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Question of the Month
Is Morality Objective?
The following answers to this key philosophical question each win a random book.
It is clear that morality is a feature of humanity. However, if morality were objective then every member of our species would share the same moral values. But it is patent that we do not share the same moral values. For example, there’s clearly a lack of moral consensus with respect to our views on euthanasia, abortion, or our treatment towards non-human animals.
For any given moral situation various factors exist that must be taken into account. So, before we can judge whether an act is right or wrong we need to evaluate several things: the different personalities of the people involved – their emotions, intentions, intuitions – as well as the consequences of the act. These factors can relativize the morality of an action. For example, an uptight person may expect us to always tell the truth no matter what, but in a situation where someone is extremely sensitive it might be justified to tell a lie to spare their feelings.
Even great moral philosophers disagree about the nature of morality. Immanuel Kant’s influential duty-based theory of ethics maintains that truth-telling is universally binding on all rational beings. Thus, if a serial killer demands to know where you’re hiding your sibling, Kant’s absolute system would aver that you tell the truth because it is not possible to consistently universalize the act of telling any kind of lie. On the other hand, John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism would insist that you lie to the serial killer because this would most likely maximize the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure by minimizing the unhappiness or pain for you and your sibling.
In a pristine world of crystallized moral ideals, perhaps morality could be objective and universally binding on all people. However, we live in a world of moral flux, impermanence, and flexibility. And it is because of this that morality is not nor could ever be objective.
Albert Filice, Scottsdale, AZ
Yes, morality is objective. (By ‘morality’ I mean that which we all recognise as right behaviour – that which we call ‘good’). Have you ever tried making up your own morality and applying it to your family and friends? If you have, you could well be reading this magazine whilst sitting in a prison cell or an asylum.
Certainly many people have attempted to invent their own morality and then impose it on others, for instance, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot. And look what they created – a new Humanity, a new Society! Does anyone fancy living in their morally subjective worlds? Each led to inhumanity and madness. It is also a fact that none of the great moral teachers of our world ever invented a morality of their own. For example, Jesus didn’t teach new morality, but rather he elaborated on what already existed. ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ already was, and is, a universal and eternal principle.
It is of course the case that moral codes, although objective, are tailored to, or tailored by, the particular culture and age into which they are incarnated. For instance, it has never been the case (as far as we know) in any culture, at any time, that a man (even the chief) can take whichever woman he wants to be his wife. In Britain today she has to be over sixteen, and in other countries her age may be higher or lower. Also, someone has to give consent to the marriage; either the woman herself, or her family, or the elders of the tribe, or the chief’s other wives! Whatever the ‘subjective’ cultural differences, the same objective moral principle applies.
We can no more invent a subjective morality than we can invent a new primary colour. We can no more come up with a novel morality which is in no way connected to an objective morality than we can come up with a new way of breathing.
Karl Wray, Carlisle, Cumbria
Here I will treat ‘objectivity’ as the property of an idea or object that let’s it be evaluated in the same way independently of who the evaluator is. Evaluating morality in light of this, we face two components that pose a potential threat to moral objectivity: space and time. For instance, when the Conquistadors arrived in South America at the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, they were shocked at various rituals of human sacrifice practiced by the Incas. Those rituals were morally wrong to the Spanish, who had been brought up with the morals of another culture on a different continent. The vast majority of people in South America today will likely agree that human sacrifice is wrong, so we can see that accepted morality has strongly depended on time and place.
However, with the increasing interconnectedness among mankind through the internet and especially social media, I suppose that the spatial component will get lost some day. We may see this in vegetarianism and veganism. Although both diets existed in ancient times, there had never been a spread of those ideas as remarkable as in these times of hashtags, blogs and the international exchange of bits within milliseconds. Furthermore, although a high number of people are still being treated unethically, we also must acknowledge that we have come to a more or less internationally congruent understanding of a morally correct treatment of people.
How objective should we rate this development? On the one hand, we have never been closer to an objective (in terms of a universally acceptable) morality. On the other hand, we need to ask ourselves whether the temporal component may still pose a threat. If you asked Plato whether 2 plus 2 equals 4, you would certainly have received the same answer as you’ll receive today, whereas answers to questions of morality are highly dependant on the time in which they’re asked. Therefore, morality cannot be seen as objective, but perhaps rather as developing towards a set of globally shared morals.
Jeanette Lang, Heusweiler, Saarland, Germany
Morality is objective. That is, moral claims are true or false about aspects of human interaction that involve the ideas of rights and obligations. Further, the fundamental moral maxims apply universally, and reasonable people can agree on their truth.
