Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Morality, Religion

Is Color Objective or Subjective?

Do you see red the same way that I do? I suppose there’s not really a way to know. Even if we could agree on seeing the subtle differences between fire engine red and candy apple red, how do we know that we’re seeing those differences in the same way?

You could get an objective definition of red from its unique wavelength. But in practical matters, that’s of little use to the average person. None of us may see that wavelength in exactly the same way. Nevertheless, our society seems to move along quite well by using red in traffic lights to tell us when to stop. If you were to ask several different people to identify the exact shade of red in a traffic light, you might get different answers. In fact, if you were to compare the reds of different traffic lights, you might come up with slightly different shades. But traffic lights work because instead of making each light a different shade of red (which would be horribly confusing), we make each light an entirely different color: red, yellow, green. Two people might disagree over which red more closely matches fire engine red, but they won’t usually disagree when it comes to identifying red over green.

This is something we all understand without the need to endlessly equivocate over whether colors are subjective or objective. They’re both, and we’ve learned how to work with them accordingly. But when we begin talking about theism vs atheism, we seem to lose this ability. Not in regard to color, of course, but in regard to morality.

It seems to me that morality works in exactly the same way as color. Take modesty for example. What passes for modesty in one place and time may not pass for modesty in another. Every time I’ve seen Michelle Obama, I would describe her as being dressed modestly. However, were she to dress that way in a conservative Muslim country, they might feel very differently. Or if she were to travel back in time to Victorian England, her attire would be scandalous. So while the average person in Western culture would say that Michelle Obama is modest, when compared to stricter definitions of modesty, the label may not apply so easily. In the same way, while it’s easy to pick out red from red, green, and yellow, it’s harder to pick the “reddest” from three shades of red.

To use another example, consider the hippocratic oath. It says that the physician will never do harm to anyone. Yet don’t physicians often give shots? Or administer treatments like chemotherapy? But we know that sometimes momentary discomfort is necessary to bring about a greater good. Administering a shot and pricking someone with a pin are almost identical in regard to how it makes someone feel, but one is moral while the other is not. It’s not hard to see the difference between the two, and no superior being needs to tell us which is better, just like no superior being needs to tell us the difference between red and green.

In discussions about whether or not there is a god, theists will sometimes say that an atheist has no basis on which to decide that one version of morality is better than another. But I profoundly disagree with this. God never told anyone what names to give for the colors. Even so, most people can easily distinguish between red and green. By the same token, it’s very easy to determine that generosity is far more moral than rape — we don’t need a god to tell us that.

However, just as its difficult to choose between shades of the same color, there are times when deciding what’s moral can be quite difficult. If your Aunt Sally asks what you thought of her lasagna, is it preferable to lie and tell her that it was good, or to be honest and tell her that you didn’t like it? A compelling case can be made either way. If a child molester is going to be released from custody on a technicality, is it more moral for the father of the victim to abide by the ruling, or take justice into his own hands? Again, the “right” thing to do in such a situation is not all that clear. But these more difficult situations are not improved by believing in a god. Even theists are puzzled by the right thing to do under such circumstances.

The Bible gives a great example of this in David. In 1 Sam 13 and Acts 13, David is referred to as a man after God’s own heart. Yet we see David make some interesting choices, considering that description. In 1 Samuel 21, David is running from King Saul, and he and his men are hungry. So he goes to see Ahimelech the high priest and asks for some food. Ahimelech tells David that the only food they have is the consecrated bread, which only priests can eat. David and his men eat the bread. In Mark 2:23-28, Jesus justifies David’s act here by saying that some of these laws are meant to benefit people, not restrict them. In other words, it’s situational.

