The Subjective Self

This is a transcript of a lecture given at Lake Erie College On April 6, 2021 and is the first of a three part series entitled “The Offensive Christ.” I was unable to accomplish what I had hoped in this lecture series for several reasons, but this transcript does set the foundation for the writings on this site.

“The Subjective Self: Self-identity is a significant factor in today’s society. This lecture will focus on the impact of, and logic behind, subjective morality, how its application on a social scale impacts our sense of “me,” and what this means for religion.

Good evening everyone and thank you for joining us for this lecture series. I am Dr. Tedesco and I am the dean of natural sciences and mathematics at Lake Erie College. I am excited to be speaking with you over the next few weeks on a topic that is of profound interest and importance to me: what I consider to be the misappropriation of Christianity and Christian ideals and the impact this has on the church and external individuals and groups. I think that is tied to the increasing prevalence of subjective morality, so, while I will be focusing on Christianity as that is my faith, I do not doubt that much of what we discuss, at least this evening, would apply to other faiths, education, and personal philosophies as well. Additionally, I am intentionally using some controversial topics as examples. I am not intending to state or imply a personal position (though I have no issues discussing such), but instead believe that valuing individuals comes from understanding and respecting them. This cannot happen in the absence of open and free dialogue conducted in a respectful manner. I also am firmly of the mindset that the best outcomes for all of us occur through properly educated individuals acting in this way.

We live in a world with an increasingly wide range of views towards the existence and practice of religion, ranging from moderately tolerant to overtly hostile. While we will address the perceptions of persecution in the next part of this lecture series, it is worth mentioning here in the context of the subjective nature in which religion is both viewed and practiced, as subjective morality plays a very direct role in how we view, interact with, and respond to every aspect of our lives, even if we do not think we subscribe to subjective morality. To that end, I want to begin by investigating subjective morality and the manner in which it influences societal interactions and ultimately our development of our sense of self. You may have read the quote that was shared on the screen. It comes from Lewis’s “sequel” to The Screwtape Letters and focuses on Screwtape’s toast for upcoming devils. The underlying theme of Screwtape’s Toast focuses on the use of a democratic process to undermine the value of individualism and negate the influence of ingenuity, free thought, and spirituality on the development of an individual. If you have not read it, I encourage you to do so — a free copy of the PDF has been made available by the Saturday Evening Post.

Our goal this evening is to deconstruct the logic behind differing moral value systems and determine the impact of subjectivism on the establishment of individual moral codes and subsequently, the resulting social impact. Upcoming lectures will deal specifically with the Christian aspects, but we first must establish a general understanding of the overarching philosophies at play before discussing the specific application to Christianity.

Before delving too deeply, it is essential that we come to an understanding of the terminology being used. Subjective morality, in my experience, is a fairly convoluted, and often misunderstood concept. Often times, subjectivism is overly simplified to a doctrine in which there are no absolutes, and so subjective morality becomes a moral code wherein there is no defining sense of right and wrong on a universal scale and, instead, individuals have a self-defined moral code outside of any universal or objective sense of truth. In other words, in a morally subjective scenario, every individual has a self-directing moral code that may or may not have any connection to other individuals and lacks a unifying base on which a collective moral code can be constructed.

I think this oversimplified version is not worth discussing for a few reasons, not the least of which being the inherent breakdown in logical construct; namely, the idea that there are no absolutes is, in itself, an absolute. As is often the case, the oversimplification seems to serve two primary ends: first: to remove intellectual barriers thereby reducing the effort required to comprehend and spread an idea and, second: to facilitate the dissenting point of view in terms of ease of rejection. In the realm of science, this is a common practice, and often, the first point facilitates the second as a response action. For example, almost everyone has an opinion on vaccines and there is no shortage of content that challenges, however spuriously, the efficacy of vaccinations, which in turn leads to misunderstanding and therefore opposing views. As a relevant example, almost everyone here likely has thoughts on administering of Covid vaccinations, and there is no shortage of opinions ranging from conspiracy theory to freedom concerns to sound science (and this concept is not unique to the Covid vaccine, as one need not investigate very deeply to find arguments for the putative link between vaccines and autism). Nevertheless, while almost everyone has an opinion on the Covid vaccination rollout and implementation, a substantially smaller percentage of individuals can correctly describe how an mRNA vaccine works or the process by which vaccines are approved for use — two very fundamental and quite relevant pieces of objective information in taking an educated position regarding the vaccine. Thus, decisions are made by individuals with no obligation to be educated on the very issue being decided and, it follows, that lack of education leads to a spurious position based on incomplete and, quite possibly, inaccurate information.

