Life Without Morality?

I have been having an ‘offline’ conversation with a self-proclaimed ‘apostate’ friend. It’s a philosophical conversation about morals and morality. We haven’t really drawn any conclusions as of yet.

He sent me this interesting article where the author (Joel Marks) claims that he has abandoned belief in the existence of morality and that it didn’t effect him at all because we don’t need morality.

So the two of us wanted to put up that article plus a proposition for discussion. Consider this statement that both of us believed was basically true:

I believe it’s basically impossible for human beings to really treat morality as if it’s non-objective.

So, for the sake of argument (as the author of the article suggests)  let’s assume at the outset that morality really is non-objective. If human beings can’t treat morality as non-objective (even though that is what it is), what are the implications, if any.

My thoughts briefly to start things off:

Life Without Morality

First, I believe the author of the article in question is correct on one point in particular: belief in morality is the same as belief in God and vice versa. A secular atheist that believes in morality is really believing (as the author says) a sort of “Godless God… which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the [traditional] God…”

However, in my opinion, his solution to the problem — pursuing your ‘former moral’ goals because that’s what you  believe in your heart — doesn’t seem to solve the problem at all. The fact is that ‘former morality’ is still just a ‘revelation’ of the heart (you know, like a testimony…) from the gods and nothing more. That is to say, ‘former morality’ is just ‘morality’ or just ‘God’ in yet another name. So isn’t he really now just believing in a Godless Godless God?

I would have liked for him to have taken his worldview — which I do not believe works in practice except by aping morality 100% anyhow — and see him try to address some really difficult moral problems. For example, what does his worldview tell us about judges that over rule marriage laws as limited between a man or a woman based, apparently, on nothing but their heart? Or what does it say about those that backed prop 8 on the same exact grounds? Is there really nothing else to say on this subject but ‘This is how I personally feel. It is my preference.” Indeed, is there anything worth saying on this subject all once we adopt Joel Mark’s view?

Obviously, yes. His view is that we should use facts instead of moral authority. So his point is that nothing has changed.

So explain to me how this is giving up morality and adopting the view that it’s just a preference? It’s still ultimately an appeal to facts based on our inner moral sense. The reason nothing has changed for him is because he changed nothing, save labels alone.

And what would he say if asked about preferences that we really feel are preferences (“I like chocolate ice cream the best”) and ones that we honestly feel are worth working on converting people to via, er… not ‘moral reasoning’… but ‘reasoning of the heart (i.e. moral sense)’ nonetheless?

If his only point is that it’s pointless to claim moral authority if the person you are talking to disagrees with you morally, then I agree with him completely. It would certainly be more effective to give alternatives and not start the conversation with “you are evil and of the devil.” But underlying it all is the assumption that his preference does in fact have moral authority of some sort. I can’t see how else to interpret him.


As for the suggested dilemma above, my point of view is that believing in objective morality when it doesn’t really exist would probably effect us very little at a personal level. We’d still continue to make moral judgments and moral arguments. We’d still find meaning in our moral viewpoint and work to advance our moral “preference” at the expense of all mutually exclusive ones. We’d still come into conflict with others that disagreed with us, and we’d still work to use the laws to force each other to submit to our moral worldviews because ‘its the right thing to do, so it doesn’t matter who it hurts’. So from that standpoint, nothing would change. Life would be as it is.

It seems to me that the real difference would be there would be no hope of finding moral solutions to our moral problems, since it’s all just preference anyway. And if we honestly brought ourselves somehow to believe that, I suspect that would have a massive impact on our well-being. In fact, I doubt out sanity could survive such a revelation.

I have used the word “Lovecraftian” to describe a world in which truth can have a negative impact. I believe a world where we were all wired to believe in a non-existent objective morality would would fall nicely into the Lovecraftian category. And, like it’s namesake, the best defense would be to never discover the truth, but to live out our days embracing the illusion of morality. The only thing that would really be different would be that our moral hopes would be in vain. But so long as you never came to accept that (assumed) truth, I agree that nothing really changes.

49 thoughts on “Life Without Morality?

  1. Why can’t morality just be inter-subjective… you know, like language or currency?

    There’s nothing “objective” about these thing, nor is believing in any of these things akin to believing in God. Morality is simply the system of rules and strategies by which we navigate our social world. And rules and strategies aren’t the kinds of things that can be “true or false” in any objective way.

