Pluralism and cultural relativism
Moral versus nonmoral standards
Objectivity of standards
Standards as purely objective
    The meaning of ‘objectivity
    Morality and God’s plan
    Plato and objectivity
Standards as purely subjective
    Moral subjectivism
    Moral nihilism                                                               Return to contents

Pluralism and cultural relativism

    People have different basic moral values even though they may agree about other moral values. In general we may call such difference in moral perspective moral pluralism. When the differences stem from divergent cultural backgrounds, moral pluralism is more precisely called cultural relativism. Philosophically, we wonder whether moral standards are relative to different cultures, subcultures, or belief systems, or whether moral values are more objective -- valid for people across different cultures and belief systems, despite disagreements. This is a difficult issue. People seem to have legitimate differences in perspective, yet some values seem too crucial, such as respect for life, to be "left up" to the relative judgments of different groups and different individuals. The problems of moral or cultural relativism and moral pluralism are serious because moral experience suggests that there is truth in both viewpoints: both that some values are objective and that some are relative.   Top

Moral versus nonmoral standards

    Many standards are relative to a culture or to differences in individual commitment. A person who is fussy about the care of his or her front lawn adopts a personal standard that we do not view as either right or wrongit is a matter of taste. Some standards seem more "objective" because all or most people in a whole society regularly adhere to them. Almost everyone in Western societies, for instance, eats with a spoon or fork, and not with his or her fingers, at least at a formal dinner (assuming that eating a Big Mac doesn't count as a formal dinner). However, we do not believe etiquette standards are objectively correct in any ultimate sense, but instead believe them to be culturally relative. The standards we have been talking about, mowing a lawn or eating with a fork, are nonmoral standards. These standards are often taken seriously, even too seriously, but more importantly for our purposes, they suggest questions about moral standards. Are moral standards relative to individual perspective or cultural folkways, or are they more objective? Sometimes we find it difficult to determine whether a standard is moral or non-moral, as when we call someone a good husband or wife. Nonmoral standards and moral standards have no clear point of demarcation, so when we consider the best way to think of the binding force and origin of nonmoral standards, as we will in the coming sections, we also get some insight into the legitimacy and origin of moral standards.
    Not all nonmoral standards appear relative. Standards, like those in mathematics and science, often appear to be more objective than moral standards. After all, people all around the world, from many different cultures, use the same standards in mathematics and science, while disagreements in ethics abound. Suppose we decide that the standards in mathematics or science are subjective; if standards in science -- which many would agree is more objective than ethics -- is subjective, then it is easy to view morality as subjective. However, if we believe that mathematics and science are objective (in some sense), as most do, then we may be more hopeful that morality is also objective, and we may find that the ways other fields are objective help us to understand or to support the objective status of moral standards. One question we might pursue may be put this way: Are moral standards more like standards in etiquette or like standards in mathematics and science?    Top

Objectivity of standards

    Since general philosophical questions about standards are often relevant to questions about moral standards, we will consider a basic question about standards in general and moral standards in particular: their objectivity. Are standards objective or are they subjective? You may be tempted to answer that it depends. Standards about what? Which foods I like? What I do to relax? Whether my doctor is good? Whether a proof in mathematics is correct? The objectivity of standards partly depends on what is being judged. However, to decide whether a given standard is subjective or objective, we need to explore different views about the status of standards, moral and nonmoral. We will present a few basic positions on standards in general with the hope that these can offer good guidance about the objectivity of moral standards.
    The difference between a standard as a guide, which tells us the most effective or right way to do something, and a standard as a way to define a human activity is sometimes crucial in moral inquiry. A standard defines an activity when we use the standard to determine whether a particular sort of activity is being performed. When a constitutive standard (see the link below to Rawls' "Two Concepts of Rules"), a standard which defines the correct way to do something, is broken, someone is not be genuinely engaged in the practice governed by the standard. For example, if someone grossly violates the standards of playing chess, that person is not considered to be playing chess. Or when someone makes a promise involving an action that is impossible to do, that person is not really promising. Standards tell us what is is to play the guitar and to make promises. A constitutive standard appears more objective because it helps define an activity, and so something must be done according to basic requirements by all people in order for someone to be engaged in that activity. In this way standards take on additional objectivity because they often determine whether an activity is being performed. Nevertheless, we still must decide whether such standards are subjective because activities can be defined in many ways, and whether one or another way is accepted may be arbitrary.
    In considering whether and how standards can be objective, we start with two extreme views: that standards are purely objective and that they are purely subjective. As we proceed, keep in mind that most of the positions we consider about standards in general may be applied to moral standards.  Top