There are really just two alternatives to moral objectivism: moral relativism, and all the rest. But all the rest lead to absurdity: if I truly believe that I cannot know right from wrong (moral skepticism), or that all moral claims are false (moral error theory), or that there is no right or wrong (moral nihilism and non-cognitivism), then I must conclude I don’t know what I should do. However, as a social animal I must interact with others. Thus, I find myself in the dilemma of having to act but not knowing how to act. Any theory that leads to this absurd state of mind must be rejected.
Moral relativism then is the only credible challenge to moral objectivism. The case for moral relativism is that different societies have different moral judgments. However, most more complex moral judgments are derived from a few basic ones, with components that vary with the material conditions of different societies. But the fact that different societies make different moral judgments does not prove relativism. To prove their position, relativists must dig down to the fundamental moral judgments in every society, and then show that these judgments are not shared by societies. This they have not done.
This is the indirect case for moral objectivism. The direct case includes the following ideas: (1) All societies share certain values necessary for any society to function (for example, no lying, promise-keeping, nurturing children) (2) Objectivism appeals to reason over feeling and offers a better chance for humanity to solve its many problems; (3) The purpose of ethics is to provide guidance, and humanity needs guidance for world affairs and not just within any particular society, and (4) Nations and societies must cooperate, and this requires agreement on core values.
Ethics first; meta-ethics [that is, thinking about the foundations of ethics] second. Meta-ethics should not be an obstacle to the pragmatic project of seeking guidance for human social interaction grounded on something we can all agree on, which I believe is a common human nature.
John Talley, Rutherfordton, NC
I should like to reformulate the question as follows: Can we demonstrate that any moral claim is objectively true? My reply is ‘Yes and No’.
It seems clear that to answer this rephrased question, we must have a notional idea of what the term ‘objective’ means. Not surprisingly, its meaning is highly contested.
The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has described two central features of objectivity: observation dependence and impersonality. In effect, Sen meant here that objectivity requires both careful observation and inter-observer corroboration. Thus, on Sen’s view, if I say, “I truly and deeply believe that your house is on fire” without having observed your house, I am making a subjective claim. In contrast, if two people simultaneously witness smoke coming from your house and say, “We believe your house is on fire,” Sen would argue that they are making a type of objective statement.
But Sen’s use of ‘objective’ doesn’t seem to work well for moral claims. After all, it is much easier to get two people to agree on what smoke looks like than on what an immoral or evil act looks like. Smith and Jones might agree that someone just stole a loaf of bread from the grocer, but disagree as to the ‘wrongness’ of the act. For example, suppose the thief was penniless, starving and had no other recourse. It appears there is no objective means of adjudicating the matter.
However, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s ‘virtue ethics’ suggests that a degree of moral objectivity is possible – within the confines of certain communities and their shared values. For MacIntyre, there are objective standards of virtue found within a tradition, such as the ethical traditions of ancient Athens. For MacIntyre, in a given society, the moral code is based on what is agreed to be the shared end of the society and the best way to achieve it, which also gives each member their proper role in the society and their own proper tasks. Thus, in a society one of whose shared aims is the protection of private property, it would be objectively wrong to steal a loaf of bread, all other things being equal. So, morality itself may not be objective, but for people who share a worldview expressed by the community, morality has context and a shared meaning.
Ronald W. Pies M.D., Lexington, MA
You are ugly and grossly overweight. Consider how you feel after reading that. Keep that feeling to hand for the moment. That sentence is an insult, and I shouldn’t have written it, due to the feeling it has most certainly caused in you, and would cause in me had such an insult been aimed at me, regardless of its truth or falsity. A wrong has been committed, a moral law has been broken. It’s not a law contained in a spelt-out legal system; but it doesn’t have to be spelt-out to be real. Instead, the hurt feelings in the insulted person make the offence fairly objective. By ‘objective’ here, I mean existing universally, or virtually universally: anyone and everyone would feel insulted, assuming they understood the words. By those words I have created something that’s out there: it’s objective. You can’t see it, but you feel its sting. It registers.
You will of course have realised that I didn’t mean what I wrote; but for that initial moment the feeling was real. It is in those kinds of moments where morality is shown to be objective, where everyone ‘sees’ the offence: when the ghost in the machine (if I may borrow that phrase) becomes solid. This kind of ‘real’ is clearly not the same real as, say, the keyboard with which I wrote the sentence, but there are many types of real: real love, real bananas, real quantum particles. While the feeling isn’t empirical evidence as are results taken with a ruler or beeps on a Geiger Counter, it is real evidence of a different kind. I can’t proclaim an area safe from radiation with a ruler, it’s the wrong detector. I need the correct tool, a Geiger Counter, to do that. We, human beings, are the morality detectors. We all feel the sting when something wrong has been created, say an insult has been slung – and therein lies the objectivity.
