Objective & subjective

Recently I was interviewed by Adam Reakes for his show, The Herd Mentality.

You can listen to it here.

Adam is an atheist, but I thoroughly enjoyed the debate (not surprisingly it still has a bit to go!) and I thank him for the invitation and courtesy he extended to me. During the interview we touched on the question of whether morality is subjective or objective.

Adam has asked his listeners to provide their input, and I am also interested in what readers of this blog think.

This is what I put to Adam in an email after the interview:

During the interview we spoke briefly about the burka and Saudi culture. You believe that a decision re: the burka should be made on the assessment about what is better for society.

But why is that a reasonable basis for making a decision? If there is no objective truth and all things are subjective, couldn’t another person argue just as rationally, logically and with as much validity that the decision should be made for a different reason entirely: the best interest of themselves personally (which is a factor that could be considered logical). Or even for some random, illogical reason (such as for whatever makes the most butterflies).

Also, who is the authority to make the decision about what is in the best interests of society?

Why is your assessment better than mine? Or why is mine better than yours? In fact, in a world of subjective morality, rather than objective morality, why should any person be forced to accept the view of others on any issue?

I’m not saying that atheists do not have a sense or morality. But if there is no God, then they are only moral by their standards. They are not actually moral by any objective standards and neither is anyone else. And if all standards are subjective, then all are good or bad, not based on any truth, but only on the view of the beholder. That means any action can be good or bad at the same time.

So while you might argue that the Bedouin practice of moving in formation of old women, young girls, wives, sheep, young men and then male tribal elders to ensure that the least important are killed first if landmines are encountered is an evil, wrong practice because women are not less important than sheep, the elder might argue in return that they are less important because sheep are part of the tribe’s wealth and it is in the best interests of all the tribe that the wealth is preserved.

In a subjective world, wouldn’t both of you be right? And wrong at the same time?

More importantly, in a subjective world, what does it really matter? In 80 years both sides of the argument will be dead, it will be gone and of no consequence to anyone. So in the long view, whatever decision is made is meaningless, it has no impact on good or bad, except for what counted at the time of the decision and the whim of the decision maker.

I believe in objective reality. Subjective reality means that there is no good, no evil and no justice.

That clearly does not match the world we live in.

What are your thoughts?

Author: Bernard Gaynor

Bernard Gaynor is a married father of nine children. He has a background in military intelligence, Arabic language and culture and is an outspoken advocate of conservative and family values.

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  1. if a being Roxee knew beyond doubt was the God of all creation personally asked her to sacrifice her son, and she knowing her son was miraculously conceived through his intervention, also knowing that he was willing to be sacrificed and knowing further that better things awaited him, she may not be as confident of her reply as she claims in her post. Surely it requires placing oneself in Abraham’s position, with his knowledge, before one deciding how one would answer the request?

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    • That is true Phil, as you said, ” it requires placing oneself in Abraham’s position, with his knowledge, before one deciding how one would answer the request”. His knowledge and faith are the key in what he chose to do. he passed the test and will be eternally blessed.

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  2. An interesting discussion.
    I guess, but correct me if i’m wrong, that whichever text a religious person receives their morality from it is those objective moral dictates revealed by the god written about within the given text that they are asserting are the objective morals humans should abide.

    So, for me, I look at what these texts teach as morality. That is, whatever the god of a particular text is saying we should do as morally right and whatever god says we shouldn’t do as morally wrong.

    I don’t think I need to discuss each moral dictate contained within the texts here because if it is accepted that if only one is found to be flawed then we have accepted that the morality humans share is subjectively derived, not objectively.

    I am going to use the Bible to illustrate my view, but I also think the same, or similar is true of the other religious texts. For me there are many glaring examples that I find morally wrong in the bible, yet the god of the bible apparently does not.

    The first relates to Abraham. 
    Genesis 22: 
    9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
    10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

    My question here is: was it morally right that god test Abraham by asking him to kill his son? If god is objectively moral then the answer is yes. Would I ever test someones loyalty by asking someone to kill their son? No. My subjective moral opinion is that it would be morally wrong to do so. I suspect most other humans I know would agree with me. What I also find morally wrong is that the text reveals Abraham agreed to killl his son as instructed by god. Would I kill my son if a supernatural entity asked it of me? No. My subjective moral opinion is that it would be morally wrong to kill my son. I suspect most other humans I know would agree with me.

    What I find troubling is that when I pose these questions to devout christians too many say that if the god they believe in communicated to them that they should kill their son they would obey. When I ask why I get various replies: some say they trust their god knows what he’s doing, that he wouldn’t ask if he didn’t have a reason, that his ways are mysterious, etc. 
    If this is an example of how people who believe that morality is objective and that the source of that objective morality is the god they believe in then I can’t, won’t, obey him. I won’t obey him because I judge his request to be subjectively immoral. 

