Friday, March 16, 2007

Is Morality Subjective or Objective?

People have quite differing views on whether morality is purely subjective or an objective reality. And if is is objective then does it get that from God? In this essay I will examine to what extent morality is objective and what is the source of this objectivity. The book I found most helpful in thinking through these ideas is George Smith's "Atheism", and a good many of the ideas here are from his analysis of ethics.

I will use morality synonymously with ethics which is a study of human values and how humans ought to act. There are two aspects to ethics: a descriptive component that answers: "What are human values?" and a normative part that addresses: "How should humans act?" I will consider each of these.

The question: "What are human values?" can be answered by looking at the facts and evidence. Humans have physical and psychological needs and desires and these can be found through scientific analysis. For example, maintaining life is an important value of living things, evidenced by how ardently living things seek to survive. Determining the whole range of values is difficult and constrained by our limited knowledge of the human mind and body. Nevertheless, our current limited knowledge doesn't mean it can't be studied scientifically which it surely can. Hence the descriptive component of ethics is the science of an objective reality.

A reason why many think descriptive ethics is subjective is that it is difficult to consciously know one's own values let alone others' values, and moreover these values may differ to some extent between people. Addressing the second point first: the similarities between humans far outweighs the differences. We all have similar physical and mental needs. But there are differences and these differences can also be analyzed scientifically, and hence are simply part of the objective reality ethics seeks to describe. Back to the first point that it is difficult to know our values. But this is actually one of the key reasons why ethics is important as it helps us become consciously aware of our values, and it is not an objection to the objectivity of ethics.

One can ask what is the most basic value for living things. I think it is one's well-being. It is a somewhat vague term, and it includes life and happiness. We each seek our own well-being, even if what it means may differ to some extent between individuals. We have other values too which may be subsets of this or even in conflict with well-being, and descriptive ethics will seek to determine and categorize these.

The second component of ethics is the normative part: "How should we act?". It is expressed at a conditional statement: One ought to act in such and such a way so as to achieve one's values. For example: one ought to love one's spouse as this improves one's well-being, or another example: one ought not to lie as this damages one's credibility. Expressed this way with a goal, ethical or moral claims can be analyzed scientifically; what are the actions that people should do to achieve their values? Similarly medicine is a goal-directed normative science: the doctor ought to give the patient the medicine, so as to save his life.

Ethics deals not only with individuals and their values which may have internal conflicts, but also with groups of individuals whose values may conflict with each other. Ethics must weigh the values of someone wanting to walk on a plot of land with the owner wanting to keep people out and so determine the rightness and wrongness of trespassing. Another consideration is that other people's well-being is often in one's own interest. For example, one is much happier when one's spouse is happy, and his/her well-being is linked to one's own; that is another reason for loving one's spouse. Thus ethics determines guidelines of conduct that enable people to achieve individually and corporately their values.

One response is that ethics ought not to be goal directed, but rather a duty. But with no goal to achieve it becomes empty. Even Christian ethics is often expressed as goal directed as illustrated by this conversation: "Don't lie." "Why?" "Because God says not to." "But why obey God?" "Because it will make him happy or because you'll go to heaven and escape hell" Namely the goal is to seek God's well-being or human well-being, albeit in the afterlife. On the other hand, ethics simply as a duty with no goal is divorced from human welfare and hence arbitrary.

Another objection is the claim that weighting differing values and interests to make an assessment of the morality of an action is a subjective process. It is true that it can be difficult to weigh the interests of freedom of expression against the interests of a copyright holder not to have his work borrowed (or is it plagiarized?). But many fields dealing with objective reality have this difficulty; whenever heterogeneous data are modeled this problem emerges (for example in modeling the motion of particles both time errors and distance errors have to be minimized but how does one choose the relative weighting of these?). There is some arbitrariness in assigning weights, but this can be reduced by assuming that all humans are due equal consideration and so my need for safety has the same value as your need for safety. Some arbitrariness or subjectivity remains in comparing disparate values, but I suspect this is not so great as we all share similar physical and psychological needs and hence have comparable ideas of well-being and hence right and wrong.

