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Is Morality Subjective or Objective?

Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash

Morality has been the topic of debate for hundreds of years as understanding morality has huge implications in every single area of human society. At the heart of this debate, lies the issue of determining whether morality is objective or subjective.

In an attempt to define morality we come across two seemingly similar yet distinct definitions. The descriptive definition refers to morality as codes of conduct that are put forth by a certain society, group, or individual, whereas the normative definition refers to morality as a universal code of conduct that should be put forth by all rational persons.

Unfortunately, these definitions do nothing to clarify the debate between subjective and objective morality. Rather, they only serve to highlight the divide. So, instead, for the purposes of this essay, we will define morality as the set of principles that determine right and wrong.

Based on this definition, objective morality would mean that there is a universal set of principles that determine right and wrong regardless of who you are or what your beliefs are. On the other hand, subjective morality would mean that these principles are variable based on individual experience, personality, and other factors

Unlike many other issues we debate today, the debate over morality can only have one correct answer. For example, when we debate gun safety, it is a possibility that more than one side presents a possible solution. On the other hand, the mere existence of objective morality disproves any truth behind subjective morality and vice versa.

The strongest argument for subjective morality is the simple fact that all humans do not share the same moral values. This is abundantly clear when looking at issues like abortion, euthanization, and animal cruelty.

Even great moral philosophers disagree when it comes to establishing principles that determine right and wrong and how we should act in a given circumstance. For example, Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential philosophers in history, believed in a duty-based theory of ethics. This theory says that certain things are right or wrong just based on what they are and that it is the duty of the individual to act accordingly regardless of the outcome of their actions. On the other hand, John Stuart Mill, another ethics philosopher, believed in the moral theory of utilitarianism. This theory is almost the reverse of what Kant believed and claims that one should act in a way that is best for the greatest number of people.

Those who believe that morality is objective would argue that the differences in cultural, societal, and individual values do not prove moral relativism. Instead, one must dig down to the fundamental values behind the surface level traditions and opinions, and show that these values are not shared amongst different societies. This is a much more difficult task as you will find that most groups and/or individuals share similar core values (ex: integrity, honesty, etc.) but disagree on the application of those values.

This argument is only strengthened when you add scientific findings regarding morality into the mix.

In one of the most famous cases in neuroscience history, an American railroad construction foreman named Phineas Gage survived an accident where a large iron rod was driven completely through his head, destroying the majority of his brain’s left frontal lobe. Previous to this accident Gage was said to have had a well-balanced mind. He was described as a “shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation.”

After the accident, Gage’s doctor reported the following.

“The equilibrium or balance, so to speak between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging in times in the grossest of profanities (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible…”

The differences were so profound that his friends and family claimed that he was “no longer Gage”.

This case was so interesting because Gage was the first example of someone who suffered a brain injury that had effects on very specific brain functions. After the injury Gage’s intelligence, memory, and emotions were intact. He could hold a conversation, he knew where he was, he could learn new things, but the balance between these functions was destroyed leading researchers to describe his brain deficits by saying his conscience was destroyed.

The reason why this is relevant is that it shows that our conscience, the thing that helps us determine right from wrong, has a biological origin furthering the argument that the principles that govern right from wrong are objective.

This evidence seems to point to the fact that there is an objective morality with a subjective interpretation. This would mean that there is a set of principles that are universally accepted, but the way in which we act on these principles are subjective, as long as we do so with the right intentions. A good person would be judged on intention rather than their specific actions. This explanation seems to satisfy both the issue of different people having different experiences as well as there being some kind of right and wrong that allows us to make decisions.

It’s interesting, that throughout the process of trying to determine whether morality was subjective or objective, even as my opinion on the question went back and forth, my personal values and views on right and wrong never once wavered. Regardless of how I answered this question, my values would have stayed the same.

What then, is the point of attempting to answer this age-old debate?

Although the answer to this question may not change the way we determine right and wrong, the process of coming to a conclusion changes the way we judge others for their principles. As we dissect the different opinions and ideas on the subject we come to realize that the world isn’t black and white. The more we consider and contemplate, the less, we realize, we know. It is this understanding that allows us to break free of our biases and prejudices and see the world through a clearer lens.

Works Cited

Cherry, Kendra. “The Famous Case of Phineas Gage’s Astonishing Brain Injury.” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 3 Oct. 2019, www.verywellmind.com/phineas-gage-2795244.

Gert, Bernard, and Joshua Gert. “The Definition of Morality.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 8 Feb. 2016, plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/.

“Is Morality Objective?” Philosophy Now: a Magazine of Ideas, philosophynow.org/issues/115/Is_Morality_Objective.

“Phineas Gage.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 May 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage.

projects, Contributors to Wikimedia. “Is Morality Objective?” Wikiversity, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 22 Nov. 2019, en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Is_morality_objective?

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