My purpose in writing this is to argue for the existence of an objective morality based entirely on rational and scientific reasoning. By “objective morality” I do not simply mean that morality exists in the sense that various societies consider various actions to be immoral. What I mean is that certain actions are inherently right or wrong regardless of what any society thinks about them. In other words, I mean that there is an “objective morality” which exists independently of human beliefs and human civilization.
There are many people who have the opinion that it is not possible to believe in such an objective morality without also believing in concepts such as God or an eternal soul. I believe that they are wrong. I will attempt to show that an objective morality exists and that this morality is the same regardless of which religion, if any, is correct. Many people believe that without a religious framework, the only possible conclusion is that all morality is nothing more than a human construct without any objective existence.
In other words, what morality a person or a culture accepts is like picking a favorite flavor of ice cream. Some individuals prefer strawberry ice cream, other individuals prefer chocolate, and no person’s preference is “more correct” than another’s. In a similar manner, they argue, different individuals and different societies have various favorite moral belief systems, and just as with ice cream, no particular set of moral beliefs is “more correct” than any other. A common argument for this type of thinking is the following. Throughout history, different cultures have had vastly different moral systems.
In fact, on almost any moral issue, it appears that there is absolutely no agreement or consensus shared by even a majority of the cultures throughout history. In addition to this, there appears to be no way to prove the superiority of one moral system over another using logic alone. So the only way in which one moral system can actually be the correct one is if religion is the tie breaker. That is, whichever value system the “correct religion” advocates is the correct value system. Otherwise, there is no way to decide between them. I believe that this type of argument is easily refuted.
In order to argue for the existence of an objective morality, I will have to do more than just point out the flaws in lines of reasoning such as this. I will have to provide my own arguments that an objective morality does exist, and I will have to discuss where this morality “comes from”. I will also have to explain a process by which we can attempt to determine what it is. This is what I intend to do. I would first, though, like to take some time to point out some of the errors in the reasoning above. There are two points that the argument above makes.
The first regards the lack of consensus regarding morality. The second involves the inability to prove the superiority of one moral system over another using logic alone. It is true that throughout history, different cultures have held vastly different beliefs about morality. These cultures have also held vastly different beliefs regarding natural physical laws. Consider, for example, the belief in gravity. Currently, it is believed that the phenomena which we call gravity is the result of the fact that objects with mass cause a curvature in “space-time”.
Under this framework, we believe that a clock located in a high gravitational field will appear to run slower than an identical clock in a region with low gravity. We also believe, under this framework, that the path of something without mass, such as a beam of light, is affected by gravity. This was not always the case. At the beginning of the twentieth century, for example, it was believed that the phenomena of gravity is the result of the fact that all objects with mass exert an attractive force on each other.
According to this view, the path of a beam of light should be unaffected by gravity and identical clocks should run at the same speed everywhere. This had not always been the case either. At an earlier time it was believed that the natural place for objects such as rocks was on the ground while the natural place for things like steam was up in the sky. According to this perspective, rocks fell to the ground while steam rose because everything tends to go to its natural place. If we do a more thorough examination, including all the cultures throughout all of history, we will find an even larger variety of opinions regarding the law of gravity.
This does not, though, mean that there is no objective law of gravity which exists independently of human society. The beliefs in gravity which I described are attempts by human societies to approximate reality. Clearly, some approximations are better than others. Perhaps the current belief in the curvature of space-time is also incorrect and will later be replaced by an even better approximation. However, most people would have no problem agreeing that the curvature of space-time explanation of gravity is a better approximation to reality than the explanations which came before
it. All that this shows is that even though different cultures hold very different beliefs about a certain issue, this does not necessarily imply that there is no objective reality behind these beliefs. The claim which I will be arguing for is that this is the same for morality as it is for gravity. All the moral beliefs which came before us and all the moral beliefs today are, in exactly the same way as in the case of gravity, approximations to the objective reality which exists independently of human beings.
Although probably none of these approximations correspond to reality exactly, as with gravity, some approximations are better than others. For example, the value system of a society which condones slavery but condemns cannibalism is incorrect, but it is a better approximation to reality than that of a society which condones both slavery and cannibalism. The claim that no one has yet been able to prove the correctness of a particular moral system through logic alone is also correct. However, if we continue the analogy with gravity, we will realize that no one has also been able to prove the existence of gravity through logic alone either.
