Morality Is Subjective Essay

Philosophers who think everyday morality is objective should examine the evidence, argues Joshua Knobe.


Imagine two people discussing a question in mathematics. One of them says “7,497 is a prime number,” while the other says, “7,497 is not a prime number.” In a case like this one, we would probably conclude that there can only be a single right answer. We might have a lot of respect for both participants in the conversation, we might agree that they are both very reasonable and conscientious, but all the same, one of them has got to be wrong. The question under discussion here, we might say, is perfectly objective.

But now suppose we switch to a different topic. Two people are talking about food. One of them says “Don’t even think about eating caterpillars! They are totally disgusting and not tasty at all,” while the other says “Caterpillars are a special delicacy – one of the tastiest, most delectable foods a person can ever have occasion to eat.” In this second case, we might have a very different reaction. We might think that there isn’t any single right answer. Maybe caterpillars are just tasty for some people but not for others. This latter question, we might think, should be understood as relative.

Now that we’ve got at least a basic sense for these two categories, we can turn to a more controversial case. Suppose that the two people are talking about morality. One of them says “That action is deeply morally wrong,” while the other is speaking about the very same action and says “That action is completely fine – not the slightest thing to worry about.” In a case like this, one might wonder what reaction would be most appropriate. Should we say that there is a single right answer and anyone who says the opposite must be mistaken, or should we say that different answers could be right for different people? In other words, should we say that morality is something objective or something relative?

This is a tricky question, and it can be difficult to see how one might even begin to address it. Faced with an issue like this one, where exactly should we look for evidence?

Though philosophers have pursued numerous approaches here, one of the most important and influential is to begin with certain facts about people’s ordinary moral practices. The idea is that we can start out with facts about people’s usual ways of thinking or talking and use these facts to get some insight into questions about the true nature of morality.

Thinkers who take this approach usually start out with the assumption that ordinary thought and talk about morality has an objectivist character. For example, the philosopher Michael Smith claims that

we seem to think moral questions have correct answers; that the correct answers are made correct by objective moral facts; that moral facts are wholly determined by circumstances and that, by engaging in moral conversation and argument, we can discover what these objective moral facts determined by the circumstances are.

And Frank Jackson writes:

I take it that it is part of current folk morality that convergence will or would occur. We have some kind of commitment to the idea that moral disagreements can be resolved by sufficient critical reflection – which is why we bother to engage in moral debate. To that extent, some sort of objectivism is part of current folk morality.

Then, once one has in hand this claim about people’s ordinary understanding, the aim is to use it as part of a complex argument for a broader philosophical conclusion. It is here that philosophical work on these issues really shines, with rigorous attention to conceptual distinctions and some truly ingenious arguments, objections and replies. There is just one snag. The trouble is that no real evidence is ever offered for the original assumption that ordinary moral thought and talk has this objective character. Instead, philosophers tend simply to assert that people’s ordinary practice is objectivist and then begin arguing from there.

If we really want to go after these issues in a rigorous way, it seems that we should adopt a different approach. The first step is to engage in systematic empirical research to figure out how the ordinary practice actually works. Then, once we have the relevant data in hand, we can begin looking more deeply into the philosophical implications – secure in the knowledge that we are not just engaging in a philosophical fiction but rather looking into the philosophical implications of people’s actual practices.

Just in the past few years, experimental philosophers have been gathering a wealth of new data on these issues, and we now have at least the first glimmerings of a real empirical research program here. But a funny thing happened when people started taking these questions into the lab. Again and again, when researchers took up these questions experimentally, they did not end up confirming the traditional view. They did not find that people overwhelmingly favoured objectivism. Instead, the results consistently point to a more complex picture. There seems to be a striking degree of conflict even in the intuitions of ordinary folks, with some people under some circumstances offering objectivist answers, while other people under other circumstances offer more relativist views. And that is not all. The experimental results seem to be giving us an ever deeper understanding of why it is that people are drawn in these different directions, what it is that makes some people move toward objectivism and others toward more relativist views.

For a nice example from recent research, consider a study by Adam Feltz and Edward Cokely. They were interested in the relationship between belief in moral relativism and the personality trait openness to experience. Accordingly, they conducted a study in which they measured both openness to experience and belief in moral relativism. To get at people’s degree of openness to experience, they used a standard measure designed by researchers in personality psychology. To get at people’s agreement with moral relativism, they told participants about two characters – John and Fred – who held opposite opinions about whether some given act was morally bad. Participants were then asked whether one of these two characters had to be wrong (the objectivist answer) or whether it could be that neither of them was wrong (the relativist answer). What they found was a quite surprising result. It just wasn’t the case that participants overwhelmingly favoured the objectivist answer. Instead, people’s answers were correlated with their personality traits. The higher a participant was in openness to experience, the more likely that participant was to give a relativist answer.

