Objective-Subjective

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)

This entry was posted in agnostic, moral realism, objective, power, subjective. Bookmark the permalink.

65 Responses to Objective-Subjective

  1. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    If you are going to keep going here, why not answer these previous questions:

    “While nature may be cruel, it has created in us…”

    Please think about that introduction for a little while. Is nature alive, conscious? How did it know to do this? How did it want us to be different than its cruel self? How did it know what was cruel and what wasn't to begin with? Notice you create a personal objective referent called 'nature' here to basically take the place of God. Can no one look into the abyss as Nietzsche could?

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  2. Burk says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    I was using a figure of speach: personification. I did not mean anything theological.

    The “abyss” is also a figure of speach, and quite a loaded one. Reality might be a better term to use. Look into reality…

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  3. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    Reality is cruel, right? So your point regarding how “reality” could instill empathy doesn't work.

    The greater point is why the need to “personify” if the material is impersonal and a-moral? Because we can't look into the abyss.

    If we create and imagine what empathy or the “moral” is supposed to be, we don't get that from nature. If it is imagined, then it doesn't really exist–it is only a cover–a way to say our actions and choices are the “right” ones, meaning nothing more than they were what we wanted to begin with. That reduces to power then.

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  4. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    Your example of the abortion question seems to suggest you are still arguing that if power is used, at the end of the day, such alone means each case is identical. That is the very question disputed. Again, it would be like claiming that whether it was caused by an arsonist or the forest service doing a controlled burn (regardless of what either believed about morality), the fact that trees were burned means the use of fire (power) was the same.

    I addressed this in my post:

    “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’.”

    You are just repeating yourself. There is no way you can know if the two are identical unless you know whether or not morality is objective or not. You cannot know that unless you know whether God exists or not.

    Again, your agnosticism prevents you (or it should by logic) from drawing the conclusion they are identical.

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  5. Burk says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    A key phrase here is “all based finally in the subjective will and desires of those who set these systems up to begin with”

    That is empirically what we see, whatever the theory behind it. Bibles are simply written down recordings of someone's will and desires about how things should be. And whatever is written down, the application of such systems again depends on the will and desires of everyone concerned with such a system.

    Such will and desires are not the same as “reducing to power”. That is a simple-minded, reductive aspersion cast on a complicated, social process, which may have wide collective approval, and rational components. A process that is identical if cloaked behind a putative objective referent or not. This discussion will have to cease if you keep parroting.

    Objective referents do not reveal themselves in anything like clear fashion, and are susceptible to skeptical, if not scathing, critique. They certainly do not enforce themselves, judge themselves, defend themselves, cultivate by themselves, or do any of the many things that have to happen to set up a moral system. That all comes down to us and our subjective desires.

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  6. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    “…Such will and desires are not the same as “reducing to power”…”

    But they are without an objective referent. If once everything is pealed back, whether the reasons given by an individual or a nation, and there is nothing left to appeal to except “we have more power than you, bigger guns, more money” then it does reduce to power.

    It’s not parroting at all, it is the heart of a philosophical discussion that goes back to Nietzsche and further.

    If the material is all that exists, then “Reality” is only power in motion. If you can give an example of where there is something appealed to beyond the fact we have more power, then it would be something objective. By your own admission, you don’t think there is. This seems rather logical then that power is all that's left.

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  7. Burk says:

    Once all is peeled back, we also have feelings about right and wrong, and act on them to create virtuous, democratic, and just societies.

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  8. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    You are just parroting Nietzsche:

    “What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins…to be truthful means to employ the usual metaphors. Thus, to express it morally, this is the duty to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd and in a manner binding upon everyone”

    It was this understanding of truth (that it was not objective—something outside us) that logically led him to his views on power and that everything reduces to power once the above “illusions” were put aside or understood to be such—whether the illusions of the religious or the secular.

    And it matters little how sophisticated the process or how long it took if, at the end of the day, all of our justifications for the use of power and violence are illusions.

    That you think this is whatever is “really” doing only proves my point.

    “Once all is peeled back, we also have feelings about right and wrong, and act on them to create virtuous, democratic, and just societies.”

