Is human morality subjective or objective

Don't be afraid of moral facts

Anyone who speaks of objectivity in moral questions or even of moral facts exposes himself to the suspicion that he has not yet reached the modern age. The times in which one's own values ​​and behavioral norms could still claim objectivity as a matter of course are long gone. At least since the Enlightenment, especially in highly individualized, pluralistic societies, it seems naive at best, and at worst as an expression of not least also politically dangerous dogmatism, to want to claim objectivity for a morality with a specific content.

Perhaps this skepticism, presented as enlightened, is merely an expression of laziness or an easily transparent immunization strategy. Because it is clear that someone who benefits economically from a system like slavery is reluctant to confront the fact that sentences like “slavery is cruel and should therefore be abolished” or “all people have equal rights” could be true. If that were so, there would be a strong reason to give up this practice. Nobody likes to have their fundamental value orientations questioned, especially when they are associated with privileges. One can apply this thought to the currently increasingly (and rightly) combated forms of discrimination; then the question of the objectivity of value judgments suddenly appears in a completely different, enlightened light. Maybe it's worth thinking about after all.

The defense against this possibility also has reasons in the matter: “Objective” is often understood in the sense of “impartial”, “value-free” and thus as an opposite of “subjective”. Since valuations clearly have something to do with human feelings, preferences and reactions based on them, i.e. they can only be understood in relation to human practices and ways of life, the claim to objectivity does not seem to fit here. It is therefore one of the commonplaces of modern philosophy to strictly separate the area of ​​the normative from that of the facts. But this demarcation is controversial: does our sentence about slavery describe a fact or does it just express a “subjective” opinion?

An argument against moral facts, the so-called argument from relativity, which has been much discussed to this day, comes from the Australian philosopher John L. Mackie.1 It ties in with the already mentioned pluralism of conflicting value orientations. According to Mackie, differences of opinion on scientific questions can usually be explained well by the fact that scientific hypotheses or explanations are sometimes based on inadequate amounts of data and therefore do not adequately reflect reality. Differences of opinion on questions of value, on the other hand, cannot be explained meaningfully by the assumption that they express unsuccessful attempts to correctly grasp a moral reality. The better explanation, according to Mackie, is simply that such disagreements reflect different ways of life. The hypothesis of an objective, normative reality is not necessary to explain dissent in questions of value in a meaningful way.2 Mackie flanked this argument with another one that points to the peculiar character of alleged moral facts (what kind of facts are they supposed to be?) And to the epistemological difficulty of combining them with the cognitive faculties given to us (sensory perception and logical deduction). to recognize.3

Mackie's (indirect) argument is convincing insofar as it can hardly be denied that evaluations can only be understood relative to human practices. Without these practices there would be no values. So if there is such a thing as moral facts, then they do not exist in the way that hydrogen molecules, viruses, plants, human and non-human animals, or houses exist. So it depends on how one explains the concept of a moral fact and its objective existence, which could also make value judgments true. This would also give an answer to the supposed “peculiarity” of moral facts.

The English philosopher David Wiggins has developed a proposal for this. He points out that the opposite of "objective" is not necessarily "subjective". This becomes clear when one describes an object as "objective" when it can be judged to be true or false.4 On the other hand, an object would be “subjective” if its assessment depends on standards that have to do with the reactions of conscious subjects.5 The counter-term to “subjective” would then be “non-subjective” and the term too “objective” would be “non-objective.” According to this definition, it is conceivable that an object is non-objective without already being subjective. The assertion that values ​​are subjective, i.e. dependent on human practices, does not conceptually exclude that value judgments can be objective, namely true or false. The truth of these judgments then of course depends on standards that have to do with the reactions of subjects.

But this differentiation is not enough, because Mackie does not deny that the moral discourse works objectivistically and therefore also conditionally on the truth. He only claims that the accompanying belief in normative facts is based on error.6 Here it is now a question of correctly explaining the concept of truth. Wiggins also makes some original suggestions on this: The concept of truth cannot be used define, but it can have essential characteristics explained become. According to Wiggins, one of these characteristics is that the truth of a statement presupposes an investigation which makes it possible to reach an agreement on that statement, which in turn is the best explanation for the truth of that statement.7 It should be noted that Wiggins conceptually binds the truth of statements to suitable practices of investigation and judgment. What we establish as facts depends on it. Such investigations are in principle also possible for questions of value or in the case of dissent about such questions. According to Wiggins, there is a continuity between our practices and methods of searching for truth and establishing fact in different areas of knowledge. The search for moral truths is then only a special case of methods of the search for truth, for example in the sciences. In doing so, Wiggins also undermines the strict separation of facts and values: there is a continuity between these areas, which is guaranteed by our ability to justify our judgments claimed to be true or false in the context of investigations.

One question, however, remains open: What follows from the insight into the truth of a value judgment for our actions? Wiggins does not discuss this important question of the practical effectiveness of moral knowledge, since, like Mackie, he is interested in the epistemological and ontological aspects of the subject. His subtle and original arguments, however, should make us suspicious of short-lived references to lived pluralism and the “subjectivity” of values, and encourage us to trust our ability to find the truth and justify it in the light of our best arguments.


On the subject of objectivity:

Gaukroger, Stephen (2017), Objectivity. A problem and his career, Stuttgart (Reclam).

The book also contains an interesting chapter on the subject of objectivity in morality, which, however, takes a different perspective than the one presented here.

Mackie's defense of moral subjectivism can be found primarily in the first chapter of his book:

Mackie, John L. (1983), Ethics. In search of the right and wrong, Stuttgart (Reclam).

David Wiggins ‘Arguments against subjectivism can be found in the third, metaethical part of his lectures on moral philosophy:

Wiggins, David (2006), Ethics. Twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of Morality. London (Penguin Books).

A collection of essays published in the third edition in 2010 can also be recommended to deepen his position:

Wiggins, David (2010), Needs, Values, Truth, Oxford (Clarendon Press).