If Morality is Subjective, All Things Are Permitted

A few days ago I found myself in an argument with my atheist/agnostic/Christian (that last one is extremely concerning) friends over the formation of law and subjective/objective morality.  It began when I told them that it does not matter that Japan’s age of consent is 13 years, it is still morally wrong to have sex with a teenager.

That debate ended openly, but I’m going to break down my friends’ arguments here.  Their stances were as follows:

1. You only see Japan’s law as immoral because you were raised to think that age 18 is the only minimally acceptable age of consent.  Japan has a different culture than us in Canada and so it’s okay for them to have that age of consent.

2. Laws are made due to what the majority of people believe is right/wrong, so if the majority of people in Japan believe 13 is an acceptable age of consent, then it’s okay.

Let’s outline my arguments in detail in response to those two stances.

1. You only see Japan’s law as immoral because you were raised to think that age 18 is the only minimally acceptable age of consent.  Japan has a different culture than us in Canada and so it’s okay for them to have that age of consent.

How I was raised is not the issue here.  Indeed, I was raised by a loving, moral, conservative family.  Some others are raised by drunkards, sexual abusers, drug addicts, and/or parents who are obsessed with wealth and social standing.  But someone raised by the latter type of people who came to the conclusion that having sex with someone under 18 is wrong would still be correct.  Likewise, someone raised by a loving, moral family who came to the conclusion that having intercourse with a minor is acceptable would still be wrong.

But the thing is, under moral relativism, how I was raised does, in fact, matter.  So, what if the majority of people were raised to think that rape is okay?  Are they now correct in their assumptions because they are the majority?  Well, under moral relativism, they would be correct.  But under objective morals, they would be flat out wrong, regardless of their numbers.

I noticed that those who cheer for moral relativism do not realize the sinister implications of it.  But either all actions and words are morally neutral, or they all fit under the classification of right or wrong.

My friends groaned when I brought up the Nazis, however, I still believe the following to be a strong argument: if morality is subject to the ideals and beliefs of different cultures, then in the context of moral relativism, I can safely say that if the Nazis had won World War II and managed to brainwash or kill anyone who disagreed with them, then their ideology would be morally sound because the vast majority would be in agreement with them.  But of course, no one can accept that!  So either subjective morality is true, and as such, all things are permitted, or objective morality is true, and as such, only some things are permitted.

Conclusion: Either the culture decides what is right/wrong, or Something or Someone outside of all of us decides.

2. Laws are made due to what the majority of people believe is right/wrong, so if the majority of people in Japan believe 13 is an acceptable age of consent, then it’s okay.

I think my answer to this argument can be summed up in what I have written above.  The majority of people can indeed be completely morally wrong about what they believe under different circumstances, but subjective morality doesn’t decide here – objective morality does.

And so you, as the reader, have to choose: moral subjectivity (ie. all things are permitted given that the majority of people in a certain country believe it’s okay) or moral objectivity (ie. morality is something that transcends culture and nature; it does not matter what you believe – an action or deed is either right or wrong).

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23 thoughts on “If Morality is Subjective, All Things Are Permitted

  1. Hello there! I’ve got a couple of comments on this post:

    (1) “So, what if the majority of people were raised to think that rape is okay? Are they now correct in their assumptions because they are the majority?”

    Even under subjective morality, people who don’t think rape is okay will find it morally indefensible. And even under objective morality, people who think rape is moral will find it morally defensible. In order for your morality to be objective, it must apply to both parties. Bringing it back to the Japanese age of consent, their law means that an objective principle is not being applied to their government. Note that I said government, because simply if a law exists, it does not mean that people will inherently use it.

    However, supposing that the Japanese government has codified the age of 13 as an age of consent as a result of the people being okay with it, how is one supposed to enforce an objective standard that they violate? This brings me to the second comment.

    (2) “…[I]f morality is subject to the ideals and beliefs of different cultures, then in the context of moral relativism, I can safely say that if the Nazis had won World War II and managed to brainwash or kill anyone who disagreed with them, then their ideology would be morally sound because the vast majority would be in agreement with them.”

    Look at what it took to enforce morality on the Nazis. It took a world war, killing millions and kicking off a Cold War afterwards, to make the Nazis conform to respecting human life. If an objective value applied, why didn’t the Germans adhere to it? Why didn’t they stop following the Nazi regime? It’s because deadly force was behind Nazi moral thought, and it took deadly force to remove that moral thought.

    Examining it in this way, then, you might be able to see that objective morality, for all intents and purposes, requires consent in order to apply equally. Because, even if a deity or other supreme being created objective rules, people still have to abide by them. And when they don’t, they have to be convinced otherwise or forcibly brought to conform.

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    • Hello, siriusbizinus! I hope you’re doing well.

      Okay, there’s a lot there for me to reply to so I’ll try to take it paragraph by paragraph.

      “Even under subjective morality, people who don’t think rape is okay will find it morally indefensible. And even under objective morality, people who think rape is moral will find it morally defensible. In order for your morality to be objective, it must apply to both parties. Bringing it back to the Japanese age of consent, their law means that an objective principle is not being applied to their government. Note that I said government, because simply if a law exists, it does not mean that people will inherently use it. ”

      I’m not sure I understand what you’re trying to say here. Of course objective morality would apply to both parties; those who find rape morally wrong but believe in moral subjectivity would be inconsistent but nevertheless morally correct, and those who find rape to be morally okay and believe in objective morality would still be wrong. But see, here again we are looking at what people *believe,* not about the inherent truths of objective morality.

      “However, supposing that the Japanese government has codified the age of 13 as an age of consent as a result of the people being okay with it, how is one supposed to enforce an objective standard that they violate? This brings me to the second comment.”

      Again, I’m not understanding your point. Who is the one enforcing an objective standard that they violate? The government?

      “Look at what it took to enforce morality on the Nazis. It took a world war, killing millions and kicking off a Cold War afterwards, to make the Nazis conform to respecting human life. If an objective value applied, why didn’t the Germans adhere to it? Why didn’t they stop following the Nazi regime? It’s because deadly force was behind Nazi moral thought, and it took deadly force to remove that moral thought.”

      I’m not seeing this disputing the idea of an objective moral law. It just demonstrates how stubborn evil people can be to continue on in their evilness – like some sociopaths. An objective value does apply, but whether people follow that objective value or not is another matter altogether. In the case of the Axis Powers, they were not following the objective moral laws correctly, and in the case of the Allies in their attacks on Nazis and their defense of the Jews, they were following the law correctly.

      “Examining it in this way, then, you might be able to see that objective morality, for all intents and purposes, requires consent in order to apply equally. Because, even if a deity or other supreme being created objective rules, people still have to abide by them. And when they don’t, they have to be convinced otherwise or forcibly brought to conform.”

      That actually fits quite nicely in the Christian worldview. Yes, objective values do require equal consent for people to abide by them (eg. the Christian concept of free will and God not creating programmed robots). Of course people have to abide by objective rules, but not all of them do.

      I’m sorry for not completely understanding, friend, so if I’ve made an error in my assessment of what you’ve said, I apologize. But I’m getting the impression that you do believe in objective morality, correct?

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      • Hey there! I’m going to address the points raised in this comment, and then I’ll reply to the other comment to address the points raised there.

        Essentially what I’m getting at is that, even if one finds an objective standard to apply to people, one still needs to enforce that standard for it to be meaningful. Sometimes governments are used to codify these standards (like laws against murder and other crimes against the person and property); at other times, social forces are used to enforce them (like social taboos and group shunning).

        What this means is that even if you have discovered an objective standard, it will operate subjectively until everyone agrees to it. You can see this in Japan’s lowered age of consent, or even in laws allowing teenagers to marry (Mississippi allows marriage at 14, for example). Another example is Warren Jeffs, who frequently married girls around the age of Japan’s consent law. In the U.S., the prohibition could get enforced. If he was in Japan, he’d probably be a free man.

        So, even if you find a principle that should apply to everyone, it still is meaningless unless everyone consents to it. This, therefore, creates a problem: the difference between subjective and objective morality is a distinction without a difference, as it is used here.

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      • So what if governments didn’t make murder a criminal offense? Indeed, what if something like the situation in the movie Purge occurred?

