The second and final part of the brief exploration of moral relativism and its opposite occurs below. Some of the explanation overlaps and repeats, but this iteration will be an attempt to build a positive case for morality being rooted in objective truth. Note of course, that culpability and absolute moral wrong are each not entailed by belief in a standard. That a standard exists does not mean we always know what it is or act by it…
Overarching Assertion: Objective morality / moral realism is fact.
Assertion: If moral relativism is false, objective moral truths exist.
Explanation: There is no third way, and as I have shown, there is no good reason to believe moral relativism to be true. Therefore, moral objective values exist.
Assertion: Moral objectivity is self-evident, or a properly basic belief.
Explanation: We all feel that there is right or wrong, from birth. Everyone is strongly inclined to believe that something apart from consequence or convention is wrong with the abuse of a child. Every society has had some moral structure that provides a framework of social standards. To believe that there is right and wrong is one of the very few things that separates us from animals. In the absence of a good defeater for this belief, there is no reason not to believe it – and based on the previous analysis of moral relativity, there are not any sound, valid logical arguments to defeat the belief. Any argument for moral skepticism is going to be based on premises that are less obvious than the experience of moral objective truth itself. When a philosophy becomes so strained as to deny basic human interaction and essentially all of societal history, it is likely time to abandon it.
Assertion: Moral relativism defeats itself, while objective morality gives grounds to compare, condemn, and praise others.
Explanation: Any attempt to convince someone that the relative moral opinion is more worthy of adoption than the moral view the person already holds is a negation of the original principle that every morality is of equal worth to every other. I cannot say to you that my moral view is better than yours with any certainty unless morality is discoverable, not created. This is the deepest irony of the position: those who hold it will spend hours trying to convince you that their “subjective” morality is better than your objective moral beliefs. But why would I sit around and argue that the taste of dirt is better than the taste of chocolate? After all, that is what moral relativism boils down to – personal preference in which no moral truth is more valid than any other. No sense of moral outrage for the situation of another is ever justified within relativism. Nazis? Child rapists? Communists? Tidal waves? Keynesians? Exploitation of women? The War in Iraq? None subject to anything but personal distaste. Further, all denunciations of social, economic, and political ills that a moral relativist makes should be ignored. When you claim that moral belief does not matter and morality has no basis in reality, you have created great reason to never be listened to again, due to the fact that you are making an assessment that objective morality is objectively worse than moral anti-realism while proclaiming you don’t believe in such a thing.
In truth, the movement and tendency toward comparison of moral belief is meaningless unless there is a standard that everyone should obey. If there is a standard, we can philosophize, read, discuss, compare, hypothesize about what appears to be the pinnacle of moral action in a given situation and decide which action best conforms to the discoverable standard. If there is no standard, there is similarly no point in argument or discussion. What’s your belief is yours, and mine is mine. So why the desperate attempts to convince everyone relativism is “true” (and how could it be “more true” if there is no truth)?
Assertion: Moral nihilism / apathy is the only choice for those unwilling to accept moral realism.
Explanation: Utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and deontology are rooted in moral realism, on the fact that there are better and worse conditions for human beings. There is only one ideological bent in the relativist camp, and it is moral nihilism. The problem with nihilism is that it logically entails apathy – and those who argue that it does not, are deceiving themselves about the limits of their moral system, for the reasons given above. I cannot discuss morality at all, since it is merely personal, if nihilism is my vehicle.
Assertion: There are transcendent values other than morality that exist – and from there, the inference that morality is similar is not unreasonable.
Explanation: Plato believed in forms, and most mathematicians believe Kurt Godel proved them to be true in formal systems of math and logic. Roger Penrose believes them so strongly that he thinks their independent existence might implicate some extra-dimensional reality beyond all possible universes (yes, Dr. Penrose – we theists call that God…). Mathematics strangely seems to apply to our reality in its entirety, and is consistent through literally everything. Math cannot be avoided or shown to apply inconsistently to the (non-quantum) world. Its application to all things is one of the most mysterious questions that the universe asks its conscious beings.
Why do laws about math, matter, and energy exist – and more than that, why do they seem to apply everywhere and all the time? Why do we have so much faith in the idea that these laws govern the universe in its entirety, consistently and fully? It wasn’t by measurement that we knew 1+1=2; the idea is as natural and faith-based to us as any other. This is similar to morality. Why do most of us believe that there are moral rues that everyone should believe? Why do we believe that society should have some sort of basic order for all? The fact that there is a permeative set of laws governing the universe provides ample reason to believe there are similarly encompassing laws governing the behavior of human beings – especially when taken in conjunction with the reasons to come…
Assertion: Laws can be unjust; Society cannot exist without objective morality being true.
