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The subjectivity of objective morality
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12/15/2014 12:10:35 PM
Posted: 2 years ago
What I notice in religious discussions about morality is that most participants, even sceptics, don't know what they or their opponents are talking about. Since the beliefs of theists and more specifically Christians are false, they have to confuse people into accepting their beliefs. Since no one knows what they are talking about, there is plenty of opportunity for confusion. Not to mention that subjectivity/objectivity is not a black or white story but can exist in degrees.
The answer to the question "Is morality objective or subjective ?" depends on what the question means can either be "It is subjective." or "What is morality ?"
The objectivity/subjectivity of something can refer to two things : to a term or to a concept.
1. a word or group of words designating something, especially in a particular field, as atom in physics, quietism in theology, adze in carpentry, or district leader in politics.
2. any word or group of words considered as a member of a construction or utterance.
1. a general notion or idea; conception.
2. an idea of something formed by mentally combining all its characteristics or particulars; a construct.
3. a directly conceived or intuited object of thought.
A term is a sequence of characters or sounds, a label, a tag, a name, referring to a concept. It is used to identify a concept.
A circle is therefore both a term and a concept. Terms are subjective. Humans decided what concept is a associated with the term circle, how to spell it and how to pronounce it. 'Circle' has a definition made up by humans. Terms are are conventions. They are agreed upon by humans. Therefore a circle (the term) is subjective.
However, a circle (the concept) is also objective. It is a set of points in a plane equidistant from a single point. It can be established whether or not something is a circle without relying on an opinion : it can be factually established.
The same goes for morality. Morality (the term) is subjective, while morality the concept can be either since it is ill-defined. Unlike for a circle, people don't understand what morality is, which causes them to confuse the subjectivity of the term with the subjectivity of the concept. When disagreeing on the sub/objectivity of morality people are usually talking about different moralities while both their moralities are sub/objective to some degree.
I will present a partial definition of morality. This partial definition is of course my opinion, but I try to come up with something most people will agree with.
Morality in its simplest form is a classification of behaviour and agents in two sets: a negative and a positive set. These sets are also referred to differently :
negative, evil, malevolent, wrong, bad, ..."
positive, good, benevolent, right, desirable, ..."
Behaviour is classified that way. Agents (those that exhibit behaviour) are classified according to their typical behaviour. As for most people intention is relevant for morality, in the above definition it is part of behaviour.
Morality can be made more complex for example by using 5 sets :
very malevolent, malevolent, neutral, benevolent and very benevolent
I call which set a behaviour or agent belongs to a moral value.
The classification can be made more complex by making moral values numbers, e.g. from -infinity (omnimalevolent) to +infinity (omnibenevolent).
Morality can also be made multidimensional, for example by distinguishing between morality towards animals and towards humans. So someone could be malevolent to animals and very benevolent to people.
Since we have a classification, the way that classification is done can be called a moral standard or a moral code. That is what there is most disagreement about, that is how to classify behaviour or what moral standard to use. It can be done objectively or subjectively or somewhere in between. A subjective standard would for example be to organize a survey to ask people how they feel about someone's behaviour. An objective standard would be a program that can be applied by a computer. However, neither will be completely subjective or objective.
An example of moral code used in practice is legislation. It is not exactly a moral standard as it encompasses more than just morality and also doesn't cover every possible behaviour.
A Christian moral standard could contain the following rules :
Rule A : Any action by a creator of a world is at least morally neutral in that world.
Rule B : Rule A supersedes all other rules.
So, is that the end of the discussion ? Whether or not morality is objective simply depends on the moral standard one is considering.
No, because the questions arise whether some moral standards, objective or not, are better than other ones and what role God plays in all this and even whether there is a 'best' or 'real' standard.
The answer always is 'It depends', but those are different topics.
A related question is whether objective morality exists. This again raises the question as to what it means for an abstract concept like morality to exist. I would say for it to exist, it must exist in some concrete form, for example by being used by someone. Since we are now 7 billion, at any time at least one of us is bound to be following some objective moral standard. So, I think that yes, it exists.
The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth.