Morals Are Neither Objective Nor Subjective

Defining Relativism For What It Truly Is

This article is, in part, a response to She Sells Sea Chels’ article, “Morals Are Not Objective.” It is, however, enough of a break from that article to persuade me to write this article as a stand-alone essay, not in direct response through Medium’s response features.

The idea of morality is captivating. We’ve all got them, and we all think we have got some sort of handle as to what they are exactly, at least for us.

What I intend to argue in this essay is not that our general thinking is wrong, but that our conversation about morality needs some work. The article by She Sells Sea Chels [Chels] is a perfect example of how our culture has managed some fairly interesting U-turns in the past few decades when it comes to morality.

In the article, Chels writes that morals are not objective. This is quite clear from the data. What you think is right may not line up with what someone else thinks is right. Chels also points out that morals are not subjective — we clearly generally agree that it’s wrong for me to burn down your house, kill your loved ones, and give you a horrible disease (to use Chels’s creative example.) To quote Chels: “no one really advocates doing this to innocent people for no reason.”

Chels gets at something quite important here: “we treat ‘don’t burn houses down’ as more or less an objective moral principle, even while many of us actively claim not to have objective moral principles.” Here is the great tension of the 21st Century: we don’t want to give our morals any sort of objective nature for fear of ethnocentrism, but we can’t help noticing that there might just be something objective about them. There are two potential consequenes of this that are not good:

  1. We supress any notions of objectivity to our inner consciousness, thinking one thing internally but externally expressing something different. This is quite clearly not good — if an immoral act is happening, and we do not speak up because we are afraid of ethnocentrism, then we have no interpersonal morals at all and we fall into mere subjectivism.
  2. More abstractly, the very objectivity of morals disappears. If we do not speak about them, then this element of morality ceases to exist in the practical world, and morals disconnected from a practical world do no good at all.

Chels here is brave in recognizing his/her utilitarian beliefs cannot be subject to any objective standards. Unfortunately, Chels has missed something quite substantial here — “Instead of the traditional split between objective … and subjective … I propose adding contingent as a third option.” — there already was a third option: relativism!

Here, I think, is a good time to define my terms, and perhaps explain the speed-limit sign at the top of this article.

What is Relativism, Really?

Too often today, moral relativism is brushed off as subjectivism. This is (objectively 😉) wrong. Relativism and subjectivism are two different ideas, and to put them both in the same basket is to ignore trusted definitions of language. Then who’s the subjectivist!? Interestingly, we (as a culture) rejected relativism, but now several “alternatives” have been surfacing quite rapidly that attempt to fill the hole — fortunately, a relativism-shaped hole can be filled quite easily with… relativism. So, what is subjectivism and relativism, and how are they different?

Subjectivism, simply, claims that everything is determined by the subject. There is no object to be interpreted — the “object” only exists because the subject determines its existence. Importantly, if the subject were to stop existing, so would the object. In this way, the object is contingent on the subject.¹

Relativism, on the other hand, claims that everything is determined relative to the subject. There is an object to be interpreted. Here’s the key difference: if the subject were to stop existing, the object would continue to exist separately the subject — the object’s existence is not contingent on the subject. Now what does this even mean? How does this seemingly small difference actually a difference to our morality in the real world?

Let’s talk about speed limits.² What is the speed limit? And I don’t mean what is the definition of “speed limit.” I mean what speed is set as the limit when you’re driving down the road? Well obviously, it depends what road you’re on! It could be 25mph, it could be 90km/h, there might not even be a speed limit on this section of road! Clearly we understand that the speed limit is different on different roads. But are we to say that there is no objective speed limit, just because it’s different? Of course not. The speed limit’s there, there’s no doubt about that. But how do we explain the variability in speed limit? It’s relative (or we could even say contextual.)

Are we to say that there is no objective speed limit just because it’s different?

The speed limit is what it is based on the surrounding factors such as size of the road, number of lanes, potential hazards, if it’s near a school, the visibility, if it’s near residences, if children are likely to be playing, and so on. The speed limit is in relation to these factors. Because it exists in the same time and place as these other factors, it has to be adjusted to fit within that context. You cannot drive 70mph in a 35mph-zone and then claim that “it’s all relative, officer!” Well, you could, and you’d be right. But you’d simply be demonstrating that you understood the speed limit to be 35mph, and for good reason.

So how does this help our moral quandary? Think of morality like the speed limit. It’s clearly objective — it exists. But it’s relative to the context. This is why Chels’ argument is so compelling: of course tipping your waiter in America has different moral obligations than in other countries — in the context of America, it’s considered appalling to pay without leaving a tip. This isn’t an objective moral truth,³ it’s relative to the context.

This is where I fear Chels takes things in a direction I am hesitant to travel down:

the universe might not dictate human values — but humans do dictate them as the species we actually are, and within that context, our values aren’t arbitrary. We like steak because we need protein in our diets, and we don’t murder each other beacuse we’ve collectively agreed to structure our feelings to remove the urge to do so.

The issue with this, and with the slight tweaks that follow, is that it takes humanity and separates it from the rest of the world. In the next paragraph, Chels writes, “the fact that they’re contingent on a universal scale doesn’t make them not meaningful on a human scale.” On the one hand, Chels argues that everything is contingent, but there is still a remnant of objectivity (or more bluntly, ethnocentrism) at work here: the idea that humanity is somehow separate from the universe is certainly a cultural idea, not a generally true statement. That idea itself is relative to the culture Chels is writing from. Now, we cannot escape our culture to speak objectively. If we could, we wouldn’t need this conversation. But it is important to recognize that if we are to attempt to speak of any sort of generally applicable moral truth, it needs to be devoid of any sort of cultural baggage. Again, this is not possible. To quote Nelson Goodman, “Almost always some stance or other is adopted.”⁴

In conclusion, to speak of subjectivity and objectivity as two separate ideas is actually a little deceiving, for they are both elements of the very same thing. As humans, we are subjects interacting with objects. We will never cease to be subjects, and we will never run out of objects. What’s important, therefore, is the relationship between the two. That relationship is where all interpretation, all meaning, and all comprehendible truth is found.

I find this a more useful framework than the one Chels proposed, and I hope that Chels reads this article with an open mind and finds the ideas in his/her article challenged, chiseled at, and brought closer to the truth we all seek.

-ALD

Notes

  1. This is a good example of why Chels’s “contingency” can be confusing, and why it’s important for us to define our terms. Otherwise, we could just swap relativism and contingency back and forth with no real difference.
  2. I owe this brilliant example to Dr. Jack Schultz, developed from the equally brilliant article, “Just the Facts, Ma’am!” by Nelson Goodman in Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation (1989). p80–85.
  3. I wonder if it’s even a moral truth at all. I still don’t know where I stand on tipping in America. It seems like a broken system.
  4. Again, from the article, “Just the Facts, Ma’am!” 84.

The truth is a trap … you cannot get the truth by capturing it, only by its capturing you. — Søren Kierkegaard, Journals.