On the Subject of Subjectivism

Confession time: I really like Dr Pepper. But for some odd reason, many people do not. And some people don’t even know what it is. The American soft drink is a favourite of mine, although sometimes difficult to procure here in Melbourne.

Now, I do not think that those who dislike DP are miscreants who need to face the death penalty. I don’t even think they are in any way wrong. That is because when it comes to matters of personal taste, there really is no right and wrong. There are simply subjective preferences, likes and dislikes.

There are plenty of things in life which simply boil down to personal tastes and subjective likes or dislikes. Personal preferences are neither right nor wrong. Hopefully we all understand this to be the case when it comes to drinks like DP, flavours of ice cream, art appreciation, and so on.

But of course not everything is just a matter of subjective taste. There are many things which have objective reality whether we know it or not or like it or not. For example, there are objective truths such as: 2 + 2 = 4. This truth does not depend on your subjective feelings and tastes.

The same with something like the law of gravity. It is true for all people, for all times, and all places – at least when we are on terra firma. One does not vote on the truthfulness of this. One does not smugly say, “Well you may believe it is true, but I don’t.”

To prove the objective reality of the law of gravity is certainly very easy to do. Simply climb up any tall tree – and jump. Your personal opinions on this do not mean beans – gravity will do its thing regardless. Thus subjective tastes should not be applied to objective realities.

But sadly far too many people do this all the time – even believers who should know better. Christians, of all people, should know about such objective realities as God, morality, truth, justice and so on. Indeed, God’s objective reality makes all these other things real, objective and dependable.

Because an infinite, personal moral being known as God exists, there are objective things such as universal rights and wrongs. They transcend us mere humans, and have objective reality in their own right. We don’t get to decide if we like these things or prefer these things. They are just as binding on us as the law of gravity.

So we can certainly continue to enjoy subjective tastes, when applied to the appropriate objects, such as ice cream, soda, and the like. But we dare not bring in personal preferences when it comes to those things which are objectively and transcendently real and true.

While all these things would seem not to need retelling, sadly many folks are massively mixed up on all this. Indeed, folks have been for quite some time. And other more able thinkers have had to deal with these themes previously. Many could be appealed to here, but let me just draw upon one.

Back in the summer of 1943 C. S. Lewis wrote a short but important essay called “The Poison of Subjectivism”. In it he looked at the importance of objective truth and morality in the face of growing relativism and subjectivism. Being in the middle of the Second World War, the need for mental and moral clarity on this subject was of course quite important.

So let me share a few portions of this valuable piece, while urging you to read the whole thing for yourself. The version I have is contained in the 1967 collection of his essays, Christian Reflections (Eerdmans). He begins this way:

“One cause of misery and vice is always present with us in the greed and pride of men, but at certain periods in history this is greatly increased by the temporary prevalence of some false philosophy. Correct thinking will not make good men of bad ones; but a purely theoretical error may remove ordinary checks to evil and deprive good intentions of their natural support. An error of this sort is abroad at present. I am not referring to the Power philosophies of the Totalitarian states, but to something that goes deeper and spreads wider and which, indeed, has given these Power philosophies their golden opportunity. I am referring to Subjectivism.

“After studying his environment man has begun to study himself. Up to that point, he had assumed his own reason and through it seen all other things. Now, his own reason has become the object: it is as if we took out our eyes to look at them. Thus studied, his own reason appears to him as the epiphenomenona which accompanies chemical or electrical events in a cortex which is itself the by-product of a blind evolutionary process. His own logic, hitherto the king whom events in all possible worlds must obey, becomes merely subjective. There is no reason for supposing that it yields truth.”

He continues, “Until modern times no thinker of the first rank ever doubted that our judgements of value were rational judgements or that what they discovered was objective. It was taken for granted that in temptation passion was opposed, not to some sentiment, but to reason. Thus Plato thought, thus Aristotle, thus Hooker, Butler and Doctor Johnson. The modern view is very different. It does not believe that value judgements are really judgements at all. They are sentiments, or complexes, or attitudes, produced in a community by the pressure of its environment and its traditions, and differing from one community to another. To say that a thing is good is merely to express our feeling about it; and our feeling about it is the feeling we have been socially conditioned to have.

“But if this is so, then we might have been conditioned to feel otherwise. ‘Perhaps,’ thinks the reformer or the educational expert, ‘it would be better if we were. Let us improve our morality.’ Out of this apparently innocent idea comes the disease that will certainly end our species (and, in my view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed; the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its ‘ideology’ as men choose their clothes. Everyone is indignant when he hears the Germans define justice as that which is to the interest of the Third Reich. But it is not always remembered that this indignation is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective sentiment to be altered at will.

