Objective-subjective distinction

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Work In Progress.

SisyphusRedeemed breaking down the Skeptic community's misrepresentation of objective morality

Objective morality is often the subject of straw-manning, whereby, it is claimed that moral objectivism purports the existence of the moral properties, such as rightness and wrongness, that exist independently of the natural properties of the world. While some forms of moral objectivism involve such independent properties (e.g. sin or karma in some supernatural systems), this is not true of all objective morality, and so this generalization results from a misunderstanding of what objective morality means, and works against rational morality and moral discourse.

This is a particularly large problem among skeptics and atheists, communities have have substantial overlap with the vegan community (which is primarily non-theistic). The colloquial misunderstanding of objectivism (the belief it can only stem from theism) can result in defaulting to subjectivism, which is an obstacle in vegan outreach both in motivating activists and in facilitating dialogue with those on the other end.

Many vegans see belief in animal moral value as nothing more than a personal feeling that others either share or don't, and they think that advocating it to others equates to religious proselytism... so they won't do it. And from the other side (atheists who are non-vegans) they'll also shut down discourse on that basis. It's important to correct misconceptions about objective morality to show non-theistic vegans (the majority of us by many polls) that it's OK to advocate for the inclusion of animals in morality without being hypocrites for e.g. disliking religious attempts to force similar issues on abortion, etc.

Advocating from a position of moral realism doesn't require "thinking the universe has an opinion"; we want to make sure vegans understand that and aren't silenced by the straw-man interpretation of the skeptic community (and so they know how to respond when skeptics try to silence them for advocating for animals).

In this article we will consider the distinctions between the philosophical positions of moral universalism (moral objectivism) and moral relativism, and between the related concepts of (respectively) moral realism and moral subjectivism.

In practice, these concepts cluster into two broad groupings:

  • The Objective: Moral objectivist, universalist, realist
  • The Subjective: Moral subjectivist, relativist, non-realist

While it is easier to understand them in these groupings, it's worth noting that due to the way these positions are defined it may be technically possible to have a subjectivist position that is also universal (objective), such as a divine command theory which claims morality is universal (objective) and depends on subjective opinions of a mind (the mind of God). However, such positions likely suffer from inconsistency, see Euthyphro.

Moral Universalism vs Moral Relativism

The most easily explained distinction between moral universalism and moral relativism is that moral universalism holds that morality is universal, meaning that moral principles apply to everyone and apply everywhere. Put simply, what is wrong for me here and now is also wrong for you. Moral relativism, in contrast, holds that there are moral principles that do not apply to everyone or everywhere and are dependent on the opinions of a person (individualist subjectivism), culture (cultural subjectivism) or similar.

However, it's important not to mistake Universalism for Absolutism. Absolutism prescribes specific acts and doesn't consider circumstances, while Universalism can refer to general principles, and not just specific acts. E.g. a universal principle may prescribe acting to reduce harm, rather than, for example an absolutist principle of "never lie" which would even apply to a murderer asking where his would be victim is hiding (thus doing harm). Absolutism is a form of Universalism, but not all Universalism is Absolutist (Just as Dogs are a kind of Mammal, but not all Mammals are Dogs). In modern moral thought, absolutist universalism has fallen out of favor, and associations with absolutism often push people unfamiliar with alternative forms of universalism into relativism.

Things become more complicated when we can phrase cultural relativism as universal laws such as "It is always right to follow the rules of your culture", or even "it's always right to do whatever you think is right" which would seem to be both universal and relative. Because the only way to create a contradiction would be to have a culture with a rule to not follow the rules of that culture (which would invalidate itself), or thinking it's not right to do what you think is right (again, self-invalidating), such an obfuscation would seem consistent.

Thus, to properly understand the distinction between moral universalism and relativism in any useful sense, we have to understand Universalism as a rule or set of rules that is NOT merely serving as a pointer to some other arbitrary rule set; that is, we must understand it as objective in nature where relativism is a pointer to some other rule set (cultural or personal).

Pro-Universalist argument

The dominant view in philosophy is that morality is universal.

The primary argument in favour of universalism is semantic in nature: holding that morality is by definition universal, and as a consequence, if a rule is not universal then it is not a moral rule. Proponents of this line of reasoning appeal to the traditional use and meaning of morality, such as that found in religions, whereby moral rules apply universally. Moreover moral universalism aligns with the commonsense perception (another substantial contribution to semantics) that when discussing conflicting moral statements, e.g. ‘torturing children is good’ versus ‘torturing children is not good’, (uttered by two different individuals), only one of these assertions could possibly be right. This is in line with the apparent teleology (use) of morality in discourse; it does not make sense that people are just expressing their opinions at each other as if they were discussing their favorite colors and believe that nobody is right or wrong on the topic.

