Morality is Objective... and Subjective?

5 min read

It's not the contradiction it seems to be.

Photo by Cristian Newman

Know Thyself

We start with the phrase 'know thyself', or γνῶθι σεαυτόν in the original (ancient) Greek.

I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things - Socrates in Phaedrus by Plato

We will also start with the self. The greatest difficulty I have talking about morality is what it means. Beyond the vague and circular, such as 'what is good' or 'what is right', I haven't found a satisfactory definition.

This is not necessarily a problem - all meaning ultimately stems from ideas, objects and perceptions, not from definition in terms of other words. But it does cloud the waters as it is not universally agreed what morality is.

The objective bit

After a great deal of soul searching, I reached the bit of morality I think is objective. We experience different states, and it is from these that we derive an idea of morality and of rightness. The difference between these states results in ideas such as 'rightness' and 'goodness'.

Clearly there is no easy demarcation of what emotions and experiences are 'good', but it is clear that they are not equal, and it is from this we get ideas such as good, better and worse. Some people may say that this is 'subjective' as a result. This is to ignore their own experience. It is not subjective which experiences are better: experiences happen to you, and the differences between them exist. You get some control over how they effect you, but the mental states themselves just are.

Even without a comprehensive account of these experiences, there are obviously differences between them. It would be too crude too say, for instance, 'pain' or 'sad' are always in and of themselves bad, as we experience cocktails of emotions rather than isolated feelings. However, it is undeniable that experiences of extreme pain, stress, heartbreak (etc) can combine to create something worse.

Fairness, justice and other emotive words

Moral weight is assigned to words such as fairness and justice. This is because of the emotions they inspire in us. When we say we should change something because it's not fair, it is really the feeling of injustice we want to remove.

The other time these words have moral weight is when they relate to mental states themselves. It might not be fair that 1% of people have much more wealth, but this doesn't necessarily imply greater misery beyond the feeling of unfairness within you. In contrast, children dying of malaria inspires a feeling of injustice which is different. It instead feels that the pain, death and suffering themselves are not right. This, surprisingly, is the subjective bit.

The subjective bit

We gain an idea of morality from out own experience. This is objective.

Unfortunately, extending this to others is largely subjective. This is because of the Philosophical 'Problem of Other Minds'.

You don't know what others feel and think, you only see their actions. You then assume they feel in a similar way when they do certain things or certain things happen to them.

As this is a bit abstract, here's an example. You see someone crying and looking very sad. You have cried and looked sad before after feeling very sad, so assume they are doing so for similar reasons.

Even if you say that emotions are a result of chemicals in the brain, and it boils down to neuroscience, you still have a problem. To make these conclusions, you see that certain chemicals are released when something happens to someone. For instance, dopamine might be released while eating nice food. From this you might deduce that dopamine causes pleasure.

Yet this is the same deduction as previously, merely packaged differently. It is only because you have eaten nice food and felt good that you assume they are feeling the same way. Besides, the chemicals are released within a different system to yours (a different brain). Unless dopamine and a neuroreceptor by themselves in a room cause pleasure, the emotion is a product of more of the brain than is captured by that analysis: While both baseball and football use a ball and people to play, spotting that wouldn't let you deduce that they are the same, as the other ingredients matter. Hence differences in the brain would mean that even if emotions are captured scientifically, cross comparison may be impossible.

Assumptions, assumptions, assumptions

All these assumptions, and decisions to make. (I made this cartoon myself )

The extent we assume moral weight to others' experiences relies on assumptions about whether they experience and what they are experiencing. This explains a large number of things:

As it is largely an assumption, then bigotry and racism exist because there is no way to actually see inside someone's head. Thus, if you are raised being told that someone is lesser, you will likely believe it. Our assumptions about others' consciousness are mostly a result of the society we live in.

This is further seen in animal rights. At the moment, we treat them as inferior, yet in the future people may assign emotions and consciousness to them akin to humans. Then farming, slaughtering and treating animals as our slaves will be seen as barbaric.

This part of morality is societal. If I was a prehistoric human, I might view other tribes as lesser. I live in 21st century Britain, so assume all humans experience like I do, but find it very difficult to assign emotions to animals.

It should be emphasised that, with 'perfect information', it would be clear what was right or wrong, and the decision would be objective. It is our lack of information which makes our assignment of who experiences and what they experience arbitrary.

Objective and... objective?

One more thing. The subjective part only exists because we see people's actions, and must then work out their experiences indirectly.

If either:

  • emotions/ mental states are intrinsically tied to physical observable actions. We currently don't understand consciousness enough to know whether this is true.
  • We don't only observe physical states, but also can 'feel' someone's mental state akin to how we can see the colour of their hair

Then there would be a basis for a wholly objective morality.

I inclined to think this is the case: either an overly rationalist and scientific approach has blinded us to non experimental/observational knowledge or that our distinction between the physical world and mental might be arbitrary.

The author of this article is The Sociable Solipsist. He studies Economics at Cambridge University, and his passions include Philosophy and Mathematics. His main interests in Philosophy are the problems of scepticism, morality, and the foundations of mathematics. In his spare time he writes flattering bios of himself in the third person.