I find that people generally have a harder time with the basics than they do with complicated ideas. In our pluralistic world, people cloud the issues with needless and silly complication that isn’t grounded in experience or philosophy. “The fool asks more than the wise man can answer,” goes the aphorism, and that says nothing of the clever fools. Many spend so much time trying to be clever that they forget to be wise, and I think revisiting some basics on this blog will be helpful. This is the first of two in such a series. The first of which is a tearing down of subjective morality or moral relativism, while the second will be an attempt to prove objective morality.
I am of the philosophical belief that moral objectivity/realism is true, and attempts to show moral relativism to be true are disingenuous and dishonest about basic personal experiences. I would like to take the time here to first dismantle some objections to the theory of objective morality, and second, build a positive case for objective morality being true.
First, definitions. Objective morality refers to the fact that there is a standard of right and wrong that transcends human understanding, similar in many respects to governing mathematical laws. This transcendent standard can be compared to other cultures, times, and places – including our own – allowing us to examine right or wrong in a standard that is above what we believe. We can change our beliefs based on philosophical investigation and hypothetical situations, and when we believe right and wrong, we generally do so because we “discover” what is right and wrong; morality is generally not created by law (laws can be morally wrong) or personal convention (speaking to the fact are examples aplenty, but specifically, the idea that many wish some moral rule did not exist, while they know it does and abide by it anyway. I may wish sexual promiscuity to mean nothing, but that does not change the fact that it does). Generally, it involves conscience, a mental mechanism we have that aids us in our decision-making and pushes us toward one decision or other, often in contrast with the will. The belief in moral objectivity is the foundation for all standards of moral justice and/or law – and without it, no comparison of behavior is valid.
Moral relativism is the opposite. A moral relativist believes that morality varies completely from person to person – and that comparison between the two that says one is wrong and the other is right is incorrect. In the paradigm, I cannot tell you what is right and what is wrong except in relation to my own understanding, and you cannot tell me what is right and what is wrong – we are measuring with completely different standards based on our own experience, and there is no such thing as right or wrong beyond the person himself. Under this belief system, it would be wrong for me to steal because I think it is wrong. If you do not believe this, you would not be wrong in stealing (One might ask “But what, then, is the point of calling it morality or holding any beliefs about what is right and wrong?” Let’s delay such protestations for a moment).
In general, I believe motivation plays a huge part in the denial of objective morality. In the many interactions with a few different groups I have had about the topic, cognitive dissonance sprouting from a wish to live however one wishes seems to be the underlying cause for such beliefs. We would like to structure the entire universe by out whims, but find only ourselves within arm’s reach – our moral opinions are the only variable that is easy to manipulate without immediate consequence. Generally, there is an association here with anti-theism, but it is not requisite. Within those circumstances, the argument itself motivates the anti-theism, and it follows its own inconsistent circularity. I don’t believe in God because it would mean objective morality probably would exist, therefore objective morality doesn’t exist, therefore God doesn’t exist, and so on. As Thomas Nagel, a prominent atheist (and one worthy of serious philosophical respect, unlike those of the Dawkins/Harris/Dennett ilk) says: “I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” Aldous Huxley spoke similarly of himself before he dove headlong into mysticism: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently, assumed it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption…. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do…. For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.” I generally find the rebellion against objective morality and having anyone to obey to be the most common reason for atheism, and it is sufficient in many respects to keep someone fighting theism for life. Some men refuse obedience to anything at the peril of their own soul – and their reasoning is hardly logical in doing so, since our tendency away from obedience is an emotional stamping of one’s foot, not a careful consideration of the evidence. Thus is the origin of will-to-power – but the gaping hole in the logic here is that one who rejects an ultimate right or wrong cannot say it is better objectively to seek truth than not to seek truth. He can say it for himself, but not for others. This means there is no ground for him to be able to say “there is no God, and if you seek knowledge you will find that out,” because knowledge cannot be an objective good. Why should we listen to him? We will leave that discussion for another time. Note that the motivation for a belief does not make the belief false – but neither does repetition of the assertion make it true.
Moral relativism is difficult to refute – not only because it is slippery and the goal can be moved however the supporter pleases – but probably more tangibly because of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which (among other things) states that the consistency of a formal system cannot be proved from within it. Morality may not qualify as a formal system (a debate worthy of its own post), but I believe that since it can be stated as a logical set, it is very likely a formal system. Nihilism, or individualized total moral relativism, is the same. Luckily, the human mind is not simply a meat machine, and we have the ability to alter algorithms and patterns of thought as we wish. Accordingly, we can use some a priori arguments here, but are limited with respect to a complete logical disproof and likely must argue from analogy, examples, or parallel, not exactitude of the assertions.
