I am sure that any atheist who has even skirted the theism/atheism debate has encountered what I will term here the “objective morality” argument. The argument has a couple of versions but the common thread is that morality that is subjective is of little or no value. There must be a moral law or moral law giver, an ultimate authority who invests morality with an unchanging solidity that subjective morality lacks. Theists view subjective morality as being akin to whim, being open to change at will. This sentiment is usually summed up in the inevitable Dostoevsky quote from his book The Brothers Karamazov “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”

The view of the theists that morality has its basis in objective reality or is at least divorced from human whim presents some very interesting questions and objections. Christians often use this argument for instance while dutifully ignoring the changing morality from the old testament to the new. One question of interest is;

“Why, if morality is objective does it seem to focus solely on humans?”

I think it is fair to say that every moral question that is posed and every moral law presented has to do with human action. I don’t believe anyone has every criticized a lion for killing a gazelle; “How immoral!!”
While it makes perfect sense that a morality invented by humans focuses solely on humans, it doesn’t follow that the same should apply to an objective morality. If killing is wrong, then it is wrong, it makes no sense that it be dependant on species.
Perhaps all lions are immoral, objectively speaking!

The most interesting question to me though must be

“Does morality source with God, or is moral law truly objective?”

If moral law is truly objective then God himself is subject to it. His murder of every living thing (bar a few lucky pairs and a presumably incestuous family) must be deemed immoral as it breaks the “thou shalt not murder” law. His orders of genocide don’t look too good by any light either. This would render God less than morally perfect and so I doubt the idea would find much traction in the theistic community.
My guess is, though I have never posed the question to a theist, is that most theists would be in favor of morality sourcing with God rather than being something truly objective which even God must be subject to. Incidentally, if any theists disagrees I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

If morality originates with God then it is subjective to God. This presents some problems of its own. Most obviously, any moral “laws” that God would invent are entirely arbitrary. For example, God merely chooses to make moral issues of what people do with their genitals. There is nothing objectively wrong with adultery or homosexuality or any of the other practices that God deems immoral as morality in this case is a subjective invention by God. He may have chosen to make the wearing of blue shoes a high moral crime. If the theist’s argument is to be accepted, the theist themselves must accept that anything God chooses to make moral/immoral would be automatically so. Were God to command all his worshippers to immediate bugger the nearest child in order to gain their salvation, that act would immediately become a righteous act and the price of being “saved”
The bible seems to show a changing morality too, something with violates many of God’s supposed properties, most notably his unchanging nature and all-goodness. More importantly though, it shows just how subjective and subject-to-change even the perfect morality of God is.
In conjunction with the objective morality argument is the idea that everyone has a moral sense implanted in them by God. This is the theist’s way of explaining how non-theists often act in good moral conscience. It presents some problems of its own though. Why is there ever disagreement about what is moral if we all already know what is moral and what is not? If God has magically informed us, there should be complete agreement. We would all “feel” the same way about every moral question. It also raises a question about free will. How free are we really if we come with pre-installed ideas about what is good and what is bad. Presumably the freedom comes in the liberty to do “bad” things. I wonder how often murders find murder morally objectionable but just go ahead and do it anyway as an exercise in free will.
Sociopaths simply don’t feel that many of the things we find “bad” are bad. They lack all empathy with the victims of such actions. They simply don’t get it.
This all fits perfectly with an evolutionary explanation of our moral sense, both biological evolution and the evolution of societies. Modern society simply could not exist if most people did not adhere to what we might call common morality most of the time. Biological reproduction is not perfect, in some cases the faculties most of us take for granted don’t work properly. Sociopaths for instance have a compromised sense of empathy with other people. Well either that or God forgot to include their moral sense!

There is a great irony though in the way in which most, if not all, Christians cherry pick the bible’s perfect morality. I doubt many Christian fathers these days would consider charging his daughter’s rapist 50 shekels and set up a marriage. Rather than embrace all the moral teachings in the bible, Christians pick and choose the moral teachings they agree with and quietly ignore the rest. Jesus even said that the old laws where to be upheld but I don’t see even devout Christians out stoning disrespectful children. What is ironic in this, is that Christians are applying the same subjective morality that the rest of live by in order to decide which parts of the bible are “good” and which are “bad” (though I doubt they see it that way) In essence they apply their subjective moral views to a text in order to determine what it says the objective morality is. While society at large may once have supported the idea of executing adulterers, modern societies (western democracies at least) no longer do. Rather than point to some Islamic countries where such practices still go on and say “That’s what we should be doing, just like it says in the bible” Christians instead find these practices just as barbaric as non-theists do.

