On the Nature of Morality (1998)
An Internet Reply to Eugene Khutoryansky’s “Objective Morality Based on Scientific and Rational Reasoning”
“There are no objective values.” – J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977, p. 15.
There has long been a discussion in philosophy regarding the nature of morality, where some have argued that there is such a thing as an objective morality and where others have disputed this, instead advocating a view which sees morality as a purely subjective phenomenon. I belong to the second camp, and the purpose of this essay is to clarify on what grounds. In particular, I will do so in reply to a recent essay (henceforth referred to as EK; see the subtitle above) which claims to have presented a strong case for objective morality. Note that the terms “morality” and “ethics” are used interchangeably throughout this essay.
Before presenting the arguments, some terminological clarifications are in order. First of all, what is being discussed here is second-order ethics, or meta-ethics. This means that whether certain acts are moral or immoral is not a topic here; rather, the issue is how ethical views can be explained and classified – i.e., the nature of ethics. Ethical views, or first-order ethics, are statements of a general nature – which means that they are thought to supervene similarly on all relevantly similar sets of natural properties – involving the concepts right or wrong. This property of first-order ethics is shared by both objective and subjective meta-ethical views, although the objectivists think this supervenience to be an independent, constant feature of existence, whereas the subjectivists only think it to be a human construction.
Second, by objective morality is meant a moral view which claims that there exists a morality which is external to human beings. Much like the existence of a law of gravity, there is a moral law which exists independently of any conscious being. Hence, morality is not a human fabrication – it merely awaits to be detected. In contrast, subjective morality denotes the view that moral views are nothing but human opinions, the origin of which is biological, social, and psychological. Without conscious beings, there would be no such thing as morality. Furthermore, on the subjective view, it is not possible to deem a moral opinion “true” or “false” – since such assessments require some objective standard against which to assess. However, advocates of objective and subjective morality agree on the following issue: that meta-ethical statements can be true or false.
Third, it is important to distinguish subjective morality from moral relativism, which claims that moral views differ between different contexts or cultures, and from moral nihilism, which states that there is no morality or that morality does not matter. One possible implication of moral relativism, which is quite often wrongly inferred as being contained in the general class of subjective meta-ethics, is the view that moral statements can only be considered applicable in the context in which they are uttered.
Fourth, most often atheists advance the idea that morality is subjective, whilst theists cling to its being objective. These positions are contingent, in that it is logically possible for atheists to think ethics objective (indeed, the EK claims to demonstrate precisely this without invoking theism, although theism is said to be compatible with the argument) and in that it is logically possible for theists to believe that the deity or deities in question did not devise a moral law.
I shall now turn to EK and offer four points of criticism which I believe effectively undermine the meta-ethical view proposed there, that there be an objective morality. In doing this, I indirectly provide a strong defense of the stance that all ethics is, verily, subjective.
The first problem with EK is the assertion that values are similar in nature to facts about reality. It is stated that there is a similarity in kind between natural laws and moral laws, which implies that the latter, like the former, have always existed, that these laws are constant, and that they are possible to detect through human endeavor.
Let me begin by conceding that I agree with the argument that total agreement between all human beings with reference to morality does not make morality necessarily objective and from the fact that widespread disagreement between all humans beings with reference to morality does not make morality necessarily subjective.
However, although it does not logically follow, I would claim that there is a strong case for the subjectivity of morality if there is such widespread disagreement. This is so especially if, as is the case, proponents of subjective morality can provide plausible accounts of such disagreement (social and biological evolution, psychological influences from individuals and cultures) whilst the proponents of objective morality can provide no account of such disagreement, except the rather unsatisfactory statement that we may, in the future, detect the reasons why there is such disagreement. Indeed, we may, but until we have done so, it seems as if the subjectivists have a much more convincing story to tell.
This problem for objectivism is particularly acute for the theist versions, where it, in fact, provides an argument for atheism. Let us digress for a moment and construct a simple argument to show why.
The Moral-Knowledge Argument for Atheism
1 If God exists, then he is a being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent.
2 If God exists, it would be in God’s interest and within his capacity for all human beings to know his ethics perfectly.
