Is morality subjective?

Hello!
My question is, in my Philosophy class I was taught that morality is subjective not objective. And morality and ethics are not the same. For example if a person steals something that’s ethically incorrect but morally correct according to his view.
How to deal with this kind of view in philosophy.

Hello @Anuraag, I would like to know how those words are defined in your class because according to that example Hitler wasn’t morally wrong. Would it be possible for you to say what is taught in your class that makes the two terms different? Now Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ethics like this:

Definition of ethic

1 ethics plural in form but singular or plural in construction : the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation

2a : a set of moral principles : a theory or system of moral values

So you can’t define ethics without morals. If something isn’t ethical then it’s not moral and if morals are subjective then so are ethics. And if they are both subjective and there is no moral objective standard then killing someone or starving a child isn’t wrong, but just a matter of opinion. Yet they are saying in your class that ethics isn’t subjective meaning they are still applying an objective standard outside themselves to say that there is something to compare our behavior to be able to say its wrong. No matter how they try to redefine things it still goes back to the fact that if you believe in a standard outside yourself you then believe there was a moral/ethical lawgiver.

If you haven’t read it yet I would suggest getting the book Stealing from God. It’s a really good book that talks about morality and also I would suggest Is God a Moral Monster?, both of these give really good information.

God Bless :slight_smile:

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Great question!

This is a huge area of study, so I will offer just a few thoughts to help the conversation along.

First, your last point that you say your teacher made. As @Luna mentioned, ethics and morals are intrinsically intertwined. Ethics is generally concerned with the practical matters of morality, how do we live out our moral ideals? To say something is ethically wrong, but morally right, would be a difficult argument to make. Is it right to say someone properly made a wrong turn? Can I make what is considered to be a well-executed turn going the wrong way down a one-way street? I think an intrinsic part of a proper turn is making sure I am going the right way.

I suppose we could complicate the conversation by asking if a person’s motivations are taken into account to determine the morality of the outcome. If a person is trying to do the right thing but ends up transgressing some moral good, is that ultimately bad or good? In this case, I think you would have to treat these two items, motivation, and application, as separate items and weigh the balance. But, then each would have it’s one moral and ethical categories. If anything I could see an argument for someone having a right moral and a wrong ethic. The principal they live by is sound, but, how they live that out is wrong-headed. Like a father is who severe on his children so they grow up to be productive members of society. His end is good, how he hopes to acheive that end is ethically wrong. Often times this disconnect comes down to knowledge. It is through ignorance one has a principal which is lived out in a way which undermines it.

This, in part, is inspired by John Finnis’ book Natural Law and Natural Rights. In it, he proposes “forms of basic good.” Cultures throughout history agree that “moral rule-making” is a necessity. How do we go about establishing these moral rules? The first one Finnis lists is knowledge. We must understand concepts and ideas, observe human behavior, etc. if we are to establish some idea of what constitutes “the good” and create a moral system which stems from it. This puts knowledge as a primary moral good, an objective ideal which we should try to attain.

Added to these is sociability, life, practical reasonableness, et al. These do give sufficient grounds to create a link between cultures and their moral codes.

Ronald W. Hepburn in the The Oxford Companion to Philosophy says

Accepting the prima-facie divergences of moral outlook, a critic can none the less argue that the relativists tends to exaggerate their implications. Some common basic human values can be discerned over a great rande of cultures, communities, social groups: e.g. moral condemnation of the leader who uses his power to exploit and oppress his people; and the agreement, among radically different groups, about the need for impartial determination of disputes by an authorized individual or body.

This would give us some standing to criticize the moral standards of other cultures and peoples. I have more to say on this point but I don’t want to turn this into a paper (not yet anyway.)

Perhaps you could be an ethical relativist? Different cultures have the same morals, yet different ways of living out those moral values. But, you can trace a common thread of moral value throughout various and diverse time periods and cultures.

One last quote from Ronald W. Hepburn for now,

It has sometimes been thought that moral relativism gives a special support to toleration as a moral attitude to codes which diverge from one’s own. Paradoxically, however, if that were accepted as a universal (and universally morally approvable) attitude, it would contradict the relativism which disallows any universally authoritative principles!

I, as always, have more to say, but, I would love to hear more of your thoughts and any other challenges your teacher presented.

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Ok, just one more thought and one more quote.

I would argue this line of thinking stems from the decision that God does not exist. My line of reasoning would be;

  1. Only God is a sufficient ground for an objective morality
  2. God doesn’t exist
  3. Therefore, objective morality doesn’t exist

This is simply an acknowledgement that man is not sufficient enough to establish a universal moral code (Genesis 3 anyone?)

So, they are not really arguing that objective morality is impossible. They are saying it is impossible without God which they do not believe to be real. If they were to admit an objective moral standard they would be letting the idea of God creep in.

A quote from a humanist professor Lewis Lamont

Any humane philosophy, must include such New Testament ide-als as the brotherhood of man, peace on earth, and the abundant life. There is much ethical wisdom, too, in the Old Testament and its Ten Commandments. Without accepting any ethical princi-ple as a dogmatic dictum never to be questioned, the Humanist certainly adheres in general to a biblical commandment such as ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’.

