The recent comment thread to this post gives occasion to clarify and expand on some of the issues surrounding the objective-subjective conversation in relation to morality/ethics.
First of all, let’s clear up some common misunderstandings. There is a subjective component to every choice and decision, whether one believes morality is ultimately linked to an objective referent or not. For instance, even if I believe that morality is objective, I must still subjectively (meaning personally) make a choice to either recognize such and lived that way (the best one can anyway) or not. Further, whether I do or not has nothing to do with whether or not an objective morality truly exists. The same is true if one believes morality to be subjective. He must still subjectively choose to believe such and make his decisions accordingly, but such has nothing to do with whether or not morality is ultimately objective or subjective in referent. Thus, the fact we all must subjectively choose to believe what we do (about anything) has nothing to do with whether or not morality is ultimately based upon a meta-physical/platonic/theological objective referent or not (either it is or it isn’t). We shouldn’t let this process confuse us as to the meta-physical/philosophical question of whether morality is based and founded upon an objective referent or is just the reflection of our subjective desires, whether individually or collectively.
Second, a common objection to the belief in an objective morality is why, then, is there such a plurality of different ethical viewpoints if such are objective? The answer is that disagreement doesn’t prove there isn’t an objective morality; it simply proves that not everyone perceives these questions in the same way. As noted here:
“Perhaps the longest standing argument is found in the extent and depth of moral disagreement. The mere fact of disagreement does not raise a challenge for moral realism. Disagreement is to be found in virtually any area, even where no one doubts that the claims at stake purport to report facts and everyone grants that some claims are true.”
To put it very simply, moral disagreement doesn’t prove the impossibility of an objective morality—it simply proves we can be wrong and that we can misunderstand each other. Also, to say that morality is objective is not to say it is objective like a physical object (say the sun in the sky) is objective. To think it the same would be to make a philosophical category error. This is also just common sense. No one says, “Look everyone, do you see mercy to the left of that cloud?”
Third, while many atheists/agnostics will recognize that meta-narratives/world-views, culture, family, community, laws, religion, taboos, traditions, and so forth are objective sources they either subjectively follow or not, they normally see these as still only the subjective desires of a majority or the most powerful writ large, codified into law, and then simply believed because of tradition and time. One can certainly see that morality is objective in this limited sense but this limited recognition is still far removed from the meta-physical conversation of whether or not these meta-narratives/world-views, cultural values, etc., are ultimately based upon an objective referent such as the existence of God or something that transcends culture and time. For more on this issue see here. (Specifically Section 6)
To have that conversation is really to have a conversation about God’s existence or the existence of something transcendent. One is intrinsically linked to the other. If one is an atheist and believes the material is all that exists, then he is logically led to believe that morality is simply our personal, subjective, psychological, emotional, biology, writ large over time and written by those with the power to do so. There are some atheists, like Sam Harris, who have tried to show that morality can be objective, but I think he fails as is shown here.
If morality is “just” the subjective projection of the desires of the most powerful, whether the most powerful tribe (nation/state/people group) or a single individual, then all reduces to power. At the end of the day, it is not about what is “right” or “wrong” it is about whom “wins” and the “winners” are whoever is more powerful in some form or fashion. Whether or not the “winners” ended up doing something “good” (winning World War II) or something bad (many might point out what the most powerful are doing to the environment right now) is irrelevant because there is no base point for “good” or “bad”. Without an objective north star, there is no way to navigate ethically; there are only choices and decisions. What we call the choices afterwards becomes a formality—they name nothing intrinsic, inherent, or ontological. They become the words “good” “bad” “wrong” “right” that simply name the desires of the most powerful and nothing more. And this remains the same even if the powerful end up doing what we think “good” since if their desire tomorrow was to do otherwise, it would still be their power that was the defining factor, regardless the action. And afterwards, regardless the choice, because of their power they would get to define what was “good” or “bad”. All we have here then is power.
And it demonstrates nothing to say but what if I do the “right” or “good” thing simply out of desire rather than because I ought to? The answer is: Great…and so what? If you have no way of telling us why it was “good” and “right” then the fact you desired it tells us nothing beyond what your internal emotional state was at the time. Tomorrow you may “desire” to do the opposite and it wouldn’t matter because the response leaves unanswered if the desire lines up with a true “right” or “good” in the first place. Hitler had desires too. Further, no man is an island. Desires are trained and formed by our family, community, culture, and the narrative we inhabit. Those are all objective referents in the limited sense. Finally, why your desire and not the other’s? What should we desire and why? Such a response leaves all this unanswered. Thus all the way around it is not an argument for anything and certainly doesn’t show morality to be subjective–it leaves those questions unanswered.
I will use the example again of a court of law and a lynch mob. The atheist may say that yes, the court of law is an objective referent, which may bring violence (life in prison) to the person in jail but it also brings violence to the lynch mob (who are acting illegally), therefore it is objective and impartial. It cares not about its own desires, but of fairness and equal justice. This is normally why we show the figure holding the scales of justice as being blind-folded.
