On the Objective Morality vs Subjective Morality Debate

I’m a few posts behind, but I’ve been reading through the multi-part review of Mere Christianity over at hessianwithteeth. In the comments section of part 3, a discussion broke out regarding objective and subjective morality. In particular, I want to highlight two comments: one by hessianwithteeth and a reply by Michael Nicholson at the Tides of God blog.

I am isolating this conversation because it strikes me as the quintessential comment/reply when it comes to the ‘objective morality vs subjective morality’ debate. My goal in this post is not to provide a response or rebuttal to either comment. Instead, I simply want to unpack the conversation a bit, providing some conceptual clarity. This will involve answering some of the questions Nicholson poses, but again, the purpose is to clarify concepts. Likewise, I don’t want to claim that I am clarifying hessianwithteeth’s views on the issue. I’m not even suggesting that the conversation suffers from a lack of conceptual clarity. This is an exercise in clarifying my understandings, and I’m using the conversation as a prompt. Lastly, I am an amateur at best (a pretend amateur is probably more accurate). I am doing this for my own edification, so, if I’m misrepresenting/misunderstanding anything, please correct me.

The Comment Conversation

To start, here is the comment and reply:


“I don’t believe i[n] objective morality. I believe morality is subjective.”

Michael W Nicholson-

“Really? So on what basis have you made the several moral distinctions in your previous replies? Your own subjective sensibilities? And if that’s the case, why do you express moral outrage at actions that offend your personal sensibilities? If morals are subjective, then condemning someone else’s moral actions or sensibilities is about like condemning their taste in pie. I prefer key lime and you can’t tell me I’m wrong. If morals truly are subjective, they are merely a matter of taste. On your basis for morality, you can’t really say Hitler did anything objectively wrong, you can only say you find it distasteful.”

If you’ve engaged in this debate before, you’ve surely heard something very close to this exact conversation. Anyway, let me get to the questions.

So on What Basis Have You Made…Moral Distinctions? Your Own Subjective Sensibilities?

First, I want to start by clarifying the objective and the subjective. To do this, I want to add two more concepts, the absolute and the relative. It is easy to conflate these concepts, so I want to make sure I distinguish them.

To begin, let’s give a definition of objective and subjective.

Objective: Mind-independent. By this, I mean it is not dependent upon a subject’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, interpretations, or biases.
Subjective: Mind-dependent. By this, I mean it is dependent upon a subject’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, interpretations, or biases.

It is important to note, objectivity and subjectivity are opposites of each other, only. Neither is inherently absolute or relative, though they may be more likely to fall into one these subsequent distinctions. Typically, we associate objectivity with absoluteness and subjectivity with relativity, but these associations are not inherent.

Consider a statement about a physical comparisons: Jeff Peden (that’s me) is the tallest. In a room of toddlers, I am the tallest. In a room of professional basketball players, I am not the tallest. There is nothing mind-dependent about being tallest. It is an objective measure. However, my being the tallest is relative to the group to which my height is compared. This is an example in which the statement is objectively true or false, but its truth or falseness is relative.

Similarly, assume the following statement is true for all times and places: the best food to eat is that which Jeff Peden thinks is the tastiest food. This is mind-dependent. It depends on what a subject thinks is the tastiest food. However, it holds absolutely. Whichever food I think is tastiest is the absolute best food to eat. This is an example of subjective absoluteness.

Let’s set two more definitions:

Absolute: Not circumstantially dependent. By this, I mean that a proposition can be true or false in itself. It does not depend on other circumstances.
Relative: Circumstantially dependent. By this, I mean that a proposition cannot be true or false in itself. It does depend on other circumstances.

To get to Nicholson’s questions, from the standpoint of moral subjectivism alone, the basis on which a moral subjectivist determines something’s moral standing is to consult the relevant subject’s moral view on the matter. Is it one’s own subjective sensibilities? It could be, but that is not necessarily the case. The moral subjectivist may appeal to something absolute (e.g., a god’s moral attitude, an ideal observer’s moral attitude) or something relative (e.g., one’s personal moral attitude, a culture’s moral attitude).

Why Do You Express Moral Outrage at Actions that Offend Your Personal Sensibilities? If Morals are Subjective, Then Condemning Someone Else’s Moral Actions or Sensibilities is About Like Condemning Their Taste in Pie. I Prefer Key Lime and You Can’t Tell Me I’m Wrong. If Morals Truly are Subjective, They are Merely a Matter of Taste.

