Allallt believes in Objective Morality

I’ve called this ‘Allallt believes in Objective Morality’ because the issue of morality is actually beyond the confines of “atheism”. I doubt many of the other authors on this blog agree with me on this one. However, the discussion that is likely to follow, I hope, will offer elucidation on atheists.

I believe in objective morality. I know that puts me at odds with some of the authors on this blog; that doubles my need to be articulate here. I want to describe what objective morality is, why I think it’s real and what it looks like.

What is objective morality?

By objective, I mean that it can definitely be said to be right or wrong. For example, 2+2=5 is objective because it can definitely be said to be wrong, where 2+2=4 is also objective and can be said to be right. But it is not just quantitative data; light waves between certain ranges can qualitatively but objectively be said to be green. It doesn’t universally matter that we call it green (or see kieaw if you’re Thai) but if you call it red (see derng) or grey (see taw) you’re objectively wrong. I know that because I am red-green colour blind, and that is an objective diagnosis.

To be objective, something does not need to be universally relevant; it just has to be right or wrong. Although “green” and “white” (Thai: see kaw, ‘colour of rice’) are objective, the universe certainly doesn’t care. And in the absence of eyes and minds to process colour, there is no objective colour. The same is true of health: in the absence of life, health is a meaningless concept. But in the presence of life, health is tangible and medical science is objective.

What is objective morality?

Morality is an issue I feel is confused by a number of issues. The first is the issue of moral intuitions. These are ideas and concepts that have made their way into our psychology. They are unreliable, change based on our emotions, vary by culture and are completely flipped by high-pressure contexts. We think it is wrong to kill so fervently that many of us struggle with the idea that killing a terrorist to stop a tragedy is wrong, yet after a terrorist has wronged us we celebrate in the streets at the killing of a terrorist (think about the news that we got Osama Bin Laden; person I was sickened by the jubilance of people). Another issue that clouds morality is the profundity of morality; it gets tied up in discussions of the afterlife, impenetrable and content-free titles like “Kantian duty”1.

Is there a difference between moral intuitions and objective morality?

Yes. Moral intuitions are things we think are right. There are culturally specific moral intuitions, like the certainty of some that men have dominion over women. There are also general moral rules that have to exist in any society that propagates, like the tendency to not want to kill. Without that intuition you would kill the person in front of you on the street for walking too slow. Intuitions are very good at staying close to true morality and are an important force in limiting our behaviour. But they are not objective morality.

Morality cannot be subjective and open to whim if it is to be objective. Once I have outlined what I mean by morality I will explain why it is objective.

Once you do away with profound sounding statements and take an issue that is not covered by religious ideas of morality you can see the kind of economic discussion that goes on to decide whether something is objective: wellbeing. At this point I will confess to basically holding to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape. For example, is it okay to discipline a child in such a way that makes them sad? In the UK it is a crime to spank a child, and I agree with that. There are equally effective, if not more effective, ways to discipline children. But discipline makes children sad i.e. it lowers their wellbeing. If wellbeing is the basis of morality, how can discipline be said to be okay? If that seems like a pertinent question to you, I want you to stop reading for a moment and consider whether you believe that discipline increases happiness or sadness in the universe. If you think if increases sadness, why do you ever do it? The likelihood is that discipline increases the wellbeing of the person being disciplined in the long run: it helps to nurture more meaningful relationships and friendship. But it also increases the wellbeing of everyone around them; a disciplined person is less likely to espouse social taboos and make people uncomfortable or steal a TV just because they want it.

The general rule here is that if an action increases the wellbeing universally then it is morally good. Except that is too simple. There may be times where every conceivable action and decision will still lower wellbeing; is there a morally good option in these situations? Yes. The option or action that lowers wellbeing the least—i.e. the option that safeguards wellbeing—is the moral option. And that rule allows nuance like spanking children being illegal while discipline in general is okay; spanking is too high an investment in low wellbeing for much the same returns. It is economic.

Why do you define ‘safeguarding wellbeing’ as morally good?

This is a fair question; as I’ve already alluded to,  the universe does not care about morality. The question of how we assign “good” and “bad” to an issue the universe doesn’t care about isn’t an easy one. I want to play a game on bad form before I actually defend my position: if I fail to justify the label of morally good, theists are in no stronger a position; theistic morality depends on accepting the opinion of a stronger Being. It is morally good if God approves it Or, to word that differently, might is right. And that doesn’t necessarily bear any relation to our wellbeing, meaning murder rape and torture could well be okay.

