Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Subjective Morality

Announcement: I am honored to have one of my postings selected for this edition of "Carnival of the Liberals."

New Business: Subjective Morality

I consider common moral subjectivism to be one of the most obnoxious belief systems around. In fact, I have more intellectual respect for the religious ethicist than the moral subjectivist, based on one principle point.

If you go to a religious ethicist and ask, "What would be the implication if you were to discover that there is no God and everything you base your morality on is simply made up, having no tie to reality?"

The religious ethicist will answer, "That will be a problem."

Ask the same question to a moral subjectivist, and he would answer, "What do you mean 'if'?"

The subjectivist admits that his rules have no bearing on reality. He even draws a hard distinction between 'fact' and 'value' to stress the idea that any talk of 'value' has nothing to do with 'fact.'

In this, as I wrote yesterday, the subjectivist's so-called 'morality' has a lot in common with a child's game of 'let's pretend.' The moral subjectivist makes up a set of rules. He decides to act as if those rules were true. While, at the same time, he admits that they are not true.

Furthermore, if somebody else were to invent a different game of 'let's pretend' with different rules, he cannot say that his game is objectively better than theirs. All he can do is appeal to his own let's pretend rules. Those rules might or might not not include rules like, let's pretend that slavery is wrong or let's pretend that people who seek to execute all the Jews in a Holocaust are evil.

The particularly obnoxious feature of subjectivism is that it is a game of 'let's pretend' that is used to 'justify' real-world violence. The subjectivist's game of 'let's pretend' is a game of, "Let's pretend that it is okay to fine, imprison, enslave, or even kill X." Importantly, it is then actually used to fine, imprison, enslave, or even kill X.

Why is okay to kill them? Ultimately, the subjectivist answers, "Because I invented this let's pretend rule that says that it is okay to kill them. If I had invented a rule that says that they should live then, ergo, they should live. Of course these are make-believe rules, and I could have just as easily adopted a different set of make-believe rules in which these people lived rather than died. But, they happened to find themselves in a universe in which I adopted the make-believe rule that said that they should die. So I killed them."

One Argument for Subjectivism

I particularly enjoy the argument for subjectivism that notes that people have different moral beliefs. "Therefore, morality is subjective." For example, in a recent discussion, one participant offered to prove that morality is subjective by saying, "I know one person who is a Muslim who believes that a man can have multiple wives, and another who is a fundamentalist Christian who believes that a person should have only one wife."

Sorry, sir, but I know a scientist who thinks that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, and a biblical literalist who insists that it is no more than 10,000 years old. Should I imply from this that the issue of the age of the earth is subjective?

Your Muslim and Christian friends are both basing their moral claims on a false premise -- 'God exists.' It makes absolutely no sense to say that we should take conclusions grounded on a false premise and say that they are equally sound. We already have good reason for rejecting both claims -- or, at least, rejecting their evidence for these claims.

The only type of evidence that would count as 'proof' of subjectivism would be cases where two people agree on all of the facts yet reach different moral conclusions.

A Matter of Taste

One of the mistakes that subjectivists make is that they start talking about personal preferences as if they were moral claims.

For example, it is possible that I can agree with my wife on every single fact in the universe. Yet, it is the case that I like calamari, and she hates it. Does this not prove that value is subjective?

Well, it is also the case that my wife and I agree on every fact in the universe (hypothetically), yet I am male, and she is female. Does this prove that gender is subjective? Even though we agree on every fact in the universe, I have brown hair while hers is red. Our agreement on every fact in the universe happens to coincide, at the moment, with the fact that I am in Denver while she is in Boulder. Yet, none of these facts are properly called 'subjective'. They are not put in separate category that is somehow different from 'fact' the way that subjectists put value in a category distinct from fact.

The fact that have different likes and dislikes, even while we agree on all of the facts of the universe, is no more proof of subjectivity than the fact that we have different genders, hair color, and location. These qualities are still a matter of objective fact. Treating them as something else is simply a mistake.

