The Illusion of Moral Absolutes

April 26, 2009 at 10:33 pm 60 comments

There are a few moral ideals that are common to all social groups, such as not stealing or committing senseless murder. These have lead to many people, both religious (theist and deist alike) and nonreligious, supposing the existence of moral absolutes.

These generalized moral ideals are picked up on keenly, but little attention is paid to the fact that other than these few things, all other moral ideas are blurred, subjective, and mutually exclusive. For example, some cultures seen cannibalism as a moral duty, and other see it as the worst imaginable crime.

The common morals (not stealing, not fruitlessly murdering) can be traced logically back to evolution via natural selection, and that is the reason that they are the only ones truly common to all social groups. They are the morals that help people live together as a group, which in turn helps them to survive as a species. It boils down to basic common sense: if you want to have a successful group, you can’t have people stealing from one another and you can’t have people killing at random.

All other morals enter the realm of subjectivity. Every culture agrees that a baseless random murder is wrong, but they disagree severely over definition of “baseless,” when it is okay to take a life and when it is not. Just a few hundred years ago it was socially acceptable for a brother to murder a man who had sex with his sister out of wedlock. Many countries today still practice honor killings where it is morally justifiable for a husband to kill is adulterating wife, or a father to kill his disobedient daughter. Among the Asmat in New Guinea, before they were influenced by Western society, it was not only considered correct, but a moral and religious obligation to kill and cannibalize your enemy.

Our culture today says that murdering the man who had sex with your sister is wrong, but killing another man during a war is alright. What a culture defines as “baseless” can change from era to era and culture to culture, but the idea that baseless murder is wrong remains. However, baseless killing, although universally agreed upon by human cultures, is not a moral absolute because of the way it fluctuates–that ever-changing definition of when it is okay to kill and when it is wrong. There are no moral absolutes, just generalizations.

Theists who look at these evolutionarily generated common moral traits see them as a sign that there must be an absolute source of morality, and posit that God is that source. They supposes something extreme about the nature of “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong”. From this standpoint, morals should be black and white, and universally applicable (supposing that humans are unique moral beings, separated from the animals) with very little room for subjectivity, yet that goes directly against our experience. Instead of there being many apparent absolutes and few areas of subjectivity, there is a wealth of subjectivity and such a lack of absolutes that it is wrong to even call them that.

The moral wiring imparted by evolution does not transverse very far into daily life and the majority of moralistic concerns, because the only thing evolution cares about is survival. It only affects morals that in turn affect survival and positive group interactions, and those are few and far between. For example, it doesn’t matter for the survival of the species if someone wears clothing that covers their entire body or wears hot pants and tube tops; that is why there are so many different moral ideas about modesty and attire. All other moral ideals are social constructs–-products of a specific culture and its practices.

Outside of a theistic world-view, one could argue that evolution itself has created a set of moral absolutes. It is logical to say that the very bare bones of morality come from evolution, but evolution is not the absolute creator of morality. It creates a little bit of morality some of the time, and it leaves a great big giant space for relativism and subjectivity, such as various moral social constructs. I can say that baseless killing is wrong, but that only applies to species that evolved to exist in groups. That same moral principle doesn’t apply at all when one considers solitary animals who benefit by killing any and all competition. Since evolution as a system places no importance or specialness on humans (unlike religious systems), if it contained moral absolutes, they should apply to all of the animal kingdom, not just one species. What is “good” for humans, orangutans, and horses is not the same thing as what is “good” for polar bears and snakes.

In the natural world we can see that there is not one right and one wrong, but many rights and many wrongs all contingent upon many varying factors, including species, environment, society, and culture. Evolution determines a few of those (the ones that relate directly to group species survival), but that is it. This idea that there are moral absolutes in the world is an illusion caused by the common moral generalities derived from evolution.

- orDover

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60 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Blak Thundar  |  April 26, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    Good article, even made sense. I would definitely like to learn more about the impact that evolution has had on the development of human psychology.

  • 2. Sabio  |  April 27, 2009 at 7:06 am

    When I play a game (my favorite being WeiQi), I play by rules. Rules hold a game together — as they do a society. A games’ rules makes it interesting, dull, over quick or long-lasting. So does a society. Not everything is captured by genes, cultural values seems an epigenetic way for the organism to survive and thrive too. Some evolutionary adaptations are better than others (“good”) and likewise, some cultural rules are better than others (“good”). So it seems there can be good and bad morals in that sense too, no?

  • 3. ArchangelChuck  |  April 27, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Macro-scale morality is more complex and blurry than micro-scale, so I’m going to stick to micro, that is, individual and internal morality.

    A stable society necessarily implies a code of morality; morality is what allows it to be stable. Of course, taking into account that society’s collective superstitions, we end up with things like human sacrifice, cannibalism, and other reprehensible acts being considered “moral.”

