I’ve been involved in a discussion over at AtheistForums with several atheist posters. Despite being otherwise rational when it comes to obvious issues such as the existence of god, we see here evidence that just being an atheist says nothing about the accuracy of your worldview, or your rationality as a person. That is why is it important to choose your ideological allies carefully.
A recurring theme I have encountered is the position that morality is a relative / subjective matter – that it is a product of human social interaction; that it arises from evolution; that it changes over time, and is based on societal norms. I have never held this position myself, and not many atheists I know do – this is because a brief analysis of relativism will reveal its bankruptcy and contradictions. Despite the fact that many intelligent people are led by reason to disbelieve in god and call themselves atheists, all too often a warped philosophy is left untreated – and philosophy is the basis for any study of life.
What is most revealing is the fact that moral subjectivists tacitly subscribe to some form of moral objectivity in order to make moral statements. This contradiction will appear all the more egregious shortly. (The quotes that follow are from a relativist on the thread linked to above. It is the position of subjectivity that I wish to attack here, and not any particular person or poster.)
“Morality is not about facts, like the earth orbiting around the sun. It’s about principles that guides us in what course of action is acceptable by the community in which we live.”
The subjectivist denies that morality is a matter of fact; denies that morality has certain truths that we can discover. The subjectivist here asserts that whatever is “good” or “evil” is subject to the opinion of a community. This basically means that one community could consider slavery good, and another community could consider it evil – and both of them are right. The subjectivist who considers slavery evil has only to walk to the next village, and slavery will be good. Does any subjectivist really think like this? Without a means to decide between competing positions, both positions are equally unable to form a foundation from which to make moral judgments. So when the subjectivist says “rape is wrong” – he might change his mind next month or when he moves country, so his opinion is meaningless.
“People in the recent past, and even today, would litter the grounds with cigarette butts or paper tissues they had just used or anything that was inconvenient as they went about. It didn’t enter their minds that such insignificant things could pollute the earth, as they thought in those days the earth was so immense that polluting it didn’t even enter into their minds. Or people went fishing as if the oceans were infinite and the number of fish would never dwindle. Yet today, we have different perceptions because we know better — that we CAN pollute this planet or make certain species extinct, and that such actions are adversely affecting our health and the bio-equilibrium of the species with which we must share this planet.”
Notice the assertion that certain actions are wrong. The subjectivist claims that excess fishing is wrong; that polluting the planet is wrong; that living together in peace is good; that littering is wrong. But on what grounds can a relativist make such a claim? Is he saying that these things are always wrong?? But that would require an objective standard. Is he saying that these things are wrong at the moment? Well why would they be wrong today but not wrong a hundred years ago? Or does the subjectivist claim that whatever is right or wrong at any particular time is whatever that society decides to do? Well in that case, the assertion is a meaningless tautology – by this reasoning, any society at any point in time in human history was always moral – because they did whatever they thought was right. But if morality was “doing whatever you think is right” what would be the point of morality? Why would the word even exist?
The subjectivist would like to compare two societies at different times, as if to prove human morality has changed or improved. But comparison is impossible without a standard. Only objectivity provides that standard.
“We don’t discover moral truths. We invent them in order to solve certain problems which affect the social, political, environmental, and psychological fabric that surrounds us. That’s why morality is a work in progress, and in time will change.”
Notice the stolen concept of objectivity here? If morality is a work in progress, what is it progressing towards? If the increase of certain actions means an increase in morality, then it must mean that certain actions are moral and it is favourable to see an increase of them – then the objective standard would be “actions X Y Z are moral because…” – therefore there are objective moral truths.
Moral subjectivism is an offshoot of relativism in general, another symptom of which is the insipid multiculturalism. Relativism in general holds that all opinions or cultures are of equal value. This is flat wrong: if one holds the opinion X that “all opinions are of equal value or merit” then my opinion that X is rubbish is to be taken with equal merit as X itself! Therefore the truth of X would require that we reject it. Therefore X is either false or rubbish.
Relativism is nothing short but the disposal of objectivity in reaching a conclusion, and there is only one ultimate objective standard: reality. Relativism, especially in morality, is the rejection of reality as a guide for actions. But reality is our only standard by which we integrate our knowledge according to the rules of logic. The relativist in making any statement or holding any position loses the argument by default: unless his opinion is logical, rational, and consistent with reality, he cannot say anything – he might as well be talking about flying pink elephants who play poker in your backyard.
Objectivism identifies that morality is not based on subjective opinions or intrinsic values – it a code of rational values that guides our actions – these values are objective because they are necessary to the life of a rational being – they arise because of man’s relationship to reality. Whatever is beneficial and furthers the life of a rational being is good. Whatever diminishes or inhibits a rational being is the evil.