        Which is exactly what I’m saying. Under moral relativism, no act is genuinely wrong or right except for the social consequences – prison sentences and group-shunning. Which means if an extremely wealthy and politically powerful person came along and changed the rules and managed to conceal their actions, possibly with a gang of other people like them, they would be free to live in indulgence and evil deeds all they want, and it would not matter if objective morality did not exist.

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      • Well, if governments didn’t make murder a criminal offense, there still could be civil actions which let the families of the deceased sue. Furthermore, social and other economic forces are at a society’s disposal. And even if none of those existed, people could decide that murder is wrong and just not do it.

        Even if moral relativism is true, then there are plenty of other forces that act upon a person’s reason to dissuade them from doing things others might find morally indefensible. At that point, it doesn’t even matter if I call what someone does wrong. As long as my view is enforceable, it will be right.

        And finally, the counterpoint of the powerful person rests on being uncomfortable with the notion of not being able to morally condemn that person’s actions. Unfortunately, if we are discussing truths or shades of truths, then whether we are comfortable with them is irrelevant.

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      • Aha! But where would they get the idea that murder is just simply wrong from? Are they getting it from their society, which doesn’t condemn murder, or from a place outside of themselves, regardless of what they perceive that “place” to be from?

        So if you decided that murder was right, and you were able to enforce it, then you would be right? And those “other forces” that are supposed to dissuade people from doing wrong aren’t very powerful, given that crime, war, and all other manners of evil still exist today, and have always existed in the past.

        And finally, you basically agree that moral relativism is uncomfortable if you couldn’t be able to morally condemn a powerful person, but that it likely is true, am I correct?

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      • I’ll quote the questions you raise to make my comment more readable and help me make my response more efficient. I apologize in advance for taking up so much space on your blog!

        (1) “But where would they get the idea that murder is just simply wrong from?” They could get the idea from evaluating the effect that murder has on society and deciding that it isn’t in everyone’s best interests to keep it legal.

        (2) “So if you decided that murder was right, and you were able to enforce it, then you would be right?”

        Sadly, this appears to be the case. For example, take the attack against Native Americans to take their land in the 1870’s. Thousands of people dead for land, and nothing is being done about it. Sure, we in the U.S. say we’re sorry and condemn the past acts, but it’s not like we’re giving the land back.

        (3) “And those “other forces” that are supposed to dissuade people from doing wrong aren’t very powerful, given that crime, war, and all other manners of evil still exist today, and have always existed in the past.”

        By using a broad historical reference, even supposing divine objective morality exists, you just rendered that as an insufficient power as well. Granted, you could argue that an afterlife and cosmic judgment somehow corrects the defect later on, but that still doesn’t cure the defect in the here and now.

        As to your last question, I am not sure exactly what you are asking. I would agree that moral relativism is uncomfortable, but sadly I think it might be more accurate in some ways than I would like to think it would be.

        To be clear, though, that does make me a fan of objective moral values. However, when I use the term “objective moral values” I do not mean the same thing as you do.

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      • So you are saying that a perfect God would have to prevent all evil in the here in now for objective values to have meaning? That slides into free will vs. predestinaton and is another subject altogether. He may not stop the fact that a bad thing has happened, but to say that you need to completely reverse a wrong in the past to make it right is just faulty thinking.

        I cannot reverse the fact that I had no real friends in 9th grade, for example, and that I was generally ostracized by my peers for being antisocial and, frankly, bitter. But the scales are now balanced because I have forgiven all the people who didn’t welcome me or speak kindly to me, I have forgiven myself for being a rude person and have done everything I can to make up for it, and now I have more and better friends than I could ask for. So yes, the past has not changed, but the present balances the scales for me; all is made just. In fact, not only are the scales balanced, but I got an even better deal than I asked for!

        And about the Native Americans, just because the scales have not been balanced for them now does not mean they never will be. Here in Canada, we handed over a whole territory – Nunavut – to the Inuits in the late 90s. There are still problems, but we are in a fallen world (which also delves into another topic altogether).

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      • I’ll address these statements:

        (1) “So you are saying that a perfect God would have to prevent all evil in the here in now for objective values to have meaning?”