“Unless there is some objective standard of good, overarching Germans, Japanese, and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours. If ‘good’ and ‘better’ are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring. For the same reason it is useless to compare the moral ideas of one age with those of another: progress and decadence are alike meaningless words.”

Without objective morality, we have no way of mapping moral progress or regress: “Does a permanent moral standard preclude progress? On the contrary, except on the supposition of a changeless standard, progress is impossible. If good is a fixed point, it is at least possible that we should get nearer and nearer to it; but if the terminus is as mobile as the train, how can the train progress towards it? Our ideas of the good may change, but they cannot change either for the better or the worse if there is no absolute and immutable good to which they can recede. We can go on getting a sum more and more nearly right only if the one perfectly right is ‘stagnant’.”

Without this fixed moral standard we have no real means by which we can say democracy is superior to fascism: “If ‘good’ means only the local ideology, how can those who invent the local ideology be guided by any idea of good themselves? The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law. But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his creation.”

He rightly says in conclusion: “Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish.” And that of course is exactly why we are in such a mess today – why the West is perishing. We have jettisoned the very concept of objective morality and replaced it with the promotion of subjective preferences.

That can only be a recipe for disaster. We see this on display everywhere: You are into heterosexual marriage? Fine. But I am into kinky threesomes and a little incest on the side. But it’s all cool. After all, morality is simply that which we prefer and enjoy. You do your thing and I will do mine.

So as we fight the various culture wars, we must also fight the big ticket items, and in this case that means standing up for objective truth and universal right and wrong. Without that we will simply flounder and sink in the quicksand of relativism and subjectivism.

[1601 words]

7 Replies to “On the Subject of Subjectivism”

  1. Personally speaking, I think Dr Pepper must be an acquired taste as I don’t like it at all. Then again, I like Chinotto whereas very few people I know can say the same. 🙂

    Having said that it is always better to rely on the objective truth of God’s word. When one starts to rely on subjective “feelings” and empirical religion one starts treading in theologically dangerous waters such as the nonsense and heresies of the “Toronto blessing” of the 1990’s (and the accompanying nonsense of Rodney Howard-Browne) or the excesses of the Charles Finney-led “revival”. (See Benjamin Warfield’s excellent writings on this matter in his book “Studies on Perfectionism.”).

    Mick Koster

  2. Remember how Jesus said to the people that they were able to discern the signs of the weather, but were’t able to discern the signs of the approaching kingdom of God? Likewise today, our scientists are largely able to tell us of the reality of sugar poisoning both in coca cola and no doubt Dr. Pepper, sorry Bill, but they are not able to warn the public of the poison of relativism to their souls. Even in the area of such temporal issues as nutrition we are urged to discriminate, meaning to choose the better over the not so good; however in eternal matters such as obedience to the one and Only Lord of all, things appear very murky and cluttered with choices of so called “equal value”.
    Go figure the nonsensical stupidity of modern prophets.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  3. These preselectors and predigestors of facts, for one can hardly call them truths for public consumption, may even graciously consent to the debunking of falsely held presumptions as has recently occurred in the catalyst programme of a few weeks ago concerning cholesterol, though be it 30 years too late and after the needless death of countless unsuspecting trusting people who believed the lie about margarine being better than butter. But they wouldn’t dream of retracting the once discovered “so called but treasured for the maintenance of their precious theory that gives them the right to keep people from their maker and redeemer. “Missing links in the evolutionary chain” they portray as “fact” to equally unsuspecting and trusting high school students, though these have long been exposed as either deliberate hoaxes or honest mistakes.
    For that would, I suppose, expose a fraud that goes deeper than mere physical existence into the realm of essential reality and that they can not bide.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  4. I have read quite a bit by and about C S Lewis during the last couple of years and he is certainly a clear thinker on this and many other issues. His books and essays and the biographies written by others make highly recommended reading.

    David Morrison

  5. Thank you so very Much Bill,
    I had to read this three times, I found it breath-takingly insightful. (If good is a fixed point, it is at least possible that we should get nearer and nearer to it; but if the terminus is as mobile as the train, how can the train progress towards it).
    I’m afraid whoever I speak to in the next couple of days will be hearing this.
    Daniel Kempton

  6. Truth, like the sunrise, moves away night;
    It enters the soul sending demons to flight.
    Truth, like a hammer, breaks every chain;
    It works like an ointment to heal every pain.

    Truth, like a locksmith, sets captives free;
    It touches the heart causing blind eyes to see.
    Truth, like a searchlight, exposes the lie;
    It soars as the eagle to lift you on high.

    Truth is the captain that knows no defeat.
    Truth is my portion, my milk and my meat.
    Truth is the music that lets my heart sing.
    Truth is my Savior, He’s Lord and He’s King!

    Jesus said, “I am…the Truth.” John 14:6

    Ursula Bennett

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