The other day my mother and I got in a bit of an argument over homosexuality and whether or not it was moral. She was adamant that it wasn't, saying, "Anyone who doesn't follow God's law is immoral." Needless to say, that really hurt (seeing as she is fully aware that I'm an atheist). But she believed it.

So here is my question: is morality based on individuality? For example, if one person  believed it was wrong to steal and then did it anyway, would this be worse than the person who thought stealing was ok? If my conscience tells me one thing and someone else's conscience tells them another thing, am I justified in saying they're wrong?

I'd appreciate hearing everyone's thoughts on this.

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In short, Yes.

Of course there are some societal mores that the to which the bulk of us typically adhere - things such as killing another human is wrong, stealing is wrong, etc. But the rest of it, at least for atheists (and for the religious - they just don't understand that), is definitely relative.

Morality is created by humans, and it's constantly shifting and evolving. I am by no means an expert on the subject, but morality is surely subjective. 

"For example, if one person  believed it was wrong to steal and then did it anyway, would this be worse than the person who thought stealing was ok? (1) If my conscience tells me one thing and someone else's conscience tells them another thing, am I justified in saying they're wrong? (2)"

So for 1, from my subjective morality both people are equally wrong in their actions, but the person who thinks stealing was/is OK is also wrong in their attitude - this is where the two differentiate. I hold the belief that stealing anything no matter how small, from anyone no matter how big is wrong. Therefore for someone considering theft as a legitimate way to get something is in my subjective morality - immoral. But also from my subjective morality, someone who thinks about stealing the whole day long does nothing harmful to society, I'm perfectly fine with 'thought crime'. 

as for 2, well I would say technically you are justified in saying they're wrong as long as you accept from their subjective morality they too are technically justified in saying that you're wrong. So for example:

Mother - Homosexuality is wrong, and those who support it are wrong. 

Daughter - Homosexuality is OK, and those who are intolerant of even private homosexuals are wrong. 

Both parties are merely pontificating their opinions, their subjective moralities. So how can you win the other person over to your way of thinking?

It seems that your way of thinking is essentially a tolerance of a diverse range of lifestyles, I share such a way of thinking as many people do today. In the above case the 'homosexuality is wrong' argument has it's genesis in the bible (see what I did there). 

I do not think this debate can be settled as long as God is in the picture. If God is always there and 'real' for your mother, how can she develop tolerance for LGBT lifestyles? God finds them deplorable and he is unlikely to change his opinion any time soon. However should an epiphany reveal that there is no God, then she may be persuaded towards more tolerance for them, as they are simply citizens with a sexual preference that they cannot choose. 

Hi Alyssa,


I believe morality is a public myth, and therefore does not exist in the first place. What your mom is calling a moral belief I would call an "opinion" derived solely of her personality and cultural and religious indoctrination. Taken that way, yes, it is relative.


- kk

The concept of morals applies pretty much to religions which have a set of prescriptions (you should do this) and/or proscriptions (you shouldn't do that). I think the more fundamentalist Bible-based sects within Christianity are pretty clearly anti-homosexual, so your mother is perfectly right in that regard. Basically, she should be stoning your brother (you might give her a stone the next time all of you are together to see if she believes deeply enough to actually throw it).

Ethics involves actually thinking about how to handle choices in the best manner. I'd wager just about all atheists practice ethical behavior vs. moral behavior.

And for a slight tangent...

I believe everything is relative, based on how we perceive it. For instance, a part of how fast the earth is moving through space is relative to the planet (or other point) from where the earth is being observed, and how fast your object is moving - and it which direction. So, let's say we're on some weird, big asteroid flying by the earth at half the speed of light; and the earth is moving the opposite direction, slightly faster than half the speed of light. To both observers (i.e. you and the person on the asteroid), the object being observed is technically going over the speed of light.

So, everything is relative, IMHO. It is based on your own observations, experiences, knowledge, etc.

