The topic of moral values comes up often in Christian apologetics. For example, Christians will argue that atheists cannot account for moral values or that the moral relativism associated with postmodernism is somehow self-defeating. I’ve noticed that in such discussions there’s often confusion (usually on the part of the non-Christian, but not always) about what we mean when we speak of ‘moral values’. Indeed, the term is often used equivocally, without recognizing that there are at least two meaningful ways in which we can talk about ‘moral values’. My purpose in this post is to explicitly distinguish these two senses and illustrate why it’s so important to keep the distinction clear in apologetic discussions.
There are different ways of drawing the distinction, but here I propose simply to distinguish between Subjective Moral Values (SMVs) and Objective Moral Values (OMVs). Subjective Moral Values are moral values subjectively held by an individual person. For example, we might say that Ben has different moral values than Lisa, if Ben holds to Christian sexual ethics while Lisa does not. Thus Ben values (in a moral sense) certain sexual behaviors differently than Lisa. He makes different moral value judgments about premarital sex, polyamory, etc. Clearly there’s a relativity to this kind of moral value: SMVs are relative to subjects (i.e., the subjects who engage in moral valuation) and thus can vary from person to person.
Now contrast SMVs with OMVs. Objective Moral Values are non-subjective moral norms, i.e., moral norms that are independent of subjective factors (beliefs, convictions, preferences, feelings, etc.). OMVs are moral norms that hold regardless of whether anyone knows, believes, or recognizes them as such. People may disagree about what the OMVs actually are, but the vast majority of people take for granted (at least in practice) that there are OMVs. I think most people would recognize parental care for infants as an objective moral norm. Parents ought to care for their infant children. Even if every human being became infected with a virus which caused a kind of moral insanity, such that everyone became convinced that parents ought to neglect and abuse their children, it would still be objectively the case that parents ought to care for their children. Such a virus would disrupt our SMVs, but OMVs would be unchanged. Indeed, OMVs couldn’t be affected by a mind-altering virus, precisely because OMVs are by nature non-subjective; they’re independent of subjective mental states.
So why is the distinction between SMVs and OMVs important in Christian apologetics? Let me give two illustrations.
Illustration #1: Christians often claim that atheists cannot account for morality on a naturalistic basis. In response, atheists commonly argue that morality can be explained by evolutionary processes. In short, morality developed as a kind of survival mechanism: some behaviors are regarded as morally good because they promote human cooperation, well-being, and ultimately survival. This is why human societies have developed moral codes. Christian apologists have responded in different ways to this evolutionary account, arguing that it falls short as an explanation of morality. For example, some argue that evolution, understood along Darwinian lines, would actually favor behaviors that we consider morally bad (e.g., exploitation of the weak by the strong).
Such criticisms of evolutionary ethics are fine as far as they go, but they tend to overlook the basic fallacy in the atheist’s response: it equivocates by shifting the topic from OMVs to SMVs. Evolutionary accounts of morality seek to explain why we hold certain behaviors to be valuable, why we subjectively value those behaviors. They don’t begin to explain why such behaviors are objectively morally valuable. They don’t begin to explain why there are objective moral norms (and to be fair, they don’t purport to do so). The Christian apologist is asking for an account of OMVs, not SMVs. Atheists who respond to the challenge with evolutionary accounts of SMVs are simply changing the subject, whether they recognize it or not. In my view, a more consistent response would be to reject the Christian’s demand for an account of OMVs by denying OMVs altogether (although that comes at quite a cost, of course).
Illustration #2: Here’s a popular (but crude) argument for moral relativism which I run into all the time: “Moral values obviously vary from culture to culture. For example, honesty and loyalty are valued in some cultures whereas gaining power through duplicity is valued in other cultures. 21st-century American values are very different than, say, 1st-century Greco-Roman values. Therefore, morality is clearly relative rather than absolute.”
Once the distinction between SMVs and OMVs is grasped, the fallacy in this argument should be obvious: it equivocates on ‘moral values’. It begins by observing the relativity of SMVs but draws a conclusion about the relativity of OMVs. No one seriously disputes the fact that SMVs are person-relative and culture-relative (insofar as cultures are corporate expressions of SMVs). But nothing at all follows about the relativity of OMVs. It’s entirely consistent to affirm that SMVs are culture-dependent while OMVs are not.
In sum, the distinction between SMVs and OMVs is crucial for effective Christian apologetics — indeed, it’s crucial for a coherent Christian worldview. If Christians can clearly grasp and articulate this distinction, they’ll be much better placed to engage critically with non-Christian views on the nature and origins of morality.
Teaser: In a follow-up post, I’ll take the discussion a step further by showing how the distinction between SMVs and OMVs can be developed into a theistic argument.