    What would happen if it were possible to remove the superstitious element?

  • 4. atimetorend  |  April 27, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Well written article in summarizing complicated issues clearly. The subject is important because, even if someone isn’t convinced by the case for evolutionary derivation of morals, it provides a reasonable and uncomplicated explanation of an alternative to intrinsic moral values endowed by a creator.

  • 5. Luke  |  April 27, 2009 at 11:07 am

    but the evolution morality isn’t perfect… infact it cross-fires and contradicts: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2006/04/28

    but we’re also not governed by a Judeo-Christian morality because 1. no one can ever agree on what that is and 2. that contradicts itself as well. just juxapose Exodus with Duet. or Paul’s letters with James.

    so what then are we governed by? what dictates our morality now? nature gave us a good start, theistic morality adds to this but has largely been ignored, misunderstood and abused (or in y’alls case deconverted from). now what? i’d argue that not only are we largely governed by culture, we’re very much governed by our legal code. that is what sets and dictates right and wrong. and if we look closely enough, we can see how we’ll bend natural and theistic morality to fit our culture. hence you have Christians owning guns because of the 2nd Amendment thus ignoring Jesus’s prohibition against carry’n a staff (the first century “glock” if you will).

    great article and wonderful considerations. i enjoyed it.

  • 6. BigHouse  |  April 27, 2009 at 11:13 am

    but the evolution morality isn’t perfect… infact it cross-fires and contradicts: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2006/04/28

    Just as you’d expect from a process of trial and error over time; yielding the best suited “winning’ traits given the environment that “selected” them.

  • 7. LeoPardus  |  April 27, 2009 at 11:40 am

    Luke:

    Pretty good layout of the sources of morality. One I’d add is “family” or “upbringing”. One might consider that a subset of “culture”, but I think it merits its own category.

    Jesus’s prohibition against carry’n a staff

    Aye. But let us not forget his directive to procure a sword. :)

  • 8. Lucian  |  April 27, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Hi there, guys!

    Just wanted to stop by, wish You all a happy Easter, and salute You with the traditional greeting of Christ is risen!.

    Good bye, and take care!

  • 9. orDover  |  April 27, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    “… if we look closely enough, we can see how we’ll bend natural and theistic morality to fit our culture”

    A very good point, Luke. Just think of the Christian in Africa that are going on a witch-hunting crusade. They molded Christianity into their pagan ideals regarding the spirit (or demonic) world. Belief in such a spirit world was too culturally ingrained to be ousted by a new form of religion.

  • 10. Luke  |  April 28, 2009 at 1:23 am

    “One I’d add is “family” or “upbringing”. One might consider that a subset of “culture”, but I think it merits its own category.” LeoP.

    initially i rejected this and say it would fit under culture… but it’s such a huge part of who we are, i think you’re right! Family of Origin gives us the intial framework to view the rest of culture. it is a product of the culture but is also an interpreter of culture.

    well stated and pointed out. family systems theory is one of my fav. fields of study that i have neglected this semester and hope to return to in the summer.

    orDover: i’m right with you on the African witch-hunts! but there are also many other fields of belief that this affects, not just theistic ones as well. there is some shoddy science that is colored by belief as well. it’s rather pervasive when you stop and look. so thanks for stopping and looking and providing the fodder for this convo.. goodone so far ;-)

  • 11. ArchangelChuck  |  April 28, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Yes, we do bend things we take from other cultures to fit our own. For example, Christianity stole the idea of eternal reward/punishment from the Assyrians and the Babylonians. (But why?) Until then, there was no belief in an afterlife; everybody went to Sheol (i.e. the grave), and every soul was mortal. Essentially, “Everybody dies.” We all know that.

    Luke asked, “What governs us (if not theistic or natural morality)?” First, there is no such thing as theistic morality so I’m going to call it “social” morality. God doesn’t determine the morals of a religion, the group of people in charge of that religion do so. (Otherwise, safe to say, those morals would be consistent.) That said, in reality, there is nothing that “governs” morality, in the sense that religious people would conceive. Individuals — and, on a larger scale, free and open societies — think through things themselves. In doing so, they are able to refine and improve the otherwise imperfect systems of social and natural morality.

  • 12. Lucian  |  April 28, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    from the Assyrians and the Babylonians

    And from the Egyptians and from the Jews. Which means that all [or almost all] Semites believed in it.

  • 13. ArchangelChuck  |  April 29, 2009 at 1:59 am

    @Lucian: Wow, I must have been out of my mind when I posted that. Apologies to all, and thanks to Lucian for calling that out. Just… wow. ><

  • 14. amy  |  April 29, 2009 at 9:09 am

    God doesn’t determine the morals of a religion, the group of people in charge of that religion do so. (Otherwise, safe to say, those morals would be consistent.)

