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Can Morality Be Objective without God?

6. Objectivity versus Subjectivity

Book cover: Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So by Annie Laurie Gaylor

Let's get back to the question of 'objectivity' in ethics. The mistake made by these theologians and the three other kinds of moral thinkers I mentioned is their thinking that 'objectivity' in ethics must be contrasted with 'subjectivity' in the private feeling sense. They take 'subjectivity' to mean being grounded in people's personal attitudes and preferences. Their mistake is in thinking that ethics can only be objective in the 'knowledge' sense; that ethics is about human-independent facts that are there to be discovered and known.

Why is this a mistake? Because they ignore the central expressive function of moral language. When we say that 'charity is good', we are not simply describing the act of charity. We are also expressing our preference or pro-attitude to charity. Think for a moment about someone who says, 'Charity is good, but I don't really care for it one way or the other.' Or someone who says, 'Torturing innocent children for fun is abominably bad, but I'm not really fussed about it.' We think it extremely odd. We feel that they have expressed some kind of practical contradiction. And that's because that in saying that something is 'good' or 'bad', we are expressing our preference or aversion to it. There are many words such as this in the English language that have this central expressive meaning. Examples of words with emotive meaning include 'hero', 'villain', 'chaste', 'whore', 'nigger' and 'patriot'.

So, when someone calls a woman a 'whore', they are describing her as a person who has many sexual relations. However, the speaker is also expressing their disgust; their con-attitude to the woman's sexual practices. The word 'whore' is richly value-laden. It has emotive meaning in addition to its descriptive meaning. The word 'chaste', likewise, describes a person's sexual activities. In this case, the lack of them. The emotive meaning in this example is the expression of the speaker's approval or pro-attitude to the chaste person's sexual status.

Another pair of words with emotive meaning is 'hero' and 'coward'. Both words describe a person's response to danger or risk. In this example, the former expresses approval of the person's actions while the latter expresses disapproval. Well, the words 'good' and 'bad' and 'right' and 'wrong' have the same kind of emotive meaning, serving to express the speaker's approval or disapproval.

It is important to note here that in expressing our approval and disapproval when we use moral language, we are not stating that we approve or disapprove. That would simply be adding to the description of the thing or act we are describing a description of our psychological state. That would be making the same kind of mistake that 'moral subjectivists' make. In fact, in saying that 'charity is good', for example, we are expressing our attitude in the same kind of way that when we say that 'charity is rare' we are expressing our belief and not stating that we believe it to be true.

So, us trying to be 'objective' in our moral deliberations can't simply be about coming up with smarter and more accurate ways to describe reality while trying our hardest to shut out our emotions. When we contrast being 'objective' in ethics with being 'subjective', this can't be how we should draw the distinction. Let me illustrate this mistaken way of thinking with the following diagram.

Diagram 2 – Moral objectivity as human-independence

Diagram contrasting view of ethics as independent of human attitudes and preferences

However, we also know that morality is not just about what we like or personally prefer. There is more to saying torturing children is morally abominable than just expressing our dislike or disapproval of such torture. Our scenario with Fred, Mary and John concretely brings this point home. The puzzle is solved, I suggest, by thinking of 'objectivity' in ethics as more correctly contrasted with 'subjectivity', where 'subjectivity' is meant in the sense of being partisan, selfish and parochial. Think of the inappropriateness of John's response in our scenario. Being 'objective' in ethics, then, is more like this:

Diagram 3 – Moral objectivity as impartial judgment

Diagram contrasting objectivity in ethics with parochial and self-serving bias

So, being 'objective' in our moral judgments is not about tapping into some transcendental realm of moral facts or divine commands. It's about being impartial/non-partisan in our moral judgments. Conversely, when we accuse someone of being 'subjective' in their moral reasoning, we are not calling them out for expressing their preferences and attitudes. We are accusing them of basing their moral judgments on their own selfish interests or on those of their favoured group. This, then, is how we properly contrast objectivity in ethics with subjective preferences.

Contrasting now the two ways of viewing ethical discourse, we can say the initial view, the view of many theists, the intuitionists, the Natural Law theorists, and so on, is mistaken. I will put a big cross next to that view (see below). I will also now put a big tick next to the second of our considered approaches that contrasts objectivity in ethics with partisanship.

Diagram 4 – Two views of objectivity in ethics

Diagram contrasting objectivity as human-independence with objectivity as impartiality

Let's go back for a moment and revisit our two theologians. William Lane Craig said, 'In a world without God ... it is impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil.' Well, I think it is possible. Taking the moral point of view is to take an impartial stance towards people's interests; to their preferences. It's to take what the famous utilitarian and social reformer, Henry Sidgwick, said, the 'point of view of the universe'.

And what of C. S. Lewis's appeal to 'some objective standard of good, overarching Germans, Japanese, and ourselves alike'. This standard that is blind to people's nationality is precisely what I am referring to. Building on this, the central moral requirement for impartiality not only requires us to ignore a person's nationality when deciding how to treat them, but also their religion, social status, gender, and so on.

Copyright © 2017

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