Explanation: In the absence of objective morality, there is no foundation for the entire body of law, punishment, or comparative morality. If I believe morality is merely personal convention, there is no reason why right or wrong have any meaning in any context but the most immediate – our own lives. Which means that making laws and trying to enforce any measure of justice is futile. If my morality is my own and yours your own, me telling you what is good or bad is a meaningless task. I can try and change your mind, but ultimately it won’t matter. This means that there is no such thing as an unjust law, only one I don’t like. All moral condemnation of human-created tragedy – genocide, war, rape, lying, theft – is just a statement of preference, no more binding than “I don’t like peas.” But very few people have the ability to look back at history and say “that was not wrong for them to do at the time” – in fact, history makes very little sense in the confused darkness that is moral relativism.
Lest the reply be that a body of law is unnecessary to the order of society, I disagree – and no libertarian or anarchist theorist has ever agreed with the statement. Law need not be created by government to exist, but it must exist in some form. From contract law to insurance, in an anarchist society, some measure of value judgment from an objective standard must occur. Anarchism doesn’t get us around this assertion – the existence of other human beings means that law is inevitable (even if it is private). If this was not true, breaking a contract is not a recognizable offense or cognizable claim. If I believe it is acceptable/moral to break contracts, you may say nothing except that you do not similarly believe it moral. Accordingly, no form of societal arrangement is possible at all under moral relativism (except perhaps, and ironically, legal positivism, or the system we have today in which force is the only measure of right and wrong). In short, you might call this the assertion of convention.
Assertion: Most cultures and people hold objective moral values to be true.
Explanation: Despite what relativists usually argue, the truth of the matter is that most people in most societies have valued a good deal of the same virtues. There have been societies and people who have erroneously chosen the wrong thing, believing it is right – but for many of the members of the society, this was a simple result of pursuing one moral goal at the cost of all others. There has never been a society that valued lying for its own sake, or stealing, or cheating on spouses, or killing. None of these things are valued in themselves, even if they have been a byproduct of pursuit of another ideal. Morality is not randomized – we are all attracted to certain virtues and repelled by certain vices. That doesn’t mean we can’t be wrong, but it also isn’t evidence that there is no standard…
Assertion: God exists, therefore morality exists.
Explanation: There are many arguments for God’s existence, including the traditional arguments (self-evidence, cosmological, Kalam cosmological, ontological, teleological, miracles, experiential, Jesus Christ & other historical religious) and some newer ones (evolutionary argument against naturalism, extra-temporal sensory experience, beauty, mathematical realism, consciousness, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem). Some are severely flawed, while others will likely never be defeated. There is more than adequate reason to believe God exists based on the experience and logical deduction of human beings (and conversely, it appears to be that rejection of God’s existence is unreasonable).
The strongest (and perhaps only) philosophical and emotional case to be made for atheism is that evil exists. Ironically, though, I find the motivation for most atheism is relativism itself, the inability to forgive a God who commands a moral code that contrasts with our immediate whims. It makes “life is unfair” into a complete way of life, as if wishes can dictate reality. We like to do whatever we want, and we wish God away because we can’t bear to be held accountable for our own behavior. If our culture really does value immediate gratification and capricious choices as many argue it does, it would be no surprise then to see atheism on the rise as relativism is valued. But the flaws in logic are obvious and substantial. Taken as a cumulative case, the evidence provides a more-than-adequate foundation to believe that God exists and His existence is knowable.
The most obvious implication of God’s existence (even if it is a deist god) is that a law was created (or exists as the being’s essence) to govern right and wrong for human beings. This is a very standard view, and if there are questions about it, I would be glad to field them in the comments. For now, I assume it is safe to move on…
Assertion: Belief in and accordance with objective moral laws prevents sociopathy.
Explanation: One who denies that raping your wife is morally wrong (according to any overarching standard) believes it is mere preference and taste that mean we might not do such things. The cognitive dissonance that results can only be referred to as sociopathy, or the antithesis of social interaction with and concern for others. Taking a position that morality does not exist is itself a moral choice, and one that is extremely dangerous. You see, in advocating that it does not matter what you think about my “personal morality,” you are essentially saying no one else’s matters either, and a violation of anyone else’s moral standards is meaningless. This is an invitation not only to be distrusted, but to be barred from civil society. How could I trust someone’s whimsical definition of right and wrong if right and wrong don’t really exist in their eyes? How can you trust a person who doesn’t believe in conscience? The argument toward relativism is duplicitous – how could we expect honesty from this person?
