Morality Isn’t Subjective, No Matter What Cosmic Skeptic Says

Morality Isn’t Subjective, No Matter What Cosmic Skeptic Says August 16, 2018

Cosmic Skeptic’s take on morality is so far past wrong it couldn’t afford an Uber back to wrong.

Poor Alex O’Connor. YouTube’s fresh-faced Cosmic Skeptic doesn’t seem to have gotten to the philosophy part of his university curriculum, to judge by the way he botches moral philosophy in his videos.

Tinker Toy Philosophy

Since the only living philosopher that Alex has ever, to my knowledge, mentioned in his videos is Christian apologist William Lane Craig, it’s not surprising that Alex approaches morality exactly the way Craig does. He glosses over important aspects of ethical philosophy that real philosophers take seriously, like the difference between cognitivism and non-cognitivism (whether or not moral statements represent claims that can be judged true or false), and the difference between normative ethics and meta-ethics. No, Alex is only concerned with whether morality is “objective” or “subjective.” And he asserts with no reservations that morality is entirely subjective, that is to say, completely a matter of opinion.

Morality Without Humans

In a debate with fundie Frank Turek, Alex explained his definition of “objective” thusly:

Morality, to me, is entirely subjective…Objectivity, to me, if you want my definition, would be to say that it is true regardless of human intervention, regardless of human consciousness. For instance, the Earth orbits the Sun. That would be true if all humans disappeared, every single one of them. It would still be an objective fact. But to say that murder is wrong, if every human disappeared, that couldn’t still be wrong, surely. That would be a nonsense concept, without some sort of human psychology.

I’ve heard this secular Rapture myth many times and I’m still puzzled as to its relevance. When we’re talking about ethical decision making here and moral precepts concerning human behavior, it hardly serves to clarify things to hypothetically remove all humans from reality. Talk about nonsense concepts. Can we be reasonable here?

Everybody Says X Is True, Therefore X Can’t Be True

For a guy who’s always complaining about people assuming what they’re supposed to be proving, Alex is no slouch at making self-validating claims himself. At 3:55 in this video, he says:

All you prove by pointing out that nobody wants to put their hand on a stove is that everybody agrees that their well being…is good. But Harris makes the fatal conflation here between the objective fact that everyone agrees that X is true and the objective fact that X is objectively true. Just because we all subjectively react badly to pain and suffering doesn’t make pain and suffering objectively bad. Truth is not the same as democracy or consensus.

This is tantamount to saying that the fact that everyone reports that the sky is blue doesn’t mean the sky is blue. What Alex doesn’t seem to acknowledge, however, is the rather obvious fact that the reason everyone reports that the sky is blue is because the sky is, after all, blue. Why we’re never allowed to entertain the notion that maybe people think pain is bad because pain is bad is something Alex never discusses. He simply assumes as a matter of course that moral statements can never be anything more substantial than personal opinions, without ever explaining why.

Life Sucks Then You Prevaricate

This leaves poor Alex in a bind that his online foes have exploited to great comic effect. In his debate with Frank Turek, his fundie opponent made him look foolish by making him deny that even things like genocide or torturing children for fun are objectively wrong. Alex simply considers it a “harsh reality” that nothing can be said to be objectively right or wrong.

Again, Alex is ignoring the elephant in the room. Espousing a moral perspective in which you can’t even condemn genocide or the torture of children, and then handwaving away any qualms by blithely referring to a “harsh reality,” should be a glaring red flag that something ain’t right with your moral perspective.

Constructivism To The Rescue

As a card-carrying constructivist, I’m not impressed with Alex’s macho nihilism. I don’t consider his attitude that morality is entirely subjective anything more than philosophically ignorant defeatism. The big problem with Alex’s approach to moral philosophy is that he doesn’t realize—hell, he explicitly denies—that morality is a social phenomenon. And this is why he doesn’t understand that the social process of justification is what grounds our ability to consider things right and wrong. If we couldn’t conceive of an instance in which we could justify genocide or the torture of children, then we have every right to condemn such behavior as bad and to deny that it’s a matter of opinion. In other words, to declare that it’s objectively wrong.

Alex’s approach to morality is simplistic and self-validating, and ignores essentially all the philosophical discourse about ethics that has taken place in the past fifty years. But what’s worse is that it’s the ideal morality for our neoliberal age: individualistic, indifferent and tailored for the consumer.

What do you think? Is the objective-subjective divide an oversimplification of a complex social phenomenon? Can morality really be just a matter of opinion?

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  • igotbanned999

    Pain isn’t ‘bad’. It’s our body’s warning system that something is wrong. We’d die a lot more often without the ability to feel pain.

  • Reflect0ry

    I’m not an expert in moral philosophy or even that well-read in it so I might be falling into a naivety trap like Cosmic Skeptic has. But I did find Marc Hauser’s argument in his book Moral Minds convincing (overlooking his subsequent academic disgrace, that as far as I can tell, did not factor into the evidence or argument of the aforementioned book).

    In that book he compared morality to grammar. Grammar is a biologically primed ability and it is culturally supplied with content. As such, the objective/subjective dichotomy is an over-simplification at best and a dire misunderstanding at worst. Recognizing the dangers of using comparisons to do any analytical heavy-lifting, I still think the comparison is very useful. Morality, exactly like grammar, is “subjective” in the sense that it is a variable (within recognized limits) human social phenomenon and it is objective in the sense that, just like grammar, that “subjectivity” makes no difference in our ability to make meaningful or “objective” judgments about it.

  • Alex is only concerned with whether morality is “objective” or “subjective.” And he asserts with no reservations that morality is entirely subjective, that is to say, completely a matter of opinion.

    This is an interesting philosophical question. As with most such questions, the first step is to get clear about the meanings of the key words in the question. In this case, before we can intelligently answer the question, we need to be clear about what the word “objective” means, and what the word “subjective” means, and about what the word “morality” means.

    Alex takes a stab at one of these fundamental issues:

    Objectivity, to me, if you want my definition, would be to say that it is true regardless of human intervention, regardless of human consciousness.

    But this definition is obviously defective. It is an OBJECTIVE FACT that there is such a thing as human consciousness. But this OBJECTIVE FACT requires that there be human beings and that some of these human beings have consciousness. So this OBJECTIVE FACT is true precisely because of human consciousness.

    Alex needs to go back to the drawing board, and come up with an analysis of “objective” that makes some sense; he needs to come up with a definition of “objective” that is not obviously mistaken. Then, and only then, will he be able to say something intelligent about whether morality is “objective” or “subjective”.

  • I too think it’s helpful to compare morality to language in order to show what a false dilemma the objective-subjective dichotomy is. Of course there’s no universally correct and eternal “objective” language, and (like Alex points out as if no one is aware of the fact) language wouldn’t exist if there weren’t people around to use it to communicate. However, we can hardly say language is “entirely subjective” either, because its very function brings with it constraints that can’t be ignored without compromising communication. If I use the word “red” to mean “having a pleasant smell,” I’m using language wrong and communication will suffer as a result.

  • Exactly. I realize Alex is trying to avoid the religious connotations of “objective morality” as it’s used by fundies. No one here thinks there’s a universal, eternal and unquestionable code of conduct for every situation, but that idea of “objective morality” is a colossal straw man. Of course morality has cultural influences and evolves with human populations. But that doesn’t make morality “entirely subjective.”

    As I said, if Alex wants to say that our only choice as atheists is to acknowledge that disapproval of genocide is just as arbitrary as a dislike of vanilla ice cream, that’s his prerogative. But that doesn’t betray an informed and nuanced understanding of moral philosophy, that’s all.

  • Anthrotheist

    I wonder how much Alex’s conception of ‘objective’ derives from an over-inflated reverence for science. It seems to me that most fans of science are intently focused on the material sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, etc. There is this notion that these physical sciences somehow transcend human experience, that the science itself is totally independent of human subjectivity or bias. That notion, which is far more complicated and nuanced than many science fans give consideration to, could lead to the notion of ‘objective’ being essentially, “anything that material sciences can study and quantify.” That of course leaves out anything in the social sciences (and is often disdainfully dismissive of philosophy). So given that the material sciences are entirely incompatible with studying human beings and societies (quantification and reproducible experimentation is extremely limited in those areas), that could lead science fans to conclude that nothing about human beings or their behavior/societies/cognition can ever be ‘objective.’ I don’t know if Alex is a strong proponent of science as the be-all and end-all of epistemology, but his worldview certainly seems to point that way.

  • Raging Bee

    Just because we all subjectively react badly to pain and suffering doesn’t make pain and suffering objectively bad. Truth is not the same
    as democracy or consensus.

    Um, no, we’re not reacting “subjectively,” when the physical damage we’re reacting to, and the neurological pain response, are objectively verifiable. Does this kid have any inkling of how conclusively he’s refuted his own bullshit argument?

    Anyone who denies any objective basis for morality, is denying the most basic foundation of every social-justice movement in the modern era, all the say back at least to the Abolitionist movement. Seriously, why did people start thinking slavery was bad and should be abolished? Because more and more people saw, and admitted, that enslaving people caused verifiable physical and psychological harm to real people, that wasn’t apparent for people who were not enslaved. And the same is true WRT the civil-rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the LGBTQ rights movement, various antiwar movements, and more.

    Which raises the inevitable question: which side is this twit on?

    But what’s worse is that it’s the ideal morality for our neoliberal age: individualistic, indifferent and tailored for the consumer.

    Really? Do you have an actual definition of the word “neoliberal” that justifies using it as the epithet it’s become? If there’s no actual definition of the word, we should stop using it. Who the fuck invented that word anyway? Why are we mindlessly using it?

  • Anthrotheist

    I might amend ‘pain’ to ‘suffering’, which implies an experience of pain over time along with a powerlessness to address any underlying cause. Pain is a warning, suffering is bad.

  • I assume the scientism you point out is indeed the basis for Alex’s non-cognitivism. He doesn’t think moral claims can be assessed scientifically, so he considers them meaningless.

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    There’s plenty of biological evidence for morality. I can’t remember who it was that coined the term, but humans naturally interact with one another using a concept called “fuzzy utilitarianism” — that is, a concept of very loose utilitarianism that only emphasizes the positive aspect of utilitarianism (i.e., treat others well, the Golden Rule, and the like) while overlooking the moral quandaries associated with it. Furthermore, exploring the behavior of animals, especially the higher primates, yields some socio-biological evidence for morality: consider how bonobos interact with one another in sharing food, how chimpanzees can recognize when they aren’t being treated fairly, or the story about rhesus macaques who protected a young macaque girl born with 3 copies of the same chromosome (which is apparently something similar to Down’s syndrome) relayed in Frans de Waal’s book. Sure, they may not be “moral” but the seed from which morality grows is almost certainly there.

    “Treat others in your group well” is a basic survival instinct for social animals. That’s about as close to objective as you can arguably get. That also happens to be the basis for almost every moral system I can think of; the issues start when we start defining what is and isn’t “in [our] group,” and that’s not morality so much as that is sociology and upbringing.

  • The whole idea that he thinks our dislike of pain is just arbitrary and personal boggles my mind. And like you said, does he think that objecting to discrimination and oppression is just a kooky whim too?

    Kid’s a real trip.

  • I don’t think Alex is claiming that morality doesn’t exist, just that moral claims are meaningless because they’re not scientific.

    As interesting as I find research on how morality develops in animals, I think that’s a separate issue from moral philosophy itself. Most times moral decision-making involves going against one’s biology or instinct.

    Incidentally, which Frans de Waal book do you mean? I’ve been meaning to put his stuff on the teetering TBR stack.

  • adhoc

    “Anyone who denies any objective basis for morality, is denying the most basic foundation of every social-justice movement in the modern era, all the way back at least to the Abolitionist movement. “

    Are you saying that morality is objective because it is something we agreed upon as a society?

  • adhoc

    “But this OBJECTIVE FACT requires that there be human beings and that some of these human beings have consciousness. So this OBJECTIVE FACT is true precisely because of human consciousness.”

    So you are saying without human consciousness, a planet revolving around a star cannot be an objective fact?

  • adhoc

    “No one here thinks there’s a universal, eternal and unquestionable code of conduct for every situation, …”

    So… it’s subjective?

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    I think that’s a separate issue from moral philosophy itself.

    I wouldn’t be so sure. I think that, in order to understand the importance and judge the utility of various moral philosophies, it’s important to know where the basics of morality came/come from and why they exist in the first place; knowing that morality exists outside of humans suggests it’s an evolved trait, which I feel is important for the field. Nothing is truly separate from anything else; all disciplines are interconnected in some way.

    Incidentally, which Frans de Waal book do you mean?

    I want to say it’s The Bonobo and the Atheist. The basic conceit, if I’m remembering the book right, is that morality is an evolved trait and thus, comes from within as opposed to being handed down from on high by a deity.

  • That’s the sort of false dilemma that has kept William Lane Craig in business. If there’s no absolute, unchanging, eternal, universal set-in-stone moral code, then all bets are off and everything is just a matter of personal opinion? Sounds like a crude philosophical ruse to me.

    This is why I mentioned constructivism in the OP. Acknowledging the social nature of morality and justification makes it clear that there’s a lot of culturally-constructed gray area between God-given and totally arbitrary.

  • absolutely it is.

    consider that at its best, morality would mean making the best choice in any possible situation.

    Consider the difficult ones like the Trolly Problem.

    If you’re on the tracks your available choices are different than the one by the lever.

    A code of morality that is complete and coherent would ultimately be one that weighs action/reaction, choice/consequence all the way down the line.

    Murdering someone doesn’t just hurt the victim. It hurts the murderer.

    Morality would be about making the most of your options – the most beneficial choice, not just in the short run, but the long run.

    And each set of choices available to us are based on our own particular circumstances.

    Ergo, a perfect moral code would be utterly subjective.

