The Dallas Examined Life Philosophy Group Message Board › Objective vs Subjective Morality: a False Dichotomy?

Objective vs Subjective Morality: a False Dichotomy?

Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 160
I've been wondering this for a while. I can see both sides of the objective vs subjective morality debate. There seem to be advantages and disadvantages to both sides. Both make claims which are intuitively satisfying as well as intuitively unsatisfying. I can't help but wonder if this is a bit of a false dichotomy. Could there not be a third option?

For instance, I think it may be possible to have objective moral principles yet subjective moral values. One could argue for an objective moral principle such as "intending to cause harm is morally wrong" yet admit that what constitutes as "harm" can be subjective in many instances. Now, the moral principles would still be up for debate, as would the subjective nature of certain values, but this doesn't sound impossible to me.

Going off my example.
1. Intending to cause harm is morally wrong.
2. A hates country music so much that it causes them pain (it is harmful to them).
3. B knows about #2.
4. B plays loud country music to A with the intent to harm them.
5. B's action in #4 is morally wrong.

Obviously, not everyone is so pained by country music because our preference in music could be argued to be a subjective quality. However, that doesn't stop B in this example from being a jerk.

I'm not trying to argue for any particular objective moral principles. I'm just wondering what others might think about the possibility of objective moral principles to coexisting with subjective moral values. Could this be the case for some moral principles and not others? For instance, I could imagine this concept not working too terribly well with some formulations of utilitarian ethical principles.

Any thoughts?
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 328
Those are very interesting questions. Thanks for posting them.

'Value,' meaning what some person or persons hold as being of worth or importance to them, I would say has a subjective aspect to it. I could value certain experiences, like eating smoked oysters smothered in peppermint syrup, that are very idiosyncratic and unique to me and so those I would say would be subjective values. But remaining alive and healthy seems to be a different kind of value. Maybe the latter are more objective or universal than the oyster/peppermint value. Could it be something like a distinction between wants and needs or requirements? Seems that there are certain things I have to, or almost have to have to be a 'full' human being, although these raise a whole other bunch of problems.

One question I have is whether everything that I like has to be something that I value and whether I can value things in different ways. Let's say that I really get off on keeping an accurate count of the blades of grass in my backyard (assuming that this is something that isn't a result of OCD or some other compulsion). I acknowledge that it's silly, a guilty pleasure, but I still like to do it. You could say that this activity, although having no 'objective' value in itself, may still be a means towards realizing something of value, say pleasure, or a relaxing diversion like crocheting or whittling, or strengthening my memory, etc. But as far as the activity itself, although it could have 'value' in a very thin or trivial sense only by virtue of the fact that I like doing it, I could very well be aware that it has no value in a fuller or more objective sense.

If I say I like country music or peppermint oysters, I'm not making a universal judgment. I would say that those are not moral values. When I make a moral judgment, let's say that it's wrong to torture children for fun, my guess is that it;s a different kind of claim based on a different kind of value. I may very well be wrong in my moral claim but that doesn't bear on the kind of claim it is.

All of this is just my best guess at the moment and raises way more question than it could ever hope to answer. But then again, that's the fun of doing this! smile
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 329
And why I 'value' it!
Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 161
Even the values which may seem objective may simply be contingent. The immorality of torturing children is contingent upon the fact that children want not to be tortured. Try as I might, I can think of no way to torture a tree. Trees, having no wants of their own could hold no opinion or value as to what is done to them. Children, however, can. The tree would still have needs (sunlight, air, water, soil, etc...) but it would be a stretch to say that the tree desires or values these things. They may be "valuable to" the tree, but that does not mean that the tree actively values anything.

The things is, when phrased that way, it seems like all values are contingent. Even the subjective values of things like country music or peppermint oysters could be thought of as being the natural result of other factors. For instance, I was raised on rock music and learned that people associated thick accents with lower intelligence. Upon hearing country music, I felt as if they were wasting a perfectly good guitar and slathered on the accents even thicker (when other artists all but lose their accents when they sing). Try as I might, it is difficult for me not to think of country music as being performed by and/or for idiots. With this in mind, it seems to me like it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the subjective negative value I place in country music is contingent upon my upbringing.

