Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Objective Morality- Does it exist?

I hear this a lot in conversation with theists, "if you don't believe in god, then from where do you get your morality?" or "without god there can be no true and objective morality" or even "without god anything is permissable".

I am tired of hearing it, so lets talk about it.

What we are talking about here is an objective morality.  It really has very little to do with the existence of a god, and more to do with the nature of morality and the future of how we solve problems in a societal context.

If we say that there is an objective morality (as most theists would have us believe), then morality should be a timeless constant.

Never changing

That simply isn't true.  If we look at morality today, we might think this, but as soon as we look back at what was moral hundreds of years ago we can see an enormous shift.

Does this prove anything?  Maybe it is just our perception of morality that has changed, and morality itself has been constant while we keep struggling towards it.

Hmmmm, possible?

No.  It isn't.

From where would an objective morality originate?


If morality is objective, then it exists OUTSIDE god and is a universal constant.

IF god didn't make it up, then it is universal and has no origin.


Ok, as little sense as a god made morality makes, this makes less.  Morality must be born from somewhere, as it is a set of rules to assist us in living together.  Since we haven't always existed, neither could rules for our coexistence have existed forever, so we can dismiss that one.

If it doesn't exist outside god, then he made it up.  Just made it up, according to how he thought things would work best.

Now it doesn't matter if you think that his knowledge is the best place to derive such a morality, it still means that it is SUBJECTIVE.

He made it up.

IF he made it up, and then failed to pass on that morality in such a way as to have us clearly understand it as a planetary whole (which he clearly hasn't), then his moral system fails.  It fails because if he creates a universal moral code, and then fails to give it to us, but yet still judges us for failure to adhere to it, we can judge HIM to be immoral.  And we can no longer trust in any subjective morality that he has created for fear that it too will fall prey to the same logical problems that the very creation of it did.   Even leaving that aside, if we forget all the issues with a god created and objective morality, then we still run into the problem of definitions.

Is an objective morality moral?

If there is a set of rules that is to be followed without question (because the very act of questioning it makes it subjective) is it still morality?


It is obedience.

If you merely obey the universal moral code with no thought to the consequences of your actions for others, then you are not moral.

You not ethical.

You are not concerned with suffering.

You are not humane

You are merely a slave.

Obedient and unthinking.

Morality is more than that.

It has to be, and by definition I don't think that anyone would disagree.

So to say that god created morality is to say that morality doesn't exist.

WE decide morality, that is the only way that it can be moral.

That is why our laws change, that is why our morality changes, that is why our norms change.

Because when confronted with a problem, we think about it.
We consider the consequences from a position of concern for ourselves and for others.
And we attempt to move forward in our ability to live together without subjugating the lives of others under the umbrella of OUR morality.

So we change it as we discover the problems with it.

Think of morality like this;

Morality is a subjective conversation that best decides on how to enact the "My rights begin where yours end" tenet.

And remember two things;

Morality can't exist where obedience is the only virtue; and

We must think to survive.

Any thoughts?



  1. Morality is and must be based on an objective standard, the one thing that individuals have, be they billionaires or starving to death in Somalia. Whether they are nomads living a prehistoric hunter-gatherer existence or you sitting in one of the worlds great cities surrounded by all the 21st Century has to offer.

    The only thing we all own is our life.

    We are each sovereign individuals and, coming back to the one pivotal sentence in your first post, in order for me, you and everyone else on the planet to live as a society of men, our only real prohibition is that we can not initiate force against each other...

    In reality our rights extend only to our fingertips, the soles of our feet and that errant hair upon the top of our heads and not one nanometer farther.

  2. If it is objective, it is no longer morality. It is merely adherence to set rules.

    We must be able to retain the ability to think and decide on morality when presented with problems which we have never faced.

    You are right of course, that there are things that can't stand up to modern moral standards no matter the time and that should be derided as immoral no matter the context, but it is not an objective standard.

    We still have thought, considered and weighed the options to come up with the best moral code that we can muster. Future generations, and current consequences will tell us if we were right.

  3. Not necessarily Jay, Something can be objectively known but still demand thought and that is the kind of response that morality demands.

    Morality is situational, but the ideals governing it are absolute. So the question being asked isn't really "What is the moral choice?" but rather "What is the purpose of moral choice in the first place?"

    What is it that makes it necessary to have and make moral choices?

    Answer that question.

    I do really wish we could do this over a beer or two though. :^)

  4. The problem is that morality is discovered through thought, and since we (and thought) haven't always existed, and since morality does not exist for all animals (although many) it can't be objective. Morality had to begin with thought, and since thought can only give birth to subjective codes it can't be subjective. (Unless you say that there is a source outside of us that created this objective code. Which I am pretty sure you are not)

    It only seems objective because "right" and "wrong" seem to clear cut.

    Those concepts are still the result of thought and consideration.

    Ergo Subjective.