3 All human beings do not know God’s ethics perfectly, which is shown by their disagreeing about many moral values.
Therefore: God does not exist.
Let me offer a comment on proposition 2. How can it be argued that it would be in God’s interest for all human beings to know his ethics perfectly? To answer, let us consider this not being so. If God could make his ethics perfectly known to all human beings, what reason could there be for him not to realize this option? We could imagine two scenarios. First, a God which shows favoritism in the sense that he reveals his ethics only to some, or in the sense that he reveals it to a higher extent to some than to others. But this would be inconsistent with our assumption of benevolence, since such favoritism would imply that God cares more about some than about others (where knowledge of God’s ethics must be considered a good, from the point of view of a benevolent God). (And in the Christian case, it is explicitly stated in Acts 10:34: “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism’.” (NIV)) Second, we could imagine God spreading a limited knowledge of his ethics in equal proportions to all of humanity. But (i) what could possibly be the point in such a self-imposed limitation of spreading something which, from the point of view of the benevolent God, must be considered a good? and (ii) this can hardly be the case, since not all people agree normatively on any issue of ethics (and if my point (ii) is disputed, the burden of proof is on the person claiming that there is such agreement – and this has not been shown).
To return to facts and values, it is not logically necessary to hold that they are different in kind, but I think there are very good reasons to think so, for reasons described by Bertrand Russell in his essay “Science and Ethics”:
“The theory which I have been advocating is a form of the doctrine which is called the ‘subjectivity’ of values. This doctrine consists in maintaining that, if two men differ about values, there is not a disagreement as to any kind of truth, but a difference of taste. If one man says ‘oysters are good’ and another says ‘I think they are bad,’ we recognize that there is nothing to argue about. The theory in question holds that all differences as to values are of this sort, although we do not naturally think them so when we are dealing with matters that seem to us more exalted than oysters. The chief ground for adopting this view is the complete impossibility of finding any arguments to prove that this or that has intrinsic value. If we all agreed, we might hold that we know values by intuition. We cannot prove, to a colour-blind man, that grass is green and not red. But there are various ways of proving to him that he lacks a power of discrimination which most men possess, whereas in the case of values there are no such ways, and disagreements are much more frequent than in the case of colours. Since no way can be even imagined for deciding a difference as to values, the conclusion is forced upon us that the difference is one of tastes, not one as to any objective truth.”
And J. L. Mackie concurs (in the book quoted above, p. 36):
“But it is not the mere occurrence of disagreements that tells against the objectivity of values. Disagreements on questions in history or biology or cosmology does not show that there are no objective issues in these fields for investigators to disagree about. But such scientific disagreement results from speculative inferences or explanatory hypotheses based on inadequate evidence, and it is hardly plausible to interpret moral disagreement in the same way. Disagreement about moral codes seems to reflect people’s adherence to and participation in different ways of life. The causal connection seems to be mainly that way around: it is that people approve of monogamy because they participate in a monogamous way of life rather than that they participate in a monogamous way of life because they approve of monogamy.”
But what about the lengthy argument in EK that uses the example of “torture for the pure sake of inflicting pain on others” to demonstrate the existence of an objective ethics? It is my view that it fails utterly in its endeavor, the main reason for which is the inability to convincingly show that dislike of this sort of action in any way stems from an extra-human source. Yes, we may all dislike and condemn torture, and we may do so on the basis of an experience of suffering, and we may generalize and say that torturing others for no other reason than to inflict pain is objectionable. But this in no way implies an objective morality, in the sense defined above. All these feelings and statements are also possible on a subjective ethics, as it happens.
EK argues that just because there is no “morality meter”, there could still be an objective morality. I agree with this statement. But until there is one, it seems much more convincing to think that there is no objective morality. It is also true that electrons existed before they could be measured, but we did not really believe that electrons existed before they could be measured. When the objective moralist presents such a meter, then he may be convincing, not until then. The fact that we accept some things to exist without there being a possibility to meter them is no argument that anything that is proposed to exist exists.
