What is Morality?: The Objective Nature of Morality

In my last post, I considered the fact that all people treat morality as if it objectively exists even if they claim they don’t believe in it. I also gave C.S. Lewis’ argument that this was proof that God exists. While I like the argument, I don’t personally find it coercive. However, I do think Lewis is right that there are no moral relativists except in name only. Yes, it’s easy for someone, given the right training, to say they don’t believe morality is objective. But the moment you take them out of the Ivory Tower, their belief in moral realism manifests without a second thought. 

Imagine trying to write a history of the United States that didn’t take a moral stance on slavery. We easily, and without much thought at all, condemn our ancestors’ the practice of slavery. But how much sense does it make to do this if morality is really just a subjective preference? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just accept that that society practiced their own brand of morality differing from ours and leave it at that? But we just can’t leave it at that, can we? We feel compelled to go on to assess the morality of others as if morality objectively exists.

To us, our 19th century ancestors in the South did something immoral when they practiced or upheld slavery and that is that. We’re scarcely wiling to even give time to the consideration that maybe it wasn’t wrong after all. Yet all those who lived in slavery are dead and so are all those that benefited from it. So you can’t, much as you might want to, claim that morality is purely a practical matter. It means so much more to us than that.

Indeed, our deepest intuitions about morality seem to tautologically start with the assumption that we are talking about something non-subjective. That because morality is the intuitive sense all human beings have that we ought to behave in certain ways and not others.

In fact, it goes further than that. The ‘problem of evil’ argument (considered in this post) isn’t just an argument that we personally ought to be a certain way, but rather that reality itself ought to be different from what it is. What an incredibly odd argument for us to make!

This is why the arguments for a purely subjective morality fail out of the rational gate. If morality doesn’t exist, we still need to explain where our intuition and sense of morality comes from. Merely dismissing it isn’t enough. You have to explain it. Namely, you have to accept that our intuitions are, for some reason, wrong. And not just wrong, but so deeply wrong that even individuals with the deepest commitment to the non-existence of morality routinely acts as if morality does objectively exist.

Morality Implies Ought to All

Let’s take an example. Try to imagine two communities. One believes that people should not have sex before marriage. The other believes there is nothing morally wrong with it. We’ll make up a name for the first community and call them ‘Christians.’ (This is a made up hypothetical example, of course, and that last word is just a randmonly selected jumble of letters.) We’ll call the second community ‘Americans.’ (Again, just a made up name here.)

Can’t we here say that each community has a different moral view and each is welcome to live their lives as they please?

Well, of course we we can say that, but it seems to me that such a claim is really a claim that our “Christian” community is morally wrong to insist that everyone should wait until marriage to have sex. That is to say, the very act of saying ‘to each their own — so leave me alone!’ is to fundamentally decide that the issue in question wasn’t a moral question after all — and therefore was a moral mistake.

Variations on a Theme

Now wait! I hear you cry. What if we modify things a bit? What if we assume that the “Christians” change their tune here. What if we posit that Christians continue to believe that God wants them to not have sex before marriage, but that they don’t believe God has such a commandment for non-Christians. Can’t we then have a subjective moral view on this issue?

Well, actually, no. What is the moral question now? It’s no longer if sex before marriage is right or wrong in and of itself. Now the objective moral question is likely (assuming our hypothetical Christians believe in their religion as having objective truth) whether or not someone should choose to be Christian or not. So we’ve now shifted the moral issue, but we still have one. And the “Christians” are still coming down on the side of, yes, morally you ought to be a Christian and thereby have a commandment for you that you should wait for marriage. It’s better if you are Christian and wait for marriage. So there is still a claim about how the non-Christians ought to be, if perhaps now a weakened claim.

Well, okay then, let’s change it up again. What if the “Christians” only believed that they personally have been called by God to be Christians but that God calls different people to be different things. Now don’t we have subjective morality?

Sorry, but the answer is still ‘no.’ All we’ve really done is shift the moral question again. Now the question is whether or not one ought to belong to the religion that God calls them to. What if, for example, a non-Christian was actually called by God to be a Christian, but didn’t want to wait until marriage to have sex, so he choose to be a non-Christian instead. Wouldn’t it still be true that (from within this hypothetical point of view) he ought to have been a Christian? (Or, as Adam points out, perhaps the question here is whether or not one ought to be true to their beliefs. But either way the result is the same.)

