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:

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://hellboundalleee.blogspot.com Hellbound Alleee

    I would like to re-post this article as part of my blog series, “The War on Moral Relativism.” There are several articles on it, but I would love to include yours. Email me at alleee@hellboundalleee.com if it’s ok.

    Here is the url:
    http://hellboundalleee.blogspot.com/2006/05/war-on-relativism.html

    Thanks!

  • Christopher

    I have read your articles on this subject (both here and in your atheism pages) and find them thought-provoking and insightful. You are well under way to devising a moral system that assumes the absence of a god (no small feat), but you seem to forget one thing: morality is our creation, made to serve the society that creates it. It is made by humans, and anything that humans create can be altered for the conviniece of said humans.

    There are no exceptions to this rule: we alter archetecture to serve our practical and aesthetic needs; we alter political and economic stuctures to suite our need for common order and defense; we even alter “god” (the supposedly almighty and unchanging one) to serve the needs of society. Morality is as much our creation as the things mentioned above, therefore it can be altered (or ever eliminated) at our collective pleasure.

    I see that this thing is just an artificial concept, I see no reason to be faithful to it and see the human individual as being superior to it. That is why (unlike the moral relativist) I reject all established forms of morality and live soley for the interests of myself and my own (I guess you can call me a moral rejectionist…). If following a path agreeable to the established form of morality suits the needs of me and mine, I shall follow it. If a path that contradicts the established morality suits the needs of me and mine, I will STILL follow it.

    I think that you are looking in the wrong direction here: you assume that morality is a constant, I see it as just one more tool society uses to control it’s populace (much like the imaginary “god”). To throw off society’s control over our lives, we have to destroy the implements it uses to influence us.

  • http://patwhalenaustin.rr.com Boelf

    I have a problem with:

    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.

    Saying morality is relative (or saying it is objective) is not a moral judgment. Its a judgement about morality. In fact stating that morality is relative is an absolute statement about the nature of morality.

    So our moral relativist is not being inconsistent by holding that his determinists friend’s moral opinions are as valid as any other while disagreeing his friend’s opinions trump his own.

  • Philip Thomas

    Ok, so you allow relativism in aesthetics. But I don’t really understand your claim to distinguish between this and relativism in morality. Could not someone say that, like the person who asserts that red is objectively the best colour, the person who asserts that murder (or whatever) is objectively bad behaviour is “simply wrong”?

    Such a person may not technically be a moral relativist, but his argument still needs to be dealt with…

  • http://secularplanet.blogspot.com Secular Planet

    I was disappointed in this entry because it seems to fail to address the issue at hand.

    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.

    This is a fair definition. The problem is that you seem to abandon it once your begin your critique and you never indicate how aesthetic and moral valuations differ. You implicitly assert that morality is more like math than flavor preference without providing any evidence for this position.

    A moral relativist does not necessarily say that two contradictory moral propositions are both true; this would indeed violate the principle of non-contradiction and render the view illogical and thus invalid. A moral relativist simply acknowledges that individuals hold different values and goals, which is an objective fact. Person A weighs the merits of an action according to whether it makes him personally happy while Person B weighs the merits of an action according to whether it makes people in general happy. This will result in some differences in their moral codes. Moral relativism doesn’t claim that both preferences are true, as you seem to be arguing, but rather that we cannot prefer one to another unless we apply our own values, which themselves have no basis outside of our own preference.

    A moral relativist doesn’t have to passively accept others’ views despite strongly disagreeing with them. Perfect tolerance of others’ offensive values and actions isn’t necessarily among the moral relativist’s personal values. It might sound odd until you consider that moral agents don’t exist in a vacuum. If I see someone mugging someone else, moral relativism doesn’t demand that I throw my hands in the air because my view that I have a moral objection to help the victim by, say, calling the police, conflicts with mugger’s view that it’s permissible to rob others. It only demands that I must recognize my own views as essentially axiomatic.

    Moral relativists don’t have to abandon their own moral judgements simply because they cannot objectively prove their opinions true.

  • Christopher

    The problem here is that he sees morality as a constant. But morality (just like religion, politics, economics, etc…) is a man-made system and is not constant through history! All the above systems can be altered to suit the needs and desires of society, so there is no reason to believe morality is any different.

    Mathematics, on the other hand, IS a constant: D will equal R(T), 2+2 will equal 4, and area will equal base X width X height no matter what. It was true in Prehistoric times and it will be true into eternity (notwithstanding some unforseen universal destruction phenomenea). Morality (as well as all other systems mentioned above) does not have this ever-lasting quality, thus it cannot be a constant.

  • http://wwwdebunkingchristianity.com John W. Loftus

    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.

    Is it really contradictory for a relativist to say that all any person has is a subjective awareness of morality? A relativist claims this is all he has to judge things by, and his subjective opinion is that this is all anyone has to judge morality by. Again, what if he claims that there is no objective morality, and that’s his subjective opinion? And what if he goes on to argue that there is no objective morality? Just because a relativist doesn’t believe there is an objective morality does not mean that he cannot argue his subjective opinions against those who, from his perspective, disagree with him with their own subjective opinions.