It is important to note that, in this situation, the subjective nature in which decisions are being made is not in the absence of a series of absolute or objective truths. Instead, the subjective aspect is of relevance when considering the manner in which objective truth is applied. To wit: the existence of a vaccine is of little value to debate as to question the existence of a vaccine and its implementation is akin to questioning the very existence of ourselves, a metaphysical exercise well beyond the scope of this series. Instead, when deciding to receive a vaccination, one must first acknowledge that a vaccine exist in order to deny receiving it. A foundational truth of the decision-making process is the existence of a vaccine. The subjective application comes in deciding to accept or reject the science behind the development and efficacy of the vaccine.

It is also important to recognize that the moral subjectivist must concede a degree of objective morality in ascribing to a personal moral code, however temporarily the immediate objective value might be held; in order for something to be deemed “right” there must be an inherent valuation of some sense of truth when making that determination. Therefore, I am going to suggest that we define subjectivism as the selective application of objective truth as applied to a personal or specific instance. This definition allows for us to acknowledge that an individual can have a personal recognition or interpretation of truth, but that recognition is not universally acknowledged or accepted. In terms of our moral judgements, this then translates to an individual contextualizing the appropriate use of an absolute truth and this truth may be objectively determined but personally developed. I would argue this is a better way of capturing subjectivist approaches in an applicable sense. To that end, we can then define objectivism as the adherence to an absolute application of truth that is not personal or situational, but is instead based on some external standard that exists beyond the individual perception of it.

The keen-eared listener may immediately be curious as to how one might link the idea of subjective valuation of truth (for example, questioning scientific merit) to morality, or vice-versa. After all, it seems quite possible on the surface for one to be considered a morally upstanding person while rejecting an objectively determined product, for example, the aforementioned vaccine issue. Within a social construct, it would seem unlikely that an individual who chooses to not be vaccinated would be openly labeled as a bad person solely on the basis of not receiving the vaccine. There are likely other redeeming qualities that would be favorably factored or demeaning qualities that would factor unfavorably when assigning a person’s “goodness” that go beyond the singular vaccination issue. In other words, one might be seen as an overall good person who is making a bad decision in not being vaccinated. This is significant as a subjective analysis of numerous variables must occur before an individual can label another individual as a “good” or “bad” person. More to the point, I would argue a true subjectivist cannot make this determination at all on any applicable level. To do so rejects the very tenant of subjectivist thought, even by our definition, and applies a universal standard to the application of truth.

If we are operating under a construct wherein individuals are applying self-defined criteria to the concept of truth (and therefore how right and wrong are established), there is no logical or objective basis for the denunciation of another. Instead, all subjectivists must acknowledge the right of all others to hold their own individually subjective positions on all issues. To do otherwise is to embrace an objective position, thereby invalidating the claim of a subjective practice. Consider a simple statement that most people would find agreeable: “Killing a human is wrong.” The key idea of this sentiment is that human life should not be terminated by another human. We, of course, cannot control for external variables, natural causes, random accidents, etc., but it ought to be agreeable that within this statement is the position that one human ending another human life would not be labeled as a “right” thing to do. This is, of course, an objective and absolute statement and one that, superficially, is easy to subjectivize. For example, many people would agree that a person shooting another person who has entered a home uninvited would be an acceptable exception to that statement. There are instances in which one can justify a seeming violation of an absolute statement to make a situation appear to align with a subjective sense of “rightness.” Objectively, it is wrong to kill a human. Subjectively, it is okay to kill a human if a certain set of criteria are met. A justification, then, is simply a recognition of right standing according to some sort of criteria, a subjective explanation, if you will. If the justification was not subjective in nature, we would run into a situation where an objective truth is contradictory to the objective truth it is being used to validate. In this instance, to say that killing a trespasser is morally acceptable is contradictory to holding a belief that killing a human is wrong. These are unreconcilable positions to hold. Killing a trespasser, therefore, is still wrong, but the wrongness is justified by the circumstance. As such, it is the circumstance (trespass in this case) that is subjectively manipulated, not the ideal (killing humans is wrong). Of import, both are evidentiary pieces of an individual’s moral code.

