Remind me to never, ever argue with theists about whether morality is subjective again. My contention is pretty simple:
Morality is subjective because humans are subjects who assign values to things.
It’s a tautology, and it is self-evident. It is as self-evident as a statement can get. It needs no argument, no substantiation, and no more evidence than direct experience. We are humans, and we assign values to things. As we are subjective beings and our experiences and existences are subjective, it follows that the values we assign are subjective.
Then theists come along and say, “No! The values we assign are objective!”
Why are we even discussing this? The burden of proof is so obviously and completely on the people arguing for objective morality that no more of my time should be wasted trying to explain a tautology. If you want to argue that the values you assign are objective, then you have to demonstrate the source of those objective values. Until you can do that, the entire conversation is moot.
So I spent a little while arguing on Facebook–banging my head against the wall would be more accurate–and in the course of the conversation I said two things that really pissed people off:
That is utter nonsense.
You can’t possibly be that thick.
These were taken as personal attacks. I’ll grant that the second one comes pretty close to being a personal attack, but the first one is obviously not. “That is utter nonsense” clearly refers to a statement, and not a person. Ergo, the statement has been attacked. What statement did I attack?
I’m not going back to the thread right now because they’ve kept going and I’ve washed my hands of it, but basically I pointed out that the very fact that we have disagreements about what is moral and what is immoral is strong evidence that morality is subjective. He replied something to the effect of, “So if one person thinks that something is more morally wrong than someone else does, obviously he’s measuring that with some objective criteria.”
No, it doesn’t make sense. Yes, it’s obviously utter nonsense. It’s such utter nonsense that it’s honestly not even wrong, and I wouldn’t begin to know how to explain what is wrong with it. So that two people use internal criteria to assign different subjective values to things is somehow a demonstrate of some external, objective criteria? What? When the guy threw this statement back at me as a “personal insult,” I gladly stood by it. What he said was nonsense. “The sky is blue because the sky is blue, so clearly the sky is red.”
And no. No one can possibly be thick enough to believe such a ridiculous statement. These two insults were tied to the same comment, I should point out; I said them both in reply to this utter nonsense. I stand by that, as well. No one can be thick enough to really believe something so horrifically nonsensical.
But it’s not my goal here to reiterate the argument. They are responding too quickly and Facebook’s medium too limited for it to take place effectively. Moreover, they are repeating themselves and denying that the burden of proof is on them, even though my contention, from the start, has been that morality is subjective because we are subjective individuals and we assign values to things.
Tell me: how shall I convince you that a circle is round?
For more than a decade, I have been arguing with people on the Internet and discussing things with people. I have engaged in undoubtedly thousands of online arguments, started probably a fourth of those. And in my career of arguing with people online, I have never been called “emotional” or “overly emotional.”
Until last year, when I officially switched from being a male to being Aria.
In the past year, I have been called “overly emotional” at least ten times in various online arguments. I am not exaggerating when I say that this never happened when I presented myself as a guy. It never happened, and no one who knows me could agree that I’m prone to becoming emotional in discussions. If I was, I wouldn’t have evolved from pro-life Republican and die-hard Christian to dyed-in-the-wool socialist liberal to pro-choice anarcho-capitalist. My loyalty is to reason, not to emotion, and I’ve written a goddamned book on Nihilism, which is an utter rejection of emotional thinking. It’s not finished, though it’s about 200 pages in.
It wasn’t even that long ago that Thomas Knapp corrected my position on libertarians and abortion, by making me see that I was wrong, and that pro-life people weren’t automatically un-libertarian. Yes, I’m so emotional I reversed my old position because it couldn’t be rationally supported. Totally ruled by my emotions. It totally explains why I’m still saying that Austin Petersen isn’t a libertarian because he’s pro-life.
Except… Oh, wait. I did change my position. I did ease up on Austin Petersen. I still don’t think he’s a libertarian, but it’s because he rejects the NAP, not because of his abortion stance. Recently I wrote specifically about abortion and that libertarianism isn’t automatically pro-life or pro-abortion. This is where a bit of a fracture comes in, as you can see in the comments there. I’m also not a big fan of abortion. I’m really not. I don’t think it’s right, because there are so many ways to prevent pregnancy in the first place. I’m 29, and I’ve only once gotten a girl pregnant. She aborted, but that was beyond my control, and it was only last year that it happened.