    If you respond by claiming that these above statements are indeed statements about objective morality, then I agree. They are statements about objectivie morality, and the relativist’s claim is that there are none. The claim is not that there is no such thing as a statement about objective morality. Why is such a thing illogical? It’s not all that clear that it’s illogical for a relativist to say that in his subjective opinion there is no objective morality. Such a claim does not require that he’s certain about this opinion of his, so the claim falls into the realm of induction and probability, not deduction and impossibility. What he’s saying is that there is probably no objective standard for morality from his subjective perspective. Others can and do disagree with his claim, but that does not make his claim illogical if they do, and if his claim is correct that there is no objective morality then anyone who believes there is objective morality does so, from his perspective, in a non-objective sense, i.e., from their own subjectivie opinions. That is, those who disagree with his claim do so subjectively from his perspective, and hence there is no contradiction between people who only have their own subjective opinions about morality. They can only contradict each other if one side presupposes there is an objective morality in the first place, which is something the relativist rejects.

    I am not a relativist, but I understand their arguments enough to think that we cannot refute moral relativism. Moreover, just because we may all condemn the same acts does not refute relativism, we just happen to agree. Furthermore since the relativist can argue that every moral theory is either implausible and unworkable(denotological Kantianism), contradictory (Divine Command Theories), and/or dies the death of a thousand qualifications (ultilitarianism), that the relativistic moral theory should be adopted by thinking people precisely because it cannot be refuted, even though it seems reprehensible.

  • http://wwwdebunkingchristianity.com John W. Loftus

    Oh, and I must say that you did your usual great job in your attempt here. It’s just that it can be much tougher to argue against relativists than pointing out an inconsistency where there isn’t any from their perspective.

  • Archi Medez

    Ebonmuse,

    I think your argument could benefit here from some key concrete examples in the moral domain. The morality of ritual human sacrifice is one of the key examples used to demonstrate in dramatic fashion where moral relativism fails. I don’t mind the references to science and math, but I think most of this article should be dealing with illustrative empirical cases pertaining to moral questions, not so much the issue of logical contradiction or analogies to areas other than morality per se (math, science, aesthetics).

    I do agree that moral relativism is inherently contradictory, but I think most people need to see some examples or thought experiments before they will agree or at least have a clear idea of what (I think) you are claiming here. Also, it appears that some of the posters above are using a somewhat different definition of moral relativism, and this issue needs to be sorted out.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Although I expected some criticism for this post, I’m surprised by the way most critical commenters have simply reiterated objections which I already dealt with at length in the post itself. As an example, this comment from Secular Planet:

    Moral relativism doesn’t claim that both preferences are true, as you seem to be arguing, but rather that we cannot prefer one to another unless we apply our own values, which themselves have no basis outside of our own preference.

    Yes, and the entire point of my post was that this is a logically inconsistent belief system. As you yourself point out, the moral relativist “cannot prefer one [moral system] to another”. And as I explained, if this is true, then the consistent moral relativist cannot give any reason why moral relativism should be preferred to moral objectivism! The belief system collapses in self-contradiction.

    Or this one from Boelf:

    Saying morality is relative (or saying it is objective) is not a moral judgment. Its a judgement about morality.

    Since I dealt with this exact argument, I’ll just quote my response to it:

    “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…”

    I suppose a moral relativist could claim that he is not making any assertions about how other people should make moral judgments. But if so, that relativist is essentially asking to be ignored.

    Or from Christopher:

    The problem here is that he sees morality as a constant. But morality (just like religion, politics, economics, etc…) is a man-made system and is not constant through history!

    This is exactly equivalent to saying that humanity’s views on the shape of the Earth are not constant throughout history, and therefore the shape of the Earth is not a constant but can be altered to suit the desires and beliefs of society. Again, as I argued in this post, the existence of disagreement about an issue does not prove that there is no objective fact of the matter. Such an assertion would be nonsensical if applied to science and is equally nonsensical when applied to morality.

    I do have a response to Philip, who seems to have grasped my point better than most:

    Could not someone say that, like the person who asserts that red is objectively the best colour, the person who asserts that murder (or whatever) is objectively bad behaviour is “simply wrong”?

    This is a valid question, and an important one. Agreement that there exists an objective morality does not, by itself, give any insight into what that morality actually is. In the next post of this series, I hope to give some insight in that direction, and to work out some basic principles which can guide us in moral reasoning.

  • http://uncrediblehallq.blogspot.com Chris Hallquist

    You’ve been tagged for a book meme.

  • peep

    I think alot of people get confused because they really have no way of supporting their claims that certain types of behavior are moral, but certainly some moral claims can be easily supported. For instance, don’t eat pork is kinda just arbitrary; don’t steal is morality by convention–it could be changed if everyone decided it needs a change; and don’t kill other people for fun, and don’t lie, are close to objectively moral claims–rejecting these premises would make any attempt at morality futile.

    Now, I think ebonmuse has argued convincingly against moral relativism, but still…a really commited relativist could still say, “well, is morality even desirable?” We could all be nihilists, couldn’t we? But I think that is outside the scope of this post, and he’ll probably address it in a future post?

    As to the difference between morality and aesthetics–morality is enforced with rewards and sanctions, aesthetics isn’t, that’s why we accept subjectivity in one, and not the other. Really, aesthetics shouldn’t be about *what objectively is* beautiful, but rather, why do we think some things are, how can we best appreciate beauty, and find out what we each find most beautiful. But whatever, that some people have better taste will never be a reason to imprison or kill others.

  • peep

    O, and Christopher, there is a huge difference between formulating a morality that “assumes the absence of a god” and formulating a morality without assuming the existance of a god. The first would only be completely valid if there is in fact no god, the other would be valid (but not necessarily complete) whether or not there is a god. Most of us atheist really do not start out assuming that there is no god, rather, we just “Have no need for that hypothesis.” Like 2+2=4 doesn’t assume there is a god, or that there isn’t. Neither should we need a god to tell us that indiscriminate killing is wrong, and no god could ever make it ok, although an immoral god might encourage it.

