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. Sabio, do you think there is any bleed over between real ethics (if it exists) and our preferences?

    I realize there is often differences in what one culture or person believes to be ethical or unethical, but does that necessarily mean that it’s all up for grabs?

    Maybe the parts that overlap between all groups is “really” ethical, with the edges being more preferential? Maybe one group’s ethical standards are more thought out than another’s – and I don’t mean what we believe to be more thought out, but what is actually more thought out.

    and for now, I realize that us being able to decide which is actually better or not could be impossible factually/completely, but I guess I’m asking about possibilities.


  2. @Nate,
    That’s cool — I’m bad on the philosophy and jargon too. But I can’t see what you think is objective about morality. I can see that if a bunch of people agree on some standards (and contract on it — law) then objective methods could be made to see if any actions are “moral” (read: agreed upon and contracted). But that would be an incredibly week version of “objective” — one I think most would not want.

    Sure, child sacrifice for the many is bad, but adult sacrifice for the country is OK? The USA was willing to sacrifice Iraqi children as collateral damage for the “good of the many”.

    Not everyone will every agree that rape is wrong, even if you and I would wish they would. We try to pump up our preferences saying it is “objective” or “rational” but I don’t see how. But hell, I don’t mind pretending it is so as to stop it.

    I don’t believe “morality” is based on reason, but that law is based on reasoned (or at least argued using reason) but based an tenuous agreements of preferences of a majority.

    Not a very pretty picture, but who said reality has to look pretty to humans?

    To answer your question:
    I think you are an anti-realist who wishes he weren’t so still is addicted to moral realism jargon.
    But then I am a bit of a fool.
    Fun chattin’ — thanx for engaging.


  3. @William,

    To answer your question — no. I think “ethics” and “morality” is our secular holy words to cover up the ugly truth that we have to come to struggle against each other’s preferences. Techniques to stabilize, prosper and such are morality jargon, law, wars, coercion, cooperation and much more.

    If it “all ain’t up for grabs”, then we are just ALL fortunate to ALL agree ALL at once ALL over the place — and I have never seen that.

    Hoping for universals is just that – hope. Almost a religious reflex even in secular folks.

    We decide what type of society we want and try to constrain those who disagree.


  4. yeah, i don’t really care one way or the other. I wouldn’t pick any fights over it. If someone wanted to rape one of my children, i wouldn’t engage them in a discussion on how they justify their actions, nor would i try to appeal to their good reason on any ethical basis, i would just cave their heads in with a shovel.

    why? because I dig shovels – no better reason.

    but if someone is making laws or regulations, I would appeal to their reason when discussing them – like we do here. we don’t always agree at the end of it, but that’s the way with everything I guess. and in many such cases people often use or appeal to preference, but typically reason, if inserted, can illuminate it, like with most things, i guess.

    Plus, i guess it wouldn’t really matter what “actually is” if everyone wanted to argue over it because they think it’s actually something else.

    so i think i get you. I still think, although I will now continue to rethink it, that some morality is actually and factually real, much in same way that nate pointed out. there’s a difference between green and red, even if you cant see it because you’re color blind. The ability to “see” or even “understand” doesnt have any bearing on what “is,” but only how we perceive it all. those discussions are difficult, if not impossible to win, so in such circumstances, arguing over green and red with certain color blind individuals may be like a discussion that may as well be solely on preferences.


  5. @William,

    Ah, that first bit was sarcasm, wasn’t it?

    So, sending your little girl to live with a warlord’s harem so as to secure safety and maybe prosperity would not be your preference, I get that. But not everyone would.

    Raping your cellmate in prison or not standing up against it for fear of your life may not be your choice. But not everyone would agree with you.

    I think the “reason” only works with agreed preferences — it is those common preferences (be they specific actions, the good of the whole, the good of a few or preserving the Union or some such of arbitrary thing) which we then “reason” about. Does that make sense.

    So, yeah, I think Nate’s hint at objectivity using a color analogy is faulty. But it has stirred many of like preferences to sing along. And that is cool — I just opt out of the choir. Hope that is OK.


  6. It wasnt as much sarcasm as it was light-heartedness. I dont necessarily disagree with you and I think you’re making good points. If i was sarcastic, it wasnt directed at you.

    the first part of my reply was basically agreeing with you. I’d merely react according to my best interest, not according to morality.