  • i find all these questions so much easier now that i’ve disregarded the notion of objectivity itself.

  • Raging Bee

    For all practical purposes, yes. If an overwhelming majority of people consistently agree to abide by a certain set of rules and principles, then that agreement, at least, is an objective fact; and the benefits and harms resulting from consistent mass-adherence to said principles constitute another objective fact, which the people can use to judge or modify their principles.

  • adhoc

    Which specific moral facts are objective facts. There has to be a list, if hey are objective.

  • adhoc

    “Acknowledging the social nature of morality and justification makes it clear that there’s a lot of culturally-constructed gray area between God-given and totally arbitrary.”

    So you are saying that morals are both objective and subjective?

  • Rizdek

    What does that mean…going against one’s biology or instinct?

    Can we discuss one or two examples of when you would say moral decision-making goes against one’s biology or instinct.

  • No one here thinks there’s a universal, eternal and unquestionable code of conduct for every situation, but that idea of “objective morality” is a colossal straw man.

    I realize that you are rejecting this analysis or definition of the word “objective”, and it does seem a bit overblown, a bit of a strawman that is implausible and unreasonable. However, we cannot make further progress on the question at issue until we have a clear idea of what it means to say “morality is objective”. Setting aside a BAD definition of “objective” is a little bit or progress, but we need a GOOD definition before we can hope to rationally answer the question at issue.

  • I did NOT say that. I did NOT imply that.
    So, if your comment is intended to be an objection, then your comment is IRRELEVANT.

    If your comment is intended merely to ask for clarification, then my reply provides some clarification for you.

    Here is a bit more clarification:

    * The statement that “There is such a thing as human consciousness” is an OBJECTIVE FACT that is true precisely because of the existence of human beings who have consciousness (and NOT because of the existence of a planet that is revolving around a star).

    * The statement that “There is at least one planet that is revolving around a star” is an OBJECTIVE FACT that is true precisely because of the existence of a planet that is revolving around a star (and NOT because of the existence of human beings who have consciousness).

  • Benjamin Muller

    The main problem I have with these discussions is that people’s views on what is and isn’t moral does not seem to be the key to anticipating how they will or won’t act. The arguments, especially coming from the pro-objective morality crowd, seem to imply there is something critical about ones views on what is and isn’t moral to how one will behave and that is not how things look to me.

    I don’t kill people, not because I have a philosophical/moral/ethical objection to murder(although I do in most cases), but because I don’t want to kill people. The one time I was ready to kill someone(a man who had molested multiple members of my family and was actively playing games in their lives, a man that in my personal moral framework, it would not be wrong to kill), I didn’t because of the potential consequences for everyone involved(not him though, if his death alone was the only consequence, I would have done it).

    Am I unique? Are people really out there sitting around and not doing what we see as immoral/unethical things to other people because they’ve got good ethnical/moral arguments against them, despite wanting to do them? It sure doesn’t fit with my perception of how humans operate in practice if they are. If they are, then what’s up with sociopaths? People who usually have the mental faculties of reasoning through things at a decent level, but still do terrible things to people anyway. Is it that they have failed to philosophically reason to an objective set of ethics, or is there something else they don’t have at work, something more important in practice than just a view of whether a thing is ethical/moral or not?

    Hell, let’s get timely for the headlines… what the hell is up with the Catholic church? Did all those people really not think that what they were doing was wrong? Did they really not see that molesting kids was wrong? Did they really not see that covering it up was wrong? Is it a case where they just needed to have reasoned correctly to the correct objective moral stance, and then they would have acted differently? It sure doesn’t seem that way to me.

    My whole point in bringing this stuff up is, who cares if someone sees morality as objective or subjective? Fundies swear up and down morality is objective, and that doesn’t stop them from being untrustworthy immoral degenerates one little bit. They’ll tell you lying is wrong, but they’ll lie their asses off. They’ll tell you racism is wrong, but they’ll join the Klan. They’ll tell you porn is wrong and they’ll spank it to porn til they’re blind. They’ll tell you cheating on your wife is wrong, and they’ll cheat on their wives at almost every opportunity they have. They’ll tell you genocide is objectively wrong, then demonstrate they really see it as subjective when they excuse their bible god for ordering it and the people in the bible for following those orders.

    If just seems like a pointless and more importantly, powerless argument in that whether you convince me or anyone else to change their view on the subjective/objective nature of morality, it doesn’t seem likely to change the actual conduct of me or anyone else.

  • Garry Willits

    If morality is a social construct them by definition it is relative unless you think human psychology represents something that maps to some external reality in an absolute sense. Another intelligent species could have evolved a completely different morality to the human race, so it is incoherent to claim human moral evaluations are absolute.
    By the way, bit confused by you referring to colour as an example of how we recognize something as an agreed reality. Surely the phenomenon of the “blue dress” internet meme shows that colours are subjective interpretations of sense data.

  • Well, do we indulge our appetites for sex or food without considering the needs of others? Our biology and instincts don’t keep us considerate or moderate when it comes to these needs. I think some form of morality is necessary to curb our selfish instincts in the name of the common good.

  • I interpret “objective morality” in a straightforward way: Moral precepts that don’t depend on the opinions and tastes of the individual. Things like taboos, laws and customs develop in societies to reward good behavior and punish bad. We don’t consider things like murder, rape, or robbery to be subject to personal opinions.

  • You’re demolishing claims I never made. I never said human moral evaluations are absolute. I’m only disputing that morality can be said to be “entirely subjective.”

    Of course there are cultural influences to the way morality develops in societies, and there are different value systems that shape the morality. But morality is a social phenomenon, and that’s what we’d expect from a human endeavor. Just because it develops in human societies doesn’t mean it derives solely from personal opinion, any more than the meanings of words or the value of money is just a matter of opinion.

  • I think our buddy here is just being a pest: “Are you saying…?” “So you are saying…?”

    But just to clarify one point you’re making, I don’t consider facts to be “objective” because they’re eternal and unchanging, and they were simply waiting to reveal themselves to us. Even scientific facts are constructed through processes of inquiry and argument. The reason they’re “objective” is that we don’t consider them matters of personal opinion.

  • adhoc

    “I interpret “objective morality” in a straightforward way: Moral precepts that don’t depend on the opinions and tastes of the individual.”

    Why are my morals not dependent upon my tastes and opinions?

    I do not have the same tastes and opinions of fascist Nazis. If morals were objective, wouldn’t we have the same morals?

    “We don’t consider things like murder, rape, or robbery to be subject to personal opinions.”

    Why not? To Quote Penn Jillette: ” I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero.” There are people who have committed those crimes with no remorse or recognition of having committed crimes, do they have a different objective morals?

    What is moral in one society, may be different in another, no? If morals were objective, wouldn’t societies look more similar?

  • I do not have the same tastes and opinions of fascist Nazis. If morals were objective, wouldn’t we have the same morals?

    So you’re saying that whether you think Jews should be exterminated is just a matter of personal preference, like whether you like peanut butter?

  • adhoc

    Oh, I thought you were arguing that morals could only exist if there was a human consciousness.

    “* The statement that “There is such a thing as human consciousness” is an OBJECTIVE FACT that is true precisely because of the existence of human beings who have consciousness (and NOT because of the existence of a planet that is revolving around a star).”

    I did not imply that planets orbiting stars cause consciousness (even though that is where the sample size of one we have exists – Consciousness, as we know it, might only be achievable on a planet). I implied the opposite, that planets will orbit stars regardless of consciousness, Earth based or alien.

  • adhoc

    To some people, sure. There is a bit more to it, than that simplistic example. De-humanizing people is a big part of that. And yes, that IS a moral choice some people made. See: Nazis who killed Jews.

    Is because it is illegal/taboo/uncustomary (” Things like taboos, laws and customs…”) to kill someone the only reason you don’t do it?

  • To some people, sure.

    But if morality is entirely subjective, then that’s the way it is for everyone.

    So are you saying that to consider exterminating Jews wrong is just a matter of personal taste? That there’s no conceivable way to morally differentiate the belief that Jews should be exterminated from the belief that they shouldn’t?

  • adhoc

    “But if morality is entirely subjective, then that’s the way it is for everyone.”

    What? it would be objective, if it was the same for everyone. It would be subjective it if was individualistic. Is it opposite day?

    “So are you saying that to consider exterminating Jews wrong is just a matter of personal taste?”

    It appears to be, or a lot less Jews would have been killed, or do you think that more people would kill other people if it wasn’t illegal?

    ” That there’s no conceivable way to morally differentiate the belief that Jews should be exterminated from the belief that they shouldn’t?”

    I’ve been asking you how you differentiate the beliefs, but you won’t answer the question. I already told you how I keep from committing these crimes (Penn quote), why don’t you commit these crimes? You implied your reason was because it was illegal.

  • Raging Bee

    Generally speaking, that which brings net benefit to people is good; that which brings net harm is bad. You do need a list if you’re writing laws, but we also need to use reason and judgment in both writing and interpreting laws.

  • I interpret “objective morality” in a straightforward way: Moral precepts that don’t depend on the opinions and tastes of the individual. Things like taboos, laws and customs develop in societies to reward good behavior and punish bad.

    You seem to imply that moral relativism (of the social kind) implies that morality is objective. Usually moral relativism has been understood to be a form of subjectivism. That is because different societies embrace different and incompatible moral rules and principles.

    If the people in society A are raised to view abortion as murder, as a morally wrong action, but people in socieity B are raised to view abortion as a perfectly morally acceptable action, then according to moral relativism (of the social kind), abortion is morally wrong in society A but morally right in society B. That hardly seems to make the morality of abortion an ‘objective’ issue. The objectivity of science and math is such that the truths in these areas are recognized by all societies, or at least by most societies where people are educated and able to read. 2 plus 2 equals 4, whether you are in the USA, Mexico, Africa, China, France, Russia, or Australia.

    Am I misunderstanding your view of “objective morality”?

    Also, you have set out a fairly clear criterion for what OBJECTIVE morality cannot be based upon, but you have not been as clear about what OBJECTIVE morality can (or must?) be based on. So, it seems like your concept of “objective morality” is only half-baked; it is missing a crucial element: what it is that OBJECTIVE morality is based upon. If you are, as I suspect, a moral relativist, then you might say something like this:

    An action A by person P is objectively morally wrong IF AND ONLY IF action A is morally condemned by the society to which person P belongs.

    Is that what you had in mind?

  • Am I misunderstanding your view of “objective morality”?

    It sure seems that way. I only said that objective means that the matter doesn’t depend on personal opinions or tastes, not that objective means that everyone everywhere in every historical era would have the same exact moral code. I fully understand that morality isn’t as consistent across cultures as math. That’s because there are differences in cultural values and mores.

    As I discussed with another poster, I find it useful to compare this to language. There’s no one universal language, and the meanings of words can change over time. But that doesn’t mean that language is “subjective,” that I can use words to mean whatever I personally think they mean.

    An action A by person P is objectively morally wrong IF AND ONLY IF action A is morally condemned by the society to which person P belongs.

    Is that what you had in mind?

    It’s getting there. If we don’t acknowledge that morality is a social phenomenon, that there’s a cultural context to the way we deal with ethical questions, and that the process of justification presupposes a responsibility to the standards of a community, then we’re not dealing with what morality really is.

  • adhoc

    If morals and laws were “objective”, there would not be exceptions to them nor a need for reason and judgement. That makes the morals and laws subjective.

  • Raging Bee

    No, that just makes morals and laws complex.

  • adhoc

    So objective morals are subjective?

  • Anthrotheist

    I might try an analogy, to see if it helps.

    Donald Trump is the president of the United States of America. That is an objective fact. That doesn’t mean that everyone agrees that he should be, or that his presidency is entirely legitimate. And ultimately, the “objective fact” that he is president really only means that the government and people of America take his orders and decrees as having full legal weight (laws being something we agreed upon as a society), as do foreign nations where it affects them. Just because he only has power because we all collectively consent to support his legal right to make decisions doesn’t make his power subjective. If everyone decided all at once that he didn’t have that power, then he really wouldn’t. The Secret Service would kick him out of the White House, judges wouldn’t see any legal cause for him to be taken seriously, and the people as a whole would stop calling him the president. And yet him being president still isn’t subjective. (Of course, society requires some amount of consistency for it to be stable, so all of that combined would undermine the office of the president, much to the detriment of future presidents.)

    Morality in general follows the same essential principles, and is no less objective.

  • Raging Bee

    No, COMPLEXITY is NOT subjective.

  • adhoc

    I don’t see how your example makes morals objective.

    “Morality in general follows the same essential principles, …”

    “In general” smells subjective to me. Those “principles” are come to by individuals and not all people subject themselves to the same principles. If principles were objective, everyone would have the same principles, and that is not reflected in reality.

  • adhoc

    Complexity is NOT objective.

  • Raging Bee

    Yes, actually, it is: the universe is complex and so are humans and human societies.

  • adhoc

    You are not making a very good argument that morals are objective.

  • If morals and laws were “objective”, there would not be exceptions to them nor a need for reason and judgement. That makes the morals and laws subjective.

    How can laws be subjective?

    You’re falling into the same false dilemma that Cosmic Skeptic does: if morals aren’t God-given, universal and eternal, then they’re completely a matter of personal opinion. Plenty of people have tried to point out that morality is a social phenomenon, and that there’s a pretty complex set of cultural and historical aspects to things like taboo, custom, laws, and the process of justification. It’s not just a matter of personal opinion.

  • This young man is very, very misguided man.

  • I had to stop watching his video. Clearly, this young man has done a lot of reading. However, he has not spent any time reading about human biology nor understanding hormones that are released by the brain. Pain is not a subjective response. When a person touches a hot stove, chemicals are released in the brain telling the nervous system to respond in pain. We then feel pain. Pain whether a burn, broken bone, stomach ache, illness, etc – is pain. Over time the brain catologs the bodies response to pain, and then creates methods to avoid the pain. Sure, there are people that lack proper nerve responses to pain, but that still doesnt’ mean pain is subjective. It means their brains aren’t telling their body the pain hurts. Emotional pain is no different than physical pain. The body and biology of the human works to avoid pain at all costs. He needs to spend time in a science lesson.

