Is morality objective or subjective?

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Peter Holmes
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Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » July 6th, 2018, 6:16 am

The key to answering this question is the difference between factual and moral assertions – and how this relates to what we call objectivity and subjectivity.

We use the word objective to mean to ‘relying on facts’. And facts are true regardless of what anyone believes or claims to know, and regardless of their source. But all factual assertions are falsifiable, because they assert something about reality that may not be the case. So evidence is needed to justify them.

By contrast, we use the word subjective to mean ‘relying on judgement, belief or opinion’. Judgements can be individual or collective. They can be more or less rationally justifiable. And because they express values, we often refer to such judgements as value judgements or just values.

The difference between objectivity and subjectivity has been called the fact-value distinction. But discussions about specifically moral values are about how we ought to behave, so here the difference has been called the is-ought distinction.

Given this understanding of objectivity and subjectivity, moral assertions are subjective, because they express value judgements, rather than make falsifiable factual claims. And two examples illustrate the distinction.

1 The assertion people eat animals and their products is a fact – a true factual assertion. But the vegan assertion eating animals and their products is wrong expresses a moral judgement, not a fact. The two assertions have completely different functions.

2 That some states execute some criminals is true. But that states should execute some criminals – that execution is morally justifiable – is a judgement. If there were a moral fact of the matter, we could not argue about the judgement.

An argument that objective morality is evidence for the existence of anything – let alone a god – is unsound, because morality is not objective. It is rational to have sound reasons for our moral judgements, such as wanting to promote individual well-being. But they remain judgements, so they are subjective.

Trouble is, the assertion morality is subjective seems wrong and offensive. It seems to mean that whatever someone judges to be morally right or wrong is indeed morally right or wrong – so that anything goes, and moral relativism and anarchy is the result.

But that is to forget the is-ought distinction. To say an action is morally right or wrong is to express a judgement, not to state a fact. So an action is not – and does not become - morally right or wrong just because someone believes it is.

The expressions objective morality and moral fact are contradictions – or they could be called oxymorons. But our moral values and assertions matter deeply to us, so the mistake of believing there are moral facts is easy to explain. It is an understandable misunderstanding.

But, ironically, if there were moral facts, their source would be irrelevant. The assertion this is good because I say – or a god says – it is good has no place in a rational moral debate. An argument from authority is as mistaken for moral as it is for factual assertions. So the theistic argument from objective morality undermines itself.

The full version of this argument is at: http://www.peasum.co.uk/420676773

Eduk
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Eduk » July 6th, 2018, 1:39 pm

I think I objectively have a morality. And I think you objectively have a morality.
Neither me or you can simply invent our own morality without potentially contradicting our objective morality.
However our objective moralities aren't objectively true. They are only relatively true.
Personally I don't see another option and I can live with the lose of absolutism.

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ThomasHobbes
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by ThomasHobbes » July 6th, 2018, 1:54 pm

Eduk wrote:
July 6th, 2018, 1:39 pm
I think I objectively have a morality. And I think you objectively have a morality.
Neither me or you can simply invent our own morality without potentially contradicting our objective morality.
However our objective moralities aren't objectively true. They are only relatively true.
Personally I don't see another option and I can live with the lose of absolutism.
Do you think you have grasped the meaning of subjective and objective?
"I think I objectively have a morality." = this sentence is inherently incoherent.

Eduk
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Eduk » July 6th, 2018, 2:04 pm

I don't believe so. I admit it is not straightforward. For example if I hit my hand with a rock it is fair to say that objectively I have hit my hand with a rock. You likely would be unsurprised if I said that it hurt. Now is the pain solely relative, solely objective or a mix? I would say I objectively receive nerve impulses to the brain. That I objectively have a brain which interprete such impulses as pain. And so on. You can decide where the line is drawn but for me there is no clear line of demarcation.
So now the same is true morally. I objectively experience altruism for example. It has an objective existence irrespective of my relative interpretation.

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LuckyR
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by LuckyR » July 7th, 2018, 12:06 am

Peter Holmes wrote:
July 6th, 2018, 6:16 am
The key to answering this question is the difference between factual and moral assertions – and how this relates to what we call objectivity and subjectivity.

