Objective morality: Does it exist?

I can understand how the atheistic worldview can rationally support subjective morality, but I can’t see how an objective morality can be logically deduced from that worldview. And if there is no objective morality, all that seems to be left is preference. Can you straighten this out for me?

Posted: September 20th 2008

George Locke

Morality derives from values. What kind of society is best? What is the good life? While it is certainly true that one may extract certain values from evolutionary biology, such as cooperation and self-preservation, I can see no absolutely convincing, objective justification for adopting these values as opposed to, say, valuing Adlerian will-to-power. These evolutionarily selected 'virtues’ arise from material conditions rather than intent or desire, and that makes them objective.

So there is a sort of objective morality, but there is no objective justification for adopting it!

The lack of a self-evident morality is indeed a problem for atheists. But if we’re right, and there is no god, then it’s not just a problem for us but for everyone. In life, we are constantly met with ethical challenges. Determining right action, and following through, is perhaps the central struggle that gives meaning and purpose to life. This is kind of a chicken-egg paradox, but that’s the mystery of our existence. Paradox makes living so much more interesting anyway!

Sometimes theists argue that atheism permits subjective morality so you shouldn’t believe it. This is an “argument from adverse consequences” (see Carl Sagan’s wonderful Baloney Detection Kit), a classic fallacy. This argument claims that the world would be better if god existed, therefore you should believe god exists. Baloney indeed.

Disagreements over whose supposedly objective morality is right have caused lots of trouble over the years. So, in fact, the absence of objective morality can be seen as a solution to these problems, if it is a source of new (more metaphysical) ones.

Posted: September 22nd 2008

See all questions answered by George Locke

Reed Braden www

In a way, science explains a primitive sort of objective morality that all humans have (whether or not they heed that morality) engrained in our genes. Since we evolved as a social species, we needed to keep peace within our communities in order to maintain our species’ ability to produce offspring and carry on their genes. A social species that murders other members of its group would not survive, so those who naturally respected their tribe had a better chance of reproducing. Thus the ethic of reciprocity (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.) became ingrained into our brains.

Almost every religion we know of (past and present) with a written code of conduct has some form of this ethic in its texts and the authors of these religions very rarely collaborated. It’s prevalent throughout all human societies, in one way or another, for this reason.

So, yes, there is grounds for a very basic objective morality, but any extension of the ethic of reciprocity (Does it apply to just your community or to all people?) is subjective and usually based on the time and place of the one making moral judgements.

Posted: September 22nd 2008

See all questions answered by Reed Braden

SmartLX www

Atheism does not easily accommodate the idea of absolute morality, but objective morality is another matter. I say accommodate because atheism is not in itself a basis for much. Just because religious people use their overriding worldviews as a moral basis doesn’t mean everyone does.

There are values and consequences we can consider when making moral choices which nobody can successfully argue against. Therefore while they are not necessarily absolute like a godly decree would be, they are objective as far as the human race is concerned. This is the basis of humanist philosophy.

An example is bodily harm, and death. All other things being equal, we all want as little of it to happen as possible. Those who go the other way and commit mass murder or genocide have to somehow dehumanise their victims so that this basic aspect of empathy doesn’t apply to them. People who can ignore this issue are severe aberrations; that is, they are dangerously different from the vast majority of the species and need help.

Every soldier who sees active duty has to wrestle with this dilemma for him- or herself. Often they simply transfer their responsibility to the people giving them orders.

Death is an objective basis, not just for morality, but for anything you like. Joe is either dead or not dead. This accident killed more people than that premeditated attack. And for any human being, the death of another human being (who you count as such) is to be avoided if possible. That last part is an emotional component, sure, but it’s one we expect everyone to have.

None of this is to say that morals should be decided by a simple majority. Rather it is from near unanimity that we take some measure of confidence in our choices. If by contrast a moral issue is less clear-cut and hotly debated, then while the debate continues it may be best to find other bases on which to make relevant decisions.

Consider abortion, a classic point of contention. One commonly argued issue is the time after conception at which the fertilised egg becomes a little person capable of being murdered in the conventional sense. A religious issue is at what point it gains a soul. The former depends on malleable nomenclature and the latter is simply impossible to determine, so to navigate this difficult topic right now we need at least one other factor.

Try suffering, something everyone concerned for the egg’s welfare wants to spare it. Medical science can tell us for certain (if not now, soon) whether a zygote/blastocyst/embryo/foetus has the physical and mental capacity to feel pain. An ovum that’s divided only twice can’t possibly feel pain. A third-trimester unborn certainly can. Somewhere between the two is a point at which you can’t avoid causing suffering if you dispose of it. Thus, objective human anatomy gives us more guidance the more we know.

Objective, useful morality can come from all kinds of places when claimed absolute morality (that is, that which would be absolute if it existed) is out of the way. It doesn’t spring from atheism the way some moral code is inherent in all major religions, but atheism gives us the freedom to seek it out.

Posted: September 21st 2008

See all questions answered by SmartLX


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