Daniel Fincke: morality is objective

September 1, 2014 • 8:29 am

Several of the talks at the Pittsburgh Atheist/Humanist meetings were excellent, and I hope to have time later to discuss one or two more. But first I want to say a few things about Daniel Fincke’s talk, titled “Empowerment Ethics.”  Daniel (I don’t know if he goes by “Dan”), as you may know, is a philosopher whose website at Patheos is called “Camels with Hammers.

I had given my own talk earlier, and during the Q&A someone asked me whether, because of my penchant for using science and rationality rather than faith, I nevertheless had a faith-based ethics system. (It’s a good question.) I said no, it wasn’t based on belief in something for which there was no evidence (my conception of “faith”) but simply a preference—a judgment call based on what I think would create a more harmonious and just society, and some of those judgments are informed by evidence. In the end, though, my view that a harmonious and just society—like Sam Harris’s view that the most moral society maximizes well being—is at bottom a preference. People hate that, but it’s what I do believe.  I still don’t believe there is any such thing as an objective ethical judgment, though of course I believe that ethics rests heavily on empirical observation: what helps vs. what hurts people, and how societies function under different moral codes. But your criteria for what makes one thing moral and another not cannot, I think, be objective.

Others differ, and think morality is objective, one of them was Fincke, who in his 20-minute talk outlined his vision of “empowerment ethics,” which seems to be a quasi-utilitarian form of ethics along the lines of Sam Harris’s.  (I may be doing him a disservice, but I’m remembering the best I can).

Fincke claimed that yes, ethical judgments are objective.  What are the criteria for such judgments? Finke said it was “human flourishing”: whatever is more moral is that which allows for the most human flourishing.  This criterion was supposed to be objective, though Fincke didn’t define what “human flourishing” is. He also emphasized—and here I agree with him—that ethical judgments must be based on rational thought as far as possible, and that they must be consistent within a person: you cannot, say, that it is never moral to embezzle, and then cheat on your taxes.

Now this sounds good to people, and many agreed with him. Why I think they did is simply because for most moral judgments there is no disagreement among most people. We don’t hurt children or animals or anybody unnecessarily, we don’t steal, and so on. Much of that common feeling may be based on moral judgments that are instinctive because they are evolved: they allowed our ancestors to live in harmonious bands. (That doesn’t mean, of course, that they’re good behaviors now.) But there is no unanimity among people in two instances: religion-based morality and the “hard cases.”

Religions, of course, differ strongly in what they consider moral and immoral. Many Catholics see homosexuality as immoral, and the Church sees homosexuality as a “grave sin.”  Catholics also see divorce and contraception, as immoral. Many Muslims think it’s immoral for women to drive, go to school, or show their faces. How do you convince them that human flourishing overrides these dictates? I think it does, but they would simply claim that that is not so, for those moral dictates are given by God, and the best society is the one that obeys God’s rules. In other words, if those dictates were disobeyed, society would not flourish. (God might even destroy it, or send hurricanes!)

Now you can say that this is an irrational view, because it’s based on faith, but try convincing religious people that they are objectively wrong about that.

The more difficult cases are when religion isn’t involved, and in the Q&A I asked Dan to answer three questions.

If morality is objective, what is the objectively more moral action in these three cases:

1. Is it more moral for you to keep all your money or to save lives by giving away to Third-World charities everything you have beyond what you really need to live?

2. Is it more more moral to kill 1000 chimpanzees to save a maximum of 100 human lives?

3. Is it moral to torture someone if you think there is a 50% chance by so doing you will save 10,000 human lives?

I don’t think you can give an objective answer in any of these cases, for we simply cannot weigh “flourishing”.  How do we value a chimp life versus a human one? We don’t know exactly how much chimps suffer, or how sentient they are; and does that matter anyway?  Why is Fincke (and the rest of us) not acting immorally if flourishing would be maximized by giving away most of what we have and don’t need? (Saving a life, after all, which you can do by feeding poor kids in, say, Africa, is the best way to help people flourish with the least effort.) And as for torture, well, you can always say that torturing someone, even if it saves 10,000 lives, would brutalize society, and so reduce flourishing. But how do we know that? We can’t do the experiment, or look at other societies who do torture, because they differ in many other ways from ours, and at any rate, we could, as Alan Dershowitz thinks, put stringent legal controls on who should be tortured and how—controls that other countries don’t have. (Dershowitz thinks we should have “torture warrants.”).

There are other hard cases. Is ethnic profiling of terrorists on plane flights immoral if it would save lives? What about abortion? Is it immoral to allow a woman to abort an infant in the third trimester? How do you answer such questions objectively? I have my own answers (for example, I think abortion should be allowed on demand), but I couldn’t say that that is the objectively moral thing to do. I could argue that our society is better when such abortions are allowed, but a religious person could say that a third-trimester fetus is sentient and could be removed from the mother and have a life and that in the end that individual would be glad it wasn’t aborted.  It comes down, I think, to what kind of society you prefer.  After all, how do you balance the various aspects of “flourishing,” one against the other (keeping your wealth versus saving children, or killing chimps versus saving human lives)? That, too, was a problem with Sam Harris’s view: there are various ways to judge “well being,” and how do you weigh them one against the other?

We even may all agree on the utilitarian ideal of “maximum well being” or “maximum flourishing,” but different people will weight different aspects of these criteria differently. In the end, I still think it comes down to preference and a judgment call, and for me that involves what you think is the best behavior for individuals and societies to be well off. Some of one’s judgments are empirically testable in principle, but the criteria for what is moral, and how to weigh different facets of those criteria, still seem to me in the end to be subjective and not objective.

Objective ethics is a view that is gaining traction, and I wish I could get on board. But I have yet to be convinced that, say, anything involving animal rights can be judged objectively, except for easy cases like sacrificing ten mice to save a thousand humans.

This doesn’t get religious people off the hook, of course. Although they may claim that their ethics are objective—and superior—because they’re based on God’s dictates, virtually every religious person picks and chooses which of God’s dictates to obey.  Christians do not, as the Bible mandates, kill adulterers, those who work on the Sabbath, or adulterers. That, too, is picking and choosing based on some extra-Biblical notion of what is right. And that, to me, seems to me no more objective than my own secular ethics.




124 thoughts on “Daniel Fincke: morality is objective

  1. For some reason your point reminds me of a South Park episode in which in the future the religious doctrines were extinguished and replaced with secular atheists running the world. But there were different groups of dogmatic atheists, still going to war with one another. I guess it highlights how extremism in any form leads to subpar outcomes.

  2. Hi Jerry,

    Objective ethics is a view that is gaining traction …

    Is it really? I agree entirely with your post here, and would have thought that that view was the one gaining traction (though I’d be interested in any poll data).

    1. I don’t think objective ethics ever lost too much traction. Kant has remained hugely influential throughout the past century. His position, as I recall, is that ethical thinking is subjective in origin but can nevertheless be approached objectively. In the Prolegomena he articulated a similar view of logic and mathematics (forgive me if I get this wrong, it’s been twenty years since I read it), that these concepts arise from the mind but are ultimately governed by our desire for consistency, which is itself a subjective desire, yet is the basis of objectivity. Along those lines you can view ethics as originating from subjective preferences yet constrained by an objective need for interpersonal consistency.

        1. Actually, John Rawls’s social contract theory was based on Kant’s deontological reasoning. Rawls died in 2002, and he was definitely influential in the latter decades of the twentieth century, and his theory remains popular among ethicists today. So in that sense, Kant has remained important. Not everyone likes deontological ethics, of course, but deontology is the primary alternative to utilitarianism (although virtue ethicists might disagree).