  2. Before I was religious I believe in objective morality and didn’t know it. Now that I am religious I believe in objective morality and know it. There are certain moral principles that are not really negotiable. The top ones are respecting human life, freedom and property. God also has objective standards for human sexuality. The commandments clearly flow from these and other objective standards.

    Having lived a Godless life for most of my life, I can tell you that all people have an inner compass guiding them to follow the God-given rules of objective morality. People become very good (like I did) at ignoring the compass, pretending it isn’t there, turning off the warning bell telling you that you are doing wrong. But I believe we all have that compass. This compass is not something that can be external to ourselves or imposed by society (a horizontally imposed compass) — when you examine it, it is clearly an internal compass that is part of a vertical relationship between you and your creator.

  3. “Why can’t morality just be inter-subjective…”

    Perhaps in the best of worlds it could be. But this is not that kind of world. Humanity is quite evil — too easily disposed to set it self at enmity with others to gain an advantage.

    Sadly, we have some inward indicators that ought to help more than they do. We know what it feels like to not want to die. We know what it feels like to love someone or something. We know what pain is — and hunger. And yet, for all our experience we are simply not able to muster enough moral sense on our own to stop hurting each other.

    I wonder, then, if morality will always have a sense of imposition until we learn to be an empathetic people. Because, until we become more empathetic (and I mean deeply empathetic through the Law of Christ) morality will always seem some what objective to all people. There will be compromise — and what is to determine the morality in compromise?

    In short, we need God’s help. But until we allow him to help us perfectly we will struggle with morality as a weak stop-gap between our imperfect sense of good and evil.

    Not sure if that really had anything to do with the post.

  4. Jack,

    “Perhaps in the best of worlds it could be. But this is not that kind of world. Humanity is quite evil.”

    Isn’t that like saying that language can’t be inter-subjective because humanity has bad grammar? Or that currency isn’t inter-subjective because people steal?

    What does people ability to live up to a standard have to due with the metaphysical nature of those standards?

  5. Jeff G,

    Some people say “marriage can still be effective even if we treat it as entirely private.” Actually, at that point, there is no difference between marriage and co-habitation. They collapse to be one and the same. So, in fact, part of what makes marriage an effective institution is the very fact that we publically do not see it as just a private matter like co-habitation.

    I think Jack was suggesting something similar to this. (Though I may be wrong.) Perhaps he was saying that that if we openly believing that morality is ‘inter-subjective’ it would fail to have the effect required for it to be effective any more. I suspect this is the case.

    Also, I’d have to question what you mean here by language being inter-subjective instead of objective. Language does have an objective element to it or it would be useless. That is to say, it is useful precisely because it, in large measure, points to something objectively real. So you’ll have to explain yourself further here. (I do think the analogy of language and morality is probably apt in many ways.) Perhpas give some examples to make your point more clear.

  6. Bruce, inter-subjective is a good description of language. It isn’t imposed from above, it doesn’t have any unchangeable or immutable components, and it forms spontaneously through the haphazard interactions of ordinary people and evolves the same way. The meanings of words are not, therefore, “objective” in the same way as an objective morality would be. The meanings of words do depend in large part to the subjective interpretations of the parties involved, and can evolve as those subjective interpretations change over time.

  7. “Perhaps he was saying that that if we openly believing that morality is ‘inter-subjective’ it would fail to have the effect required for it to be effective any more. I suspect this is the case.”

    I think that you might be right… but that doesn’t make the idea false, unfortunately.

    Regarding the language-morality comparison, I would probably push it as far as possible. In the same way that some sounds are “true or false” within a certain social context, so too some actions are “good or bad” within a certain context. There is no deeper objectivity than the fact that a somewhat arbitrary of rules applies to the objective world. Morality is not read off of the world, but is imposed upon it in the same way that a language or conceptual scheme is.

    I can go deeper into my own particular views (which very closely mirror Ken Binmore’s), but I think the language/morality comparison is more solid than the particulars which I think must follow from it.

  8. Actually, I guess I do see morality as both objective and inter-subjective, at least as JeffT described it in brief. Jeff T suggests that there is a difference here, but I’m not sure I see it yet.

    I don’t really believe ‘objective morality’ is impossed from above, per se. (That is to say, I think God is good because that is the nature of God is probably an equally valid view as that of good being good because God commands it. Really I think both of those view are ‘half true.’)