One of the assumptions I made throughout the previous section was that moral statements, be they objective or subjective, can actually be true and false. This passage in Nicholson’s response questions the motivation of subjective moralities, but to get to that, I want to begin by discussing the truth-aptness of subjective moralities.

From here, I want to introduce two more terms:

Cognitivist: Has truth-aptness. By this, I mean a sentence can be true or false.
Non-cognitivist: Does not have truth-aptness. By this, I mean trueness and falseness do not bare on a sentence.

Consider the following two sentences:

1. This is the start of the game.
2. Play ball!

The first sentence is cognitivist. If it is the start of the game, the sentence is true. If it is not the start of the game, the sentence is false. The second sentence is non-cognitivist. It can be neither true nor false. It is a command for the game to commence.

Returning to morality, objective moral sentences are always cognitivist. Subjective moral sentences are a trickier matter. Some argue that they are cognitivist and others argue that they are not. The difference comes down to the nature of subjective moral attitudes. To quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the difference comes down to whether or not the moral attitude of the subject “has truth conditions which are also the truth conditions of the sentence uttered.” If you think they are the same, then subjective moral statements are cognitivist. If you do not think they are the same, then subjective moral statements are non-cognitivist.

To try and unpack this, consider this sentence:

Stealing is wrong.

Since we’re only discussing subjective morality, we’re treating this sentence as mind-dependent. So, on a cognitivist account of a subjective morality, the above sentence is reporting something about the subject’s moral attitude that is truth-apt. As such, the above sentence is akin to saying “I disapprove of stealing” or “God disapproves of stealing.” These expressions of disapproval are truth-apt. So, we might say something like: morality is those attitudes one has related to one’s views on the how to behave appropriately. An individual’s attitude is – I disapprove of stealing. Therefore, it is factually the case that stealing is wrong, for this individual. As such, the subjective moral statement is truth-apt.

On a non-cognitivist account, the above sentence is not reporting a moral attitude that is truth-apt. There are a number of non-cognitivist accounts. Two common examples are emotivism and prescriptivism. I will focus on emotivism, as prescriptivism is not necessarily suited to subjectivity. An emotivist account argues that the moral attitudes are emotional attitudes. So, the above sentence is akin to “Boo on stealing.”

It is important to note that the nature of one’s moral code doesn’t change based on how one words a moral statement. The question is about which semantic structure better accounts for the nature of moral statements. So, a person might say, “I disapprove of stealing,” but they’re actually just expressing their emotional sentiment via a declarative statement (as non-cognitivism might argue). Similarly, a person might blurt out “Boo on stealing,” but they’re actually emotionally expressing their disapproval of stealing (as cognitivism might argue).

Before I directly address the question in the heading, I want to provide one more definition:

Morality: A code of conduct designed to guide behavior and action.

I mention this definition to draw out how a subjective moral disapproval is different then a mere disagreement of preference. Let us start with a question:

What is the most enjoyable flavor of pie?

Because enjoyment is mind-dependent, the answer to this question is subjective. Likewise, I feel safe in asserting that the correct answer to this question will depend on the individual providing an answer. As such, the answer is relative. Although both may be subjective and relative, a subjective moral attitude is not the same thing as a mere preferential judgment.

Nicholson’s answer to the question is key lime pie. I disagree. Though I enjoy all pies, my favorite is apple pie. The key point to note, though I disagree with Nicholson, I am not expressing disapproval of his preference. Moral attitudes, be they based on something objective or subjective, are attitudes about a code of conduct. Preference disagreement, alone, is not related to a code of conduct. As such, a subjective moral disapproval is not the same thing as a disagreement about pie.

This is not to say that one could not express moral disapproval for a preference. If my favorite pie were a savory, meat pie, someone may disapprove of the making/consumption of meat pies as well as the preference for meat pies on moral grounds related to harming animals. And, again, this moral wrongness for a preference for meat pies would hold in both an objective account of morality as well as a subjective one. The key is that the disapproval is moving beyond the mere disagreement in preference. The disapproval derives from the preference falling afoul of the moral code of conduct in use.

A Matter of Motivation

One of the primary concerns when exploring morality is related to the issue of motivation. Because morality is a code of conduct for behavior, if it is to carry any normative weight, it needs to motivate behavior. This is the heart of Nicholson’s question from the preceding heading – “Why do you express moral outrage at actions that offend your personal sensibilities?”

