Positive Atheism - Cliff Walker : Relative Ethics and Absolute Condemnations, part 2 of 9

FYI: this post has been moved here.


  1. To rely on Euthyphro means to not have a basic grasp of the concept of accountability or piety.

    Vox Day does a very good rebuttal of this in his book which you have no doubt read.

  2. Here's the thing about subjective morality--it's SUBJECTIVE!!! It is not claimed to be anything more. You want to invent a problem that doesn't exist.

    Well then how do I know that my subjective morality is correct and someone else's is incorrect? Well, that question doesn't make any sense for subjective morality. It's like asking, how do I know that I am correct that asparagus tastes good when someone else thinks it tastes bad? What a dumb question! "Correct" and "Incorrect" don't apply because, let me repeat this now, it's SUBJECTIVE!

    I think that what may be confusing you is that opinions like taste are subjective descriptions of experiences related to actions that we take individually, like eating an apple. Whereas subjective morality describes our subjective experience of actions taken by all people, including ourselves. My condemnation of murder doesn't just apply to my evaluation of me committing murder, but also my evaluation of other people committing murder. I'm still only talking about my subjective experience, but it is in regards to actions that may be taken by others. Are you following?

    I really do think that this is the core misunderstanding. There are two things to think about: 1) Who is taking the action? and 2) Who is doing the evaluating? For eating apples, 1 and 2 are the same. For moral statements, 1 and 2 may be different.

    Ok, so now you want to show the weakness of subjective morality by having me talk to Jeffrey Dahmer. There are three possible goals here: 1) Condemn his actions. 2) Punish him for them. 3) Persuade him to share my subjective evaluation of his murderous actions.

    The first goal requires no justification. A subjective condemnation is not claimed to be anything more than an opinion. If you disagree, it doesn't have any effect on my opinion that his actions were wrong. Even Dahmer's own moral evaluation of his actions is completely irrelevant.

    Ok, now let's say that I want to punish him for his actions or somehow intervene to stop him. I live in a society with other people and I have agreed to certain social contracts to arbitrate our different subjective moral evaluations. In the case of Dahmer, it should be pretty easy to convince society. But I understand that there are other situations, like abortion, in which it may be more difficult. I can appeal to common values and identify flaws in reasoning, but I have to accept that I may not always be successful. But if society doesn't agree with me, then that doesn't change right and wrong. It changes the outcome for Dahmer, but my subjective right and wrong designation is made in my own head and does not change simply because the people around me have lost their minds. Mob rule (democracy) decides what is legal and illegal, but it does not decide what is right and wrong. I decide what is right and wrong (from my perspective). You decide what is right and wrong (from your perspective).

    And finally, goal #3, convincing Dahmer. Honestly, I don't see much of a point in persuading Dahmer that he was wrong. Telling him that God declared is actions sinful probably isn't going to make him see the light either. Let's face it--the dude is a lost cause.

  3. So now you're saying "but, but, but...then it's all just arbitrary! Hitler...and stuff". Take a deep breath. Ok? Now before you start your argument, please consider the following things:

    - Subjective morality cannot and does not make objective moral claims. This is not a shortcoming--it's the friggin definition. Ask yourself, "Does my argument boil down to me criticizing subjective morality for being subjective?"

    - Do not conflate the various goals of morality: condemnation, punishment, and persuasion.

    - Do not make the mistake of thinking that I am required to consider other people's subjective morality when making my own determination of right and wrong. And definitely don't make the mistake of thinking that the opinion of the person executing the action gets special consideration.

    - Ask yourself, "Am I faulting subjective morality for failing to accomplish something that objective morality doesn't accomplish either?"

  4. Gosh, lots of ranting and raging going on there by 1234567, phew.

    Let me see if I can find anything relevant - uh, not really.

    He has a subjective morality in theory and practices objective morality. (He may not realise it or refuses to).

    The point is that subjective reality opens the door to anyone who wishes to abuse our inbuilt objective reality - just like Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pot etc etc etc.

    So, subjective morals fail at the experiential and ontological level.

  5. Anonymous,

    Can you please explain what it means to "practice objective morality"? I have already shown that recognizing the subjective nature of morality does not preclude one from making moral statements that apply universally.

    Also, I am not at all defending some postmodern view that reality is subjective. Certain statements like, "The sky is blue" are claims about objective reality while other statements like "French toast is tasty" are claims about subjective experience. My point is simply that moral claims like "Incest is wrong" fall into the latter category, not the former.

