The following originally appeared on Secularite as part of my “Empowerment Ethics” series, which now appears on Camels With Hammers.
Last week I answered three objections that people regularly mean to make when they say that “morality is just subjective”. In this post I am going to explore what seems right and what seems wrong about a fourth meaning. In future posts I will explore more possible meanings of the claim.
4. People’s moralities are personal to them and so cannot be judged by anyone else’s moral standards.
I find this to be one of the least compelling things that moral subjectivists say simply because it totally ignores the social contexts in which people usually use moral language and the social functions they reach for it to provide. If morality only means something along the lines of “someone’s own idiosyncratic personal values and codes of behavior” then the very familiar practice of rebuking one another based on moral judgments made about each other would be largely unintelligible.
Most people, in practice, invoke moral language precisely to criticize others, command others, exhort others to fulfill obligations, and hold themselves to standards they think others should hold them to as well. This would be weird if people just saw their moral standards as applicable to themselves alone or that they were accountable only to themselves.
Even more, when criticizing others morally people seem nearly always to demand (and quite often to expect) that those they are criticizing will acknowledge the same standards. If moralities are merely just personal codes for behavior and valuing, then what most people effectively mean (and what I think most people would explicitly affirm they mean) by morality just wouldn’t exist. If moralities are only personal, then there really aren’t moralities in any sense consistent with the word.
Moralities vary quite a lot across time and place, but one thing they share is that they are about giving people either rules, principles, values, practices, virtues, prohibitions, commands, and/or other sorts of expectations that they have to obey or otherwise be responsive to even when they personally as individuals do not feel like it. So defining moralities as identical with people’s own idiosyncratic values and codes they’re personally willing to commit to, and nothing with more general or communal salience would mean what most people mean by morality wouldn’t exist. You could argue this. But if you do, you are really not, to my mind, arguing morality is subjective so much as non-existent and that only personal values and codes of behavior exist.
One possible way to salvage this claim might be to say that moralities are entirely personally defined and no more authoritative than individuals’ willingnesses to adhere to them, but that most people have enough coincidental overlap between their personal preferences to be able to make moral appeals to each other. So, on this interpretation, I have my morality and you have yours and when I make a moral appeal to you I’m hoping that yours just happens to overlap with mine in the relevant way. This does not mean we are participating in some shared, deeper communal morality but that our personal moralities simply line up in some ways. When they don’t line up, there is nothing we can do to appeal to one another since no deeper communal morality exists.
On this view, moral appeals can only ever be to people’s existing values and codes. But many of our most robust and important moral arguments take precisely the form of accusations that one or another of us has overlooked an entire moral value concern or fails to even have an important moral code or practice, etc. It seems integral to most moral judgments that people cannot opt out. We insist that others simply have certain responsibilities, obligations, and constraining limits whether they like it or not or act in keeping with them or not.
It also seems historically and anthropologically in denial of observable facts to say that moralities are merely idiosyncratic and personal. Moral ideas, feelings, judgments, practices, etc. all closely track with social groups. What social groups you belong to and at what time in history you belong to them are the overwhelmingly greatest determinants as to what your moral views, emotions, and practices are. While there are differences within groups and people’s individual consciences can be at odds with their groups sometimes, the baseline starting point for most people is to have internalized a great deal of the moral expectations their social groups give them.
While I think it’s fine to revise the meaning of morality in some ways either to describe it better than it’s been before, or to argue that it can be ideally conceived and practiced better with a revised formulation of what it would be at its best, etc., I think it is simply too far afield to class it among the realm of merely personal feelings and ideas and practices and not of social ones.
To be more charitable, here are some true and important things to acknowledge that the subjectivist who says “moralities are personal and everyone has their own morality” might mean:
Legal laws differ from moral rules. In our current political arrangement, we have more personal latitude to follow different moral rules than one another than we do to ignore the laws of the government. Morality is in the realm of the personal insofar to as it is not backed by institutionalized force and to the extent that people can get away with ignoring one another’s moral judgments without consequence.
It is also crucial for us to appreciate that morality, if it is to be an empowering set of practices and rules and virtues, must be reasoned about in such a way that individuals’ variant needs and circumstances are factored in to a fair extent. Moralities should never unduly counteract people’s thriving. They should be structured in the first place to aid it and when applied in particular cases they should be flexibly reasoned about, with situational sensitivity, in order to make sure they have this consequence as often as possible.
But the very nature of morality is also to provide a limit to individual flexibility when such flexibility undermines the cooperation that serves as the systematic underpinning of the maximal thriving of the maximal number and of the worst off. Morality would not be morality if it did not sometimes require putting principles above specific people’s personal microlevel, short term interests, for the sake of the macrolevel, long term good of the greater number (and the individual conceived on the long view as part of the greater number).