Admittedly, in EK there is a proposed method for uncovering the true moral law, and the method suggested works in the following manner. It starts by assuming agreement on a moral issue, say, that x is wrong. It then proceeds by considering neighboring cases and what possible basis there might be for deeming x’, x” etc. right or wrong. It ends up with a set of approximations as to the objective moral law. I find this way of reasoning very sympathetic in the realm of first-order ethics (actually, it is quite similar to my own), but it does not provide any basis at all for the second-order ethical view that values are objective, for two (related) reasons.
First, a logical flaw appears, in that the method starts from the incorrect assumption that agreement necessarily implies truth. That is simply false. Even if everybody agrees that x is wrong, that does not indicate that x is wrong in any intrinsic manner. It simply indicates that we all feel revulsion when pondering upon x, which we may express in moral statements of the sort “x is wrong”. Furthermore, this assumption is false in the realm of natural facts as well. If everybody in the world once agreed that the earth was flat, that does not necessarily imply that the earth was, as a matter of fact, flat. So, necessary for the argument to be plausible is some reasoning which links “agreement” to something akin to “probable truth” – but such an argument is nowhere to be seen.
Second, the method fails for the simple reason that no distinction is made between external and internal consistency. Since the starting point of the exercise is arbitrary, as argued in the previous paragraph, there is no way of knowing whether the reasoning is at all in agreement with some imagined set of objective moral views. I.e., no (external) consistency between EK‘s proposed first-order morality and the talked-about objective morality is assured. What is assured, however, is internal consistency: the method of reasoning is such as to preclude incompatible or illogical moral views, such as holding A and not-A simultaneously.
The third problem with EK is the absence of any plausible theory as to the origins of an objective morality. In the realm of nature, there are plausible theories regarding the origin of such things as the universe, plants, animals, human beings; but there is no similar theory presented as to where objective moral values have come from. Of course, the theist has a ready answer, but his response merely shifts the discussion to one of whether atheism or theism is true. It is trickier, indeed, for EK, since theism is not invoked, and this is the argument for subjective morality from queerness. That is, objective morality is so odd a concept as to simply confuse our thinking: how could we possibly account for an objective moral law without a deity? I am unaware of how this could be done, and EK offers no persuasive explanation. An analogy between consciousness and morality is suggested, and the idea is that just like consciousness exists on the basis of a congregation of unconscious atoms, morality exists on the basis of amoral atoms. In one sense, I grant this, since all human experience, which I admit involves morality, ultimately stems from the atoms which constitute a human at base. But, as is noted, this in no way attests to an objective, extra-human morality. (Of course, some people yield to the naturalist fallacy and derive “ought” from “is”, but that is certainly not the kind of thing proposed in EK.)
The fourth problem with EK is the serious misrepresentation of alternative theories regarding morality. Major ethical theories, like utilitarianism and contractarianism, are rejected in a highly sketchy and simplifying manner, and my advice to the discerning reader is to form his own opinions on these theories and then evaluate the misleading claims of EK. I will not offer a response of my own to these claims, since this essay does not deal with first-order ethics. However, I will offer a comment to the statement on the section dealing with evolution and natural selection, since it pertains to one of the theories which strengthen the case for the existence of subjective morality.
First, it is asserted that “[s]ome people believe that morality is nothing more than behaviors which have evolved to help our survival.” Personally, I think that most people who think that evolution has played an important role in the development of actual perceptions of morality acknowledge that there are other important factors as well, such as social and cultural (“environmental”) influences. In practice, this means that the moral senses of a human being are formed both on genetic grounds and on the basis of attitudes and information conveyed by parents, schools, and the surrounding society.
But how can there be an evolutionary influence at all? Consider first the logic of the theory of evolution with regard to physical traits. By means of random genetic variation and the non-random principle of natural selection, biological entities which are better equipped physically to survive in some particular environment will flourish relative to variants which are not as well equipped. But what is the difference between a physical and a mental trait, such as a sense of morality, with regard to the possibility to survive in a competitive environment? None, as far as I can see. That is, just like more muscular legs enhances the chance for survival of an ape’s genes, a propensity to provide care for his kin likewise enhances the chance for the continued survival of its genes. Hence, if one accepts the logic of this theory with regard to physical traits, it seems odd to reject it when talking about mental traits, given that one admits that such traits, at least in part, have a genetic basis (which is hard to deny).
