Are Morals Objective?
Thomas Ash

J.L. Mackie, a philosopher famous for denying the objectivity of morals, encountered three very different reactions to his claims on the subject. Some, he wrote, found them "not merely false but pernicious". What could be more undeniable than the evilness - the objective, absolute evilness - of the Holocaust, and what could be more pernicious than the denial of this evil? But others who read Mackie, though taking pains to maintain that they abhorred the Nazis as much as the next man, thought his claim that moral judgements such as this were subjective matters "trivial", needing only to be stated to be recognised as true.

These equal and opposite convictions, which can be found whenever people debate the issue (and perhaps even as you consider it yourself), may tempt us to the third view listed by Mackie, namely that the objectivity of morals is not itself an objective question. Perhaps if people can have such different views, there is no right or wrong answer. But to bow out thus would be a mistake, unless we are prepared to take the same attitude to every question where disagreement persists - which I hope we are not. In some of these cases, the philosophers with whom Mackie identifies the third view are right to conclude that the claim in question is meaningless; perhaps to accept it is to express one attitude, to reject it another, but there is no fact of the matter to decide who is right. But in this case I think all we can conclude is that if the claim that morals are objective does have a meaning, it is not well understood.

Our first task, then, should be to see if we can get a better understanding of it, and in doing so put the third position properly behind us. Those who maintain that morals are objective, who I shall call objectivists (at the risk of bringing to mind acolytes of Ayn Rand), are apt to put their view in simple terms. As in the example I gave above, they might cite condemnation of the Holocaust as an objective moral judgement. One thing it does not mean is that moral judgements, values and the like are 'real' in the exact same way that we commonly suppose physical objects to be, perhaps by virtue of being written on a rock handed down from Mt Sinai. Both J.L. Mackie, a subjectivist (or, as he prefers, moral sceptic) and Renford Bambrough, who defends the objectivity of morality, agree on this point. Bambrough correctly dismisses what he calls the 'malign ... idea that objectivity requires an object.'[1]

This idea may, however, account at least partly for the belief in moral subjectivism. Among the many obvious differences between a moral judgement and a tree, a subjectivist might claim that a moral judgement requires a judger and a tree doesn't requires a perceiver. Bambrough's response to this is to point out the difficulties with našve realism about trees: since we only know of trees through our perceptions of them, one could be equally sceptical about their existence as about the existence of morals. He claims that if moral sceptics accept common sense arguments (like those of G.E. Moore) for an external world, they are guilty of inconsistency. Mackie disagrees, saying he thinks the arguments against scepticism about the external world more convincing (as he gives these arguments in other books, I can't honestly evaluate them.)

So philosophers tend to agree that objectivism is not this kind of našve realism about moral truths. What, if anything, do they agree that it is? The central objectivist claim that everyone seems to agree on is this: at least some moral statements are true or false whether anyone agrees with them or not.

To understand this it might help to consider such a moral statement, for example: 'trans-Atlantic slavery was wrong.' An objectivist (at least a modern one!) would say that this was true even when the opposite belief was widely accepted. A subjectivist (unlike a non-cognitivist) might think that the statement is true. But he or she would think it true only from their perspective; the subjective truth of the claim would only reflect their personal desires, values, opinions and so on. (A variant of subjectivism is that if many different people agree on such a claim, it is 'intersubjectively' true, but that raises few separate issues.)

It is worth noting that objectivism is not the same as what many people call absolutism: the claim 'trans-Atlantic slavery was wrong' does not necessarily mean that 'slavery is always wrong, whatever the situation'[2] (even if it is.) Objectivists can accept the linguistic claim that our moral judgements express our opinions, and the epistemological claim that we do not know if these are true (both of which Bernard Williams dismisses as trivial.) So, as Bambrough points out, accusing objectivists of totalitarian tendencies or a failure to take into account differences in situations does not work. It is also a fundamentally moral argument, resting on the claim 'totalitarianism is wrong' and he questions whether you can make such an argument if you think the claim only subjectively true. Williams notes that subjectivism forbids the kind of 'midair position' found in Ideal Observer theories, from which we seem to condemn totalitarianism and commend tolerance, and this 'seems to have taken something away.'[3]

However, some subjectivists (and Mackie is one) are adamant that subjectivism does not boil down to what is commonly called moral nihilism - thinking nothing right or wrong in any sense. (He does accept that nihilism and egoism cannot be refuted if there are no objective values.) Mackie recognizes that the sense in which we use the words 'right' and 'wrong' in everyday life requires them to be true whether anyone thinks so or not. He attempts to give an 'error theory' of how our common opinions come to be in error, and also explain how the words right and wrong can still be applicable if subjectivism is true.

