THE BLOG
05/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Are Morals Subjective or Objective?

"Reach for your goal." "Reach for the stars." "Chase your dreams." Since childhood, most of us have been inundated with the philosophy that everything we want to achieve is outside rather than in, that life is about finding ways to get what we want. It is consumerism dressed up in the fad of achieving our personal potential. If you grew up in the Christian faith, for example, you might have been taught that "God's mysterious will" is nowhere near, that his will is somewhere out there, that our lives are about guessing where his will is and what it's supposed to look like. But even outside the confines of claustrophobic Christianity, there is a pervasive message that whatever we're searching for is completely and utterly separate from us. I think we have also come to do the same with morality.

We've gotten it in our heads that morality is a plumb line that we grapple for or wrestle with others over. But what if morality is deeper than something that's out there? What if morality has been ingrained within us? Maybe somewhere deep down, embedded in the acids of our DNA, is the coding for morality. We can go to any country in the world and somehow everyone knows that killing is destructive behaviour. Somehow people know at a very young age that stealing is wrong. Most people try to explain it away as parental nurture, but there is more to it than that.

For some, morality is something that is either taught, learned, or gained through familial contact or social interaction. Yet there are people who didn't have good parents, or who had no parents at all, or who grew up without much social interaction or exposure to accessible information but who still know the basic "rules" for morality. For others, morality seems to be something that we have to achieve or earn. For them, the more we do, the more moral we become. If that's true, then morality is a commodity that we can purchase. It sits in our hotel vending machines waiting for us to choose it.

But morality isn't a rule. It isn't a plumb line. It isn't a tool to determine who is in and who is out. It is something that is part of each person. We don't earn morality; it earns us. The more in touch with our humanity we become, the more moral we become. Morality is a gene -- not one that we can see or study, but one that evolves progressively over time. Unlike other genes, it is affected and altered by the decisions we make and don't make. It is transformed by compassion and deformed by the lack of it.

Morality wasn't somehow born out of the ancient Christian scriptures. It wasn't birthed out of the introduction of evolution. It isn't a course you can take at a university. There's no degree you can get in morality. Morality is in us. We are all moral. Its how we choose to use that knowledge that will determine how we nurture the growth of morality within us. So, the origins of morality lie in each human being but are grown through the everyday process of making choices.

If morality is subjective, then the first apparent question is whether there is a plumb line. If there is, it is found in a multi-systemic worldview. Morals are encouraged by living in a moral society or community. But they are birthed in each person, each individual. They are also spurred on by what we choose to expose our minds to. Moral subjectivity is not the enemy to the progress of any society; moral homogeneity is. Moral homogeneity says that everyone needs to see everything the same way, to fit into neat little boxes, and it is used to marginalize those who don't. Moral subjectivity leads a society to embrace diversity by seeing that a particular worldview isn't the only right one.

Now the problem comes when one thinks that his or her moral worldview is more valuable than the next person's. The moment that moral subjectivity becomes moral superiority is when things like the Holocaust or the Crusades happen, leaving open scars on history. Events like this make people cringe when they hear words like "moral subjectivity," fearing the next global episode to occur as a result of such terminology. Most people tend to blame atrocious acts on a lack of parenting or chock it up to bad high school experiences. For the most part, they blame events outside the perpetrator to help explain his or her behavior. But maybe it's deeper than regarding those who have made historically destructive decisions as victims of external circumstances.

Decisions belong to those who make them. The effects of our decisions are the lifelong souvenirs that we carry with us, souvenirs that indicate the origins of where we learned to make moral choices. If the origins of moral subjectivity lie in the heart of the individual, then no longer can people blame outside, unseen forces. If moral subjectivity is true, then the individual can only blame himself. This is an incredibly empowering discovery because it means that everyone is responsible for developing morality in light of his or her own journey. This doesn't mean that there aren't objective morals to follow; it just means that our development can remain subjective even as we search for the objective, that we don't have to push, pull, and prod our way through the library to find the book that will teach us about all things moral. This reality leaves us with a responsibility not only to choose progress but to help one another on our journeys. By doing so we help usher in a new morality that is much needed in light of our current cultural shift.