What does it mean if morality does not objectively exist?

Just so we’re clear: there is no “right” thing to do. The premise of this thread is that right and wrong are purely subjective, and while you may believe that helping others is the right thing to do, that position is no more defensible than holding that taking all you can get is the right thing to do. Where morality is subjective both taking and giving are morally equal.

As an aside, helping behavior is one of the topics I teach in my social psychology classes. There are a multitude of situational theories concerning why and when we help or do not help, including evolutionary kin selection and protection, social-responsibility norm, time constraints, modeling others’ helping or non-helping behavior, diffusion of responsibility in large crowds, cost-benefit analysis, perception or lack of perception of others’ needs, and so on, not to mention personality and cultural influences on our (helping) behavior. We do not have to choose one theory: all of them probably play some role.

I can certainly recognize the benefits of living in a society that fosters giving and aiding others. That said, this is no argument that I should give, only that I should want others to give.


Here’s your definition: *morality is legally and socially acceptable behavior. *How do you define what is socially acceptable? Approved by 50% +1? Approved by 5%? Approved by X% in your neighborhood? Your state? Your family? Your friends? In your example, right and wrong are set by the opinions of others, but how does this fit with your belief that each person develops his own moral code? In this case your referent - the not measurable opinions of a not specifiable group of people essentially does not exist since it is not definable.

How can you decide if an action is “right or wrong”? It is easy to decide if an action is legal or not; and also if the action is socially acceptable or not.

It is possible to decide if an action is legal, but laws are never written to exclude all things that constitute bad behavior. As for using social acceptability as a criterion for moral behavior, it might make sense in theory but in practice I seriously doubt that anyone who actually thinks about it would ever base his moral code on what he intuits others believe about a subject. People just don’t think that way.

How can you decide if “adultery” is right or wrong?

Ask your neighbors? Read the national polls? What percentage of the population needs to approve of adultery before it gets switched from the wrong to the right column?

Everywhere the society considers that legal and socially acceptable are “right”.

But this is absolutely not so, as any number of issues demonstrate. Abortion is legal yet at least a third of the country holds it to be wrong. You cannot seriously believe that people change their minds about right and wrong simply because what was illegal yesterday has become legal today. What argument is there that a person’s moral values should be determined by what others think rather than what he works out for himself? No one believes this.

Why would “everyone” believe that? A handful of psychopaths and sociopaths thinks so, but the legal and judicial system can keep them in check.

Why is it a pathology to believe that I shouldn’t steal if I can get away with it?


Anything goes.

*]There is no moral order
*]There is no moral law
*]There is no moral lawgiver
*]Man is his own god
*]Heaven help us

That’s the argument. I can think of only two reasons for not doing anything at all: (1) you believe it to be immoral, and (2) you believe it might turn out badly for you. Once you have eliminated the first reason everything comes down to determining what is in your own best interest, and the only reason people don’t (yet) behave that way is that they have not (yet) decided that morality does not exist.


Subjective and Relative Morality are both incompatible with Christianity. If you don’t believe in Objective Morality, then you can’t be a logically consistent Christian.

This is the Dictatorship of Relativism Pope Benedict spoke about. From the Practical Catholic:

"The Holy Father says:

"If we cannot have common values, common truths, sufficient communication on the essentials of human life–how to live how to respond to the great challenges of human life–then true society becomes impossible."

Commentary by the Practical Catholic:

"How true this is. Where there is no communication, no culture, no shared experience, there is no society; because there is no people. There remains only a vast and foreboding, unforgiving sea of individuals ready to crash upon each other and the world with the slightest wind. Without a common basis, we have not the vaulted pluralism we’re taught to embrace, but Babel, in all the confusion and madness of a society with no binding forces. Already we are seeing the tensions of this fragmentation breaking out across cultures.

“Without common values and truths, such as in the socieites we find ourselves in, we find the fabric of society torn like Joseph’s cloak, by a great many tribes which would like to lay claim to the title of favored. Leftists, conservatives, anarchists, nihilists, secularists, objectivists, the shallow, the entertainers, the entertained, all vying for control against each other. Tribalism can indeed spawn differentiation, but without some common ground, and in the face of increasing jargon not only in the academies but in the cultures; we shall be left with madness. In the end this tribalism can only result in the decline of all their claims, and the alienation of one from the other. Babel is the happenstance when society tries to become God.”

