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Does an objective morality exist?

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
— William Shakespeare (Hamlet)
Before I begin, I want to make it clear what I am not saying. I am not saying morality or good and bad do not exist. I am saying that they only exist as subjective constructs. I am not suggesting that if no objective morality exists, that we should then allow anyone to do what they want. The question of “what do we do now?” is separate from “does objective morality exist?” I am only treating the latter question in this post. I do have a moral system that in many ways is likely to be very similar to yours.
What does objective mean? Objective means having actual existence or reality; uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices; or based on observable phenomena. It is contrasted with the adjective subjective. Subjective means proceeding from or taking place in a person’s mind rather than the external world; or particular to a given person; personal.
What is morality? Morality is concern with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong; right or good conduct.
If you disagree with any of my definitions, let’s discuss that first before we move on. If we are on the same page so far, I am going to tackle this question from a couple of different angles: the necessity of an observer and relativity.
Necessity of an Observer
One possible phrasing of the topic in question is, “Does the distinction between good and evil exist in the external world or only in the human mind?” It is my contention that it takes an observer to make a judgment to make something good or bad.
Let’s try a thought experiment. If a behavior is engaged in, and no one ever judges it, does its badness exist? The behavior may result in pain or death, but if no one ever evaluates it (including you as you imagine it), does it have a badness characteristic? A behavior can only gain a badness quality if an evaluator gives it one. It is not a physical quality; it cannot be measured with an instrument. Badness only resides in the eye of the beholder; it does not exist independent of an observer. That makes it subjective by definition. Remember subjective means proceeding from or taking place in a person’s mind rather than the external world.
Now, some believe that there is an objective, external morality that is established by God. But, we are faced again with the fact that now God is the evaluator. The badness of the behavior exists in the mind of God, not in the external world. God’s opinion of what is moral does not establish an objective morality, as not all accept the idea that he has the final word on declaring something good or evil. If God does exist, I do not accept his morality as an objective standard. He is simply one being, one evaluator of behavior, as am I. If he exists and is all-powerful, he may enforce consequences upon me for my behavior, but that does not make the behaviors objectively good or evil. He is not the final say of good and evil unless we make him so for ourselves. Every person creates good and evil for themselves in their own minds. Consequences exist whether someone believes in them or not, but only a person or god can create good and evil, for good and evil are nothing more than evaluations. And evaluations are not properties of a behavior as they cannot exist outside of an evaluator.
Other people may believe that behaviors have a goodness or badness quality, independent of any observer’s evaluation. They claim that the universe bestows this quality on behaviors. But, what does that mean? Consequences can follow behaviors as in karma, but that is a cause and effect relationship or a conditional reward type situation. It does not mean that a behavior is “good” or “bad”.
Now that I have shown that the distinction between good and evil exists only in the mind, I believe I have demonstrated that there can be no objective morality.
Relative Morality
Another way to phrase the topic in question is, “Although morality may exist only in the mind, can we humans through logic and reason identify morals that are not ‘particular to the individual,’ but are universal and ‘uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices’ and in that sense be objective?” Let’s take a look at that.
Logic and reason are operators; they need something to work on. The kind of moral system you end up with depends on what you subjectively choose to start with. Deductive reasoning requires you to subjectively choose some premise to start with, such as “whatever promotes life is good,” and then deduce moral behaviors that are consistent with that premise. Now, one can evaluate the system that was derived from the premise on the basis of consistency, soundness, and completeness, but one cannot objectively evaluate the premise itself. The problem is that there are nearly an infinite number of premises from which to start and no objective way to determine which premise is best. This is because the only way to judge