Granted, at this point the ‘moral law’ being discussed is so vague and weak as to be unworkable in real life. There is no way, for example, to know that this non-Christian was actually called to be a Christian. So the end result would be that we’d naturally assume that he was not called to be a Christian. Yet still, there is an ought that exists, no matter how vague we’ve made it through out contortions with reality. So morality is still fundamentally about what ought to be. It is still, according to our perceptions and intuitions of morality, fundamentally objective in nature.

Morality Is Never Perceived as a Preference

Okay, let’s change it up again. What if our “Christians” now believe that God just doesn’t care what religion you are because all are the same in His eyes. Don’t we now have a case for subjective morality?

Unfortunately, we still don’t. Indeed, there is no moral question at all any more.

Religion is now literally just a preference, like ice cream. And sex in or out of marriage is now just a preference too. If this scenario existed in real life, neither the Christians nor the non-Christians would perceive sex in or out of marriage — nor religion for that matter – as a moral issue any more than we would perceive preference for flavors of ice cream as a moral issue.

This little thought experiment proves the point that needs to be made: morality is always fundamentally about what we believe ourselves and others (given the same circumstantial context) ought to be doing. If there is not an element of belief that things should be different from how they are, we will never perceive it as a moral issue in the first place.

So morality is tautologically perceived as something that applies to everyone (given the same situation and context) or we don’t call it morality in the first place. That is to say, if we perceive it as a moral issue we, by definition, are making a claim that it’s an issue that applies to everyone.

This makes ‘subjective morality’ an oxymoron. It’s like saying ‘the preference everyone should have.’ Or in other words, it’s not a preference after all.

Counter Example? Or Just a Red Herring?

Try to think of an exception to this? What about speeding? We shouldn’t speed, right? But what if it’s an emergency? 

Well then we have to acknowledge that the real moral rule wasn’t that we shouldn’t speed, but that we shouldn’t cause extra risk to others on the road by speeding unless there is some counterbalancing risk to be considered. No matter how you try to make it out, it’s always possible to pull the strings until we find some sort of moral statement that we actually do believe applies to everyone and that we believe everyone should change their actions to match. It is not just a subjective preference with this example either.

So the first thing we must accept, if we are being honest and rational, is that our intuitions of morality start with the assumption that when we speak of morality we always intend something non-subjective and non-personal. If it weren’t so, we wouldn’t perceive it as morality.

12 thoughts on “What is Morality?: The Objective Nature of Morality

  1. Bruce N.,
    I’m not sure that your later examples using your totally arbitrary categories of Christian and American work. Saying that Christians should be chaste while Americans need not is not or at least need not just a dodge for the universal moral question whether one should be Christian or not. I’ll use a different example to make my point. Lets pick two arbitrary groups, called Americans and Britishers. Americans, lets say, feel that it is morally wrong for them to not vote in American elections. Britishers feel no such moral obligation. Is there a hidden moral conflict that boils down to whether one ought or ought not be American? No. Instead, what we have is a universal moral principle–citizens should participate in the political life of their own country–that applies differently to Americans and Britishers because in our hypothetical these two hypothetical groups have different countries.

    Preferences could have moral implications if you recognized some moral principles that apply to preferences. The modern cult of authenticity is essentially the assertion of a moral principle “thou shalt honor thy preferences.”

  2. Was the murder of Laban immoral? Are there other other examples in our scriptures of moral people using God or some other rationalization to commit and justify objectively immoral acts? Slavery was once upheld as being moral with scriptural justification.

    Also, what about people with diminished brain function, like sociopaths or orphans raised in Russia with no human contact or intimacy. Do they have this same moral intuition you speak of? Would our society exist as it does if it consisted entirely of sociopaths and Russian orphans? That, to me, hints of an evolutionary explanation of this moral intuition you speak of.

    Self awareness and empathy have evolved to allow us to put ourselves in the place of another, at least in our own minds. We make judgments of morality based on how we would feel in another’s shoes. The sociopath, according to fMRIs, has trouble when it comes to empathy. He easily commits atrocities without remorse because he genuinely cannot see and feel the suffering of others. Could these attributes of empathy and self awareness, along with societal taboos passed though the generations, account for a morality without God as a source? Is it these societal taboos, such as premarital sex and gay marriage, and not objective moralality that are being challenged by modern society?

