In my last post, I pointed out that ‘subjective morality’ is a meaningless statement – to everyone. Those that usually invoke it are generally people trying to argue that some other group of people is making a moral issues out of something that is really a preference. (I used the example of sex outside of marriage.) Therefore, the argument that morality is subjective is primarily used as an objective moral argument.
And, as was pointed out in this post, people that claim morality is subjective are ultimately going to undermine their own arguments with their actions. They will still treat certain moral issues – the ones that they believe really are moral issues – as if they are objective moral issues.
I think more needs to be said now about just how deeply rooted the idea of objective morality is to all of us. Morality and Meaning seem to be deeply tied in our minds in some way.
We freely speak of out ‘better angels’ and ‘wanting to be a better person’ without flinching. And even die hard atheists speak of ‘the sanctity of life’ or ‘the evils of slavery’ and do so without having to explain it first.
And more to the point, we fight for what we believe without a second thought.
Andrew S, a thoughtful atheist blogger, once said this to me:
Something does not need to have eternal or permanent significance for us to have subjective significance that we press on. So I think the reason you don’t hear people saying things like, “Oh, morality is just a construct, to each his own,” is because this is a non sequitur. Really, things go like, “Morality is just a construct, but regardless of this, my construct has personal significance to me so I value and fight for it.”
I’ve been writing about this issue extensively, but my idea is this: I have no problem if there is no intrinsic morality or meaning to the universe (a nihilistic position). But behind every nihilist sentiment must be an existentialist position that creates something subjectively meaningful from the objective meaninglessness. … Morality doesn’t have to be an absolute even if we fight for our constructed senses of morality as if they were…
But does this answer satisfy the paradox that we are building in these posts?
The Problem With Constructed Morality
It seems to me that it doesn’t. Consider that ‘morality’ implies we sincerely believe everyone should be that way. Andrew is not denying this. In fact, he’s saying that this personal construct that he calls his personal morality is so important to him that he has no problem at all with going out and fighting for it against those that have different personal moral constructs and to work to either convert everyone to his constructed morality or possible (in certain legal situations) use force to require his constructed morality to be adopted.
All careful wording aside, we are talking about forcing your morality on someone else, in varying degrees.
Knowing AndrewS, in this context by ‘fight he undoubted meant only ‘argue in favor of it against those that have different moral constructs.’ Or did he?
For example, he’s probably in favor of making laws and applying punishments for murder, stealing, hate crimes, etc. If morality is just a personal construct, how would we justify such laws? Is it a simple matter of might makes right? (More on that later.) So even to Andrew, morality is about some form of coersion. For certain moral beliefs in his personal moral construct he is willing to ‘fight’ as in ‘coerce and possibly with threat of violence’ (for that is what laws and governments are.)
But whether we mean ‘argue for’ or ‘coerce,’ this is enough to show the underlying problem with Andrew’s argument.
In a world where morality is nothing more than a personal construct – literally nothing more than that – what possible basis could there be for favoring one construct over another? So why fight for it at all? Wouldn’t that be very much like deciding that the book you wrote or music you composed is, in fact, the One True Work of Art and then try to fight with everyone (if only through argumentation and with words) about how everyone should adopt yours as their own?
And doesn’t that just feel wrong somehow if we’re really just talking about personal constructs? Is forcing your preferences on someone else a moral thing to do?
Oh wait! I can’t say that, can I? To even ask the question ‘is this moral’ is to appeal outside the construct of a subjective morality to an objective one and then to compare the subjective moral construct to the objective non-constructed moral one. But this should have been impossible.
Or, in asking such a question, am I perhaps maybe just fighting for my own personal moral preference that is neither better nor worse that anyone elses? And if so, then how do I explain that I’m convinced my moral preference (i.e. that we don’t force our preferences on others) is not just itself a preference that I am… well, forcing on others? What am I even saying when I try to appeal to a moral preference like this?
Huston, we have a problem, and the problem is that a subjective moral worldview requires us to, at some level, still assume that it’s based on an underlying objective moral worldview.
But then, if such an underlying objective morality exists that I can appeal to to clear this all up what I should care about is that underlying objective morality and I should not pretend that the constructed subjective one matters at all. It’s just a preference after all.
Purely subjective morality is a logically incoherent mess because it tautologically treats itself as if it’s not subjective. (If it didn’t, then we wouldn’t call it ‘morality’ in the first place.)
What we really need is a way to justify (i.e. explain) morality without having to appealing to morality via a circular argument like this.
But there is one aspect of Andrew’s argument that strikes me as dead on correct: our moral worldviews are incredily meaningful to us. In fact, I’d argue that they aren’t just a source of meaning in our lives but the source of meaning in our lives.