The Death of Objective Morality

Reliance upon "objective morality" is just as much a practice of our pride as it is our submission to anything outside of ourselves.

More and more we find that objective moral teaching is dead. Perhaps for lack of interest, perhaps for lack of commitment. And perhaps it should be. My own interests now lie more in the intersection, or the integration, of the objective and subjective components of moral teaching. Or perhaps “moral teaching” isn’t the right term, and it would be better for me to say “moral practice,” or “moral experience.”

“Objective moral teaching,” as a child of the Enlightenment, has died with the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, with its gnostic forms and pursuits, sought always the objective, separated out from our own personal lives and experiences. It wanted to rip away the individual and personal, and to rise up to the repeatable, the reducible, the observable and recordable components of life and experience. It rejected that which could not be reduced to a laboratory or formula. And what is that which we call objective moral teaching, other than a formula?

To be sure, moral teaching does not and cannot exist apart from its objective components. Without history, tradition, Scripture, written guides and commands, and magisterial authority, Christian moral teaching tends to devolve into a mindless incommunicable individualistic babble easily susceptible to the deluded Nietzchean impulses of the powerful. Like civil law, the objective components of moral teaching act as a check upon those who would exert their own power over others, even if these components are insufficient on their own to ensure a flourishing society or a full moral life (or even moral understanding).

For society (and morality) to flourish, we must also pursue the subjective components of morality, the places where personal experiences and relationships attach to teachings, where the formation and practice of prudential judgment are praised and given freedom. And we must push against what may be our own deluded judgments as to the implications and expectations of the objective components of moral teaching. Morality can only exist at the intersection of the objective and subjective. That is, it can only exist in practice and is thus, in a very real way, incommunicable. It can only be verbally communicated in parts, which is to say it cannot truly be communicated in words, because as soon as it is divided into parts it loses its integrity and, thus, its true being.

Communication in words always leads to a danger, the danger of overinflating the objective components of moral lives such that they lead to conformism. We can observe great lives, exemplars of moral teaching and practice, and there is always a tendency to universalize those lives, to create out of them scripts to which we may insist future adherence, for ourselves and for others.

Thus, we see a man and a woman flourishing in loving one another in the marital relationship. We (perhaps rightly) see their marital love as a great moral achievement, surpassing all of our other observations of love. But the danger is that we will take this observation and say that the greatest love is marital love, and that we must pursue this particular exemplar of love if we are to reach true love.

But this is not the pursuit of true love. Rather, these persons have adopted the objectification of one script which has been offered as the exemplar of moral achievement, and they now try to conform themselves to this script. In this way we can see one triumph in “objective moral teaching,” in the fossilization of morality into something which resists development and change, even if cultural contexts change which would require new moral scripts and varied practice.

But this fossilization is something to be desired for those of us who have a fear of losing control, who fear not having everything figured out, who fear things falling out of our hands or not fitting into our minds. For those of us who fear the uncertainty of vulnerability, or who are unwilling to let go of controlling everything, the reduction of persons and ideas and practices into little bits that can be made into formulas of words are the means by which we can have our fears quelled. They are our way of being in control.

The reliance upon “objective truth” and “objective moral teaching” is often just as much a practice of our pride as it is our submission to anything outside of ourselves. The reduction of the world into words is a reduction into our minds and into something that we can grasp, something that we can control, and something which will be within us, which no longer requires our response, because we have made it into something which we ourselves can fashion. It no longer requires a constant attention, or our constant concern.

It is the reduction of morality into sovereign autonomy, something which can be held within me as the lone individual. It permits a demarcation between me and all else. Under this view of morality, I need no others to grasp it. I need only my mind and the proper formulas. In this way, paradoxically, the Enlightenment man of “objective truth” reduces morality to superstition.

But the man who wants to trace the thread connecting the objective and subjective components of morality is a man who must subject himself to others. He is entirely dependent upon others for the understanding and practice of morality. He must subject himself to another to come to understanding.

Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

2 comments on “The Death of Objective Morality

  1. paularuddy

    Dead? Or justly combined with the subjective? The first two paragraphs are a requiem, but then there seems to be a resurrection in the third paragraph. I’ve been thinking about this too. Is “objective” morality the same as “principle”? Let’s say I have a general principle that xx is unjust behavior. Then there is all kinds of subjective interpretation going on when I apply that principle in action. But I have no doubt you are right that principles have been absolutized as “objectivity” and used as weapons to exclude folks.
    P.S. I confess to an admiration for the Enlightenment. Western civilization needed it, don’t you think?


  2. If you accept the doctrine of concupiscence, then it necessarily follows that the subjective is unreliable.


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