    Leaving the choir is cool, if you’re down with it. You’ve given me a lot to think over. seriously. no sarcasm. I really think you’ve made good points – i just think that nate has as well.

    I’m gonna consider them all.

    Is reason just an illusion we sell to ourselves? or is it merely affected by our preferences?


  7. But what if we are all colour-blind to the true nature of other perspectives?

    Would the consensus of most people then dictate what would be cemented as reality?

    If we as human beings for example had the vision and perspective of owls, or the sense of smell like a dogs, we would then be working off a different standard, and the question of the traffic lights would be replaced with another other questions.

    Instead of traffic lights we may have large funnels emitting different strong fragrances 🙂 since our sense of smell may be more sensitive than our sense of sight. or not 🙂

    On another note, I personally believe in an objective standard of reality, which consists of the consideration of what most effectively benefits the well being of those you are connected to.

    In order to learn and work towards another’s benefit a person must have methods that can objectively assess what is effective or trust those who have poured hours into working to assess and identify what actions and processes are effective. These are then integrated to benefit others.

    But in order to work towards the benefit of individuals, a society has to have a shared morality that goes beyond just preferences. And that is where an objective morality comes into play.

    Without the acknowledgement of such a objective morality then the very question of what is of benefit becomes pointless. Since it no longer has any practical use as a standard.


  8. For example, a group of people could objectively assess that a child needs certain nutrients and vitamins to function well, for his or her benefit and well-being, as well as their parents, friends and family.

    However, just because such nutrients and vitamins would benefit someone who has a deficiency in them, without an moral standard like the Declaration of Geneva, the medical professionals would be under no responsibility to provide such services although it would benefit the well-being of both the child and countless others.

    doctors would know how to provide such benefit. Science considers the how, but it does not provide the why in all circumstances, since the why is no objective. The why behind providing care to the child is because the child is loved and valued.

    The whys could be different to each person who values the child, so therefore the whys cannot be all tested like the medical professionals could test how the administration of certain medicine can benefit individuals. But this doesn’t make the value of that child any less real or important. It doesn’t make the how any more important than the why in this case.

    The “how” in this case is a means to the end, the “why” is the value driving the “how”. To ensure the child develops and flourishes in health and well-being in order that they may be beneficial also in other lives as well.

    After all, doctors started treating patients I assume so that they may provide some benefit or relief to either them or other people. so morality was the driving value in may cases that pushed the “hows” to be identified. So Objective methods of identifying processes in reality. and morality, feeds into the one other, is like two sides of the same coin. That’s my opinion.


  9. @william,
    Cool, I get it.
    Reason is not an illusion, reason is a tool.
    We use it to build, to fool others or to fool ourselves. Lots of uses. But like any tool, it is not an illusion. Reason is often treated like a thing — like LOGOS — an abstraction with a reality of its own. This is silly. In my humble opinion. Yet some atheists get religious about reason without even knowing it.

    @ portal001,
    I like that you point out just some of the obvious problems with Nate’s analogy. That is the problem with analogies. If it doesn’t fit, the problems will emerge.

    But concerning the rest of what you said, it doesn’t seem like you believe in objective morals, but in using reason to form morals consistent with your preference of:
    benefiting the well-being of those your are connected to.

    But of course that preference in itself is not enough to allow for any obvious set of rules. You need to add more preferences like:
    — but not at the cost of my death
    — spread equally
    — spread fairly
    … and all sorts of other complications.

    So, sure, we have to get agreement on preferences to make rules which we can then enforce — a tough thing to do, but worth it.


  10. I don’t think there are so much problems to Nates analogy, any more than there are limitations to examples.

    They are limited by the very definitions we and others place on them, since we come to the table with different experiences, so not everyone’s going to relate to every example the same way. its a mixed bag that frequent here I think 🙂


  11. A mixed bag of personalities that is. Lots of differences, which is good, since people can bring lots of different thoughts to the discussions…


  12. I agree with portal, I don’t think nate’s analogy was off, but i guess that depends on how we’re each viewing it. I think nate is looking at and presenting it through modern day sociological eyes. We must consider each event and action on a case by case (or color by color, shade by shade) basis.

    But even so, in the world we find ourselves in, we can all primarily agree on some of the “major” moral issues (like rape, murder (different than killing), theft, etc), though the distinctions are harder to see or agree on when the issues involve many considerations or are “on the line” between what we routinely define as moral or immoral (dark red, red and light red).