        2. He has been hugely influential *amongst philosophers*, which is not exactly the same thing.

          Also, I am (as someone with some philosophy background) which philosophers are important enough to read, which is ambigous in a similar way between “worth reading because contains worthwhile insights” and “worth reading because much stuff built upon it, however wrong”. Kant is in my view very much in the latter category, to a point. (To a point of reading *some*.) For example, understanding enough to make use of the appropriate chapter in Pinker’s _The Stuff of Thought_ is valuable.

    2. Besides polling you should look into acceptance of rules or laws which are founded on empiricism.

      Consider all of the engineering controls we implement in society for the benefit of its citizens, e.g., automatic sensors to prevent (or mitigate) train collisions, baby seats, seat belts, numerous medical advancements, like vaccination, which are generally voluntarily considered a benefit, etc. Our society, now, is better than only fifty years ago in accepting what is largely the outcome of secular reasoning applied to public issues. Many people today willingly agree to very subtle ethical conditions that constrain their liberties. We now consider many of these constraints not only legitimate and fair, but even ethical.

  3. One of the things I think I took away from Sam Harris, maybe someone else… (I really don’t think I thought of it myself) was that even if morality was objective it wouldn’t matter if we didn’t know the best option to take…

    As shown in your questions, if we don’t know the best course to take objectively, objective morality existing doesn’t help us anyway…

    I guess I go with matt Dillahunty on this, he (and others I am sure) said that morality is based on the real situations we find ourselves in and reality is objective so therefore morality is based on that objectiveness at it’s base…

    1. “As shown in your questions, if we don’t know the best course to take objectively, objective morality existing doesn’t help us anyway…”

      Yes. Even if we could somehow determine that morality is in fact 100% objective, it would probably have to remain so only in principle because of the problem of gathering all the information necessary for determining what the objectively correct course of action would be.

      1. But isn’t that a problem in regular science too? We’re never sure we have all relevant facts, or that our reasoning doesn’t have problems. We still generate theories about reality that we consider objective, and go merrily along applying and testing. Physics is fairly objective, even if wrong here and there. Geography too.

        Uncertainty alone doesn’t seem to be a valid criticism of an attempt to construct objective ethics, since all our knowledge is somewhat uncertain. Perhaps we’re not 100% sure this act or that is immoral, but can’t the preponderance of the evidence point one way or the other? Can’t we judge, with considerable certainly, that random killing is less moral than healing?

        What is morality anyway and why do we need or want it? Do the answers to those questions help in making judgments about whether particular acts count as moral?

        1. Yes, which is why utilitarianism (including Peter Singer’s) feels so wrong. And as Bernard Williams suggests it encourages behaviour that by most other standards would be immoral – if an immoral act will lead to greater ‘flourishing’, then forget about your feelings and go ahead. And on a strict utilitarian ‘calculus’ – that, say, the rape, torture and perhaps murder of someone’s children before his eyes would probably lead to his divulging information that would save thousands – it would seem that someone who refused to go through with the required actions was immoral. Dick Cheney was, of course, (or is) a good utilitarian, and that’s how he salves his conscience, if he has one.

  4. The moral preference theory is along the lines of what I believe as well. The fact that very intelligent ethical people that I respect can draw very different conclusions on a particular ethical issue lends credence to this. If you doubt this, read the discussion on Sam Harris blog between Sam and Andrew Sullivan on the Palestinian-Israel conflict (I know that one again). The point is that they both make very good arguments for their positions, and even if you take one side or the other, its difficult to say one is objective and the other is not. And this is just one of an arbitrary large number of ethical issues. And it’s not just the liberal/conservative divide either. There are liberals who agree on most things, who will have deep disagreements on certain things. So I agree that preferences is a much more honest defensible stance to take with ethics. Until someone is able to show on a whole host of issues that only one ethical position is correct, will I loosen my skepticism towards the existence of an objective ethics.

  5. In one religion (I forget which)it is even moral to blow yourself up together with others who are not of the same religion.
    I’m not sure if this encourages societies to “flourish”.
    Allah uAkbar! KAAABOOOOOM!

  6. That flourishing stuff is tricky and it makes me uneasy for all the reasons already outlined. The first thing I thought was the idea of flourishing is probably what motivated a lot of the unsuccessful and ultimately detrimental socio-economic systems in the early 20th century (communism and fascism come to mind and even unfettered capitalism). All these socio-economic systems set out to increase flourishing. Sure, you can argue that they were wrong and we found out, but they set out thinking they were right based on the same flawed logic of objective “flourishing”. I think it’s more complicated than that and we should be looking at what motivates people combined with ethics….one thing’s for sure, if you could ask the animals which animal’s extinction would help them flourish, I think we’d be in a lot of trouble.

  7. “you cannot, say, that it is never moral to embezzle, and then cheat on your taxes.”

    Of course you can…the ethical man knows that it is wrong to cheat on his taxes, the moral man doesn’t cheat on his taxes.

    Or am I reading your sentence incorrectly?

  8. If morality isn’t objective, certain moral impulses are (if that isn’t a contradiction), as Robert Wright discussed in “The Moral Animal.”

    1. The fact that we have an evolved moral sense does not necessarily imply that it is objective. Besides it is a generic moral sense, like language instinct alone doesn’t make us speak English without the specified environment – predominantly English speaking country, moral instincts don’t tell us whether abortion is moral or not, but cultural influences and philosophical reflections on what is moral or not. Anyway my take.

  9. This may be more appropriate for the past discussion “is music adaptive.” But my 10 year old son the other day heard Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” the other day on the radio for the first time, and now wants to hear it non stop on YouTube without my prompting. I recall when I first heard the song, I instantly liked it as well, but not as much now after repeated hearings. This isn’t the only time this has happened. I know this is only anecdotal, but could there be something to this – we inherit similar musical tastes.

    1. RE the first link: Given a choice between saving a human child and a rat, one should choose the child.

      Does the same standard apply to an adult rat? Or any other non-human? If you have a different standard for different players, how in the world could anyone imagine this qualifies as “objective”? Isn’t that very nearly the definition of “subjective”?

  10. I’m not sure that the fact that these questions are unanswerable means that morality is not objective. There are many questions that science cannot answer yet. Some religious people might think that strengthens their faith based arguments. However just because it hasn’t been answered doesn’t mean that it’s unanswerable.

    Due to human nature I don’t think we’ll ever be able to give fully objective answers to the hard moral questions. But I also think that the more information we have the closer we can get to giving better answers to these questions.

    If it was possible to have perfect knowledge of the all outcomes of different possible actions would it result in objective morality? I’m not sure but it does at least seem possible. That perfect knowledge is impossible though, so even if objective morality does exist the best we can hope for it to strive towards it.

    1. If it was possible to have perfect knowledge of the all outcomes of different possible actions would it result in objective morality

      No. Or at least – unlikely. Different people give different weights to different outcomes. We have different values, basically. So I am skeptical that there would ever be complete consensus on some quantitative assessment of “flourishing.” Does it mean happiness? 2.5 kids and a pet? Fitness? Surviving to 90? Does having a kid give more flourishing than the estimated $200,000 it’s estimated to take (a middle-class American) to raise them, or does the cash give more flourishing? Reasonable people can disagree on those sorts of questions. IMO there simply isn’t some objective value for those aspets of flourishing.

      Heck, here in the US we have big disagreements over what counts as “human,” and JAC brings up a good point about apes, so even the “human” word in “human flourishing” is a term which may not have objective meaning.

      About the closest one can come to objective morality is to very clearly define these terms, then get people to agree for the sake of discussion on those definitions. If you do that, you can probably reach something close to consensus on what actions would produce the most flourishing according to the adopted definitions). It’s a conditional sort of consensus – ‘yes, we all agree that if A, then B.’ Maybe that is what Dan is talking about. Because for the life of me, I can’t see how anyone could think morality is truly objective in the ‘hard’ sense of their being one, single right and true meaning of ‘flourishing.’