We use the word objective to mean to ‘relying on facts’. And facts are true regardless of what anyone believes or claims to know, and regardless of their source. But all factual assertions are falsifiable, because they assert something about reality that may not be the case. So evidence is needed to justify them.

By contrast, we use the word subjective to mean ‘relying on judgement, belief or opinion’. Judgements can be individual or collective. They can be more or less rationally justifiable. And because they express values, we often refer to such judgements as value judgements or just values.

The difference between objectivity and subjectivity has been called the fact-value distinction. But discussions about specifically moral values are about how we ought to behave, so here the difference has been called the is-ought distinction.

Given this understanding of objectivity and subjectivity, moral assertions are subjective, because they express value judgements, rather than make falsifiable factual claims. And two examples illustrate the distinction.

1 The assertion people eat animals and their products is a fact – a true factual assertion. But the vegan assertion eating animals and their products is wrong expresses a moral judgement, not a fact. The two assertions have completely different functions.

2 That some states execute some criminals is true. But that states should execute some criminals – that execution is morally justifiable – is a judgement. If there were a moral fact of the matter, we could not argue about the judgement.

An argument that objective morality is evidence for the existence of anything – let alone a god – is unsound, because morality is not objective. It is rational to have sound reasons for our moral judgements, such as wanting to promote individual well-being. But they remain judgements, so they are subjective.

Trouble is, the assertion morality is subjective seems wrong and offensive. It seems to mean that whatever someone judges to be morally right or wrong is indeed morally right or wrong – so that anything goes, and moral relativism and anarchy is the result.

But that is to forget the is-ought distinction. To say an action is morally right or wrong is to express a judgement, not to state a fact. So an action is not – and does not become - morally right or wrong just because someone believes it is.

The expressions objective morality and moral fact are contradictions – or they could be called oxymorons. But our moral values and assertions matter deeply to us, so the mistake of believing there are moral facts is easy to explain. It is an understandable misunderstanding.

But, ironically, if there were moral facts, their source would be irrelevant. The assertion this is good because I say – or a god says – it is good has no place in a rational moral debate. An argument from authority is as mistaken for moral as it is for factual assertions. So the theistic argument from objective morality undermines itself.

The full version of this argument is at: http://www.peasum.co.uk/420676773
What you describe as trouble, to me is just a fact of life. And accepting that fact does not lead to anarchy.
"As usual... it depends."

Peter Holmes
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » July 7th, 2018, 12:59 am

Agreed. I was trying to voice a common reaction, to show it's a mistake. Sorry if that wasn't clear.

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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Belindi » July 7th, 2018, 2:29 am

Morality is a social construct which is necessary for a people to work together and survive. It's a fact that mammals sympathise with each other and this may be the case with young human children until and unless society pollutes their inherent empathy(Rousseau-esque opinion).
Another fact is that humans inherently possess mirror neurons.
Another fact is that extenuating circumstances pertaining to immoral behaviour may with reason be extended indefinitely .

Morality is therefor inter-subjective and can be influenced by objective scientific facts.

Obviously different societies hold to different moral codes; moral code partly defines a society. It's inevitable that societies will be in conflict. International conflict resolution is an important effort and an academic discipline.

Peaceful interpersonal conflict resolution is sometimes not enjoined by the society's moral code which may demand that honour be satisfied. A moral code based upon 'honour' may include a widespread vendetta system of maintaining order, as was the case in Arabia until Muhammad introduced an adapted Judaic moral code and thus changed the means by which tribes kept order among themselves.

Peter Holmes
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » July 7th, 2018, 3:05 am

Thanks, Belindi. I agree with everything you say. There are facts about our evolving moral judgements and the scope of our moral concerns - their source, history and rationality. But they remain value judgements and so, by definition, subjective: matters of judgement, belief or opinion.

I'd just point out that, when you say 'morality is inter-subjective', you're using the word 'subjective' differently from the way I use it in my argument, which is to contrast it with 'objective' in characterising attitudes and, specifically, the function of an assertion. Which is fine, of course.

