Saturday, May 26, 2007

Does An Objective Morality Exist?

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
-- William Shakespeare (Hamlet)

Before I begin, I want to make it clear what I am not saying. I am not saying morality or good and bad do not exist. I am saying that they only exist as subjective constructs. I am not suggesting that if no objective morality exists, that we should then allow anyone to do what they want. The question of “what do we do now?” is separate from “does objective morality exist?” I am only treating the latter question in this post. I do have a moral system that in many ways is likely to be very similar to yours.

What does objective mean? Objective means having actual existence or reality; uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices; or based on observable phenomena. It is contrasted with the adjective subjective. Subjective means proceeding from or taking place in a person's mind rather than the external world; or particular to a given person; personal.

What is morality? Morality is concern with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong; right or good conduct.

If you disagree with any of my definitions, let’s discuss that first before we move on. If we are on the same page so far, I am going to tackle this question from a couple of different angles: the necessity of an observer and relativity.

Necessity of an Observer

One possible phrasing of the topic in question is, “Does the distinction between good and evil exist in the external world or only in the human mind?” It is my contention that it takes an observer to make a judgment to make something good or bad.

Let’s try a thought experiment. If a behavior is engaged in, and no one ever judges it, does its badness exist? The behavior may result in pain or death, but if no one ever evaluates it (including you as you imagine it), does it have a badness characteristic? A behavior can only gain a badness quality if an evaluator gives it one. It is not a physical quality; it cannot be measured with an instrument. Badness only resides in the eye of the beholder; it does not exist independent of an observer. That makes it subjective by definition. Remember subjective means proceeding from or taking place in a person's mind rather than the external world.

Now, some believe that there is an objective, external morality that is established by God. But, we are faced again with the fact that now God is the evaluator. The badness of the behavior exists in the mind of God, not in the external world. God’s opinion of what is moral does not establish an objective morality, as not all accept the idea that he has the final word on declaring something good or evil. If God does exist, I do not accept his morality as an objective standard. He is simply one being, one evaluator of behavior, as am I. If he exists and is all-powerful, he may enforce consequences upon me for my behavior, but that does not make the behaviors objectively good or evil. He is not the final say of good and evil unless we make him so for ourselves. Every person creates good and evil for themselves in their own minds. Consequences exist whether someone believes in them or not, but only a person or god can create good and evil, for good and evil are nothing more than evaluations. And evaluations are not properties of a behavior as they cannot exist outside of an evaluator.

Other people may believe that behaviors have a goodness or badness quality, independent of any observer’s evaluation. They claim that the universe bestows this quality on behaviors. But, what does that mean? Consequences can follow behaviors as in karma, but that is a cause and effect relationship or a conditional reward type situation. It does not mean that a behavior is “good” or “bad”.

Now that I have shown that the distinction between good and evil exists only in the mind, I believe I have demonstrated that there can be no objective morality.

Relative Morality

Another way to phrase the topic in question is, “Although morality may exist only in the mind, can we humans through logic and reason identify morals that are not ‘particular to the individual,’ but are universal and ‘uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices’ and in that sense be objective?” Let’s take a look at that.

Logic and reason are operators; they need something to work on. The kind of moral system you end up with depends on what you subjectively choose to start with. Deductive reasoning requires you to subjectively choose some premise to start with, such as “whatever promotes life is good,” and then deduce moral behaviors that are consistent with that premise. Now, one can evaluate the system that was derived from the premise on the basis of consistency, soundness, and completeness, but one cannot objectively evaluate the premise itself. The problem is that there are nearly an infinite number of premises from which to start and no objective way to determine which premise is best. This is because the only way to judge a premise is with another premise. I imagine much of the discussion to follow will revolve around demonstrating this is true in several specific cases.

Allow me to demonstrate with just one specific case. Suppose an individual started with the premise that “might makes right” and thereby justifies genocide. Now there are many ways in which you can challenge this premise using your own subjective standards: reciprocity, beneficence, non-malevalance, sustainability, utility, etc. This individual may not share those values or think your criticisms are relevant. Is there a way to demonstrate that those values MUST be part of any valid moral system? What many people believe are essential elements of a moral system are not in actuality. It is usually because they cannot see their own subjective assumptions. It takes patience to identify these. How are you going to challenge the premise that “might makes right” objectively, without simply using another premise that they could validly deem irrelevant?