"Pope Benedict XVI goes on to say:

"We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires. The church must defend itself against threats such as “radical individualism” and “vague religious mysticism”. [emphasis added]

Commentary by the Practical Catholic:

“Pope Benedict does not play language games, he is unconcerned with the postmodernist’s corner on untruth. Neither should we be. Notice how he calls relativism a “dictatorship” instead of agreeing that no values and no Truth are the way forward for society. What many fail to recognize is that imposing nihilism and arbitrary tribalism is a form of dictatorship. Where untruth or half truth is the common order, there can only be oppression. Political correctness has asked us to abandon our value-laden language and to pick up a new language proper to the secular forum. However, this secular newspeak is value-laden against the traditional claims of the Western world and as such, is a poison rather than a new order. We can and should bring our own conviction laden language to the table, if we’re going to have any sort of real dialogue at all. Misinformation and restrained convictions are not the proper building blocks for a democracy”


One item was left out. The idea of “If I can get away with it”.

“Bellum omnium contra omnes” (Leviathan - 1651, Thomas Hobbes)

Ed: Yes, I agree with you, but simply claiming this is not sufficient. It is necessary to at least try to demonstrate that this is the likely (if not inevitable) outcome. Assertions alone are unlikely to have any effect at all.


This forum is called Catholic Answers and this is the Catholic Answer. Just observing the outrageous behaviors going on today shows that repeating the wrong messages over and over does influence people. Positive role models are needed. The goal is to reach Heaven and to do good works on earth. The wisdom of God is greater than the wisdom of men.


This is a good question. But you need to realize that I do not argue for the “absolute” rightness or wrongness of any behavior, merely assert that some actions are considered right or wrong by a group of people in a certain time. People do not develop their code as a mental exercise, it is an informal “brainwashing” (without the unpleasant connotation) by their parents, teachers, friends, relatives, etc. What is acceptable behavior in the Vatican is totally different from the acceptable behavior in a nudist colony. Both are social groups with their own social rules. And people learn about these distinctions in an informal way… maybe even by trial and error. We all belong to all sorts of different groups: family, friends, school, church, workplace, etc… and all those groups have their well-defined rules of socially acceptable behavior. What you can do in the group of friends is totally unacceptable in your church.

Yes, they do, or they had better. People learn that in Japan it is rude and disgusting to blow your nose into a Kleenex. If you happen to give alms to street beggar in Indonesia, and do it using your left hand, people might even spit on you.

Not in one day. It is a long process. People did not become abolitionists in one day. As for cohabitation, the process is underway, more and more Catholics consider it acceptable.

I did not talk about “should”. I talk about reality. Children in a white supremacist family will consider blacks, Jews, gypsies inferior. As mentioned above, the moral code is developed during the formative years.

Kleptomania is a serious mental disorder. If you just wish to fool around, and try to steal a few things, go ahead, but you will carry the consequences, if you are caught.

The rational reason is the interaction of the conscience with divine revelation. To say there is only subjective morality - is to say I am a God, and I created nothing. To say there is only subjective ethics - is to say I am a man and nothing else matters but me. Objectivity comes into play when our inner being extends itself outside the boundaries of the interior world (to that which is perceived). We are constantly perceiving, so to say there is no objective norm is ridiculous. It is a resistance in some way to history, experience, ect.

As far as good, we were created to behold the beatific vision. This is the good pertaining to the explanation of the five transcendentals. All find their good in those five. If not, they automatically seek idols, or in other words an object. So there cannot be a true reality of a subjective ethos. As Gaudium et spes says, “Without the Creator, the creature vanishes (GS 36).” (CCC 49)

It means there would be no possible strategy enabling the Allies to prosecute the Nazi criminals at Nuremberg.

Yes, I’m pretty clear about your position on this.

People do not develop their code as a mental exercise, it is an informal “brainwashing” (without the unpleasant connotation) by their parents, teachers, friends, relatives, etc.

In general this is perhaps true, although there are clear exceptions, but it does point out that beliefs are very susceptible to manipulation. This is one of my concerns, but I want to address this as a mental exercise to see what conclusions we can reach. This is why I keep asking why I should not steal if I thought it would benefit me.

