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Home — Essay Samples — Psychology — Morality — Subjectivity of Morality: Analysis of Arguments


Subjectivity of Morality: Analysis of Arguments

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Published: Sep 5, 2023

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Introduction, the debate on subjectivity of morality, the implications of subjectivity of morality, the implications of objectivity of morality.

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morality is subjective essay

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Are Moral Values Objective Or Subjective?

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To answer the question, we first have to establish the definition of morality and the difference in meaning between objective and subjective morality. Morality is the principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong. The term “objective” in philosophy refers to the idea that there are universal moral laws like good or bad, right or wrong and therefore these morals exist outside of any person, i.e. like the law of gravity, there is a moral law which exists independently of any person, that awaits to be found. Subjective morality however is where moral laws are based on personal feelings and thoughts, and therefore without any humans there would be no morality.

An important question to ask is, what motives have we for living morally? And how can one rationally justify a command such as, “Do not steal”? Some people may say that their motive for living morally is God, others may say to coexist for the existence of man, and others may simply have their personal interests at heart. If we were all to base our moral values on Gods’ commands then these values would be objective as God is universal and therefore so are the values. This leads many people to believe that there cannot be any objective morality without the existence of God. If one has their personal interests at heart when choosing to act morally, then these values are subjective as their choice comes from inside them and is based on their personal feelings and thoughts.

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Some people believe that morality is a private matter and therefore their motive for living morally is for their own personal interests. For this to be true then they must also believe that morality is subjective because for morality to be private then each individual must have their own moral opinions. The people that argue morality is a private matter claim that, “no one can know what is right for others, so no one can condemn others.” However taking the line that morality is a private matter is effectively isolating individuals and the counter argument to this line of thinking is that our interests are connected to other peoples’ lives. We are born from our parents and we are as a result not likely to have completely private moral thoughts, and therefore we are not private but public individuals, e.g. If there is an old woman being mugged by a thief, and you decided not to intervene because you felt that morality was a private matter and therefore it was not in your place to interfere, you would actually be making as public an action by not intervening as you would by intervening. This is because by you not helping there has been a public consequence, the woman being mugged. This is known as negligence and in England you can be arrested for an action such as this. Now that I have shown the morality cannot be a completely private matter, it does not prove that subjective morality is wrong. It merely shows that the argument for subjective morality cannot be supported by the argument that morality is a private matter.

A stronger argument for subjective morality however, is that if moral values differ between cultures it would seem that these values cannot be objective, because if they were, then the whole world should share the exact same values as each other and as this is not the case we are led to believe that they are subjective. However the counter argument to this is that even though moral values seem to differ on the surface, the underlying, key morals do not differ such as murder and rape being looked down upon, e.g. If you asked people from different parts of the world who was a better person, Hitler or Gandhi, nearly everyone would answer Gandhi. This shows that people understand and share similar views that saving lives is better than killing.   Infact it could be said that it is just the culture or customs that differ and not the moral values. If we take this line of thinking then one could argue strongly that there are universal rights and wrongs and therefore morality must be objective.

Going back to an argument that a believer in subjective morality might give is that when a baby is born, they are born without any knowledge of right and wrong, good and bad, and therefore they have no moral values. If this is true then the moral values they have later on in life must have been taught to them or obtained by their experiences and interaction with their surroundings. This seems a very likely possibility because it fits in with the way that a person will share similar moral values as the other people in their society and culture. Due to our lack of scientific knowledge however we are not capable of knowing whether babies can think morally and if they are born with an instinct for example to not kill, maybe they are not able to express themselves at such a young age. Therefore from this evidence one could use this as an argument for subjective morality but there would always be an element of doubt.


To conclude, my personal opinion on the question “Are moral values objective or subjective?” is that morality is subjective. I have come to this conclusion because I think that moral values are too varied around the world. This is clearly evident when you look at murderous regimes such as Iraq where mass murder is not looked down upon, whereas if this activity occurred in America there would be great controversy. The war against terrorism could be seen as a war of morality where America believes that terrorist states are “wrong” and “bad”. Therefore if morality was to be objective then there should not be this inconsistency in values and that is why morality must be subjective, and under current scientific evidence I can back this up further by the fact that babies are not born with a set of standard morals, as they grow up they learn their values through their emotions and experiences.