However, semantic arguments are often not very convincing, and arguments against non-subjectivist moral relativism are much more powerful:

Arbitrary subjectivist-relativist spectrum

There is commonly understood to be something of a spectrum between individual mind-level subjectivism and larger scale cultural relativism.

However, non-subjectivist moral relativism runs into problems where the boundaries that define morality are very easily broken down and rely on subjective interpretation. For example, culture breaks down into subcultures until the individual level is reached, and there's no clear method by which to establish an objective culturally relative reference frame.

This problem (which is to date without solution) forces realists into a universalist position to avoid contradiction or appealing to arbitrary social boundaries (or forces them into subjectivism). This is not to say that the context of society can't be relevant to realists e.g. with respect to consequences of actions in a consequentialist system, but morality can not be defined based on social rules in themselves.

Moral Realism vs Moral Subjectivism

Contemporary Metaethics.png

Moral realism and moral subjectivism are defined* by commitments to the following theses (where proposition means a statement suitable for truth or falsity):

Moral realism

  1. moral statements express propositions
  2. some moral statements are true
  3. moral statements are true or false in virtue of mind-independent properties of the world

Moral subjectivism

  1. moral statements express propositions
  2. some moral statements are true
  3. moral statements are true or false in virtue of mind-dependent properties of the world

*note that these definitions are not meant to be inclusive of the many non-realist positions such as non-cognitivism. See flowchart (to the right) for more complete outline.

Mind Independence

It's important to appreciate the broad range of interpretations of mind-dependence/mind-independence, and that to a substantial degree those interpretations blur the line between these categories, which is unhelpful.
Meaningful interpretations create a sharp line, which is what we use here. When we speak of mind dependence, we mean it is the opinion of a mind, one not otherwise intended to reflect objective facts outside that mind, that makes something moral or not. That is a belief; one without inherent truth value beyond the fact of the belief itself.

  • The belief "Chocolate is delicious." is an opinion.
  • The belief "Bob thinks Chocolate is delicious." is a fact belief which purports to represent the objective fact of the opinion Bob holds.

This is crucial to understand in order to comprehend the functional boundaries of mind-dependence. If we regard the belief "Bob thinks Chocolate is delicious" to be mind-dependent despite there being objective truth value to the claim outside the mind that believes it on the grounds that a mind is involved in the scenario being described, then everything becomes mind-dependent: not just psychology, but all of science which is based on some level on observation or interpretation by minds.

People may believe that morality is or is not mind-independent, but the claim that morality can NOT be mind-independent on the grounds that it is thought of, analyzed, affects, or is measured by its affect on minds is inherently linked to a deeper factual subjectivism about reality and the universe (often magical thinking).

Implications and limits of universalism

Now if we are going to commit to a form of moral universalism, we must either adopt moral realism or an ideal observer form of subjectivism. Where an ideal observer theory, is a theory in which the moral actions are determined by an ideal observer such as a God, or a fictional ideally rational agent.

However, where those ideal observers are NOT non-naturalistic/magical in some way (possessing souls or free will that are uncoupled from determinism or reason) because naturalistic ideal observers function on certain rules that are mind independent (e.g. an ideally rational agent behaves in accordance with logical and mathematical concepts like game theory), these views collapse back into realism.

Therefore, the only way to commit to universalism without adopting realism (naturalistic or not) is by adopting a non-naturalistic ideal observer form of subjectivism -- this is broadly something theistic apologists are right about, although it does not necessarily have to be a god, it is incompatible with materialistic atheism.


Euthyphro is a famous dialogue between Socrates and the eponymous Euthyphro, as described by Plato. It boils down to Socrates challenging the concept of piety and its relation to the Gods (for our purposes, goodness)

"Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"

This is an important challenge to substantiation of morality by divine command.
If God loves good because it is good, then we are dealing with a non-subjectivist form of moral realism which is merely being relayed to humanity by a wiser being who is teaching us a fact of the universe. This is a consistent take, as well as one supported by scripture in many religions (see Bad Fruits), but it's also a realist interpretation and it fails to in itself define what morality is.
If, on the other hand, good is just defined by whatever God arbitrarily prefers, then we run afoul of the typical intuitions of theists and the theist is tasked with explaining why we should regard God's word on the matter as any more important than Steve's word (any random person).

