Objective Morality for the Non-Believer

I do want to outline my view on morality, but I am less inclined than I once was to point out the failures of religious morality. It is important for me to outline morality and where I get my sense of value and purpose from so that I do not seem to be a nihilist living in denial. To that I shall open with my exploration of what Sam Harris argues in his brilliant book The Moral Landscape.

Conscious creatures experience things, often many things at once. The summation of all the experiences a creature has (through direct sense-data or through memory) creates a state of ‘wellbeing’. High wellbeing is more informally called ‘happiness’, and low wellbeing is often called ‘sadness’. This is a relative scale where low wellbeing can still be ‘happier’ than a lower wellbeing. The scale extends from the greatest possible suffering for all things at its depths, to the greatest possible bliss for all things at its heights. I hope, so far, that what I have said is obvious enough to be considered tautological and axiomatic.

Wellbeing is a phenomenon that can be measured in terms of brain activity and hormone levels. It is therefore within the domain of neuroscience and biology to describe and understand; by understanding the brain we can understand the mind. I find this principle very hard to refute. However, its falsification would lie in demonstrations of either of the following: the brain not following the natural laws or the mind not being at all dependent on the brain.

Further, there is a term used to describe actions by a conscious being that act to higher or lower states of wellbeing: “morality”. Within morality there are two specific terms that refer to actions by a conscious being that act to alter states of wellbeing in either direction: up (happier) or down (sadder). These terms are “morally good” and “morally bad” respectively. This doesn’t seem contentious. This in turn means we can empirical measure morality through fMRI scanners; actions can objectively be said to be ‘morally good’ or ‘morally bad’, depending on their effects on wellbeing.

This is where contentions arise. Some people define morality after the word of God without regard for earthly concerns like suffering. That definition opens up the potential for “morally good” actions to be actions that lead to lower states of wellbeing (suffering). This is so because wellbeing is not a variable in the equation. This, however, is not morality: it is religiosity.

The need for two separate terms is highlighted, on occasion, by implicit conflict. Children that talk-back to their parents, for example, should be killed according to the Bible but explicitly not killed according to a wellbeing-derived morality. Similar conflicts arise in issues of abortion, martyrdom, religious war, stem-cell research and gay marriage: wellbeing-derived morality and religiosity do not agree. If religiosity is prioritised over morality, then it is of no concern if actions lower states of wellbeing if the actions adhere to religiosity.

Another contention is the nature of psychopaths, nutters and violent weirdos that most of us cannot hope to understand. The issue is that actions that lead to higher states of wellbeing for psychopaths are actions like rape and murder; this is an example of increased wellbeing, but patent immorality. But this argument fails to see the picture: the psychopath will leave a mass of altered states of wellbeing (victims, family of victims, people who become uncomfortable and scared living nearby, people angered by the news of the events etc.) in its wake. This also needs to be considered. Although the psychopath may have a heightened sense of wellbeing, the net-wellbeing for the community is lower. (Incidentally, this objection also highlights how empathy is necessary to intuitively understand moral truth.)

Moral relativism and cultural behaviours also go together to form another objection. The argument is that an objective moral framework constrains cultural and religious freedoms; no one can say that one culture is better than another*. To grant this much freedom to culture is “cultural libertarianism” (I may have made that term up). It is to say that morality is side-lined by the need for cultural freedoms. Thus, it does not deal with morality; like religiosity, it is a separate topic that is also an issue of priority.

*if we were to find a culture, hypothetically speaking, that has always blinded a family’s second-born son—simply because of culture, or they had the religious quote “every second child shall walk in darkness” and this is how they interpreted it—would you still find yourself thinking that you could not say one culture is better than another?

Again this can be illustrated by clear conflict: female genital mutilation is patently immoral (i.e. greatly lowers levels of wellbeing by causing immediate pain and suffering, followed by a lifetime of not being able to meet a particular type of high wellbeing: orgasm). Despite its clear immorality by this definition, it is necessary for us to allow such actions if we favour cultural libertarianism.

The only philosophical question left to ask is what is the priority order for topics like cultural libertarianism, religiosity and morality? And given that morality is the only way towards to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of conscious creatures, what could be more important? What could be better than the greatest heights of bliss for all conscious creatures?


12 thoughts on “Objective Morality for the Non-Believer”

  1. The answer is nothing; there is no more important endeavour. It is funny (not haha) that theists cannot get over their idea of a rigid moral standard. I’ve trekked about halfway over The Moral Landscape. It’s been a lovely scenic route so far.

    1. I cannot imagine a valid argument to prioritise religiosity over morality. However, I can imagine an argument that says that obeying religiosity sends you to Heaven and safeguards your wellbeing eternally… so in actuality religiosity would be the same as morality. But even on that argument, it is important precisely because it prioritises wellbeing…
      The book is excellent.

  2. Great post. I am reading through his book myself, but find it unusually boring. Not that I don’t agree with it. I do. Guess I’ve been reading too much non-fiction.

    I like what you said about net morality being overall down when a psychopath butchers or rapes. Yes, his wellbeing went up, but the family/town/city morality went down. This is the usual red herring that religious folk drag out when dismissing religion as an objective moral provider. They see everything in black and white, with no degrees of kind. Well-written.

    1. Thanks. I hope you persevere reading The Moral Landscape; I found it a rewarding book. That said, you’ve got a lot on your plate with your own book.

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