As we still have not touched on scientific or objectively determined judgements, let us return to our “Killing a human is wrong” statement and start from the position, once again, that a human killing another human is not a morally right thing to do. Our culture, socially and legally, makes some consideration for the termination of human life before an arbitrarily specific point in a pregnancy. There are many attempts of various quality at justifying this, but our goal is to tie moral subjectivism to an impact on objective or scientific judgments. In this case, if we are remaining true to scientific ideology, one must concede that the cells resulting from a successful fertilization of an egg are alive. Genetically speaking, the cells would be classified as human. Therefore, the cells would be classified as human life. Thus, aborting a fetus would be the killing of human life. From here, all other arguments to make acceptable the termination of human life become justifications or, more commonly, rationalizations based on the valuation of one human life compared to another (in this sense, rationalizations are defined as being favored justifications for personal reasons). Much like the previous example, killing remains objectively wrong, but subjectively accepted. In this case, moreover, that subjective acceptance is, from a social perspective, predicated largely on ignoring nature, science, or the scientific process for personal reasons — for example shifting the argument to be about a human “being” compared to a human life. The moral subjectivist, in this instance, can neither state unequivocally that abortion is acceptable nor that opposing it is sacrilege. In both of the previous cases, a subjective justification or rationalization is being used to make morally acceptable an objectively “wrong” thing to do. Simply put, the decision to accept or reject an objective statement is predicated on personal predisposition. Further, there is a growing body of evidence to support the idea that empirical evidence does not impact personal position, meaning, people tend to not change their minds, regardless of the evidence presented. If accurate, we must conclude that there is some other, more powerful influence on the formation of an individual’s position than recognition of truth, namely, individual desire or “want.” This of course, is predicated on the individual’s value system — one tends to not want a thing that one views as “bad” or “wrong.” The very idea of badness or wrongness is based entirely on an individual’s moral construct. As such, there exists a direct path between personal moral code and a willingness to accept objective or empirical truths (science, for example).

It is important to note here that there is a distinct differentiation between the established moral code and how that moral code was initially established. To focus on the point that an individual holds a moral position that leads to rejection of empirical evidence is to ignore the very process that produced that disposition in the first place. It stands to reason that, if the current research is correct and people do not change their minds once made, then it becomes all the more important to confront the process that produced that mindset, if, in fact, rejecting empirical evidence or objective truth is an undesirable outcome. This, of course, presupposes an objectively inarguable position that one must accept empirical evidence as being true or “good,” a logically impossible position for a subjectivist to hold as the ideal of the empirical stands as the absolute truth that cannot be rationalized away.

Now, having established the inherent conflict within an individual application of subjectivism, we next need to address the social aspect of an individual’s adherence to a morally subjective value system. After all, given the personal influence (rationalization) on a moral system, when applied fairly across a population, an infinite number of moral obligations is produced and it becomes impossible to track them all, let alone individually comport ourselves to align with every single one. Every single individual will have rationalizations on every single situation and, if operating in a subjective scenario, all must be considered valid as one cannot reject an individual’s rationalization as invalid in the absence of some universal objective truth. For example, there is a general social acceptance that to discriminate against an individual on the basis of skin color or religious creed is the wrong thing to do. This is not universal, of course, but the subjectivist is unable to, individually, reject as absolutely wrong the contradictory position while consistently adhering to the allowance of justifications or rationalizations. To say, “You are wrong” is of course predicated on some absolute definition and application of “right.” In other words, one must not only have an absolute objective truth as a basis for making determinations, but that objective truth must absolutely govern the individual’s actions. Determination of validity, therefore, must be passed to a higher authority of some sort to prevent the resultant chaos of an uncontrolled subjectivist social construct.