  11. In recent years there has been a lot of print and speech about “human flourishing”. I don’t read or hear anyone asking “at what cost to the rest of life we ostensibly share this planet with?”

    1. Yes. And it’s already been used extensively as an excuse for unlimited development and resource extraction.
      I think objective morality is an ideal (and an idea) that is worth discussing since it can help us define and understand our subjective positions, but it also looks a lot like searching for easy short-cut answers to questions that are inherently difficult.

      1. Short-term gains often lead to long-term losses. You can spend your entire allowance today on candy, eat it all on the spot, and get sick…or you can spend a little bit on candy, put the rest in the piggy bank, do the same for a year, and use all the money you saved to buy that bike you’ve been drooling over.

        Clearly, our temporal horizons have been far too short with respect to resource extraction and the environment. But that doesn’t mean that the goal can’t still be flourishing, just that we need a more mature perspective on what it means to flourish.


        1. “just that we need a more mature perspective on what it means to flourish. ”

          That, of course, means one that you agree with. 🙂

  12. Ok, I’ll bite.
    I’ve thought and wrote extensively about the subject, so writing a few words in here might be a good way to get some (much needed) criticism.

    I disagree with Jerry in the conclusions, but agree with most of what he says in the article.

    Before going into the details, the general problem that I see is that religious people think morality comes from god, and that makes it very difficult to say “our moral inclinations come from natural selection” and “there is no objective morality”, while still having some hope to be taken seriously by believers. The two sentences in quotes (my words, but Jerry seems to be on the same page) are just too easily dismissed with “your position is inconsistent and therefore not worth my consideration”.

    So I’ve tried to resolve the apparent contradiction. And the result echoes with the criticism of “the god of the gaps” that we here are familiar with.
    One way of putting it is: we simply don’t know what flourishing means exactly, and even if we did, we wouldn’t know how to produce accurate forecasts to discriminate between options on the basis of the computable consequences. Hence, morality can’t be objective. This is how I translate Jerry’s position into my own words (happy to stand corrected if this isn’t a faithful translation), and unfortunately it is the sort of argument that relies on ignorance.

    The way out is very long (along two very separate paths), but to my eyes it is a clearly scientific endeavour: we need to study living creatures better, understand what consciousness is, the biological sources (and mechanisms) of our moral sense, and learn to recognise similar mechanisms in other species. The current progress on this front is tentative, but well visible. Eventually, this will allow us to better and better define the obscure “flourishing” thing.

    In parallel, we need to get better at forecasting the behaviour of complex systems. We are making visible progress in this area and I have little doubt that we’ll find ways to use what we’re learning to make also credible predictions on “flourishing”, once we’ll have a decent/workable definition.

    Of course, the first strand is contentious, and many people may say “we’ll never be able to get a decent/workable and ‘objective’ definition of consciousness, let alone flourishing”. This may be, but it’s no good reason to avoid trying.

    Finally, it is easy to predict that both the understanding and the forecasting will never reach a level of solidity comparable to the current state of fundamental physics, this is just impossible for a number of reasons, but applies to a lot of existing scientific fields, and doesn’t make the claims they make less scientific.
    If you like conflating ‘scientific’ with ‘objective’, then you end up concluding that a science of morality can theoretically (not yet in practice) reach objective conclusions, but the level of confidence of these conclusions will never be as high as for other sciences.
    And I’ll cut it here to avoid breaking da roolz.

    1. Eventually, this will allow us to better and better define the obscure “flourishing” thing.

      What constitutes “flourishing” will _always_ depend on human preference.** There is no route to an objective moraltiy down that path.

      (**Or can we really envisage the statement: “Look guys, I know you are utterly miserable and hating every minute of it, but you really are flourishing, ok?”)

      1. Coel,
        you may be right, I just don’t know.
        My take is that once we “understand what consciousness is, the biological sources (and mechanisms) of our moral sense, and learn to recognise similar mechanisms in other species” (e.g. what makes us tick, what makes us feel happy, accomplished or sad and miserable; and how similar mechanisms apply to other species), the space for saying “this depends on arbitrary preference” will be less and less, exactly following the same patter of the “god of the gaps”. I’m also saying that some space for arbitrary preferences will always exist, but that is not a good reason to try reducing it (exactly as we are reducing the gaps where god can still hide).

        If you want to challenge my thesis, I think the best way is to show that the parallel I’m drawing doesn’t apply, but of course you may try something else!

        1. Hi Sergio,
          The preferences are not at all arbitrary, they result from our evolutionary programming, and they are also informed by objective information. However, in the end this always has to come down to what people like and dislike.

          1. The preferences are not at all arbitrary, they result from our evolutionary programming, and they are also informed by objective information. However, in the end this always has to come down to what people like and dislike.

            I couldn’t agree more.
            I guess that the disagreement rests on: according to you, although preferences (aka what people like and dislike) are (in ways we don’t understand) the result of evolutionary programming plus the influence of the environment, we can’t possibly study them scientifically. Or, alternatively, if we can, this won’t help us in finding new ways to satisfy more and more preferences.

            If this is what you’re saying, I disagree. If it isn’t, I’ll be happy to read further explanations (keeping in mind that we should not transform this in a one2one getaway thread).

            1. Hi Sergio,
              I agree with everything you say in that last comment. We can indeed study human preferences scientifically. However, any morality that ultimately stems from human preferences is (by definition) a subjective morality.

              So I guess I’m only disagreeing with you about how we label the system you were describing. There is no way of making the concept of “flourishing” objective. It will always depend on what humans want.

        2. More begging to differ. Coel is right and it’s not a matter of knowing or not knowing; as he said, it’s a matter of preference. Investigating consciousness will not increase our understanding of morals. Consciousness is merely the ability to react appropriately to ones surroundings; every living thing has consciousness; it’s a part of the requirements for life. Knowing that does nothing to help our understanding of morals, other than, perhaps, how they are transmitted and perceived by the individual.

          One can always gives reasons why A, B, or C will promote flourishing, provided one has defined “flourishing,” but one can’t determine whether or not flourishing itself is good.

    2. People have been trying for thousands of years before Plato and Aristotle with many insights but still little to no consensus. True science hasn’t existed for most of this time, and definitely will provide insights on moral decision making as knowledge advances. I’m willing to put all the proposals on the table and look at all of them.

      At the same time in these discussions I wonder if people are actually in agreement and talking past one another as happens in many debates like free will or what is the unit of selection due to a slightly different perspective or focus put on an issue.

  13. These words from the professor need highlighting:

    “ethics rests heavily on empirical observation”

    That’s it. Any further assumption of objectivity is speculation.

    A liter of ammonia in the belly of Neptune does not give a rat’s patootie about ethics.

      1. When is ethics not empirical, both in observation and practice?

        Hypothetical: Two cave families live across from each other in a canyon. One cave guy makes a small dam to make a pool of freshwater for his family, this causes the river to flood and kill the babies of the other cave family. No one is happy. Together the cave families decide to build two dams and funnel the water away from their respective dwellings. They observed, they thought, they acted. Of course they could have also ripped each other the shreds; alas we are here this is a testament to people finding solutions to empirical problems.

  14. I agree with you. I think the only way to get moral agreement is by persuasion, in which education on objective consequences of behavior can be helpful.

  15. I’ve always thought this objective morality business is a top-down exercise.

    Morality is conditional and there’s more than 7 billion different conditions for the time being.

