Morality is Subjective

When someone says that a person really “sticks with their morals,” it’s usually a good thing. It means that the person is able to stay on the straight and narrow, never faulting from their beliefs, and is a great example to emulate. But what exactly is “morality,” and how do we define our morals?

Dictionary.com defines “morals” as “principles or habits with respect to right or wrong conduct” (definition 11, under noun). That’s fine and dandy; we can appreciate someone who knows right from wrong, and continues to choose right over wrong at any point in time.

But what is “right” and what is “wrong”? Is there a universal definition for those terms in every scenario? The answer is unfortunately and resoundingly “no.”

There is a reason there are so many moral dilemma scenarios out there. It’s a great experiment into how flimsy morals are. I love playing them, because I love seeing how people who strictly believe that murder is wrong sweat over a scenario like the following:

You are a switchboard manager of a train station. There is a train that has lost control and is moving down the tracks at an amazingly fast speed. On the tracks ahead are 5 people who will be killed without a doubt if nothing is done. There is a switch that you have control over that will send the train on a sideline. On this sideline also without a doubt 1 person will be killed. The choice is yours what do you do? Do you save the 5 people, by killing the 1 person? Or do you use the switch and have the 1 person standing on the other sideline track killed?

What would you do? Many would immediately say to throw the switch, because losing one life is less costly than losing five lives. That’s a very noble answer.

But then comes the morality of the question: by flipping the switch, you have committed murder. You have intentionally used an object (here being a train) to end a human life. However, if you let the train go and kill the other five on the track, there was nothing you can do, it was beyond your control, and you can wash your hands of it all.

But suddenly, a new layer comes: is it better to live with the guilt of killing one person, or the guilt of knowing you could have saved five lives? Obviously having the burden of five innocent lives on your heart would be terrible, and it would be easier to know that the one life you ended allowed five more people to live.

Then there is another one of my favorites: You manage to go back in time and you are in a room with a 3-year-old Adolph Hitler. You have a gun in your hand and are fully aware of what happens during WWII, but at this point, the baby is innocent. Do you kill little Hitler, or do you let him live?

The immediate response is to kill Hitler. He’s Hitler, you know what he does, and you save over 6 million lives. However, at this point, the kid is innocent. He’s three years old, and hasn’t done anything. If anyone found out that you killed a young, defenseless child, you would be ostracized and exiled. (Click here for more excellent moral dilemmas.)

The point is, morality is subjective. We can see it across cultures, and even looking back through history. Today, it is immoral to have sex with young children, yet in places like Mexico and the Philipines, the age of consent is as low as 12 years old, and in ancient Grecian times, it was not uncommon to masters of trades to have relations with their younger, male apprentices.

Today, it is immoral for a man to hit a woman, yet not more than 50 years ago, it was encouraged to occasionally smack a woman to let her know that what she was doing is unfavorable.

Even in cases that don’t really matter much, such as swearing, people have completely different views. Some such as myself, have no problem dropping the occasionaly curse word, because it is part of this culture’s lexicon; but I also know others who have never dropped a curse word in their lives, and will backpedal like crazy if they’re caught doing something so “morally wrong.”

The purpose of morals is to make sure we differentiate right from wrong, but there are so many definitions of both that it’s impossible for everyone to be on the same page. Where some people feel that sex before marriage is immoral, others have no problem with it.

Probably the biggest issue of this all, though, comes from people who claim to be part of the “moral majority,” speaking out against the sins of the world, and eventually are caught in the act of those sins they were speaking out against. Most recently that person was Republican Senator Roy Ashburn, who was arrested for DUI after leaving a gay nightclub. Senator Ashburn later came out to a radio host, saying, “Those are the words that have been so difficult for me for so long.”

I’m not condoning either side of any of the issues laid out in this blog. In fact, I’m all about having people voice their own opinions on issues laid out in this blog, as well as the many, many issues that crop up every day. All I’m saying is that if we’re going to praise someone for sticking to their morals, we better know what those morals are.

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2 Responses to “Morality is Subjective”

  1. I never praise someone for “sticking to their morals” unless they hold to a good set of morals. I would not, for example, commend a terrorist for bombing innocent people, though that would undoubtedly be a demonstration of ultimate commitment to their morals.

  2. Fine and cogent article. Good work.

    The only problem I see for thinking that morality is subjective is that it’s difficult to criticize other cultures for morally “abhorrent” practices.

    Some cases, while debatable, are reasonable. For example, it doesn’t seem outlandish to say that we should not criticize certain Muslims for imposing the burkha on their women. It seems a tad more outlandish to say that we shouldn’t criticize them for imposing life-threatening medical restrictions to “impure” pregnant women, such as the prohibition to touch (and thus to wash) their sexual organs. And it’s even more outlandish to say that we shouldn’t criticize them for flogging and stoning victims of rape.

    And since in a moral debate the probability that Jesus or Hitler will be cited grows exponentially with every minute (!), it’s extremely outlandish to say that we shouldn’t criticize the Nazis for performing ethnic cleansing on a worldwide scale.

    My point is that there appear to be indubitable moral truths inextricably linked to our being human. These may not be absolute (i.e., may not be “woven into the fabric of the universe” or anything that grandiose), but they may very well be objective, i.e., shared by all exponents of a given species. One such moral truth seems to be that whatever is alive has a right to remain alive, although even this one seems to need qualification from time to time.

    So while I agree that morality must be to some extent subjective, I don’t think that’s the whole story. Much work in moral philosophy in the last 7-8 decades has been on how to ground objective moral truths in something other than crazed fundamentalist religion, and if that is even possible. It seems like we want it to be, and if it isn’t, then we may be in trouble.

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