    Like theft. If someone stole some ladies purse because they didnt want to work for money, then that’s bad. If someone stole some money to buy bread to feed their starving children because he cant find work, then we’d tend to sympathize with that because we look past the immoral act of theft in that case, because it was desperate action to achieve a greater moral action.

    I think we use reason, or should, in those cases. Even though we may not always use the tool of reason correctly or the best way, it’s the tool we have at our disposal.

    So yeah, I think if we look hard enough, we can make any analogy on any topic problematic, because an analogy is a comparison of different things. If they’re different, it couldn’t be too hard to find differences.

    that being said, I can see where it’s beneficial to point out the limitations of the analogy, but I still think for nate’s intended purpose, it worked in this case.

    Sabio, I agree. many people can use or view “reason” in a religious sort of way. I suppose it’s an easy trap to fall into. When i was a religious man, I often worried about “lying to myself” or “following after the bible incorrectly” despite my best intentions – I suppose the same is true when it comes to “reason.”

    Self reflection is important, I guess – as is mastery of the tools we have, while maintaining humility, as not to injure ourselves with powerful tools used carelessly.


  13. @ William:

    Sure, we must consider each event and action on a case by case basis.

    I agree with that.

    If you go around the world you will see that not everyone agrees on murder, rape, killing and theft. But it is nice to wish it were so.

    I agree, nate’s analogy is nice but is it persuasive or instructive to anyone? I just disagree with the objective side of his presentation.

    My intuition is that we all largely agree on our values, how to evaluate things but differ on how to explain the phenomena.

    I have lived in many extremely different cultures and was immersed in them. I was a different person several times in my life too — these experiences (and thinking about the issues) inform my writing, as yours do too.

    I think we essentially agree.


  14. “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.”

    Haven’t you heard Ark? Morality is just like colors so why get so red? 😉

    Far be it from me to get into any long debates since I gather from past conversations that this is just where you go to get your views rubber stamped but where or where is the command in the Bible for men in general to to take slaves?


  15. “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?!”

    Interesting proof text Nate. From What verse do you derive “isn’t David cool” from? …. Just curious 🙂


  16. …where is the command in the Bible for men in general to to take slaves? ~Mike Anthony

    “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.” Leviticus 25:44-46 (NIV)

    “When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.” Deuteronomy 20:10-15 (NIV)


  17. Sorry Ron none of those verses are general commands to take slaves. the first says you may take them if they are already slaves. The second is during war at the time of the Israeli conquest of canaan and not a general command for all war time situations either. Again where is the command in the Bible for men in general to to take slaves? There are none I know of. You missed a couple verses too

    “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:16)’

    Ouch that would have put to an end all slave traders and owners in the African Slave trade that we are more familiar with.

    “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has 1escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him. Deut 23:15-16

    So If a servant/slave was unhappy and ran away there was no call for him to return. Why wouldn’t all slaves run away? Because the slavery of ancient days was an economic arrangement. Jobs like we know them today were few and far between.

    Perhaps you have some better verses that you can answer my questions with?


  18. Yeah, i sort of agree with mike on the slavery point, in that bible doesn’t appear to command disciple to take on slaves. However, if they had slaves, there weren’t commanded to free them, but to be good and fair masters. These days, we’d prefer to think that god would condemn the practice outright because we do.

    whatever the case, I’m glad our society frowns upon it.

    But mike, on the David being cool point, the passages nate referred to did show david being what we’d consider unethical by deceit, etc, yet the text portrays david as the good guy, even though it didnt specifically use the the phrase, “David is a cool guy.”

    I dont think nates point was a jab at david, but an illustration on situational ethics. the bible condemns lying, yet david did it to the enemies of israel and it appeared to be okay.

    and someone might say that the text never specifically stated that david was right to lie to them, and while that’s true, it doesnt condemn him either for it, but (like nate said) seems to laud those actions as cunning.

    do you see it another way?


  19. Hi WIlliam, Don’t I always see it different? 🙂

    “”yet the text portrays david as the good guy, even though it didnt specifically use the the phrase,””

    Where? Where is this portrayal? What verse?I’d really like an answer if you have one as I think its a classic example of how Nate (and others who read him I suppose) reads the Bible. I’ve read the chapter twice and see nothing. NO such statement, no adjective no adverb. As for God never showing disapproval – David was not allowed to build the temple because he had shed too much blood which is a commentary on his whole life. Historical narratives do not always show either approval or disapproval but reading them into the text is not fair play.