I suppose the thing that separates my dislike for country music and my dislike from being physically tortured would be that the former is produced by nurture and the later by nature. Perhaps it's a matter of whether or not one could say that the value is necessary. That's a bit of an odd word to use there, especially in light of a deterministic worldview, but I imagine that what makes a human child a human child also precludes them to place a negative value on being tortured. At the same time, the same defining characteristics do not necessarily preclude a human child to placing a negative value on country music or a positive value on mint oysters.

This is a pretty complex issue. I'm not sure there is any easy answer. But so far it seems like all values are contingent, some are objective (common) and some are subjective.
Rinda G.
user 7444310
Dallas, TX
Post #: 102
– Nathaniel, I love that you’re questioning and able to “see both sides of the objective vs. subjective morality debate”, and that you’re recognizing the possibilities of “advantages and disadvantages to both sides”.

I can't even begin to address the issue of "Morality" until I tackle the words:"objective" and "subjective".

So what does it mean to be objective? The Wiki dictionary (WikiDict) offers two definitions that seem pertinent: 1. not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion. (Really??? Good luck! you gullible little sweetie) devilish 2. Of or pertaining to something that can be known, or to something that is an object or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality.

For something to be an “objective” fact (morality or other), wouldn’t that require that the fact be something that can be readily agreed upon by the majority of people? So, a fact must be something (a term, a word, concept, etc.) that will not come into dispute when the fact is stated? For instance, I’ve yet to encounter a problem when I’ve used any of the following words: North, table, tree, baby, person, earth, animal, meal (there may be a subjective view as to what constitutes a meal, but everyone seems to agree that it signifies food and, potentially, the act of eating that food). Everyone seems to know what these words represent. It would seem that it is only when we begin to look beneath the surface of a word, that “subjectivity” rears its problematic head.

So let's look at "subjectivity". I found it intriguing that WikiDict had 5 definitions for both “subjective” and “objective”, but only “subjective” had a definition relating to Philosophy. Specifically, here is how WikiD defined "subjective": 1. existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought (opposed to objective). 2. pertaining to or characteristic of an individual; personal; individual: a subjective evaluation. 3. placing excessive emphasis on one's own moods, attitudes, opinions, etc.; unduly egocentric. 4. Philosophy… relating to or of the nature of an object as it is known in the mind as distinct from a thing in itself. 5. relating to properties or specific conditions of the mind as distinguished from general or universal experience.

Now, using Nathaniel’s example:
1. Intending to cause harm is morally wrong. [Is this a completely “objective” statement? Historically, people have deliberately caused harm to others without the slightest consideration as to the moral implications. Example 1: Many parents spank their children when they misbehave. Perhaps, they do this believing the old adage: Spare the rod and spoil the child. Surely they know they’re causing harm, but they’re guided by a belief that supersedes the #1 premise. Are these parents morally bankrupt? A 2nd example: Someone tries to harm someone I care for … would I intentionally cause them harm? You bet your sweet bippy I would. Damn the morality.
So what do I think of this statement? It may be both objective and subjective. Intending to cause harm could be construed as objective (Generally speaking, most can agree as to what is meant by the phrase). Then we get to morally wrong and suddenly we have to look beneath the surface. (Rather than get into the morality of the thing, I’d prefer to say that Intending to cause harm to another is generally a bad idea. It may give you a “temporary” feeling of satisfaction, but rarely an effective solution.)
2. A hates country music so much that it causes them pain (it is harmful to them).
3. B knows about #2.
4. B plays loud country music to A with the intent to harm them.
5. B's action in #4 is morally wrong.


To come to 5’s conclusion requires that all the previous points be accepted as objective facts. Otherwise, the conclusion would be based on one or more faulty assumptions.

