if we are not saying the same thing. I want you to be brutally honest, and correct me where I overstretch an idea, or risk contradicting myself. The post is a series of answers to Peter’s questions and may not be fully contextual without reading some of my previous posts. I think I have reasoned a pretty solid, but likely unoriginal, argument for morality without God.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Quickly, George—I think you need to abandon this word “subjective”. It’s inaccurate, misleading, and represents your position poorly. You should use words that are specific and clear. This should not be a debate with two absolute poles between total objectivity and total subjectivity. Overall, you do argue for objectivity. You only account for some objectively subject-relative dimensions, that does not mean you endorse “subjectivism” as your overall position.

  • George W.

    I agree. The presuppositionalist creates a dichotomy between their own definition of objective, which is divine command, and any other position is subjective. They pull you into an argument that you are supposed to lose just by engaging in it. My position, which I think I am making clear, is that the word “subjective” holds a different meaning when used by someone arguing for “subjective morality”, and we might accuse them of inappropriate word choice, but not of having self-contradictory or ungrounded morality. I actually prefer the term contextual morality, but that is my personal preference out of ignorance of the proper terminology.
    Where Peter goes wrong is that he extrapolates and argues about a word as opposed to a defined position. He dictates what Jason or I think based on a clever wording as opposed to the breadth of our position. His position is still wrong on all points. He can say what he thinks we believe all he wants, but it doesn’t make it so and in arguing (as you mention, by poor word choice) that morality is subjective we have made it clear to anyone who can read that Peter’s interpretation of our position (based on the use of a word and not our words) is false.
    In the end, Peter is arguing what morality should look like to someone who claims the absolute subjectivity of morals when it is clear that no-one he is speaking to (or near as I can tell, alive) is holding to that position. He is arguing by deception, and I intend to force him to admit it.
    That said, did you read my post? Are there any grudges, save the use of “subjective” to clarify my position, that you have with my logic?

  • Daniel Fincke

    I only had time to skim it as I was on my way out the door to work, so I cannot properly comment on it.

    But you are asking for all the grief you are getting by talking about subjective morality. You are misusing the language and so it does not matter all these distinctions you are subsequently saying you want to make. You keep signaling that your bottom line is subjectivism. And it’s not.

    Half of successful philosophy is finding and using the right words. Let go of this point about subjectivity, you’re being frustratingly stubborn for everything I’ve looked at for two weeks instead of correcting it.

  • Jason Thibeault

    If words mean what we agree upon to mean, then words are subjective in that they change. Using the term “mutability” implies that a) moral laws existed, and b) the law-giver is allowed to change them later. If you disagree with this, or that this makes it subjective, in that one has to presuppose the law-giver to assume that the laws are being muted by the law-giver rather than the people to whom the law applies, then we’re talking at cross-purposes in even having this discussion, Daniel.

    My argument was, and is, that “subjectivity” — by which I mean morals are dependent on the zeitgeist of the times — is exactly how humans develop their moral “rules and laws”. It may be well possible to improve these morals, so as to better serve humanity, by changing these “rules and laws” to better reflect the desired outcome — that of, let’s say, equality, or justice, or what have you.

    If this argument is entirely about word-meanings, that smacks of pedantry and probably explains why I have little patience for “philosophy”, in that it is mostly supplanted by actual scientific discovery. While there’s a meta-ethical question about what criteria we should use in order to form our “objective” moral frame, the fact that we can change that frame makes it subjective. If we decide “protecting all members of humanity, especially those most vulnerable, from harm that would abjectly and materially damage their person or psyche”, then we can say that certain Bible laws are backward. But only by examining them through a different moral frame can we do so.

    If in philosophy “mutability” means something different than “subjectivity” outside of the idea that a law-giver can change the law, then perhaps we should define it as such before we have a conversation about it. To be quite honest, I’m very frustrated myself with the track this conversation has taken — shades of meaning do not a disagreement make, especially not when you have to slice the distinction so thin. That you’re getting frustrated with George refusing to recant on using certain words the way Peter does, is revealing. That I’m getting frustrated that the bulk of your arguments about this is about certain words, is also revealing. It means we all need to actually hammer out what we’ll agree words to mean before we attack one another over them.

    And granted, I never asked what Peter meant by these words. If you ask him, I suspect you’ll get another definition for each of these terms — in that a) objective morality is morality by which everyone must agree because there’s a standard passed down from on-high, and b) subjective morality is morality by which anyone can choose to do whatever they want because there’s no objective law-giver (which I guess you mean is “moral relativism”).

    I have argued, in the thread and elsewhere, that while morality is subjective in that it definitely changes depending on the zeitgeist, it can be developed by selecting an objective frame of reference. If that means “mutability”, okay. Sure. What about my actual argument, rather than my word choice?

  • George W.

    I understand both your frustrations with the discussion thus far. I want you to understand Dan, that we are in complete agreement. Jason and I agree on most the salient points also, and if we sat down and discussed it, I think he would be on exactly the same page.
    All in good time…..