Moral foundations - Objective, Subjective & etc: The forever topic

Here’s a topic thread / dumping ground to contain all the discussions about Objective vs. Subjective Morality. Perhaps all posts from other topics can be transferred here by moderators.

FWIW: Bear in mind that this ancient philosophical issue has never been definitively resolved. Maybe you’ll create the perfect argument that will finally convince most of the professional philosophers and make the world a better place.

Have at it. :robot:

Rules: No Hitler or Nazi references (Godwin’s Law)

Okay, but was Hitler wrong? Okay, I’m out.


Hahahaha! :grin::joy:

I will happily move any post someone messages me about with a post number and a linked thread. None of the moderators has time to go through past threads looking for things to move here just for the heck of it though.

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I found this blog post in a Google search, and it eerily reflects almost all of my own thoughts on the subject.

What I think it boils down to is if there is an objective morality then it may be irrelevant since humans don’t have access to it. If we go the route of God or some divine lawgiver being the source of an objective morality then we run into the problem of not having direct access to that lawgiver. Instead, we have people claiming to have access to that lawgiver, but there is no way to verify it. We also have different people claiming direct access, but they contradict each other as to what that objective morality is supposed to be. On top of that, those claimed objective moralities seem to be strongly influenced by the human culture and human traditions that they came out of.

Do we then say that there are different objective moral systems which are determined by which religion you belong to or what you have faith in? That doesn’t seem like an objective morality to me. That seems to be very subjective.

We could also look at this from a more practical point of view. What type of authoritative structure do we want for our society as it applies to morality? If we opt for an objective moral system then there is top down control of what is moral. It is unbending, unyielding, and demands obedience without question. If we opt for a subjective moral system where authority is built upon consensus within society, then we can question what is moral and what is not moral. We can point out where current rules are unjust, and argue for a better morality. Objective morality encourages power over people. Subjective morality empowers people to shape society. Personally, I opt for a subjective morality.

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I think morality is objective, however, I don’t find the moral argument at all convincing, since altruism has been observed in other animals.

I won’t enter any debates on the topic but here’s a pointer to potentially relevant entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. One can root around in there for weeks.

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A thought experiment for your consideration:

Let’s say that a serial killer broke into someone’s home, caught them, and then tied them up in a chair. The rest of that person’s family is hiding somewhere in the house, and they know where the other family members are hiding. The serial killer asks his captive where the other members of the family are.

If morality is objective and telling a lie is immoral, would a moral person tell the truth?

That’s a huge “if.” Is telling a lie immoral?

It is either immoral or moral. One of the 10 Commandments says not to lie, so if we are holding up the Bible and/or God as a source of an objective morality then it is immoral.

It isn’t so simplistic as you make out. Rahab lied to the officials of her own kingdom in order to protect the Israelite spies and even help them escape. The Bible holds her up as a hero of the faith.

People hiding Jews lied to the Nazis about Jews being in their home. I don’t know any Christians that would question such actions, but I know plenty that think it would be morally reprehensible to have cooperated with the Nazis.


Then even the Bible treats morality as relative and subjective.

If morality is independent of human wants and desires (i.e. objective) then lying is immoral, always. It doesn’t matter if it results in humans experiencing pain and death because the want or desire to avoid pain and death is a subjectively human need and desire.

An objective view of morality is compatible with a contextual view. Subjectivism does not have a monopoly on context.

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Indeed. Read Romans 14 and you’ll find a lot more subjectivity (of a sort) for morality. I’m not sure it is subjective in the complete way you want it to be, though. You seem prone to be thinking of this as an all-or-nothing principle: either morality is 100% subjective (nothing objective about it whatsoever), or else it has to be objective and devoid of any exception ever. For better or worse, theists (and probably those of most major religions) have recognized a lot more nuance in all this, without selling the farm.

That we should not “bear false witness” is indeed what I would call an objective moral. It is a value that I hope I transmit to my children. And we don’t generally teach a value by first warning them about any/all exceptions. You start with the value. But they also learn to value life, and if one value is pitted against another (e.g. lying to save a life), then good and moral judgment is still called for. I wouldn’t say that the general imperative to be truthful has suffered some loss of objectivity just because it must also exist in possible tension with other even weightier values that might come into play.

If we stick with the thought experiment above, what would the context be, and how is it objective?

Just to be clear, I don’t see any conflict between subjective morality and Christian theology. I am not trying to push the idea that theism requires objective morality.

What I am saying is that morality is centered on the subjective opinion of humans. It is based on what we desire and want in a society. An objective morality could not be based on those subjective opinions. If an morality system is based on the well being of humans then it is subjective because it is our subjective opinions that form the basis of what our well being is.

Then you are saying that our subjective opinions hold more weight than an objective morality. Even if there is an objective morality we should shun it for a subjective one.

I think this may be truer than maybe some Christians would be comfortable letting on … just because they may feel you are asking them to “sell the farm” so to speak. But when we are given a high moral imperative to “treat others as we would want to be treated” … that does call for subjectivity. It makes us first need to answer the question “how would I want to be treated?”. And the answer to that question may change over different cultures and periods. So yes – I am happy (even obliged) to acknowledge subjectivity in this. My push back, though, is that there is still an objective backbone somewhere behind it: i.e. that we ought to really care for the well-being of others, or something like that. Even my Romans 14 examples only let in so much subjectivity. The “exceptions” called for are always called for in the service of some yet higher moral imperative. E.g. maybe there is wiggle room on what I eat or drink; but what Paul didn’t allow any wiggle room for was that I should make those choices while keeping my observing brother in mind so that I don’t cause him to stumble somehow in his faith.