They must also confront the problem that God is apparently unchanging. If that is so, then what was moral is moral and always will be moral. Aside from the host of contradictions this raises between the Old and New Testaments, it also means that it is still moral to kill someone for working on the Sabbath. By not executing your friend for putting in a little overtime you are guilty of immorality.

All of the evidence from human behavior, both the general and the exceptional and all the evidence provided by changing societal attitudes to moral issues seem to fit perfectly with a subjective, evolved morality.

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Very well written. You might have read it already, but I think Marc Hauser's "Moral Minds: How Nature Designed a Universal Sense of Right and Wrong" is a must-read if you're interested in the evolutionary origin of our moral sense.
Thanks Fabio, I've not read that. I'll look it up
I wrote this in an effort to help Objectivists understand that rights are not "natural" in the usual sense of the term; rights are human institutions, created for a purpose. Rights come from peace treaties. Rand made the distinction between "objective", "subjective", and "intrinsic" theories of ethics, but most Objectivists have failed to understand the distinction, and carry on as if rights were intrinsic. -JBH

August 21, 1998. Defining five terms. Rand used the term "objective"
differently than most philosophers.

Some definitions, from Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition.

OBJECTIVE: ... in the realm of sensible experience, independent of
individual thought and perceptible by all observers; having reality
independent of the mind.... perceptible to persons other than the
affected individual... OBJECTIVISM: an ethical theory that moral good
is objectively real or that moral precepts are objectively valid.

SUBJECTIVE: ... belonging to reality as perceived rather than as
independent of mind;... conditioned by personal mental characteristics
or states... arising out of or identified by means of one's perception
of one's own states and processes.. SUBJECTIVISM: a doctrine that the
supreme good is the realization of a subjective experience or
feeling... a doctrine that individual feeling is the ultimate criterion
of the good and the right.

ABSOLUTE: characteristic of a ruler or authority completely free of
constitutional or other restraints... having no restriction, exception,
or qualification... being self-sufficient and free of external
references or relationships...

RELATIVE: a thing having a relation or connection with or necessary
dependence on another thing... not absolute or independent...
RELATIVISM: (a) a theory that knowledge is relative to the limited
nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing... (b) a view that
ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them.

Notice that the two meanings of "relativism" differ in important ways.
The scientific method of seeking knowledge admits that its conclusions
are relative to, dependent on, the (objective) evidence gathered so
far, and may be changed by new evidence. In ethics, "relativism"
commonly refers to a particular view, "cultural relativism", that
ethics are a matter of (subjective) majority opinion.
These are two different uses of the word, which must be kept distinct.

"Objective" and "absolute" are not the same, "subjective" and
"relative" are not the same. Objective things can be relative,
subjective opinions can be held absolutely. (The fifth term I want to
define is INTRINSIC; see below.)

Notice also that "objectivism", as defined by the dictionary i.e. by
mainstream usage, has two alternative meanings- that moral good is
objectively real OR that moral precepts are objectively valid. The
point of this essay is that Rand did NOT lump these two together.

Where mainstream philosophers made a twofold distinction between
"objective" and "subjective" ethics, Rand made a threefold distinction
between "intrinsic", "objective", and "subjective". She said that the
good is objective, but she meant something different by it.

The primary text where she speaks of this is in the essay "What is
Capitalism?", reprinted in CAPITALISM: THE UNKNOWN IDEAL, pages 21-25.
(All quotes below are from that text.) Her presentation there must be
read keeping in mind that she believed she had solved the "is-ought"
problem pointed out by Hume. Particular phrases and sentences can be
quoted to support an "intrinsicist" view; I don't think she made the
distinction entirely clear. I shall be quoting selectively also.


The intrinsic theory holds that the good is inherent in certain
things or actions as such, regardless of their context or
consequences... it is a theory that divorces the concept of 'good'
from beneficiaries, and the concept of 'value' from valuer and
purpose- claiming that the good is good in, by, and of itself.

The intrinsic theory holds that the good resides in some sort of
reality, independent of man's consciousness...

The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of
'things in themselves' nor of man's emotional states, but an
evaluation of the facts of reality by man's consciousness... The
objective theory holds that the good is an aspect of reality in
relation to man... Fundamental... is the question: Of value to whom
and for what? An objective theory does not permit... the separation of
'value' from 'purpose'....

Since values are to be discovered by man's mind, men must be free to
... judge them, and to choose, be it material goods or ideas... Since
values are established contextually, every man must judge for himself,
in the context of his own knowledge, goals, and interests.

END QUOTES from that source.