What about the objection that evolution only produces genuine altruism with regard to close relatives and not generally (which is what moral theories generally aim at)? This is not a valid objection, for the reason that evolutionary theory merely explains morality (e.g., by means of game theory) – it does not prescribe it. It is, in other words, a positive and not a normative theory. If, in reality, whether we like it or not, this is what morality is about, then it should be thus described. But one must note, as has been pointed out above, that evolution does leave room for normative moral theories as well: it is possible to try to influence people, in spite of their being formed to a large extent by evolution, in accordance with some noble ethics. It seems that EK admits for this possibility towards the end.
EK suggests that if morality is determined by evolution, the unproductive members of society would be killed, which, he claims, is not what we observe. First of all, evolution proceeds on the level of genes, and a parent will go to great lengths in protecting his possibly unproductive child, because he attempts to ensure that his genes shall survive. But what about killing strangers who are unproductive? One could imagine that such a behavior would not be beneficial, on average, due to a lack of information. That is, societies where individuals have a moral idea that such killing is required may mistakenly kill many talents and hence be worse equipped than other societies, without this urge. Take Einstein, who as a child was considered very untalented. If he would have been killed, the strength of the Western world had been much reduced.
Furthermore, unproductive people may perform simple but important tasks. Imagine, for instance, a society in war with another. Whilst the strong and smart try to defeat the enemy directly, the feeble and lame may take care of children, fire services, hospitals, food distribution, clothes production, etc. – all essential services for the survival of individuals in that society. But what about the care which is extended to people who are of no real benefit to anyone else, such as elderly, sickly, demented people? First, it may be questioned that care is extended on a very large scale to useless people: it seems as if many do not really care if such people die. In addition, bonds of love may have been nurtured between parents and children since the day the children were born, for the parents to ensure that they would be taken care of when needed. That is, there may, of course, be other influences than evolutionary ones on human behavior. Hence, it is clear that a suggestion, on this type of grounds, that evolution does not contribute to explaining morality falls to the ground.
For further reading on this topic, I recommend Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are. London: Abacus, 1996 and Daniel C. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1995, chs. 16 and 17. I would divine that EK is quite unaware of the arguments contained therein.
We are now in a position to offer the following conclusion. EK claims to have shown that there is a strong case for morality being objective. In this essay, I have provided four counter-arguments which demonstrate that the argument in EK suffers from serious shortcomings which, in sum, render the argument wholly unconvincing. In fact, as before the advent of EK, there is no reason to suppose anything but that morality is a purely subjective phenomenon. Of course, we cannot with absolute certainty rule out that there will not be reason to alter this conclusion at some point in the future, but there is, to my knowledge, no indication of a proper basis for such a revision at the present time.
Let me, finally, comment on a common protestation against this conclusion.
First, someone may ask, What does it matter if ethics is objective or subjective – is not the first-order ethics the relevant issue to be discussing? This question seems to imply that the difference between objective and subjective morality is solely a semantic one. In a sense, this may be correct. Note that either subjective or objective morality is correct: both cannot be true. If there really is an objective ethics, this changes nothing, at least not in the present, since no one can argue convincingly what it is. If all ethics is subjective, then that changes nothing either, since, e.g., a subjectivist thinks that those who think there is an objective ethics, which they follow, just have a subjective variant which they happen to term “objective”. (As an example, the behavioral rules of the Bible are seen as the subjective views of some Jewish tribesleaders who lived thousands of years ago.)
But does not the basis for moral behavior disappear if we admit that ethics is subjective? Of course not – if there is not a symbolic effect of using the term “objective”. If there is not such an effect, the moral senses which have developed will continue to work just as they always have. But if there is such an effect – that is, if using the term “objective” actually influences people’s behavior – then it could be imagined that some behavioral changes could occur if people were convinced that all ethics is subjective. But this effect will probably be small, if it exists at all, and one may properly question if behavior based on a certain concept (saying “do this because it is ‘objectively’ right” rather than providing a general moral principle which explains the relevance of the guideline in question) is moral at all.