Objective Morality as a Shell Game

One of my gripes against professional philosophy is that the great lengths they go to to construct precisely defined arguments have a great propensity to obscure the intended message to anyone who isn’t educated in the nuances of the field. Let’s be clear here: I would never dream of criticizing someone for endeavoring to communicate effectively, which is precisely the philosopher’s intention in creating these elaborate constructs. Language is one of my things, and I have great respect for people who appreciate it and master its use. The written word is a playground for the mind, and those who are unwilling to pay the price of entry probably wouldn’t enjoy the rides anyway. In this case, that price is the willingness to occasionally dust off an old tome, or, far more likely, to take a few seconds to tab over to a dictionary website (and I’ll take no shit from shortsighted, uncreative, reality-challenged pedants for my verbing of that noun, thank you). I’m sorry, but if the idea of learning a new word so turns you off to reading a relatively short piece you’ve found online, you’ll find that this blog simply is not for you. And that’s okay—for now anyway. Remember me a few years from now when you’ve come around to my side of things, and pay me a visit.

But,” you might be tempted to ask, “haven’t you just done the very thing that you disparaged philosophers for doing?” Meh, sort of. I don’t think any of those words are particularly daunting, but even if so, each of them can be looked up rather easily through a quick jaunt over to any one of these helpful websites. To understand philosophical concepts takes slightly more work. Let’s carry on.

* * *

Theist debaters (and I’m looking especially sharply at you, William Lane Craig) love to use a strategy that boils down to an argument ad unpleasantness, basically suggesting that if atheism is “true,” then there can be no grounding for objective morality, and since we would reject the judgment of a society that claimed murder to be perfectly acceptable, there must be some kind of objective morality (even if we can’t always perceive it), so a god must exist.

That’s a pretty big sentence, and I won’t blame you if you have to read it a few dozen times to make sure you grok it. Apparently the argument ad bore the audience into stopping listening is a popular strategy these days. I hope it wasn’t so effective that my summarizing it wasn’t enough to send you away. (Boy, that’d be pretty awkward, because I’d be talking to no one here…)

The problem with this argument is that objective has an entirely different meaning to the philosopher than it does to the layman. Here’s why that’s a problem:

In philosophy, the word represents an idea of mind independentness. In this interpretation, morality would only be objective if it would still exist if there were no life in the universe. Philosophically objective things are qualities inherent to the system. This would be impossible because morality, being the abstract category encompassing individual morals, is dependent on life because morals are constructs that describe principles of right and wrong in behavior. Without creatures to behave, there can be no behavior. No life → no behavior → no morality. Ergo, morality is not objective.

“Aha!” exclaims my overly enthusiastic opponent, “So you admit that you believe morals are subjective! That makes you a moral relativist!” No, it doesn’t. Put your pants back on. Moral relativism is asinine*, and I won’t be defending it. Let’s get back to using normal-person-speak, though.

To most people, objective means something like this:

expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations

Using this interpretation, which most of the audience inevitably will because they are almost certainly not professional philosophers, gives us an entirely different answer to the objective morality question. This is where the analogy of the shell game enters the equation. Philosopher A gets Philosopher B to admit that philosophically objective morals do not exist, but the audience does not understand the distinction, so what they hear is B saying that morals are entirely subjective. This is, of course, a grossly deceptive tactic.

In a discussion of morality, values, preferences, and the like, bringing the idea of philosophical objectivity into the question is entirely missing the point. In the best possible light, it’s a red herring. In any less favorable light, it invites (is?) an equivocation if everyone isn’t aware of this difference in meaning. In a universe where intelligent life does not exist, a discussion of morality is completely irrelevant; we live in a world with intelligence, and most of us seem to fit that description, so there’s no reason to discuss whether morals would exist without us. We exist. We think. We moralize. We’re done with philosophical objectivity.

Let’s turn to the question of whether morality exists objectively in the sense that most people would be familiar with: external to the individual. In this sense, is morality objective?


What, my one word answer doesn’t satisfy you? I swear, some people… Okay, fine. I’ll give you more. Stop nagging.

Do laws exist? Yes. Not in any platonic sense; they don’t exist in some nebulous dimension hidden to the naked eye. You can’t construct a Geiger counter to locate laws. They’re ideas, not physical objects. They have physical representations, of course, and you can go to any decent law library to look them up (in books—you remember books, right? Those novel contraptions of wood pulp and ink?), or you may even find them hosted online. If you destroy the book that houses a law, or if you delete the website hosting it, does the law cease to be? No, it continues to exist as long as people believe it does. Does this make laws subjective? No. A judge may occasionally be forced to interpret the law when it isn’t precisely clear, but the vast majority of cases do not require exhaustive consideration in this way. Even the occasional legal misinterpretation does not change the fact that laws exist regardless of whether you want them to. Your opinion alone is not sufficient to alter or remove laws. So too does morality exist, except while we’ve been very prolific in the recording of laws, we haven’t been quite so eager to do so with morals.

Laws become real things through the weight of social consensus. Are laws always “right?” We need only consider one novel case to see that they are not: is it appropriate to cut off the hand of a thief when that thief has stolen a single loaf of bread to feed a starving child? The law has been broken, yet we plainly see that this reaction is entirely unjustified. The conscience recoils at the very suggestion! We cannot rely on our intuitions to gauge all issues of morality, however, because these intuitions are subjective experiences, resulting from an individual’s background and preferences.

Sam Harris proposes a test of well-being to evaluate systems for their morality, and the thief example serves as an effective illustration for that. Having grown up in a society where “let the punishment fit the crime” is the norm, we appreciate that the permanent disabling of a person’s body is not a proportional reaction to the stealing of a small portion of bread (especially for the altruistic purpose of feeding a child), but we can go beyond this reflex and identify why this is the case. With Harris’s schema, we consider the effects of both the crime and the punishment. Stealing a loaf of bread causes a rather small harm to the baker. Severing someone’s hand causes a lifetime of impairment that will surely negatively affect the options available to the thief, reducing the chance of their entering the legitimate workforce, and by disadvantaging the thief in this way, the thief’s family and community also suffer. This punishment does nothing to repair the harm caused by the offense, and it even contributes additional harm. Thus, it is a bad solution.

The very same system that applies to the thief also applies to judge larger moral issues: what are the net effects of a given action on the well-being of a person or people? If something causes no harm, it cannot be said to be immoral. If it results in a net gain in well-being, it is clearly good, so it is moral. This lens also permits the objective consideration of issues that may be otherwise subjective—if two societies approach the same problem with different solutions, one can be said to be better than the other if that one positively (or less negatively) impacts the well-being of those it affects. You may not very much like the idea of having sex with someone of your own biological sex (which is fine; nobody is telling you that you have to), but would that sex act be immoral? Unless you’re in a monogamous relationship with a partner of the opposite sex or what have you, it wouldn’t cause harm, so we can safely say that there is no objective reason to find gayness immoral. Thus, something can be subjectively distasteful while still being objectively moral.

With this in mind, morality most certainly can be objective. Eat it, philosophy. (But seriously, <3)

* Mostly. What most people mean by moral relativism is indefensible. The suggestion that morality is entirely culturally dependent,
 and one culture cannot make judgments about another's norms is the interpretation of moral relativism I so vehemently reject. I
 have no patience for this argument. Other blends of relativism may be more palatable. I guess. Maybe.

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