Why moral absolutism requires the transcendent

In my last piece, I mentioned that moral absolutists cannot be satisfied with any secular account of morality, and in particular, no naturalistic account of morality. I should clarify why this is so.

The issue is not moral relativism, moral pluralism, or error theory, or any similar godless account of morality that explicitly denies objective moral realities. I think that if you want to have an accurate picture of the place of morality in the natural world, you should go in that direction, but that’s not the point. It’s that the kind of moral absolutes demanded by typical moral absolutists cannot be supplied even by ostensibly realist secular accounts of morality.

Take, for example, a popular direction to take if you want to make moral truths supervene on natural facts: refer to common human needs, good versus bad social strategies (in a game theoretic sense) and so forth. There are, after all, objective biological and social realities, and morality might be about good versus bad ways to negotiate such territory. And all this does put the “anything goes” variety of relativism out of play. (That is only a caricature of relativist/pluralist/error theory views anyway.) The problem is, even if such an approach were to deliver objective moral facts (I don’t think it does), it would not satisfy the moral absolutist. That is because no natural fact can provide the absolute, transcendent security and certainty the absolutist demands.

If morality supervenes on facts about human nature, the absolutist will be dissatisfied because then morality is relative to human nature. This is no idle complaint, especially in a time when biotechnology allows us to modify human nature. If we face a choice about meddling with human nature, a human-needs moral theorist can easily get lost. How do we make a choice when we are proposing to modify, even perhaps radically modify, the basis for evaluating choices? A theist, however, can at least hope to refer to ostensible knowledge about God’s transcendent purpose in creating human nature as it is.

Naturalists cannot satisfy absolutist demands, and I don’t see why we should try. Indeed, I see trying to preserve absolutist moral intuitions as part of the bad habit of nonbelievers to say that God is not real, but then to add that realizing this should not change anything important about our lives.

At some point, this becomes like saying that a theist should not worry that heaven and hell are not real, because we can achieve a state of immortality with rewards and punishments by naturalistic means. After all, it’s only science fiction now, but it is conceivable that we will make progress toward downloading human minds into machines, and similarly extend our conscious existence indefinitely. And with surveillance technologies developing similarly, we might even ensure rewards and punishments in such indefinitely persisting lives.

But, setting aside whether that is utopia or a nightmare, such a scenario could not and should not satisfy anyone who thinks that justice demands a state of reward or punishments after death. This is because if we take naturalism at all seriously, any technological approximation to a transcendent ideal will always fall short. It will inevitably be finite, approximate, imperfect, and impermanent. Someone who demands a transcendent variety of morality or justice will rightly refuse to be paid in naturalistic coin.

Naturalists should refuse to play such games. If a moral absolutist or a fan of cosmic retributive justice says that only a picture of the world that provides such things is acceptable, well, that’s their problem. In the context of trying to achieve an accurate understanding of our world, such demands are intellectually pathological. In other contexts, they may make more sense, but then I begin to lose interest.

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