Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Meaning of "Morality" is Subjective

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?

Absolutely not.

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.”


Baconeater said...

My point is that unless we can make the DEFINITION of morality OBJECTIVE we cannot even attempt to answer whether morality in itself is objective or subjective.

I am not a moral relativist by the way.
According to my definition of morality, there is right and wrong actions always, based on the individual circumstances that occur prior to or during the action.

But my definition is not everyones definition. And everyones definition seems to differ slightly from one person to another.

With respect to your Pluto analogy. Pluto will behave exactly the same no matter whether you think it is a planet or a rock. And it will be observed identically by those who call it a rock or a planet.

But if your definition of morality is "what Jesus would do" versus "the laws that govern your state" the actions may be the same, but the perception is different, like when it comes to legal abortion.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The point of the essay was to show that there is no such thing as an objective definition of anything. You cannot have an objective definition of morality.

You cannot have an objective definition of anything.

The only thing that we can possibly ask for is each speaker to obey the principle of substitution with their definitions.

"What Jesus would do," like Pluto, does not change its own propertied depending on what we call it. There is a set of objective facts surrounding "What Jesus would do," and those facts remain the same regardless of the words we use to describe them.

If a person says that 'morality' = 'What Jesus would do' obeys the principle of substitution, he will only use the word 'morality' to talk about the objective facts associated with 'What Jesus would do.'

If a person says that 'morality' = 'what Jesus would do' instead makes claims about 'what Jesus would do' that are not a part of these objective facts, then that person is violating the principle of substitution and is engaging in a fallacy of equivocation.

Such a person is actually making things up. His claims about 'what Jesus would do' that is not a part of the objective facts surrounding 'what Jesus would do' are not some sort of 'subjective truth'. They are 'objective fictions' that he is writing into his definition of 'morality' - something necessarily outside the objective truth of 'what Jesus would do'.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo, have you written anything on how morality applies to beings that are outside the familiar band that humans characterize? If we encounter or develop (or some of us become) more intelligent, conscious, or complex entities, how should they treat us? How then should we treat animals and other less complex replicators? Equality is an important assumption in most moral philosophies, but are all beings on the very broad scale of complexity equally entitled? I find this a most troubling question. What are your thoughts?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Well, kinda.

I have written two books - fiction - which I have not tried to get published, that dealt with a society with different creatures having different capabilities. They range from animals to near God-like creatures with exceptional intelligence and powers.

I never tried to get the books published, but I have written them.

One of them is posted on my web site: "The Cult of Justice and Will".

The other, "Thayne Tiempko's War," is sitting on a disk around here somewhere. The central theme of this book rests with the idea that even an omnipotent being who creates a planet and populates it has no right to demand the obedience of those he creates. There is a "cult" in this society - which Thayne Tiempko belongs to - that holds that the Gods are the moral equal to mortals. (The Gods, in this book, actually do exist and are in a habit of asserting that they have a right to rule and the citizens of the planet have a duty to obey).

Now that you mention it, maybe I'll dust it off and see if I can make it available.

Anonymous said...


A short question. Respecting this passage.

If [a] claim is not a part of the objective truth [...] then it is not ‘subjective truth’, it is ‘objective fiction'

Given none have universal knowledge of all objective substance, how do we objectively determine what claims are certain to represent objective truths? ... how do we clearly and fairly distinguish between objective and subjective claims?

While the object of any claim may be objectively true or false, to equate the objectiveness of the object of a claim with the objectiveness of the claim itself appears logically faulty to me.

Is there a perspective on this I've missed?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I apply the concept of 'objective' only to propositions.

Typically, I use the standard that a proposition is objective if it has a truth value independent of whether it is believed to be true. It is subjective if its truth value requires belief.

"I like chocolate" is objectively true. Anybody who disputes that statement is clearly not in touch with reality.

Even, "I believe that no God exists" is objective. It is as true as the statement, "I am in Colorado."

However, the proposition, "A planet is an object that is round by its own gravity, orbits a sun, and has swept its orbital ring substantially clear of other matter," is not objectively true. The only reason this is true is because a group of people decided that it is true. All definitions are subjective.

(However, Pluto is not an object that is round by its own gravity AND orbits a sun AND has swept its orbit substantially clear of other objects is objectively true.)

Anonymous said...

Alonzo, I much enjoyed reading The Cult of Justice and Will. You presented many complex issues in an entertaining and coherent manner, and for this I commend you. I'll keep track of your site for the appearance of Thayne Tiempko's War.

bpabbott said...


I apologize ... in my prior post I inadvertently posted as "anonymous" :-(

Thanks for the reply. Your examples are quite appropriate in clarifying the context. I believe we are on the same page.

However, I do not understand why a claim must respect favor a truth value.

Given our understanding of truth is not perfect, I find the reliance on truth to beg a universal authority of some kind (philosophical or real).

Why cannot a claim be false and still be objective?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


A claim can be false and still be objective.

In logic, a proposition can have a 'truth value' of 'false' (or, in computer language, a 'truth value' of 0).

bpabbott said...


Thanks for the clarification.