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Samuel Thorpe

The Foundation of Morality: Is Morality Subjective or Objective?

Morality must be objectively derived because (1) the concepts of good and morality exist; (2) cultures differ regarding certain moral actions, thus there is the need to discover which is right but cultures are similar regarding the existence of and need for morality; (3) relativism is not logical and does not work, (4) for moral principles to be legitimate and consistent, they must be derived external to human societies. Otherwise morality is merely one person's choice or feeling, not an understanding of truth; and (5) the existence of religion. People recognize a moral aspect to the worship of deity; even if the deity does not exist, we still perceive a need for morality to be decreed by Someone or something greater than humanity.

1. First, the concepts of good and morality exist. The very existence of the idea of good argues for something in human society that is different than the bunnies and the wolves. "Nature" is amoral; the bunnies do not protest the fact that wolves eat them. There is no notion, outside of Bambi, that the animals consider some of themselves good and some bad. Thus, the nature of humanity is somehow different than other creatures. Somehow we know that certain principles and actions are "good" and acceptable, rather than simply necessary for existence. We contemplate the abstract thought of moral principle itself, and the universality of such an idea. All human cultures do not have exactly the same moral codes, but all cultures have a moral code. This concept of the nature of humanity argues for a code of morality that fits all people; we seek it, we believe it, we feel that we need it.

Second, cultures differ regarding certain moral actions but all cultures recognize similarly that morality exists. Human cultures do not always value the same moral actions. One culture may value theft, as in some of the American Indian tribes of the plains, particularly against enemies. Such action showed bravery and skill in battle. Another culture might abhor the idea that one person should be allowed to steal from another, and the value here is the sanctity of private property, as in the Western industrial countries. When differences occur, the question arises as to what moral idea produces the right action. Somewhere in the history of human cultural interaction, these two values will collide. They can not both be right. What is the truly moral idea? Hence there is a need for an objective criterion, again one that transcends either culture, rather than simply be a preference of one culture over another.

Human cultures do tend to agree about some moral ideas, such as murder of one's own people, cruelty (except against enemies), rape, and other violent actions which force one person's will upon another. The fact that there is agreement seems to indicate a common source of moral conscience, a standard to which all humans attempt to adhere. C.S. Lewis called this idea the "Moral Law" or a natural law of morality [1], an idea similar to Immanuel Kant's "Law of Nature" idea. Kant grounds his concept in an a priori purely practical human reason, which Lewis identifies in the imago Dei within human nature. Kant's categorical imperative insists that morality is based on valid impersonal principles, in the intrinsic worth of right itself, upon which humans should act. "To duty every other motive must give place, because duty is the condition of a will good in itself, whose worth transcends everything" [2].These principles acted upon rationally would then bring harmony and order to human social interaction. Any fully rational person would necessarily recognize the good and act according to the imperatives [3]. Kant insists that the point of morality is the principle not the frailty or inconsistencies of human nature [4].

The conflict between the Protagorean Sophists and Plato points out the ancient history of the subjective-objective battle. The Protagorean notion, advocated by modern scholars such as Ruth Benedict, Melville Herskovits, Sir Edward Tylor, and others [5], was that ethics are simply convention, since different societies behave in different ways. "Although some conventions may be more effective than others, what matters most is not their precise content but the fact that they are shared and adhered to" [6]. The logical effect of such an idea, however, emerged quickly, i.e. that one can challenge any or all conventions and propose casting away all restraints, individual egoism, the moral survival of the fittest. Gautier's notion that it is in the "enlightened self-interest" of the egoist to cooperate with society and act morally [7] belies the problems, first of the source of an egoist self-control to cooperate with values he doesn't accept, and second of the possible existence of an absolute moral value. Other thinkers, such as Glaucon in Plato's Republic, then suggest that society requires some kind of conventions in order to function [8]. But this notion requires the awareness that humans must have some kind of restraints or we will likely destroy ourselves. Why is this so? Social Darwinism proposes that humans are like all animals, and the strongest achieve their personal ends. Might makes right. If this notion were the case, humans would not be aware of ideas like equality, fairness, discrimination, injustice, oppression, and the like. We would just live or die, like the bunnies and the wolves, because that's just the way things are. No one would propose alternatives. Some Eastern thinkers believe that chaotic moral behavior results from disharmony in the functioning of the universe. But what makes a person violate the harmony? What forces create disharmony that makes one malfunction? The Christian philosophical answer is that human sin is the problem, the reason people act to harm themselves and others. God's laws provide the constraint that allows societies to function and good to happen in the world.

