The Evidence for Objective (secular) Morality

In an earlier post I said that you should only believe things for which there is evidence. Otherwise you believe any idea that pops into your head without a reliable filtering mechanism. For the most part on this blog, that I do this is obvious. But I’m sure many people would question whether that is true when I say I believe in objective morality. So I thought I’d explain the evidence. (This is one of those areas where I argue with some atheists as well.)

People, and from my experience, religious people in particular, often define morality as what we ought to do. That is a vague and easily corruptible definition. “Ought” does demand a standard. For example, the Nazis did what they ought to do according to a racist and fascist standard. Despite their actions being what they ought to have done, no one would call that moral.

Based entirely on social sciences and the way linguistics work, we can derive a more precise definition of morality: it describes how actions affect wellbeing of conscious creatures, where safeguarding wellbeing is morally good.

When people talk about morality they talk about what we ought to do according to one of two standards: God (or what they believe God would want—and unknowable and ultimately subjective standard) or wellbeing (but people are more likely to talk about making people happy and not hurting people; “wellbeing” is not a common term).

The religious standard is limited, and when you step outside of religious questions and ask moral questions about issues like animal testing you can see people immediately apply the standard of wellbeing: how sad will how many things be?; How happy will how many things be? When pushed, religious people assume God’s objective morality cannot command things like the killing of children because God could not command something so patently immoral (a strange claim given the related Books, but I’ll skip over that). So even God’s standard of morality is wellbeing.

That is the evidence for defining morality more precisely and in a way which better reflects what we mean. But to make morality objective, the standard (wellbeing) also needs to be objective. Wellbeing is empirically measurable. The tool for measuring wellbeing in any given conscious thing is an fMRI scanner. I met a girl the other day whose dad underwent a study into his fibromyalgia using an fMRI scanner. They can detect pain, stress, happiness, relaxation etc. These emotions may be immaterial, but they have a material effect in the brain and we can measure them.

I’m not suggesting that it is practical to measure everyone’s wellbeing all the time. What I am saying is that because it could, in principle, be done then changes in wellbeing are a real, objective, measurable thing.

There: secular, objective morality, with evidence.

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21 thoughts on “The Evidence for Objective (secular) Morality”

  1. I am not saying that I agree with you, but I think you’re on to something. The limitation I think is that your standard can only apply where such well being can be measured. How then do we measure the well being of the planet? How do we measure the well being of things which do not have similar neural systems to our own?

    If we say that the well being of the planet can be judged by the well being of those life forms that live on it, then the planet has been in bad shape for millions of years depending on which life form you ask.

    Would a psychotic person whose well being is obviously disturbed be able to be tested in this way? If asking them to wear clothes when they are in public disturbs their fMRI reading, should we allow them to go naked? If living with their overbearing parents causes a disturbance in the well being of a child, should we take that child away to a foster home?

    I think you might have found a tool, but I don’t think you’ve found an objective standard.

    1. Does the nudist upset you? If yes then net wellbeing is lower.
      Would the child with over bearing parents be better off on the street? How bad would the parents feel having their child taken away?
      When it comes to the psycho, do you think people will be happier or sadder letting the psycho kill people?
      It is an exercise in seeing the bigger picture. The planet doesn’t have a wellbeing. Where I’m not sure is planets–can you act immorally to a plant, or are you being immoral by proxy of the things that like that plant/reply on that plant?

      1. That’s the thing. A standard of morality which relies on the ‘net value’ still relies on someone to say what the net value should be. Even if those values are universal across a society or species they are not objective in terms of being applicable to all things at all times in all places. I agree that we could eventually acquire universal moral values, but not objective ones.

        Letting a psycho killer kill people is universally morally bad. Objectively? We can’t say, some folk might think it quite ok.

        The same goes for all the scenarios. Where it is possible for even one person to say that is not how they would value it, then it is not objective in the all persons/places/things/times kind of way.