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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Belindi » July 7th, 2018, 3:25 am

Peter Holmes wrote:
I'd just point out that, when you say 'morality is inter-subjective', you're using the word 'subjective' differently from the way I use it in my argument, which is to contrast it with 'objective' in characterising attitudes and, specifically, the function of an assertion. Which is fine, of course.
Ye, I did have reservations about using 'inter-subjective'. If I may discuss this a little more I'd say that morality although it's an objective fact that defines human beings (and other social animals if we stretch the point) morality is also internalised by most people who are then said to have operative consciences. This applies not only to socially compliant people but also to those stroppy moral reformers who dialogue with others to effect beneficial changes to the moral code. I think that in liberal societies it may be useful to polarise people into those two groups. It's my subjective opinion that stroppy moral reformers are good people; the subjectivised moral opinion which I just stated is permitted in liberal societies where freedom of thought, conscience, speech and association is permitted.

Peter Holmes
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Peter Holmes » July 7th, 2018, 3:44 am

I think that's an interesting distinction - and I agree with you about stroppy moral reformers - they drive our collective moral progress. And I agree that one characteristic of progressive societies is being open to moral debate - which at least implicitly means a recognition that morality isn't objective (factual), and is certainly not absolute. Closed, authoritarian societies - some of them religiously-dominated - always demand discipline and compliance.

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ThomasHobbes
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by ThomasHobbes » July 7th, 2018, 8:40 am

Eduk wrote:
July 6th, 2018, 2:04 pm
I don't believe so. I admit it is not straightforward. For example if I hit my hand with a rock it is fair to say that objectively I have hit my hand with a rock. You likely would be unsurprised if I said that it hurt. Now is the pain solely relative, solely objective or a mix?
The pain like your "your" morality is subjective, obviously.

Karpel Tunnel
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Karpel Tunnel » July 7th, 2018, 4:26 pm

ThomasHobbes wrote:
July 7th, 2018, 8:40 am
Eduk wrote:
July 6th, 2018, 2:04 pm
I don't believe so. I admit it is not straightforward. For example if I hit my hand with a rock it is fair to say that objectively I have hit my hand with a rock. You likely would be unsurprised if I said that it hurt. Now is the pain solely relative, solely objective or a mix?
The pain like your "your" morality is subjective, obviously.
You may be writing at cross purposes....
"I think I objectively have a morality." = this sentence is inherently incoherent.
I think it is objectively the case that many people have moralities. it is a fact about them. I think this is likely the case for him.

His morality is subjective in in the sense that if he thinks killing is wrong, he has no way to prove this.

But that he has a morality is objective. Or as he says, objectively he has a moraiity. His morality however is subjective.

Eduk
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Eduk » July 8th, 2018, 6:20 am

Thank you for the attempt at clarification Karpel.

I'd like to ask a couple more questions.
1. If reality is objective (as I assume it is). How is it that subjectivity can even exist in the first place? I guess this is basically the consciousness problem?
2. If I/we are subjective, how is it that we seem able to formulate the concept of objective? Surely it is still our subjective opinion that we even understand what objective means?

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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Belindi » July 8th, 2018, 12:45 pm

Eduk,
1. It's a real fact and a common experience that each individual has privileged access to their own mind.Privileged access is why there is subjective points of view, and subjective feelings.

2.That is true. It's impossible to eliminate all subjectivity from fact-finding. Absolute objectivity is a goal which always eludes us. I think we understand what objective means by analogy with mathematics which together with formal logic, is objective. However the objectivity of maths and formal logic come at the price of being tautological.

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Felix
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Re: Is morality objective or subjective?

Post by Felix » July 8th, 2018, 2:29 pm

Eduk: 1. If reality is objective (as I assume it is). How is it that subjectivity can even exist in the first place?
Reality is not merely objective, if it were we would all experience it in the same way. Reality is not merely subjective, if it were we would be unable to communicate with one another, just as we are unable to communicate with birds or whales. The most we can say is that reality is intersubjective, i.e., it is both objective and subjective.
Eduk: 2. If I/we are subjective, how is it that we seem able to formulate the concept of objective? Surely it is still our subjective opinion that we even understand what objective means?
Obviously there is enough overlap between our mutual experience to be "objective" about it, one's cultural conditioning will make that more or less difficult.
"We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are." - Anaïs Nin

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