In my last post there were some very thought provoking comments about the question of objective morality. I want to delve a little deeper into this topic and also give some references to people in case they want to learn more.
First, I do believe that it would be correct to state that if we begin with some basic foundational statements (call them axioms if you will) about human goals (such as a better world for humanity, a more fulfilling life for everyone, etc.) then we can use objective methods of reason, scientific methods and facts about us and the world in order to come to conclusions of moral rules (those rules would fit by definition into the moral category). Two popular proponents of this view are Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape), and Richard Carrier (Sense and Goodness Without God). Harris’ book is on my future reading list and I am currently reading Carrier’s book. You can find many youtube videos of them presenting their view (e.g. here and here).
I thought the questions in Carrier’s Q&A session in the above link were better than Harris’, and it is interesting to note that in the Q&A of Carrier’s video he stated that the word objective ends up causing a lot of confusion and he uses the term objective only in a similar sense as I’ve described above, as well as the term universal (implying there is one morality for everyone given all the similarities between people).
Furthermore, as noted in the comments of the previous post, ethical rules can get very complicated once you have to weigh opposing needs against each other. One could argue that adding a few more foundational assumptions to our list could solve this and thus lead us to objectively conclude what is right in those scenarios. Obviously those assumptions could all be argued to be subjective thus making all of our conclusions subjective by association. In this case my opinion is that if the assumptions are universal enough then in a practical sense it doesn’t really matter too much to label them objective or subjective because the rules we come up with help us achieve our goals of a better place to live.
Another issue that can come up in this approach which hasn’t been mentioned is that the whole question of what makes more fulfilling lives for people seems to naturally lead to subjective conclusions. For example, for me I feel very fulfilled and at peace when with a small group of family and friends surrounded by nature. My wife however feels fulfilled and at peace when surrounded by a bustling metropolis with lots of different things to see and do. I don’t believe either of us is wrong about the fact that those things bring us contentment, it’s just that we are wired differently. This question comes up in the Q&A of the Carrier video (regarding differences in musical preferences), and his response is that morality is more universal than that, and what I believe he is saying is that there are rules we can conclude do apply to all humans and those would then fall under the umbrella of morality, and beyond that any conclusions would be subjective. I can see however that the dividing line here would probably be fuzzy. It is interesting to note that theists also deal with this problem as well, as can be seen in the proliferation of different religions as well as sects within religions.
I’d like to leave you with another very interesting approach that I heard in the debate between William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan. You can see the entire debate here if you want (I believe it’s worth the time):
Kagan says a lot of interesting stuff in there, but I’d like to note a couple of things. First, at about 18:40 in the video he notes the obvious fact that non-theistic philosophers have different approaches toward secular morality. Clearly no difference from theists here. Also, at 14:05 he describes an interesting approach to the theist objection that having moral requirements demands the existence of a “requirer”. His response is that it could be that the laws of morality are analogous to the objective laws of reasoning such as the law of non-contradiction. What he is saying is that just as there isn’t a logical necessity for there being an outside conscious entity for us to believe that the law of non-contradiction is objectively true, there also isn’t a logical necessity for there to be an outside entity for us to believe that moral laws are objectively true. I haven’t thought through the details of this, but it does seem to me that denying the laws of logic would bring us much greater absurdity than denying the laws of morality, so the analogy could probably be broken down in that way. For myself, I am agnostic regarding Kagan’s claim that there are moral laws that exist outside of humans, much as I am agnostic regarding the existence of a supernatural realm.
In the end though, for myself, I don’t believe this question of whether or not morality is truly objective ends up being a practical question. Whether it is objective or not still does not change the passion that I have for following moral and humanist reasoning, and I believe there are good reasons to do so. I am very happy that I am not the only one that feels this way.
In my next post I will try comparing theistic and atheistic approaches to morality.