    And morality clearly does have to evolve to match the given context and situation, much like language evolves. (Suggesting a possible answer to ‘why did God allow servitude/slavery?’ or ‘Why did God command Nephi to kill Laban?”

    Also, I do see morality as steming from the principle of love their neighbor rather than being a true hard fast immutable set of rules.

    Now clearly there is an immutable portion then, namely, ‘love they neighbor’ (or maybe the golden rule.)

    Yet I see language as having an equally immutable standard that it must conform to to be a real language: namely that of reality that it must describe. So the whole analogy is still holding for me, so far. I apparently believe language and morality to both be ‘objective’ in the same sense. (So far, anyhow.)

    So so far what I mean by ‘objective’ seems to be (for all intents and purposes) the same as how JeffT, at least, defined ‘inter-subjective.’ Not sure how Jeff G meant it differently than that.

    I suspect Jeff G is really saying that human cultures make up morality and impose it on an utterly non-moral reality. And, clearly this isn’t the same as what I mean by ‘objective.’

    If I really did believe that was the nature of morality, I’d be forced to follow it to its logical conclusions, such as letting the polygamists marry child brides, for example, since they constitute their own sub-culture and the outside culuture (of which they have intentionally removed themselves) should ‘morally’ (by our own standards) then just leave them alone to do what they want. I can’t accept this. But it does seem to logically follow from a culture dependent morality.

  9. I think Jeff G is right that morality is “inter-subjective.” Even the God of the LDS Standard Works, from Old Testament to Doctrine and Covenants, works on a variety of sometimes conflicting moral standards: “thou shalt not kill, and thou shalt utterly destroy.”

    Individually, everyone seems to have a different morality, and they all appeal to some kind of higher consciousness: God, ethics, or otherwise, to support their desires. For many, it is morally wrong not to allow gay people the freedom to marry, and for others, it is morally wrong to allow them to marry. Both groups would claim authority from what seems to be the unalterable objectiveness of their conscience. Yet they differ so dramatically.

    When the god of the individual moral conscience meets the God of the Standard Works, they sometimes come into conflict, and one has to abandon the other, like Nephi killing Laban.

    With humanity’s moral conscience in such frequent disagreement, and God’s moral standards so varied, why should we assume that there is some completely objective morality?

    I think Joel Marks has a good point in the Times article. The morality game is a messy one, and maybe it’s better to think of it from a point of view of desire. Not desire alone, but also will. Our morals spring from the desires of our hearts, and the will of our souls. I believe this will also comes from God, but it is mixed up with our own imperfect understanding and selfishness.

    When morality is defined this way, we can interact with each other with greater humility, instead of arrogantly appealing to some greater self-evident consciousness, which is never as self-evident as we may assume.

    So I think we can have a life without morality. Life will still be all about our objective experience with personal revelation or conscience. But we won’t be surprised when our understandings and experiences with that revelation conflict with others, and we won’t be surprised if we accidentally slip in some of our own prejudices.

  10. “With humanity’s moral conscience in such frequent disagreement, and God’s moral standards so varied, why should we assume that there is some completely objective morality?”

    There must therefore be a difference between “completely objective morality” and “objective morality.” That is to say, in one there would be some set of absolute rules that never changes. The other is weaker and merely means morality is not just a preference but is based on reality in some way.

  11. By the way, Nate, I actually agree with Joel Marks point on how dropping his absolutist view of morality helped him be more effective morally. But, truth be told, he could have held on to his belief in objective morality (and in fact, I’d argue that he did) and simply learned that same lesson. There is nothing in belief in objective morality that forces you to be a jerk or to be less effective in making your case.

    But whatever works for him.

  12. Jeff G,

    Ken Binmore’s ‘Natural Justice’ sounds interesting. Will have to add to my future reading list.

  13. “I think that you might be right… but that doesn’t make the idea false, unfortunately.”

    Actually, this was supposed to be the original point of the post. The OP gives assumptions for the sake of argument that no one has wanted to touch yet. They suggest that we are building our societies on a falsehood and that this is actually a good thing. What are the ramifications of that?

  14. His ideas are VERY interesting, but he is a very difficult read. I found “Natural Justice” to be marginally helpful, but it took me reading his two volumes of “Game Theory and the Social Contract” twice in order to really understand his argument. Fair warning, I guess.

    As far as condemning other cultures, I think you bring up a good point. It’s not like it would make sense go into other countries and impose my English standards on their particular language use.

