The following originally appeared on Secularite as part of my “Empowerment Ethics” series, which now appears on Camels With Hammers.
In explaining my Empowerment Ethics so far, I have talked about how my own philosophical thinking about morality did not start by assuming morality was true and valid and legitimately binding and then trying deliberately to rationalize it. Instead I put morality into philosophical doubt and saw whether it could be defended and derived from some external criteria outside of properly moral considerations themselves. Over time I thought it could. I’ll articulate my reasons for thinking so as I continue to go.
But before we go much further it is important to specify what I mean by the terms “morality” and “objectivity” when I use the terms. Different people mean different things by the term. I find there are a lot of people who agree with me in substance about a great many issues with respect to my theory of the nature of ethics and morality and yet refuse to say something like that there can be “objective morality”.
There are several reasons for this. Some people insist that the meaning of morality must be understood to mean an absolute and unchangeable set of rules that are universally binding on all people at all times. Some people are even inclined to think that it must override all consequentialist thinking about personal or even social benefits whatsoever. Morality must say “thou shalt” in an unequivocal way. And part and parcel with this view is the idea that we must all have some absolute reason to obey it. Others might further add that for morality to be true, the moral injunctions commonly thought to comprise it at present must be correct. And for morality to be objective or true it must be absolutely objectively true, absolutely objectively compelling, and maybe even the most commonly referenced moral rules (against murder, lying, and theft, for examples) must be absolute.
This is an extremely rigid view I am sketching out. Not everyone sees morality this way. And I am going to argue that it is irrational to hold moralities to such criteria in order to be either called moralities or to be seen as objective and true. Along the way, a number of posts will make these arguments.
Let me for now, spell out the most compelling reason I found not to define morality in such a way.
For one thing, this is a particular account of what idealized morality might be like. It is a particular set of answers to the deeper questions about morality. The deepest, most fundamental, and distinct question characteristic of morality, as far as I can see, is “Why must I ever do things that I do not want to do?” Are there any kinds of rules or practices or judgments that I must adhere to and do so even when I do not want to?
From a practical standpoint, this is the crux question. The only true and meaningful and decisive moral skepticism is this question. People tell other people to do things they do not want to do. Things that go against their feelings, wants, desires, preferences, goals, etc. And in reply the question is, “Why must I?”
Or sometimes it’s not one person telling another what they must do. It is a conflict within oneself. There is a rational notion or a feeling that one must do something mixed competing against other sides of oneself. Why must one follow the order and not that which conflicts with it?
Are there criteria that can determine which of the “must” statements that we make that go against our preferences are really things we must do and which ones are not? If so, then in the only real sense that matters, morality is real. Let me hasten to add that I do not think all of the ethical life should be conceived of in the negative terms of “saying no” to our feelings and desires. From the broader perspective I think of ethics, distinct from morality, as being about how to live a good life and includes much more than the restraints on selfish behavior. And unless a morality ultimately leads to good lives, I won’t endorse it. And I am averse to the teaching of morality that is done primarily in terms of “thou shalts” and overemphasizes the importance of self-denial to the point of denigrating and dismissing the importance of our feelings and desires and even ourselves.
But all that is a matter of my substantive overall views on ethics. At this point, I’m just trying to isolate the specifically moral area of thought and life. The word moral is most definitively used for those obligations we will have to obey even when we don’t want to. And the question is answered numerous ways so at this stage of the inquiry, I’m not going to bake my own answer into the question itself.
The absolutist account of morality with which I started the post is not the only way to conceive of morality. It is merely an overambitious attempt to answer the “why must I?” question. It seems to have several reasons it is so appealing to so many. For one thing, it tries to invalidate any doubt. If the answer to the must question requires difficult scrutiny case by case, then people might try to quibble and rationalize and avoid their obligations. It’s much simpler to convince them there is an absolute must.
Absolutist musts are also often backed up with threats of absolute punishment if people deviate. They’re often connected to the idea of inescapable divine retribution. If an omniscient, omnipotent moral enforcer exists then they seem to assume that everyone has a good reason to obey morality. Implicitly they seem to recognize a deeper logical relationship between someone’s well-being and their rational interests. Why would the threat of hell put morality on firm ground if it wasn’t rational for people to not want to suffer?
Absolutists can’t switch over and say that absolute morality is binding because people’s risk aversion just does make them good when they believe in hell. All the absolutism and hell preaching of centuries hasn’t stopped even hell-believers from being immoral by their own internalized moral standards. If absolutist morality has a merit for its hell doctrine it cannot be in its absolute effectiveness in actually compelling obedience. It has to be in its absolute rational incentive to obey. But then it is acknowledging a deeper relationship that supports it–a rational connection whereby doing what enhances one’s own well being or thriving is the only rational thing to do. So, it would then be puzzling for absolutists to argue that no one who doesn’t believe in absolutist standards can ever find reasons to do moral things compelling against their feelings. So long as they can find ways that their ultimate well being or thriving involve doing the moral thing, they can find rational reasons to do the moral thing.