One more, from PHILOSOPHY: WHO NEEDS IT, "From the Horse's Mouth":
"Material objects as such have neither value nor disvalue; they
acquire value-significance only in regard to a living being-
particularly, in regard to serving or hindering man's goals."

So: Looking again at the definitions from the dictionary, when a
mainstream philosopher says (or hears a claim) that "moral good is
objectively real", they understand it to be a claim that the good is
"in the realm of sensible experience, independent of individual thought
and perceptible by all observers; having reality independent of the
mind...." In other words, what they meant by "objective", Rand would
call "intrinsic". What she meant by "objective", they had no ready
word for. This difference in terminology can be dramatic, and can lead
to serious misunderstanding.

For example, the Australian philosopher John L. Mackie wrote a book,
ETHICS: INVENTING RIGHT AND WRONG. His first sentence is "There are no
objective values." Most Objectivists would quit reading at that point,
but if you read the first half of the book, you find that what he is
arguing is that there are no intrinsic values, in Rand's terminology.
If you read the second half of the book, you find that he is an

Mainstream terminology sets up a false dichotomy; Rand carved out a
third alternative. Mainstream philosophers would say that an
"objective" good would necessarily be ABSOLUTE, by the definition
given above: "having no restriction, exception, or qualification...
being self-sufficient and free of external references or
relationships..."; Rand would say that things have value because
people value them, that everything "good" is good TO somebody FOR
something, and that "goodness" is RELATIVE to an individuals' goals.
Further, because she says that every individual must choose their own
goals, by mainstream terminology, her theory of the good would be
SUBJECTIVE: "belonging to reality as perceived rather than as
independent of mind... conditioned by personal mental characteristics
or states... arising out of or identified by means of one's perception
of one's own states and processes..."

By the SECOND of the two dictionary definitions of "objectivism", that
"moral precepts are objectively valid", then Rand's ethical system
would be objective by mainstream terminology. Rand's system, as I
understand it, consists entirely, repeat, entirely, of hypothetical
oughts: "If you want X, then you ought to do Y." Further, since the
goal of her system is objectively measurable, her system is a set of
claims about causal relationships that are objectively true or false.

It is for this reason that I explain what I understand to be Rand's
view by saying that "Ethics is engineering. It is NOT a science, in
that it is not discovering a unique "correct" ethical system that
exists in nature independently of human choice. Likewise ethics is not
art, in that it is not simply an expression of our emotions and
ideals. Engineering has elements of both science and art, but it is
distinct from each." I believe this way of explaining it makes the
distinction she intended, between intrinsic, objective, and
subjective, without the confusions caused by nonstandard terminology.
It seems to me that, if you choose not to look to God for a moral standard, then you need to look to nature. Nature is "red in tooth and claw": it has but one imperative: SURVIVE. As nature's prime directive, survival is the only natural basis I can think of for an objective moral standard. Perhaps you can come up with some other basis.

I don't believe most humans can accept morality based on survival: we like to think we are above predator-versus-prey. Nature is so cold and uncaring. I think that's one of the reasons we invented God and religion.

But without an objective standard, ANY morality is necessarily subjective. Which leads us back to survival as our only objective moral standard. But we're not beasts -- survival isn't just a matter of kill-or-be-killed. Because of our intelligence and all it represents, survival becomes much more complicated when dealing with humans.

So, for the sake of discussion, let's use survival as a moral standard: survival of individuals and of our species. How would that work? How would that guide our actions? The first thing that leaps to my mind is killing. Death is the opposite of survival. Nature insists on death for survival: does that mean killing is not immoral? One might think that killing could be good in the case of overpopulation but wouldn't birth control be a better option?

Religion causes a lot of deaths. Perhaps religion has evolved as a natural mechanism to weed out the simple-minded among us. If you think it is, then shouldn't we promote religion? But wouldn't it be faster just to kill all the religious folks? Outlaw religions? Reason with them? Humor them? Join them? I don't know. There's a big difference between having an objective moral standard and applying it.

In the end, any objective moral standard must be interpreted and applied. That's a subjective process. Perhaps there can be no truly objective moral standard . . .
I'm replying to myself because I've been corrected (elsewhere) about my misplaced emphasis on survival as an objective moral standard. Instead, it's cooperation that should be the standard. Survival is merely the reason for cooperation.

So what do you think? Is there a better candidate for an objective moral standard than is cooperation? I'm dubious of any claim to objectivity where morality is concerned but cooperation seems like a very good candidate.
I personally find the idea of an objective moral standard to be a absurd concept. As you say, whenever you try to approach the idea of an objective morality, you inevitably run into subjective considerations. .
Objective morality is what the theist believe to be god's will. But morality emerges from the community and the environment and maintains order and the cultures integrity.




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