If there is no Objective Moral Truth, how do you know that it’s bad to be unkind or unjust?

02.10.2013, 5:58 PM

Morality

As I understand it, an “objective moral truth” would be a morality that exists outside the human mind. In this view, a moral statement like “theft is wrong” has a truth independent of human belief, like “the moon orbits the Earth.”

In comments on a post by Brad Wilcox at Family Scholars Blog, I wrote:

Brad, I don’t believe in an Objective Moral Truth, partly because so many people who do believe in such things have acted in ways that seem to me to have been unkind and unjust.

In that thread, Schroeder responded:

However, when you say, “I don’t believe in an Objective Moral Truth, partly because so many people who do believe in such things have acted in ways that seem to me to have been unkind and unjust,” it strikes me as self-contradictory (at least by implication). If there is no Objective Moral Truth, how do you know that it’s bad to be unkind or unjust?

Brad Wilcox agreed with Schroeder, writing:

Barry – Based on what you blog about and the way you blog about it, I think you are strongly committed–in practice, if not always in theory–to objective truth and to a moral law that binds all of us. And that’s why you rely on thoughtful arguments, persuasive evidence, and a spirit of civility to engage others, including me, in an effort to find common ground for the common good.

This is all highly flattering (thanks, guys), but also bad logic.

If there is no Objective Moral Truth, how do I know that it’s bad to be unkind or unjust? I don’t “know” it, any more than I “know” that Peanuts is artistically a better comic strip than Hi & Lois. It’s my opinion that it’s bad to be unkind or unjust, all else held equal. That opinion – like my opinion of Peanuts - is informed by a great deal of thought and experience. It’s an opinion I’d be willing to argue for, and it’s an opinion that I think most other thoughtful people who have put time into thinking about morality (or about the relative artistic merits of American comic strips) will readily agree with.

But it’s still an opinion, and it is therefore not objectively true the way that “the moon orbits around the Earth” or “two plus two equals four” are objectively true.

Brad’s reasoning contains the same basic flaw. He is correct that someone could decide to use “thoughtful arguments, persuasive evidence, and a spirit of civility” 1 “in an effort to find common ground for the common good” because one starts from the premise that there is a “moral law that binds all of us.” But his argument falsely assumes that a moral law binding all is the only premise that would lead us to value persuasive evidence, civility, etc.

In this case, my premise is that it’s preferable to treat people as I’d prefer to be treated. 2 That premise is not, in my view, a universal, objective truth that exists outside of people’s minds. Indeed, I don’t think that it can exist independently of people’s minds; without people, there is no such thing as “prefer.” It’s merely an opinion I hold – and, obviously, an opinion that many people share with me. Because it’s a commonplace opinion, it can often provide common ground for discussion, which is useful.

But doesn’t the fact that the Golden Rule is so common, prove that it’s an Objective Moral Truth? I don’t think so. Objective Truths are not determined by opinion polls. Even if 99% of people believed that the Earth orbits the moon, for example, it would still not be true.

Nor is the existence of an independent Objective Moral Truth the only possible reason for a commonly shared belief. The Golden Rule arises fairly naturally from the human trait of empathy, which in turn may have come about through the amoral process of evolution.

Finally, let’s remember that although Schroeder and Brad believe that an Objective Moral Truth exists, they can’t demonstrate its existence to a skeptical observer. That makes their belief in Objective Moral Truth… just another opinion.

  1. I blush! I blush!
  2. We could develop that and make that more complex – For instance, if I know someone is hungry, do I give them a bacon sandwich, under the theory that I’d prefer a bacon sandwich? I’d say that it would be better to first determine their preferences (maybe they’re vegetarian, maybe they keep kosher, maybe they’re on a hunger strike, etc) before acting, under the theory that I’d prefer others to determine my preferences before trying to help me. And so on. Even the golden rule is complex in application. But for purposes of this post, I’m ignoring those complexities.

50 Responses to “If there is no Objective Moral Truth, how do you know that it’s bad to be unkind or unjust?”

  1. Teresa says:

    Barry,

    I think the idea of an Objective Moral Truth rests on the principle of Intelligent Design with an Intelligent Designer: God, God as we understand God, Higher Power, etc. It rests on the Platonic, Aristotelean, Scholastic philosophy that a Power great than ourselves has created us and provided spiritual principles which will guide and nurture us.

    Some of this area gets rather murky on how far we take this: much like the Zen question, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around, does it make a sound”. So, I would answer that if God as we understand God had not made us humans, does an Objective Moral Truth exist, by the following Scriptural saying: The Law (Objective Moral Truth) was made for man, not man for the Law.

    BTW, Barry, I have no idea how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. A Scholastic question that kept many theologians busy for some years. :)

  2. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: I think the idea of an Objective Moral Truth rests on the principle of Intelligent Design with an Intelligent Designer: God, God as we understand God, Higher Power, etc.

    No, it doesn’t.

    The Scholastic philosophers and thinkers who fleshed out natural law theory (as well as Protestant natural law theorists like Grotius) were explicit that the moral law is something separate from God, and that moral truths would exist even if we, counterfactually, supposed that God didn’t exist. Moral truths are supposed to be grounded in the nature of things and in the conscience of moral agents, they’re not dependent on the will of God.

    Re: It rests on the Platonic, Aristotelean, Scholastic philosophy that a Power great than ourselves has created us and provided spiritual principles which will guide and nurture us.

    I don’t know about Aristotle, but Plato was certainly explicit that the moral law is something separate from God, and that postulating a God (or gods) doesn’t answer the question of what virtue is and why we should be virtuous.

  3. Diane M says:

    “It’s my opinion that it’s bad to be unkind or unjust, all else held equal. That opinion – like my opinion of Peanuts – is informed by a great deal of thought and experience. It’s an opinion I’d be willing to argue for, and it’s an opinion that I think most other thoughtful people who have put time into thinking about morality (or about the relative artistic merits of American comic strips) will readily agree with.”

    But what are you basing your opinion on? And why is it a principle that so many people agree to?

    “In this case, my premise is that it’s preferable to treat people as I’d prefer to be treated.”

    And what if someone decides not to agree to this premise?

    Doesn’t this leave you open to a guy who decides, yes, it’s preferable to treat people as I’d prefer to be treated, but sometimes, it’s inconvenient to me and it’s not preferable to treat them well, so I won’t.

  4. Diane M says:

    I guess my take on it is this:

    It’s virtually impossible to prove that there is an objective moral truth.

    I’m with Plato I think there is one, but you or I won’t be able to know it for sure.

    At the same time, it’s virtually impossible for humans to live well without acting as if certain of their beliefs are objective truths.

  5. Teresa says:

    Hector_St_Clare,

    We may have to agree to disagree; but, the ‘Natural Law’ rests explicitly in Intelligent Design. Certainly, St. Thomas went out of his way in proving the existence of God by inferring God’s existence. The rest flows from this. It is, in my opinion, an oxymoronic to state that moral law is separate from God, in St. Thomas’ view.

    Grotius is considered by some to have inaugurated a modern version of natural law. Natural rights and Natural law being implanted in us by God, whereas Grotius was moving to a secular version of the Natural Law that divorced it from its religious context.