  16. ‘Objective morality’ appears to be a strategy to get the high ground from religionists on ethical matters. I think this is unnecessary.
    There are always two ethics we live by – how the community functions and how the individual functions.
    Communal ethics are a matter of political debate, not philosophy. Communal ethics in the broadest sense are codified as law. In a working democratic community, the law can be changed only by electing legislators to enact new law. I’m something of a Hobbesian here: The community decides the kind of world it does *not* want to live in and agrees to laws that inhibit the passions that would generate that world, while managing the conflicts of interest that such passions involve, through legal redress.
    American communal ethics are already non-theistic, and it might be wise for atheists to insist on this, rather than suggesting some higher principle. I argue that what we do (and should) have, is a communal ethic that allows various and conflicting interests to be addressed, not involving an absolute determination of right.
    Ethical philosophy can ask ‘what are our interests here?’ But it cannot take the place of political action or legislation. And these are all about interests, not about morality.
    As for how the individual functions, that’s something for each individual to work out for himself or herself. Here ethical philosophy really can help. For me, I have found that an ethic reducing the amount of disappointment in life most effective. Others may prefer a way that enhances happiness, or makes them feel more ‘righteous,’ or more charitable. But that, again, is a personal matter.

  17. It is certainly true that no one can really agree on just what promotes “human flourishing”. But for me the sticking point has always been that, at bottom, said “flourishing” is itself only a personal preference. Desirability cannot be an inherent property. (Desired by whom?) Hume’s guillotine is the leveler of moral arguments.

    (Your steadfast stance on this matter heartens me a great deal, by the way. I was raised secularly, but threw out morality at a time and through a process not unlike that of many young atheists throwing out theism. The “good without god” talking points always struck me as an insidious inconsistency.)

    1. It is certainly true that no one can really agree on just what promotes “human flourishing”

      Indeed. And that we should consider humans as the only meaningful player is a remnant of Creationist thinking. It is akin to considering “human consciousness” with no thought given to non-human consciousness. Or “human intelligence”. Etc. When one adopts an evolutionary view of human origins, one should rubbage all those other questions, or at least give them a thorough going-over to see that one discards all the Creationist remnants.

  18. Thanks for this post, Jerry,

    I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to get Sam Harris to respond to issues with his maximum-well-being criteria for morality; my objection is precisely what yours is: it’s a value judgement, not an objective standard. I’ve been, also unsuccessfully, trying to get people to realize that ethics are a subset of aesthetics. The basis of all morals are emotions, not rational thought. All living creatures have intra-specific rules regarding behavior. This goes all the way down to the simplest of organs. When those rules get to the human level, we call them morals, but their basis is emotional and evolutionary. We, of course, can reflect upon our own emotions to the extend that, probably, no other creature (on Earth) can, and we can use rational thought to inform and temper them but not to originate them.

    Certainly, a religious person can claim that the goal of morality is to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven and has nothing to do with the well-being of individuals.

    Taking god out of the picture, the only rule that seems to be universal for living things is to go forth and multiply (and that’s really a drive, not a rule). It could well be argued that well-being is only well and good if it increases the multiplication of the species.

    I do think that a sense of equity and fairness are built into all living things. I think we’re evolved to accept a certain amount of pecking order to maintain civility and facilitate decision-making within a species, but I think, with humans, the pecking order has gotten out of hand, it contravenes the basic instinct of equity.

    I do think that a case can be made that maximizing well-being, equity, etc. will do the most for advancing our particular species, and I think science could help us determine if that is true or not; but it all hinges upon agreeing that life in the here and now is more important than ones religious convictions; not necessarily something that’s easy to achieve.

    I guess what bothers me as much as anything is having someone tell me they know what’s good for me.

    1. I’ve been, also unsuccessfully, trying to get people to realize that ethics are a subset of aesthetics. The basis of all morals are emotions, not rational thought.

      I’m with you!

    2. Some have made similar claims about mathematics, that it is motivated by aesthetic preferences. I think this is true; nevertheless mathematics exposes preferences that work for us, and therefore those preferences endure. There’s been a lot of mathematical progress over the centuries, even if we have trouble explaining what kind of knowledge mathematics really is. I think most people would agree that there’s been moral progress as well; but if we agree that there’s been progress, doesn’t that imply there’s something objective about morality?

      1. I for one deny that such events as the abolishment of slavery constitute moral progress. Some people (especially on the far-right) even hold that there has been moral degeneration over the course of history.

        Lines of mathematical research may be motivated by aesthetic preferences, but the truth of a mathematical theorem does not rest on them.

        1. The “truth” of a theorem usually rests on the shared judgements of mathematicians and computer scientists. There is an inescapable moment of judgement where we decide that something is clear enough, solid enough to be judged “correct” or even “true.” When it comes to the axioms themselves, and to the fundamental definitions of concepts, it is all subjective judgement coupled with a desire for consistency with intuitions. The concept of “real number”, for instance, was employed by mathematicians long before it was clearly defined or understood, and even today there are competing definitions.

          1. Ok, in mathematics as a collective phenomenon, establishing the truth of a claim is not always as straightforward as it might seem. But when you deduce the consequences of some axioms, you don’t do it based on aesthetic preference. Likewise, in ethics, given a set of axioms you don’t need preferences to derive the consequences. The axioms are of course in both cases arbitrary (as long as consistency is met), and truth or falisty just doesn’t apply. So I guess I’m basically saying the same thing as you are, but with the conclusion that mathematics in the sense of which definitions and axioms you choose is on a fundamental level just as arbitrary as morality.

              1. Well, I agree at face value with what you’ve stated, but those true things are in both cases statements of the form “If P then Q.” This would reduce ethics to logical deduction, and reduce morality — which in this context would mean trying to get at the ‘true’ axioms — to absurdity.

                Now, you could argue that, since in mathematics there are certain choices of axioms and definitions which are ‘better’ than others, so why not in ethics? But that concept of ‘better’ is really, as you say, a prefence — does this choice yield interesting results? useful results? does it lead to a fecund research programme? — and it does not carry any, yes, moral weight. Indeed, to determine what mathematics one ‘should’ do, in the strict sense, you would need morality. Now try running the analogy with morality, and you see that “we should not kill innocent people at will if we want to have a functioning society” (with the terms properly defined) kind of truths lead you nowhere near objective morality.

              2. I think you’re missing a few elements of the example from real numbers. Mathematicians began with an intuitive notion that these numbers are “real”, they are more than arbitrary axioms. They sought to develop a system that would support their major intuitions while allowing for necessary modifications of those intuitions; and that would resolve intuitive paradoxes. They spent centuries hammering out concrete theories of real numbers that largely deliver on these objectives, but still today there is not perfect agreement and there are paradoxes that some feel are poorly resolved. In the process, they obtained what I consider to be objective knowledge.

                Now, in that story, I think you could substitute “ethics” in place of the real number system and get a similar picture. As I see it, the potentially controversial part of my argument is my claim that objectivity lies in the process of rigorously addressing and resolving interpersonal disagreements. It’s hard to say what kind of truth this process attains, but I think it does attain something more than subjective preference.

  19. We need to be more tolerant of ambiguity.

    Many people panic when bright-line rules are missing. Sometimes we just need to embrace the fuzziness of the universe.

    Hey. The earth wobbles on its axis.

  20. ” In the end, though, my view that a harmonious and just society—like Sam Harris’s view that the most moral society maximizes well being—is at bottom a preference. People hate that, but it’s what I do believe.”

    Another thumbs up for Professor Ceiling Cat.

    I’m really not sure why otherwise rational people like Fincke and Harris try to insist that morality is objective or can utterly decided by science. Morality is fundamentally based on human judgement, which can be *informed* by science, but not decided by it.

    1. Has Sam Harris written or said that he thinks morality can be utterly decided by science?

      I’ve only read The Moral Landscape so may have missed it somewhere, and he certainly does champion science as a tool to investigate ethical / moral issues in it. But nowhere in it does he suggest that only science should be used to solve such issues. He so frequently assured the reader that he was not claiming that, that I got sick of reading the constant clarifications.

