The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Towards the end of my dialogue on immoralism, I discussed, through the voice of one of my characters, my view that there can be relatively objective moralities. In reply, Jesse writes:

I saw your post on objective goods and it till doesn’t work for me. I still get back to the question of what an objective good is, and from that, this dialogue about morality.

Given that the physical universe doesn’t care about any of us, or what we do, or whether we all go crazy and become genocidal murderers, or whether we are angels, how do you discuss any kinds of “objective” morality at all?

The physical universe—taken as a unitary thing—does not care about anything. Nothing could be true if its truth hinged on the physical universe caring about it. Something’s being true, and objectively demonstrably true, has to do with our abilities to make a coherent and logically consistent sense of our manifold experience when we believe it to be true.

So why would anyone worry about what the universe did or did not care about when deciding whether there was an objective morality?  My guess is that several dubious assumptions about the nature and justification of morality are at work. The most basic assumption is that morality’s objectivity could only stem from a subjective authority with legitimate right to lay down a law. For example, whether we like America’s laws or not, we can say objectively what they are because we can identify the authorized subjective lawgivers, consult the nation’s constitution, study the history of American legislation, consult the law books, etc. Some laws are hard to interpret and so Justices are authorized to be either an authoritative subjective source of commands themselves as they interpret what legislators left unclear or they are merely clarifiers of the subjective will of legislators that make the legislators’ commands specific and effective with their rulings. In either case, objectively identifiable law comes from an act of duly authorized, widely obeyed, and regularly enforced subjective acts of will by lawgivers. Such laws can be acknowledged as objectively binding commands for a community, whether you agree with their wisdom or not, as long as they come from those duly authorized to give binding commands and are, in practice, efficacious in guiding community behavior.

So the assumption is often made that for there to be an objective morality, there would need to be an equivalent moral lawgiver, or lawgivers, that regulates our private moral lives in a comparable way to how governments’ laws regulates our public lives. The moral lawgivers would regulate what would be too infeasible for the governmental lawgivers to regulate, either by punishing legal infractions that went unnoticed by authorities, by punishing harms too common or trivial in kind for the government to reasonably punish every instance of, and/or by assessing and punishing even inner wrongdoing (such as evil thoughts) that had no outward manifestation. For the moral lawgivers to enforce the moral laws as effectively as human governments enforce civil laws, the moral lawgivers were often thought to have to be divine. There would have to be either gods or a single god.

There could be human moral lawgivers even if they were inadequate at enforcing their laws. But for there to be any moral laws that were cross-cultural you would need a common moral lawgiver that bound societies despite their differing values. The source of these laws has been conceived of as, again, divine agents or a monotheistic god who makes a universally binding morality. We might also be Kantian or prescriptivist and conceive of rationality itself as legislating a universal morality. In this way the objective, cross-culturally binding moral law is what the ideal rational agent would legislate. Each of us, insofar as we are rational, could discern this for ourselves.

The appeal to the indifference of the universe seems to be made by people who think that without universal enforcement powers, agents cannot lay down universal (or otherwise objective) morality. Presumably only gods or something else having sufficient power to punish wrongdoing could give an objectively binding morality. Without efficacious enforcement a morality has no objective force. So if there are no gods and the universe indifferently gives fortune and misfortune to both the allegedly moral and the allegedly immoral alike, then it is inferred that there is no normative force to morality. With no lawgiver or no law enforcer, there can be no objectively identifiable moral law.

Presumably the idea that rationality itself or humans themselves could be legitimate subjective legislators that could make objective laws is either not considered by those who look to the universe to care or they dismiss the option for some reason. The arguments against rationality being legitimate subjective legislators could be the familiar charges that rationality itself would come to inconclusive results, that it would have no binding authority, that it would vary too much from one rational agent or rational culture to another, or that it would inadequately be able to enforce its laws and so be ineffective at making imposing itself on reality. Parallel problems would arise in allowing humanity to be the source of morality as human judgments, feelings, and desires vary and their enforcement powers are limited.

