If we don’t have an objective account of morality we are doomed to be unable to condemn anything at all, no matter how horrible an act is. Accepting morality is subjective means conceding that even genocide, rape and murder are not really wrong so those who say morality is subjective must consent to any act by others.
Luckily for us no matter how many times you hear arguments like the one above it doesn’t make them sound. Hidden in the claim that without objective morality we would have no good reason to interfere in the acts of others is a claim that we “ought not interfere in the subjective moral decisions of others.” However, this conclusion is unwarranted.
The reasoning behind such an argument seems to go something like this:
- People who think morality is subjective don’t think there are objective answers to moral questions.
- Person X thinks morality is subjective.
- Therefore Person X must consent to all acts of others including those Person X thinks are wrong.
Despite what may be a strong intuition to the contrary the conclusion just doesn’t follow from the premises. There is no reason why I can’t object, with physical force if necessary, to the actions of others I disagree with nor is there a reason accepting morality as subjective must inherently mean a consent to heinous acts. It just doesn’t follow that if I don’t accept an objective account of morality I must dispense with my own subjective view of morality or that I ought never attempt to engage in moral persuasion. So I have a disagreement with Stewie over the morality of killing his mother. How exactly does this imply that I ought to let him do whatever he wants? The appeal seems to be “well if morality is subjective then the gruesome acts aren’t really wrong and morality is just a matter of opinion” but even if that were true it still doesn’t follow that I shouldn’t try to prevent outcomes I despise.
I don’t like rotten meat but despite the objective negative effects rotten meat can have on my health my dislike of rotten meat is a subjective preference. To be consistent those claiming subjective values give no basis for taking action against others would have to say because my taste is subjective I have no sound basis for refusing to eat rotten meat or refusing to allow others to be force-fed rotten meat. In a rush to belittle subjective morality they have ignored the strong statistical overlap in human morality, which is biologically inherent, like our general preference for pleasure over pain. Humans from all cultures have a great many shared values and it is these shared values that one must appeal to in moral persuasion (and that I do when I suggest others shouldn’t eat rotten meat). Even if morality had turned out to be objective it would still be through an appeal to shared subjective values that anyone was convinced to adopt that objective account. From a subjective point of view I can still point out inconsistencies and hypocrisies in different moral claims, the only thing I can’t do is declare someone’s values to be objectively wrong. But again the use of declaring someone’s values objectively wrong would still be tied to subjective values about aligning one’s morals with the objective values.
So no, I can’t make definitive proclamations about what is right independent of what anyone thinks about morality but what value would that possess even if it was possible? I don’t even know what it means to speak of moral truth divorced of what anyone thinks. In fact, I think such an idea is useless. In the ultimate demonstration of the futility of arguing for morality independent of subjective views Kant once said it would be “better the whole people should perish” than injustice be done. To that, and all other theories about morality not based on our subjective preferences, I ask better for whom? To recognize that the rules of morality are useful only insofar as they fulfill our subjective desires is to realize the downside of subjective morality has been greatly exaggerated.