  21. Just to flog my own position familiar to all regulars…morality is best viewed as an optimum strategy (in the sense used in game theory) for individuals living in a cooperative society. As such, it is a phenomenon perfectly suited to evolutionary development; societies with morals that tend to promote survival will tend to outcompete societies with self-destructive morals.

    Almost anything you might wish to do will be more likely to come to pass if you can enlist the aid of others; that means that you’ve got to rely upon society to help you. Even if it’s for the most basic of necessities such as food and shelter. And who here could independently build an Internet on which to post random thoughts on morality?

    But the society has its own needs — in particular, it can’t have people going around murdering and raping and stealing from its members, or else it rots from within and collapses. And, at the same time, society can’t be overly burdensome on the individuals, or else they’ll opt out or rebel or otherwise fail to contribute to society.

    Thus, morality is that strategy which optimizes both the success of the individual and the group.

    It should come as no surprise that, just as evolution has wired our brains for Newtonian calculus that lets us throw and catch things without much mental effort, it’s also wired our brains for moral instincts that are a “good enough” first approximation. It should also come as no surprise that our moral instincts — our emotions — are not ideal, just as they fail us when we encounter unfamiliar physical environments (such as frictionless surfaces or submicroscopic particles).

    A scientific approach to morality, then, should be an evidence-based analysis of what individuals can do to maximize their own chances of success within an optimally-successful society.

    Whether any of this deserves the label of “objective” or not…frankly, my dears, I couldn’t give a damn….



    1. morality is best viewed as an optimum strategy (in the sense used in game theory) for individuals living in a cooperative society.

      With the hidden assumption that the society, and all the individuals under consideration are human.

      1. Historically, certainly…but it’s mutable and changing. Many would include at least chimpanzees if not all great apes as at least provisional members of society with a status not entirely unlike that of human juveniles. And a similar, if lesser, extension at least legally applies to cats and dogs and others covered by “cruelty to animal” prohibitions.

        But it’s certainly a fuzzy line where to draw the demarcation between society and non-society. I don’t think anybody would include the smallpox virus in society. Some would include redwood trees; others laugh at the notion. Still others only consider humans of very narrowly-defined phenotypes as members — or even exclude those of said phenotype who adhere to different sociopolitical economic theories.

        But, at the very least, once you’ve decided where and how to draw that boundary, the rest falls into place.

        As to where the line should fall? Ultimately, that’s likely an evolutionary question. If the line gets drawn in the worng manner, society won’t last. Considering that our society is at existential risk from species and habitat loss, that’s a strong indicator of what side of the line our current boundaries have been drawn.


          1. It’s a tough question.

            My iPhone certainly doesn’t need to be included in society.

            But imagine an AI you could copy with reckless abandon, the same way you can copy a financial spreadsheet today. And, just for the sake of argument, imagine this AI meets whatever sentience (or other) standard you require to consider it alive / a person / whatever. We’ll wave a magic wand and assume its hardware and software is at least as logically expansive and sophisticated as a human brain, times whatever factor you need to make the scenario practical.

            Would it be ethical to, for example, make a thousand copies of this AI and subject each to varying degrees of discomfort, from something that doesn’t even really register all the way to excruciating torture, then summarize and tabulate the reactions and delete all the copies?

            Hell, would it be ethical to destroy the powered-down hard disk (or whatever we’re using in the future) of a backup copy of an AI? How about a (warehouses-filling) paper printout of such a backup?

            I wouldn’t pretend to know the answers to those sorts of questions, or even have the foggiest idea of how we might someday deal with them. My only hope is that the future unfolds at a pace that at least gives us the chance to approach the matter scientifically and with humanity and compassion.


            1. Beware of slavery going down that road. And it isn’t just the damage it does to the “other”, but also the damage it does to “us.”

              Of course, if I were raised as a slavemaster I would probably not feel very damaged. And that right there is what I am talking about. It is very easy to see from my current perspective that I sure don’t want to live in that society, or be that person. But from the perspective of being that person in that society, it would be much more difficult to perceive, going by past history.

              1. Oh, believe me — I know. The waters are incredibly murky. That’s why I’m hoping it doesn’t happen so quickly that we can’t reasonably adapt.


  22. “In the end, I still think it comes down to preference and a judgment call, and for me that involves what you think is the best behavior for individuals and societies to be well off. Some of one’s judgments are empirically testable in principle, but the criteria for what is moral, and how to weigh different facets of those criteria, still seem to me in the end to be subjective and not objective.”

    If that’s the best you’ve got, then I’m not convinced even you believe or understand the implications of this position. What it does is defang ethics and deprive it of any of its force or credibility. Putting ethics at the behest of preference flouts even the basest intellectual standards.

    Assuming this doesn’t involve solipsism – in which case, whatever your preference is is automatically right – then how do we compare preferences across individuals, especially when they contradict each other? Is it by popular vote? What if the popular vote is against minority preferences? Does that make it right by default? What if we overrule the preferences of the majority for the sake of those of the minority? Does that make some preferences more valid than others? What’s this extra criterion that determines which preferences are superior to others?

    How do we know preferences aren’t arbitrary, in which case it’s everybody for themselves because there’s nothing to elevate preference over preference? Or circular, which lands the same problem of arbitrariness? Or justified by an infinite regress of preferences to justify preferences? Where in this Munchhausen Trilemma of preference-based ethics do we avoid moral nihilism or relativism, and what objections do you have to those if you object to this?

    Why are facts supposed to correspond to some feature of reality, but preference suddenly allowed to diverge from such a requirement? Are human minds with their preferences somehow magically in a parallel world, and are we back at dualism? Why should we condemn an ethical system for being incoherent: what if we prefer a “flexible” or incoherent ethical system? Do preferences get extra credibility according to which political party is in power and able to impose it on others, and does this mean all rebellions are only right if they succeed at overthrowing the establishment and replacing them? Are preferences simply a matter of personal convenience, to be discarded when we prefer something else?

    Obviously, ethics has something to do with our subjective experience of the world, but our subjective experiences aren’t magic that occur in a parallel universe to the material one, and our resulting ethics cannot be so separated either. We seem to be confusing this meaning of the word “subjective” with the other meaning of the word: biased, partial, and out of the public eye. Science is objective because it is impartial, unbiased, and publicly available, not because it shies away from minds, with their subjective experiences, or pretends minds don’t exist. This equivocation, unintentionally or not, is at the heart of the problem because it then turns ethical discussion – not to mention condemnation – into insubstantial faddism.

    Think about it the next time you condemn religious malpractice. Are you convinced your condemnation of such killing and torture stems merely from a “preference”? Does that mean you’d be right if your “preference” went the opposite way? Or are you protesting because there’s a publicly available, unbiased, and non-magical, non-dualistic standard that is not arbitrary or insubstantial?

    1. I can’t speak for Professor Coyne, but when I condemn religious malpractice I do it knowing fully well that it comes down to preferences and that my judgment holds no more moral force (because there exists no such thing to begin with) than those of the religious, or Hitler.

      1. So when you say it comes down to preferences, what you’re really saying is that it comes down to nothing. You have no arguments, no standards, and no connection to real world facts, but that’s OK because you have no subject in the real world to apply them to, anyway. What a fascinating position to take.

        I presume your condemnation of religious malpractice, then, is by your own admission just meaningless whining that other people don’t prefer the “right” things – i.e. some arbitrary thing that you merely pretend is somehow superior to others – and that even you don’t really believe you have anything worth saying about it, “worth” not being discoverable under the microscope. In fact, it’s not even whining: it’s just the mechanical facts about your voicebox and your other mechanical bodily functions, happening to go a particular way just because. Nothing’s really happening beyond that.

