Relative is not the same thing as Subjective

For whatever reason, a lot of people use the words “relative” and “subjective” interchangeably. Take any conversation about ethics. Some people will argue that because morality is relative, that means there’s no such thing as objective morality. This isn’t a wrong argument per se, but it needs to be explained more, since moral relativism is not necessarily an argument against objective morality.

First, let’s define what we mean by relative and subjective:

  • Relative: Existing or possessing a specified characteristic only in comparison to something else; not absolute (emphasis added).
  • Subjective: Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions

Right away we can see that these definitions have nothing to do with each other. Subjectivity is a personal property, the opposite of objectivity. Relativity is a relational property. According to relativism, the only way we can observe, or perhaps judge, a characteristic is in comparison to something else, i.e not absolutism.

A moral absolutist might say that killing is wrong no matter what and there is no meaningful way to compare certain situations that involve killing to each other. However, this is obviously dubious. We can easily compare two situations that involve killing, say murder vs self defense, and point out a difference. Here, the statement “killing is wrong” is relative to the circumstances at hand. In one scenario (murder), killing is clearly wrong and in the other (self-defense) we might say that it’s justifiable.

Let’s say I reduce “good” to mean “the well-being of conscious creatures”. I further assume that “the well-being of conscious creatures” means brain states. These brain states are affected by culture and other factors, things we would call relative. Culture X might claim that we ought not to eat meat while culture Y might claim the opposite. Not eating meat in culture X improves the well being (brain states) of people in culture X, while eating meat in culture Y also improves the well being (brain states) of people in culture Y. So here we have an example of how relative cultures and morality can lead to different conclusions on what we ought to do. But both actions meet the criteria of improving “the well-being of conscious creatures”, i.e. brain states, and we can say that both actions are the correct ones. Just like how the morality of killing is relative to the situation at hand, we can say the same thing about eating meat. In this case, the “situation” is a different culture. And we can probably do this for a number of moral questions. Of course, we can also do that opposite. We can claim that throwing acid in someone’s face is wrong, no matter the culture, as long as it meets the criteria we set. While brain states are malleable to things like culture, they also hold objective properties.

Now, you might take issue with this moral theory, which is undoubtably wrong. You might also dispute my definition of moral relativism, which wouldn’t be wrong. In fact, the relativism that I’m describing isn’t really the relativism that philosophers talk about, but that’s not what I’m trying to address. The main point is that it’s not immediately obvious that objective morality and relativism are incompatible. Saying that subjective morality is the same as relativism is not correct.

Links:

  1. Objective Moral Relativism
  2. Context and Relativism
  3. Desire Utilitarianism and Objective Moral Relativism – Part I
  4. Two Types of Moral Relativism
  5. Moral Relativism
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1 Comment

Filed under Home, Philosophy

One response to “Relative is not the same thing as Subjective

  1. Sophie

    “Saying that subjective morality is the same as moral relativism is not correct”. I’m glad someone else thinks so, too. I was beginning to think that I was all alone. I’m finding it difficult to understand this whole debate about subjective vs objective morality and their relation to relativism, partially because the terms are so confused and differ in definition from person to person. It’s helpful that you defined them to start with.

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