Objective morality

The idea of objective morality doesn’t even make sense. It’s the biggest sham, the most ludicrous game out there. It’s this meme that just falls apart, landing with a thud. It’s just a crashingly bad notion.

There are two definitions of objective which are important here. First, there’s the ultimate sense sort of objective which transcends all life, thoughts, actions, events, etc. Then there’s the second sort of objective which means without bias, without personal preference. For instance, when I say the Tampa Bay Rays are doing really well this year, that’s an objective statement in that there is no input of my team preferences or any such thing. It’s just that they’re a good baseball team right now. This is the same sort of “objective” people tend to want in their journalism.

It’s unfortunate that the two terms get confused so easily and often, but alas, it happens. But with this distinction now in hand, it is possible to move on to the next point.

To say a moral claim is objective is to say there is some sort of ultimate source which dictates it be so. This is always God and it’s a bunch of malarkey to beat around the bush and pretend it isn’t. But this claim is itself a subjective one. Who is deciding that God is an objective source? Of course, within the useless field of theology, it is God who has made the decision, but in reality, people are making the call. They are making the choice to believe their holy books. They are the ones who are interpreting the ‘data’, the ones who are determining truth from fiction. Whether they’re right or wrong is besides the point. What’s important is that even a claim of objective morality is a subjective position.

The next point theists (especially on FTSOS’ Facebook Page) like to make is that this also means science is subjective. Yes, but it only means it in this ultimate sense. Science is still objective in that it is without bias, without personal influence (at least ideally). The sole reason for pointing out the necessary subjectivity of science is to bring about a false equivalence, a favorite tactic of creationists and their theists in arms. Science still remains the most powerful tool for gaining knowledge in the world, and it does so because it objectively analyzes the Universe. To get a little more specific, a double-blind study is objective because no bias can possibly be introduced to the raw data. (Incidentally, that’s why homeopaths never subject their bullshit to such rigors of science.) This doesn’t mean the results of the study are ultimately true – one can always go back to philosophy 101 and ask how anyone even knows any of this is real – but they are true in the operation of the real world. But, I lament, the theist will distinctly and intently drive on by this point.

The interesting point here is when the theist is asked to defend why something is right or wrong. If he’s simply, he’ll just say “because God said so”, relying on his subjective interpretations. But if he thinks he’s clever, he’ll answer with some common basis which goes beyond religion, usually reflecting some ethical theory of some sort. Take the teabaggers. They’re all religious nutbags, but they’ll loosely reflect libertarian ideals (until they become inconvenient, but I digress). Those libertarian ideals say that personal liberty and autonomy is good. Of course, this runs counter to much of what Christianity teaches them, but they’ll still stand behind their reasoning. The reason is that while libertarianism is not a very good ethical theory, it is a defensible one. And more importantly, people think it’s objective morality when they can apply particular situations to the principles of certain theories. For instance, using libertarian principles as a basis, it is possible to say that most taxes are objectively bad. In this instance, “objective” references a particular standard. In other words, when applying X event (taxes) to Y principle (liberty is good), it is possible to reason out a correct answer. Of course, X event may be a great thing according to the principles of another theory. That’s where the subjectivity comes in. It’s still possible to apply X event objectively within a certain construct, but that presumes there’s agreement with said construct.

13 Responses

  1. You do realize that nearly everything you said in this very good post will go completely over the heads of most teabaggers and a good portion of theists. They will just drive on by.

  2. Completely disagree.

    All ‘objective’ means is that it’s a standard that stands outside one’s own subjective opinion. The theists have constructed objective standards, albeit (as you pointed out) ones based on the subjective and petty standards of previous humanoids. Having an objective morality does not necessarily imply an ultimate ‘source’ that dictates it. It could merely be a product of a common evolutionary heritage faced with a common goal of living together in large groups.

    That in no way suggests that objective morality, itself, doesn’t make sense. It’s a bit like suggesting that since some people use statistics to lie, all statistics are meaningless.

    We can certainly point to some objective criteria for human ‘good’, but that often gets bogged down in inane arguments about what constitutes good. So, let’s consider a hippopotamus. Can we determine, objectively, what the ‘good life’ is for a hippopotamus? Sure. Can we determine what behaviors of the hippo, and the hippo’s around them, would then constitute ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behavior? Trivially easy. Would we be able to identify poorly behaved or ‘bad’ hippos that would need some rehabilitation? Sure.

    Take that, wrap it up, and you’ve got an objective moral standard for hippos. It’s not too hard to turn around, and imagine doing the same for humans. We’d probably come up with some obvious points such as the importance of human life, freedom, etc, and there are probably more than one ‘right’ answer – there may be multiple ‘good’ sets of objective morality that work reasonably well. The fact that it’s rooted in our biology and evolutionary history doesn’t make it any less ‘objective’ than any other set of facts. Much like psychology, it just makes it difficult to study.

    Don’t knock the theists for insisting on objective moral standards; their only flaw is their methodology. I have far less respect for the non-theist that thinks that female genital mutilation isn’t actually wrong, we just culturally disapprove of it, or some other subjective or relativist BS.



  3. Having an objective morality does not necessarily imply an ultimate ‘source’ that dictates it. It could merely be a product of a common evolutionary heritage faced with a common goal of living together in large groups.

