Is Morality Objective?

gavelMartin Luther King Jr. said, “The first principle of value that we need to rediscover is this: that all reality hinges on moral foundations. In other words, that this is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws.(1)” He helped build the Civil Rights movement upon these moral laws: whites are not superior to blacks and discrimination based upon skin color is wrong. Dr. King believed that morality was objective: it was wrong to oppress non-whites regardless of both the government’s position on the issue and the opinion of millions of Americans.

Now, most of us agree with Dr. King about the equal treatment of human beings. That goes without saying. But committing to the idea of objective morality? That’s another story. I’d like to argue that we all believe morality is objective, even if we don’t think we do. To say that morality is objective is to say that there are some moral facts about the world. Facts, by definition, are true regardless of whether or not people agree with them. An action can be wrong even if those who perform that action believe it to be right. Let’s start with this question: Are there any facts, at all? Certainly!

Arithmetic:

  • 2+2=4
  • 1+1=2
  • 7 is greater in quantity than 4

Geometry:

  • In a right triangle, the square of the 1st leg plus the square of the 2nd leg is equal to the square of the hypotenuse: a^2 + b^2 = c^2\!\,
  • A square has 4 equal sides and 4 right angles.

Logic:

  • X cannot be non-X at the same time and in the same sense (Law of Non-Contradiction).
  • A ball cannot be both green all over and red all over.
  • A bachelor is unmarried.

It’s clear that there are facts. Facts are objectively true, by definition. Their truth does not depend on our agreement with them. People disagree with facts all the time. I live in NYC. We have no shortage of crazy people on the subway claiming that the human race is being subtly infiltrated by aliens, or that the moon is actually a giant WMD put in place by the Russian government. Do their wacky theories nullify the fact that the moon is a real, cosmic entity? Of course not. Facts are facts. They are judgment-independent. Now, the next question to ask is whether or not there are moral facts. It seems that the answer is, yes. There are some moral facts that hold true regardless of whether or not we agree with them. Let’s take this, for example:

Philosopher Michael Ruse says, “The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says, 2+2=5.”(2)

Is it wrong to rape children? If the answer is ‘Yes’, then morality is objective because ‘wrongness’ can only be determined when measured against some independent standard. Saying that child rape is a moral act is not the same as saying that vanilla is a tasty flavor of ice cream. Choosing vanilla over rocky-road is a matter of preference whereas the issue of child rape is a matter of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness.’ But in order for there to be ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness,’ there needs to be an objective standard. This means that the child rapist is wrong, even though he may sincerely believe that he is right. Because morality is objective, we are justified in saying that the child rapist is wrong. If morality is not objective, then there is no basis for labeling actions as wrong (or right). At most, even the worst behaviors could only be considered socially disadvantageous or acting out of fashion.

What evidence is there for objective morality?

I believe that the best evidence for objective morality comes from our moral experience. We know that raping children is wrong. It’s not just socially inconvenient or out of fashion, it is really wrong. How do we know? In the same way we know all metaphysical truths: We just know.

1. We know that the external world is real.

We are not in a matrix, we are not all in a dream, and we are not brains in a vat being stimulated by a crazy scientist creating the illusion of our external world.

2. We know that the past is real.

The world was not created 2 minutes ago and given the appearance of billions of years of age. I was not created 30 seconds ago and implanted with 21 years’ worth of memories.

These truths are unlearned and self-evident. We cannot test them. They simply exist. And the same goes with moral facts. There is no scientific evidence for the truth of the statement “Raping children is wrong,” but it is true, nonetheless. We are justified in trusting our moral experience in the absence of contrary evidence. Why should we distrust our moral intuition if there is no evidence to the contrary? And if we choose to distrust our intuition with regard to morality, then what makes us think that our intuition about these other metaphysical truths is correct?

Maybe we are living in the matrix. Who knows?

 

1. Martin Luther King Jr. in Peter Holloran, A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 2000), p. 10.

2. Michael Ruse, Darwinism Defended (London: Addison-Wesley, 1982), p. 275.

 

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Paul Rezkalla

Paul graduated from NYU with degrees in Religious Studies and History. He has recently completed a MA in Philosophy from the University of Birmingham in England and is now pursuing a second MA in Theology. His interests are too many to list and too varied to make sense of.