There are compatibilists I’ve read on this issue, where the claim is that God knows what will heighten or safeguard our wellbeing. No matter how counter-intuitive it is, things like Noah’s flood and the war on Canaan do safeguard our morality. There is no evidence to support this, but it is a nice idea. As well as being a nice idea, it doesn’t do away with this moral framework; it supports it. The compatibilists claim the same moral ideas, plus a God that is knowledgeable enough to support it.

However, I need to defend my claim, not just try to burn down the claims of others. Again, I am taking my labels from listening to what people mean when they talk about morality. If by morality people mean safeguarding morality then by definition safeguarding morality is a moral success. And when you sidestep religious domains by talking about questions of animal testing, or even within religious frameworks trying to decide when Jesus would turn the other cheek and when a tooth, a tooth applies or when God’s pre-emptive ideas apply, the conversation comes back to wellbeing.

But wellbeing is all this experiential subjective stuff, so…

Where’s the objectivity in wellbeing?

Your brain and your mind are different things. Your brain is the material thing in your head. Your mind is the immaterial and conceptual ‘space’ where you have things like thoughts, memories and feelings. But the distinction is just academic2. There are brains without minds (dead people), but there are no minds without brains3. In fact, if I do something to your brain (like put a pole through it) it will wildly alter the state of your mind.

As it happens the relationship between your brain and your mind is much more nuanced and delicate than physical manipulation; if we have enough information about your brain we can make reliable predictions about your mind. And your wellbeing is in your mind. Your wellbeing is based on an observable series of facts about your material brain; your wellbeing is readable based on truths about your brain. We have devices that are getting ever more advanced and precise at readings the brain (and therefore mind); the best device we have is the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine.

If you set yourself the goal of maximising or safeguarding wellbeing, we can objectively measure how well you did. And we call the goal of maximising or safeguarding wellbeing morality.

Is this not moral semantics?

I don’t think so. I think it is very important to be precise about what we mean by “morality”. Not only is my definition based on what I observe people to mean when they talk about moral issues, but I am yet to hear of an argument that can justify a moral idea that seems both moral and increases the overall suffering in the universe.

What would this framework look like? Give me a practical example of a moral rule.

This framework does not permit itself to rules and precepts in the conventional sense. “Thou shalt not murder” and “murder is wrong” simply do not apply. Although these ideas do work as generalised ideas that work in almost all situations, there are times where killing someone is permissible. An objective idea can have a relative application, and indeed this one does. For example, there is a certain amount of tension and suffering that comes from trying to alter ones culture or moral intuitions. Harmless cultural values, like taking your shoes off before you walk into a house, never need to be altered and the resistance you would encounter would make overturning it immoral.

The overall suffering in the universe (although I don’t have the data in) would probably be decreased if governments simply ignored the anti-stem cell research lobby and just tried to develop the medicine and cures. The overall bliss and peace in the world would increase if we decided against mutilating infant female (and male) genitals; this is almost definitely true. Even though the conservatives in those parts of the world feel strongly about it, half of the population would regain the ability to orgasm4 and the more squeamish people globally (myself included) would be more comfortable. My use of the phrase “almost definitely” aside, the point is that it that it is a knowable thing.

I can think of something we should do that is not moral…

I doubt you can. That would suggest you can think of something we should do which will lower the wellbeing of the universe in total. But I’d love to hear an example.

1 – I truly challenge anyone to give one duty that is irrevocably consistent with Kantian duty. Kant (the real pronunciation of his name is oddly apt) said that if you can permit something ever you must permit it always. But he gives no way to know what you should and should not permit.

2 – If you have a tumour of the brain, you have a ball of malignant and replicating cells that physically exist in your head. If you have a cancer of the mind you have a particularly malignant thought.

3 – the exception your thinking of—God—is not confirmed.

4 – that’s not just a carnal thing; orgasm are an important part of developing a health relationship with a partner.

13 thoughts on “Allallt believes in Objective Morality”

  1. Houston, we have a problem…

    By objective, I mean that it can definitely be said to be right or wrong. For example, 2+2=5 is objective because it can definitely be said to be wrong, where 2+2=4 is also objective and can be said to be right. But it is not just quantitative data; light waves between certain ranges can qualitatively but objectively be said to be green. It doesn’t universally matter that we call it green (or see kieaw if you’re Thai) but if you call it red (see derng) or grey (see taw) you’re objectively wrong. I know that because I am red-green colour blind, and that is an objective diagnosis.

