Is Morality Subjective?

I am reading a book by Dr Graeme McLean called Ethical Basics for the Caring Professions in which he devotes a chapter to the fact that there are different moral beliefs and attitudes across different groups of people and cultures. What are we to make of this? Is morality therefore relative? This question and Graeme’s treatment of the topic interests me for a number of reasons. First, as a former Registered Nurse I encountered many of the ethical scenarios for which the book is written. Secondly, Graeme is a member of my church and a friend whose clear thinking and explanations I find very helpful as I think through the connection between morality and theism. So, is morality subjective? What follows is an attempt to tease out some aspects of these issues by picking up on the thread of Graeme’s argument in his Chapter Three: Is morality relative? There are many finer details and wider arguments throughout the book which make it well worth acquiring for yourself here.

To say that morality is relative is to claim that moral requirements, or right and wrong actions, depend upon particular persons or cultures and are neither objective nor universal truths. Graeme firstly outlines two poor arguments for the claim that morality is subjective.

Two poor arguments for moral relativity

First, the simple fact of divergent moral views is not good evidence that morality is relative. While it is certainly logically possible that such differences may indicate such moral relativity, Graeme points out that differing views may in fact indicate that some people are mistaken. Secondly, he points out that what are typically described as opposing moral views are usually more complex when one probes deeper underlying motivations. So, he outlines tribal rituals which anthropologists have observed in certain cultures that appear cruel to us who feel strongly about our obligation to care. He points out that although seemingly harsh and extreme, when carefully understood, anthropologists have discovered that the tribe justifies its practices by an appeal to deep moral principles just like “ours.” Graeme writes:

“At the surface level — the level of our practical application of our moral principles — there is indeed significant difference between the moral beliefs of different people and cultures. But when we seek to expose the deeper moral principles underlying our practices, we tend to uncover principles which we share.”

These two objections to the moral relativity argument do not prove that morality is objective, but they do show that the fact of divergent moral views does not necessarily indicate that morality is subjective. It is here that Graeme points out the difficulty of moral discussion:

Moral truths are not truths that we can read off the world; they are truths against which the world (which includes us) is evaluated. Moral principles are not seen in the world; they are the standards by which what is seen in the world is judged to be good or bad, right or wrong.

And yet for Graeme, “we take it for granted that moral truths are objective and that there are moral standards and principles that do apply to us all.” He offers the following three reasons for this claim.

Arguments for objective morality

First, the belief that there can be moral progress and regress assumes that there is an objective standard against which a particular person’s or culture’s moral attitudes can be measured. Graeme uses the example of the abolition of slavery as a movement in the right direction, and the historical acceptance of Hitler’s policies as a movement in the wrong direction. Such moral claims are only possible where there is an assumed external standard against which such attitudes are compared.

Secondly, the documentation of cases of genuine moral disagreement is indicative that there really is something that is being disagreed about. He illustrates the divergent moral views of Person A and Person B:

A: “An abortion late in the pregnancy when neither the mother’s life nor her health is at stake would be morally wrong.”

B: “No, that’s not true! An abortion is morally permissible under any circumstances, so long as it’s the mother’s choice.”

Such a disagreement is not merely an expression of different attitudes, but an assumption that there is an objective truth that is worth pointing each other to.

Thirdly, the existence of serious disagreement and even conflict over this and other issues is indicative that there is something really quite serious at stake. There are many many matters that we are simply not willing to accept are merely relative. On the other hand there are many behaviours we praise as morally honourable. Therefore, despite the popular notion that morality is subjective, the truth is that it is taken for granted that morality is indeed objective.

A cause to be uneasy

It is this observation, that morality is objective, which raises for me the probability of the existence of God and inspires me to draw on the work of the well-known Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. In his book Mere Christianity, across two chapter (What Lies Behind the Law and We have Cause to be Uneasy), Lewis argues that the reality of an objective Moral Law to which we feel bound is indicative of a “Power” — One who is “directing the universe.” Moreover, the existence of the Moral Law indicates that “the Being behind the universe is intensely interested in right conduct” — this, Lewis suggests, puts us all in an “uneasy” predicament. The existence, on the one hand, of the Law Giver is supremely comforting — our moral efforts are not meaningless. Yet, this same reality exposes our law-breaking tendencies. Lewis writes:

We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from … Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger — according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way.

I personally find this moral argument for God compelling. But it is important to search behind the law and discover the One whose love drives such laws, and whose love rescues law-breakers. I agree with Lewis’ claim that only then will Christianity begin to make sense. He succinctly writes:

When you know you are sick, you will listen to the doctor. When you have realised that our position is nearly desperate you will begin to understand what the Christians are talking about. They offer an explanation of how we got into our present state of both hating goodness and loving it. They offer an explanation of how God can be this impersonal mind at the back of the Moral Law and yet also a Person. They tell you how the demands of this law, which you and I cannot meet, have been met on our behalf, how God Himself becomes a man to save man from the disapproval of God.

Graeme’s book has certainly provoked me to think more critically about the notion that morality may be relative and to consider again the credibility of the well-known moral argument for God.

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