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Is Morality a Matter of Taste?

2. Subjectivists in Hellfire

Book cover: Philosophers by Steve Pyke

I studied philosophy formally for near on a decade. Among professional philosophers, pedantry is a finely-honed skill that I realized few in the general public appreciate. The other day I came across a quote from Philippa Foot. Professor Foote was a well-known and well-respected moral philosopher. She once said this:

You ask a philosopher a question and after he or she has talked for a bit, you don't understand your question any more.

[Steve Pyke, Philosophers]

I hope tonight I'm not going to be like that. I hope to bring some clarity to the question of the role of objectivity and subjectivity in ethics.

The longer title to this first section of my talk is How Our Opponents Cast Subjectivists to the Flames. Why does the question of objectivity in ethics matter to a humanist, secularist or atheist? Well, because I think that arguing that morality is subjective weakens us in the social and political arena. Arguing this way exposes a soft underbelly that is attacked gleefully by our opponents. We want to campaign for a woman's right to an abortion, against blasphemy laws, for the right to a peaceful death, against gross inequalities in wealth, and so on. But by arguing that morality is just a matter of taste, we lose the high moral ground. Our opponents can and do claim that we have no legitimate place in the public sphere of social and political discourse. Here are just three examples of why we ought to worry.

1. Writing in The Huffington Post, well-known Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, had this to say about moral subjectivism:

In a world without God, there can be no objective right and wrong, only our culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments. This means that it is impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, and love as good. For in a universe without God, good and evil do not exist—there is only the bare valueless fact of existence, and there is no one to say you are right and I am wrong.

[The Absurdity of Life without God, TheHuffingtonPost.com, December 18, 2013]

2. In their book, I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek had this to say:

. . . atheists have no moral grounds to argue for their pet political causes. There is no right to an abortion, homosexual act, or any of their other political sacraments because in a nontheistic world there are no rights. . . . [atheists'] positions are nothing more than their own subjective preferences. And no one is under any moral obligation to agree with mere preferences or to allow atheists to legislatively impose them on the rest of us.

[I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 2004: 181]

Book cover: I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek

3. As my final example, take the famous Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis. In his book, Christian Reflections, he railed against (and I quote)

. . . the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its 'ideology' as men choose their clothes.

Note how Lewis here explicitly depicts subjectivists choosing their values in the same way they choose their wardrobe; simply as a matter of taste.

Lewis then goes on about the subjectivists' moral indignation against the Axis' powers during World War 2. He objects that (quote)

. . . this indignation is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective sentiment to be altered at will. Unless there is some objective standard of good, overarching Germans, Japanese, and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours.

[The Poison of Subjectivism, Christian Reflections, 1967: 73]

I think these examples show that labelling ourselves as 'subjectivists' gives far too much ground to the religious and other purveyors of superstitious ideas. Adopting this label only confirms for them that all secular humanists and atheists are at bottom nihilists and egotists. When you call yourself a 'subjectivist', I think you convey the impression to the public as well that you think that moral preferences are just about what you want.

In addition to the consequences noted here, I think this view is just plain mistaken. Let me now present the case for why I think this is so.

Copyright © 2017

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