Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Part 3 of 7)

by | Sep 17, 2005

or morality to be objective, it has to be based on a standard of value derived not from feelings, but from facts.

Adapted from Chapter 1 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle.

Personal subjectivism is the view that truth and morality are matters of personal opinion. Its slogans are: “What’s true for you may not be true for me” and “Who’s to say what’s right?” Its basic moral tenet is: Do whatever you feel like doing. In other words: There’s no such thing as morality.

On this view, values are entirely a function of personal feelings. As the British philosopher Bertrand Russell puts it: “When we assert that this or that has ‘value,’ we are giving expression to our own emotions, not to a fact which would still be true if our personal feelings were different.”[27]

Accordingly, a personal subjectivist values whatever he feels like valuing; he acts however he feels like acting. If he feels like sacrificing other people, he does so. He is not concerned with individual rights; he cares only about his feelings. Since he feels that he creates his own morality, he feels that he is entitled to place his feelings above all else–including the rights of others (which he may or may not feel that they have). This mentality is demonstrated by criminals who, when asked why they committed such-and-such a crime, reply in so many words: “Because I felt like it.”

The most common form of personal subjectivism is hedonism: the theory that being moral consists in acting in whatever manner gives you pleasure. (Hedone is Greek for pleasure; “hedonism” means “pleasure-ism.”) According to hedonism, pleasure is the standard of morality. And while “pleasure” may sound less subjective than “feeling” as the standard, in practice the two are the same. Morally speaking, “Because it gives me pleasure” means “Because I feel like it.” Hedonism is just glorified personal subjectivism.

A textbook example of a personal subjectivist is Eric Harris, one of the murderers of twelve students and a teacher at Columbine High School (Littleton, Colorado, 1999). Prior to the massacre, Harris had expressed his philosophy in no uncertain terms: “My belief is that if I say something, it goes. I am the law, and if you don’t like it, you die. If I don’t like you or I don’t like what you want me to do, you die.”[28] He acted on that very belief.

Such ideas are horrifying. If we want to live as civilized beings, we need a code of moral principles to guide us not only in living our own lives, but also in recognizing the rights of others to live theirs. We need a code of values by reference to which we can say with moral certainty that some choices and actions are absolutely right and others are absolutely wrong.

This is one reason why, despite the sacrifices it requires, many people turn to religion: God is widely believed to be the only possible source of an absolute morality. This view is expressed succinctly in a popular book titled The Ten Commandments, by Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Rabbi Stewart Vogel:

To believe in God is to believe that humans are more than accidents of nature. It means that we are endowed with purpose by a higher source, and that our goal is to realize that higher purpose. If each of us creates his own meaning, we also create our own morality. I cannot believe this. For if so, what the Nazis did was not immoral because German society had accepted it. Likewise, the subjective morality of every majority culture throughout the world could validate their heinous behavior. It comes down to a very simple matter: Without God there is no objective meaning to life, nor is there an objective morality. I do not want to live in a world where right and wrong are subjective.[29]

I don’t want to live in such a world either. And an objective morality is precisely what is needed. But the question remains: Does religion provide it? Is a God-based morality really objective? If not, it is no antidote to subjectivism.

“Objective” means “fact-based.” For morality to be objective, it has to be based on a standard of value derived not from feelings, but from facts. Convinced that no such standard can be found here in the natural world–and justifiably horrified by what is believed to be the only alternative (subjectivism)–many people turn to the supernatural, to God, in hopes of filling the moral void. And God is believed to solve the problem. On the premise that He is the creator of all things and the source of all truth, His moral authority is absolute. Thus, being good is pretty straightforward: Simply obey God’s commands–whatever they are–and the problem is solved.

Until you think about it.

This series of articles are adapted from Chapter 1 of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle.


References:

[27] Bertrand Russell, “Science and Ethics,” in Religion and Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 230–31.
[28] Eric Harris, from his website, quoted in The Washington Post, April 29, 1999.
[29] Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Rabbi Stewart Vogel, The Ten Commandments (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), p. xxix.

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Craig Biddle is the editor and publisher of The Objective Standard and the author of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It.

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