    However, it in on this point that I think I differ most from Nate. To me, the idea of an individual, private morality makes as much sense as a private language.

    For me, “lying is wrong” roughly means “we punish lying.”. In other words, i can expect lying within a particular social context to come with certain consequences. To take a clear example then, for me to go to a foreign land and not take the morality of that particular social context into consideration would almost surely be met with unpleasant social interactions.

    Furthermore, such a position does entail that there is no “true” morality against which to measure other moralities any more than there is any true language. The fact that different social contexts have different moralities which cannot be morallity adjudicated by some platonic standard is just a fact of life.

  15. “They suggest that we are building our societies on a falsehood and that this is actually a good thing. What are the ramifications of that?”

    Well, to a certain extent I agree with him. In my opinion, faith is simply believing in something, not because of its evidence or logical consistency, but because it is important that you believe it. In other words, beliefs based in faith lend themselves better to economic analysis (broadly construed) rather than analysis by the rules of liberal science (broadly construed).

    If this is true, then most ethical beliefs are very much based in faith. They are beliefs which are important for getting by in our social context regardless of evidence or logical consistency.

    However, I would submit that there is a description based in evidence and logic for WHY such faith claims are important, but we could never expect popular morality to be based in such a complex set of claims.

  16. Bruce,

    I think we do sort of build society on a falsehood until we come nigh unto Zion. Anything short of keeping the second great commandment, as you put it (or Christ-like empathy as I put it), will require some degree of objective imposition of morality for society to survive.

    Ironically, it is when we, as a society, live God’s Law to the fullest that we will be free from any moral restraint. Our motivations for our actions would never be informed by morality — only pure love.

    Jeff G: “Isn’t that like saying that language can’t be inter-subjective because humanity has bad grammar?”

    Maybe. Only, I don’t think bad grammar necessarily hurts people. Language can, however, destroy people. And so it behooves society to set a standard of meaning to language as fluid as that meaning may be over time.

    One may argue that meaning in language arises from the many who use it — and yet, somehow, there does emerge a meta understanding of that language. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a particular language is a result of that “meta-process.” A language congeals through a long iterative process and then we have something that bridals an entire culture.

    Of course, me and my wacky ways, I like to take the analogy too far and suggest that language came from above. And what we have today is a broken down version of that. And so the “iterative processes” are really just societies doing their best with what they’ve got to restore some kind of order. So it may be with morality. It’s messy.

  17. Having re-read the post, let’s see if I can’t be a little more on point.

    I’m not exactly sure what an “objective morality” is supposed to be. I think it’s a platonic ideal against which we can measure any given moral system. If so, I would definitely disagree with your quoted claim. The use of language doesn’t require anybody to believe in a kind of platonic language against which others can be judged.

    But I’m guessing you’re going to want more details.

    If a moral system is just a set of rules for what behaviors we are going to punish/reward including a rule for punishing those who do not punish, then there is no clear reason why a belief in a platonic ideal would be necessary. Granted, I’m guessing that such a belief would make such a system work more fluidly in most circumstances, but I don’t see any necessity in this.

    Furthermore, I suspect that only the most bankrupt of imaginations would suppose that if there isn’t a platonic ideal for morality then it is all just individual preference. Why are these the only two options? That’s like saying that if there is no platonic currency against which all forms of currency can be measured then the only option we have left is to exchange dollars for pounds according to our individual preferences.

  18. When I place morality into the plan of salvation, I see a moral system where the rules are seemingly arbitrary (it’s apparently ok for animals to be promiscuous, but not me).

    If the ultimate goal of the plan of salvation is to become exalted and as children of God to “grow up” to become like our Father in Heaven, then those moral rules would serve both a utilitarian purpose (they are “good” because the outcome is “good”), but also be universal in their morality (there is a natural and infinite ideal “good”, which is God). We can’t grow up to become like our Father, and fulfill the ultimate measure of our own creation so to speak, if we do the opposite of what he does.

  19. Not to get embroiled in semantics, but what exactly does “objective morals” mean? Does it mean morals independent of us, or simply morals without personal bias?

    Because neither one is possible. Morals are best defined either as a mode of behavior or as concepts which are by definition entirely reliant on a mind for existence. Just like “beauty” or “love” or “hate.” Therefore, trying to conceive of morals without a mind and means of execution is a meaningless exercise. And anyone who claims they are free of personal bias has just proclaimed at least one of their biases.