    I’m on my way out of religion. I believe in God (whatever that means!), but have come to the conclusion that religions are, in the end, nonsensical (though I am coming to appreciate more and more philosophical Taosim), and the quote above captures part of the reason why.

  • 15. Steelman  |  April 29, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    Moral absolutes exist in a room with a Catholic, an Arminian, and a Calvinist each holding their bibles, all secure in the notion that the absolute truth contained in that book imparts to each of them the absolute certainty of the absolute morality of the fact that the other two are headed straight to hell.

    Good post, orDover

  • 16. ArchangelChuck  |  April 30, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Have you all ever read any of Jonathan Haidt’s publications or books on moral psychology? If not, check it out. Very interesting stuff.

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  • 18. Rene Benthien  |  May 5, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Our purpose is to engender moral clarity. That’s why some of us actively campaign against Religion. We feel that superstition muddles the process of discovering the reasonable ethical behaviour in a given situation. Also a constantly eroding faith is not a solid enough motivation for morality.

    Saying that there are no Moral Absolutes is counter productive to this all important goal.

    I don’t disagree with much of the substance in your post, but I disagree with much of the language you’ve used.

    Evolution, biology and physical laws do give us moral specifications. Yes they depend almost entirely on the context that you are in, but they are NOT subjective.

    Given all the variables of a moral problem there are always right solutions and wrong solutions.

    Sure, evolution does not place special importance on humans. But that does not mean humans should not give special importance to the morals that are applicable to their species.

    We may differ in our opinions about what it right and wrong, but that doesn’t mean that both of us are right. There is an external truth to the universe, and moral laws are simply a logical consequence of the natural laws.

  • 19. shadowpoodle  |  May 14, 2009 at 1:08 am

    I have serious disagreements with this article.

    Just as scientists debate over physics and have disagreements with it so does men debate over morality and have disagreements with it. Morality, like science, seeks to find laws that hold true always. Disagreement and agreement across cultures means nothing to neither morality nor science. What matters is proving the truth to be true. Morality is just not as agreed upon nor developed as soundly as science. But categorically speaking morality is absolute — to deny this is to completely misunderstand the nature of morality and the quest of a true moral paradigm and moral imperatives.

  • 20. Matt  |  May 14, 2009 at 1:47 am

    My comment is totally tangential, but…

    Could stealing exist within a society that didn’t acknowledge a “right” to personal property?

    Where did this idea of ownership come from? Why don’t we just admit that we dislike sharing? What’s with the justification that we have rightful ownership of the things we feel entitled to keeping?

    It’s not *my* tree. It’s just a tree.

  • 21. Sabio  |  May 14, 2009 at 7:10 am

    @shadowpoodle
    That appeared totally confused to me.
    Your implied logic was this:
    1) Men [sic] debate morality
    2) Men debate science
    3) Science is measured against absolute truth
    4) Therefore measured against absolute truth

    You give NOTHING to support you conclusion ! You were just beating your chest !

  • 22. Justin Quirici  |  May 14, 2009 at 8:51 am

    Your thesis was at odds with your points.

    Whether any humans mistake absolute human morality for the will of god is irrelevant; absolute human morality exists based on “what is good for a human” — to use your words — and provides a basis for each culture or subset thereof to define how it approaches that absolute morality.

    It blows my mind that your title claims that moral absolutes are an illusion, and then in your very first sentence you state that there are moral trends that are common to ever culture we’ve ever known. THOSE ARE THE MORAL ABSOLUTES UPON WHICH A CULTURE’S MORAL CODE IS BUILT.

  • 23. orDover  |  May 14, 2009 at 11:56 am

    It blows my mind that your title claims that moral absolutes are an illusion, and then in your very first sentence you state that there are moral trends that are common to ever culture we’ve ever known. THOSE ARE THE MORAL ABSOLUTES UPON WHICH A CULTURE’S MORAL CODE IS BUILT.

    My entire argument is that those common trends are NOT absolutes. They are common. They are trends. But give me an example of one absolute, a moral principle that stands no matter the situation in every single culture. I’m taking the word “absolute” very seriously here.

    My entire point was that anything that could plausibly be called a moral “absolute” is actually not absolute because it is heavily reliant both on circumstance and culture, not to mention the contexts of species and society.

  • 24. orDover  |  May 14, 2009 at 11:57 am

    By the way, I don’t believe we need absolutes to build a cultural moral code.

  • 25. damstraight4  |  May 15, 2009 at 1:35 am

    “It boils down to basic common sense: if you want to have a successful group, you can’t have people stealing from one another and you can’t have people killing at random.”

    Has mankind not survived its history thus far with such things?

    Senseless murder and the desire of another’s property coupled with the act of forcibly obtaining such property has been around since we could keep any sort of written record. Perhaps it is within our nature?

