The idea that ‘the meaning of ‘morality’ is subjective’ is something special about morality that makes moral knowledge distinct from any other type of knowledge is one that needs to be rejected.
All Meanings are Subjective
‘The meaning of ‘morality’ is subjective’ is true.
It is also the case that the meaning of ‘atom’ is subjective, the meaning of ‘malaria’ is subjective, the meaning of ‘planet’ is subjective, the meaning of ‘square’ is subjective, and the meaning of ‘objective’ is subjective.
In fact, the phrase, “The meaning of ‘X’ is subjective” is true for every single word and phrase in every single language – because the nature of language itself is subjective.
How do words get their meaning?
It happens through a series of formal and informal agreements whereby people decide – pretty much on a whim - to assign a particular meaning to a particular term.
I mentioned in an earlier post the scientific disagreement over the meaning of the term ‘planet’. Some scientists wanted the word defined in such a way that Pluto could continue to be a planet (‘planet’ equals ‘orbits a Sun and is large enough to be round by its own gravity’). Others wanted a narrower definition that excludes Pluto (‘planet’ equals ‘orbits a Sun, large enough to be round by its own gravity, and has for the most part swept its orbit clean of other objects’).
In this debate, astronomers did not defend their positions by writing peer-reviewed research papers that aim to prove or disprove competing definitions. They could not. Definitions are not subject to these types of arguments.
Instead, astronomers lobbied, pleaded, cajoled, organized letter-writing campaigns, donned bumper stickers, buttons, and pins, all aiming to promote their favorite theory of ‘planet’.
Finally, they took a vote!
The meaning of ‘planet’ is subjective.
Does it matter? Is there some profound conclusion that we can draw about astronomy from this observation that the meaning of ‘planet’ is subjective?
Most importantly, one conclusion we cannot legitimate draw is the conclusion that astronomy is not an objective field of study – that it is not concerned with the objective properties of things like planets.
The person who says that the meaning of ‘morality’ is subjective as if this is something special and unique about morality, and that some profound conclusions can be drawn from this fact, is making a mistake. There is nothing at all significant in this fact. Most importantly, it says nothing about the objectivity or subjectivity of morality itself.
Implications of "The Meaning of ‘Planet’ is Subjective"
To further illustrate why, “The meaning of ‘morality’ is subjective,” is not a profound statement with important implications, I want to look a little more closely at, “The meaning of ‘planet’ is subjective.”
Think of two astronomers who simply cannot come to agreement over the definition of ‘planet’. One of them has an unbreakable sentimental attachment to the idea of Pluto as a planet, and finds the idea of demoting the poor little cold spheroid to be too upsetting to contemplate. He also likes the idea of the solar system having, perhaps, a couple of dozen planets rather than just eight.
The other astronomer, on the other hand, is disgusted by the idea of a puny hunk of rock like Pluto – which is half the size of Earth’s moon – being called a planet. The term ‘planet’ belongs to the kings of the solar system – the masters. Having a couple dozen planets makes them simply way too common.
There is no way that these two will ever come to an agreement on the meaning of the word ‘planet’. Furthermore, there is no experiment – there is nothing – that will compel one definition over the other. Neither of them is looking at a matter of objective error; they simply have different preferences.
And yet nothing in this scenario threatens the idea that astronomy is an objective science. Both astronomers still face the same ‘objective truth’ in their studies. Nothing is ‘true’ in one system and ‘false’ in the other. The only difference is that the two astronomers speak different languages when it comes to reporting their findings, and some effort is required to translate findings from one language to the other. That’s it.
“The definition of ‘planet’ is subjective,” simply means that some translation is required if people decide to use different definitions – but the objectivity of planet-claims remains untouched.
Stipulated Definitions and the Principle of Substitution
The reason that two astronomers can have different meanings of the word ‘planet’ without threatening the objectivity of astronomy is because the astronomers recognize something that many who speak about subjective morality forget.
Stipulated definitions have to follow a principle of substitution.
If a person stipulates that the meaning of ‘term’ is ‘phrase’, this means that whenever that person uses ‘term’ or its cognates, we must be able to substitute ‘phrase’ or its cognates without changing the meaning of the term one iota.
Astronomer 1 in the example above stipulates one definition of planet. Astronomer 2 uses a different definition. Yet, in both cases, both astronomers obey the principle of substitution. Because of this, each astronomer can translate the claims the other makes into his own language without losing a shred of objectivity.
The problem with subjectivists who use the phrase, “The meaning of ‘morality’ is subjective,” is that they use it as the foundation for a fallacy. The moral subjectivist violates this principle of substitution, and then uses, “The meaning of ‘morality’ is subjective to cover up his mistake.
Violating the principle of substitution is, in fact, a fallacy. It is an equivocation – ‘changing the meaning of a term in the middle of an argument’.
To illustrate this, I want to refer once again to Jewish Atheist’s definition of ‘morality.’
an immoral act as an act that causes the individual committing the act any degree of guilt and/or an act that was done maliciously or selfishly that causes any degree of hurt or grief onto another living being.
Now, clearly, I hold that there are things in the real world that are “acts that cause the individual committing the act any degree of guilt.” I am not going to say that such things do not exist. I am also not going to deny that a number of statements about such acts are objectively true.
According to the principle of substitution, when somebody says, ‘immoral’ means ‘an act that causes the individual committing the act any degree of guilt’, from that point on he or she can never use the term ‘immoral’ or its cognates in any sense where substituting ‘an act that causes the individual committing the act any degree of guilt’ will not change its meaning one iota.
From here, we are going to encounter two types of cases.
There will be statements where the principle of substitution will be obeyed. Every one of those statements will be compatible with desire utilitarianism. The only difference is that I will express those objectively true statements in a different language – using different terms. It is a situation analogous to that of the two astronomers who use the term ‘planet’ with two different meanings – both of which confine their statements to those that obey the rule of substitution.
And there will be statements where the principle of substitution will be violated. The speaker will use the term ‘immoral’ in ways where ‘an act that causes the individual committing the act a degree of guilt’ will not fully capture the meaning. By using the term ‘immoral’ he will be saying, ‘an act that causes the individual committing the act a degree of guilt’
plus something more- something like ‘ought not to be done’ or ‘morally prohibited’ or something that is not already a part of the meaning of the phrase ‘an act that causes the individual committing the act a degree of guilt’.
They call this ‘something more’ that their use of moral terms adds to the meaning of purely descriptive phrases such as ‘an act that causes the individual committing the act a degree of guilt’ a ‘subjective truth’.
I call it ‘make believe’.
If their claim is not a part of the objective truth of ‘an act that causes the individual committing the act a degree of guilt’, then it is not ‘subjective truth’, it is ‘objective fiction’ – an invitation to equivocate on the meanings of terms and to assert (falsely) that the subjective meaning of ‘morality’ somehow gives legitimacy to these fallacies.
When somebody claims, “The meaning of ‘morality’ is subjective,” the proper response is not to dispute this claim. The proper response is to say, “Yeah? So what? If you think that this is profound or has something to say about the subjectivity of morality itself, you are mistaken. All meanings are subjective.”