THE NATURE OF MORALITY; A Summary of the Subjectivist View.

                    Ted Trainer



There are few realms of thought about which there is more confusion and delusion than morality.  Almost everyone totally fails to understand the nature of morality and confidently proceeds with a taken for granted conviction that is quite false.

Now there’s a pretty dogmatic claim!  But it’s a good way to start sorting things out.  Following is a brief summary of the analysis detailed in The Nature of Morality, T. Trainer, Avebury, Aldershot, 1991.

The fundamental question is, not “What things are moral, or morally good or right?” It is, “What is morality anyway; what is this moral quality we say some things have?”  When we say that something has a metallic quality we mean that there is such a “thing” out there in nature as “metallic-ness”; it really exists and can be studied and has properties and laws. Similarly most people think there is a realm of nature in which Moral things exist independently of you or me, especially Moral qualities and Moral Laws, and they think that actions we carry out will in fact be Moral, or Immoral, just as some objects will in fact be metallic or not, and if they are they will obey the laws that metallic things follow. Whether or not an object is metallic is in no way dependent on what anyone thinks or wishes or prefers.  It either is or is not metallic. Either way we are dealing with an objective fact.  This is how most people think about morality; they think that whether or not a particular action is Moral is a matter of Moral fact.   Most people, in other words, take an “Objectivist” view of morality, do not realise any other view exists, and indeed would have great difficulty imagining that any other could exist.  (Confusingly, many people think they are “relativists”, but these people almost always turn out to be Objectivists when they are tested.)

The crucial and huge distinction here is between mere preferences, and Moral facts.  Most people would say that the Moral quality of cruelty is in no way a matter of human preference; it is a matter of fact.  Cruelty they would say is in fact Morally wrong, regardless of what humans prefer.  Even if all people on earth liked being cruel, and approved of it, it would still be Morally wrong, because its Moral quality is a matter of fact that is in no way influenced by what humans prefer.  The Moral Law is thought of as being the same as physical law in this regard -- whether a particular object is metallic or not is in no way dependent on whether people would prefer it to be metallic.

To most people all this seems indubitable; of course this is the nature of Morality.  How could Morality be otherwise?  But to we Subjectivists, all the above is totally and sadly confused and mistaken.

Firstly the Objectivist can give no good reason for thinking that a Moral realm or that Moral facts exist.  Consider the enormity of the claim.  If a person says that Gorillas exist, or magnetic fields exist, or that there are metals, he is making huge claims about the nature of the universe; he is saying that these things exist out there somewhere.  You shouldn’t do that unless you can give us pretty convincing reasons to believe that these things do exist.  The best way is to show them to us.  The Objectivist cannot do this.  How could be begin to show that “…cruelty is in fact Morally right”?  How could you go about trying to establish this?

Consider Human Rights.  Most/all objectivists believe we have/possess a right to, e.g., freedom of speech, as if this is something built into our nature just as we have ears.  How could such a claim be proved?  The Subjectivist says it is obvious that rights are no more than behaviours etc. which we think it is important/desirable to allow/protect etc?

Thus the terms the Objectivist uses are meaningless, because they refer to nothing that exists.  More accurately they do mean something to the user; they refer to things that can be described and understood in a sense, but which do not exist anywhere.  They are like the terms “fairies” or “evil spirits”; we know what these terms mean, refer to, but those things don’t exist.

The Objectivist will insist, “But if there is no Moral Law, then nothing is Right or Wrong.  Everyone could run around stealing and killing as they wished and not be doing anything Wrong.  Without a Moral Law there is no base for any moral code, so you couldn’t have an orderly society.”

Sorry, this is totally confused and wrong again.  Certainly nothing would be Morally right or wrong about wonton mayhem or cruelty, because there is no such thing as Moral rightness or wrongness.  But if we had any sense at all we would set up rules of procedure with a view ensuring that things work out satisfactorily.  That’s what we do when we say everyone should drive on the left of the road.  It’s not Morally right to drive on the right and Morally wrong to drive on the left.  It’s just a procedure we have agreed on because it makes things work out more satisfactorily.  Of course the Objectivist objects that  such rules as being only about “prudence” or convenience, much like saying, “For a good omelette you should use…”  He will say, “What if a society set up a rule that it is alright to be cruel on Tuesdays?”  I as a Subjectivist would say things like, ”Well, although I don’t see anything Wrong with that, I think it’s a “bad” idea, I mean unwise and unattractive.  I wouldn’t want to live there.  I think they will be sorry…”  To which the Objectivist might say, ”And what if they are not sorry; what if they think it’s a great rule?” A Subjectivist might reply, “Well I’d be sorry about that!  I wouldn’t want there to be a society like that?  In fact I’d recommend that we try to change their minds somehow.”

