Tag Archives: objectivity

The Drifting Definition of Morality

I was recently having a discussion with an atheist over abortion and he was arguing against it, based on his own particular moral views.  He was convinced that society would eventually come around to his way of thinking, overturn RvW and the whole world would be rosy.  So I asked him how he justified his own views of morality, pointing out that the human species routinely changes our views on what is moral and what is not.

300 years ago, it was considered entirely moral to keep slaves, in fact, many argued that it was immoral to let the clearly inferior black people be responsible for themselves because they needed the guidance of clearly superior whites to live worthwhile lives.  Today, that has changed. 100 years ago, women were clearly thought of as inferior citizens, unable to vote, unable to make their own decisions, and in many places, unable to own property in their own name or control their own money.  Today, that has changed.  50 years ago, the idea of gays having the same rights to marry was an immoral idea because gays were thought of as immoral people.  Today, they are able to legally marry and are, at least in most places, thought of as completely equal to straight people.  Things have changed and they continue to change, we aren’t moving toward a moral singularity where everything is going to be moral and perfect and just because there just isn’t any agreement on what constitutes moral perfection.  Every generation thinks they’ve got it all figured out.  Every generation thereafter thinks they were wrong.  Today we think we’re right.  Our children and our children’s children will invariably think we’re immoral monsters.  That’s how the world actually works.

But no, for him, he’s convinced that we’re reaching some kind of moral perfection.  He doesn’t use that term but I think it fits. For him, mankind is achieving a more rational view of morality.  How he defines that in any objective manner is entirely beyond me.  When you can’t get people to agree on what constitutes moral behavior and what does not, how can you ever decide if we’re headed in the right direction?  And even if you could get a consensus, how do you test that that consensus is objectively correct?  And if you can’t do either of those things, we’re right back to where we started, with morality being subjective and nothing demonstrably getting “better” or “worse”.

Of course, none of that really matters because most people don’t like it when you don’t accept their closely held moral ideas, in fact, they get downright nasty about it.  I’m not  going to say that’s what this guy did because he didn’t, he just stopped responding when I wasn’t willing to buy into his beliefs about morality.  I just thought it was interesting that even self-professed atheists can have the same kind of emotional triggers when it comes to very subjective moral views.

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.

Morality is Still Not Objective

Practice-ObjectivityPhilosopher Dan Fincke, on a recent Atheist Experience show, says that atheists ought to accept that morality is objective, just to attract theists.  He says that there are “best” moral values.  Says who?  He’s taking his own personal opinions about morality and imposing it as a “best practice”, yet there are lots of people that would disagree.  This is the same problem that Matt Dillahunty’s “Superiority of Secular Morality” has.

The issue with both is that they are absolutely not objective.  I’ve posted the definition many times before, but there are a lot of atheists, typically liberal atheists, although I’m not sure if that fact has anything to do with the error or not, who seem to think they can come up with a personal “ideal” morality, then declare that anything that aims for that ideal must be objective.  They ignore the fact that the ideal itself is not, by definition, objective because it required the human mind to invent it.

So let’s look at objectivity.  Objectivity, by definition, requires that the proposition be outside of the human mind.  The pull of gravity on Earth is objective.  It is 9.8m/s^2.  It is that for everyone regardless of their feelings on the matter.  It is true of everyone that exists within a 1G gravity field.  In fact, it’s not just true of people, it’s true of animals and rocks and anything that can find itself in that 1G field; it’s true of things which are incapable of having an opinion on the pull of gravity.

Now let’s look at morality and see if there is any form of morality which can exist beyond individual opinion.  I think it’s clear, at least for anyone honest, that it’s simply not possible.  Everyone who argues that morality can be objective seems to propose a set of standards which are entirely subjective.  This is true of the non-religious and the religious alike.  Both simply hold out an ideal that they cannot demonstrate as the only valid means of examining morality and I don’t buy into any of it.  Take Christians, for instance, who even though they have their moral by-laws written down in black and white cannot agree which ones to follow and which ones are important.  The same goes for Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus.  None of them can come to the same conclusion even though they have what they claim is an utterly authoritative source sitting in front of them.  Much the same goes for the atheists, while they have no single source of moral guidance,  can’t agree on a single ideological standard either.