    So I really don’t understand. I have never thought of morals as anything but subjective. I was hoping comments would clarify, but I’m more confused than ever.

  20. I have never seen so much use of semantics in a thread on this blog. Just so we are clear:

    Gordon B. Hinckley: “Notwithstanding the so-called ‘new morality,’ notwithstanding the much-discussed changes in moral standards, there is no adequate substitute for virtue. God’s standards may be challenged everywhere throughout the world, but God has not abrogated his commandments” (Ensign, Aug. 1988, 4).

    The commandments are objective and clear. It is man who makes them subjective and turns discussions like this into arguments, like the Pharisees of old, over exactly when the Sabbath day begins and ends.

  21. I agree Geoff, that for Mormons, you might be able to argue that there is a basic objective morality for Mormons, regarding specific points of LDS doctrine as revealed by latter day prophets

    But I think this thread is discussing morals more broadly and abstractly, including points where many Mormons disagree, like the various conflicting moralities of capitalism, socialism, environmentalism, libertarianism, etc., whose proponents frequently appeal to a basic moral conscience to support their beliefs.

  22. Nate, I am not getting that distinction. I am reading a lot of comments where morality is subjective, including morality where the prophets have clearly spoken. I can agree with you on specific political issues (“is Social Security morally right or morally wrong — moral people can easily disagree on this issue”) but I cannot agree that there is any moral subjectivity on the big issues, ie, the 10 commandments and the law of chastity. These are universal laws given to man by God, and He expects us to obey them.

  23. I’ll apologize off the bat that I haven’t read all of the comments. I’ll get back to them tonight.

    I have more than a passing interest in this conversation with Bruce and am interested in the other comments as well.

    To save myself considerable time in typing, I’ll simply paste a couple of links to the blog posts I made to try to address this quandary from both a theistic and atheistic point of view.

    I’m sure I have a few more points to make, but there was one phrase in the OP that stuck out at me,

    “It seems to me that the real difference would be there would be no hope of finding moral solutions to our moral problems.”

    I guess the problem I have here is if we accept as a premise that there is (somewhere) a true morality, what evidence do we have that one can (reliably) find it, identify it, and resolve complex moral dilemmas through it? Simply the fact that we are having this discussion seems to belie the possibility of actually resolving the question. Does that make sense?

    If we say, TRUTH EXISTS SOMEWHERE, but it cannot be agreed upon (and I would argue STRONGLY that it cannot be agreed upon by every single evidence we can find), does it matter?

    Further, if we accept the initial premise that we are only capable of regarding morality as objective (irregardless of the reality), then the horrible implications of realizing reality seem to be mitigated. At the very least (as I think Bruce has pointed out), those that realized reality would be locked up as insane… which would put a nice little bow on the Lovecraftian nature of the tale, right?

  24. I think Geoff is a perfect illustration of the point that Bruce and I were getting at. It seems clear to me that his position isn’t based in any evidence or logical entailment. Rather, he believes those things because they are *important*, just like everybody else. And there is nothing wrong with this. Accordingly, not only would it be pointless for me to argue against him, but it would probably be a morally bad thing for me to do… which is exactly the point. True statements are not always morally good and morally good statements are not always true. (Consider the person who lies to protect Jews from the Nazis.)

  25. Geoff,

    God’s expectations regarding the “10 commandments and the law of chastity” are subjective according to the scriptures. Thou shalt not kill, except when I tell you to. Thou shalt not commit adultery, except when I tell you to. God’s inconsistent standards are… demonstrable in the scriptures.

    Isn’t that one of the key complaints of atheists?

  26. Jeff G, you have caught yourself in a logical trap. Could you please prove the nonexistence of God in a scientific way, with empirical evidence? And once you have done that, could you also please prove the nonexistence of morality, with empirical evidence? Both are impossibilities. And I cannot prove either to you in a way you (as a nonbeliever) will understand and/or accept.

    Faith is about believing in things you cannot see or prove. The morality that comes from such faith cannot be agreed upon unless you take the steps of faith first. We might be able to agree that certain things are moral by all standards (killing people is bad, stealing is bad, etc), but then you would give me examples where killing is accepted (Nephi killing Laban, Joshua killing the Israelites), and I would say that you have to have faith first to understand the objectivity of the morality involved. It is a completely circular argument, and frankly a waste of time with an unbeliever like yourself.

