Morality

 

1 Moral rules

 

2 Moral assertions

 

3 Moral rationality

 

4 Is morality objective or subjective?

 

5 Why do we think morality is objective?

 

6 Theistic theories

 

7 Moral relativism and nihilism

 

8 Conclusion

 

Some believers think the existence of objective moral rules and values is evidence for a god. The so-called argument from objective morality is a mistake. But to see why, it helps to clarify what morality is in the first place.

 

1  Moral rules

 

Moral rules are instructions for how we should treat each other, such as: be kind and do no harm. Many of us learn the rules, or the behaviour they promote, from early childhood. And, arguably, because we are social animals, a human community is unlikely to thrive, or perhaps even exist for long, without at least some such rules.

 

Rules do not have what is called truth-value. In their simplest form, they are commands. And it makes no sense to say a command such as do no harm is either true or false. That would be to misunderstand its purpose.

 

Commands such as be kind and do no harm are in the present tense. And this is significant when it comes to understanding the nature and purpose of moral assertions.

 

2  Moral assertions

 

Moral assertions, using words such as right and wrong or good and bad, state the values from which we derive our moral rules. For example: harming others is wrong and it is good to be kind.

 

Moral assertions do not describe the way we do behave. Rather, they express judgements about the way we should behave. So they are prescriptive rather than descriptive. And they express judgements which, by their nature, we take to be universal: not restricted to a particular place or time period.

 

For example, if we think it is good to be kind, that usually means we think it always was and will be good. It would be strangely inconsistent to think otherwise.

 

Moral assertions are in a kind of timeless present tense. And this is why we can and do make moral judgements about our ancestors’ beliefs and behaviour. For example, if we think owning people as slaves is wrong, that tends to mean we think it was wrong for our ancestors to do so. To explain their behaviour is not to condone it.

 

Another feature of moral assertions is that they are general guides which we have to apply in specific circumstances. Moral conduct is always situational, and there can be moral dilemmas with conflicts of interest. For example, in war or extreme self-defence, we may think harming others is morally justifiable.

 

3  Moral rationality

 

To be rational is to have or seek sound reasons for what we do and believe. And we like to think our moral rules are rational, because we have sound reasons for having and following them.

 

For example, each of us has a practical need for food, clothes, shelter, healthcare, education, life chances, freedom from harm, and so on. So we tend to think that making sure everyone has them is morally good, and that, usually, to deprive people of them is immoral.

 

Many of us would add such things as love and friendship, company, fulfilment, self-esteem and social prestige, and so on. And many of us would give these goods a high priority. The list is not fixed, and the choices and priorities are open to rational debate. But individual well-being (variously defined) is usually the common factor.

 

To put it simply: we tend to believe that actions that promote the well-being of others are morally good, and that, normally, those that harm others are immoral. But there can be rational debate about the motives and consequences of any action, and about what constitutes well-being in the first place.

 

Indeed, the nature and value of rationality itself – what it means to have or seek sound reasons for what we believe and do – and what constitutes a sound reason – none of these is self-evident and so uncontested – least of all when it comes to the source and nature of morality.

 

However, it does seem possible to clarify and answer at least one vexed question.

 

4  Is morality objective or subjective?

 

The key to answering this question is the difference between factual and moral assertions – and how this relates to what we call objectivity and subjectivity.  

 

We use the word objective to mean to ‘relying on facts’, which are simply true factual assertions. They are true given the way we use the words or other signs involved, regardless of what anyone believes or claims to know, and regardless of their source. But factual assertions are falsifiable, because they assert something about reality that may not be the case. So evidence is needed to justify them.

 

By contrast, we use the word subjective to mean ‘relying on judgement, belief or opinion’. Judgements can be individual or collective. They can be more or less rationally justifiable, against given criteria. And if they express values, we often call them value judgements.

 

The difference between facts and values in general has been called the fact-value distinction. But discussions about specifically moral values are about how we ought to behave, so here the difference has been called the is-ought distinction.

 

Given this understanding of objectivity and subjectivity, moral assertions are subjective, because they express value judgements, rather than make falsifiable factual claims. And two examples illustrate the distinction.

 

1 The assertion some people eat animals and their products is a fact – a true factual assertion. But the vegan assertion eating animals and their products is wrong expresses a moral judgement, not a fact. The two assertions have completely different functions.

 

2 That some states execute some criminals is true. But that states should execute some criminals – that execution is morally justifiable – is a value-judgement. If there were a moral fact of the matter, it would not be a matter of judgement.

 

To put it another way: there is no feature of reality, such as the wrongness of slavery, that can verify the moral assertion slavery is wrong. And to look for such a feature of reality is to misunderstand the nature and purpose of a moral assertion.

 

We may believe we have a sound reason for a moral judgement, such as wanting to promote individual well-being. But that we should promote individual well-being is itself a moral judgement, which is therefore subjective. Whatever facts we deploy to justify a moral judgement, it remains a judgement. The fact-value barrier is insuperable.