  6. But what are you basing your opinion on? And why is it a principle that so many people agree to?

    As I said, it’s basically a Golden Rule thing. I know I prefer to be treated nicely, and I therefore believe that others prefer to be treated nicely.

    The Golden Rule is, I’d speculate, derived from the human instinct for empathy.

    “In this case, my premise is that it’s preferable to treat people as I’d prefer to be treated.”

    And what if someone decides not to agree to this premise?

    Doesn’t this leave you open to a guy who decides, yes, it’s preferable to treat people as I’d prefer to be treated, but sometimes, it’s inconvenient to me and it’s not preferable to treat them well, so I won’t.

    I don’t understand. What do you mean by “leave you open?”

    Certainly it’s possible that I’ll be mistreated by someone who doesn’t treat me well, for whatever reason. But that person could well be someone who believes in objective truth, and either has decided to make an exception for this occasion, or (more likely) has rationalized a way in which treating me badly is the “objectively right” thing to do.

    There is no moral system I could believe in that would guarantee that I’ll never be treated cruelly.

  7. La Lubu says:

    But what are you basing your opinion on? And why is it a principle that so many people agree to?

    My take is “human beings are real” and “human beings have the same basic nervous system/filter our experiences through the basic nervous system” all over the world. That is how we determine certain actions are harmful to: specific humans, the local community, the global community, the natural world, and the interrelationships amongst all of the above.

    Which isn’t to say we agree on these things; the “power over” value system instituted by patriarchal, father-god, dominator cultures (and represented by “objective truth” that is separate and apart from the planet) sees its “truth” quite differently than cultures with a “power with” value system grounded (literally) in what we might call “earth-centered” values (stemming from observations of a healthy ecosystem: cooperative, interdependent relationships; diversity/complexity; widespread energy and resources throughout the system/sharing; equilibrium, abundance, sustainability; adaptability/change; widespread communication). Like Barry, I think a lot of what has been represented as “objective moral truth” isn’t—it’s the self-serving dysfunctions of dominator culture, not the way the natural world actually works.

    And if none of that made any sense to you, read Lynn Margulis, James Lovelock, or Elisabet Satouris for a handle on what I’m talking about.

  8. Diane M says:

    @Barry – at leave you open, I mean you have no way to argue against someone deciding that they are going to do what they want. Or to convince someone who doesn’t agree with you.

    I am also thinking, well, that’s nice, but tomorrow you could decide that it’s not preferable to treat people well right now.

    It’s true that anyone can go against their system of beliefs and justify some wrong action, but they have to make an effort to do it.

  9. La Lubu says:

    It’s true that anyone can go against their system of beliefs and justify some wrong action, but they have to make an effort to do it.

    Not if it’s embedded within the system itself. Then there is no effort at all; committing harmful acts is part of the Objective Moral Good (ex.: The Bible says that Man has dominion of the planet and all that is in it; therefore God endorses fracking and mountaintop removal.)

  10. Diane M says:

    I don’t want to go around asking questions I think I know the answer to, so I’ll try to put it out here.

    I don’t believe for one second that you don’t hold some fundamental, unshakable, based on faith ideas about morality, rights, and how we know what is true.

    For example, you think that an objective truth needs to be proved based on certain rules or it’s not an objective truth.

    And you think that saying the baby was made by the woman’s body meant it belonged to the woman would be a bad principle because it would lead to the horrible outcome of slavery – but why is that a horrible outcome? (Just to be clear, I think it’s a horrible outcome.) Somewhere in there you believe that people should have rights.

    I’m okay with that because as I said, I don’t think you can come up with the kind of proof you are talking about to justify anything.

    What I want is more a sense of tolerance for the idea that yes, we are all convinced that we are right about some kinds of things and that none of us can prove them.

  11. Diane M says:

    LaLubu – your example about the Bible is particularly weak. There is nothing about having dominion that says you should do harmful things, particularly if the harmful things will come back and bite you. In any case, the Bible also talks about the idea that we are stewards and should show care for what we have been given.

  12. La Lubu says:

    Diane M., I picked the example I did because of its ubiquity. Whether or not it is the “true” attitude meant to be conveyed by the original text is up for debate; the fact that it is commonly understood to mean that (a) land can be owned by individual human beings, and (b) those owners have a primary obligation to themselves in deciding how best to make use of that land; all other considerations are completely voluntary, and (c) the reason this scenario exists is because a father-god Supreme Being declared it so. The people defending that particular interpretation of the text lean heavily on the idea that there is a Supreme Being, that the text itself was written under the direction of that Supreme Being, and that there is further evidence in the Supreme Being-approved text that any human-generated harms to our shared environment are irrelevant, as the Supreme Being intends for us to have a better world elsewhere and will whisk us away to it (and/or clean up and repair the damage to the existing one) at a future date. And they will defend all this in the name of objective truth, as if it is objectively true that there is a supreme being and the text itself was objectively true.

  13. La Lubu says:

    To be clear, I think there is a working model of what we could call (from our limited human perspective) “objective moral truth” in the daily operations of Gaia (meaning: our planet as a living ecosystem. See: Starhawk for a concise Pagan description, Lao Tzu for a Taoist description, or the work of Lynn Margulis, James Lovelock and Elisabet Sartouris—among others—for a scientific explanation). I just don’t believe we can look to supernatural sources for truth.

  14. Schroeder says:

    Barry,

    I don’t have time to respond just this moment, but thank you for engaging me in this post. I will respond as soon as I get a chance!

  15. Matthew Kaal says:

    Barry,

    While I am not sure that equating belief in moral truth with opinion does justice to the term belief – I do agree with you that there is a certain level of metaphysical uncertainty that any finite being must bring towards engaging with absolutes, because our finite state doesn’t allow us to know anything with 100 percent certainty; those who assert that absolutes exists aren’t necessarily claiming that they know this with absolute certainty. They are holding a belief, in faith, that the absolutes they assert are true.

    The vast majority of people claiming moral absolutes exist are not relying on empiricism to assert those claims. Instead they rely on revelation (in the form of sacred texts, prophecies, miracles, and common graces) and in the existence of reason, both of which ground metaphysical truths in our physical reality. To the point that we can verify revelation and the existence of reason – that is the limit of certainty being claimed by most proponents of absolute truths. Believers in absolute truth believe in revelation and in reason – and have faith in one or the other to draw conclusions about what they cannot empirically verify themselves. They are using their intellect and reason to form those beliefs. Because they are making truth claims that, if true, have consequences, we need to take them seriously and seek to understand the claims and use right reason and our own wills to draw conclusions.

    I’ll also note that a world without absolutes is a very frightening one to me – because it is a world where societies feel free to begin changing and deconstructing the meanings of institutions, phenomena, and persons (all of which have moral dimensions). Such a society can assert that the “thinginess of a thing isn’t actually its thinginess,” that the Ousia of something is malleable, and begin changing it without any consideration to its purpose and moral function in a rightly ordered society. A society that has this ability is extraordinarily dangerous.

    This may seem very abstract and alarmist – but it has real implications when discussing things like human dignity, human rights, the rule of law. All these depend on absolutes to be meaningful.

    I’ll propose an example which will seem unfair, but stick with me because I propose it sincerely and hope that it will spark good conversation.

