Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Is Morality Subjective?

Is morality objective, or is it subjective? I think the reason people trip over the answer to this question, is because the answer is somewhere in the middle.

Morality is objective in the sense that it's rooted in human empathy, which itself developed from the needs of a social contract. No society can be built on the basis of backstabbing, murder and lying. There must be some trust between fellow people, some way to prevent a tribe from degenerating into utter chaos. There must be some way for one caveman to know that he can go on the hunt, and expect to come back to his belongings and dear ones, knowing that no-one in his tribe took everything that he holds dear (at least without consequences).

Initially morality was targeted purely at one's own tribe. However, once human (and animal) nature evolved to support empathy, it became possible to apply this empathy to larger and larger circles, which was necessary as society grew. The key for application of human empathy is to see another human being as similar to oneself. Those elements of a society that were seen as equally human were seen in moral terms, while those which were dehumanized were deprived of moral treatment.

Thus, morality is objective inasmuch as it is the grease that keeps a society working. It is a reality of social structure, much like bureaucracy and is conveniently buttressed by human nature.

However, morality is also subjective in the sense that every culture throughout time determined its moral strictures differently, depending on its needs and depending on how wide its circles of empathy were.

Another subjective element of morality is that it is not strictly solvable. Society has clearly been moving in the direction of increasing circles of empathy. We now see people of different races, different religions and different sexual orientations as similar to ourselves, unlike our ancestors. But what about fetuses, for example? This age-old question remains unsolvable. At what point should a fetus be seen as a full-fledged human? Seeing a moving, reacting fetus kicks our empathy instinct into gear, and yet a fetus is clearly a not-quite-human entity encased in the very human shell of the mother, who often has different needs. What about empathy for animals? Also, what about the concept of equality? Once our circles of empathy are well developed, we become acutely aware of the inequality inherent in life. To what degree should a society be obligated to correct that inequality?

These are age-old questions that are debated endlessly by societies, and ultimately show that there are no 'objective' solutions to the question of morality.