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The Case for Objective Morality

by Francois Tremblay



Short version:

The unit of ethics is values. Values are things that one must work to gain or keep (a simple example of that is nutrition). These values are short-handed ways of expressing moral principles (ex. “we need to eat because otherwise we die”), and moral principles are short-handed way of expressing scientific or social facts (such as the facts about metabolism).

The basis of ethics is causality: everything has consequences, and so do actions. Actions have consequences, and our role is to find those consequences and act accordingly.

By evaluating what values are being effected by a given action in its context, we can express a sound moral judgment on that action (this was a good thing to do, this was a bad thing to do). This is true regardless of your actual moral system – we all have values, implicitly or explicitly. The real argument is about those scientific and social facts and what values they entail. There cannot be any argument on whether there are objective moral principles: it’s a discussion about as ridiculous as asking whether the Earth exists. We all need to act to survive.

Long version:

Objective morality, that is to say a morality based on reality (instead of subjective beliefs, desires, whims, etc), is usually claimed to be the province of religion. Atheism, on the other hand, is supposed to have nothing to offer but evolutionary or emotionalist explanations. In this article, I will defend secular objective morality against both religious absolutism and skeptic subjectivism/relativism.

First, it is important to understand that the skeptic answer can be seen as simply absurd and hypocrite. Most atheists would not accept subjectivist answers in any other area (except perhaps some nihilists), especially things like science. We rightly blame many Christians for holding Creationist positions on faith and subjective appreciation, because their position is not based on reality. But we must put the same blame on the shoulders of the subjectivist position in morality. To argue that morality is not knowledge and that therefore any belief or whim is acceptable, is not any more acceptable than saying that biology is not knowledge and that Creationist is true by default.

One may claim that in the absence of a possible objective morality, we must fall back on subjectivism. But that is unacceptable: in the absence of objective evidence for a proposition, we must remain silent. We must go to the extent that a rational evaluation of the evidence will take us, and no further. To do otherwise is to indulge in fantasy, which can be very good in art but a detriment in philosophy as well as in our daily experience.

I already mentioned that the standard skeptic, and humanist, answer to morality is evolutionary adaptation. But evolution does not give us objective morality, but rather explains why people hold the moral positions they do. It explains why the whim exists, but not what reality actually indicates. Evolutionary adaptations are based on a non-directed process, and are based on the human species and environment as it existed millions of years ago. Even if the evolutionary process was flawless from our perspective, it would hardly make the moral instincts of a tribal, status-based species living in an ancestral environment, devoid of almost all technology, applicable to today’s world.

We can say that the morality-as-evolutionary position is flawed precisely because it is subjective: it uses objective facts (evolution and evolutionary psychology) but uses them to falsely deduce moral facts. If there is to be knowledge about morality, then it must be objective, that is to say, based on Reason: beyond that, we must remain silent.

To claim that morality is subjective is a denial of causality – actions have consequences, which arise because of natural, psychological and social laws. If you stop eating, you will die. If you stop drinking water, you will die even faster. If you break the social mores of decency or peaceful behaviour in your relationships with others, your life will be affected and even endangered. If you do not pursue social values in general, you will live isolated from the benefits of civilization. If you do not pursue mental values, you will not have the mental capacity to reason our way through life. Without such values, you would easily fall prey to any received idea, any scam, you would have no capacity to manage your life. Causality is universal: actions have consequences, causes have effects, if we fail to follow the requirements of life we will fail to live.

Whatever the moral system upheld by the individual, we can express the general value-judgment process simply in the following manner:

1. There is a moral choice, with two or more possible actions.
2. Those actions exist in a context.
3. The combination of that context and our hierarchy of values (whatever its form) determines the values effected by each action.

We already have a hierarchical system of values in humanistic psychology, which is called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and is generally accepted in the field. David Kelley gives a similar account of human needs in “Logical Structure of Objectivism”, albeit one that also includes vital philosophical concerns (bold his):

” Material needs such as needs for health and food: these values contribute directly to survival.

Spiritual needs such as needs for conceptual knowledge, self-esteem, education and art: these values are spiritual in the sense that they primarily pertain to consciousness, and contribute to survival by helping Reason to function properly.

Social needs such as needs for trade, communication, friendship and love: these values are social in that they occur only through interaction with others. Logically, their status as values is due to the fact that they contribute to the fulfillment of spiritual and material needs.