    There are other conflicts my morality has with the morality in the bible. Slavery is another example. Another discussion perhaps.

    Where does my subjective morality come from? I don’t know. Given, I suspect, most people wouldn’t kill their sons if asked to by a supernatural entity I think it likely there’s an evolutionary explanation although none has been definitively revealed yet. We do know, however, that we are not the only species on earth to exhibit empathy, compassion, and reciprocity, so it may be likely we’ll find out one day.

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    • You’ve removed Genesis 22.9 entirely from its correct context. Isaac is a ‘type’ of Our Saviour Jesus Christ. It’s wrong to take a passage from Scripture with a very basic and fundamental understanding of it and attempt to use it as a weapon against Christian faith. In makes you look silly, at least in the eyes of those who have an understanding of scripture that is superior to yours.

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    • Hi Roxy, just a few thoughts for you in considering the account of Abraham and Isaac. A major part od that story is about faith. let me explain as I have given this a lot of thought to try to understand it. It was not a simple case of “Abraham, kill your son” and Abraham saying, “ok God, whatever you say”. If you look at the record of Abrahams life, a few important points stand out. Abrahams wife Sarah could not have children. You may recall that in their old age, Abraham and Sarah were promised a baby. That baby was, of course, Isaac. Abraham was promised specific things about Isaac. He was promised in Genesis 17:19 that “Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed (descendants) after him.” This tells us that God had promised Abraham that Isaac would have children. At the time Abraham took Isaac to kill him, there is no record that Isaac had had children. Abraham would have had faith in that promise. But now God had commanded Abraham to offer up his son as a sacrifice. Abraham, no doubt would have thought why? God had promised posterity through Isaac, why would He command him to offer up his son? The commandment and promise obviously contradicted. To illustrate a greater principle involved I will relate to you a part of a movie I watched recently called freedom writers. In the movie there was a teenager called Eva. As part of initiation into a gang, they beat her up. Why? So that she would be tough if taken by a rival gang and not betray her gang. In a similar way, God was testing Abraham to see if Abraham would do all that God would ask of him. God would not have let Abraham do it, It was an opportunity for Abraham to show the strength of his belief and faith in God. God knew that Abraham was up to the challenge because He has a perfect knowledge. Abraham also must have suspected that God would not allow him to go through with it because that would make God a liar because of the promise God made and also, there is a commandment, thou shalt not kill so what was asked of Abraham was inconsistent with what he had learned and been promised. Now since the time of Abraham, has any other parent been asked of God to sacrifice their child? I am not aware of any. It was a commandment just for Abraham but one that was given to him and recorded for us to teach him and us some very important principles. Abraham probably did not know why, but I am certain afterwards, he understood. So to the question of morality, was it moral to prove Abraham to see if he would comply with whatever God asked him? It would have been a growing experience for him, it showed God that Abraham loved Him more than himself. So yes it was moral as it taught him and us some great principles and afterall, we are creations of God, He can ask us to do whatever he will but he will not let us do something that violates his commandments. Sometimes it seems He might ask us to do something that violates His commandments, but there is always a logic and in context, is quite acceptable. For example, if someone wants to kill us, we can use force up to the point of taking that persons life if necessary to protect ourselves. One day, after this life when we will understand and see the wisdom of what God has said and asked of us. Sometimes it takes faith but without faith it is impossible to please Him. You will understand one day Roxee too. But until the time you do, have faith. Have faith that God is righteous, that there is a divine purpose behind everything he asks of us. I don’t understand everything but I know God has reasons that, if i understood them, I would agree with him as everything He does is based on truth. have faith Roxee.

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  3. Unquestionably it is a very common phrase of modern intellectualism to say that the morality of one age can be entirely different to the morality of another. And like a great many other phrases of modern intellectualism, it means literally nothing at all. If the two moralities are entirely different, why do you call them both moralities? It is as if a man said, “Camels in various places are totally diverse; some have six legs, some have none, some have scales, some have feathers, some have horns, some have wings, some are green, some are triangular. There is no point which they have in common.”…Of course, there is a permanent substance of morality, as much as there is a permanent substance of art; to say that is only to say that morality is morality and art is art. -Gk Chesteron

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  4. “The modern habit of saying “This is my opinion, but I may be wrong” is entirely irrational. If I say that it may be wrong, I say that is not my opinion. The modern habit of saying “Every man has a different philosophy; this is my philosophy and it suits me” – the habit of saying this is mere weak-mindedness. A cosmic philosophy is not constructed to fit a man; a cosmic philosophy is constructed to fit a cosmos. A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon.”
    ― G.K. Chesterton

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  5. But Bernard, your choice of objective reality is itself subjective. You’d be singing a different tune if you’d been born in Riyadh.