So, do I think that people look the world objectively or subjectively? I think both. But that, subjectivity has been misunderstood and given a bad rap for far too long. I think our views are far more “subjective” than we realize, and that we have to virtually fight with ourselves to introduce “objectivity”. This is why I place such a high value on “questioning” because it is far too easy to take a stance on something without strongly questioning myself as to why I take that stance (hold that belief, etc.)

So why do people tend to view the world subjectively? The best answer I have, at present, is: because the idea of "objectivity" might just be nothing more than a lovely fantasy. We do not, and cannot know all there is to know on any given topic. No matter how learned we may be on a topic (our life’s work, for instance) there is always someone who might know something we don’t know … and that something may just be the thing needed to complete the “truth” picture.

Thus far, my recommendation based on objective observation is: Don't ever try to teach someone anything who already knows everything. You who worship at the idol of "objectivity" who might think my observation may be the slightest bit "subjective" feel free to run a couple of experiments and prove me wrong. In this case, in particular I'd love to be proven wrong.

Perhaps the world of “things” is the only place where “objectivity” is possible. When one enters the world of ideas, one enters the “subjective” realm.

So... “Yes, I think the “objective (mind/reasoning) vs. subjective (heart/intuition)” debate IS a false dichotomy. Both are important and both are necessary. Arguing the value of one over the other accomplishes very little, if anything.

Personally, I don’t think much about morality. I just do the best I can with the information I have, staying open to more, and trust myself that whatever goodness there is within me will rise to the occasion when it is needed. Put another way, I try not to make the same dumb mistake twice. Even with this lofty goal in mind, I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve failed. confused
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 331
I agree that this is a very complex issue that resists easy answers or even not so easy answers. A big part of the problem for me is understanding what these terms might mean regarding morality. If 'objective' is defined as 'independent of any mind,' then obviously objectivity wouldn't fit very neatly into morality, which I have trouble seeing as being mind independent. But then again, science would also fail to qualify as 'objective' in this sense since we can't leap outside of our minds to perceive the way the world 'in itself' works, independent of any observer. By this definition, maybe the only truly objective thing would possibly be logic ( and mathematics) which I think you could argue have extra-mental validity, although that debate has raged at least since Plato!


But like everything else, words are contextual, and different contexts require different criteria and different categories.


Perhaps it's possible to use "objective morality" the way most ethicists use it as a contrastive term to "subjective morality." You're right that there may be "objective" facts causing or tending to lead to subjective thoughts, feelings, etc. In other words, there may be objective facts causing me to like peppermint oysters, or that would cause me to believe that it's morally wrong for any person to wear green socks on a Tuesday. But if that criterion is held to, then everything is objective and nothing at all is subjective. But isn't that the genetic fallacy again ( here I go again with the genetic fallacy!), that the cause of something is also the nature of that thing? which I think is clearly wrong. If we agree that there's probably something like 'subjectivity,' even though we're not sure what it is, then your objection may not hold.


If we say that torturing children for fun is morally wrong, this fact would be contingent on many other things, obviously, that there are such things as children, human life, morality, wrongness, language, and on and on, but these contingencies I can't see as compromising the objectivity of such a moral principle, if it is objective. (We can set aside for now whether it IS objective and focus instead on the possibility of objectivity itself.) Contingency makes more sense as a contrastive to necessity, not to objectivity. The fact that "torturing children for fun is morally wrong" is a meaningful statement at all already tacitly incorporates all those contingencies.


Maybe instead of objective in connection with morality, universal might be better, but this term also has its drawbacks. Could it be that "objective," such as when used in regards to science, is more of a norm, something to be aimed at but never completely arrived at, not as a set of dogmatic tenets? Objectivism is not at all the same as absolutism, which IS dogmatic. This could be why science tends to avoid dogmatism, although many scientists also happen to be dogmatic. Just as science tries to find the most 'objective' description possible of the physical world, could it be that morality is somewhat similar, knowing that any finding it happens to make is tentative and provisional and can be overturned at any time?



