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Subjective Morality


MagickMonkey
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I posted this as a facebook note recently. Obviously, this has all been covered before numerous times on this site. I wrote this mainly just for the hell of it, and as a way to organize my thoughts on morality. My ideas about morality have evolved and have benefited from discussions on this site. If this post sparks more discussion, perhaps my ideas about morality will evolve further. Anyway, for what it's worth....

People often act and speak as if there are objective standards for morality. Even though many see room for “gray areas” in regards to what is right and wrong, they generally believe there are certain actions that are clearly right and those that are clearly wrong. While it’s true that, given a set of moral values with given priorities as a basis for a system of morality, objective means can be used to determine right and wrong. However, the idea that any moral value has value is subjective. Therefore, Morality, at it’s roots, is subjective.

Some believe their god provides an objective morality. They believe their god stipulates values for morality and that these values are absolute. In Steve Cardno’s essay, “The Creation Basis For Morality” (http://www.answersingenesis.org/creation/v24/i3/morality.asp), 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 dependant upon and subordinate to god’s supposed will. However, this value rests upon the assumption that god, if he were to exist, is worthy of obedience. Such a judgement is subjective, and therefore, any god based morality is still subjective at its roots regardless of the existence of any such god.

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. (http://www.ted.com/t...at_s_right.html) He says “...the separation between science and human values is an illusion.” In some sense, he might be right to a degree. Science can be used to support human values. This does not mean that human values are objective. He says “Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the wellbeing 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 conscious experiences are worthy of concern. There is no consensus to whether the conscious experiences of non-human animals has value, or even whether the conscious experience of all humans matter. The Church of Euthanasia clearly does not hold human conscious existence as an important value. (http://www.churchofeuthanasia.org).

Morality ultimately comes from instincts given to us by evolution that allow us to live in social groups. We benefit from living in social groups, and therefore our moral instincts facilitate our ability to pass on our genes to future generations. Of course, human concepts of morality are by no means exclusively based on instinct. Our ideas about what is right or wrong are expanded by various aspects of our culture. This allows our sense of morality to be more flexible and therefore potentially more beneficial to our species than if morality were based on instincts alone. But regardless of the degree to which our moralities are instinctual or artificial, the ultimate natural purpose (not in the sense of some conscious entity prescribing a purpose) of morality is to benefit our species in a way that allows us to pass on our genes.

If one considers only the natural purpose of morality, one might conclude that this natural purpose is an objective basis for objective morality. However, we are not restricted to considering natural purposes. Our adaptive brains allow us to grant our own purposes to whatever we want. Biology says our purpose is simply 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. As already mentioned, many of the moral values that are the cores of our various systems of morality have nothing directly to do with benefiting mankind.

All moralities are, at their roots, subjective. This is even true for the moralities that promote the well being of our species. After all, even the natural purpose of morality is meaningless unless one holds the subjective value that perpetuating our species has value.

The ultimate subjectivity of all systems of morality does not mean that these systems are without value. In fact, objectivity is useless without subjectivity. The way a mobile phone works is useless unless people desire to communicate. The specifications of a particular car are useless if you only want to ride a bike. Facts about sports are useless if you don’t care about sports. The objective means by which one can maintain one’s own health are useless to a person who does not value his or her own life. 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. Due to having evolved as a social species, people generally value the well being of other humans. If we agree that the well being of humans is the ultimate moral value, we can, at least in theory, determine objective means for providing the greatest degree of well being for humans. If women in a particular culture are being mistreated, any objective reason we give for why such mistreatment is wrong will rest on a subjective opinion such as the opinion that the equitable treatment of women is good. But if enough of us hold such subjective opinions, we can say that “We don’t like the way your culture treats its women, and we’re going to do something about it.” Animal cruelty is only wrong to those who value the well being of other animals. (I say other, because humans are obviously animals, too). But if enough of us value the well being of animals in general, then it doesn’t matter that our reasons for wanting to stop animal cruelty are ultimately subjective. We can simply say “We don’t like it, and we’re not going to tolerate it.” Not only should we accept the fact that morality is ultimately subjective, we should embrace it.

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Great post, MM! I'll read it more closely when I've had a few hours of sleep.

 

I think what is missing in many discussions of the question of whether morality is objective or subjective at its source is that when conservative Christians decry "subjective" moral values they are really trashing the idea of individual morality. The Christian viewpoint seems to be that it is unthinkable that an individual could determine on their own the moral schema to which they will comply. To be fair, I think many secular viewpoints hold to a similar aversion to moral self-determinism.

 

They tend to paint scenarios of "what is going to keep people from killing. . ." or "what is going to keep you from raping . . . " or "stealing" if it is up to you to figure out your own morals?

 

The thing is, whether a person is a Christian or a secular humanist, all moral decisions are individual and can be warped or skewed. Also, both the Christian and the atheist both look to a larger society - groups of people - as they deliberate on what is right or wrong in the situations they find themselves in.

 

Moral reasoning is subjective for all people, but it is not necessarily individualistic - it is a deliberative process involving the input of family,friends, school, religious institutions and personal introspection.

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Great post, MM! I'll read it more closely when I've had a few hours of sleep.

 

Thanks, oddbird

 

 

Moral reasoning is subjective for all people, but it is not necessarily individualistic - it is a deliberative process involving the input of family,friends, school, religious institutions and personal introspection.

 

Well, I think for most people, it is at least to some degree both individualistic and socialistic (not in the political sense). I imagine for most free thinkers, it's more individualistic than not. I think that for me, morality is quite individualistic. No doubt others have contributed immensely to my moral ideals, but it's damn rare or perhaps never that I differ moral judgements to what I think societies moral codes would say about an issue. Of course, that doesn't mean I ignore the consequences of violating societies morals.

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Delicious post, brah.

 

 

Thanks

 

 

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Nice post MM.

Cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, in his book 'The Metaphors We Live By,' argues similarly to you, but he makes the case for a subjective reality based on the fact that all information coming into our brains is filtered by physical neural networks that themselves are shaped by our physical and social experiences. So the neural networks are unique in every person's brain. And it is impossible to understand anything without them. So everything we experience and understand is done so through inescapable interactions with our unique social and physical environments. In this sense, he argues for subjectivity. However, he does not deny that some facts about our world can logically be considered objective. So in the end he posits reality as hybrid subjective/objective.

 

I am sure I just gave a very poor summary of his argument, so you may want to read it for yourself. I would refresh my memory of his argument, but I just moved and all my books are still in boxes. Once I find the book I'll skim it again and see if says anything specifically about our moral systems.

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Nice post MM.

Cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, in his book 'The Metaphors We Live By,' argues similarly to you, but he makes the case for a subjective reality based on the fact that all information coming into our brains is filtered by physical neural networks that themselves are shaped by our physical and social experiences. So the neural networks are unique in every person's brain. And it is impossible to understand anything without them. So everything we experience and understand is done so through inescapable interactions with our unique social and physical environments. In this sense, he argues for subjectivity. However, he does not deny that some facts about our world can logically be considered objective. So in the end he posits reality as hybrid subjective/objective.

 

I am sure I just gave a very poor summary of his argument, so you may want to read it for yourself. I would refresh my memory of his argument, but I just moved and all my books are still in boxes. Once I find the book I'll skim it again and see if says anything specifically about our moral systems.

 

Thanks, Jeremy! I know this isn't your implication, but to be sure, I absolutely believe in an absolutely objective reality. I simply have a growing appreciation for our subjective interpretations of it regardless of their limitations.

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