Morality is one of those subjects that people are not going to agree on and trying to stamp an “objective” label on it won’t help.  It’s a subject that we ought to all talk about and try to come to some kind of common understanding, but that won’t happen if we, as people who ought to understand that it’s not an objective idea, try to make it one.  I think it’s fundamentally dishonest to attempt to play it off as though it was objective, just to attract people who already think that it is.  It’s no more honest for us, as atheists, to present morality that way than it was for early Christians to let pagans keep their ancient holidays and ideas, so long as they started giving their money and lip service to the Church.  It would be like saying “we won’t talk about evolution anymore if you’ll just stop believing in gods”.    The goal needs to be to bring everyone to reality, not to compromise reality to individual opinion.  There should be one and only one standard and that is the factual acceptance of the world around us, no matter how it makes anyone feel.  Science doesn’t change the mathematical pull of gravity because it makes someone uncomfortable.  Reality is what actually is.

Isn’t it about time that rational people just started dealing with it?



I Get so Tired of Explaining the Word Objective



(of a person or their judgment) Not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

MoralityI must say, I get really, really tired of explaining the meaning of this word to people because it gets tossed around all the time, clearly without any understanding of it’s proper usage.  Today, I was listening to the latest (as of this writing) episode of The Atheist Experience and someone called in to ask about objective morality.  To Matt’s credit, I think he only used the word once, but that was once too many.  He points to his lecture on secular morality, which I’ve addressed before, but I’ll be honest, it really, really grates on me when people want to claim that their system of morality, no matter what it is, is objective.

No it’s not!

In order for a thing to be objective, it must be totally without the influence of individual belief, feelings, opinions, biases or views.  There is nothing in what Matt said, no matter how much I agree with it, that is objective.

It makes me think back to the famous Phillip K. Dick quote:  “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away”  That’s because reality exists outside of humanity.  If humanity simply vanished tomorrow, reality would still be here.  Reality is objective.

By the same token, if you want to declare morality objective, it has to follow a similar path.  If humanity went away, would morality still exist?  The answer, of course, is no.  Morality is something that humans made up, like laws and rights.  Without us, or without some intelligent agent, it has no rational meaning.

Matt, however, assigns attributes to morality that spring directly from his emotional desires.  He wants morality to deal with demonstrable harm.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, in fact I think a lot of his subjective ideas about morality are admirable and defensible, just because they’re not objective doesn’t make them any less desirable.

Once we all agree that morality isn’t objective, that everyone has an opinion and that all opinions deserve to be heard, even if many will be rejected, then we can discuss what’s important.  It starts intelligent debate and hopefully, people can come to conclusions based upon that debate.

But if people start declaring that morality is objective, how is it any better than the people that say it was handed down from on high?  That stifles discussion and makes it pointless to try to come to conclusions because everyone already has their own inviolable views.  Once someone says that morality is fixed, that it exists outside of the opinions of humanity, there’s no point in discussing it because the individual has already made it known that they are incapable of changing their mind on the subject.  In fact, if you think about it, that’s exactly why these claims of “objective morality” exist in the first place.  Thinking about these subjects is difficult.  Since most people’s emotional views are the basis of their morality, it’s really impossible to debate them with people who do not share your same emotional and social state.  You get into a lot of “I’m right, so there!” and that’s not conducive to much of anything.  In fact, that’s really why people claim that morality comes from a god or from a king or some other authority figure, because that takes the pressure off of having to validate your own beliefs.  However, there’s a reason that arguments from authority are fallacious, just because someone said something, or you can claim they said something, doesn’t make what they said factually so.  It stifles dissent and quashes questioning, that’s why they do it.