  • Raging Bee

    So refute it already.

  • What disturbs me most of all is how it boils down to privileged nihilism: he can’t bring himself to declare that oppression of any sort is bad because he’s adamant that such normative statements have no truth value, even though the damage that oppression does to people and communities is verifiable.

    Thanks for contributing! Glad to see your blog is already going gangbusters.

  • Right! He completely negates the psychological aspects of pain, suffering, and torture. We know there are verifiable consequences to genocide, murder and rape. There are studies that science and psychologists have conducted that prove pain, ptsd, and trauma are not made up figments. If this young man truly wants to be smart, he must get outside of his non-theism approach. Understanding the world, means you need to educate yourself in all sciences. Biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology. Psychology is not a made up science. The brain creates pathways and responses to physical and emotional pain. Scientists have even been able to do scans of brains to show what parts of the brain respond to pain.

    Additionally, scientists have shown that psychopaths have spots within their brains that are under-active or hyper-active compared to a non-psychopath. Neuro-scientists can show where the brain receptors change, what lobes of the brain respond, etc. Brain response is not a social construct – it is a biological and chemical truth.

    Thank you so much! I was not expecting the response I have received. It’s been fun!

  • Raging Bee

    Objectivity, to me, if you want my definition, would be to say that it is true regardless of human intervention, regardless of human consciousness.

    The problem with that “definition” is that morality is created by humans, in order to make life better for ourselves and those we care about, if not for ALL humans in general. So there would be no morality if there were no humans or other sentient beings to assess what’s beneficial to them and devise rules and principles to achieve those benefits. That does NOT, however, mean morality is subjective: wherever sentient beings exist, there will be objective facts as to what is beneficial and what is harmful to them; and those objective facts can form the basis for a moral code that is objectively, verifiably beneficial to said beings.

  • Anthrotheist

    It seems as though your definition of “objective” is strictly “material/energy”, meaning that they would only be objective if they had some physical form such as matter or some capacity to affect physical material (directly or indirectly) such as gravity or radiation. That is the only way that I, as a materialist, could imagine the type of thing that you are describing as objective.

    I’m not certain from your response, do you consider the fact that Donald Trump is the president of the United States to be an objective fact or is that subjective as well?

  • Rizdek

    First, I’m not approaching this as if we’re disagreeing here…I’m just clarifying how I view the source and nature of human morality.

    I think morality is necessary for the survival of humanity. And it is often a counter to selfish instincts in the name of the common good. But I believe we are endowed by our genes a combination and range of instincts…both altruistic and selfish, a balance, if you will, that makes essentially everyone generous some of the time and some generous all of the time. I believe the human gene pool survived and continues to survive because it has evolved to produce individuals with varying degrees of selfishness and altruism/unselfishness. IOW, we’re not all the same and that is “by design” from the perspective of evolution.

    So yes, we all have appetites and we often indulge them, but humanity couldn’t have survived if EVERYONE only ever and always followed the most base and selfish aspects of our nature. There had to be and our survival continues to depend on a wide variety of types of individual human “natures” or “personality types.”

    IOW, I think morality is built in to our genetics…and based on that, I contend morality is objective, not subjective…IT is not dependent on what people think but on their instincts and how they reason.

  • I think morality is built in to our genetics.

    I think you’re getting terms mixed up. If you said that things like compassion or tolerance were innate traits, I’d have no reason to object. J_Enigma 32 above pointed out that rudimentary ethical utilitarianism seems pretty common in animals. But the idea that morality, as in a systematic understanding of rights, responsibilities, and the process of justification, is genetic is way too much for me to swallow.

  • I agree. And that’s why I’ve been grousing about scientism for so long: the idea that reality or truth is only attainable by removing humans from the equation is pretty self-defeating, since the only way we can access reality is through the modes of inquiry humans developed, to make the chaos of existence meaningful to humans.

  • It seems an outgrowth of privilege – “It’s not my problem, so it’s not a problem.”

  • for some reason this reminds me of a parable told by Rabbi Abraham Twerski about “fish love”

    “Young man, why are you eating that fish?”

    “Because I love fish,” the young man answers.

    “Oh, you love the fish. That’s why you took it out of the water and killed it and boiled it. Don’t tell me you love the fish. You love yourself, and because the fish tastes good to you, therefore you took it out of the water and killed it and boiled it.”

  • adhoc

    I don’t see how the object fact that Trump is president proves that morals are objective.

  • adhoc

    It’s your claim, you prove it. So far I havnt seen anything that suggests that morals are objective. Objective morals don’t jive with reality.

  • adhoc

    Reality and history says you are wrong to claim morals to be objective. Morals are subject to time and place.

  • Anthrotheist

    Because there is no objective thing known as “President of the United States.” It is purely man-made, and entirely conceptual. It in no way changes the physical or energetic characteristics of the person who holds the office; the only difference between the President and anyone else, is that society all agrees that he is President and agrees to treat his actions differently. It is purely through consensus to adhere to an artificially invented “political office.” Moral concepts such as “slavery is wrong” and “torture is wrong” are just as artificially invented (given that they weren’t always held as moral wrongs, just as President of the United States didn’t always exist either), but they are no less objective than someone being a President of some nation called the United States. Trying to distinguish between the two lends itself more toward legalism/contractualism than it does any useful framework of morality.

  • Raging Bee

    I already did, and you’re just pretending I haven’t.

  • It’s just never not funny when someone who claims that laws are subjective presumes to tell me what reality says.

  • As I discussed with another poster, I find it useful to compare this to language. There’s no one universal language, and the meanings of words can change over time. But that doesn’t mean that language is “subjective,” that I can use words to mean whatever I personally think they mean.

    Very interesting analogy. Thanks!

    Morality is also analogous to law. Different countries have different laws and different systems of justice, and laws can change over time. We are not inclined to believe that there is just ONE TRUE set of laws, and yet we are inclined to believe that some systems of law or law codes are BETTER THAN other systems or codes, and we are inclined to believe that some laws are BAD and need to be eliminated or modified. So, although there is no belief in ONE TRUE set of laws, law codes and individual laws can be rationally evaluated, criticized, and improved. Laws are not purely arbitrary or subjective, even though there is no such thing as the ONE TRUE set of laws.

    Languages and law codes have an important feature in common: they both are systems, not merely collections of unrelated items. This means that changing a particular rule or aspect of a language or a code of laws can have impacts throughout the system, beyond the particular items that we are modifying. Another feature that languages and law codes have in common is that they both serve multiple purposes or goals. Because there is not just ONE goal or purpose for a language or system of laws to achieve, there are inevitably compromises that must be made between competing goals or purposes.

    In political systems there are the competing goals of stability and community on the one hand and freedom and individualism on the other hand. Different political systems make different compromises between these various goals. The same is true of languages and law codes. Because these are systems that serve many different goals and purposes, there are inevitably some particular compromises made in particular systems between these various goals and purposes.

    I believe that this is the main reason why the idea of there being ONE TRUE system of morality is problematic and perhaps unrealistic:

    Morality is a complex system that serves multiple goals or purposes.

    A “system” of morality that achieves SOME of the goals or purposes of morality is a BETTER system of morality than one that achieves NONE of the goals or purposes of morality. A “system” of morality that achieves ALL of the goals or purposes of morality is a BETTER system of morality than one that achieves only SOME of the goals of morality. But actual systems of morality usually achieve most of the goals and purposes of morality to a significant degree, making it difficult to determine which system, if any, is BEST.

  • KB

    Haven’t seen Alex’s video, but I’m confused. You spend all this time discussing how morality isn’t subjective, but then you call it a social construct. The latter sentiment I very much agree with. But given that we have, at very many different points in our human evolution, constructed different versions of morality, wouldn’t that indicate that morality is indeed, not objective? For example, in your paragraph:

    “If we couldn’t conceive of an instance in which we could justify genocide or the torture of children, then we have every right to condemn such behavior as bad and to deny that it’s a matter of opinion. In other words, to declare that it’s objectively wrong.”

    Now, in the western world, it has certainly been the case where a society’s moral standards did not condemn genocide. Where people certainly did have justifications that they agreed with for committing those acts. Indeed, Romans were plenty okay with genocide of certain tribes. Just so long as the genocide wasn’t themselves. Torturing teenagers as witches, again, definitely not seen by the society as morally wrong. In fact, I think the argument can be made that it was morally correct for them to do so… in their society.

    I want to unpack the second part of that too. Feel free to disagree that it is just semantics, but I do not think “not a matter of opinion” =/ “objective”. I think given our current society you could say genocide being bad isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of shared collective values that our society is based upon and dependent on. But that doesn’t make it objective. As values have changed, for example, from one where conformity to a certain religion, to more of the aspirations of the enlightenment, our morality has come with it. Another society might depend on a different set of values.

    Even your analogy with the blue sky is a little difficult for me to follow through to your desired conclusion. We can all call the sky blue, but the sky isn’t blue. No matter is blue. What the sky is, is made up of molecules that reflect a wave length of visible light that our retinas receive distinct from other wavelengths, and our language identifies as blue. But there is so much around that, that is not objective. First off, you need to have a language that calls it blue. What is blue in one language is green in another. Some languages skip over colors we have in English altogether. Others, have more. Then we have to wonder, what exactly does that wavelength look like to each individual. Is what I perceive to be blue what you perceive to be orange? The second part might be immaterial, since even if we perceive it differently, we can have perfect communication, and thus agreement, but the first part of this paragraph is essential. Because it indicates that not everyone actually agrees that the sky is blue (because they might not have the word, or because blue encompasses a slightly different spectrum in their language than in ours).

    Again, haven’t seen the video, and if he denies morality has a social aspect to it, then I think he is wrong and also I think that hurts his “morality is subjective” claim. But I wouldn’t be so quick to say promoting the idea that there is no objective morality is not the same thing as saying any morality is good or okay. I have a morality I have cultivated over the years, and you bet I believe it is “best morality”, and that it contradicts with others’ means only that I am going to fight to get people to see things my way and/or try to change policies to reflect that morality. I agree that working together promotes greater happiness and progress in societies, AND I see such happiness and progress as a good value to have, thus my morality is such that I believe we should be working together for the betterment of all of us, rather than promote an overly individualistic society.

  • I think given our current society you could say genocide being bad isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of shared collective values that our society is based upon and dependent on. But that doesn’t make it objective.

    I’m having a real problem here getting my point across, because of the way the word objective has been redefined by fundies. The typical message-board approach to objective morality is that it refers to a God-given, universal, unchanging, single and unvarying code of conduct. I can’t stress strongly enough that I consider that a preposterous misuse of the term.

    And yet atheists like you and Cosmic Skeptic seem to agree with it. You point out that if people disagree on morality, or different norms prevail in different societies, then that throws the entire notion of objective morality out the window, full stop. You’re uncomfortable—understandably so—with the idea of an unquestionable moral code that can be used to oppress and marginalize. I too am wary of the moral complacency that accompanies the idea that we’re morally superior to those other people.

    However, as I said, I’m a social constructionist who realizes that morality develops and changes over time. I acknowledge that societies differ in their approach to morality. I think saying that morality is objective isn’t saying that there’s only one possible moral code for all behavior for all time. I think we can reasonably acknowledge differences in the way different cultures approach morality without surrendering to relativism or (like Alex) privileged nihilism. I think it’s a good thing to be able to say that behavior has to be justified according to reasonable moral precepts or else it’s wrong. You don’t want to have to shrug your shoulders and say that we think genocide is wrong, but it can’t be objectively wrong because they commit genocide, do you? That’s the same sort of moral complacency I mentioned before, one that implies one’s superiority to the society that permits genocide while pretending that it’s a virtue to not get worked up about other people’s inhumane behavior.

    I agree with what you say in your last paragraph, and I think we agree more than we disagree here. People are getting hung up on the term “objective.”

  • It’s impossible to argue against ludicrous objections.

    Whether something can be fully and specifically articulated has nothing to do with objectivity.
    Whether a statement admits to exceptions has nothing to do with objectivity.
    Simplicity and complexity have nothing to do with objectivity.
    I don’t even know what to do with your “reality and history says” quote.

    All the conversation has thus far shown is that Shem, Raging Bee, and others have made a claim regarding (at least a partial) objective basis of morality, and that you don’t understand the claim well enough to lodge coherent objections against it. The problem there seems to be you have an idiosyncratic and non-functional definition of “objectivity”.

  • Rizdek

    Ok, I’ll see if I can make the connections. I agree that compassion, tolerance, generosity and altruism are built into our genes and the human gene pool produces most individuals with some of each of these things and to varying degrees along with the counter traits like “me-first” and selfishness and personal defense against attack and deception. I believe the systematic understanding of rights, responsibilities and the process of justification is made possible because those traits are built in, necessarily so given the kind of species humans are, and is catalyzed by our ability to reason and think logically. So, I would revise my thinking to say the tendency of humans to come up with justifications for how to treat others IS built in to our genes.

  • Daniel Goldman

    It is hard to say that there is universal morality, without a source for it, that is a being with agency. So a god might be needed for universal morality. And in the sense that all morality is cultural, and each culture evolves differently, morality is not universal. Is it subjective? In a way all culture is. But at the same time, culture is modulated by environment and is the result of evolutionary dynamics. Whether or not a moral survives is a matter of natural selection, relaxed selection, etc. In that sense, morality is objective: a culture where it’s moral to kill whoever you want because you don’t like them would die out quickly, and so that moral system would not last.

  • Raging Bee

    But given that we have, at very many different points in our human
    evolution, constructed different versions of morality, wouldn’t that
    indicate that morality is indeed, not objective?

