Morality: Objective or Subjective

909E2401-3F73-4359-AC70-D4B839CE7F59In my latest provocative question, I asked, “Is morality objective or is it subjective? If you believe it’s objective, what is its source? If you believe it’s subjective, how do you know whose concept of morality is correct?”

Perhaps a better question should be: does objective morality actually exist?

What exactly is “objective morality”? One definition I read said that objective morality is “the idea that a certain system of ethics or set of moral judgments is not just true according to a person’s subjective opinion, but is absolutely and undeniably true for everyone.”

Another definition said that objective morality is “the idea that an act of good or evil is always right or always wrong, regardless of whether one person believes it is right and another believes it is wrong.”

Did you notice that both of these definitions start with the words, “the idea that…”?

And what is an idea? It is an opinion, a perspective, a belief, a thought, a concept, a notion. Interesting that the word “fact” is conspicuously absent from any definition of objective morality.

Back to my original question. “Does objective morality exist?” Is objective morality a set of definitive laws gifted to humanity by God, where God has determined what is “right” and what is “wrong,” and these determinations are deemed to be unimpeachable?

Or is morality subjective? Does it relate more to time, place, and social norms (culture) than to a universal code of conduct attributed to a supernatural deity?

Objective morality exists because God exists

4E1D4FF7-A36A-4BD2-84FB-FDC71FB9CB6FDo you buy that? If morality is an objective set of rules handed to us by God, shouldn’t what God defines as morality be considered the same by every human being across time and in all cultures? Shouldn’t all humans, since we were created in God’s image and we are all God’s children, universally agree upon and accept that which God has told us is objectively moral?

Yet we don’t.

Time, place, and culture

Let me make a few observations about the influence of time, place, and culture on morality.

Hitler had millions of people killed in the 1930s and 40s. Did he consider what he was doing immoral? Or did he believe that he had a moral imperative to cleanse Germany of all but the purest Aryans?

At the time of the Spanish Inquisition, did the Catholic monarchs consider it immoral to require Jews and Muslims to convert to Christianity or to face expulsion or execution? No. They simply wanted to ensure Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms. What could possibly be immoral about that?

Did the Pope and the nobles of Europe in the Middle Ages see anything immoral about the Crusades? Why would they? Their goals were based upon a command passed down by a higher authority to restore Christianity to holy places like Jerusalem. What was wrong with pillaging the countryside and killing thousands of Jews and Muslims while doing God’s work? Nothing. It was what God wanted.

Our own American genocide of native Americans was excused because of the moral imperative of Manifest Destiny, which was deemed to be the young country’s mission from God. And less than 200 years ago many farmers and plantation owners in the American South owned slaves. Did they consider slavery to be immoral? Of course not. To them, all God-fearing Christians, there was nothing immoral about owning another human being.

Today most people find what Hitler did, what slave owners did, what occurred during the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and even the American West, to be morally wrong.

But for the people at those times, in those circumstances, and within those cultures, they were widely accepted as being society’s norms.

Most of us in Western cultures in the 21st century agree about what is or is not moral. There is a broad consensus across our culture about what is right and what is wrong. And that broad consensus helps us arrive at our communal morality.

Yet not long ago, there was a broad consensus across some parts of our country that interracial marriages were immoral and that homosexuality was immoral. Even today, some people believe both are still immoral. Yet the broad consensus in this country is acceptance of interracial and gay marriage.

Morality, then, is really how individuals interpret a cultural consensus. And since different cultures at different times have had different consensuses on what is moral, then morality must be subjective, relative to time, place, and culture.

What God wants

Those who insist that objective morality can only exist if God exists define objective morality as what people should do or ought to do, regardless of time, place, or culture. But who defined what people should do or ought to do? Was it God? Or was it humans who, based upon their ideas (opinions, beliefs, thoughts, views) of the communal good, decided what people should do and ought to do?

