Subjective Morality

By Rowdy Otto Riemer

Many believe in objective morality. Even though many who do recognize gray areas, they generally believe there are certain actions that are objectively right and those that are objectively wrong. Some believe a god is the source of objective morality, and others believe there is a natural objective morality. But while objective means can be used to determine right and wrong when given a set of prioritized moral values, the values themselves are subjective. Therefore, morality, at its roots, is subjective.

Some believe their god provides an objective morality. In Steve Cardno’s essay, “The Creation Basis For Morality,” he makes the case that god is the ultimate moral authority. He states that “If there is no Creator who has made us and set the rules, then all our morals and ideas of what is right or wrong are simply subjective—what we ourselves decide.” What this statement explicitly states is correct, but what he seems to be implying with this statement and other statements in his essay - that if there is a creator who set the rules, then what is right and wrong is not subjective - is incorrect. God-based morality basically holds obedience to god as the highest value. Everything else is dependent upon and subordinate to god’s supposed will. However, this value rests upon the assumption that god is worthy of obedience. Such a judgement is subjective, and therefore, any god-based morality is still based on subjective values regardless of any god’s existence.

Some people believe there can be purely rational foundations for morality. Sam Harris, in his TED talk, “Science can answer moral questions” claims that science can be used as an objective basis for morality. He says “...the separation between science and human values is an illusion.” He’s right that science can be used to support human values, but this does not mean that human values are objective. He says “Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.” But he does not demonstrate how science shows that the well-being of conscious creatures has objective value.

Harris’s basic flaw is that he believes there is a common basis for all systems of morality. He says, “And there is no notion, no version of human morality and human values that I've ever come across that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.” This ignores the religious moralities which can be boiled down to obedience to god. For such systems of morality, concerns about conscious experience are secondary. Also, there is no consensus on whose well-being matters. People value the well-being of non-human animals and even various categories of humans to varying degrees. There is simply not enough consensus on what morality is to say what it can be reduced to, even if stipulating that it has to do with well-being.

We evolved to have moral instincts. Individuals who form cooperative groups often outcompete those who do not. Large groups tend to outcompete small groups. The size of a group is directly related to the degree to which its members can cooperate. Morality gives group members rules that allow for cohesion, and therefore increases the group’s reproductive success. Of course, human morality is not exclusively based on instinct. Moral concepts are heavily influenced by culture, rational thought, etc. This allows for moralities that are more flexible than what instinct alone can provide. But regardless of the degree to which our moralities are instinctual, the ultimate function of morality is to increase reproductive success.

One might think this ultimate function of morality provides a basis for objective morality, but this function only tells us why we have morality. Our adaptive brains allow us to grant our own purposes to whatever we want. Biology says our function is to reproduce, but we can grant whatever purpose we want to our own lives (within reason, of course). Likewise, we can grant whatever purposes we want to our moralities. Morality does not have to directly address reproductive success at all. And even if we held promoting reproductive success as our highest moral value, our morality would still be subjective. After all, reproductive success is meaningless unless to those who do not value it.

Recognizing the ultimate subjectivity of morality does not rob it of its value. In fact, even objective truth is useless without subjectivity. Recognizing objective reality allows us to more accurately determine truth and make better judgements. But ultimately that is useless unless it leads to better subjective experiences. Because objectivity is useless without subjective goals for objective facts and thought, morality only has value because it it is ultimately subjective.

It is ok that one cannot claim objective moral absolutes, because people generally share many values. Being a social species, people generally value the well-being of other people. If we agree that the well-being of all humanity is the ultimate moral value, we can, at least in theory, determine objective means for providing the greatest degree of human well-being. We might not be able to give objective reasons to misogynists why the well-being of women have equal value to men, but we do not have to. We can simply say we value the well-being of women equally, and we refuse to tolerate their mistreatment. We do not need to give objective reasons why the well-being of those of a lower social status have equal value. We only have to demand their equal treatment. Not only should we accept the fact that morality is ultimately subjective, we should embrace its subjectivity.

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