    No, it just indicates that we’re starting out as primitives, and not doing it right the first time, and have to learn from mistakes and refine and improve our work. Sort of like how we do science: we’ve had different versions of how our Universe looks, but that doesn’t mean there’s no objective truth out there to work toward.

  • Raging Bee

    That, and also the truth about humans kinda depends on humans existing and being “in the equation” in the first place.

  • Raging Bee

    Well, if someone can put HIS hand on a hot stove, that should solve his problem pretty quick, right?

  • Raging Bee

    No, they’re really not — they’re also subject to verification of real-world consequences.

  • Thank you for reading the title of my blog post.

  • Sort of like how we do science: we’ve had different versions of how our Universe looks, but that doesn’t mean there’s no objective truth out there to work toward.

    And who says there needs to be an “objective truth out there” waiting for us to arrive at it? We should be trying to refine our methods and aims, not get stuck in fantasies of a magical, eternal totality that don’t seem that much more preferable to religious ones from where I’m sitting.

  • i’d rather he find a more efficient way to learn.

  • I admit it would be funny to say, “See, Alex? The stove doesn’t care about your personal well-being. And neither does the universe!”

  • KB

    I agree, this seems to be semantics more than anything else. But I think what would help me understand you is what exactly do you think objective means in the context of morality?

    Rereading your post, I’m trying to see the ways I might have interpreted you in a different way than was intended. Your prior statement of “If we couldn’t conceive of an instance in which we could justify genocide or the torture of children, then we have every right to condemn such behavior as bad and to deny that it’s a matter of opinion. In other words, to declare that it’s objectively wrong.”, are you referring to an individual then? That is, given a person’s values, that person can say something is objectively wrong because it does not advance or align with their values? Or is that statement referring to (as I originally interpreted it), that an overarching objective morality for all people comes from the fact that you or I cannot find justification in those acts?

    I could see how the “individual objective morality” (to paraphrase) explanation would be logically consistent. Basically, it’s a way to reward consistency. I can’t see how my original interpretation would be logically consistent.

    A follow-up question: As I mentioned, the idea that there is no objective morality does not have to mean relativism or nihilism (though I certainly understand it can). And since so many people use the term objective in a sort of “If no humans were around, would this still hold up?” way, why not concede that and say, yes, morality is not objective, but that doesn’t’ meant relativism or nihilism is appropriate, and make that argument. What is the gusto over the term objective if most people understand it differently? Is it sort of a legitimacy thing? That without that term, it seems like a harder sell to say, “but this is why we should not accept certain actions anyway”?

  • KB

    I have definitely been on the “Moral arc of history” train for most of my life, though I’ve gotten off it since the election of Trump. So I’m sympathetic to this view. I do think at least in comparison to the big picture of history, overall our sense of morality is improving when you compare to even 100 years ago, but it is improving according to my values. Not everyone holds my values, and I’m sure you have experience with the fact that for many, they believe that we have been on a down slump since *insert particular event in history*. And from their perspectives, they see evidence that indeed, things are worse now than they were before, which would suggest that we are not learning from our mistakes.

    Now, generally, I think they are wrong. I think having a value that people should be able to love and express that love to anyone they want, provided they are not hurting anyone or taking advantage of anyone (like a child), is a good one. In my experiences, this has allowed so much happiness in my friends lives, and I have a value that people should be happy as well. So I’m going to fight for this. But the person who sees this morality as wrong is going to fight me. And I don’t think it is going to be the purity of the value that wins, but rather, how many people exist who think like me versus who think like them. Even over the long run.

    I think the problem is that in science, we don’t make value judgments. You do an experiment to find out if A causes B. You don’t so an experiment to see if A causes good. Why not? Because good is not a measurable value. You have to define good and measure that, but again, everyone has a different measurement for good. Where as science is descriptive, morality is prescriptive. Science is used to tell us what is, or what will happen. Morality is used to say what should happen.

  • You’re accepting a religious definition of “objective” that means “universal.” I’m trying to say that “objective” only refers to the aspect in which taboos and laws are constructed to represent codes of behavior that aren’t subject to personal opinion.

    I’m not saying genocide has never been committed. I’m not saying that someone else in some other culture or era may consider genocide is just peachy. I’m saying that in the moral framework that has developed in our society, there’s no justification for genocide. We don’t consider it just a matter of opinion. We consider it objectively wrong.

  • Here’s another couple of fundies making Alex look like a choad. At 13:50 here, he says:

    So with a moral proposition, if you say that murder is wrong, it’s not the fact that you can’t demonstrate that that that makes it not objective…For something to be objectively true, it must be true…regardless of whether or not people want it to be true, or think that it’s true. So for me, morality is a thought, an expression, it’s something that can’t be said to be true without humans thinking that it’s true. Because all morality is, is humans thinking something is true…In order to say that morality is objective, you would need to ground your morality in something that is not human opinion. You’d need to ground it in something either naturalistic, which is something Sam Harris tries to do, or you’d need to ground it in some sort of supernaturalism.

    Once again, this is utter foolishness. He doesn’t think that the damage caused by murder can be demonstrated and used as justification for a prohibition against it? He thinks morality in its entirety is just “humans thinking something is true”?

    Wow.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Ulnmb-4v2M&t=895s

  • Another analogy is that morality is like a car. A car is a complex system that was constructed to serve multiple goals or purposes. One primary purpose of a car is transportation, but that is not the only goal or purpose of a car. Cars are also used for pleasure and relaxation. Some people like to go for a Sunday drive, and some people like to have sex in cars. Cars can be status symbols or indicate identification with a social group, like soccer mom’s or low riders. Even cars that are purchased just for transportation are evaluated on multiple criteria: safety, economy, comfort, performance, dependability, resale value, and environmental impacts. A car that is excellent in all of these aspects is objectively better than a car that is poor in all of these aspects. But because cars are designed and built to be sold, makers of cars attempt to create cars that are good to excellent in most of these aspects. Different cars make different trade offs between these criteria. Some emphasize comfort or performance over economy or environmental impacts. There is no such thing as a perfect car or One True car, but some cars are clearly GOOD cars and some are clearly BAD. Some cars are clearly BETTER than other cars. Evaluation of cars is NOT purely subjective. There are established criteria for evaluating cars. But evaluation of cars is also NOT purely objective either, because almost all cars make some compromises between the various purposes and goals that cars serve and because different purposes are prioritized differently by different people.

  • Ethics and the sciences are alike in this respect:

    They are undertaken by subjective agents using an intersubjective process to interrogate an objective reality.

    The huge gulf between the completely subjective and the completely objective is filled by intersubjectivity, the vast majority of things–including all public human activities–which are undertaken by subjective creatures which have the capacity to communicate and compare their experiences in doing that thing in order to find patterns and similarities between those experiences. As in the sciences, the coincidence of disparate subjective entities having experiences that can be described using a unified vocabulary is taken as being more than a cosmic coincidence; it indicates that moral experiences, like sense experiences, are mutually articulable and comparable and so almost certainly must be supervenient upon a universe of moral law which has some mind-independent status.

    Is it airtight? No. It is possible that it is a giant coincidence that the moral experiences of different humans can be compared by them in a sensible way. It is merely as philosophically sound as the posit that the universe is real. I don’t see you being tediously skeptical about physical reality, though, which would be required if you wished to be consistent in your skeptical stance.

  • this is probably the subject where you and i disagree most profoundly, among anything we’ve ever discussed.

  • You’re allowed to disagree, you know.

    So where am I wrong on this?

  • would it have been moral to murder hitler as a child?

    (i think it would have – even if the murderer didn’t know it was at the time)

    if morality is about making the most effective use of one’s options (both in the short and long term), which as far as i can tell, is ultimately what morality comes down to, then morality is ultimately situational, and as such, necessarily subjective.

  • Sure. I’m not saying that we don’t make moral decisions as individuals. You’re right that we apply morality in situations where we face ethical dilemmas. But even in the Hitler instance, you’re not saying killing Hitler would simply have given you some personal satisfaction; you’re appealing to a moral principle—that killing one person is justified if it prevents the killing of millions—that you feel is true in a way that’s not just a matter of opinion.

  • and yet morally, many people would disagree that it’s okay to preemptively kill someone before they have committed a crime.

    there’s a movie (Minority Report) based on preemptively locking people up before they commit a crime. because a lot of people find it horrible, and in that case they were mostly being jailed, not killed.

    so how is this objective?

    doubly so if you couldn’t have known what they were going to do.

    i believe it’s more moral to kill someone before they go on a mass shooting spree, even if you didn’t know they were going to.

    i believe it’s moral to massively depopulate human beings before all of humanity suffers the totality of destruction due to the consequences of overpopulation.

    but basing morality on economy (even serendipitous economy) is not something most people would even have the stomach for.

    i also believe it’s more moral to cast queer folk like me out of the kingdom, even if it means we suffer that, because of the alternative. i doubt most would agree with that.

  • so how is this objective?

    Like I’ve had to explain plenty of times on this thread, I don’t agree with the definition of objective as universal, eternal and unchanging. I think the way people see objective morality as one universal code of conduct that exhausts all possibilities and situations is a colossal straw man. I fully understand that societies, cultures, communities and individuals differ as far as laws, customs and taboos.

    But neither do I think morality is merely arbitrary, no more meaningful than someone’s preference in ice cream flavors. That’s what subjective means.

    The escape hatch in this dilemma is social constructivism, which acknowledges the social nature of morality. We need to understand how we justify our actions in terms of the norms of a community to which we consider ourselves responsible. Like science, language, or math, morality is a for-us-by-us construct. And morality is no more a matter of personal opinion than those other constructs.

  • i never said it’s arbitrary.

    but objective – even using your definition, would mean it’s not a matter of personal opinion, but could be demonstrated and observed by multiple parties.

    and yet even if group X all believes the same things about morality, if every agent of group X makes the same choices based on shared precepts of morality, some will end up making morally more efficient choices than others.

    a good example of this is the limitations of the law. When you try to apply the law evenly, it breaks down, not just in the corner cases, but at the end of the day, it breaks down because the law cannot account for situation and circumstance of the individual, leaving the same ruling for the same crime being more just for some than others.

  • PD

    I think we need to get clear on the meaning of subjective and objective statements. I don’t know Alex, but his definition is fairly standard (i.e. knowledge of things as they are mind-independently). Aristotle says of objective truth that it is, “to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not” — a clear statement of the correspondence theory of truth which rests on metaphysical realism (the beings that exist and the properties that they have do not depend on human cognition). Unless I misunderstand Alex, he’s using some-such definition?

    If we agree to apply that fairly orthodox definition of “objectivity,” then it would be hard to establish a basis for objective moral truths. The position of one who argues for such objective moral truths is *moral realism* which asserts that our ontology, to be accurate, must include *moral reals* or properties such as Platonic Ideas, or more scientifically, decisions that are objectively right in any possible world. The latter could be illustrated by appeal to Dworkin’s hypothetical “Judge Hercules.” He believes that for every legal and moral decision, there is one and only one correct answer. He hastens to add that we may never know it, but that there is a perspective, a “view from nowhere” to quote Nagel, such that when occupying it we no longer see things through a veil of subjective interests, cultural norms, emotional swings etc. Rather we see (he’s not religious, but by analogy) from a God’s eye viewpoint or Archimedean perspective, to remove the religion. Platonism, Intuitionism, and the sort of Rationalism expressed by Dworkin all make claims to transcend subjectivity and culture (intersubjectivity).

    Harris is another story. His objectivity is based on the idea that we can start out with some objective facts about human biology and psychology and then derive norms and values from them. I remember taking this on in some depth on your Anti-Science channel, and maybe I’ll edit in the link if anybody cares about it, but for now I’ll just say his project fails spectacularly. But even if one thinks it succeeds, my point here is that it rests on a variant of metaphysical realism which is simply scientific realism.

    Once you disavow such realism then morality becomes something other than objective knowledge corresponding to reals (moral principles, divine decrees, Platonic essences or the necessary entailments of objective science/biology).

    That doesn’t mean we can’t have rational discussions in which we evaluate actions, decisions, social policies, etc. It doesn’t mean that morality is not related to intelligence in making important choices. It only means that moral discourse does not rest on metaphysical absolutes including allegedly incontrovertible scientific facts (sci. realism). I think thoughtful philosophers like Dewey, Hilary Putnam, Habermas and others see the moral domain as one in which reason-giving plays an important role, yet no reasons are privileged metaphysically– none can lay claim to being objective truths. On the bright side, this avoids dogmatism which is never far off when any party lays claim to The capital-T Truth.

  • PD

    Well, I commented on some of the definitions (objective, subjective, et al.) above. I usually agree with your points, Shem, but here I’m not so sure. Just how you derive any form of “objectivity” from social constructivism puzzles me.

    A social constructivist (and that’s a general term, but okay for now) isn’t entitled to go beyond conventionalism of the “When in Rome” variety. There are some philosophers who admit that much of what we believe is dependent on culture and language while still putting some faith in *moral reasoning* of some kind. If such moral reasoning isn’t put forward as a means to arriving at objectively true moral statements, but rather as means to fostering intelligent discussion within certain norms (e.g. constitutional norms we can’t ‘prove’) than we can at least say there are better arguments and worse arguments. We can take on issues like gun-control, reproductive rights, free speech vs. hate speech in ways that are more or less obtuse.

    The least intelligent arguments are those by fiat, “I just think so, end of story.” Very common. And in philosophy that’s at least a big part of what is indicated when the term moral subjectivism comes up. “Mere opinion/mere expression of taste.” It’s even called the “ejaculatory theory” and “emotivism” to make it clear that it’s all purely irrational. Literal nonsense (as positivists used to insist).