In my view however, all of this is wrongheaded. Moralities are not justified by coming from sanctioned legitimate authorities. They are justified by whether or not they are conducive to the flourishing of the agents who are subjected to them. A morality is relatively objectively good for each agent and for the total culture to the extent that it maximizes the agent and the culture’s overall flourishing in power. Moralities are just complicated instruments for achieving flourishing. They are objectively justified as such by their regular, or rationally projectable, contributions to human prosperity according to as many powers and powerful combinations of human powers as they can enhance.

The good is distinguishable from the moral. The moral is a means to the good. Our good is maximal flourishing. The good in general is just effectiveness relationships that exist throughout the universe. The universe, taken as a totality, has no feelings of course. But nonetheless it consists throughout of functional relationships in which several things combine and either make up a more complicated functional pattern of existence (i.e., a more complicated, distinctly identifiable being which emerges out of the combination of its parts, from which it is distinguishable) or they contribute to another being’s flourishing according to its characteristic nature and powers.

In this context, human goods emerge as simply effectiveness relationships which constitute our being. Without effectively thinking, willing, emoting, socializing, etc., human being as we understand it would not exist. We effectively emerge out of these powers. They are our constitutive goods. The good of their maximal overall flourishing is identical with our maximal overall flourishing. Moralities can be objectively assessed as relatively good or relatively bad for each individual and each culture on a case by case basis for how they in fact do, or could be projected to, enhance our maximal overall flourishing.

The universe may remain completely indifferent to effectiveness relationships but they nonetheless exist throughout the universe and are the meaning of “goodness” in the naturalistic, objective sense of the term. Moralities are objectively good for us to the extent they effectively contribute to our achieving our fundamental natural powers through which we have our being. They are bad to the extent to which, on the long run, they harm this.

Morality has long been misinterpreted in absolutist, authoritarian, and superstitious terms. But it is foolish to still demand that moralities meet the bogus criteria of being absolute or come from an absolute lawgiver or be dismissed as illegitimate, arbitrary, or unfounded. Such moves retain theistic and superstitious attitudes towards morality rather than understand it within the naturalistic, pluralistic, empirical, situational, objective terms available to us. There is no God. There need be no God for moralities of various stripes to have demonstrable value to us. Requiring the universe to fulfill the “personal moral lawgiver” role that God used to be assumed to fill, which is clearly impossible, in order for morality to be legitimated is to refuse a priori to think naturalistically, realistically, or constructively about one of the most vital, indispensable, and ineradicable features of our lives, and instead to be hypocritically incoherent and unnecessarily surrender all moral authority and all moral clarity.

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”

Immoralism?

Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

  • Physicalist

    The physical universe—taken as a unitary thing—does not care about anything.

    Yes. (And thank goodness we have philosophers putting in necessary qualifications like “taken as a unitary thing.”)

    But I think it’s important to point out that parts of the physical universe do care about us and what we do. Those parts are, of course, conscious beings.

    What? You’re going get upset because the rock doesn’t feel sorry for you when you stub your toe on it?

  • Mark

    Hi Daniel. I agree with all you say here, and just wish I could express the issues as articulately.

    I would like to get your thoughts on an argument I’m putting forward on christian websites, and see if it stands or has been previously debunked. Many christian sites subscribe to the Divine Command theory, propose that the bible is the only source of divine command and that atheists have no basis for morality because we don’t have a divine commander.

    My issue with this is that a lot horrible stuff hasn’t been prohibited by the bible. For example there is no divine command against female genital mutilation in the bible. Does the christian have an objective basis for saying that FGM i immoral? So I’ve asked this question on about 6 christian threads talking about atheist morality (as well as posing the question on William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith). So far the only repines has been the sound of crickets.