        Therefore, I shall, henceforth, make a note to never take anything you say seriously, since there’s no way of telling if you are lying or telling the truth. After all, by your own admission, there’s no real difference between telling a lie and telling a truth other than which particular fad you have, when you get down to it. They’re both just noises from the voicebox. Truth, false, belief, disbelief? What are those?

        You merely pretend you’ll never backslide into lying, but obviously there’s no moral force that’ll check your behaviour. It just happens, just because!

        Also, I presume your particular way of life and your “choices” just happen to follow a particular route and don’t hold themselves to any real standard – just like your ideas and arguments – because obviously it’s just coincidence that you don’t go around killing, raping, and all the other things that apparently don’t matter. Obviously. Progress, after all, doesn’t and can’t really exist, so all directions are the same to you.

        Also, if your metaethical position can’t make your position any more substantive than Hitler’s, then I would say that I think you’re practising either some serious compartmentalization or some serious denialism in an attempt to look learned and smart and “scientific”, or “philosophical”, or “rational”. Of course, I am in the teeth of the fact that moral force doesn’t exist, so obviously you don’t really have any problem with admitting you’re no better than Hitler. Who knows? Maybe killing Jews is your hobby tomorrow? Maybe if you stick your hand in a fire, you can say pain doesn’t really exist, because it’s just nerves pulsing. Maybe life doesn’t exist because we can’t find elan vital under a microscope. Maybe science is just another myth to join the ranks of myths held throughout history, because they both talk about the same things, and both involve voiceboxes making noise either way. Maybe humans – including you – are all just automata with no consciousness, because we can’t produce “essence of consciousness” on command. Or – especially daring, this – maybe we just see things that we call blue, but there’s no such thing as “real” blue. Don’t you know colours don’t exist anywhere? You can’t prove it in an experiment.

        Or maybe you are utterly convinced that “good” and “bad” just popped into the human language as a complete and utter coincidence, with no real counterpart other than things that just “coincidentally” co-occurred with them, just “coincidentally” clustered around similar things, and just “coincidentally” you happen to agree with them, like magic. It’s like how our description of what’s true or not just happened to coincide with certain propositions. After all, if people didn’t 100% agree what was true or not, at all times and at all places, regardless of argument or merit, then obviously that means there’s no such thing as truth either.

        In any case, you obviously can’t have any standard for objecting if I suggest that your inability to distinguish rhetorical persuasion from robust argument, or highly broad abstraction from concrete material substance, informs your psychopathic inability to distinguish killing other people from “pretending” to say that you really think they should not. Obviously, it’s merely a coincidence that I say that, and I have never had any moral problems to solve or dilemmas to decide between or be aware of at all, because obviously they don’t exist. Tomorrow, I might say you’re a genius and where do I sign up to nihilism? 😉

        Or maybe you would rather define a subject out of existence, on the basis of ludicrous notions of what it consists of, rather than get some grit, tackle actual mysteries in it, solve anything hard, and put actual effort into the field. Maybe this position is informed, in part, by your being a postmodernist poser in a cushy ivory tower, proudly insisting those people suffering and dying over there aren’t your problem because there’s no problem in the first place, ah well, too bad for them, I’ll make some noises to humour them and their defendants.

      2. To be a little less sarcastic and long-winded, a major criticism I would give to your position is that it is based on strawmanning. You define – or at least, act as though you have defined – “good” and “bad” out of existence, completely severed from any real worlds facts – such as suffering, death, and improvements in cognitive experience – so that you can claim, a priori, that they don’t exist, even when these real-world facts are presented to you. Even if, in your case, you have done this only to deny the existence of such a parallel world, your suggestion is also transparently dualist, and as disreputable, intellectually, as a result.

  23. Three notes:

    (1) It’s actually really important to distinguish objectivity of truths from objectivity of judgments. Whether the latter is possible or common is a question for psychologists, and it can be reasonable to doubt that people make their judgments objectively. But that’s not very interesting from the perspective of ethics or philosophy. What we care about as philosophers is whether the truths are objective: whether it really is wrong to hurt innocent people, for example.

    (2) I wonder whether this view (that there are objective ethical truths) is gaining traction among people in general. It’s the majority viewpoint among the experts, at least. And I think it’s eminently defensible; I’m not sure what argument there is against robust ethical (objective) realism that has as much overall evidence as we have for ‘You shouldn’t torture innocent people for fun.’

    (3) As others have mentioned, the position that ethical truths are objective is actually a friendly position to any oppressed or disadvantaged group, such as atheists. After all, some of us think that it really is wrong to execute atheists for being atheists. If it’s just a preference that’s not tracking any objective truth, then why should (e.g.) the Inquisition care that atheists are innocent people who don’t deserve to be murdered?

    1. Regarding point #2, it seems likely that if cats ruled the world, feline ethicists would manage to adduce evidence for the “fact” that torturing small animals for fun is just fine (e.g. because prey are meant to be eaten, the pleasure cats get from it is a moral good, kittens must practice their hunting skills in order for cat society to flourish, etc).

      1. Sure, that might be the case. We can expect people’s ethical intuitions to sometimes suffer from bias and sometimes from false descriptive facts. I think it’s a big job, though, to show that these explain away all of commonsense morality.

        1. Are you saying that although my hypothetical feline ethicists might believe that, they would be objectively wrong to do so?

          My point is that your “commonsense morality” gets its commonsense character from the particulars of human biology and culture. Outside of that context, it’s no more objective than feline commonsense morality (which endorses torture of small animals).

          1. Gregory,

            You’re gesturing at an argument like the following:

            1. The Theory of Evolution is true.
            2. If (1), then the best explanation for any particular, adaptive trait is that it evolved.
            3. If the best explanation for any particular, adaptive trait is that it evolved, then the trait in question probably doesn’t constitute an accurate faculty.
            4. Whatever trait inculcates commonsense morality is adaptive.
            5. Therefore, probably, commonsense morality does not result from an accurate faculty.

            In my experience, when pressed on the evidence for (1)-(4), at some point, the proponent of these arguments appeals to intuition, obviousness, or common sense. But of course the conjunction of (1)-(4) needs to have more overall-evidence than ‘You shouldn’t torture innocent people’ in order for it to be rational to reject the latter claim in favor of that argument. In turn, if the latter claim is overall more commonsensical, obvious, or intuitive than any of (1)-(4) (or the common-sense appeals that allegedly ground them), it would be rational to accept the objective ethical claim and conclude that at fewest, one of (1)-(4) is unjustified, right?

            1. No, that’s not my argument. In particular, I reject (3); I think natural selection is quite capable of producing faculties that track reality with reasonable accuracy.

              But what is the reality that it tracks? In the case of intuitive physics, say, there’s an objective physical world with facts that are independent of biology and culture.

              But that’s not the case with morality. The diversity of living creatures provides ample evidence that there is no universal, one-size-fits-all Right Way to Live. Our moral intuition — our commonsense morality, as you call it — is a contingent product of our particular evolutionary trajectory. No doubt it’s an accurate gauge of how to live in human hunter-gatherer societies. But its accuracy cannot be guaranteed beyond that context.

              So if there were a species of sentient aliens whose evolutionary trajectory produced in them (for sound adaptive reasons) the intuition that torturing innocents is okay (and even the torture victims agree), then it would be presumptuous for us to tell them they’re objectively wrong, just because our evolution produced the opposite intuition. It may be exceedingly unlikely that such aliens exist, and difficult for us to imagine what their lives might be like, but I’m not prepared to say categorically that there can be no conceivable sociobiological context in which torture of innocents might be a positive social good.