        I am not saying any divine being would have to do that. Rather, I am saying that based on your assertion that because evils exist, subjective values are inferior (i.e., they aren’t potent enough), you brought the discussion to evaluating moral values on that basis.

        Because that opened the door, the question became whether objective values were better than subjective values on mitigating evils. From there, an analysis would have to include whether or not objective values curbed bad behavior more than values not based on this objective morality.

        (2) “He may not stop the fact that a bad thing has happened, but to say that you need to completely reverse a wrong in the past to make it right is just faulty thinking.”

        I am not suggesting that any deity would have to completely reverse a wrong. I am suggesting that if objective moral values are superior to subjective ones based on your above assertion, it would need to do more to prevent harm. Because an afterlife is after the fact, it is irrelevant and immaterial to the issue of prevention.

        (3) And with regards to the Native Americans, the issue isn’t even about the land. It’s about killing the people for the land. At the time, it was morally defensible because we could kill them and they couldn’t stop it. It goes to the question of murder being wrong (which we think killing people for land is wrong today). Back then, they thought it was fine, and they were able to back it up with force.

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      • Ahh, okay, that cleared things up nicely. Sorry, I misunderstood.

        Perhaps I myself should have been a little more clear. The difference is that objective moral values provide a solid basis for perfect morality that is unchanging, (ie. murder is always wrong). Subjective moral values imply change depending on culture, which has horrific implications given the example you demonstrated, which is that it was morally okay for Americans in the past to kill the Natives but we only see it as bad now because our culture and laws have changed. Would you not rather that murder always be wrong rather than be subject to change?

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      • I also apologize if I have contributed to the discussion today going all over the place.

        Basically, if objective moral values exist that are always the same and unchanging, it ultimately does not matter whether I like those values or not. Similarly, if I don’t like subjective morality, but it is an accurate depiction of how morality works, my feelings can’t change that, either.

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      • It’s no trouble, sirius.

        I don’t know, man, I just don’t want to live in a world where one day it’s not okay to kill a man and another day it is. I’d rather take a chance on Jesus than chaos. Considering I have other strong foundations for my faith, and my life has been more fulfilling than it ever was for me before, I’d rather take a chance that I might be wrong than on the sinister and empty alternative.

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    • Also, I have to point out that if morality is subjective, and there is no God, and there is no cosmic judgment, then there is no reason to be morally responsible. If life ends at the grave, then you can basically do whatever you want, no? I’m not saying there won’t be social consequences, but suppose you were an extremely powerful, exceedingly wealthy man and managed to brainwash the entire world into obeying you – there wouldn’t be any social consequences, and you could continue your reign of terror for many years. This sort of thing would be permissible if there was no spiritual/cosmic/transcendent judgment of such actions.

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      • In response to this comment, I’d have to say that there are still very valid reasons to be morally responsible. Instead of being beholden to a cosmic judge, people become responsible to each other. I must act morally because they become conventions upon which we all can live our lives to the fullest. Acting immorally becomes abhorrent because I am depriving others of that which I use myself.

        And even if, say, a particularly wealthy person was able to effect a reign of terror with impunity, a transcendent judge doesn’t undo the harm of that reign of terror. At best, it displaces it to an afterlife. What’s worse, depending upon the belief system involved, that wealthy person might even be able to get a good afterlife experience despite the immoral life.

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      • Ah – the “morally accountable to other people” response. That fails because we all know of situations where personal satisfaction flies in the face of morality. If a man can get away with lying or stealing, and there was no other force preventing him from doing so, then he could do so easily.

        A transcendent Judge wouldn’t undo the harm of the reign of terror, but He would balance the scales. He would do everything in His power without directly infringing on the free will of others to help make reparations. He could call His followers to spread the message of hope and love more powerfully after the reign of terror than they did before it. He could create stronger love and harmony between people after that event in history than they had before it. And since we’re not discussing belief systems here (and anyway, there are wrong belief systems), a perfect Judge would certainly punish rather than reward such a man in the afterlife for every bad thing he ever did, more accurately than any judge on earth.

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      • Well, accountability to others can serve as a justification. And even if someone can lie or steal and get away with it, by that implication nothing could have stopped that person in the first place (even transcendent objective moral values).