I’m certainly not pro-abortion, though. I’m pro-choice. Part of the problem is that most people do take “pro-choice” to mean “pro-abortion,” and it doesn’t really mean that. It means pro-choice. It means being in favor of people having the choice to get an abortion if they so choose, not being happy about them getting an abortion. A pro-choice person can still choose to reject abortion and condemn it, after all.
Recently, a girl on Twitter challenged me to demonstrate sexism in the United States. No, I honestly can’t do that. I could, if I cared to spend the time doing it. I could run two simultaneous online presences for the next year, carefully tabulating the results that I get. It would take too much effort, though, and it’s not worth it to me. I know what I’ve experienced.
And what I’ve experienced is that no one ever accused me of being overly emotional until they knew I was a female. Yes, the anarcho-capitalist who recently made a video called “What is Capitalism?” that said “being poor is a state of mind” is “overly emotional.” For pointing out that an argument is absurd and undermines its own point, and for saying that the person who made the argument couldn’t possibly be “thick” enough to believe it–which some could take as a compliment, honestly–I’m “overly emotional.”
And no one ever said that to me when I wasn’t wearing lipstick, you know?
As a cool little bonus, because this came out shorter and filled with more digression than I wanted, here is a chapter from Shattering the American Illusion that I’ve been writing.
Chapter 6: Morality
Warning: We are about to ask a LOT of “What if…?” questions.
Many arguments are presented by theists in an attempt to give their god something to do, and one of the most common among these is something along the lines of, “Oh, yeah? If there’s no God, then how do you explain morality? Western Law is built on the Ten Commandments!” Before we proceed much further, let’s stop and bask in the unabashed glory of this argument—and the one that says “America was built on Christianity!”
A precursory glance at the latter claim will reveal why Science and Christianity have stood at odds for so long: a little bit of reading is a very dangerous thing, especially to the theistic reasoning. Written in 1796, under the leadership of George Washington and John Adams (two of the people directly responsible for the creation of “America”), the Treaty of Tripoli is as follows:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of [Muslims]; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries (Dawkins “God” 40).
Let no more be said (ever, preferably) of the idea that the United States was founded on the religion of Christianity. At best, what can be said is that our ancestors fled to these shores to escape religious persecution and then embraced the notion of religious freedom, which requires a secular state by any measure. Not only did our forebears reject the notion of any state-sanctioned religion, they would be scandalized to see the state of American politics today, when a man or woman’s religious beliefs is listed as the second or third most important attribute of them (generally followed only by their name and political association—Democrat or Republican) (Dawkins “God” 40). This is a deplorable state. Using a person’s religious beliefs as a motivation for voting for or against them sets us on the path toward abolishing the separation of church and state.
Moving on to our main discussion, there is the question of morality and why humans have a notion of it if there is no god. Many ideas have been put forth to explain morality, but before we get into that, we must ask: “What is morality? What is moral behavior? What is immoral behavior?” These questions, whether you “feel” the answers intuitively in the form of examples you can easily imagine, are not really so simple to answer as “doing good” and “doing bad.” In fact, it’s very difficult to explain moral and immoral behavior without using words like “good” and “bad.”
In the simplest terms, moral behavior can probably be defined as “doing to others as one would have done to themselves,” and immoral behavior can be defined as “doing to others as one would not like to have done to themselves.” You’ll notice the teaching of Christ buried in this philosophy; that is not accidental or coincidental. I doubt you’ll ever find an atheist who claims that Christ had nothing useful to say (though what he said was certainly not original). At any rate, these definitions don’t really help us very much, because what one person would like might be different from what another person may like. One person may dislike what another person would like. One person may like what another person may be indifferent to. One person may be indifferent to what another person likes.
We have no “universal person” who we can use to make these assertions that any given act “would be liked” or “would be disliked.” So we haven’t really come any further with these definitions than if we simply had attributed them as “good” and “bad” behaviors. Henry Hazlitt, in The Foundations of Morality, likens moral behavior to attempts to “make an is from an ought,” and this is difficult to get into without explaining the context around which he says this (5). We’ll still show, after explaining what he means, that he’s wholly incorrect because “is” and “ought” are just as subjective as anything else we’ve tried so far.