Then, there is the question of whether moral claims are claims about one's personal preference - a claim that runs into its own problems.

The Implications of Personal Preference

Once we recognize that personal preferences are still matters of objective fact -- like gender, hair color, and location -- we must then recognize that we are limited in the conclusions that we can infer from having these qualities. For example, the proposition "I have a desire to have sex with Martha" does not entail, "Martha is morally obligated to have sex with me."

This implication, however, lies at the foundation of moral subjectivism. The moral subjectivist draws moral conclusions from what are, in effect, his or her own personal preferences. Their 'morality' as they call it is nothing more than their own individual likes and dislikes. Yet, in appealing to their likes and dislikes, they draw conclusions about what others ought to do, who ought to be punished, who deserves a reward, and who he will fine, imprison, enslave, or kill. They make an entirely incomprehensible and invalid leap from "I like X," to "You ought to bring about X."

What the moral subjectivist needs to explain, which I suggest that no moral subjectivist can explain, is how they make the leap of logic from "I like" to to "You ought" and "You ought not."

This logical leap requires the introduction of make-believe rules that have validity merely because the subjectivist has decided to insert them into his argument. The subjectivist admits that these rules have no basis in reality or 'fact'. Yet, these make-believe rules have the power to infer 'You ought' and "You ought not.'

This does not solve the problem. If the rules that one is appealing to are make-believe, then the ought and ought-not conclusions that one draws from them are make-believe as well.

Recommendation to Subjectivists

What I would like to suggest to the subjectivist is, "Let's not pretend." Let us deal only with facts and, if something is not a fact, then it should be discarded as being irrelevant in the real world. If values are not facts, then let us throw values out.

If we find that we cannot throw values out -- that we cannot explain and predict events in the real world accurately without postulating the existence of values as real-world entities, then this suggests that values are real-world entities.

If we can throw them out -- if we lose no explanatory or predictive power by never again talking about values -- then they are not real and we have no business using them in the discussion of real-world events. We particularly have no businesses using them to justify our actions when we work to fine, imprison, enslave, or kill other people.

If we get to the point of claiming that values are real entities that explain and predict real-world events, then we can start asking questions like, "What type of real-world entities are they?"

What the Subjectivist Gets Right

As with most belief systems, there are some things that the subjectivist gets right, which provides the initial incentive to adopt the system.

In the case of subjectivists, two principle propositions that they get right are these:

(1) There is no such thing as 'intrinsic value'. There are no 'value entities' that adhere to certain states of affairs, releasing 'goodons' and 'badons' that we somehow sense (and sense correctly) through a magical moral-sense organ locked somewhere in the brain. Any theory that depends on these types of entities can be thrown out as fiction.

(2) People always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires (given their beliefs). Many of the claims that subjectivists make -- though they say they are talking about morality -- are merely descriptive claims about why they do what they do. To explain their actions they make reference to their own beliefs and desires. To appeal to an outside force -- particularly an external moral force -- as a part of the explanation for their actions is a mistake. To the degree that any outside force is responsible, then the action is not their action.

Whatever values are, they must be made consistent with these facts. Yet, at the same time, they cannot be made into imaginary or 'let's pretend' entities. This is the issue that I discussed yesterday. In answer to this challenge, I argue that values exist in the real world as relationships between states of affairs and desires. But states of affairs, desires, and the relationships that exist between them, are all real. They are facts, through and through.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Value claims are claims about reasons for action. Value claims are objectively true or false depending on whether the relationship between an object of evaluation and reasons for action is true or false.

These relationships between desires and states of affairs are not 'make believe'. They exist as a matter of objective fact. Because they exist as a matter of objective fact, we can talk about what their real-world properties are. Nothing is 'make believe'. Value-facts are discovered like any other type of fact.

Reasons for Action (Again)

When a person makes a value claim he is making a claim about reasons for action. A person who calls X 'good' is making a claim that there are reasons for action to maintain or bring about states of affairs where 'X' exists. A person who calls X bad is saying that this is a state of affairs that there are reasons for action to avoid.

