The Roots of Morality I: Refuting Relativism

Back in March of this year, soon after the founding of Daylight Atheism, I wrote a series of posts under the collected title “On Free Will“. In that series, I argued that appeals to the supernatural are neither necessary nor helpful in explaining the origins of human behavior, and that a rational, physical account of free will which preserves the qualities we value most can be given without invoking an immaterial soul.

I was pleased with the way this series turned out – in particular, I myself was having some intense philosophical struggles with the issue of free will at the time, and its writing helped me work through those difficulties and arrive at a conclusion that was satisfactory to me. However, in another sense I was unsatisfied, because its writing represented an unfulfilled promise. There was another series which I intended to follow up with immediately thereafter, one which built on the foundation of the free will series to derive a set of moral guidelines for human behavior. However, in the first few months of Daylight Atheism’s existence (and to some extent still even now), I had such a backlog of current events topics I wanted to write about that this other series was repeatedly pushed to the back burner. But such delays are to be brooked no longer: the time is now, and this is that series that has been percolating in my mind since the beginning. Its title is “The Roots of Morality”, and in it I will discuss what it means to be ethical and where to find the motivations for morality in a godless world.

Granted, I have already addressed this question at length in the Ebon Musings essay “The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick“. All the arguments which I made there still apply, as far as I am concerned. However, in this series, I intend to address some additional issues that have arisen since I wrote that essay, as well as explain my views on morality in greater depth and answer some questions that have been put to me. I hope it will serve to clarify and strengthen my original arguments.

As with the free will series, it is necessary to clear away debris before we can begin to build. In that series, these impediments took the form of dualist ideas about the soul. In the area of morality, however, those obstacles come in the form of moral relativism and divine command ethics. We must chart a path between these two untenable extremes if we are to arrive at a rational, workable set of principles for atheist morality. This post will address the Scylla of relativism, while the Charybdis of religious morality will be taken up in a subsequent post of a planned four-part series.

So, to begin: moral relativism. As in my previous essay, I define this as the view that morality has no basis other than individual or societal opinion, that it is a mere matter of personal preference, like a favorite color or a preference for chocolate over vanilla. The key aspect of moral relativism, I think, is its claim that it is impossible for a person to assert a moral opinion and be wrong. I intend to argue a strong form of the contrary: a truly objective morality not only is but must be possible, because the position of moral relativism is self-contradictory and logically incoherent and therefore must be rejected.

Moral relativists (if there are any among my readers) must surely be upset with me already. No doubt, they would respond that the relative nature of morality is an obvious fact: after all, how could it be otherwise? A objective and non-relative moral system requires a way of deciding between competing opinions, but any way we could possibly achieve this would itself merely be another opinion. The relativist’s conclusion is that there is no way to adjudicate competing moral claims that is not irretrievably mired in subjectivity, and that when two people disagree whether some practice is moral, the result is an irresolvable deadlock.

But these claims move too fast. Let us back up a bit and consider them in depth.

Consider this analogy. Morality is not the only area where opinions clash: in science as well, it frequently happens that two people will disagree. In fact, it frequently happens that two experienced, credentialed experts who both studied a problem will strongly disagree. Does it follow from this that there is no objective truth about the matter? Does it follow that neither of them is right?

Of course, this conclusion does not follow at all. Just because two people disagree does not necessarily mean that there is no independent truth; in science, at least, there plainly is. But the moral relativist’s logic can be applied with equal ease here – after all, is the resolution between competing scientific opinions not just another opinion? – and this is a reductio ad absurdum against that view, since in this case we know it is wrong. There are scientific truths independent of any individual’s or group’s opinion, and these truths are discoverable by us. The consistent moral relativist is pushed dangerously close to an extreme position of evidential relativism, which holds that there is no such thing as correct or incorrect and that every view is just as factually valid as every other. Obviously, this view is false.

True, morality is not exactly like science. It is not something that exists independently of us, “out there” in the world. Unlike scientific truths, the basic principles of ethics cannot be discovered by empirical inquiry, no matter how careful. There is no atom of morality, no elementary particle of good or evil. If intelligent beings were to cease to exist, morality would cease to exist as well. However, why should this present us with a problem? There are other systems of thought that are acknowledged to be objective, despite their having no existence independent of human beings.