As it is, a subjectively relative morality has no problem explaining why a moral attitude would be motivating – the subject holds the moral attitude. Remember, a moral attitude is an attitude about how to act or behave. Moral attitudes are inherently imperative. So, an individual subject expresses certain moral approvals/disapprovals because that individual holds the relevant moral attitudes. Non-cognitivist accounts tend to emphasize this point, directly connecting the moral attitude to the motivating sentiment (e.g., the emotion in Emotivism).

On a subjectively relativist account of morality, motivation is not a problem. The issue is consistency. It is straightforward as to why I would express moral approval/disapproval; I hold moral attitudes. Likewise, it is straightforward as to why Nicholson would express moral approval/disapproval; he holds moral attitudes. The issue is, Nicholson and myself do not need to hold identical moral attitudes. Again, to drive the point home, this state of affairs doesn’t hinder motivation. If your moral attitude is that the Holocaust is wrong, you should act to prevent it. That is the imperative nature of morality. Moreover, that act of resisting is justified, either by a mind-dependent sentiment (on a non-cognitivist account) or a mind-dependent fact of the matter (on a cognitivist account). However, your attitude that the Holocaust is wrong is not correct in any objective sense. There is no mind-independent moral justification. It can only be correct in relation to your actually holding the moral attitude that it is wrong. This is why moral relativists often promote an approach that emphasizes tolerance of others.

A subjectively absolute account of morality circumvents the issue of consistency. Consider Divine Command Theory. It is God’s subjective moral attitudes that establish what is morally permissible/impermissible. God’s subjective moral attitudes hold for all times and places, so they are absolute. Finally, presumably, we consider God to be authoritative on the matter. Likewise, there may be additional factors like a reward system (e.g., heaven and hell). These can function to motivate the behavior of subjects that are not God.

One of the principle concerns of subjective moralities, and the central point of Nicholson’s key lime pie comment, is that they are arbitrary. As such, there can be no final resolution to the matter. Even though a subjectively absolutist account of morality will establish consistency, it is not establishing anything ultimate. God could approve of stealing. God could disapprove of stealing. There is nothing external to God on which to measure the accuracy of God’s moral attitudes. If God approves of stealing, it is morally permissible unless it is demonstrated that God actually disapproves of stealing.

A relativist account offers another way to resist the moral attitudes of others, namely one’s own moral code. However, there is still no ultimate fact of the matter to which one can appeal for arbitration. Though it is not correct to say that a subjective moral attitude is the same as a mere preference for key lime pie, Nicholson is correct to note that they share the same characteristic of being arbitrary. Just remember, an action can be properly motivated even if that motivation is arbitrary.

 Not Letting Objective Morality Off the Hook

Though I concluded the last section by drawing attention to one of the primary concerns of subjective accounts of morality, they have a number of things going for them. As mentioned above, subjective moral attitudes are straightforwardly motivated. Likewise, though I don’t want to say they obviously exist, they are straightforward to ground, ontologically. Lastly, what we find in the world, descriptively, is what we’d expect to find if the nature if morality was relative.

The principle issue facing objective accounts of morality is the ontological grounding of moral facts. Since objective morality requires there to be mind-independent facts of matter, someone arguing in favor of an objective morality must account for these moral facts in their ontology. Theists attempt this by grounding moral facts in God. Two hurdles theists face in this account are breaking the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma and establishing that a god exists.

Atheistic accounts of moral facts can be in two broad categories, supernatural and natural. A supernatural account of moral facts would involve an appeal to something supernatural that isn’t a god. For example, a supernatural, teleological state like Nirvana could provide a godless grounding of moral facts. Whether or not an action is moral is whether or not the action moves you toward Nirvana. The primary hurdle for such an argument is demonstrating the existence of the supernatural ground (e.g., demonstrating there is Nirvana).

Natural accounts typically try to collapse the fact-value distinction, or they will place moral facts into the category of abstract concepts and broaden their definition of natural to include such concepts. Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape falls in the former category, and Erik Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe falls into the latter category. Some of the hurdles facing naturalist accounts of objective morality include avoiding the naturalistic fallacy and cashing out a broadened natural ontology.

