Against Subjectivism

This is a post by Stuart McEwing on our blog about the nature of moral claims and whether there is a foundation for morality apart from God. Is morality an objective feature of the world? And if it is, are the naturalistic explanations of objective morality sufficient? You can view the post or join the discussion here.

Essential to the moral argument is affirming the existance of objective moral values and duties. If naturalism is true then there are no objective moral values and duties, and therefore all moral values and duties are merely subjective. But this brand of ethical theory, called Subjectivism, we find inadequate for the following reasons.

For one it does not adequately explain our shared moral experience. If a subjectivist were to see a woman being abused, victimised and raped, saying “this is wrong” is saying noting more profound that “Hey, such action is not acceptable to me.” He cannot rightly condemn the rapist for the rapist is only doing what feels right for him. But surely that doesn’t make sense. Such an action is morally reprehensible no matter how one feels about it. Rape is wrong for all people at all times, because it is an invasion of something sacred. But how can it be sacred if it is pure matter? The only way it could be sacred is if it is as the Bible says: the body is the temple of the living God.

If morals are not objective then one would have to say that Hitler’s extermination of the Jews (dissenting Christians, homosexuals and disabled) was only wrong in the sense that it was unpalatable – a mere preference of taste. If subjectivism is true, then Hitler was only acting unfashionably, doing nothing more serious than breaking another social convention like belching at the table, or driving on the right hand side of the road instead of the left.

But if you want to affirm that Hitler was really wrong, and that rape is wrong, and that other virtues like kindness, generosity and love are truly right whether believed or not, then it follows that there are some moral obligations that are objective, and subjectivism is false.

Secondly, it does not adequately explain how we live. Day to day we assume morals really are more than mere subjective expressions of taste. We praise good sportsmanship and deplore game-fixing. We object to be being treated unfairly and we cry out for justice as if it really is a right of ours. We declare acts of terrorism evil and we applaud fire-fighters who run into burning buildings to save lives. Like Princess Di we give to charity because we think it is right, and that not giving when we are capable is somehow wrong. We cherish people like Ghandi, who acted honourable in response to British Imperialism.

Examples are manifold. Everyday we face a thousand decisions and at every decision we understand that there is a standard of right and wrong that supersedes all opinions and judges each appropriately.

Bertrand Russell espoused subjectivism in his writings but could not live consistently with it. He was involved in protests for nuclear proliferation, animal rights campaigns and even spent a number of months in jail for refusing to pay the war tax. In other words he lived like there were moral obligations, and that these moral obligations were valid and binding for all people at all times, and not merely expressions of preference.

Richard Dawkins, the popular evolutionary biologist says “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference. . . we are machines for propagating DNA” and yet his latest book is full of moralising. He has shown he does believe that some things that are evil, some things are good, and these not merely right and wrong for him, but wrong for everyone. He is at bottom a walking talking self-contradiction.

Such a moral awareness can be described as basic and bedrock, as the atheist philosopher Kai Neilson puts it:

<blockquote>”It is more reasonable to believe such elemental things [as wife beating and child abuse] to be evil that to believe any skeptical theory that tells us we cannot reasonably believe any of these thongs to be evil. . . I firmly believe that this is bedrock an right and tha anyone who does not believe it cannot have probes deeply enough into the grounds of his moral beliefs.”</blockquote>

We have more reason to deny the physical worl is objective, lthan we do to deny the objectivity of moral values and obligation. Though modification may be necessary on further reflection we have no reaso. To distrust our basic intuitions. Indeed, the atheist moral philosopher David O. Brink considers it the default possision. He says;

<blockquote>”There might be no objective moral standards. . . But this would be a revisionary conclusion, to be accepted only as the result of extended and compelling argument that the commitments of ethical objectivity are unsustainable.”</blockquote>

The objectivity of moral values and duties should be considered what philosophers call properly basic beliefs: something that is perfectly acceptable to believe on the basis of your own experience, only to be abandoned if successful defeaters are found. People who fail to see that moral obligation is objective are simply morally handicapped and there is no reason for their impaired vision to call into question what we clearly see.

Finally, personal subjectivism and cultural relativism are inadequate to explain moral debate and moral reform. These are two correlatives of the above considerations. If all there is to right and wrong is a factual claim about the likes and dislikes of a particular person or culture, then what sense is there in protesting for the civil rights of black American’s in the 50’s and 60’s? There wasn’t anything objectively wrong about racism and apartheid, just like there wasn’t anything ultimately praise worthy about the abolition of slavery. These were just the changing winds of fashion. A fad that was in one day, and could quite possibly be out the next.

If cultural relativism is true, then there was nothing wrong about lashing a run-away slave to within inches of his life during the heydays of slavery in the south, for that was an acceptable practice for that culture. Though unacceptable now, there is nothing incoherent given cultural relativism that slavery may, in 50 years time, be acceptable again. But if you disagree and think that slavery can never again be acceptable, and if you think that moral progress has been made: if you think that mankind has grown up in his thought and that a deterioration of the collective moral conscience would be abominable, then you are pre-supposing a standard of right and wrong outside of your own feelings and culture, and it follows that there is an objective frame of reference for moral debate and reform.

In summary then, (1) our experience assumes and confirms to us a realm of objective moral obligations beyond social convention, emotional preference, or adaptive mechanism. (2) We all take moral duties to be properly basic, bedrock intuitions that we can’t not know to be true. (3) Moral debate and moral progress presupposes an objective, external standard. It is for these reasons that we take subjectivism to be false, and that therefore there are some moral obligations that are objective features of the world.