Richard Taylor believes that people can be "good" without God, or any divinely-given external standard. He indicates that people know "there are reasons for not stealing, there are reasons for not assaulting, there are reasons for not lying. These things hurt people" [9]. However, if there is no standard, why does pain matter? Bunnies suffer pain when eaten, but that's just the way things are in nature. If there is no umbrella of moral standard, why do we not just accept that the strongest, "fittest," will survive, whether by force or guile or whatever is necessary? Just because someone hurts does not make an action immoral. The same logic applies to Taylor's contention that morality is mere convention, neither natural nor supernatural [10]. When in Rome, do as the Romans. One support Taylor uses to bolster his argument is Aristotle's assumption that people can discern right from wrong. But that notion sounds more like Lewis' description of the Moral Law, built into humans from a divine source, rather than support for cultural convention.

Again Taylor points to the "ancient Greeks" for support of moral convention by saying that ethics has a natural basis: human need, i.e. things we all hate and needs for security, safety, love, et. al. But from where do these recognized needs come? Who says they are needs, rather than preferences? Without an external standard that directs our attention to what is good and evil, what actions humans should expect from each other, and what rules should be used in society to restrict evil behavior, we have nothing consistent to appeal to. Hitler cannot be condemned if his cultural convention dictates annihilation of Jews, if we only appeal to one human's or one culture's choice over another's. Who's to say that one group's convention is better or worse than another's, and upon what basis can we say it? Taylor says "all you need is to be human," one doesn't need a morality revealed by deity, to treat other people rightly. This perspective supports a holocaust. Historically we have not seen human beings respond as Taylor expects. We have been brutal, cruel, vicious, and destructive, regardless of our creeds, conventions, or customs.

William Craig believes that naturalism does not provide a sound basis for morality. "If naturalism is true, objective right and wrong do not exist" [11], to which Taylor agreed. As well, Craig says that without God there is no objective right or wrong. If naturalism is right, then we cannot condemn war, oppression, or crime. Some actions may not be socially advantageous, but cannot be called crime or wrong. Craig argues that Taylor, and naturalism, define morality as social skill, but such skill can develop cruelty as well as kindness. With Taylor's naturalism, "no one is morally obliged to be virtuous." Nietzsche's Ubermann defines his own virtue but becomes self-centered, elitist, and cold-hearted, which Taylor condemns [12], Plato's philosopher-king reflects a similar non-egalitarian preference for one type of human over another. Equality of worth and value of life do not logically emerge from naturalism, for humans or bunnies.

Third, relativism is not logical and does not work. Subjective morality adheres to or can be defined as relativistic ethics [13]. Relativism, on the surface, sounds attractive to many people, especially Western culture because of our traditional value of individualism. Make your own way; take care of number one; pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. There are many aphorisms to be found in Western literature that promote the supremacy of the individual. Thus when one philosophy promulgates a morality of personal choices, a smorgasbord of opportunities, individualism rejoices. Relativistic morality allows that each person make his/her own choices of behaviors, based on what the person believes to be best for him/her. Do what you like, or what feels good to you. There is no external authority to dictate one's behavior. But "relativism contradicts the law of non-contradiction where two opposites cannot both be true" [14]. Truth essentially functions, by definition, as the excluder of the false. "Each truth claim excludes any claims that are contradictory to it" and therefore one view, say the Christian theist view that morality is God-given and absolute, is no more "narrow" than its opposite, the atheist's view that there is no God [15].

On the one hand, there are external authorities that dictate some behavior, such as the system of laws in a country, enforced by police and courts. If relativism is true, then why the need for authorities at all? Won't people, out of their natural goodness and recognition of the freedoms and needs of others, withhold destructive behaviors for the sake of the society? That has never been the historical case. Well then, we need the authorities only for those actions that hurt people. Why? Pure relativism can have no such restriction. And even if it does need restrictions, why select the ones we do? How does a society identify innocence or guilt? What would be "wrong" with eliminating groups of people who bring emotional or economic or political pain to the rest of the culture? Why do we call it persecution or oppression rather than necessary cultural cleansing or protective elimination?