I read somewhere — I can’t remember where, but it stuck with me — that the religious, having invented God in their own image, use objective morality as a way of turning “what I want” into “what God wants.”

Isn’t morality really what people would like to have happen? Isn’t it a human consensus, shaped by the time, place, and culture in which we live, that defines what we should do and how we ought to behave?

45 thoughts on “Morality: Objective or Subjective

  1. Sadje November 29, 2018 / 3:20 am

    You made a good point about the wars , the crusades and the ethnic cleansing done by people in the name of God, religion or patriotism. No doubt that all was wrong. Then perhaps the criteria on which we base morality should be what is the right! No superior judgment or outside influence. I hope I am making sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • kersten November 29, 2018 / 3:41 am

      It has been suggested that actions that benefit the most people are the most moral ones. There is however a slight problem because what some consider a benefit is not so considered by others.
      For example universal education of the young but many of the young would much rather go fishing.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Sadje November 29, 2018 / 3:57 am

        That is a very mild sort of disagreement. Fishing verses education! But the might is right rule should be only applied if it’s also “right”.

        Liked by 1 person

        • kersten November 29, 2018 / 8:47 am

          The the rich western democracies the government decides what is right and it changes as time passes. No long ago same sex relations were wrong but now the new laws have accepted them.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Sadje November 29, 2018 / 8:52 am

            The law is different from morality. Some things would be in the parameters of both and some would be separate. There are people who disagree with this and other laws as well.

            Liked by 1 person

            • kersten November 29, 2018 / 12:44 pm

              That is true but the law is the only morality we are bound to follow , decided by the majority , if our own internal morality breaks the law the law must reign supreme . So if we decide it’s fine to walk around naked we must control ourselves because the law of the majority rules. If we decide it’s fine to take drugs we must desist because of the majority. Those who wish to obey their own laws can only do so providing those laws do not break the law of the land. The final arbiter is always the law of the country we occupy , so if I work in Saudi Arabia I must not drink alcohol.

              Liked by 2 people

      • Fandango November 29, 2018 / 8:03 am

        Ah, but if there was universal education of the young, the young would be educated enough to know that education is more beneficial in the long run than going fishing. Right?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sadje November 29, 2018 / 8:06 am

          That’s true, but if… they need to be educated to know the value of education!

          Liked by 1 person

        • kersten November 29, 2018 / 8:33 am

          That would involve herding the young into classrooms and forcing them to learn for their own good. We do that in our civilised nations and many accuse us of indoctrination , it leads to great debate about what is good or bad to teach children. The word education could mean indoctrination depending on your viewpoint. In my young days I’m 76 there was little rebellion for fear of the cane or the slipper in front of the whole class, and much of our learning was done by a sort of chanting until the facts were drummed into us . Ah how I remember gazing with longing out at the trees and the sunshine on the grass.

          Like

        • kersten November 29, 2018 / 12:52 pm

          Education is simply the amassing of knowledge ; educated men and women are just as capable of evil as uneducated men and women.
          In the rich nations education is primarily seen as a way to earn more money which often results in the scramble for riches. This will not necessarily build character , in some cases it will destroy character.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Fandango November 29, 2018 / 2:50 pm

            That is a risk of education, but if more people were better educated (not just learning facts, but learning critical thinking), I think the world would be a better place (and Donald Trump wouldn’t be president).

            Liked by 1 person

            • kersten November 30, 2018 / 1:23 am

              Yes you have hit the nail on the head we must encourage critical thinking , not just to criticize others but to criticize and examine our own thoughts. Too often the teacher stands in the front and little discussion takes place , how can we know anyone if we can never listen to them and their ideas. Donald Trump does not listen he insists he knows all the answers , but we can see from his actions he falls far short of the ability a leader should possess and appeals to the worst in people.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Paula Light November 29, 2018 / 6:43 am

    Well! No need for me to bother with my poast now since it would totally agree with yours. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • kersten November 29, 2018 / 8:42 am