    “The common morals (not stealing, not fruitlessly murdering) can be traced logically back to evolution via natural selection, and that is the reason that they are the only ones truly common to all social groups”

    Also seems ironic that for an article entitled “The Illusion of Moral Absolutes” you argue the premise of two universal moral among man.

  • 26. damstraight4  |  May 15, 2009 at 1:39 am

    What I meant to say about the second quote is: Please tell me how these “common morals” can be traced logically back to evolution via natural selection? Would you not consider prisoners a social group? As you described a social group, “They are the morals that help people live together as a group, which in turn helps them to survive as a species” I think that describes both human beings, and prisoners (particular those criminals whom have practiced thievery and random murder).

  • 27. Matt  |  May 15, 2009 at 1:58 am

    This entire article is based on a false dichotomy. Of course there are not moral absolutes such as “Do not kill” because morality is necessarily dependent upon situational factors. That’s why it’s OK to lie to the Nazis when they come to your door but not OK to lie your banker.

    The fact that moral absolutes don’t exist is not enough to prove that morals are subjective. That’s a very different issue. And in fact almost every contemporary philosopher would disagree with you here.

    Morals, it seems, are objective. There IS a right thing to do in a given situation and the fact that we disagree about it is irrelevant. Anyone who interacts with other people must act as if their choices are objectively correct. That is to say, correct for anyone and everyone.

    Consider the alternative–that morals are subjective and anyone’s moral is just as good and valuable as anyone else’s. What happens when one person believes they have a right to hunt foxes and another believes that foxes have a right to live? Or maybe the father of an unborn child believes it is morally right to keep the baby and the mother believes that it is morally right for her to live her life without that burden? Or a deranged man believes he has a right to take advantage of a woman while she believes she has the right not to be taken advantage of?

    Can you see that in all these situations, subjective morality is meaningless because both sides are mutually exclusive and subjectivity offers no way to decide between them? If each view is supposed to be equally valuable, how could you decide? Even trying to convince people of your side necessarily assumes that your side is better than theirs. As a result, humans cannot act when their actions effect other people and stay consistent with subjectivity.

  • 28. orDover  |  May 15, 2009 at 2:06 am

    Has mankind not survived its history thus far with such things?

    Not in excess. It remains the exception and not the rule.

    Senseless murder and the desire of another’s property coupled with the act of forcibly obtaining such property has been around since we could keep any sort of written record. Perhaps it is within our nature?

    How many people do you know personally who commit senseless murder? Or who even engage in theft? If it’s part of our “nature,” then we should all participate in those actions. I think it’s more complicated than that…it’s more complicated than simply saying, “Well, maybe we’re all hard-wired to do ‘wrong.'” Or even, “Well, maybe we’re all hard-wired to do ‘good.'”

    Also seems ironic that for an article entitled “The Illusion of Moral Absolutes” you argue the premise of two universal moral among man.

    I wouldn’t call them “universal,” I would call them “common.” And not in the sense of common as “shared completely across the board in all cases and contexts” but common as “usual.” As I said in comment #23, I’m taking the definite of the word “absolute” very seriously.

    Please tell me how these “common morals” can be traced logically back to evolution via natural selection?

    Entire books have been written on the subject, so I can’t really sum it up in a blog post comment, and if you are really interested, it is something you can look into on your own. The evidence is there.

    As a starting point, I would suggest this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Psychology: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/
    (That also makes reference to your prisoner question, or rather the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which examines what would happen if people behave strictly according to their own self-interest rather than working together.)

    Would you not consider prisoners a social group? As you described a social group, “They are the morals that help people live together as a group, which in turn helps them to survive as a species” I think that describes both human beings, and prisoners (particular those criminals whom have practiced thievery and random murder).

    This is EXACTLY why I am staying away from terms like “universal” and “absolute.” A prison could be considered a social group, and they could in turn develop their own system of “morals” that looks quite different from anything you or I call morals based on our own social conditioning. My point is that a social group is going to do what is best for itself, whatever that may be. The problem you run into in nature, and which the Stanford article addresses, is that if you have a group of people practicing non-altruistic behavior, such as senseless killing and thievery, they are simply not going to survive and flourish like a community who works together and looks out for one another. They won’t prorate in high enough numbers to sustain a population.

  • 29. orDover  |  May 15, 2009 at 2:18 am

    Matt, I think you’re forgetting that what I’m arguing against is the religious position that morals are absolute and non-subjective because they are handed down by God.

    The fact that moral absolutes don’t exist is not enough to prove that morals are subjective. That’s a very different issue. And in fact almost every contemporary philosopher would disagree with you here.