Another issue facing objective accounts of morality is epistemic in nature. Even if we assume there are mind-independent moral facts, it is not clear that we know these facts. This is demonstrated by the diversity of moral codes current and past. The moral status of slavery, abortion, clothing, sex before marriage, and so much more differs based on time and location. The fact that there is descriptive moral relativism isn’t a defeater of objective morality, by any means. Nonetheless, it is a concern.

On Your Basis for Morality, You Can’t Really Say Hitler Did Anything Objectively Wrong, You Can Only Say You Find It Distasteful.

I want to close with a mind toward broadening my scope. We hold behaviorally normative attitudes, and we express these attitudes. Our cultures and societies establish expectations around normative behaviors and practices. We create laws to enforce acting upon these values and expectations. The ‘Objective Morality vs. Subjective Morality’ debate is a metaethical question. In short, it is a debate about part of the answer to the question, “What is the nature of morality?”

This question of metaethics is one I’ve explored, casually. Every time I explore it, I come away thinking a different metaethical theory is correct. Also, though I suspect I completely misrepresent everything, I’ve learned that there are a lot of layers to the metaethical onion. When I think back on my past discussions on morality, I was clearly under-informed as regards the arguments I made in those discussions. For example, calling it a debate between objective morality and subjective morality just doesn’t cover the breadth of options available. For example, it leaves out those awkward, middle-ground options like prescriptivism and constructivist positions like that of Rawls. If we want to create a debate dichotomy, realism vs anti-realism is probably the better dichotomy, but even this is too broad to meaningfully cover the options that have been proposed.

The one thing I can say, in my casual exploration, I’ve become untroubled by the implications of the heading of this section. I find cutting in line distasteful. I find chewing food with your mouth open distasteful. I even find supporting the Seattle Sounders distasteful. And, I find Hitler’s/the Nazi’s actions distasteful. But, I find the last one very distasteful.

Every time I am convinced that a new metaethical theory is correct, I’m never convinced that Hitler was correct. I’m never convinced I should approve of Hitler’s actions. My disapproval of the Holocaust does not change. What changes is the metaethical nature of my disapproval. This is the limit of the rhetoric of the comment in the heading. When we think about what morality is supposed to be, what it is supposed to do, I understand why we want a robust, objective moral code. We want to be able to approve/disapprove of an action and actually be correct. We want to be able to act rightly. Unfortunately, what we want may not exist. It may turn out that our moral codes are arbitrary, at least from a cosmic point of view. But they are not arbitrary to us. They matter to us. So, until someone demonstrates to me genocide is morally permissible, objectively, I’m not going to feel much existential angst if my strong distaste for Hitler is all I’ve got.

I just hope you find Hitler distasteful, too.

Other Thoughts:

1. I need to make a blanket citation of John Danaher’s two-part exploration of William Lane Craig’s Definition of Objective Morality (part 1 and part 2). I gained a lot of insight and understanding from those posts.

2. I understand that many apologists argue for a Divine Command Theory that is objective. I am not addressing these arguments because that’s just not the point of this post. Whenever I say Divine Command Theory, assume I mean an obvious and explicitly subjective version of Divine Command Theory.

3. The distinction I attempt to make between a subjective moral attitude and a mere preference of pie is why David Enoch suggests there has to be objective moral facts. He says that the distinction I’m attempting to make is insufficient to account for moral statements. Like Nicholson, he suggests their shared arbitrariness is unacceptable.

You can find an interview with him at 3:AM. He was also interviewed on the Elucidations podcast (this interview includes a nice, though brief, overview of metaethics). In short, Enoch argues that moral facts fall into a larger category of “normative facts” that are needed to resolve deliberative questions. Per the 3:AM interview, it seems Enoch falls into the ‘broadened definition of natural’ camp. I listened to podcast interview this morning and thought it was interesting/relevant, so I’m sharing it.





  1. keithnoback · September 10, 2014

    Really well done. I don’t think you will end the confusion over these issues, but every ray of light helps.
    The meta-ethical questions are the hardest, and the root of moral disagreement.

  2. ausomeawestin · September 28, 2014

    You said, “Atheistic accounts of moral facts can be in two broad categories, supernatural and natural.”

    On your view, where does non-naturalism fall? Moore and others maintain that supernaturalism and non-naturalism are different views, so I’m curious if you think they are the same and on what grounds.

    On another note, sounds like you might like the growing fictionalist movement, or at least Mark Timmons’ Putnam inspired irrealism.

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