    So I will agree with you on the pointlessness of the whole thing. Bruce, I don’t know why you continue to pursue these kinds of discussions and what you hope to achieve, but I’m sure you have your own reasons.

  27. Geoff B.

    “Faith is about believing in things you cannot see or prove. The morality that comes from such faith cannot be agreed upon unless you take the steps of faith first. We might be able to agree that certain things are moral by all standards (killing people is bad, stealing is bad, etc), but then you would give me examples where killing is accepted (Nephi killing Laban, Joshua killing the Israelites), and I would say that you have to have faith first to understand the objectivity of the morality involved. It is a completely circular argument, and frankly a waste of time with an unbeliever like yourself.”

    Your own statement contradicts your earlier assertion that “commandments are objective and clear”.

    If the reasoning is circular, why would I want to be a believer? What would motivate me to “have faith first”?

    If there is anything we can learn from Church history it is that the commandments are decidedly NOT objective NOR clear.

  28. Geoff,

    You are restating my point. At least one of us is misinterpreting the other because I don’t see how your last comment contradicts anything I have said.

  29. “Faith is about believing in things you cannot see or prove.”

    Faith is about acting on premises that you can test.

    Faith is not synonymous with belief, it is predicted by it.

    Madness is about believing in things that you cannot see or prove.

  30. I should add that I think you have missed Bruce’s point in the post. I think he raises a legitimate point which can effectively be used against those who would reject all appeals to faith.

  31. OK, let’s see what Bruce has to say. I would remind commenters that M* is a blog for believing members of the Church. Comments tearing down the Church will be deleted. Thanks.

  32. Ok Geoff, I appreciate the reminder. I’ll rephrase.

    In all sincerity, how will God save his skeptical children?

  33. Greg, depending on your definition of “save,” almost all people are saved. Presumably you are not a murderer. The issue is, how will you choose to progress and become more like God? That is the question you and I and all children of God will be pondering for the eternities, and it is my belief that one of the keys on Earth is to recognize God’s moral law and do you best to stick to it (while realizing we all fall short one way or another).

  34. I find Geoff’s new approach to the question quite useful. If morality is simply the path to progression we can ask different questions:

    Is progression a gift which god chooses to bestow upon some, or is it an objective direction toward which he is simply pointing us? Maybe it’s a bit of both.

    Separately, if progression is an objective direction, why assume that there is only one path which leads toward it? Furthermore, why assume that different paths will be consistent with one another?

    Finally, does it even make sense to speak of some path being “more true” than another. I see no problem in some paths being better or more efficient/effective than others, but rules and strategies just aren’t the kinds of things that can be true or false.

  35. I like the view you put forward in that link. I think it is about right, but It does have some consequences:

    It acknowledges the possibility of differing moralities which are inconsistent with one another even though one may be no better than the other in the sense of being more efficient than the other.

    It reduces all morality to hypothetical imperatives of the following form: IF you want to progress, THEN you shouldn’t lie. In other words, it makes all morality self-interested.

    But these two consequences just are the bogeymen that I thought you were fighting against. (Personally, I don’t find either of these two points to be all that threatening, but I suspect you do.)

  36. Dude, this conversation has gone as far as I am willing to take it.

    I will simply end with this point: before I joined the Church, I was a near-alcoholic, and I spent nearly all my time doing things that I was not proud of, even when I was doing them. Now I spend my time trying to help my family and trying to serve others. Before, I knew what I was doing was wrong, yet I still did things that were wrong, and now my conscience is clear. If your path takes you in a different direction, and you want to argue that morality is subjective, and you really believe that makes you happier and more moral (whatever your definition of morality may be), hey, that’s cool. But then you must ask yourself why as a nonbeliever who rejects the Church you spend so much time on Mormon blogs. What moral thing could you possibly be trying to accomplish?

  37. One clarification Geoff asked me for:

    I see ‘subject morality’ as meaning that morality is just a personal taste or preference. As with the posted article, I find the idea of ‘subjective morality’ (or moral relativism, as he calls it) to be an oxymoron. Morality is only morality when we feel it has claim upon others.

    Therefore, I see ‘objective morality’ as meaning any way of understanding morality that isn’t just a preference.

    I’m not sure what ‘inter-subjective’ really means, but so far it fits under my ‘objective’ label.