Unfortunately, it’s all too common among supposedly rational people as well, I see atheists doing exactly the same thing about various subjects that theists are guilty of.  People just aren’t willing to examine their own beliefs critically.  We all need to be careful about what we think and believe and desire and be open to constant re-evaluation of our positions in order to sort out objective fact from subjective faith.  There are plenty of times where subjectivity is fine.  You’re free to like chocolate ice cream all you want, so long as you don’t claim that it is objectively better than every other flavor.  Every time you do that, every time you’re willing to claim that your personal views are authoritative, you just make the rest of us in the rationalist community look bad.

Like it or not, we’re just not above the very same rules that we hold theists to.

Guest Post: Matt Dillahunty Doesn’t Understand what Objectivity Is

A Special Guest Post by Outwest

Evolution_MoralsI was reading Cephus’ post the other day, “Problems with Matt Dillahunty’s Secular Morality”.

Here’s the genesis of my post: I wrote a short comment and said that I had a lot more to say, but basically didn’t want to say all of it in the comments. Cephus then invited me to write a guest post. I’m not a blogger, in fact, this is the first time I’ve done anything like this. And, yes, the post above has been out for a little while, but hey, we’re all busy and I’m just now getting around to it.

This is the statement that literally raised my eyebrows:

“Matt defines morality as the “evaluating an action with respect to some standard or value”.  Then he goes on to say that once you have your  standard, regardless of where you get that standard, “the assessment with regard to that standard becomes objective”. “

So what is Matt really saying here? I think you might be able to infer, as I did, that he’s saying that anything a group of people agree upon, goes from being an opinion, to becoming a fact, whether or not there are any facts proffered in the agreement. Why did I get so worked up about this seemingly innocent statement? As an atheist, he just made the case for religion, discrimination, and pretty much anything else!  If we all agree upon something, it must be true(objective). This is just too stupid beyond belief. And this person is supposed to be some sort of “leader” in the atheist/skeptic community? Since more than ninety percent of the world believes in some sort of god or gods, are they right? Well according to Matt’s line of reason, they are. It’s the less than ten percent of the non-believers that must be wrong.

Sure you can say he was referring to morality, but morality is based upon a set of values accepted by a particular group or society.

The above statement  by Matt is telling and it is important that we as atheists understand what Matt is doing here. He is redefining the definition of objectivity. I keep seeing this more and more with atheists. “If you don’t agree with my(our) position you are (insert your own ad hominem here)”.  There was actually a blog post last year by a prominent atheist that basically told people if they didn’t believe in what a small group was proposing, then those people were not one of “us” and should be driven out of the atheist community. These are people that are professed atheists/skeptics!

Believe it or not, the Atheist community is diverse in a lot of areas. First of all, as has been pointed out (here), Atheism is simply a lack of belief in god(s).  No moral constructs involved. So there are atheists that are politically liberal, and, I know it’s going to be a shock, conservative. There are atheists that are pro-life, pro-choice, anti- and pro-gun. There are atheists that have opinions on many political or social issues. Most atheists I know consider themselves as humanists as well, but humanism itself has a very broad definition. We may not all agree on what that definition is. And there are atheists that are just, well, atheists. They don’t profess any particular social values. Not that these people don’t have any values, but they separate their atheism from their values.

There are people in this world that have the opinions that most of us in the atheist community would find absolutely abhorrent. How about those groups that believe racial and ethnic minorities are less than human? Their group(s) believe this, they all agree, so it must be a fact then, right? These people believe that those minorities don’t hold the same values as the rest of “us”. You think it’s a silly example? How about a religion that actively discourages condom use while having sex, thereby having an entire continent ravaged by HIV/AIDS? Or the same religion, where adherents have to get permission from the church to have a vasectomy? Even if they already have a dozen children and are living in desperate poverty? Or societies that tell women that are gang-raped that it’s the woman’s fault? It’s what they agree on, so it must be true. And I’m not referring to just a few thousand people here, but more than two billion.

So when Matt Dillahunty tells us that if we all agree on some moral position, then it becomes an objective truth, I call bullshit. I call bullshit on anyone that tells me they have the truth when it’s only based on their opinion, whether it’s a fellow atheist, or anyone else.

Just because a group accept a view one way or the other does not make it a fact.  It’s only a point of view of the person, group, community, or society.