If he is making a claim about reasons for action, either those reasons for action exist and the statement is (objectively) true, or those reasons for action do not exist and the claim is (objectively) false.

Making a claim about something being good or bad that is divorced from reasons for action is nonsense.

If you are going to assert that there are reasons for action for bringing about or avoiding X, then please identify the real-world reasons for action that exist for bringing about or avoiding X. If you cannot identify real-world reasons for action for bringing about or avoiding X, then, please, do not make assertions to the effect that there are reasons for bringing about or avoiding X. Above all, do not claim that, "There are no real-world reasons for bringing about or avoiding X but I insist that everybody pretend that such reasons exist and those who do not shall be punished."

The quest for reasons for action that exist -- that are real -- is not in vain. Reasons that exist are called desires. Different individuals have different desires -- just as they have different genders, hair color, and location. This does not make them any less real.

Moral obligations and prohibitions are not derived directly from personal preferences. It is wholly invalid to assert, "I would like it if you did X; therefore, you have an obligation to do X."

Statements about obligations and prohibitions, insofar as they are value statements, have to be making a reference to reasons for action (desires). Insofar as "I like/dislike; therefore, you ought/ought not" is invalid, statements about obligations and prohibitions cannot be making a reference solely to the 'reasons for action' of the person making the statement. Moral statements make a reference to reasons for action (desires), but not those of the agent.

I do not have space here to discuss which reasons for action are embodied in moral statements. In that discussion, I would conclude that moral statements evaluate desires (reasons for action) according to whether they fulfill or thwart other desires (reasons for action). But I have no room to defend that position here.

However, whether this is right or wrong it does not save the subjectivist from the problem I have already mentioned -- the problem of 'let's pretend' reasons to fine, imprison, enslave, or kill other people that are actually being used to fine, imprison, enslave, or kill other people.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this series of posts - very thought provoking. I'm going to need some more time to ponder them before I can decide whether or not I agree, but at least I won't be misunderstanding you any more. (I hope.)

Brian said...

Mr. Fyfe,

This comment is in reference to the section in your post entitled "One Argument for Subjectivism". Morality is subjective, for instance let us look Greek virtues (ancient virtues for that matter) versus Christian Values. After taking a Greek History course in college I have come to learn that Greek virtues place emphasis on nobility, pride, victory, practiced bisexuality, and things of this nature. However, Christian virtues are as follows: humility, meekness, poverty, abhoring sexual "perversion", and alturisim. Clearly these vitures contrast each other in every respect, so how can one say that moral aren't subjective to race, culture and so forth?

As for the rebutal used in the "One Argument for Subjectivism" using the case of the age of the does not fit with the context of the argument. You have two scientists that are at odds with each other over the age of the earth. However, this does not mean the age of the earth is subjective. The reason for this is that the biblical scholar is trying in vain to prove that the bible is historically accurate (but we all know that this is not true) so he can sleep at night knowing that he isnt kidding himself about the existence of God. However, the scientist is using hard facts to roughly estimate the age of the earth. Facts such as mineral deposits in areas, carbon dating, land formation and topography of an area, so on and so forth. To use in reference to moral subjectivism is false on every ground.

Science uses fact and observation to ascertain truth, not what religious leaders go on, which is their beliefs and "gut instinct".

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Well, as an atheist I do not see any reason to consider the Christian practice of taking the Bible to be an accurate representation of moral truth any differently than their claim that it represents scientific truth. As such, I can reject "Christian Values" in exactly the same way that I reject "Christian Facts."

I can also reject ancient Greek values on the same basis that I reject ancient Greek facts. They, too, based their conclusions on an incomplete understanding of the universe and their position in it.

Now, ultimately, your argument is that science is based on fact and observation while morality is not. Yet, I hold that if morality is not based on fact and observation, we should be rid of it entirely. The idea of a "subjective morality" where each person gets to, effectively, make up their own "let's pretend" morality out of nothing, is problematic at best.

