Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A project on morality

So, I've set myself a project. It's an ambitious project, I suspect, but I'm looking forward to it.

This project is to determine whether I consider morality to be an objective or subjective/relative thing. I lean toward it being objective in some sense, but I could be wrong. I've never truly looked at arguments for it being subjective, after all. In the process, I suspect that doing this will either confirm or disconfirm where morality "comes from." I've done a related study when I studied Dan Fincke's Empowerment Ethics, and provisionally accepted it. For this project I'll once again be looking at Dr. Fincke's work, since he has a number of posts on the subject, but I'll also be expanding beyond that and trying to find other arguments for or against objective morality (do you know of good sources, ideally free? let me know!). I'll be writing up some of what I find and attempting to give them all a fair hearing.

Right from the start though, let me just say that there is one theory I already know about, and won't bother considering: Divine Command Theory. Pretend there's a god. Divine Command Theory states whatever God commands, that is the morally correct thing to do (or not do). Some theologians have claimed that the reason this is so is that God, by his nature, is perfectly good, or virtuous. As such, anything he commands will be perfectly good, because a perfectly good being could not command otherwise. Other theologians have stated that God's commands are good simply because God commanded them. I have problems with both versions.

If God's commands are good simply because God commanded them, then that makes morality completely arbitrary, and up to the whims of God. One century it's ok for conquering soldiers to take the virgin women they find as their wives, the next it's not. In such a case, morality is not objective, but rather completely subjective. It's just that there's only one being that is the deciding subject.

If God's commands are good because God is perfectly good and can't command otherwise (or simply would never choose to; it amounts to the same thing), then that just pushes the problem back a step. In such a case, one is left with "where does God get his morality?" What reasoning does he use to arrive at perfectly good commands? See the issue?

By the way, this issue was addressed centuries ago in Plato's dialogue "Euthyphro."

So, I will not be considering Divine Command Theory as a basis for morality, and I suspect that I wouldn't give it serious weight even if I were a theist, given what I said above, unless I first eliminated the idea of objective morality.

Anyway, as I said at the start of this post, this is an ambitious project. Whether morality is objective or not has been argued about for millenia, so I don't expect that whatever solution I come to, whatever side of the debate I end up falling on, that everyone will agree with me. I encourage my readers to give me their arguments!


  1. Recommendation: Joshua Greene's thesis (available via Google) was very helpful for me in figuring some things out about "morality." I don't know if Greene calls himself a moral nonrealist, but that's how I'd describe him.

    Also, I noticed that you haven't defined the thing you're asking for arguments about. I think a lot of questions that people consider difficult to answer are really just poorly posed. Given a falsifiable definition of "morality," it's not so difficult to say whether it's objective or not. For example, define a "moral act" as an act that decreases physical or mental harm to a person (as measured by, say, bodily injury or cortisol levels) without causing a greater harm. I don't think it's very controversial to say that "morality" (as defined) is objective. It's difficult to measure in practice, and maybe not even useful - but it's objective. It has nothing to do with what I *think* about, say, lying, and everything to do with measurable levels of things in the real world.

    So what exactly is the thing you're going to be investigating?

  2. I think the question of morality that I'll be investigating is exactly what Dan Fincke says in this quote:

    "The main question in morality is, “How can we determine that we genuinely must do something even when it goes against our immediate, personal feelings, desires, will, perceived interests, etc.?” This is the normative question. Why must we do anything? What makes anything obligatory?" - See more at:

    I agree with him that that question is the main question for morality as I see it. Ultimately, harm reduction may be part of that answer, or it may be that harm reduction is not, but follows from something else. Basically, I want to know (for example) whether it's purely subjective opinion that I shouldn't steal, or if there's an objective way to determine whether I shouldn't steal or not (beyond the fact that it's against the law).

    Does that make sense? Is it clearer?

    I should note that I haven't clearly defined "objective" or "subjective" at this point, as I think it's possible that I could end up saying something like "If you define 'objective' in way A, then morality is not objective, but if you define it as way B, then morality is objective"

  3. That makes a bit more sense, though I think you haven't said what makes "we must do something" falsifiable.

    I'm going to give an example (which I am ripping directly from Greene.)

    That makes a bit more sense, though I think you haven't said what makes "we must do something" falsifiable.

    I'm going to give an example (which I am ripping directly from Greene.)

    Say you and I disagree that Antarctica exists. You've never been to Antarctica, but you believe the satellite images that you've seen, and the work of cartographers before we had satellites, and the pictures taken by scientists who've worked there, etc. I, on the other hand, think that all of these things are faked.

    So we disagree about the claim that "Antarctica exists." But, we probably agree on *what the truth of this claim consists in.* In other words, if it were true, *what would make it true?*

    If Antarctica exists, that means there is a physical instantiation of a large landmass at the south pole. We could confirm this by taking a ship there, or taking a satellite picture (if my own hands were at the controls and therefore knew it wasn't a fake). Knowing something about oceanography might also tell me that ocean currents on planet Earth will be different depending on whether there is a giant mass of ice at the south pole as opposed to just more water. We could verify Antarctica's existence by checking ocean currents. And so on.

    So although you and I disagree on the fact of Antartica's existence, we know what it means for that claim to be true. We know what the truth of the claim consists in, and so we know how to decide which one of us is correct about the claim.

    Moral claims usually stop making sense around this point. If you tell me "Bobby lied," I know what the truth of that claim consists in (Bobby said something that he knew to be false, with the intent of deceiving someone). But if you tell me "Bobby shouldn't lie," I don't know what makes that true.

    Or to use Fincke's language, if you say "you must do X", what does the truth of that statement consist in?

    So I originally asked you "what is it you're going to be investigating," and you said, a la Fincke, "how can we determine that we must do something?" To me this seems equivalent to asking "how can we determine whether Antarctica exists," while eliding the harder question "what does it mean to say that Antarctica exists" (or, "what does it mean to say that one must do something"?)

    Sorry, that got long ^_^;

  4. No worries about it getting long; you took as much space as needed.

    I can see your point, and will have to keep that in mind as I proceed. Thank you!