Of course, no one is truly a relativist who speaks of morality, since silence is the only logical result of the belief. You can probably trust a relativist because it is likely he holds many of the “objective” rules to be true even though he thinks he has chosen them himself, as better than others. This cognitive dissonance could lead to sociopathy, but it might just be that the relativist is confused and doesn’t understand what s/he believes in the first place…
Assertion: If you believe in evolution, you also must believe in morality.
Explanation: This one is a bit more involved. I will allow Alvin Plantinga to explain if my brief summary fails. The idea is this. Evaluative realism is the idea that our evaluations of the world are in fact true. Evolution generally selects for adaptive behaviors or acts. However, evolution does not generally select for true beliefs. But we believe in evolution – in spite of the fact that our belief may not be true in light of the above. Therefore, Plantinga and others argue that there is no reason to think that evolution could be a blind (i.e. unguided) process – our thoughts and beliefs either correspond to reality OR we cannot know evolution is true. This includes morality, as you will see below. First, let me explain the argument a bit more…
Here are our options for evolution and beliefs:
1. Evaluative realism is false AND evolution alone created beliefs;
2. Evaluative realism is false AND evolution was guided to include the creation of beliefs;
3. Evaluative realism is true AND evolution alone created beliefs;
4. Evaluative realism is true AND evolution was guided to include the creation of beliefs.
Options 1 & 2 are defeated by what has been called the “narrow targeting objection,” or the idea that since our brains & perceptions do not properly assess reality or there is no objective reality to assess, there is no reason to believe evolution to be true in the first place. If it is mere chance that our beliefs conform to reality, there is no reason to think that belief in evolution is rational or reasonable.
With respect to morality, the relativist is arguing that there is no moral objective reality that is truer than any other – itself an analysis of truth and falsity of belief that is as summarily dismissible by way of the narrow targeting objection as in the case of evaluative realism! In simpler words, there is no possible determination of right and wrong if there is no right and wrong to begin with. Morality simply cannot be assessed at all if moral realism isn’t true.
To finish analysis of the cases given above, option 3 is possible, but the chances are extremely low, due to the fact that because evolution selects for acts, not beliefs. [I think there is a good case to be made that belief in evolution is a belief based in observation and perception that corresponds with acts used to propagate the species. but the case is hard to make, because the deduction is itself based on belief about assumptions one can make when pieces are missing, not about perception in front of our faces. still, we trust our brains to make beliefs without direct perception – but is the jump something we are taking for granted? Ergo, if evolution is true, there must be more to the story than randomness, since we believe it to be true, leading to option 4…] Option 4 results in the arguments that Thomas Nagel and Plantinga have given, that there is something more than reductive materialism going on in reality, and that that something is God, respectively.
But there is more to be done using this argument, which leads to our next assertion…
Assertion: If moral realism is false, mathematical realism is also false.
Explanation: Imagine a universe where one rock plus one rock equals zero rocks. That is, a universe where 1+1=0. Does that mean when you are with another person, you both disappear? No, it is simply an incoherent scenario. Now imagine a universe in which cold-blooded murdering someone for pleasure is morally good. You can’t – and not only because there wouldn’t be people left to murder after a while. The truth is that moral realities are as binding on us as mathematical ones – and imagining a universe in which they exist in opposition to this one is imagining nonsense. With that introduction, this paper gives a good background in why morality and mathematical realism are inextricably bound (and the conclusion is far different than my own, but it is still a useful launchpad)…
Other Possible Grounds for Accepting Objective Moral Truth Exists (I do not have time to fully flesh out each of the following, but I believe each may be promising and provide some original insight into the debate…):The innate difference between human and animal “morality”; the existence of free will; the existence of conscience the possibility of brainwashing occurring; “ought” cannot be derived from “is” without human reason extrapolating on more than personal experience.
In summary, I have given several logical reasons to believe moral relativism is false, followed by a positive case for objective moral truth. Taken as a whole, there is little reason to believe moral relativism is true, from a logical, social, or intuitive perspective. To show moral relativism to be true, one would have to tear down the entirety of the above argument, refute all of the objections given in the last essay, and build a positive case for relativism that simply isn’t there. And there you have it. Not incredibly difficult, was it…?