In part four of our series exploring the moral argument, we’ll take a more detailed look into moral subjectivism.
In part one we examined the existence of objective moral truths. While most actions become questionable due to surrounding circumstances, if we add the phrase “For the mere fun of it,” after an objectionable action, there is no question to its moral stance. Torturing another human being simply for the mere fun of it, or engaging in any objectionable action with nothing more than one’s own pleasure as motivation is transcendently wrong. Despite this, moral relativists deny such a transcendent moral law exists, thus concluding all morality is based on individual preferences. This is called moral subjectivism. The question is, does it work?
This Theory Emphasizes Emotion Above Truth
Since moral truths cannot be explained by individual genetic codes (refer to part 2), emotion is where we must turn next, for how can the existence or moral truths be subjective if they’re not based on our personal feelings towards those said truths? This problem is backed up by a phrase I’ve heard many secularists utter, “It’s true for you, but not for me.” For example, I may say pears are delicious, but my friend may reply with an objection. Therefore, the phrase, “Pears are delicious,” is not an objectively true statement, rather it’s just my own personal truth based on my taste. There is no right and wrong when it comes to the taste of pears, neither is there an objective standard of right and wrong based on moral subjectivism.
This Theory Eliminates Moral Debate
If morality works the same way as my taste for pears, can I say that a murderer is wrong and a surgeon is right if the only authority I can cling to is my own feelings of the action at hand (saving a life and taking a life)? The most I can say to the murderer is, “I don’t like your actions, they offend me.” In the end, no one cares what offends me if they themselves are not offended by it. We’d be merely arguing preferences as there is no transcendent law with which we can measure.
This Theory Allows for the Praise of Pleasure
Furthermore, feelings can often deceive us and point us in dangerous directions. Philosopher Louis Pojman once said,
“Subjectivism treats individuals like billiard balls on a societal pool table where they meet only in radical collisions, each aimed at his or her own goal and striving to do in the others before they themselves are done in.”
If feelings dictate what is morally true, there is no good reason not to hold pleasure as life’s main objective and our moral compass as, “If it feels good, do it.” What is stopping us from being morally selfish if no objective law exists? Apologist Ravi Zacharias explains this in more detail below.
In conclusion, if all of us desired to live in love, moral subjectivism would be a satisfying answer, but unfortunately, this isn’t so. People want to do wrong, but if wrong is merely a matter of opinion, can we really hold someone accountable? Can we really punish an action if morality is mere preference? It’s why those who don’t live the way moral subjectivism entails often reject this theory in favor for moral relativism, a moral law based on culture and society. This is an answer we’ll examine in part 5.