Geoffrey Goodwin and John Darley pursued a similar approach, this time looking at the relationship between people’s belief in moral relativism and their tendency to approach questions by considering a whole variety of possibilities. They proceeded by giving participants mathematical puzzles that could only be solved by looking at multiple different possibilities. Thus, participants who considered all these possibilities would tend to get these problems right, whereas those who failed to consider all the possibilities would tend to get the problems wrong. Now comes the surprising result: those participants who got these problems right were significantly more inclined to offer relativist answers than were those participants who got the problems wrong.

Taking a slightly different approach, Shaun Nichols and Tricia Folds-Bennett looked at how people’s moral conceptions develop as they grow older. Research in developmental psychology has shown that as children grow up, they develop different understandings of the physical world, of numbers, of other people’s minds. So what about morality? Do people have a different understanding of morality when they are twenty years old than they do when they are only four years old? What the results revealed was a systematic developmental difference. Young children show a strong preference for objectivism, but as they grow older, they become more inclined to adopt relativist views. In other words, there appears to be a developmental shift toward increasing relativism as children mature. (In an exciting new twist on this approach, James Beebe and David Sackris have shown that this pattern eventually reverses, with middle-aged people showing less inclination toward relativism than college students do.)

So there we have it. People are more inclined to be relativists when they score highly in openness to experience, when they have an especially good ability to consider multiple possibilities, when they have matured past childhood (but not when they get to be middle-aged). Looking at these various effects, my collaborators and I thought that it might be possible to offer a single unifying account that explained them all. Specifically, our thought was that people might be drawn to relativism to the extent that they open their minds to alternative perspectives. There could be all sorts of different factors that lead people to open their minds in this way (personality traits, cognitive dispositions, age), but regardless of the instigating factor, researchers seemed always to be finding the same basic effect. The more people have a capacity to truly engage with other perspectives, the more they seem to turn toward moral relativism.

To really put this hypothesis to the test, Hagop Sarkissian, Jennifer Wright, John Park, David Tien and I teamed up to run a series of new studies. Our aim was to actually manipulate the degree to which people considered alternative perspectives. That is, we wanted to randomly assign people to different conditions in which they would end up thinking in different ways, so that we could then examine the impact of these different conditions on their intuitions about moral relativism.

Participants in one condition got more or less the same sort of question used in earlier studies. They were asked to imagine that someone in the United States commits an act of infanticide. Then they were told to suppose that one person from their own college thought that this act was morally bad, while another thought that it was morally permissible. The question then was whether they would agree or disagree with the following statement:

Since your classmate and Sam have different judgments about this case, at least one of them must be wrong.

Participants in the other conditions received questions aimed at moving their thinking in a different direction. Those who had been assigned to the “other culture” condition were told to imagine an Amazonian tribe, the Mamilons, which had a very different way of life from our own. They were given a brief description of this tribe’s rituals, values and modes of thought. Then they were told to imagine that one of their classmates thought that the act of infanticide was morally bad, while someone from this Amazonian tribe thought that the act was morally permissible. These participants were then asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the corresponding statement:

Since your classmate and the Mamilon have different judgments about this case, at least one of them must be wrong.

Finally, participants in the “extraterrestrial” condition were told about a culture that was just about as different from our own as can possibly be conceived. They were asked to imagine a race of extraterrestrial beings, the Pentars, who have no interest in friendship, love or happiness. Instead, the Pentars’ only goal is to maximise the total number of equilateral pentagons in the universe, and they move through space doing everything in their power to achieve this goal. (If a Pentar becomes too old to work, she is immediately killed and transformed into a pentagon herself.) As you might guess, these participants were then told to imagine a Pentar who thinks that the act of infanticide is morally permissible. Then came the usual statement:

Since your classmate and the Pentar have different judgments about this case, at least one of them must be wrong.

The results of the study showed a systematic difference between conditions. In particular, as we moved toward more distant cultures, we found a steady shift toward more relativist answers – with people in the first condition tending to agree with the statement that at least one of them had to be wrong, people in the second being pretty evenly split between the two answers, and people in the third tending to reject the statement quite decisively.

Note that all participants in the study are considering judgments about the very same act. There is just a single person, living in the United States, who is performing an act of infanticide, and participants are being asked to consider different judgments one might make about that very same act. Yet, when participants are asked to consider individuals who come at the issue from wildly different perspectives, they end up concluding that these individuals could have opposite opinions without either of them being in any way wrong. This result seems strongly to suggest that people can be drawn under certain circumstances to a form of moral relativism.