Overarching Assertion: Subjective morality / moral relativism is false.
Objection: People have differing moral understandings of the world.
Response: Because a person does not have the answer to a question does not mean there is no answer to the question. Morality is difficult, both to understand and to live. Take children in a mathematics class in which the question 2+2 is given to every student. Some believe the answer is 2, others 3, 4, 5, 22, 0, and so on. Does the fact that there are many answers mean that no correct answer exists? Of course it does not. One might respond: “But mathematics are self-evident! You can reason through them and they are consistent and reflected in our world and in our nature!” Absolutely true, even though the argument is a red herring (the argument is that people hold many answers to moral questions and that means no objective moral truth, not that objective morality isn’t accessible to all). However, self-evident truths cannot be proved. You and I believe, based on faith, that mathematics, logic, and scientific observation are consistent. There is not a single body of scientific discovery or mathematical truth that does not rely on any assumptions. There is no way to prove them true without any underlying axiom or values, we merely must take them on faith. The belief is beyond perception. Why would morality have a greater burden of axiomatic foundation than any other system of belief or study? Either way, fallible humans having many answers to a question does not mean there is no correct answer.
Hmmmm… I believe it was Sam Harris who said “It is universally wrong to take actions that would impose the worst possible misery on the collective well-being of conscious creatures.” Ah, but there is a value that is subjective – who defines “collective well-being”? Let’s try and get the value out by tabula rasa. Imagine in an alternative universe, suffering is the only possible experience that a person can have for every waking moment of their lives. Can one say that is “bad”? Is ours a better universe, objectively? I don’t think it is possible to answer “no” to the latter question, and moral objectivity is extrapolation of that principle alone (until one encounters Revelation, if he/she believes in such things). This is the underlying assumption of objective morality – that there is better and there is worse, objectively.
Think about it this way, if you are still tempted that morality is exclusively held by each individual. You believe you are right about X being wrong. I believe I am right about X being right. Is the correct logical step “X is neither right or wrong”? What if X is 2+2=5 – does the logic follow? Absolutely not! The argument is not only that you can derive an answer from within your experience (the claim subjectivists make), but that the answer corresponds to reality. From this, the basic principle – there is one ultimate standard of right and wrong.
Obviously , this does not mean that objective morality is absolute, necessarily. There are shades of gray in which moral discernment is difficult. Again, we parallel math, in which problems have eluded mathematicians for years. That does not mean that the answers are not out there – nor does a problem with no solution (again we encounter Gödel) mean all other equations are similarly unsolvable. Virtues are generally good, vices generally bad. No one respects a lying thief. This is not complicated beyond understanding.
Objection: People have differing abilities to understand morality, so morality can’t apply to everyone.
Response: Unfortunately for me, the above isn’t the end of it. I am Catholic who believes science and human experience show us to have moral tendencies and we must go a further step. Concupiscence and Original Sin actually exist. This is where I think people get most confused – especially those who aren’t in favor of objective morality. Let’s take objective morality to be true for a moment and go from there. Bear with me.
People have natural abilities and talents, and thinking/philosophizing is one of them. This means that understanding moral principles is naturally easier for some than it is for others. I don’t think the math example is a good analogy at this point in our discussion. Math is a defined system, we defined axioms and can prove things to be right or wrong. Take driving. Some people are naturally good at driving, and have great reflexes, eyesight, and steady hands & nerves. Others are half-blind, drunk, and pose significant dangers to themselves and others. There are inherent abilities to be accounted for in driving. The same is also true of moral reasoning. Some have an easy time understanding what is right and wrong, and have a far advanced moral compass compared to others. Some refuse to believe the evil of certain things they know in their heart of hearts are morally wrong.
This also means that not everyone can have an exact understanding of objective morality in all (or perhaps any) areas. Approximation is most likely for each of us, and it involves both choices and factors beyond our control. Morality is hard. There are gray areas. There are exceptions to moral standards and rules. My intent and knowledge (as well as the context) about what is right and wrong can affect the degree of culpability I have – but it does not obviate the existence of a standard; it merely means we can be wrong about the standard.
It could help, to think of the legal standard for murder. I do not need to have intent to kill someone, but if I do, it is murder. If I don’t it is perhaps the result is manslaughter. Or perhaps I am insane. Or sleepwalking. No matter what, my culpability for such action is not determined by the existence of the laws against murder – but the law still exists, even if I am not fully responsible for cold-blooded murder in all circumstances. Notice that difference in culpability is not the assertion of moral relativism. Moral relativism posits that no matter what someone does or does not know, the morality of an action cannot be judged as right or wrong by any standard other than the personal. There is still discoverable right and wrong, for those with the intent and ability to seek.
