Monday, July 18, 2011

Objective Morality

I just watched a debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on whether the existence of objective morality requires a supernatural source.
It's truly amazing how often debates like this come down to a failure on both sides to define their terms and, further, to agree on those definitions. William Lane Craig and other Christian apologists often accuse the atheist of being unable to justify the existence of objective morals within their naturalistic world-view. The apologist will then discount any argument made for natural objective morality on the basis that it assumes goodness or badness or preferability of certain results like well-being or thriving of sentient creatures, when, without a supernatural law-giver the atheist has no foundation for any such statements. The atheist will progressively simplify his arguments, thinking that the apologist just doesn't get what he's saying, until he gets to the basic statement of something like "it is better for sentient beings not to be in absolute misery." But again the apologist says that he has no basis for this valuation. So the argument, having been reduced to absurdity, hits a dead end.
The problem from the apologist's side is that he is defining "objective morality" differently from the atheist. When he says "objective morals" he means something like "divine commandments". He argues that God is the embodiment of absolute moral perfection and therefore, any quality he possesses is objectively moral and any action that opposes the moral is objectively immoral.
Now obviously, since the atheist does not believe in God, he is not arguing for that definition of "objective morality". Nor would it be logical to argue that objective morality, under the apologist's definition, can exist in the absence of a supernatural God. But the atheist defines "objective morality" differently. The atheist's definition of "objective morality" is something like "universally applicable ethics". He argues for the application of "rule-utilitarian" ethics under which an action is moral if it is likely to cause the most well-being and/or least suffering among all affected sentient creatures and would do likewise if that action were taken as a guideline for what others ought to do in similar situations. So, for example, although it may cause more well being on an overall scale for me to go next door and kick my single neighbor out of his house by force and invite three homeless people to take it over, it would decidedly create a world of less well-being if that action were taken as a guideline for how one ought to act. Everyone would be kicking everybody out of their houses, personal property would become meaningless, etc.
Now this is simply a system of rational ethics which best correlates to the system of conscience that we all have within us, but it does give us an objective, rational method to arrive at a morality which is independent of culture, religion, personal wants and desires, etc. Therefore, it seems to be a pretty good exposition of what an objective morality could look like in a naturalistic world view.
The apologist's only possible argument to this is "well, what makes well-being good? You are arbitrarily setting up your system on the desirability of well-being and the undesirability of suffering."
Obviously, this is absurd, but that is where the defining of terms comes in. At this basic level, you do have to make the assumptions necessary in the definitions of your terms. Well-being is good because I am defining it as good, it has "well" in it. Suffering is bad because I am defining it as bad, what's more, everyone knows its bad, and if you don't accept that then the argument is doomed to fruitlessness anyway.
However, once you can accept that suffering is undesirable and well being is desirable, you have a perfectly legitimate non-supernatural basis for objective morality.
Furthermore, I defy any supernatural moralist to come up with an example of an action which is objectively evil that truly defies rule-utilitarian ethics; that is, an action that all moral people would agree is absolutely deplorable but causes widespread well-being and would do so if taken as a guideline for how others ought to act in similar circumstances. The fact that this can't be done argues that well-being and suffering are the true foundations for our moral systems.


  1. Very interesting post! Thanks for the effort. I'm a good friend of Serge and he asked me to show up, read some of your good lines of thought, and do comment/argue/debate. Hey, don't you get to think that I agree with him :).

    For now I just come by to say hi. BTW there are plenty of examples where given actions are are deplorable and bring benefits to the society as defined/permitted by their established laws. Shall we go there?

  2. Welcome, it's great to know I have some company.
    As to your point, we can go into which system is the best ethical system if you like, but I'm more interested in what is the source of human morality? What you seem to be questioning is which is the best ethical system, specifically the difference between so-called "act-utillitarianism" under which the best action is the action which will cause the most well-being and/or the least suffering, and "rule-utillitarianism" under which the best action is the one which, when taken as a rule for how one ought to act in similar situations, would cause the most well-being and/or the least suffering.
    Now I agree that "act-utillitarianism" is untenable as a proper system of morality. It is the old arguement of "the ends justify the means" it is what justifies evil men in their evil actions such as exterminating 6 million Jews for the greater purpose of purifying the race.
    But "rule-utillitarianism" does not allow for "ends justify the means" arguments, because it takes a wider view and forces one to consider what would happen if others took your action as a guideline for how to act in similar situations. It forces the Nazi to see things from the perspective of the Jew and ask "Would it be o.k. for Jews to systematically exterminate Aryans?" since the answer is obviously "no", then the reverse must also be unacceptable.
    However, like I say I'm more interested in whether well-being and suffering are the apropriate concepts on which to base an objective morality. I argue that they are, but many disagree and claim that you need a supernatural law-giver to have objective morality, and if you don't have that, morals are actually subjective, or cultural dictates, meaning that if society said it was okay to torture babies for fun, it would be okay.

  3. Nik. The source of objective morality, that is the answer to the question of "how to act?" is reason and is both 1) absolute and the same whether you are here, 1000 years ago or in China and 2) discoverable.