Constructed Morality – Plus the Meaning of Life

In my last post, I pointed out that ‘subjective morality’ is a meaningless statement – to everyone. Those that usually invoke it are generally people trying to argue that some other group of people is making a moral issues out of something that is really a preference. (I used the example of sex outside of marriage.) Therefore, the argument that morality is subjective is primarily used as an objective moral argument.  

And, as was pointed out in this post, people that claim morality is subjective are ultimately going to undermine their own arguments with their actions. They will still treat certain moral issues – the ones that they believe really are moral issues – as if they are objective moral issues.  

I think more needs to be said now about just how deeply rooted the idea of objective morality is to all of us. Morality and Meaning seem to be deeply tied in our minds in some way. 

We freely speak of out ‘better angels’ and ‘wanting to be a better person’ without flinching. And even die hard atheists speak of ‘the sanctity of life’ or ‘the evils of slavery’ and do so without having to explain it first. 

And more to the point, we fight for what we believe without a second thought. 

Andrew S, a thoughtful atheist blogger, once said this to me:

Something does not need to have eternal or permanent significance for us to have subjective significance that we press on. So I think the reason you don’t hear people saying things like, “Oh, morality is just a construct, to each his own,” is because this is a non sequitur. Really, things go like, “Morality is just a construct, but regardless of this, my construct has personal significance to me so I value and fight for it.” 

I’ve been writing about this issue extensively, but my idea is this: I have no problem if there is no intrinsic morality or meaning to the universe (a nihilistic position). But behind every nihilist sentiment must be an existentialist position that creates something subjectively meaningful from the objective meaninglessness. … Morality doesn’t have to be an absolute even if we fight for our constructed senses of morality as if they were…

But does this answer satisfy the paradox that we are building in these posts?

The Problem With Constructed Morality

It seems to me that it doesn’t. Consider that ‘morality’ implies we sincerely believe everyone should be that way. Andrew is not denying this. In fact, he’s saying that this personal construct that he calls his personal morality is so important to him that he has no problem at all with going out and fighting for it against those that have different personal moral constructs and to work to either convert everyone to his constructed morality or possible (in certain legal situations) use force to require his constructed morality to be adopted.

All careful wording aside, we are talking about forcing your morality on someone else, in varying degrees.

Knowing AndrewS, in this context by ‘fight he undoubted meant only ‘argue in favor of it against those that have different moral constructs.’ Or did he?

For example, he’s probably in favor of making laws and applying punishments for murder, stealing, hate crimes, etc. If morality is just a personal construct, how would we justify such laws? Is it a simple matter of might makes right? (More on that later.) So even to Andrew, morality is about some form of coersion. For certain moral beliefs in his personal moral construct he is willing to ‘fight’ as in ‘coerce and possibly with threat of violence’ (for that is what laws and governments are.) 

But whether we mean ‘argue for’ or ‘coerce,’ this is enough to show the underlying problem with Andrew’s argument.

In a world where morality is nothing more than a personal construct – literally nothing more than that – what possible basis could there be for favoring one construct over another? So why fight for it at all? Wouldn’t that be very much like deciding that the book you wrote or music you composed is, in fact, the One True Work of Art and then try to fight with everyone (if only through argumentation and with words) about how everyone should adopt yours as their own?

And doesn’t that just feel wrong somehow if we’re really just talking about personal constructs? Is forcing your preferences on someone else a moral thing to do?

Oh wait! I can’t say that, can I? To even ask the question ‘is this moral’ is to appeal outside the construct of a subjective morality to an objective one and then to compare the subjective moral construct to the objective non-constructed moral one. But this should have been impossible.

Or, in asking such a question, am I perhaps maybe just fighting for my own personal moral preference that is neither better nor worse that anyone elses? And if so, then how do I explain that I’m convinced my moral preference (i.e. that we don’t force our preferences on others) is not just itself a preference that I am… well, forcing on others? What am I even saying when I try to appeal to a moral preference like this? 

Huston, we have a problem, and the problem is that a subjective moral worldview requires us to, at some level, still assume that it’s based on an underlying objective moral worldview.

But then, if such an underlying objective morality exists that I can appeal to to clear this all up what I should care about is that underlying objective morality and I should not pretend that the constructed subjective one matters at all. It’s just a preference after all.

Purely subjective morality is a logically incoherent mess because it tautologically treats itself as if it’s not subjective. (If it didn’t, then we wouldn’t call it ‘morality’ in the first place.)