  • Lothars Sohn

    Hello Paul.

    I thing that among all Christians, evangelical should avoid to use the moral argument.

    This is the case because the God they worship has a morality which is extremely inferior to those most human beings recognize intuitively.

    Ordering soldiers to kill babies and pregnant women alike due to their ethnicity isn’t really promoting “the equal treatment of human beings”.

    The MA can only be used once one has given up inerrancy.

    Kind regards.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    • Paul Rezkalla

      Hi Lothars,

      First of all, this post isn’t about the moral argument. I don’t even mention God once in the entire article.

      But even so, I’ve written about this objection in another post. That objection doesn’t even address the moral argument. “It does not attack either premise of the argument. It is irrelevant, but let’s entertain this objection for a second. By making a judgement on God’s actions and deeming them immoral, the objector is appealing to a standard of morality that holds true outside of him/herself and transcends barriers of culture, context, time period, and social norms. By doing this, he/she affirms the existence of objective morality! But if the skeptic wants to affirm objective morality after throwing God out the window, then there needs to be an alternate explanation for its basis. If not God, then what is it? The burden is now on the skeptic to provide a naturalistic explanation for the objective moral framework.”

      http://www.christianapologeticsalliance.com/2013/07/11/5-common-objections-to-the-moral-argument/

      • Lothars Sohn

        Hello Paul,

        as I’m going to explain in future posts, a naturalistic explanation of morality is extremely hard if not utterly impossible.

        I’m not saying that God cannot be the ultimate ground of morality, I’m saying that an (allegedly) inerrant Bible provides us with a terrible basis for grounding morality due to its numerous contradictions vis a vis God’s moral character.

        Whilst your post is not directly on the MA, you’ve most likely written that in this framework, am I correct?

        Lovely greetings from Germany.
        Liebe Grüsse aus Deutschland.

        Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

        http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

        • Paul Rezkalla

          Hi Lothars,

          I, too, agree that a naturalistic explanation of objective morality is impossible. And I believe that God is the best explanation for the grounding of objective morality.

          I wrote this post to simply argue that morality is objective. Many atheists and theists, alike, accept that this is true.

          I never argued that the Bible provided us with the grounding for objective morality.

          • Lothars Sohn

            Hello,

            I fail to see how one can prove that moral values are real.

            All one can do (sometimes quite successfully) is pointing out out that if reductive materialism is true, there cannot be a moral value (in any meaningful sense of the word) because everything is ultimately identical to particles and energy.

            One hasn’t shown that God exists, but that atheism really sucks ;-)

            Lovely greetings from Germany.
            Liebe Grüsse aus Deutschland.

            Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

            http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

            • Paul Rezkalla

              Hi Lothars,

              “I fail to see how one can prove that moral values are real.”

              That was kind of the topic for this entire article.

              “One hasn’t shown that God exists…”

              Again, I wasn’t aiming to show that God exists.

              I’d appreciate it if you would take the time to understand my position and read my arguments before throwing out statements.

              • Lothars Sohn

                Hey Paul,

                I obviously agree with you that morality is objective.

                Yet all what your arguments did was kind of restating the position.

                But what would you say to someone who believes there are no moral objective truth, and our moral intuitions are nothing more than chemical reactions in our brain?

                This is a position much more hardcore atheists should agree with.

                But how can we PROVE to an outsider morality is real?

                I’ve read your post and could only see prepositionalism.

                Please, consider this as a constructive criticism.

                Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

                http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

                • Paul Rezkalla

                  “But what would you say to someone who believes there are no moral objective truth, and our moral intuitions are nothing more than chemical reactions in our brain?”

                  Like I said in the article, if you deny objective morality then you must also deny all metaphysical truths. If you attribute objective morality to brain chemicals, then you can also attribute our beliefs in the external world and the past to brain chemicals.

                  Any argument that one uses against objective morality can also be used against the reality of the external world and the past.