But now we face a new question. If we learn that people’s ordinary practice is not an objectivist one – that it actually varies depending on the degree to which people take other perspectives into account – how can we then use this information to address the deeper philosophical issues about the true nature of morality?

The answer here is in one way very complex and in another very simple. It is complex in that one can answer such questions only by making use of very sophisticated and subtle philosophical methods. Yet, at the same time, it is simple in that such methods have already been developed and are being continually refined and elaborated within the literature in analytic philosophy. The trick now is just to take these methods and apply them to working out the implications of an ordinary practice that actually exists.

Joshua Knobe is an associate professor at Yale University, affiliated both with the Program in Cognitive Science and the Department of Philosophy.


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Whether morality is an objective property of the universe, or instead the subjective opinion of humans, is one of the longest running issues in philosophy. Jerry Coyne recently returned to the theme, arguing that morality was subjective, and, as I usually am, I was surprised by the number of commentators arguing the contrary.

This debate seems hampered by a lack of clarity on what “objective” and “subjective” moralities are. Coyne gave a sensible definition of “objective” morality as being the stance that something can be discerned to be “morally wrong” through reasoning about facts about the world, rather than by reference to human opinion.

If morality were objective, it would have to be conceivable that the statement “George’s actions were wrong and he deserves to be punished” would be true even if every human in the world were of the opinion, “George’s actions seem fine to me, perhaps even laudable”.

Thus, if morality were an absolute set by a god, something could be immoral even if every human disagreed. If, instead, human feelings and desires are what ultimately count, then that is a subjective morality.

Thus, a subjective morality is strongly preferable to an objective one! That’s because, by definition, it is about what we humans want. Would we prefer to be told by some third party what we should do, even if it is directly contrary to our own deeply held sense of morality?

Given that an objective morality would be highly undesirable, why do so many philosophers and others continue to try hard to rescue an objective morality?

I suspect that they’re actually trying to attain objective backing for what is merely their own subjective opinion of what is moral. This is the trick the religious have long played, inventing a god in their own image who can back them up by turning “I want …” into “God wants …”.

Secular philosophers should not play this game by hankering after objective morality, we should have confidence in the simple and honest “I want …”. We humans have a lot to be proud of: by thinking it through and arguing amongst ourselves, we have advanced morality hugely, with Western society today giving vastly better treatment to individuals, to women, children, religious minorities, foreigners, those of other races, the disabled and mentally ill, criminals, etc, than any previous society.

So why are we all so afraid of admitting that, yes, morality is subjective? I suggest that this owes to several misconceptions.

Subjective does not mean unimportant. A subjective morality is one rooted in human feelings and desires. These are the things that are most important to us, indeed the only things important to us!

Subjective does not mean arbitrary. Human feelings are not arbitrary. It is not arbitrary that we love our children while most of us dislike and fear spiders and snakes, nor that most of us like the taste of chocolate while shunning excrement. Our feelings and attitudes are rooted in human nature, being a product of our evolutionary heritage, programmed by genes. None of that is arbitrary.

Subjective does not mean that anyone’s opinion is “just as good”. Most humans are in broad agreement on almost all of the basics of morality. After all “people are the same wherever you go”. Most law codes overlap strongly, such that we can readily live in a foreign country with only minor adjustment for local customs. A psychopathic child killer’s opinion is not regarded as “just as good” by most of us, and if we decide morality by a broad consensus — and that, after all, is how we do decide morality — then we arrive at strong communal moral codes.

But still people hanker after “objectivity”, and worry that a subjectively decided communal morality is somehow insufficient. Here, then, are six reasons why the whole notion of “objective” morality is nonsense.

(1) Our morality is evolved.

Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, said Dobzhansky, and morality certainly makes no sense except as the product of our evolutionary heritage. Our moral sense is one of a number of systems developed by evolution to do a job: the immune systems counters infection, the visual system gives us information about the world, and our moral feelings are there as a social glue to enable us to cooperate with other humans.

As a product of blind Darwinian evolution, our morals will have developed solely from the pragmatic consideration of what works, what enables us to benefit from cooperation and thus leave more descendants. For interacting with another human, what matters is not what is “objectively” moral (whatever that means), but what that human considers to be moral.

Human intuition that morality is objective is really the only argument (if we are honest) that that is the case. And yet evolution doesn’t operate according to what “is moral”, it operates according to what helps someone to have more descendants. Thus, even if there were an “absolute” morality, there is no reason to suppose that it would have any connection to our own human sense of morality. Anyone arguing for objective morality by starting with human morality and intuition — which of course is how it is always done — is thus basing their case on a non sequitur.

(2) Humans are only one species.

An objective morality must, by definition, be independent of human opinion and thus be independent of humans. There are trillions of galaxies in the known universe, each with trillions of stars and trillions of planets, and for all we know there may be millions of species on many of those planets.

