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On the Three Determinants of Morality – Part II

Since we are so “enlightened” in this modern age, moral subjectivism, moral relativism, and the denial of an “objective moral standard” are quite popular.

Sometimes, the first two are used to deny the third, even if not explicitly. At other times, the third is explicitly denied without using the first two. In this part, I will examine the common arguments.

Historically, these ideas have arguably existed since the Fall but different terminology has been adopted through the ages. For the purposes of this article, I will use contemporary terms. It is assumed one has read Part I.

2.1 Argument: Everything is subjective.

Reply: The statement “everything is subjective” is also subjective. If that is the case, then how can one be certain that statement is true? Commonsense suggests that there must be an objective reality, including an objective moral standard which we are able to know, even if imperfectly.

2.2 Argument: Good and bad can be determined by our feelings. If it feels good, then it must be good. Or if it feels right, then it must be right.

Reply A: “If it feels good…” or “If it feels right…” already presupposes there is a “good” or “right”, in effect admitting an objective moral standard.
Reply B: Subjectivism is attractive because it promotes feelings as a measure of good and bad. As humans, we have emotions and instincts. These are not necessarily wrong, but they can go either way so moral subjectivism is dangerous. Insofar as our feelings are subject or aligned to our conscience, it can be a good thing. The conscience can be described as something like “the voice of God speaking to the soul”, without implying the conscience is the only measure. Regardless of one’s specific beliefs, the conscience is generally seen as an external force in many cultures and traditions; that is, something objective. The conscience should not be confused for a feeling or instinct. To prove that distinction is simple: our conscience often compels us to act in a way contrary to our feelings such as the desire for pleasure, and even instincts such as self-preservation. Therefore, the conscience, feelings and instincts are not the same thing. Of course, intent is very important. Phrases like “It’s the thought that counts” or “X has his/her faults, but he/she has a good heart” indicate that we recognize the general importance of the intent. After all, the intent is subjective and absolute. One’s intentions may be a reaction to circumstance and there may be degrees of goodness, but the scale is absolute. That scale is not dependent on other things. It is also the only thing that we have total control of (or close to it). Often, we have limited control over our actions (A), usually because of circumstances (C). But we generally have control over our intentions. (Of course, this excludes those who are genuinely not of sound mind but exceptions do not exclude the general.) It is also possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason and do the wrong thing for the right reason. In terms of personal culpability and merit or demerit, the intent (B) is the most important without implying that the act itself (A) or the circumstances (C) be excluded.
Reply C: Whilst it may seem reasonable, almost no one actually behaves consistently to this belief. By this logic, one would never hold anyone accountable for genuine accidents because the person who caused it “didn’t mean to”. And yet we do. This assumes the intrinsic value of an act (A) and that justice demands some sort of response. It also follows that one would never tell a child off for anything because “they don’t know better”. And yet some do. Similarly, one would never teach a child etiquette like saying “please” because they don’t understand the intent and feelings behind it anyway but good parents and teachers do teach these things. All this assumes that the act itself has intrinsic value (A) and that by putting it into practice, one can later gain an understanding and appreciation for it and learn to have the right intent and feelings behind it (B).

2.3 Argument: When there are multiple witnesses of a given event, each sees the event differently. If, for example, the police need to determine what happened, they would need to interview all the witnesses. This proves subjectivism is true.

Reply: This argument only proves there are subjective aspects. There are undeniably subjective aspects but also objective reality. If “everything is subjective”, then it follows that no eyewitness account is better or worse than another. There is no standard to judge what is “better” or “worse” because it’s all subjective anyway. Therefore, there would be no point in the police talking to all the witnesses. If they cared at all, they could just pick one eyewitness, jot down his/her account of events and then go get more coffee and donuts. The reason to talk to multiple eyewitnesses is to cross-examine their accounts in order to eliminate the subjective aspects or add them together to get to the objective truth or at least get closer to it.

2.4 Argument: Everything is relative.

Reply: The statement “everything is relative” is also relative. If that is the case, then why say anything?

2.5 Argument: Good and bad depends on the situation and each individual.

Reply A: Relativism has no goal posts, or if there are any they can move. Absolutism admits at least one absolute or immovable goal post, without denying there are relative aspects to consider. In other words, to be relative in a proper manner requires at least one absolute to relate to, otherwise it’s just waffle.
Reply B: Relativism is attractive because the answer to any moral issue can be “it depends”, usually on one’s views or feelings, which is subjectivism (B) and/or on the circumstances (C). There is no objective moral standard to adhere to, so no one is at fault for anything.
Reply C: As a sidebar, the term “ethics” is sometimes used instead of “morals”. Morals is a broader term and assumes some objective/external force that created it and enforces it (i.e. God). Ethics is a narrower term, more about the application, what we know and do. The specific definition will vary depending on which textbook one looks up, this is merely one way to look at it. For some, “ethics” is preferred because it avoids involving the divine without doing away with good and bad altogether. It’s a goodie-two-shoes term. The concept of “situational ethics” in short is an over-emphasis of the importance of the circumstances (C) even if it does not explicitly deny the intrinsic value of the act itself (A).

