Absolutely Subjective Moral Values

In a previous post I drew a distinction between Objective Moral Values and Subjective Moral Values before giving a couple of illustrations of the importance of the distinction in Christian apologetics. In this follow-up I want to take matters few steps further by deploying the distinction in a version of the moral argument for God.

Consider these two propositions:

  1. There are some objective moral values.
  2. All values are subjective.

Each of these claims has arguments in its favor. (If you worry about the second, bear with me.) The reasons for affirming the first proposition are pretty straightforward. When we reflect on certain moral values that we all recognize, we can see that they hold independently of subjective human factors: personal feelings, opinions, desires, goals, and so forth. Take, for example, the moral value (currently the subject of much public discussion) that sexual harassment is wrong. Suppose that every human on the planet became infected with a disease that brought about a kind of moral insanity, with the consequence that everyone began to think that sexual harassment is good and everyone experienced moral sentiments along those lines. Would sexual harassment cease to be morally wrong? Would that moral value change overnight? (If that example doesn’t persuade you, I’m confident it wouldn’t take me long to identify a moral value that you do take to be objective in the sense I defined.)

What about the second proposition though? What reasons could there be to affirm that all values are subjective? Here are two. First, it’s plausible to think that values, like beliefs and desires, have intentionality. Put simply, they’re about things. They’re directed towards certain things or states of affairs. Our moral values point beyond themselves, as it were, to things in the world: human actions, attitudes, etc. That being the case, a value cannot exist without a mind to give it that intentionality, that directionality. Just as there cannot be a belief without a believer, or a desire without a desirer, so there cannot be a value without a valuer. If something has a value, then it is is valued: it has been ascribed a value by one or more conscious agents. (The argument I’m sketching here obviously has parallels with the subjective theory of value in economics.)

Second, value is a normative concept, and normativity has to be grounded in a personal source. Non-personal sources can’t generate norms. (Compare other normative categories like purposes, rules, directives, duties, and standards to see the point.) This isn’t a bare appeal to the so-called naturalistic fallacy. I’m not claiming one can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, only that one can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an impersonal ‘is’. That being the case, values have to be grounded in a source with subjectivity (i.e., a first-person perspective).

There may be other reasons for affirming that all values are subjective, such as parallels between ethics and aesthetics, but the two above will suffice for now.

There are good reasons, then, for affirming each of the propositions above. The problem is that taken together they seem to generate a contradiction. If all values are subjective then all moral values are subjective, in which case there are no non-subjective (i.e., objective) moral values.

There is, however, a straightforward way to resolve the apparent contradiction, namely, by distinguishing between subjectivity/objectivity with respect to us (human persons) and subjectivity/objectivity simpliciter (i.e., with respect to all persons). The reasons for affirming the first proposition (that there are objective moral values) are really reasons for affirming that there are moral values which pertain to human actions but don’t depend on subjective human factors. Such values are objective in a restricted sense, but that restricted sense is the only sense that really matters (in terms of satisfying our basic moral intuitions).

You can see where this is heading. If moral values are grounded in a divine subjectivity — a personal God — then that would neatly explain how both propositions can be true without contradiction. We might say that what is a subjective value for God is an objective value for us. What is divinely valued is humanly valuable. (No doubt this needs to be spelled out in more detail to stave off some objections, but I think the contours of the proposal are evident enough.)

There’s an interesting (to me!) parallel between this version of the moral argument and the argument for God from logic. The latter argues, in effect, that logical truths (actually all truths) are intrinsically mental, and thus subjective in a metaphysical sense, but they cannot be adequately grounded in human minds. Truths are thoughts, but they cannot be merely human thoughts. Thus, what is an objective thought for us (such as the law of non-contradiction) turns out to be a subjective thought for God. I’ve argued here that a similar principle applies to values: what is an objective value for us turns out to be a subjective value for God.

In neither case does this reduce to subjectivism in any objectionable sense, because God — needless to say — is no ordinary subject. God is, we might say, the Absolute Subject: the One in whom subjectivity and objectivity ultimately, and necessarily, coincide.

16 Responses to Absolutely Subjective Moral Values

  1. Hi James,
    Thanks very much. In favor of objective values, you point out that “when we reflect on certain moral values…we can see that they hold independently of subjective human factors…” One way to get at this, I take it, is that we would reject the following sort of counterfactual:

    (C) Were all human beings to think that sexual harassment is good, then sexual harassment would be good.