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    • I assume you mean muslims, well they have objective morals too. They don’t change because some of the people don’t like them. they don’t change on a whim as in subjective morality.

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  6. Even the morality dictated by a higher power via a religion is itself subjective. It is subjective in the sense that it is defined by an entity and interpreted by people, and not by intrinsic (built-in) knowledge. That is to say, if morality was objective, we would not need to learn it. The idea of cleanly delineated concepts of good and evil is a nice idea, but in reality it doesn’t exist. The closest we have is morality agreed upon, but that isn’t objective because where there is agreement there is also disagreement. The exception is unanimous agreement, but that is impossible to judge for the entirety of the human race, and of course those yet to be born, and those already gone, can’t be asked. Objective morality based on morality agreed upon would require a unanimous agreement amongst an infinite set of people, which can and will never happen. The idea of objective morality in religion presupposes that all members of a religion understand the morality that is taught in precisely the same way as every other member, which of course will never happen. Good and evil are tough concepts to define, because they define each other. That is to say, if you don’t know what good is, you can’t define what evil is, and vice versa.

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    • Words are all very well but we confuse ourselves with all this talk of objective and subjective morality. You say the idea of clearly delineated concepts of good and evil are a nice idea but in reality do not exist. I disagree. They do exist and they help us to deal with the consequences of ours and others actions every day of our lives.

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    • I don’t appreciate this argument at all. Morality dictated by God is intrinsic and we don’t need to learn it. What we need to do is accept it and for most people today, wounded by relativism, that’s a big ask. The idea of morality agreed upon is silly. We all know intrinsically that murder is wrong, for example, even if we are unable to express why. We don’t need to agree upon it to make it wrong. Finally good and evil are not tough concepts to define? Children, for example grasp them at a relatively young age.

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      • Isn’t this funny? Have you ever noticed how only religious people claim their morality to be objective? I happen to share some morals found in christianity. Yet, I don’t claim them to be objective morals. I know in the minds of some people, what I consider right and wrong, and what christians consider right and wrong, are not what they consider right and wrong. I will always do my best to justify my morals if I’m asked, but to claim something is objectively right or wrong is pure laziness. It doesn’t attempt to answer the why, and is much like saying, “because I said so,” “because I want to,” or “because I can.” All the kinds of reasoning and more that some religious people complain about on a regular basis. It’s easy to claim your set of morals is objective, the challenge is knowing your morals are subjective and will be questioned.

      • Well subjective morals are subject to change aren’t they? Subjective morals are of the ‘go with the flow’ type where morals can change on a whim. Subjective morals can change due to personal bias or even seemingly illogical reasons. Christian morals are objective because Christian morals are not influenced by personal feelings and biases. Christian morals are true whether you believe them or not. That is objective reality. In subjective reality there is really no right or wrong. It just comes down to what a person thinks as in Bernards bedouin example. In a subjective world, my opinion is correct even if it is not what you think. In an objective world, my opinion is right or wrong based upon a given set of morals. It is true that sometimes we can’t see the reasons why in terms of Christian morals but often by going against them, we learn why. For example, fornication is wrong but we have learnt why as in the consequences that have followed such as venereal diseases, unwanted pregnancies, abortion and fatherless children just to name a few. Even though a Christian moral seems silly or even illogical at times, there are very good reasons for them. Objective morals can certainly be questioned, no law against it but they are objective and not subject to change. Subjective morals will always change.

  7. The quest for objective Truth also necessitates recognising the One, True Church from Protestant and Jewish lies.

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    • The true church? Not sure how “objective truth” ties into it. Nothing objective about faith!

      In the mind of the beholder I’m afraid.

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      • Catholic: Jesus Christ is God
        Jew: Jesus Christ is not God

        Catholic: The Blessed Virgin Mary is the Mother of God
        Jew: Mary is not a perpetual virgin, and is not the Mother of God

        Catholic: What God has joined in Holy Matrimony, no man (not even the Pope) can cast asunder
        Protestant: Divorce is OK – because Henry VIII said so!

        Catholic: There is no salvation outside the Catholic Church
        Protestant: There is salvation outside the Catholic Church

        Who’s telling the truth?

      • Rory, In the instances you suggested – none is telling the truth! The sooner you get over this heretical notion that God is One the better.

      • Can Protestants be saved? Well they are baptised and we recognise their baptism. “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” To my mind Protestants are members of The Church but not in communion with it. What that means I’m not sure and I wouldn’t care to judge. That is Our Lord’s jurisdiction.

