February 26, 2010

Are Morals Wholly Subjective?

Ted Bundy in custody

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, February 25, 2010

Are morals wholly subjective?

A few weeks ago in Apologia, I examined a presently popular view of ethics known as moral relativism. According to moral relativism, there are no moral principles or values objectively real and applicable to everyone; rather, what’s right/wrong or good/bad essentially depends on individual preference or culture, and this varies from person to person or group to group.

I evaluated moral relativism via an argument strategy known as reductio ad absurdum or the absurd consequences move. That is, to show that moral relativism is problematic, I assumed, temporarily for the sake of argument, that the view is true. If the logical consequences of the assumed truth of moral relativism are false or otherwise deeply problematic, then it follows logically that moral relativism is false or otherwise deeply problematic, or both.

I then set out various logical consequences that are false or otherwise deeply problematic. Hence, I concluded, there are good reasons for rejecting moral relativism. (For a review, see here and here.)

I think that my reductio ad absurdum arguments are strong (from the point of view of good reasoning and truth). Nevertheless, I would like to add one more argument against moral relativism, especially in its individualistic form (a.k.a. moral subjectivism), as a reply to those persons who still might think that we needn’t be concerned about whether morality is wholly subjective.

More specifically, I wish to respond to the shoulder-shrugging dismissive attitude toward careful moral thinking summed up in the all-too-popular mind-numbing mantra “whatever.”

Here, then, is my response. It’s a paraphrase of a tape-recorded conversation between serial murderer Ted Bundy and one of his victims:

"Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments,’ that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments.

“Believe it or not, I figured out for myself—what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself—that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring—the strength of character—to throw off its shackles….I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited.

“And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others?’ Other human beings, with human rights?

“Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’?

“In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure that I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me—after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self."

[Ted Bundy (proponent of wholly subjective ethics and murderer of at least 20 women), cited in Louis P. Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, 3rd edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, 1999), 31-32.]

Surely, we should be concerned when right and wrong are alleged to be wholly subjective. Surely, too, shrugging off careful moral thinking with “whatever” is socially irresponsible as well as morally repugnant.

Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, ManitobaThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.

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