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In Genesis 6:9, Noah is said to be “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time”
‭‭Genesis‬ ‭6:9‬ ‭NIV‬‬
https://www.bible.com/111/gen.6.9.niv

Doesn’t the clause “among the people of his time” imply some level of subjectivity? I am having difficulty reconciling this passage with the concept of objective truth.

Thanks for the follow-up @Jhousel.

I do see how you could read this in a relativistic fashion, however, I do not believe that this is a necessary reading.

It wasn’t that the people whom he was amongst found him to be blameless, God found him to be blameless and he found him amongst the people of his time. This gives us an objective grounding for morality in this scripture.

The objectivity of truth is demonstrated in its inability to be denied. To try to deny the objectivity of truth is to try and make the claim; it is objectively true that objective truth does not exist. It is not logically possible to invoke objectivity to deny its existence, therefore, it is logically necessary that objective truth must exist.

Take the most basic of logical principles, the law of non-contradiction. It cannot be true that something exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. That in and of itself is an objective truth.

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Hello @Anuraag,
This is a hot issue of the day. It’s interesting that we will say morals are subjective in the classroom, and then you get on Twitter and find all the fingers pointing at you if you make certain statements!:crazy_face: Bottom line it doesn’t flow with what we observe in reality. @Luna found a great definition, and I was inspired to grab Noah Websters 1828 definition also:

ETH’ICS , noun The doctrines of morality or social manners; the science of moral philosophy, which teaches men their duty and the reasons of it.

2. A system of moral principles; a system of rules for regulating the actions and manners of men in society.

We would observe an order to society and a means to dwell side by side with the application of objective morality. Subjectivity in matters such as these leads to chaos.

I agree with @Luna and @Joshua_Hansen that you can’t have that discussion without the connection between ethics and morality. On the topic of subjective vs objective morality, there is a YT video of William Lane Craig that distills some of the problem.

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Genesis 6:9 doesn’t make a claim about truth. This verse talks about blamelessness. Noah was blameless among his people could be telling us to understand a person’s situation as well as their action. Theft may be wrong, but taking a loaf of bread when starving may be judged differently than breaking a car window to steal an unattended cell phone.

All moral claims are truth claims, but, not all truth claims are moral claims. If you can establish an objectivity to truth then you can lend that objectivity to moral claims.

You, also, mentioned that you were having difficulty reconciling this scripture with the concept of objective truth. So that is why I brought that up.

One could argue that even taking someone’s situation into account could be a form of objective truth. It would simply point to a higher-order objective standard.

As an example, if I run a convenience store and you try to buy one candy bar but take two, I will tell you that is not allowed. Then, one day, you come into the store and I am having a buy one get one free sale. Now I tell you that you can buy one candy bar and take two.

Someone could say that the amount of candy bars you can take is subjective, it depends on whether or not there was a sale. I could point to a higher order standard that says you can always only take as many candy bars as the proprietor will allow.

This higher order standard is objective while the application on a day to day scale may seem subjective, it conforms to an objective standard. Perhaps that is what is happening in theses verses?

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That explanation helps a lot. In Genesis 6:9 there is a conditional aspect to blamelessness, but walking faithfully with God is unconditional. I think there may be something in comparing these clauses of this verse.

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Hello @Anuraag!

I am also a Philosophy student; I know exactly what you’re talking about with regards to falsehoods in the classroom. Here’s some basic lines of reason you can use that people in your class might also understand.

  1. If a person claims that there is no absolute truth(that it is subjective), they are claiming an absolute truth by saying so. Subjectivity is inconsistent with itself.
  2. Morality can best be summed up by figuring out what’s best for us; only an outside and higher being with knowledge of our creation can surely know what’s best for us. God already laid out our moral principles; morality has already been defined and it does not change.
  3. If one of the attempted justifications of these claims is Descartes(I could be in a dream; an evil demon could be deceiving me so even mathematical truths cannot be reliable; the only thing I am certain of is that I exist, because there has to be something that is being deceived), our interpretations of morality can be unstable and non-absolute, but morality itself is still absolute because it has to be defined by a being outside of our interpretable reality. Our development of our interpretation of morality is shaped by what we observe, so it is subjective in interpretation, but because morality is a metaphysical idea, outside of our realm of interpretation, it is not bound to subjectivity in its qualities. It is God’s and God’s alone, and it is absolute. Also, Descartes was Christian.

(I’m new here, let me know if there’s anything unbiblical about what I just said or if there’s a misunderstanding; I am trying to give philosophical arguments that both Christians and Non-Christians can understand. I’m all for pursuing truth regardless if I believe in it or not; I am open to criticism.)

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Thanks for the response. I do understand the analogy of Descartes. I agree with what you said :slight_smile:

Thanks for the answer Mam.

Thanks for the response. It’s really helpful to understand and to have a meaningful conversation.

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