Mathematics is one such example. Like morality, mathematics has no independent physical existence – it is a system of thought created by human beings. Yet this does not mean that math is a subjective discipline; the answer to a mathematical problem is not merely a matter of opinion. There are right answers and wrong answers. More importantly, despite the fact that human beings created mathematics, we cannot modify it just any way we like. Certain modifications, and probably in fact most modifications, would lead to a system that is logically incoherent. We cannot declare, by fiat, that the square root of 2 will henceforth be a rational number and thereby make it so.

Indeed, science itself is an objective system in this sense. True, once one accepts the basic principles of science, objective answers that can be discerned by empirical study come for free. But there is nothing that requires one to accept these principles in the first place. This is just the age-old problem of induction. Science relies on the assumption that our past experience will be at least a generally reliable guide to the future, but nothing about science itself forces us to believe this, and no argument can be given for it that is not ultimately circular. We could, instead, imagine a principle of “anti-induction” in which the results of an experiment are assumed to not describe the way the world will behave in the future. Other alternatives to science can doubtless be imagined, and again I emphasize that the scientific method is a system of thought created by humans. Again, does it follow from this that the scientific method is not objective? Must we conclude that there is no way of conclusively resolving a scientific dispute?

So far, I have argued that the existence of disagreement does not prove that there is no objective resolution to that disagreement. But I intend to go further, by showing that there is and must be such a resolution, at least in the case of morality. To see why, consider the “liar’s paradox” argument against moral relativism. A consistent moral relativist would claim that no moral opinion is more or less valid than any other, that any opinion which you hold is “true for you” and no one can gainsay it. But now imagine that relativist meets a moral objectivist, whose moral opinion is that some moral statements are more valid than others, and that some principles of morality are absolute and do not depend on human opinion.

In this situation, the relativist finds himself in a logical trap. If he grants that this view is true for the holder, then by definition it is true for everyone, and moral relativism is false. On the other hand, if he denies that this view is true, he is contradicting his own beliefs and betraying a belief in objective moral statements. Either way, moral relativism is false. There is no other way out of this dilemma, no third option that has been overlooked. The same principle cannot both apply and not apply to others; this is basic logic, the principle of non-contradiction.

Indeed, moral relativism is in a sense self-refuting. The moral relativist claims that people should agree with him when he asserts that morality has no objective existence. And yet, by the terms of his own beliefs, he must acknowledge that this claim is itself a matter of mere personal taste which can have no authority over other agents! If it is true that moral statements are just non-binding opinions, then moral relativism is one of those non-binding opinions, and we are free to disregard it. A moral relativist, if he is consistent, literally can give no reason whatsoever why we should agree with him. And what is the proper response to a view that is unsupportable by reasons, other than to reject it?

I have been asked why this liar’s paradox argument does not apply to other fields of thought, for example, aesthetics. Why could one not say that, for example, red is the best color and this is objectively true?

The answer is that I, unlike moral relativists, am not required by my philosophy to treat all aesthetic – or moral – opinions as equally valid, and so I can dismiss such claims as erroneous. The person who asserts that red is objectively the best color to prefer is simply wrong. However, the moral relativist is bound by his own beliefs never to make such an assertion, and therefore cannot give the parallel response to moral objectivists. If there is even one universal moral principle, moral relativism contradicts itself and is therefore false.

Another ill-founded objection is that moral relativism can be supported as a matter of logic – that is, the assertion that one person’s moral beliefs are not binding on another is not itself a moral belief, but a factual assertion that one can objectively prove to be right or wrong, and therefore a moral relativist can deny it and remain consistent.

This argument is easily shown to be false. By definition, morality is precisely that system of thought which states how intelligent beings should act. Therefore, claims about how we should make moral decisions are themselves moral claims. Meta-morality is morality, and again the moral relativist cannot escape logical paradox. What is a moral relativist really saying, other than “It is universally morally true that universal moral beliefs are not true”? This belief is plainly self-contradictory and therefore must be thrown out.

Moral relativism cannot be stated in a consistent and non-self-contradictory way, and so – unless we deny the rules of logic altogether – it inevitably collapses in paradox and must be discarded. The only remaining possibility, one that does not suffer from similar self-contradiction, is moral objectivism. In other words, there are universally valid and binding moral principles that are not reducible to mere preference or opinion. The remainder of this series will explore what those principles are.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Rise of the Machines
Atlas Shrugged: Kinder, Küche, Kirche
Atlas Shrugged: The Marketplace of Ideas
Atlas Shrugged: Motive Power
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.