Is Morality Subjective?

What is this paper doing here? My son was set this essay title at university, where he was reading philosophy. I made some suggestions and then it occurred to me that not only was it a silly question, but also therefore an unanswerable one. I began to reflect on similar questions I had myself had to answer, and also on how I had not been able to answer them in my own way because of the assumptions built into them and the marking scheme.

I learned my lesson early. In my GCE "O" level (now GCSE) English Literature exam I was asked a question about Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality..." (I can't remember the precise question.) I had recently been reading Aldous Huxley's "The Doors of Perception", and concluded that his account of the consequences of chronic hypoglycaemia—as I now know it to be—accounted well for Wordsworth's "There was a time/when every meadow, grove and stream/to me did seem/apparelled in celestial light" (The quotation is from memory and probably not correct). I used this argument in my answer. I failed.

I now know why. It was not because my argument was naïve, reductionist and positivistic (as it was, but what do you expect from an arrogantly precocious 15-year-old?) but because it could not be accommodated within the marking scheme. I was thinking "outside the box".

Ever since, I have thought about how I might tackle such questions if I couldn't give a damn about what a "marker" (or a marking scheme) thought of the answer—this was an exercise in doing it.

If you are in the position of setting and marking such essays, please get back to me and let me know the mark you would give this, and perhaps your comments. I'll publish the results (unless you request otherwise).

At one level, this is a silly question. Rather like, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" it begs the question. It assumes that the "subjectivity-objectivity" construct is a valid one to apply to the notion of "morality". Our human, social world is full of such socially-constructed entities. Every abstraction from experience is at a similar epistemological level: "justice", "politics" and even "taste" have the same status, but no-one makes much of a fuss of their "subjectivity" or "objectivity" (apart perhaps from the old tag "de gustibus non disputandum est"). One might legitimately ask why this question is asked about morality. One could go further and suggest that it is simply a device invented by philosophers to justify their existence in an age which has rendered largely irrelevant their speculative reasoning.

Having said that, what follows is a serious attempt to answer the question:

First, it is necessary to define the terms as they will be used in this essay. Both "morality" and "subjectivity" (not to mention "is"), are endlessly contentious ideas, so any definition has to be pragmatic and stipulative.

"Morality" will be taken to mean, "a set of implicit or explicit rules governing the relations of humans with their environment". The term "environment" has been chosen to cover everything which surrounds a human actor over which he (or of course, she) may have some influence, but not necessarily control. It is everything his action or inaction may affect, and of course includes other people.

"Subjective" or "subjectivity", will mean, "originating from ideas in people's heads, as opposed to material which exists independently of human perception"; the latter part of the definition may stand as "objectivity". The issues of solipsism and Bishop Berkeley-type sophistry will be ignored for present purposes. As we shall see, the issue of whether the "ideas in people's heads" are individual or communal is fraught but important.

"Is" cannot be ignored, though. It implies equivalence, or at least the "possession" of a "quality". If the latter, the issue is whether the quality is a defining or accidental quality. If the quality is deemed accidental, the question is trivial: the answer is clearly "yes", because empirically people interpret morality differently. If the quality is defining, on the other hand, the question is more interesting: that is the sense in which it will be taken in this essay.

It is next worth asking what the consequences are of answering "yes" or "no" to the question. If the answer is "yes", morality becomes a matter of taste; there is no firm place on which to stand in order to debate it. If the answer is "no", there is still an open question as to what its objective sources are.

Finally, there is the question of just how this question might be answered. It is posed within the discourse of "philosophy", which is the epitome of what Oakeshott (19??) called a "conversation acrosss the ages". But can it be answered within that discourse? Following Gödel (see Hofstadter, 19??), the axioms of even the most formal and abstract systems of thought, i.e. mathematics, cannot be proven from within the system. It may therefore be necessary to appeal to pragmatic and experimental disciplines to essay an answer; rational cerebration is not enough.

Indeed, the traditional modus operandi of academic philosophy is to critique the arguments of prior thinkers on the topic. This generally implies acceptance of their underlying assumptions—or at least taking them seriously enough to argue with them. Thus, debating the validity or utility of Plato's doctrine of ideal forms accepts the limitations of his discourse, which lacked the notion of the scientific method, not to mention specific psychological data on the formation of schemata.

(I might here embark on a [philosophical?] digression about the arbitrariness of traditional academic disciplines and what they accept as legitimate methods, but I shall forebear in the interests of the present argument.)

The status of the concept

What is "morality"? I have defined it above for the purposes of this discussion, but what kind of concept is it? It is clearly not a "scientific" concept. Its existence cannot be demonstrated by experiment, and indeed it is problematic to conceive of the kind of evidence which would count in demonstrating even its existence—never mind its nature. Nevertheless it is a compelling notion.

Is it an "emergent" property? Relatively recently, scientific investigation has moved away from naïve reductionism which maintains that phenomena are "nothing but" their observable components, to a recognition of the properties of their organisation. One consequence of this shift has been the increasing acknowledgement of the differing "ranges of convenience" of forms of discourse. While sub-atomic physics, for example, may be the most basic of scientific disciplines, it has nothing at all to say about sound or turbulence in fluids, which occur at a quite different level.

