Subjective And Objective Morality

This post is inspired by watching a debate between Daniel Fincke (camels with hammers) and John Figdor, – on Objective and Subjective morality.  I don’t know if I have an answer to whether both can really exist, but this is my first shot at it.

Objective:  (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

Subjective:  based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions

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

I’m a programmer.  My specialty is in object oriented programming.  In object oriented programming, you have objects.  An object has attributes and behaviors.  This mirrors real life in a lot of senses, because this paradigm manifests similarly in real life.

For instance, a human has arms and legs (attributes), and a human also can speak or walk or move (behaviors).  Notice the human’s attributes (arms and legs) might have attributes and behaviors of their own, and those things contribute to the overall mechanisms the human is capable of owning or performing (legs help the human walk, arms help the human lift things, etc).

Each attribute and behavior in programming can be broken down to its most simple attributes and logical preconditions.  This mirrors real life, but there is an important distinction that distinguishes programming from real life:  the mind.

In programming, logic is contained or fed in through external sources.  Even with artificial intelligence, the logical preconditions to assess optimal and non-optimal states were initially given by the programmer.  So if code can “learn”, it’s learning is based on some criteria that was given to it by an external programmer (or collection of data or whatever).  In this sense, code is a perfect “tabula rasa” (blank slate), except that it can’t think on its own, so the only criteria it can use to make determinations about the “right” behavior originates externally, even when the application it is running appears to be functioning autonomously.

Example 1

Contrast this with a human who decides that slavery is wrong, even when they’ve never heard anyone put forward that idea.  A person who decides slavery is always wrong presumably does so because the manifestations of slavery create a paradox within their internal moral or logical faculties.

In other words, the logical justifications a person who condones slavery makes are inadequate or create a logical or moral dissonance for the person who rejects slavery.

So is this an objective mechanism, or a subjective one?

If owning people is objectively wrong, what objective characteristics make it wrong?

I suppose I’ve always thought this is subjective, because people are able to create arguments to support their position, and culturally speaking, slavery has historically fallen on some spectrum of how abhorrent it is (ranging from 0% to 100%).

The argument I would put forward to argue that owning someone is wrong would be:

1.  It causes harm to the person who is owned – financial, emotional, physical, etc
2.  People ought to be considered free when they are born.  Slavery impedes this
3.  It culturally reinforces that it’s ok to own others

Is any of this objective?  That is, is any of it detached from personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts?

To the extent that we can predict outcomes with any level of success, my view is that 1 and 3 provide more objective support than #2.  It’s easy to assess that slavery will causes financial, physical, and emotional harm, because slaves are prohibited from thriving financially.  Slaves almost certainly will experience emotional harm as well, because they lack the freedom to reproduce at will, go as they please, or engage in activities they want to perform.

Institutionalized slavery also can be predicted to reinforce social acceptance, at least in many situations; we know this is true because there is historical precedent for it.  If many generations have owned slaves, it creates a cultural paradigm that condones slavery.  As we know, motivated reasoning and mob mentality are manifestations by people who want to reinforce their preferred (subjective) mental framework.

In terms of the subjective one – people ought to be born free, I suppose that is subjective in a sense, but let’s consider its foundational justifications.  For instance, consider why a person should be free.  Freedom allows individuals to contribute to their society in meaningful and creative ways to improve things in ways that may not be available to chattled people.  For instance, a free person might be allowed to receive an education, couple the education with their natural abilities, and invent something or perform charity based on their skills, knowledge, and subjective values.  It’s easy to predict that these contributions could result in life-saving behavior.  Freedom also tends to feel better.  The support we have for this claim is empirical in the sense that we can compare populations – one free and one slave, and gauge whether one group is significantly different than the other, in terms of how they feel.

But, can these feelings of others be used as objective justification?  If the person who might have otherwise been owned contributes to society’s improvement, is that objective?

This, I think, is where the problem lies.  Is society’s improvement, or financial or emotional harm, or the cultural reinforcement of that harm, or the way someone feels about something objectively good or bad?  In other words, can there be any universal claim made that always makes something right or wrong.  Math is easy to use as an example, because 1 + 1 always equals 2.

But…if society’s improvement, or a person’s financial or emotional harm is objective, then what makes it so?