    Morals, it seems, are objective. There IS a right thing to do in a given situation and the fact that we disagree about it is irrelevant…

    Who decides what is objectively right? I’ll only disagree with you if you say “God” or some sort of vague notion of ultimate goodness in the same vein. I’d argue that given any moral dilemma, there is indeed a right and a wrong. I would argue that the moral circumstance is not subjective based on personal moral opinion, but rather subjective based on collective moral opinion. We learn our morals from our society. Society makes the rules. Society decides what is right.

    Consider the alternative–that morals are subjective and anyone’s moral is just as good and valuable as anyone else’s.

    I would submit that this is a false dichotomy. If morality is not objective, that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. That’s over-simplifying the situation to a great degree.

  • 30. Nickelplate  |  May 15, 2009 at 9:06 am

    I don’t think you can use a lack of common morals in societies worldwide as evidence that absolute morals don’t exist. An absolute moral code would not be a moral code that is followed in all societies, but one that should be (and probably is not) followed in all societies.

    Look at how many people go over the speed limits while driving. Just because the speed limits are almost universally broken (even if only by a little) is not enough to say that they are not almost universally posted and supported by laws. The speed limits exist whether kept or broken.

    Whether a moral guideline is followed or not does not determine it’s existence, whether it’s being broken willfully or ignorantly. In the case of moral code, the “speed limit” my just be unknown, with different groups of people claiming to know the right one and some claiming that there isn’t one.

  • 31. rockstar  |  May 15, 2009 at 9:42 am

    Moral absolutes do exist though. I follow an objectivist school of thought similar to Rand’s, just to throw that out there.

    Most culture-based “morals” are either arbitration (“drive on the left/right side of the road”, “no loud sounds after 10pm”) that are necessary to keep order; or are based in irrational superstition (“don’t sell alcohol on sundays”, “oral sex is illegal” [as it was in my state until recently]).

    To see this, don’t commit the error of affirming your consequent; it’s so easy to look at the end product and force yourself to respect the means to that end, or develop your own “means” for it. You have to begin from the very beginning, the first possible truth from which no other can begin: “I am.” Epistemology and phenomenology play in morals; metaphysics, which is completely subject and only exists in the individual’s consciousness, has no place in morality.

    And what it boils down to is to not remove another’s ability to choose for themselves from them; don’t make any victims. I don’t steal from my neighbor because that would remove his ability to choose for himself what to do with that money, and because it would be taking the unearned.

    Really, I guess there’s only one moral absolute, and that is “I am.” The rest of the rules follow from that. Cultures only exist because multiple “I”s exist, and it’s their own volitions that allow it to propogate.

  • 32. The de-Convert  |  May 15, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    I thought it was this thread that had this link

    Must read NYT article on the state of religion in Denmark and Sweden: http://bit.ly/hi9Eh

  • 33. Matt  |  May 15, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    Matt, I think you’re forgetting that what I’m arguing against is The religious position that morals are absolute and non-subjective because they are handed down by God.

    All of the religions that I am aware of recognize that morals are subjective in the sense that they are subject to circumstance. Within Christianity, for example, the commandment “Do not kill” is entirely incompatible with the notion of a “Just War” unless those commandments are seen as being dependent on circumstance. Though I agree with you that these morals aren’t necessarily set down by a God (and I don’t believe we could know that even if they were), that vein of argument is fruitless because religions generally agree with your premise.

    [My Quote]Consider the alternative–that morals are subjective and anyone’s moral is just as good and valuable as anyone else’s.

    [Your response] I would submit that this is a false dichotomy. If morality is not objective, that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. That’s over-simplifying the situation to a great degree.

    Do you have a reason for calling this a false dichotomy? I doubt it–because there is no reason you could give. It’s certainly not a false dichotomy. Either object standards of right and wrong exist in a situation or they don’t. There is no in between. Things cannot “kind of” exist. Therefore, if these standards do exist, then morals are objective and one can be seen as more “right” in that it is closer to that objective standard. If they don’t exist, then there is no standard by which to measure differences in opinion and we fall into relativism and subjectivity–unable to compare our ideas or resolve our differences because to do so requires the assumption that one is “better” than the other.

    Also, notice that I never implied or stated an answer to your question “Who decides what is objectively right?” Of course it would be silly to argue that I (or anyone else) have some special sixth by which to measure right or wrong. Just because that standard exists and we are forced to act as if it exists doesn’t mean that we can infallibly identify it. As a result, the answer to “who decides what is objectively right?” is actually everyone who makes moral decisions. Finding that “objective right” is the process of morality–taking some position that you think might be “objectively right,” considering other positions and viewpoints and then refining your original position. Repeat ad infinitum.

  • 34. paleale  |  May 15, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    As a result, the answer to “who decides what is objectively right?” is actually everyone who makes moral decisions.

    Doesn’t this just reduce the decision back to subjectivism? If in the end it’s just one person’s idea of what the objective right is then it’s still a subjective approach to attaining what may or may not be objectively right.