    Drifting off topic for another example, evolutionary theory doesn’t depend on there being no god–natural selection will happen either way; although a god could of course smite down the “fitter” before they get to reproduce, but even if there were a god, you wouldn’t take it for granted that god does that:/ (actually, though, evolution would still go on, i’d expect…god would just act another selection pressure, wouldn’t it?)

  • Christopher

    In response to Ebonmuse:

    “This is exactly equivalent to saying that humanity’s views on the shape of the Earth are not constant throughout history, and therefore the shape of the Earth is not a constant but can be altered to suit the desires and beliefs of society. Again, as I argued in this post, the existence of disagreement about an issue does not prove that there is no objective fact of the matter. Such an assertion would be nonsensical if applied to science and is equally nonsensical when applied to morality.”

    The shape of the earth IS a constant: regardless of what we THINK about it’s shape (it was thought to be flat, trianglular, even trapeziodal), it will still be spherical. Since those days of superstition, we have developed objective means for determining the earth’s physical properties.

    Morality, on the other hand, is NOT a constant. It was something concieved of (and used exclusively by) humans. Because it is something mankind invented (and can disinvent, if it is man’s will), there is no way to objectivley measure it. There is no way to objectivly declare actions moral/immoral because these things rely on man-made values to measure; values instilled in your mind by the society you live in!

    Because morality is all in one’s mind, it can be argued that it doesn’t really exist at all. This is the position I hold: morality only exists because we believe that it exists (in the same vein of thought, “god” only exists because we think he does). If mankind stopped believing in it, it would simply cease to be. As a moral rejectionist, I propose that we send this outdated concept to the same grve where we sent god…

  • Christopher

    Spelling correction: “grve” is supposed to read grave. Sorry.

  • http://secularplanet.blogspot.com Secular Planet

    Yes, and the entire point of my post was that this is a logically inconsistent belief system. As you yourself point out, the moral relativist “cannot prefer one [moral system] to another”. And as I explained, if this is true, then the consistent moral relativist cannot give any reason why moral relativism should be preferred to moral objectivism! The belief system collapses in self-contradiction.

    No, you misunderstand what I said. Moral relativism isn’t a value system or a preference. It’s an objective claim that we have no objective reason to prefer a value system. Moral relativism is not a value system. You seem to be confusing moral relativism with relavistic view of all truth.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    The shape of the earth IS a constant: regardless of what we THINK about it’s shape (it was thought to be flat, trianglular, even trapeziodal), it will still be spherical.

    Yes, and morality is the same. Regardless of what some people think about the morality of an action, it will be either objectively right or objectively wrong. Your argument was that the disagreement of people over what morality is proves that there is no such thing, but we can apply exactly the same logic to science to show that your argument is flawed.

    There is no way to objectivly declare actions moral/immoral because these things rely on man-made values to measure; values instilled in your mind by the society you live in!

    Substitute “true/false” for “moral/immoral” in the above sentence and you obtain a philosophical position that some people actually do believe. That position is wrong when it concerns science, and it is wrong when it concerns morality. As I have shown, moral relativism is a logically incoherent viewpoint. In the next post of this series, I will propose an explanation for where objective morality comes from.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Moral relativism isn’t a value system or a preference. It’s an objective claim that we have no objective reason to prefer a value system.

    If it is an objective claim, then it is in principle capable of being proven wrong. I intend to do just that in my next post, which will explain the origins of objective morality.

  • peep

    At the very least, objective facts of biology suggest that we should prefer some value systems to others; it seems obvious to me that most people would prefer a value system that keeps them alive, healthy, maybe wealthy, keeps them company with opposite sex, well fed, more or less free of pain, and so on. Most people can probably recognize and should respect that others will desire such things themselves, because of the objective fact of similar biology. Sure there’s more to morality, but that’s enough to start formulating an objective part of a moral system.

    Reasoning like game theory can help show whether a moral system can work consistently for all agents, too; and whether some proposed moral system is easy or hard for cheaters to exploit, and the consequences of cheating to those who are playing fair, like how much stealing could an economic system endure before everyone should decide that they should be stealing everything they want, or how much murder is acceptable before it becomes safer to just kill everyone on sight before one of them kills you, for example. Some moral systems are very likely stable (or almost stable?) in this sense, some just aren’t. This suggests another objective reason to prefer some moral systems over others.

  • Christopher

    Response to Ebonmuse:

    “Yes, and morality is the same. Regardless of what some people think about the morality of an action, it will be either objectively right or objectively wrong. Your argument was that the disagreement of people over what morality is proves that there is no such thing, but we can apply exactly the same logic to science to show that your argument is flawed.”

    Morality cannot be the same because morality does not exist independently of humans, and thus, is NOT constant. Material objects exist independently from us, and thus ARE constant.

    Things that exist at the pleasure of their creators exist only as long the creators allow them to exist, morality being no exception to that rule. If the creators of morality (i.e. society) decided to do away with it tommarow, it would cease to exist altogether.

    “Substitute “true/false” for “moral/immoral” in the above sentence and you obtain a philosophical position that some people actually do believe. That position is wrong when it concerns science, and it is wrong when it concerns morality. As I have shown, moral relativism is a logically incoherent viewpoint. In the next post of this series, I will propose an explanation for where objective morality comes from.”

    Just for the record, I’m NOT a moral reletivist. I’m a moral rejectionist ( A.K.A. ammoralist).