    Our “feelings” have been trained to “feel” the way they do by the narratives we inhabit, which are objective. You are assuming those words mean something beyond power—but they can’t without some objective referent. Without that referent, there is no “right” “wrong” or “virtuous” to begin with (we don’t get it from nature) there is only our will (which could be good, bad, indifferent) or power.

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  9. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    Further, are you saying if everything was pealed back, that our “feelings” are naturally toward democratic forms of government, with no other factor involved? Did nature or reality put that in all of us?

    Should we then use our power to impose that “natural” feeling on the rest of the world? They must be unnatural–those who don't share that “feeling”.

    I don't think you believe so, but see where this type thinking can go?

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  10. Hi Darrell

    I think I am beginning to see what you are getting at, although I must say this appears to be a most unusual use of the word power.

    If I have you right, you are saying the existence of an objective moral truth in and of itself has absolutely no impact on the way power is used. If so, we agree.

    And, given power is used in identical ways under both systems, I would respectfully suggest the phrase 'reduces to power' under subjectivism is entirely misleading, as someone reading it is likely to assume you are talking about the way power is employed. Indeed, the phrase often appears to be used in a pejorative sense, as if we should be afraid of this reduction whereas, having no practical implication, it's hard to see what one might fear.

    The difference for you seems to be that if an ought exists, then the situation is different in that an ought exists. You'll not find me going into bat against such a tautology, of course, but I would urge a more careful use of language. Why create false conflict, right, when at heart we are in agreement?

    Thanks for the conversation, as always.

    Bernard

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  11. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    “If I have you right, you are saying the existence of an objective moral truth in and of itself has absolutely no impact on the way power is used. If so, we agree.”

    Not quite-as I've pointed out many times before, just because an objective morality exists it doesn't mean violence or power is not going to be used (like when a state imprisons or executes someone) as a last resort. So it impacts whether or not the power and violence is justified and based on something more than just saying (after everything is pealed back), “We want this and we have the power to do this.” It is the difference between a court of law and a lynch mob. It has a critical impact on the way we understand how (or the why) power and violence is used in the two forms of “justice”. We would never say that because both ended in violence that power was used in the same way.

    This is hardly a tautology and it is a critical, significant difference. It is the difference between what we call civilization and barbarity.

    As always, thanks for the conversation.

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  12. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    By the way, I made it very clear, in my very first comment response to you what I meant by power:

    “I mean ‘power’ as in- who, at the end of the day, gets their desires fulfilled. I mean power as in when two people or two tribes have a dispute or want the same thing and only one is going to get that ‘thing’. I mean power as to what is considered ‘legal’ violence and what is considered ‘illegal’ violence and even the power involved in deciding such. I mean ‘power’ as it is discussed in the post; I think it rather clear in context.”

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  13. Darrell says:

    Just a final note Bernard,

    If all this time you were just saying that whether it’s a lynch mob or a court of law, and regardless what either believe about morality, if a person is dead at the end of their respective “processes” of meting out justice then the use of power is identical (meaning only that a person is dead), then that is saying nothing more than what I noted with my forest fire example.

    The fact a person is dead tells us nothing pertinent to the question of what justifies the use of power and violence and if there’s a difference (ultimately-not in a limited sense) between a court of law and a lynch mob.

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  14. Hi Darrell

    I do just feel compelled to point out that the argument I have made here bears absolutely no resemblance to one you've just summarised.

    Oh well, so it goes.

    Bernard

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  15. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    You are always welcome to explain how there is no resemblance in a more full-fledged manner on your own blog.

    You would have plenty of space there to make your case. In the mean-time, I can see nothing more being said on your part other than, “You too.” And even that response doesn't seem to be saying more than both methods of meting out justice ended in violence and both resorted to power (or fire as in the forest fire example). I would ask anyone (other than the two of us) to re-read through all the responses and comments and not see if anything else is being said on your part. They would be welcome to point it out to all of us. I could have completely misunderstood you.

    But I will leave that to a third party (how ironic). If you wish to make a full response, you should do so on your own blog or one created for that purpose.

    As always, thank you for the conversation-you always help clarify and make me think about what I'm saying and I hope that is somewhat mutual.

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