What's so great about objective morality?

In a post on his blog today, Damian Peterson asks ‘What’s So Great About Objective Morality?’ He asks this as an agnostic who has seen “many non-theists scramble to try to show that they do, in fact, have a basis for objective morality”—but isn’t sure why. As he puts it, he’s “quite happy to believe that there is no great measuring rod in the sky and that all such morals are evolved and subjective.” What’s the problem with this?

Let me try to give a few solid answers to stimulate further discussion.

Defining the terms

I think it’s pretty important at the outset to define the meaning of the words we’re using. Often, people don’t understand these terms as well as they think they do.

Objective refers basically to the condition of being actually real in a way which is independent of any particular human mind. Subjective, on the other hand, refers to the condition of being perceived as real. This can be confusing, because sometimes we need to decide whether our subjective perception is actually of some objective thing, or if it is just “all in our minds”.

Morality is a term used somewhat ambiguously. It can refer to moral duty in a general sense: that is, to the mere fact that we ought to behave in certain ways and not others. More specifically, it can also refer to some or other system of conduct: a set of rules or norms which describes the ways in which we (allegedly) should and should not act.

Under any given system of morality, right refers to the condition of a person’s actions being in accordance with his moral duty; and wrong refers to the condition of his actions being in violation of his moral duty.

But what is moral duty?

Damian suggests that

when people use “wrong” and “right” as opposed to “detrimental” and “beneficial” it actually creates a circular argument for a kind of objective morality because the word “wrong” can be used in both an objective and a subjective sense (i.e. I hit the wrong key on the keyboard vs. abortion is wrong) whereas the word “detrimental” demands that you at least define a goal or framework that is being worked against.

This is a fairly normal approach for non-theists. Superficially, it seems to allow that the words “right” and “wrong” don’t have the sort of power which theists say they have, while at the same time not robbing them of so much power that they become entirely meaningless. If we think of morally “right” as that which is beneficial, and morally “wrong” as detrimental, then we can have a more productive discussion without perhaps unintentionally begging the question in favor of the objective view.

Reciprocal question-begging

A little consideration should show that there’s an obvious problem with this approach. We’re being asked to say “abortion is detrimental”, rather than “abortion is wrong”. But this is really to ask us to abandon our own moral notions, and adopt a kind of moral pragmatism. We’re being asked to stop saying “abortion violates our moral duty”, and start saying “abortion is ultimately impractical”, or perhaps “abortion is destructive”, or “abortion is not socially beneficial” or something like that. We’re being asked to essentially say that something is morally wrong only if it fails to stack up against some practical goal or purpose; and right only if it furthers that goal or purpose. But Christians don’t believe this: we believe that something is wrong only if it violates our duty to God, and right only if it does not. So what the non-theist is implicitly suggesting is that we should abandon our Christian ethics altogether, and accept non-Christian ones instead. Naturally we aren’t going to do that, because we don’t believe morality without God is a sensible concept at all. We’ll point out a number of problems with it:

Problems with non-theistic morality

Firstly, we’re going to highlight the fact that the terms “detrimental” and “beneficial” are very ill-defined. What are the specific practical goals against which any action is being evaluated? Is it social harmony? The greatest happiness for the greatest number of people? Survival of the species? Something else?

Secondly, and more importantly, why are these practical goals the ones which have been chosen? Let’s say that “the greatest happiness for the greater number of people” is the pragmatic goal against which actions are evaluated for rightness or wrongness. This is a fairly common position known generally as utilitarianism. Why does the non-theist believe that we should evaluate actions according to this criteria? It seems very arbitrary. Why can I not make up my own criteria instead? What makes one criteria better than another? In short, why is it right that it is right to act to further the non-theist’s practical goal? His notion of how we should evaluate morality plainly doesn’t pass its own test.

In other words, the non-theist is implicitly assuming some other standard of morality by which we can know that we’re obliged to follow his standard of morality. And that is self-refuting. He’s saying that actions are moral depending on whether they work for or against some practical goal—but when he speaks of actions being “moral”, he’s really saying that we have some kind of duty to act in that way. Conversely, when he speaks of actions being “immoral”, he means that we have a duty to not act in that way. But why do I have a duty to act in a way which furthers some practical goal the atheist has invented? More specifically, since duty is to an authority, to whom is the duty I allegedly have under the atheist’s view? To the atheist himself? Why? He isn’t a moral authority. To society? Again, why? If one person is not a moral authority, then why would a collection of persons be?

