Thoughts on Subjective Morality

My view of morality is one that I’ve often had difficulty explaining. It is not especially appealing, comforting, or inspiring. It is simply the way I see things working in the world around me. It is a subject that has been fodder for ethicists and philosophers for some time. My views are neither new or unique.


Morality:  Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.

Subjective: Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.

Objective: Not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

Thus, Subjective Morality is a claim that principles for right and wrong are based on personal feelings, tastes, and opinions rather than being wholly independent of them.

Reasons why Morality is Subjective

By and large, these are not purely deductive arguments, more abductive approaches, looking for a best-fit explanation of what we observe about morality in operation. If objective morality is beyond our ability to observe, then we can never know much about it.

We don’t have verifiable objective moral codes:  The closest we have to objective moral codes are those provided by religious groups. Ostensibly, these moral codes are either provided by some supernatural supreme or derived from a study of this supreme force. While this provides many people a claim to objective morality it fails the test for me for a few reasons.

  1. I do not believe in the reality of these gods.
  2. There are numerous competing claims as to which god is real which results in competing human claims to different objective moral codes.
  3. The only verifiable sources of these moral codes are human beings. They claim to be intermediaries but we don’t have direct evidence of this.
  4. Even among practitioners of a given faith, there is a wide range of moral precepts and understandings of the supposedly objective rules.

We observe many different moral systems at work:  Observation of human cultures reveals different sets of moral standards. There is no uniformity of what people consider right and wrong behavior. In a warrior society, killing rivals is a right means of settling a dispute. In a peaceful one, it is considered murder and wrong. In one culture being gay is evil, in another, it is not. This observation tells us that in practice, human moral systems are dependent on the humans practicing them. Furthermore, we can see that different moral codes can be successful in different societies and that societies change their moral codes over time to adapt to circumstance or because there is a change of opinion on what is right and wrong.

Some will certainly observe that there are common moral ideas. Murder, theft, and sexual morality are all very common among human societies. While there are myriad variations they tend to have some very common themes. While this could be evidence of an objective standard, it is better explained as a product of the similar nature of human beings.

We observe human morality only in a human context:  For something to be truly objective, it must exist independently of human feelings, tastes, and opinions. Whatever we think of Trees, it is pretty clear they exist independent of us. Our opinions about them do not fundamentally change the nature of trees. You would be hard pressed however to find human morality without human beings creating, enforcing, and violating the standards. Indeed any kind of moral code has no real human meaning outside a human context. How can murder happen without any people?

We do observe other animals exhibiting moral behavior, which is to say behavior in a social setting that is either supported or opposed by the animal’s social group and represents some personal choice or action on the part of the animal. Different Animals seem to have different social rules and norms much as different groups of humans do. It is fairly rare for humans to use the morality of animals as a social standard, indeed many find our own moral systems are what differentiates us from “mere beasts.”

Implications of Subjective Morality

This is where things get challenging. When you believe in an objective moral code, things are simple. You have a code, you think anyone not following it is bad, and those who do follow it are good. When you want to judge someone, you hold up the code, check it against their behavior, and make a judgment. Anyone who also follows that moral standard should, on principle, agree with you.

When my view is attacked by objectivists, their primary line of attack is to pose a challenge. How can I say that Hitler is wrong? If morality is subjective, and Hitler thought his actions were good, then how can I judge them wrong? The answer is simple, but it is hard to get folks to really understand it sometimes. I judge Hitler by the moral standards I believe in. I use my feelings, tastes, and opinions to decide what I think is right and wrong. I then measure that against what Hitler does and come to a judgment. His subjective view is different, but that does not stop me from making a judgment.

In a larger society, we come together to agree on various standards, and just like I can apply my individual moral standards to make a judgment, I can also call upon societies mutual standards to make a judgment. As Americans, we deem Hitler’s actions evil and against our ethos of all men being created equal and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As Hitler deemed some entitled to life and others not, we judge him to be evil as a society whatever he and Nazi Germany may have thought about it.