Does a person always deserve to have financial and emotional well-being?  If so, then neither slavery nor prisons should exist.  But, we do punish people for causing harm, and we make laws that *ought to* be to everyone’s benefit (admittedly, this doesn’t always happen).  When children misbehave, a common tactic is to put them on a time-out, thereby restricting their freedom to continue behaving the way they were.  So, we put the child on a time-out because, from our perspective, their behavior was causing some sort of harm that overrode the well-being of someone (perhaps even themselves).   This is analogous to a person who is in prison, although the timeframes and motivations may be slightly different.

As a pragmatist, I try to be open to ideas, because, if the idea has the potential to cause better outcomes, then I think it’s a better idea.  Is that objective, though?

Going back to a more scientific basis, Einstein’s ideas were more predictive of reality (in some circumstances) than Newton’s ideas were; therefore, in those circumstances I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Einstein was objectively more correct.

But science is logically separate from human well-being.  The interplay between humans necessarily creates conditions where some events cause better outcomes for certain individuals and worse outcomes for others.

In that sense, I don’t think that we can deductively presume there is objective morality.  Because actions can benefit some while harming others, I think the best we can do in these cases is to rely on inductive empiricism.  That is, weighing the benefits and costs to maximize benefit while minimizing harm.

This process is objective to the extent that weighing benefit and harm can be done objectively, or that the assessed benefit and harm determination is objective.

Example 2

Consider this far-fetched example.  Suppose a person has a special formula that would save 100,000 innocent people’s lives.  But, suppose this person demands, in exchange for donating that formula to society, they must be allowed to murder 500 innocent people.  Would it be moral to allow this person to murder those 500 people?  In the framework of maximizing well-being, then it would result in the best outcome (saving 100,000 people) to allow 500 innocent people to die.  Yet, that’s still awful.  In this case, I think the well-being factor falls apart a bit, because killing innocent people is really really bad.  Is that objective, though?  To me, it seems better to lose 500 innocent people than to lose 100,000, but those 500 innocent people might not agree with that.

Even if those 500 people had all the same facts as me, some of them might not agree with my decision to allow their murder.

I don’t think there are objective and universal truths.  I could be wrong, and I’m sure smarter people than me might disagree with me.  But I just don’t know how a person can perfectly distinguish fact from opinion in matters of morality.  Saying a mathematical, historical, or scientific fact is binary and true is different from saying that a behavior of a person is objectively right or wrong.

I think the best we can do is to improve our capacity to distinguish benefit and harm, and maybe incorporate consistent and agreed-upon criteria in that process.


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

3 thoughts on “Subjective And Objective Morality”

  1. I question the validity of “objective morality” and a foster child of mine taught me that. This child was born with seven illicit drugs in her body, from her drug addict mother. As a consequence she seemed to have no empathy to speak of. For example, she once casually suggested we run our car over a person walking alongside the road. we asked why and she said “because he’s ugly.” (The child in question has become a young woman and has successfully, in our opinion, learned to fake empathy through an intellectual process and lead a normal life.

    My point is that all morality must necessarily invoke empathy, an emotion that colors our thinking. An objective morality would necessarily not invoke emotions and would remove our humanity from our ethics. Choosing to follow the rules of an objective morality would then be a sterile intellectual choice based upon … what?

    And I think you err when you say that Einstein was “more correct” than Newton. They addressed different aspects of the same problem. Without Newton, would Einstein even have existed as a physicist? Or would someone else just taken Newton’s place? Newton was correct … as far as he went. Einstein was correct … as far as he went. That one went deeper than the other has more due to when they were born than their “correctness.”


  2. Thanks for your comment Steve!

    This literally is the first time I’ve ever really grappled with this topic. One of the things I didn’t even bring up is the distinction between the language we use versus the actual thoughts they represent. In any event, I’m inclined to reject moral objectivity, as well.

    As far as “I think you err when you say that Einstein was “more correct” than Newton”…I think I was clunky about how I phrased that. Einstein did indeed solve a problem that was not well-solved in Newton’s classical model, but he didn’t touch a lot of other stuff Newton did. My point was really that we can objectively determine if math or science is correct, because the model would either accurately predict outcomes, or it wouldn’t.

    Human interactions are not so clean and simple. Phenomena occur whether we think they’re right or not. Humans have competing interests, and I (like you) suspect there’s not really a way to assess whose interests and benefit are objectively most important


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