I'm not sure how your relativism applies to ethics. It would seem to imply that there's little to choose between a murderer and a person who runs in front of a car to save a child from being hit.


morals are subjective, hence are ethics, since ethics are nothing more but the collective moral beliefs system of a society. This might sound cynical, but there is no objective scale to say that a man who ends a life is worse or better than a man who saves a life.

It depends on who is doing the judging. Most societies will not approve of someone who murders, because that is their moral system, their ethics. In their system, he has done bad. But let's say the murderer belongs to a tribe that approves of murder. They would deem him good. Nobody can say that the murderer is either good or bad on a universal scale. 

As you have said yourself in another post, ethics depend on the society, the society that designs and implements their particular ethical system.

Neither morals nor ethics are universal.

Well, I'm not arguing universality for ethics or morals, but they are more different and less related than your definition implies. Morals involve authority telling its subjects what's right and wrong, what to do and to never do. Ethics involves the individual considering options and consequences and making a choice. These might be unconsciously based on morals or they may be based on empathy, sympathy, taking the long view (if I make this choice that looks good proximally, will it ultimately result in something I will dislike or want to repudiate further on down the road?). Morals and ethics are two different things. One MIGHT argue that morality is a subset of ethics. It's ethics for people who prefer not to think.

If by your comment you mean morality is subjectively relative and then stop there without justifying its practical value, then i beg to differ from your opinion. But if you say that morality is subjectively relative and as well as has the potential to be objectified to form our value jugdement then i would agree with.

Cause morality is justified by the success of the act - this is what makes it Relative, this does not mean all successful moral judgements are right, but to a large extent they shape public opinion.

at the same time an act also holds the potential to be objectified (like the value jugdement your mom had who probably was conditioned by her religious ideologies).   

Good post. I think there is a universal morality based on empathy (except for in psychopaths), I think the "relative morality" or "cultural morality" is just a bunch of trash designed to overtly manipulate people, and that by overstepping empathy it automatically violates our freedom as individuals, so In my opinion, cultural morality, as a concept, is inherently immoral for oppressing the individual. For example, the way an Islamic state might execute a homosexual, could be considered culturally morally proper, but it violates empathy, in the way that those leveling the execution would not like being executed for their own personal behaviors, and also in the way that those leveling the execution would not appreciate living in a society with "morals" that were slanted violently against them. An injustice done in the name of society is actually two separate acts that violate the real morality of empathy.       

Thanks for all the comments. Here is a follow-up question: Let's say for a moment that morality IS subjective. Then is there such a thing as a bad person? It seems to me that if morality is relative, then you can't hold another person to your moral code, in which case there could be no law, which would result in chaos. 

Or do you create laws based on what the majority of the people think is moral? That idea wouldn't work--just think about how often has the majority been wrong. And there I go again, imposing my personal definition of what is right and what is wrong on others.

Regardless of what anyone says, I just don't see how things such as murder, dishonesty, etc. can be considered moral. If I were to encounter someone who said that they were, I would just say that he or she had been desensitized and had lost touch with their conscience.

How is this for a theory: Everyone is born with a conscience. Morality is, in fact, objective. It is not grounded in God, but rather in human nature. Society influences us and changes our opinion of what is right and wrong, but if we are able to look past societal norms and find the truth, we can get closer to the natural morality that we are born with. Therefore, there is a universal right and wrong, we just don't always know what it is.

Just an idea; I'm sure it's flawed. Sorry for the long post. I hope I'm making sense. The entire concept is starting to make my head spin, but I really want to find at least some semblance of an answer. Thanks!

What people believe in terms of ethics is very time- and culture-bound, not bound with any kind of human nature. The Mayans would cut the heart out of a living being as a sacrifice. The Spartans would toss weakling babies off a cliff. Today, we mutilate male babies' penises in the name of religion.

It's false that everyone is born with a conscious (psychopaths and sociopaths being the most obvious examples). Conscience tends to be bound up with those time- and culture-bound beliefs.

In the end, we all just muddle along when it comes to right and wrong.


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