A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why I Don't Believe In Objective Morality

When we describe something as "objective" what we mean is that it is "not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: 'an objective opinion'" or "of or pertaining to something that can be known, or to something that is an object or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality." Since morals are value statements they are necessarily abstract concepts rather than material objects. They cannot be said to exist as part of objective reality. Furthermore, morality varies greatly depending on culture and circumstance which means it is never free of influence by personal feelings, interpretations or prejudice.

By way of contrast, what are examples of objective reality? Those things that can be confirmed through empirical observation: physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology and so forth. Standing on the surface of our planet means that gravity will pull you and everything you carry toward the center; this is true wherever you stand and doesn't change based on perspective. We have objectively verified that gravity is a real phenomenon no matter who you are, what culture you belong to or what your opinion is. Any time you let go of something it will fall under gravity.

About the only reason I can think of for why people persist in asserting objective morality is that they want to define their moral values as supreme, trumping all other moral codes. The only way to do this is to back your moral values through authority, either legally or religiously. Legally mandated morality (e.g. laws prohibiting murder, rape, theft, etc) can be challenged depending on shifts in attitude by the people being governed. Bad laws are notoriously difficult to enforce like the War on Drugs. Bad morality is likewise difficult to enforce like blue laws. Typically we see morality successfully expressed in law when there's more objective justification for it, like prohibitions against murder and fraud. When we can't objectively justify a morality we see it expressed more often as a religious value.

Morality is a negotiated behavior between people on both an individual and group level. Nothing that can be negotiated can be accurately described as objective.

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