As it turns out, I think that it is possible to base morality on fact an observation. Against this view, an argument built on the assumption that this cannot be done is begging the question. It cannot be used as a proof that I am mistaken if it start with the premise, "Assume that you are mistaken."

The trick is to actually demonstrate how morality can be based on fact and observation. That is not the subject of this specific post. Here, I only sought to clear the subjectivist obstacles out of the way -- to show that subjectivists have no reason to believe it cannot be done.

Anonymous said...

Morality is subjective because it is prescriptive, not descriptive. When we talk about objective facts, we are talking about the way something IS. When we talk about morality, we are talking about how things OUGHT to be. These are clearly opposite and mutually exclusive concepts, and you cannot get an OUGHT from an IS. That's why morality is not, and cannot be, objective.

icarus_uk at

Anonymous said...

Saying "[insert whatever] is evil" is like saying "yellow is the ugliest color". Both are asserting positive claims. The burden of proof is on you to show why [insert whatever] is evil. You won't be able to prove either one, that's because they're both subjective.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Your statement is nothing but a pure assertion. The arguments in my post are sufficient to prove my point - at least you did nothing to demonstrate that I had either false premises or invalid inferences. You simply asserted that I was wrong. It's pretty much the moral equivalent of shouting "I refuse to listen to anything you have to say."

Anonymous said...

Anon -
Morality is subjective because it is prescriptive, not descriptive. When we talk about objective facts, we are talking about the way something IS. When we talk about morality, we are talking about how things OUGHT to be. These are clearly opposite and mutually exclusive concepts, and you cannot get an OUGHT from an IS.

You cannot have any sensible prescription without having a workable description. Thus morality (real morality, not the make-believe morality of the religions or the subjectivists) must be descriptive first, and prescriptive after.

When we talk about morality, we can very easily talk about something that IS. It is easy to determine if holding someone's hand in a fire is harmful to them or not. This is description.

Once you have a descriptive model, you can use it to make prescriptions (assuming you have a goal). Once you have a model of newtonian physics, you can prescribe actions in order to achieve a goal such as "Land on the moon."

Thus a moral theory with accurate description of reality can also perscribe things such as: If you value your life, create a society that discourages violence. To use a simple example.

Saying "[insert whatever] is evil" is like saying "yellow is the ugliest color". Both are asserting positive claims. The burden of proof is on you to show why [insert whatever] is evil. You won't be able to prove either one, that's because they're both subjective.

If you use some silly definition of evil like "things I don't like", then sure, yellow could be evil. But if you use a sensible definition similar to that of the almost everyone else in the world, you will define evil as "something that unneccisarily causes great harm". In which case it would be relatively simple to prove whether something is or is not evil.

Anonymous said...

You guys are just arguing over definitions. It seems kind of silly to me. Obviously what you consider evil is based on what your definition of evil is. I mean shit, the church of Satan believes evil is good. Obviously this doesn't fit your definition of evil as being "something that unneccisarily causes great harm". My advice, stop arguing over what evil is until you can agree on a definition of the word evil.

Anonymous said...

My advice, stop arguing over what evil is until you can agree on a definition of the word evil.

The point is that the words used don't matter. Whatever you may call it, there are still things that cause you harm. And people in generally have many good reasons to prevent others from acting in ways that cause people harm. Generally people use the word "bad" or "evil" to label these harmful actions. But the word used doesn't matter, call it "orange" or "puppy" if you want. What something is called doesn't affect what it is.

Anonymous said...

Yet, I hold that if morality is not based on fact and observation, we should be rid of it entirely.

Sure, and that is the exact conclusion that I draw. However, unlike you, I do not believe that morality is based on fact and observation, or even evidence. So I am a moral nihilist (though not a nihilist in every sense...I believe in objective truth).

Once you have a descriptive model, you can use it to make prescriptions (assuming you have a goal). Once you have a model of newtonian physics, you can prescribe actions in order to achieve a goal such as "Land on the moon."

