Sunday, July 1, 2018

Can Objective Morality be Subjectively Perceived?

The Objection

One objection I’ve seen to objective morality on the internet, in one form or another, goes something like this: we use subjectively experienced intuition to believe in objective morality. This, somehow, is supposed to argue against objective morality or at least our justification for it. If belief in objective morality relies on subjective intuition, how can morality be objective if it’s subjectively perceived? Doesn’t the fact that supposedly objective morality is subjectively perceived mean we don’t really have any justification for accepting moral objectivism?

The answer to both questions is, “No.”


First, note that in practice, everything we know about is subjectively perceived; our own perceptions (intuitive and sensory) are all we have to go on. Yes, we can ask other people to see if they share our experiences, but the perception that there even are other people relies on, you guessed it, our own subjective experiences. At the end of the day, subjective experiences, i.e. the experiences of the self, are used to justify all of our beliefs. The fact that something is subjectively perceived thus doesn’t imply that it isn’t objectively real; e.g. my subjective experiences can report a tree existing with that tree being objectively real.

Second, some perceived truth being believed on the basis of subjectively experienced intuition doesn’t imply that the truth isn’t objective, even when people have disagreeing intuitions. If for example someone’s logic intuition told them there could be a married bachelor despite the self-contradiction, whereas your rational intuition says such a self-contradictory thing cannot exist, you’re still justified in believing that There can’t be any married bachelors is objectively true.

Or to use an example perhaps closer to real life, suppose a creationist and evolutionist look at the same data, but have differing intuitive perceptions about where that evidence points (the evolutionist thinks it’s evidence for evolution, the creationist disagrees). Does that mean there’s no objective fact of the matter about whether the data is evidence for evolution? Clearly not. Disagreeing, subjectively experienced intuitions do not imply that the intuitively perceived truths are not objective, nor do such disagreeing intuitions imply that we can’t be justified in believing them to be objectively true.


So how do confused objections like, “Morality is subjectively perceived, so it’s not objective” arise? Perhaps one reason for the confusion is a conflation between moral epistemology (how moral truths are known) with moral ontology (the reality of morality; e.g. whether it’s objective or subjective). The moral epistemology may, in one sense, be subjective. But it doesn’t follow that the moral truths themselves are not objective.