    What happens if a majority of our peers suddenly believe its right and moral to murder some of us? Generally they would abide by the golden rule, but they find us annoying enough to make an exception (maybe they hate bloggers, who knows?). They aren’t even all that worried about our deaths contributing to the downfall of the species, because there are enough of them to not jeopardize the creation of future generations. They decide to murder us, it is the general opinion, and declared the right and moral thing to do.

    They proceed to murder me, which I experience as an injustice.

    This presents a problem. If justice is a construct, then our society defines it, and the majority concurred that it was right and moral to murder us. Let’s assume that what is just is always within the categories “right and moral.” So I have no right to experience an injustice, because my death was just according to our societal construction.

    If absolutes don’t exist, I really don’t have a right to feel my death was unjust. Justice doesn’t really mean anything anyways, because it means whatever our opinion may be at any given time. This is very frightening in its implications. How do you address that?

    If absolutes do exist, I can appeal to them as the standard of justice which my society (if properly ordered) ought to approximate. I may not perfectly know that absolute, and my society may fail to live up to it all the time, but I can have faith in it as a meaningful standard – an order – which protects me and my society from falling apart.

  16. La Lubu says:

    Matthew, the scenario you just described—that of a majority of persons suddenly believing it is moral and good to murder a recognized minority of persons for some real or imagined trait possessed by that minority—is not a hypothetical. Moreover, such murders were committed by people who did believe in absolute moral truths, they just didn’t believe they were under any moral obligation to extend the benefit of those moral truths to those they deemed lesser beings, and further, they justified their treatment of those they deemed lesser beings from their vision of “absolute truths”. It’s also worth a mention that this same behavior—mistreatment of others along a hierarchical scale of humanity—is an everyday event that somehow ony gets noticed by people higher on the hierarchical scale when it rises to the level of murder (probably because lesser forms of aggression don’t have the same critical level of blowback—consequences).

    So color me extremely skeptical that possessing a vision of absolute truth offers marginalized persons any form of appeal. Rather, an equilibrium of power is what offers substance to appeals. Any time there is an imbalance of power, power will be abused. Checks and balances, and not belief in the same authority, is what gives us relief.

    Institutions are human creations—all of them. As such they are malleable, and should be—both to adapt to changing conditions and to address concerns of injustice. My life is much, much better than the lives of my ancestors (particularly my women ancestors) precisely because of questioning, changing and abandonment of institutions.

  17. Matthew Kaal says:

    La Lubu,

    I think you misunderstand me. I understand that my hypothetical is true in many circumstances – and thus takes on a level of urgency. But I don’t believe in “absolute truths” – that’s a self contradictory term. If something is absolute it is complete, and would be expressed as absolute truth, not absolute truths.

    Those committing evil while making truth claims are doing one of two things:

    1. Making a valid truth claim, in which case absolute truth consists in some part of evil – in which case I am inclined to Nihilism.

    or

    2. They are making an invalid truth claim and misordering their society. In which case I am inclined to discredit their truth claim and expose their evil.

    We make a determination on whether option 1 or 2 is correct using reason. Often when a society, say Nazi Germany, is doing evil, it is fairly easy to spot which premises are faulty or unfounded (some people are just fundamentally better than others). Most people would disagree with this because they believe in a basic equality of individuals rooted in there inherent dignity.

    However, in a society where moral absolutes are not admitted, we have no foundations on which concepts like dignity and equality can stand.

    You suggest an equalibrium of power is the solution – but what is that equilibrium based on if not our individual dignity? We need absolutes to be able say that something like a power imbalance is bad! If equality is an absolute value, then conforming our institutions to that absolute truth is bringing them into their fullness (validating their Ousia). Negating doesn’t do that – it allows for anyone to assert dominance without any real checks.

  18. La Lubu says:

    I think you misunderstand me, Matthew. I believe in my dignity as a matter of course, but whether or not that dignity is recognized in my society hinges entirely on how much social power I, as a member of whichever group, have to assert. It isn’t necessary—or even possible—to convince most people who extol the virtue of inequality that they are wrong (look at how much energy continues to be expended on various “isms”). What is crucial is to have the amount of power necessary to make the claims of those promoting human inequality irrelevant.

    In other words, I think the argument is between what people value, rather than on having values or the degree to which they hold them.

  19. Matthew Kaal says:

    La Lubu,

    There is a key distinction that needs to be made between your dignity existing and it being recognized. In a world without moral absolutes the question becomes whether or not your dignity exists at all, its being recognized or validated through assertions of power is a secondary consideration dependent on its existence. That is the point I am trying to make.

  20. La Lubu says:

    But the people who do not recognize my human dignity, or have a very limited recognition of my human dignity based upon how well I conform to whatever truncated version of humanity they think I (as what amounts to a “partial” rather than full human) should adhere to, are almost always people who *do* believe in moral absolutes. That isn’t the problem. It’s what they believe, not that they believe.

    Question: (and please use the KISS principle; I’m not a philosophy grad student, nor is there enough alcohol in the world to ever make that sound like a good idea to me) From my perspective, it sounds like anyone claiming “absolute moral truth” is an appealing to external authority—not consensus authority for the common good. Is this a misperception on my part?

  21. La Lubu says:

    Or to rephrase (and please excuse any typos!): I am comfortable with the vision of moral truth present and readily observed in Gaia. But this vision of absolute moral truth is inherently at odds with that presented in the Bible, on any number of levels. People who recognize the Bible as their source for absolute moral truth would (and do) claim that I am a nihilist for having a different source of truth. They don’t just claim I believe differently, they claim I have no beliefs because my source is participatory, rather than external and hierarchical.

  22. Matthew Kaal says:

    La Lubu,

    That isn’t a misconception. Most absolute truth claims are not rooted in a consensus authority of the common good (which is not absolute or complete because it alters as consensus changes, by definition it is flexible) – but rather derive from a transcendent authority. I substitute transcendent for external, because external assumes that the metaphysical and physical are closed to each other, but many truth claims about metaphysical realities suggest that metaphysical realities are united to the physical but are also distinctly metaphysical. In my own belief system God is the creator of the world (he transcends his creation) but he is also an active in that he relates to his creation.

    Truth claims being made about Gaia or about the Bible both attempt to get at what is true. A Bible believer would be mistaken to claim that a Gaia adherent was nihilist or had no beliefs (she certainly does, she believes in the Gaia belief system). The disagreement between them is not over the existence of beliefs, but rather over who is right in their belief (a third option being that both are wrong). This is where reason and intellect come into play. All of us is constantly evaluating what we believe to be true in light of our ever evolving understanding of reality and the truth claims of others.

    Our systems of beliefs, be it Gaia or the Bible, are what give our world a moral structure. To abandon moral absolutes is to abandon both positions and the structure they afford.

  23. La Lubu says:

    The disagreement between them is not over the existence of beliefs, but rather over who is right in their belief (a third option being that both are wrong).

    Not quite. See, I don’t think the Bible-believers are altogether wrong in rejecting my claim of moral truth as not being “absolute” moral truth. Inherent within my belief system is the notion that there is nothing “transcendent” (poetic descriptions of favorite pieces of music aside)—nothing separate and apart from consensus reality (for lack of a better term). I don’t believe that anything is immutable. There is no “perfect form” out there, representative of the close-but-no-cigar forms in reality. In other words, we have a core disagreement about our respective worldviews—while the Biblical worldview is possible for humans to conceive, it does not match observed reality in nature. Whatever else may be said about my Pagan worldview, it does match observed reality in nature, and if and where it does not the worldview itself is wrong and must be adjusted—all of which is consonant with the belief system.

