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.