    Ad infinitum indeed.

  • 35. Matt  |  May 16, 2009 at 1:24 am

    Doesn’t this just reduce the decision back to subjectivism?

    Absolutely not. Let’s put the quote that you used back in context.

    As a result, the answer to “who decides what is objectively right?” is actually everyone who makes moral decisions. Finding that “objective right” is the process of morality–taking some position that you think might be “objectively right,” considering other positions and viewpoints and then refining your original position. Repeat ad infinitum.

    Notice my emphasis on morality as a process. Constantly weighing your current beliefs against other possibilities (including other people’s ideas) and then changing those beliefs when you find a new belief that is “more right” than the old one. This objective approach is the only way to understand ideas like progress. If no one view is better than any other, then why would people change their beliefs? How could they? This process also requires that morals are objective–i.e. that one alternative in a moral decision is “better” or “more right” than another.

    Here is the process for someone who thinks that morals are subjective or relative:
    1. Take on a view that you hold as moral.
    Let’s say slavery.
    2. Realize that changing or reevaluating that view is pointless since any other view you could take on would not be more “right.” Why waste the effort if the results are the same?
    Abolitionists are subjectively right for themselves and I am subjectively right for myself.
    3. Keep your original view.
    Slavery is good.
    4. Refuse to discuss it with someone else, modify it or reflect on its merits. (all of these would require objective standards of right and wrong)
    The institution of slavery should not ever be ended because my belief that slavery is right is just as good as anyone else’s. Plus it makes getting and staying rich a whole lot easier on me. No one can tell me otherwise. None of my views or values will ever change. Hand me that whip.

    Now the process for someone who believes in objective morals:
    1. Take on a view that you hold as moral.
    Let’s say slavery.
    2. Recognize that other views exist and might, in fact, be better than your own.
    I wonder why the abolitionists disagree with me? I wonder what the slaves think about the situation? Is it fair that I get to kick back on the veranda while they work for free? How would I feel if I were enslaved?
    3. Remain open to these other viewpoints. Look at the situation from the perspective of other individuals, other cultures, etc. Consider as many views as you have time to. Try to discern what makes certain options more or less wrong. Ask questions like–Is my original view unfair to other people? Is it tolerant of others? Am I being needlessly harsh or harmful?
    Wow, I guess I wouldn’t like being a slave after all. I do feel pretty bad about all this cruelty and hardship that I’m imposing on others. Those god-damned abolitionists just might have a point.
    4. Reevaluate your original view.
    Alright, I admit that I was mistaken. Slavery definitely isn’t morally right. Now that I realize this, I can make change and achieve good in the world. Those relativists can’t even comprehend a word like “good.” It’s all the same to them. What a bunch of Neanderthals. Maybe we should enslave them.”

    Basically, relativism says “Stop where you are. There’s no such thing as progress (at least morally). All morals are equal in value (or, to put it more precisely, value doesn’t exist in the moral sphere).”

    Objectivism says “There IS an objective moral truth out there but humans are not very good at figuring out what it is in some situations. Keep searching and keep an open mind. You might not ever be 100% certain that you’ve found it, but you’ll be able to make progress.”

    Paleale, you seem to be concerned that two people might come to different conclusions under this method. Of course they will, but that doesn’t mean that morals are subjective (at least in the sense that orDover is using it). It doesn’t mean that there is no “right” it just means that at least one (and probably both) have a belief that is mistaken. The solution, of course, is just to keep searching and never assume that you are infallibly right about anything.

  • 36. neko  |  May 18, 2009 at 1:32 am

    i’ve been teaching this lesson for years. essentially it breaks down to: a. if there is no god then there is no absolute moral guideline. therefore b. since there is no absolute standard for right or wrong all we have are things 1. i like 2. i don’t like 3/4. society does/not like 5/6 areas i agree/disagree with society and THEN take into account consequences and have one more subgroup 7-10 things i will/wont do that society agrees/disagrees with because of said consequences.

    therefore there is no good/evil/sin – live free my brothers and sisters ;-)

  • 37. Idris  |  May 18, 2009 at 10:00 am

    “Our culture today says that murdering the man who had sex with your sister is wrong”

    not true – we still do that in Pakistan.

  • 38. anti-supernaturalist  |  June 10, 2009 at 11:42 am

    ** don’t blame/praise Nature for moralities

    Neither physical nature nor human nature *say* anything about a superordinate, supernatural realm populated by creators or law givers. Nor does evolution provide any foundation beyond the minimal hominid baseline of group lifestyle.

    Nature is silent. There is no concept of truth in nature. (Indeed, there are no concepts whatsoever in nature.) Nature *knows* nothing.

