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


The Ten Commandments don’t say that sometimes you can bear false witness. It also doesn’t say that it only applies in a court of law.

If there are exceptions based on subjectively human wants and desires then it is a subjective morality, at least how I view it.

If morality is objective then people should be able to point to something objective and demonstrable outside of human wants and needs. Instead, there seems to a lot of appeals to what humans think is right or wrong.

There also seems to be this assumption that the rules God puts forward are objective. “God says so” does not make morality objective, it merely shifts the question to where God is getting that morality. If one wants to claim that this morality is objective then they need to demonstrate that it is objective independent of “God says so”. Also, having faith that morality is objective doesn’t get us there.


Surely you understand that thinking morality is objective does not make it objective. What you think is subjective, a human opinion. Objectivity requires demonstration through something independent of human opinion. The fact that the vast majority of humans shares the same moral opinions does not make it objective.

In the real world, we base morality on our own inner sense of morality. We base morality on what we want and our needs. We define laws by how we want society run. The mistake is in thinking that a subjective morality carries no weight, and that is perhaps why people try to invent the idea that morality is objective. Quite frankly, people need to get over that. There is no reason why a subjective morality based on a consensus of human opinion should not carry weight since it is based on the things that we hold dearest.


What if that it is a theocracy that outlaws other religions based on what they claim are the objective morals laid out by their god in their scriptures? Would that be ok?

Ultimately, you are comparing the wants and needs of society, the parent, and the child. I would say that it is subjective. How do we consider our subjective need for personal freedom? Where do we draw the line between a person’s personal freedoms and the dangers that someone may pose to others in society? To answer such questions we are asking ourselves to delve into our own inner sense of morality and work towards a consensus of opinion.


This is where Euthyphro’s Dilemma enters the fray. Is a command moral because God commands it, or does God command it because it is moral? If there is an objective standard independent of God then we should reference that objective standard instead of saying “God says so”. If something is moral just because God commands it, then it is subjective and based on God’s opinion. The third option is that the answer is irrelevant because humans are not capable of determining objectively where God gets his morality so it comes down to faith which is subjective.

The fourth way is that if God is our creator then he created us with an inner sense of morality, so God should tailor the morality that he gives us to that inner subjective and human sense of morality. I don’t want to go too far into assigning morality to nature, but it is worth considering the nascent or crude morality of other species (or innate behavior, if you will). A wolf pack seems to operate in a way that our species finds to be immoral, but is it immoral to them? If we are a product of our evolution, then our morality is going to reflect that evolved sense of society that arose in our lineage. If God relied on or guided evolution so that we would have this evolved sense of morality, then shouldn’t God’s commands take that subjective sense of morality into consideration?

So even from a religious point of view, I would see a strong argument for subjective morality. Morality should conform to our subjective sense of morality, our needs and wants, and what we find important.

(John Dalton) #45

Yep. I’m aware of this conundrum, and have heard it referenced before, but didn’t know it had a name and all (until I read it in that excellent blog post you linked to above). Clearly it can’t be the case that something is moral simply because God commands it, if morality is to be truly objective.

The third option… The fourth way…

Not to argue too strongly for objective morality, as I don’t believe in it, but I think there is a way out of the dilemma (at least one that I can’t see an obvious answer to) which I’m pretty sure someone on here brought up at some point in some form. If God is timeless etc., his equally timeless character could be the ultimate source of knowledge of what is moral. That would seem pretty objective in theory anyway. I suppose that one could argue (and perhaps Euthyphro would) that it would constitute a standard which could still exist independently of God, and I guess it could. But we’d really be splitting hairs at that point. I’m quite content to make do with “morality” personally and if people display the same, I won’t worry about the source of it. The problem seems to be more that people question the source of my morality usually, unfortunately :slight_smile: That makes it harder to avoid addressing the topic :slight_smile:

In fact, now that I think of it, it was discussions of that topic which led me down the road of investigating the issue (and in turn many other issues) much more closely. Otherwise I wouldn’t likely be here discussing it or anything else now, for example.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #46

That is an interesting point. …but… Surely you understand that thinking subjective morality ought to carry weight does not make it carry weight?