2.6 Argument: The act itself (A) assumes an objective moral standard. It is an assumption. Granted, everything is based on assumptions anyway but our “morals” or “rules” are merely what we assume.

Reply A: Whilst our sense of good and bad may be described as something like an assumption, it does beg the question where that “sense” comes from. Given that most people have such an ability that is fundamentally similar, it is perhaps our nature. If that is our nature, then there is something that made said nature. Considered in isolation, this does not prove the divine but it is a clue to it.
Reply B: This is similar to the argument that morals are merely “human conventions” and that such conventions differ from one culture or nation or era to another, thereby proving that there is no such thing as an objective moral standard that is immutable. It is true that human conventions differ. However, they are based on the same fundamentals. For example, it may be the convention to drive on the right-hand side of the road in one country and on the left-hand side in another. But the point of the convention is to drive on one side of the road consistently. Why? Because order is necessary. And why is order necessary? Because order is an ingredient to peace and safety. And why peace and safety? Because peace is an ingredient to happiness, and life is precious and needs to be protected. Why? Because it just is—both life and happiness are good in themselves. At this stage, one cannot break it down any further. One could argue this is an assumption but it is interesting that most people make it even if they don’t know it.
Reply C: This is also similar to the argument of “nominalism”; that is, good and bad are just things that we label. However, nominalism presupposes that the object has some quality or essence. For example, books differ in many respects: page size, paper thickness, page count, cover type, text format (if there is text) and binding, amongst other things. But a book is basically paper bounded together in a certain way. Books have a certain fundamental quality or essence and we recognize that before we apply the generic term. The same can be said of morality. We recognize goodness—that is, the quality or essence of good—before we label it as such. Nominalism does not explain away objective morals. It only “works” by assuming objective qualities that we recognize.
Reply D: The argument of good and bad being merely a “social construct” is a combination of the above. If referring to human conventions, then see Reply B. If referring to the nominal aspect, then see Reply C. If referring to “people just like to do things that way”, then it begs the question of why people came up with it and maintain it when they didn’t have to. See Reply A.

2.7 Argument: The act itself (A) is basically saying the act has intrinsic value. This presupposes an objective moral standard that is immutable. If that is true, then according to the Scriptures God at times does bad things. Since God is good, He cannot do bad things. Therefore, the act itself cannot be a determinant or condition of morality.

Reply: God being infinitely good and just does not logically imply He never does “bad things”. Scripture does not state that God never does bad things. This is the argument of a pseudo-fundamentalist moron, typically protestant. It is precisely these three determinants that help resolve these apparent contradictions. Without an objective moral standard, one is reduced to subjectivism and/or relativism. For example, during the episode of The Flood, God wiped off the entire population except for eight people. The act itself (A) is objectively an evil. If that weren’t the case, then it means there is nothing wrong the wiping off most of the population. It follows that you and I may do it, just because. The alternative is that sometimes it is right and sometimes wrong, or that God may but we may not. How convenient. That’s just logically inconsistent waffle. However, if one considers the three determinants and justice, then it makes sense. If there is an objective moral standard, it necessarily follows that there is a source and judge of said standard; that is, “God”, the one necessary objective being who by nature must be good and just etc. Justice demands good to be rewarded and the bad punished. God wiping off most of the population is a bad thing (A) but bad people deserves bad things happen to them. So, given the circumstances (C) and God’s intent to administrate justice and to protect the good (B), He can be justified in sending the flood. This doesn’t make Him a bad god, it makes Him a just god without implying wholesale slaughter being a good thing in itself.

2.8 Conclusion

To recap using the example in Part I: Killing is always objectively an evil act (A). Fundamentals do not change. However, killing is not always murder as that depends on the intent (B) and the circumstances (C). Fundamentals do not change but their application can.

St Thomas Aquinas discusses the goodness and malice of acts in Summa Theologica. [Portrait of St Thomas Aquinas, 1476 (tempera on poplar), Carlo Crivelli]
St Thomas Aquinas discusses the goodness and malice of acts in Summa Theologica. [Portrait of St Thomas Aquinas, 1476 (tempera on poplar), Carlo Crivelli]

If the act itself (A) is omitted, then it follows that murder is sometimes right and sometimes wrong depending on the circumstances (C). That is relativistic crap.

If it is morally acceptable as long as one means well or didn’t mean to when something goes wrong (B), then one can get away with just about anything. By that convenient line of reasoning, Bob is automatically not guilty of murder just because “he meant well”.

If only the act itself (A) is considered whilst ignoring the intent (B) and circumstances (C), then Bob is guilty of killing/murder even if it was in defense of himself and others. To avoid that could possibly allow Fred to kill instead. Right. And that makes sense because?

Most people would state that killing in self-defense is acceptable only if one does so as a last resort. This implicitly admits that killing in itself is objectively an evil. After all, why avoid a course of action as much as possible if that isn’t the case?

The modernist liberalist tends to focus on (B) and/or (C) whilst neglecting if not outright denying (A). Pseudo-fundamentalist idiots focus on (A), thinking purely in black-and-white terms, whilst ignoring (B) and (C). Although different, both retarded approaches fall into self-contradictions and are totally unhelpful.

It is by considering all three of these determinants that one avoids going in circles and falling into logical holes.


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