Joe: “Might makes right”.
Sue: “But, how are you going to feel if someone stronger than you kills you?” (This is using the premise that if you wouldn’t like the behaviors justified by your moral system committed against you then your moral system is inferior).
Joe: “I would not like it, but that would not make the behavior wrong. If they are stronger, they are right. Their behavior is consistent with my moral system; therefore it is good.”
Sue: “But, if you would not like it, then it is bad. And it would cause other people to suffer and that is bad.”
Joe: “Why? Might makes right. It doesn’t matter whether I or anyone else likes it or suffers.”
Sue: “A moral system must take into account human suffering; else you cannot call it moral.”
Joe: “No it doesn’t. That is your own prejudice talking. Morality is defined as a system to identify good behavior from bad behavior. Where in there do you see a stipulation to consider human suffering?”
Sue: “But that thinking could lead to the destruction of all mankind.”
Joe: “Destruction is part of life. Evolution by natural selection, survival of the fittest, it results in the hardiest organisms, and that is a good thing.”
Sue: “How can you say that?”
Joe: “I just have a different moral system than you. I value different things.”

As you can see the appeals to the values of reciprocity, human suffering, and sustainability had no result. There is no objective reason why Joe must agree to evaluate his moral system by Sue’s values. Two people must share a set of subjective values before they can agree on where one moral system is better than another. Nothing requires us to predicate our moral system on any particular value. That is what ensures that there is no objective morality.

Other people might contend that we can know what is good or bad by looking at what people agree are good or bad. Consensus of opinion is not proof of objective good and evil for it could just be opinion, and opinion is by its very nature subjective. For example, before Copernicus, there was consensus that the sun and planets revolved around the earth, but that did not make it objective reality. I think we should pay attention to areas of consensus when formulating our subjective moralities.

Nothing requires that we must define what is good based on the opinion of the majority. I could have a moral system based on “might makes right.” You could disagree with my moral system, but there is absolutely no way to objectively show me that I am wrong. The same goes for every moral system. The only way to criticize their premises is to use other premises for which there is no objective reason why others must acknowledge that those premises are the standard by which all moral systems may be objectively judged and compared. One can always subjectively judge, using one’s own preferred premises. There is no way to objectively determine which morality is best; therefore, there is no objective morality.

Some may acknowledge that there is no objective way to identify which moral premises are best through logic, but they contend that all people will find the same morality by listening to our consciences. If we consider whether something is good or bad, we will get a feeling about it. In order for this method to be objective, we all would need to get the same answer. One counterexample can demonstrate that this is not an objective method. When I was a true believing Mormon, my conscience was trained to give me a bad feeling about drinking alcohol. Now, as a non-believer, my conscience gives me no signal that drinking alcohol is wrong.

Other people may believe an objective morality may be found in the Bible. This is an appeal to authority. First, the Bible does not present a consistent moral system, but even if it did, it is only subjective opinion for one to consider the Bible as the standard by which to judge all conduct.

We may be able to objectively identify which behaviors lead to mistrust, or suffering, or hardship. But, we cannot objectively identify which behaviors are good, because goodness is an evaluation that is based on one’s personal premises.

OK, let the discussion commence.


Jonathan Blake said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I've been pondering this issue lately. We really can't appeal to God (or gods) to grant us absolute morality because he's been made to say so many contradictory things through human history. And, as you say, morality isn't measurable; it's not like temperature or weight.

It seems that when we say an act is good or right, in essence we're saying that we like that act or approve of it. When we say an act is evil, we are really saying that we don't like it. It all comes down to personal or communal preference.

Communal consensus on a shared moral framework is useful to promote a functioning community, but it isn't any more objective than one person's morality.

Hüffenhardt said...

I really appreciate your comment jonathan blake.

Jonathan Blake said...

I was thinking again about this. As I understand it, the idea of Good and Evil came out of Zoroastrianism. So perhaps good and evil, moral and immoral, right and wrong aren't a useful way to look at things. This black and white thinking certainly doesn't seem to fit the complex world we live in.

What would our thinking look like if we drop the idea of good and evil?

Hüffenhardt said...

I had similar thoughts when I was composing the original post. If we dropped thinking in terms of good/evil, we would observe behaviors and respond hopefully as the situation required.