On the other hand, relativism does not work. Somewhere in the course of human affairs, people who have chosen conflicting values will collide. Who, then, gets to behave the way they want to? There must be some resolution which, without discriminating laws or authorities, can only lead to "might makes right." A Nietzschean superman, the one with the power, gets his/her way. Perhaps even the majority will get the right. In any case, it cannot be that everyone will be able to choose his/her own way of living. There will always be restrictions, conflicts, authorities, something that allows one mode of behavior and restricts another mode. "The idea of values being subjective is a denial of the need or possibility of morality. Since morality is subjective, and right and wrong are not real, it makes no sense to judge others... [thus] justice is impossible" [16].

Fourth, legitimate moral principles must be derived external to human preference. The consequences of subjective morality are destructive to a society and individuals. Values become subjectively determined based primarily on feelings and desires. "It means there is no such thing as good or evil... it is not, and cannot be, a statement about reality" [17]. As some thinkers assign morality to cultural conventionality and insist that all cultures' codes be tolerated or respected, a question arises. Though differing cultures exercise various moral behaviors, are there any which function relatively? The answer is negative and the argument is specious. Just because societies differ, does not mean that there is no absolute moral value. One cannot combine several different moral systems into one completely relative one. Each of the different societies has one system, not any of them have a relative one. This may seem a pragmatic response but the fact implies the question of the existence of absolute moral values. Logically then, moral relativism fails. "Subjectivism seems to boil down to anarchistic individualism, and conventionalism fails to deal adequately with the problems of the reformer, the question of defining a culture, and the whole enterprise of moral criticism" [18].

Plato, however, is one of the strong supporters of objective morality (see Book 6: The Republic). The eternal forms are not changeable, a fixed external standard that applies to everyone [19]. Aquinas' morality is "grounded in principles that are fixed in nature,... discernible through reason" and were planted in nature by God as a reflection of His character and Being. "All human laws are judged in reference to these" [20]. Some scholars think that, in naturalism, emotions are simply motivators connected with the needs of the being, and these needs provoke the emotions, and thus the being acts [21]. All well and good if we think only humans are involved, but the bunnies have no such motivators, and why would humans have them if we are simply advanced beings in the food chain? Christian ethics, as well as most religious philosophies, recognizes the "reality of moral virtues" as well as the mandate that humans should be morally virtuous according to an objective, external pattern.

No one person can be sure that his personal preference of morals is the correct one. In fact, no humanly-derived system of morality can be certain of truth and right. We do tend to make errors in judgment and discernment. The charge that transcendence can interact with material need not, indeed cannot, be explained in empirical terms if such an interaction has occurred is arbitrary. But non-explanation does not mean the contact hasn't been made. The force which motivates the objectivist is that truth and right must be done; the transcendent standard commands and requires it, whether there be sanctions against those who disobey or rewards for the obedient. Human nature recognizes a need to be moral and good; if the standard points the way and insists by its very existence that humans are bound by its tenets, then resistance to the standard brings negative sanctions whereas obedience produces social and personal well-being. Kant declares that:

... unless we wish to deny all truth to the concept of morality and renounce its application to any possible object, we cannot refuse to admit that the law of this concept [reason which determines a priori the will to duty] is of such broad significance that it... must be valid with absolute necessity and not merely under contingent conditions and with exceptions [22].

Kant's ideas criticize the subjectivists concerns about limitations and restrictions of an objective standard by indicating that such concerns reveal the "imperfectly rational being," one who only feels constrained by commands which are necessary manifestations of the principles rather than imposition on an unwilling being who can individually decide which actions they should take [23]. Kant declares that truth and right does exist objectively.

5. Finally, the very existence of religion provokes a strong argument for the existence of objective morality. Why would humans "invent" such religious notions? Simply because natural events, such as storms, or natural objects, like the sun or moon, exist and have influence on earthly life? Humans recognize that there is something, or Someone, more powerful, bigger, eternal, and exerts control over human life. If there was not such recognition, there would be no reason to do anything but seek shelter in storms and perhaps feel the heat of the sun. Why would one environmental element be considered more important than another? Yet human seem constrained to worship something, to submit to greater power, to conceive of an eternal, supernatural Being, and conceive of this Being in certain ways. "The belief that morality requires God is not limited to theists, however. Many atheists subscribe to it as well" [24]. Besides the conception we have exhibited similar notions of how this Being must be approached, satisfied, and obeyed. The ideas of living after death, the necessity for redemption or absolution of personal sin, sacrifice, and prayer would be wholly unnecessary and unthinkable if humans lived like bunnies and wolves, like naturalism implies. Somehow we practice religion because somehow we know there is something or Someone else, greater than we, to whom we owe allegiance and obedience. It is not enough to say that we simply wonder how we came to be and invented deity to meet our needs for meaning. Why would we even recognize such a need? How is it that we have sentience at all, beyond the kind animals possess?

