Thoughts on Subjective Morality


My view of morality is a simple one. Each person makes their own moral choices and judgments. There is likely no universal or cosmic law that we are judged by. If there is such a law, we have proven incapable of discovering and understanding it. As a result, all claims to such law are simply personal opinions made grandiose.


Morality:  Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior among humans in the context of a society of humans.

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

Objective: Not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts independent of an individual perspective.

Thus, Subjective Morality is a claim that principles of 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.

1. We don’t have verifiable objective moral codes

Religious morality

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 for a number of reasons.
  2. There are numerous competing claims as to which god is real which results in competing human claims to different objective moral codes which means human claims are still based on their opinion of which moral system is best.
  3. The only verifiable sources of these moral codes are human beings. They sometimes claim to be intermediaries for the divine 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 yielding conflicting opinions and no objective judgment.

Secular social morality – Laws

Laws are objective, only in the sense that, there is a monopoly of force that will consistently punish violators of the codes. The laws themselves represent the product of individual moral opinions or consensus opinions by a specific group of individuals working in a collaborative process.

Members of any given society who obey these codes may or may not agree that they are good moral systems and may or may not ascribe to them, even if they follow them out of fear or a sense of duty to society. Becuase their root creation was that of human beings making individual moral judgments, they remain subjective in nature. They can only be appealed to by members of the society that enforces the laws on the basis of the social contract. Even appeals such as these often fail.

Appeals to common moral values

Proponents of objective morality will make an appeal to our agreement on some fundamental moral claims. Murder and Theft are common examples. There are many problems with this appeal.

Firstly:  It is a call to a subjective moral opinion. They are asking you to make a gut check of your own moral view, and compare it to someone else. Anytime you are asked to be a judge you are being asked for your opinion, and that is a subjective moral decision.

Secondly: It is not only possible but likely that individual moral opinion will concur. Any similarity from one person to another is likely to result in similar moral views. Our basic human needs for survival and happiness are a common thread that leads to a great agreement in moral questions. As we nearly all wish to live, we all agree that we do not want others to kill us, thus killing is generally immoral. We also all recognize that we may need to kill to defend our lives from an aggressor, and thus killing is allowed for self-defense. Likewise, we have similarities based on life experience, on sharing the same culture, living in the same society under the same laws, or simply having read similar ideas from others.

Thirdly: While there are common appeals, you will still find a wide variation on a range of moral questions. 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.

Ultimately similarities and differences in moral views are best explained by the similarities and differences in the human experience of each individual and each society.

2. Morality only has any meaning 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. Likewise, the law of gravity operates independently of us.

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.”

3. There are no non-human judges

Whenever considering a moral question, you are talking about right action and wrong action. Right and wrong require a judgment. Thus you should always consider, who or what is judging?

Anytime you have a human judging, based on their own moral judgment, or the moral judgment of a written code created or interpreted by humans, then you have a subjective judgment. It is dependent on human opinion and thus falls under the definition of subjective.

A truly objective judgment requires a non-human judge. A good example of this is the law of gravity. If a man builds a bridge he is using the objective laws of gravity and physics to guide his actions. Should he fail to obey these edicts his bridge will collapse. This is a truly objective judgment. An outside power is determining the rightness or wrongness of his efforts according to those laws and standards.

Any claim of an objective moral standard must come with an objective test/judgment that will show us, independent of our opinions, whether the action was right or wrong.

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. 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. I am always the judge of my moral code, that is the very heart of subjective morality. In other words, I have no duty or reason to respect or obey Hitler’s morality.

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 moral opinion over another.

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. Many do have an objective view of morality, and they do often make sweeping judgments of actions they deem immoral. Yet, they have no greater success at stopping evil acts through such condemnation than anyone else. Such condemnations only work when people have the shared opinion that a given moral standard is the correct one.

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 viewpoints hold to.

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.”

In short, our moral standards are as strong or weak as we are as human beings. That is true even if you claim an objective moral view. And it means that whatever the claim, morality is still rooted in our human subjective opinions and judgments.

Does might make right?

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. Might does not change morality.

However for practical purposes, might can enforce a moral view on others behaviors. Fear of force may well cause us to act contrary to our moral views. Or if we persist anyway, it may lead to us losing our freedom or our life to the hands of those determined to force their moral views upon us.

How do you form a subjective moral code?

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.

How can subjective morality be judged?

Subjectively, of course! I mentioned that I hope my moral values improve over time. Aha, you might think. How can you measure improvement if there is no objective standard? The same way we measure improvement of an artistic effort or any other subjective value. We ask if it is meeting our desires and the desires of those whose judgment we seek approval from.

If my moral values are causing me to act in a way that is destructive to my own life and causes me distress, then they probably need to be re-examined. If they are causing strife in my society and resulting in others judging me to be a detriment to their desires, then they are going to put pressure on me to change. If on the other hand, my morals lead to a happy life and lead to others respecting me and paying me homage, then I am on a subjectively good track.

Morality is a means to an end. The ends are based on your desires and goals and that of other people in societies ends and goals. THese ends are themselves, largely subjective. The rare exception might be the survival of the species since with the death of mankind, there would be no more human morality. But this is a consequence that is hardly ever at play in our moral decision making, often because it is a common instinct to desire to avoid such a consequence.



Comments are closed.