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In Defense of Moral Subjectivism: An Argument for the Subjectivity of Moral Values

by Keith Augustine


In the Summer 1997 issue of Free Inquiry (Vol. 17, No. 3), Theodore Schick, Jr. wrote Morality Requires God... or Does It?, which was an excellent and valid critique of the divine command theory of ethics. The premise of Schick's original article, in a nutshell, is that even if we assume God exists (for the sake of argument), God's commandment that some action is moral doesn't make that action moral, since God could command that any action is right or wrong indiscriminately--i.e., if God's commandments were the basis of morality, then what makes an action "moral" would be determined arbitrarily. If God said genocide was moral, that would make genocide moral; if God said it was immoral, genocide would be immoral. Thus, there must be some objective moral standard God must refer to that exists independently of God's commandment for moral values to be determined non-arbitrarily. This standard would exist independently of God, and thus the existence of morality would not depend upon the existence of God.

Although I agree with Schick's conclusion that moral laws commanded by God would be arbitrary, I disagree that God has an objective standard to refer to. The implication of this point of view is that human moral codes are just as arbitrary as those commanded by God, for human beings also have no objective standard to refer to. I submitted the following letter to the editor to Free Inquiry responding to Schick's article:

Although I find nothing disagreeable in Theodore Schick's critique of the divine command theory of ethics, I think there is a certain degree of plausibility among atheists in the view that without some kind of transcendental intelligence in the universe, there can be no objective moral laws.

Moral laws are maxims which tell sentient beings that certain actions are to be deemed moral or immoral. But how could such laws exist in the absence of any mind or sentience in the universe at all? Are moral laws objective in the way that laws of nature are? They do not seem to be, for few would argue that "murder is wrong" existed in some Platonic realm of ideas when galaxies were forming over ten billion years ago and there was no sign life or consciousness anywhere in the universe. The use of the word "law" implies an objective existence of unchanging moral maxims independently of sentience. Yet it appears that there can be nothing objective about so-called "moral laws", because it seems absurd on its face to say that maxims which tell sentient beings that certain actions of sentient beings are moral or immoral could exist in the absence of sentience.

It seems to me that all ethical codes must ultimately be man-made, and thus there could be no objective criteria for determining if human actions are right or wrong. Admitting that moral laws are man-made is equivalent to acknowledging that ethical rules are arbitrary and therefore human beings are not obligated to follow them. What Schick's article has done is simply extended this element of arbitrariness to ethical codes made by God. But there still seems to be this underlying problem that ethical codes cannot be objective in any real sense of the word, in light of Schick's article, for either theists or atheists.

This letter to the editor was published in part in the Fall 1997 issue of Free Inquiry. The last paragraph was cut, but the first two were not and were sufficient to open up the question of the objectivity of moral values. Schick's response to that letter follows immediately in the same issue, but will not be repeated here for copyright reasons. My reply to Schick's response to my letter to the editor constitutes the following article.

I should note that this article is targeted to an audience that already accepts philosophical naturalism, the view that everything that exists is natural (and thus the supernatural does not exist). Since supernaturalism would be deaf to appeals to explanatory simplicity and it would be impossible to discover the supernatural origins of anything, one cannot gauge whether any supernaturalist account is any more or less plausible than any other supernaturalist account, including an account of the origins of objective moral laws.

In Defense of Moral Subjectivism: An Argument for the Subjectivity of Moral Values

In his reply to my letter to the editor, Theodore Schick accused me of arguing "that morality must must be subjective on the grounds that [I] cannot see how it could be objective." But this is not what I argued at all. I said that I thought that the idea that "there can be no objective moral laws" was plausible to atheists. I think it is perfectly possible that objective moral laws exist in some Platonic realm of ideas, but I think it is implausible that such is the case. Since moral laws refer to the actions of sentient beings, it is difficult to conceive how they could originate by unconscious natural mechanisms. That laws of nature originated after the Big Bang is plausible because natural laws govern the physical components (forces, particles, etc) that arose from it. But ethics does not come into play in the history of the universe until very recently--when Homo sapiens appeared. It is possible that moral laws have existed since the Big Bang, but that they could not manifest themselves until sentient beings arose. However, such a view implies that there is some element of purposefulness in the universe--that the universe was created with the evolution of sentient beings "in mind" (in the mind of a Creator?). To accept the existence of objective moral laws that have existed since the beginning of time is to believe that the evolution of sentient beings capable of moral reasoning (such as human beings) has somehow been predetermined or is inevitable, a belief that is contrary to naturalistic explanations of origins (such as evolution by natural selection) which maintain that sentient beings came into existence due to contingent, accidental circumstances. If objective moral laws are part of the natural universe (not part of some supernatural realm), then the universe cannot be unconscious--it must be, in some unknown sense, sentient. Few naturalists would want to accept such a nonscientific pantheistic conclusion.