In 1 Samuel 27, things have gotten so bad for David (as in Saul is out to kill him), that he takes refuge in Philistia and serves King Achish. For over a year, he serves this king, and how does he repay Achish’s kindness? By raiding Philistine villages — something Achish would not have appreciated. Whenever Achish asks David what he’s been up to, David says that he and his men have been out raiding Israelite villages, which Achish thinks is great. And David never leaves any survivors who could rat him out to Achish. We’re never given any indication that God was displeased by this. In fact, it’s presented as being quite cunning — isn’t David cool?! So lying is okay if it keeps you out of trouble?

If the Bible gives us mixed messages when it comes to the moral conundrums that we all find difficult to navigate, and if we don’t actually need any help in figuring out what’s moral when presented with extremes (caring for the needy vs murder), then why are we supposed to think that belief in a god is somehow necessary to establish moral principles at all? When you get right down to it, identifying morality is usually like identifying colors: you know it when you see it. Why make it more complicated by that?

117 thoughts on “Is Color Objective or Subjective?”

  1. Interesting analogy: color perception and moral perception. Much of it offers good points.
    Both rely on the majority of brains having similar perceptions and both ignore outliers.
    Loved the OT stories — thanx.

    Pointing out the subjectivity of color once caused me to break up with a new girlfriend — see here if you are interested. “The Hour of the Monkey

    Your post hints at some objective valuing of morals but with a little play room. I think the meta-philosophical divide is between Moral Realism and Moral Anti-realism. Sounds like you are on the Moral Realism side. I am not. Using a metaphor (color) to discuss morality exposes the problem of metaphors for careful discussion. But it is certainly fun and possibly instructive.

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  2. Thanks for the feedback, Sabio! And I really enjoyed the post that you linked to. It’s funny how little moments like that can tell you so much about a person. Very cool that you’ve been to Japan, btw. I’d love to go there one day. I’ve been fascinated by it ever since I read James Clavell’s books.

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  3. Different cultures count different numbers of color in a rainbow, some say 3, some 7, some 12 or more. There are always boundary effects when one arbitrarily divides a smooth spectrum.

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  4. If divine moral is absolute than why is slavery not explicitly forbidden in the bible? The moral in the bible is either not absolute or slavery is OK. Most people today, even christians, would strongly oppose the view that slavery is OK. Think human rights, think civil war, think current law. This one example shows how underdeveloped the moral of the bible is. That’s why a lot of christians focus on the new testament, for the old testament is a can of worms if it comes to morality.

    But let’s make another analogy based on color perception.How do believers know that the moral of the bible is good? Because it’s god’s word. And how do we know that god is good? Because he says so. Yeah sure, but suppose he really is an evil god with a sound marketing plan. Can we really tell if he is good or not? Well, only when we can judge his moral color independently. If our moral judgement is independent from his. So in fact when we indeed owe our moral compass to god, we’re screwed, because in that case moral basically is a case of divine self-assertion, and what is good is defined by god even if he was the top most bad ass. So the only way moral is not divine self-assertion is when our moral thinking is independent from the word of god. That’s a good enough reason for me to do some independent thinking on morality that doesn’t start from the assertion that divine moral is the moral worth wanting.

    Of course,in the real world there is no such thing as the color of material things. That’s just the perception in our heads. And moral color – I think – is indeed much like that, it only exists in our perception.

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  5. “Using a metaphor (color) to discuss morality exposes the problem of metaphors for careful discussion.”

    I guess he better alert the 10’s of thousands of ministers who do this from their pulpits every Sunday. 🙂 I’ve heard many a sermon referring to moral judgements as “black or white” .

    Great post Nate ! I see no problem with your use of metaphors. 🙂

    (I guess technically black is supposed to be the absence of all color) My bad 🙂

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  6. @nate,
    Thanx. I am sure you’d love Japan. Their views of “religion” and “morality” and even “color” are very different from ours. It is highly instructive to have to enter a world so different from our own.

    @kcchief1,
    Since you quoted me, I’m guessing you are saying that it was wrong for me to point out the obvious weaknesses of metaphors. Christians make the same criticisms — they love metaphors, because they stir the masses. As long as the crowd cheers, those who question will always be viewed as wet blankets, eh?