    Also, science doesn’t use arbitrarily created values to analyze physical objects; all values used in measurements of physical space are based on standardized measures contrived from real, physical environments. Moral values, on the other hand, are generally not standardized OR based on the real world in any way.

  • Archi Medez

    Christopher,

    I do not wish to suggest that you personally would be indifferent to acts such as rape, murder, theft, etc., but, if you are not indifferent to those acts, how does your position with regard to those acts fit with your “moral rejectionist/amoralist” position?

    And doesn’t the amoralist position lead to the same self-contradiction as does moral relativism? That is, if you object to the idea of independent/objective morality, isn’t that also a moral stand? That is, you believe that the independent/objective morality stand is false. Doesn’t your objection then come from a moral sense of correcting a claim that you believe is incorrect? You believe Ebonmuse is incorrect. Yet you are not morally indifferent to that. You think he’s factually wrong, and you want to correct him. But why would a true amoralist care whether someone had made an incorrect statement, much less, care to argue with it publicly?

    You state:

    “Morality cannot be the same because morality does not exist independently of humans, and thus, is NOT constant. Material objects exist independently from us, and thus ARE constant.”

    1. It’s problematic to say that morality does not exist independently of humans, because there is some interesting research in animal behaviour that suggests otherwise.

    2. In any case, even if humans were the only creature to have morality, that is not relevant to the issue of constancy.

    This next point is tangential, but may be important to keep in mind, in this age of modern neuroscientific techniques: The human nervous system, which provides the basis for our moralistic thinking and behaviour, is objectively observable; and of course behaviour and cultural expressions, artifacts, trends, etc., are objectively observable. Neural process and behaviour can be studied scientifically without assuming anything about mind (it’s awkward and less effective than also assuming the existence of mind, in my opinion, but it can be done).

  • CalUWxBill

    I have not looked into the study of morality much. So I can’t levy much of an opinion regarding relative vs. objective morality. Is there an absolute right or wrong? If there is, it is very fundamental, but when applied would be to everyday life would seem to be as complex (if not more complex) as the interaction of matter and energy. So, I think moral values must be applied within the reference frame it is needed. I don’t have strong reading comprehension skills, but I did try to read through the Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick. I enjoyed the different moral views atheistic philosophers have proposed in the past, I agree with their setbacks, however I did not comprehend your own view of an absolute moral philosophy well enough to see whether it is rational or not.

    My own view is a self-centered view of morality. I live in this world, it shouldn’t be offensive to others, but I come first, or at the very least those that are close to me come first. So my view is a hierarchy of importance from myself to my family, to my local area, to my country, to the world. Certainly I view my actions within the human framework, then from there, there is importance placed to the animal kingdom, but it is very limited. I don’t care if I kill a fly or an ant or bees or a rodent, am I inhumane? But, my compassion does grow more as the animal is closer to my likeness. This is one reason I think the big three religions are outdated. It seems the Old Testament, and to a greater extent the Sumerian myths had gods or a God that was much closer to them. God had angels and messengers perform many of his works. But, the world was a little bit smaller then, atleast it seemed so. We now know just how expansive this world is, and people’s spirituality has not left them, God has simply become bigger and farther away from us. So on the one hand it is hard for anyone to comprehend an infinite God being so emotionally connected to us, in the same manner, we could care less about the ant. So I see the actions we choose in everyday life used to maintain our own existence and posterity and make this and future lives worth living. To me that is all morality can consist of, making life better. Of course, what is a better life? What does it mean to be truely happy? While, I may be more inclined to agree with the relativist, I certainly think whether morality is absolute or not, it is absolutely necessary to serve as a foundation of a healthy society.

  • Christopher

    Response to Mendez:

    “I do not wish to suggest that you personally would be indifferent to acts such as rape, murder, theft, etc., but, if you are not indifferent to those acts, how does your position with regard to those acts fit with your “moral rejectionist/amoralist” position?”

    Truth be told, it’s all about who is effected. If no one I cared about was raped, murdered, robbed, etc… I would be completely indifferent towards the act. Now, if one of mine was affected by such acts, I would do all in my power to intervene. As an ammoralist, it’s not my place try to put an end to these acts (you couldn’t even if you tried), but rather to keep these things from happening to myself and mine.

    On a similair note, if one of my own was involved in such acts, I would simply look the other way. Unless he could be harmed by such actions, there is no reason for me to dissuade him.

    Is this favoritism? Yes. But once one learns that “fairness” is a farce, one can see the ugly truth of human nautre: we are not equal. Once one accepts this truth, all the other elements of ammorality fall into place.

    “But why would a true amoralist care whether someone had made an incorrect statement, much less, care to argue with it publicly?”

    While I have no moral opinions towards his argument, I find a number of factual errors that need to be addressed. The main error is that he assumes morality is a science, when it’s really a socially-constructed concept. He also assumes that his version of morallity is the one that is “the truth,” even though all forms morallity have made similiar assumptions (although he uses a different base, so I give him credit for originallity).

    But my only real purpose in debating with him was to put my under-represented view out there to be pondered. I just want to let the people of the web know that there are more than just two ways to look at this thing we call morality.