    To make proper moral judgments one must use sound reasoning and accurate facts. We can objectively verify the facts and mechanically check the logic. Most moral disagreements I have with others are the result of failings by one party or the other in one of these two areas. But even if the facts and logic are correct, two parties will not necessarily agree on moral claims because fundamental moral values are subjective. Jonathan Haidt has a great categorization of the 5 values held by social conservatives and the strict subset held by social liberals.

    Without evidence of gods, the subjective nature of morality appears to agree with reality. We have to accept reality regardless of how distasteful it may seem, but I additionally claim that there is no reason to fear subjective morality. If you disagree, please very specifically lay out a scenario in which subjective morality is dangerous or bad in some way. If your case is strong enough, then I'm willing to accept that it may be prudent to maintain the illusion of objective morality. But you have yet to demonstrate that claim.

  6. 1234567...

    I like the way you state that...."Subjective morality cannot and does not make objective moral claims", only to then say....."I have already shown that recognizing the subjective nature of morality does not preclude one from making moral statements that apply universally".

    It's almost like you are very confused, or simply don't know what you are talking about. Thanks for shedding light on the freedom from making any sense that atheism offers the individual.

  7. Anonymous,

    After all the trouble I went through to keep you from making this mistake, you still made it. To reiterate, there are two things to consider about moral statements: 1) Who is taking the action being evaluated? and 2) Who is doing the evaluating?

    There is nothing contradictory about a "universal subjective moral statement". Such a statement is made to apply to all action-takers by an evaluator who recongizes that the claim is ultimately grounded in their own subjective moral sense.

    If you're still having trouble with this, I recommend you grab a dictionary and look up "subjective", "objective" and "universal".


  8. Anonymous (not the dumb one)August 8, 2009 at 12:35 PM


    It seems like you're implying that, among other things, there's nothing contradictory about Joe saying "I like cake!" and John saying "I do not like cake!", even though these two statements are mutually incompatible: If P(x) is the predicate "x likes cake", then Joe is claiming "P(I)" and John is claiming "not P(I)", and whenever you have a conjunction of the form "Y and not Y", you have a contradiction!

    Perhaps you could do a little to clear up how this vaunted 'subjectivity' thing is supposed to let different people say different things and not end up with a contradiction. If you would kindly start off showing where... if anywhere... the flaw in my reasoning lies on the "likes cake" issue, that would be great, but please also explain how you would resolve a situation such as:

    Joe makes an aesthetic statement that applies universally: "Buildings with columns are ugly."
    John makes a contradictory but also universal aesthetic statement: "Any building that serves as a courthouse is ugly."

  9. Hi Anonymous #2,

    There is no contradiction in your first example. Joe is saying that Joe likes cake and John is saying that John does not. Just because they both refer to themselves using the word "I" does not cause a contradiction. If Joe and John both called themselves "Mr. Poopy Pants" it wouldn't change the fact that their two statements are about the preferences of two different people.

    As for the second example, I assume that there is a typo and you intended for either Joe or John to say "not ugly". Assuming that that's what you meant, again, there is no contradiction. Joe and John are allowed to have different opinions about architectural aesthetics without disrupting the space-time continuum.

    The topic under discussion here is not whether subjective statements exist at all. I assume that you and just about everyone else would agree with me that they do exist. "The Beatles were a great band" is a subjective statement, contingent upon a mind that expresses preferences.

    The topic under discussion is whether moral statements like "Abortion is wrong" fall into this subjective category or not. Many (mostly theists) would say No, and claim that such statements are not contingent upon anything (except perhaps a god). My claim is that moral statements are like aesthetic statements, in that they are ultimately grounded in the subjective preferences of an individual mind.

    The examples you chose did not get to the heart of the matter, because they were not statements about the preferences of outcomes that involve actions taken by other people. A better example would be something like the following: "Joe likes it when people talk with their mouth full." "John does not like it when people talk with their mouth full." Are these statements subjective? Yes, they express preferences. Are these statements universal? Yes, both are blanket statements about how the speakers feel about the action regardless of who is taking the action. Are they logically compatible? Yes. To ask "Who is correct, John or Joe?" is to falsely treat a subjective statement as an objective one. The question doesn't make sense for aesthetics and it doesn't make sense for morality.

    I hope that I was able to clarify my position. If you still feel that there is a problem with subjective morality, I encourage you to articulate that criticism.