When the moral views of different people and different groups are at odds, you will get conflict. Sometimes that conflict is little more than a polite discussion, other times it is a life and death struggle for the ability to enforce one or the other moral viewpoint.

Is Objective Morality Better?

Here again, I’m using the “how to condemn Hitler” argument as a comparison. Objectivists point to the value of objective morality in calling out evil behavior. For them, it has a kind of strength you don’t get if morality is mere “opinion.” But I disagree, of course. Many have an objective view of morality, and the do often make sweeping judgments of actions they deem immoral. Yet, they have no greater success at stopping evil acts through such condemnation as anyone else. Nor are they the only ones who try to use this objective argument. Hitler would no doubt have his own sense of what objective morality was. So the supposed authority is just not there. It all boils down to the same conflict of words and actions that subjective debates have.

Those with an Objective view might argue their way has the advantage of certainty. But again, the problem is that people don’t all agree on one objective standard. Instead, there are a whole host of competing claims to an objective standard with competing systems for determining which is true and which is false. And none of them are likely to leave room for doubt so when they come into conflict there is no room for negotiation or compromise. To do so would betray the whole underpinning of its objective nature. A subjectivist may be steadfast in their views, but they can recognize that there is possibly room for compromise and that not everyone always must follow their view. Their conflict could be just as strident, but they have a conceptual door for greater cooperation.

An objectivist can argue that their standards are permanent and fixed, which keeps away corruption and degradation of morality. They would say a subjectivist is able to change their morality at the drop of a hat since it is nothing more than their personal feelings and thinking. This idea of morality changing on a whim is certainly one we instinctively shy from. Today we say rape and murder are evil, could we change our minds tomorrow? It is a good critique. Fortunately, despite morality being controlled by humans, we see some remarkable continuity in the way people feel, and thus in their moral views. Further, the flexibility of subjective morality can be an advantage. As we learn and grow wiser, we can improve our moral standards. We can use reason to preserve morality that we find works well and yet constantly improve on it because it is not “set in stone.”

Does might make right?

For a subjective moralist, it is a tricky thing to answer. On one hand, no. You can beat me to a pulp, and that doesn’t mean I’m going to change my moral code. I could live in a society that practices and/or enforces a moral standard I don’t believe in. Despite my belief, I don’t have the power to change the way others in my society behave. The two competing moral views don’t cancel each other out, they just exist in the same space, one having more force behind it than the other.

But in that conflict, the one with the more force and power (be that marital, social, or political) will win out in practice. Thus for those who choose to bow to that authority, it sets a standard for right and wrong that members of the society are expected to follow. So in that sense, yes, might does determine right at the social level and morality is about social behavior and social judgment.

For an objectivist, it’s a lot simpler. Every human being on earth could have adopted a moral view but it is still wrong if it fails to meet their objective moral code. No amount of might can change that code and it matters not a whit if anyone follows it or not in terms of its judgment. Of course a subjectivist, from an individual perspective, could feel all the world is wrong as well. I think the difference is the objectivist has more righteous indignation about the matter.

How do you form a subjective moral code?

I’d say it a way, it doesn’t matter, you are going to do it one way or another. Most of us start out with some set of moral instincts. That is then tempered and heavily influenced by those who teach us morality. It is then further influenced by the moral codes of the cultures, societies, and nations we live in. It is formed and altered by our own personal experiences and the experiences of others we communicate with. Some of us will show deference to a moral authority, some of us will try to sort it all out for ourselves.

I can’t say I invented all the parts of my moral code. I am a product of the American culture, my parents, and the sum of my experiences. Not to mention my own emotional and intellectual nature. My moral views are not fixed but change over time, hopefully improving as I grow wiser. Some of it is what I might call common sense, other aspects of it require careful thought and consideration. There are areas where morally, I am just not certain what is wrong or right. While in other cases I am very strident about my moral views.




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