  • AlexanderM

    Personally, I’m of the inclination that an objective system of morality can be constructured, discovered, or explored. The issue hinges on the concept of existence I believe. We have physical existence, and it’s not a stretch of reasoning to think about mathematical and morality existence too. While Adam takes the view that mathematics is simply an invented consistent system and I think of mathematics as existing and discovered in the Platonic sense, that’s not of importance. I find it usual to think about mathematical existence as in saying that mathematical structures and theorems exist in an objective sense separate from physical reality. The same goes for morality, we can build an objective system of morality from a set of carefully chosen axioms which we all can agree on. These axioms remain to be found but I’d guess that axioms can be found which will be grounded in human behavior; such as self-interest, socializing, emotion, and reason which have evolutionary underpinnings.

    By Christopher,
    “I think that you are looking in the wrong direction here: you assume that morality is a constant, I see it as just one more tool society uses to control it’s populace (much like the imaginary “god”). To throw off society’s control over our lives, we have to destroy the implements it uses to influence us.”

    But yet by engaging in morality theoretizing, aren’t you in essence functioning as a member of a society? If you truely wanted to throw off any influence that society has over you then the only way to do that is to escape to some distant location in the wilderness and severe all connections with the society. If you were the only person living in the self-imposed exile, then clearly there’s no need for morality. It requires at minimum two people in order to develop morality but then you’re now under the influence of a society, albeit quite a small one.

    I think morality serves as a constant which guides our dealings with other humans in every day dealing regardless of whether we’re explicitly aware of it or not. It doesn’t have to be some physical entity in order to be justified. Suppose we create a system founded on solid foundations on logic, understanding of human behavior and neurophysiology then we can form an objective standard of morality. Afterall isn’t human behavior and neurophysiology based in physical world with its objective standards? If we can show how morality follow from a deep understanding of human behavior, then the case that people can simply throw morality out whenever it suits them becomes untenable.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Truth be told, it’s all about who is effected. If no one I cared about was raped, murdered, robbed, etc… I would be completely indifferent towards the act.

    I find that view repulsive. Not only is it incredibly callous and cruel, it’s irrational and short-sighted as well. First, if you’re a rational person, then you as an amoralist are put in the awkward position of hoping that other people don’t agree with your views, or else you’ll have no one to help you should you ever become the target of such violence.

    But even if we discount that consideration, your position is short-sighted for another reason. If you know that some violent criminal is on the loose, then it is in your direct interest that he be caught and brought to justice, because even if he is not currently targeting someone you care about, he may well end up doing so in the future. Being indifferent to the harm he does while he is on the loose, until he comes after one of your loved ones, is about as rational as building your home on a flood plain and ignoring the threat of rising waters until your house is swept away in the flood.

  • Christopher

    Response to Ebonmuse:

    “I find that view repulsive. Not only is it incredibly callous and cruel, it’s irrational and short-sighted as well. First, if you’re a rational person, then you as an amoralist are put in the awkward position of hoping that other people don’t agree with your views, or else you’ll have no one to help you should you ever become the target of such violence.”

    You’re not the first to tell me shuch things. In fact, I acknowledge the callous, cynical attitude one must have to embrace such an idea. But it’s far from short-sighted. I know that most people are not like me, and I use that to great advantage!

    As for assistence in a time of trouble: two things you must learn.

    1. You can only rely on yourself and your own (those with a vested interest in your life) to help you. All other humans on the face of the planet may as well not exist in such circumstances.

    2. Not only am I prepared to handle myself in a violent situation, I’m prepared to retaliate with even greater force than that used agaist me. Unlike the “eye for an eye” proverb, I not only fight back against those who mean me harm, I destroy them.

    “But even if we discount that consideration, your position is short-sighted for another reason. If you know that some violent criminal is on the loose, then it is in your direct interest that he be caught and brought to justice, because even if he is not currently targeting someone you care about, he may well end up doing so in the future. Being indifferent to the harm he does while he is on the loose, until he comes after one of your loved ones, is about as rational as building your home on a flood plain and ignoring the threat of rising waters until your house is swept away in the flood”

    I know full well about criminals on the prowel and how they could come after some one I care about. But just because I’m indifferent to the act itself doesn’t mean that I don’t have a contingency plan in case it does come my way. This is why me and mine are always armed. It’s far better to be prepared to destroy an assailent yourself than to rely on this nation’s inefficient criminal “justic” system.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    In fact, I acknowledge the callous, cynical attitude one must have to embrace such an idea. But it’s far from short-sighted. I know that most people are not like me, and I use that to great advantage!

    Then it would seem you have made a serious error in announcing that you hold this view. Universal utilitarianism detests cheaters, just as most decent people do, and your informing us that you believe this gives us all an excellent reason never to help you if you are in any distress.

    People are not as unperceptive as you seem to believe. If you go through life never helping others when there’s nothing in it for you, that will soon become obvious to people around you, and if they are rational individuals they will dissociate from you in return. If you truly follow the philosophy you advocate, you must lead a very lonely and isolated life. As for me, I am glad of the chance to help anyone in need, even a stranger. In brightening their life, I brighten my own as well, and it is a great shame that you cannot comprehend that.

    Not only am I prepared to handle myself in a violent situation, I’m prepared to retaliate with even greater force than that used agaist me. Unlike the “eye for an eye” proverb, I not only fight back against those who mean me harm, I destroy them.

    That kind of macho chest-beating rhetoric may sound good in fantasy, but in reality, it would simply mean your being annihilated the first time you faced any force superior to what you as an individual could muster. (Here’s one example: al-Qaeda intends to kill every non-Muslim Westerner. Do you intend to take on their entire terror network single-handedly?)

    I wish harm on no person. However, if such a thing ever happens and you find yourself assisted by the police force and justice system you scorn – systems which our society has created because its founders recognized the wisdom of setting up systems to help those in need, even when there was no direct benefit in it for them – I hope you will realize the irrationality and hypocrisy of your so-called moral philosophy.

