Author Topic: Do you believe in objective morality?  (Read 22591 times)

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Offline arthwollipot

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #15 on: June 08, 2018, 06:56:04 PM »
The fact that different people can consider different things moral and immoral demonstrates that morality can only be subjective.

Does the fact that different people can hold different beliefs about the nature of Universe demonstrate that the nature of Universe can only be subjective?
We're not talking about the nature of the universe, we're talking about morality. They are very different things.

Some theories of morality, like the various forms of ethical naturalism, are indeed objective though not everyone agrees on them.
The fact that you can even use the phrase "some theories of morality" shows that morality is not objective. That some people believe it to be so doesn't make it so.

If someone claims that morality predates humanity then I'd have to ask them to give me their definition of morality.

Some aspects of morality can be observed in non-human animals such as chimpanzees and even dogs.
Yes, those animals are also social animals, and the morality we see in them matches our own only broadly, and only inasmuch as it eases social interactions. Chimps can show kindness and concern for others, but they'll still stalk and murder other apes just for fun.
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Offline John Albert

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #16 on: June 08, 2018, 07:41:15 PM »
Just because all people don't agree on the details does not mean that ethical naturalism is not objective.

In philosophy, a proposition is said to be "objective" if its truth is independent of the person holding that opinion. For example, the nature of the universe is objective in the same way.

For some proposition of morality to be objective, it would have to be true independently of the person who is stating it.

Many philosophers over the years have proposed measures and systems of objective morality. Kant's "categorical imperatives" is one such measure. Kant argues that a moral proposition can be considered "objective" if it can be applied in any situation whatsoever. Another theory of objective morality would be Hume's "utilitarianism," which is based on the practical outcome: Which course of action leads to the greatest good for the greatest number of people? That mathematical assessment would hold, regardless of personal opinion about the ethical proposition itself.
« Last Edit: June 08, 2018, 07:43:43 PM by John Albert »

Offline arthwollipot

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #17 on: June 08, 2018, 07:49:14 PM »
Sure, but none of that means that objective morality actually exists. There are several operational definitions of morality that have have the appearance of objectivity, but in the end it still remains true that morality cannot have any existence independent of the people and the society that contains them.
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Offline John Albert

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #18 on: June 08, 2018, 08:25:36 PM »
Morality is ultimately a value judgment. It can be objective, or not.

All "objective" means is that a particular proposition is true regardless of who says it.

"Objective" doesn't mean that it's an intentional feature of the universe or that it exists by decree of some supernatural being or overarching set of mores.

Categorical imperatives, for example, are "objective" by virtue of being inarguably necessary to bring about an agreeable moral outcome.

For example, if human starvation is deemed bad, then feeding the hungry is an objectively moral act by virtue of being a categorical imperative to reduce starvation. That statement is objectively true, despite being dependent on a subjective opinion that human starvation is a bad thing. If some culture holds the belief that human starvation is not necessarily bad, then that feeding the hungry would not be an imperative for somebody acting according to that culture. That's why it's called a "categorical imperative" rather than a "universal imperative."
« Last Edit: June 09, 2018, 05:50:18 PM by John Albert »

Offline brilligtove

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #19 on: June 08, 2018, 10:04:09 PM »
Morality is ultimately a value judgment. It can be objective, or not.

All "objective" means is that a particular proposition is true regardless of who says it.

"Objective" doesn't mean that it's an intentional feature of the universe or that it exists by decree of some supernatural being or overarching set of mores.

Categorical imperatives, for example, are "objective" by virtue of being inarguably necessary to bring about an agreeable moral outcome. For example, if human starvation is deemed bad, then feeding the hungry is a moral act by virtue of being a categorical imperative to reduce starvation. That statement is objectively true, despite being dependent on a subjective opinion that human starvation is a bad thing. If some culture holds the belief that human starvation is not necessarily bad, then that feeding the hungry would not be an imperative for somebody acting according to that culture. That's why it's called a "categorical imperative" rather than a "universal imperative."

This doesn't avoid the lack of objectivity in morality because "is deemed bad" or "is deemed good" presumes a moral position. Saying something bad is bad because it's bad is not a particularly compelling argument. Well, unless you are compelled by circularity?
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Offline arthwollipot

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #20 on: June 09, 2018, 04:10:59 AM »
Morality is ultimately a value judgment. It can be objective, or not.

All "objective" means is that a particular proposition is true regardless of who says it.

