(I have revised this paper to correct my mistaken claim that morality is objective - a mistake for which I apologise. Better late than never.)


1 Moral rules

2 Moral assertions

3 Moral rationality

4 Is morality subjective or objective?

5 Why do we think morality is objective?

6 Theistic theories 

7 Moral relativism


Some believers think the existence of objective moral rules and values is evidence for a god. The so-called argument from objective morality is a mistake. But to see why, it helps to clarify what morality is in the first place.


1  Moral rules


Morals are rules for how we should treat each other, such as: be kind and do no harm. Most of us learn them, or the behaviour they promote, from early childhood. And because we are social animals, a human community or society is unlikely to thrive, or even exist for long, without at least some of them.


Rules are instructions, and they have no truth value. In their simplest form, they are commands. And it makes no sense to say a command such as do no harm is either true or false. That would be to misunderstand its purpose.


Commands such as be kind and do no harm are in the present tense. And this is significant when it comes to understanding the purpose of moral assertions.


2  Moral assertions


We can always express a moral rule in the form of an assertion, using the words right and wrong or good and bad. For example: harming others is wrong and it is good to be kind. Or we may say it is true that we should be kind. But this is to use the word true in a non-factual way, usually to emphasise agreement.


Factual assertions describe features of reality, such as: the earth orbits the sun. For example, we can make factual assertions about the way we behave. But moral assertions express judgements about the way we should behave. They are prescriptive rather than descriptive. And they express judgements which we take to be universal – not restricted to a particular place or time period.


For example, if we think it is good to be kind, that means we think it always was and will be good. Moral assertions are in a kind of timeless present tense. Or they could be described as tenseless. And this is why we can and do make moral judgements about the past – for example, about our ancestors’ beliefs and behaviour. So if we think owning people as slaves is wrong, that means we think it was wrong for our ancestors to do so.


Another feature of moral assertions is that they are general guides which we have to apply in specific circumstances. Moral conduct is always situational, and there can be moral dilemmas with conflicts of interest. For example, in war or extreme self-defence, we may think harming others is morally justifiable.


3  Moral rationality


Our moral rules tend to be rational, because there are sound reasons for having and following them. For example, each of us has a practical need for food, clothes, shelter, healthcare, education, life chances, freedom from harm, and so on. So we tend to think that making sure everyone has them is morally good, and that, normally, to deprive people of them is immoral.


Many of us would add such things as love and friendship, company, fulfilment, self-esteem and social prestige, and so on. And many of us would give these goods a high priority. The list is not fixed, and the choices and priorities are open to rational debate. But individual well-being is usually the common factor.


To put it simply: we tend to believe that actions that promote the well-being of others are morally good, and that, normally, those that harm others are immoral. But there can be rational debate about the motives and consequences of any action.


4  Is morality objective or subjective?


The key to answering this question is the difference between factual and moral assertions – and how this relates to what we call objectivity and subjectivity.  


We use the word objective to mean to ‘relying on facts’. And facts are true regardless of what anyone believes or claims to know, and regardless of their source. But all factual assertions are falsifiable, because they assert something about reality that may not be the case. So evidence is needed to justify them.


By contrast, we use the word subjective to mean ‘relying on judgement, belief or opinion’. Judgements can be individual or collective. They can be more or less rationally justifiable. And because they express values, we often refer to such judgements as value judgements or just values.


The difference between objectivity and subjectivity has been called the fact-value distinction. But discussions about specifically moral values are about how we ought to behave, so here the difference has been called the is-ought distinction.


Given this understanding of objectivity and subjectivity, moral assertions are subjective, because they express value judgements, rather than make falsifiable factual claims. And two examples illustrate the distinction.


1 The assertion people eat animals and their products is a fact – a true factual assertion. But the vegan assertion eating animals and their products is wrong expresses a moral judgement, not a fact. The two assertions have completely different functions.


2 That some states execute some criminals is true. But that states should execute some criminals – that execution is morally justifiable – is a judgement. If there were a moral fact of the matter, we could not argue about the judgement.


An argument that objective morality is evidence for the existence of anything – let alone a god – is unsound, because morality is not objective. It is rational to have sound reasons for our moral judgements, such as wanting to promote individual well-being. But they remain judgements, so they are subjective.


Why do we think morality is objective?


One reason for our thinking morality is objective is that we value objectivity in many aspects of life. Facts can free us from our own and other people's judgements, beliefs and opinions. For example, scientific and technological progress depend on objectivity.


So the idea that idea that something as important as morality is subjective seems wrong and even offensive. It seems to mean that whatever someone judges to be morally right or wrong is indeed morally right or wrong – so that anything goes, and moral relativism and anarchy is the result.


But that is to forget the is-ought distinction. To say an action is morally right or wrong is to express a judgement, not state a fact. So an action is not – and does not become - morally right or wrong just because someone believes it is.


The expressions objective morality and moral fact are contradictions – or they could be called oxymorons. But our moral values and assertions matter deeply to us, so the mistake of believing there are moral facts is easy to explain. It is an understandable misunderstanding.


But, ironically, if there were moral facts, their source would be irrelevant. The assertion this is good because I say – or a god says – it is good has no place in a rational moral debate. An argument from authority is as mistaken for moral as it is for factual assertions. So the theistic argument from objective morality undermines itself.


But theistic theories (explanations) of morality have other problems as well.


6  Theistic theories


First: there seems to be no evidence for any factual assertion of a god, or the divine source of any scripture or any other revelation. There are only inconsistent claims (testimony) and unsound arguments. (And anyway, an argument is not evidence for its conclusion.) So like all assertions of the supernatural, a theistic theory of morality does not even make it to the starting post.


And this applies to both the divine command theory – that morality comes from a god’s commands – and the god’s nature theory – that morality is rooted in and somehow emanates from a god’s nature.


Second: there is a practical problem. To make sense, a theistic theory has to assume one particular god is the source of morality; that one particular scripture or other supposed revelation is inspired by that god; and that that scripture or revelation expresses the moral commands or guidance of that god. None of these assertions has been objectively justified for any theistic religion.


Third: there is a natural, evolutionary explanation for our moral rules. Love for our children and parents, reciprocity, altruism and self-denial, co-operation with others increasingly distant from the family – all of these are explicable in terms of individual well-being and social development. Apart from being self-defeating, the assertion morality can only come from a god is also unjustified.


7  Moral relativism


The fear of moral relativism is understandable, because we feel our moral values and judgements are universal – applicable everywhere and for all time. That is just the nature of such values and judgements.


But the fact that, historically, our collective moral values and judgements have changed, and that they are still changing, is evidence that morality is indeed relative, rather than absolute or objectively fixed. And thank goodness for that.


An example is the scope of our moral concerns. When our horizon was the tribe, our concerns were tribal. We used to kill or enslave outsiders without moral qualms. For example, slavery is endorsed and never condemned in the Bible. And our ancestors used to think it justifiable to oppress women, homosexuals and non-believers – among other atrocities – as we now judge them to be.


And some of the facts about human well-being are also relevant for other species, such as the need for food, shelter, health and freedom from harm. How wide the scope of our moral concerns should be is itself a moral question: who are the others to whom we should do no harm? And it has been widening, though arguably not fast enough. Our vegan descendants may look back in horror at our cruelty to other animals.


In my opinion, when our moral horizon becomes truly and consistently global – when we overcome the delusions and divisiveness of religion, sexism, nationalism, racism, and so on – and when we end economic inequality – a long and slow process with many setbacks – we will reach moral maturity. And other species and our environment will be part of the story. But that’s just my opinion – my moral judgement.


Peter Holmes


April 2017 

Amended July 2018