Rinda G.
user 7444310
Dallas, TX
Post #: 103
Perhaps it's possible to use "objective morality" the way most ethicists use it as a contrastive term to "subjective morality."

Ok, guys, the minute you stick the descriptive words “objective” / “subjective” in front of morality, you muddy the communication waters, immediately intimating, intentionally or not, that one is different, possibly preferable, to the other.

For the sake of this discussion, I’m saying flat out that while things may be objective, ideas are not. Morality is an idea. Things are tangible (objective). Ideas are intangible (subjective). The minute you say “I believe that…; I think that…” you make a subjective statement. It may be right or wrong; sometimes only time will tell. IMO you can only call something objective if every observer comes to them same conclusion about the observation. The minute anyone disagrees you’ve moved into the realm of the subjective.

You're right that there may be "objective" facts causing or tending to lead to subjective thoughts, feelings, etc. In other words, there may be objective facts causing me to like peppermint oysters, or that would cause me to believe that it's morally wrong for any person to wear green socks on a Tuesday. But if that criterion is held to, then everything is objective and nothing at all is subjective.


I agree with the suggestion of objective facts leading to the subjective. Take our last philosophy meeting... the objective fact was that Sherrina was there. Any observation I make beyond that of her physical presence...about her reason for being there, her appearance, how she got there, if she enjoyed herself would be highly subjective and could only become more objective if these observations could be verified. So, I actually conclude the opposite. If this criterion is held to, then almost everything is subjective.

When Newton observed the apple falling, anyone observing the same phenomenon might objectively agree that the apple fell. What Newton did with the objective observation, was to surmise a “cause”, something occurring entirely in his head, unobservable, therefore “subjective”.

I’ve gotten the impression, rightly or wrongly, that my interpretation of the words “objective” / “subjective” are somehow different than yours. Maybe I’m too hung up in the word morality, but I can find no rationale, at present, that will allow me to use the term “objective morality”. I simply cannot find anything objective about it.

Do you guys interpret these words differently from the way I interpret them? If so, maybe I can understand the complexity here if you would you tell me how you interpret these words.

How can an idea such as morality possibly be objective?
How does objective morality differ from subjective morality?
What constitutes "objectivity"?

Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 162
The thing is, subjective things can be known objectively. My dislike for country music is a subjective value, but the fact that I dislike country music is objectively true. So perhaps we're looking at it a bit wrong. I think a distinction might be necessary. Such as an internal vs. external distinction. My values are subjective, your values may also be subjective but they can be known objectively. But then again, this may be more philosophical dancing that just confuses things.

It does, however, point something out. Just because something can be known objectively, does not mean that it is not subjective. I also don't think that agreement proves that something is objective, merely that it is evidence that it could be an objective truth. There was a time when the vast majority of people believed that slavery was morally permissible, but we no longer believe this. It is not agreement that makes the immorality of slavery objectively true, it was wrong then just as it is wrong now. Or at least so I say.

When it comes to agreement, I think it helps the case for an objective truth. In science, I would call that repeatability. If you run the experiment over and over and keep coming up with the same or similar result, then you've got yourself some interesting data. If you consider cultures across the world as running moral experiments, and you see that they the vast majority seem to have prohibitions against murder, rape and theft, then you've got a good indicator that those three things are morally wrong. But that doesn't explain it too terribly well. Just having data points is not enough. Just being able to see a correlation in the data isn't enough. If we're going to approach this scientifically, then a theory would need to be developed which best fits the data. That would be were moral principles come in.

Now, like anything known by science, we will necessarily get things a little bit wrong. Hopefully, as time goes by we become less and less wrong. But I think we can arrive at objective moral truths in this manner. If we look at the data, propose a hypothesis to explain it, test that hypothesis and see if the data fits, then we might have a working theory. The way I see it, the theory or theories would be universal moral principles even if the data itself is the result of subjective values.

Jim, you make a very good point that I was making the genetic fallacy about our values. They do come from objective truths about ourselves but are not necessarily objective themselves. The difference may simply fall between a necessary and unnecessary value. I hold that there are some values which we must have simply by virtue of our nature and some values which are up in the air, which we are free to fiddle with. It could be likened to the difference between instincts and knowledge. One set comes with the package, the others are not included but can certainly be added later.