            2. Tom,

              I’m sorry I’ll have to take my word back. I’m curious — what’s the evidence for the proposition that you shouldn’t torture innocent people? I admit that it is unlikely that whatever is offered will change my mind, but I’m genuinely curious about what you think constitutes evidence for that proposition.

    2. There is absolutely zero evidence for the proposition ‘You shouldn’t torture innocent people for fun.’ I’m not even going to ask you for the evidence, because the statement is of a type that does not even admit evidence to begin with. Of course, statements of the type ‘You shouldn’t torture innocent people for fun — if you want to achieve A or B’ do admit evidence, if they are interpreted as statements of cause and effect (‘if you torture innocent people for fun, the conditions A or B will not obtain’), but the proposition as you stated it, just isn’t even false.

      1. There are also true propositions of the form “X% of human individuals/societies believe that you shouldn’t torture innocent people for fun”, for values of X approaching 100%. This may be what Tom means by “evidence for objective ethical truths”, but if so I think he’s playing fast and loose with the meaning of “objective”.

        1. And in that case, the validity of the viewpoint that morality is objective will depend on the extent to which the spread of moral nihilism can be suppressed…

        2. Gregory,

          I distinguished that version of objectivity from the one I’m talking about in my point (1), and indicated the one I’m talking about in my point (2). I mean that it’s actually wrong to torture innocent people, and it would still be wrong even if everyone though it was okay. In the same way, even if everyone thought that 2+2=5, it would still =4.

      2. Minyoung,

        You’re making lots of controversial claims (claims generally rejected by the experts) without offering any support.

        However, I’ll try to make some progress anyway: Do you think people should only believe statements that have evidence? Is there anything wrong with believing unevidenced propositions? Are some beliefs more overall-justified than others? Is there anything wrong with indoctrinating public-school children with Creationism?

        1. Well, my answer to all of your questions is “no” if you want an answer in a fundamental, moral sense. In the case of justification, some beliefs could have more epistemic justification than others, but that won’t translate to moral justification for the act of holding those beliefs.

          Indeed, you could ask me, “is it wrong to torture you right now?” and my honest answer would be “no.” Of course I might not want to answer honestly in certain situations…

  24. Finke said it was “human flourishing”: whatever is more moral is that which allows for the most human flourishing.

    Oh my goodness. What if the dominant species were something other than humans? How can anyone imagine that a standard so obviously anthropocentric could be “objective”?

    Is the moral behaviour of antelope in large herds determined by “human flourinshing”? If so, an antelope parent working to the benefit of its offspring by keeping it from being hunted and eaten would have to be considered immoral.

  25. I think I must misunderstand what it means to be subjective and objective, then. I understood subjective to mean “arising in part from the perception of the observer or subject” in contrast to “inherent in the object, independent of any observer”. I cannot imagine objective ethics any more than I can imagine objective beauty or objective meaning or objective value. These things require both a subject and object for them to be coherent.

    Objective properties are things like mass, volume, distance, density… properties which don’t require any participation by an observer or subject. I’ve always used the “universe of rocks” test. Is this something that exists in a universe populated solely by rocks?

    Ethics seems to be the way we impose meaningful rules on behavior, so it would seem to be subjective by definition. Imagine a race of superintelligent hydrogen clusters lives on Alpha Centauri; would they consider human flourishing the ultimate goal of all ethics? What about an artificial intelligence? The fact that these ethical rules only matter to the world we live in, and the species we identify with seems to rule out the idea of any objective morality.

    1. Based on your definition of “subjective,” it would seem that all physical measures are subjective, since we can only collect measurements via our perceptions and they are shaped by our assumptions.

      1. Measures are subjective and perceptual, yes. Objective properties are not. The mass of a rock is the same whether that rock is in a universe with conscious beings or not. The true mass of a rock is not dependent on who is measuring it. We can talk about the mass of a rock without reference to who measured it.

        If we held morality to the same standard, then encouraging human flourishing would need to be objectively good without reference to the observer making that judgment. That is, an alien, artificial intelligence, superintelligent hydrogen cluster, and a very smart chimpanzee would all have to be able to come to the same conclusion, that human flourishing is the outcome of all moral actions. I don’t see how this is possible.

        1. Once you add the context of, “Within a particular society,” objectivity in the sense being flogged here can apply. But then, of course, there will first be great argument as to how to define the society — who and / or what to include and exclude.

          But, once you’ve got that much taken care of, the rest settles out in a very straightforward manner. Morality is an optimum strategy (in the sense used by game theory) for individuals living within a cooperative society.


        2. “Mass” and “object” are themselves theoretical constructs made by humans. You can’t truly partition an object (say, the chair I’m sitting on) from its immediate surroundings (the floor it rests on, the light reflecting off its surface) without some appeal to subjective judgement. “Objectivity” does not solely rest with the “true” properties of “objects”; a more important aspect of objectivity is interpersonal agreement. We argue about object definitions until we reach agreement; we argue about measurement methodology until we reach agreement. The thing that we measure is something that we agree to call “mass,” etc. There are subjective judgements at every step. The object may have true properties, but objectivity refers to the way we try to understand those properties by minimizing the possibility for subjective disagreement.

          1. The term “mass” is something that we’ve given to the properties of real objects. The property itself requires no conscious observer. We may call our observations “mass” or “volume”, but the properties don’t require our participation to be.

            To contrast, “beauty” isn’t intrinsic in the object. It requires an observer to exist. In a universe of rocks, there would be no quality of beauty because there are no conscious observers. We cannot ask if something is beautiful without someone to think it so.

            We can create a definition of beauty that is based on some objective property (symmetry, smoothness, contrast), but that’s a subjective decision. We can likewise pick an objective measure of ethics, like neurological voltage, but the value of that measure we must impose.

            Just as there is no objective beauty, there could not be an objective morality.

    2. You’ve written essentially the same comment I was going to write. I would add only this:

      There are objective psychological and anthropological facts about the prevalence of certain moral opinions among human societies. Such facts can perhaps be explained in terms of evolutionary reasoning about the adaptive benefits to humans of those opinions. But that does not elevate the opinions themselves to the status of objective moral facts that transcend their biological and cultural context.

  26. Hi Jerry! I’ve now also written a second reply. This one features many responses to the problem of moral disagreement that is core to your objections. It’s the general post I would have written on the topic before this weekend. In my third reply to your reply to my talk, I will directly address the issues you specifically raised in Pittsburgh and in this blog post.

    Thanks again for highlighting my work and opening this conversation up!

    1. Unless I’m missing something, you still are going to have to decide at some level, even at the principles level, a criteria for what makes something moral, and a criteria for how to evaluate it and justify why this is objective and not something else. Even Daniel Fincke basic set of principles as defined below, is going to be up to debate with other alternative sets of rational principles, as well as how to evaluate these principles, even if they are further fleshed out along with how to make these evaluations. They may all have a rational basis, but how do we determine which one is objective, or if these are the be all and end all of objective principles. I don’t see how to get around this problem.

      “As to the nature of human flourishing, my basic view can be briefly boiled down to this. What we are as individuals is defined by the functional powers that constitute our being. In other words, we do not just “have” the powers of reasoning, emotional life, technological/artistic capacities, sociability, sexuality, our various bodily capabilities, etc., but we exist through such powers. We cannot exist without them. They constitute us ourselves. When they suffer, we suffer. Some humans might be drastically deficient in any number of them and there’s nothing they can do about that but make the best of it. But in general our inherent good is the objectively determinable good functioning of these basic powers (and all the subset powers that compose them and all the combined powers that integrate powers from across these roughly distinguishable kinds).”

  27. The hard case number 3 should not have been there. “just because you think there is a 50% chance…”? It takes a lot more evidence than just to think something! I’m not aware of any evidence that torture is a good method to obtain valid information.

