To what extent is Morality Subjective?

To effectively evaluate the extent to which morality is subjective, it is key to define morality as a set of principles that are used to determine the ambiguous concepts of right and wrong. Further, the term ‘subjectiveness’ should be interpreted as morality that depends on a person and their particular perception, and ‘objectiveness’ should be considered to be morals that exist independently without our own opinions and observations. This essay will consider this question from a logical and practical perspective to argue that morality is fundamentally objective, but is open to subjective influences.

Firstly, to prove this point from logic it must be submitted that there are sets of principles that are universally accepted. Examples of this include killing being considered destructive and stealing being wrong. These principles have formed the basis of all human civilisation ranging from the Palaeolithic period to the Modern Age. However, the way in which we choose to merit these principles varies between cultures. This can be observed through looking at the juxtaposition between a Westerners belief that in the interests of public safety killing a terrorist is right, and a Buddhist who would see nonviolence as a better strategy. This example outlines that our fundamental morals are objective. In both instances, both parties see the death of another human being to be destructive. Although, the extent to which these parties enforce these principles and allow for ‘exceptions’ differs. On a wider scale, this example can be used to outline the key concept that our fundamental beliefs are objective and constant. Such as a disapproval for killing, stealing, lying or being unjust, all of which have remained with humans since our genesis.

Although, whilst we may hold these objective morals, this does not mean that in practice they are uniformly applied. Here, they can be said to be influenced by subjective views. This subjective influence can be said to explain the reasons for differences in attitudes and legislative approaches to issues such as adultery between the UK and Saudi Arabia. Both countries agree that adultery betrays the other party. Although, one country simply gives the opportunity for divorce, whereas the other enforces stoning (Press, n.d.). From this, it can be seen by logic that morality is objective, but can be open to subjective interpretation.

This ‘objective’ nature of our morality can most obviously be seen through looking at practical examples. A clear example of this can be seen through the fact that none of the great ‘teachers’ of our world ever invented their ‘own’ morals. For example, Jesus and his preaching of ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ was an already existing eternal principle. Jesus did not invent the principle of kindness and gratitude. Instead, he, acting as a prophet of God, simply elaborated on the already universally accepted principle that kindness and gratitude was favourable. This was done through including a need to not do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This example outlines that these ‘teachings’, or subjective interpretations, simply developed upon universally agreed on and existing principles. This clearly illustrates the extent to which fundamentally, our morals are objective, such as kindness and gratitude being positive, but are open to subjective interpretation, illustrated through Jesus’ message from God that built on this.

This argument can be significantly strengthened when incorporating scientific findings. In one of the most famous cases of Neuroscientific history, an American railroad construction foreman named Gage survived an accident where an iron rod was driven through his skull. This caused for the destruction of a majority of his brain, including his left frontal lobe. Gage was now reported as “[A man whose] balance of … intellectual facilities and animal propensities was destroyed. Who is fitful, irreverent … [and] impatient of restraint or advice when it confits with desires”. Following this injury, it was observed that Gage’s intelligence, memory and emotions were intact. He was able to converse and learn new things. Although, the balance between these neurological functions was destroyed, in turn, he was described as having a “destroyed conscience”. In short, following his accident Gage was unable to control his desires. He could understand that he was committing a wrong deed, but could not understand the extent to which doing something was considered right or wrong. For example, to Gage, stealing was bad. Although, stealing £1 was just as bad as £1,000,000 in his mind. This reveals that when the ‘frontal lobe’ of the brain, what influences our subjective views, is destroyed, our ‘objective’ views are revealed. Not only does this support the argument that our fundamental morals are objective, but it also outlines that this has a biological origin in the brain.

Using these practical examples, two points are contended. Firstly, that our basic morals are objective. Secondly, that in a similar way to which we cannot come up with an entirely new way to breathe, we cannot create a new set of fundamental subjective moral principles which are in no way connected to our objective morals.

However, some may argue that whilst most complex moral judgements may be derived from a select number of basic ones, such as those listed throughout this essay, that these arguments still contain components that vary due to the material conditions of different societies. Although, this can be undermined through observing that the ability for different societies to construct different judgements does not prove that morality is subjective. Instead, this simply proves that subjective interpretations of objective morals can exist. To prove the originally intended position, one must dig down to the fundamental morals and judgments in every society, and then show that these morals and judgments are not shared by different societies. This is something that has not been done. Thus, this outlines that the argument that morality is purely subjective can be countered, and further reinforces the ‘objective’ argument.

To conclude, I strongly believe that morality is not purely subjective. Instead, it is fundamentally objective but open to subjective influences. This is supported through observing the ‘constant’ nature of all basic human morals since our genesis, coupled with practical evidence that demonstrates this from a historical and scientific perspective. However, this is not to say that subjectiveness does not exist within the moral spectrum. Instead, I simply feel that our fundamental beliefs are inherently objective and are unable to be principally changed by subjective influences. It must be submitted that whilst these objective morals can be tailored to, or tailored by, the particular cultures and ages they find themselves in, the fundamental ideas behind these morals do not change. As such, this supports the position that our morals exist in a paradigm where the basic aspects of our morality are objective but are open to subjective interpretation.


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