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.
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