I have stated in the past that all morality is opinion, but it has occurred to me recently that an argument could be made for objective morality.
In the past, I have rek’d theists on morality, often arguing against what they claim is objective morality, but is actually very obviously subjective.
Theist A: My book says this is wrong!
Theist B: My book says your book is wrong!
—An argument between two supposedly objective moral systems. Forgive me if I don’t buy it.
Today, I’m going to beat them at their own game. Objective morality from a book of myths was never going to happen, but from science and secular philosophy, there’s certainly a chance.
I am presenting an argument that I myself do not necessarily support. I’m on the fence. Part of the reason I’m posting it is to get feedback, and establish how effective it is, by the opinions of both allies and adversaries.
The abandonment of this idea, if that happens, would not have any affect whatsoever on my secularism, my moral philosophy, or really anything else. This is an atomic issue. ‘Winning’ an argument about this gains you nothing more than refuting what is contained in this article.
Any discourse I have on this matter will be discussion of an idea, not a debate.
There are two different ways to interpret objectivity in this context. Effectively it boils down to epistemology and ontology, in other words – what is knowable and what is true, respectively.
Epistemic Objectivity is how Sam Harris believes morality can be objective, that is, it can be objectively analysed / defined. Science is objective in this sense, meaning to be without bias. Of course, bias is often unavoidable, but science systematically and systemically works to eradicate it. I emphatically agree with Sam Harris that morality can be analysed and defined objectively.
Ontological Objectivity is how I’m proposing morality could be objective, that is, that a moral system could be inherent to the universe, just as matter and energy are. This seems to me to be how theists think their morality is objective, since they think the source of this morality is also the source of the universe.
Hopefully, the form of objectivity I intend when I use the word in this article will be clear by the context, if I haven’t specified it. “Objectively true” will always refer to ontological objectivity.
How we get there
What do we look for when we look for something ontologically objective? It would have to exist regardless of considerations by intelligences; such considerations would make the thing subjective, so I’ll be avoiding them.
We also have to consider the scope we’re working with. The universe is the greatest scope we have actual knowledge of, but a virtual absolute scope can be referred to as the cosmos or simply existence.
It would also be necessary to consider what axioms we’ll be reasoning with. Such axioms may be “the reality we perceive is real”, which excludes solipsism and abstract existentialism. I know several atheists who’ll be pleased I’m not straying towards either, and several theists who will probably insist upon straying there, because they have no other means of refutation.
These qualifications do not make a thing any less objectively true or existent, they just allow us to understand what we mean by objective and existent.
For the purposes of this article, I will be treating the universe as the appropriate scope, and accepting the axiom about reality that I mentioned. I don’t think treating the cosmos (all of existence) as the scope would affect the argument, but it might confuse the issue with questions of what the universe actually is. I’d be willing to argue within either scope, but let’s stick with the universe for simplicity.
The Unbroken Road
I see an unbroken (if bumpy) road of logic leading from the real universe to morality which does not involve subjective considerations. Here’s that road, in the form of syllogisms:
Matter is inherent to the universe
Life is formed of matter, by a natural and non-subjective process (no designer)
Therefore, Life is inherent to the universe
Life in inherent to the universe
All life has a biological imperative to survive
Therefore, the biological imperative to survive is inherent to the universe
The biological imperative to survive is inherent to the universe
Suffering can be defined as any state of life which results in a lower probability of survival
Therefore, Suffering is inherent to the universe
Suffering is inherent to the universe
Morality can be defined as a system which favours actions based on how little overall suffering they cause
Therefore, morality is inherent to the universe
“Evolution has a subjective component”
Yes it does, and it comes in the form of mate selection, predation, and social behaviour.
However, none of these components exist in all life, but by this defence alone, the scope of the morality I’m suggesting would still be very limited. Although, since simplicity determines the veracity of this refutation, at what point do we switch from objectivity to subjectivity?
But most importantly, my reasoning does not depend on what occurs in the process, but simply that the process is natural. Evolution itself is inherent to the universe, and everything done by every animal as part of evolution is an evolved behaviour. This should bring us onto the next refutation:
“Aren’t you just trying to redefine subjective as objective?”
An understandable criticism, as it seems that what I’m saying is that everything life does is inherent to the universe.
Again, I don’t think my reasoning depends on what happens within natural processes (what life does), only the fact that the process is natural.
However, to address a wider question for a moment: Perhaps as we learn more about reality, the lines between objectivity and subjectivity will become more and more blurred? Materialism and secularism already remove many imaginary separations from the two, proposing that life is the universe, not just something unique contained within it.
We are a way for the cosmos to know itself
Perhaps it is time to be the universe philosophically.
And I said I wouldn’t get into existentialism…
“The imperative to survive is subjective”
I did make sure to write biological imperative. Bacteria has such an imperative, though it is very rudimentary. I’m not talking about a will, desire, or intention to survive, just a naturally prevalent biochemical tendency towards survival – basically the core principle of evolution.
“Come on now… Suffering isn’t subjective??”
Possibly not with the way I’m using the term.
I agree that by the usual interpretation / usage, it is practically necessarily subjective. I made sure to specify what I meant, that, as with the last refutation, I’m not referring to a will, desire, or intention; not a personal preference. If indeed the biological imperative for survival is inherent to the universe, then anything which detracts from that goal is inherently negative.
This should carry us to the next refutation:
“Aren’t you assuming a goal for life? Seems that would be subjective.”
This may be the weak area of the proposition. Why should the biological imperative to survive present in life be treated as objectively positive? It’s something the universe does, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or good. It’s something life prefers, but that’s subjective.
There is a possibility, though. Entropy.
The second law of thermodynamics concerns entropy. Every closed system always tends towards maximum entropy, that is, the state at which energy is dispersed as uniformly as possible. In the real universe, maximum entropy means that energy would no longer be clumped together as matter, and that at every point in space, the energy would be the same infinitesimal quantity.
Everything that exists in the universe is something which did not tend towards entropy. The survival of a life-form undeniably defies entropy in that specific life-form. Procreation is an attempt to prolong and improve the resistance to entropy. It seems to be something inherent to not only life, but all that exists. Whether that can be called a goal, I’m not sure.
If there is one objective super-villain, it’s Entropy. It seems that the universe, though doomed to reach entropy one day, ‘intends’ to dodge it for a long as possible in as many ways as possible… is the universe subjective?
I’m not a casuist, honest…
If these refutations are enough to convince you that morality cannot be objective, so be it, I don’t even disagree.
If you believe that morality is objective, as I have proposed, I think you may be making a leap, but I want to hear your reasoning.
If, however, these refutations are only enough to bring you to claim that morality can be ‘practically objective’ or ‘nearly objective’, then I think I have achieved something worthwhile.
What does any of this change? Not very much. I still think Harris’ scientific approach to morality is quintessentially important and valuable. Even if ontologically objective morality did exist, that wouldn’t help us; by the definitive nature of ontology, it’s not absolutely knowable. Epistemology is what is known, and moral philosophy ultimately must be epistemic.
All this proposition might do is solve an age-old quandary about the nature of morality. It’s not the kind of thing we’re going to be able to find evidence for, but philosophy still holds an important place in the human journey, even amidst the rightfully monolithic domain of science.
What I hope we can agree upon, theist or atheist, opposed or convinced, is that moral philosophy at least can be far more complex and deep than mere theology. Your god, whether real or not, couldn’t be an epistemic source of objective morality, even if it was an ontological source, as we’d have no way to know if it was a deception, or a delusion.
We’d need moral philosophy whether an objective standard existed or not.