"Objective" doesn't mean that it's an intentional feature of the universe or that it exists by decree of some supernatural being or overarching set of mores.
I've always taken it to mean that, in the context of the phrase "objective morality". And as demonstrated by the comment that morality predates humanity, that's what the people who believe in objective morality believe it means too.

You can use your own definition of the word if you want, but you risk being misunderstood.
« Last Edit: June 09, 2018, 04:14:25 AM by arthwollipot »
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Offline daniel1948

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #21 on: June 09, 2018, 09:37:16 AM »
Morality is ultimately a value judgment. It can be objective, or not.

All "objective" means is that a particular proposition is true regardless of who says it.

"Objective" doesn't mean that it's an intentional feature of the universe or that it exists by decree of some supernatural being or overarching set of mores.

Categorical imperatives, for example, are "objective" by virtue of being inarguably necessary to bring about an agreeable moral outcome. For example, if human starvation is deemed bad, then feeding the hungry is a moral act by virtue of being a categorical imperative to reduce starvation. That statement is objectively true, despite being dependent on a subjective opinion that human starvation is a bad thing. If some culture holds the belief that human starvation is not necessarily bad, then that feeding the hungry would not be an imperative for somebody acting according to that culture. That's why it's called a "categorical imperative" rather than a "universal imperative."

Emphasis mine.

And there we have it. In the highlighted example, the morality asserted is subjective because the argument depends on someone considering it bad. All philosophies of morality begin with a subjective opinion of what behavior or end result is desirable or not desirable, or else an untestable assertion of what some supreme lawgiver wants.
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Offline John Albert

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #22 on: June 09, 2018, 06:12:38 PM »
This doesn't avoid the lack of objectivity in morality because "is deemed bad" or "is deemed good" presumes a moral position.

It's not necessarily subjective, because it's not necessarily an individual opinion. It could be a voluntarily shared one (in the sense of cultural mores) or an authoritatively enforced one (in the sense of a law). Both of those conditions transcend individual personal opinions.


Saying something bad is bad because it's bad is not a particularly compelling argument.

I'm not saying "something bad is bad because it's bad." I was just explaining the reasoning behind Kant's categorical imperatives, and why they're logically objective.


You can use your own definition of the word if you want, but you risk being misunderstood.

It's not my own definition. I didn't make it up.

Numerous definitions already exist. How one defines morality is the crux of the issue. Various cultures define morality differently. Some religions define it as "whatever our religious scriptures tell us about good and evil." I just happen to define morality in a secular way, just like most philosophers of ethics do.

Secular humanists argue that invoking supernatural authorities is not even genuine morality at all, because no supernatural being has never been shown to exist. Furthermore, some allegedly supernatural moral commands (such as slavery and human sacrifice) are widely known to be immoral. Humanism therefore defines morality according to secular ethics.

There's no inherent reason why a secular form of ethics (informed by scientific understanding and based in shared social mores), cannot be just as "objective" as a set of arbitrary laws written and interpreted by religious leaders on the false authority of a supernatural entity.


And there we have it. In the highlighted example, the morality asserted is subjective because the argument depends on someone considering it bad.

Nice "gotcha moment" there, but I disagree. Morality is not necessarily dependent on some one person's opinion, but could also be dependent on some shared system of ethics. I'd even go so far as to suggest that to a large degree this is already the case, due to the prevalence of religious laws and social mores in cultures all around the world.


All philosophies of morality begin with a subjective opinion of what behavior or end result is desirable or not desirable, or else an untestable assertion of what some supreme lawgiver wants.

The assertion "that the absence of a supernatural decree must therefore render morality completely subjective" is just a fiction of religion. What it really is, is a false dichotomy. Religious "morals" are no more objective than any other mutually-agreed set of mores. If one is subjective, then they're all subjective.

But according to the philosophical definition of "objective," I believe that a mutually-agreed, objective system of morality is at least theoretically possible.

Take for example our modern legal systems. An individual can disagree with a particular law, but that doesn't change the fact that the law objectively exists and violating that law is objectively illegal. The law might even change according to time and place, but that doesn't make it subjective. Marijuana is illegal in the state of New York but was made legal in California on January 1 of this year. If you're caught in possession of pot in New York, you could incur legal penalties even if you're originally from California. Why? Because even though it changes from time to time and place to place, the law is objective, not subjective.   

All philosophies of morality begin with either a mutually agreed-upon or forcefully dictated opinion of what behavior or end result is desirable or not desirable. That's not to say it's necessarily subjective. It could be subjective, or it could be objective, depending on how you choose to define it.