    But the extremes of “subjective nonsense/opinion/emotional ejaculations” on the one hand and “objective truths/correct positions/moral reals” by no means exhaust all possibilities for a reasonable but context-dependent approach to ethics.
    Why do we need more? Why do we need to feel that our evaluations and decisions have the kind of truth that goes beyond the cultural resources already at hand to explore the tough questions?

  • Hey, PD, great to see you again!

    Just how you derive any form of “objectivity” from social constructivism puzzles me.

    I didn’t realize I was presenting such a radical and idiosyncratic redefinition of objective, but there you go. My starting point was the absolute silliness of looking at morality as something God-given, eternal, universal, and unquestionable on one hand, and the wretched inadequacy of defining it merely as a matter of personal opinion on the other.

    What I was trying to do is show that, just like with other socially-constructed phenomena like language, maths, and science, we can say that certain things we conclude about morality aren’t just a matter of personal opinion. Custom, law, and taboo develop in a society to give us a moral framework in which to conceptualize ethical realities. Sure, I’ll agree with the non-cognitivist that moral statements like “Murder is bad” aren’t true or false in the same way that scientific claims can be said to be true or false. But they refer to real things, don’t they? We can consider the damage—the real, verifiable damage—that violence does to individuals, families and communities and use that as justification for a prohibition against it, can’t we?

    I’m a little surprised that more people here aren’t at least admitting, “Of course genocide is objectively wrong.” I don’t think it’s rigging the game to use an extreme example like deliberate mass murder to illustrate that there are certain things that we don’t consider matters of opinion. Whether we consider the physical, social, and cultural damage that genocide causes; or we say that no civilization has ever considered genocide a good thing; or use the example of any reasonable person, and conclude that he or she would have no reason to consider genocide permissible; or say that there’s no context in which we consider the deliberate slaughter of an entire population justifiable, there are plenty of grounds for considering genocide objectively wrong.

  • PD

    Yes, maybe the problem has to do with the way each of us understands the term, “objective” truth as opposed to conventional wisdom. As I see it, there’s a big difference between saying “we don’t consider X justified” and “X is NOT justified.” The first is conventional, the second is a knowledge claim. This gets important when we ask just *who* the we includes/excludes. So, using your example, “we” have a framework that excludes genocidal acts. Then I assume “We” aren’t antii-Semites in Germany circa 1940 where genocidal acts were perfectly conceivable and were implemented. The things you mention– customs, laws, word meanings– were all different then and there. Likewise, I assume that the non-genocide- justifying “WE” aren’t Serbs in the 90s “othering”and dehumanizing Muslim Croats to such a degree as to leave mass-graves behind. I assume that “We” are not in Rwanda in the 90s, that “we” are not Buddhists engaging in ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people in Burma, etc. The problem, I think, is how to apply the norms of “we”when interacting with “them.”

    If the “objective sphere” is defined as being internal to given groups, cultures or entire societies, then the “objective” moral claims we make would seem to have only local validity. In a pluralistic society with people living together in close quarter from different places, cultures, religions etc., this gets pretty fuzzy. Who counts as “in group” and who is “out?” Many believe pre-marital sex is just wrong. I suppose on this analysis those who share in that consensus comprise a moral “WE” within which their belief can be justified in agreed-upon ways (appeal to scripture or Church authorities, perhaps). Not long ago homosexuality was codified as a crime. Now same-sex marriages are the law of the land. When conventions change, are the justifications for that change only conventional or *distinctly moral?*

    One of the defining properties of “objective moral facts” (if there are any) is they can settle such conflicts between opposing groups/values/ideas. If there are moral facts, they might adjudicate between claims of Christian Fundamentalists and those they anathematize. We might also settle many policy issues of real importance. But conventions don’t settle social conflicts like that. They don’t point to a knowledge base that underlies diverse societies and cultures. Again, it’s “when in Rome” and not everybody lives there.

    So, if what you mean by objective knowledge is really knowledge that’s widely accepted in some context, then I’d say our definitions are different. But whatever you call it, these agreed-upon standards won’t provide answers to everyday ethical conflicts and dilemmas. They leave things just as they are without any ethical theory or philosophy. That might be fine or not, it’s just not what I would call objective morality, but rather something like conventional wisdom. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conventional_wisdom

  • Something can be mind-independent and not universal; it can be local, or contingent, or dependent upon another physical or metaphysical requisite, and still be objective.

  • adhoc

    “…a universe of moral law which has some mind-independent status.”

    You are claiming that there is some “moral law” that exists without a mind or consciousness? Do you have an example?

  • adhoc

    Or it could be they are wrong.

  • adhoc

    I was using the youtuber’s definition of objective. Still have not seen any examples of objective morals. Morals are subject to time and place and the individuals acting in them. Morals have changed throughout human history. If morals were objective, why have they changed?

  • PD

    Right. I don’t believe I say otherwise. “To say of what is that it is” is not nec to say that the ‘it’ in question is a universal truth. The correspondence theory I mention is not a theory of universals but a theory of objective knowledge of things, be they general or particular, necessary or contingent.

  • Yes, but I believe you accidentally import an implication of universality and/or necessity here:

    Once you disavow such [Harris’ naive and/or scientific] realism then morality becomes something other than objective knowledge corresponding to reals (moral principles, divine decrees, Platonic essences or the necessary entailments of objective science/biology).

    …if you mean it to be a reasonably exhaustive list of the types of metaphysical reals that could serve to suggest correct evaluation of truth values of moral statements. If morally real objects/truth values/true statements exist, they can be entirely contingent and apply merely situationally despite being metaphysically real if they are predicated upon (or are the direct entailment of) some other perdurant condition being met which is metaphysically grounded.

    An analogy to this possibility is gravity as a phenomenon; it only ever obtains when there are masses in the reference frame. No masses, no gravity, but it exists as a contingent potentiality of spacetime that obtains proximate only to masses, its intensity in any given instance proportionate to the incident masses.

    So, perhaps there is a potentiality in reality that only obtains with proximate consciousnesses, or proximate sensory-capable bodies, or proximate sapience–whatever it may be–some feature related to that which implicate specific entities as morally live, as opposed to those lacking this quality that renders its absence adiaphoric, yielding morally inert entities. The qualities themselves are reflected in moral behavior among many animals, and so there exists some potential to probe empirically exactly what sort of cognitive features seem coincident with moral-tracking behavior; which ones are better candidates for being a necessity for a metaphysically real moral relationship to obtain between two or more entities, and what the relevant contingencies and capacities are which give rise to certain dimensions of what we describe as moral behavior among both humans and these other conscious animals.

  • PD

    The list is partial and given casually. Even so, ‘moral principles’ needn’t be universal. I’m not sure divine decrees are universal by definition either. The God of the Old Testament seems to give all sorts of orders to the Israelites which are specific to contingent situations ( if memory serves, at least). But the main point is that I simply rattled off a few examples without meaning to imply that any mind-independent reals are restricted to universals or necessary statements. That is not the case, nor do I think it to be the case. If the chair I’m sitting on is an objective (mind-independent) real it is nevertheless an individual/particular entity and not a universal category.

  • Fair enough, sorry I read too much into the list.

  • I’m not sure that I consider moral truths to be in the same field of sense as things like gravity and household objects. I’ve been trying to make clear that I don’t think morality is objective in that universal, mind-independent way. (What does it even mean to talk about morality without minds and intentions?) Look at it like language, where we can say that someone is objectively wrong to use English words to mean something they don’t. We’re not saying that the meanings of words exist in some nether region beyond human consciousness; we’re simply saying that in the social context of the way we use language, certain uses aren’t conducive to communication.

    My problem with Alex’s morality-is-entirely-subjective attitude, as I’ve said, is that it refuses to consider even genocide morally wrong except in the sense that it offends our sensibilities. In another response to you here, I gave a lot of reasons why we would consider genocide wrong: Whether we consider the physical, social, and cultural damage that genocide causes; or we say that no civilization has ever considered genocide a good thing; or use the example of any reasonable person, and conclude that he or she would have no reason to consider genocide permissible; or say that there’s no context in which we consider the deliberate slaughter of an entire population justifiable, there are plenty of grounds for considering genocide objectively wrong. Why exactly are these inadequate to the task?

    This acknowledges that morality is a for-us-by-us system, and that moral precepts are ideas that exist in minds. It doesn’t claim that genocide is never deemed a useful tool by populations in times of war or upheaval. All it does is assert that it’s immoral, and that it’s not just a matter of personal taste. There may be contexts, after all, in which even killing an individual person is justifiable, such as self-defense; and there are historical events that may or may not qualify as genocide, like the USA’s treatment of the Native Americans. But we need some sort of culturally constructed moral yardstick to gauge these acts, don’t we?

    I already admitted that mass murder of innocent people is an extreme example, but it illustrates a point: if we don’t have a system of moral reasoning that says that anything can be said to be wrong, then isn’t that a sign that there’s something lacking in our moral reasoning?

    Thanks to you and @3lemenope:disqus for the help on this. I appreciate your input.

  • PD

    I can’t speak for Alex as I didn’t watch all of his video. Also, I didn’t focus on the subjectivism/objectivism dichotomy. I know you begin with social constructivism, so I emphasized instead some relevant differences between *conventional wisdom/knowledge* (socially constructed) on the one hand and truths or facts on the other (which for the non-skeptic involve truth-warrants beyond local conventions/understandings). I don’t know what I can add to my earlier comments to make the distinction clearer. It’s not a matter of subjective opinion or taste to say that in the US we must drive on the right side of the road. And you can rightly say it is an objective fact that we observe that rule here. We can say that (with very high confidence indeed) it’s observable and can be readily confirmed while not being disconfirmed, etc. The probability that all of this is illusion, error, is close to zero. Yes, in the US driving on the right side of the road is the correct way to do things.

    But traffic rules are just that… rules. Rules aren’t facts, even though it’s a fact that we play by certain rules. In England the road rule is different. In moral cases that would lead to problems I pointed out before. We live in a pluralistic society where people live by moral rules of diverse and often conflicting kinds ( e.g. premarital sex = wrong/right depending on upbringing/religious etc.). This leads to cultural relativism which is just what objectivists want to deny. Not subjectivism, but *cultural* relativism. Sure most of us feel that the moral convictions we hold are somehow true. But if what makes them true is convention, cultural influence, and other contextual factors, then we’re going to see clashing claims about the truth-status of different moral precepts. We do see it. I simply bite the bullet on this one. People sincerely believe different things about the good, bad, right and wrong largely due to their socialization. Often competing and incompatible moral prescriptions about how one should or should not behave end up in courts where they are decided. There’s simply no way to “test” the validity of a moral claim except relative to local standards that people argue about.

    As I said, I’m less interested in jargon than the main point. If you want to re-define “objective knowledge” to include “cultural understandings and conventional wisdom” fine. But the consequence of that definition will be that “objective knowledge is relative to culture and intersubjective agreement/consensus.” That’s not usually the meaning of objectivity, but definitions are ultimately arbitrary so you can redefine it as “objectivity 2” or something. What you can’t do, without a counter-argument, is deny that such a definition would seem to entail cultural relativism. If you’re okay with that, then I guess (give or take a few technical definitions) we’re on the same page.

    If we can agree on the above, the real question becomes how to deal with value pluralism in a crowded, diverse and often violent world. That’s something of great importance to me (and I posted a discussion on it here in case you are interested: https://disqus.com/home/discussion/channel-booksideas/getting_along_in_the_age_of_religious_and_ideological_pluralism/
    (The context in the OP is a discussion of secularism and religion today).

  • Anat

    Yahweh gives different sets of laws to different people. There is a small number of laws that apply to non-Israelites, a longer list of laws for Israelites, an even longer list of laws to those Israelites who are priests and so forth.

  • Anat

    I’m pretty sure many societies considered genocide a good thing as long as the ones being subjected to it were their rivals.

  • And I’m pretty sure that that doesn’t qualify as justification, it’s just rationalization.

  • Anat

    What is the difference?

  • Well, justification is a process by which you demonstrate that certain behavior is morally acceptable by appealing to ethical standards or moral precepts, speculating what a reasonable person would do in the same situation, or various other methods of establishing a moral framework for assessing the behavior.

    Rationalization is just handwaving away any qualms about the ethical status of one’s behavior by declaring that it doesn’t matter, for whatever reason is convenient.

  • KB

    Sorry to be so obtuse, but to spell it out for me then, your definition of objective is “not subject to personal opinion, but IS subject to societal and/or collective and/or cultural opinion (or values)?” That is, the difference between objective and subjective is not in the type of information but in the scale of the holding of such information? I’m not trying to be cheeky. Just trying to understand the language.

    I can’t say I have ever used objective in that way myself, but I wouldn’t say using objective in the way I have been (as a synonym for universal) is a religious definition though. In the world of science it is often used in that way. I’ve got very little experience in the realm of philosophy, on the other hand, so is that definition specific to that realm? It’s okay to have different definitions for different words in different fields (no chemist thinks something is okay to ingest just because it is organic) but perhaps that is where this difficulty here lies? The layman’s definition of objective versus the philosopher’s definition?

  • Anat

    I think Sam Harris’ argument for objective morality is that in a given specific situation, there is often one choice of behavior that is likely to be the most beneficial and it should be (at least in principle) possible to find out what it is. The main limitation I find for this kind of thinking is that the same action can have a beneficial outcome in the short term and a harmful one in the long term (and then maybe a more beneficial one in the even longer term, etc) making this kind of analysis eventually break down. Also, if the same action harms some and benefits others, not all are going to agree on how to balance those. So I’m not sure this specific conception of objective morality is particularly useful.

  • Espousing a moral perspective in which you can’t even condemn genocide or the torture of children

    Is this Alex’s view?

    And can I ask a meta question? Reading this post feels like jumping into the middle of an ongoing conversation. Is one video of Alex’s so bad that it makes you this annoyed, or is this just the latest in a string of annoying videos of his?