    So, I believe there is literally no such thing as an external, transcendent authority. There is no “He”—there is only “we”. Which means when you say:

    If absolutes do exist, I can appeal to them as the standard of justice which my society (if properly ordered) ought to approximate. I may not perfectly know that absolute, and my society may fail to live up to it all the time, but I can have faith in it as a meaningful standard – an order – which protects me and my society from falling apart.

    No….I can’t. I can’t convince my opponents to consider my source of moral authority, because they consider my source of authority to be lower on the hierarchical scale—why look to the creation when one can look to the Creator? Neither can I honestly consider their source of moral authority—there’s no “there” there for me—but the earth is real. To me, the genius of the Gaia hypothesis is its participatory nature we’re all in this together. It’s equilibrium: all parts of the whole are important; there is no hierarchy. For me, any nondemocractic, nonparticipatory authority is inherently corrupt—if that’s what you have, you already have a society that has fallen apart. There is no such thing as a “good” tyranny. There is no such thing as a working tyranny, a sustainable tyranny.

  24. Matthew Kaal says:

    La Lubu –

    When you make the statement:

    my belief system is the notion that there is nothing “transcendent” (poetic descriptions of favorite pieces of music aside)—nothing separate and apart from consensus reality (for lack of a better term). I don’t believe that anything is immutable. There is no “perfect form” out there, representative of the close-but-no-cigar forms in reality.

    You are making an absolute statement about your beliefs, a truth claim. You are saying that perfect forms and the transcendent don’t actually exist, and as a result we cannot structure morality upon them. This is a form of moral absolute that you believe to be true.

    I haven’t been disagreeing with you over whether or not our belief systems are mutually exclusive (they obviously are, and I am okay disagreeing with you on their substantive disagreements. We are both intelligent people who have reached different conclusions, this is not a forum where we can fruitfully discuss those conclusions in terms of our unique experiences.). What is important to me in this discussions is that I’ve been trying to get at the concept that both our systems of belief rely on some basic premises (absolutes) to function logically, and that these premises have moral implications.

    If we can’t be sure of the premises then neither of our belief systems is able to stand. Gaia struggles the same as Christianity or any other system if you remove the certainty of its premises.

  25. Diane M says:

    @LaLubu – I think you believe that these people are objectively wrong and doing the wrong thing.
    “And they will defend all this in the name of objective truth, as if it is objectively true that there is a supreme being and the text itself was objectively true.”

    As I said before to Barry Deutsch, I don’t want to go through asking questions, but I think you and he have absolute values and absolute beliefs about reality.

    It’s a very common thing. People in our society say things like you can believe whatever you want, just don’t impose your beliefs on me. Whyever not?

    Nobody can really function coherently without turning into a psychopath without having a few rock-bottom assumptions that they treat as absolute truths.

  26. Diane M says:

    I will make another argument for the value of absolute truths, though.

    Consensus morality stinks. It is exactly what we had in the time of slavery.

    The people who got America to turn around and start questioning it were people who had absolute values. It was religious, but it was also based on principles like humans should treat each other well and humans have rights and equal worth.

    That’s how we get social change – irritating, difficult people who stick to absolute principles and make us think about uncomfortable truths.

  27. Diane, the pro-slavery folks also believed in absolute values. You seem to think that believing in absolute values prevents people from doing horrible things; as La Lubu has already pointed out, that is manifestly not true.

    There are, as you say, people who believe in absolute values who do wonderful things. There are also people who believe in absolute values who do terrible things.

    @Barry – at leave you open, I mean you have no way to argue against someone deciding that they are going to do what they want. Or to convince someone who doesn’t agree with you.

    I have many ways of arguing. Indeed, arguing is one of the things I’m good at.

    If someone doesn’t agree with me on the Golden Rule, for instance, I could try to find some other basis for trying to persuade them – for instance, I might argue that doing what I see as the right thing is actually in their self-interest. Or I could argue on the basis of economic efficiency, if that’s the common ground we have.

    (There are, of course, some people who cannot be persuaded; but that’s true regardless of if absolute morality exists).

    In the original thread that my post here quotes, Brad Wilcox quoted from a famous letter by MLK jr, in which MLK jr made an appeal to faith. It’s true that King appealed to faith; but he also appealed to many other things. That’s a man who knew something about being persuasive, and one of things he knew was, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

    I am also thinking, well, that’s nice, but tomorrow you could decide that it’s not preferable to treat people well right now.

    It’s true that anyone can go against their system of beliefs and justify some wrong action, but they have to make an effort to do it.

    I’ve never noticed that it takes more effort for an atheist to change her system of beliefs than it does anyone else.

    And, as La Lubu pointed out, many people have believed in absolute truths that were in fact harmful. Consistency isn’t always a virtue; sometimes the world is better off when people are capable of changing their minds.

  28. La Lubu says:

    but I think you and he have absolute values and absolute beliefs about reality.

    And perhaps you are right….but I like to go with what can be observed. I’m open to changing my views; if ever there is any proof of the transcendent, I will have to change my belief structure to include it. I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask for proof before considering a belief. Like Barry, I don’t think we have to overthink the idea that people deserve to be treated the way we would prefer to be treated. I think that is self-evident in the same way “fire burns” is self-evident.

    It’s a very common thing. People in our society say things like you can believe whatever you want, just don’t impose your beliefs on me. Whyever not?

    Well, I don’t think that’s a complete representation; the attitude is more like as long as you are not harming anyone, you should be left alone with your own beliefs.

    Consensus morality stinks. It is exactly what we had in the time of slavery.

    No it isn’t. The consensus of enslaved persons was not taken into account. If it had been, the consensus of the enslaved persons to be free (representing a numerical majority in slave states) would have swung the pendulum. (and now we’re back to talking about power.

  29. Matthew:

    I’ll also note that a world without absolutes is a very frightening one to me – because it is a world where societies feel free to begin changing and deconstructing the meanings of institutions, phenomena, and persons (all of which have moral dimensions).

    But a society that never felt “free to begin changing” would be an evil society, unless you believe that the status quo is a paradise that cannot be improved upon. Should we have stopped changing in slave times, leaving a people permanently enslaved? Should we have stopped changing in 1900, when all but white male Christians were second-class citizens at best? Should we have stopped in 1950, when Jim Crow ruled? Should we have stopped before Stonewall?

    Surely you agree with me that we should not have stopped our society at any of those points. Not all changes are good; but there has never once been a point in history in which all change was bad.

    Such a society can assert that the “thinginess of a thing isn’t actually its thinginess,” that the Ousia of something is malleable, and begin changing it without any consideration to its purpose and moral function in a rightly ordered society. A society that has this ability is extraordinarily dangerous.

    This is, it seems to me, a variation on the argument for natural law. But in my lifetime, when have Natural Law proponents, even once, been on the side of mercy and compassion? Never, that I know of. When people argued that it would be a terrible idea to let women apply for male jobs, they argued based on Natural Law. When people argued that laws against sodomy were good, they argued based on Natural Law.