  3. Adam,

    The problem is this. My point is simply that no matter what you perceive as ‘morality’ will always have thread of ought that applies to everyone within that context or conditions that the rule claims to apply to.

    Your example is a good one. The ‘string’ of morality is that eveyrone should participate in their political life.

    You are correct that my example wasn’t all encompassing. But then there was no possibility I was going to pick an all encompassing example as there aren’t any.

    I was simply trying to demonstrate that even as you ‘mix it up’ there will still always be such an objective moral thread hiding underneath. If our hypothetical Christians don’t happen to believe, say, that people ought to be Christians then my example wouldn’t apply and some other example would apply instead.

    Can a “preference” have a moral dimension? Of course. But again you are forcing me into a situation where there are no words I can use that express my ideas. I choose “preference” as the best word I could think of to mean “a non moral choice.” That the word “preference” might also be loose enough to refer to moral choices as well doesn’t suprise me. But now you owe me a word to use instead of “preference” to express the same idea that I was trying to express.

    In short, there is an idea here that has to be expressed in words and in examples and the fact that one can rethink the words and examples to mean something else doesn’t actually change the underlying point.

    To follow your own line of logic through, yes, we could easily think of our hypothetical Christians as not actually believing one ought to be a Christian yet still believe that Christians (if they so choose to be one) should have no sex outside of marriage. This *was* one of my examples. So I already covered it.

    But maybe what you are getting at is that it is possible for one to believe in a moral rule that applies to only people that make a certain choice. For example, maybe our hypothetical Christians believe in no sex outside of marriage but think that only applies to people that are Christians because Christians believe in no sex outside of marriage. But now I’m at a loss as to what the moral principle here is other than “be true to your beliefs.” But then that moral rule still applies to everyone in their minds or they wouldn’t see it as a moral rule. So my point continues to hold.

  4. Stan,

    What makes you think I’m going to argue against evolution as a source of moral intuition?

    And while we’re at it, I noticed that your comment sure seems to be dripping with objective moral assertions and judgments throughout. Or was that perhaps your point? I’m not even sure.

  5. Bruce, you seem to be trying to prove that objective morality exists by continuously breaking it down to a deeper and deeper moral thread underneath.

    But is this “deeper moral thread” really morality anymore, at least as it is commonly understood? As humans, we don’t chop up all moral views to their lowest common denominator. Rather we condemn, attack, and even kill each other because our advanced moral constructs differ from the moral constructs of others.

    Even if a common denominator exists for all moral perspectives, the moral constructs built with these common denominators differ greatly, and are, for all intents and purposes, relative. It doesn’t really matter if it can all boil down to the fact that “ought” exists.

    To pragmatically address the problem of morality, one must accept that these moral constructs are relative. This is how humans understand morality. They say, “I’m right, you’re wrong. You are a perverse, immoral person and I’m an upright moral one” to which the other says, “I’m right and you are wrong, you are a misguided fanatical hater, and I’m a tolerant, peace-lover.” But the moment one side says, “well, both of our objective moralities are actually the same, because they are built upon the common denominator of ‘ought,’” one has become, for all intents and purposes, a moral relativist, who is able to see that two fundamentally opposed moralities are in fact, both moralities, which is the very definition of moral relativism.

    And if you boil down your entire moral constructs to “ought,” I think you’ve boiled it down so much that it becomes meaningless. “Ought” applies, not just to morality, but to non-moral preferences, tastes, instincts and prejudices.

    But I think your point is to try to prove that objective morality exists, even if it only exists in theory, and that because it exists, it somehow helps prove the existence of God. And I think that is a noble effort. There is something divine about our moral sense of “ought.” But I would include both good and evil in it. If you can’t prove that a just, perfect God exists with this argument, then try to prove the existence of Abraxos, a god of both good and evil, God and Satan as partners in a great struggle. This would help explain why moral constructs differ, even if they are built on some common denominator.

  6. “Ought” applies, not just to morality, but to non-moral preferences, tastes, instincts and prejudices.

    I disagree. If people say there is an obligation or duty to be prejudiced, for instance, its because they are claiming that the the prejudice is moral.