What we really need is a way to justify (i.e. explain) morality without having to appealing to morality via a circular argument like this.

But there is one aspect of Andrew’s argument that strikes me as dead on correct: our moral worldviews are incredily meaningful to us. In fact, I’d argue that they aren’t just a source of meaning in our lives but the source of meaning in our lives.

5 thoughts on “Constructed Morality – Plus the Meaning of Life

  1. Bruce, I’ve had some long discussions with atheist/humanist friends about this issue, and what they claim is that society sets up rules that “work” to make a functioning society based on the majority rules sense of morality. They will cite this ancient tribe and that one (the Aztecs, for example) where their morality is completely different than ours (regular human sacrifice) to prove that there is no inherent sense of morality.

    My counter-argument is that there is no evidence that Aztecs changed the basic rules of “fair play” that we all accept as basic morality. For example, there is no evidence that there were absolutely no property rights, there is no evidence that any man could have any woman he pleased without any repercussions, there is no evidence that wanton murder went unpunished. In fact, in the case of the Aztecs, the sacrifices were almost always of vanquished foes as a sign of superiority, but criminals were still punished for murder. I think that the more you study cultures that were supposedly different from ours, the more you come to the conclusion that they are more similar than you think. Morality does seem pretty universal (what CS Lewis calls “the Tao.”)

  2. So, I agree with you that ultimately, morality cannot be defined as subjective. Once that happens it ceases to be morality, and becomes something else.

    You may be interested to read Sam Harris on this in “The Moral Landscape”: http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/the-moral-landscape

    An outspoken atheist, Sam Harris celebrates morality as something to passionately fight for, that is not relative. However, he doesn’t believe that morals come from religious superstition, but from biology. His views and actions reflect his moral convictions. He advocates a noncoercive, corrective form of intolerance. He holds extremely intolerant views of Islam for example, an intolerance that has made him many enemies on the left, and some surprising friends on the right.

    So here you have a militant atheist who has taken ownership of morality as the domain of science, and is proselytizing his views in an aggressive, confident and intolerant way, just as a fundamentalist Christian would.

    Interestingly, Richard Dawkins claims to have evolved in his views on morality in response to Harris’s arguments and has been a strong proponent of Harris.

  3. Nate,

    Interestingly, I wrote about Sam Harris and his views on morality a while back.

    I actually believe he says some really good things and is headed in a correct direction. And I have no doubt whatsoever that there is a biological basis for morality. (I have an upcoming post where I will explore this a bit.)

    I think, however, that Sam Harris is decidely wrong about one thing. Simply put, science has not discovered an objective morality. It hasn’t even hinted at it so far.

    The problem being that Sam Harris basically is making a leap of faith that since evolution produced a moral sense, our moral feelings must therefore must be objectively real. But there is no logical reason why this must be the case and he produces no evidence to back himself up as far as I’ve seen so far. He is essentialy just assuming — ironically based on faith — and then drawing conclusions now that he’s assumed the existence of morality.

    The truth is, the issue is *much* thornier then he gives credit.

    One interesting thing he pointed out somewhere is that the human brain (when put into an MRI) does not differentiate between how it thinks of facts and how it thinks of morality. Morality is facts to us. This basically backs up my views in my posts that no one honestly thinks of morailty as being subjective and just a preference. We experience it and treat it just like we treat any other fact of existence and we lack the brain machinery to do otherwise.

  4. Geoff,

    I think you are right that there is very little difference bewteen most moral judgments in human culture. I’ve long argued that most differences we see are really a disagreement over facts.

    Because of my (sometimes unfortunate) participation with the Bloggernacle and the Dehlinites, I’ve thought about the Church’s views of homosexuality and gay marriage vs. the Bloggernacles and the Dehlinites. It seems to me that it actually does boil down to a difference over facts. The current Church leaders view isn’t just some view taken from scripture (though it is that too) but they honestly believe that they have revelation about the afterlife that effects factually the moral judgment involved. The bloggernacle is on the fence on this due to being less sure about the facts about the afterlife and (most of) the Dehlinites honestly feel they have the facts that there is no afterlife.

    The real truth is that we would all actually come up with the very same moral judgements on this if we all agreed on the facts about the afterlife, most likely. So this difference isn’t actually a difference in moral judgment per se.

  5. Re Atheists:

    A light bulb that doesn’t believe in electricity still shines forth.

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