    Anyone with eyes could see that real people were being dreadfully harmed by the abstract belief that sodomy was evil. Yet the belief in absolute morality won out, until quite recently, over genuine compassion.

    Why should I trust a philosophy which has, in my lifetime, been the basis of such lack of compassion?

    This may seem very abstract and alarmist – but it has real implications when discussing things like human dignity, human rights, the rule of law. All these depend on absolutes to be meaningful.

    I don’t agree. They have meaning if we treat them as if they have meaning. And all those concepts you talk about can – and have- been used for the cruelest of purposes. They are no safeguards.

    What happens if a majority of our peers suddenly believe its right and moral to murder some of us? Generally they would abide by the golden rule, but they find us annoying enough to make an exception (maybe they hate bloggers, who knows?). They aren’t even all that worried about our deaths contributing to the downfall of the species, because there are enough of them to not jeopardize the creation of future generations. They decide to murder us, it is the general opinion, and declared the right and moral thing to do.

    What happens then is genocide, of one sort or another.

    As La Lubu pointed out, correctly, belief in absolute truth is no protection against genocide. It may well be, in the example you describe, that the majority of people believe that God wants our people (whoever our people are) wiped out.

    The only real protection we can have against murderous beliefs, is compassionate beliefs (imperfect as they are). The further and more firmly we can spread a belief in compassion for its own sake, and the belief that all groups of people are part of Us, the less likely it is that any majorities will decide to favor genocide.

    If absolutes don’t exist, I really don’t have a right to feel my death was unjust. Justice doesn’t really mean anything anyways, because it means whatever our opinion may be at any given time. This is very frightening in its implications. How do you address that?

    I’d say that truth is truth, regardless of if we find the truth frightening. (To cut off one probable response: Just because I don’t believe in either God, nor Objective Moral Truth, it doesn’t follow that I don’t believe that anything is true. I believe many things are true; just not things like God and Objective Morality.)

    In other words, either Objective Moral Truth exists, or it does not. And it exists – or not – without regard to what we find frightening or comforting.

    I find it frightening that disease could at any moment take any of us away; I find global warming very frightening; I find that so many powerful people seem to lack (or at least, deprioritize) compassion frightening. That I find these things frightening does not mean they are not so, alas.

    If absolutes do exist, I can appeal to them as the standard of justice which my society (if properly ordered) ought to approximate. I may not perfectly know that absolute, and my society may fail to live up to it all the time, but I can have faith in it as a meaningful standard – an order – which protects me and my society from falling apart.

    But Matthew, with great affection, which history books have you been reading? Societies fall apart – or worse – even when people believe in absolutes.

  30. Diane M says:

    No, I don’t think that having absolute values is the same thing as having good values.

    I do think that it is the only way you can get change. Consensus values don’t get you there.

    Although I also believe that there are some absolute truths about what is good and that getting to them would help.

    “If someone doesn’t agree with me on the Golden Rule, for instance, I could try to find some other basis for trying to persuade them – for instance, I might argue that doing what I see as the right thing is actually in their self-interest. Or I could argue on the basis of economic efficiency, if that’s the common ground we have.”

    But sometimes following the Golden Rule really isn’t in your self-interest or good for economic efficiency.

    Then there’s the problem that if I or anyone catches on that you don’t believe what you’re arguing, you’re just using whatever argument you can to convince me to do what you want, I might decide not to listen to your arguments.

    If we go back to MLK, I think you’re missing the boat. MLK did not believe in relative morality. He is a great example of someone who had some absolute beliefs about the truth, but was willing to listen and to use non-violence in case he was wrong.

    You in response to me:
    “‘I am also thinking, well, that’s nice, but tomorrow you could decide that it’s not preferable to treat people well right now.

    It’s true that anyone can go against their system of beliefs and justify some wrong action, but they have to make an effort to do it.”

    “I’ve never noticed that it takes more effort for an atheist to change her system of beliefs than it does anyone else.”

    I think atheists have an absolute view of truth.

    A particular atheist might not have one, but being an atheist has nothing to do with believing that there is no objective, absolute truth about things.

  31. Diane M says:

    @LaLubu – but what about states where slaves were in the minority?

    How do you handle situations where the people being oppressed are in the minority?

    How can you justify the idea that people should have rights, even if they don’t have power?

  32. Diane M says:

    So here’s a defense for Natural Law.

    Natural Law is also what was used to defend the idea that Americans should be able to have their own government and vote.

    It was what was used to get rid of monarchies and governments run without consent from the governed.

    It was used over time to enlarge the people who were allowed to vote and participate in government.

    But, of course, the real question is not what outcome did it produce, it’s is it true or not. I don’t feel qualified to comment on that question.

    The problem is we’re back to, why is it wrong if a principle causes suffering to some people?

    Seriously, I think this gets back to the question you raised. You don’t like the idea of Natural Law because of its results. But surely that doesn’t mean Natural Law is untrue? It just means you don’t want to believe it. That’s not a very convincing argument.

    And again, what is wrong with making people suffer?

  33. Diane M says:

    “The only real protection we can have against murderous beliefs, is compassionate beliefs (imperfect as they are).”

    This isn’t about whether beliefs are absolute or not, it’s about whether they are good beliefs or not.

    If everyone had an absolute belief that they should be compassionate or non-violent, you wouldn’t have genocide. If everyone had an absolute belief that all humans, no matter what group they are in have inalienable rights, you wouldn’t have genocide.

    The problem isn’t aboslute-ness, it’s the beliefs chosen.

    After all, you could have a flexible belief that you would be either compassionate or commit genocide, depending on what was more convenient.

    And underneath it all is an absolute belief that genocide is a bad thing and you want to chose a moral system that will prevent it.

  34. Teresa says:

    Diane wrote:
    The problem is we’re back to, why is it wrong if a principle causes suffering to some people?

    And again, what is wrong with making people suffer?

    I’ll let Abraham Lincoln answer those questions, Diane. Substitute ‘suffering’ (or some variant word form of it) for ‘slavery’.

    “Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

    “I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly those who desire it for others.”

    From: The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume VIII, “Speech to One Hundred Fortieth Indiana Regiment” (March 17, 1865), p. 361.

  35. marilynn says:

    Because being unkind is being unfair. Being unfair is not logical except in the animal kingdom where its catch as catch can and kill or be killed. Because nothing feels better than being nice to someone who does not know you but really needs it. Because by being nice you can meet the most wonderful people that make your life so much more fun and that is logical to surround yourself with people that make your life more fun more worth living. Because nothing feels better than a really good happy cry when someone gets their biggest wish or their most basic needs met from a little effort or kindness.

  36. kisarita says:

    morality is real but not always clear; it consists of a delicate balance between our basic drives of survival and pleasure of the self; with empathy toward the other.

  37. R.K. says:

    “Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

    Agree with that on slavery, but can you not easily substitute “imprisonment” for “slavery” and make an argument against that as well?

    If compassion is held to be the overriding principle in morality, does this not require that we not in any way negatively sanction those who have committed acts we judge to be wrong, including acts we judge wrong because they are incompassionate?