    Tell us, kccheif1, when it comes to meta-ethics, do you come down on the side of moral realism or anti-realism? Does the color metaphor help you on this?

    Nate seems to be saying, that right or wrong does have some objective basis and we can all tell when we look at it though there may be a little wiggle room. A Moral Realism position — I think. But with metaphors like this, it is hard to tell.

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  7. “Tell us, kccheif1, when it comes to meta-ethics, do you come down on the side of moral realism or anti-realism? Does the color metaphor help you on this?”

    I am a simple man. After reading this , http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-anti-realism/ , I’m not sure what I am.

    “Since you quoted me, I’m guessing you are saying that it was wrong for me to point out the obvious weaknesses of metaphors.”

    I didn’t see where you pointed out the obvious weaknesses of metaphors. I only read your statement, “Using a metaphor (color) to discuss morality exposes the problem of metaphors for careful discussion.” and I was simply letting Nate know I didn’t see the “problem” of his use of metaphor.

    I was using your statement to make a point to Nate , not to accuse you of being wrong of anything. Metaphor has been used throughout the ages to help people to understand.

    So where’s the problem ? I’m all ears …….

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  8. Maybe things aren’t always black and white, but when I see Christians try to justify slavery or genocide in the bible I see red.
    And it illustrates perfectly that those who adhere to this ridiculous doctrine are simply too yellow to make a positive stand against it.
    There may still be a few grey areas, but the ‘Purple Patch’ period of almost outright church dominance is well and truly over.
    Indoctrination ( and unquestioning acceptance) which was de rigueur for all and sundry in days past and is still a cause for concern regarding children, is slowly loosing its theocratic choke hold
    We are no longer simply white-washed with the same dogmatic brush and are not so green anymore…thank the gods!
    There will come a time….albeit in a generation or three where the divisions and problems religion always causes will be a thing of the past and we will be able to see blues skies.

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  9. @kcchief1,
    Right: The meta-ethical questions on the objectivity of morals are tough — but important. Most folks argue morality without understanding their own positions.

    Most of us emotionally have an intuition that we should without doubt be able to forbid many behaviors. And when we “think” on it, our minds intuitively feel there must be some sort of absolute standard — either by revelation (by religionists) or by reason (by atheists) which justifies our emotion. But we know how deceptive intuitions can be, eh?

    As for the inherent weaknesses of arguing anything using metaphors or analogy:

    The problem is always that the analogy does not fit in some way — the false analogy:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_analogy

    http://www.fallacyfiles.org/wanalogy.html

    I hope that helped.

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  10. @ kcchief1,

    Cool, hope they clarify. ‘Tis fine to disagree, but even better if we are sure what we disagree about.

    “Morality” is probably one of the largest issue for theists. Without their faith, they can’t imagine a moral world making sense. Many atheist think the moral world make sense but they are not standing on as firm of ground as they imagine. They have FAITH that their intuitions are correct, the only difference between them and theists is the way they dress up their intuitions — often in pseudo-rationality.

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  11. @Nan.

    Sadly, Nan, we are all too aware of how the religious love to mauve the goalposts and orange things so as to come out smelling or roses.
    We just have to be on our toes, that’s all, and not allow the to violet the rules.

    😉

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  12. @Nate: Very thought provoking post which are the kind I like!

    I’ve thought a lot about morality and even wrote about it, but after all that I still feel like I don’t have the answer to the question: “is morality objective”. I know several of the issues involved in the topic and I think there are very good points on different sides, but still just don’t know.

