Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Definition of Subjective

  • Proceeding from or taking place in a person's mind rather than the external world: a subjective decision.
  • Particular to a given person; personal: subjective experience.

Definition of Objective

  • Of or having to do with a material object.
  • Having actual existence or reality.
  • Uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices: an objective critic.
  • Based on observable phenomena; presented factually: an objective appraisal.

I think the question is not whether morality is subjective or not. Everything is subjective as soon as it is experienced or thought by a human being. The question is whether or not morality is or can be objective or not.

Morality obviously isn't a material object. However it could have an actual existence or reality in a platonic sense. There are no numbers that we can point to in the material sense; they exist in our minds in some kind of platonic reality. Morals may be the same way. I think that this can be argued from the mere fact that the average human being has an instinct that can be developed to understand morality, much as we have can understand numbers.

Can we say that abuse is objectively wrong, meaning that whether or not certain individuals feel that abuse is wrong, it is still factually wrong? How could we prove this?

Whether or not actions can be objectively wrong, all societies since the dawn of society have acted this way and we've made laws to ensure that people behave with in certain guidelines. All societies of note have discovered the silver rule (NOT doing to others that which they wouldn't want done to them [as opposed to the golden rule which is active and intrusive.]) Now this is not to say that everyone has had a correct understanding of humanity or even reality as to know with whom they should behave with the silver rule. We are gaining a better understanding of this as science and history brings us more and more clarity. As we understand ourselves and each other through the various means of science, language and other communication, history etc. we can know in more then just a subjective sense, dare I say it, an objective sense, how we ought to behave.

I don't think that one has to have the answers to all questions of morality to say that there is an objective morality. I don't know all the answers to every manipulation of numbers possible but that doesn't mean that there aren't objective answers to these questions.

I also don't think that an objective morality is binary. There may be more then one right course of action, and I don't think that this takes away from objective morality. It seems that all actions may be categorized as moral and immoral but that you can compare moral actions amongst themselves and say that that action X is moral but this is more moral. Much as you would say that 1>0.1 but 2>1 is also true. Different societies may interpret action X as being greater then action Y but objectively we can say that both X>Z and Y>Z though we may disagree at about the relation of X and Y. I don't feel confident about this and but if all else fails I think that this may pass for an argument for moral objectivity.

There is a struggle to get from ought to is but I don't think that it needs to be so complicated. If you want to find out x in x+x=2 then you ought to do the math and you ought to say x=1 because that is what it is. Similarly if you want to find out if action x is moral or immoral then there is an answer that you ought to give and therefore a way you ought to act if you wish to align yourself with the reality of morality. This is not to say that you are incapable of saying or even acting as if action x is moral even when in fact it is immoral. I could say x=3 even though in fact, in reality I’d be wrong.

Now the study of morality isn't as developed as mathematics. Mathematics is easy to study as there are no reasons for personal bias. I have nothing to gain if I say that 1+1=3, but as a white male in the deep south 150 years ago, I have a lot to gain by saying that enslaving blacks is perfectly ethical. But we cannot let personal bias hold us back and I don't see any reason to believe that we are enslaved to bias, so much so as to make us incapable of being morally objective. Is morality somehow intrinsically different then other objective fields of study that it must be categorized under the arts?

I honestly can’t see how morals could be comparable to a taste preference in the arts. We don’t say that it’s just the opinion of the Islamic suicide bombers to blow themselves up on buses filled with innocent civilians, as we might say that it is just your opinion that the Red Sox are the world’s greatest baseball team or that country music is god awful. I can’t see that any human being could compare the two. The fact is that humanity is not nihilistic. We lock up sociopaths because they are a threat to the reality of human society. We could never have become the dominant species of the planet if we thought that human behavior was just a matter of taste. We have a natural instinct to live and to live with other people. Only short sighted self destructive creatures are or can be nihilistic. Our very ability to see into the future in regards to human behavior, our capability for empathy, the inherent logic of zero sumness in almost all of human relations, the progress and spread of cosmopolitanism… all these point to objective moral facts.

Now some will argue that there are considerable differences across societies in regards to morality therefore it isn’t objective. However there have been arguments about everything and not everything is subjective. On the contrary, there has been a growing consensus concerning morality and this would point to moral objectivity.

Others will argue that since morality isn’t a material object it can’t be objective but neither are a lot of things that are objective like gravity, the speed of light, the origin of the universe, numbers, etc.

Some will argue that there has to be an objective law giver for morality to be objective. I don’t think that this works because no one would say this for gravity or numbers or any of the inherent laws of the universe. I mean if you want to say that then knock yourself out. I have no problems with positing something that authored the laws of the universe, I just think that this answers a question with a question and doesn’t help us out at all.

Others will say that we can’t figure out morality using science so therefore it’s subjective, but I say nonsense. We can use science to understand human nature (for example evolutionary psychology) and human relations (for example anthropology) and we can use those very important tools to find an objective morality.

There are many questions yet to be answered, and I’m not a moral philosopher. These are just my thoughts on the matter. Critiques are welcome.

In conclusion, when I speak of an objective morality I'm speaking of an ideal code of human behavior that is encoded, as it were, into the way things are, into nature, the Universe, reality. We can learn more and more about it as we study human nature and human relations.