I Get so Tired of Explaining the Word Objective

ob·jec·tive

/əbˈjektiv/
Adjective

(of a person or their judgment) Not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

MoralityI must say, I get really, really tired of explaining the meaning of this word to people because it gets tossed around all the time, clearly without any understanding of it’s proper usage.  Today, I was listening to the latest (as of this writing) episode of The Atheist Experience and someone called in to ask about objective morality.  To Matt’s credit, I think he only used the word once, but that was once too many.  He points to his lecture on secular morality, which I’ve addressed before, but I’ll be honest, it really, really grates on me when people want to claim that their system of morality, no matter what it is, is objective.

No it’s not!

In order for a thing to be objective, it must be totally without the influence of individual belief, feelings, opinions, biases or views.  There is nothing in what Matt said, no matter how much I agree with it, that is objective.

It makes me think back to the famous Phillip K. Dick quote:  “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away”  That’s because reality exists outside of humanity.  If humanity simply vanished tomorrow, reality would still be here.  Reality is objective.

By the same token, if you want to declare morality objective, it has to follow a similar path.  If humanity went away, would morality still exist?  The answer, of course, is no.  Morality is something that humans made up, like laws and rights.  Without us, or without some intelligent agent, it has no rational meaning.

Matt, however, assigns attributes to morality that spring directly from his emotional desires.  He wants morality to deal with demonstrable harm.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, in fact I think a lot of his subjective ideas about morality are admirable and defensible, just because they’re not objective doesn’t make them any less desirable.

Once we all agree that morality isn’t objective, that everyone has an opinion and that all opinions deserve to be heard, even if many will be rejected, then we can discuss what’s important.  It starts intelligent debate and hopefully, people can come to conclusions based upon that debate.

But if people start declaring that morality is objective, how is it any better than the people that say it was handed down from on high?  That stifles discussion and makes it pointless to try to come to conclusions because everyone already has their own inviolable views.  Once someone says that morality is fixed, that it exists outside of the opinions of humanity, there’s no point in discussing it because the individual has already made it known that they are incapable of changing their mind on the subject.  In fact, if you think about it, that’s exactly why these claims of “objective morality” exist in the first place.  Thinking about these subjects is difficult.  Since most people’s emotional views are the basis of their morality, it’s really impossible to debate them with people who do not share your same emotional and social state.  You get into a lot of “I’m right, so there!” and that’s not conducive to much of anything.  In fact, that’s really why people claim that morality comes from a god or from a king or some other authority figure, because that takes the pressure off of having to validate your own beliefs.  However, there’s a reason that arguments from authority are fallacious, just because someone said something, or you can claim they said something, doesn’t make what they said factually so.  It stifles dissent and quashes questioning, that’s why they do it.

Unfortunately, it’s all too common among supposedly rational people as well, I see atheists doing exactly the same thing about various subjects that theists are guilty of.  People just aren’t willing to examine their own beliefs critically.  We all need to be careful about what we think and believe and desire and be open to constant re-evaluation of our positions in order to sort out objective fact from subjective faith.  There are plenty of times where subjectivity is fine.  You’re free to like chocolate ice cream all you want, so long as you don’t claim that it is objectively better than every other flavor.  Every time you do that, every time you’re willing to claim that your personal views are authoritative, you just make the rest of us in the rationalist community look bad.

Like it or not, we’re just not above the very same rules that we hold theists to.

4 thoughts on “I Get so Tired of Explaining the Word Objective

  1. I still have a problem wrapping my head around objective morality, thats why I appreciate the strict definition of the word objective given at the front of the article.
    Actually I try to understand these arguments about morality, but for me I just wish that people would realise these arguments do not show the existcne of a diety. All they do is try show us how morality "which is difficult tio understand in the first place" actually came about in the first place.
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  2. It always bugs me when Matt talks about morality. I generally agree with what he is trying to say, but it irks me when he says it is objective. I think one of the main problems is that "morality" is typically pretty poorly defined. I don't have Matt's definition handy, but I think it's something about doing the most good and the least harm as possible. Based on his definition, he claims that certain things are objectively immoral. I think there is something to that, if you start with his definition there are certain things that will just follow logically, in that sense perhaps it is objective. But the nature of moral discussions don't really seem to lend themselves to that rigid a framework. There's usually some crazy situation that can be concocted that makes something that would normally seem terrible the most moral option.

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    1. He says that once you have a standard, you apply it objectively, he just doesn't explain how his standard is arrived at objectively, he just proposes a standard as though it's the only one worth using and rejects all others out of hand. I think this is a massive problem for a lot of philosophers who are desperately trying to make things that are inherently subjective into something that can be measured objectively and I don't think it's possible to do what they want to do.

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