His answer to the first question is partly that we have internalised social pressures from the government, church and so on to behave in certain ways (which may help society to function, giving ethics a pragmatic, pseudo-evolutionary justification, but still no objective truth.) And it is also partly the 'pathetic fallacy', 'what Hume calls the mind's 'propensity to spread itself on external objects.'[4] Mackie does not claim simply that we have 'projected' our moral attitudes onto the world and so claimed they have objective truth, but does claim we have confused 'wants' with 'goods' due to the closeness of these two words. Other 'error theories' include Elizabeth Anscombe's claim that much modern ethics is a vestige of Divine Command theory.

However, all these theories fail to be fully convincing, as they do not account for how the concept of 'should', which Mackie denies refers to anything, arose in our minds and language. If we reflect on the concept, it seems to be 'basic', as G.E. Moore said - unanalysable like yellowness. It seems a good objection to subjectivism to say that 'should', like 'yellow', could not have been invented out of thin air. (We do not have to suppose that 'yellow' or 'good' exist just like trees do. Bertrand Russell argued that aspects of sense data like colour have an existence outside ourselves, even if they do not straightforwardly exist in the 'real world.')

R.M. Hare defended the ability of subjectivists to meaningfully use the words 'right' and 'wrong' by dismissing the difference between subjectivism and objectivism. His idea seems to have been that while our ethical beliefs (like our condemnation of slavery) matter a great deal, our beliefs about those beliefs (our metaethics) do not. But consider his description of ethical decisions in The Language of Morals: 'If the inquirer still goes on asking 'But why should I live like that?' then there is no further answer to give him ... We can only ask him to make up his own mind which way he ought to live.'[5] Mackie and Bambrough both rightly recognise that this loses an important, objective common meaning of the word 'right.' So subjectivism at least makes nihilism no truer or falser than the morality Mackie constructs. However, this does not disprove subjectivism; it only shows a (probably unwelcome) consequence of it.

So, beyond the issues raised by these definitions, what are the arguments for and against moral judgements being objective?

Mackie rests his case on the argument from relativity and the argument from queerness. The first points to widespread moral disagreement between cultures; were morals objective, surely there would be more agreement? He acknowledges Bambrough's objection that this does not disprove objectivity and Sidgwick's suggestion that there might be agreement on basic principles like the Golden Rule. But he suggests that the hypothesis of subjectivity fits the evidence of moral disagreement better, and this is an extremely strong argument. Evidence to the contrary has been given, though: the anthropologist Donald E. Brown gave several moral principles shared by all peoples in his book Human Universals.

The way in which we come to know objective moral truths is the target of Mackie's argument from queerness. He identifies two difficulties here. Metaphysically, objective values would be 'utterly different from anything else in the universe.' And epistemologically, it is hard to see how we could come to know them except for a perplexing intuitionism 'to which any objectivist view of values is in the end committed.'[6] He is correct on both points - to some extent. As mentioned above, moral values would have to be different from, say, trees, but seeing as they are just as much a part of our everyday awareness, this is not an argument for rejecting them and accepting trees. And for an argument to be moral rather than simply factual, it does have to involve some recognition of experiences, or actions or principles as good rather than bad. We all seem to have this recognition, but the only argument I can offer for its not being a result of projection or internalisation is the one mentioned above (that such a 'basic' aspect of the world as we see it could not have arisen in this way), which is clearly inconclusive.