Kleptomania is a serious mental disorder. If you just wish to fool around, and try to steal a few things, go ahead, but you will carry the consequences, if you are caught.

Very true: don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. That said - is that the only issue I should consider in determining whether or not to steal?


Rejecting objective morality is not as ridiculous as you suppose, or ridiculous or not, there are a lot of people who believe as Vera does that it does not exist. Really, it is a logical conclusion to reach if one rejects the existence of God, and as I posited in the OP we are assuming that objective morality does not exist to see where that logically takes us regarding morality and behavior.


Not exactly. The winners get to impose on the losers whatever penalties they deem appropriate. It isn’t necessary to claim “You violated God’s moral law, now you’ll pay the price.” They could as easily claim “You violated our moral law, etc.” The Hague would have no difficulty punishing ISIS leaders if they could catch any of them.


That is right. Claiming no objective morality does not make it true.


St. Thomas teaches that the the aim of morality is integrating the passions as one with the will, freeing our will from being subjected to enslaving passions, and aiming them to their proper objects, as determined by nature, in fitting amounts for the circumstances, by means of habits called virtues. Or, in summary, the goal of human morality is to free, rectify, and unify a man’s inner life, interpersonal and intrapersonal harmony, or, in the words of Dante, to crown a man a lord over all of himself.

The problem with these other kinds of moralities that reject “objective standards” is that they ignore that our passions and inclinations have an proper end as determined by nature. There is a dimension where culture and society determine how these passions are to be inclined in particular circumstances, such as how different cultures approach the sexual appetite and marriage differently, and so there is a dimension of morality that is in a sense arbitrary or relative. However, even though different cultures approach the details and specifics of sexuality differently, most of these views still work under the general understanding that the object of the sexual passions is perpetually one of the opposite sex, especially at the popular level. This is because the inclination cannot be fulfilled or even made sense of without appealing towards its object, as determined by human nature. This is where natural law and psychology help us grow in the self knowledge need to cultivate the virtues and uproot our vices. This is the seeds of the “objective standard” you are asking about.

When each inclination isn’t aimed towards its object, our soul is lost and unable to reach unfulfilled, left divided and in conflict with the other passions, reason, and will, enslaving them to the disordered passion. We are left like Christ on Good Friday, a mob (the passions) rebelling against their true king (reason).

And if our inner life is not in order, we usually are inclined to act in contradiction to God’s will. This is because the goal of morality, to interigate, straighten, and free our soul and will, is itself a means, towards integrating and aiming our purified soul towards God. This is what C. S. Lewis means when he says that the way to the Promised Land travels past Mt. Sinai, and what St. Thomas means when he says that morality is not the ultimate end of man, but rather beatitude, the Beatific Vision.

So, in summary, without the objective standard that nature provides, we cannot make sense as to the aim of our passions and desires, and end up indulging in them mindlessly and ordering them towards all kinds of arbitrarily chosen excesses, deficiencies, and perversions, leaving us conflicted enslaved within ourselves and with others, and unable to even approach even an earthly fulfillment, let alone our true fulfillment that is God. If our very life and being is in such a mess, we simply cannot love God with all our life and being, nor can be love our neighbor as we love ourselves, as our very heart is unable to love ourselves correctly, nor come together as one to act for the sake of God. Our strength is used in one way, our heart in another, our soul in yet another, and so on. No unity, just war between ourselves and our neighbor and our God.

Christi pax.

Very well said.


HOW susceptible is again dependent on the person, in other words it is subjective.

It is up to you to make this decision. If you think that you can live with yourself after you stole the money from the plate of a blind and hungry beggar, go for it. A sociopath would not hesitate. :slight_smile:

It is up to you. You have your own code of conduct, and follow it. If your behavior is considered acceptable by the rest of us, you have nothing to worry about. Otherwise look out… you might be punished.

The point that I made before is still important. We are members of all sorts of groups (call them mini-societies) and our behavior must be aligned to the generally accepted behavior in the actual group where you are present. Otherwise risk repercussions, from actual punishment to some degree of being ostracized. Since we are social beings, sometimes we must sacrifice our own desires. But living in a society it usually pays out in the form of human relationships. The acceptable behavior during a mass is very different from the acceptable behavior in a rock-concert or a ball-game.

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