        Of course, this now raises your point that in an afterlife this transcendent judge could punish the person. Or the transcendent judge could have mercy. If the latter, a transcendent objective moral value does nothing.

        Furthermore, if the transcendent judge is allowed to break its own rules and issue different judgments based on its own ethical code, this renders the objective values we must live under meaningless. At that point, we’re back to a distinction without a difference from subjective values.

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      • Just because nothing could have stopped that person in the first place does not mean that under objective morality they would not be judged later on for it, and that under subjective morality they would not be judged either way.

        A transcendent Judge would have to be a perfect Judge for us to have an idea of perfect morality. So He would most likely always judge an evil person. The concept of mercy and forgiveness delves into Christianity, which we are not discussing in this debate. Thus objective moral value still does everything.

        A *perfect* moral Judge cannot make mistakes or “break” the rules because essentially He IS the rules, the very essence of all moral values. When we talk about objective morals and thus a moral law giver we are talking about perfect moral laws; a high standard that most people believe we should achieve but that none of us are able to.

        And we’re back to the basic fact that there is a distinction as well as a difference between subjective and moral values. Objective moral values are absolute and final – subjective moral values are wishy-washy and subject (haha) to change.

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  2. Something that strikes me as kind of interesting about the Nazis, they failed to convince all but a tiny handful of people of their alleged morality. In spite of the indoctrination, reason, logic, brainwashing, applied, they failed. Most of those who followed Hitler either had no idea what the implications were, were blind to what was going on, thought they were just following order, etc.

    There was an entire village in Germany near a crematorium that was like hypnotized, brainwashed, in denial, whatever, because they would smell the bodies burning, but had somehow convinced themselves that it was only the dead, pets, livestock being properly disposed of. When they were liberated, some soldiers were so furious they drug people out of their homes and forced them to look at what had been going on. Those people were so horrified to discover the deception they had been living under, many killed themselves.

    As to consent laws Ada, that’s a fascinating one that people really struggle with. It is often immoral to sleep with teen agers and yet quite a few teen agers have actually voluntarily gotten married at a young age. People all over the world have tried to set some standard with consent laws, devised some protections for children, and yet it is extremely difficult to create a one size fits all solution.

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    • That’s so true. I completely forgot about that important thing – the attempts the Nazis made to justify their actions. Nobody can really do something evil without coming up with thousands of excuses. It’s like we’re going against the very core of our being. They first had to make it seem like Jews weren’t even human to justify slaughtering them.

      Denial and bystander mentality was a huge thing for the Germans.

      I generally think that teenagers are far too immature to handle the huge psychological impact sex can have on them. Even though they are capable of having children, it’s a really heavy thing to weigh on them.

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  3. So, let me ask you a simple question: If moral objectivity was true and whoever gets to decide what morality is, then, if that someone decides that rape morally good… Would that make it ok to rape someone? To make it more complex: How does this someone decide what is morally ok? And why should we follow his decisions? Is morality for you nothing more than the obedience of a slave? And of course, that all means nothing, as the most obvious question is… How do you know what this person wants? It seems, in reality, people cannot agree on what he wants. Perhaps some are correct, possible. But some are wrong. So, how do you know? Simple, you don’t. So, in the end, you have only one thing… relative morality from which you hope it might be objective.

    Well, personally I take the subjective one. At least we can discuss about that, compare goals, etc. Not perfect, but better than childishly argue about who’s random morality might be objective.

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    • Hello, Atomic Mutant! Thanks for stopping by.

      The theme of my post is not which faith is correct, which god is real, or who we listen to. I can save that for another post, as I am very confident in my answers to those questions, and I can link you to several articles if you’re curious. The theme of my post is how subjective morality fails tremendously.

      The problem is that when you argue about morality without making a case for God, you’re really just weaving intellectual arguments from thin air – that is, you discourse without meaning.

      I believe this article explains it nicely:

      http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-indispensability-of-theological-meta-ethical-foundations-for-morality

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      • Can you politely show me where it is I “made it into la-la land?”

        Also, I’ve come to realize that human beings are incapable of being completely sane and rational. We all have cognitive biases and dissonance and have the rug pulled out from under us with hilarious frequency.

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