  • Christopher

    Response to Ebonmuse:

    “Then it would seem you have made a serious error in announcing that you hold this view. Universal utilitarianism detests cheaters, just as most decent people do, and your informing us that you believe this gives us all an excellent reason never to help you if you are in any distress.”

    Nor do I expect any help in times of distress other than that of my own. And what you call “cheating” (I tend to think of it as innovation) is simply the way that our world works. Do you honestly believe that following the rules laid out by society is the path to success in life? To the contrary: most of them are ment to confine us, keep us in our respective places. Breaking rules (without being caught, of course) is the key to advancement.

    “People are not as unperceptive as you seem to believe. If you go through life never helping others when there’s nothing in it for you, that will soon become obvious to people around you, and if they are rational individuals they will dissociate from you in return. If you truly follow the philosophy you advocate, you must lead a very lonely and isolated life. As for me, I am glad of the chance to help anyone in need, even a stranger. In brightening their life, I brighten my own as well, and it is a great shame that you cannot comprehend that.”

    Actually, I am a man who has few friends (but a significant number of pawns; naturally, I keep them in the dark about their status) and enjoy solitude for the most part. But you are wrong about the average person: they tend not to be very perceptive. You go ahead and keep assisting those from whom you have nothing to gain, I won’t try to stop you; but I promise you that the majority of those people would happily leave you to your own devices if the tables were turned.

    That kind of macho chest-beating rhetoric may sound good in fantasy, but in reality, it would simply mean your being annihilated the first time you faced any force superior to what you as an individual could muster. (Here’s one example: al-Qaeda intends to kill every non-Muslim Westerner. Do you intend to take on their entire terror network single-handedly?)

    Earlier in my response, I mentioned that I use pawns. I recognize that I (as an individual) am limited, but when I use others my influence grows considerably. While I may not be able to defeat a large organization by myself, I do back groups that do have the power to do just that (I am a doner to such groups as the NRA, the Minute Men, and other militias I will leave unmentioned [you probably wouldn't recognize the names anyway]).

    I see the need for organization, but my support of these groups is very conditional: if they cease to back my interests, I withdraw my support.

    “I wish harm on no person. However, if such a thing ever happens and you find yourself assisted by the police force and justice system you scorn – systems which our society has created because its founders recognized the wisdom of setting up systems to help those in need, even when there was no direct benefit in it for them – I hope you will realize the irrationality and hypocrisy of your so-called moral philosophy.”

    First of all, I trust my personal weapons more than any law enforcement agent (you have to wait 10-20 minutes for on to arrive after you call 911, but personal arms are availible anytime).

    Secondly, I rarley resort to force (9 out of ten times, intimidation/manipulation is sufficient to accomplish my tasks). I am not a violent person (it’s too inefficient to enforce one’s will simply through brute force), but I have no qualms about using violence and other extreme measures to ensure that the interests of myself and mine are met.

    There is no god to look out for me, and society is, by and large, incompetent to ensure my well being. So, I have to be my own salvation. In the end, we all do…

  • Padishah

    Debating morality whilst positing no higher authority to provide it always strikes me as like arguing over what colour the faeries that live under your bed are. You can say that those that posit an absolute morality are factually wrong without taking a moral position, just as one might say that those who believe the faeries are red are factually wrong without believing in them. Ebon, I think your definition of relativism is somewhat flawed: surely it would be more accurate to say, rather than that all moral positions are equally valid, that all moral positions are equally incorrect because the term does not refer to a meaningful external object?

  • Christopher

    Ironically Padishah, I see things in a very similair light. That’s why I rejected all artificial forms of morality.

  • Tostes

    I personaly disagree with that idea, human behavior tends to structure itself in patterns therefore I believe is important to discuss how this patterns are created and how they benefit life (I am assuming here that morality is conformity to certain rules conduct based in a set of predetermined beliefs)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    And what you call “cheating” (I tend to think of it as innovation) is simply the way that our world works.

    I refer to it as “cheating” in the sense of Prisoner’s Dilemma logic: I will accept any help you wish to provide, but if the opportunity ever arises, I will not hesitate to betray your confidence and advance myself at your expense. I think the rest of your reply demonstrates quite well that you are a thoroughly immoral person, so I won’t belabor the point.

    For Padishah:

    …surely it would be more accurate to say, rather than that all moral positions are equally valid, that all moral positions are equally incorrect because the term does not refer to a meaningful external object?

    Not quite. The position that all moral theories are incorrect would be moral nihilism. Moral relativism doesn’t deny that morality exists, only that it has no existence independent of any particular individual or society’s opinion. For example, a consistent moral relativist would view a practice like slavery or infant circumcision as “right” if it was generally approved of by the society in which it existed.

  • Padishah

    But surely even so, a moral nihilist would not deny that that society would have an idea of morality, and that slavery/circumcision was generally acceptable to it, and might therefore say that morality (being as other people referred to it) was a subjective matter that varied between person to person, though in reality the term only referred to what each persons individial opinion of the subject was, and not to anything outside that? Since I think that would probably be a better representation of what most who claim to be relativists believe, it is my view at least and it sounds much like Christophers. It also posits a new challenge for your series, that of proving the existence of morality at all…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    It also posits a new challenge for your series, that of proving the existence of morality at all…

    I don’t see that as the case. Moral nihilism is self-refuting in the same way moral relativism is: if it is true that there exist no moral rules (no “shoulds”), then for that very reason it is not true that I should believe in moral nihilism.