      • From the Baltimore Catechism

        Q. 509. Are all bound to belong to the Catholic Church?

        A. All are bound to belong to the Church, and he who knows the Church to be the true Church and remains out of it cannot be saved.
        Q. 513. Why must the true Church be visible?

        A. The true Church must be visible because its founder, Jesus Christ, commanded us under pain of condemnation to hear the Church; and He could not in justice command us to hear a Church that could not be seen and known.

        Q. 514. What excuses do some give for not becoming members of the true Church?

        A. The excuses some give for not becoming members of the true church are:
        1. They do not wish to leave the religion in which they were born.
        2. There are too many poor and ignorant people in the Catholic Church.
        3. One religion is as good as another if we try to serve God in it, and be upright and honest in our lives.

        Q. 515. How do you answer such excuses?

        1. To say that we should remain in a false religion because we were born in it is as untrue as to say we should not heal our bodily diseases because we were born with them.
        2. To say there are too many poor and ignorant in the Catholic Church is to declare that it is Christ’s Church; for He always taught the poor and ignorant and instructed His Church to continue the work.
        3. To say that one religion is as good as another is to assert that Christ labored uselessly and taught falsely; for He came to abolish the old religion and found the new in which alone we can be saved as He Himself declared.

        Q. 516. Why can there be only one true religion?

        A. There can be only one true religion, because a thing cannot be false and true at the same time, and, therefore, all religions that contradict the teaching of the true Church must teach falsehood. If all religions in which men seek to serve God are equally good and true, why did Christ disturb the Jewish religion and the Apostles condemn heretics?

      • Your reply doesn’t address my point, Rory. There is only one Church established by Our Lord Jesus Christ, not many. Admission to that one Church is gained by the Sacrament of Baptism. The Catholic Church acknowledges one baptism and accepts the validity of Protestant baptism. Protestants are by virtue of their baptism members of the Catholic Church whether they realise it or not. That they are not in communion with Rome and that they lack the fullness of faith is not in dispute. But if their baptism is valid then they are members of The Church and can surely be saved. That, however, is as I said beyond this life and in the jurisdiction of Our Lord.

      • Your question is a good one and, in my opinion, the most important question that there is facing us in a gospel sense and that is, which is the true church? If you are a Christian, naturally, the jewish religion, muslims and all eastern religions are not correct but even they have some truth. Protestant and catholic beliefs are based on the nicene creed and even then in that council there was a lot of confusion and heated debate over what the Gospel of Jesus Christ actually was. Was baptism by immersion or was it by sprinkling? Was God a spirit or did He have a body? These are just examples of issues that have caused confusion over the centuries. Other issues such as have the scriptures been properly translated from the original records? (I don’t believe so) The dead sea scrolls for example contained the Isaiah scroll, dated at about 200 – 300 years BC. Have differences been detected and if so do they contradict current teachings? Even then, that scroll was written hundreds of years after Isaiah lived, did the Isaiah scroll contain errors in comparison to the original? But back to the question, which is the true church? Can they all be right even though they teach different things? Would Jesus want incorrect teachings taught to us, the children of God? I think there has to be a true church but it is up to us to find it. I know there is a God and that Jesus Christ came to deliver us from our sins and enable us to be with our God one day. We need to do our best to find the truth and live it.

  8. Interesting subjects, to cover Bernard.

    I suppose the problem in engaging an “Atheist” in debate is the temptation to revert to a position of divine “Gratonomy” whereby all theological extrapolations start to bind themselves into enigmas and certainty starts to dissolve (at least in the mind of the teleological!).

    The divine, and its revelation to Man, can only be viewed via the prism of Faith itself, and the “Faithless” can only perceive it through their innate negativity.

    For example, evolutionary psychology is a recent pseudo-scientific approach to human psychology that shares a startling number of parallels with Nazism, Communism and the eroded soul of what passes for Western Democracy.

    Thought (by some) to have been originally developed by Satan after the Fall, evolutionary psychology proceeds from the heinous claim that the universe operates as a closed, natural system, to the mind-bogglingly absurd idea that natural processes could have some bearing upon an organism’s psychology and behaviour. At variance with the hypothesis accepted by the wider scientific community that human beings were made out of clay by a ghost six thousand years ago. And rejected by all Christians.

    There is mounting evidence that evolutionary psychology may be an innate urge built-in to the brains of all human beings. It would have met the need, in our cave-dwelling ancestors, for an spurious position of authority to retreat to in the attempt to justify their most comfortable habits, thus imparting a genetic advantage of some kind yet to be made up.

    To an atheist, the position provides only doubt, but to the Faithful, only certainty in Belief itself.

    Anyway, a fine start at unravelling the mysteries that still fuse the non-believer, the believer and the Universe.

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