                  The only consistent moral anti-realist (one who denies objective morality) is the solipsist. If you deny objective morality then why not also deny the external world? You need to be consistent in your skepticism.

  • Daniel Mann

    Lothars, I think that Paul is merely trying to establish an ontological foundation for objective moral truth. However, you raise an important, albeit secondary matter. Please consider, however, the possibility that what you regard as Bible contradictions might only be a matter of interpretation.

  • Mark Hall

    Your argument boils down to the one piece of evidence – “We just know.” Why can this proof not be used for any claim?

    I know, absolutely, that vanilla is a better flavor for ice cream than pistachio. That’s a fact, an absolute – I just know. I realize there are people who disagree, but like those who think the Moon is a Russian plot, they are simply wrong. The superiority of vanilla is a fact, even though “people disagree with facts all the time.”

    How does my argument against pistachio differ in any way from your argument against child rape?

    • Paul Rezkalla

      Your argument can also be used against the reality of the external world.

      How does the argument against pistachio differ in any way from your argument for the reality of the external world? Oh, we just know, right? What kind of evidence is that? I need evidence! Hard proof, man! You can’t say that we just know that the external world exists! If so, then my pistachio argument works, too!

      No one really thinks like that. You don’t know that vanilla is absolutely better than pistachio because food preference is simply that, food preference. You don’t intuit an abstract reality of ice-cream flavor facts.

      If anyone fails to see the difference between subjectivity in ice cream flavor and subjectivity in the matter of child rape, then there is a problem there. We all know that child rape is wrong. Do you disagree? If it is the case that child rape is wrong, then we must explain the foundation for this moral framework that we intuit.

      • Mark Hall

        Your argument can also be used against the reality of the external world.

        Yes, that’s my point. This argument can be used for anything…which makes it useless for proving anything correct.

        No one really thinks like that.

        Perhaps no one thinks like that regarding ice cream (though we don’t know even that for sure). But people do think like that for any number of issues, including many on which there is violent disagreement. Homosexuality, for example – many people on both sides are absolutely certain that they are on the moral side, and that the other side is not merely wrong, but evil.

        I agree that child rape is wrong, even evil. But I know I have no way to prove that as an absolute. I can support my claim by demonstrating the harm, and by appealing to the logic of reciprocal behavior. But I can’t prove it. Pretending that my gut feeling is evidence, even in that extreme case, grants license to anyone else to make the same claim about any moral position they care to take.

        • Paul Rezkalla

          When I said, “Your argument can also be used against the reality of the external world”, I was referring to your pistachio argument. Why don’t you argue against the reality of the external world via your pistachio-is-better-than-vanilla argument?

          The presence of moral disagreements do not negate the existence of moral facts. In fact, the reinforce their existence! The fact that we argue over the truth of what we think is moral, shows that we believe that there really is a standard of morality that is outside of ourselves. Otherwise, we would not argue for homosexuality being right or wrong. Rightness and wrongness only exist if there is a mind-independent standard of morality.

          • Mark Hall

            When I said, “Your argument can also be used against the reality of the external world”, I was referring to your pistachio argument.

            I realize that. But my pistachio argument was nothing more nor less than a restatement of your argument against child rape. If my pistachio argument can be used against external reality, so too can your child rape argument.

            The fact that we argue over the truth of what we think is moral, shows that we believe that there really is a standard of morality that is outside of ourselves.

            This dodges the point. You used a reasonably uncontroversial claim – child rape is bad – to show that there is a universal morality. Fine, as far as it goes. But your only evidence for your claim that child rape is bad was your gut feeling – “I just know.” How can we apply this sort of evidence to a more controversial issue, like homosexuality, where both sides “just know” that they are right?

            For that matter, the only reason that the child rape question is uncontroversial is that nearly all of us agree that it is bad. What about an issue where public opinion changes over time? At one time, the morality of slavery was uncontroversial – slavery was moral. People “just knew” it was right to enslave members of other tribes, or other races, and that it always would be. The few exceptions were simply wrong, as wrong as the crazy people you mention in your OP. Then there was a long period of controversy, where one side “just knew” that slavery was okay, while the other “just knew” it wasn’t. And now we’ve come out the other side, where most of us “just know” that slavery is evil, and always has been.

