Objective Morality: Much Ado About Nothing?

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Earlier this year, an early-morning storm passed through our area, causing schools to open late. Some counties announced they would open schools one hour late. Others announced that school would begin at 9:30 am.

Our county? Officials announced that school would begin “after the storms were over.”

Imagine the confusion this created, as the storms dissipated in some areas, and continued in others! Parents and students wondered exactly when school would start. Instead of providing a definite starting time for county students, the officials based the starting time on, at a minimum, two variable factors: the weather conditions at the student’s home, and each person’s idea of what it means for a storm to be “over”. This, of course, varies widely; In my opinion, a storm is “over” when it no longer poses a serious threat of damage. My aunt, who was terrified of storms, would insist that a storm isn’t “over” until the sky is clear for at least an hour!

Imagine what would happen if our government wrote our laws like this! If tomorrow, our legislators declared that all speed limits were repealed, and law enforcement officers were empowered to arrest those who were driving “too fast”, chaos would reign! How fast is “too fast”? It’s a safe bet that your idea of “too fast” is not the same as mine… and neither of us are likely to agree with the cop that has just pulled us over! Without a legal fact… a clearly-written and duly-established law, all legal opinions are equally valid… and thus are completely useless for governing anyone other than the holder of that opinion!

For this reason, modern legislators and lawyers spend enormous amounts of time fretting over the exact phrasing of a document. Companies spend huge amounts of money to remove as much opinion as possible from the wording of a contract.  And even after adding all of the “legalese”, litigants still debate the meaning of even the smallest words. (After all, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is“!)  Our laws and regulations must be objective, based in external facts independent of any one person’s opinions, in order to be meaningful.

In the same way, subjective moral opinion, in the absence of objective moral facts, is effectively no morality at all!

Often at this point, the subjective moralist objects, saying “I can be just as moral as anyone who believes in objective morality.” However, this objection is illogical… if moral facts do not exist, then why would it be “better” or “worse” (which are themselves, morally-charged words) to be called immoral rather than moral? Why does it matter whether one breaks a non-existent standard of behavior?

Can a subjective moralist be a moral person? Well, yes…they can be moral and wrong about the existence of objective moral facts. Or they can be right in their belief, but neither moral nor immoral. What they cannot be is both right and moral. (Or, to be fair, right and immoral!)

To clarify,  consider this question: does a unicorn’s horn glow in the dark? The answer doesn’t really matter. Because the topic of the question doesn’t exist, no answer has any meaning in the real world. In the same way, one’s opinion of how we should treat others is meaningless… unless there actually exists a way that we should treat others! Subjective moral opinion with no undergirding objective moral fact is an opinion about something that does not exist. It has no more relevance to our lives than the destruction of Krypton. (That’s the homeworld of Superman and Supergirl, for those under 30!)

Subjective Moral Opinion Isn’t Sufficient

Moral opinion alone lacks the necessary scope of influence required of morality. An opinion is, by its nature, limited to one person. No two persons can share an opinion. You might describe your opinion to me, and we might hold similar opinions, but I cannot hold your opinion! Nor can you hold mine!

This means that the scope of influence of any opinion is exactly one person; but a standard of morality deals largely with relationships between two or more persons. Opinions simply have insufficient scope to address relational behavior. For this reason, the argument that morality is a product of people in society fails. Moral opinion can provide no binding reason that men should seek the good of others.

Indeed, we instinctively resist the moral opinions of others, often with the common objection, “who are you to force YOUR morality on me!” At best, subjective morality informs a person of how they believe people should treat others, but it cannot inform a person of how they actually should treat others!

Subjective Moral Opinion Cannot Explain Guilt

How often we make excuses for our actions!  The same actions that the subjective moralist claims cannot be objectively wrong, he attempts to justify to themselves and to others. This strongly indicates that at least some form of guilt is felt; one does not justify moral actions.

Subjective morality cannot provide a sound explanation for guilt. Occasionally, when my oldest daughter was a toddler, she would put herself in timeout when she felt that she had done something wrong. She tearfully walked to the corner, although she had broken no rule, and neither my wife nor I had any intention of disciplining her.

One day when this had happened, she looked over at me and asked, “May I get out of timeout now?”

I replied, “Honey… I didn’t put you there! YOU put yourself there.”

In a world where morality is not objective, subjective moral opinion is a lot like my daughter’s self-imposed timeout. With no higher authority to tell us to behave, or else “sit in the corner”, and no moral facts by which to judge our actions, we make up our own rules. Then we behave as if they were binding. (Even more illogically, we act as if our moral opinions should be binding on others!) When we fail to live up to the rules we’ve created, we “put ourselves in timeout” with feelings of guilt and shame. And then we turn and ask “can we get out of timeout now”… and are answered with silence.

The Problem that Should Not Exist

Dealing with guilt should be simple in such a world. Just as my daughter chose to put herself into timeout, she could also choose to leave her self-imposed punishment at any time. She had no obligation to stay there. Similarly, guilt for breaking a subjective moral code can only result in self-inflicted guilt. We are “free to leave” at any time. Yet, this doesn’t reflect our experience.

Every mentally-healthy person at one time or another feels guilty. Subjective moralists attempt to explain this away by asserting that the crushing weight of guilt is just an illusion. Yet these “illusions” lead some to spend thousands of dollars on counseling. Others resort to alcohol or drug abuse, and some to self-destruction. This “illusion” has a huge impact in the real world!

It is more intuitively obvious that feelings of guilt are real. We stand guilty of breaking objective moral facts, and we need a way to “get out of the corner”. Repeated insistence that guilt is an illusion cannot soothe the nagging misery. All of our own efforts to remove ourselves from the corner fail. We crave forgiveness for our offenses… forgiveness that is neither necessary nor available if no law has been broken. Our conscience knows the truth that we often suppress.

Subjective Moral Opinion Cannot Secure Rights

Rejection of an objective moral standard claims to bring freedom. Instead it brings slavery. The cost is simply too high. Freedom from a moral law may seem to allow one to live as they desire, but it also requires the forfeiture of any protections and rights provided by that law. Appeals to subjective morality as a replacement only provides an illusion with no substance. Claims that men should submit to such a code “for the sake of society”. But this begs the question; you cannot argue for subjective morality by appealing to subjective morality. Either denying oneself for the good of the group is an objective moral principle, or it is a subjective opinion with no authority.

Objective morality exists, and this fact is implicitly affirmed by the subjective moralist, many of whom live highly moral lives in spite of their denial of the standard that makes them moral.  Does our society oppress certain groups of people? Should we change some of our laws to be more “fair”? Are discrimination and intolerance wrong? All of these require an objective moral standard to be meaningful… and practically no one these days, regardless of political leanings, religion (or lack thereof), creed, or color would not agree with at least one of these statements. Similar to logic itself, the more someone argues against objective morality, the more they show that they actually believe in it! The inability to reason without it is strong evidence for both its reality and its importance.

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