    There is no doubt whatsoever that in the way I’m defining it, the LDS Church does believe in ‘objective morality.’ Further, my point is that all religions to, and all non-relious ideologies do, and so do all sane human beings. So the LDS Church is not alone in this regard. 🙂

    That being said, I do not believe the LDS Church teaches what we might call ‘absolute morality.’ That is to say, there is no set of rules, even in principle, that are always without exception right or wrong. (Save, of course, obeying God.)

    SilverRain, does this clarify things?

    Nate, I take it you are really arguing for objective morality (i.e. not just a personal preference) but that you like the idea that we don’t turn morality into arogant authority but instead argue based on appeal to other individuals sense of morality. If this is what you mean, I see no issue with this. Also, I think you are right that ‘morality’ is a very broad concept. From a certain point of view ‘etiquette’ can fall into the realm of morality. Yet none of us really believe it has any real consequence except to within a specific culture. It seems likely that many ‘rules of society’ could be thought of the same way. Yet, I have to wonder if even things like etiquette don’t have a basis in objective reality, however tenuous.

    Jack, I think we’re agreeing. But at times, I can’t tell. 😉

    Chris, I would argue that comparing promiscuity of animals and humans isn’t really comparing two like things. That being said, I think you are really just saying the same thing I am: that God knows what is right *because he has more knowledge than us* and thus it makes sense that morality might be complex in God’s hands since he had to consider everything and everyone where as we only consider local phenomenon. Is that where you are going with this?

  38. Greg, I find something you said of particular interest to me:

    “If we say, TRUTH EXISTS SOMEWHERE, but it cannot be agreed upon (and I would argue STRONGLY that it cannot be agreed upon by every single evidence we can find), does it matter?”

    There is a direct analogy — a perfect analogy — that exists between Kuhn’s and Popper’s epistemologies. Kuhn basically made the argument you just did, except for scientific knowledge.

    Popper showed that Kuhn was wrong and that even though we can never (scientifically speaking anyhow) know if our theories are ‘the truth’ we *can* know that they are more true than any other existing theory.

    So I do not buy your argument in the slightest. Even if morality is like science, and can’t be discovered in some sort of absolute form, that doesn’t mean we can’t get closer and closer to the truth.

  39. Jeff G said: “I think he raises a legitimate point which can effectively be used against those who would reject all appeals to faith.”

    Yes, thank you.

  40. One more point worth mentioning (concernings Geoff’s comments).

    Geoff is right that the LDS Church teachings morality is objective and not just a personal preference.

    But I suspect Geoff would agree that the LDS Church is probably far more open then classical theism to the idea that the real reason God gives commands that break a ‘normal’ rule (such as Laban and Nephi) is because God knows things we don’t and that if we all understood it from God’s perspective we’d all agree it was the most moral action available.

    I think this, does acknowledge the fact that morality isn’t just a case of ‘whatever God says is moral by definition’ from within an LDS perspective.

    Personally, I think that God and morality are deeply interwined ideas and that that is why faith goes hand and hand with morality. (At least during our mortal probation when we have to walk by faith.)

  41. “I see ‘subject morality’ as meaning that morality is just a personal taste or preference. As with the posted article, I find the idea of ‘subjective morality’ (or moral relativism, as he calls it) to be an oxymoron. Morality is only morality when we feel it has claim upon others.
    Therefore, I see ‘objective morality’ as meaning any way of understanding morality that isn’t just a preference.
    I’m not sure what ‘inter-subjective’ really means, but so far it fits under my ‘objective’ label.”

    Thanks for the clarification. By these standards it would appear that I believe in objective morality. For me morality is as objective (no more and no less) as the worth of a dollar bill or the meaning of words. It is most certainly NOT subjective like an individual taste or preference.

  42. Bruce I am saying animals dont grow up to become God. We do. Therefore what is moral for us are those things that make that growth/progression possible because they are things God would do. If we dont want to do what God would do we can choose captivity according to the devil and become more like him.

    So for me, moral is making godlike decisions that enable us to become more like him.

  43. Thank you! That clarifies a lot. No wonder I was confused. Anyone who tries to make morality into mere personal preference is an idiot, and I don’t usually say those kinds of things. They are not just any idiot, but one who is trying to mask self-justification behind a shaky veneer of faux intellectualism.

    The entire reason morality—values and a system of code of conduct—exists is to create a workable community. So of course morality can’t be a mere matter of personal preference. It is by definition objective in that it is answerable to a force outside of oneself. And I agree that the concept of absolute morality is just as improbable as morality based on mere personal preference. Morality as personal preference is just doing whatever you feel like in the moment, and is therefore NOT morality.