Of course the challenge can be left unanswered, and God's authority can be assumed on assertion alone (unsatisfying, but potentially qualifying as subjective universalism), but this is usually unsatisfying. It's not clear that any actual or potential answers would satisfy the subjectivity requirement, though. As an answer to the challenge of God's moral authority, often a novice apologist will appeal to the fact that God created man, hinting at an objective moral law in the universe higher than and outside of God that says creation must obey the creator because that is its purpose; this potentially brings us right back to moral realism (although at the risk of relativism). The more professional explanation, typically, is that God is objective in some way while Steve is not, or a reference to a metaphysical substance of sin or karma which is intrinsic to the laws of reality (and not just God's opinion, although reality may have been made by God), which brings us again back to something like realism because the knowledge or preferences this God has is no longer a subjective phenomena and neither is the metaphysical substance that manifests morality (or at least, no more subjective than anything else we presume to be real at the whim of God).

Thus, while at least superficially the definitions seem to allow for subjectivist universalism, in practice any meaningful investigation seems to reveal an objective basis being used to substantiate those laws.


There is little overwhelming consensus among philosophers on any topics, and a common problem in academic philosophy is a anti-status-quo or originality bias. Philosophers have a tendency to argue themselves into unusual positions for novelty or as contrarians which is both good and bad in different ways; good to ensure every conceivable position is argued for and nothing is missed, but bad in that it is very confusing for the public at large and undermines the credibility of philosophy as opposed to fields of empirical science where broad agreement is common on major issues (a difference hard to overcome without experimental confirmation).

However according to a survey by philpapers [1] most philosophers subscribe to a form of moral realism.

William Lane Craig & Skeptic Community Strawman

Objectivity and subjectivity have been broken down into two crude categories in the collaboratively promoted straw-man version of the discussion: ontological and epistemological.

The ontologically objective vs. subjective is considered to be defined on the basis of "the universe having an opinion" or not, specifically an infallible one; which for the theists is God. The subjective, according both to the skeptics and theists, is then a definition which is entirely up for grabs: whatever you say morality is, is what morality is in your system, and no system is objectively preferable to any other.

Both collectively reject reason and deduction as means to arrive at an objective definition of morality or substantiate or debunk any system of morality as objectively preferable, usually because reason is "mind dependent" (in the broadest and most useless sense as discussed here) and prone to error. "Mind independent" in this broad sense and "error-free" are both extremely poor definitions of "objectivity" which leave the term meaningless outside of theistic contexts, and as discussed in this article also apply to all science (skeptics shoot themselves in the foot by making these claims, handing the victory to theist by assenting to favorable terms as noted below).

Some self-identified ontological subjectivists seem to claim that reason can rule out certain moral systems as contradictory (see Name The Trait), but then deny that such a process is making any ontologically objective claims about morality based on the unexamined assumption that there are other viable systems of morality, or that there's nothing stopping people from having internally contradictory "systems" of morality and ostensibly that lacking contradiction doesn't make a moral system better or more objective than another.

The epistemologically objective vs. subjective is considered based on methodology to derive correct action from an established definition of morality. Whether that definition is objective, based on the opinion of the universe or an infallible god, or it is subjective is (at least to the skeptics) thought to be of no bearing.

Skeptics usually believe the objective epistemology is science, with the recommendation output from the method depending on what you want to maximize or what goal you want to serve. Science IS objective methodolgy in the sense that it controls for bias, and it is also Mind Independent in a useful sense but it is not "objective" based on the special William Lane Craig/Skeptic definitions which favor theism: it is not infallible nor completely "mind independent" in the broad sense of having anything to do with a mind due to observation, interpretation, and even the fact that minds have been involved anywhere in the chain of events or its conception or understanding.

Theists, leveraging their special definition, claim that human reasoning that supports the objective credibility of science is "mind dependent" (in the broad/useless sense as noted) and prone to error, as is practice of science itself, and commonly appeal to faith-based epistemology on most moral issues (or a faith-guided reason and science, as presuppositionalists).

Skeptics make the transparent mistake of appealing to science as objective, the epistemological credibility of which is supported by reason, but then rejecting reason as a possible means to derive ontologically objective truths.

This perversion of the key definitions and employing of numerous false dichotomies benefits only theistic apologists.

Skeptics in this case are transparently contradicting themselves.