    But don’t we also tend to think that some moral values hold independently of subjective factors *simpliciter* – non-divine and divine? Aren’t we inclined to think that this next counterfactual is false too?

    (C*) Were God to think that sexual harassment is good, then sexual harassment would be good.

    I guess one question is whether C* is true, and another is whether the view you’re proposing implies it. Is the view you’re proposing something like this: God’s thinking (in an affirming/assertoric way) that sexual harassment is wrong makes it the case that sexual harassment is wrong. ? If so, that seems to exert pressure to accept C*. But it seems that some of the considerations that cut against C also cut against C*.

    • Good comment, Dan. I don’t agree that we’re inclined to think (C*) is false. At least, it’s not obviously false in the way that (C) is. There’s a disparity between (C) and (C*). What God thinks or values in those areas, he thinks or values necessarily, whereas our thoughts and values are contingent. So (C*) is a counterpossible. It’s rather like the statement that were 5 an even number then 5 would be exactly divisible by 2. Or to deploy again the parallel I used in the post above:

      (C**) Were God to think that 5 is an even number, then the proposition <5 is an even number> would be true.

      So I don’t agree that “some of the considerations that cut against C also cut against C*.” The considerations that I focused on pertain to the contingency of human subjective states.

  2. Thanks, I appreciate it. Regarding

    (C) Were all human beings to think that sexual harassment is good, then sexual harassment would be good
    (C*) Were God to think that sexual harassment is good, then sexual harassment would be good
    (C**) Were God to think that 5 is an even number, then the proposition would be true,

    I admit that C* is not as obviously problematic as C, but I’m still not sure there aren’t problems in the vicinity. You say C* is a counterpossible (like C**), and I agree. The antecedent (and consequent) are impossible. But that raises the question: why is C*’s antecedent impossible? Why couldn’t God think or value matters differently?

    An initially natural explanation is: because God (necessarily) knows that the behavior is bad. But if I understand your proposal, you can’t say that, because, on the proposal, God’s thinking or valuing the behavior as bad is not a response to an antecedent awareness of its badness, but rather what constitutes the behavior as bad. (Cf. the Euthyphro question)

    A parallel explanation seems to be plausible in the case of C**. The reason the antecedent is impossible is that God (necessarily) knows the nature of 5, and knows that even-ness is essential to that.

    • No, I don’t think I’m committed to saying that God’s valuing X is what makes X good, only that X’s having value or being valuable requires that there be a valuer of X. “No values without a valuer” doesn’t entail anything about what constitutes goodness as such.

      You’re right that there is a Euthyphro-style challenge to be made here. But the solution is the same as that offered by modified divine command theorists: God only commands what is consistent with his good nature. Likewise, God only values what is consistent with his good nature. And God is himself “the Good” (to put it in Platonist terms).

      Consider again the parallel with the argument from logic/truth. The claim that truths are divine thoughts doesn’t entail that claim that God’s thinking X is real or factual constitutes X’s reality or factuality. Just as we can draw a distinction between truths (which have intentionality) and facts or states-of-affairs (which do not), so we can draw a distinction between values (which have subjectivity) and goods (which do not).

  3. Pingback: Late January 2018 Van Tillian Apologetics’ Links | The Domain for Truth

  4. I see how God’s thinking that the cup is red doesn’t constitute the *truth* of the proposition that the cup is red. (The truth is presumably constituted by the state of affairs of the cup’s being red.) But if truths just are divine thoughts, that suggests that God’s thinking that the cup is red does constitute the *being*, as it were, of the proposition that the cup is red, the being or existence of the truth-bearer. So it’s one question whether the truth-bearer as such is constituted by divine subjectivity, and another question whether the truth of the bearer is so constituted.

    It seems to me that by an objective moral value, you mean an objective truth (true proposition) about a moral matter. E.g., parental care for infants is an objective moral value, in that the proposition that parents ought to care for infants is objectively true. (If this is wrong-headed, then what comes next may not be pertinent.)

    In the original post, you said: “You can see where this is heading. If moral values are grounded in a [italics]divine[/italics] subjectivity — a personal God — then that would neatly explain how both propositions [about objective and subjective value respectively] can be true without contradiction.”