    Nature is neither meaningful nor meaningless. Neither a source of comfort (natural theology) nor a source of despair (existentialism). Both are rooted in the same mistaken presupposition that supernatural *meaning* can be found by searching the heavens for gods or quarrying human inwardness for moral laws.

    Instead, religions belong to cultures embedded in nature. And *cultures* are our distinctive human-all-too-human handiwork. Religions are obsolete, unnecessary, but tenacious cultural artifacts.

    Any specific religion reenacts and institutionalizes a cultic myth. It gets spread through custom and imitation, financially supported by mores and law, and enforced by indoctrination, intimidation, and violence.

    Xian mythology, like related big-4 monotheisms zoroastrianism, post-exilic judaism, and islam, posits a moralized universal order which never did exist.

    No more can be found in their dreamwork than the ancestors put into it.

  • 39. writerdd  |  June 10, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Neither physical nature nor human nature *say* anything about a superordinate, supernatural realm populated by creators or law givers.

    Who says there IS a supernatural realm populated by creators?

  • 40. Dale701  |  June 10, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    8 Lucian…….Hi there, guys!

    Just wanted to stop by, wish You all a happy Easter, and salute You with the traditional greeting of Christ is risen!.

    Good bye, and take care!

    Dale701 Speaking of morals………..
    I do not troll religious sites and leave posts like this
    God is Dead
    Have a nice day

    It is what I would call a nasty remark to those who believe.
    In poor taste and an uncalled for remark.

  • 41. LeoPardus  |  June 10, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    True Dale. I don’t think any of us troll religious sites. But then we aren’t trolls. Lucian is nothing but a troll.

  • 42. ROBERT  |  June 13, 2009 at 2:34 am

    I came to read a very good debate and it ended with name calling. Where the subjectivety of experience takes presedence…. Don’t mind the spellling….

  • 43. Quester  |  June 18, 2009 at 2:03 am

    Continuing on the theme of the main article, people might find the following link to be interesting: http://lesswrong.com/lw/10f/the_terrible_horrible_no_good_very_bad_truth/

    I haven’t read the referred-to thesis, The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth About Morality and What To Do About It but it looks interesting.

  • 44. orDover  |  June 18, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    That was a very interesting read, Quester! Thanks for sharing the link. The dissertation does sound great. I wonder if it will ever be formally published?

    This bit reminded me of our Christian friends:
    The subject is…asked to explain how he arrived at his judgment. He could say, “I don’t know. I answered intuitively,” and this answer would be the most accurate answer for nearly everyone. But this is not the answer he gives because he knows after a lifetime of living in Western culture that “I don’t know how I reached that conclusion. I just did. But I’m sure it’s right,” doesn’t sound like a very good answer.

    The author explains how the subject then goes on to rationalize a series of answers, and eventually when pressed fall back on “I don’t know, it’s just what I believe to be truth.”

    When asked to explain why they judged as they did, subjects typically gave reasons. Upon recognizing the flaws in those reasons, subjects typically stood by their judgments all the same, suggesting that the reasons they gave after the fact in support their judgments had little to do with the process that produced those judgments.

    Doesn’t that sound exactly like Christian apologists who come up with loads of post-hoc rationalizations for why they believe in God, only to have them dismantled one by one, until they fall back on, “I don’t know why I believe in God. I just do. I just feel deep down inside that he is real, and that’s good enough for me.”

  • 45. orDover  |  June 18, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Oh, and to add another layer of complexity to the issue of moral absolutes, I recently read a book that suggests that the cannibalistic tribes in New Guinea became cannibals because of the striking lack of protein for their diets found on the island. That moves the question of the morality of New Guinean cannibalism from the realm of a religious mandate to one based on simple survival. I wonder if people who believe in objective morality would find cannibalism immoral if it was the only way to sustain a population, if it was essential to the survival of human life?

  • 46. Dale701  |  June 19, 2009 at 8:41 am

    orDover
    I want to recommend a book to you on this subject.
    Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury
    It is a science fiction novel set in a world where Cannibalism is the norm and this woman is a heritic for opposing it.
    Here is a persons review from amazon.
    ………
    Not for the faint of heart, as you learn within the first 100 words of the book that Geta is a harsh world with no source of food during a famine other than it’s only source of meat — other human beings. Though this idea is initially repulsive to our way of thinking, you soon discover an incredible morality of the people in this book that far surpasses our own. They cannot imagine a war where they could not eat those they fought. Wars such as we fight today are beyond horrific to them, the most vile form of evil. Makes you really think about our values, and about how easily we tend to accept war. A great read, if you can stomach it. One of my favorite all-time books.
    ……
    If you read this book you will Never Ever Forget it, you would need 1 million bibles to equal the morality experienced by reading of this book.
    Dale701

  • 47. Dale701  |  July 13, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    A question for everyone, name one sin Satan ever commited.
    I cannot think of one.