    Now, whether or not that force is God, some fundamental set of laws, or other people is a matter of what type of society you are building. But a society is defined by its common morality. If you try to make morality entirely a matter of personal preference, you no longer have a society.

  44. This conversation seems to dissolve “morality” into “social convention.” Social conventions lubricate interpersonal interactions, and allows individuals to peacefully live within a larger community. They are not purely subjective, because a personal is held accountable to social conventions by forces outside of themselves. In addition, communities can redefine, rewrite, amend, and alter existing networks of social conventions. These can include laws, customs, language, etc.

    Morality, in contrast, is different. It can’t be rewritten by a community. Nor should it be enforced by third parties outside of ourselves. Whether or not I’m being moral has little to do with how my actions measure up to community standards. Rather, it has to do with whether I’m following my personal moral compass. Sometimes there is a strong redundancy between social conventions and our moral sense (for example, my moral sense tells me not to murder, and so does law). Other times, my moral sense might ask me to violate social conventions (including laws).

    I don’t think we can codify morality in any objective, external way. We can attempt to codify social conventions such that they line up with our impressions of morality, and then hold people accountable to those social conventions. But that isn’t the same thing as codifying morality. It just helps protect us from those whose personal moral compass seem broken to us. My point is, morality has nothing to do with community agreement, external customs, and social morays.

    A society is defined by a common set of social conventions, not a common morality. Those two will most often be redundant, but it’s important to make the distinction.

  45. Here’s another way to say it: Whether or not we are actually doing right or wrong (morality) can only be judged by God, or his authorized servants. Communities can invent, codify, alter, amend, and revise a set of social expectations/conventions that allow us to coexist peacefully (law, custom, language, etc.), but that is not morality. To talk about community standards as morality conflates social convention with moral truth.

  46. Jeff T—I can see your point, I think. But there are more communities than just society. Your moral code not to murder, etc., is still based upon a community, just not necessarily THE community in which you find yourself. The kingdom of heaven is a community in which God sets the rules (or the rules are set fundamentally and God understands them infinitely, whichever doesn’t really matter for these purposes.)

    And the morality, if you are using the term to mean right/wrong, of an individual is still largely judged by comparison to what a particular community dictates. If you were to take God’s commandments out of the equation entirely (which I believe is impossible, since I believe our world was founded by God, but am willing to try for argument’s sake,) you would still end up with a very similar set of laws because honoring your parents, loving others, not killing, stealing, schlepping your neighbor’s wife, etc. is all part of creating a working community.

    Again, for the sake of illustration, if you were to remove all those laws, you would remove the community.

    There are other, deeper, senses of what is right and what is wrong that are not based on minimally functioning communities such as general society. These could be varied (though are often similar) and are usually more comprehensive practice of the basics. Things like consecration, turning the other cheek, preaching the gospel, etc. But those morals are still intricately connected with belonging to a higher community than simple society.

    Morality can’t be rewritten by a community, perhaps, but it can be written by a community. Our morals are tied with our upbringing, our childhood community. That is how we develop personal moral compasses. Children aren’t born with the ability to think of others before themselves, for example. (Quite the opposite.)

    Morality, as I understand it, is mostly a summation of those community conventions which become so ingrained into our behavior, that they take on the significance of “right” or “wrong.” This block of community conventions is somewhat different from social conventions, as society in the way you seem to be thinking of it is only one of many communities to which we belong. This is why some moral codes include things that seem to be mere social convention to others (like modesty.)

    God is not the only one who can judge right/wrong. That is partly what agency requires. We can also judge right/wrong in ourselves and in others (though often erroneously, granted,) by comparing to our own moral compass. That compass is defined by the communities we choose to belong to, by the codes of conduct we choose to value.

  47. I think Jeff T. is hitting on Bruce’s point. Inasmuch as people believe morality to be something above and beyond convention, it must be taken on faith. There is no other way of getting there.

    We can rephrase Bruce’s critique as follows:

    Full blown morality must be taken on faith.
    Many intellectuals reject the idea that anything should be taken on faith.
    Consequently, such intellectuals cannot consistently claim to believe in full blown morality.

    Another version would reverse this:

    Many intellectuals claim to believe in full blown morality.
    Full blown morality must be taken on faith.
    Many intellectuals take things on faith.

Comments are closed.