Is Morality Just Subjective?

By L. Alfred James

Is morality merely a useful fiction? That is, are moral rules just social conventions? Or does morality have some kind of objective existence?

Our culture stridently asserts that moral beliefs are entirely a product of one’s culture. If one is brought up to believe that, say, premarital sex is wrong, then one will have compunctions of conscience about premarital sex. Or if one is brought up to believe that it is a sin to not recycle, then one will feel bad if one fails to recycle one’s glass bottles, newspapers, and plastic containers. Thus, we are told that morals are just something we absorb from the surrounding culture and nothing more.

Evaluating the Logic

There is an important question you should ask anyone who advances this idea. It is a very simple question, but very powerful: “Why should I believe this? Why should I believe that morality is purely subjective?” If you have the courage to ask this question, you are almost certain to get this answer:

“There is so much disagreement about moral issues. Morality couldn’t possibly be objective.”

What should we make of this answer? Does the level of disagreement that exists on moral issues really prove that morality must be completely subjective? Let’s take a look.

When possible, it is wise to analyze any claim being made by casting it in terms of a logical argument. This will help you evaluate whether or not the claim really is valid. For this particular claim, the logic looks like this:

  1. There is a lot of disagreement about moral issues
  2. Therefore, morality is entirely subjective

As you can see, the conclusion clearly does not follow from the premise. In fact, it is so obvious that it doesn’t follow that it is very unlikely that this is the logic being used. Thus, there must be another premise that is being assumed here, and we need to make it explicit. With a little bit of contemplation, I think that missing premise starts to emerge. The missing premise is this: “If there is a lot of disagreement about a thing, then that thing does not have an objective existence.” That is, in light of the level of disagreement that exists regarding moral issues, it seems like morality could not be objective. There is just (supposedly) too much disagreement.

So, let’s plug that premise into the argument and see if it works:

  1. If there is a lot of disagreement about a thing, then that thing does not have an objective existence
  2. There is a lot of disagreement about moral issues
  3. Therefore, morality is entirely subjective

The conclusion does indeed follow from the first two premises. This means the argument is valid. Therefore, if both of the first two premises are true, then the conclusion is true whether we like it or not.

However, this does not mean that the argument is sound. It is possible that one (or both) of the premises are false. And—to my mind—it is pretty clear that one of these is indeed false. The first premise is undoubtedly not true.

Disagreement Does Not Entail Subjectivity

Why think the first premise is false? Well, widespread disagreement about a particular thing does not prove that that thing does not have an objective existence. Each of the following things is undoubtedly very real, though scientists disagree with each other about various aspects of them:

  • Quantum mechanics: At the present moment, there are more than ten different (and contradictory) opinions about the phenomena of quantum mechanics1. Does this mean that quantum particles do not really exist? Are they just useful fictions?
  • Climate change: There are dozens of different conflicting opinions about what causes climate change. Does this mean that there is nothing objective really causing climate change? Is it all in our heads?
  • Sexual orientation: There are several conflicting opinions regarding what causes differences in sexual orientation. Does this mean that there is no cause (or causes)?
  • Big bang: Among astrophysicists, there is serious disagreement about the exact nature of the big bang explosion that occurred the moment the universe came into being. Does this mean that the big bang is fictional, purely subjective?

I could give a really long list of other examples, but you get the point. As you can see, the existence of disagreement about a particular thing does not mean that that thing is fictional. There are plenty of examples to the contrary.

Why Do We Disagree So Vehemently About Morality?

The reality of so many sharp disagreements about moral issues is a strong indicator that there is something objective going on with morality. It does not exist only in our heads. Moral values have an objective existence every bid as much as the physical world.

Think about it. People seem to intuitively grasp the objective nature of morality. After all, when people have different opinions about things that are subjective they typically do not argue or disagree with each other in a serious way. For example, I feel no inclination to have a heated argument with someone who thinks chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream even though my personal favorite is vanilla.

Likewise, a city-lover does not get angry when someone extolls the virtues of rural living. And people who like to read physical copies of books do not feel themselves to be in disagreement with those who enjoy reading on a Kindle or other device. Why? If morality is just subjective, why do people get bent out of shape about it, while they don’t get disturbed about other things that are clearly subjective?

Answer: Because we all know, intuitively, that moral values have an objective existence. Sure, we might disagree with others about how to interpret these values. That is why we disagree about what behaviors are right and what behaviors are wrong. But people disagree about all kinds of things that clearly have an objective existence. The raging debates in science about quantum phenomena, epigenetics, the efficacy of various drugs, and several other things prove that disagreement about a thing does not imply that that thing exists only in our heads.

Thus, severe disputes about moral issues are not an indication that morality is purely subjective. On the contrary, these disputes indicate that morality has an objective existence that we are still learning about.



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