Is Morality Objective?

The first time I ever gave much thought to the notion of objective morality was about 6 months ago, and I wrote a post where I grappled through it and concluded that I don’t think morality is objective.  This conclusion to which many atheists (but not all) arrive is much to the delight of loyal religionists who boldly assert our morality is derived from god, and therefore is objective.

I’ve gotten to feel quite strongly that morality is not objective, even though several prominent atheists, whom I respect, would disagree with me.

One of the most common arguments against a biblical-inspired objective morality is in the fact that one of the simplest moral questions humanity has ever faced, which is whether slavery is moral, is answered incorrectly by most monotheistic bibles (I’ll refer to the old testament in this post).

Apologists respond to this by saying that those were different times, or that god was trying to make the transition from slavery to non-slavery an easier process for people entrenched in such an immoral and primitive mindset.  To these apologists, I have two responses:

  1. Couldn’t slavery have been easily replaced by some sort of less permanent employment or barter, where a human was not allowed to be owned,  beaten, or tricked into permanent ownership by the slave owner who supplied a wife to the slave?  Where the human being was allowed to leave at their choosing, provided they could pay back debt they owed to the slave owner?  Certainly a deity who created the universe could work out a fair and easy-to-implement solution to a simple economics problem.
  1. In terms of the transition that some apologists refer to, where god was trying to transition such a simple population into a more complex moral paradigm, what proof do you have of that?  It took the world another couple thousand years to figure out slavery was immoral, and it was only through a secular lens that this moral transformation could have taken place.  Institutionalized slavery in the western world was justified via the scripture, and it was only after a secular intellectual enlightenment that a better moral solution was put forward.

I think the idea of “objective morality” comes from the concept of “the ideal” – something Plato wrote about in his cave allegory, where he explained the things humans observe in the real world are simply illusions and obfuscations of a more ideal implementation they cannot (or at least do not) understand because of a variety of social and physical inhibitors that exist in our world.  A simple example of this is that we could never really create a perfect triangle, despite being able to mathematically describe a perfect triangle.

I think Plato gives some lovely philosophy here, and there are indeed examples where his ideal works well to further our understanding of things; however, I think this notion of “the ideal” is an illusion itself.  There is no perfect world where things are better revealed or explained.  The human capacity or incapacity to understand or implement an idea is a function of our open-mindedness, intelligence, rigor, evidence discovery, and grasp of the concept.

Our morality is derived via our evolution.  In this, I’m not referring to an individual’s social and emotional growth over their lifetime.  Rather, I’m referring to the fact that in any given population, if murder rate is too high, or if too many people of one gender (or the other) are killed, or if infanticide is too rampant, or if too much collective knowledge is lost (particularly true for more intellectual species), the population as a whole risks extinction.  In this framework, some equilibrium or balance must be struck in order for the population to survive; for the population to thrive, the minimum equilibrium must be exceeded – that is to say, the population must take some measures to protect one another.  If humans didn’t value babies over old people, or if they didn’t take some measure to prevent murder, or if the number of murderous individuals in a group or society was too long allowed to continue their behavior, humans would be extinct.

There’s no divine intervention necessary to demonstrate this.  It simply is a matter of fact.  It’s nonsensical to imagine a world where humans couldn’t figure out that killing a bunch of people doesn’t work very well in the long-term.  Our success as a species relies on our capacity to think in the long term and to record knowledge and pass it from generation to generation.

The other phenomenon about murder is that people might be inclined to take revenge on their loved one’s murderer, in which case, the act eventually gets corrected in species that are inclined to behaviors such as revenge.  Then of course, the act of murdering an adult is not always a simple one, if the murder victim is inclined to fight back, which most mammal, amphibian, reptile, and bird species are.

I’ve always thought evolution deniers held their frame of mind because of the problem of original sin that goes away in a world where humans evolved from earlier species.  But when you think of it in terms of the moral complexities evolution answers, and how it really does away with this silly concern for objective morality, the need to frame morality in terms of supernatural intervention or forgiveness of our natural predispositions is, in a word, unnecessary.

So, what is morality, if not objective?  One might be inclined to respond that it must be subjective, but honestly, I think this is a false dichotomy.  Morality exists, in that humans can figure out what is right and what is wrong for them and their group, but the idea of right and wrong is largely a function of social values, and is not always the same over time, geography, population, or specific circumstances.

Consider this question of morality:  should teenagers have consensual sex with other teenagers?

There is a morality concern in here, even if you’re not concerned about offending a deity, because bad outcomes can occur when teenagers have sex – namely unwanted pregnancy, which raises all kinds of other concerns.

In a society that lacks successful birth control methods, the inclination would be to call teenage sex immoral, because harm is likely to occur and well-being violated, not only to individuals involved in the sex, but also to their parents, and the group that might be responsible for taking care of the baby that was conceived because of the sex.

In western society, we have effective birth control, so the moral concerns are decreased with teens who use these effective birth controls.

The flip side of this coin is the matter of consent.  At what age do we say that a person can consent to something?  Certainly children can be tricked into doing things, and we generally don’t find this trickery acceptable.  But what about teenagers?  In our current society, we say that people can generally provide consent between the ages of 16 and 25, depending on the issue.  The truth of the matter is that people’s success and quality of consent improves between the ages of 16 and 25.

Morality is an intellectual exercise.  To the extent that we can quickly determine whether something is moral or not, it is usually a matter of that something’s expected impact on ourselves and those close to us.  But when we make broader decisions that affect many people (such as government decisions), the moral underpinnings of those decisions take intellectual work and consideration of likely outcomes for a variety of circumstances the decision could impact.