The reason we believe that a rock will fall to the ground is because that is what we have always observed when we have let go of rocks in the past. There is a little more to it than that, of course, but not much. Our current theory of gravity predicts many specific phenomena. These include rocks falling to the ground, planets orbiting the Sun, the creation of ocean tides by the moon, and identical clocks running at different speeds. The only reason why we do believe in our current theory of gravity is because every time we have observed these phenomena, what we saw corresponded with what the theory predicted.
If we were deprived of these observations, we would have no reason to believe in gravity at all. There is no way, using logic alone, that a person can prove the existence of gravity or the superiority of one theory of gravity to another. It is only by using logical reasoning in combination with observation that a person can argue for the existence of gravity. Even then, it is not be possible to do so with total 100% assurance. The fact that the current theory of gravity has always made correct predictions in the past does not guarantee that the theory will give correct predictions tomorrow.
What a person can do, though, is to show, by using logical reasoning in combination with observations, that our theory of gravity is most likely true. This is what I intend to do for morality. There are, of course, some differences in arguing for an objective moral law and an objective gravitational law. Perhaps one of the most significant is that it is possible to construct equipment which quantitatively measure the effects of gravity. That is, it is possible to construct a speed detector that tells you that a rock is moving with a velocity of ten meters per second at a certain moment in time.
On the other hand, it is not currently possible to construct a morality meter which tells you that a certain action is wrong with an immorality of ten immorality units. Nevertheless, this is an obstacle which I believe can easily be overcome. I will explain the way in which I overcome this obstacle a little bit later. For now, I would just like to point out that the fact that we can not build such a detector does not automatically imply that an objective morality does not exist. It was not that long ago that we were unable to detect or measure the existence of electrons.
This, however, does not imply that electrons did not exist in that time period. Electrons (objectively) existed regardless of whether or not we could build devices which detected them. The same, I believe, is true for morality. I have divided my discussion into four parts. The first part is this introduction. In the second part, I attempt to show that it is objectively wrong to torture another person for pleasure, and I discuss where this objective morality “comes from”. In this second part, I do not deal with something even as mildly complicated as torturing one person to prevent the suffering of another.
Since I am trying to show that an objective morality exists independently of human beliefs, just showing that there exists one action which is objectively wrong should be sufficient to demonstrate my position that some objective morality exists. However, just believing that an objective morality exists should not be enough to satisfy anyone’s inquiry into the matter. In part three, I discuss how we can determine what this objective morality says about controversial moral issues. As in the case of gravity, I only claim to have a method to find good approximations to this objective moral law, not to get it exactly right the first time.
By spending more time applying this method to a particular moral issue, we will obtain better approximations. I give examples of how this method can be applied to issues such as abortion, war, animal rights, and forcing your morality on others. I also discuss if an action which does not harm anyone can be immoral and if it is ever correct to say that one life is “worth more” than another. In addition, I give a method for establishing a belief about if another being possesses consciousness, which is useful in attempting to determine if we have an obligation to act morally towards that being.
The fourth part is relatively independent of the rest of my discussion. In part four, I briefly discuss other alternative views about the nature and origin of morality. I touch on several topics. I discuss how a belief in God can be reconciled with the position which I advocate and why I think that it is not logically consistent to hold the opinion that a belief in God is necessary in order to believe in an objective morality. I discuss moral systems based on ideas like karma and perfect justice which are often associated with reincarnation. I also discuss a few other views regarding morality and what I think their flaws are.
I talk about what I think is wrong with thinking of morality as just a social behavior which evolved to help our survival. I also discuss why I think that it is not possible to successfully base the foundation of a society on self interest or a social contract. I also mention why morality is much more than simply attempting to maximize a certain quantity such as happiness. Nowhere in my presentation do I discuss whether any particular religion is correct or incorrect. I limit my presentation to discussing the development of a belief in an objective morality without appealing to religious teachings.
I do, though, show how my position can be reconciled with various religious beliefs. I also show how the definition of morality which I am about to give can be reconciled with the theory of evolution and natural selection. In addition, I discuss if moral beliefs improve in the long run with the passage of time. My definition of the word “morality” does not correspond to the way in which the word is usually used, but I believe that this definition closely approximates what “morality” is. In order to better explain my definition, I would first like to give an example of what “morality” is not.
Suppose that a man comes home after shopping for food at a supermarket. When his son sees him, he comments on what good and moral people the owners of the supermarket must be. He remarks that the store owners must have been very kind and generous to give all this food to his family. How do you think that his father will answer? Clearly, the father will answer that the supermarket owners did not give him the food because they were kind or generous people, but because it was in their self interest to do so. Although the store owners might indeed be good and moral people, this action is in no way any indication of this.
