The Inherent Moral Quandry

moralityOver on Atheist Revolution, vjack wrote a post on morality and we got into some debate there, with myself playing the devil’s advocate, over why morality is inherently subjective.  I really don’t understand why so many atheists have such a problem with this, it seems quite obvious to me.

So what is objective morality?  It really means that it must be a demonstrable standard that exists beyond humanity.  If we compare it to science, say, the speed of light in a vacuum, that’s objective.  It is the same for everyone, it is independently measurable and testable and anyone who disagrees on it is simply demonstrably wrong.  One’s opinion on the subject is entirely irrelevant.  Unfortunately, a lot of people get very uncomfortable when it comes to moral questions because there really is no way to objectively validate one’s opinion.  That’s why so many people have tried, over the centuries, to declare morality comes from an authority figure, a god or a monarch or a powerful individual, because then they can just stop asking questions.  Unfortunately, none of those claims are demonstrably true, the only claim that has any evidence behind it is that morals come from us.

The reality remains that all attempts at moral standards, except for one that nobody wants to acknowledge, are based on subjective desires, not objective facts.  The one that nobody wants?  Survival of the fittest, which, while entirely defensible via evolution, makes people uncomfortable when applied to a social setting.  Anything that a human has to come up with is inherently subjective.

In the end, it all comes down to opinion and opinion is largely determined by social indoctrination and upbringing.  People raised in a certain way will largely believe certain things.  People raised in a Christian setting will believe differently than people raised in a Muslim setting, or a Buddhist setting, or a Jainist setting.  People raised in America will think differently than people raised in China or Nigeria or some South Seas island.  People raised with a liberal ideology will have different attitudes than people who are raised with a conservative ideology.  Almost every single one of these different belief systems are going to think that all the rest of them are wrong.  How do we dispassionately determine which, if any of these groups is actually right?  Well, if it’s a matter of facts, the age of the earth, the origins of the universe, it’s not that hard, we can look at the actual evidence and make a determination, but what if it’s not?  What if there is no actually right system?  You can argue that there’s a best system, but your evaluation would be inherently subjective because there’s no universally agreed upon standard for being best.

Let’s look at two opposing systems.  If you take 10 people who believe in Sharia law and 10 people who believe in the Western democratic process, you’re going to get virtually no agreement.  Let’s look particularly at a single point of contention, women’s rights.  The people who agree with Sharia law, be they men or women, are going to agree that women don’t deserve as many, if any, rights as men.  People who believe in Western democracy will disagree.  So how  do you determine which side is actually right?  You’d have to get them all to agree on a common standard, something we all know wouldn’t happen.  While I guess that one side could impose a standard on the other by force, let’s assume that’s not acceptable.  So now what?  Well, as vjack suggested, we could fall back on the idea of “enlightened self-interest”, upon which I would argue that all morality rests and examine the beliefs again.  The people on the Western side would point to equality and fairness and all that, the people on the Sharia side would point to men being in power and their self-interest in keeping the status quo, etc.  Again, you’re not going to get any kind of agreement between the two groups because they are fundamentally coming at the question from diametrically opposed positions.

So does this mean that all positions are equally valid?  It depends on what you mean.  You don’t have to like all moral positions equally, you get to pick and choose based on your personal views and background, but so does everyone else.  You might dislike their system, they might dislike your system, someone else might dislike both systems.  How do we come to a conclusion?  The answer is… we don’t.  Since all of these views are inherently subjective, there’s no way for them to compete in the arena of ideas and come up with a winner.  The unfortunate fact is that it usually comes down to the survival of the strongest and their ability to force others to accede to their ideas via military, economic or political force.  However, I don’t think force is a legitimate means of determining fact.  You don’t get the military forces of science rolling into the capital of Creationismville in their tanks to prove the factual superiority of evolution.  Neither should the forces of Sharia law invade Western democracies militarily to prove the power of their beliefs.  In reality, we’re just left with two opposing sides, neither of which can demonstrate they’re more or less true than the other, which have to find some way to coexist.  Nobody has to like one side over the other, they just have to live with it and perhaps try to bring more people around to their way of thinking.  However, it’s not a moral decision, it’s no more objective than arguing over your favorite flavor of ice cream.