            Your method of determining the “right” side of any moral question can be used to offer support to either side of any issue. Even if I accept your claim that the argument itself proves the existence of a standard (I don’t, but that’s a separate issue), your argument here offers absolutely no way to determine what that standard actually is.

            • Paul Rezkalla

              “If my pistachio argument can be used against external reality, so too can your child rape argument.”

              On what basis do you believe that the external world is real?

              “This dodges the point. You used a reasonably uncontroversial claim – child rape is bad – to show that there is a universal morality. Fine, as far as it goes. But your only evidence for your claim that child rape is bad was your gut feeling – “I just know.” How can we apply this sort of evidence to a more controversial issue, like homosexuality, where both sides “just know” that they are right?”

              All I need in order to show that there are some moral facts, is for there to be at least one moral fact. “Child rape is wrong” is a moral fact. Therefore, there is at least one moral fact about the universe. And I don’t have to know whether homosexuality is right or wrong in order for me to affirm the existence of objective morality. You might not know whether or not Euclid’s axioms are true, but that doesn’t undermine the foundations of logic and mathematics.

              “What about an issue where public opinion changes over time? At one time, the morality of slavery was uncontroversial – slavery was moral. People “just knew” it was right to enslave members of other tribes, or other races, and that it always would be.”

              So if everyone decided that child rape is ok, would it make it true that child rape is ok? Of course not. Majority vote never decides what is true. Your slavery example shows that. They were wrong even though they may have believed themselves to be right.

              “Your method of determining the “right” side of any moral question can be used to offer support to either side of any issue. Even if I accept your claim that the argument itself proves the existence of a standard (I don’t, but that’s a separate issue), your argument here offers absolutely no way to determine what that standard actually is.”

              My article wasn’t addressing how we determine what the standard is, only that there is a standard.

              • Mark Hall

                All I need in order to show that there are some moral facts, is for there to be at least one moral fact. “Child rape is wrong” is a moral fact. Therefore, there is at least one moral fact about the universe.

                We don’t know that. All we know is that you have asserted that as a moral fact. But the only evidence you have offered to support the claim – “we just know” – can be just as easily be used to support any other morality claim, correct or not. Slavery, anti-slavery, support for homosexuals, murder of homosexuals, abortion, anti-abortion…you can assert support for either side of any issue with the claim “we just know.”

                Majority vote never decides what is true. Your slavery example shows that. They were wrong even though they may have believed themselves to be right.

                We now believe them to have been wrong. But we don’t know that to be correct – it is simply the prevailing majority view. We believe child rape to be wrong – it is the prevailing majority view, just as the morality of slavery once was. Sure, neither of us can think of a possible scenario for how child rape could ever be a “good” – but that could be nothing more than a failure of imagination or a cultural bind spot. It isn’t proof.

                My article wasn’t addressing how we determine what the standard is, only that there is a standard.

                Your method of proving the existence of the standard is to claim that you have identified one precept of that standard. But your method of identification is inherently flawed. Thus, so is your proof of the standard.

                • Paul Rezkalla

                  “We don’t know that. All we know is that you have asserted that as a moral fact.”

                  Are you saying that the issue of child rape is subjective?

                  “We now believe them to have been wrong. But we don’t know that to be correct – it is simply the prevailing majority view. Webelieve child rape to be wrong – it is the prevailing majority view, just as the morality of slavery once was”

                  Your view dictates that social criticism and social reformation are impossible. Who are we to say that female circumcision in Africa, hanging homosexuals in Saudi Arabia, 6 yr-old child brides in South-East Asia, forcing religion down children’s throats, etc. are wrong? After all, those might be the prevailing views in those parts of the world! And according to your view, we cannot criticize the Holocaust because the extermination of the Jews was considered to be a good thing; that was the prevailing view. Sure, it may be different from how we would do things, but because there is no objective standard, we cannot say that they were wrong. They were only acting out of fashion. The deaths of 6 million people was socially inconvenient, but there was nothing really wrong about it.