      Not at all put your thoughts down because as you write ideas will flow and readers wait to hear them.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. XingfuMama November 29, 2018 / 8:02 am

    I don’t claim to have all answers. One thing I observed during Bible study is that people often viewed other races as subhuman in order to rationalize doing what they knew to be immoral.
    That is going on today, e.g., the Scaravan. This is not an argument to prove, or disprove, the existence of either God or an objective morality, merely an observation of a phenomena as old as recorded history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • kersten November 29, 2018 / 8:41 am

      Not just in Bible studies since we are tribal by nature and those other tribes don’t really know right from wrong. Even within the Bible believers we have tribes who diverge on various moral view points. The twelve tribes of Israel had a numerous disagreements and they were supposed to be all Jewish.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Fandango November 29, 2018 / 9:00 am

      Morality is whatever those in power at the time, whether religious or political power, say it is.

      Like

  4. Marilyn Armstrong November 29, 2018 / 9:15 am

    You make the assumption that good and evil are god-related. I don’t agree. I think that we all have a fundamental sense of rightness and wrongness and it is part of our wiring, our DNA as it were. It has nothing to do with any god of any religion. But i think it’s possible that the idea of religion comes from our fundamentally wired in concept of right and wrong.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Fandango November 29, 2018 / 10:11 am

      As an atheist, I don’t believe good and evil are god-related. But for those who believe that objective morality does exist, and that it comes from God, I believe they are wrong. I’d like to think that our DNA wires is to know right from wrong, but then why do so many people do wrong? Why are so many people evil?

      Like

    • kersten November 29, 2018 / 10:41 am

      Our sense of right and wrong is due to our self-awareness ; we judge our actions and our conscience will tell us if they are right or wrong.
      Freud had it about right when he said ‘ we are at war with ourselves ‘ . We don’t always do what we aught to do but often only what we want to do. Animals don’t have this problem because they do not have the sense of self-awareness that we humans possess.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Marleen November 29, 2018 / 9:35 am

    I was going to say that the statement “Objective morality exists because God exists” over the sign saying objective morality exists so (combined with the axiom objective morality can’t exist without God) therefore God exists is some kind of circular logic. Then I scrolled back up [to click for the purpose of commenting] and saw the two hands writing each other (in a circle, something you said in another way or two in your post as well).

    I think there are objective realities/moralities. I think that they are different and fewer* than many of those who seem (or claim to be) attached to morality think. I, however, am someone who feels attached to morality. Yet, I don’t think everything can be seen as stationary-hence-objective. Even people who say morality is in the bible “have to” admit we don’t really live like that or even want to (while a few probably do want to).

    I think a lot can be learned from the bible but that we have to take it as humans, by which I mean we are living life and learning. Even Judaism does (Judaisms do) that, regardless that some Christians think the bible is objective and Jews stick by it (together while thinking their own Christian morality is from the bible). Everyone has adapted together real life and whatever they have taken from their text.

    Nevertheless, back to where I started, I do think reality is here or the universe exists because of God. So any morality is related to God. Ultimately looked upon by God. But growing up (at whatever age) has had to mean supposed “laws” don’t always work and I have to think. God will even hold me accountable for not thinking and not figuring out that I have to do something different. Rabbis determined, too…

    … that the status quo couldn’t continue.

    * (although infinite as well)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Melanie B Cee November 29, 2018 / 10:37 am

    I know better than to wage battle with atheists. Because I cannot see their side of the debate, any more than they can see mine (IMHO). BUT. I keep hearing about how ‘God’ is to blame for things like morality and why does He (who is purportedly for ‘good’ allow bad things to happen or evil to flourish? Because, again IMHO, He has learned one lesson that the human race as a whole has not. He allows us (His children) to make the mistakes that will hopefully lead us to be better than we were. If you hadn’t noticed, we’re failing too. Evil is in the human heart and mind, just like morality. And we’re free to choose what we believe, what we do and how we do it. And I’ve said the following to another atheist I know elsewhere: “Personally, your way of thinking is too bleak and cold for me. If there’s nothing else and we ‘poof out’ at the end, what’s the point in sticking around at all? I have to have something to believe in, something better than what I am and my circumstances. I do not judge anyone for what they do, because I don’t walk their path. We are free to make our choices.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • kersten November 29, 2018 / 1:06 pm