    It can definitely be said to be right or wrong… but only if defined this way by human convention! What I’m reading here is a pair of tautologies.

    1 mole plus 1 mole (a standard number of molecules used to calculate gas interactions) could produce any number of ‘right’ answers… depending on the chemicals interacting. The 1+1=2 works if and only if 1 is defined as exactly half of 2. To claim only ‘2’ is the’right’ answer is a human convention based on a particular algorithm. This example as if it demonstrates something objective of human convention is not so. That’s why its a tautology.

    Similarly, a certain range of light frequency is assigned b y human convention to be called ‘red’ or ‘blue.’ Likewise, this assignment is not objective at all (and there simply is no frequency boundary between shades, which is why the spectrum we use is based on human reception. It doesn’t get much more subjective a convention than that. That’s why only by defining red to be ‘red’ and blue to be ‘blue’ do these terms gain any meaning. And that’s why this example is also a tautology.

  2. Just going to throw out a few things here: type physicalism, multiple realizability, open question – all kind of trouble your argument, I think.
    But more to the point, upon what does well-being, or whatever one names as a moral value, supervene?
    I mean to say that well-being supervenes on a pattern of neuronal activity like green supervenes on a pattern of neuronal activity is selling green a little short.
    There is a whole set of green-category circumstances which purchase us the right to call something green.
    For well-being, it seems that one of those things in the supervenience base (of the individual well-being experience) must be the very attitude to which the term refers…I think Kant covered the problems with sentiments as moral values at some point.

  3. If “well-being” is the measuring tool for morality, you are saying that the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. However, pretty much everyone will be taught to “suffer in silence” avoiding those things which the morality decries. Properly administered (which is not likely), perhaps “everybody” will be better off, but will they be happy?

    Let us say that person A works their butt off in college, gets a good job, and earns an income four times the amount which should support a person for a year. Person B spends their youth drinking and never gets a job; they become an alcoholic, hungry and homeless. Person C spends their youth chasing women, gets one pregnant and marries her; they both have minimum wage jobs and can’t make ends meet, to the detriment of the child as well as themselves.

    If the “extra” 3/4 of person A’s income is taken from him and given to persons B & C, their well-being could be markedly improved, and person A’s well-being would not be decreased (as long as it started happening at the beginning so he would not become obligated to an excessive life-style). But is it moral to do that? How about if person B just gets more drunk more often?

  4. Morality defines as “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.”

    Right and wrong. Black and white. Good and bad. Heaven and Earth. Water and Fire. What are so difficult? 2 choice only.
    Morality should be confined for kindergarten and K-12 student studies.

    Adult should talk about ethical studies that encompass/ designated to different interest group.
    For me objective morality is main idea, designated group ethical is sub morality.
    Once you mix up, it screw up upside down, rotten to the root.

    1. Demonstration there of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Sorry, it’s more complicated than that, and every time you’ve tried to dismiss morality as simple you’ve not actually explained it.

  5. Actually I am quite surprise for a person that study Geography knowing the term in ethical experiment as Kantian or Dunning-Kruger. Frankly speaking, this is my 1st time heard that.

    My brain is simple, it black and white WITH exemption and rules. Let we put it as (TRUE) as KILL, and (FALSE) as DONT KILL.

    Objective morality – example “murder” – definition “to take life away”

    It (TRUE),
    IF – it animal for food
    CONDITION – ethical killing
    LIMIT – Overkill, oversupply in market
    LIMIT – For fun

    Meaning – We SHOULD killed animal that designated for food with CONDITION ethical killing WITH NOT for fun and NOT over killed

    it (FALSE)
    IF – human
    IF – animal
    ELSE IF – attacking
    ELSE IF – self defend
    LIMIT – I am secure
    LIMIT – I run away
    Meaning – We SHOULD NOT KILLED human or animal UNLESS we be attacked or in self defence and SHOULD STOP if we are secure or we have save our life. (This is only example for code writing, do not take the definition bluntly to define morality).

    I put in C++ terminology it just as simple as (1) or (0). but at same time exemption/rules need to be applied as IF, CONDITION, ELSE IF, LIMIT.

    Arguing in philosophy framework are fruitless. For me, “decision making” attitude are more important than arguing. I see myself as a decision maker person, therefore I need to make it simple, understandable in shortest time. By making it complicated are not helping anyone.

    as above you mention about “harmless cultural values, like taking your shoes off before you walk into a house”. Respecting others culture are not harmful also. What so difficult to taking your shoe is you go Japanese/ Korean Houses.
    Dont impose others culture to another one else culture. Respect others house rules. Then other who not agree will impose;
    CONDITION – PAY $1000 for cleaning
    CONDITION – Mop all the place that you go..