But what justification is there for the goal? What you give is an argument for an objective code of conduct conditional on a subjective morality. Even I agree with that, but it's not an argument against subjective morality.

There is a distinction between morality and codes of conduct. I have a code of conduct which I call my "ethics". I have innate guidelines for myself that prevent me from acting randomly. There are things that I FEEL like I should or should not do (for whatever biological/evolutionary or environmental reasons). Even as a moral nihilist, I am basically a "good" person according to most societal norms. I just don't believe there is any justification for my "ethics". It simply is what it is. However, everyone has these codes of conduct. No one acts randomly. That's why even nihilists like myself don't necessarily exhibit "nihilist" behavior. But it still doesn't provide a "should".

Obviously what you consider evil is based on what your definition of evil is. I mean shit, the church of Satan believes evil is good.

The Church of Satan has no belief that "evil is good". They don't worship evil. Incidentally, they are moral relativists, and many, if not most, are atheists/agnostics/deists... Satanism is essentially apatheistic, more concerned with pragmatism and "what does Satan represent" and than with theology and "who/what is Satan". It's not really relevant to your point, but I wouldn't want you to misrepresent their stance.

Andrew said...

Interesting stuff. Great article.

2 questions..

(1) If morality is simply an extension of human evolution, doesn't morality necessarily have to be subjective? What I mean is... there are many different ways humans can survive and flourish, so wouldn't every possible way that helped us survive and flourish be "right"? In essence Nazism could be as right as Liberal Humanism because it would help (*some of us*) survive and flourish.

(2) If you think morality isn't subjective then how on earth can you determine objective morality?

--my apologies if you have answered this somewhere in the post and I missed it.


Anonymous said...

there is an experiment by an american phycolgist that might sheds some light on this desction. you have a teacher,student,boss. the only one not in on the"joke" is the teacher. the student is straped to an electric chair. the teacher asks the student a set of questions ,if he gets any wrong he must shock the student. the more questions he gets wrong the worse the shock.untill the final "leathal" shock is given if the teacher complains he is told "the test requiers you to continue"

Anonymous said...

80% of the teachers gave the "leathal" shock. thay just killed some one for getting a set of questions wrong, normal every day people, how can morality be objective if we can so easley bypass them. or give the responsablity too someone else ? sujective morality is more probable. how ever distasetfull it might seem.

Anonymous said...

I noticed that you have arguments against every position but your own. I do not consider this good nor bad, as I am a nihilist. However, I don't understand why atheists feel as though people should live by their rules. I thought that is why you all run with tails between your legs from religion?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


It appears as if you have boughten into the propagandist claims about atheists - the claims of people who think that denigrating others is a virtue. You should get to know a few atheists and test those attitudes against observed reality.

Argen said...

I dont't see in this post any argument to prove that subjectivism is just "pretending". When you are even a simple individualist subjectivist you consider as the valuable state the one with which you agree and a contrario. Agreement or disagreement are "objective" states of mind in the same way as is the desire. They exist. Agreement or disagreement are not false. They are real though subjective and the men is simply the creator of it. That is all.

The other thing that I see is ununderstending of the subjectivism imo. That is because your desirism is also subjective and argument ad "planets and the moon" is not relevant for this discussion. First of all by destroying all the planets you are not annihilating any moons. You are just changing the nomenclature. Second thing is the very definition of subjectivism - subjective is what existence is related to the existence of the human mind and desires ironically fulfil it perfectly. Here the discussion is sadly over.

That is why relativism can be objective or subjective - subjective when related to any states of human mind. Objective when related to smth defferent for example culture or society structure.

Imo the thing which you are against here is individualism in ethics but it is totally defferent story and beside of it i didn't see till this moment any good justification of univeralism and that is why I reject it.

Anonymous said...

What position do you stand on the this topic?

Anonymous said...

Hi Argen,

what stand with you agree more with on this topic? Objective or Subjective?