  2. Sorry, but your argument is flawed. Your moral is subjective, not objective, simply because you started out with an arbitrary choice, defining “safeguarding wellbeing” as “good”. There is no objective reason to do so, which makes your morality as subjective as everyone else’s.
    (Please note, that I think your basis is completely valid and very reasonable – it’s just not absolute or “objective”. The choice it’s based on is still pretty random.)

    1. This is the linguistic framework. I am arguing that sociology suggests that this is literally what people mean by morality — this is what morality is.
      I admit it is not a physical-science evidence, but if we argue that the meaning of words is subjective (instead of a zeitgeist, or context-specific tool, objectively) then the whole of language breaks down.

  3. I don’t really agree to put some gadget to measure the emotional behavior of person even using high tech as fMRI. Some emotional are secret and should be protected and not to reveal.

    It somehow like paparazzi in bigger scale, everyone should know other person’s feeling.

    I agree that emotion can be measured (may have already in military device). Even, in future we may know the actual morality in right measurement, it still wrong to measure it.

    Something like :
    “Ohh, yeah, this boy is bad, ooo, this girl is good, ooo, this girls have high in patience, ooo this kids is useless”.

    In term moral based God or well being are not an big issue, most human being on earth understand the golden rules “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself”.

    The real problem is how to implement AND establish it correctly?

    Then, what is the purpose of education, learning, lesson learn, etc. I believe human are not robot, and it should not be treated like it. I may missed understood your post, but this is my conclusion based my understanding of human behavior, science and “abusive of science product”.

    I disagree using God’s action as benchmark because God’s action is somehow unknown and unpredictable.
    I believe “God’s action” and “God’s command” are two different thing in term of linguistic and understanding.

    Easy example : Killing.
    God command : “Do not kill”
    God action : “God control everything, even death”, so He is Himself The Life Taker.

    Unless, someone want to play the role of God.

    1. I agree that being under constant emotional supervision, with someone watching your emotions change is an invasion of privacy. I do not say that we should constantly and intrusively monitor people’s wellbeing.
      However, that wellbeing can be measured means that wellbeing is empirical and objective. That is all I propose.

  4. Okay, I did stop by, and thought I’d leave some thoughts. I hope this comes across as engaging (rather than simply being argumentative). There are actually a number of classic challenges to utilitarianism, that I think are serious issues for this position.

    To throw them out for consideration:

    1. Is this a commitment to total or average well-being?
    1a. If the former, would zillions of barely-livable lives be better than a well-controlled population?
    1b. If the latter, would it sometimes be a moral duty to kill people who are facing the least happy lives?

    2. If consciousness is key (as I gather from your reference to Sam Harris), are those who’s consciousness is inhibited exempt from moral worth?

    3. As there are possible worlds where the peaks of well-being are not characterized by anything we’d normally call “moral”, does it make sense to simply identify morality with well-being?

    4. Do we consider the well-being of future generations (who do not yet, and may never, exist)?

    5. Is it a moral duty to spread a falsehood (say, belief in a false religion) if it will increase well-being?

    6. Most importantly, how can this position show, rather than assume, that it is objectively true that we ought to promote well-being?

    1. If I were to answer these questions now I would be ad libbing a half-thought-through response, and these questions deserve better answers than that. I will take some time to consider them and answer them the best I can within the framework (which, as you rightly pointed out, is an approximation of The Moral Landscape).

    1. This is where the question get a little abstract. Written down, objective moral values look like commands. But commands do not account for context.
      The actual value is the preference for safeguarding wellbeing. In different circumstances that can look very different.
      This particular post gives a linguistic explanation of why ‘wellbeing’ is synonymous with ‘morality’ i.e. it is the motivation we speak of when we speak of morality.

      1. Now you see where my problem with the objective morality camp lies. It is when asked for an example of any such value that the problems become obvious.

        1. The difference between an objective moral value and objective morality is big. I outline what I think objective morality is across the posts you’ve seen. However, values–as in precepts, commands and laws–don’t exist.

          It is objective if you can measure it. You can measure wellbeing. Wellbeing is synonymous with morality (as I explain in this post). Morality in bourne out of the fact that wellbeing changes.

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