No. It would not be okay. Christianity (other than during regrettable episodes of history) is not generally a compulsive religion and prizes love (both given and desired) that (by definition) cannot be forcibly demanded from anybody.

I don’t think it is possible for God to have an “opinion”. To think so is to misunderstand the Christian conception of an omniscient God. Euthyphro’s dilemma only gains steam by thinking of gods as beings more-or-less like merely higher versions of ourselves. To the pupil who looks far up to a highly respected math authority we can imagine the pupil wondering if 2+2=4 because it actually does, or does it equal that because this brilliant authority tells me it does? When outsiders who recognize the limitation of real-life teachers and authorities look into this, we easily recognize that the teacher was never free to declare otherwise and is appealing to a mathematical reality quite above herself. But if our math teacher is omniscient, then this becomes a whole 'nother ballgame, and Euthyphro’s “dilemma” is reduced to incoherence. Because our (now Deity) teacher is no longer in possession of any opinions, but only has facts. And those (by definition) cannot be pried apart from reality.


There are a couple of problems that I see.

First, we are assuming that the morals God gave us are those objective morals. It could be that God gave us all the wrong rules and enjoys seeing us struggle through them. Ultimately, we wouldn’t be able to tell if we were given the wrong rules since we don’t have access to an objective morality independent of God.

Second, being timeless does not make them any less subjective. If God came up with these morals all on his own, then they are subjectively God’s own opinions on morality. We might say that they are wise and worth following, but that doesn’t make them any less subjective.

It is interesting that atheists are put under more scrutiny when it comes to morality. I think it has a lot to do with the Christian traditions in western cultures where it was just assumed that all questions of morality were answered by the Bible. At the same time, there is also a strong sense of secularism in modern culture, even amongst Christian communities. It is hard to find Christians in western democracies who want to do away with the freedom of religion, impose religious tests for elected offices, establish a state religion, or live under Sharia law.

Even if theists and atheists end up disagreeing, at least we can voice our concerns and views in a constructive and thoughtful manner so we understand where we are coming.


I would argue that it does carry weight since our subjective human morality is the morality we use in the real world. However, that is a bit circular so the in between steps need to be filled out a bit more.

What if there was a religion where this was the case, where people were jailed because they belonged to the wrong religion in a state run theocracy? Wouldn’t we say that this was immoral, even though we have a god giving the command in scripture which is the objective standard being put forth elsewhere?

That would seem to be a subjective opinion. It also assumes that the Christian God is the true God, and that the Christian view of God is the correct one. These would have to be objectively determined in order to get around the inherent subjectivity in the phrase “I don’t think”.

An omniscient God could create beings that incorrectly think that 2+2=4 when the real answer is 5.

(John Dalton) #49

I agree with you. That wouldn’t keep the objective morality from existing though. More important for me is a belief-related issue. If people believe in a God that’s completely good, the idea is incompatible with such a belief. If something that God is said to desire (or any other aspect of God) conflicts with my conception of what is good, I do not intend to be shy about stating that, but if that’s not a problem, I think it’s better to take people’s beliefs at face value and not seek to push my way down this road. The corollary is that I insist on the same treatment. I think the most progress can be made in this way.

If He “came up with them”, they wouldn’t be as timeless as He is. I’m imagining a scenario where God’s character is the source of the morality, and His character has always existed as an inseparable part of Him.

I keep mentioning Jonathan Haidt but he has great ideas on so many aspects of these questions. He talks about this and gives the example of how a group bound by shared beliefs can have advantages in lines of business where conditions place a big premium on trust, such as Orthodox Jews in the diamond market. I think the idea of God has probably always been inseparable from moral concerns. God is envisioned as constantly monitoring all of us and ensuring we act morally. I can understand where such feelings come from when someone claims not to be constrained by such concerns.