                  “Your method of proving the existence of the standard is to claim that you have identified one precept of that standard. But your method of identification is inherently flawed. Thus, so is your proof of the standard.”

                  I wasn’t proving the existence of objective moral facts. I don’t think that we can prove their existence. I was simply trying to surface people’s moral intuitions and moral experience. We can know that something exists even if we can’t prove it, i.e. the external world and the past. Furthermore, we can know that something exists even if we have no further details, e.g. if I discovered a cave painting of a man and a horse I would be justified in concluding that someone put that there…even if I had no idea who did it. We can know that objective morality exists even if we have no way or proving it and even if we have no more information other than the fact that we believe that it exists.

  • TByte

    “The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says, 2+2=5.”
    Clearly Michael Ruse is wrong. It is demonstrably provable that 2+2 does not equal 5. It is not demonstrably provable that is it morally unacceptable to rape little children. Therefore, the man who says that 2+2=5 is more objectively wrong than the man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children.
    This argument is thus, unsound.

    “Is it wrong to rape children? If the answer is ‘Yes’, then morality is objective because ‘wrongness’ can only be determined when measured against some independent standard. ”
    The logic does not follow. Saying that it is wrong to rape children in no way implies objective morality, as I can make the same statement based upon subjective moral standards.
    This argument is thus, invalid.

    “I believe that the best evidence for objective morality comes from our moral experience. We know that raping children is wrong.”
    This argument is subjective, and thus fails to demonstrate an objective morality.

    • Paul Rezkalla

      “Clearly Michael Ruse is wrong. It is demonstrably provable that 2+2 does not equal 5. It is not demonstrably provable that is it morally unacceptable to rape little children. Therefore, the man who says that 2+2=5 is more objectively wrong than the man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children.This argument is thus, unsound.”

      The truth of Ruse’s quote does not hinge on whether or not we can prove that child rape is wrong. It just is. Do you doubt that child rape is wrong?

      “The logic does not follow. Saying that it is wrong to rape children in no way implies objective morality, as I can make the same statement based upon subjective moral standards.This argument is thus, invalid.”

      Saying that something is wrong does imply objectivity. Otherwise, it cannot really be wrong. Again, ‘wrongness’ and ‘rightness’ can only be determined when measured against a standard. Sure, you can say that, subjectively, you disagree with child rape. On your view you might think that it is disturbing, but who are you to say that it is wrong for someone else to do it? At most it would be a statement of preference, like, “I dislike vanilla.” You cannot say that eating vanilla is wrong because there is no standard for the goodness or badness of ice cream flavors, whereas there is a standard for morality. Child rape is wrong. As soon as you use the word “wrong” you are appealing to a standard outside of yourself.

      ” “I believe that the best evidence for objective morality comes from our moral experience. We know that raping children is wrong.”This argument is subjective, and thus fails to demonstrate an objective morality.”

      Well then you can say the same thing about the reality of the external world. The best evidence we have for the reality of the external world comes from our experience of reality. But that’s subjective. We can’t objectively prove that we aren’t in the matrix, therefore, according to your logic, we can’t know that the external world is real. Nice!

      • TByte

        “The truth of Ruse’s quote does not hinge on whether or not we can prove that child rape is wrong. It just is. Do you doubt that child rape is wrong? ”
        Incorrect.
        The question is not whether or not child rape is wrong, but whether it is wrong objectively, or merely subjectively. You are engaging in the exact same muddying of the issue.
        In short, prove that child rape is objectively wrong, rather than subjectively wrong. And good luck trying.

        “Saying that something is wrong does imply objectivity.”
        What a naive comment. I can assert that something is wrong subjectively, such as my opinion of a flower arrangement or a musical motif, without implying that it is objectively wrong.

        “You cannot say that eating vanilla is wrong because there is no standard for the goodness or badness of ice cream flavors, whereas there is a standard for morality.”
        …and the day that someone can give me an objective standard for morality, I’ll believe you. Until then, both logic and historical experience support the idea that morality is objective.