The discourses of the philosophers (with, as ever, the conspicuous exception of Nietzsche) for the discussion of morality have been metaphysical (broadly the objectivists from Aristotle onwards) or linguistic (more recent subjectivists). The limits of language in this case are however, as the later Wittgenstein suggests, analogous to the limitations of technology in physics: they constrain our attempt to get at the (hypothesised) underlying "truth", rather than reveal it.

This discussion takes us in the direction of Moore's dictum that one cannot derive and "ought" from an "is", which is itself a development from Hume's "naturalistic fallacy". Surely all this amounts to is the contention that the sources of morality need to be sought outside the purely philosophical discourse?

There are currently several candidates. That attracting much interest at the moment is the argument from evolutionary psychology, expressed most clearly by Wright (1994). Originating from the arguments of Leto and Cosmides (19??) as a refinement of those of E O Wilson (19??), this maintains that moral imperatives have their root in traits which were formerly functional for the survival of gene pools under conditions of natural selection. Thus, most clearly, bonds of familial obligation are submitted to have their basis in efforts to ensure the survival of a group with which an individual shares a large proportion of genes. The same mechanism would account for hostility towards outsiders and strangers. They thus develop a biologically based view of "human nature", which provides the parameters of any further discussion of the nature of morality.

Wright (2000) has extended this argument by appeal to game theory, as developed principally by von Neumann and Morgenstern (1944). Game theory identifies the distinction between "zero-sum" and "non-zero-sum" games (of which the most famous example is the "Prisoner's Dilemma"—see Axelrod, 1990). In zero-sum games such as football, one side can only win at the expense of the other. In non-zero-sum games, both can win, one can win at the expense of the other, or both can lose. A major determinant of strategy in such situations is the value of "w", which refers to the probability of the recurrence of the situation. Axelrod conducted a series of computer-based simulations of the game, inviting a range of social and "hard" scientists and philosophers to submit candidates for the optimum strategy. It turned out to be "TIT for TAT", a strategy which accurately accounts not only for human and mammalian behaviour, but also that of bacterial colonies.

Wright goes on to argue convincingly that trade, which embodies such non-zero-sum principles, is the major civilising influence in the history of humankind. Trade is based on a sophisticated understanding of the limits of trust, and it can readily be argued that the facilitation of trust is at the core of "morality".

If that is the case, is morality based in biology? If it is, then is it not objective? Yes, but...

This argument simply suggests that a morality, one possible morality, may be founded on biology and systems theory. This morality merely suggests loyalty to one's relatives and discrimination against outsiders, tempered by the need to preserve co-operation with those with whom you may have to deal again. Anything goes, for example, in one-off encounters with strangers, including murder. While this may be a pessimistically reasonable account of how some people live, moral codes in sophisticated societies go a lot further, and not merely because of the greater compexity of the society.

Wright (2000) argues that "civilisation" effectively expands the unit of interaction further. From individuals and families the calculus of fair trade extends to tribes, and to states, and ultimately to global communities. While his historical and pragmatic case is persuasive, it remains contingent. Huntington's (1996) vision, on the other hand, postulates a bifurcation (or trifurcation) of the content of moral systems between clashing civilisations.

This twist in the argument introduces a further complication. The idea of a morality itself may be objective, but it is a (relatively) empty box. Particular moralities are a different matter. Western liberals are appalled by Sharia law, and the treatment of animals in the Far East. Some Muslims in the UK are offended by the directionless self-indulgence of the native population; and even within Islam there is considerable divergence about the rights of women.

The content of any given moral code, therefore, cannot be claimed to be universal or objective. Does that mean that is "subjective"?

This introduces an alternative perspective, derived from anthropology and sociology, which regards that which is labelled as "moral" as being in conformity with the rules of a game (with a slightly different usage from von Neumann and Morgenstern) which is the defining characteristic of a "culture".

In their seminal text, Berger and Luckmann (1967) develop the idea of the "social construction of reality". They postulate a process in which ideas are "externalised"—their consequences assume a social reality through institutions or customs; they are "reified" or "objectified" through the accretion of power to those institutions or customs; and then subsequently "internalised", becoming the taken-for-granted parameters of action for subsequent generations (even, in the current climate of rapid change, within the same generation).

This model suggests that moral systems acquire an apparently objective status through "custom and practice". The argument may be extended to maintain that adherence to a particular moral system becomes a defining characteristic of particular social groups: the virtue (itself of course a concept within moral discourse) of the system becomes its contribution to social cohesion within a community. The origin of the morality is largely irrelevant: it may be the product of submission to a revealed truth of unassailable authority (which is what "Islam" means), or a complex negotiation of political interest (implied by Bentham's "hedonic calculus", for example). At some stage it passes a critical point, indicated largely by its instantiation in educational values and law including the regulation of trade, and nowadays in the very programming of communication and data management, which transmutes it from individual or community preference to what Gramsci termed "ideological hegemony". At this point it acquires the defining feature of a moral code, that people within the community can unselfconsciously refer to what "should", "ought to" or "must" be the case.

It may not be objective, but it might as well be.


(OK—I know I have not completed them...)

Axelrod, 1990

Berger and Luckmann (1967)

Huntington (1996)

Oakeshott (19??)

Hofstadter, 19??

Leto and Cosmides (19??)

E O Wilson (19??)

von Neumann and Morgenstern (1944)

Wright (1994)

Wright (2000)



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Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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