In 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
Do 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?