What does it mean to say that moral judgements are subjective? Is the claim plausible? Questions concerning morality permeate through many different types of philosophy and thought. It relates to questions concerning the theory of knowledge, God, psychology and the nature of reality. This is because the idea of morality is connected with everything in human affairs and has so many different interpretations due to the diverse nature of human thought and culture. To say that moral judgements are subjective is also known as moral skepticism.
This does not mean to say that people who believe in this theory have rejected the principles of morality, but rather that morality is not objective. Moral skeptics draw an analogy between aesthetic and moral judgements to make this clearer. For example, a judgement such as “that work of art is beautiful” and “abortion is wrong” is similar in that they are derived from human preferences. One has only to show someone else the same painting and pose the same question to prove this as different people will give conflicting answers. This is basically J. L.
Mackie’s argument from cultural relativity. This states that it is in fact our culture which creates our moral beliefs, and not our moral beliefs which create our culture. If we take the time to travel to different cultures or read about past cultures in history, we can see the differences each holds concerning their view of what is morally right and wrong. For example, in some cultures it was seen as moral to kill yourself if your husband died. Nowadays however suicide in any form is seen as immoral. How can two contradictory ideas concerning morality be true if morality was indeed objective?
Here is an argument to show that this is not possible. Premise 1 Morality is objective Premise 2 In Culture X suicide is objectively immoral Premise 3 In Culture Y suicide is objectively moral Conclusion 1: Suicide is objectively moral Conclusion 2: Suicide is objectively immoral The conclusions obviously contradict each other and therefore must be false. Therefore one or more of the premises must also be false. Unfortunately we have no way in which to prove the truth or falsity of the second or third premise, but according to the first premise one of them must be false.
If however the claim to objectivity in the first premise is wrong, the contradiction does no longer hold as shown below. Premise 1 Morality is subjective Premise 2 Culture X sees suicide as immoral Premise 3 Culture Y sees suicide as moral Conclusion 1: Suicide is moral from culture X’s point of view Conclusion 2: Suicide is immoral from culture Y’s point of view The reason why morality appears as objective is because so many people share the same or similar views. This could be due to many factors such as similarities in human psychology.
Therefore people’s moralities seem to coincide but are actually due to coincidence and are inter-subjective. Mackie believes that it is due to human psychology that we objectify our values for practical purposes which he calls patterns of objectification. Another reason why we tend to objectify morality is due to the external pressures put on us by society. For example, if we were to steal something from someone and were caught we may be taken to court and condemned. Some may argue that this does not prove the subjectivity of morality, and that it requires a certain amount of faith or learning to understand the truth of morality.
Someone who believes that suicide is immoral may simply say that the differing view is false and based on ignorance. For morality to be objective, it would require either the existence of God, or a realm in which these moral entities would reside. Plato had a theory that everything existed in its perfect form in some sort of spirit like realm. Therefore, according to Plato, concepts which make up reality such as honesty and kindness would exist objectively in some kind of realm. At his time, Plato believed that one could arrive at knowledge of these forms through training and experience.