  5. and I will make sure that if I am in the area, I will get you that beer (or two)

  6. Hold on, although I don't want to sidetrack this most excellent discussion I have to ask... Morality exists for animals? What animals?

    I think we might have to back up here and define what we each mean by "Morality".

    When I talk about morality what I'm really talking about is Ethics, "that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions."

    But I get the feeling that you are speaking more about "the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture. Medical ethics; Christian ethics, etc."

    No I'm not claiming a mystical origin for ethical action but I do believe that morality is a metaphysical necessity if a man is going to live as a man. This is the reason I asked you in my last post what makes it necessary to have moral choices. So I'll ask again.

    Why does man need ethics in the first place?

  7. I agree the morality is subjective. As you say, J, it can't be objective because it came into existence along with man's ability to think, make decisions and prioritize. It also came along hand in hand with man's need to control and exert power over his neighbour.

    In fact....I have come to the realization that I don't like the term "morality" at all. In my experience, morality is less a "code of conduct which helps people to live together efficiently" and more a code of acceptable behaviour used to oppress and control the masses.

    It seems to me that morality is almost universally associated with sexuality. Of course the term is SUPPOSED to have a much broader context, but when was the last time you heard of an immoral act that WASN'T associated with sex? Is lying immoral? Maybe. Sometimes. But not universally. How about killing? Contrary to the commandment, there certainly seems to be plenty of instances where killing is considered acceptable--even expected. How about stealing? Ironically that seems to be more clear-cut than the whole killing question. AS has been discussed here, most of these "moral" issues are completely subjective and highly contextual. But again...regardless of all that, do we really tend to think of or talk about these issues in the context of a "moral" environment? Do we accuse the local purse-snatcher of being immoral??\ In my experience...no. In fact, putting it that way sounds almost ludicrous.

    To my mind one of the only generally universal immoral acts is for one person to impose their own SUBJECTIVE values and priorities on someone else. And ironically...that seems to be an inherent aspect of morality itself.

    So, yes, I have reached the conclusion that morality is immoral. Huh.

  8. Well perhaps I'm the odd man out, although I'm willing to bet many Objectivists agree with me when I say I do consider the thief to be immoral. You are correct though Nikki that thievery as a transgression is usually a whole lot more clear cut that killing (though murder would get a carte blanche label of immoral).

    Still no one has answered my question so I'll try to get at my point from a different angle this time (perhaps the original question is considered too elementary) What exactly are the values or, if you can name just one, the value that makes it necessary to have a moral system in the first place.

    The reason I ask is that without agreeing why we need morals we will always be caught up in a conflict of what morals we as human beings need.

  9. I think my assertion would be that we DON'T need morals. Personally I think society would be a helluva lot better off without them. Because having morals implies having a moral "code." And having a code implies a universal set of rules for everyone.

    Whereas if we do away with the entire concept, then each person must think for his/herself. They must make their own decisions over what is right and wrong for his/herself--and ideally have good reasons for it.

    Perhaps, as you say, it's really more about semantics. We could argue endlessly over what the true definition and purpose of morals and ethics are. However, I believe that the generally accepted, current-day model of morality is pretty clear, and as it stands, it creates more problems than it solves.

    Just look at the recent case of the Manitoba judge whose morality has come into question because there were naked pictures of her posted on the Internet. PIctures involving bondage and toys! (gasp!) THIS somehow brings into question her ability and qualifications to be a judge???

    This is about morality? We're better off without it.

  10. As you describe it Nikki, I agree, and sadly I think that many people think that way, that morality is a(nother) way of getting people to do what they want.

    But what if I was to posit a relatively simple basis of ethics which, although it creates a kind of moral code does not try to impart a specific morality, in the common vernacular you spoke of?

  11. If such a "basis of ethics" involved honesty, tolerance and individual rights and freedoms....then I'd be very interested to hear it. ;-)

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  13. Well, as a matter of fact it does. In my opinion...

    I kept asking earlier what everyone considered to be the basis of morality. In today's world a great deal of morality (even from those who profess to be a-religious, atheistic or agnostic) is considered to be what is done in the "common good" or some utilitarian notion of the best of outcomes, in other words the end of the means is altruistic.

    This leads to the problems you spoke of, morality as a way of controlling others. After all if the basis of the code is what is good for "all", or at least is of the most use for the most people then it means nothing for the majority to impose their will/morality/ethics on the minority... and the smallest minority is a single individual. As a matter of fact it is a prerequisite should the will of the many meet with the stubborn refusal of the few.

    So how do you combat that sort of steamroller ideology, well you base your morality on the smallest minority, the individual. and on the basis of what it means to exist, to live.

    Now I don't want to get this wrong so I hope you will forgive me if I send you to the source for the whole answer.

    I know it is a long-ish essay, but it is well worth the read.


    Sorry for the double post J, bad link in the first one...

  14. There are a lot of social animals that exhibit moral behavior. It is not unique to humans.

    Some species of dog, and monkeys have shown signs of a moral code, and as some non social animals are trained to be more social, they begin to show signs of a developing moral code as well.

