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Is morality an objective feature of the world?

This article is heavily adapted from an original post on 22 October 2009 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz. It is about the nature of moral claims.

Here is an example of a moral argument for God’s existence.

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Essential to this argument is the affirmation that moral values and duties are objective. This is to say that they do not depend on human opinion, tastes, feelings, nor on anything inside a person or group of people. It can be argued that if naturalism (the idea there is no God or supernatural-type things) is true, then the most reasonable metaethical theory to hold is subjectivism. This is the idea that all the values and duties we express are merely subjective – describing the psychological or sociological state of the speaker, and not objective – describing something outside the individual and culture.

This brand of metaethical theory is inadequate for the following reasons.

1. It transforms moral statements inappropriately into nonmoral statements. For instance, the statement “rape is wrong” appears to be normative, which is to say that it appears say something about the action “rape” and imply a statement about what one ought not to do. Again, the statement “preventing rape is good” appears to be a statement about the action “preventing rape” and implying a statement about what one ought to do. If subjectivism is correct however, then the statement “rape is wrong” is not normative. Rather, it describes a person’s repulsion towards it the action without any implied ought or ought-not action. Subjectivism is therefore an inadequate understanding of moral meaning. For this reason alone, few philosophers hold it to be an adequate theory about morality.

From this you can see that subjectivism (a) does not adequately explain our shared moral experience, (b) does not adequately explain how we live.

Imagine seeing a woman being sexually abused, then a subjectivist saying “this is wrong!” What they are expressing is nothing more profound than “Hey, such action is not acceptable to me!” Any condemnation for the act she can offer will not be consistent with her professed ethical theory, for condemnation springs from the idea that the action itself is the object in question and ought not to be done. Neither is the subjectivist going to intervene and save this harassed woman, for that would imply they believe the action ought not to be done. Of course, to their credit, they do intercede, showing they cannot live consistently with their philosophy.

Imagine witnessing the holocaust in WWII. Hitler’s extermination of the Jews (and dissenting Christians, homosexuals, the disabled, etc.) was only wrong for the subjectivist in the sense that it was unpalatable to him or his culture. He would do well to protest “This is an abomination,” but according to the theory he espouses this would merely be an expression of personal or cultural taste, such as “This coffee is cold!” Was Hitler only acting unfashionably? Was he doing nothing more serious than breaking other’s personal preferences like belching at the table or social conventions like driving on the other side of the road? No, of course not! He was doing what ought not to be done, even if they thought they were in the right at the time. Even if they had won the war and everyone today thought were in the right.

Conversely, those that opposed him, acting out virtues such as heroism and courage, kindness, generosity and love towards others were truly doing what ought to have been done, even if Nazi’s disagreed. We cherish people like Ghandi, who acted honourable with non-violent protests in response to British Imperialism. We deplore people like Joseph Stalin, who murdered hundred of thousands of his own people. We think that those who can’t see this are morally impaired. It follows that there are some moral obligations are objective, and subjectivism is false.

Next time you praise, think whether you are describing the object of praise (i.e. the good sportsmanship) or the subject of praise (your response to it). Next time you decry some injustice, think whether you are describing the object (i.e. the game-fixing) or the subject (your response). Here are some other examples, showing how ubiquitous our moral judgements are in life; when we are being treated unfairly we cry out for justice as if we really thought it is our right, when declare acts of intolerance, violence and terrorism “evil,” and we applaud fire-fighters who run into burning buildings in an effort to save lives. Like Princess Di we give to charity because we think it is a good thing to do. Everyday we face a thousand decisions and with every one of them we understand that there is a standard of right and wrong that supersedes all opinions on the matter and judges each appropriately.

Bertrand Russell espoused subjectivism in his writings but could not live consistently with it. He was involved in protests for nuclear proliferation, animal rights campaigns and even spent a number of months in jail for refusing to pay the war tax. In other words, he lived like there were moral obligations, and that these moral obligations were valid and binding for all people at all times, and not merely expressions of preference.

Richard Dawkins, the popular evolutionary biologist says “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference. . . we are machines for propagating DNA,” and yet his book The God Delusion is full of moralising. He has shown he does believe that some things that are evil, some things are good, and in his condemnation has shown these are not merely right and wrong for him, but right and wrong for everyone.

From this you can also see that subjectivism (c) does not explain moral debate and reform.

If all there is to right and wrong is a factual claim about the likes and dislikes of a particular person or culture, then what sense was there in protesting for women’s rights in the late 19th and early 20th century, or civil rights in the 60’s? Do you protest people’s preference for vanilla over chocolate? Denying Michelle Obama the vote or Rosa Parks a seat in the front the bus is on par with hairstyles from the 80’s – just the changing winds of fashion: fads that one day became unpopular, but could quite possibly be back the next. Don’t you think the abolition of slavery is more than just a change, but an improvement?

During the heyday of slavery in the south it was an acceptable practice in that culture to lash a run-away slave to within inches of his life. Sure, it’s unacceptable now to keep beat slaves, but like the mohawk or the afro, it could make a comeback. If, like me, you disagree and think that things have improved since then for the black community, that moral progress has been made and we should never again we go back to that kind of barbarism, then you pre-supposing a standard of right and wrong that transcends culture. It follows that there is an objective frame of reference that makes moral debate and reform possible.

Moral Objectivity is Basic

Such a moral awareness can be described as basic. As the atheist philosopher Kai Neilson puts it:”It is more reasonable to believe such elemental things [as wife beating and child abuse] to be evil that to believe any skeptical theory that tells us we cannot reasonably believe any of these things to be evil. . . I firmly believe that this is bedrock and right and that anyone who does not believe it cannot have probed deeply enough into the grounds of his moral beliefs.”

We have more reason to deny the physical world is objective, than we do to deny the objectivity of moral values and duties. I can shut my eyes to the world around me, but I can’t shut my eyes to my moral intuitions. Though modification of some ideas may be necessary on reflection we have no reason to distrust our basic intuitions about how the world appears to us. Indeed, the atheist moral philosopher David O. Brink considers it the default position. He says;”There might be no objective moral standards. . . But this would be a revisionary conclusion, to be accepted only as the result of extended and compelling argument that the commitments of ethical objectivity are unsustainable.”

As the non-theistic moral philosopher Louise Anthony puts it, “any argument for moral scepticism [of the objectivity of moral values and duties] will be based upon premisses which are less obvious than the existence of objective moral values themselves.”

The objectivity of moral values and duties should be considered what philosophers call properly basic: beliefs that are perfectly acceptable to believe on the basis of your own experience, only to be abandoned if successful defeaters can be found. People who fail to see that moral obligation is objective are simply morally handicapped and there is no reason for their impaired vision to call into question what we clearly see.

In summary, our everyday experience confirms and assumes moral values and duties transcend social conventions and emotional preferences. We all take moral duties to be objective, such that we can meaningfully condemn what is bad and praise what is good, protest injustice and make the world better. When we do we assume a standard of right of wrong, good and bad that is located outside the human person or collective. We also take moral values to be properly basic beliefs or bedrock intuitions that are reasonably assumed without argument. Subjectivism should therefore be taken as false.

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