In Defense of Subjectivism

Andrew Cohen’s latest post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians (“Against Subjectivism“) left me scratching my head, for a while. After a bit of pondering, I was able to sort it out. Here’s the gist of Cohen’s argument:

  • “Many people seem to think that whether a particular act is wrong cannot be determined objectively. Many, indeed, seem to think it is a purely subjective matter….”
  • “[T]he truth of a claim does not depend on my opinion, your opinion, or even our opinion.”
  • “[D]oes the fact—and I now assume we all agree it is a fact—that people have different opinions about whether God exists matter to the objectivity (or lack thereof) of the claim that God exists?”
  • “[T]he answer is obvious: none whatsoever. It is either the case that God exists or it is the case that he does not. One of those is the objective truth.”
  • Therefore, “why should morality … be any different? “

The only logically valid conclusion that one can draw from this disjointed argument is that there is or is not an objective morality: one that holds at all times, in all places, regardless of the varied and differing opinions of individuals. If that is Cohen’s point, I cannot disagree with him.

But Cohen seems to be defending the proposition that there is an objective morality. Consider the title of his post, and consider the following statement from the post:

Others think [morality] is a cultural matter: our society thinks the act is wrong so it is wrong for us; yours does not, so it is not for you. Obviously, I think this is misguided. Indeed, I think we should be seeking truth, where that should be read as “objective truth.”

Regarding morality, I fear that the only objective truths are these:

  • There are differing opinions about the source of morality.
  • There are varying, group-dependent conceptions of morality.
  • Despite the differing opinions and conceptions, moral codes may have key features in common (e.g., the prevalence of the Golden Rule across religions and even among irreligious people).

The commonality of key features proves nothing about the source of morality or its objective existence. It may be God-given; it may reflect an eternal Platonic form, which has an existence of its own; or it may be an culturally transmitted phenomenon that reflects certain “constants” human nature, namely, empathy and self-interest.

Somewhere in there lies an objective truth. My money is on human nature.

Related posts:
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
Evolution and the Golden Rule