Are moral values subjective or objective?

Recast from this post.

I. The argument from Implied Practice:
1. If ethics are objective, then we should expect people to recognize which actions are “really” wrong intuitively.
2. But invariably, people find situations where they do not know if an action is right or wrong.
3. Therefore moral values are subjective and not objective.

II. The argument from Underlying Moral Consensus:
1. If morality were an objective matter, we would expect to find universal agreement on fundamental moral codes.
2. But there are disagreements concerning fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
3. Therefore, morality is subjective rather than objective.

III. The argument from reformers:
1. If moral values were objective, then moral codes cannot improve, since there any given moral code would immediately be known to be imperfect when compared against the theoretical objective standard.
2. But the work of people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks shows that moral codes can be made more just according to a particular subjective point of view.
3. Therefore, moral values are subjective rather than objective.

IV. The argument from lack of clear cases
1. If moral values were objective, then there should exist clear cases of wrongness, where all people can say that an action is either true nor false that an action was wrong.
2. But even actions as reprehensible as the Holocaust are not universally condemned.
3. Therefore, moral values are subjective rather than objective.

V. The argument from human rights.
1. If moral values were objective, then there would exist inalienable human rights. (A right is a moral obligation on the part of someone not to do something to you. If I have the right to free speech, that means someone has the obligation not to forcibly shut me up.)
2. There are no inalienable human rights.
3. Therefore, moral values are subjective and not objective.

Now — is this more or less credible? All I did was take the original arguments and assert the opposite.

To me, it comes down to burden of proof. Whichever side has the burden of proof is sunk. If the burden of proof lies on objectivists to prove objectivity, they cannot meet the challenge because I have yet to hear an argument that is convincing, logical, and complete.

If on the other hand, moral relativists like me have the burden of proof to show that moral relativism is superior, I don’t think we can meet that challenge either.

It comes down to: People believe what they believe. I think it’s almost impossible to use Aristotlean logic (If A, Then B) when it comes to morality. There are far too many shades of grey.

6 Responses to “Are moral values subjective or objective?”

  1. Stuart Says:

    Unfortunately some people believe that there is a specific book which contains definitive statements as to what is and is not Moral (on many, if not all, things). For these people they can indeed use Aristotelian logic for morality issues as there are no shades of gray. Of course the irony is you can’t use logic on these folk 😉

  2. unkleE Says:

    I. The argument from Implied Practice:
    1. If ethics are objective, then we should expect people to recognize which actions are “really” wrong intuitively.
    2. But invariably, people find situations where they do not know if an action is right or wrong.
    3. Therefore moral values are subjective and not objective.

    “Actions” in #1 are not the same as “moral values” in #3, so this argument seems to fail formally. If someone believed the moral absolute was “love others as you’d wish them to love you”, there would be a clear moral absolute, but no clear course of action in every situation. I suggest many of your arguments fail in the same way.

    In my opinion, the real test is not logical but practical. Is pedophilia REALLY wrong or just subjectively wrong? Was the holocaust REALLY wrong or just subjectively wrong (or even right)? Try saying those things are not REALLY wrong in most places and you won’t get a good reception. Most people (except philosophers) believe they are REALLY wrong, and I’m with them.

    So naturalists are left with either saying that even really nasty things are not necessarily and objectively “wrong”, or being inconsistent.

  3. Bill Says:

    But surely the “some people disagree” or “some people are unsure” statements can be applied to any field of human knowlege or discouse, including mathmatics for example. So that:

    ” 1. If moral values were objective, then there should exist clear cases of wrongness, where all people can say that an action is either true nor false that an action was wrong.
    2. But even actions as reprehensible as the Holocaust are not universally condemned.

    could be paraphrased into
    1. 1. If mathmatical truths were objective, then there should exist clear cases of wrongness, where all people can say that a theorem is either true or false.
    2. But there are theorems as basic as thoses or ordinary geometry of lines and triangles of which many people chosen at random in a given city will be unsure, when polled, whether that theorem is true or not.
    –etc.

    I’m not sure if the commonplace uncertainties you have observed in the moral realm is due to actual relativism or to a relativism in practice simply due to common human limitations on understanding.

  4. tigercat Says:

    Moral Values are nominals, simply ideas. Without collective agreement on values they are an abstraction.
    That is definitely subjective.

    No universals- only consensus

  5. Callif Says:

    “People believe what they believe… There are far too many shades of grey.”

    So it’s subjective then?

  6. Stephen Says:

    That’s what I believe, yes. Subjective.

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