Though Mackie avoids this argument, it is common for subjectivists to contrast morality with science, which seems to give us a better methodology for solving disputes. Science does have the advantage that its hypotheses can be falsified. In the first Appendix to his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume suggested that the opposite was true of morality: 'After every circumstance, every relation is known, the understanding has no further room to operate, nor any object on which it could employ itself.' Of course, we do not know this, as there are no moral disputes where every point of logic and fact is agreed (Bambrough claims that 'if every question of logic [and] fact had been answered there could remain no question calling for the use of reason.'[7] He attempts to break down the apparent difference between morality, science and even pure maths, as all three require unproved premises and can be rejected in practice.) Importantly, in cases like trans-Atlantic slavery, when more facts became known and more inconsistencies were pointed out, disagreement narrowed hugely.

The philosopher Broad dismissed this method of moral debate as 'twit[ting] each other with inconsistency.' But why is this an invalid way to argue? If a 17th century slaveholder asserted that 'Slavery is permissible' and 'All humans are equal in the eyes of God', then proving that Africans were humans would (and did) force him to give up one of his initial beliefs. There might be an element of truth in Plato's claim that if anyone perceived the 'Form of Good' they would accept it: can anyone believe both 'Slavery is permissible' and 'Slavery is not permissible'? Mackie says that both statements 'cannot be either true or false'[8], so this must mean that neither is false - an apparent paradox. However for him this is only a paradox, and the statements are only true or false, within the institution of acts being permissible or impermissible (an institution which we can reject if we wish.) He accounts for moral disagreement in this way, but seems to make it impossible if subjectivism is accepted (which may be a reason for rejecting subjectivism.)

A strong subjectivist argument dates back to Hume: deducing 'ought' statements from 'is' statements is supposedly impossible because it involves moving from facts to (unrelated) values. And in a subjectivist's eyes, using 'ought' statements as premises would only beg the question: Mackie calls the results hypothetical, rather than categorical, imperatives, as they are only true if we accept the 'ought' premise. He convincingly points out the problems with John Searle's attempt to derive 'Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars' from the fact that Jones made this promise: not the least of which is that it is only true within the institution of promise-keeping, which he compares to children's institution of claiming cakes by saying 'Bags.' He says that the best tactic for an objectivist here is to 'look for companions in guilt.'

This is just what Bambrough does - he points out that both science and logic (which C.S. Pierce called 'the ethics of the intellect' for a similar reason) derive an 'ought' from an 'is.' They do so in answering questions like 'Why should I argue validly?' and 'Why should I accept evidence?' which seem analogous to 'Why should I do what is right?' This point casts doubt on subjectivism, but the problem with it is that the subjectivist may accept the concept of 'evidence' while denying, like Mackie, that 'right' (as commonly used) refers to anything.

I have tried to show how some of the arguments for subjectivism are not as strong as they first appear. This does not prove that moral judgements are objective, and as this is a positive claim, it has a burden of proof just like the positive claim that things are right and wrong only by virtue of subjective desires and values[9]. That said, there is a good case to be made for tentatively accepting objectivism: it fits better not just with society's morality but also with our common moral language and sense of right and wrong, which subjectivism and scepticism leave greatly in need of explanation.


1. Bambrough, p71

2. In his penultimate chapter, Bambrough makes the point that in ethics, as in science and logic, particulars are always more likely to be true than universals, so if you think ethics is a matter of objective truth, it is always more reliable to infer a particular from a particular. Often, though, a universal may be more interesting and useful.

3. Williams, p28

4. Mackie, p42

5. Hare, p69

6. Mackie, p38

7. Bambrough, p72

8. Mackie, p25

9. Mackie is careful not to make this positive claim, formulating his position as the purely negative one 'that there do not exist ... objective values or requirements.


All page references refer to the following editions:

Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, J.L. Mackie (Penguin, 1990)

Moral Scepticism and Moral Knowledge, Renford Bambrough (Routledge & Kegan, 1979)

Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, Bernard Williams (CUP, 1993)

The Moral Philosophers: An Introduction to Ethics (2nd edition), Richard Norman (OUP, 1998)

Objectivity in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, E. Craig (Ed.), (Routledge, retrieved October 15, 2003, from

Subjectivism in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Simon Blackburn (Ed.) (OUP, 1996)

Relativism and Ethics: What Is Truth - does it matter?, Kenneth Cauthen,

© 2003

About the author...
Tom Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. He currently does non-profit work and freelance web development. See more information about Tom Ash.

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