Kristine Kerr (who reckons you are beautiful and fit), Gourock, Renfrewshire
One reason for denying that morality is objective is the claim that science will provide an exhaustive description of objective reality which leaves no room for objectivemoral facts, and so morality must be either subjective or a matter of convention. However, it could be argued that mathematics faces the same problem here as morality. Mathematical objects such as numbers do not appear in the list of items in the natural world that science can detect. They cannot be observed as part of the physical universe – even though they are a prerequisite for the success of science. But we should notice that this does not prevent us from regarding mathematical truths as objective. In fact mathematics, as the Greeks recognised, is the paradigm of objective truth. Thus the claim that objective truths must be scientific truths seems simply a metaphysical prejudice.
If we allow for the possibility of objective moral truths, how might such truths be identified? Science boasts replicable empirical research that has identified entities which seem uncontroversially objective, such as atoms. Mathematics uses logic to prove mathematical theorems. In contrast, there is no accepted procedure that enables us to settle moral debate, which often seems interminable. There is no experiment, for example, which can determine whether abortion is morally acceptable. Nevertheless, the controversial nature of morality is itself a reason to think that there are objective truths at stake. We do not seriously debate matters of taste (e.g. whether coffee or tea is the better drink), because we do not believe there is an objective answer.
Moreover, the distinction should be made between procedures for identifying objective reality, and objective reality itself. Atoms possessed objectivity before the scientific methods were established that confirmed their existence. So a lack of scientific method does not necessarily mean a lack of objectivity. And, although much ethical debate seems interminable, progress has been made here. For example, we have surely established that slavery is objectively wrong, although formerly this was a controversial issue.
Moral debate does not deliver clear-cut answers in the way science appears to, but this does not mean that it cannot deliver objective conclusions at all. The process is just more difficult. Because of the success of science in identifying objective truths, beliefs that are established by non-scientific means are assumed to lack objectivity. But is this justified? Surely ‘It is wrong to torture babies’ is as objectively true as anything in science.
Martin Butler, Lancaster
The mind is caused by the brain. But the brain doesn’t have a ‘nodule of morality’ or even a ‘deciding zone’ any more than it has a ‘chocolate-liking tubercle’. Rather, decision-making, which includes moral decisions, is performed by the whole neural net. This process is entirely objective, not just as a phenomenon, but the mechanics of the brain’s decision-making activity are thoroughly physical, visible, solid, and testable.
Our neural net makes our decisions by a fairly simple process of one-on-one comparison-and-match. This means that the results of the process look like the simple comparisons they are, and moral decisions seem to be comparative.
But then again, there does seem to be a definitive, objective, fixed and unshakeable system of knowing-what’s-right behind it all. Not just feelings but experience tells us so. And indeed, there is such a definitive system – it is the fixed and objective process by which the moral comparison is done.
So, morality is comparative, and is determined by an objective system. Which is not only an explanation of how moral judgement works, but an explanation of why the apparent conflict between objective and comparative accounts of morality occurs. Tarraaaa!
Glyn Hughes, Squashed Philosophers (sqapo.com)
Morality has both subjective and objective components. The objective component is provided by the laws of Game Theory. The subjective element is the strategy selected by a player attempting to maximise their personal reward.
Game theory describes the competitive or collaborative strategies that a rational agent can use to maximise their benefit in any situation. (In this context, a rational agent is someone capable of thinking about then acting in their own best interest.) Often, cooperation provides the optimum outcome for all interacting parties, but at any time an agent might break the contract in an attempt to increase their own rewards. Such an action might have short term benefits, but it has been shown that in a series of interaction games, such a cheat will lose out because the others will soon refuse further cooperation. There are, therefore, substantial individual and group advantages to keeping such a contract. This ‘reciprocal altruism’, where the group rewards collaboration and punishes the cheat, is modelled by the ‘tit-for-tat’ strategy in Game Theory.
I would argue with the Mathematical Platonists that abstract mathematical ideas are mind-independent entities. Like any other object, they can be discovered and verified by anyone with the right equipment – in this case a skill in mathematics. Therefore, the outcome of our moral behaviour, subject to the laws of relationships determined by the mathematical objects of Game Theory, in this sense are objective. However, the strategies are subjectively chosen by agents acting in what they perceive to be their own best interest. Their choices may or may not coincide with supporting the social order.
Human civilization is highly dependent on the operation of Game Theory’s reciprocal altruism. A society’s moral codes are attempts to ensure that individuals choose the collaborative strategy over many ‘plays’, that is, social interactions. Although the moral rules encapsulated by the Golden Rule (‘Do unto others…’) and Law of Retaliation (‘an eye for an eye’) are simple, in practice they can become very complex. Human agents are playing many parallel games in an ever-changing social and physical environment, with no guarantee of group success. To retain social cohesion, the moral code may incorporate many complex taboos or ritualistic actions, lack of compliance with which can be used as an explanation of the group’s failures. An agent, however, is always free to challenge the code by choosing the antisocial strategy. In such cases the agent will find themselves in peril of retribution in the form of tribal or civil law.