And yet, surprise surprise, the “objective” moral systems that people argue for are all about human welfare and just happen to bear a striking resemblance to the morals of that one species of ape on just one planet around a fairly unremarkable star in a fairly unremarkable galaxy. This is simply projection, human hubris.

Medieval theologians placed humans at the centre of the universe; aren’t we above projecting our own parochial notions of social interactions into some sort of objective property of the universe? Isn’t it obvious that our social interactions (and thus our moral senses) will depend on the details of our species and our ecological niche?

A K-selected species would have very different morality from an r-selected species. A haplodiploid or eusocial species would have very different morality from us. So would species where hareems are normal. Morality would be very different in territorial animals than in non-territorial animals. And who knows what variations there are strewn across the trillions of galaxies in the visible universe? And yet people want to consider one species alone from one planet alone and project that onto everything else!

(3) Starting from “well being” is subjective.

Many attempts at establishing an objective morality try to argue from considerations of human well-being. OK, but who decided that human well-being is what is important? We did! This whole enterprise starts with a subjective leap. Yes, human well-being is what morality is all about but human well-being is all about human feelings and preferences, and is thus subjective.

(4) Aggregation schemes are arbitrary.

So you’ve decided that well-being is what matters. Good start. But, if you want to arrive at an objective morality you now need a scheme for aggregating the well-beings of many creatures onto some objective scale, such that you can read off what you “should” do and how you “should” balance the competing interests of different people.

The beauty of accepting that morality is ultimately subjective is that you reject the whole concept of objective aggregation onto an absolute scale, and thus an otherwise insoluble problem disappears.

Of course many people have proposed their own schemes for aggregating, based on their own preferences, but no-one has derived one from objective reasoning. You might consider it “obvious” that everyone counts equally. But then your “objective” morality would require you to treat your own family identically to an unrelated stranger in a distant country. That’s flat out contrary to human nature (and illustrates why we wouldn’t actually want any of these “objective” schemes).

And of course you also have to aggregate across species (I’m presuming the “objective” morality is not medieval-theological enough to think that humans are the centre of the universe and the only thing that counts). Could there really be an objective weighting scheme for aggregating the interests of different species? How is this going to work concerning predators and prey?

Accepting that morality is subjective avoids all this by simply accepting that our morality is indeed subjectively about us, programmed into us to regulate interactions with our own species, and thus that our morality is only about us. Other social species would then have their own sense of morality for interactions within their species (which of course they do).

(5) Rooting morality in “God” is still arbitrary.

A favourite argument of the religious is that you can’t have objective morality without a god. And they are right. What they don’t realise, though, is that you also can’t have an objective morality with a god. After all, plumping for “God’s opinion” instead of human opinion is equally subjective. Who says that God’s opinion about morality is better than Satan’s opinion? The answer that God says that God’s opinion is better is simply circular. The answer “might makes right” is a non sequitur, as is the unsubstantiated claim that being the creator conveys rights to dictate morality.

The traditional response would be to argue that God’s nature is good, which is an appeal to some supra-God objective standard of goodness against which to measure God’s nature. Of course this begs the whole question as to what this objective standard is and where it came from, and so doesn’t begin to actually establish objective morality. And if there were this supra-God objective standard then we wouldn’t need God. Theologians have got nowhere is addressing these problems in the thousands of years since Plato pointed them out.

(6) No-one has any idea what “objective” morality even means.

Lastly, and actually the strongest argument of all, no-one has ever proposed any coherent account of what “objective morality” would even mean! Yes, humans have an intuition about it, but that intuition was programmed for purely subjective and pragmatic reasons (see 1), and thus is a hopeless base for establishing absolute morality.

When asked, the advocate of absolute morality explains that it is concerned with what one “should do”, regardless of human opinion or desire. When asked what “should do” means they’ll replace it with a near synonym, explaining that it is what one “ought to do”. But if you press further they’ll simply retreat into circularity, explaining that what you “ought” to do is what you “should” do, and thus beg the whole question. They can’t do any better than that, though they’ll likely appeal to human intuition, which won’t do for the reasons above.

The subjectivist has a clear answer here. The “oughts” and “shoulds” are rooted in human opinion, they are what people would like to happen. Thus morality is of the form “George is of the opinion that you should …” or “human consensus is that you should …” or “people have an emotional revulsion to …”. But, without the subject doing the feeling and opining, morality would not make sense. Morality is all about what other humans think about someone’s actions — that is why evolution programmed moral senses into us. Remove that subjective human opinion and the result is — literally — nonsensical.

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This entry was posted in Philosophy and tagged evolution, God, human nature, morality, theology on by Coel.

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