What this highlights is that the proposed non-theistic view of morality is really neglecting to answer what morality actually is in the first place. Since questions of morality are questions of duty, a non-theistic view of morality needs to be able to not only say what it is that we have a duty toward, but also show convincingly that we really do have such a duty. This is where non-theistic moral theories really run aground: they cannot provide an adequate account of duty itself.

Possible objections

Damian, or some other non-theist, might object that I am unfairly imposing my theistic requirements on his non-theistic worldview. Christians may believe that a theory of morality is only intelligible given an absolute moral authority—but why should atheists believe the same thing? What’s wrong with having an arbitrary moral authority, like the opinion of the majority of society? If a group of people all agree that we have a duty to do certain things, and a duty to refrain from doing certain other things, then they can impose that belief on society as a whole, and act as a moral authority. In fact, that is generally how society does operate. There’s no need to invoke some higher authority for this. There’s no need to say that God must exist.

This objection fundamentally misses two points:

Counter-objection 1: people do believe in objectively true moral duties

Firstly, and most simply, such a view of morality ignores yet relies upon the common moral intuitions of mankind as a whole. For example, most people will find it impossible to concede that rape could ever be right. The fact that rape is wrong is not a mere matter of convention or opinion, as if it could be changed with sufficient voting power. We just don’t believe that, if enough rapists got together to form their own society, they could possibly be morally justified in declaring rape to be legal and right. Morality is not a matter of legislation. We are very much inclined to say that their society would be morally depraved and in need of correction, not just regardless of the fact that their arbitrary moral authority is opposed to ours, but in fact precisely because it is so opposed. So in reality we don’t actually believe that moral duty is an arbitrary affair, involving duty to whatever authority we happen to have established. On the contrary, we believe that whatever authority we happen to have established is established on the very basis of our strong, non-arbitrary duty to an authority which supersedes our own.

Now, non-theists will say that we have these moral intuitions as a by-product of evolution. We tend to feel a duty toward actions which promote the survival of the group, and against actions which would detract from this cause. But if this is the case then certain moral intuitions we have don’t seem to make sense. Rape will certainly tend to benefit the survival of the group. Yet our very strong moral intuitions are that rape is always wrong.

More importantly, if our belief in the moral abhorrence of rape is a byproduct of evolution, then it is purely arbitrary. It is not as if evolution selected for things which are morally good, and against things which are morally bad. Rather, what is morally good is what evolution, a non-rational physical process, happened to select for; and what is morally bad is what evolution happened to select against. It could have gone the other way—or even if it couldn’t have, we still only believe that rape is evil because a non-intelligent, non-moral biological process occurred in such a way as to produce that belief.

Counter-objection 2: duty is unintelligible without God

Secondly, then, the non-theistic view ignores and yet relies upon an even more fundamental fact: duty is an incoherent concept if it is reduced to something arbitrary or something non-personal. The atheist wants to say that an arbitrary and man-made moral authority is sufficient for a workable system of morality. But he ignores the fact that the authority is not really arbitrary because any man-made authority is based on a prior, shared view of morality in which we feel a moral duty to something not man-made.

When this is pointed out, he then wants to say that this prior, shared view of morality is a result of evolution, such that the duty we feel is not really toward anything—it’s just a result of biological pressures causing us to act in certain ways. But if this is the case, then ultimately our ideas about moral duty are founded on non-duty. It is not sensible to say that we have a duty to evolutionary processes. Duties are things owed, and things owed are to persons. So if our sense of moral duty is a result of evolutionary processes, then it is actually a total fiction. We actually have no duty whatsoever. We aren’t even being intelligible when we talk about “arbitrary moral authorities”, because to talk about such a thing presupposes the notion of duty itself, and the notion of duty is just a result of biological processes. In other words, in a non-theistic worldview, duty is actually the same as non-duty—a contradiction in terms. The non-theistic view reduces to absurdity.

Therefore, when a non-theist says that we should do something, or ought not do some other thing, he is actually contradicting himself. The words “should” and “ought” refer to duty—and duty doesn’t exist in the final analysis of his worldview. It is a term without an actual referent in the real world. It doesn’t refer to anything which resembles what it’s supposed to mean. Yet atheists and agnostics certainly do believe that we have duties. In fact, they know we have duties.

Now, if someone claims to “know” something which is a contradiction in terms, something which isn’t real, we tend to say that person is deluded or insane. Thus, when we carefully work through all the implications of a non-theistic worldview, we find that non-theists, under their own view, are deluded or insane. And that is the problem with subjective morality. This is why “many non-theists scramble to try to show that they do, in fact, have a basis for objective morality”. This is what’s so great about objective morality. A worldview which reduces our plainly recognizable duty to God to insanity is an insane worldview.

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