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.