To which the Objectivist would surely say, ”Yes, yes, me too, but none of that deals with the essential issue at all, which is that such a rule is Morally Wrong.”  To which the Subjectivist would reply, “Sorry, you can’t demonstrate that.  All one can say about the situation are things like, I, we don’t prefer that rule, it will probably have certain consequences, etc.” 

At this point the Objectivist will probably return to the claim, “But if that’s all you can say then you cannot have social order, because you cannot say anything Ought to be done or Ought not be done.”  Again this is not correct.  The Subjectivist provides us with all we need to build a “good” society, i.e., one we are content with and in which all have a high quality of life … if those are the goals we have in mind when we set up our rules.  There is no need to assume any Moral realm or Moral facts or Moral Law in order to create the codes of behaviour, rules that will produce desirable people or a nice, orderly society.

“But what if we find a society like the original Maoris who defined ‘desirable’ to include being a vicious killer, a warrior? What are you going to say about that; that it’s alright?”

I would say, “No; to me its terrible, not desirable at all.  But it’s not Morally Wrong, because there’s no such thing or quality…and until you can show that there is you have no justification for talking as if there is!The Subjectivist’s point is that there is nothing beyond human preferences and the rules humans choose for organising behaviour, and that’s all we need for the purpose of  organising a good society.

Why do most people find this account to be so grossly unsatisfactory, as totally failing to deal with the essence of morality?  The answer is firstly, that they have become so habitually accustomed to thinking in terms of the existence of a Moral Law that they cannot be comfortable with any account of morality that doesn’t assume it.  They feel that there just has to be such a realm, something far beyond preferences, something that makes things Morally Right or Wrong irrespective of what humans think…but they can give no grounds whatsoever for their belief, claim, that there is.  It’s a delusion, no more valid than a firm conviction that fairies exist.

We humans have a strong “Moral sense”.  All “normal” humans just think/feel indubitably that some things are Morally virtuous and some are Morally repugnant.  It is as if we can sense their moral quality, just as we can sense whether something is in fact hot.  Often it is thought that it is our faculty of conscience which tells us what is Morally Right or Wrong.  A vast amount of moral theory and doctrine has been built on the existence of this strange and powerful “sense” and associated feelings such as guilt.

But it does not follow that because we have these thoughts and feelings there is something out there existing in nature that they are sensing or responding to.  The phenomenon is a psychological experience which has evolved in humans, one with obvious survival value for the social group.  It is akin to our tendency to feel revolted in the presence of rotten meat or attracted to warmth.  Different cultures come to connect the sensation to extremely different things; in some there is a strong feeling of obligation to do things others feel are evil (consider incest relations for instance.) It is not a very satisfactory argument to say that because I have a powerful feeling that X is wrong, there must be Morally Wrong things and X is one of them…when there may well be another society somewhere in which people think /feel/sense that X is Morally Good. (Yes there could be things all societies feel are Wrong, but that doesn’t alter the situation.)

            There are only “instrumental” oughts.

Another way of putting Subjectivism is to say that statements of the form “You ought to do X…” only make sense when understood to continue “…if you want Y.”  It does not make sense to say “You ought to do X, because it is Morally right.”  Thus the Subjectivist is limited to saying things like, ”You ought to be honest … if you want people to be honest to you, or if you want to help maintain a climate of honesty in society…”  If someone says he doesn’t want those ends, then it is actually logically wrong to tell him he ought to be honest; it will not achieve anything he wants so there is no reason why he ought to be honest.

            There is no value within nature.

It helps in getting a handle on Subjectivism to recognise that value is something which only exists in minds.  Organisms value things but the things do not “contain” any value.  They might have attributes like hardness but they can have no value.  It’s the same with meaning; no sign or book or text has a meaning; people put meaning on, or see meaning in, signs and symbols.  Any sign only has meaning-to-you.  So it is a mistake to ask what is the meaning of that sign, book, play, painting?  You can only find the meaning it has for someone, an observer, or people in general, or the artist, or you.  So nothing has any meaning and nothing has any value  -- all meaning and value is attributed by humans when they contemplate things.

            What about religion as a source of Morality?