    I do have the sense though that from a practical standpoint it seems a bit irrelevant to how I live my life (which I am pretty sure agrees with the gist of your post). For example: I’ve always hated the idea of slavery no matter what my beliefs have been about whether or not there is an objective rule about it that somehow “exists”. It simply disgusts me and I’m very happy I live in a world where a large majority agree with me. I hated it when I was Christian (even though the bible didn’t tell me that), and I still hate it. But this does bring up an interesting point to ponder. Where does this value of mine come from? It could very well be from genetics and perhaps even more from my cultural influences. So while it makes me very sick to think about it, and I want very much for this not to be true, I really can’t say for sure that if I had been raised in the deep south of the US in the early 1800’s that I would have had this same value.

    Also this from your post:

    Again, the “right” thing to do in such a situation is not all that clear. But these more difficult situations are not improved by believing in a god. Even theists are puzzled by the right thing to do under such circumstances.

    struck me as a great point.

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  13. Nate, I enjoyed your post. To opine on your last question, we don’t need to be theists to establish moral principles. Let’s take for example ancient Paganism. They thought it was perfectly moral to kill infants, especially if they were female. Try to argue with an ancient Pagan that all human life is valuable. Or, try to argue with Nietzsche that the weak in our society deserve help and care. I don’t think humanism is robust enough to hold what moral stability we enjoy in our post-Christian societies. This is because atheism and humanism are not any more logically connected than atheism and hedonism. On the other hand Christianity is the ethic of love and justice.

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  14. On the other hand Christianity is the ethic of love and justice.

    Haaaaaaa….sprays tea all over the Laptop…

    Ask the Cathars, the residents of ancient Carcasonne, the victims of the Crusades, every raped child, the Arians,the Gnostics, the Jews, the native Americans, the South Amertican Indians, Australian Aborigines,every kid that was buried in the foundation of any consecrated building, ask Holly, Ruth, Victoria, Arch…in fact you complete and utter self-centered sanctimonious wally, you can even ask Nate!

    Love and Justice? what the hell are you smoking!

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  15. I’m afraid morality isn’t as set and defined as we’d like it to be. I think it largely depends on the society we’re a part of and how well that society is surviving and thriving.

    I’m not a sociologist, so I realize this may be flawed and incorrect, but I suspect that we have the modern view of morality that we do because we have all of our needs met. We have excess. We literally want for nothing, save a few luxurious desires. Plus, we’re more educated now than people have been before.

    In this case, it is easier let our empathy lend us to want to help others; to do what we can to be good stewards. But even in this setting, there a plenty who are morally corrupt. Imagine if we were struggling to survive. Imagine that the children in our group were getting sick and weak from lack of food. I believe we would cease to care about those who are outside of our group, and may even rob them (or worse) in order to ensure the survival of our own.

    And maybe, in order to justify that shift in morality in our own minds, we’d even come to demonize the other groups, making it easier to rob them or kill them for our personal gain and survival. That hatred or bias could lead us to believe the other groups are lesser, which could lead to the justification of slavery in one form or another.

    We’d still be moral, but the morality would extend no further than our own group if the circumstances were desperate enough.

    I think this is why the Israelites did all the horrors they did, yet believed they were still moral. I think it’s also why Christians and other religious peoples committed horrors in the past, and still today in varying degrees. It’s also why the non-religious can have the same tendency. The one issues I see that really separates the religious from the non-religious in such cases is that the religious tend to believe that their god has instructed them to act the way they do – so it propels beyond circumstantial, into divine righteousness that surpasses all understanding.

    Nate, I though the post was extremely good.

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  16. Thanks to everyone for all the great comments.

    @anaivethinker
    Glad you enjoyed the post! Thank you. 🙂

    Try to argue with an ancient Pagan that all human life is valuable. Or, try to argue with Nietzsche that the weak in our society deserve help and care. I don’t think humanism is robust enough to hold what moral stability we enjoy in our post-Christian societies.

