Is Morality Objective or Subjective?
You may have seen a bumper sticker that says “coexist,” written with various symbols. For instance, the Muslim crescent moon represents a “C,” the peace symbol stands in for an “o,” the Star of David represents an “x,” and a cross stands in for the “t.” The sticker rightfully denounces religious persecution, but it often implies another, more subtle message: no one faith tradition is truer than another.
This type of thinking is often transferred into the realm of morality, which is closely associated with religion. Many people question whether morality is objective or subjective. Objective morality means that an action is right or wrong, independent of one’s opinion. In contrast, subjective morality asserts that the rightness or wrongness of an action is a matter of opinion, dependent on one’s own culture and experience.
Perceptions of Morality Versus Reality
The idea that morality is open-ended may seem alluring. After all, can what is right and wrong for an American living in a large city really be the same for someone living in a small village in the Amazon? Considering the diversity of cultures and opinions in the world, isn’t it best to agree to disagree? However, the plea for tolerance is not enough to seal the deal for moral subjectivity, because calling for tolerance is itself a moral statement. To say that we should not label actions as either right or wrong implies that doing so would be wrong. Likewise, philosophers Garrett DeWeese and J. P. Moreland illustrate that using tolerance in this way is self-defeating: “Tolerance has become the supreme virtue in our culture, such that the only thing that can’t be tolerated is intolerance.”1 On the contrary, true tolerance does not demand that we accept all viewpoints as equally valid; instead, it means that we do not employ force or coercion against people with whom we disagree.
Furthermore, disagreements among cultures or individuals regarding morality do not themselves debunk objective morality. Rather, we must acknowledge that differences in what is believed to be moral do not equate to differences in what is moral. Perception is not the same as reality. In other words, it is possible for someone to be fully convinced that a particular course of action is good, when it is in fact not. For example, some Nazis really believed that murdering Jewish people was right and necessary. Surely their sense of commitment does not justify their actions! This is quite difficult to defend and therefore weakens the case for subjectivity in ethics.
Morality Across Cultures
What is more, views of morality in different cultures have more in common than is sometimes presumed. A recent anthropology study published by Oxford even suggests that there are seven moral rules found all around the world.2 The study incorporates sixty societies on different continents and concludes that all people groups agree on the moral goodness of such actions as “help your group” and “return favors.” Equally important, none of the societies researched saw these actions as morally wrong.
Indeed, differences in cultural practice do not necessarily represent differences in moral viewpoints. For instance, some groups such as Buddhists see cremation as an honorable funeral practice. In contrast, Jewish culture considers cremation a desecration of the body, calling instead for a traditional burial. Although the two customs are quite different, the intent is not. Both cultures seek to respect their community’s dead; they simply represent two perspectives on how to do that. When the underlying values of various cultures are examined, we often have more in common than we initially thought.
Biblical Morality is Objective
The Bible contains many moral statements—things that we should and should not do. These are not, however, the demands of an unyielding authoritarian figure. Rather, God, whose perspective and understanding far exceed our own, tells us how to live in a way that allows us and our communities to thrive. Objective moral standards rooted in God’s good character, rather than subjective opinion, offer the greatest plea for justice in an often-dark world. Objective morality empowers us to confront injustice with consistency and to love people around us as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:36–40).
- Garrett DeWeese and J. P. Moreland, Making Philosophy Slightly Less Difficult (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2005), 86.
- Seven Moral Rules Found All Around the World.” Oxford News, February 11, 2019, https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2019-02-11-seven-moral-rules-found-all-around-world (accessed August 22, 2020). Although this study credits universal moral principles to evolution (the idea being that the species is more likely to survive when its members cooperate), we believe that a better explanation is the loving character of God who created the universe and made people with an innate sense of right and wrong.