Standards as purely objective

    The meaning of ‘objectivity’

     ‘Objectivity’ has a several different senses, all related to subjectivity. In general, a belief is subjective when it is based on an individual's personal perspective. My belief that Presti’s Bakery makes the best Italian bread in Cleveland may be entirely subjective, or personal. By contrast a belief is objective when it is based on a perspective that is independent, at least partly, of an individual's belief system. This is a generic conception of objectivity. How can any belief "go beyond" an individual's point of view? In answering this question, a conception of objectivity is offered.
    One of the most common views on objectivity claims that a view is objective when it is based on an existing thing that is external to humans. My belief that one person is heavier than another is based on an external comparison that appears independent from what I, or anyone else, believes. In this way, I can claim that my conclusion about the weight of an object is objective; its truth entirely dependent on the external facts. Also, claiming that a person is a fast runner seems to be objective: we can use a stopwatch to settle the question. We may similarly believe that a moral or non-moral standard is objective, based on observation. We can "see" that some things are wrong. For example, we do not need to be told that some of the violence we see on the nightly news is immoral. Denying its immorality seems to some philosophers to be as foolish as denying that an object is green.
    This is one way standards may be objective: they may be based on facts, moral or physical. Thus, standards in general, including moral standards, may be completely independent of human belief. Under this view, human beings discover objectively correct standards, they do not invent them.
    People often believe that standards used to make judgments, even very serious judgments, do not have an objective existence in external, observable facts. Disputes about what makes a good guitar player seem to involve personal or social taste. Perhaps this is even true about standards for doing proofs in mathematics. Because we often view standards as involving taste, we sometimes find it difficult to believe that any standards are based on fact. Although it may seem to us to be a fact that violent acts are wrong, the same violence done to soldiers from a one's own country appears wrong, yet to people in an opposing country, that violence looks commendable. It seems strange to claim that easily observable facts determine standards, moral and nonmoral, when people with differing perspectives look at the same thing and come to different conclusions. Disagreement thrives over value standards in a way it does not over, for example, weight or color. Furthermore, the fact that standards are often constitutive means that we can respond to guitar playing as poor objectively speaking, not simply as a matter of personal taste, without recourse to an external fact standing in support of the standard. In this way, the standard goes beyond personal opinion even though it is culturally based. We (collectively) make the standard and then use it to judge an activity defined in and by human culture. The standard seems to be based in fact, but it is really a product of our heritage.   Top