        • Paul Rezkalla

          “Incorrect.
          The question is not whether or not child rape is wrong, but whether it is wrong objectively, or merely subjectively. You are engaging in the exact same muddying of the issue.
          In short, prove that child rape is objectively wrong, rather than subjectively wrong. And good luck trying.”

          So you think the issue of child rape is subjective? Yes or no?

          “What a naive comment. I can assert that something is wrong subjectively, such as my opinion of a flower arrangement or a musical motif, without implying that it is objectively wrong.”

          You have an impoverished definition of ‘wrongness.’ Your opinions about music and flower arrangement are not right or wrong; they are opinions, as you said yourself. There is no standard by which we measure the truth value of the statement, “Roses are better than petunias.” That statement is neither right or wrong for there is no objectivity to the beauty of flowers. Whereas there is objectivity when it comes to the issue of child rape.

          “…and the day that someone can give me an objective standard for morality, I’ll believe you.”

          Why don’t you apply the same level of skepticism to the reality of the external world or the past? You don’t have evidence for the external world being real, i.e. not a dream or a visual product from your brain in a matrix or a vat of neurochemical stimulants. Your skepticism is inconsistent. You’re only skeptical about that which you disagree with.

          • TByte

            “So you think the issue of child rape is subjective? Yes or no?”
            Of course child rape is not subjective. It is legally defined, as objectively as possible.
            What does that have to do with whether it’s moral quality is objectively wrong or subjectively wrong?
            Nothing.
            But here I think you are being intentionally imprecise in order to resort to emotional arguments. I’m pretty sure that by this time you understand that I am speaking only of the moral qualities of rape, and only as to whether those qualities are objectively wrong or subjectively wrong. It is unfortunate that you continue to play fast and loose with definitions in order to support your argument.

            “You have an impoverished definition of ‘wrongness.’ ”
            No, I have a perfectly consistent definition of ‘wrongness.'” It is you that is being inconsistent. You are the one claiming that one opinion is subjective, and another opinion is objective.

            “Whereas there is objectivity when it comes to the issue of child rape.”
            I have to point out here that I am still waiting for your objective proof of the wrongness of child rape. So far, you’ve been unable to supply any.

            “Why don’t you apply the same level of skepticism to the reality of the external world or the past? You don’t have evidence for the external world being real, i.e. not a dream or a visual product from your brain in a matrix or a vat of neurochemical stimulants. ”
            No, solipsism is qualitatively different, because it invalidates all of reality. The issue of objective morality vs subjective morality does not affect questions of existence.

            “Your skepticism is inconsistent. You’re only skeptical about that which you disagree with.”
            What an ignorant statement. I don’t disagree that child rape is wrong. Your ad hominem attack fails.

            Now, in your next reply, can you PLEASE give me an objective proof of morality? One that is not, itself, based on subjective terms? Consider the challenge has been officially issued.

            • Paul Rezkalla

              You are being intellectually dishonest in all of your responses by purposely avoiding the logical conclusions of your worldview. You disavow objective morality with one hand, yet refuse to say that moral facts such as, “Child rape is wrong” are completely subjective. And this discussion is going nowhere.

              “Now, in your next reply, can you PLEASE give me an objective proof of morality? One that is not, itself, based on subjective terms? Consider the challenge has been officially issued.”

              Sure, I’ll do that as soon as you give me an objective proof of the reality of the external world–one that is not, itself, based on subjective terms. Consider the challenge has been officially issued.

              • TByte

                Have you not been paying attention? The idea that “Child rape is wrong” is a completely subjective statement is exactly what I’ve been saying, consistently, all along. Please note that in your recent post you asked me whether I thought “Child rape is subjective”, which is a different question entirely.
                So, your accusation that I have been intellectually dishonest is proven false.

                Now, however, I am forced to conclude that YOU are being intellectually dishonest. You assert that morality is objective, yet you consistently refuse to provide an objective definition of morality. Instead, you attempt to change the subject to the question of whether reality is objective. This is moot, since if morality is objective then it exists independently of reality, and you should be able to offer a proof of it that does not resort to solipsistic arguments.

                The nature of reality is not the subject of this discussion. Please stay on topic.
                I eagerly await your objective proof of morality with your next reply.