  • Padishah

    I did not say that belief in moral nihilism was a matter of morality, or an ethical observation, surely it must be dismissed as a possible objective fact? The line you take is like saying that if there are no faeries it is therefore not true that one should not believe in faeries, because to do so would be to take a position with regards to them which is impossible if they dont exist, its a gigantic category error.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    It is not a category error. Even if moral nihilism is a fact, we are only obligated to believe it if it is the case that we should believe true things. Now of course, I believe that we should believe true things, as does every rational person. But if moral nihilism were true, there are no “shoulds” at all – it would not be true that we should do anything – and therefore we would be free to ignore the truth of moral nihilism and live as if it were false. As I said, this is a self-refuting viewpoint. If it is true, it is not the case that we should believe it to be true.

  • Padishah

    Surely you do not see the abstract application of logic as a moral process? To steal an idea from Kant, we are dealing with a hypothetical imperative rather than a categorical one. Or is the idea that the earth revolves around the sun a moral position too? Again, you are abusing definitions, and stating that nihilism implies things purely by fiat.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    The question of whether the earth orbits the sun is a factual, not a moral issue. The question of whether we should believe that statement or encourage others to do so, even if it is true, is absolutely a moral issue. Science deals in “is”, morality deals in “should”. There are many examples of true statements that we should or should not want others to believe; for example, even if it is the case that a criminal is being wiretapped by the police, we would not want him to believe that. Under the assumption of moral nihilism, however, there are no “shoulds” of any type and therefore it is not the case that we should believe a particular statement, even if it is true.

  • Padishah

    I think I understand now, the question you are asking is essentially ‘why care?’ You are right in that a nihilist lacking any abstract interest in the subject would not particularly care about your opinion of morality if it had no impact on him.

    However, this does not mean one can freely choose to disbelieve nihilism any more than one can make onesself believe in geocentrism by pure force of will. Can you mould your own perceptions so readily? Certainly it is not an ability I possess – I think I would be much happier if I believed in a benevolent deity, pleasant afterlife etc; the lives of those around me would probably benefit too, as I would be more selfless and have greater concern for society. But the evidence does not convince me.

    So, in your examination of morality, are you considering what is true, scientifically, or what you want people to believe is true? Because I for one would much rather everyone believed in your universal moral code, but again, the evidence does not convince…

  • stillwaters

    It never ceases to amaze me that so many people view morality as a relativistic subject. These are the same people that view science as the foundation of the Enlightenment. Yet, if you were to say that science is subjective to each person’s opinions, they would look at you as if frogs were coming out of your mouth!

    Science is a “man-made” method that deals with how material objects interact with each other. Morality is no different. Morality is a method that deals with how humans interact with each other (i.e. as some call it “human causality”). You can use quite similar objective tests to reach rational conclusions with either method.

  • Padishah

    Morality is a method that deals with how humans interact with each other (i.e. as some call it “human causality”).

    No my friend, that is sociology. Sociology describes how people interact, morality describes how people want others to interact. Science does not dictate how we should apply it or what devices or experiments we should perform, that is a matter of opinion.

  • http://www.stopthatcrow.blogspot.com Jeff G

    I am sure that many of the points which I will raise have probably been raised in some form in the comments. But since I am a bit short on time, I simply cannot read all the comments in the thread. So be warned and be patient. ;-)

    1. The comparison between science and morality is weak at best. The problem is that while is-claims can be verified empirically, as you noted, value-claims cannot. Thus, for science one can simply look at the world for guidance, but in the case of morality one cannot. The problem is that the ONLY source for moral knowledge is from personal opinion or that of others, period.

    2. The comparison between math and morality is also weak. Math is deductively demonstrable while morality is not. It only this deductive demonstrability which gives math its objective nature. Morality is not deductive and therefore is not objective.

    3. Post-modern criticisms would suggest that even math and science are not completely objective. Claims in these areas can only be considered to be true within the framework of various assumptions, axioms and/or values which are taken for granted. Since morality seems to be little more than assumptioins, axioms and/or values combined with a bit of inductive and inferential reasoning, it would seem to suggest that these post-modern criticisms apply ten-fold to moral claims.

    4. I know this one has been said in a comment, but I don’t think that you responded to it very well: Moral relativism is a fact-claim, and the moral relativist is not bound to total relativism. The idea that others should accept moral relativism is based in the moral claim that others should accept true fact statements. This moral claim can be completely relative without denying that moral relavitivism is objectively true.

    Perhaps you could respond to these claims, or point me to where you have already done so.

  • r0gershrubber

    Padishah is correct in noting that many here who have been mistakenly identified as moral relativists would be more aptly described as moral nihilists or moral skeptics. In light of this, I think Padishah’s challenge to Ebonmuse to address moral nihilism is a fair one, and further, I believe that Ebonmuse has failed to do so adequately.

    Consider this thought experiment.
    Imagine two worlds otherwise quite like our own: one–as our host has described–in which morality is real and objective, and another in which “[moral] nihilism is a fact” but we are in no way obligated to believe it.
    Could a person within either of these worlds determine which world he was in?

    Unless either world is demonstrably impossible, I contend that he could not. Is a world with moral nihilism impossible? Perhaps not.

    While Ebonmuse is entirely correct in claiming the following:

    …if moral nihilism were true, there are no “shoulds” at all – it would not be true that we should do anything – and therefore we would be free to ignore the truth of moral nihilism and live as if it were false.

