I recently read a post by Coel Hellier that argues for the subjectivity of morality. This was counter-intuitive to me, but he argues well. So I set about trying to clarify my stance by looking at the problem in my own terms. It is worth noting that a 2013 study showed that 56% of professional philosophers identify as moral objectivists (realists), making it by far the dominant position. The following summarises my own thoughts on the matter.
If there is an objective morality, then it will be, by definition, independent of human emotions and prejudices. This is the position of moral realists, or objectivists. If morality is subjective, then it will be the result of feelings, intuitions and prejudices.
If morality is objective, then how we feel about something has no bearing on its “true” value. This “true” value would lie outside of human opinion, and be empirically verifiable: there would be a “right” way to behave, and a “wrong” way to behave, in an abstract sense, and this must apply universally across time and space.
To claim that something is objective is to claim that the mind’s interpretation is irrelevant to the existence of that something. We come to consensus upon the existence of objective things as we collect evidence for their existence. An ape might not believe that black holes exists, but she lacks the sensory and processing faculties to provide her with evidence for black holes. However, humans have repeatedly observed that black holes do exist, and on the basis of this evidence, a scientific consensus has formed around the objectivity of black holes. Of course, this relies on humans agreeing on fundamental things, which we obviously do: the concept of objectivity would not make sense otherwise – indeed our conception of reality wouldn’t make sense. Evolution selects against those who don’t believe in cliffs and lions, so there are substantial similarities in our sensory and information processing abilities – which is why we can agree about reality at all.
So, is morality observable? Well yes, in a sense it is. We all agree that societies have sets of customs and norms, followed in the interests of cooperation. Societies even agree on many things: it is very rare to find one that welcomes incest, for example (see moral universalism). These claims are not controversial, as human geographers will attest: these are descriptive questions; they can be determined with the tools of science: observation and deduction. But the claims of moral realists are not descriptive.
Moral realism, or objectivism, is the normative position that what we ought to do is determinable by science: that reasoning about facts and observations will lead to a consensus regarding goodness and badness. Even that it can be true or false that something is good, or valuable.
1. Semantic issues
These claims are problematic. Firstly because the word “ought” is a conditional imperative: it is meaningless without an “if” in front of it. Evaluations can only be determined with reference to known values. Say I asked you to evaluate two mathematical expressions:
- x = y
- x = y if x = 3 and y = 5x + 2
We all know that the first is unanswerable, because we don’t know the values of the terms. The second is a properly-constructed conditional, and we can confidently assert its falsehood. Similarly, if I asked you to evaluate two moral expressions:
- One ought to be frugal
- One ought to be frugal if one values that above other things
The first is meaningless: how are we to say such a claim is true or false? The second is a properly-constructed if-then conditional imperative, because values are given, and we could reply that yes, one ought to be frugal if that is most valuable to them, as follows from the definition of ought. We can conclude from this that abstract, unqualified moral claims are meaningless, and therefore what we ought to do, in the abstract, is not determinable by science, or anything else. This is a strike against moral realism, which postulates the existence of unconditional moral truths.
2. An objective morality would apply to everything
A second major issue with moral realism is that, by definition, human opinion is irrelevant to any conception of an objective morality. It follows that humans themselves are irrelevant too; if there is an objective morality, then by definition, there is only one objective morality. This is because moral realism claims that moral statements have truth-values, but as epistemologists know well, there is only one truth. If the statement, “harming others is wrong” were, quote, “True”, then it would have to be true for everything, all the time, everywhere, in the same way that the objective claim, “the Earth revolves around the sun,” is true, irrespective of your species, location, intelligence, or anything else.
So, let’s take moral realism to its logical extension. It follows that an objective morality must apply to all organisms in the universe. You might argue, “What if there are separate objective moralities for each species?” But as we’ve already discussed, there can only be one objective morality; that follows from the definition of “objective”. We would have to hold oak trees and mosquitoes to the same (conveniently human-oriented) standards as ourselves, which is obviously daft and anthropocentric.
“However”, you say; “objective morality is discoverable; more knowledge means we can better know how to behave. We should judge an organism’s actions based on its intelligence; its ability to know the difference between right and wrong.” But why should we judge an organism based on its intelligence? Because you want us to? As soon as you say that, morality becomes subjective. Besides, this argument lacks nuance: oak trees can’t even act, so the amount of knowledge a tree might have, which doesn’t even make sense in the first place, is irrelevant. I could spend more time trying to patch this argument, but at this point it’s not worth the effort.
3. Evolution doesn’t care
Which brings me to a third problem with moral realism. Humans are cooperative animals, and in order to be this way we require rules of engagement. All cooperative animals require mores and norms by which cooperative transactions and altruistic behaviour take place, while non-cooperative behaviours are punished. These rules can be encoded into the instincts and emotions of the animal or, in the case of humans, also into belief, speech, writing and law. Non-cooperative, “immoral” behaviour takes place when it makes more sense for an individual to secure their needs through self-serving methods. For example, if the risk of being caught and punished is very low and the reward is high.
The point is that evolution doesn’t give a stuff one way or the other, as long as it helps you have more, and fitter, children. So why would we postulate the existence of a stone-cold morality? Well, because it helps us cooperate and prosper, irrespective of its truth: if our moral intuitions are so ingrained that we mistake them for features of the natural world, they will be more effective. For example, to some degree evolution favours those who take the value of human life to be an Absolute Truth – that is, moral realists. If you have people questioning the value of human life too much, their chances of successfully breeding and raising children start to decline.
My opinion is that morality is not objective, and that fear makes us want to believe otherwise. It is clearly false that values can be determined from the examination of the natural world.
But it is equally false that nothing is valuable to us. We cannot escape our fundamental humanity, and as humans, we value certain things as a matter of biology. We can question these values, but that either leads to suicide, or the continuation as normal, with an implicit acceptance of the prior worldview. In this way, every living human lives within meaning, all the time, whether it is spoken about or not. We are impelled to hold values: it is an instinctive and universal consequence of being alive in the first place.
You don’t get to choose whether you value things: you only get to choose whether you are alive. Most choose to keep breathing, again because they are impelled to. If a bunch of people committed suicide because they thought that life wasn’t worth living, then evolution would obviously select against their genes and the human race would, as a whole, value life even more.