There are many behaviors (such as ones that result in accidental injury) and other events (such as mice infestations) that we currently do not call good or bad, yet we take appropriate action to decrease the likelihood of them re-occurring in the future. I think we would respond the same to conduct we currently call good or bad if we quit using those words.

I am not sure if we gain anything by dropping those terms or continue to use them.

Jonathan Blake said...

In general, I think good/evil is just noise when we're trying to understand something. If we're talking about Nazi Germany, for example, saying that the Germans were evil or that they did evil things doesn't really help us understand anything. What does that really mean? It's just a meaningless label. It stops us from asking important questions. Why did they do those things? How are we like them? How can we avoid doing what they did?

The concept of good/evil also colors our perception of ourselves. It creates shame which we hide from. We use defense mechanisms like denial to avoid the "evil" aspects of ourselves instead of looking at those aspects dispassionately and addressing them appropriately, as you said.

malkie said...

Apart from quoting Piet Hein (of whom most north americans have never heard), I most like to quote sci-fi writers, as they often seem to distill ideas down to the bare metal.

In one of their joint novels, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle say: "The ability to make a universe does not presuppose moral superiority."

I recently wanted to imperil all of the drivers on my section of the highway, when I heard a supposedly deep thinker, speaking on the radio, say that there exists absolute truth. She gave as an example that it can never be right to kill someone, and no other opinion on that matter is worth considering. However, I resisted the urge to get out my cell phone and call in to the show to argue with her. And she was a Dem! Who woulda thunk!

Who was it that said, in effect, that there is something more dangerous than ignorance, and that is a perfect belief in something that just isn't so?

The toxic combination of muddled thought processes and supreme confidence in the rightness of one's own way of thinking is one of the greatest evils (can I use that word in this discussion?) in the world today! (My opinion only, ymmv.)

Hey, maybe there is a kind of objective morality after all, on this sort of basis?!? I mean, who could argue?

Anonymous said...


Enjoyed this post. I think that it is clear that the "good and bad-making event" is a "cognitive event." Your treatment of the supposed objective basis for morality is precisely what Berkeley's subjective idealism had to suppose in order to save God from Hume, and it is laughable.

Having taken up morality in this post, what are your thoughts on freewill? I have always found this one to be particularly nettlesome.

Hüffenhardt said...

phaedrus: Thanks for your comment. My short answer is that I don't believe free will exists. But, you have inspired me to write a post on it sometime.

neal9jsg said...

Thanks for the best Answer on Y!A.

As you can see from the comments here, the concept of good and evil is becoming vague and blurred. This was largely the fault of organised religion for adding normal human behaviour to the list of Evils.

To accurately see the spirit world's perspective, read the 10 commandments and think about how sensible they are.

When you connect the teachings of Christ, Buddha, Lao Tzu and all the others with the 10 commandments, it becomes consistent.

If you speak to the most faithful devotees from any faith including Hinduism, they will all tell you there is only One God.

Jonathon Blake is correct that the concept of good and evil as opposite forces is recognised as stemming from Persian dualism but it is an ancient concept withing Egyptian philosophy and Hermetic thought.

I watched a program presented by a UK bishop on the nature of evil. One of the points he made was that many people and the media try to label certain things or people as evil as a way of externalising their own guilt at their own potential to commit evil.

Most people who commit evil don't consciously decide to commit evil but there are some. They just follow their own selfish desire. What we take for granted is that our concept of good and evil came out of religious dogma not that most of religion and scripture developed to deal with social/ communal problems and "...take appropriate action to decrease the likelihood of them re-occurring in the future"

It's how human societies have always worked.

Jonathon, you said:
"It seems that when we say an act is good or right, in essence we're saying that we like that act or approve of it. When we say an act is evil, we are really saying that we don't like it. It all comes down to personal or communal preference."


"So perhaps good and evil, moral and immoral, right and wrong aren't a useful way to look at things. This black and white thinking certainly doesn't seem to fit the complex world we live in.

What would our thinking look like if we drop the idea of good and evil?"

Genocide, rape, child abuse and murder are very simple cases of evil and it is the common aloofness to these things in the west that enable us to be uncertain of whether there is a true good and evil.

When you see fields of bodies, or a child who hides every time it hears an adult voice or the bodies of murder victims, it quickly becomes real. The luxury of theory is gone.

You can tell true evil easily. There is nothing to understand about it and no way to prevent it.

It is indefensible cruelty and seeing is believing.