In both aspects then, the descriptive and the normative, ethics is primarily an objective reality. In some cases normative ethics may require relative weighting of disparate values to this extent relies on agreed-on weights. It is here that some arbitrariness or subjectivity enters. There remain hard, unanswered questions raised in ethics, but by learning more about humans needs and values and how these can best be fulfilled, ethics will make progress. There is no need to refer to "God" in relation to an objective morality. Actually including God doesn't change the nature of ethics. It only detracts from the consideration we give to human values.


  1. Yay! Finally something I can agree wholeheartedly with you about! Not that I have any problem with us seeing things differently, but this a nice change.
    I think you've made a nice analysis of morality. You may be surprised (or not) that the Bible's use of the concept agrees with yours, although it is true that popular Christian thought is often what you have described it to be.
    As a side note, one of the things we can look at when weighing, for instance, my desire to walk on your land versus your desire to keep trespassers out is the good of society as a whole, rather than for individuals. This is something that has become less of a concern for western societies, but is is a very valid consideration throughout the rest of the world, and is a necessary part of analysing ethics and morality.

  2. Ethics in service of the greatest good, or utility, for the greatest number of people?

    Did George Smith discuss Mill, Benthem - "utilitarianism"?

    Would you determine people's good scientifically - i.e., scientists in charge - rather than by survey, letting people tell you what their good is?

    Hey, Daniel - Christopher

    P.S. Been reading a bunch about morality & ethics myself these last couple of weeks. Nietzsche's "The Antichrist," "Beyond Good & Evil," & such (assigned in PHI 203).

  3. Christopher,

    An ethics book I enjoyed a lot is Peter Singer's "Practical Ethics". Nietzsche is a good read too.


  4. Jennypo,

    Glad we agree ethics.

    Yes, one can consider what is good for society as a whole, but is that because society itself gets a vote or is it because that implies a good to a greater number? I tend to think the latter.


  5. Yeah, I think there's a whole lot more involved in morality than a simple equation of greatest good to greatest number, but 98% of the time, we'd probably arrive at the same result. I believe in the value of the individual, but I also think that when individuals serve society well, (not society-the-construct, but humanity), society (humanity) serves the individual.
    Most of all, though, I like your point that morality is organic, coming out of what is, rather than being imposed on what is.

  6. Good? Ethics? Morality? Where do you get those definitions if you don't have a standard outside yourself to define them? One man's good is walking on your land while another's is to keep you off it. If there is no moral standard, then it seems to be survival of the fittest. Darwin wins and the weak lose.

    I betcha there's something in that last sentence that rubs you wrong. Why? Where did that come from?

  7. Perhaps we each have a desire to survive and not be trodden down by others. (If we didn't then we wouldn't survive). So there, that's a one-sentence evolutionary explanation for why we value morality.


  8. You can't get off that easy. Why then to we care for the weak or the sick? Why do we do things that seem to run counter to evolutionary thought? Why do we not praise the Nazi's master plan of a master race? Seems like evolutionary progress! Conversely, why do we almost universally appreciate Mother Theresa's life of service to the sick, lame and dying?


  9. Is your question "why do feel providing for the hungry is good?", or is it "why is providing for the hungry good?" I think the latter is pretty easy to answer. People who aren't suffering from hunger are happier and can be more productive etc. The first question asks why we have empathy. I don't have a full answer to that, but it is very closely linked in to social capabilities which are useful for individuals and society as a whole.

    As for hitler's "master race," there is nothing good evolutionarily about it. Rather the opposite; he was trying to violently stop competition from others and surely that would lead to stagnation.


  10. When it comes down to a numbers game you get into sticky problems illustrated by story problems such as the following: A city of thousands can have perfect peace and prosperity and health. The only requirement is that they have to keep a child locked in a closet their entire life. Is this an acceptable deal?