In any case, people need to accept and deal with the fact that human social and moral interaction is often messy and inherently subjective and that there just is no one objectively, factually, demonstrably “correct” system.  It’s all opinion.  That’s just the way it is.

8 thoughts on “The Inherent Moral Quandry

  1. I expect you are already aware of this, but I feel it is important to point out that much of science fails to meet what you mean by "objective" here. While some findings from the physical sciences could be said to be objective in this sense, the process of science is often quite subjective. And we'd need to dismiss the social sciences and much of medical science as being subjective. In these areas, anything short of double-blind controlled trials could be labeled subjective, and this would rule out most of what we have learned from these fields. This doesn't seem to leave much, even in science.
    My recent post Newsnight Acknowledges Controversy, Misses Point

    1. Science is based on evidence, mathematics and models, not on what the scientist wants to be true. There is something entirely separate from the scientist which leads them to think that a particular concept is factually true. And to be honest, most social sciences are not science in the same way as the hard physical sciences are, so yes, you would have to dismiss those, and we should, they're not really in the same league. Medical science though, most things we can make predictions about and test those predictions, we can build up a database of what works and what does not, that's how we can separate true medicine from woo.

  2. I think this is a valid debate. I don't feel their is evidence for objective morality, we only have evidence for commonly (but not universally) agreed upon morals cross culture–all of which have valid reasoning behind them that makes the assumed transcendent nature of morality redundant. For example, people killing other people with very good reason would result in a culture where constant fear and violence would make progress impossible, that's plenty reason for why the vast majority of us have an aversion to murder.

    Still, everyone doesn't have to agree on something for it to be objectively true. I could believe the speed of light is 88mph, but that doesn't make the speed of light subjective. I feel a definition of morality could be applied objectively. If we say that which causes more harm to others than benefit to others is immoral, we could grade moral acts objectively according to that definition, as long as we agree on the definitions of "harm" and "benefit." 🙂
    My recent post The 8th Sin Paradox

    1. I'm not saying there aren't perfectly valid moral systems, we just need to recognize that they are all inherently subjective and we can't declare one objectively correct and all the rest wrong, it all comes down to opinion and preference, just like any human endeavor. That's really why the religious try to declare their source of morality beyond humanity, it's so they don't have to debate it anymore, they can just demand that it's true and that somehow, they have the one true morality and that's the end of that. They want the easy way out, but I think it's important to realize that with moral questions, there is no easy way, it's a complex system where nobody is objectively right and nobody is objectively wrong, it all depends on building a consensus and logically constructing morals from a rational premise. Yet I see far too many atheists also trying to find an easy way out. They want to pick the premise and construct the moral framework and call all of it "objective" Morals can be no more objective than laws can be. We pick our laws, we decide what ought to be right and wrong, we choose the penalties. All of it is totally subjective, just like our morals. I'm trying to point out to atheists that they ought to recognize these facts and deal with them instead of being just as irrational as the theists are and I'm honestly not sure why that's such a problematic issue.

  3. For me the biggest problem with this debate is to try wrap my head around that some morals like Sharia law which you pointed out are in themselves not bad but its my morals which I have decided upon that makes it looks bad. Thankfully I have the right to choose with which moral system I want to live by which is not something that everyone is afforded.
    My recent post Humans not that special

    1. Everyone can pick their own moral code, that doesn't mean they're not held accountable to the morals and laws of the society in which they live. You are too. If you decided to live by a moral code that called for you to be a cannibal, you wouldn't get away with that in the context of larger society either.

      1. To be held accountable I agree with that. What I meant with the last stetement “Thankfully I have the right to choose with which moral system I want to live by which is not something that everyone is afforded.” was two fold, the one that you pointed out. Additionally, the fact that I am able to choose to not live in a country with Sharia law for example.

        1. If you lived in abject poverty and could not move, either financially or physically, to another country, you probably wouldn't be able to choose not to live in a country with Sharia law, assuming you were born there. Not everyone has that choice, even though I think they should, that's just not the reality.

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