To accomplish this, we will need to add a layer to our definition of “subjective” as the individual cannot justly dictate the value proposition of another individual’s position. Recall our definition of subjectivism was “the selective application of objective truth as applied to a personal or specific instance.” This is a definition that serves the individual but not communal purpose. For the sake of our discussion, I am going to introduce the idea of moral relativism, which will expand our definition to allow for some type of social influence. We will maintain that selective application aspect, but the selectiveness becomes the purview of a social construct: culture, religion, political, etc. Our surface application allows for the applied social construct to make determinations on the validity of conflicting individual subjective interpretations. Returning to our example of discrimination, the individuals themselves cannot subjectively resolve the issue, but a resolution can be reached relative to the social construct in which the individuals find themselves. A court system, for example, makes rulings on the conflict leading to consequences for specific actions (the actions, of course, being based on the individual’s subjective moral code).

This has several consequences worth considering. The most prominent is that this removes from the individual any inherent obligation to recognize the rightness of the individual’s moral construct or its applications. There is no need to personally assess when an external authority has already provided the “proper” construct in which the individual moral construct must exist. The “right” thing to do is not “right” because the individual has reasoned it to be, but rather it is “right” because an authority has relayed it to the community as being “right.” The individual may agree with the authority’s decision, but we must acknowledge that a tacit agreement is not equivalent to a reasoned conclusion. This is of significant consideration when addressing the development of a mentality that rejects empirical evidence; if individuals are trained to accept as truth exactly what they are told because it comes from an authority, then any contradictory information, however invalid, becomes an immediate and significant threat if guised as originating from an authority.

This leads us to the second consequence in that the valuation of a personal moral code, subjective or not, must needs be removed in a relative setting. The value of that code is not based on any inherent validity of the individual, but instead is relative to a social construct in which the individual exists. Personal value becomes a response to the social construct instead of being individually generated and individuals begin to define themselves and their value based on where they fit in a social construct instead of on any inherent value of the individual. This devaluation can occur by choice or force, but it must occur for a relativistic value system to exist. Consider the soldier away for years fighting and killing at the command of a governing body. Individually, the soldier can very well hold a position that killing is wrong despite engaging in just that process. That individual may rationalize to the point that killing an enemy is acceptable, but that is only a valid consideration if the aforementioned enemy is an enemy to the individual, not an enemy because the state has determined it, a very significant differentiation. In the absence of that individual determination, the soldier is acting as an extension of a relative authority’s will, not the will of the individual.

The devaluation the individual for the relative good leads us then, to our third consequence. If all relatively accepted positions are “good,” we must have relatively “bad” positions as well, those things we ought not do or say for the greater or social good. To accomplish this, individuals must be categorized or labeled within each possible moral construct recognized by the social authority in force. Such categorization not only requires the abolition of personal identity, but serves to further reinforce the idea that personal identity is better managed by the collective will.