So, even the absolutist implicitly seems to accept a deeper truth about the theoretically rational persuasiveness of deeper, more rational, long term, macro-level interests over short term feelings. So long as such truer interests are theoretically possible, at least some moral appeals of why you must do what you don’t feel like are possible. Since these can easily be conceived in many cases that do not require absolutism in order to make them work, more than moral absolutism can underpin at least some morality as really compelling.
And not all moralities have been absolutist. Moral practices are much more complicated than sets of inflexible permanent rules when actually studied. As a matter of observable fact, real world moralities vary from place to place and from era to era. They involve complex interactions between rules and real life circumstances. Empirically speaking, moralities are diverse. And they effectively compel people all the time in ways that are less than absolute. Absolutism exaggerates the way a moral consideration pulls us from a sense of necessity and with reluctance to do what we perceive to be what is right. That feeling of compulsion need not be an absolute one to be effective. That’s not how moralities actually work in most cases and it’s not how rationally it would make sense for them to work.
As I mentioned in my earlier post on finding criteria for morality outside strictly moral standards themselves. Specifically, I indicated that there are rational, objective standards for what makes for value in a number of contexts and what makes for a rational norm. There are tests of effectiveness, coherence, consistency, etc. These can lend objectivity without their having to attain to absolute applicability. Plenty of norms can be specifiable to be rational and objective for a time and place and a purpose.
In fact, many norms have no pretensions to being rational and objective for all times and places and purposes. Moral norms usually have to be elevated above many of our short term, microlevel, selfish interests. If moral norms never conflicted with anyone just doing whatever they felt like in a situation, then they really wouldn’t be the kinds of things that told us what we must do even when we don’t want to. But just because moralities sometimes tell us what we must do when we don’t want to that doesn’t mean that they themselves are not assessable by how well or badly they themselves serve overriding value considerations in the time and place they’re being developed and applied.
Again, it is an overexaggeration to say that just because we cannot opt out of a good moral principle willy-nilly and for the sake of personal convenience, that all moralities must be the same universal absolute morality that never itself adapts to changes in material circumstances and the conditions of minimal well being and maximal thriving of the agents who are being compelled to obey it.
Finally, some philosophers known as moral error theorists want to say that this account of morality as simply one kind of limited, changeable, evolving normative reasoning among others cannot be morality because it differs from ordinary beliefs and some historical philosophers’ beliefs that morality is absolute.
And yet I’ve never seen such a philosopher really therefore jettison morality. They participate in the practice of making formally and emotionally similar moral judgments as anyone else. They apply the same kinds of standards with the same kinds of passion. They apply measures of coherence, consistency, and effectiveness to moral claims. They prioritize minimum human well being and maximal human thriving. They acknowledge that cultural variations sometimes should make a moral difference and sometimes not. On and on, when the rubber hits the road they reason effectively like those who think there are valid and invalid ways to make judgments in moral matters. They themselves are responsive to such reasons in ways that tangibly determine their decisions.
If all that is the case, in what serious sense do they actually not accept that morality is a rational endeavor that involves lots of objective criteria for determining what is best to do? So what if it does not yield absolute answers known with absolute knowledge. Very little reasoning does. But we still accept lots of other beliefs formed using basically, rational and objective criteria, regardless of their fallibility. It should not be different with morality.
Not satisfied with some aspect of my moral philosophy yet? Click the question or challenge that is closest to yours:
What is Empowerment Ethics?
Who Is Anyone To Tell Others What To Do?
How Can We Find External Criteria To Assess Morality’s Truth and Authority?
Is Empowerment Ethics Atheistic?
Can Morality Mean Something Other Than Absolutist Morality?
Is Morality Just Subjective?
Are Individuals’ Moralities Merely Personal?
Is Morality Relative?
Does Everyone Mean Something Different By The Word ‘Good’?
Are Moral Issues Too Subjective To Argue Over?
Can Atheists Condemn Rape Without Theistic Moral Absolutism?
Is Morality Just Culturally Relative?
I am a philosopher who specializes in ethics. For years, starting in my doctoral dissertation and then continuing right here on Camels With Hammers, I have been drafting, defending, and developing my own spin on the perfectionist and humanist ethical traditions that I call “Empowerment Ethics”. I write about everything from the most abstract foundational issues related to the nature of value and morality themselves (what philosophers call “metaethics”), to the most pressing moral controversies of our time, to how to live a good life in practical terms. The post above was an entry in this larger series. For a regularly updated full list of posts in this series and a very brief, 5 paragraph long, primer on what “Empowerment Ethics” is about as a moral philosophy see and bookmark this permanent page. A more thorough overview of the views can be found in my post My Systematic, Naturalistic Empowerment Ethics, With Applications To Tyrants, the Differently Abled, and LGBT People.