So I wouldn’t phrase it that I’m abandoning an objective morality in favor of a subjective one. I would say rather that we should we willing to acknowledge the subjective “wiggle-room” that may well need to exist in the service of something yet higher. And to my way of thinking, that “higher” consideration is probably not less objective … but hopefully more so. I recognize your disagreement with that, but there it is. I will [should] never cultivate any habit in myself or others of demoting important values to something of a lesser status (which is what I sense may be in play when you parse some things out as objective and other ‘lesser’ things as more subjective.)

[clarifying edit added]

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In my own view, a just God is one that encourages a subjective morality, so I am quite happy to let you keep the farm. To put it another way, why would anyone want an objective moral code since an objective morality would necessarily ignore the most basic fundamentals of being human?

As to well being, how do we judge “well being”? That would seem to require subjective human opinion. I would also say that subjective does not mean arbitrary, which seems to be what you are getting at. There are basic ideals and opinions that are shared by the vast majority of humans, so these subjective opinions are not random or arbitrary.

If anything helpful or productive can come out of this discussion is that subjective and unimportant are not synonyms. As one person put it:

“A subjective morality is one rooted in human feelings and desires. These are the things that are most important to us, indeed the only things important to us!”
[note: I don’t agree with everything in the citation above, but there are some kernels of wisdom]

I will agree that we shouldn’t describe subjectivity as ruling over objective, or vise versa. I think the “higher” consideration should be the best solution, not necessarily our favorite moniker or label. I do tend to view subjectivity like being pregnant. You can’t be just a little pregnant, or just a little subjective. However, I also recognize that it may be a bias I need to be cured of.

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I would disagree here, and my candy analogy may help to explain why. Is candy objectively or subjectively bad for health? Is there such a thing as objective health? I would argue yes, and that means what we can apply at an individual level we can also apply at a societal or ecological level. Morality is tied to what is good for the greater whole. It’s not always easy to figure out or weigh, and people frequently have honest and deep disagreements about how to do so, but I think there is an objective core there even if we can’t make it out clearly.

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First of all, you are misquoting the ten commandments. It does not say that “lying in all cases is wrong,” rather it says that “bearing false witness” is wrong. Moreover, there is long history of understanding exactly what that means, and the story of Rahab is part of that discourse. There are several ways to resolve what you are calling a conflict:

  1. the simplest is to point that Rahab is telling a lie, but she is not “bearing false witness.” She is not speaking in a court of law to cause unfair punishment to be put on someone, or to evade just punishment for herself. In that sense, she is not “bearing false witness”.
  2. others have pointed out that there are competing rules often. When a person lies about the presence of innoscent people to protect them from Nazi’s, they are correctly detemrining that protecting an innocent life is more important than telling the truth to murderers.

In either case, on objectivist would say that there is a true correct thing to do, given the full context. It is not that context does not matter. Rather, its not merely up to personal construction of what the “right” and “good” is. We can say objectively that geneocide is wrong. We can say that the holocaust was wrong.

Regarding #2, Jesus himself affirms this point: Luke 13:10-17 NLT - Jesus Heals on the Sabbath - One - Bible Gateway. He “worked” on the Sabbath, even though it was “against the 4th command”. Part of his message was that a legalistic view of these commands misses the point.

The “good” is not about inflexibly applying a set of moral rules. However, it is also not about constructing our personal version of what is good as if we can deem whatever we like right or wrong. It is not either that we always know the right thing to do. Rather, it is that there is, given the full context, right and wrong defined externally to our constructed reality.

Regarding the contextuality taught in Scripture, perhaps the most eloquent way it has been stated is Ecc. 3:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

@T_aquaticus have you studied ethical frameworks much? Its worth consider what Jesus’ ethical framework is, and what the Bible teaches.

They way I read it is that the law is a rule-based ethic, but it does not actually succeed in making us good. All it does is expose how rules cannot make us good. Then comes Jesus, and in Him we find a morality based in virtue instead, internal changes by which we just naturally do good things.

That is not exactly what is though. A better way to put it is that it is an embodied ethic or an incarnational ethic. Regardless, the point of the rules in Scripture is not that the need to be rigidly followed, ignoring all context. Rather it is that there is an objective good and evil, but man-made and God-made rules only put us under condemnation. We need more than external objective rules.

We need an internal transformation of our hearts, by the One with authority to write all rules. That is what brings coherence to the whole story. As he breaks (some would say) the 4th commandment, Jesus declares: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” Lord of the Sabbath - Wikipedia

He is the Lord of the Sabbath. He makes the rules, and this works not because all rules are to always be followed, regardless of context. Instead, this works because He is good. Keeping in mind the massive change that the early Church brings to the practice of Jewish laws among those most devoted to Jewish laws, it must be that there sense of morality was contextual. Something happened that reordered it. That something was Jesus, the objective reality by which they came to understand and define the “good”.

Now having made that long case. I will acknowledge that Christians talking about objective truth are often the most confused about these things. They often identify objective truth as you have. So you are not just making this up. However, they are missing the point, presenting a cartoon version of the faith we find in Jesus.


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