Plato asserted the objectivity of values, through his notions of the forms [25]. Goodness itself exists in distinction to good things [26]. Goodness is perfect, while our good actions change and are not consistently good, or perceived as good. But the idea, the Form, of Good persists in our knowledge and awareness. Christian philosophy identifies this inherent knowledge with the imago Dei, the built-in recognition of the essential goodness of God. Cudworth, one of Cambridge Platonists, asserted that "... human minds contain the imprint of Divine wisdom and knowledge" [27]. The strongest arguments then, the ones which provide the most logical and practicable aspects, conclude that human common sense and experience recognize the existence and superiority of the idea of objective morality over the weaknesses of subjectivism.


1. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1984), pp. 21-26.

2. Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. by Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1959), p. 20.

3. Ibid.

4. Kant, pp. 24-25.

5. Stephen Satris, Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Moral Issues (Guilford, CT: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 2000), pp. 2-22.

6. Richard Norman, The Moral Philosophers: An Introduction to Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 7.

7. Tom Beauchamp, Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001), pp. 50-53.

8. Norman, p. 13.

9. William Lane Craig and Richard Taylor, "Is the Basis for Morality Natural or Supernatural?" (The Craig-Taylor Debate at Union College, New York, 8 October 1993).

10. Craig and Taylor.

11. Craig and Taylor.

12. Paul F. Johnson, "Antipodes: Plato, Nietzsche, and the Moral Dimension of Leadership" (17 July 2002).

13. Norman Geisler. Baker's Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), material used in an article "Relatively Speaking" in Nadiine's Eclectic Eden, 2001.

14. Geisler.

15. Geisler.

16. Jeff Landauer and Joseph Rowlands, "Subjective Value" in The Importance of Philosophy, 2001.

17. Landauer.

18. Louis Pojman in Satris, p. 22.

19. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP), "Moral Realism," 2001.

20. IEP.

21. Philosophical Psychology, Vol.11, No.4 (December, 1998). Abstract of article.

22. Kant, p. 24.

23. H.J. Paton, The Moral Law: Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1961), pp. 24-31.

24. Theodore Schick, Jr., "Morality Requires God... or Does It?" The Council for Secular Humanism, (17 July 2002). Article from Free Inquiry Magazine, Vol.17, No.3.

25. Classics Technology Center, "Plato's Republic" (AbleMedia, 17 July 2002).

26. Norman, p. 23.

27. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "The Cambridge Platonists" (17 July 2002).


Beauchamp, Tom L. Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Classics Technology Center. "Plato's Republic." AbleMedia. 17 July 2002.

Craig, William Lane and Richard Taylor. "Is the Basis of Morality Natural or Supernatural?" The Craig-Taylor Debate at Union College, New York. October 8, 1993.

Freed, Bruce. "Is Morality Subjective?" 17 July 2002.

Geisler, Norman. Material taken from Baker's Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, appears in an article in Nadiine's Eclectic Eden, 2001.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Moral Realism." 13 March 2002.

Johnson, Paul F. "Antipodes: Plato, Nietzsche, and the Moral Dimension of Leadership." 17 July 2002.

Kant, Immanuel. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1959.

Landauer, Jeff and Joseph Rowlands. "Subjective Value." The Importance of Philosophy. 2001.

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan, 1984.

Mackie, J.L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Norman, Richard. The Moral Philosophers: An Introduction to Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Paton, H.J. The Moral Law: Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1961.

Philosophical Psychology. Abstract of article in Volume 11, Number 4, December, 1998.

Plato. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Bollingen Series LXXI. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961.

Satris, Stephen. Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Moral Issues. Guilford, CT: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Schick, Theodore, Jr. "Morality Requires God... or Does It? The Council for Secular Humanism. 17 July 2002. Article from Free Inquiry Magazine, vol.17, number 3.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "The Cambridge Platonists." 17 July 2002.