Does a subjective notion of good and evil have meaning?

In his latest ‘Thought of the Day‘, in which atheist Michael Hawkins offers us his profound wisdom, he makes this statement:

I see no reasoning given as to why good and evil ultimately being subjective also automatically makes them meaningless. The only argument ever put forth is that subjective morality = meaningless. That’s a bad equation.

I am always suspect of someone who ‘sees no reason’ for something, and then goes on to give a reason, however weak a strawman that reason is.

As usual when we parse these sort of statements we have to walk back a bit and ask a few questions – for example, how do we know what evil and good are to begin with? Who gets to say what is evil and good? If evil and good are merely the inclinations of individuals, then why would they be universally considered? What is the relationnship of evil to good?

That last question is the one I think I have always found to be the most misunderstood. Often when we consider the nature of evil, we think of it as having a reality like ‘good’ does – as if there is some list of evil standards which evil adheres to. But in fact this is not the Christian view of evil; it is not the polar opposite of good, but instead the absence of good. In this sense we can compare it to darkness – darkness isn’t a thing in and of itself, but the absence of light.

In the same way, for a Christian, ‘good’ is not merely a set of standards or rules, but proceeds from the nature of God Himself – in other words what is good are actions which are consistent with what God is. This is why the origination of why it is wrong to kill innocents doesn’t come from the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’, but farther back, where Noah is told murder is a capital crime because man is made “in the image of God.” That is, murder is an assault on the image of God Himself – which is a contrasted with the death of any other living creature. It is an assault on the good.

Understanding evil this way also explains why Jesus was able to sum up the law into two statements – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”, and “You shall love you neighbor as yourself“. All acts of evil are contrary to these two imperatives, because they are absent the love we are to have for God and in every person who incorporates His image.

So the objectivity of evil is a given if we agree that good can exist as an objective standard of behavior. Of course that brings us back to Michael’s argument – that subjective good can have meaning. I would say that obviously it can have meaning to an individual – but I don’t think that matters once you have more than one person in the conversation, i.e. that subjective view of good has no bearing on those who don’t share it. So it has little value (or meaning) beyond informing the actions of the individual who holds to that view of what is ‘good’. So the statement then becomes, subjective morality only has meaning for those who hold that particular standard of morality. That isn’t an argument against subjective morality per se, but it with the following example we can show why subjective morality fails to be generally meaningful.

We can see this by considering a particular idea of ‘good’ held by a particular group, for example that of the Nazi’s. In their purview, it is ‘good to eliminate undesirable persons’. If moral views are subjective, then obviously this view has meaning for the Nazi’s – the problem of course comes for those who hold an alternate view, say, “it is wrong to intentionally kill innocent persons”, which if morality is subjective, would also have meaning only for those who adhere to it.

What then of the inevitable clash that occurs between these two views? The minute we assert one over the other, we assert the objective rightness of that view – and so undermine the notion of a subjective morality. Of course in asserting an objective rightness of a particular view, we revert to the earlier questions I asked in this post – how do we know our view of morality is the objectively right one? Why do I get to say what is right (as opposed to the Nazi’s)? etc.

And of course the Christian has response to this – because what is good is embodied in the nature and existence of a real eternal Creator, who has articulated that good to us in the form that provides a basis for it. One may not agree with that statement, but it provides a rational foundation for asserting the existence objective good – the naturalist has no such basis to offer, other than personal preference, and so the subjective good he claims, while it may have meaning for him, does not allow us to formulate generalized standards of good.

It is in this sense that the idea of subjective good (and evil) fails.

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7 Responses to Does a subjective notion of good and evil have meaning?

  1. I am always suspect of someone who ’sees no reason’ for something,

    So you aren’t especially concerned with what words mean? I said I see no reasoning. In other words, “subjective = meaningless” isn’t ever explained, but rather taken for granted. I’m asking why is subjectivity meaningless.

    s usual when we parse these sort of statements we have to walk back a bit and ask a few questions

    Like why someone cannot tell the difference between “reason” and “reasoning”?