    Then, if that happen, everyone look stupid.

    I just recopy from Dunning-Kruger effect wiki, which I believe summarize the whole picture;
    Confucius (“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance”),[2] Bertrand Russell (“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”),[10] and Charles Darwin, whom they quoted in their original paper (“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”).[1]

    1. So, I’m accusing you of the Dunning Kruger effect because you’ve missed an incredibly important part of the moral question and by missing the important part you have a mistaken confidence that ethics and morality are simple. In this context, the question is simple, but the answer is not: why have you picked those conditions and limits?
      There are other challenges, for example: what if I am a farmer who always sells my dead chickens to a market in Hatyai (as all the chicken in the Hatyai market was Malaysian), but I have fun killing them? I.e. what if I kill chickens both for food and for fun?
      However, my main question is still why the conditions and limits you have written are moral. Is it arbitrary? Does it reflect a deeper value?

      1. I need to make it simple, 99.9999% in this world do not have an access to philosophy book or argument and still we need to make them morally and ethically. By hook or by crook, the thing need to done.

        When it go deeper to Condition or limit, the idea will be more complex. Yes, it correct, it not so simple anymore. As long as I have a fundamentally correct I can go back to right path, it a loop system of decision making. Isn’t it?

        I have fun killing them? I.e. what if I kill chickens both for food and for fun?
        As long as the chicken are being killed for food. It is correct. If you having fun killing it, there no way I should know it.
        Arbitrarily, Can we tell a police, there are butcher in Hatyai having fun killing chicken in and sell it to market? For me, you are making unnecessary claim.

        why the conditions and limits you have written are moral.
        By the way, we are talking about 7 billion way of thought and the number increasing day by day and all the thought are different from each other. Therefore simple method make simpler decision making.
        In economics, it called “trade-off”, is a situation that involves losing one quality or aspect of something in return for gaining another quality or aspect. More colloquially, if one thing increases, some other thing must decrease.
        Be realistic, we can’t get everything we wanted.

      2. Not to be fussy, but that suggests that only 700 people have access to a philosophy book. Also, there is a very big difference between moral philosophy being simple (as you said first) and you only engaging with a simplified version (as you are now saying).
        Also, I’d put the Hatyai chicken farmer back into the ‘moral programme’ you wrote: if the farmer enjoys killing the chicken, it’s immoral. (I’m not saying I agree, I’m just saying that is the conclusion of the moral programming you offered.)
        I’m okay with simple moral ideas, so long as they address the right issues. Your model does not. Your model is just a description of your moral conclusions without any provision for your method or understanding.

  6. Once you mix up, it screw up upside down, rotten to the root.

    That happen when your code of C++ in this case code of morality actually is wrong and it coding are clashing with each others.

    Or you wrongly categories CONDITION, LIMIT, IF, ELSE IF. The decision making process are screw up. Therefore it rotten.

    1. You are confusing ethics (the workings of a moral philosophy) with meta-ethics (the structure and, what this post is about if I may be so bold, the grounding of moral philosophy). You seem to espouse a Kantian viewpoint.
      If so, you will eventually need to address the problem of inconsistent moral duties to which the author alludes. Do that successfully and you get an A+++. So far, D -.

      1. Keith,

        I don’t look on the way of philosophy work and I dont really care about grade D-. It not going to make my income raise anyway.

        Anyway, I dont use a fancy word to make myself look clever or smart. Kantian or what ever name your proposing is only tools to make sure people are behave morally and ethically.

        The important thing is to make sure people are behave morally and ethically.

  7. I have been thinking about this since you posted it. (drat you!) and I continue my argument that there is no such thing as objective morality. In my thinking objective morality has to come from without. Otherwise it has been programmed into all of us. So, objective morality has to be taught, even if it coincides with our natural inclinations. But, children as young as one and two years old show signs of moral behavior: comforting a distraught playmate, feeling sympathy, etc. A more reasonable explanation is that because we are social animals, certain behaviors are favored over others and clues to these are feed to us with our mother’s milk …. plus, some of this is hard-wired in. But each of us has to interpret where we stand with regard to such things which makes them very subjective and not objective.

    I have now tied myself into knots and you can walk away triumphant.

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