That's assuming you're using the philosophical definition of "objective" and "subjective," as I am.

Of course you could argue that forcibly dictated law is not necessarily moral, and I would agree. History and current events provide innumerable examples of immoral laws, and forcing another person to abide by some arbitrary law could itself be seen as immoral. That argument would further invalidate the religious claim to morality.

But does it invalidate the idea that an objective theory of morality can't derive from mutually-shared social mores? I like to remain hopeful.
« Last Edit: June 09, 2018, 08:18:59 PM by John Albert »

Offline daniel1948

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #23 on: June 09, 2018, 06:58:25 PM »
And there we have it. In the highlighted example, the morality asserted is subjective because the argument depends on someone considering it bad.

Nice "gotcha moment" there, but I disagree. Morality is not necessarily dependent on some one person's opinion, but could also be dependent on some shared system of ethics.

Nitpicking: A "shared system of ethics" is merely the opinion of some arbitrary group of people. Whether it's one person or a group, it's still their subjective opinion of what's good or bad. It still comes down to a subjective opinion. Different groups or even individuals within the group will hold different views and arrive at entirely different moral imperatives.

... That's assuming you're using the philosophical definition of "objective" and "subjective," as I am.

I don't know the "philosophical" definitions of objective and subjective, as opposed to the dictionary definitions. For me, objective means it has reality irrespective of the opinion or belief of any given individual. Subjective means it's in the mind of the beholder. Are we just arguing over the meaning of the word "objective"?

When I say that morality is subjective, what I mean to express is that it is a human concept that exists only within the minds of people, and there is no material or scientific way to establish that one is "true" while another is "false." Each is only a concept of mind, which may or may not be shared among a group of people.
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Offline John Albert

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #24 on: June 09, 2018, 07:51:36 PM »
I don't know the "philosophical" definitions of objective and subjective, as opposed to the dictionary definitions. For me, objective means it has reality irrespective of the opinion or belief of any given individual. Subjective means it's in the mind of the beholder. Are we just arguing over the meaning of the word "objective"?

Given that you understand objectivity, can you understand how an abstract value judgment (such as "human starvation is bad") can be objectively transformed via logic into an actionable moral imperative (such as "we should feed the poor")? 

That's all Kant's theory of categorical imperative is about, translating a value judgment into a prescribed action. It's a solution to a problem, a baby step in the general direction toward establishing an objective system of morality.

Other philosophers worked on other practical problems in ethics. For example, Utilitarianism assesses the moral value of a given action by the favorability of its outcome. 


When I say that morality is subjective, what I mean to express is that it is a human concept that exists only within the minds of people

But morality is not just a human concept that exists only within the minds of people. Certain fundamentals of moral thought such as compassion and a sense of fairness have been observed in the behavior of different species of animals. The science appears to indicate that morality is an innate behavioral feature in higher vertebrates, is more developed in chimps than in dogs, and may have evolved for some common survival purpose.

It's also important to remember that we are products of our own culture, and not all human societies are as individualistic and self-centered as the 21st Century USA. Some societies have a very strong sense of social mores. The people of those societies strongly agree on their given system of morality.


there is no material or scientific way to establish that one is "true" while another is "false."

Are you sure about that? Maybe there's some way to scientifically assess a moral proposition by quantifying how much it increases individual and collective well-being?


Each is only a concept of mind, which may or may not be shared among a group of people.

Morality and ethics is an active field of philosophical inquiry. Defining a theory of objective morality is an ongoing problem in ethical philosophy.

Defining a wholly objective philosophy may or may not be a feasible outcome, but the work has generated many social benefits along the way. It might help to think of it as a technology, or a "holy grail," like achieving a Unified Quantum Field Theory in the discipline of physics.

Saying "I don't believe in objective morality" is like saying "I don't believe in self-driving cars." Does the fact that you don't believe it exists, also mean that it isn't a noble goal worth striving toward?
« Last Edit: June 09, 2018, 08:32:44 PM by John Albert »

Offline arthwollipot

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #25 on: June 09, 2018, 08:43:21 PM »
It's not my own definition. I didn't make it up.
I didn't say that you did. But it's a very narrow technical definition that is not the same as the one most people understand when they use the word. You're still going to be misunderstood.
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Offline daniel1948

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #26 on: June 10, 2018, 09:26:29 AM »
I don't know the "philosophical" definitions of objective and subjective, as opposed to the dictionary definitions. For me, objective means it has reality irrespective of the opinion or belief of any given individual. Subjective means it's in the mind of the beholder. Are we just arguing over the meaning of the word "objective"?