    As usual when we parse these sort of statements we have to walk back a bit and ask a few questions – for example, how do we know what evil and good are to begin with? Who gets to say what is evil and good? If evil and good are merely the inclinations of individuals, then why would they be universally considered? What is the relationnship of evil to good?

    This has nothing to do with any “sort of statement”. This is precisely the topic. I want the reasoning.

    The minute we assert one over the other, we assert the objective rightness of that view – and so undermine the notion of a subjective morality.

    You need to go back further than that. The Nazi claim can be undermined without undermining the alternative because their basis is that there is some inherent difference between races and groups. This is factually false.

    And of course the Christian has response to this – because what is good is embodied in the nature and existence of a real eternal Creator, who has articulated that good to us in the form that provides a basis for it.

    Let’s just cut to where this is going and have you list the excuses for why you won’t stone a man to death in the circumstances the Bible says you must. Then, when those excuses show themselves as pitiful cherry-picking, we will see that you actually don’t use your so-called objective basis, but instead derive your morality from elsewhere.

  2. jackhudson says:

    So you aren’t especially concerned with what words mean? I said I see no reasoning. In other words, “subjective = meaningless” isn’t ever explained, but rather taken for granted. I’m asking why is subjectivity meaningless.

    You actually said, “The only argument ever put forth is that subjective morality = meaningless.” . Last I check an argument was a form of reasoning. You may not like the reasons, or they might be insufficient for your purposes, yet by calling them an argument you are acknowledging they are a means of reasoning. Either way, I provided plenty of reasoning, all of which you failed to address, an apparent concession on your part.

    You need to go back further than that. The Nazi claim can be undermined without undermining the alternative because their basis is that there is some inherent difference between races and groups. This is factually false.

    Actually the Nazi’s started with the infirm and the insane. Obviously a group, like those with Down’s Syndrome, are inherently different both genetically and mentally from other groups; whether or not we should eliminate them is still a matter of morality, one that you seem to suggest here is acceptable.

    Let’s just cut to where this is going and have you list the excuses for why you won’t stone a man to death in the circumstances the Bible says you must. Then, when those excuses show themselves as pitiful cherry-picking, we will see that you actually don’t use your so-called objective basis, but instead derive your morality from elsewhere.

    You mean cut past the part where you show how to derive an objective morality from a naturalistic perspective? I think not; I made no such excuses.

  3. You actually said, “The only argument ever put forth is that subjective morality = meaningless.” . Last I check an argument was a form of reasoning. You may not like the reasons, or they might be insufficient for your purposes, yet by calling them an argument you are acknowledging they are a means of reasoning. Either way, I provided plenty of reasoning, all of which you failed to address, an apparent concession on your part.

    It’s an argument in the sense that dogs = awesome is an argument.

    And I addressed your points. Where you went on about the Christian perspective I ignored because it isn’t important here.

    Actually the Nazi’s started with the infirm and the insane. Obviously a group, like those with Down’s Syndrome, are inherently different both genetically and mentally from other groups; whether or not we should eliminate them is still a matter of morality, one that you seem to suggest here is acceptable.

    You still need to go back further. The Nazis undermined the universal imperative that murder is wrong. They can’t maintain (in a consistent philosophy) that murder is wrong in one instance but okay in another (and to save time, note that there is a distinction between “murder” and “killing”). When you get to that point, the specifics of what the Nazis did is irrelevant because the question becomes what makes murder wrong.

    You mean cut past the part where you show how to derive an objective morality from a naturalistic perspective? I think not; I made no such excuses.

    I have no intention of showing an objective morality. If you read my post again, you’ll see that I’m implying that a subjective morality does not equal meaninglessness. (Incidentally, if “Subjective morality equals meaninglessness” is a valid argument, then inserting “does not” into it is equally valid and the two cancel each other out. Of course, this is just “dogs are awesome” all over again.)

    But you still need to account for why, if God says one should stone a man to death for X ‘crime’, why you (hopefully) think it is actually bad to do that.

  4. Tom says:

    Hi Jack,

    It seems like you and Michael have discussed this topic before so feel free to point me towards any answer you may have already written, but for my own benefit could you tell me your stance on the Israelites slaughter of women and children? If you were an Israelite at that time would you have killed women and children as commanded?