Political needs such as needs for freedom and objective law, which are needs concerning the organization of society. These provide the context for fulfilling our material, spiritual and social needs”
(p81)

I think it is pretty clear that all of its parts are objective. They are based on existing physical and psychological causal facts that we observe in ourselves and other people. It is also a hierarchy, given that the needs at one level need to be fulfilled to a suitable extent before we can be concerned about the others.

A value is a goal that our actions seek to accomplish. Objective values have a one-to-one correspondence with objective needs, because needs indicate the goals that need to be fulfilled. As David Kelley judiciously writes in “Logical Structure of Objectivism” (italics his):

“The place of biological needs in the logical structure of Objectivism is this: since ones life is ones ultimate value, one has to know what one needs for the maintenance of life in order to know what to seek as a value.

The needs of a living organism determine its goals. In other words, its needs determine its values.”
(p69-70)

We have a hierarchy of values for the same reason than we have a hierarchy of needs – because some values need to be reasonably fulfilled (such as nutrition or sleep) before some others can come under the purview of our actions (such as love or excellence). There is a gradient of importances that necessarily enters into account here. That is why one may say, objectively, that eating is much more important than, say, gaining status. But these values are universal: they apply to all human beings, except in some cases where higher values cannot be effected due to physical defect.

It is important here to understand that while values themselves are objective in all ways, their specific implementation differs from person to person and from culture to culture. For instance, we all need to eat, but we do not eat the same things. Someone in Latvia might eat a dinner of bizugis with pea balls and a glass of maizes kvass, and I might have a piece of tourtire with maple syrup and a glass of milk. But it remains an inescapable biological fact that we both need to eat to survive.

Contextuality expresses the fact that an action does not exist in a vacuum. When we examine an action, we cannot ignore that the action takes place in a given context. This context is necessary to evaluate the consequences of an action, because it informs the values that are effected by the action.

To take a simple example, the action of “killing” effects very different values whether it involves:

  • killing someone who has a gun trained on you
  • killing an innocent person walking down the street
  • killing an animal for food on a hunting trip
  • killing a spider that entered the house

    And so on and so forth. In each case, the being that is killed, the state of ourselves and the being, the actions necessary to perform, are all very different and lead to different results. In one case, our life is saved. In the other, we are a criminal.

    If we take contextuality out of the picture, we are no longer being objective. At least in that portion of the moral judgment, we are talking about doctrine. We have let subjectivity enter the picture, in our belief in the ultimate authority of our rules to replace context.

    In fact, I would contend that we are no longer talking about morality, either. We have taken away a part of reality which directly pertains to moral judgment. Thus we are no longer talking about morality, but rather about a mental abstraction which has no more relation to action in the real world.

    We now have the other part of the answer as regards to the lack of religious morality. In the example I gave before, an absolutist rule would be of the type “thou shalt not kill”, which is a Christian statement. By saying this, we assume that this statement magically takes into account the context of any action that involves killing, because no such account is present in the statement itself. Since monotheistic religions do not adopt contextualism in any way, they do not pertain to objectivity or morality at all.

    In this discussion, I have refuted skeptic morality, by showing that subjectivity is insufficient, that evolution is not a sufficient epistemic basis for morality, and that the case for objective secular morality is coherent and commonsense. I have also refuted the position that religion can give moral answers, both for its absolutism and its dogmatic subjectivism.

    Morality is important to the topic of strong-atheism because of the moral obligation to be rational. If we accept this moral obligation, then we cannot accept any other position. Theologians reject such an obligation as incomplete, and skeptics, having no grounds to uphold it objectively, usually argue from pragmatism. Since it works, they say, we must think rationally, but we have no obligation to do so.

    From the objective perspective, rationality is a virtue because it permits me to ground my thinking on reality, which is more conductive to the pursuit of my goals than fantasy. But the skeptic has no necessary grounds to posit this. If he argues from pragmatism, we have to ask him, on what grounds can you declare that rationality “works”, without being able to use reason as measure? When the pragmatist says that reason “works”, he is implicitly evaluating it from either a rational or theological perspective.

    In this article, I have not discussed specific moral systems. That is because there are many different objective moral systems, such as Objectivist morality, many variants of utilitarian morality, humanism (when not used with the evolutionary justification), and to a certain extent, rational pragmatism. While I am an Objectivist, and I think that David Kelley makes an airtight case for Objectivist morality in “Logical Structure of Objectivism”, I will leave everyone free to draw his own conclusions.

    This is an abridged version of my case for objective morality contra Kevin Currie. For the complete case, see http://www.objectivethought.com/debates/currie1a.html.

    Last updated: January 1, 2005