How can we refute subjective morality?

I received a question about objective vs subjective morality.  How can we make the case for objective morality?  If all that we have are our own subjective experiences, then how can we go from “I am experience this” to “this is an objective fact”?

My response is below:

You raise a few interesting questions, and I hope that I can be helpful in answering them.  It seems like the crux of your concern comes down to how one might respond to claims of subjective morality being made by your peers.

First, it will be very important to insist on specificity regarding language here.  Very often in these situations people will include the “subjective” label in their discussions about objective morality.  If I were to say, for example, “Racism is subjectively wrong,” then I am misspeaking.  Here I am treating “racism” as something external to myself and calling it wrong, which is to treat it as objectively wrong.  It makes no difference that I have included the word “subjective” in my claim.  If one really wants to be a moral subjectivist, then they can only consistently say, “I don’t like racism, but I would not say that others should also dislike it.”  We will do a disservice to them in helping them to think this through if we let them smuggle in objective morality under the “subjective” label.

Consider even the statement, “I think racism is wrong.”  This is an affirmation of objective morality.  They are saying of racism that it is wrong.  Again, if they are a subjectivist they can only say that they dislike racism.  They cannot even say that they think it is wrong.  In fact, if they do think it is wrong then they think that there are objective moral values and duties (for they think at least one thing is wrong).  We want to be careful to help them not to mistake their subjective frame of reference for a subjective ontology.  Certainly everything that they see with their eyes is what “they see”, but nonetheless the objects that they see have objective existence.  If one were to say, “I see a table,” we would never understand this to mean that there is no table.  In the same way, “I think racism is wrong,” should not be understood to mean that there is no objective wrongness that they are perceiving.

We will often appeal to Nazism in trying to demonstrate objective morality because most people will at least accept that the holocaust was wrong.  Even if there are morally grey areas, we should be able to agree that the Nazi practice of murdering innocent children is something they should not have done.  Even if the Nazis had won the war and successfully brain washed everyone so that they agreed with them, we would still want to say that they were wrong (although we wouldn’t be around to say it).  That is to say, it isn’t a matter of us all agreeing together that the Nazis were wrong that makes it wrong, rather it is wrong even if we had all agreed with them.  In my description above I preferred to use “racism” as the example of objective evil because you said you were a young person on a university campus.  I suspect in the current university culture that you may find more traction appealing to racism as wrong than even to Nazism, since sufficient time has passed that the evils of Nazism are starting to pass from our cultural consciousness.

In general,  you’ll want to try and find whatever “hot button” issue that your peers are passionate about.  Most people will have some moral evil that they think is wrong, be it racism, oppression, whatever.  What example you use may depend on your audience.

You asked how we can get from our perception of moral evil to the conclusion that moral evil exists.  How do we make the move from our own subjective experience to a conclusion about the objective nature of morality?  This is the sort of move we make all the time.  You will stop and wait when you pull up to a stop sign and see a car coming toward you.  You have made the move from your subjective sight experience to the conclusion that there is an objectively existing car that is actually coming towards you.  In general, we are rational in affirming our perception of reality.  If the world seems a certain way to us, and we have no reason to doubt that it is that way, then we are rational in affirming what we perceive.  We all have our firsthand experience of moral goods and evils as our reason for affirming the objectivity of morality.  What is provided to us as our reason for rejecting objective morality?  I have yet to hear any argument for moral skepticism that is more obviously true than our own firsthand experience of objective morality.


Matt Bilyeu

Got a question?  Ask it here

Hit the “Follow” button at the bottom of the page to receive future Q&A.

3 thoughts on “How can we refute subjective morality?

  1. Hi. I’m wondering about this excerpt from your blog:

    “If I were to say, for example, ‘Racism is subjectively wrong,’ then I am misspeaking. Here I am treating ‘racism’ as something external to myself and calling it wrong, which is to treat it as objectively wrong.”

    I fail to see how that last bit follows. Are you trying to say that anything “external” to us is objective? Or do you think it some combination of externality and wrongness that makes it objective? Why? And if it has to do with externality, can you explain what you mean by that? For instance, are the rules of chess external to us? (I ask because the rules of chess seem to be subjective in a significant sense.)


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sure, so in any instance in which one evaluates something there are two elements involved, the one who evaluates (the subject) and the thing evaluated (the object of their evaluation). If the truth is subjective, then it is true of the subject rather than the object.

      If one says a painting is beautiful, then what is being said is really a truth about the subject (that *they* find the painting to be beautiful) rather than something true about the painting itself. Technically the most accurate thing to say is, “I like the painting.” In that sense it would be nonsensical to object if someone else didn’t like the painting.

      If morality is subjective, then it isn’t true of racism itself that it is wrong, but rather it is just true of you as a subject that you don’t like racism. It would be similarly nonsensical to object if someone else preferred to be racist.

      Just like it would be technically inaccurate and confusing to say “the painting is subjectively beautiful” as this seems to imply something objective about the painting itself, it would be technically inaccurate and confusing to say “racism is subjectively wrong.” If one really thinks morality is subjective, then they disagree that *things* (objects) can be wrong in any sense. Rather they only think that subjects can have moral “tastes” or “distastes”.


  2. Thanks for the reply. Sorry for the delay in my own response.

    So, I see where you’re coming from about the “truth about the subject” business, and I don’t entirely disagree. But I think you’re oversimplifying it, and your oversimplification is leading you to make some very, very dubious claims like “it would be…nonsensical to object if someone else preferred to be racist.” I mean, come on, you have to know that doesn’t follow.

    Just because a subject is involved doesn’t mean that a subjective truth is *all* about the subject(s). It’s about the object(s) too, and the relation between them. Besides, the subject need not be an individual person; it could be a group of people, an institution, an entire species, or even include nonconscious, nonliving things. And as for the relation between subject and object in this case (whatever those may be), it’s not simply a matter of “like” or “don’t like.” I don’t claim to know precisely what makes racism morally wrong, but you can be sure it’s not just that some people don’t like it!

    The chess analogy is helpful, here, I think. The rules of chess are subjectively determined. They aren’t completely arbitrary, but they certainly could have been different, and indeed they still can be different depending on the house rules. But once you sit down to play a game, the rules are fixed and objective *within the context of the game*. Morality isn’t entirely unlike that. Our moral rules could have been different—indeed, they *have been* different in the past and will continue to change in the future. So, broadly speaking, there is no question that morality is subjective. But in the context of our present society and culture, our moral rules are fairly rigid and objective. If you want to participate in society—that is, if you want to sit down and play the game—then you had better follow those rules.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s