As a relevant example, let us explore this through the lens of gender identity. To do so, we must start categorically and acknowledge the existence of biological male and biological female designators. These designators are a means of acknowledging the genetic influence on the sex of an individual and are firmly established from a scientific standpoint. Gender is a social categorization of relativistically established secondary characteristics based on the biologically defined sex. In other words, our genes define our being male or female and society (which is inarguably a relativist construct) defines the how of being male and female external to biological function. It is therefore not only possible, but likely, that any given biological male will enjoy aspects of what a social construct defines as feminine or desire biologically female traits, and vice versa, as these traits are externally predefined within a societal construct. This leads to two possible outcomes: the elimination of socially constructed concepts of gender or labeling individuals based on personal perspective or identity. The latter is, inarguably, a manner of categorizing and labeling individuals based on socially defined constructs, the need for which stems directly from an individual’s value having an external locus rather than being internally validated. It is, after all, only necessary to identify with a group if you, in fact, want to be a part of that group. Moreover, it creates a construct wherein recognition of a personal validity is based on adherence to those pre-defined social standards. One can reasonably enjoy an activity without the labeling or characterizing of that activity as “masculine” or “feminine.” In the absence of these types relativistic definitions setting such a precedent, interestingly, the individual becomes free to make such choices without the need for acceptance or fear of condemnation.

This leads us to the fourth consequence, namely, an infinitely expanding set of labels to properly identify the grouping of every individual. Individuals are inherently more complex and intricate than any social construct can comprehend. As such, in moving in or out of a series of group designators, additional variables are identified and must have labels. It is in the preservation of this categorical labeling that individuals find identity and worth. When taken with the first two consequences, this results in a system wherein individuals external to a group ought not make any value suppositions about the individuals or values of a socially sanctioned group or set of labels of which they are not a part. In the absence of a rational individual foundation on which the value of a label or group resides, there is no logical basis for defending (or criticizing) that ideal. The ideal itself becomes meaningless beyond the value implied upon it from a social standpoint.

The fifth consequence, then, is that society must exist as a construct of individuals striving for validation of self through relativistically defined external identifiers or labels. The meaningful aspect of individualism, namely inherent self-value, must be squashed for the sake of group identities and relative labels. It becomes a situation wherein it is not sufficient to like something simply because it is enjoyable or right as identified by the individual, but rather because the social construct has deemed it as an acceptable thing to do and therefore a “good” or acceptable label to have. As the individual rationalization of “good” and “bad” cedes to a societal one, individuals then become forced to align with the relativistic standards or oppose them. In aligning, of course, individualism is lost for the sake of the propagation of labeling, and any individual standing outside of that process is labeled, in some form, as “bad” regardless of the basis on which that individual seeks to maintain a sense of individualism.

The sixth and final consequence is then the establishment of a grouping of individuals within the relativistic “good” or “bad.” These are obviously opposed, and therefore at conflict. It is of the ultimate irony that in both cases (the “good” and “bad”), individuals, under the guise of preserving individuality, willingly submit themselves to be part of a group in order to defend individual preference. Instead of achieving any semblance of the e pluribus unum, we establish (if my Latin is correct) the e pluribus saltem duo mentality that propagates upon itself until any sense of unity becomes an impossibility and we eventually achieve the opposite of unity: e paucis plura. The “self” has ceased to exist as the “self” and instead exists only as an increasingly insignificant part of a series of collectives.

This perpetual devaluation must then extend beyond the collective set of individuals. One cannot be marginalized without also marginalizing that individual’s values, nor can an individual’s values be marginalized without also marginalizing that individual. It is, after all, the use of individual values that are ultimately being manipulated to serve the ends of collective “good.” The “desirable” values become magnified by the relativist authority and the “undesirable” values are castigated until a firm precedent has been set that allows for the continued manipulation of values to marginalize independence. It falls then, to the individual, to remove the relativistically undesirable value from the “self” in order to fit a social standard or to embrace the castigation of maintaining an undesirable value. The relativistic imperative, then, must be to exert control over value systems through a collective influence, as the absence of any universally objective value renders impossible the prospect of a self-evident foundation of truth upon which a legitimate moral construct can be built.

It is impossible, of course, to have a truly defined sense of “self” absent the influence of a relativistic or subjective value system once such a system is established. Generations subsequent to that establishment have lost any possibility of individually generated “self” values. All values espoused are either to align with the social standard or to strain against it. While tempting to argue that a strain against an established standard is individualized, it is important to note that the rejection of the social standard is predicated on the existence of that social standard. An individual only finds the “self” in contradiction to a value if that value exists. A “self” directed individual cannot strain against something that does not exist. Thus, there is no possible way to have a truly unique “self” value system within the relativistic or subjective construct, merely a collection of sanctioned or disallowed propositions.

