Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Is There Such a Thing as “Objective” Morality?

[Note: I have previously written about what morality means to an atheist here: On Morality.  Here I discuss the claim by theists that they -- and they alone -- have access to a set of "objective" moral principles.]

For any sort of moral principles to be objective, they would have to be unchanging and apply to all people in all circumstances. One way to possibly have some sort of objective morality would be to have it imposed from an external source such as a God of some sort, in which case morality becomes whatever that God says to do or not do. Unfortunately, even if you believe in a God of some sort (which I don’t), using a God as the source of objective morality quickly becomes an exercise in futility because:
  • Nobody can agree upon what, exactly, God has said to do and not do, even among members of the same religious communities.
  • Many of the things God supposedly told his children to do and not do thousands of years ago seem to have been tailored specifically for the culture in which his children lived back then [Gee, an “objective” morality that changes over time, go figure…].
  • God apparently refuses to provide any clarification today to clear up the various misinterpretations regarding his moral principles.
Another way to possibly have some sort of objective morality is to claim that there are fundamental laws of nature that somehow dictate what is “good” and “bad” when it comes to how we treat our fellow man. I know a number of atheists who really try to make this argument, presumably so that they can silence the theists who keep claiming that atheists can’t be moral since they have no basis for objective morality. I’m not swayed by this, however.

First of all, I’m not at all swayed by the claim that objective morality is even needed in the first place to be moral. Morality is a set of principles that govern how we act toward one another, and one can follow those principles regardless of whether those principles are based on some “objective” or “absolute” standards or laws.

Second of all, I’m not convinced that there are any absolute natural laws or principles that determine (or can be used to determine) whether our actions are objectively “good” or “moral”. At most, I think that humans have, on the whole, an innate sense of empathy toward each other that tends to make us feel happy when others are happy and sad when others are sad, and that can certainly for the basis of a general principle of “treat others the way you want to be treated,” but that only goes so far. That innate empathy often only extends to members of our immediate family or tribe, and sometimes doesn’t even go that far. It is also possible to derive some general moral principles from our long experience with civilization and our experimental discovery of what sorts of laws best help a society to run smoothly. Once again, though, I hesitate to call these in any way “objective” or “absolute” since so many different societies and cultures throughout recorded history have come up with radically different laws.

The closest thing to any sort of “objective” morality I think we could ever really come up with is the simple realization that all humans are equally deserving of the same respect simply be virtue of being human. Different actions and situations may warrant different treatment, but the underlying principle of respect would remain a constant.

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