Relative and subjective, pot and kettle

There are a few things that seem to be jumbled together in people’s minds – including my own – on the subject of morality. I’ll try to tease apart the relationships here, both to develop a more coherent picture myself and to communicate that perspective for others to inspect and critique.

Now, some people object to non-religious morality because it is subjective and relative, and therefore not as compelling or defensible as the alternatives. What they seem to mean by subjective is that it is chosen by the individual, rather than imposed from outside. What they seem to mean by relative is that it changes from person to person, depending on their preferences, tastes, and whims.

The alternative that many people offer is a morality based on a god. This sort of morality is thought to be objective, not subjective, because it is imposed from outside rather than being chosen by the individual. It is also thought to be absolute rather than relative because its source is a single unchanging, universal god rather than a myriad of individual, mercurial humans.

This account is simplistic and hides a startling fact about all these moral systems. Let’s dig deeper …

For one thing, there are many types of non-religious morality: utilitarian, virtue-based, social-contract, hedonistic, and others. Not all of these systems are equally subjective – they do not all posit moral rules deriving from the individual. Similarly, not all of them are equally relative – they do not all change from person to person.

My own moral system is based on trio of values which are, I think, fairly common to all humans: value for people’s well-being, value for people’s individual autonomy, and value for true understanding. Most common moral rules fall out of applying these three basic values. It is absolute rather than relative, because it is derived from a shared human nature which changes little over any one lifespan, or even over the course of recorded human history. It is also objective rather than subjective, to the extent that it draws on values that all people share, rather than values particular to certain individuals or groups.

However, I recognize that others might not see it that way. What’s to keep the next person from choosing a different set of basic beliefs from mine? I only have my own sense that these three are basic to defend them as the core of my moral system. So the source of this system may be my particular choice of core values, not some pan-human value set, making this system more relative and less aboslute than I would like. As for being objective, it falls short there too, doesn’t it. After all, it’s just me, a human, declaring it as a moral system, rather than it being imposed from outside.

Now, let’s compare this against religious alternatives. I will take Christians as an example, but I think the following would work for any other god-based morality out there.

Let’s take objectivity: is it imposed from within (ie, by humans) or from without? Well, in principle at least, Christian morality derives from their God – either as part of his nature, or as commands from him, or something else. So in principle it’s quite objective. Only … well, there’s no good reason to think the god has actually communicated any rules. Looking across Christian history, the rules people have ascribed to that god have run the spectrum on virtually every important moral issue, from slavery to homosexuality to abortion to monarchy to women’s rights. The rules that are actually articulated to human communities on behalf of that god show every evidence of coming from people. So, while there may in theory be objective moral rules that God would have us follow, the ones we have before us almost certainly came from humans. That is, they are subjective.

What about relativism: does it change from person to person based on their preferences, or does it apply to everyone regardless of what they want? Again, in principle, God’s wishes would be the same for everyone. They would be absolute, not relative. But again, in practice, we see Christians resolving disputes more often by switching denominations or splitting into separate groups than by rationally compelling assent to one clearly superior position. So, to the extent that we can say anything about Christian morality by looking at the behaviour of practicing Christians, we must conclude that it is highly relative.

I want to stop here to point out a parallel that the more attentive reader will already have spotted. The particular non-religious moral system that I espouse above is both objective and absolute from my perspective: it is imposed from outside any one person by human nature, and it applies to each individual’s actions regardless of whether they wishes it to apply. But in practice, I have no way to rationally compel assent to it, making it relative to my own interpretation of human nature; and to anyone else it would clearly appear to be imposed by me, a human, rather than from outside, making it subjective. On the other hand, religious moral systems are both objective and absolute from their own perspectives: they are imposed from outside by a poweful god, and they apply to everyone regardless of whether they want it to apply. But in practice, religious apologists have no way to rationally compel assent to their systems, making them relative to their particular interpretation of human nature; and to outsiders they appear to be imposed by the human believers, not their chosen gods, making them subjective.

I see two key differences. One is that religious moral systems are more popular and familiar. This makes their claims seem more plausible on the face of it (independent of their actual merits). The other is that I acknowledge the limitations and potential flaws of my system. This makes my claim seem less compelling (independent of its actual merits).

Dirty relativist that I am, I leave you to decide for yourself. Please do drop me a note to tell me what you think – constructive praise or constructive criticism are both welcome.


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