                • Paul Rezkalla

                  You just said that “Child rape is wrong” is a completely subjective statement. That means that you are either an extremely morally reprehensible human being, or you don’t really believe that. I’m inclined to think the latter.

                  I keep bringing up the nature of reality because I believe that we can know certain metaphysical truths without empirical evidence, in the same way that we know that the world is real, the past is real, and the Law of Noncontradiction is true. These are impossible to give evidence for, but we all believe them. I’m simply adding another metaphysical truth to the list. You claim that you need evidence for that metaphysical truth, but then I pressed you on why you accept other metaphysical truths without evidence.

                  My argument is simply that, as a metaphysical reality, objective morality cannot be tested or proved–just like all other metaphysical truths, and yet it still exists. We don’t need to have objective evidence for metaphysical truths in order to verify their reality.

                  • Mark Hall

                    “That means that you are either an extremely morally reprehensible human being, or you don’t really believe that.”

                    Why is this the case? TByte has clearly stated that he finds morality to be subjective – that does not mean that he lacks morality. You seem to be following the same argument you used in our earlier thread…

                    “Your view (subjective morality) dictates that social criticism and social reformation are impossible.”

                    Not at all. I can criticize the Holocaust, child rape, murdering homosexuals, female circumcision, or anything else is wrong based upon my own subjective standards. I can attempt social reformation by trying to persuade others to agree, using reasoned arguments based on social effects or reciprocal behavior, emotional arguments based on empathy, or whatever else I might come up with. Others are doing the same thing, every day, on every issue – and the overall results are social change.

                    I can criticize and attempt to persuade our hypothetical potential child rapist that his ambitions are a bad thing, wrong, evil. If I fail to persuade, then I can turn to social pressure to encourage him to conform despite his beliefs. If that, too, fails, we can turn to force – governmental, using the police and courts and jails, or personal, using “vigilante justice” to limit or eliminate the possibility of him repeating the offense. Nowhere along that path do I have to claim that my view is objective – I press for my view because it is my view, and I believe it to be correct.

                    But when I claim that my personal view of morality is objectively correct, even on such an obvious tenet as child rape, I eliminate any consideration that I might be wrong. That same belief in the objectivity of my personal beliefs can be extended to any tenet. And once I’ve done that, then where is that chance for social reformation? I cannot accept or tolerate any change to something I find to be objectively wrong.

                    This is not a mere slippery-slope argument. We have already seen the bottom of that slope, in any number of theocratic regimes of the past. Laws against blasphemy or heretical speech are firmly rooted in that belief in objective morality. In fact, we’re not securely at the top of the slope even now – blasphemy laws are still endemic in Islamic countries, and not unknown in others. There’s an Indian man, Sanal Edamaruku, currently exiled from his own country for fear of prosecution for debunking a “miraculous” Christian statue that was weeping sewage water which was then consumed by the faithful. And of course every U.S. Olympic athlete is well aware of the Russian law against heretical pro-homosexual speech. They may not be as aware of Russian laws recently used to prosecute a “Pastafarian” and an atheist, at the behest and encouragement of the Russian Orthodox Church.

                  • TByte

                    “You just said that “Child rape is wrong” is a completely subjective statement. That means that you are either an extremely morally reprehensible human being, or you don’t really believe that.”
                    …or it means B) Despite your degree in religious studies, you unclear on the concept of subjective morality.
                    …or it means C) Despite devoting at least a portion of your life to pursuing a degree in speculative navel-gazing, you still feel that resorting to emotional arguments is a valid rhetorical tactic when you find yourself short of reason and logical support.
                    And since I actually do find child rape to be morally reprehensible, we can rule out “A”.

                    But I think we can agree on one premise:
                    –>It is not possible to prove the existence of an objective morality.

