Is Morality Only in the Eye of the Beholder?

Is Morality Only in the Eye of the Beholder?

Helping people see the illogical quagmire of ethical subjectivism

In Romans 12:2, the Apostle Paul warns the Roman church to stop conforming to the “patterns of the world” and implores them instead to “be transformed” by the renewing of their minds. Just as ancient Rome had its particular zeitgeist (a German term referring to “the spirit of the age,” the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of a time period), so do the nations of the 21st century.

One of the patterns of the world the Christians in our age must resist and expose is relativism (the denial of absolute truth and morality). Of course, relativistic thinking permeates the marketplace of ideas in present-day America (consider such trends as pluralism, multi-culturalism, political correctness, so-called tolerance, and especially postmodernism.) Yet relativism, in terms of both truth and ethics, is a direct challenge to the integrity of the Christian faith. And the ethical relativism this article focuses upon is a particularly pervasive type.

Defining ethical subjectivism

While ethical relativism comes in several shapes, its most individualistic expression is ethical subjectivism. Ethical subjectivism says that the criteria for what is considered morally right or wrong is “the individual’s perceptions, opinions, experiences, inclinations, and desires.”[1]

Ethical subjectivism denies the existence of absolute, unchanging, universal moral standards. Instead, it views ethical values as being private, individual, and subjective in nature (moral statements thus reflect no more than the subjective thinking or feelings of the speaker). Statements typical to the ethical subjectivist position include these: “Morality, like beauty, is in the eye of beholder:” and “There are no objective moral absolutes.” But its most descriptive statement is this: “Whatever a person thinks is right is right.”[2]

While many people today find ethical subjectivism appealing, it simply cannot withstand the rigorous logical analysis that any formal ethical theory should. The illogic of ethical subjectivism is simply insurmountable.

Nine criticisms of E.S.

1. Ethical subjectivism assumes that no one can be wrong about his or her moral views. As philosopher Ed Miller points out: “[I]f the individual is the basis of moral truth, then none of us could ever be mistaken in our moral opinions, for whatever we believe must be true.”[3]

But if right is what each person thinks is right, then can anything be wrong? Is it reasonable to conclude that the practice of slavery is simultaneously both a noble act and a reprehensible one? Is it coherent to conclude that Martin Luther King and the Ku Klux Klan were both right about civil rights?

Can we accept an ethical theory which implies that everyone’s view of the Holocaust is right including Adolf Hitler’s? Is abusing children right simply because the abuser thinks it’s right? If some people are just plain wrong in their ethical thinking (which seems intuitively obvious), then ethical subjectivism must be false.

2. Ethical subjectivism leaves no possibility for moral reform. If what a person thinks is right is right, then no one would ever need to change his or her moral point of view. Yet isn’t this conclusion counter-intuitive to our ethical deliberations that frequently necessitate the need for moral reform?

Doesn’t ethical subjectivism completely rule out the need for such moral reformers as Moses, Jesus, Wilberforce, Gandhi, and King?

3. Ethical subjectivism, then, by its very definition, rules out the possibility of moral progress. Christian philosopher Ronald Nash comments:

If we accept ethical relativism, there can be no such thing as moral progress, either for individuals or for larger social groups. This would mean that the end of slavery in the United States was not a sign of moral advancement. Nor could it ever be possible for a human being to become a better person. Genuine moral progress cannot exist in a universe without there being some transcendent and objective moral standard by which we can judge progress.[4]

4. Ethical subjectivism fails to make the crucial distinction between our opinions about morality and morality itself. Some may object that this criticism seems to beg the question at hand. However, this important distinction is necessary to all moral deliberation. To perform authentic ethical thinking and adjudicate between alternative points of view, one must make distinctions between our opinions about morality and morality itself, or there simply is no such thing as ethical deliberation.

5. Ethical subjectivism reduces morality and moral deliberation to personal tastes—thus eliminating any possibility of rational argument in support of a moral judgment. Philosopher Louis P. Pojman explains: “This form of moral subjectivism has a sorry consequence: It makes morality a useless concept, for, on its premises, little or no interpersonal criticism or judgment is logically possible.”[5] If morality is synonymous with our feelings, our likes, or our dislikes, then rational considerations have no proper application. Ethical subjectivism offers no place for logical analysis and argument.

6. Ethical subjectivism undermines the very concept of morality by removing its prescriptive nature. Morality involves such concepts as “should” and “ought,” whereas ethical subjectivism reduces morality to personal tastes and feelings. Rather than being prescriptive, ethical subjectivism is merely a descriptive statement of morality. As Louis P. Pojman notes: “There seems to be a contradiction between subjectivism and the very concept of morality…”[6]

7. Ethical subjectivism fails to distinguish between virtue and vice. According to ethical subjectivism, Adolf Hitler was just as normal as Mother Teresa was, so long as each did what he or she thought was right. The specific individual actions of these two persons are an irrelevant consideration for the ethical subjectivist.

8. Ethical subjectivism is unlivable. To affirm ethical subjectivism means that one can never condemn the moral decisions and actions of others. But all people do just that. To some extent we all impose our morality on others. It is virtually impossible to live consistently with the affirmation of ethical subjectivism.

9. Ethical subjectivism depends on the untenable position that morality is invented, rather than discovered. But if morality is merely a human convention, then it lacks an objective foundation and cannot truly be understood as prescriptive morality.

If morality is invented, then there really is no ultimate right or wrong. It must be understood that acting in an expedient or convenient or pragmatic way does not equate with prescriptive morality. It is important for the secularists to understand that while self interest and prescriptive morality may overlap, they are not exactly the same.

So ethics based on conventional wisdom provide no compelling reason for people to be moral. In a world truly without objective values, a person might choose to live like Mother Teresa rather than like Adolf Hitler, but that decision would be totally personal and value-free, much like choosing Coke instead of Pepsi.[7] In fact, in a world where ethics are invented, it would be just as acceptable to model one’s life after Hitler.

Subjectivist ethics also fail to explain mankind’s conscious awareness of moral obligation. Any careful reflection on these moral obligations will indicate that they are certainly more than mere transitory or culturally imposed feelings. Ultimately, the subjectivist approach to morality collapses because it lacks an adequate metaphysical basis (a transcendent and morally perfect one, like the God of the Bible).[8]

Ethical principles cannot exist in a metaphysical vacuum; they need a ground or foundation that can justify them. Unlike secular ethics, Christian ethics are grounded in the holy, just, righteous, and loving nature of God. And this God has decisively revealed Himself in the historical person of Jesus Christ.

Clearly, ethical subjectivism is a shallow and incoherent approach to moral values. Given the importance of morality, no one can afford to settle for deficient ideas about it.

  1. Ed L. Miller, Questions That Matter (New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1996), 403. This excellent introduction to philosophy contains a brief but helpful discussion of ethical relativism (see pp. 402-406). I utilize a couple of Miller’s arguments against ethical relativism in this article.
  2. Richard L. Purtill, Thinking about Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976), 3.
  3. Miller, 405.
  4. Ronald H. Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 345.
  5. Louis P. Pojman, Philosophy: The Pursuit of Wisdom (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998), p. 271. I utilize a couple of Pojman’s arguments against ethical relativism in this article (see 270-276).
  6. Pojman, 272.
  7. As a philosopher, I have metaphysical reasons for preferring Coke over Pepsi: metaphysics is the study of reality, and Coke is, after all, the “real thing.”
  8. See George Mavrodes, “Religion and the Queerness of Morality,” in New Essays in Philosophy of Religion, eds. Robert R. Audi and William Wainwright (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986).