Are Moral Values Objective Or Subjective?

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  • Subject Religious Studies (Philosophy & Ethics)

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Is Morality Subjective?

A defence of objectivity in moral reasoning underpinned by a naturalist view of ethics

Allan, Leslie 2015. Is Morality Subjective?, URL = <https://www.rationalrealm.com/philosophy/ethics/is-morality-subjective.html>.

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1. Moral Reasons and Objectivity

All too often, I come across the view that when we make moral judgments, we are simply expressing our personal likes and dislikes. Saying 'Hitler was bad', on this view, is the same as saying, 'I don't like Hitler'. For people who think morality is subjective, aspiring to objectivity in ethics is a chimera, to be avoided as a remnant of a bygone era of superstition and nonsense. To some extent, this approach to moral judgements seems unavoidable, given the demise of religious world-views and other superstitious beliefs since the Enlightenment.

However, I think this radical subjectivism is mistaken. Moral discourse, at its core, is about giving objective reasons for our judgements about how we act towards one another and other sentient creatures. When I refer to objectivity as essential to ethics, I am not speaking about some mind- or human-independent metaphysical realm that imbues things and acts with value and obligatoryness. On the contrary, objective reasons in the field of ethics are juxtaposed with reasons that are partisan or biased to favour one individual or group.

Consider this scenario. You find out that your neighbour is secretly bribing his local politician in order to get favourable treatment and you decide to challenge his behaviour.  He responds, 'Oh yes! It's the right thing for me to do.' When you ask him how he came to the conclusion that bribery is morally permissible, he answers, 'Oh, because it helps me and my family get permission to build a bigger house.' Quite rightly, you and anyone else listening would not regard his answer as a moral reason at all. In fact, we would consider it as its antithesis; a selfish and immoral reason. By its very nature, we expect a moral reason to be impartial, without appeal to the speaker's peculiar interests or the interests of their favoured group.

Consider another case in which a person beats a stranger on a public roadway. When asked what moral justification the abuser had for beating her victim, she offers that she was bored. Naturally, we take this as self-serving and the converse of a moral justification. The important point that these two examples illustrate is that the immoral nature of the two reasons given is not contingent. It's not the case that under some circumstances, we think the reasons given could be moral reasons. Rightly, we think the two people in these scenarios are conceptually confused about what constitutes a moral reason for action. This requirement for impartiality is built into the very concept of morality.

2. Moral Objectivity as Impartiality

Unfortunately, it is this requirement for impartiality that often gets confused. The requirement for objectivity in ethics gets conceptually confused with the need for some metaphysical mind- or human independent realm. Objectivity in ethics should not be contrasted with subjectivity in the sense of being grounded in people's attitudes and preferences. Objectivity in ethics is more correctly contrasted with subjectivity in the sense of being partisan, selfish and parochial.

Ethicists of different metaphysical persuasions have tried to satisfy this necessary requirement for objectivity by mistakenly dressing up moral language as if it is about some human-independent realm. Theists identify the good and the right with God's preferences and commands. Intuitionists conflate moral attributes with some mysterious realm of non-natural properties and transcendent rules. Neo-Aristotelians and Natural Law theorists rely on a dubious teleology of life's evolution on earth. Kantian Rationalists try to derive moral rules from the demands of pure reason.

When all of these attempts to ground morality in a human-independent metaphysical realm fail, the subjectivists claim victory for treating moral judgements as of the same type as any other kind of personal preference. But the subjectivists suffer from the same misconceptions about moral judgements as their metaphysical opponents. Like the metaphysicians, they think moral objectivity must be grounded in a mysterious metaphysical realm or not at all. They give up on the requirement of objectivity all too hastily.