    If an objective (in the relevant sense) moral value is an objectively true proposition about moral matters (e.g., that parents ought to care for infants), then the claim that an objective moral value is grounded in divine subjectivity might mean that the proposition as such, its being/existence, is so grounded, or it might mean that the truth of the proposition is so grounded. In the first case, we seem to just have a special case of the more general idea that truths are divine thoughts. For example, the proposition that parents ought to care for infants would be grounded in divine subjectivity in the same way that the proposition that the cup is red would be.

    But I got the impression that this is not what you meant. Rather, I thought you were making some claim about value that did not carry over to propositions about (say) the color of cups. So that takes me to the second interpretation I mentioned above: to say that an objective moral value is grounded in divine subjectivity is to say that the *truth* of the relevant proposition (e.g., that parents ought to care for infants) is grounded in divine subjectivity. This is why I thought, in an earlier post, that you were committed to the view that God’s thinking that X is wrong is what makes it wrong. Bu in your last reply you deny that you are committed to this.

    Apologies if I’m missing something; at any rate, maybe what I’ve said will shed light on *where* my misunderstanding lies.

    • Dan,

      I’m having trouble tracking your objection here. Let me say the following and see if it helps. I think there is more to valuing X than having a thought about the value of X. Valuing has an affective dimension to it; it’s more like desiring than thinking (in the propositional sense). All I’ve argued is that if X has value then X is valued (by someone). I’m not making any stronger claim about X’s having value being constituted by someone’s valuing X. I’m simply identifying a necessary condition of X’s having value.

      I would distinguish between objective moral values and objective moral truths. Moral truths are propositional in structure (hence truths). Moral values are not like that, although of course there can be moral truths about moral values. If I’m asked to list some moral values, I won’t give you a list of propositions; it will be more like a list of concepts such as honesty, loyalty, fidelity, integrity, etc.

      • Thanks James, this helps. I see the affective dimension with individual states of valuing (e.g., my valuing parental care for infants is not the same, at least on one natural interpretation of ‘valuing’, as my simply thinking that parents ought to care for infants). But I don’t see an affective dimension with an objective value (e.g., parental care for infants). (Other than this: if it’s true that if X has value then X is valued, and that X has value, then there’s some or other case of valuing, and *that* will have an affective dimension.)

        In the initial post, after laying out these two propositions

        “1. There are some objective moral values
        2. All values are subjective”,

        you said this in support of 1.: “When we reflect on certain moral values that we all recognize, we can see that they hold independently of subjective human factors…Take, for example, the moral value…that sexual harassment is wrong. Suppose that every human on the planet became infected…with the consequence that everyone began to think that sexual harassment is good…Would sexual harassment cease to be morally wrong?”

        It does seem right to say that, were the human race infected, it would still be the case that sexual harassment is wrong. But in light of our exchange so far, you don’t think that an objective moral value is the same thing as an objective moral truth (e.g., that sexual harassment is wrong). So I’m wondering if or how the considerations raised here distinctively support that “extra” thing, the objective value (on top of the objective truth).

        To flesh that out a bit more, someone might say something like this: if value requires a valuer, then if no one ascribes any negative value to sexual harassment, it would not have any negative value. But it would still be wrong, and it would still be the case that we *ought* to ascribe it negative value.

        • Dan,

          “But I don’t see an affective dimension with an objective value (e.g., parental care for infants).”

          I don’t think that’s necessary for my argument. All I need is for you to grant that parental care for infants has objective value (i.e., has value objectively, in the way defined previously). Is it that premise coupled with the observation about the subjectivity of value that delivers the conclusion.

          In your final comment it looks like you’re floating the idea that, strictly speaking, there aren’t any objective moral values. But that doesn’t seem right. If asked you for a list of moral values, and you listed honesty, loyalty, fidelity, etc., I don’t think you would mean “Here are some things that I personally value in moral sense,” or “Here are some things that most people value in a moral sense.” Rather, they would be things that you take to have moral value in the objective sense.

          • Hey James,
            I’m indeed inclined to affirm the sentence

            (S) There are objective moral values [e.g., honestly, loyalty, etc.].

