Thursday, January 21, 2016

Moral Subjectivity and the Holocaust

When people tell me that they believe that moral values are subjective, I often wonder whether they are willing to take their subjectivism to its logical conclusion. The statement "The holocaust was morally wrong," is a moral statement. Now if someone says "The Holocaust never happened," we regard it as a matter of fact about which the speaker can be mistaken. But if someone says "The Holocaust was morally acceptable," then if subjectivism is true, then a person cannot be mistaken about that. Does that make sense? 

15 comments:

SteveK said...

Yes that makes sense. Since the individual person grounds subjective morality, an individual person can never be factually wrong about their moral opinions.

The death spiral of subjective morality accelerates because this applies to everything from body functions to mental functions to willful desires. An unhealthy body is morally acceptable if a person were so inclined to hold that opinion because they enjoyed sitting around and eating. An irrational mind is morally acceptable if a person enjoys living out as many logical fallacies they can. A willful desire to train your mind to be a racist, sexist homophobic is morally acceptable if a person holds that opinion.

John Moore said...

Me too - I can't understand how subjective morality is supposed to work. The good is inherent in life itself.

Cal Metzger said...

I find this confusion odd because Christian morality is subjective -- it's based on the moral dictates of a god, whose moral decisions are based on... himself. That's subjective. Moral decisions in Christianity (and all god-based moral systems, as opposed to god-enforced moral systems where the source of morality exists separately from that god) are subject to that god's dictates.

Not only is that true from a theoretical standpoint, it's also true from a biblical standpoint. Yahweh says not to kill, but commands killing, and kills himself, etc.

Btw, subjective morality need not mean whim-based and capricious. It can be consistent (and should be), as it is based on moral decisions that are subject to that person's (or group, I suppose) moral calculus. But this is all pretty basic moral theory stuff, isn't it?

SteveK said...

Cal,
If you created something for a particular purpose, is that purpose objective? Yes. While the purpose originated in your mind, it is no longer subject to change because the purpose has been objectified/expressed in the thing you created. You could not change the purpose of that thing even if you wanted to, except by destroying it.

Our laws recognize this fact and hold manufacturers responsible for the purpose of their product, but not any purpose they (or you) care to dream up after the fact.

Likewise with God and his creation. Our purpose is to glorify God and failing to do that is immoral. That purpose originated in the mind of God and is now objectively expressed in human beings.

Cal Metzger said...

SteveK: "If you created something for a particular purpose, is that purpose objective? Yes."

It depends on what you mean by objective. If by objective you mean available intersubjectively, or unchanging, then, well, no.

Steve: "While the purpose originated in your mind, it is no longer subject to change because the purpose has been objectified/expressed in the thing you created."

You're confusing the selection of a purpose with the purpose itself. The selection of a purpose is necessarily subjective.

A selected purpose can be objective, though. But when we're talking about morality, we're talking about the selection of a behavior, not just the behavior itself. "Murder" is an objective thing. "Murder is bad" is a subjective determination. See?

SteveK: "Likewise with God and his creation. Our purpose is to glorify God and failing to do that is immoral. That purpose originated in the mind of God and is now objectively expressed in human beings."

Word salad.

SteveK said...

"The selection of a purpose is necessarily subjective."
If that's what you mean by subjective then I can work with that just fine.

"A selected purpose can be objective, though."
That is what I mean. That is what most people mean.

"But when we're talking about morality, we're talking about the selection of a behavior, not just the behavior itself."
Correct.

""Murder is bad" is a subjective determination. See?"
By your own words, it's not. You said a selected purpose can be objective. See? If the selected purpose of humanity is to not murder then murderous behavior is objectively an example of a human failing to be a good human. It's an example of objective immorality. See?

If a manufacturer designs a product for the selected purpose of holding 50 lbs of weight, and that product does not hold 50 lbs, the product objectively fails to be a good product. The difference between a product like this and a human being is that humans can choose their behavior so humans can be immoral whereas the failed product cannot.

"Word salad."
Meaningless comment.

Cal Metzger said...

SteveK: "By your own words, [it's not true that Murder is bad" is subjective determination]. You said a selected purpose can be objective. See?"

The purpose is what is objective. The determination that selects it is not. And moral behavior is about selection. So, saying after the fact that the purpose is objective misses the fact that the moral component -- the selection of the purpose -- was a subjective determination.

SteveK: "If the selected purpose of humanity is to not murder then murderous behavior is objectively an example of a human failing to be a good human. It's an example of objective immorality. See?"

And why is murderous behavior bad? Under Christian morality, it's supposedly because God has made that instruction. So, the moral behavior (don't murder) is selected by a person (God), making it a subjective determination. "Don't murder" is subject to God's determination that murder is bad.

What would make god's bidding to not murder objective would be if there were reasons outside god for not murdering. But seeing as how Christians deny this, Christina morality remains subjective -- as in it is bound by god's determination, and there are no reasons outside god for thinking that murder is bad.