The relevant relativist authority for this lecture series is, obviously, religion. As such, the practice of religion falls into two primary categories: the practitioners and the secular communities. For the practitioner, there is likely a set of tenants or beliefs that guide the moral judgement process. While varying across different religions, there is generally an overseer or guide to these beliefs that serves as a sort of authority within the religious construct. Nevertheless, the practitioner must find the same situation: to accept the interpretation of the religious tenant as presented by the respective authority or to deny it and no longer be a member of that particular religious community. Within the Christian faith, numerous sects and almost countless variants of foundational Christianity exist in the world today, a direct result of different interpretations of doctrine, or, in our terminology, the subjective valuation led to irreconcilable differences that produced a novel relativist standard on which a new branch of Christianity was founded. In many, but not all, cases, these are relatively minor discrepancies, allowing for a rather broad and diverse collective that resides within the bounds of Christianity. It is interesting to note that this subjective variance stems from what is, for Christians, a core Objective Truth (in caps) upon which the entire faith is based.

In addition to the faith aspect, the practitioner must also be concerned with the secular communities. This is of particular import in a “free” society for two reasons (and I would suggest we agree that actual freedom is not a possibility in a relativist society). The first is that a “free” society affords the citizenry a choice in religious practice, and so it becomes an illogical line of thought that a particular religion exert control over that citizenry, otherwise it would not be a “free” society. Second, because of this, it stands to reason that the citizenry has within its relativistic governing construct, the means to undermine the limited authority granted to a religious directive. If an authority at all, the relativistic religious authority must be seen as an authority of lesser rank than the governing authority of the “free” society. As such, it becomes subject to the aforementioned precedent model in the same manner as the individual, and the rights of the religious authority extend only as far as the secular citizenry allows. As a result, both the religious authority and the individual become subject to the current social relativist regime; each finds its moral existence through allowance instead of merit. We must acknowledge that “current” is not equivalent to “consistent” and that the “current” regime is not likely to hold authority indefinitely. By placing the inherent decision-making responsibility in any relativistic authority, the individual not only releases the claim to independent reasoning, but also releases the right to consistency in the authority’s decisions.

This leaves, then, two general categories under which all labels must fall: those that exist as a result of precedent and those that are novel or changed with the change in authority. This leads to a natural state of conflict within the society. The only reason to change an accepted “good” is that the new authority does not value that ideal as “good” in the same way the previous one did or that the “good” status was determined erroneously. When taken with the above point regarding individuals not changing their minds, the only reasonably expected outcome must be conflict.

It is, at this point, unnecessary and unproductive to attempt to deny the relativist labeling of individuals as a consequence of social construct. We live in a society that has, in an attempt to create equality, intricately embedded itself in the process of labeling and categorizing individuals based on specific and differentiating traits. Instead, it remains for us, in this series, to explore the consequences of labeling, specifically related to the subjective and relativist application of what most perceive to be an objective theology in Christianity, though I will argue that Christianity has a strong intrinsicism aspect. As such, there are a few points that require a deeper investigation. First: religion is not in any way immune to subjectivism (or relativism); second: there are resultant consequences of its prevalence within Christianity (and any other religion) that are very much in line with what was presented here (it is a difference of the manner of its execution, perhaps, but certainly not the application) and; third: the scripturally unsound application of subjectivism has produced the perceived and actual conflicts and attacks that Christians find themselves attempting to reconcile. This, I think, is a task for us to begin to tackle during our next evening together. Thank you all for joining. I hope that you found this enlightening (or at least interesting) and will join next week for the next lecture. I am happy to open the floor for questions."

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John Tedesco

I am an Associate Professor of Chemistry and Dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics with profound interest in philosophy and faith.