There is a strong philosophical tradition in incorporating this notion of impartiality as essential to the nature of ethics. Immanuel Kant tried to capture this idea of universality in his categorical imperative; the notion that a moral rule necessarily must be such that it is willed for all. R. M. Hare built it into his theory of universal Prescriptivism; the idea that moral judgements are prescriptions that we want to apply to everyone. Henry Sidgwick , J. S. Mill and later Utilitarians encapsulated moral objectivity with their principle of impartiality, translated as the requirement for the equal consideration of all interests.

3. Moral Judgements versus Non-moral Preferences

By treating all moral judgements as statements about subjective attitudes and preferences, subjectivists struggle to make the distinction each of us recognizes naturally; the distinction between moral judgements and non-moral preferences. They fail to distinguish moral imperatives from prudential considerations, the demands of social etiquette and other non-moral norms.

To illustrate what I mean, consider this scenario. After eating a friend's cake that she so lovingly baked, your partner asks whether you liked it. You opine, 'Mary's cake is good.' Your friend Mary also works voluntarily at the local soup kitchen serving the homeless. Commending Mary's volunteer work, you tell your friends, 'Mary's volunteer work is good.' We quite naturally regard the former use of the word 'good', as it applies to Mary's cake, as a non-moral use. Conversely, we understand the latter use, as it applies to altruistic volunteer work, as a moral use of the word 'good'.

To account for this demarcation, the subjectivist may respond that the difference turns on the fact that the former evaluation does not apply to human behaviour, while the latter does. This won't do as prudential imperatives apply to human actions without being moral imperatives. 'To catch the next train, you ought to leave immediately' is an example of just such a prudential consideration applying to a human act. This leaves the subjectivists unable to make sense of a distinction we make naturally in our everyday discourse.

If moral reasons are, of necessity, objective reasons (in the sense indicated here of being impartial reasons), then this raises a crucial question: Why should we act morally? We could say that we should act morally because that is the right thing to do. However, to give a moral reason for acting morally simply begs the question. On the other hand, we could appeal to reason. Applying the axioms of logic or rationality alone, though, will not give someone who has no inclination to act morally a logically or rationally conclusive reason to do so.

Moral reasons are not rationally binding reasons in isolation. No matter how many images of children starving in South Sudan we show a sociopath or a psychopath, they will not be moved to do anything to alleviate the suffering. Fortunately, most of us are built genetically and raised socially to engender us with a disposition to act altruistically at least some of the time. This tendency is a consequence of our ancestors in our distant evolutionary past forming cooperative social groups. For those social members on the margin of acting morally, we can appeal to prudential reasons for them to act impartially. Psychological research is revealing that people who place their interests and energies into activities that reach beyond their immediate personal indulgences lead more satisfying and rewarding lives. Working within a wider social context and for a larger purpose gives a greater sense of meaning to the whole of a person's life.

4. Conclusion

I have argued here that objectivity is a necessary attribute of ethical thinking. However, the 'objectivity' required is not objectivity in the sense of 'independent of all human values and desires' or 'factually decidable' like quasi-empirical propositions. We can agree on rejecting religious and metaphysical explanations for the grounding of ethics. We have no need for some mysterious or empirically inaccessible metaphysical realm to legitimize our moral judgements. Ethics requires objectivity in the sense of being independent of this person's or that person's subjective wants and values. To think ethically is the inverse of thinking egoistically or selfishly. To think ethically is to think impartially, as opposed to thinking parochially.

Given that objectivity in this sense is built into the foundation of ethics, it remains an open question what an impartial stance requires in theory and in practice. Are the principles of impartiality many or one? Are they deontological or consequentialist, or a combination of both? Does impartiality favour the maximization of value or the even distribution of value amongst individuals? It is questions such as these and the practical application of answers to the enduring ethical dilemmas of our day that make normative ethics so difficult for even the best and fairest moral thinkers. This nebulous requirement for impartiality explains why many important ethical questions appear so intractable to the people on opposing sides of an ethical disagreement. It is this question of how impartial moral agents would act on quandaries about a just war, abortion, voluntary euthanasia, animal suffering, the social distribution of wealth, and so on, that drives home how an objective ethical standpoint leaves much room for rational debate amongst ethicists.

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Is ethics objective or subjective? What do you think? Comment on this post at Google+

Copyright © 2015 Leslie Allan

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