Given that you understand objectivity, can you understand how an abstract value judgment (such as "human starvation is bad") can be objectively transformed via logic into an actionable moral imperative (such as "we should feed the poor")?  <...snip...>

We all have value judgements. I strongly support feeding (and housing) the poor. Actually, I support economic systems that grant all people the inalienable right to a dignified standard of living. I also oppose cruelty, towards people and other animals as well. (Except bugs. Bugs that trespass on my home are subject to immediate death if I can catch them. Because my value judgements are my own subjective preferences.)

I think that compassion is a good thing. But that also is my subjective preference because, as noted parenthetically above, I have no compassion for bugs on my property. All your examples above are built upon foundations of whatever a particular culture values. There are no absolutes there, just the subjective values of a particular culture.

There are species that practice altruism and compassion. There are others that are utterly ruthless. There are species where cooperation within a group is common if not universal, and others that are complete loners, coming together only to mate for reproduction. Humans, like ants, are a social species and we benefit from cooperation within the tribe, but we are ruthless towards outsiders. In a technological age we would benefit from universal cooperation, but this has nothing to do with "morality." It's just a choice whether we want to exercise our natural greed, or learn from the Prisoners' Dilemma and cooperate to our mutual benefit.

You can define morality as whatever brings the most happiness to the most people, but even that is a subjective definition. Morality is a mental construct, not a principle or law of the material world. The very fact that different cultures have such different moralities should be sufficient evidence that there is no absolute morality. It's all subjective.

(I still have my values, and I feel strongly about them. I just recognize that they are my subjective values. I feel compassion towards people and some other classes of animals, but not toward bugs or some other classes of animals.)
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Offline Henning

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #27 on: June 10, 2018, 12:04:58 PM »
I don't know the Sam Harris argument, but it sounds as if I'd agree mostly with him.

If you can plug in an initial good at the beginning of your moral calculus (ie. do you want to maximize human life, all life, familial bonds, human pleasure, truth, some political agenda), then with enough sciencing, you can make objective moral prescriptions about what is the best thing to do in order to maximize said good. Of course, the sciencing is subject to all the problems regular science is, and the initial "good" is subject to the person starting the calculus.

I am unsure whether most people would call what I describe Objective or Subjective.
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Offline SkeptiQueer

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #28 on: June 10, 2018, 01:19:11 PM »
That sounds like subjective. Objective would say X is a good end goal, and then you would use moral or ehical calculus and science to try to find the rest of the equation to (abusing the metaohor) solve the equation. A subjective view would say that we can debate and reexamine what we believe good to be, and should endeavor to do so in addition to trying to solve the equation.
I don't know the Sam Harris argument, but it sounds as if I'd agree mostly with him.

If you can plug in an initial good at the beginning of your moral calculus (ie. do you want to maximize human life, all life, familial bonds, human pleasure, truth, some political agenda), then with enough sciencing, you can make objective moral prescriptions about what is the best thing to do in order to maximize said good. Of course, the sciencing is subject to all the problems regular science is, and the initial "good" is subject to the person starting the calculus.

I am unsure whether most people would call what I describe Objective or Subjective.
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Offline daniel1948

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Re: Do you believe in objective morality?
« Reply #29 on: June 10, 2018, 01:25:14 PM »
I don't know the Sam Harris argument, but it sounds as if I'd agree mostly with him.

If you can plug in an initial good at the beginning of your moral calculus (ie. do you want to maximize human life, all life, familial bonds, human pleasure, truth, some political agenda), then with enough sciencing, you can make objective moral prescriptions about what is the best thing to do in order to maximize said good. Of course, the sciencing is subject to all the problems regular science is, and the initial "good" is subject to the person starting the calculus.

I am unsure whether most people would call what I describe Objective or Subjective.

I would not call it "morality" at all. I'd call it a rational calculation for achieving a particular desired goal. The goal you choose can be arbitrary, or it can be based on your own subjective preferences. I would like to eliminate poverty among all people and eliminate cruelty toward warm fuzzy animals. If I could achieve a political consensus for these goals we could establish rules of behavior toward their realization. But the choice of goals is a personal or social decision, and so the rules are not a moral system, they are a socio-political economic system.

Really, that's all "morality" comes down to: A set of rules toward achieving an arbitrary set of goals that a ruling elite regards as beneficial to itself.
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