 

Why do we think morality is objective?

 

One reason for our thinking morality is objective may be that we value objectivity in many aspects of life. Facts can free us from our own and other people’s judgements, beliefs and opinions. For example, scientific and technological progress depend on objectivity.

 

So the idea that something as important as morality is subjective may seem wrong and even offensive. It may seem to mean that whatever someone judges to be morally right or wrong is indeed morally right or wrong – so that anything goes, and anarchy is the result.


But that is to forget the is-ought distinction. To say an action is morally right or wrong is to express a judgement, not to state a fact. So an action is not – and does not become - morally right or wrong just because someone believes it is.

 

Moral objectivism is a mistake. The expressions objective morality and moral fact are contradictions – or they could be called oxymorons. But our moral values and judgements matter deeply to us, so the mistake of believing there are moral facts is easy to explain. It is an understandable misunderstanding.

 

6  Theistic theories

 

An argument that objective morality is evidence for the existence of a god is unsound, because morality is not objective.

 

But, ironically, if there were moral facts, their source would be irrelevant. The assertion this is good because a god says it is has no place in a rational moral discussion. Such an argument from authority is as mistaken for moral as it is for factual assertions. So the theistic argument from objective morality undermines itself.

 

But theistic theories (explanations) of morality have other problems as well.

 

First: there seems to be no evidence for any factual assertion of a god, or the divine source of any scripture or other revelation. There are only inconsistent claims (testimony) and unsound arguments. And anyway, an argument is not evidence for its conclusion. So like all assertions of the supernatural, a theistic theory of morality does not even make it to the starting post.

 

And this applies to both the divine command theory – that morality comes from a god’s commands – and the divine nature theory – that morality is rooted in and somehow emanates from a god’s nature.

 

Second: there is a practical problem. To make sense, a theistic theory has to assume one particular god is the source of morality; that one particular scripture or other supposed revelation is inspired by that god; and that that scripture or revelation expresses the moral commands or guidance of that god. None of these assertions has been objectively justified for any theistic religion.

 

Third: there is a natural, evolutionary explanation for our moral rules and values. Love for our children and parents, reciprocity, altruism and self-denial, co-operation with others increasingly distant from the family – all of these are explicable in terms of individual well-being and social development.

 

Some theists argue that, if a god is not the source of morality, or if we reject that claim, we cannot have confidence in our moral rules and values – or even have any at all. They claim that atheism entails moral relativism or even moral nihilism. But this conclusion follows directly from the mistaken idea that morality is objective.

 

7  Moral relativism and nihilism

 

We tend to think of our moral values and judgements as universal: not restricted to a particular place and time period. That is just the nature of such values and judgements. And it may explain both our tendancy to think of morality as objective, and our anxiety about moral relativism or nihilism.

 

There are several kinds of moral relativism. Meta-ethical moral relativists claim that, in moral disagreements, nobody is objectively (factually) right or wrong. And moral nihilists go further, claiming that this is because nothing actually is morally right or wrong.

 

But moral assertions are not factual, because moral rightness and wrongness are not properties that things and actions may or may not have. Rather, the words right and wrong express value-judgements about things and actions. So the claims of both meta-ethical relativists and moral nihilists are trivially true and inconsequential.

 

However, from the fact that nothing is objectively morally right or wrong, it does not follow that we cannot make moral judgements. On the contrary, it follows that we can do so, because there are no moral facts. And it does not follow that we should tolerate actions arising from moral opinions with which we disagree – as some normative moral relativists may seem to argue.

 

One type of moral relativism, called descriptive moral relativism, makes the simple factual claim that people’s moral values and judgements can vary and change – have done so – and are still doing so. And that is true.

 

An example is the scope of our moral concerns. When our horizon was the tribe, our concerns tended to be tribal. We used to kill or enslave outsiders without moral qualms. For example, slavery is endorsed and never condemned in the Bible. And even within the tribe, some of our ancestors thought it justifiable to oppress women, homosexuals and non-believers – among other atrocities – as many of us now judge them to be.

 

And some of our judgements about human well-being are also relevant for other species, such as the need for food, shelter, health and freedom from harm. How wide the scope of our moral concerns should be is itself a moral question: who are the others to whom we should do no harm? And it has been widening, though arguably not fast enough. Our vegan descendants may look back in horror at our cruelty to other animals.

 

Conclusion

 

In my opinion, when our moral horizon becomes truly and consistently global – when we overcome the delusions and divisiveness of religion, sexism, nationalism, racism, and so on – and when we end economic inequality – a long and slow process with many setbacks – we will reach moral maturity. And other species and our environment will be part of the story. But that’s just my opinion – my moral judgement.

 

 

 

Peter Holmes

 

April 2017

 

Amended July 2018

 

Amended December 2018