    Anyway, I’m not familiar with philosophy, and wonder if this question has been raised and dealt with before.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Hi Mark, my thoughts on divine command theory are here. I can’t really speak for whether Christians have an objective basis for saying FGM is moral or immoral since I don’t think Christianity is any one given set of ideas. Different Christians have different views on the nature and justification of morality. I can only represent my own (atheistic) views.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=153100784 michaelbrew

      Mark, it’s vastly unsatisfying as an answer when it comes down to it, but I’ve brought this same kind of question up to Christians, and the catch-all answer seems to be “love thy neighbor as you would yourself.”

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    I skimmed a couple of the previous articles, but I still don’t see how you’d handle Kantians and Stoics. For the most part, they’d go along with everything you’d say (both would balk at happiness until you clarified that it referred to achieving your end as humans, at which point the Stoics will completely agree and Kantians, I think, would at least grudgingly accept that it isn’t completely wrong). But then when it got down to actual moral behaviour, both of them would likely have radically different ideas of what constitutes moral behaviour than you would, because they would have a radically different idea of what human nature is supposed to be. How, then, would you resolve that?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      By request, here are some ways I account for Kant’s concerns.

  • http://blog.earthshod.co.uk/ AJS

    The universe does not care about morality.

    But we do.

    Isn’t that enough?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      It goes a long way but I’m not sure it’s completely enough. Our good of flourishing is objective and needs to be to make our desires rationally justified. Because it is the greatest practical contradiction to violate the conditions of my own ultimate maximal flourishing, it is irrational for me not to desire it. Other desires we have could be criticizable. Some of the ways some of us value morality are open to critique. Moralities, in my view, need justificiation in terms of their contribution to the good.

    • Vx

      If I asked you whether we should care about something or not, would I be able to convince you not to care, or could you convince me to care about something? If so, then we have some deeper basis on which to base such judgements.
      He’s saying that us having as goal the overall flourishing of us and our culture is such a basis, which makes sense. The only problem is the vagueness of “overall flourishing”, but I would argue that extremely long term species survival is a minimal such goal that has most wanted consequences.
      Or something.
      I enjoyed this post very much =)

    • Vx

      I should have said “I think he’s saying”, if only because it’s getting late and I want to hedge against my being an idiot.

  • Jesse

    Daniel–

    I haven’t gone deeply enough through the other posts you linked to, and I will — but I think ou avoid the question that I am asking.

    Relativity works no matter what you or I think. Atoms give off photons when hit with certain kins of energy. If you and a serial killer jump off the Empire State Building, you will both fall at 9.8 m/s/s and die.

    The physical universe doesn’t “care” about what we think — the laws that govern it just are. They work the way they do with zero regard for the behavior of the conscious beings in it.

    So, in light of that, I can’t come up with any scheme of behavior that is valid in the same way as Relativity, Newton’s laws, or Quantum Physics is.

    Give me any moral proposition you care to — I will make that bet. Any moral idea you come up with and I can argue why it is absolutely immoral. Give me any objective good — name one, any of them — and I bet you five bucks I can come up with a perfectly self-consistent reason why it’s objectively evil.

    Slavery? Economic growth. Many of the civilizations that had slavery int he ancient world were quite advanced, and in fact might have owed their advancement to slavery itself.

    Murder? Hey, gets rid of competition for resources. More for the rest of us and the species.

    Helping old ladies across the street? Absolutely evil. It increases the chance a person who can’t contribute will survive and take more stuff from the rest of us.

    Jonathan Swift was able to justify cannibalism.

    Understand now what my problem is? Not that I want to be a sociopath, I just have never successfully come up with the same rock – solid argument for behaving like a non-sociopath that I can come up with for why Newton’s mechanics works.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      No, I’m not avoiding the rest of your question, just handling one topic at a time. The whole “the universe does not care” thing is something that deserves its own post and I’d never gotten to it before. I have already said a lot on the various other things you are saying but will address more of it as there is time.