Rinda, I'll try to answer your questions as best I can.
What constitutes "objectivity"?
The existence of my home is an objective fact. It exists no matter what anyone thinks about it. It is mind-independent. It is also objectively true that I dislike country music. However, my dislike for country music is the result of a subjective value. The fact that I dislike country music is true no matter what anyone thinks about it. If I change my opinion and suddenly (or even slowly) like country music, then whatever my opinion of that music happens to be can be known objectively even though the belief/value itself can be subjective.

How can an idea such as morality possibly be objective?
I hold that objective universal moral principles can be discovered and that while your values may be subjective in nature, I can come to know them objectively. Interestingly, what I think about morality may be subjective. My opinions would be mind-dependent. But that doesn't not preclude the existence of objective moral truths.

How does objective morality differ from subjective morality?
This is an interesting one. It actually requires that we first define subjective morality. There are three ways to go about this: descriptive, meta-ethical and normative. I would argue that most people to believe that subjectivity is a good description of what people believe about ethics. That is, we all agree that we all disagree about ethics (at least to a degree). Some argue that we ought to do what we believe to be good, but that what we believe to be good is subjective (meta-ethical). While a relative normative stance suggests that we cannot criticize the moral decisions of others because there is no objective standard by which to judge them.

Objective morality, or moral realism in contrast suggests that moral statements can be true or false (or approximately/mostly true or false). That would be the descriptive side of it. From a meta-ethical standpoint, it suggests that moral truths are what they are regardless of what anyone thinks about them. From a normative point of view, it suggests that we ought to attempt to find and live by these moral truths.

Interestingly, one need not take all the positions to hold to a particular view. It could be just one or more that we agree with. For instance, I personally do believe that people do disagree about morality. I think it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that our opinions about morality are subjective. However, I also hold that objective moral truths are out there and we are capable of discovering them.
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 332
Rinda, I understand your objections and I think that they have merit. After all, ethics has some subjective aspects to it. I think that objectivity exists on a spectrum; it's not all or nothing. For instance, ethics is probably far less objective than physics although I'd say that it's more objective than matters of personal taste and preference. Also the subjective and objective are almost always deeply implicated in each other and it's not easy to tease them apart.


For the sake of this discussion, I’m saying flat out that while things may be objective, ideas are not. Morality is an idea. Things are tangible (objective). Ideas are intangible (subjective). The minute you say “I believe that…; I think that…” you make a subjective statement. It may be right or wrong; sometimes only time will tell. IMO you can only call something objective if every observer comes to them same conclusion about the observation. The minute anyone disagrees you’ve moved into the realm of the subjective.


At one time, there was probably total agreement that the earth was flat. That total agreement would not mean that the earth's flatness is objectively true. Even today, there is still not total agreement that the earth is not flat ( Check out "The Flat Earth Society"), or whether evolution or creationism is the correct theory, or whether the earth is older than 6,000 years, and so on. Even science itself has always been full of controversy and disagreement, often about the most basic things, such as how to measure the distance to stars. Does that mean there's no objective fact of the matter?


People often disagree about things they directly observe, such as the cases where 5 or so eyewitnesses observe an accident and report 5 very different versions about what occurred.


You're offering your idea that morality is subjective, but are you offering it as a possible objective truth or as a subjective truth? If it's offered as 'objective,' how can an idea be objective? If it's subjective, then your belief that morality is subjective is merely a matter of personal preference, similar to saying that you like chocolate and I don't like chocolate. There are no grounds in that case for disagreement or rational argument. The fact that you're arguing for your position strongly suggests that you are offering it as 'true' in a sense that goes beyond just your personal perspective and preference. Thought itself requires an idea of objectivity even though this idea is never totally separable from subjectivity and never totally achieved.


If all ideas are equally subjective, then none can be more 'true' nor 'false' than any other including your idea that morality is subjective and also including the idea that all ideas are equally subjective!