    Which leads me to a classic example in regard to things God did not approve of but legally had to have rules for – Divorce. One does not have to crack the new testament to find him stating in Malachi he detested it but should a nation nevertheless have laws about it? Yes because a forced marriage can become terribly abusive and no better than divorce. Slavery was even worse. You could say release all slaves and most of therm would be worse off in that economy and culture. You did not pick up the paper and look for a job. People would actually choose slavery to avoid starvation and the Jewish owner was encouraged to treat his slaves well enough for them to feel like family.

    Proverbs 29:21 (KJV)
    21 He that delicately bringeth up his servant from a child shall have him become his son at the length.

    Thats just a totally different mentality than what we refer to as a slave today.


  20. Incidentally the other reason why this article is weak logically is the the analogy of color. Its just too critically different from morality to make such a comparison. We see the color we see without choice. What we call it if we are color blind is about semantics not reality. We really do see the color that we see without choice. Its automatic with good eye biology. With morality WE make choices as to how we are going to view things. Furthermore its somewhat stunning that Nate actually believes this.

    ” it’s very easy to determine that generosity is far more moral than rape.

    Prisons are full of pedofiles and Rapists who think the victim morally had it coming or that the experience was a good one for the victim – even an act of generosity. The whole we don’t need religion for morality by atheists is kind of like claiming we don’t need Math teachers because we can do maths ourselves. Our very understanding of maths came from teachers so it wishful thinking regardless if Sam Harris cannot think that through. To prove such a statement you would need to start such a culture from birth where people had no idea of morality and devised one just on logic but alas we have had cultures that overrode the culture of morality and put people in gas chambers thinking it was for the greater good so the results of such an experiment are HIGHLY dubious. To believe your sense of morality is independent of your society’s religious morality is to believe you were not shaped in any way by your culture which is theistic is just self deception.


  21. “These days, we’d prefer to think that god would condemn the practice outright because we do.

    whatever the case, I’m glad our society frowns upon it.”

    Unless you are into History revisionism your society came to the place of frowning upon it because of Bible believers such as this man

    Who believed that God DID frown upon it from reading the same Bible. Facts are even after the abolishment of slavery in the US many “slaves” saw little difference. True abolishment meant that there had to be an infrastructure to support them. If a culture did not have that infrastructure then it would be pointless to call for it to be abolished. God did better than condemn slavery. he destroyed it at its core thinking when he commanded that

    Galatians 3:28 (KJV)
    28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

    Anyway history is clear – Bible believers based on passages like the one above led the charge against slavery


  22. I wont argue with you over slavery – as i’ve already said, i basically agree you there.

    as to the analogy in general, i still think nate has a good point. I think the analogy holds, because even if we’re limited to our own society, the vast majority of people see some issues as definitely moral and other definitely immoral – black and white if you will. And again, nate didnt make the color analogy himself, I’ve heard plenty of preachers use the “black and white” analogy many, many times.

    There are shades of gray, and those are harder to decipher, but the extremes in color, like crushing the skull of an infant with a boot heel, are more easily identified.

    you pointed out that a lot of sick people may think that rape is the right thing to do, that it’s justified or even generous. But there are just as many so called religious people who claim to be following god by committing atrocities as well and no doubt have their scripture to justify their actions.

    It could be said that they’re misusing the scriptures no easier than it could be said that the rapists are misusing their reason. I’m suggestion that normal rational people use reason to determine what is good and what is bad. Even the religious read the bible and use their reason to say whether this passage is literal and this one figurative. This was good in one case, not here for these reasons, etc.

    David. his having too much blood on his hands might have referred to Uriah specifically, or his war like manner in general. But just as nothing in the text specifically states that david was cool, there is nothing that specifically states that david was wrong in deceiving the philistines. But admittedly, we’re viewing this differently. You’re looking at passages that condemn lying, so you I guess you’re viewing this in harmony with those passages and would say that david was guilty of lying and god charged him with being guilty of sin. I’m reading this and seeing david as the hero, whose only real problem was uriah and bathsheeba.

    Nothing in the text specifically says one way or the other, but i dont think it takes too much imagination to see where I’m coming from here – just as i can see where you’re coming from even though i disagree.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s