    I’m not being facetious, surely these types of questions are central to the idea of objective Christian morality?

  5. jackhudson says:

    It seems like you and Michael have discussed this topic before so feel free to point me towards any answer you may have already written, but for my own benefit could you tell me your stance on the Israelites slaughter of women and children? If you were an Israelite at that time would you have killed women and children as commanded?

    I’m not being facetious, surely these types of questions are central to the idea of objective Christian morality?

    My stance is that such events don’t make subjective morality more meaningful.

  6. jackhudson says:

    It’s an argument in the sense that dogs = awesome is an argument.
    And I addressed your points. Where you went on about the Christian perspective I ignored because it isn’t important here.

    Actually you didn’t even touch on my points; nothing you have said yet gives subjective morality any meaning beyond personal preference.

    You still need to go back further. The Nazis undermined the universal imperative that murder is wrong.

    ‘Universal imperative’. Wow Micheal, that sounds like an objective standard of evil. Of course, it’s one that is frequently abrogated in history, so it certainly isn’t ’universal’ in the sense that it is adopted universally as a standard of behavior – the state and individuals kill innocent people all the time; so how is murder both a universal imperative, and also an imperative that is regularly ignored?

    They can’t maintain (in a consistent philosophy) that murder is wrong in one instance but okay in another (and to save time, note that there is a distinction between “murder” and “killing”). When you get to that point, the specifics of what the Nazis did is irrelevant because the question becomes what makes murder wrong.

    Well, that brings us back to origins; how is it humans have this imperative that they just can’t seem to follow? And if we can’t follow it, why do we see it as wrong? Christians have an answer for that, I see none in naturalism.

    I have no intention of showing an objective morality. If you read my post again, you’ll see that I’m implying that a subjective morality does not equal meaninglessness. (Incidentally, if “Subjective morality equals meaninglessness” is a valid argument, then inserting “does not” into it is equally valid and the two cancel each other out. Of course, this is just “dogs are awesome” all over again.)

    I have shown why a subjective morality is generally meaningless; you have done nothing to demonstrate otherwise.

    But you still need to account for why, if God says one should stone a man to death for X ‘crime’, why you (hopefully) think it is actually bad to do that.

    No, actually I don’t. My proof that subjective morality is generally meaningless doesn’t depend on this at all, but on the reality that a morality that has no common standard of measure is worthless.

  7. ‘Universal imperative’. Wow Micheal, that sounds like an objective standard of evil. Of course, it’s one that is frequently abrogated in history, so it certainly isn’t ’universal’ in the sense that it is adopted universally as a standard of behavior – the state and individuals kill innocent people all the time; so how is murder both a universal imperative, and also an imperative that is regularly ignored?

    I’m not sure you understand – in the least – what universal imperative means in this context. I wasn’t specifically invoking Kant, but the term should be viewed much the same as his categorical imperative.

    Well, that brings us back to origins; how is it humans have this imperative that they just can’t seem to follow? And if we can’t follow it, why do we see it as wrong? Christians have an answer for that, I see none in naturalism.

    See above response, review terms, readdress.

    I have shown why a subjective morality is generally meaningless; you have done nothing to demonstrate otherwise.

    You said that subjective morality only holds meaning for those who agree to a certain standard. Ignoring that the same can be said of ‘objective’ morality since, ultimately, its concept comes down to individual perceptions, you’ve just admitted that subjective morality does, indeed, have meaning. You then conclude that since it has meaning it is generally meaningless.

    The more interesting route would be to ask if most humans have the same or sufficiently similar standards. I mean, really at the base of it all. Do most humans hold some innate, perhaps once an instinctive, standard?

    No, actually I don’t. My proof that subjective morality is generally meaningless doesn’t depend on this at all,

    I didn’t say you need to offer such a defense as a matter of showing anything about subjective morality. Refer back through the discussion. You specifically raised the Christian response. That opens the door to you needing to account for why you (may) disagree with God’s morality.

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