    I don’t really agree with you here. I think much of our progress comes from inclusion, as William was arguing. As time has gone on, people have seemed to view “the tribe” as humanity in general, and not just their local communities. This causes us to see that prejudice is a bad thing. And arguing against prejudice from a basis in humanism is not difficult. I don’t know if I could convince Nietzsche or ancient pagans, but I would argue that no one wants to be treated unfairly, so it benefits all of us to live in a society that promotes equality. After all, in an unequal society, you can never guarantee that your side will be the one that benefits.

    However, if morality is derived from something like Divine Command Theory, then morality is only as good as the god it represents, which might explain some ancient people’s acceptance of things like child sacrifice. And it prevents people from reasoning out better forms of morality, since morality’s basis is obedience, not reason.

    I do think that New Testament Christianity includes some good moral teachings. It’s unfortunate that the various iterations of Christianity haven’t always implemented them correctly. At the same time, it can lead to some real problems, and I firmly believe it should never be the moral basis for a society. Should our secular society make laws about people’s sexual orientation? Or should we outlaw inter-racial marriages, since some people believe the Bible prohibits them? Should blasphemy be against the law? What about skipping church services? And if the majority ever decided that a different religion was the true one, then our sense of right and wrong would change drastically, as exhibited by so many of the problems in the Middle East.

    To me, the most rational basis for morality is a secular one.

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  17. @william
    You make a great point about morality being tied to economic security. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but you may be on to something.

    @Howie
    I have also thought about how my outlook on certain things might be completely different if I had been born in another place or time. We’re definitely products of our environment, and it’s sometimes easy to forget how much of an impact that makes.

    @Ark
    Brilliant! 😀

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  18. @Nate,
    As Howie said, and you agreed, our values change depending on our upbringing. And likewise our intuitions. And our reasoning is often the slave of those intuitions. So, our family tells us to trust their holy books (which someone intuited and made sacred) OR they raise us with their secular intuitions and preferences. Either way, we will still think we are being rational about our ethics but usually, we are merely rationalizing our morality.

    I don’t think we recognize good when we see it, we only recognize our preferences — which are highly dependent on our upbringing.

    The think I hate about religious ethics, is that it is closed to discussion. And even though discussion often does not work, I still want it as one of my tools of persuasion.

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  19. Hi Sabio,

    I think I’m largely in agreement with you on this. I haven’t delved too deeply into all the philosophical arguments, so my jargon there is pretty light. But the way I see morality is that it’s both objective and subjective. I could be wrong about that, but it’s currently how I see it.

    For example, child sacrifice was mentioned earlier. No doubt some people long, long ago viewed child sacrifice as the “moral” thing to do, because it appeased the gods and ensured better lives for everyone else. The needs of the many vs the needs of the few. Looking back on it from our perspective, it’s easy to see the fallacies in that position, but if we had lived during that time, we may not have been able to see it any clearer than they did. Does that mean that we can’t make any moral judgment about it today? I don’t really think so.

    I view it like science. In Newton’s time, there were a great many things about the universe that scientists of the time were mistaken about. Today, we know better. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t doing science back then, but we have learned so much since then that we can safely say they were incorrect about some things. I don’t think that’s a subjective conclusion, but an objective one (though I could be wrong).

    That’s how I see morality. There are some actions, like rape, that I think we can safely say are objectively immoral, even if the perpetrator feels that he has good reasons. There are some practices like female circumcision that are considered moral within their culture, but that I think we can still safely say are objectively immoral. However, there are other things, like lying to save someone’s feelings, that are more difficult to label, and I view those as being subjective.

    I say all of that to say this: it may be that I’m using “objective” and “subjective” incorrectly. I don’t believe that there’s some standard out there in the universe that we’re all trying to live up to. I believe that morality is based on reason, and that it improves as time goes on and we get better at recognizing the humanity within those who differ from us. Maybe “objective” is not a good description of that kind of morality. But just as society has decided which light wavelengths correspond to “red,” I think society decides which actions correspond to morality.

    Based on what I’ve just laid out, do you think that identifies me more as a moral realist or anti-realist?

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