Dr Steve Brewer, Carbis Bay, St Ives
Two types of morality co-exist virtually everywhere and at all times, yet they are, for the most part, poles apart. They are morality in theory and morality in practice, and they align with objective morality and subjective morality respectively. I will demonstrate what I mean by example, but first let me elaborate on morality as it is practiced.
For most people, morality stems from their surrounding cultural norms. That is, many people rely on their conscience to point their moral compass; but one’s conscience is a social construct largely determined by one’s upbringing. For example, in some societies, one can be made to feel guilty about the most natural sexual impulses. Guilt and sex have been associated over generations, but it is usually lop-sided: women are often forced to carry the greater burden of guilt, and homosexuals can be forced to feel criminal. Both these examples illustrate how cultural norms can determine the morality one accepts.
In some societies there are cultural clashes – usually generational – where the same moral issue can inflame opposing attitudes. In India in December 2012, a young woman, Jyoti Singh, was raped and murdered on a bus after she went to a movie with her boyfriend. A documentary by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin explored the cultural schism in India over this issue. Some (including the lawyers representing the gang who committed the crime) believed that the girl was responsible for her own fate, whereas others campaigned to have the rape laws strengthened. This demonstrates starkly how someone’s specific cultural influences can set moral values that become normative and then intransigent.
In many cultures it is taught that God or the gods determine moral values, yet these are often the most prescriptive, oppressive, and misogynistic examples of enforced cultural mores. People who hold to this perspective often claim that theirs is the only true objective morality, but unfortunately it seems that when one evokes God [or indeed, any other absolute, Ed] to rationalise one’s morality, anything, including the most savage actions, can thereby be ostensively justified.
On the other hand, morality in theory is very simple: it is to treat everyone the same and give everyone the same rights, be they men, women, homosexuals, people of different faith, or with a different skin colour. However, one only has to look at the treatment of refugees to realise how even the most liberal societies struggle with this precept.
Paul Mealing, Melbourne
This question initially seems simple, as there appear to be many things that most people would automatically believe to be intrinsically morally wrong, in all times and place, such as murder, lying, and theft. But after reflection, many would agree there are also cases where these things may be acceptable. For example, stealing medicine to save the life of a critically ill child, or lying to someone over the whereabouts of your friend whom they express an intention to kill. However, people would not necessarily give the same reasons why these are exceptions to the rule. Some may argue there is greater moral responsibility to a friend than to a stranger, so, in this circumstance, lying in their defence is acceptable; but others may argue a hierarchy of moral actions: so although lying, or stealing, is ethically wrong, not acting to prevent a murder, or to save the life of a child, is a far greater wrong. Others still may stress the importance of social mores in ethical situations.
In conclusion, despite a widespread belief there are things that are inherently morally correct apart from in exceptional circumstances, there is lack of consensus on what these exemptions are, or when and why they are acceptable. This is what makes debate over whether there is truly an objective morality uncertain, and makes moral philosophy the challenging preoccupation it is.
Jonathan Tipton, Preston, Lancashire
The common belief is that there are two kinds of knowledge: subjective and objective. The latter is held to be more certain than the former, and is usually contrasted with it. However, the distinction is ultimately untenable. Objective knowledge is actually derived from subjective knowledge. This is because of the absolute privacy of conscious experience, which ensures that there can be no composite or collective view of reality. So every so-called ‘objective fact’ is derivative – that is, it is derived from the private observations of individuals insofar as they seem to agree with each other.
The process of arriving at a moral truth is in principle exactly the same as that: by inquiry and agreement among autonomous individuals. The status of a value would thus be no less (and no more) ‘objective’ than that of a ‘fact’. (Unfortunately, in traditional societies, it is the authority of the past which is usually deferred to.)
Moreover, no ‘objective facts’ can be arrived at unless certain values are observed. These values are arrived at in the same way as we arrive at facts: namely by mutual agreement. They include (1) Respect for reason and truth, (2) Recognition of knowledge, (3) Respect for each other’s freedom and autonomy, (4) Respect for each other’s conscious experience, and (5) Frankness, even where this involves admitting one’s own mistakes. It will be seen that the Golden Rule is implicit here. We require therefore moral values when seeking out facts – values are at the root of so-called ‘facts’. And we may assert that both facts and values are derived from individual human experience, and so are as ‘objective’, or not, as each other.
Graham Dunstan Martin, Edinburgh
Next Question of the Month
In honour both of Albert Camus and William Shakespeare, the next question is: To Be or Not To Be – What Is The Answer? Please both give and justify your sagacity in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 17th October 2016. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission is permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically. Thanks.