      It’s no battle we are not at war , we are just discussing things. Genesis was written about 6000 years ago and we do not know who wrote this it may well have been more than one person.
      It is an attempt to explain how humans came to morality and the result of such a change. Before we ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil we were just like all the other animals but then we began to judge our own actions self-awareness had arrived. We must remember these writers had no scientific knowledge this story explained how they saw the evolution of mankind.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Marleen November 29, 2018 / 2:39 pm

        Interesting. And that reflects the difficulty and pain ( due to responsibility [or just the knowledge itself] ) of self-awareness — not that there is no pain in its lack.

        Liked by 2 people

        • kersten November 30, 2018 / 1:35 am

          Exactly correct but higher awareness must involve us in higher responsibility but it allows us to enjoy many of the benefits of being human.
          We can enjoy music and art , we can travel back in time with our memories and forward with our expectations , our minds can grasp difficult subjects , but above all this we can spread concern and kindness to other humans and animals.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Fandango November 29, 2018 / 2:17 pm

      I know better than to answer this in a quick comment, but I will, either in a comment later, or in a separate post, respond.

      Like

    • Fandango November 29, 2018 / 4:30 pm

      So, after thinking about your comment, here is my reply:

      You wrote, “I know better than to wage battle with atheists.”

      No one wants to do battle. The issue for me is that many religious people, from zealots to missionaries to those who see themselves as “saving” non-believers, are trying to push their belief system down the throats of others, whether through proselytizing or through legislation. That gets old. You do your thing and I’ll do mine. It’s that simple.

      You wrote, “I keep hearing about how ‘God’ is to blame for things like morality and why does he (who is purportedly for ‘good’) allow bad things to happen or evil to flourish?”

      Atheists don’t believe that God is bad. Atheist don’t believe that God exists and if something doesn’t exist, it’s neither good nor bad. Atheists believe that God was created by man in man’s image. It’s the people who use God to justify and rationalize their bad behaviors that atheists object to.

      You wrote m, “Evil is in the human heart and mind, just like morality.”

      I don’t believe in “original sin.” I don’t believe that we are born sinners, evil in heart and mind. You know that, at birth, every baby is an atheist. They are taught about the existence of God, sin, and evil. If they are evil and do bad things, it’s something they learned.

      You wrote, “I’ve said the following to another atheist I know elsewhere: ‘Personally, your way of thinking is too bleak and cold for me. If there’s nothing else and we ‘poof out’ at the end, what’s the point in sticking around at all? I have to have something to believe in, something better than what I am and my circumstances.’”

      My life is not at all “bleak and cold.” In fact, since I believe there is nothing beyond this life, I try to live each day to the fullest. I don’t believe that when people die they are in “a better place.” I believe that when they die, they cease to exist. Period. I do not live my life on earth in anticipation of a wondrous eternity in heaven or in fear of an horrible eternity in hell. And I do have something to believe in: me, my family, and that most people are inherently good, not because of God, but because want to survive, both as individuals and as a society.

      So no battles from me. Just rational thought, logic, and common sense.

      Like

      • Marleen November 29, 2018 / 9:27 pm

        I’m wanting to understand. You think there is good and evil but not morality?

        Like

        • Fandango November 29, 2018 / 10:19 pm

          I think morality is subjective, depending upon time, place, and culture. For example, today most people agree that pedophilia is wrong, immoral, even evil. But back in Ancient Greece, it was common and accepted. I’m merely saying that morality is not objective, good and evil aren’t constant across all cultures in all times. So I’m not saying that there is no morality, just that what is considered to be moral changes and is neither constant nor objective. Does that help?