    Perhaps this is a fault of mine on clarity. (I did make that post at 1:30 in the morning, after all.) This sort of objective morality is the sort we see with Kant or Hume or libertarians or utilitarians, etc. Even theists can claim objectivity in this sense. This is where there is a particular standard to which moral situations can be applied. Does X action increase liberty? Does it increase net pleasure? So on and so forth. But this isn’t the way, I think, theists mean it. In these moral systems, it is acknowledged that someone is deciding a standard based upon personal preference. For libertarians, they prefer liberty and aren’t necessarily as concerned with consequences as, say, utilitarians. But with theists, they aren’t merely claiming their morality is objective in relevance to the standard they’ve set up. They’re saying the standard itself is objective.

  4. Kid, ya done good. Interesting observations. The last sentence sums up my agreement, that indeed, it’s our “lack” of standard itself that theists insist makes us rudderless potential baby-rapers.

  5. I need a comma in there, I think.

  6. “You do realize that nearly everything you said in this very good post will go completely over the heads of most teabaggers and a good portion of theists.”

    And I am sure a great many atheists as well, since there is no reason a theist or someone with conservative leanings should be assumed to be dumber than anyone else.

    There are stupid and smart, funny and boring atheists just like with any other group.

  7. I see your point, but I think you mistook mine. The standard itself _is_ objective. The utilitarian perspective (for example) is based on an what causes a net increase in ‘good’ for the greatest number of people. It isn’t personal preference, and although we may argue and find it difficult to define, it isn’t something that can’t be studied and determined objectively, much like what’s ‘good’ can be studied and determined for any other species of animal. And like any other human quality it’s subject to investigation and error. Kant and Bentham were on the right track, although one would hope that advancing neuro and evolutionary psychology would expose more of this area to empirical, rather than thought, experiments.

    The theists have the right idea – they’re merely confused about the source.

    Although I totally agree with you in that the theistic problem is that their standard is not objective – it’s derived from a subjective opinion of bronze-age mystics. As I’m fond of remarking to any theist, their ethics are truly subjective, based on the opinion of either God or previous humans (their choice), while mine are informed by a study of humanity and moral philosophy – which makes them truly objective.

    Libertarians are not an ethical system – they’re an ideology that has a set of goals, much like Communism or Democracy (although I have heard of communism referred to as a political religion, so I’m willing to be corrected on this point).

    Never commented before, but I’ve enjoyed reading it for ages. Just realized my first interaction has been to argue with the Author! So in addition, thanks!



  8. In my opinion, and its just my opinion although probably shared by others, communism’s only goal in advocating atheism is to transfer all allegiance to the state. Strictly speaking I doubt the average communist government could care less about religion if it didn’t interfere with strict statism.

  9. Today even the Vatican has hailed this as a great achievement. Perhaps they are not as hostile to scientific discovery as some would like to think.

  10. Wrong post apparently, that was meant to go on the one about Venter. I’ll stick it over there.

  11. To say a moral claim is objective is to say there is some sort of ultimate source which dictates it be so. This is always God and it’s a bunch of malarkey to beat around the bush and pretend it isn’t.

    At the risk of repeating a previous commenter’s objection, this seems to me an odd assumption to make. If anything, I’d say that God being the source of morality only complicates matters and makes it, in fact, relative (to God’s whim). I very strongly believe that morality *is* objective, and that our morality has not significantly improved in the hundreds of thousands of years we’ve been here (but social conventions often utterly trump conscience).

    In any case, asserting that morality is *definitely* subjective is as foolhardy as asserting that it is definitely objective. We simply don’t know enough about the intricacies of our moral evolution to be able to properly argue each corner. I’d be willing to bet big money, however, that if there is an objective basis for evolution, it is certainly not God but is in fact our good selves.

  12. How about the following for “objective” morality?

    The object (goal) of morality is to satisfy the maximum possible number of goals (regardless of what those goals are).

    Goal satisfaction is measured by entity. Each entity can create their own goals and weight them however they like. Entities are weighted equally (note, however, that conflicts between their own goals reduce their effective weight).

    Believe it or not, simply using logic to follow through the above premises actually does lead to a clear and coherent description of our current moral beliefs (including all of the conflicts that we have) that can be used to clarify and start to resolve many moral issues.

    If I’ve piqued your interest, please join me over at http://becominggaia.wordpress.com/.

  13. >The idea of objective morality doesn’t even make sense … It’s just a crashingly bad notion.

    In that case what grounds you have to judge other people? Just your intuition? Subjective morality means there is no common ground for moral consensus, in other words might is right. Although it may seems to be the case, reality is that people still prefer discussions and agreement to simply using force. Therefore, intuition also tells us that there is a ground for moral consensus, we have to search for it.

    The objective common ground for moral concensus is freedom. That is the essence of being human. Morality is impossible without freedom. Freedom is an objective property of reality just like determinism but determinism (ie following own instincts or external forces) has obviously nothing to do with morality. If you are interested in this topic, there is a book “Cult of Freedom & Ethics of Public Sphere” describing the objective moral system. It is available at http://ethical-liberty.com. Thanks.

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