(Up until now, I have yet to write a full blown article for SOLO. I finally decided to write the following piece and submit it, but it was rejected because the editors feel it strays too far from Objectivist principles.
I was encouraged, however, to place it in the dissent forum. Seeking greater visibility, I asked if I could place it here, and my request was granted. I'm expecting a little flak from this, but don't blame me - George Cordero dared me to do this!)
Morality is Both Objective and Subjective
In my time here at SOLO, there has never been a shortage of debate on issues of morality and moral standards. Some of the more active recent discussions certainly prove this point. And no matter how many thoughtful, intelligent people weigh in on these topics, there never seems to be any sort of resolution or agreement on divisive moral issues. At best, a debate reaches some sort of ‘agree to disagree’ conclusion.
All this begs an important question:
If Objectivists and those friendly to the philosophy believe that morality is objective, why then is there no clear consensus so many moral issues?
I’ve been pondering this issue a great deal lately, and just last night as I was about to fall asleep, I made a personal breakthrough in beginning to answer this question. Most importantly, I’ve concluded that morality debates need to make more of the distinction between interpersonal and intrapersonal morality, as I’m beginning to believe that the two concepts should be discussed and debated under separate parameters and criteria.
Interpersonal morality applies to actions and exchanges between two or more individuals. Moral evaluation of interpersonal relations is objective, and can be facilitated by simply asking questions such as:
- Whose rights are being violated?
- Is force, fraud or theft being initiated?
- Is someone acting against the consent of another?
Standards of interpersonal morality are so objective that we even tolerate and endorse state intervention in enforcing them. Thus there are uncontroversial laws in nearly every human society banning theft, murder, rape etc. (Have you noticed that we spend very little time on SOLO debating the morality of a serial killer?)
Intrapersonal morality applies to actions undertaken by individuals that don’t violate the consent or individual rights of others. Gambling, prostitution, recreational drug use, homosexuality, casual sex, pornography – these are the sorts of issues which tap into the intrapersonal sphere, and these are also the sorts of issues that seem to end up in a never-ending heated debate.
Although the specifics of each intrapersonal moral issue may differ, there are generally two camps that emerge in each discussion. One camp feels that as long as consent and volition are present, there is no immorality to speak of, end of discussion. The other group feels that there are objective standards of intrapersonal morality, and that moral judgment can and should be passed in this regard.
I have seen cogent arguments presented from both sides, and I’m beginning to come to the conclusion – quite uncomfortably I might add – that intrapersonal morality is subjective. Yes, I am invoking the four letter word of relativism. The reason I feel this way is because no one has yet handed down any universally agreed upon standards of intrapersonal morality. Everything always seems to come down to context or individual situation.
My challenge to those who disagree with this assessment is to once and for all lay down universal, objective standards of intrapersonal morality, while avoiding rationalistic thinking. Theoretically, we should be able to have a consensus on the issue of casual sex in the same way that we agree that murder is wrong, if in fact all morality is objective. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, however.
Fortunately though, even if it’s true that interpersonal morality is objective and intrapersonal morality is subjective, it seems clear that government should only be concerned with the former. Attempts to legislate the latter by force lead to nothing other than oppression. And on that point, I hope we can agree to agree.