I’m a firm believer in this.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #50

That would be wrong. Morally wrong. But I only insist on saying so because that is my understanding growing out of my non-hypothetical theistic religion. Perhaps I could still insist on this without any theistic religion (as you do). Maybe I could. But then my appeal is now based only on my own (or our own cultural) authority --which you insist is the highest court of appeal anyway. I simply recognize a higher court yet, which (if I’m right) is the highest court beyond which there is no appeal since God is the ground of all being and all reality. There will never be any teasing apart whether something “only is so because God says it is so” vs. “God only can say it because it actually is so.” The only logical possibilities I am able to recognize is that either you are right and there is no such God as theists envision; in which case our cultural preferences are indeed the highest court of appeal. Or else there is such a God, and we trust (on faith alone) that there is no meaningful or possible distinction between reality and God’s benevolence and declaration of reality, since God essentially is the very ground of that reality.

Not sure what you were getting at with this.

Well, in fact God has created beings that can obviously be wrong about a lot of stuff, including simple arithmetic! But perhaps you mean more than just a temporary mistake that easily yields to correction. Like maybe a capricious God has mischievously created a race of brilliant authorities that all are in general agreement about things that they deem themselves certain of, and yet are all still wrong? I suppose anything is possible for an omnipotent God. Maybe God enjoys a good laugh. We have no higher court of appeal. So if that is the kind of God we have … we are stuck. But if bible-believing theists are right, God sure has spilled a lot of ink historically to convince us of the general importance of truth. I would say that part of God’s character is an essential part of our faith.

[clarifying edits]

(Albert Leo) #51

Christians should beware of specifying exactly what God Should do. A modern belief in God implies that He is the Mind and Power that created a Universe that evolves toward some objective that humans can only conjecture; I,e, He created it as Alpha, and it is proceeding to Omega. Up until the time a creature evolved that possessed a Mind and Conscience to freely choose its actions (at least to a great extent), there was no such thing as morality, subjective or objective.

As E. O. Wilson has so clearly pointed out, the formation of insect societies is most certainly responsible for their evolutionary success. This was accomplished through a genetic mechanism that gives individuals no voice in the matter, and thus the behavior of insect societies is also amoral. As soon as Homo sapiens acquired a Mind and the ability to form societies based on communicated Ideas (Noogenes; memes), then the subjective morality of both individuals and societies becomes a matter of importance. Subjective morality then becomes Right when it promotes the ultimate Good of leading to Omega. The problem is that, even for devout Christians, that pathway is not perfectly clear. Good Christians can still disagree on what is meant by the Second Coming, the Kingdom of Heaven, and Parousia.

If my outlook on this problem is correct, then it is more important to see how, as individuals, we can favorably affect the morality of our society, rather than worry if our morality is subjective or objective. Some current questions: Is enhanced interrogation (torture) justified to protect our society from terrorism? Is the death penalty justified for the same reason? Humankind’s future seems heavily dependent upon the effectiveness of the society we form. Is it inevitable that we learn that that means our society must eventually be global?
Al Leo


What if we can slowly gain access to them by “discovering” them the same way we discover mathematics? I like that platonist view of morality George Ellis advocates for. Many mathematicians claim (and I strongly agree with them on that) that mathematics would still be “out there” even if we didn’t have a single brain in the universe to aprehend it, maybe absolute morals are also “out there” for us to discover, independent from us, and therefore not created by us.

EDIT: That seems to me to be a lot more consistent with an all loving God than to just hover above our heads saying “these are the morals, obey them or I will punish you”.

(Jennifer Thomas) #53

I can’t help wondering if the question posed here – whether morality is objective or subjective – is really part of the problem. Isn’t a bit dualistic to talk about morality as if it’s just one or the other?

Every creature on Planet Earth lives by a set of codes that tells them what to do and when to do it and whom to do it with. Even human beings, who have (1) free will, (2) the potential to make choices according to conscience, and (3) the ability to override biological instincts, still have many “codes” (biological instincts) that originate within our DNA. So where do the DNA codes end and where does human free will pick up the moral slack? Should we consider our biological instincts a type of objective morality? Should we consider our free will choices a type of subjective morality? Is it possible for us to draw on both types at the same time? If so, is that really a bad thing?