    It all comes back to balance. Between our natures and our ideals. Between reality and our ideals. And all ideals have limits, including compassion. And equality.

  38. La Lubu says:

    The problem isn’t aboslute-ness, it’s the beliefs chosen.

    I think absoluteness is a problem. If you have an absolute (rather than a relative) belief that lying is wrong, then you are morally compelled to tell the Nazis where that nice Jewish family has been hiding (or for a less extreme example, tell the schoolyard bullies where that kid they beat the daily crap out of is hiding). Am I wrong in thinking that “absolute” means unchanging?

    Natural Law takes for granted its own immutability. That stands in stark contrast to actual observations of our world/the cosmos, with its built-in chaos and change.

    (I really haven’t had enough coffee yet to be participating in this thread. In fact, that probably should have been my first thought, but it’s too late now! I’m not much for the how-may-angels-can-dance-in-this-pinhead style of arguing.)

    I think Barry is on to something—that compassion is a good guide.

  39. Teresa says:

    The following comment is a Scholastic’s answer for Natural Law, objective moral truth, which appeals to me, works for me. Skip it, if it’s not where your head’s at.

    Barry’s first sentence from Post:
    As I understand it, an “objective moral truth” would be a morality that exists outside the human mind.

    Barry, et. al., that’s not how the Scholastics developed ‘Natural Law’ theory, as I understand it. Natural Law, embodying objective moral truths, was seen as given to man, embedded within each of us, by our Creator. It’s ‘knowable’ by most men. Absolute Truth is God, or one of His many infinite ‘goods’.

    Next, Aquinas asks whether there is in us a natural law. First, he makes a distinction: A law is not only in the reason of a ruler, but may also be in the thing that is ruled. In the case of the Eternal Law, the things of creation that are ruled by that Law have it imprinted on the them through their nature or essence. Since things act according to their nature, they derive their proper acts and ends (final cause) according to the law that is written into their nature. Everything in nature, insofar as they reflects the order by which God directs them through their nature for their own benefit, reflects the Eternal Law in their own natures. (S.T. I-IIae, 91, 2)

    The devil is in the details on the day-by-day choices we humans make using free will. However, the basic objective moral truths can be summed up as: Love God, love your neighbor.

    So, yes, Diane and R.K. are in my opinion correct when they see limits or ‘suffering’ involved in moral truths. But, we all see this in our own daily choices. Who wants to get up on a Monday morning and face the work week. However, most of us endure that suffering for a greater good. We all get that.

    R.K. wrote:
    It all comes back to balance. Between our natures and our ideals. Between reality and our ideals. And all ideals have limits, including compassion. And equality.

    Diane wrote:
    The problem is we’re back to, why is it wrong if a principle causes suffering to some people?
    And again, what is wrong with making people suffer?

    Lots of good stuff here. Natural Law doesn’t make people suffer, that’s certainly not its raison d’etre. However, following our better nature, socially and individually, entails suffering: the Monday morning example.

    Compassion (love of neighbor) means appealing to our social better nature, and putting in place restrictions that, yes, will cause some of us, and at times all of us, suffering. The speed limit is 55, I’m late for work, and I choose to go 75. Ticket time = suffering.

    For a Scholastic, equality is a myth in the social order. We see that everyday, but choose to ignore it, or try to upend it. Men are not equal to women in their biology and vice-versa. Some people are smarter than others. Some people are more virtuous than others … yes, that’s true. So, yes, R.K., you have St. Thomas on your side.

    Long comment, even longer … segway to same sex marriage and ART. To get to social approval of that, we’ve had to upend how many steps of Natural Law to accept that: from basic biology, equality of unlike persons/parts, the common good, etc.

    So, yes, Diane, that involves ‘suffering’ for some of us to accept who oppose ssm, who oppose 3PR, ART, IVF, etc.; and suffering for those who want those individual ‘rights’. But, it’s a moral truth, a Natural Law argument, that the greater good always trumps the individual desire, however appealing that may be. It has to for a society to survive. So, ultimately, for those of us who do suffer not realizing our individual desire, we may come to a place of peace and even joy, knowing the greater good is being upheld. We are, after all, social beings; not, disunited automatons.

  40. JHW says:

    The ideological lines on this debate have always struck me as being backward.

    Relativism is essentially conservative. If your cultural traditions end up successfully inculcating a moral belief in you, that’s the end of the story—there’s no culture-independent authority that can say you’re wrong. So, our cultural traditions tell us it’s okay to marginalize and oppress gays and lesbians? Don’t let any elitist liberals tell us different.

    Left-liberalism, on the other hand, is almost always absolutist—sometimes explicitly, though often these days only implicitly, in practice even if not in theory. Its core message is: overcome the constraints of culture, which are bound up in oppressive systems of power (sexism, racism, homophobia), and recognize the independent moral force of freedom and equality. This is just the hope of Enlightenment liberalism (famously absolutist) extended and applied to modern conditions and insights.

    The metaphysical questions here are mostly a distraction. The important thing to notice is the nature of moral claims. The kind of casual story relativists end up giving for the origin of moral claims—predominantly culture and human emotions—are not any kind of justification at all for those moral claims (“My culture teaches me that x” and “I would feel good about y” are not good reasons, in and of themselves, to do things). So the project of moral improvement—asking ourselves, individually and collectively, whether what we’re doing is really right, or whether we should change it in various ways—pushes us into going further, into looking for real reasons, for arguments. And that’s because moral claims are in no way special. (We might ask ourselves, for similar reasons, whether our scientific understanding of the way the world works is accurate.) Like most other kinds of claims, they can be true or false, in the ordinary sense of “true” and “false,” and their truth and falsity is important because of the implications of that truth or falsity for how we should behave.

  41. Schroeder says:

    Lot to talk about here, Barry. There are also some things that I’d like your clarification on. Thanks for bringing all this up.

    You say in your post that my reasoning contains a basic flaw. To me, though, it seems that you didn’t so much disagree with my argument as just deny one of my implied premises (that is, the premise that we can be pretty sure that it’s wrong to be unjust or unkind) that I didn’t think you would deny. In other words, you bit the bullet. Biting the bullet is a perfectly acceptable way to escape an argument, but it’s just not a route that is palatable to most people.

    Before I go on, though, I need to clarify some things. I’m not really sure how you’re using the word “opinion.” It seems (to me) that you keep switching how you use that word within your piece.

    “Opinion” is usually used to mean one of two different things:

    1.) A belief we hold with imperfect access to the truth but that is, nevertheless, true or false. For instance, I might have the opinion that the moon landing never happened, but that opinion is either true or false (because, of course, either the moon landing happened or it didn’t).

    2.) A belief we hold that is neither true nor false – that is, an “opinion” as opposed to a “fact.” For example, when I say that it’s my opinion that chocolate is the best kind of ice cream. Or (for that matter) that Peanuts is a better cartoon than Hi & Lois. I would never get in a (serious) argument with someone about one of these types of opinions.

    After all, I’m not literally saying that chocolate is objectively a better kind of ice cream than vanilla. I’m saying that I like chocolate ice cream better than vanilla. It’s not “true” that chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla. It’s “just my opinion.”