7 COMMENTS

  1. It’s a very good question which raises lots of religious and spiritual issues. I’ll be writing a full answer in a minute and will edit this post then……..
    This is by far one of the best questions I have ever read on Y!A. For the same reasons – one of the most annoying.
    Morality is in itself subjective because it exists only in a conscious mind or soul….but if the mind and soul are true components of reality, that surely makes them and morality objective?
    Nature has no morality, there is only survival. Animals do not question their infidelity or brutality. They just do it – whatever needs to be done to survive with no limitations and little understanding of consequences.
    Necessity of an observer:
    Any victim is aware of the evil nature of the cruelty done to them. Any sane aggressor knows the nature of the suffering they bring. Only in the event of an individual being a psychopathk, who has no emapathy for others, does there need to be an observer to define an act as bad, wrong or evil. Morality only applies to the actions of conscious being leopards are not deemed evil for hunting gazelles.
    Ultimately I don’t think anybody can come up with a logical arguement about objective morality existing other than: by it’s nature, morality exists as a concept within conscious beings. Any abstract perception is strictly speaking subjective but as we are conscious beings and morality is a universal concept in functional humans.
    You have not “…shown that the distinction between good and evil exists only in the mind.”
    You have only presumed that knowledge of all states of reality is fully at you disposal. Like a true scientist, you have reached a conclusion based on limited knowledge of an infinite Universe/ existence and called it proof.
    Relative Morality:
    I don’t really think that logic works well to assess morality or ethics. Logic is a heartless beast with no morals. Logic justifies carpet bombing and genocide. If you must use deductive reasoning and start with a premise for morality, you should use the Buddhist idea:
    minimisation of suffering is good.
    Then the only people whose conscious and living state which is not enhanced by that morality are those who gain from bringing suffering in to others lives. Sadists will not gain satisfaction from minimising suffering and could argue that attempts to prevent suffering make sadists suffer so they should be allowed to torture others to prevent their own suffering…..which I think is crap. I don’t care if a sadist suffers as they relish others’ suffering.
    If God does exist and I believe that is the case. Objective morality is one of the keys to the purpose of our existaence and maybe it is a natural law. It is certainly paradoxical to try to define morality as objective or subjective. The nature of physical existence is a-moral. Humans have developed codes of morality largely based on the premise you suggested – “whatever promotes life is good.” That falls down when applied to terminal illness and assisted suicide.
    As ultimate spiritual truths go, we have to look beyond what life has to offer and consider this a brief venture in a complex training and testing environment. We have to consider that maybe understanding the need to accept morality as objective is a vital part of our journey. Maybe it’s how we’ve lost our way – that we consider the nature of morality but concern ourselves less with practicing moral behaviour.
    “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
    It’s the arguement of a man who wishes to commit immoral acts but not be judged for it. Much like a politician saying don’t hold me accountable for the things I have done.
    I believe that reality is more complicated than just this world and our tiny understanding of it. I believe that we have an awareness of good and evil which is part of our higher understanding of things. I believe that humanitarian acts, kindness and charity are objective reality and that the causes are just as valid and objective. But it is still ambiguous.

  2. Morality is 100% subjective. When talking about this I like to use Hitler as an example. The “normal” person would consider all his actions as the ultimate example of evil. But was hitler thinking, ” this is so wrong.”? No, he believed he was doing right, making the world a better place. And so did all the nazi’s who supported him. Everyone has a different set of rights and wrongs, and the only reason objective views of morality are around are because some people in history have believed they had the right morals and any one who didn’t agree with them was wrong. These people started having groups of followers and then children were taught to think in one way instead of their way. In some cases those who didn’t were punished.

  3. Your question perhaps deserves a better and more thoughtful answer than I’m about to give, however, it’s all I’m capable of right now, so …
    I’m with Kant on this one, in that an objective morality does exist, but it is probably based upon a human necessity/instinct for morality in its formal sense, rather than an aspirational goal. Yet Kant’s framework is merely the tool/process upon which a moral construct hangs, rather than the true mitre behind that framework. I’m not sure (nor maybe astute enough) to fully divine the scope of the supporting argument, but I’d suggest that Kant would insist the basis for such morality lies in objectivity.
    Although I guess we need to consider such assertions in the context of both the time of his life; and the moral (and religious) overtures to which he played.

  4. You don’t seem to be asking a question at all… then again, this is as important a topic as you can have in ethics, SO…
    Objective morality may or may not exist. But in either case, the most pragmatic action is to treat it as if it does. For example, your thought experiment seems to test ‘commonplace’ morality with the assertion that an individual’s judging gives the moral value. Can we be so sure? Can’t we also say, via Joseph Butler, that the moral value causes the reaction (judging) and not the other way around? I don’t think anybody would be inclined to judge a mahogany table as good or bad, but a murder…?
    If we cannot conclude that morality is objectively existent, I don’t see how we can conclude that it is objectively non-existent. This is not to say that you don’t have a good start to your own brand of heavy moral skepticism… just that it’s not that easy.

  5. I only read the first tenth of your question, but its a good one. Shakespeare was right.
    Morality is a human construct that allows us to label our actions. Generally, society labels an action as immoral to the degree with which it causes perceivable pain (physical or emotional).
    Most events are “common sense” right or wrong because there is a popular concensus as to whether it is unduly painful. However, there are several popular moral debates and moral delimmas that prove the absence of true morality; not by the content of their argument, but by their never ending debate amongst scholars.
    In these grey area cases, the event is usually labeled by the doer’s intent – angry or kind.

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