    This is often posed in the context of a ticking time bomb. How much of the torture done by the U.S. actually fits that scenario?

    Would it be all right to impose the death penalty on a political leader if he initiated, on false information obtained by torture, a military action that caused 10,000 deaths? That is the more common case.

    The answer is a definite no!

  28. I’m curious, what were Dan’s responses to your questions? is it on youtube? Maybe I’m blind and you already told us above what he said to your questions?

  29. Morality is not a thing to be found in nature, like the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Nature is amoral, but to label nature as amoral is only the projection of a human value, nature just is, and we think it has something to do with us.

    Morality is the boundary condition between individuals, and not necessarily unique to humans. Ethics arise as the “rules of the road” reinforcing group cohesion and in this sense morality is externalized and becomes a unifying consensus standard. In this regard I agree with Ben Goren’s assessment above. If we do not eternalize morality and ethics we sink into the morass of moral relativism.

    As the earth becomes smaller, as the circle expands, the external frame of moral reference expands to the global community and here we must distill the “best practices” of all cultures to achieve a global ethics which is inclusive of all people and other species on this planet earth.

  30. I applaud you for once again speaking out against objectivity of morality (and also for your speaking out against Freedom of the Will — though I don’t think the two are entirely entangled, even as I reject both of them).

    I’m curious to know what your reply to reasonshark will be — I agree with him that once you accept that objective morality is an illusion, there is no room to wiggle out of it and try to establish the validity of conventional morality (such as “killing innocents is bad”) in any way. You get full-fledged nihilism (in the abstract sense — it does not mean your attitude in life has to be depressive or pessimistic). Though of course I also hold that this is the only correct position to take, even if inconvenient.

    And I’d like to add that the lack of existence of an objective morality is almost a kind of basic truth you intuit, and is in no way predicated on metaphysical naturalism. Even if God did exist, you still get the Euthyphro dilemma, and the existence of objective morality is simply inconceivable under any circumstance.

    It is interesting that in one passage the Buddha speaks of “those trifling virtues which are merely moral,” and gives an extensive list of activities under that heading, which includes things from vegeterianism and not killing people to asceticism (though he fails to mention any example of those other virtues that are not trifling…).

  31. Ethics, as with everything else, are based strictly on human needs at that specific moment in time, ie, situational, not absolute. My psychologiical needs as determined by the almost infinite variables that I have experienced up to that particular point in time will define my ethics. Though I may have a particular ethical code, that code is dependent on all the variables up to that point that I have experienced (nature + nurture), and are vulnerable to change when confronted with new experiences that confront old values. An understandable human need is the need for absolutes that provide a sense of definition for things beyond definition. Thus the attraction and sense of security that religious beliefs seem to provide. Apparently the lack of empirical evidence to support those beliefs is not sufficient to undermine the psychological need for the belief that God has somehow saved me from the disaster of a tornado, or has enabled me to make a free throw, score a touchdown, or deliver a ninth inning single to win a game. When I was a kid I got kicked out of Boy Scouts for refusing to pray, but when I refused to participate in the pregame prayer as the starting quarterback/captain in football, I was allowed to remain part of the team. Don’t get much more situational than that!

  32. A few thoughts:

    Moral facts are natural facts. They are facts about human wellbeing. They are facts about our experience. They have causal conditions and can be studied scientifcally.

    To say that there are no facts about human Wellbeing is like saying there is no difference between a sick person and a healthy person and food and posion.

    The truth is that different causes lead to different effects upon our experience and can experience suffering and wellbeing. Facts about pleasure and pain need not be the only objective thing. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs I think states an important set of truths about a flourishing human life independently of culture.

    However, and here comes the kicker. Despite facts existing about happiness and suffering, pain and pleasure. The choice to do the right thing (promote the good increase wellbeing) is up to us. There is logical argument to tell us what to do,no categorical imperative. Our reasons to be good are subjective (in the final analysis) but that does not mean there is no objective good(for human beings.)

    So, this is a kinda of halfway house moral realism. Morality is partly discovered, partly created.

  33. Asking “Can morality be objective?” always seems like the wrong question to me.

    Asking “How can we be more objective in our morality?” seems like a much more interesting and useful question. (You can add or replace with words like rational or rigorous if you prefer).

    It seems unlikely, even in principle, that we can make morality fully “objective”, whatever that would actually mean, but we can clearly do far better than we are at the moment, which is surely the important point.

    For example, there are several methods in Operational Research for combining subjective judgements in sensible ways. These don’t make the results magically objective, but they are a lot better than just throwing up your hands and saying that everyone disagrees.

  34. I agree with you, there can’t be objective morality. But why not replace objective morality with reasoned morality? I.e. Give good reasons for everything you want to do. Do you want to torture someone? Well, have you got good reasons for doing it? Do you want to keep some money for yourself to buy boots rather than give that portion as well to feed African kids? Well, have you got good reasons for it?

    I think this is a good way to think about morality because good reasons are informed by scientific thinking and that’s as close as we’ll get to objective morality.

  35. After reading Stephen Pinkers epic on the role of violence on humanity and the trail of millions of lives forfeited to arrive eh… where is it exactly? (I jest, but it is by no means over that is for sure) It seems that a
    combination of reason, education, commerce and technology (that was a surprise) has allowed us humans to overcome and suppress the nasty qualities of a unsophisticated biological mind. Our understanding as of now and practice of morality and ethics is holding an ever increasing circle in check but it does not make me for one, feel comfortable.
    Nor should I, I’m a humanist a realist and a lover of this blue planet.
    If morality and ethics are objective does this mean it would be inter planetary? if so, are we waiting for an alien for confirmation?
    I hope not, I’m good with..
    keep on pushing, straight ahead. Jimi Hendricks
    Cry of Love.

  36. Heaven forefend (figure of speech) that we are ever visited by aliens. When they discover that most of us believe in imaginary super beings, and increasing numbers of the rest believe in something as chimerical as “objective morality,” we will be the laughing stock of the galaxy.

  37. Excellent, thought provoking post Dr. Coyne.

    I would like to point out that you do your own religion a disservice by assuming that it follows the literal word of the Bible. It does not. I know you read through the Bible and were appalled by the barbarity and immorality. However, 2000 years ago there was an ideological war between the Saducees and Pharisees. The former believed in following the literal word of the Old Testament while the latter believed that the it was now in the hands of man. The Judaism that exists today and for the last 2000 years is “Rabbinic Judaism”. Obviously a lot is based on the bible, but there has been, and continues to be much adaptation to modern thinking.

    You mentioned abortion. Jewish law does not ban abortions. It puts the life AND well being of the mother before the fetus’s. It also recognized fetal development and acknowledges a difference between the first and third trimesters in dealing with the issue. However, even at the end of the third trimester, if there’s a choice between the life of the fetus and the mother, the mother takes precedence.

    My point in tell you this is to show you that there is a wealth of discussion of the type of relative morality you’re alluding to in hundreds of years of Rabbinic literature.

  38. This is late, probably too late, but I have been busy, but these questions occurred to me:

    What would an ‘objective’ morality look like? Why would it be ‘objective’? Would and ideal ‘objective’ morality be able to tell us what to do in any situation, or how to work out what to do?

    Why, anyway, is the creation or achievement of an ‘objective’ morality an important, or desirable, thing?

    If morality is not ‘objective’, does that entail that it is a matter of arbitrary preference? That the ‘preference’ of some lout sawing off heads in the name, or excuse (this ain’t good grammar, but it’s understandable, I hope), of Islam is on the same level as the understandable preference of Professor Ceiling Cat & myself for a kinder and juster society? (‘A murd’rer with this clause,/ Makes butchery divine/ Who saws off heads as for thy laws/ Makes death and th’agony fine.’ – with apologies to George Herbert.)

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