Is morality subjective?
- The Cambridge English Dictionary defines morality as “a set of personal or social standards for good or bad behavior and character.”
- Moral relativism is the idea that there are no absolutes in morality--that morality depends upon someone’s personal or cultural influences. The popular saying “to each, his own” aptly describes this approach.
- A 2014 Pew Research Global Morality survey comparing responses from people in 40 different countries found that “affairs, gambling, homosexuality, and abortion are deemed unacceptable by the largest number of respondents.”
- Cultural psychologists have found that values play a role in differently ranked moral issues amongst political parties, “conservatives place importance on values such as loyalty and authority, while liberals prioritize care and fairness.”
While this particular question sounds quite loaded, the truth is most functional ethics systems already allow for exceptions to standardized rules, as they assume not all circumstances are equivalent.
For instance, even though we have laws against murder, there are almost always exceptions for self-defense. In those cases, defending oneself against an attack would not be considered unethical, even if one's actions resulted in another person's death.
This makes intra-societal morality subject to context, with actions seen in one situation as immoral and in others as just, rendering all morality, to a certain extent, subjective. And these sticky moral questions may not even approach the level of legality; we are essentially asked to do this every day in things like workspaces, where professional conduct is judged differently from private behavior (as Jeffery Toobin once so memorably illustrated).
On a broader level, we can also see moral variation between relatively similar societies. It would be illegal in the United States to prevent private citizens from displaying symbols of fascist or even genocidal regimes. But in Germany, citizens may not display memorabilia from what are legally determined to be unconstitutional parties, such as the Nazis. In both cases, each country is arguing its position from a standard of ethical ideals. The US asserts that the higher moral right of guaranteed free speech should allow even unpleasant opinions room for debate in the public sphere, while Germany points to its past and the horrific damage those symbols represent as the moral imperative to ban them.
Which country is right? Well, that depends on your point of view, which is—you guessed it—subjective.
When taken to its extreme, moral subjectivism leads to an “anything goes” attitude that renders ethics meaningless—a kind of moral nihilism in which few people genuinely believe. Even relativists rarely regard morals as mere feelings about a topic. Moreover, the statement that all morality is subjective is absolute—ironically, the opposite of subjective. There’s no such thing as a moral platform that doesn’t begin with an absolute statement on which the rest of its logic is based.
Tolerance is the founding principle of moral relativism; however, tolerance as an absolute good is, itself, a culturally situated value. What about cultures that believe they have a moral obligation to 'educate' other cultures? Moral subjectivism's logic creates an ethical impasse: the imperialist position is moral within its own cultural framework but immoral when viewed through the external perspective of a culture that prizes tolerance. Subjectivists are, therefore, caught in a catch-22. They can either apply their own bias or honor another culture's intolerance.
Relativism even provides justification for intolerance within a society. If one culture decries wearing pink as immoral—and cultural standards are the basis for all morality—then people who wear pink should be condemned.
Finally, moral subjectivists exaggerate the differences between cultures. Cultures may subscribe to similar underlying principles, but different circumstances or beliefs may motivate opposite practices. A slaveholding society may promote human equality but claim that certain people are subhuman. A resource-scarce community may practice infanticide out of practical concern for the surviving children’s welfare.
The existence of moral absolutes doesn’t mean that all morals are absolute or even that we, as flawed individuals, can always recognize them. It merely means that right and wrong are more than cultural norms.