Frustrations with subjectivism’s death grip on contemporary morality are not new. Call it what you will—subjectivism, emotivism, relativism, or egoism—the theory holds that the individual, through his private judgment, determines what is good, evil, true, or false in the world. This theory is the default moral position of most Americans today.
Subjectivism denies the existence of an objective moral order independent of the individual mind in which morality or truth is discerned. Contemporary arguments in favor of abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and legalization of marijuana, for example, almost all stem from a subjectivist worldview. When opponents of such views draw upon objective moral norms in reply, they are usually brushed off, dismissed for wanting to “impose” subjective cultural norms—patriarchy, heteronormativity, Eurocentrism—that were created solely to inhibit individual autonomy or “self-expression.”
But subjectivism’s dominance was recently shaken when certain progressives—typically proponents of moral relativism—expressed outrage over students at Stanford and Harvard protesting against Israel after it suffered Hamas’s unprovoked terrorist attack. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania called out America’s universities for failing to give students “the ethical foundation and moral compass to recognize the basics of humanity.” Without this foundation, “students will never grow in wisdom, to the detriment of our country and humanity.”
Start your day with Public DiscourseSign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.
What this professor failed to acknowledge is that, in a country where subjectivism is the default moral position, no real ethical foundation can exist. In the subjectivist framework, the Hamas attacks against Israel may feel morally repugnant to some (or even most) individuals, but articulating why they are (or should be) morally repugnant for all individuals is far more difficult. In order to issue a blanket condemnation of such atrocities, one must fall back on an objective moral order, a metaphysics of morals that is grounded in the notion of “being” itself, an understanding that provides a framework in which actions can be understood as good, evil, true, or false. Laws and moral prohibitions—even seemingly obvious ones like the prohibition of killing innocents—do not function in a vacuum; their meanings and powers stem from a prior metaphysical order, independent of any individual’s perception, in which they originate and can be understood.
The critical question we must ask is whether an objective moral order can ever again become an accepted basis for ethical judgments. Are twenty-first-century Americans subjectivists to the core in their denial of the existence of an objective moral order that is firm, discernible, and as independent of one’s own mind as reality itself? There is some hope that we can escape the subjectivist trap, for in at least one highly popular area of American life there are countless objectivist metaphysicians: the game of baseball.
Consider the case of Barry Bonds, baseball’s all-time leader for the most home runs in both a single season (73) and a career (762). He was one of the most feared hitters in baseball history, collecting an astonishing seven MVP trophies in his twenty-two-year career—no other player has won more than three. Yet Barry Bonds is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He had ten chances to be elected by the Baseball Writers Association; ten times he was not chosen, while others, with lesser credentials, were. He had another chance for election by a jury of his peers, called the Contemporary Era Committee. With his fellow players, Bonds received even fewer votes.
Why? Bonds has been accused of using steroids to enhance his performance. In other words, most fans perceive him as a cheater, and cheaters, even if it takes until the final step of a storied career, can’t be allowed to win. In criticizing Bonds and his fellow steroid users, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg starkly presents the key issue: “No steroid guys [should be] in the Hall of Fame. It’s about stats, integrity and playing by the rules. There’s no cheating in Major League Baseball or the Hall of Fame.”
Why is it that for baseball, consensus favors “integrity and playing by the rules”—that is, adhering to an external order—whereas for morality, consensus favors doing what a person wishes to maximize utility or pleasure for that individual? In other words, why are Americans objectivists with baseball and subjectivists with morality?
Players and fans see baseball as far more than a game. Even though, unlike the moral order that is rooted in reality itself, baseball is man-made and governed by positive, mutable laws, its players and fans see the game as a sacred order, as if born from a divine source, that demands reverence and obedience from all who would approach it. Playing the game is considered a privilege, a gift to a mortal permitted to walk on holy ground for a time, until his abilities no longer measure up to the lofty vocation he has received.
