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:
- There are some objective moral values.
- 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.