To sum up, morality is not simply a binary matter.  The morality of something is a function of its sustainability, the assessed impact of behavior on one’s self and others affected, and the balancing of one act in terms of available alternatives.

But people are imperfect.  Think of all the issues relating to two teenagers having sex – there are all sorts of considerations to be made, yet those teenagers probably aren’t considering many of them.  Why?  Because people are motivated primarily by their hormones, and young people are less likely to override their hormonal inclinations with their rational inclinations than adults are.  This obviously supports the materialistic/naturalistic worldview, which is something religious folks so adamantly oppose precisely because it undoes these silly notions of an ideal morality divined by god.

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Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

9 thoughts on “Is Morality Objective?”

  1. Great post, and well dismantled. To be honest, I don’t even like the word “morality.” “Ethics” best suits the human condition, and we can understand ethics far better as an extension (a complex extension) of empathy. It is a residue of neurological complexity, a consequence, and we can see its slow evolution by studying the behaviour “lesser” animals. As you say, its an evolved thing. Nothing more. Nothing less.

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    1. Thanks very much for the comment John! I agree morality is a loaded term with lots of baggage…although I’ve never really seen a definition that meaningfully distinguishes ethics from morality, my gut feel is that they are different…there’s at least some nuance there.

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      1. You’re right, there really isn’t any meaningful difference. Not that I’m aware of, at least. My eyes glaze over the moment an apologist mentions “Morality…” 😉

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  2. Re “Apologists respond to this by saying that those were different times, or that god was trying to make the transition from slavery to non-slavery an easier process for people entrenched in such an immoral and primitive mindset.” Are not these the same people who insist that God set down the rules “at the beginning”? Why would he wait? Why would He care what human institutions were? Why would He care that we would have any difficulty complying with His demands? Is there any evidence that God made accommodations of this sort anywhere else in the Bible? Or do these apologists just make up shit as they go?

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    1. I think they do make shit up as they go. In my mind, the most obvious example of this is the idea that god exists “outside of space and time”. Where in the bible does it say this? Why must this be the solution? I think the challenge for apologists is that they have an language/translation problem. There were ideas that existed then that simply don’t exist now, and vice versa. There were also language limitations, such as the ability for Aramaic speakers to differentiate between figurative and literal language.

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  3. Nice article and well put!
    I’m sure there are people who are more qualified than me regarding morality but I think moral questions are seldom black and white, except for really extreme situations. Instead, I think the question about what is moral behaviour and what is not, is really dependent on the situation, the culture and the time period where this behaviour is taking place. So it might be better to think of morality as relative instead of absolute. In a way, I think you could say that our morals themselves evolve.

    Take for a moment your example about slavery. At the present moment in much of the modern world, slavery is considered morally reprehensible. However for the most part of our history, people thought differently. Just to name one example: apart from a few enlightened people, the Romans had no moral obligations against slavery. Owning slaves was considered perfectly normal and acceptable.
    Of course, looking back with our 21st century thinking, it is easy to sit back and judge the Romans as an immoral lot for having slaves. One of the first things a student of history learns though, is not to judge the past by today’s standards.

    Ask a random 21st century person on the street of say, London about whether it is moral to own another person and you will most likely hear a resounding “no”. Do the same on the streets of 1st century Rome and the answer will probably be the opposite.

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    1. Thanks for the commment! I agree, morality probably falls on a spectrum comprising at least a couple axises. I think it’s a false dichotomy to say that morality is either objective or subjective – this isn’t math, after all. As we grow and figure things out, our sense of morality changes. For example, consider if we learn how to communicate conversationally with dogs, and through our communication, the dogs tell us they hate being owned. We might then conclude that it is immoral to own dogs. That’s a far fetched example, but my point is that as we learn more, our sense of morality changes; therefore, our current moral compass couldn’t possibly be black and white objective.

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      1. I think you’re right, morality is improving in most Western countries. However, it is improving when looking at it from a liberal, secular perspective. People from other countries might not agree with the way our morality is proceeding and even in modern, Western society there are dissenting voices. Just look at the way Christian leaders have responded to Ireland approving gay marriage rights for example. People with different values will read different things on their moral compass.

        It’s also important to note that if it is possible for morality to change, that means it won’t necessarily change for the better. It’s possible to imagine morality sliding back, for instance under the influence of certain religious pressure or a calamity befalling certain areas.
        When it comes to survival, morality often suffers as a result.

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      2. “People from other countries might not agree with the way our morality is proceeding”
        Oh definitely. To an orthodox Christian/Jew or a rigid Islamist, the results of a secular society are nothing less than disastrous, and I think the specific reason for that is because there’s such a detachment between religious practice and concern for personal well-being.

        “People with different values will read different things on their moral compass”.
        Totally, which I think supports the notion that there could never be objective morality; when a religious doctrine says its ok to stone people or throw acid into their face, and simultaneously people see that doctrine as moral (and refuse to grapple with the paradox), then not only have we identified subjectivity in the construct, but we’ve also isolated a component of the doctrine which is demonstrably immoral. The primary problem here is that most people, particularly religious zealots, refuse to consider the possibility their doctrine is wrong (confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, etc)

        “When it comes to survival, morality often suffers as a result.”
        I couldn’t agree more with that; I think it’s a fairly small, but meaningful characteristic in humans where they transition from concern for themselves to concern for the whole population; when humans are not thriving, I think they tend to focus inward (that’s my experience, anyway)

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