If the skeptic rejects the theists' special definition of "objective" as infallible and perfectly mind-independent in the broadest way, using reasonable definitions of mind independence and not demanding infallibility, then it may be possible to accept the credibility of reason as objective, and thus science as epistemologically objective, and then argue that there is no means by which reason can substantiate an ontologically objective morality. However, given this claim against the possibility of reason ever substantiating an ontologically objective morality is a matter of proving a negative it is unlikely that any such argument is forthcoming (the "Is-Ought problem" is often cited, although this is an unfounded assertion rather than an argument). Because of this, any skeptic making such absolute claims against objective morality but accepting reason is operating on the same faith theists are.

An honest and consistent skeptic of this inclination should support a third position instead: Ontological agnosticism.

Or even something different all-together which rejects the false dichotomy of regarding choice of moral theory as completely subjective or objective in favor of assigning different states of objective falsehood to some moral theories which are disproved, and agnosticism to others which are unproven.

Given also how obviously some moral claims and systems are inconsistent and contradict themselves, an even slightly informed and honest and consistent skeptic of such an inclination should in fact be (as with atheism, with respect to some definitions of god which contain contradictions) Ontologically "gnostic" to objective claims against contradictory moral systems and otherwise ontologically agnostic to others, and skeptical to varying degrees based on their plausibility.

In short, the straw-man version of this argument does nothing but beg the question of theism, because the definitions used and the false dichotomy presented make nothing else possible without contradiction. By way of false dichotomy and definitions, it inherently excludes from consideration a broad range of substantive philosophical positions (in fact the majority of positions philosophers hold) without the possibility of arguing for them because they are neither "The opinion of god/the universe defines morality" nor "Morality is whatever you want it to be". Skeptics who argue that people are just confused about the distinction between ontology and epistemology are creating a red herring to hide their own ignorance of the topic and the dishonest treatment of these terms purpose-built by theistic apologists and then swallowed whole by the skeptic community to exclude positions that are neither theistic absolutism nor relativism. It's unclear if they do this out of profound ignorance of philosophical discourse, or if they realize what they're doing and they just don't want to contend with these other substantive positions because they'd rather battle a straw-man of theistic absolutism as the only alternative to their own relativistic beliefs (and are just too stupid to realize that they are handing the victory to the apologists because of their own brazen contradictions).

A minority of skeptics (and possibly a majority when pushed into a corner in argument) are "subjectivists" with respect to ontology and epistemology; these are factual subjectivists, and they don't engage in the specific contradictions mentioned above. For discussion of this, see Factual Relativism.

Naturalistic Realism

Naturalistic realism refers to moral realist theories in which moral properties such as right and wrong refer to natural properties, such as well-being. These are split into two main categories, theories in which moral properties are reducible to natural properties and ones where they are not (i.e. where moral properties are irreducible to natural properties.). In the following sections we will describe the leading contemporarys views of Railton realism (reducible) and Cornell realism (irreducible).

In the following sections we will be using material from Miller's Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics [2]

Railton Realism

Railton Realism holds that moral properties are reducible to a set of natural properties, N (e.g. brain states that are equivalent to happiness and suffering). He proposes the following reductions of moral terms

non-moral good: An individual’s good consists in what he would want himself to want, or to pursue, were he to contemplate his present situation from a standpoint fully and vividly informed about himself and his circumstances, and entirely free of cognitive error or lapses of instrumental rationality.
Moral rightness: x is morally right if and only if x would be approved of by an ideally instrumentally rational and fully informed agent considering the question ‘How best to maximize the amount of non-moral goodness?’ from a social point of view in which the interests of all potentially affected individuals were counted equally.

Cornell Realism

Cornell realism holds that moral properties such as right, wrong, good, bad etc. are natural properties but are not reducible to non-moral properties.

But first: what would it mean for moral properties to be natural properties if they are not reducible to non-moral properties? According to non-reductionists, moral properties ‘are constituted by’, or ‘supervene upon’ non-moral properties, but they do not reduce to non-moral properties. To illustrate the difference consider the moral property of rightness:

We can imagine an indefinite number of ways in which actions can be morally right. [Non-reductionists] think that, in any one example of moral rightness, the rightness can be identified with non-moral properties (e.g. the handing over of money, the opening of a door for someone else, etc.). But they claim that, across all morally right actions, there is no one non-moral property or set of non-moral properties that all such situations have in common and to which moral rightness can be reduced.

For example, one might argue that certain natural terms like ‘intelligence’ or ‘organism’ are not obviously reducible to natural properties, and that mental types like being in pain is not necessarily reducible to neurological types like being in a state of C-fibre stimulation.