The honest to goodness reality is that there are many human beings who are waging a war of objective-versus-subjective morality right inside their own heads. These are the people who are struggling with neurological imbalances that pit the brain’s own System 2 priorities (mind, logic, law, competition, survival, status) against its System 1 priorities (heart, empathy, moral reasoning, cooperation, relationship, inclusiveness). How are you supposed to figure out your own personal, subjective moral code if you can’t even get your own inner house in order?

We see this struggle played out every day in the brains of those with addiction disorders. (Marc Lewis’s book The Biology of Desire gives examples of this struggle. His recent Scientific American blogpost also talks about the choices involved in addiction.) A person tries and tries to resist the cravings because part of the brain (the heart) can see the damage created by behaviours of addiction. But other parts of the brain (the mind) can find all kinds of logical reasons to explain why it’s crucial to survival to get relief from the cravings. The point where you cave, and give into the cravings, is called “ego fatigue” (self-control depletion) for a reason. It’s visible on an fMRI scan as a sudden disengagement of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex from the motivational core of the brain. The self-control so necessary to our ability to act on our subjective morality simply gives up the ghost.

Having strong beliefs about morality doesn’t mean a whole lot if you can’t act on your moral beliefs on a consistent belief. And if you can’t hang onto your moral beliefs when the going gets really tough (e.g. when you’re faced with a choice between survival and self-sacrifice), then what’s the point of having moral beliefs based on empathy, love, trust, forgiveness, and faith?

The complexity of these moral questions isn’t new. We see them highlighted in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 4: 2-20). The Parable of the Sower, followed by commentary on the Parable, tells us plainly that the seeds of faith and morality, no matter how worthy, won’t grow and won’t flourish unless they’re planted in soil that’s ready to accept them. It’s a parable about how our free will choices affect the landscape of our own inner “kingdom” (i.e. our brain and central nervous system). Each type of free will landscape inevitably yields to its own kind of morality, its own kind of fruit.

An interesting aspect of human moral belief is that everyone seems to believe their own moral code is the right moral code. (Even a psychopath, who lacks both empathy and conscience, operates according to a moral code based on logic, power, hierarchy, and status.) The Parable of the Sower shows us that Jesus didn’t accept this assessment, though. He seems to have believed in a moral code that comes to us from God. It’s this moral code that produces an abundance of fruit.

James 1:12-16 says this: “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. No one, when tempted, should say, 'I am being tempted by God; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then when that desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved.”

When I read this, I hear the voice of a man who understood “the biology of desire” 2,000 years before we started to hear about it from neuroscientists.

God bless.

(John Dalton) #54

That’s an outstanding article. Thanks for posting it.

That being said, I will now nitpick :slight_smile: You seem to paint this as a solely logical process, and I think that’s overstated. Certainly the addict’s logical mind is going to be looking for reasons to cave into deeper feelings. But I have to think those feelings are actually in the driver’s seat–the unpleasantness of a craving, and a desire for the high either alone or together with like-minded individuals. If they’ve reached a point where “crucial to survival” is part of the equation, they would have to be dealing with a very severe craving indeed.

(Jennifer Thomas) #55

Hi John. Hmmm . . . maybe I wasn’t clear enough in my post. The point of my remarks is that, yes, the unpleasant feelings are in the driver’s seat, and these unpleasant feelings are driving the moral choices made at the time the unpleasant feelings arise. But these unpleasant feelings can’t easily be overcome (without appropriate and long term treatment for the addiction) because they arise from System 2 networks. In my view, the most problematic of all the addictions is status addiction. But so little work has been done in the area of status addiction that I can’t even recommend good source material (unless you want to look at recent research into social media addiction and smartphone addiction, which seems to build heavily on underlying problems with status addiction).

In Marc Lewis’s book The Biology of Desire, he talks about factors weaken self-regulation in the presence of ego fatigue. Self-regulation is apparently only weakened when study subjects try to suppress their feelings. When subjects exert emotional control (rather than cognitive control), they don’t experience ego fatigue (which, as mentioned above, sets the stage for giving in to a craving). An example of exerting emotional control is trying to reinterpret emotional events. Reinterpreting emotional events is a hallmark of System 1’s quest for Meaning. To get an idea of different priorities of System 1 and System 2, this Scientific American blog post is very helpful.