SteveK said...

Cal,
"The purpose is what is objective. The determination that selects it is not."
No problem so far.

" the selection of the purpose -- was a subjective determination."
Still no problem.

"So, the moral behavior (don't murder) is selected by a person (God), making it a subjective determination. "
It appears that "subjective determination" means "choice". If that's what you mean by subjective morality then okay, fine, it's subjective.

But now that the choice has been made, don't think that "subjective' means morality can be whatever God wants it to be or whatever you want it to be. Morality is a fixed feature of the created order. You and I can be factually wrong about morality. It's objective in that sense.

John Mitchell said...

"Under Christian morality"

What is that supposed to be??


""Don't murder" is subject to God's determination that murder is bad."

I think what SteveK is trying to explain to you is that 'murder is bad' is an objectively true statement because of the teleology inherent in man.
There are certain things that are good for human beings in virtue of what human beings are.
God can not create human beings and then determine it is good for them to be murdered.

Cal Metzger said...

Mitchell: " "Under Christian morality" What is that supposed to be??"

Seriously? Do you think that there is no supposed Christian morality? Do you think the commenters here don't understand morality as coming from Yahweh through divine commands, etc. ?

Mitchell: "I think what SteveK is trying to explain to you is that 'murder is bad' is an objectively true statement because of the teleology inherent in man."

Which is another way of restating the fact that (under Christian morality) what is good and bad is subject to Yahweh's dictates. The purpose of man is subject to god's will, hence the same problem I'm explaining regarding the subjectivity (to god) of Christian morality.

Mitchell: "God can not create human beings and then determine it is good for them to be murdered."

Which means that you're appealing to an objective standard for morality which is not subject to god, in which case god is not the source of morality (I agree, btw).

John Mitchell said...

"Seriously? Do you think that there is no supposed Christian morality? Do you think the commenters here don't understand morality as coming from Yahweh through divine commands, etc. ? "

Not necessarily.
I think you are confusing divine command theory and some kind of natural law theory.
I think DCT collapses into voluntarism or simply becomes vacuous.
NLT is a serious and defensible moral theory that, in principle, could be embraced by non-theists.

"The purpose of man is subject to god's will"

The purpose of man is subject to what man is.

"Which means that you're appealing to an objective standard for morality which is not subject to god, in which case god is not the source of morality (I agree, btw)."

As i said, NLT can be embraced by non-theists.
It is argued that there is teleology inherent in nature (final causality). On the basis of this fact you can construct a moral theory (NLT) and an argument for God's existence (Fifth Way)
If you agree with there being teleology in nature and with the way NLT is constructed but think that every attempt to argue from teleology in nature to God fails, you have an objective moral theory and no God.

Cal Metzger said...

@Mitchell, my point is that it's disingenuous for Christians to decry moral subjectivity when their moral system (either DCT or Natural Law) is subject to their god and/or their god's intentions. Subjectivity, the sense of "who it's good for" is intrinsic to moral systems, and decrying a moral system as "subjective" is like decrying water for being wet.

I agree that one could establish a version of morality that's subject to the nature of man (an ideal observer version, e.g., and one that borrows form utilitarianism or desirism and who know what else) and that I would call this result objective -- in that it's stable based on the nature of those to and for whom it relates, is the same for all, etc.

brownmamba said...

I don't think the morality debate should be conceptualized as "Objectivity v.s. Subjectivity", but rather "Realism v.s. Ant-Realism". While it makes sense for statements of taste or even aesthetic statements to be true subjectively, it doesn't make sense for morality. It's incoherent to affirm "P is morally wrong, but only for Person X." To affirm that "P is wrong" is to believe "P is objectivity wrong".

Since Victor used the Holocaust as an example, I'll also use it to illustrate my point. Does it make sense for a Nazi to believe that "It is morally right to expunge the wicked Jews from society...but only for us and everyone who feels the same way."? This strikes me as schizophrenic. In contrast, I think it makes sense for someone to believe that the Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting, but only for people who feel like him or her.

This is why I think the "Realist v.s. Anti-Realist" framing of the debate,( in which the two sides disagree on whether moral statements have truth value), more closely corresponds to the concept of morality. In other words, either morality is objective or it is meaningless.

SteveK said...

"Which is another way of restating the fact that (under Christian morality) what is good and bad is subject to Yahweh's dictates."

God also intended that our planets be spheres orbiting in space rather than cubes or pyramids. Are spherical planets a subjective feature of the universe, Cal? By your logic, the answer is yes because God subjective determined it.

Trev of Economia said...

Christian morality is objective, not purely subjective. Yes, it's based on the dictates of a God, but that's what makes it objective. Only a being who knows what everyone feels including itself can make genuine decisions regarding what actions are beneficial for the whole of reality or negative for it. Christian morality is objective because it is universally intersubjective. Objectivity and universal intersubjectivity are the same thing with regards to mental categories like morality.