Sometimes I am going to have to say, “No, it is not really tangibly beneficial for me to adhere to this moral arrangement right now. It will not really benefit me maximally in this instance, it may even outright hurt me in this instance. But I depend on this general moral arrangement. And I depend on others not opting out when it hurts them in order to flourish more, in a number ways, in the long term. I would have already lost out much more in the past, and I would in the future lose out much more were everyone routinely to opt out of this arrangement whenever it was not in their short term, microlevel interest. So, it would be a fundamentally unfair inconsistency on my part were I not to do the moral thing when it involves a cost to me while depending in numerous cases on others to do moral things with costs to them but benefits to me. So I must do what is moral, compelled by my rational sense of consistency, fairness, gratitude to cooperative people of the past, and investment in future social cooperation.”
In the long run, morality is ideally a mutually benefiting cooperative arrangement in which most people will thrive, living more powerful lives than otherwise, because of general participation in it, more than they will actually have to pay costs and lose chances to thrive more. But for it to work, people need to not be shortsighted. As many of us as possible need to opt in to cooperative consistency even when it is painful to do so and we have ways of opting out while evading material penalties.
So, it seems like a fundamental misconception to define morality either descriptively or revisionistically to be merely idiosyncratic personal codes. It seems both descriptively and ideally best to describe it as a social project of creating and enforcing cooperative responsibilities we have to one another for the maximum thriving of all of us in our powers in the long run.
Consistent with all of this, there is room to acknowledge that some variations in people’s particular values, or in subgroups’ differences in how they fairly distribute rights and responsibilities among their members, etc. can all be fine and even preferable. Variations in moral judgments, values, and practices can serve the overall thriving well when they are responsive to different real world circumstances for different individuals or subgroups. But these variations on the microlevel ultimately have to be justified by their contribution to flourishing on the macro-level just as the rules that serve the macro-level must be reassessed to make sure they are really advancing as many individuals as possible on the microlevel.
Also consistent with all of this, we can recognize that people are entitled to autonomously reason about morality for themselves, according to their own consciences. Morality (ideally) doesn’t come top down from some central bureau but evolves as people’s circumstances and ideas and experiments all change and provide new information, and we all collaboratively try to work out better ways to live. This means that our exact moral judgments or rules or practices, etc., will often be slightly off from one another at any given time. This is fine, so long as in the aggregate we are empowering each other and ourselves through these moralities–but bad insofar as we are hurting one another and unfair insofar as some may be more giving to the greater good and others being more stingy while benefiting from others’ more expansive moral feelings.
We can have rich and robust moral debates not because there are no best ways to achieve the maximal empowerment of the most people in principle, but because we can each have varying insights to contribute to that larger project that each other might not have, and through the rigors of moral debate and moral experimentation be constantly working out better solutions.
So differing moral opinions is a good thing when it’s part of a project of aiming at the best answers through engaging with everyone’s input and we debate with our eye on that goal. Differing moral opinions are not cause to say “everyone just has their own personal morality so stop arguing and just let everyone retreat to their own unexamined prejudices or self-serving moral views and leave it at that.” Our seemingly ineliminable tendency to have differences of moral opinions should be grist for productive advance in discussion, not cause for writing off morality as merely idiosyncratic and unamenable to rational improvement or collaboration.
I am a philosopher who specializes in ethics. For years, starting in my doctoral dissertation and then continuing right here on Camels With Hammers, I have been drafting, defending, and developing my own spin on the perfectionist and humanist ethical traditions that I call “Empowerment Ethics”. I write about everything from the most abstract foundational issues related to the nature of value and morality themselves (what philosophers call “metaethics”), to the most pressing moral controversies of our time, to how to live a good life in practical terms. The post above was an entry in this larger series. For a regularly updated full list of posts in this series and a very brief, 5 paragraph long, primer on what “Empowerment Ethics” is about as a moral philosophy see and bookmark this permanent page. A more thorough overview of the views can be found in my post My Systematic, Naturalistic Empowerment Ethics, With Applications To Tyrants, the Differently Abled, and LGBT People.
Below are posts so far in the blog series laying out “Empowerment Ethics”. Each post is self-contained, so use the questions in their titles to guide you to the topic that you are most interested in or that you need answered well before you will accept my positions on ethics:
What is Empowerment Ethics?
Who Is Anyone To Tell Others What To Do?
How Can We Find External Criteria To Assess Morality’s Truth and Authority?
Is Empowerment Ethics Atheistic?
Can Morality Mean Something Other Than Absolutist Morality?
Is Morality Just Subjective?
Are Individuals’ Moralities Merely Personal?
Is Morality Relative?
Does Everyone Mean Something Different By The Word ‘Good’?
Are Moral Issues Too Subjective To Argue Over?
Can Atheists Condemn Rape Without Theistic Moral Absolutism?
Is Morality Just Culturally Relative?