Philosophy

Morality, It Exists?

Hello, all! I took a mental health break for a while, but now I’m back and ready to talk about things that are way too serious and boring!

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a new friend pondering the existence of an objective morality. To begin with, we need to clearly define the difference between objective and subjective (definitions courtesy Google):

ob·jec·tive

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

sub·jec·tive

Adjective:
Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.

Their general point-of-view was that an objective morality may exist, and that we may not yet understand the ways in which to measure it. To be able to describe a perfectly objective (which, to me, is mutually inclusive with ‘universal’) morality, you would have to have some standard of measurement.

So, what is that standard of measurement? Many theists would reference their deities, but of course we reject that opinion. What, then, are a non-theist’s bases for morality? Being a moral nihilist, I think ethics are purely a human, subjective construct and don’t really come from anywhere. To be truly objective, any moral guidelines would have be universally applicable in all situations.

That is not to say that I don’t have morals or that I don’t have standards of ethical behavior. I typically refer to what PZ Myers refers to as “an objective humanist morality” to describe my ethical standards:

  1. Interest. Am I even interested in carrying out a particular action? […]
  2. Consent. If I’m contemplating an action, I’d next consider whether all participants agree to engage in the action. If it isn’t consensual, it probably isn’t a good idea. […]
  3. Harm. I avoid behaviors that cause harm to others. Again, this is not done because an authority told me to do no harm, but is derived from self-interest and empathy. I do not want to be harmed, so I should not harm others. And because I, like most human beings, have empathy, seeing harm done to others causes me genuine distress.
  4. Stigma. This should be the least of my four reasons, but face it, sometimes we are constrained by convention. There are activities we all are interested in doing, that do no harm and may be done with consenting partners, but we keep them private or restrain ourselves to some degree because law or fashion demand it.

Myers mentions empathy–a developed sense of shared feelings with other beings. Empathy is not a universal trait; many animals, including some humans, don’t experience empathy for other animals within or without their species. It disqualifies this particular moral arrangement as ‘objective’ because it finds itself subject to personal feelings. As Myers points out, it is a humanist morality, based on those ideals.

The other, less visible basis for this type of ethical structure is that those who subscribe to it value human life. The fundamental concept behind “Consent” and “Harm” is that human life has a greater value than objects or other life forms. We don’t find it immoral to destroy an inanimate object (barring property and sentimental value), but most people do find it immoral to kill human beings.

Slavery is illegal because we believe human’s lives are valuable enough that they should be happy and healthy and free to make their own decisions. Hitler saw Jews, homosexuals, and mentally unstable people as less valuable than other people. If someone is made to be less valuable, it becomes easier to treat them more like objects (read: thousands of years of female subjugation).

When looking at something to determine if it’s right or wrong, what it usually comes down to is whether someone was proven to be harmed and someone was proven to have harmed them in some way. It’s why stealing is illegal (harms someone’s possessions and/or livelihood), it’s why sexual assault is illegal (physical harm and imposition), and why libel and slander are illegal (harms a person’s feelings or reputation).

None of those morally reprehensible things would be morally reprehensible unless we believed that humans should be valued and that it should matter when one of them is injured. Most people agree that human life has value. Some people believe that human life has varying value.

In summation, I don’t think there is a truly objective standard for morality. There’s always something subjective and opinion-based keeping everyone from agreeing 100%.

I would love to see universally enforced ethics based on the value of human life. Every person should be able to live happily and freely, be helped when they need it, and given the opportunities to succeed (whatever that means for them). It’s probably a long way off, but the next generation has the power to shift the world’s views on how people should be treated.

Image credit The Worrywart

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Lux

Lux

Lux is a female genderqueer weirdo, writing from Kansas. They happily identify as a militant atheist(+), feminist and liberal. Their time is consumed with Doctor Who, reading, and playing WoW with a cat on their lap. If you're lucky, you might catch them smithing jewellery or cleaning something.

3 Comments

  1. September 27, 2012 at 10:07 pm —

    You seem to be conflating ethics and legality in places. It’s entirely possible to believe that something is always unethical without believing it should be illegal (betraying someone you love, for example), and it’s entirely possible to believe that something should be illegal without believing that it is ever unethical (jaywalking, for example).

    To say that nothing is objectively ethical or unethical is to say that there exists no behavior which a person should or should not do (setting aside purely instrumental reason). Is that really what you think?

    • September 28, 2012 at 4:46 am —

      Of course ethics and legality aren’t mutually inclusive–they just often overlap. The examples I used are illegal partially because we find them to be unethical.

      The thing is that whether someone should or should not engage in a particular behavior is subjective. The standards of ‘do this’ and ‘don’t do this’ are sometimes radically different from one person to the next. From a completely objective standpoint, no, there aren’t any behaviors a person shouldn’t engage in.

      I subscribe to a humanist morality that bases itself on the idea that human beings have value and should be treated equally. However, I recognize that human life has no value until we give it value, similarly to how money doesn’t have value unless we give it value. We’re just animals with highly sophisticated brains which enable us to construct rules and philosophies surrounding morality.

  2. September 30, 2012 at 11:26 am —

    Have you read that Sam Harris book? The Moral Landscape, I think it’s called. I haven’t, so this comment is pretty useless. But it’s something you might find interesting.

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