In my last post, I considered the fact that all people treat morality as if it objectively exists even if they claim they don’t believe in it. I also gave C.S. Lewis’ argument that this was proof that God exists. While I like the argument, I don’t personally find it coercive. However, I do think Lewis is right that there are no moral relativists except in name only. Yes, it’s easy for someone, given the right training, to say they don’t believe morality is objective. But the moment you take them out of the Ivory Tower, their belief in moral realism manifests without a second thought.
Imagine trying to write a history of the United States that didn’t take a moral stance on slavery. We easily, and without much thought at all, condemn our ancestors’ the practice of slavery. But how much sense does it make to do this if morality is really just a subjective preference? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just accept that that society practiced their own brand of morality differing from ours and leave it at that? But we just can’t leave it at that, can we? We feel compelled to go on to assess the morality of others as if morality objectively exists.
To us, our 19th century ancestors in the South did something immoral when they practiced or upheld slavery and that is that. We’re scarcely wiling to even give time to the consideration that maybe it wasn’t wrong after all. Yet all those who lived in slavery are dead and so are all those that benefited from it. So you can’t, much as you might want to, claim that morality is purely a practical matter. It means so much more to us than that.
Indeed, our deepest intuitions about morality seem to tautologically start with the assumption that we are talking about something non-subjective. That because morality is the intuitive sense all human beings have that we ought to behave in certain ways and not others.
In fact, it goes further than that. The ‘problem of evil’ argument (considered in this post) isn’t just an argument that we personally ought to be a certain way, but rather that reality itself ought to be different from what it is. What an incredibly odd argument for us to make!
This is why the arguments for a purely subjective morality fail out of the rational gate. If morality doesn’t exist, we still need to explain where our intuition and sense of morality comes from. Merely dismissing it isn’t enough. You have to explain it. Namely, you have to accept that our intuitions are, for some reason, wrong. And not just wrong, but so deeply wrong that even individuals with the deepest commitment to the non-existence of morality routinely acts as if morality does objectively exist.
Morality Implies Ought to All
Let’s take an example. Try to imagine two communities. One believes that people should not have sex before marriage. The other believes there is nothing morally wrong with it. We’ll make up a name for the first community and call them ‘Christians.’ (This is a made up hypothetical example, of course, and that last word is just a randmonly selected jumble of letters.) We’ll call the second community ‘Americans.’ (Again, just a made up name here.)
Can’t we here say that each community has a different moral view and each is welcome to live their lives as they please?
Well, of course we we can say that, but it seems to me that such a claim is really a claim that our “Christian” community is morally wrong to insist that everyone should wait until marriage to have sex. That is to say, the very act of saying ‘to each their own — so leave me alone!’ is to fundamentally decide that the issue in question wasn’t a moral question after all — and therefore was a moral mistake.
Variations on a Theme
Now wait! I hear you cry. What if we modify things a bit? What if we assume that the “Christians” change their tune here. What if we posit that Christians continue to believe that God wants them to not have sex before marriage, but that they don’t believe God has such a commandment for non-Christians. Can’t we then have a subjective moral view on this issue?
Well, actually, no. What is the moral question now? It’s no longer if sex before marriage is right or wrong in and of itself. Now the objective moral question is likely (assuming our hypothetical Christians believe in their religion as having objective truth) whether or not someone should choose to be Christian or not. So we’ve now shifted the moral issue, but we still have one. And the “Christians” are still coming down on the side of, yes, morally you ought to be a Christian and thereby have a commandment for you that you should wait for marriage. It’s better if you are Christian and wait for marriage. So there is still a claim about how the non-Christians ought to be, if perhaps now a weakened claim.
Well, okay then, let’s change it up again. What if the “Christians” only believed that they personally have been called by God to be Christians but that God calls different people to be different things. Now don’t we have subjective morality?
Sorry, but the answer is still ‘no.’ All we’ve really done is shift the moral question again. Now the question is whether or not one ought to belong to the religion that God calls them to. What if, for example, a non-Christian was actually called by God to be a Christian, but didn’t want to wait until marriage to have sex, so he choose to be a non-Christian instead. Wouldn’t it still be true that (from within this hypothetical point of view) he ought to have been a Christian? (Or, as Adam points out, perhaps the question here is whether or not one ought to be true to their beliefs. But either way the result is the same.)
Granted, at this point the ‘moral law’ being discussed is so vague and weak as to be unworkable in real life. There is no way, for example, to know that this non-Christian was actually called to be a Christian. So the end result would be that we’d naturally assume that he was not called to be a Christian. Yet still, there is an ought that exists, no matter how vague we’ve made it through out contortions with reality. So morality is still fundamentally about what ought to be. It is still, according to our perceptions and intuitions of morality, fundamentally objective in nature.
Morality Is Never Perceived as a Preference
Okay, let’s change it up again. What if our “Christians” now believe that God just doesn’t care what religion you are because all are the same in His eyes. Don’t we now have a case for subjective morality?
Unfortunately, we still don’t. Indeed, there is no moral question at all any more.
Religion is now literally just a preference, like ice cream. And sex in or out of marriage is now just a preference too. If this scenario existed in real life, neither the Christians nor the non-Christians would perceive sex in or out of marriage — nor religion for that matter — as a moral issue any more than we would perceive preference for flavors of ice cream as a moral issue.
This little thought experiment proves the point that needs to be made: morality is always fundamentally about what we believe ourselves and others (given the same circumstantial context) ought to be doing. If there is not an element of belief that things should be different from how they are, we will never perceive it as a moral issue in the first place.
So morality is tautologically perceived as something that applies to everyone (given the same situation and context) or we don’t call it morality in the first place. That is to say, if we perceive it as a moral issue we, by definition, are making a claim that it’s an issue that applies to everyone.
This makes ‘subjective morality’ an oxymoron. It’s like saying ‘the preference everyone should have.’ Or in other words, it’s not a preference after all.
Counter Example? Or Just a Red Herring?
Try to think of an exception to this? What about speeding? We shouldn’t speed, right? But what if it’s an emergency?
Well then we have to acknowledge that the real moral rule wasn’t that we shouldn’t speed, but that we shouldn’t cause extra risk to others on the road by speeding unless there is some counterbalancing risk to be considered. No matter how you try to make it out, it’s always possible to pull the strings until we find some sort of moral statement that we actually do believe applies to everyone and that we believe everyone should change their actions to match. It is not just a subjective preference with this example either.
So the first thing we must accept, if we are being honest and rational, is that our intuitions of morality start with the assumption that when we speak of morality we always intend something non-subjective and non-personal. If it weren’t so, we wouldn’t perceive it as morality.