The Self-Defeating Nature Of Subjective Morality


There is a story about a young child named Johnny. Johnny liked to go play with the other kids on his block outside. He also liked to come inside on a hot day and drink apple juice. Johnny always came home around the same time, so his mother would always set out a bottle of apple juice for Johnny to drink. One day, his mother was cleaning the house while Johnny was out playing. A few minutes before she expected Johnny to come inside, she set a bottle of apple juice out for Johnny to drink. His mother, however, did not pay attention, and set the bottle of apple juice next to a bottle of pine cleaner that was in a bottle that looked very similar to the bottle of apple juice. When Johnny came inside, he saw two bottles on the counter. He assumed there was no difference between the two bottles, but simply thought that his mother had set him out two bottles of apple juice instead of just one. He did notice that the liquid was a slightly different color in each bottle, but he just assumed that it was the same stuff, but maybe was a different brand that might taste a little different. He thought that he might like the taste of one over the other but, at the end of the day, they were both apple juice. He couldn't have been more wrong. Around the time that Johnny was about to start drinking his juice, his mother came in from the other room and stopped him from drinking it. His mother stopped him from drinking the liquid that would have likely killed him. His mother knew that there was a difference between the two bottles, even though Johnny didn't think that there was.

Johnny's view in this scenario represents subjective morality. Subjective morality is, in essence, the view that morality is not grounded in something transcendent, but rather is dependent on the taste of each individual or group. Think of it like this: it is my subjective opinion that vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate ice cream, or that an Oreo Blizzard is better than an M&M Blizzard. We are free to disagree, and neither of us are really wrong. Just as Johnny thought there was no difference between the two bottles, and, by extension, thought that there was nothing really wrong with drinking from either of them, so also does subjective morality believe that 

Johnny's mom, on the other hand, represents objective morality. In the same way that Johnny's mom realized that there was a real difference between each bottle of liquid, so also objective morality recognizes that there are things that are really right and really wrong. Morality is not simply a matter of personal taste. There is a real difference between good and evil.

Is morality subjective or objective?

Lately, I have seen several people argue for what is essentially a subjective view of morality. I do not think that those who take this view actually realize the implications of what they are arguing for. In this post, I want to ask a specific question: Is morality subjective (about personal taste), or is it objective (there are things that are truly right and truly wrong). I think that this is a question worth asking. Ultimately, the question is one that affects our lives each and every day. Ultimately, there are three places where morality can be grounded.

First, morality could be grounded in the individual. That is, morality could be entirely subjective, and it could be up to each and every individual to determine what is moral for themselves. This would produce a world where each person had his or her own morality. The practical effect of this, however, is that no one's set of moral values would be any better than anyone else's. In addition, no one could ever truly claim that one set of moral values is "wrong," including those values with which we disagree. We will return to this in a minute.

The second place that morality could be grounded is in society itself, or groups of people. This can be further subdivided into other categories, such as countries. This would imply that no one country's laws are better than another's, however. We could avoid this by saying that morality is grounded in humanity as a whole, but this view seems to suffer from the same weaknesses as the view that morality depends on the country/society that you are in.

Third, we can say that morality is grounded in something that is external to ourselves, and beyond humanity. That is, we could say that morality is truly objective. Morality, on this view, exists independent of what people think about it. That is, my opinion and your opinion about morality would not change the nature of this morality. Murder, for example, would still be wrong even if a person thought that it were right.

I should also make sure to point out that I am answering an ontological question and not an epistemological one. That is, we are asking whether morality is objective or subjective, not how we understand that morality. We are not now asking whether or not God is the ground of objective morality. We are asking, instead, whether an objective morality exists. How we come to understand what is morally right and morally wrong is a different question entirely.

Is Morality Grounded In Individuals?

The idea that morality is grounded in the individual is commonly accepted by many, but suffers from several fatal flaws.1 This view holds that each person determines his or her own morality. Your morality may look different from my morality. Ultimately, on this view, there is no objective referent beyond the individual to determine morality.

One of the major issues with the idea that morality is grounded in the individual is that it ultimately becomes self-defeating. Think of it this way: If someone comes up to me and tells me that I am wrong about a moral issue, I can immediately tell them that they are not right to tell me what I should and should not do. But wait! Both of us, at this point, have appealed to something beyond ourselves to make our point. The person who came up to me appealed to something beyond himself whenever he told me I was wrong. I appealed to something beyond myself whenever I asserted that he should not tell me how to be moral. If morality were grounded in the individual, then neither of us could (or should even think) that another person is wrong. Which leads me to my next point.

Is morality subject to the tastes of the individual?

An issue that the person who affirms this position must face is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a person "forcing" their morality on another person. That is, the statements "Morality is subjective," and "it is objectively wrong to force one person's moral views on another," ultimately become mutually exclusive. To be logically consistent, the person who holds this view must also accept that it is not an evil thing to force someone to live as though something (say murder) is actually not a bad thing. Yet if someone comes up to me, or to anyone reading this post, and tried to force us to murder another person, we understand that we would be right to refuse to do such a thing. The fact that we would refuse tells us that we really do believe that it is wrong for someone to try to force us to do things that are wrong. But if this is the case, then there is something beyond the individual that grounds that morality.