Another reason that moral objectivism is implausible is because all the laws of nature that we are aware of are descriptive: they describe how certain configurations of matter or energy will behave under different circumstances. But moral laws are prescriptive: the describe how certain sentient beings should behave under different circumstances. This is why a law of nature like the law of gravity cannot be violated, but a moral law like "Thou shall not kill" can be. Nothing else in the universe has this strange prescriptive quality--nothing we know in nature gives any part of the natural world a "duty" to behave in a certain way.

We do not accuse a lion of immorality for tearing a giraffe to shreds. Animals are not 'subject' to moral laws because they don't make moral decisions. Yet, if we all accept a purely naturalistic evolutionary account of the origin of Homo sapiens, it follows that human beings are merely another species of animal, and consequently we are not subject to moral laws. What differentiates humans from the other animals is that we are animals that make moral decisions. But decisions are mental states which exist in minds--individual human minds. Decisions will vary between people with different thoughts on a subject, hence it is reasonable to argue that moral values are subjective and vary with individual conscience.

In his response to my letter to the editor, Schick claims that most ethicists reject moral subjectivism not because of the success of various moral objectivist theories, but because moral subjectivism leads to contradictions. He then gives the following argument as an example:

Premise 1: What makes something morally right is that a person believes it is morally right.

P2: Person A believes genocide is morally right.

P3: Person B believes genocide is not morally right.

4: Genocide is morally right (from 1 and 2).

5: Genocide is not morally right (from 1 and 3).

This reductio ad absurdum leads to contradiction; 4 and 5 are opposite conclusions, thus the argument is invalid. However, I never claimed that I believed premise 1; Schick assumed it. Premise 1 assumes that there is an objective fact of the matter over whether genocide is right or wrong. Ethics, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The argument I am proposing is that there is no objective fact that genocide is morally wrong anymore than there is an objective fact that rock and roll is better than country music. Both statements, no matter how well agreed-upon by most people, merely express the opinion of the people who state them. They do not refer to some "state of the world", and that is exactly what an objectivist theory of ethics requires of ethical statements. Consider the following argument:

P1: What makes something aesthetically better than some other thing is that a person believes that that thing is better than some other thing.

P2: Person A believes that rock and roll is better than country music.

P3: Person B believes that rock and roll is not better than country music.

4: Rock and roll is better than country music.

5: Rock and roll is not better than country music.

Now, again we have a contradiction; but does this mean that it is irrational for me to claim that rock and roll is better than country music? No, it is a rational claim. But it is a claim about my tastes and preferences. Similarly, it is perfectly rational for me to claim that genocide is morally wrong. But that expresses my emotional reaction to the action; it does not express some objective state of the world. It is rational because here premise 1 is false, just as it was in the example Schick provided. When I say that rock and roll is better than country music, it is tacitly assumed that I am expressing an opinion and not making a claim about the actual objective nature of rock and roll. Similarly, when I claim that genocide is wrong, I am not making an objective claim about the morality of an action; I am expressing an opinion.

In this essay I have set forth to: 1) Show that the existence of objective moral values is implausible (not impossible) on a purely naturalistic account of the world; and 2) show that the claim that objective moral values do not exist does not lead to contradiction (i.e., is logically consistent). I have not tried to show is that the existence of objective moral values is impossible, for there is no logical contradiction in assuming the existence of such laws. But given that moral subjectivism is just as logically viable as moral objectivism and that moral objectivism is implausible if a scientific naturalism is true, I think that there is a good case for the nonexistence of objective moral values. In addition to this, if we are to accept Ockham's razor[1] as a valid general principle of rigorous scientific and philosophical inquiry, then the burden of proof falls on the moral objectivist[2] to show that the introduction of a new kind of nonphysical entity into our picture of the world--an objective moral law--is necessary to explain some tangible aspect of human morality that cannot be touched on by a subjectivist account.


[1] Ockham's razor is usually stated as: "Do not multiply entities beyond necessity." It holds that in any explanation of some phenomenon or account of the world, we should make the fewest number of assumptions necessary to account for the observed phenomena. In the context of human morality, an account where the existence of objective moral values is not assumed is simpler than (thus preferable to) an account which introduces an unverified new entity--an objective moral law--into our picture of how the universe works.

[2] A moral objectivist may argue that because most people have a "moral sense" about what actions are right and wrong, the burden of proof actually falls on the subjectivist to show that this sense is illusory. However, the moral subjectivist can simply point out that many people claim to have a "moral sense", but all these people come to opposite conclusions about whether or not, for example, abortion or the death penalty is ethically right. If this "moral sense" can lead to such widely different conclusions, then it is unreliable. The moral objectivist could argue that objective moral values still exist, but that only certain people's moral sense is correct while the others are mislead. However, such an argument appeals to an arbitrary decision as to who's moral sense is correct. An objectivist could also argue that our moral sense cannot discern any objective moral laws although they still exist. But if such were the case, there would be no reason to postulate the existence of such laws, for it was the existence of a moral sense in the first place which was appealed to as evidence for the existence of objective moral laws.

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