Objectivity is primarily a method, not a result. It's a method of understanding, not a set of absolute truths. It's a form of understanding that necessarily must start with subjective experiences but then attempts to abstract away form the particularities of one person's life, preferences, etc, to some broader, more general truths. Philosophy and science, and I would say systematic knowledge of all kinds, aim at eternal and non-local truths - that's their animating force - even though we know that's not what they're going to get. It's something we aim but never completely arrive at.


Subjective morality: A morality that is completely subjective is a contradiction in terms. Moral values and reasons for action that are completely subjective are a contradiction in terms. If I say that "Murder is morally wrong," I am saying more than that "I, Jim B., happen not to like murder." It's a different kind of claim from one of personal taste or preference. If I say that "One should not steal," I'm saying more than that "I, Jim B., think that it's not a good idea to steal in these circumstances," but rather that "No one should steal under any circumstances." Objective and universal features are just written into moral language. This does not mean that the moral principles/values arrived at are necessarily the 'correct' ones, because as I mentioned, objectivity is basically a method, not a result.


Humanity has enough common features that there seems to be a universal moral code, with some minor differences allowing for differences in circumstance. And this code is basically the same for all people; it's not justified due to one's personal preference but instead to the acknowledgment of a kind of understanding that transcends one's own preferences, while also acknowledging that this code is not absolute but can always be revised and improved upon, and that any and all of us could be wrong.

Nathaniel, I agree with just about everything you say. Is heck freezing over?biggrin


Rinda G.
user 7444310
Dallas, TX
Post #: 104
No, heck isn't freezing over, but its definitely getting cooler. tongue

Let's face it. Where would you two be if you didn't have me to kick around (or at least try to)???

You know we had this same argument last year. We failed miserably to persuade one another or our opposing positions then and I see no evidence of that changing in this dialog.

I thought that Nathaniel might have moved in the direction of my thinking by the way he phrased this dialog, but it seems like he's reverted back to the idea of an objective morality.

By this reasoning, I can only deduce:

Murder is morally wrong. (objective morality???)
War involves murder.
All soldiers who murder are immoral.

A person tries to murder Jim and Nathaniel.
I shoot the person.
In so doing I commit an Objectively moral wrong. In the process I become immoral while saving the person from immorality by preventing hm/her from murdering.

So what constitutes "immorality"?
Because any otherwise foul act, in and of itself, may be considered acceptable when the "context or circumstance" is considered, how can it be "objective"? If "Murder is morally wrong." ever becomes accepted as an objective fact then our court system will no longer need a judge/jury. A cow will always be a cow, unless it is somehow genetically modified. A "cow" is an objective fact. Objectve facts are "black or white, no shades of grey". Subjective facts, not only have "shades of grey", they're often in "techicolor".

If Nathaniel says that he "hates country western music", I have no way to objectively verify the fact outside of believing what Nathaniel says. If Nathaniel can change his mind, how could the first statement ever be considered objective? Then it would no longer be a cow. If I survey all the people in the U.S, would even 100th of 1% of the people be able to agree with his statement? Many would say, "Who the hell is Nathaniel?". What is the difference between what Nathaniel says and someone else saying "There is a God." I may be mistaken but hasn't the objectivity of the latter statement been repeatedly questioned in our discussions?

If I say I'm pregnant, that doesn't mean I am. The fact that you "heard" me say this might be objective, especially if someone else heard it also. However, I may be lying or I might have a brain disorder and truly believe I'm pregnant. Doesn't the very nature of the word "objective" require some kind of verifiability??? Other than taking my statement on the much ridiculed "blind faith", the only way you might be able to say this an objective statement is if you see me looking like I'm pregnant, and simultaneously have ruled out other alternatives to account for my tummy protrusion (that I don't have a giant tumor in my stomach or have not been imbibing too many pretzels and beer). shock

By the way, after beating my head against your collective walls, I'm seriously regreting my decision to shoot the person. devilish
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