    I believe that moral opinions go into the first category, whereas it seems, based on your post, that you believe they go into the latter category. That is what I mean when I say that I believe in objective moral truth. Here is an example of this belief in action: when I say, “Killing an innocent person just to steal his or her money is wrong,” I am making a truth claim like “the moon landing happened.” I am not just saying, “I, personally, would not like to kill an an innocent person just to steal his or her money.”

    I can’t demonstrate that this is true, but I can show that there are all sorts of unpleasant consequences if you believe it is not true.

    Here are just a couple:

    1. If moral opinions are “just opinions,” then saying something like “I prefer to hate gay people” is akin to saying “I prefer Peanuts to Hi & Lois” or “I prefer chocolate ice cream.” I don’t think I need to say why that’s a disturbing consequence.

    2. If moral opinions are “just opinions,” then sociopaths who are smart enough to avoid getting caught are some of the luckiest people in the the world. Sure, most of us would be bothered by that pesky conscience to do what it takes to claw our way to the top, but if you can get rid of your conscience? More power to you! (Literally; there is anecdotal evidence that some of the wealthiest people in the world are sociopaths.)

    Also, I need to clear up a few misconceptions about what it means to believe in objective moral truth.

    1. Objective moral truth does not have a material existence. It doesn’t “exist” in the sense that this chair I’m sitting on exists. Rather, it exists in that it is true like the fact that “1 + 1 = 2″ is true.

    2. Objective moral truth is not necessarily that broad. For example, it might not be objectively morally true that killing is wrong. After all, what about self-defense? It might even sometimes depend on circumstances. That doesn’t make it any less objective, moral, or true.

    3. Objective moral truth is not nonexistent just because not everyone believes in it or because it can’t be demonstrated. I can’t demonstrate to you that I ate some pita chips yesterday, but that doesn’t make it any less true (or false).

    So… to respond to some specific things:

    the pro-slavery folks also believed in absolute values. You seem to think that believing in absolute values prevents people from doing horrible things

    But Barry, without objective moral truth, there are no horrible things. There are just things that Person A or Person B like or dislike.

    The best response to someone who thinks that a camel looks like a horse is not to tell them “Camels don’t exist.” Rather, it is to tell them what a camel looks like.

    The Golden Rule arises fairly naturally from the human trait of empathy, which in turn may have come about through the amoral process of evolution.

    This is another way of saying that morality is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It seems like you are conflating these two concepts. To read why I think it is dangerous to conflate these, see my example above about the psychopath. Or watch this movie. This argument is always weird to me. There is also solid scientific evidence that humans are pre-programmed to be irrational. Does that mean it’s good to be irrational?

    Yet the belief in absolute morality won out, until quite recently, over genuine compassion.

    But this isn’t really what happened. After all, unless it is “just an opinion” (and I’ve showed above all of the problems with that), the belief that “genuine compassion is good” is, itself, a truth claim. So what really happened is that, “until quite recently,” one objective truth claim was held to be true and now a different objective truth claim is held to be true.

    I could go on and on. Sorry this comment is so long, but I hope you see what I’m saying!

    (NB: I prefer to say “objective moral truth” (no caps), rather than “absolute truth.” “Objective moral truth” is an accurate label for what I’m talking about. It’s “objective” (that is, it is true regardless of anyone’s opinion). It’s “moral” (that is, it is “of or pertaining to morality”). And it’s truth. “Absolute truth” and “Objective Moral Truth” just muddy the water to me, mainly because I don’t know what they mean exactly.)

  42. Rob says:

    Save us from those who believe they have the absolute moral truth.

    As Wendell Berry pointed out recently, “When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us. If we are a Christian nation–as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness–then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war.”

  43. La Lubu says:

    2. Objective moral truth is not necessarily that broad. For example, it might not be objectively morally true that killing is wrong. After all, what about self-defense? It might even sometimes depend on circumstances. That doesn’t make it any less objective, moral, or true.

    If moral truth rests on circumstances, it is no longer objective. It’s subjective. Don’t get me wrong…I agree that higher-order moral development requires this subjectivity; that it is literally more moral to examine the circumstances in which any question of moral behavior arises. But let’s not kid ourselves and refine this as “objective” behavior. It isn’t.

    I also lean towards the view that moral truth is necessarily connected to material existence–that human beings derived moral truth from observations of material existence. Our answers for what is good? is directly related to our experiences of what is healthy? what produces the optimum outcomes for the greatest number of people, or the environment as a whole, or future generations?

  44. La Lubu says:

    In fact, I’d go as far to say that any system of morality that has a nonmaterial foundation has a large built-in dose of amorality.

  45. JHW says:

    La Lubu: With all respect, you are mistaken on this point. The two have nothing to do with each other.

    It could be objectively true that killing is always wrong, period. Or it could be objectively true that killing is always wrong, except in self-defense, in wartime in accordance with the principles of just war, or within the scope of lawful punishment. Or it could be objectively true that killing is only wrong when it leads to a net loss to the aggregate level of happiness in the world, and when it leads to a net gain, it is entirely permissible, and perhaps even obligatory. None of those are more or less “objective” by virtue of their content.

    What makes those claims claims about objective truth is not what they say about specific circumstances, but the kind of truth value they are taken to have: truth value that stands independent of any particular perspective. Whatever the truth of the moral permissibility of killing in a particular circumstance, what is true “for me” is not different from what is true “for you” about it, any more than 2 + 2 = 4 is true for some people and not for others (which does not mean that people won’t often disagree about what is in fact true about morality, just as they sometimes disagree about what is true in other fields.)

    To a person who accepts the objectivity of moral truth, the argument about the relevance of circumstances to the permissibility of lying is an argument about facts: is it in fact the case that lying is always forbidden, or is it in fact the case that there are times (e.g., when a murderer is at our door) when lying is morally okay and perhaps morally required? But framing the question in that way does not predetermine the conclusion.

  46. Schroeder says:

    If moral truth rests on circumstances, it is no longer objective. It’s subjective.

    La Lubu,

    I fully endorse JHW’s response. Something like that is what I would have said.

    Also, the sentence quoted from you above rests a kind of odd definition of “objective.” Most, if not all, objective truth rests on circumstances.

    For instance:

    If you draw a green circle on your hand in the next five minutes (a circumstance), you will have a green circle on your hand in the next five minutes.

    This is an objective truth.

    But, obviously, it is (probably) not true that you will have a green circle on your hand in the next five minutes, unless someone draws one.

    Even the statement “1 + 1 = 2″ is only true if you’re using base ten (which is a circumstance).

    We just don’t usually say the circumstances, because A.) it would take too long, and B.) we generally assume that people know most of the circumstances we’re assuming.

    JHW,

    Wow, thanks. Great answer.

  47. Teresa says:

    JHW wrote:
    Relativism is essentially conservative. If your cultural traditions end up successfully inculcating a moral belief in you, that’s the end of the story—there’s no culture-independent authority that can say you’re wrong. So, our cultural traditions tell us it’s okay to marginalize and oppress gays and lesbians? Don’t let any elitist liberals tell us different.

    Left-liberalism, on the other hand, is almost always absolutist—sometimes explicitly, though often these days only implicitly, in practice even if not in theory. Its core message is: overcome the constraints of culture, which are bound up in oppressive systems of power (sexism, racism, homophobia), and recognize the independent moral force of freedom and equality. This is just the hope of Enlightenment liberalism (famously absolutist) extended and applied to modern conditions and insights.