                    From this, we can deduce that it is likewise impossible to prove a definition of objective morality. And hence, regardless of whether an objective reality actually exists, in practical fact we must operate within subjectively defined moral systems.
                    This conclusion is not merely deductive. It is empirically verified. As a theory, the idea that we operate within subjective moral systems explains known historical facts, is supported by experimental evidence, makes accurate predictions about future decisions, and has practical application in day-to-day living.
                    The theory that we operate within an objective morality fails all of these tests. It does not explain historical facts, and is not supported by experimental evidence, and does not make accurate predictions about behavior, and has no immediate practical application. So though you may find my epistemology to be “moral reprehensible”, in fact it is the exact same epistemology used by humanity throughout history and up to the current day, by all people. Including yourself.
                    Now, you can try to sustain your belief in an objective morality by claiming that it is a metaphysical truth, but you have no basis for such a claim. We do, in fact, have evidence that the world is real, and that the past is real, and (to a lesser extent) that our experiences are real. We have absolutely no such empirical evidence for an objective reality. And whenever possible, we attempt to explain things with empirical or deductive support. The number of things we are willing to accept purely as metaphysical necessities are limited to those without which, we could not perform and logical reasoning at all.
                    If we deny the existence of reality, or logic, then we must surrender all further attempts at understanding the universe. That is why we grant them axiomatic exceptions.
                    The same claim cannot be made regarding the existence of an objective morality. If an objective morality does not exist, the universe and our interaction with it continues on, unaffected.
                    Therefor, you will need to prove that objective reality is not just a metaphysical truth, but is in fact a metaphysical necessity in order to show that you are not merely resorting to the metaphysical argument as a desperate last resort.

  • Fred Fauth

    I’m not an atheist, but I think the best atheistic response would be as follows:

    The concept of “right” and “wrong” are really expressions of collective social preferences. The logic works along these lines:

    1) I want to live in a world where the people I care about (and I) are not murdered (or insert any other malady).

    2) The best way for me to enforce that is to create social contracts with the rest of society. I do that in a number of formal and informal ways. Informally, I label murder, “wrong” and I convince others of my position. Formally, I work to put Government and laws in place that deter murder.

    3) I recognize that when someone else is murdered, it represents a threat to my preference. If I (or my Government) fails to take an appropriate response, it increases the chances that I may be murdered, and I don’t want that to happen. So I work hard to form social contracts that enable swift response to the action.

    When someone wants to convince me that something is “wrong”, they will appeal to my “moral sense” which is really an expression of my self interests. “Would you want to live in a world where XYZ is allowed?” “Would you want your children subjected to XYZ?” they might say. They may also try other tactics but it always comes back to this. Insofar as I can equate the “wrong” they identify with something that would impact me in a negative way, I agree to sign up to the moral principal and fight for it.

    If I fail to empathize with their claim, I won’t subscribe to the moral proposition. This is, for example, the reason (simplified) why race slavery existed as long as it did in the United States. White slave masters did not empathize with their slaves, because they believed that slaves were subhuman. They found little in common with them, and therefore believed that the way they were treated didn’t reflect an actual threat to the slave owner. As awareness increased, the social preference “tide” changed, and we outlawed slavery. Those few people who still think slavery is OK are either narcissists (in which case they fail to recognize the importance of social moral contracts in general), or more likely, they are ignorant of the similarities between them and the people who they believe should be slaves.

    We humans tend to empathize only when we find similarities between the thing we are empathizing with and ourselves. For example, you don’t hear about people empathizing with trees very much. But you do often hear of people empathizing with pets. The more we empathize with something, the more we want to give it the same protections we ourselves would like to have, because of what it represents to us.

    —-

    I think the challenge with this approach to morality is that it admits that if someone really wants to do something “wrong”, and they are willing to accept the consequences of their actions, it really isn’t “wrong” in an objective moral sense. That’s something I have a pretty hard time stomaching, but have founds others who do not.

  • Jim Miller

    I find that the best approach to this conversation is not to list individual moral commitments, because that invites people to debate gray areas and nuances. But when I talk about the universal sense simply that there is right and wrong, the issue is a lot more clear, because the obvious alternative is sociopathy.

  • Anthony Wick

    I agree with you that morality is objective. Without God, it’s just behaviors. Which can be subjectively looked at. I wouldn’t argue morality without first presupposing that God is the reason for objective moral duties. Appealing to common sense is what Sam Harris does, and it is an incredibly weak argument.