They did what they did because they believed that the action would profit them, and for no other reason. This action, the father would conclude, says nothing about the morality of the store owners. I will now give my definition. All actions can be placed into one of two categories. Some actions can belong to both of these groups simultaneously. However, all actions must belong to at least one of these categories. The first group consists of all actions which we do out of self interest while not harming others. Simple examples of this are riding a bicycle or watching television.
These are activities which we engage in because we believe that these activities will benefit us. If an action belongs exclusively to this category, then it is of the same type as that of the supermarket owners in the previous example, and has nothing to do with morality. The second group consists of two types of behavior. The first type is behavior which either harms or intends to harm others. The second type is behavior which we engage in, not because we believe that it will somehow benefit us in the long run, but because we believe that it will benefit others.
This includes any action we do, and any action which we refrain from doing, not for ourselves, but for others. It is with this second group of behaviors with which morality is concerned. Morality, then, is engaging in behavior, not out of self interest, but because it is in the interest of others. This is how I define morality. Many people would argue that altruistic actions belonging to the second group which I described do not exist. That is, they would argue that every action every person does is done out of self interest.
If a man gives money to charity, they say, he does so only because he gets a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. If a woman donates blood, it is only because doing so makes her feel good about herself. This line of reasoning claims that all these seemingly benevolent actions are really done out of self interest. That is, people engage in such activities only to get these good internal feelings which they want. I disagree with such thinking. Although it is correct that a woman who gives to charity will probably obtain a warm and fuzzy feeling
from doing so, it is incorrect to assume that this is the only reason why she engages in this activity. This is an example of an action which can simultaneously fit both of the groups which I described. That is, this woman may be giving to charity both because she feels good after doing so and because she wants to help others. In this case, so long as it is not done entirely out of self interest, it is still related to morality. Some actions which people engage in fall exclusively into my second category, and could never be explained in terms of self interest.
An extreme example of this is when a person, who does not believe in an afterlife, makes a split second decision to give up his life for others, as in a case of a soldier throwing his body on a live hand grenade in order to save his comrades. There is no way to argue that the soldier is doing this because he seeks a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, since he is not going to live long enough to enjoy it. Human beings often attempt to persuade others into behaving a certain way by pointing out that it is in their self interest to do so.
A police officer may say, for example, that you shouldn’t steal because there is a good chance that you will go to jail if you do. Similarly, a mother may tell her son that he will be punished if he his found misbehaving. None of this, though, in any way influences anyone to become a moral person. It just tells people how to behave in their own self interest. The only lesson this would impart on the child is that if he wants to avoid punishment, he should not misbehave. This will not prevent him from misbehaving the moment he knows that his parents aren’t watching, or after he grows up and moves out of his parents’ house.
Similarly, this type of reasoning will not convince a person not to steal if he finds himself in a situation where the chances of being caught are small or non-existent. Nor is there, based on self interest alone, much reason for police officers, judges, and law makers to not abuse the power of their positions. What religions often do with regards to morality is to argue that it is always in a person’s self interest to behave “morally”. Some religions teach, for example, that if you engage in murder, rape, or torture, you will go to Hell.
Others teach that if you engage in such activities you are going to have a very unfortunate next reincarnation. Others may believe that there is no life after death, but that you will be punished in this life for engaging in improper acts. However, this does not really tell anyone to be a moral person. This, again, just tells people how to behave in their self interest. If a woman refrains from killing other people only because she does not want to go to Hell, or if a man gives to charity only because he does not want to be reincarnated as an insect, then these activities have nothing to do with morality.
As in the case of the supermarket owner, these people are just acting in their self interest. A religious person can, of course, be acting morally if he engages in activities for the purpose of benefiting others as well as seeking a reward. It is just that, as with the supermarket owner, although an action may have the side effect of benefiting other people, it is not related to morality if seeking a reward or avoiding a punishment is the only motivation. But then the questions before us are the following.
Without making an appeal to religion, why is it that we “should” behave “morally”? Why is it that we “should” engage in activities which benefit others and refrain from activities which harm others? In a situation where which course of action is moral is itself a matter of debate, how is it possible, without using religious concepts, to persuasively argue that a particular answer is in fact the correct one. It is these types of questions which I will attempt to answer.