    I’m intrigued by what you’re saying here, JHW; but, I must admit I don’t completely understand it. Where, how, when and why did the independent moral force of freedom and equality spring? Is this simply evolution as La Lubu has conjectured?

    I’m really interested in your response. Thanks.

  48. La Lubu says:

    It could be objectively true that killing is always wrong, period. Or it could be objectively true that killing is always wrong, except in self-defense, in wartime in accordance with the principles of just war, or within the scope of lawful punishment. Or it could be objectively true that killing is only wrong when it leads to a net loss to the aggregate level of happiness in the world, and when it leads to a net gain, it is entirely permissible, and perhaps even obligatory. None of those are more or less “objective” by virtue of their content.

    Once there is an “exception to the rule” clause, then we have the question of who decides the contingencies. And that makes the “objective truth” inherently subjective.

  49. JHW says:

    Teresa: It’s true that cultural evolution is how we come to realize it. But its force is just in itself. Equality makes sense because we come to realize that the kinds of reasons we have to treat people fairly don’t distinguish based on race, class, sex, sexual orientation, etc.; freedom makes sense because we come to realize that we are not the only rational agents in the world, that we have not been designated masters of the universe such that we have authority to direct the lives of other people. (These are just a brief reference to suggestive considerations, that even in fully-developed form would not amount to a “proof”—but you will labor in vain for a proof of many of even the most trivial and widely accepted truth claims, both in and out of the realm of morality.)

    La Lubu: Who “decides” what the gravitational constant is, or whether 7 is a prime number? Moral truth is not legislated by anyone, it just is. Of course, we have to make decisions about which moral claims we accept and which we don’t, but that doesn’t make moral truth “subjective” any more than the fact that the same is true of scientific claims makes scientific truth subjective.

  50. Thanks to everyone for participating in this thread! If you’d like to see the thread continue, let me know (barry.deutsch@gmail.com) and I’ll create a sequel thread.

    Schroeder says:

    I’m not really sure how you’re using the word “opinion.” It seems (to me) that you keep switching how you use that word within your piece.

    Good catch. The very last time I use the word “opinion” – “That makes their belief in Objective Moral Truth… just another opinion” – I use the word opinion in the first sense you bring up, “a belief we hold with imperfect access to the truth but that is, nevertheless, true or false.”

    However, in all other instances in my post, I use the word opinion in the second sense you describe, “an ‘opinion’ as opposed to a ‘fact.’”

    I can’t demonstrate that this is true, but I can show that there are all sorts of unpleasant consequences if you believe it is not true.

    1) This is the same mistake that I believe Matthew made earlier in this thread. That something being true carries unpleasant consequences does not, logically, have any effect on if it is true or not. If it is true that global warming exists, that carries horrible consequences; but those horrible consequences don’t mean that global warming does not exist.

    That said, I don’t think the unpleasant consequences you allege are all true. In particular, this seems false:

    1. If moral opinions are “just opinions,” then saying something like “I prefer to hate gay people” is akin to saying “I prefer Peanuts to Hi & Lois” or “I prefer chocolate ice cream.”

    It is trivially true that these three statements are akin to each other (grammatically, for instance). But in practice, we don’t have to suppose that there is a deity, or in objective moral truth, in order to distinguish between these statements. In practice, the overwhelming majority of people (atheists included) hold opinions in common, such as “we both believe is better to be kind than to be unkind” or “we both believe in the golden rule.” Beginning with such common ground, it’s usually not difficult to see why “I prefer to hate gay people” is problematic but “I prefer chocolate ice cream” is not.

    3. Objective moral truth is not nonexistent just because not everyone believes in it or because it can’t be demonstrated. I can’t demonstrate to you that I ate some pita chips yesterday, but that doesn’t make it any less true (or false).

    What you ate yesterday can, at least in principle, be proven. Perhaps you filmed yourself eating while reading yesterday’s newspaper, for example. Or perhaps we can examine the contents of your stomach via surgery (strictly outpatient, you’ll be back on your feet within a week!). Or perhaps you were kind enough to eat lunch on stage in an auditorium with 200 witnesses we can question. Or perhaps scientists will invent a time machine and we can go back in time to yesterday and join you for lunch (I’ll bring dessert with me).

    We won’t prove what you ate for lunch yesterday – but, in principle, it’s something that can be proven. This makes it entirely unlike the existence (or content!) of objective moral truth, which cannot even in principle be proven.

    But Barry, without objective moral truth, there are no horrible things. There are just things that Person A or Person B like or dislike.

    In my belief system, there are no objective wrongs; there are just things that I believe to be wrong.

    In contrast, in your system, there are objective wrongs, but you cannot know what they are with 100% certainty (because you wisely realize that you are not all-knowing or incapable of error). So in practice, you have no access to a certain list of objective wrongs; there are just things that you believe to be objectively wrong.

    I fail to see any practical distinction between your position and mine. In either case, we cannot be certain of right or wrong; we only have unprovable beliefs about what is right or wrong.

    The Golden Rule arises fairly naturally from the human trait of empathy, which in turn may have come about through the amoral process of evolution.

    This is another way of saying that morality is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It seems like you are conflating these two concepts. To read why I think it is dangerous to conflate these, see my example above about the psychopath. Or watch this movie. This argument is always weird to me. There is also solid scientific evidence that humans are pre-programmed to be irrational. Does that mean it’s good to be irrational?

    You misunderstand me. I never said empathy was “good” because it may arise naturally; on the contrary, I emphasized the amoral nature of evolution. Evolution explains why empathy is such a common human trait, but it says nothing about if empathy is good or bad.

    It’s my opinion that empathy is good because empathy facilitates things I believe to be good, such as compassion, and the Golden Rule. Not because it arises naturally. (Indeed, I can think of things that arise naturally that I believe to be bad, such as xenophobia).

    Teresa says:

    Barry, et. al., that’s not how the Scholastics developed ‘Natural Law’ theory, as I understand it. Natural Law, embodying objective moral truths, was seen as given to man, embedded within each of us, by our Creator. It’s ‘knowable’ by most men. Absolute Truth is God, or one of His many infinite ‘goods’.

    Teresa, that’s one way of looking at it. But many prominent proponents of Natural Law Theory – Robert George, for example – argue that Natural Law is an objective moral truth that can and does exist without any need to suppose the existence of God.

    JHW:

    Who “decides” what the gravitational constant is, or whether 7 is a prime number? Moral truth is not legislated by anyone, it just is. Of course, we have to make decisions about which moral claims we accept and which we don’t, but that doesn’t make moral truth “subjective” any more than the fact that the same is true of scientific claims makes scientific truth subjective.

    7 is not divisible by any whole numbers but itself and one. That remains true regardless of if there are any people to notice that it is true, or to make up the label “prime number” and apply it. The label “prime number” only exists in the human mind, but the situation described by the term “prime number” is objectively real and would exist even if all humans died tomorrow.

    And if (happily) we aren’t all wiped out, then it is in principle possible to demonstrate that seven is a prime. In contrast, “moral truth” doesn’t appear to have existence outside the human mind, and cannot even in principle be demonstrated or proven.