Many people think that morality comes from religious belief or texts and that without religion morality is not possible.  However people who think this way can’t help the Objectivist much in explaining what Morality is, or what gives things their Moral quality.  Even if you believe God created things like minerals and hardness and Goodness, and made some behaviours Morally Right, what is it about such things that makes them Morally right; i.e., constitutes their Moral Rightness.  It is no help to say, ‘”They are Morally Right because God says so”.  That’s not answering the question.  The Subjectivist would ask, “But what is this Rightness. OK I can see what the hardness of something is, and maybe God made that and gave it to some things, but what on earth is this Goodness quality you think God gave some things or actions?”  In other words even if you see a connection between morality and religion you are still in no position to explain what the nature of Moral quality God gave them is.

The next question is the classic one; are some acts Morally Good because and only because God has decided that way, or is it that some acts are in fact Morally Right and God just recognises this. Neither position seems satisfactory.  The first implies that God’s whim could decree that anything is Right or Wrong, even cruelty could be Right and Good if he chose that way.  The second implies that God is not omnipotent; even he has to recognise the fact that some things are Right…but believers usually assume he made all the laws of the universe.

Scrap all moral terms.

The discussion of how we should act and what we should value, and of codes of conduct etc., would be greatly facilitated if we agreed never to use any moral terms.  If we only talked about what we value, want to see, prefer, and about possible rules of behaviour and how happy we were with their consequences, we would be much less likely to get confused or to suffer delusion – and much more likely to arrive at satisfactory laws.

            Is Objectivism or Moral Law thinking dangerous?

I don’t think so.  It is suggested below that it might in fact be not only socially desirable, but essential for social order.  What matters is what values people hold, and how strongly, not what they think value is.  What matters is what values people will strive to realise in the world, not whether or not they understand that no value can have any Moral quality.  By and large people tend to hold what I see as “good “ values, i.e., ones I prefer because I think they would be conducive to what I see as a desirable society.  (Strictly speaking, again there are no “desirable” things, there are only things people desire.)  So it is not important to me to convert everyone to Subjectivism, and it probably doesn’t matter much if most continue to suffer the Moral Law delusion.  (However it can be a serious problem, for example when people become convinced that something that causes harm or havoc is Morally Right.)

            Could you have a society made up of Subjectivists?

This is a difficult one, and the answer is probably no.  I am a totally convinced, dogmatic, card-carrying Subjectivist and you would have no problem of social order if all people were like me.  I stop at red lights and pay my tax.  I don’t do these things because of any belief that they are Morally right.  I do them because I want to, prefer to do them, and because I think they are conducive to the kind of society I prefer.

Now the crucial question is, why do I prefer that kind of behaviour and society, and how did I come to hold preferences like this?  Could I have come to hold them had I not been raised as an Objectivist?  Could these values have been built so firmly into my ”conscience” had they always been presented to me as mere preferences, if adults had only said things to me like, “We’d prefer that you do not steal.  Of course it’s not Morally Wrong and you might do well if you do steal, but society will not work too well if people steal…by the way I hope you want society to work well.”

So it is possible that social order, which requires “moral” behaviour, i.e., rule or principle following behaviour that prevails contrary to self-interest, is not possible without the force of conscience, and is it possible that conscience cannot be built without the delusion of Moral Law thinking, at least in one’s early years.  Punishment, shame and other consequences are not sufficient for social order in complex societies.  Such societies will not work unless some inner force drives people to “do the right thing” irrespective of and in addition to consequences.  The immense and mysterious power of guilt built deeply into the foundations our personalities is necessary to keep us on the rails sufficiently for there to be order in complex societies.  Had this psychological mechanism not evolved complex societies could not have emerged.  Could the necessary Moral sense, the feeling, the motivation, the often irresistible compulsion, be built within us if we did not have an indubitable taken-for-granted conviction that regardless of consequences some acts are Morally Wrong and Ought not be done?

Oysters probably do not have any sense of beauty, or triangularity, or Morality.  At some point in our evolution we humans developed the strange      capacity to feel the pressure of conscience. Could we have become capable of self-discipline, regulation, duty, and service, and thus capable of following the rules that complex societies involve if we hadn’t evolved this Moral Sense?  And could we develop that feeling, drive, in young people without raising them to believe, deluding them, that there are Moral facts?

What are the implications for future “moral education”?  Perhaps converts to Subjectivism such as I am can be trusted, in view of the solid groundwork put down by years of Objectivist indoctrination, but what if we were to raise kids to be Subjectivists from the start?  I firmly value kindness and reject cruelty now, but could this situation have come about if I had never held the objectivist delusion?   Hmmm. Maybe best if we don’t draw attention to the Subjectivist perspective, so that they all retain the delusion, and go on (unwittingly) raising their kids to be unquestioning believers in the existence of an objective Moral Law.