    By curious fate, I listened to Alex’s “Morality Can’t Be Objective, Even If God Exists (Morality p.1)” video shortly before coming across this post, and I thought it was useful and intriguing. Am I missing something? Does that video bother you as much as the one you critique here (“Sam Harris is wrong about morality”)?

  • Hello, Bob!

    Alex has been making videos for years now, and he has said quite a few times that morality is “entirely subjective.” The quote above is from this video where he appears on an Australian radio show to debate fundie Frank Turek. At 26:29 in the video, he says this:

    So when you say something along the lines of, “Oh, so morality is subjective? So what Hitler did being wrong is just an opinion?” Well, yes. But in the same sense that chocolate tasting as good as tar is just an opinion. It doesn’t make a difference.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5a3MxIqZOs

    I couldn’t disagree more strongly with this. You can watch the video and make sure I haven’t quoted him out of context, but is that statement something you’d agree with? That our disapproval of genocide is just like a preference for chocolate?

    Like I said in the OP, Alex is falling for a false dilemma where either morality is God-given, eternal and universal, or it’s totally a matter of personal opinion. He’s equivocating on the term objective, too: he’s making it seem like for morality to be objective, moral “facts” would have to be true in the same mind-independent way as we conceptualize things like the Moon orbiting the Earth. But it’s absurd to define morality without humans, minds, and intentions. I look at it in the same way I look at human language: it’s a human invention and there’s nothing universal and unchanging about it, but we can say that people can be objectively wrong about the definitions of words.

    Alex is missing the social nature of morality, and the way we justify our decisions about morality with reference to real-world things like harm, rights, and moral precepts. It’s not “entirely subjective” at all.

  • Anat

    But sometimes what appears to be a moral argument is made in favor of a particular act of genocide – ‘it is a good thing to kill those people because they engage in X practice’ ‘they are a bad influence’ ‘they stand in the way of the great things we could be doing’ and so forth. Regardless of whether it is a good argument, it isn’t being left at ‘because we want to and we can’.

  • You appear to be saying that literally anything serves as a justification. By your logic I could say that a guy telling himself “It’s dark, I’m horny and I’ll probably never get caught” justifies an act of rape in the same sense as appealing to principles like harm, consent, and bodily autonomy justifies our considering rape morally wrong.

  • My saying “I like chocolate” and the president saying, “I think we should declare war” are both opinions, but if there needs to be a sharper distinction, that’s simply a failing of English. They’re still subjective.

    I suspect that part of the problem may be in the definition of “objective morality.” I see no evidence for objective morality in the Wm. Lane Craig sense (moral truths that are valid and binding whether there’s any person here to appreciate them or not). Nevertheless, I’m quite happy to judge others’ moral opinions or actions, and I’m happy to try to impose my moral will on others (in rare cases, obviously).

    It’s not “entirely subjective” at all.

    Which makes me think that if you explained your position, he’d agree. You don’t think differing definitions are the problem?

  • Anat

    No. Many of the people committing genocide do apply moral principles – harm (though they value harm to their own group immensely more than harm to anyone else), and some form of deontological principle by which they determine the other group to be guilty of something terrible.

  • I asked whether you think our disapproval of genocide is just a mere opinion, like whether we like chocolate or not. That seems to be exactly what Alex is saying, and I couldn’t conceivably disagree more strongly. My blog post isn’t called, Objective, Universal Morality Exists, it’s entitled Morality Isn’t Subjective. I just think that ignoring the social nature of morality and justification is idiotic, and that’s what I explain in the post.

    Allow me to make an analogy to clarify my position. If someone said that your claim that the Earth orbits the Sun is just a subjective opinion, you’d have every right to point out that there are many things that ground your claim, such as your confidence in the consensus of astronomers and your affirmation of the coherence and validity of the heliocentric model of our solar system. It’s not just something that appeals to you like a certain ice cream flavor. That’s what I’m talking about in reference to moral precepts and justification.

    I wonder if the problem is that the 21st-century atheist can only name one living philosopher, the execrable William Lane Craig. If people had a more informed understanding of moral philosophy, they probably wouldn’t get bamboozled by such crude rhetoric. Druthers, huh, Bob?

  • I asked whether you think our disapproval of genocide is just a mere opinion, like whether we like chocolate or not.

    Yes, I do. What do you propose that’s stronger than “opinion”?

    My blog post isn’t called, Objective, Universal Morality Exists, it’s entitled Morality Isn’t Subjective.

    I wonder if we agree on “subjective.”

    Curiously, my approach is the opposite. I say that my morality isn’t objective because I see no evidence of objective morality. (Here again, we may not be sharing definitions.)

    Allow me to make an analogy to clarify my position. If someone said that your claim that the Earth orbits the Sun is just a subjective opinion

    I’m focused on the domain of morality. Yes, I see objectively true facts in other areas. 1 + 1 = 2, for example.

  • I asked whether you think our disapproval of genocide is just a mere opinion, like whether we like chocolate or not.
    Yes, I do. What do you propose that’s stronger than “opinion”?

    Well, as I keep proposing, that our disapproval of genocide can be expressed as a function of an acknowledgment of the damage that genocide does to humans and society; that no human moral code ever decreed that wanton slaughter was a good thing; that no reasonable human would consider the extermination of humans en masse to be permissible; or various other methods by which we could establish that genocide cannot be justified in any moral framework.

    I see objectively true facts in other areas. 1 + 1 = 2, for example.

    Fine. Maths is a for-us-by-us system too, something that wouldn’t exist if humans didn’t. Just as we can say that the idea that 1+1=3 is objectively wrong, we can say that genocide is objectively wrong too.

  • Many of the people committing genocide do apply moral principles

    Except they don’t.

    I stand by my claim: you appear to be making the case that literally any self-serving rationalization qualifies as a rigorous process of justification. According to your logic, there’s no conceivable act that couldn’t be justified and therefore morality is meaningless. I’m afraid that’s not really helpful input in this discussion.

    Please make a better effort to argue in good faith here.

  • Anat

    Many people base their moral thinking on principles that are not part of your moral thinking. Things like ‘avoiding icky things/behaviors/people’, or ‘following the (latest version of the) rules of my source of authority’. This is how real people think about ‘is this behavior a good thing or a bad thing’. And yes, under all possible circumstances they will end up justifying anything, if their source of authority does, though probably not all things at the same time.

  • sounds like Anat is talking about principles and you’re talking about morality.

    close, but not precisely the same thing.

    as for me, i regard “morals” with the same suspicion that i regard “unbiased” and even “objective”

    some people will find the death penalty for say, sexual predators who target children moral

    some won’t.

    both can be “justified” using logos.

    so can i ask you some questions about this?

    a) would you agree that contested concepts like this exist throughout morality and moral conceptions?

    b) is it correct to assume that you’re applying the term “objective” regardless of these differences?

    c) if b, then at what point does it become “subjective” – is it a function of how many people within a community differ and on how much?

  • Well, as I keep proposing, that our disapproval of genocide can be expressed as a function of an acknowledgment of the damage that genocide does to humans and society; that no human moral code ever decreed that wanton slaughter was a good thing; that no reasonable human would consider the extermination of humans en masse to be permissible; or various other methods by which we could establish that genocide cannot be justified in any moral framework.

    Did the Mongols say that wanton slaughter was a good thing? Probably. Yahweh said that it was. (Assuming the slaughter was of the other guy.)

    But if we want to go where you’re pointing, that only shows that “genocide is bad” is a very widely accepted moral principle. “Widely accepted” = “objective” is not the typical definition of “objective.”

    “I see objectively true facts in other areas. 1 + 1 = 2, for example.”
    Fine. Maths is a for-us-by-us system too, something that wouldn’t exist if humans didn’t.

    Yes and no. If there were no humans, the numeral 1 wouldn’t exist with that meaning. But one plus one would still equal two.

    If you’ve read Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, you might remember the gravity problem (a variant of the Transcendental Argument). The solution is that, before Isaac Newton, there was no Newton’s Law of Gravitation. Nevertheless, it was still the case that F = Gm1m2/r**2.

    Before humans there was no November or ten o’clock. And so on.

    Just as we can say that the idea that 1+1=3 is objectively wrong, we can say that genocide is objectively wrong too.

    Sure, depending on how we define “objectively.”

  • Did the Mongols say that wanton slaughter was a good thing? Probably. Yahweh said that it was. (Assuming the slaughter was of the other guy.)

    I’m not denying that people have committed genocide, and rationalized it afterward. But you’re using that fact as if such a post-hoc rationalization is indistinguishable from a sincere attempt to arrive at grounds for justifying or condemning an act according to various methods of establishing a moral framework for human activity. Do-unto-others-as-long-as-you-can-get-away-with-it seems like exactly the opposite of moral decision making, doesn’t it?

    But if we want to go where you’re pointing, that only shows that “genocide is bad” is a very widely accepted moral principle. “Widely accepted” = “objective” is not the typical definition of “objective.”

    I also mentioned that we could say that the damage that genocide does to humans and societies is grounds for condemning it. We’re not just talking about things that are only ideas in people’s heads or their personal opinions. Aren’t human suffering and social upheaval real things, part of objective reality?

    If there were no humans, the numeral 1 wouldn’t exist with that meaning. But one plus one would still equal two.

    [B]efore Isaac Newton, there was no Newton’s Law of Gravitation. Nevertheless, it was still the case that F = Gm1m2/r**2.

    Not exactly what you’d call testable predictions there. You’re asserting that the ways we’ve found useful to conceptualize things exists in some mind-independent way, and I don’t see why that should be true.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying reality wouldn’t exist if we weren’t here to experience it. What I’m saying is that we come up with concepts, constructs, and even equations that we find useful in explaining experimental results; asserting that these things exist independently of the human perspective that invented them is sort if like asserting that that exact equation was just sitting out there waiting for us to discover it. That’s just not the way I conceptualize empirical inquiry.

  • But you’re using that fact as if such a post-hoc rationalization is indistinguishable from a sincere attempt to arrive at grounds for justifying or condemning an act according to various methods of establishing a moral framework for human activity.

    I’ve read several books about Genghis Khan, and it seems to me that he was A-OK with genocide. Do you know otherwise? I see no post-hoc rationalization, “Well, that was rather a sucky thing to do, but . . . but if we hadn’t taken their stuff, someone else would’ve! Yeah, that’s it—they were so weak that it was basically ours to take.” He was a savage bastard (from our perspective), but his actions made sense in his culture.

    I believe the Apaches had no problem with stealing stuff (said another way: they wouldn’t have thought it “stealing” if “stealing” is a bad thing). And I’ve read that the Maasai consider all cattle to be theirs, so if they “take” your cows, they’re simply correcting an imbalance.

    Do-unto-others-as-long-as-you-can-get-away-with-it seems like exactly the opposite of moral decision making, doesn’t it?

    Aren’t “morals” the rules that we impose on actions with other beings? “Take their stuff” is just a moral rule that you and I find repugnant. That’s one opinion, but there are obviously others.

    A human society has one set of rules (more or less), and a Romulan society has a different set. We’d find many Romulan rules repugnant, but that’s hardly surprising since they’re not our rules.

    I also mentioned that we could say that the damage that genocide does to humans and societies is grounds for condemning it.

    Sure, go ahead and do so. I’m with you. But that doesn’t make it objective in my book. Here again, we could write a bunch of words and, for our conversation, agree that that’s what “objective morality” means. That’s fine with me. But if we want to use an established definition, suggest one.

    We’re not just talking about things that are only ideas in people’s heads or their personal opinions.

    We’re not?

    Aren’t human suffering and social upheaval real things, part of objective reality?

    “Stealing is wrong” is a moral claim. I don’t see how it’s an objectively true moral claim. If we all agreed, that would only make it a “universally agreed-to moral claim.” If we all felt that stealing was repugnant, that would only make it a “viscerally felt moral claim.”

    If a moral claim is objectively true, we should probably first agree on the definition.

    Not exactly what you’d call testable predictions there.

    It sounds true on its face to me. Perhaps we’re using different definitions?

    You’re asserting that the ways we’ve found useful to conceptualize things exists in some mind-independent way, and I don’t see why that should be true.

    You’ve lost me. Aren’t you making my argument?

  • Bob, I’ve made a sincere and rigorous effort to lay out my case here, but I seem to be banging my head against a wall. You’ve certainly taken a lesson or two from the William Lane Craig school of debating, where you ignore everything your opponent says and then assert that you’ve heard nothing of any substance.

    I’ve said over and over that morality can’t be subjective, just based on personal preference, because our claims about things being right and wrong appeal to moral precepts and explain how our actions fit into a moral framework. They don’t just claim we dislike genocide or rape on some completely arbitrary grounds, the same way we can say we dislike spearmint. Yet you offer Genghis Khan as if his barbarism constitutes some ineluctable conclusion of moral decision-making, even after I’ve pointed out that such barbarism seems like the exact opposite of ethical reasoning.

    I’ve said over and over and over and over and over that Alex and you are equivocating on the meaning of objective, trying to judge socially-constructed phenomena on the standard of scientific data points. You deny the social construction of meaning and value, and just assume that since it isn’t God-given (and it isn’t), then it can’t be anything other than pure personal opinion. I’ve tried to emphasize that the glaringly obvious cultural character of morality is exactly why it can’t be said to be “entirely subjective,” any more than the border between Massachusetts and Connecticut or the meaning of the word “circle” is entirely subjective. Yet you keep asserting that morality has to be as eternally and universally true as the Moon orbiting the Earth or else it’s just blah blah blah.

    I guess morality isn’t sciencey enough for you. Oh well.

  • TinnyWhistler

    Personally, I don’t see the difference in substituting in “Science’s objective Truth” for “God’s objective Truth” when it comes to the embrace or avoidance of blind dogma and I’d argue that’s where scientism breaks down. Everything’s a little squishy; doesn’t mean that there aren’t different levels of squishiness. Think desk chair seat vs clay. Idk, I don’t metaphor good.