          Like

          • Marleen November 29, 2018 / 11:28 pm

            Okay. I was wondering if you thought being evil was different from being immoral. I think you don’t. Thank you. I think being moral, though, can and does go beyond what “those in power … say.” (I think you do too. Am I mistaken?)

            By the way, what do you think is the reason or a reason or are some reasons “so many people do wrong” or “are evil?” Do you think more people were evil in the past?

            Like

            • Marleen November 30, 2018 / 10:14 am

              Marilyn believes morality is fundamental, part of our wiring, and that not knowing right and wrong or good and evil means something went haywire. But she doesn’t buy “concepts” of morality … or “rules.” (I went to her link and her link from her link.) We can see wording is as much a part of these questions as are the actual beliefs.

              When I got divorced, there were no (or a minimal few) morals in the system. Of course, some people would say getting divorced is immoral. But it doesn’t matter what your life has been, nothing matters. It doesn’t matter that the guy was abusive and neglectful and doesn’t care he created ptsd in you. It doesn’t matter you supported and forwarded his career and he has a great income. It doesn’t matter you dedicated your time to his kids.

              As for the guy, I agree something was haywire in him. As for the law, I realize a system can only do so much. Therefore, the law is related to morality (and has some elements of it) but is not morality. It is pragmatism. [And at this point in time I see laws in the bible the same way.] I believe we learn more with time, anthropologically.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Marleen November 30, 2018 / 10:53 am

              I forgot to mention: a lawyer recommended a book called something like “Raising Children With a Jerk” – – which I didn’t need, because I was already adept at it.

              It was quite stark, though, to see in writing that the jerk has power for not caring. Of course that was true. He had the power to drive someone who was against divorce into divorce. He had the power to not add anything deep or sentimental to family holidays or birthdays or daily perspective and to subtract from what someone else has been able to pull together. He had the power to waste money while yelling at others for requiring any. He was only one of the realms from which I learned about power.

              Liked by 1 person

    • kersten November 30, 2018 / 1:47 am

      If that were the case life expectancy would be very low there would be no hospitals , no transport , no fire to keep us warm , in fact no civilisation at all. Probably a turning back of the clock about 300,000 years , even our close relative the Neanderthals had fire. We are only just beginning to unravel the early history of hominids it’s a miraculous story.

      Liked by 1 person

    • kersten November 30, 2018 / 2:04 am

      Sam Harris attempted to formulate a sort of objective morality prompted by the Christian suggestion that atheists have no moral anchor.
      The book was called ‘ The Moral Landscape ‘ and Sam discussed the possibility of judging our actions by the amount of well-being they spread. The Cosmic Skeptic on utube discusses this book and concludes that morality is still subjective I must admit I have a problem following the Cosmic Skeptic he’s a bit too smart for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Marleen November 29, 2018 / 5:32 pm

    I had a book to read with my oldest son while I was pregnant with my second son (first sibling) that explained and showed pictures of development and having a baby. I didn’t know ahead of time, but at the end was a page with a framed picture of a grandma and grandma who had died. I don’t know why the authors thought that was helpful to have in this particular book. My son became concerned and even fearful and was sad when I explained what death is in matter-of-fact words. I was not afraid of what I was saying (nor trying to make him upset). Although I wasn’t an atheist, it sounds like I gave an atheist-compatible answer. (He was a little over two.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fandango November 29, 2018 / 8:12 pm

      Death is a tough subject to discuss with a toddler, no matter what your beliefs are.

      Like

      • Marleen November 29, 2018 / 9:21 pm

        It is; it behooves any caretaker to consider seriously what is best to say (from the parental point of view). Matters sure are helped if one has already thought things through. I don’t regret what I said first (I believed and believe it), but I’m also glad he was relieved with the rest of what I said (nothing about heaven and hell).

        Liked by 1 person

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