    This alone is insufficient to discount the possibility of moral nihilism. Truth is indifferent of our beliefs and motivations. He treads dangerous ground when he claims:

    If [moral nihilism] is true, it is not the case that we should believe it to be true.

    There is a subtle distinction between saying that we should not believe it to be true and we should believe it to be not true. The key is that no moral statements follow from moral nihilism, not even that you should believe in moral nihilism. (Again, truth is indifferent to our beliefs and the motivations for those beliefs.) As such, moral nihilism is undoubtedly dissatisfying to those who seek to make moral claims and create moral systems, but this does not render it inconsistent.

    Another challenge I anticipate will be made of moral nihilism is that it is subject to the same paradox of “meta-morality” that moral relativism was:

    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.

    I’m not entirely sure what you mean by meta-morality (as the term seems redundant), but meta-ethics–which deals with questions like “are there objective values?”–is strictly not morality as you have defined it. Moral nihilism makes no claims over how people should act or how they should make moral decisions but whether moral values exist.

    So–in summary–I have claimed that the possibility of moral nihilism can only be discounted if it is demonstrably impossible, and the mere fact that no moral statements can be drawn from moral nihilism–including the obligation to believe it to be true–has no bearing on the truth of the matter.

    (Also, is it too much to ask for you to address non-cognitivism as well before you assert that moral realism is the only remaining possibility?)

  • standing

    I am a grumpy old man. Why should I want to be happy or want anyone else to be? It is a moral judgement that I should want to be happy, and on what basis of ethics can you force that on me?
    *********
    Do you not think it possible that the fundamental of Ethics is not Right and Wrong, or Preference, but on the Values that are possible and how these relate together such as to provide what choice [or lack of it] there is.
    Perhaps what it comes down to is the fact that a worm cannot be altruistic, and so has no choice. If we, as sapient creatures, are imbued with the facility of altruism [most of us?]. Then, that is what we do of necessity [so far as our sapienc allows]
    But Altruism is not the same as happiness, although it may promote happiness in all mankind in the long run.
    Construct a logical interrelationship of Values, and then use these to produce Rules {not Commandments that have no prior basis]

  • Adrian

    If he grants that this view is true for the holder, then by definition it is true for everyone, and moral relativism is false.

    That’s it? What a disappointment.

    You’re confusing some sort of relativistic epistemology where our happy relativist thinks that beliefs about morals can be selected by individuals, rather than morals themselves. Totally wrong.

    The simple fact is that we each pick our own morals, and while some may argue that their morals should be absolute or assert that they really are absolute, but they are mistaken. Moral relativists are under no obligation to accept all of these claims about morals.

    The simple way to demonstrate that there are no objective morals is to ask how you test if a given moral rule is objective. You may appeal to some source: biology, evolution, social harmony, happiness, greatest good, whatever. But as you can see, this overriding goal is not objective. At best, you can say that one moral rule can be objectively derived from another general moral goal but you have no means of ruling if this general moral goal is the right one.

    In your follow-up, you talk about happiness. So what’s so great about happiness? More importantly, what your discussion lacks is any means of checking whether your conclusion is correct or not. How do we know whether maximizing happiness should be the goal of morality? What about justice, retribution, individual freedom, anarchy? Instead of maximizing happiness, what if the moral goal should be maximizing fluffy bunnies? It’s bizarre and ludicrous to be sure, but there is no objective reason for deciding to maximize happiness instead of fluffy bunnies. Perhaps many people wish to maximize happiness, but this doesn’t make it objective.

  • Brad

    Moral nihilism: Just because we don’t have a moral obligation to believe it doesn’t mean it’s not true. One could just believe it because one wants and desires to. (But I’m not a moral nihilist, as I have a sense of empathy, perhaps thanks to mirror neurons.)

    Moral relativism: Moral claims are of the form “[Subject] OUGHT [Action] [Object]” Moral relativism is the claim “[All moral claims] ARE [subjective].” Note that ARE is the plural for IS, so that moral relativism is not itself a moral claim. (Is-ought distinction.)

    For something to be true or false, it has to state what was, is, or will be the case. Whereas moral claims of what should be the case are either right or wrong, which is completely separate from true or false.

    Motion is relative, and so the motion of any object can be stated from any frame of reference. Likewise, the morality of any action is relative, so the right/wrongness of any moral claim can be judged from any moral code. The claim that “Moral system X is right” is correct under moral system X, but not under any other moral systems. To claim that “Moral system X is true” is the is/ought fallacy again.

    Some frames of reference make more sense to use than others. We infer the motions and positions of distant celestial bodies with respect to our own planet Earth because it is central to us. A moral system that uses happiness as the highest good would make more sense than, say, a moral system that wants perfect peace or pure freedom. Happiness is desired by all, and each others’ happiness is desired by most because of our altruistic nature. So probably the best moral axiom that most people would reasonably go for is one of happiness as an ultimate.

    Perfect peace would not be a good ultimate. A lack of battling of any form would disallow us from reasonably resolving worldly problems. (This would involve more than just physical battling.) And pure freedom is not a good ultimate, because it means social anarchy where we are free to inflict suffering and pain upon each other – and not many people would desire that to be the case.

    I don’t understand the deep threat perceived in the non-objectivity of morality. The subjectivity of it does not lessen its strength. Similarly, that there is no objective purpose in life does not weaken the subjective convictions we create for ourselves. The appearance from moral relativism is that there is no accountability and no true righteousness. Of course there is accountability and righteousness, it’s just that it is subjective.