“The world ought to have peace” would be an exemplar statement, but the problem here is obvious: the conditions we’ve created with the word “ought” are an illusory world that is most certainly not the one in which we live. In order to make such an “ought” statement, we must be capable of comparing the “world as it is” to a hypothetical “perfect” world wherein “what ought, is.” Making such a comparison, of course, requires being able to compare any two states of existence (regardless of the disparity between them), and this therefore goes quite a long way in explaining why dogs and cats don’t have such a system: they lack the cognitive processes to imagine this “world of oughts.”
“Women ought to have equal wages” would be another example, and it has the same problem; in the world currently, there is not peace and women, even in the United States (bastion of “freedom” though it is) women do not earn wages equal to men. In fact, one of the presidential debates of 2012 established that women earn 76% of what their male counterparts make.
Moral behavior, then, is a vehicle with which we travel from “what is” to “what ought be.” The actions we take toward establishing peace in the world (as ought be) would be considered moral actions, just as the actions we take toward giving women what they actually deserve would be considered moral behavior (as this is what ought be). Moral behavior is any action that decisively transitions “what is” toward “what ought be.” But this is a minefield of problems, because it automatically presumes that “the greater good” is better than “a local good,” and we can’t justify that.
For example, what if the only possible way, after every other avenue has been explored, to achieve world peace is to nuke the Middle East and turn the entire region into a deadened tundra of snow and ash? Do the many (the rest of the world) outweigh the needs of the few (the Middle East inhabitants)? Would we be justified in killing hundreds of millions of people if we were to spare some countless number of theoretical future victims from dying in needless wars?
I can’t answer this question for you; it is one you must ask and answer for yourself. But I presume that you, like me, would say, “Absolutely not.” I say this because the people in the Middle East are real—we can see them, touch them, love them. They feel as I feel, they think as I think, and they know as I know. The theoretical future people that may be spared from needless wars are not quite so real, even if they are potentially of infinite number. I cannot condone the sacrifice of real people to protect the lives of imagined people—and I sincerely hope that you cannot, either. My sense of empathy forbids it.
What about a simpler, less illusory example? What if you could go back in time to 1940 and kill Hitler? What if you knew that killing Hitler would (somehow) immediately end World War 2 and would cause all the imprisoned Jews to be released from the concentration camps? What if you knew (thanks to your coming from the future) that Hitler would go on to be responsible for all those deaths if he lived and you knew that a great many of those deaths would be prevented by the death of Hitler? You can kill him, press a button on your wristwatch, and return the present, with no negative repercussions on the world as a result of your tampering with the past. What if the only outcome of going back in time to kill Hitler was that there would have been deaths prevented and those people went on to live normal, productive lives? Would you kill him?
I tend to think the average reader would. If my intuitions are in touch with the average reader’s, then I am correct, because I know that I would kill Hitler in the above circumstances. That’s right: I would take the life of another human being. And I wouldn’t even feel slightly bad about it, and I doubt that you would, either. Why is this? Why is it that we can murder a human being and not feel, at the very least, immoral, much less can feel that it was the most moral thing we could have done? Why is it that you could approach a random person in the street and murder them, and this act would then be judged immoral, but you can murder Hitler and (I imagine most people would agree) the act would be judged moral?
In either case, you’re performing exactly the same act: killing another person. You might hold up a gun, take aim, and pull the trigger, ending the life of the victim—in both examples. But in one, you are moral (or, at the very least, morally neutral) and in one you are immoral.
This fundamental truth (that statements of moral value are subjective, rather than objective) is universally true, even for such contemptable acts as murder and rape. Though we would be hard-pressed to imagine up any scenario in which rape would be considered acceptable, we can do so, no matter how far-fetched that scenario might be. It follows, then, that rape cannot objectively be immoral, as it depends upon other factors and circumstances. Even though such circumstances would be so rare that they are unrealistic, any proclamations that we make that rape is immoral are still dependent upon circumstances that are almost always true.
The problem with moral claims is that they cannot be demonstrated, for the most part, as moral or immoral, because we lack omniscience and can never identify all of the effects of a given cause.
 The exact wording is “Musselmen,” which is antiquated term that means “Muslims.”
 “Mohammadan,” perhaps?
 We are so not going there.