However, here is the problem. The atheist must further admit that the court of law, the laws themselves, and the very idea of courts, fairness, and justice are all based finally in the subjective will and desires of those who set these systems up to begin with and whom we must assume were the more powerful since their view is in place and they can wield power “legally” unlike the lynch mob. So, regardless of whether the most powerful thought they were basing their views upon objective referents (God, Zeus, whatever), they were wrong and “really” just projecting and codifying their desires into law. Thus, at bottom, there is no inherent difference between a court of law and a lynch mob—there is just a different process or method involved. The view of the subjectivist relativizes each. Neither is good nor bad, just or unjust, they are each on the same plane. In other words the use of power is identical (Bernard’s point). Thus, even if the lynch mob were doing what they were doing out of a belief in an objective morality and those in charge of the court of law (and the culture) believed their system was entirely based upon the view morality was subjective, the use of power is identical because power is all there is here. If one truly believes morality is subjective, then all reduces to power, ultimately, regardless. I’m not sure Bernard realized he was making my very point by his admission the use of power between the two was “identical”.
One has to wonder what would happen if people truly and really believed this on a large scale (thank God they don’t!), let’s say, in the sense they knew Santa Claus to be fictional. If people really believed their cultural values, views regarding justice, morality and so forth were entirely created out of whole cloth so to speak, invented, imagined, and imposed by the most powerful (even if done centuries ago), why would the lynch mob idea appear wrong, once they realized this? Why can’t we (the leaders of the mob might say) then invent and imagine such to be the “right” and “legal” way to dispense justice? If the use of power is identical, no matter the motivation or what is really believed to be happening, then why should we care what method or process was used? Out of formality or good form? Tradition? Shame? What? And why? Maybe the courts and the law should be ashamed?
In effect, the atheist must say our laws, cultural norms, polity, beliefs in justice, mercy, (none of these are natural or based in nature) are all an imagined invention, something along the lines of Greek mythology (only now we know it to be mythology). He may feel there are “good” (think about that for a second) reasons for the charade but there it is, it is still just the desires of the winners writ large.
If one can’t answer the question of the mob (how are we different from you?) by appealing to something objective, in an ultimate sense, then they can only answer by saying something like, “Yes, you are right (we are doing the same thing you are) but the moment you get your mob together we will respond violently.” And the mob will get it. The one with the power wins—the entire rationale is now, “because I say so”. I appeal to nothing more than my desire and will coupled with power and this is what we all are “really” doing anyway, I just get to call my violence and power “legal”(this is Nietzsche’s will-to-power). I may appeal to a cultural narrative, but this too is based only upon the fact we “won” and have the power to impose our narrative upon the other, so it reduces to the same thing.
So I don’t see any way around this problem other than the question-begging reply, “you too.” It is question-begging because it assumes morality to be subjective to begin with and thus must assume any violence and power then are identical regardless the motivation or objective referents appealed to (or not) because it already believes there are no true objective referents to begin with and they know what is “really” going on whether it is a court of law or a lynch mob.
Finally, regardless of whether one believes morality to be subjective or objective, he does so for faith reasons, narrative/meta-physical-philosophical reasons. One cannot prove either in a scientific or empirical manner, although findings from those areas can be brought to bear, giving credence, but not proving either in any sort of final manner. Thus, as opposed to the atheist who is logically brought to the belief morality must be subjective (leaving aside Sam Harris for now), the agnostic must claim he doesn’t know if morality is objective or not, if the argument he is presented is based upon the prior belief in God and linked intrinsically to that belief and existence (as mine is). Again, to have a conversation of whether morality is objective or subjective (in an ultimate/meta sense) is to have a conversation regarding God’s existence or the existence of something transcendent. Thus, the agnostic must be agnostic as to whether or not morality is objective because he is agnostic (doesn’t know) whether or not God exists. The two are logically linked.
The greatest question lies here: Why, if neither side can prove empirically or scientifically their view and both admit they believe what they do by faith, would one believe in a view that reduces all to power? Why not believe the view that asserts a great and significant difference between a court of law and a lynch mob? Why not believe the view that brings the weaker amongst us up to the same level as those clearly more powerful? Why not believe our desires might be toward an actual objective “good” rather than a story that allows the powerful to simply name their desire “good” after they get their way? Why not believe the better story? And they are both stories. Which do you want to believe? If I may, the way one answers this question might tell us what we really think about power, our lack of it or our abundance, and place in society. There is a reason the poor, the weak, women, and the out-casts were the first to be drawn to the Christian narrative.
Of course that very narrative fundamentally problematizes violence and is an example of where power took the side of the weakest, the victim, the scapegoat. If Jesus was God in flesh, the most powerful being in existence, he did not respond with violence to those who persecuted him. He gave up his power, his will, and his desire. He forgave his executioners and let them “win”.
Since that event, the questions surrounding power, violence, victims, the weak, the strong, and sacrifice, have never been the same and I have yet to encounter a narrative based in materialism/naturalism/empiricism that even touches the garment of that event and the narrative it inspired.
To dismiss that narrative is to face up to the truth contained in the speech given by Ulysses in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, in which we might liken the ‘neglection of degree’ to the abandonment of an objective standard and what results when we do.
“O! When degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
The enterprise is sick. How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhood in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark! What discord follows; each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
And make a sop of this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather right and wrong—
Between whose endless jar justice resides—
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, a universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce a universal prey,
And last eat up himself. (I.3. 101-124)