  • Lark62

    Food for thought. I just finished The Great Courses course on The Story of Human Language. (Which I recommend)

    All human beings and human cultures have language. All human languages have grammar. And in each language, there is the capacity for improper grammar. Some sentences are wrong. Some uses of words are wrong.

    And society judges the misuse of grammar.

    Yet the “errors” in one language might be proper grammar in a different language. There is no one universal grammar. There is simply no single thing that is true in every language. Yet every language has grammar.

    I see “objective morality” the same way. Some things are wrong in our culture, and in all cultures similar to ours. But other cultures with very different moral structures have different ideas of what is moral. Biblical genocide, owning sex slaves and selling daughters to rapists come to mind. There is simply no moral absolute across all human cultures.

    As just as language changes, so does morality. I bought my teen a pizza recently and he called me a goat. It turns out GOAT = “Greatest of All Time” and is a high compliment. Who knew?

    Would love your thoughts in this sometime.

  • even after I’ve pointed out that such barbarism seems like the exact opposite of ethical reasoning.

    Genghis Khan’s barbarism seems unethical to you … so therefore it’s objectively wrong?

    equivocating on the meaning of objective,

    Then define “objective.” Furthermore, you can say that, for our conversation, that’s the definition we’ll be using. If you’ve done so, I missed it. Based on what you’ve said, I suspect that I’d agree with it.

  • Lark62

    There have been human cultures that approved of genocide. Case in point, the treatment of Native Americans in United States in the 19th Century. Does “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” come to mind?

    Hitler modelled some of his policies on American Jim Crow laws and our treatment of Native Americans. According to the morality of Nazi Germany, genocide was necessary and good.

    The fact that our culture does not approve of genocide (yet*), simply does not make “genocide = bad” a moral absolute in all times and places. (The rhetoric coming from some camps is frightening.)

  • According to the morality of Nazi Germany, genocide was necessary and good.

    Oh, come now. By your logic, even the rapist’s idea that “It’s dark, I’m horny, and I’ll probably never get caught” constitutes rigorous ethical reasoning in the same way as our appeal to principles like harm, consent, and bodily sovereignty do.

    The fact that our culture does not approve of genocide (yet*), simply does not make “genocide = bad” a moral absolute in all times and places. (The rhetoric coming from some camps is frightening.)

    As the title implies and as I’ve been trying to make clear throughout this discussion, all I’m disputing is that morality is “entirely subjective.”

    I never said that morality is or should be the same in all times and places. “Objective morality” isn’t the same as the “objective truth” that the Moon orbits the Earth. All it means is that it’s not a matter of personal opinion or taste.

  • Genghis Khan’s barbarism seems unethical to you … so therefore it’s objectively wrong?

    Um, I’ve already explained several times what forms the basis of my considering genocide wrong. Will explaining it again make any difference? Well, here goes:

    Our disapproval of genocide can be expressed as a function of an acknowledgment of the damage that genocide does to humans and society; that no human moral code ever decreed that wanton slaughter was a good thing; that no reasonable human would consider the extermination of humans en masse to be permissible; or various other methods by which we could establish that genocide cannot be justified in any moral framework.

    In other words, it’s not like barbarism just strikes me as something unlikeable, like a whiff of something rotten. It’s not subjective. Societies and bodies like the UN condemn genocide through the realization that causing the innocent to suffer en masse can be characterized as wrong because there’s no moral framework in which it wouldn’t be abhorrent. If the cultural construction of meaning, value, and morality is too complicated to engage with, that’s too bad.

    Then define “objective.” Furthermore, you can say that, for our conversation, that’s the definition we’ll be using.

    Like I said before, I’m only disputing that morality is “entirely subjective.” I think I’ve shown that it’s about a lot more than individual taste.

    Objective just means that it’s not a matter of personal opinion or taste. Why can’t culturally constructed concepts be objective? If we would call someone objectively wrong if he said that 1+1=3, or that the word “circle” is a synonym for “soft,” then I don’t see why we couldn’t say someone is objectively wrong for thinking that genocide is permissible.

  • Lark62

    In this context, I see mortality as belonging to the culture. Individuals may or may not conform to the morality of the culture.

    So if it was widely accepted that men could have sex with any woman they wanted without bothering about consent, then that would be the morality of that culture. I personally would not want to live in that culture, but that view is fairly common throughout history.

    The morality of the culture can change over time, and that causes angst. It is not acceptable today to ask a woman to walk across the room as part of a job interview. But many men operating under 1950 mores are confused. What’s wrong with telling a coworker she has a nice rack?

    Morality changes via slow drift. Usually, one person cannot effect change.

  • I totally agree. Society, language, culture, morality and knowledge are all in flux.

  • 3vil5triker .

    The way I see it is that we can reach moral conclusions in an objective manner, but that presupposes a moral framework that is, by the mere nature of a constantly evolving human culture and being grounded in a human perspective, subjective.

  • “Can morality really be just a matter of opinion?”

    Consider this from a baptist Trump supporter commenting a day or two ago: “Well, I guess because it came down to, in November of 2016, a binary choice. And I don’t know in what moral universe anybody could argue that Hillary Clinton is more moral than Donald Trump.” https://www.npr.org/2018/08/29/642871570/trump-hosts-white-house-dinner-for-evangelical-supporters

    That sounds awfully subjective. Maybe not 100%, but pretty close.

    Of course, that assumes that one’s opinion can accurately reflect one’s morality. Is that a different question? Maybe. Maybe not.

    Anyway, it seems reasonable for the open-minded to assume opinion can accurately reflect personal morality, for the most part, may be completely.

    “The big problem with Alex’s approach to moral philosophy is that he doesn’t realize—hell, he explicitly denies—that morality is a social phenomenon.”

    Reasonable minds will differ, but it seems that Alex is mostly wrong. Morality is a social phenomenon to a significant extent, arguably mostly: “I do not myself believe that many people do things because they think they are the right thing to do . . . . I do not think that knowledge of what is morally right is motivational in any serious sense for anyone except a handful of saints.” — federal court judge Richard Posner commenting on the power of social context to bend or break personal morals – https://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3166&context=penn_law_review

    At least the saints are on Alex’s side. Maybe. Does that confer morality on him or the saints? How many people are saints? What is saint moral weight compared to non-saint, 1 gazillion to one, 1 to 1, something else, e.g., is it context-sensitive?

  • Um, I’ve already explained several times what forms the basis of my considering genocide wrong. Will explaining it again make any difference?

    Why you consider genocide wrong isn’t interesting. The question on the table is, do objectively true moral truths exist?

    “Then define “objective.” Furthermore, you can say that, for our conversation, that’s the definition we’ll be using.”

    Like I said before, I’m only disputing that morality is “entirely subjective.”

    And like I said before, I’m only disputing that morality is ever objective. I’m not saying that I can prove that it’s never objective; I’m saying that I’ve seen no evidence that such a thing as objective moral truth exists.

    If we would call someone objectively wrong if he said that 1+1=3, or that the word “circle” is a synonym for “soft,” then I don’t see why we couldn’t say someone is objectively wrong for thinking that genocide is permissible.

    Saying, “Hey, there are objective truths in math and reality, surely there are objective truths in morality, too?” doesn’t work. Maybe there are objective moral truth. I’m simply asking (over and over) for evidence of such a thing.

    To repeat myself, but in the interest of clarity, I’m saying that universally held moral beliefs or viscerally felt moral beliefs obviously do exist. We shouldn’t confuse those with objective moral truth.

  • Sure, different cultures have different moral beliefs. On the other hand, we find a lot of overlap. If we approach this from a sci-fi standpoint, Romulans or Klingons would have different beliefs. Since they’re not the same species, it’s not surprising that the Venn diagram shows less overlap with typical human morality.

    I’ll repeat a point that did nothing for our host. Maybe it’ll help our conversation. Gravity has existed forever, but Newton’s Law of Gravity didn’t exist before Isaac Newton. Time has existed forever, but there was no November before humans. Of course, there was a 30-day period midway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, but that being “November” had to wait for humans. Ditto “ten o’clock” or “dinner time.”

    I see morality that way. I see shared moral values but not objective moral truths that would’ve been true a billion years ago, before humans.

    I hope this is relevant to your question.

  • Well, Bob, after asking me to define “objective” in terms of morality so we can use that definition, I told you that objective merely means that the ways our culture defines moral precepts aren’t dependent on personal opinion or taste.

    And now you’re back to using your definition of “objective,” which is that morals have to have the same scientifically objective and indisputable existence as planets and glaciers, and you’re waiting for empirical evidence in the form of confirmed sightings of “objectively true moral truths.”

    I think I’ve learned a valuable lesson here.

  • Ditto. Thanks for the chat.

  • Lark62

    Yes, we agree. Morality is a human creation, like language. There are commonalities and trends between languages, but no overriding absolute that crosses all human groups, or that exists without humans.

  • Whenever someone says that objective morality exists (not quite Shem’s position, apparently), I want an example. What I get back is either some sort of change of subject or an example that is widely accepted or viscerally felt. That’s not objective morality.

  • That sounds awfully subjective. Maybe not 100%, but pretty close.

    To me, it sounds like the exact opposite. If he can’t imagine a moral framework in which voting for Clinton would have been permissible, he’s not saying it’s just a matter of opinion, is he?

  • I, on the other hand, find it comically immature to expect that “objective moral truths” could have “been true a billion years ago, before humans.” It’s like saying that if Massachusetts didn’t exist a billion years ago, then the whole concept of Massachusetts is just individual opinion. I don’t think that the way humans conceptualize reality existed before humans did, and I don’t think “overriding absolutes” exist in any form. If Scripturebots and Sciencebots are so afraid of ambiguity that they have to invent absurd and unwieldy metanarratives to justify their perspectives, that just ain’t my problem.

  • Yes, Bob, we’re all familiar with the Lacka Ebbidence Ploy, the first, middle and last resort of the conspiracist and crackpot. The matter of morality is philosophical and isn’t evidence-based. However, I tried my best to provide valid reasoning to back up my position, to no apparent avail whatsoever.

    Demanding “evidence,” even for matters that aren’t evidential, that you then dismiss as not constituting evidence at all isn’t the best way to show how well equipped you are for honest and respectful dialogue.

  • How are moral frameworks “subjective”? They seem a lot more socially-constructed, since they’re based on cultural notions of things like duties, responsibilities, and the common good.

  • Hm. Not sure I understand that. Is there a rhetorical or logic disconnect here?

    One can see morality as mostly subjective and variable with social context. That’s Posner’s argument, based on direct observation of people. The baptist arguably is arguing morality is more objective than subjective, maybe 100% objective. If that is true, presumably that is based on his religious and/or personal beliefs that morals are like that. However, that is his personal belief from his point of view.

    It is easy to find lots of people who can’t imagine a moral framework in which voting for Trump would have been permissible. From a broader (‘neutral’) point of view, one can envision people who see both beliefs as right or both as wrong. If objective morals can lead to directly opposing conclusions or assessments of something as moral or immoral, where is the objectivity in that?

    Some folks who argue that morality is objective qualify morals as meaning beliefs that, e.g., “we all recognise as right behaviour – that which we call ‘good’.” https://philosophynow.org/issues/115/Is_Morality_Objective . If that is the criteria for moral objectivity, there are few or no morals. For example, some adults believe that pedophilia, rape, unprovoked war in the name of nationalism (or God or some other high moral source/value), or cheating on taxes is good and should be legal.

    Of course, some people flat out argue that morals are subjective, or mostly so. That’s Posner’s argument — social context influences morals, including sometimes making them go completely away.

    Am I missing something here? Seems so.

  • 3vil5triker .

    Different cultures are, you know, different. They have different notions of things like duties, responsibilities and the common good.

  • That’s all true. But that’s different from “subjective,” which means “based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.”
    Cultures develop languages and codes of behavior. It’s not just the tastes of each individual person.

  • I don’t think you’re missing anything. The idea of universal, unchanging, and eternal morals doesn’t make sense to me either. Obviously morals vary in different cultures and in different eras.

    But I’m still at a loss to understand why the social nature, or the cultural context, of morality makes it “subjective.” We don’t simply think things are right or wrong in the same way we think chocolate tastes good; bad behavior doesn’t just offend us in some aesthetic way. Society gives us ways to contextualize behavior according to moral precepts. It can’t conceivably be “entirely subjective.”

  • OK. Thanks for the input.

  • 3vil5triker .

    Here’s what I think you’re missing: that feelings, tastes and opinions are also products of those same social-constructs. But just because they are individual doesn’t mean they are arbitrary or exclusive. And just because they are the result of a shared environment and experiences doesn’t make them any less personal.

    We’re not robots produced off an assembly line. Even if you don’t believe in ultimate free will, so many variables go into the construction of our moral framework that it results in a seemingly endless amount of permutations.

    Yes, the culture you’re immersed in plays a large part, but its not the only one. Your personal experiences also count. The interactions you have with other people. The ideas you’re exposed to. The things you value. The way you want to be perceived by your peers. The way you perceive yourself. The way you want to perceive yourself.

    Common elements in our environment and our shared humanity can bring about similar elements in our moral frameworks, but ultimately, they are both in their construction and application, a personal endeavor, and thus, subjective.

  • Here’s what I think you’re missing: that feelings, tastes and opinions are also products of those same social-constructs.

    I’m not sure they are, though. The way we express them in language is socially constructed, but our individual feelings themselves aren’t.

    But just because they are individual doesn’t mean they are arbitrary or exclusive. And just because they are the result of a shared environment and experiences doesn’t make them any less personal.

    Well, I’d say that’s what subjective means: arbitrary. We don’t need to express our likes and dislikes in any social framework except our own personal tastes. That’s a lot different than justifying our moral outlook according to pre-existing codes and mores.