I’d just like to mention that I think any kind of addiction disorder is extremely challenging, and I’m all for throwing as much research money and as much treatment expertise at the problem as we possibly can.

Edited for clarity.

(John Dalton) #56

Thanks for explaining that! I will have to read up on the System 1/2 idea.

(Jennifer Thomas) #57

The System 1, System 2 theory can explain SOOOOOOOO much about our difficulties as human beings without having to resort to some of the contortions we see in theology.

It was actually through my work as a mystic where I first saw the two different systems. I was greatly relieved when, several years later, I started to find research articles about System 1 and System 2. (It’s not easy being a science-loving mystic, so I’m always thrilled when Scientific American posts stuff I’ve slowly been working with on with God’s guidance.)

It’s interesting that in the Letter of James, we see the word “dipsychos,” which is translated as double-minded. There are only two biblical uses of dipsychos/dipsychoi in the New Testament, and both are found in James.

I know there’s not enough textual evidence in James to make a case for “double-minded” as an early example of the System 1/System 2 theory, but I like to hope . . .

(John Dalton) #58

That’s cool. Can I ask what a mystic is in as far as the work you do? It sounds like it wouldn’t be easy :slight_smile: Then again, it’s got to be a lot harder rejecting science no matter what you believe, but I certainly see on this website that some do not necessarily agree with that!

(Jennifer Thomas) #59

Thanks for asking, John. You’re right – it isn’t easy to be a mystic. Of course, there are lots of callings that aren’t easy, so I don’t make the mistake of assuming my calling as a cataphatic mystic is any more challenging or any more difficult than other ways of life. It’s just a bit less common than most other kinds of call.

The work I do is highly interdisciplinary because a mystic is always trying to express a sense of God’s presence. So there’s lots of research, lots of writing, lots of contemplation. The call of cataphatic mysticism is a desire that comes from some mysterious inner place, a desire to open up boundaries, ask new questions about how God’s universe actually works, and seek positive, life-affirming insights about our relationship with God. So you’re always trying to keep your eyes and ears open (as Jesus might have described it) and you’re always looking for the subtle links that unite art and poetry and music and various fields of science. Many writers are mystics who don’t realize they’re mystics. They just can’t help listening to the inner voice that wants to express the great mysteries of human life.

Unbeknownst to most people, there are several different kinds of mysticism, each with differing beliefs, practices, and goals.

An apophatic mystic, who is always trying to “unsay” what we know, and who in many ways is seeking a state of freedom from knowledge, is usually much less interested in exploring the languages of science than other kinds of mystics. This is because the sciences are always pushing outwards to expand what we know and what we can take responsibility for (and, as you’ve pointed out, such a prospect isn’t always welcome).

By contrast, if I may use a mathematical analogy, a cataphatic mystic is drawn to the differential calculus of Creation – questions about changes over time, questions about flow rates, questions about the forces that either impinge upon or enhance our ability to achieve insights. These questions inevitably lead to questions about consciousness. So I do a lot of research in that area, which, of course, overlaps with both mysticism and mental health issues.

At a personal level, my long years of study and practice have deepened my relationship with Mother Father God in ways that are hard to describe. I have to say that as I approach the age of 60, with almost 18 years of falling down hard and getting back up on my spiritual journey, I trust myself much more than I did when I was a smart aleck chemistry undergraduate.

Oh yeah . . . one last thing. It’s all about the phase diagrams. You know, those complicated charts you learn about in Phys Chem? Where lines of equilibrium intersect? (And some of us had to go to the professor for help in understanding them?)

The day I saw the connection between the experience of redemption and those pesky phase diagrams, I wanted to scream! :upside_down_face:

(John Dalton) #60

Wow, thanks for the detailed explanation Jennifer. I regularly learn interesting things on these boards, and today is no exception! Best of luck to you in your research.