What does it mean to say that there’s an “objective morality”? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy reports this view as “moral realism” and characterizes it like this:
Moral realists are those who think that, in these respects, things should be taken at face value—moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true. That much is the common and more or less defining ground of moral realism (although some accounts of moral realism see it as involving additional commitments, say to the independence of the moral facts from human thought and practice, or to those facts being objective in some specified way).
This is the stand taken by Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape, and it’s a view with which I disagree. Although some philosophers agree with Sam that morality is “factual” in this way—and by that I don’t mean that the existence of a moral code is a fact about society but that you can find objective ways to determine if a view is right or wrong—I can’t for the life of me see how one can determine objectively whether statements like “abortions of normal fetuses are wrong” are true or false. In the end, like many others, I see morality as a matter of preference. What is moral is what you would like to see considered good behavior, but as different people differ on what is right and wrong, I see no way to adjudicate statements like the one about abortion.
I’ve said all this before, but it came to mind last night when I was reading Anthony Grayling’s comprehensive book The History of Philosophy. (By the way, that book has convinced me that there is virtually no issue in philosophy that ever gets widespread agreement from nearly all respectable philosophers, so in that way philosophy differs from science. That is not to say that philosophy is without value, but that its value lies in teaching us how to think rigorously and to parse arguments, not to unearth truths about the cosmos.)
It’s clear that empirical observation can inform moral statements. If you think that it’s okay to kick a dog because it doesn’t mind it, well, just try kicking a dog. But in the end, saying whether it’s right or wrong to do things depends on one’s preferences. True, most people agree on their preferences, and their concept of morality by and large agrees with Sam’s consequentialist view that what is the “right” thing to do is what maximizes “well being”. But that is only one criterion for “rightness”, and others, like deontologists such as Kant, don’t agree with that utilitarian concept. And of course people disagree violently about things like abortion—and many other moral issues.
One problem with Sam’s theory, or any utilitarian theory of morality, is how to judge “well being”. There are different forms of well being, even in a given moral situation, and how do you weigh them off against one another? There is no common currency of well being, though we know that some things, like torturing or killing someone without reason, clearly does not increase well being of either that person or of society. Yet there is no objective way to weigh one form of well being against another. Abortion is one such situation: one weighs the well being of the fetus, which will develop into a sentient human, against that of the mother, who presumably doesn’t want to have the baby.
But to me, the real killer of objective morality is the issue of animal rights—an issue that I don’t see as resolvable, at least in a utilitarian way. Is it moral to do experiments on primates to test human vaccines and drugs? If so, how many monkeys can you put in captivity and torture before it becomes wrong? Is it wrong to keep lab animals captive just to answer a scientific question with no conceivable bearing on human welfare, but is just a matter of curiosity? Is it moral to eat meat? Answering questions about animal rights involves, if you’re a Harris-ian utilitarian, being able to assess the well being of animals, something that seems impossible. We do not know what it is like to be a bat. We have no idea whether any creatures value their own lives, and which creatures feel pain (some surely do).
But in the end, trying to find a truly factual answer to the statement, “Is it immoral for humans to eat meat?” or “is abortion wrong?”, or “is capital punishment wrong?” seems a futile effort. You can say that eating meat contributes to deforestation and global warming, and that’s true, but that doesn’t answer the question, for you have to then decide whether those effects are “immoral”. Even deciding whether to be a “well being” utilitarian is a choice. You might instead be a deontologist, adhering to a rule-based and not consequence-based morality.
You can make a rule that “anybody eating meat is acting immorally,” but on what do you base that statement? If you respond that “animals feel pain and it’s wrong to kill them,” someone might respond that “yes, but I get a lot of pleasure from eating meat.” How can you objectively weigh these positions? You can say that culinary enjoyment is a lower goal than animal welfare, but again, that’s a subjective judgment.
By saying I don’t accept the idea of moral claims representing “facts”, I’m not trying to promote nihilism. We need a moral code if, for nothing else, to act as a form of social glue and as a social contract. Without it, society would degenerate into a lawless and criminal enterprise—indeed, the idea of crime and punishment would vanish. All I’m arguing is that such claims rest at bottom on preference alone. It’s generally a good thing that evolution has bequeathed most of us with a similar set of moral preferences. I hasten to add, though, that what feelings evolution has instilled in us aren’t necessarily ones we should incorporate into morality, as some of them (widespread xenophobia, for instance) are outmoded in modern society. Others, like caring for one’s children, are good things to do.
In the end, I agree with Hume that there’s no way to derive an “ought” from an “is”. “Oughts” have their own sources, while “is”s may represent in part our evolutionarily evolved behaviors derived from living in small groups of hunter-gatherers. But that doesn’t make them evolutionary “oughts.”
I’m not a philosopher—and I’m sure it shows!—and I know there are famous philosophers, like Derek Parfit, who are moral realists, but my attempt to read the late Parfit’s dense, two-volume treatise On What Matters, said to contain his defense of moral realism, was defeated.