We are moving in our culture toward a view of morality that renders moral values and virtues as no more than simply matters of opinion with no force or application beyond the individual who holds such a view. The contrasts sharply with the notion of morality from a Christian worldview that insists that moral assessments are not only objective but also matters of truth and knowledge. As we come to the celebration of MLK day next week, we should be reminded that King himself held that the moral values on which the civil rights movement was based, were objective and knowable by the average person in the streets. He held that they were objective truths of morality, not subjective matters of individual preference.
My friend and colleague Sean McDowell uses a creative exercise to make this subjective-objective distinction clear to his students. He puts several statements up on the screen and asks the students to shout out either “ice cream” or “insulin” at the statement. The “ice cream” designation indicates a subjective statement, which resembles someone’s preference for flavors of ice cream. By contrast, the “insulin” label suggests an objective statement, which is akin to the statement that insulin is necessary for the body to process sugars.
Take the following statements and categorize them “ice cream” or “insulin”:
1. Coke tastes better than Pepsi.
2. Diet Coke has fewer calories than regular Coke.
3. Hawaii is the most beautiful vacation spot on the earth.
4. George Washington was the first president of the United States.
5. I can bench-press 250 pounds.
6. Action movies are more enjoyable than romances.
7. The earth is the center of the solar system.
8. Abortion, unless the mother’s life is threatened, is wrong.
9. Racial discrimination is wrong.
Let’s think about these statements a bit more. Statements 1, 3, and 6 are all subjective claims that are nothing more than someone’s preferences. They are true for that person, but could be false for someone else. My believing it makes it true subjectively. Or, to put it another way, these three statements are all matters of opinion or taste. To say that it is true for that person means only that it is a reflection of his or her likings. By contrast, statements 2, 4, 5, and 7 are all objective claims. #2 is an objective and empirical claim, meaning that it can be verified or falsified by empirical evidence. In this case, a simple calorie test can tell us if it is true or not. #4 is an objective, historical claim. Historical testimony can either verify or falsify this claim about who the first American President was. #5 is actually an objective claim that we don’t know the answer to—though by looking at me, you might consider it unlikely, making it an, objective, yet false, claim. #7 is an objective claim that is false, though at one time was believed, mistakenly, to be true.
The most interesting of these statements is #8—“Abortion, unless the mother’s life is threatened, is wrong.” Whether you answer “ice cream” or “insulin” on this one makes a very big difference in how you view morality. This statement is a moral statement, making a claim about right and wrong. I suspect most people in our culture would answer this one as “ice cream,” indicating their belief that this moral claim is subjective, a matter of opinion. But this is actually an objective statement, and the correct response to this would be “insulin.” This is because moral statements are facts, not opinions. They reflect the way things ought to be, not simply the way I believe them to be, or want them to be. Maybe the reason that people would answer this as “ice cream” is because the culture is so divided on the morality of abortion—there is no societal consensus on this. That might make it seem like the statement on abortion is more a matter of opinion. Many moral questions that don’t have consensus seem like this. But don’t be fooled into thinking that all moral claims are like that, because they are not. Just because we have moral differences, it does not follow that all moral claims are subjective, on the level of preferences about ice cream.
So take statement #9, “Racial discrimination is wrong.” This is a clearer example of a moral statement being objective, and maybe the average person in our culture might actually answer this one, “insulin.” I suspect most people would say that if a member of the KKK believed that racial discrimination was OK, we would say that person doesn’t just have a different opinion, or a different perspective on the issue. We would say that the person is wrong, and the statement that “racial discrimination is OK,” is false. When we say that, “racial discrimination is wrong,” that statement is right, or true, and thus constitutes knowledge. To express it another way, we know that racial discrimination is wrong. This is what we mean when we say that there is a moral law that we can know. Moral statements are objective statements, they are either true or false, and they constitute knowledge.
The problem with saying that morality is like ice cream is if that is true, then we can really have valid differences of opinion on the morality of things like racial discrimination and sexual assault, not to mention other moral areas such as human trafficking, murdering innocents, kidnapping, theft, honor killings, female circumcision, and many other areas where we actually don’t permit differences of views. What that means practically is that if morality is like ice cream, then no one can ever make a moral judgment about anything. That would be like judging someone for their taste in ice cream! Yet no one can live as a consistent moral subjectivist, and people commonly give up their relativism when they are victims of a clear injustice. That is, when someone is the victim of an injustice, they make moral statements that they expect to be taken as objective statements that constitute knowledge. They do not consider that people who think that victimizing them is morally OK, just have a difference of opinion. They consider them wrong, and interestingly, they consider themselves to have been wronged.
Sometimes, people have an interesting way of defending the idea that morality is a subjective matter of opinion. For example, with the discussion of the morality of abortion, it is common to say things like, “if you don’t like abortion, then don’t have one!” You can pretty easily see how a statement like that reduces the moral claim that “abortion is wrong,” to strictly a personal matter, thereby denying that it has any value as truth and knowledge, and further denying that the claim that applies more broadly than just to yourself. Consider what it would be like to approach other moral claims that way. Imagine telling Dr. King that “if you don’t like slavery, then don’t own slaves!” I suspect he would have been incredulous at a statement like that. Whether someone owns slaves, or has abortions, or participates in human trafficking, is irrelevant, because the issue is so much bigger than you and your personal feelings about it. How you feel about these things is important, but they do not determine what’s right or wrong. This is precisely because moral statements are not fundamentally subjective truths. They are objective truths that constitute knowledge about the moral universe.