    I also disagree very much with your definition of moral relativism. If we both agree that there is a moral obligation to love the wife, but the wife you have in mind is your wife, and the wife I’m thinking of is mine, that’s not a claim that morality is subjective. That’s an agreement on a general moral principle that we each apply to our different circumstances, leading to a different specific result. We have no dispute on any major or minor premise or conclusion. We both agree that husbands ought to love their wives, that your wife is Jane Doe, that my wife is Harriet Roe, and that you ought to love Jane Doe and I ought to love Harriet Roe.

    Your definition of moral relativism isn’t the one that Bruce N. is using for these posts.

  7. Nate.

    I am not actually going to try to prove the existence of God with this thread of posts. I am exploring the concept of morality as we feel it and intuiit it.

    I agree with Adam that your defintion of moral relativism seems somewhat different from what I mean by it. However, at some level you seem like you might be saying that moral relativism is a denial of moralities objective existence. And if this is what you mean, then I do agree.

    But then my point then is that moral relativism is not a sustainable position in practice. Even a moral relativist will still intuit morality not as not existing, but as an objective and factual phenonmenon that is obivous and should apply to everyone and the world ought to be that way. (Once you ‘pull the thread’ and find the underlying ought being suggested.)

    When you say that“Ought” applies, not just to morality, but to non-moral preferences, tastes, instincts and prejudice and Adam denies that, I actually think you two are talking past each other. Yes, ought applies to non-moral preference, tastes, instincts, and prejudices. But that is because the people that apply them that way preceive them as moral “preferences”, moral tastes, moral instincts, and moral prejudices. Or rather they DO NOT BELIEVE they are just preferences, tastes, instincts, and prejudices. (As Adam said.) It’s someone else that disagrees with their morality that is labeling them that.

  8. Bruce, I LOVE these posts, keep them coming. It is fascinating to me that we could agree so much on such fundamental issues and disagree so much on their application.

  9. Bruce, I think our disagreement did lie in the fact that we are using different definitions of moral relativism. You state in your post:

    “So morality is tautologically perceived as something that applies to everyone (given the same situation and context) or we don’t call it morality in the first place.”

    Your phrase: “given the same situation and context” is the rub. Well, yes, it is true that most self-proclaiming moral relativists would say that things “ought” to be a certain way given exactly the “same situations and contexts.”

    But moral relativists are not arguing about situations and contexts that are exactly the same. Rather they object to unilaterally assigning particular moral constructs to differing situations and contexts.

    However, I agree with you that “ought” is a universal moral reality for all.

    You would be interested to read Steven Pinker’s great essay on this subject here:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html?pagewanted=all

    In the essay he goes beyond Richard Dawkins approach of assigning morality to selfish genes, and discusses what he calls “moral realism” which posits that morality is based on universal principles that transcend self-interest, and that even transcend God. He speculates that moral principles may be as universal and real as mathematical truths.

    He also breaks down morality to five basic threads which he says can be seen in all people and cultures, even though they may differ greatly in their distribution and constructs. He also argues that there seems to be “a Law of Conservation of Moralization, so that as old behaviors are taken out of the moralized column, new ones are added to it.”

  10. I believe that there are two ways that a moral proposition can arguably said to be universal in character. One is if it is based on natural law. The blame we attach to those who cause gratuitous suffering in others appears to fall in this category, for example. We cannot will our suffering away, it is a universal experience, and every sane person knows that the torture of the innocent is an unmitigated moral evil.

    The other is a social consensus so universal (across heaven and earth) and uplifting that it may be said to be divine, and with the endorsement of the powers that be to constitute divine law. It obviously can be much harder to determine what divine law is, but considering the alternative is an eternity beyond the gates in some form of spiritual and social anarchy, divine law is nearly as universal as it gets. So far as we are concerned, it is unavoidable.

    The key, it seems to me, however is that divine law must be founded on the principles of natural law or ultimately it will lose moral authority. The same goes for the laws of men, however relatively more subjective they are.

    So as long as they are coherent with natural law, and promote general happiness and prosperity, the laws, customs, and traditions of men carry real moral authority based on that social consensus, due to the fact that without others (including God) we are all dead. D&C 134 has something to say about that. Without that moral authority we can have no obligation whatsoever to follow the law.

  11. Nate,

    I’m going to check out that article. It’s long, so I will be printing it to read it later.

    Also, I have his more recent book on my to read list.

    Good thoughts, everyone.

  12. And Nate, if by “moral relativist” you mean only “a moral realist that thinks all morals are subject to context” then consider me a moral relativist too.

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