    It is clearly something that is developed by social animals as a tool to assist us in living together.

    Very interesting topic.

  15. There is a massive difference between a survival mechanism or tactic and a code of morality Jay.

    Animals are not conceptual beings, they can not mentally conceive of a chain of causality that says A leads to B leads to C and the outcome D and without that kind of thought what you have is not morality in any real and meaningful sense of the word but a conditioned or instinctual response nurtured over generations to help the pack survive. It's a survival tactic just like wolves culling the weak Caribou from the herd.

    Dogs and wolves are pack animals or social animals if you prefer. Here's the question... With that fact as a metaphysical given how, rationally, would you expect such animals to behave? A pack that did not cooperate would not survive.

    The argument that says that survival mechanism is a series of conscious ethics based decisions on the part of sentient dog or wolf individuals in order to enable the pack to survive is well, just a little silly.

  16. Do you have evidence for that Martin? Because there is a growing sea of evidence to the contrary. There is more and more evidence for morality in animals.

    As a matter of fact it is linked to social aspects of the animal.

    Even when we MAKE an animal more social it begins to act in accordance to a morality that it didn't exhibit before, showing that it is NOT just survival mechanism.

    It is a fascinating area of research.

    Dismissing it as silly merely because you can't see how we are not unique in moral behavior is not in line with the nature of skepticism.

    The evidence is there.

  17. You said it yourself at the beginning of this discussion J... "We must be able to retain the ability to think and decide on morality when presented with problems which we have never faced."

    It is that sort of thought that separates the pack instinct/herd mentality from a moral code.

    We might be arguing definitions at this time but for me human morality and certainly anything that can be called a "moral code" includes complex rational abstraction and animals are not able to do that.

  18. In this instance I tend to agree with Martin. I'm sure what you're saying is true, Jay, however I always cringe a bit when examples of animal behaviour are brought into play for comparison or validation or INvalidation of human behaviours. Unless we're talking basic instincts or biological functions like hunger or fear responses I just don't believe it's a relevant comparison.

    For example, I've heard the argument made in certain circles that: "No other animal drinks the milk of another species, or drinks it past infancy. Therefore why do we?" My response to that is typically, "No other animal makes camembert or builds freeways. Should we stop doing that too? What's your point?"

    I believe our experience, ability and capacity for rational thought and self-awareness sets us apart, and tends to negate such comparisons.

  19. For us to say that animal behavior can't be compared to human behavior is an arrogant assumption. We are animals, and the traits that we have are the result of the same natural processes that spawned theirs...evolution.

    There is nothing special about morality, and no social animal is immune to the opportunity to make bad decisions.

    Morality has been shown to exist in animals.


    WE are animals. (there is more of course, but that is the most poignant)

    We may have a more complex ability to consider, to think, to weigh options and to make informed decisions but to section ourselves off as "special" or "unique" would be a mistake.

    As far as what is good for all? Morality isn't about that. Morality is about the ability of individuals to be able to live with one another. What is best for the COMMON good is ethics. Not morals.

    I like to say that morality is a social animals way to bringing the following tenet to a practical use;

    My rights end where yours begin.

    (there is more to it than that, like common care and the good of the society as well. But I am sure that you get the idea)

  20. Of course we are animals. I'm not arguing that point. And as such we are not above inclusion in certain biological and even behavioural models. However, in the animal kingdom I most certainly do think we are "special", that we are set apart in many ways. There is AMPLE evidence to attest to that fact, and I shouldn't have to elaborate on that.

    Isn't it a bit arrogant to presume to impose our own concept and system of morality onto another species? If there is morality--by your or whoever's definition--then, by all rights there would have to be immorality as well. What, exactly constitutes an immoral act in the animal world, I wonder?

    Again, I think it really all comes down to semantics, and perhaps we're arguing on completely different planes of thought.

  21. I never imposed, OUR morality on other animals. I said that morality is not unique to us. And it isn't.

    I think that it is a bit arrogant to think that we are special among animals.

    Why is that self evident? Because we possess what is likely the highest intelligence? There are animals who are "special" because they are stronger, faster, with senses that we can't imagine. What sets us apart as superior? There are animals who have been on this planet unchanged for far longer than we, so wouldn't that make THEM special?

    I am not making a case for either actually, merely saying that setting us apart from other animals merely because we understand things from our perspective best is a strange way to look at things.

    Morality that is shown in the animal world is much the same as what is moral in ours. Altruism, unselfishness, and loving actions are not unknown in the animal world. It should tell us something about what morality is, to see other animals have their own version of it.

    To be honest I think that our intellect allows us both a higher and a lower version of morality, but I think that we can agree (at least we three whom I know reasonably well) on what is, and isn't moral and that thought is sometimes needed to come to that decision.


    Great conversation, I wish that we could all have it over drinks. This typing just makes me want to have that convo even more.

    maybe one day.....