Morality and God’s plan

Some philosophers reject the claim that standards are based on facts because the claim seems to introduce an odd ontology. An ontology is a philosophical view about the basic kinds of things that exist or have being in our world. That moral facts exist is not obvious. Also, moral facts are not required to make predictions or explanations, so an ontology that includes moral facts seems to be bloated, claiming the existence of unnecessary, confounding, and unhelpful entities. Basing standards, especially moral standards, on facts appears weak because it is difficult to determine what those facts are and how we can, even in principle, observe them.
    We need to find a different way to claim that moral standards are not fully dependent on human thinking, a way that at once preserves objectivity while also explaining why so much disagreement exists over correct standards. Several plausible views have been offered. Some believe that God originates all standards. Anything that is good, morally or otherwise, is good because God has so determined; through God's wisdom, all things are properly evaluated. If human beings want to know what is good, they must discover God's plan -- what God has in mind -- even though knowing this may be quite difficult. While we might find it difficult to believe that some standards originate with God -- say the standards of good jazz -- many believe that God's will determines moral right from moral wrong. Moral standards are not up to us, but are, instead, dependent on God's will. This view preserves objectivity, yet also explains disagreement over moral standards because God's will is difficult to know.
    The view about God has appealed more to religious people than to philosophers. The problem is that many people, with very different moral beliefs, all claim that they base their views and standards on God's will. Perhaps God's will is so obscure that we are really left to ourselves to determine correct from incorrect moral values. Furthermore, God is conceived of as all good, and we believe we could tell a good God from an infinitely powerful evil demon. This suggests that we have an independent standard by which we may judge that God is good and not evil. So even if we believe that God only wills good and that God commands us to follow what is willed, we still understand that the standards of good and evil are, in some sense, independent of God's will.
    Also, even if God demands that we act morally correctly, God may also put the burden on us to distinguish right from wrong behavior. This seems to be the case. We know of no way to determine, for example, whether God believes we are morally wrong to call a team the "Fighting Irish," or the Cleveland "Indians," but these are moral issues, to be resolved in a serious and thoughtful way. God might not hold us responsible for coming to a conclusion that is in God's mind, but rather for discovering the best conclusion we can given our human capabilities and limitations. So even if we do adopt a highly religious orientation, we are not done with the question of the objectivity of moral standards.  Top

Plato and objectivity

    Some philosophers argue in favor of a different, yet also extreme, form of objectivity, one not in God's will or based in external facts, but one that we can discover and not influence. The claim is that standards, maybe all standards, exist in an independent world of ideals. This is a Platonic view. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato, whom many believe to be the greatest philosopher who ever lived, thought that correct standards, or ideals, are absolute, unchanging, eternal, and independent of human thought. So when we judge something as just or unjust, that judgment is correct if it complies with the absolute standard of justice in the ideal world. When we say that such standards are in an ideal "world," this should not be taken literally. When philosophers locate standards in an "ideal world" it sometimes means that the standards are not found in our ordinary world of sense perception and human thinking. These standards are considered "real" in an ordinary sense, and the use of "ideal world" is merely a code word for a more obscure form of reality.
    Those of us who too quickly reject the reality of a Platonic ideal realm might think about where mathematical truths come from. Mathematical standards may be Platonic entities. Consider the standard for a circle, a set of points equidistant from some central point. This definition is a standard, telling us what counts as a circle even though an ideal circle doesn't exist in our factual world, nor does a mathematical "point," an "object" without dimension. It is not a thing, yet it certainly seems to have a powerful influence on us. Is the ideal standard of a circle objective? Does it depend on human thinking? Did we invent or discover it? We may believe that mathematical truths are ideal, that we discovered them, and that we still have truths to discover. They are objective, eternal, independent of human thought, and unchanging. But where are they? We may think that they are in the "world" of ideals, but that is just a way to say we don't really know where they come from, but that we do believe that they are absolute, unchanging, and independent of human thinking.
    The view presented about mathematics is a instance of Platonic realism because mathematical ideals have a real existence. This plausible yet debatable view about mathematics is not our problem to resolve, but it may help us to understand the meaning of standards as existing in some Platonic world to be discovered, through study and insight, and not for us to invent or influence. Plato's position supports an extreme form of moral realism, the position that moral standards are discovered, not invented, by human beings. It is an extreme form because it assumes that standards are completely independent of human thinking, unchanging, and absolute.
    Platonic realism is too mystical for many -- including mathematicians who view mathematical "truths" as human constructs. How can we know Platonic standards? Who is to say what they are? Can we really trust those who claim that they have discovered ethical standards based on knowledge about an ideal world? How can we test their beliefs? If you and I don't know anything about an obscure world of Platonic ideals, then our judgments don't count. Is that proper? Don't we have a right to our own moral opinions? Platonic idealism has been criticized as an elitist doctrine, granting moral wisdom only to those who have special insight into objective values. Platonic idealism does little to help us determine which standards are correct, because the world it offers in defense of the objectivity of standards is more controversial than many standards it is supposed to support. The problem we face is to mediate between what many consider needed objectivity in morality and the existence of a plurality of different, sometimes hostile, standards. Platonic realism does not help because it rejects the value of moral pluralism without giving us much confidence that we can ever know anything about the world of moral ideals, even whether such a world exists.  Top