    Yes, the culture you’re immersed in plays a large part, but its not the only one. Your personal experiences also count.

    Okay. In terms of individual moral decision-making, I agree that the moral agent is applying ethical precepts and notions in a way that makes sense to her experience. And the decision whether to act morally, of course, is up to the individual.

    Common elements in our environment and our shared humanity can bring about similar elements in our moral frameworks, but ultimately, they are both in their construction and application, a personal endeavor, and thus, subjective.

    I already said I agreed with you that in the application of moral precepts there’s a subjective element. But I still find it preposterous to declare that morality is entirely subjective, purely a matter of personal taste. The way we define and develop morality is social and cultural through and through. At times you seem to acknowledge that, but then you come back to saying morality is ultimately subjective, which sounds like a complete contradiction to me.

  • 3vil5triker .

    There is an objective way to determine how closely I’m following the rules but the rules themselves are subjective, because they are my rules. They are centered upon me; they are grounded on my perspective, my experience, my values.

    You defined subjective as: “based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.” Where does it say that those feelings, tastes and opinions are arbitrary? Or unique to a specific individual? I think you’re conflating “subjective” with “random” or “whimsical”.

    The way we define and develop morality is social and cultural through and through. At times you seem to acknowledge that, but then you come back to saying morality is ultimately subjective, which sounds like a complete contradiction to me.

    I can grant that the process through which morality is defined and developed is consistent, but the results of that process are not, simply because the input that goes into each process, that is, the particular social and cultural norms of any given society, are different.

    However, I don’t see how we can call the resulting moral frameworks “objective” when each one is the reflection and actualization of a particular perspective.

  • You’re falling for the exact same objective-subjective false dilemma that so many others have here.

    As Rorty explained in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, we define this dichotomy in several ways, and switch definitions for rhetorical advantage when necessary. “Objective” as far as morality is concerned can’t be defined as universal and unchanging, like descriptions of the solar system. It has to be defined as “representing the consensus of rational agents through discussion without the introduction of irrelevant factors.”

    Similarly, we use “subjective” as if it means “associated with any human input whatsoever.” What it really should describe, pace Rorty, is “taste rather than judgment,” a proposition that can’t meaningfully be called into question because it only deals with personal opinion.

    This false dilemma is at the root of every dispute on this discussion. People point out any exception to consensus even on noncontroversial issues like genocide as if it constitutes proof that morality can’t be considered objective, that moral statements have nothing to do with reality at all.

    (About the claim—not one that you made, I realize—that morality can’t be objective unless we have “evidence” that it was floating around in the ether billions of years ago before humans existed, the less said the better.)

    I’ve tried without apparent avail to define morality as a social endeavor that’s mediated by cultural constructs and linguistic processing. Whether that’s “objective” or not is not what I meant to discuss, and I don’t think it matters whether we can conclude anything on that matter. All I meant to point out is that morality is a lot more than personal taste.

  • PD

    Why do you define/understand subjective states as pertaining only to matters of taste? That seems a bit arbitrary to me. I certainly agree that morality can’t be reduced to matters of taste, but I would want to say that morality is sometimes ineluctably subjective in the sense that Kierkegaard and Sartre highlight, viz. having to do with personal convictions and decisions that nobody but the subject can have and make. So, the classic example that always comes to my mind is the situation Sartre describes in which an individual living during WW2 wants to know whether he should join the resistance and fight for his nation’s liberty, or stay at home to care for his ailing mother. He seeks the help of a philosopher. But nobody can tell him which of the 2 to prioritize ethically. Neither of them is a matter of taste, both can be recognized as “goods” within society. But when they come into conflict there is no consensus or social code that tells individuals which is more important. In this sense, subjects are forced to make decisions that transcend conventions and internalized norms since the latter do not prescribe *particular* decisions in unanticipated contexts when different morally desirable courses of action come into conflict.

    Again, the fact that fighting to save the liberty of your nation or to try to nurse your family members to health are both understood as good in our society does not tell us what to do when we can’t do both these things but must pick– “either-or.” At such junctures, people may search their souls deeply or consult the local psychic– the latter being a desperate attempt to transfer responsibility to someone else. But such “bad faith” is transparent as we’re responsible for avoiding the decision which IS a decision of its own. This is one type of ethical subjectivism as articulated by existentialists. It seems that there’s more than ‘taste’ involved in these cases, but it also seems appropriate to say that these are ‘subjective’ judgment calls that individuals must ultimately make alone.

  • 3vil5triker .

    Its not that I’m having a false dilemma, its that we’re apparently having entirely different conversations.

    You’re talking about morality from a framework that uses specific terminology within a particular context. I’m just making a superficial observation regarding different aspects of the construction and application of moral frameworks and how they relate to objectivity and subjectivity in the broader sense.

    But to answer your original question from the blog post, I don’t think there is anything wrong with talking about morality in terms of a objective-subjective divide; I mean we can talk about different things at varying levels of depth. However, I think it is an oversimplification to say that it is entirely one thing or another.

  • It is complicated. In a given cultural context or point of view, morals and morality arguably are more ‘objective’ than when they are looked at from two or more culture contexts or points of view. In the US, there arguably are multiple POVs or contexts, e.g., conservative, liberal, male, female, employer, employee, democrat, republican, etc. On a given issue, those POVs sometimes overlap a little, some or a lot.

    Another problem that shoots through all of this is the curse of essentially contested concepts. Maybe by carefully defining ‘subjective’ for morality, some of the confusion can be cleared up. In my mind, morality is mostly subjective because it varies so much with both social context and with personal beliefs. In the case of Posner, he sees morality from a federal judge POV and in court, faced with legal consequences for bad actions, morals just fly out the window. The limited court room experience I have had is the same — morals walk and defense attorney arguments talk. The legal context is all out war. IMHO, in war there’s generally not much room for morals. Evidence from social science of politics seems to be similar, but less stark and less complete. Politics and political rhetoric is shot through with personal moral content, much of which is understood by the tribe, group or party members, while less (little?) of which is understood by most members of the opposition. That’s a big part of why opposed sides in politics tend to talk past each other.

  • Nice to see you again!

    I certainly don’t mean to downplay the individual’s responsibility in ethical decision making. You’re right, and I already agreed with 3vil5triker on this point, that the decision whether or not to act morally, or how to apply moral precepts to a situation, is highly subjective.

    But let’s remember that this isn’t the way Cosmic Skeptic is defining “subjective.” He’s quite literally saying that moral decision making is no different than a taste for chocolate. He never acknowledges, not even once, the culturally constructed nature of morality or the social phenomenon of justification. To his way of thinking, if there’s any human input in the process at all, then it’s totally arbitrary.

    I get that Alex is an atheist YouTuber and so he’s battling fundie conceptions of God-given, eternal and inviolable moral codes. But even in discussing Sam Harris’s naturalistic morality, Alex thinks he’s being ingenious by pointing out that morality isn’t “true” in the same way that the idea that the Earth orbits the Sun is true. He makes it sound like non-cognitivism is an escape hatch from the messy reality of culturally constructed morality, as if the fact that morality isn’t the same as science means that morality is just blah blah blah.

    And he’s not the only one peddling scientism around here. Did you notice my buddy below asking for “evidence” that morality was around billions of years ago, before there were even humans?

  • I’m only going by the definition of “subjective” that Cosmic Skeptic is using. He says quite plainly that morality is every bit as arbitrary as a preference for chocolate.

    I’m much more inclined to agree with you that there are subjective elements to morality, because the individual applies moral precepts in a way that makes sense to him or her and decides whether to act ethically in the first place. However, our moral reasoning takes place in cognitive, linguistic and cultural contexts that evolution and civilization have constructed for us. Therefore, to say as Alex does that it’s strictly about personal opinion is quite simply wrong.

  • I missed that bit about the other definition. My mistake. I agree with your assessment.

  • PD

    I see what you mean about Alex’s view. I watched most of his vid about 2 weeks ago, and forgot much of it. But just because he defines subjectivity that way doesn’t mean you have to accept his definitions. You could say ‘personal’ or ‘individual’ to capture these convictions and decisions I mention. But why should Alex get to define such a basic term as subjectivity for purposes of this discussion? Maybe one of his problems is the unwarranted view that the subjective realm is simply irrational, whimsical, passion-based and so on. That strikes me as an impoverished view of subjectivity.

    I have to add, though, that it’s a very common understanding of subjective/objective polarity in philosophy itself. Especially in ethics, subjectivity is associated with “mere opinion” (doxa) from Plato who pins the label on sophists. But the assumption for Plato was anything short of eternal, unchanging truths were consigned to the realm of doxa/opinion/mere subjectivity. Such views have never vanished, subjective experience just gets a bad rap. What it means is that we don’t (philosophers don’t) trust individual experience very much. Shame since that’s all we’ve got to go on in the end. Even my experience of other people, of scientific experiments or of reading lists of facts from a book are still *my experiences.* Doubt those and it’s back to Descartes wondering about an evil deceiver making him believe other people really exist and so on. It’s the lack of trust in experience that opens the door to extreme skepticism.

  • I’m happy to be the Neanderthal in the room, because it always seems to me that too much naval gazing, word-play and overintellectualized posturing is rarely helpful in the real business of people trying to live kindly, ethical lives that ease rather than disrupt our existence. I’m also very, very wary of ideas that seem to make the morality of ideas contingent on personal interpretations divorced from our collective responsibilities to each other if we hope to fairly get along. That’s what O’Connor does; he stipulates that all morality is “subjective,” which is another way of saying it is what we each say it is. Among other deficits, that’s nonsense. In a world full of people, as ours is at the moment, to even postulate anything based on our nonexistence is beyond unhelpful. It’s a purposeful distraction for intellectual entertainment and makes nothing better or clearer. Morality, in fact, is simple. It’s about what harms and helps the vast majority of reasonably normal folks. Punching someone in the face, for example (unless you’re a masochist or have some neurological issues), will be painful and wounding. Without a good reason, such as your having punched that person in the face for no good reason, the punching would be wrong. Immoral, in a word. So, when the Nazis decided to exterminate Jews who did them no personal harm, that was also immoral for the same reason. Unjust harm is the thing. O’Conner just likes to spin heads for sport. It’s an empty activity, and he’s far too young and sniffy to be right about much, anyway.

  • Kitsune Inari

    Given that morality is, by definition, an agreement of the rules a society wants to follow, would you count that as “objective” or “subjective”?

  • It counts as “culturally constructed,” just like things like language, currency, geographic borders, and other things society imposes on the individual without his or her consent. I’m only saying that it’s not subjective, not just a matter of individual taste; I’m not claiming that it’s universal, eternal, and God-given or anything.

    Don’t we say that someone is objectively wrong to use the word “red” to mean “circular”? Nobody’s claiming that words and language are universal and eternal, just that language use is a social construct that doesn’t depend on individual taste or opinion. That’s what I’m saying about morality too.

  • As you know, Rick, navel gazing, wordplay and overintellectualized posturing are my bread and butter! You’re in my ‘hood now.

    Morality may be simple, but moral philosophy is pretty complex. We’re dealing with logic and language here, and Alex isn’t putting in the effort. His assertion that moral statements don’t express truth claims is just conventional non-cognitivism. But he makes it seem like, just because normative statements aren’t expressing testable scientific propositions, they’re not really dealing with the world we share and so we may as well approach morality as if it’s just like opinions on ice cream flavors. I find something very cowardly and defeatist about that.

    Non-cognitivist philosophers trying to formulate consistent approaches to morality didn’t just throw up their hands like Alex does. They came up with coherent ways to describe what normative statements are really saying, and derived an ethical program from it. Alex is either not smart enough or not motivated enough to do so.

  • Better watch out I don’t get mugged by your ‘hood’s posse, eh? Truth be told, I’m impressed by the mental energy and intelligence you guys invest in your very complex arguments. And I actually often see your points. I think my problem is I’m more a cut-to-the-chase type of guy and feel like I’m wasting too much time if following tangents and not moving urgently toward real-time solutions. Plus, these complexities make my head hurt. I guess I’m not much of an intellectual. Also, my knowledge is pretty primitive regarding the stuff you guys ruminate over, and to be fair I should learn more about it and not be such a knee-jerk scoffer. I always enjoy your posts, Shem. I respect reasonable thinking well conveyed, even when its somewhat beyond my kin.

  • Kitsune Inari

    That sounds pretty reasonable.

  • Don’t worry, my “posse” couldn’t attack anything except brewpubs and book sales.

    There’s a time to scoff and a time to philosophize, I guess. Considering how successful your channel has been, it doesn’t look like you’re doing anything wrong.

    Thanks for contributing!

  • My kind of posse.

  • Priya Lynn

    What Alex doesn’t seem to have grasped yet is that in the universe black and white things are very uncommon compared to continuums. His is a crude look at morality and the universe so he’s left with nothing but a blunt object as a tool for deciding what’s right and wrong. While there is some subjectivity in human morality, we overwhelmingly agree on the basics like “its wrong to harm innocent people”. People commonly disagree on morality in things like whether its immoral to not be a vegetarian but overall there’s much more agreement on morality than disagreement and that’s why we have society.

    So, for me, morality is neither 100% objective or 100% subjective(like Alex thinks) but is something that is mostly objective, or useably objective. I am certain that every society can improve its moral objectivity by viewing “not harming innocent people” as the foundation of morality and the guideline upon which we decide specific cases.

  • So, for me, morality is neither 100% objective or 100% subjective(like Alex thinks) but is something that is mostly objective, or useably objective.

    Exactly. It’s as if Alex thinks that if a phenomenon involves any human input whatsoever, it’s “subjective.” Even my buddy Bob below makes it sound like if people disagree on morality, that makes the entire concept of ethical reasoning just a matter of opinion, like favorite ice cream flavors.

    As you say, black-and-white thinking is no substitute for thinking.