            But I don’t know whether to affirm S *on your interpretation* of ‘objective moral values’, because I’m not sure what that is. It initially seemed to me that you took an objective moral value to be an objective moral truth (true proposition). For example, from the prior post to which you link in this main post (the stars [‘*’] are inserted by me):

            “Objective Moral Values are non-subjective moral norms…OMVs are moral norms that hold regardless of whether anyone knows, believes, or recognizes them as such…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.**”

            I’ve put stars around the parts that make it seem (to me) like you’re identifying objective moral values with objective truths (propositions). And from the current main post:

            “When we reflect on certain moral values that we all recognize, we can see that they hold independently of subjective human factors…Take, for example, the moral value…**that sexual harassment is wrong.** Suppose that every human on the planet became infected…with the consequence that everyone began to think **that sexual harassment is good**…Would sexual harassment cease to be morally wrong?”

            Here you seem to identify the moral value with a proposition to the effect that sexual harassment is wrong (or perhaps with the proposition’s being true). But in our exchange you’ve denied that an objective moral value (as you are understanding that idea) is the same as an objective moral truth.

            So I’m not sure I have a grip on an objective moral value as you understand that, in order to know whether to affirm sentence (S) as you understand it. I’m indeed inclined to think that (e.g.) honesty is something that has moral value in an objective sense, but what that would amount to, it seems to me, is the objective truth of some proposition about honesty (e.g., that we ought to exemplify it, or that it’s morally right, etc.); or alternatively an objective state of affairs (e.g, honesty’s being morally right, etc.)

            Perhaps the idea is that the value as such (e.g., honesty) is a concept (as you indicated earlier), but that its *having* objective value is the truth of a proposition about the concept (or alternatively an objective state of affairs about it)?

          • Dan,

            You’re right that I haven’t been clear and consistent on this point, although I have tried to remedy that in my responses to you. You’re correct that I initially indicated that I take objective moral values just to be objective moral truths. But actually I don’t think that’s right, although there does seem to be a principle by which they are convertible.

            What I mean by objective moral values is simply that there are traits or actions (e.g., honesty, generosity, self-sacrifice) that have moral value in an objective sense (as previously defined). Your objection seems to be that this is to say nothing more than that there are objective moral truths about such traits or actions. I don’t agree, but I’ve run out of ways to persuade you otherwise! This may be one of those either-you-see-it-or-you-don’t stand-offs.

  5. “The claim that truths are divine thoughts doesn’t entail that claim that God’s thinking X is real or factual constitutes X’s reality or factuality.”

    James, if I’m understanding you correctly, this would mean that the “truth” that God’s nature is triune is a subjective thought in God’s mind, but that subjective thought does not “constitute” the reality or factuality of His divine nature. Rather, that “truth” or subjective thought in God’s mind is determined by the reality or factuality of His divine nature itself.

    Likewise, the “truth” that righteousness is morally good is a subjective thought/value in God’s mind, but that subjective thought/value does not “constitute” the reality or factuality that righteousness is morally good. Rather, that subjective thought/value is determined by the reality or factuality of God’s righteous nature itself.

    Is that correct?

  6. Thanks for the reply, James. Regarding the distinction you’re making between “values” and “truths,” are you saying that esteeming “honesty” is a moral value (since it has an affective dimension to it), while thinking “it is wrong to lie” is a moral truth (since it is a proposition)? If so, would you agree that both concepts are distinct subsets of “thoughts” in the broad sense of the term?

  7. Hey James,
    Thanks (again) for the replies.

    “What I mean by objective moral values is simply that there are traits or actions (e.g., honesty, generosity, self-sacrifice) that have moral value in an objective sense (as previously defined).”

    Sorry but I don’t know what definition you mean, when you say “as previously defined”. This is what I was getting at in my prior message. When you say that a given trait/action “has moral value in an objective sense”, I don’t know how you are understanding that. At first I thought it was unpackable in terms of objective moral truths. (For example, to say that honesty has moral value in an objective sense is to say something objectively true about honesty, such as [for example] that it ought to be pursued, or that it is good, etc.) But you’ve indicated that this is not how you are understanding it.

    “Your objection seems to be that this is to say nothing more than that there are objective moral truths about such traits or actions.”

    It’s not that I’m wanting to insist on a specific view of OMV, or of “having value in an objective sense”, but rather that I want to understand your view, partly so that I can better assess your argument in the main post. In the main post you showed how we tend to think there are objective moral truths. But do those considerations also show that we tend to think there are OMVs?

Leave a Reply