In addition, if morality is grounded in the individual, then no one in all of human history has done anything objectively wrong. If morality ultimately boils down to our own opinion, then it becomes impossible to condemn the atrocities of individuals like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Yet hopefully everyone that is reading this post will believe that Hitler and Stalin did things that were actually and objectively wrong. Furthermore, if morality is truly subject to personal taste, then literally no one in prison has done anything wrong. Yet, at the same time, on such a view, there is nothing morally wrong with holding someone in prison if they have done nothing wrong.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if morality is grounded in the individual, then no one can actually complain about someone who would try to, say, set up a Christian theocratic state. This is where I think that those who deny objective morality fail to understand the implications of their views. If morality is up to the individual, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with setting up a country set on Christian laws. We could even take this one step further. If morality is subjective rather than objective, then there would be no moral injustice in going door to door under such a regime and forcing people to convert to Christianity under the threat of jail time. I should note here that I am not advocating for this. I just wanted to make my readers understand the implications of subjective morality by using examples that take take these implications to their logical conclusions. I know that at least some of my readers are not Christian. My point is to show that you do, in fact, believe in objective morality, as evidenced by the way that you reacted to such a scenario.

We could also point out that a morality that is subject to the personal tastes of the individual has additional problems. If morality is truly subject to the tastes of the individual, then there isn't really any moral difference between loving a child and abusing a child. There isn't anything objectively wrong with harming people if morality is truly subjective. On such a view, there would be nothing objectively wrong with a husband abusing his wife or a parent abusing his or her child.

Another issue is this: If morality is truly subjective, then no one has any moral obligation. Let's take a moment and walk through a scenario: Let's say that you are walking home one night. As you are walking down the street, several men come up behind you, steal your wallet, beat you within an inch of your life, and leave you for dead in an alley. As you are about to pass out from your injuries, you see a bystander pass by you. You call out to the bystander and ask him for medical help. He looks over at you, notices your injuries, and stops to make a decision. My question is this: Does that person have any moral obligation to call an ambulance for you, or is the person morally justified to say, "You know what, I don't care if you die!" If you believe that this individual has a moral obligation to get you help in some way, shape, or form, then you believe that morality is ultimately grounded in something beyond the individual.

Let's take another example: You notice that your neighbor's son has bruises on his body. You talk with your neighbor's son, and he tells you that he fell down the stairs. You hesitantly accept his explanation. Later, however, you are sitting on your porch and you hear the boy screaming from his house. You then see the father come outside and see the father of this boy ruthlessly beat his son. Do you have a moral obligation to call the police or attempt to intervene in some way?  If you believe that you have an obligation, then you are assuming two things:

1.) That the father has done something wrong, and
2.) You have a moral obligation to stop him from continuing to do wrong.

Both of these things assume that morality exists beyond the subjective tastes of the individual.

Looking at the relationship between morality and human rights, if morality is subject to the individual and is not objective, then human rights cannot be violated, since human rights cannot exist. If there is not an objective source from which our value comes, then no single person has a right to things like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet on a view that denies an objective source from which we derive value, then our value is tied up entirely from the chemical makeup of our bodies. Yet we recognize that chemicals do not have rights. Why should we think that, if we are just chemicals that have arranged themselves in a certain way, which later evolved over time, that the "rights" that we think that we have are real? The answer is that we have little to no reason, on such a view, to think that we have any more "human" rights than a rock or a tree. Beyond this, even if we could establish that we had "human" rights (whatever that would mean on such a view), there would be nothing morally wrong with violating them, which leads to something of a contradiction, since morality and human rights go together.2

Finally, one concept that is often overlooked in the debate regarding the subjectivity or objectivity of morality is the idea that, if morality is entirely dependent on the individual, then no one can actually do anything right. That is, when you give to charity, you aren't really doing anything moral. You might be doing something that makes you feel good in the moment, but there would be no moral value in what you did. On a subjective view of morality, you wouldn't be doing anything morally right by feeding a starving child in Africa or providing shelter for homeless veterans. On a subjective view of morality, there is simply no moral value to these actions except what your subjective opinion assigns to them.

To conclude, when the atheist claims that there is moral value (or lack of moral value) to an action, and then claims that morality is subjective, he or she is arguing an incoherent position.

Ultimately, the view that morality is somehow subject to the tastes of the individual falls flat on its face when placed under scrutiny.  In Part 2, I will examine the question of whether or not morality can be grounded in society, whether in governments or in the human race as a whole.

1 FOOTNOTE When I state that "morality is grounded in the individual," I mean that there is no objective reference point beyond the individual for morality. That is, morality is subject to human opinion, much like a person's favorite flavor of ice cream.
2 FOOTNOTE My human right to life, for example, is tied up with your moral obligation to not kill me, except in very rare circumstances (self-defense, etc). In the same way, my right to keep the wages that I get from work is tied up with your moral obligation not to steal from me.


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