Objective Morality: Ukrainian suffering, African and Middle Eastern Suffering?

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

We feel the pain of each and every victim of the Ukrainian war. The wall to wall, 24/7 coverage of almost every Western news channel has served a constant reminder for all of us of the gravity of human suffering of this crisis that has been forced upon Ukraine.

A month into the war, more than 3.7 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries – the sixth-largest refugee outflow over the past 60-plus years, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of United Nations data.

But, many Muslims, Asians and Africans cannot but help notice that Syrian refugees that were twice as many, as noted in the table below, even though many of them were blue and green eyed, according to some Western standards, failed to draw any significant Western media’s attention. In many ways our sentiments are best articulated by MEP Clare Daly, from Ireland, in the following video:

There are now almost as many Ukrainian refugees as there were Afghan refugees fleeing the (first) Taliban regime in 2001, according to figures compiled by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They represent about 9.1% of Ukraine’s pre-invasion population of about 41.1 million – ranking the current crisis 16th among 28 major refugee crises by share of population.  

The contrast shown by the Western media, including CNN, MSNBC and invariably all others, in covering Ukrainian and all the previous and still ongoing crisis, have forced us to examine human morality, its objectivity and universality.

Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC has provided the basic definition of objective and subjective morality:

Objective morality, in the simplest terms, is the belief that morality is universal, meaning that it isn’t up for interpretation. Some people may think of objective morality as commandments from God, while other people may think the universe has some objective rules we may follow. There are certainly some arguments for objective morality to be had. Religious people will define objective morality according to the commandments of their god(s). Other people may look at some universal laws, such as murder, as inherently bad.

Objective morality says that morality exists in nature—it’s how we were programmed.

The opposite of objective morality is subjective morality. Subjective morality says that our morals are all human-made, and can vary from person to person. While there are strong morals shared by most of humanity, such as killing, many morals are subjective as to whether or not they are correct.

In my opinion morality has to be objective and universal, otherwise it loses its grounding and becomes subjective and irrelevant in trying to decipher the international affairs.

I believe every human life is precious and sacred and therefore cannot take the following advice by Aristotle literally, but, I just share to expose the vulnerability and futility of subjective morality:

According to Frederick Dolan, Professor, UC Berkeley:

‘Subjective morality’ is a contradiction in terms; morality implies impartiality. To say that morality is subjective is to deny morality.

One form taken by morality-denial is emotivism. This is a theory of the meaning of moral judgments which holds that a statement such as ‘Murder is wrong’ really means no more than ‘I don’t like murder,’ in the sense of having a negative emotional reaction to murder. For an emotivist, the statement that something is good is equivalent to ‘Hurrah for this!’ and the statement that something is bad is equivalent to “Down with that!” For someone to say that murder is wrong, then, is essentially no different from saying that they don’t like pistachio ice cream.

Alasdair MacIntyre criticizes this view in his After Virtue. Surely, he says, the statement that murder is wrong is intended to mean that murder is wrong for everyone, not just for those who have a negative emotional reaction to it. It means something very different from the statement that a particular individual happens not to like murder.

Dr.  Andrew Conway Ivy was appointed by the American Medical Association as its representative at the 1946 Nuremberg Medical Trial for Nazi doctors.  By 1945 he was probably ‘the most famous doctor in the country.’  He wrote, “Only in a moral world, a world of responsibility, can man be free and live as a human being should. Men are truly equal and free only as creatures of God, because only as the children of God and only in the sight of God and ultimate moral law are men truly equal.”[1]  In the Nuremberg trial he struggled with the question that if man-made law is the sole source of basic human rights, why condemn the Nazi assault on Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and politi­cal enemies; and having shaken by this perplexing trial he concluded:

If God and the ultimate moral law are denied, there can be no absolute argument against slavery, against ‘might makes right’ and man’s greedy exploitation of man. If human beings have no absolute intrinsic value, no absolute intrinsic freedom of decision, no absolute liberty, no absolute duties, they possess only extrinsic value and may be used as chattels, slaves or serfs by those who have the intelligence and power.[2]

It took the catalyst of World War II, after millions of casualties, to propel human rights onto the world stage and into the global conscience. On December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the 56 members of the United Nations. The vote was unanimous, although eight nations chose to abstain. Articles one and two could be considered paraphrasing, in contemporary legal terminology, of what the Prophet Muhammad had said in his address at the time of last pilgrimage, or what President Thomas Jefferson wrote more than a millennium later. Article one states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” As the Prophet delivered his farewell speech in the eighth year after migration to Medina, to an unprecedented large gathering, standing on the back of his camel Qaswa, he raised his hands and joined the fingers of the one hand with the fingers of the other and then said, “Even as the fingers of the two hands are equal, so are human beings equal to one another. No one has any right, any superiority to claim over another. You are as brothers.”[3]

Article two of the universal declaration announces, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” In the contemporary world the letter of the law exists but the spirit is missing. Prophet Muhammad linked the sanctity of human rights to the human appreciation of sacredness; as he addressed a sobbing and spell bound crowd of pilgrims, to the very first house ever built for remembrance of one God, “Even as this month is sacred, this land inviolate, and this day holy, so has God made the lives, property and honor of every man sacred. To take any man’s life or his property, or attack his honor, is as unjust and wrong as to violate the sacredness of this day, this month, and this territory.” The echoes of the words would reverberate, with deep emotional conviction, for centuries to come in the known world.

It is not very hard to understand the universality of morality. But, we fail in its application, because of a human vulnerability that was pointed out to us by Jesus more than 2000 years ago and we yet have to find cure for it to create a more humane and just global village:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)


[1] The Evidence of God in an Expanding Universe. Edited by John Clover Monsma.  GP Putnam’s sons, New Yrok, published in 1958.  Page 240.

[2] The Evidence of God in an Expanding Universe. Edited by John Clover Monsma.  GP Putnam’s sons, New Yrok, published in 1958.  Page 240.

[3] Almost any good biography of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, will confirm the quotes in this article.

Related questions

If morality is objective, then why is the interpretation of the Bible/Quran/Torah subjective?

What is subjective morality?

Is morality subjective or objective?

Is morality objective or subjective, and why?

What’s an example that shows the difference between relative morality and subjective morality?

2 replies

  1. Here is a quote from Quora by Daniel Good, former Midrange (1996-2021)

    We can’t yet say that morality is universal because we only know of the existence of one sentient species in one biosphere. We need more data.

    Morality is objective in human experience, but it’s very simple. It’s called the Golden Rule and it’s found in all the world’s religions in either positive or negative form. It likely predates religion as we know it.

    Yet we see many violations of the Golden Rule. On the individual or small group level people mistreat others and act in ways that they complain about when they are treated that badly.

    On the large group level, the Golden Rule is violated by slavery, by collateral deaths in warfare, by economic exploitation of the poor and by religious persecution.

    It seems the Golden Rule developed in the earliest human cultures and was the basis for more complex morality in both tribal and city-state religions. But humanity evolved in small groups and has difficulty adapting as it scales up.

    Thus, anti-immigrant fervor, racism, religious intolerance, political hatreds and class struggle all arise from society’s failure to practice the Golden Rule towards minority groups and members in society.

    The application and implementation of morality is subjective; even if morality is not.


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