Standards as purely subjective

Moral subjectivism

Let's turn to the other extreme, subjectivism; under this view, all standards are only properly decided by each individual. Every standard is relative to an individual; you and I have the same standards only by chance, or by a common conditioning factor that leads us both to accept the same views. Our agreement on standards gives them no additional objectivity. All standards are up to you and me, no matter how we make our decision. A similar background might explain why a standard is used, but a person may reject his or her upbringing and adopt a completely new set of standards. These new standards would, under subjectivism, be as good as the old, and perhaps more agreed-upon, standards.
    The subjectivism of the previous paragraph is an individualistic relativism, applicable to all standards. If you like out of tune, random guitar playing, then that is the proper standard of guitar playing for you. If you and I approve eating raw, rotten chicken, then that is our standard, even if we die; it is right for us. Even an odd sense of arithmetic is proper; 2 + 2 = 5, if that accords with an individual's standard. Individualistic relativism applies as well to moral standards; they are up to the individual because any view is as good as any other view, even moral views that seem patently offensive to most.
    Individualistic relativism denies that standards have a social function. It negates a purpose for having standards: to make our lives, collectively and individually, better. Random musical sounds, the absence of any interpersonal standards in music, would deprive you and me of an enjoyable part of our lives. Joint conversation about the value of music, the sort that opens up new and satisfying experiences, depends on good standards, and not merely individually endorsed views. Think about going to a physician who believes that he or she can make up standards of good medicine, or to a lawyer who has his or her own code of law, both independently of their respective colleagues and peers. Many human activities depend for their existence on socially established standards. We could not have universities, football teams, symphony orchestras, movie theaters, or language without standards that go beyond individual valuation.  Top

Moral nihilism

    Individual relativism is close to, but should not be confused with, moral nihilism. An individual relativist takes standards seriously perhaps even by going so far as establishing a strict, or burdensome moral code for himself or herself. Under this position, we view the code as binding only for that one person. A nihilist, on the other hand, believes that morality is an illusion. Nothing is really binding, even a code one establishes for oneself. Nihilism about any subject is difficult to overcome, if overcoming it means giving a nihilist reasons adequate to change his or her belief, because the nihilist can continually reject the basis for our reasoning. We may claim that an objective moral code is needed for proper social function, to avoid harm, to do good, to preserve integrity. The nihilist keeps telling us that all of this is an illusion or that each involves an imposed standard (while he or she continues to enjoy the fruits of a social life). When we point out that values stand behind good reasoning and moral debate, and that many people do take morality seriously and attempt to make correct moral judgments, this nihilist can again keep rejecting what we say. We may try to move from standards in some other field, like medicine, to moral standards, in order to show that morality similarly needs good standards, but the nihilist may also claim that standards about good medicine, good mathematics, good reasoning, good physics are all illusionary, effectively ending the conversation.
    We can leave the nihilist with the claim that people who take morality seriously need to find the best ways to make moral decisions and that those who reject morality, like those who reject the existence of the external world, are simply refusing to take social and moral experience seriously. Whether we confront a nihilist with moral experience, with well-supported judgments, with the social need for moral constraint, the nihilist claims his or her theory survives. In ethics, as in science, we should be suspicious of a theory that refuses to enter into reasonable debate. The nihilist presents a challenge and then refuses to consider opposing good reasons, again effectively ending the conversation.
    Extreme views are easy to fault. Even though some thinkers hold to extreme objectivism or extreme subjectivism, the truth seems to lie somewhere in between.   Top

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