  • 48. Dale701  |  July 13, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    Satan is no different that judas, without Judas, you christians do not get to drink Christs blood and eat his flesh and be saved!
    Sorry, been reading Robert Iingersol today.

  • 49. Dale701  |  July 13, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    Do not get in an uproar, my posts were for the trolls.
    Well, and the ones with a sense of humor.

  • 50. Nickelplate  |  July 14, 2009 at 9:10 am

    Satan’s sin was the one we all commit now and again: Thinking that we could be God.

  • 51. Matt  |  July 29, 2009 at 1:01 am

    orDover:

    I wonder if people who believe in objective morality would find cannibalism immoral if it was the only way to sustain a population, if it was essential to the survival of human life?

    You’re still a little confused on your terms. I think you meant “people who believe in absolute morality” not objective morality. A moral objectivist would simply hold that whatever is right for one person in that situation is right for anyone else in that situation (whether it’s deemed right or wrong probably depends on more specific circumstances and a much better understanding of nutrition than I can offer).

    I think you meant to ask about a moral absolutist–whom you seem to assume would believe that cannibalism is absolutely wrong under any circumstance.

    Do you see the difference? It’s important.

  • 52. SnugglyBuffalo  |  July 29, 2009 at 1:52 am

    Matt, I think you’re confusing Objectivism and objectivity.

    Someone who believes in objective morality believes that morality is independent of any judgments made by people. “Objective morality” is more-or-less synonymous with “absolute morality.”

    In other words, moral objectivity is not equivalent to moral Objectivism.

  • 53. Joshua  |  July 29, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Satan’s sin was the one we all commit now and again: Thinking that we could be God.

    I’ve never met a person who thought he could be like god. I only meet people who tread upon the territory other humans say their god only has access to.

    “No, no, don’t site there, that’s god spot.”

    “But there’s nobody here?”

    “I know, it only looks like god is not there, but he is. Don’t sit there, sinner.”
    :)

  • 54. Nickelplate  |  July 29, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Assuming that morality IS absolute, there would most likely be areas to which only a god would have access.

    Also, cannibalism doesn’t seem to be any kind of bad thing, even to christians. Most people would be grossed out by it, but as long as you’re not killing people so you can eat them I would assume it’s perfectly OK.

  • 55. Matt  |  July 29, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    Sorry, snugglybuffalo. You too are mistaken.

    You are correct that objective morality means that morality is independent of judgments made by people (i.e. there is a right thing to do in any given situation and it is our job to find out what that “right” thing is).

    Equating “absolute” and “objective” however, is sloppy use of language. It might suffice in other spheres, but in philosophy, absolute morality is involved with universal principles that don’t take situational factors into account (NEVER lie, kill cheat, etc.) while objective morality simply requires that “good” and “bad” exist as real values in the moral sphere.

    That’s a huge difference–moral absolutism is absurd and nearly impossible to justify, while moral objectivism is accepted (with variances in form and degree) by the majority of contemporary philosophers.

    Be careful with your words. For starters, check out section 1.6 here:

    http://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/objectiv.htm

  • 56. Joshua  |  July 29, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    Hmm, that paper sure looks like the first place I would check for sufficient and accurate informative information on the subject at hand.

  • 57. SnugglyBuffalo  |  July 30, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    I think part of my confusion is that I try to avoid using “objectivism” because of Ayn Rand’s philosophy by the same name. Realizing that’s not what you’re talking about, and doing a little more research on moral objectivism vs. moral absolutism, I see the point you were making.

    Anyway, natural languages are inherently ambiguous. “Absolute” and “objective” can and are frequently used synonymously in common usage. You’re right that “moral objectivism” and “moral absolutism” have very distinct definitions in philosophy; I doubt that people without a deep interest in philosophy are typically aware of this (I wasn’t until I took the time to look these things up).

    This is less a matter of sloppy language and poor word choice than it is one of unfamiliarity with precise philosophical definitions.

  • 58. slrman  |  January 21, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    To quote Robert A. Heinlein, “There is only one true sin, hurting someone else unnecessarily. Everything else is invented nonsense.” To that I add, to permit one small group to control the thoughts and actions of a large group.

    That last also seems to define the purpose behind religion, too.

  • 59. onecae  |  April 14, 2013 at 9:11 am

    The pathetic fallacy is the treatment of inanimate objects as if they had human feelings, thought, or sensations.[1] The word ‘pathetic’ in this use is related to ‘pathos’ or ‘empathy’ (capability of feeling), and is not pejorative. In the discussion of literature, the pathetic fallacy is similar to personification. – definition from Wikipedia.

    Evolution is also a human construct. It doesn’t do, or think.

  • 60. cag  |  April 14, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    onecae, every word in every language is a human construct. What is your point?

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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