Objection: In a world without humans, full of rocks and planets and bacteria and trees, morals would not exist.
Response: This makes objective morality dependent, not relative – but if agreement to the argument means that humans existing creates objective moral rules, I can agree without a problem. Again, we can use mathematics as an example. There is no possible universe in which 2 birds adding another to their flock will result in 0 birds total. It is a nonsensical argument – even if no human is there to view the birds and count them. It is not a given, then, that in an absense of human beings, rape might be good in some universe.
But the argument is perhaps more akin to “a mind is needed to realize intent, therefore minds must exist in order that objective morality may.” I agree. Rocks rolling down a hill do not have moral quality. But the level of moral functinoning of beings without fully developed human minds isn’t clear, and I think we have to suspend judgment here as to whether in an all-monkey world morality would exist. Perhaps there is some rudimentary recognition of self and intent that can create moral value in lesser animals. Further, perhaps there is some argument here to be made about quantum consciousness and observation. Either way, I am not sure it matters – dependent realities do not mean relative realities.
Objection: Free will does not exist, so morality cannot.
Response: Neither can free belief. The argument undermines itself. Think of it thusly: We are mere chemicals in meat, and it is chemical & structure that form what we do and do not believe, and therefore when we act and do not act. If these chemicals and structures control belief and action, they negate any truth value in our belief – we do not believe based on what is true and false, we believe based on brain condition only. Accordingly, it is impossible to say that free will does not exist. Seeking the truth or falsity of the question from within our flawed and machinistic brains prohibits a truth value in the question. Free will either exists or the question doesn’t.
Objection: Believers in objective morality do bad things, and they can have beliefs that are wrong about what is and isn’t moral.
Response: First, by whose standard? Since this is being argued from a relativist perspective, saying that a person is doing wrong by the personal standard being used is not making much of a statement at all. If all moralities are of similar or equal worth (then why hold yours?), then saying that someone is disobeying your personal whims is arguing that everyone should have your beliefs – which means you believe that standard is objectively best, and refutes the base assertion. Why should people listen to your standard, if they are all equal and deserving of belief? And why are you trying to push your belief system on others? The act of trying to convince others their behavior is wrong is useless and flies in the face of moral relativism if there is no objective moral right and wrong – we are each entitled to our own moral universe of equal worth to yours.
Second, believing that there is an overarching truth to what we should and should not do doesn’t mean someone will, at all times, do the right thing. We all have and do violate our conscience and do things we know we shouldn’t – even if we believe our standard is relative. Arguing that objective morality exists is nowhere near arguing that the person who seeks conformity to that reality is therefore perfect. No one who argues that there is a standard believes the standard is kept completely.
Objection: Moral beliefs and mores have changed throughout history and culture.
Response: These beliefs also vary from person to person. The conclusion again is not that a standard doesn’t exist because different people or groups of people have come to different conclusions. Generally, when we look upon a culture that has practiced abhorrent things, we believe the culture to have been backward – not necessarily because ours is better, but because we assume people should be able to transcend their own cultural evils. There is also the idea of moral progression to be considered. Not only does the moral value of human life and ecology seem to be slowly increasing, independent cultures have morally converged on each other, and most have come to the conclusion that cheating on a spouse, raping a child, and many other things are morally wrong. One could argue that evolution has directed some mental structure toward this agreement, but it is a hard sell on anyone who knows how evolution works – it isn’t that quick and there isn’t an adaptive feature of most of the morality we hold to be true. Societies differing, like individuals, doesn’t mean the answer doesn’t exist.
Objection: Objective morality cannot be enforced.
Response: Because one does not have force to back an assertion has no bearing on the validity of the assertion. Guns are not necessary to know that “are” is the correct form of the present tense of “to be” in english. Bombs aren’t a part of properly formed math equations. If I say “that bird is black,” and you would like it to be gray, I don’t need to point a gun in your face for you to be a fool. This is not an argument of whether the reality of objective morality exists, it is a reaction to the obedience of it – which again, I imagine is the rebellion that fuels the sentiment to begin with.
Notice, though what is not possible in a subjective system. Law. Moral comparison. Meaningful outrage. Normal and consistent human experience. Without any of these, history makes very little sense.
Objection: Objective morality isn’t fair or lacks compassion/empathy/etc.
Response: See above answer to objection “Believers in objective morality do bad things, and they can have beliefs that are wrong about what is and isn’t moral.” The appeal is to an objective standard higher than the objective standard.
There is an objection that also can be made to the objective moral beliefs I hold with an appeal to Kant’s categorical imperative. I don’t think it is convincing, though – and don’t have the time here to dissect it, since many volumes have been written elsewhere with similar attempts. That’s all for now, until we build the positive case…