To preserve baseball’s hallowed status and prevent its profanation, layers of enforcers—fans, reporters, announcers, current and former players, Major League Baseball, the Hall of Fame Committee—ensure that the sport’s intricately crafted rules that enshrine all aspects of the game are followed. Cheaters, therefore, are not mere rule breakers; they are vandals desecrating a sacred covenant. Hence those who wittingly violate baseball’s sacred order are not merely punished—they are excommunicated from the assembly, outside of which Barry Bonds lives in exile with others judged as talented vandals, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, and Roger Clemens.
In the moral sphere, Americans moved by the Jewish and Christian religions once saw the cosmos in a similarly hallowed light. God had established a sacred order in which He invited mortals to participate. Actions were judged to be good or evil depending on how they conformed to this order. Thomas Aquinas called this order the eternal law and the portion of the principles that govern human life natural law. Awareness of this order is not a matter of religious faith, but of reason, as Cicero made clear in Book III of De Re Publica:
The true law is right reason in accord with nature, known widely by all, unchanging and everlasting, which summons man to duty by its commands and deters him from wrong by its prohibitions. . . . There will not be one law in Rome, another in Athens, one now, another later, but one eternal and immutable law will comprise all nations and all times, and there will be one God common to all, as a teacher and ruler. This God is the author of this law, its judge and bearer. He who does not obey him flees from his very self and has spurned the nature of man.
Seeing the world and the moral order as products of a creator could provide sufficient motivation for cultivating a healthy respect for nature and its laws as entities in themselves. Certainly, theists who accept God’s revelation in faith to Israel and then to the world in Jesus Christ have supplemental reasons to see the world as a sacred order and judge morality accordingly. For believers, the same actions approved or condemned by the natural law were sanctified or damned, so to speak, through God’s revelation of the Ten Commandments. Through divine intervention, the arena in which human action and interaction played out became sanctified, and these actions took on eternal significance. The moral life in this view became a cosmic drama where human beings did not simply work for their daily bread; they grew into saints or regressed into sinners as they chased the ultimate prize of everlasting life with God in heaven.
As the decades have passed, baseball players and fans still believe in the sport’s sacred order despite the scandals that have plagued it. The same cannot be said, however, for the majority of Americans, who, following Western secularism, have rejected belief in an objective moral order in favor of subjectivism. This is especially true of Christians who have ceased to practice their faith, or who practice only in a nominal way. The fealty of baseball fans to its man-made metaphysics should give those making the case for an objective metaphysics of morals hope that Americans are open to receiving—rather than creating anew for themselves—a way of living. The question is how to make the metaphysics of morals as attractive as those of baseball.
Baseball offers the thrill of playing and watching a game that showcases both finesse and power simultaneously. It has a storied history, spellbinding players, and records that invite pursuit. These factors contribute to the most important fact that animates the sacred order of baseball: players and fans simply love the game, and they understand that the rules are what help make it great.
The Christian religion, in particular, offers excitement of both an existential and experiential variety: freedom from sin and the ways of evil. It has an even longer history than baseball. It has even more gifted players (called saints) than any sport whatsoever, and even more monuments (books, schools, universities, hospitals, orphanages) that have changed the world.
But do Christians simply love God, and, in doing so, show how all the moral rules help foster this love? Love attracts, even more than a diving catch or a 450-foot home run. The rejection of the objective moral order that has long been sanctified and taught by Christianity follows from repeated failures of Christians both to love as they ought and to communicate the majesty of God’s love to subsequent generations.
Restoring popular assent to the objective moral order, which will provide “the ethical foundation and moral compass to recognize the basics of humanity” for all those decrying the atrocities committed by Hamas, will not happen merely by pointing to the inadequacies of the subjectivist moral framework. It requires something far more difficult, but, if successful, far more convincing than a rational argument alone: countless Christians who live joyfully according to and because of their faith in God’s created order and the moral rules that derive from it. It requires reason complemented by a robust and genuinely lived faith. Until then, outrageous behavior such as that demonstrated at Stanford and Harvard—to say nothing of greater evils—will remain difficult to condemn, for each individual will continue to play his own ballgame.