Empowerment Ethics: “Is Morality Just Subjective?”

The following originally appeared on Secularite as part of my “Empowerment Ethics” series, which now appears on Camels With Hammers.

Morality is a subject that requires taking an account of both objective and subjective features of our experience. I think ultimately that it is a category error to ask whether morality is en toto objective or subjective.

In this post, and follow ups, I want to pay attention to a few different things people are actually saying or doing when they say “morality is subjective”. I want to look at how apt these claims are and explain why I think morality can be rational and basically objective in spite of the ways it actually is describable as subjective.

1.  People have different opinions about morality.

Just because people disagree about a matter, does not mean either that they are all correct or that no one can be correct because there is no right answer. If you want to prove that rationally more and less compelling answers in questions of morality are impossible, you have to prove that separately. I will do a whole post in the future explaining reasons to think moral claims can be rationally demonstrated truer or falser, despite the persistent fact of moral disagreements. It suffices for now to state the obvious, just because there are disagreements does not mean they cannot be rationally settled in principle. And, in many moral arguments, people can be seen to appeal to a wide array of objective criteria rather than simply assert their subjectivity.

But, at this point, the subjectivist may aver to meaning two of “morality is subjective”:

2. Even when people attempt to give abstract, objective reasons for their moral views, they are really just rationalizing what are really just emotional responses. 

Yes, it is true that a great deal of the time people feel their moral judgments emotionally before they ever come up with good rational reasons for them. Our moral associations often arise from some combination of culturally shaped, and sometimes socially created, emotional responses rather than dispassionate, abstract theoretical proofs. And when thinking and arguing about morality it is common for us to start out with highly emotionally weighted immediate responses and to spend our energies selectively thinking up supportive reasons to back up our feelings. All of this is quite true and borne out by a formal study of moral psychology.

But none of this invalidates the legitimacy of the actual criteria and tools we use when making those arguments. So, for example, I may emotionally feel very strongly that a given practice is wrong and then start to look for the ways that it harms people in order to convince others that it is wrong too. Does that invalidate harm as an objectively bad thing for people, just because I selectively cite cases of harm that back up my feelings that something is bad? The harms I point out could very well be the real reason I have such an averse emotional reaction in the first place, even if I have never explicitly thought it through before. And even if the harms are not the real reason I am averse, if they exist, they still can justify my feelings rationally.

People believe all manner of things emotionally, not just ethical things. The tendency to only seek out, pay attention to, and remember evidence that supports your preexisting beliefs is at work even in matters that are uncontroversially factual in nature. So is rationalization. The fact that people routinely reason about morality with confirmation bias and rationalization does not itself set morality apart as a uniquely emotional matter unsettleable by objective criteria. For so long as there are objective, rationally defensible criteria theoretically accessible to all, there is no reason to think moral disputes are in principle so subjectively emotional as to admit of no rational adjudication. And, again, since moral arguments involve appeals to shared criteria of fairness, harm-avoidance, concern to maximize-benefits, internal consistency in values and in practices (and between values and practices), it is quite unclear to me that people are simply emoting, or at least that in morality they are emotively arguing any more distinctly than they are in other contentious matters of opinion that are at least in principle factually resolvable.

At this point, the subjectivist often clarifies:

3. Moral rules and concerns about minimizing human suffering and unfairness, etc., would not exist without humans so they are not objectively real and there are not objective reasons to be concerned with them even if most or all humans are concerned with them.

This view of morality as subjective seems to think the only sorts of things which can be objective arephysical objects. More than that, it quite possibly also entails that the only things that can be objective are eternally existing objects. But that view is really silly. Plenty of objectively real things did not exist at one point but do now. And plenty of human things objectively exist even though they do not exist apart from humans. Before distinctly human biological structures evolved they didn’t exist. But they do now. Something’s being dependent upon the existence of humans (or “persons” or, possibly, “sentient beings”) does not make it automatically either subjective or unreal. More things can be objectively said to exist than simply whatever subatomic reality is the rudiment of all other matter in this universe. It’s not like there is only one thing–energy or quarks or Higgs Bosons or some other basic physical fundament–and everything else is just subjective illusion.

Reality is complex and multilayered and there are meaningful levels of organization distinct from the most rudimentary physical stuff that it’s all made of. Real descriptions of real patterns of being can be made on the levels of chemistry and biology and psychology.

But more importantly, not everything objectively discussable has to be a physical object. Math itself does not describe a set of physical objects. 1+1=2 is true not because there is some 1+1=2 physical object in the world. There are sets of physical objects that can be described as two because each within the set is one and there are two in the set. That does not make 1+1=2itself an physical object. If anything it’s an “abstract object” of some sort.

Neither are all objectively discussable scientific things physical objects. Evolution is not an object. Evolution is not a thing you can put in a jar and place under a microscope and count its legs. In biology evolution is a word for a pattern of relationships between ancestor and descendent organisms. When there are divergences in morphology and/or functions between organisms and their ancestors that general formal relationship is something we conceptualize as “biological evolution”.

Not all things that can be objectively discussed and understood are concrete things. The fastest route by car going 65 MPH the entire route using paved roads in the United States from my former address in Manhattan to my current address in Florida is an objective question with an objective answer. The two “addresses” are social conventions but they map to real locations on earth. And the distance between them is a real answer. Distance is not a concrete object but it’s a real thing. And the question about the best route from one place to another, so long as best is specified in terms of something objective like speed or amount of diverse topographical landscapes to view from the windows or amount of hotels to choose from along the way, etc., can be an objectively answered one, at least in principle.

Finally, and I will say much more about these points in future posts, there are objective connections between our being able to thrive in our human powers and our ability to be at all. Thriving in our powers is not a thing we arbitrarily just subjectively happen to want, it is a precondition of our very being. Similarly, what constitutes our health is not something that is just a matter of subjective feelings. Our subjective aversions to sickness are well-grounded rationally in the objective badness of sickness to our very being itself in very objective terms. While failing to maximally develop our powers is not as objectively bad, it’s on a scale with sickness as bad for us insofar as it means bringing ourselves less into full realization of our potential being rather than more. Our aversions to physical, emotional, and social harms, insofar as these are genuine harms not redeemed by greater goods for us, are connected objectively with our very being itself. Desiring the opposite would be mistaken because it would implicitly be a judgment of what is actually worse for us as better for us.

And concerns for fairness, internal consistency, etc., while not absolutely valuable and overriding of all other considerations, also track our thriving insofar as we are social animals who thrive the most through having cooperative social orders that meet vital well-being needs and make flourishing in countless ways far more likely. Plus, our own maximum flourishing in our powersintrinsically involvesas I will argue at length, empowering others through whom our powers can multiply themselves beyond the meager limits of our own bodies and minds. When I talk about moral objectivity, I am talking about adherence to the kinds of formal principles and habits of judging that keep us from, for shortsighted, short-term, and poorly reasoned selfish feelings doing what is objectively, in the aggregate, best for the social order that we need in order to maximally thrive in our powers.

Still though, someone might say morality is subjective and mean one of at least a few more things. I will treat some more of those possible kinds of subjective morality in a future post.

Your Thoughts?

Not satisfied with some aspect of my moral philosophy yet? Click the question or challenge that is closest to yours:

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?

Empowerment Ethics Permanent Page, Regularly Updated With Answers To More Challenges and Questions

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.

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