You really must check in on the big morality discussion over at Uncommon Descent. Barry Arrington has done another post on the subject. It’s just more snarling and buffoonery, but I do suggest browsing the comments. RDFish, the “idiot” who caused Arrington’s latest fit of apoplexy, has shown extraordinary patience and lucidity in responding point by point. He’s administering quite the spanking, actually. Arrington, for his part, has nothing beyond abuse and insults to offer in reply. He’s just making a fool of himself. For a taste, check out this comment from RDFish, and this reply from Arrington.
Let us recall that Arrington is the front man for the premiere ID blog on the internet. Truly, ID is dead.
So let’s leave that aside for a moment and ruminate on some of the issues I passed over in my last post.
When moral philosophy is discussed in the abstract, it can seem like a very complex subject. But for most people most of the time, morality is actually very simple. Most of us can go our whole lives without having to confront a situation in which distinguishing right from wrong is genuinely murky. (Though we might face situations where the right thing to do is not the easy thing to do). And when we do confront genuine moral dilemmas, it’s rarely helpful to ruminate over the differences between consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics and all the rest. If your moral system, in its entirety, is “Don’t hurt people unnecessarily,” you’ll do just fine in nearly all situations.
One of the most overwrought questions in moral philosophy is the question of whether morality is objective or subjective. People get really worked up about it, but I’ve never understood why. Partly, I suppose, it’s that people suspected of moral relativism are often thought to be saying that anything goes, but that is just a ridiculous misunderstanding of what is being claimed.
My own view is that there is one sense in which morality is just obviously subjective. But there is another, more important sense, in which morality can reasonably be said to be objective. The subjective sense is this: After you have carefully laid out your moral system, what do you say to the critic who just folds his arms and replies, “Sez you!”? Moral assertions have to be defended on some basis, and in any system of reasoning something has to be taken as axiomatic. If someone just flatly rejects your moral foundations, I don’t see how you can argue that he has erred on a matter of fact. I might think he is being very unreasonable, and I might think that moral systems different from my own will lead to bad consequences, but that is not the same as saying the critic is flatly mistaken for rejecting my premises.
But this is not really very important, since, to a striking degree, most people actually do share the same basic premises. That’s why the religious and nonreligious alike mostly agree on basic moral questions.
So let’s think about objectivity for a moment. Usually we say that something is objectively true if it is true independently of what anyone thinks about it. That’s not a very helpful definition, however, since it’s hopelessly abstract. Instead we should be asking about how we ever come to agree that something is an objective fact.
If I say there is a table in my kitchen and someone else denies it, we can readily resolve the dispute. We get a bunch of competent observers to go into my kitchen and see if there is a table. When large numbers of people report seeing and feeling a table, we take that as establishing it as a fact that there is a table in my kitchen. We would have no trouble saying that the skeptic is just wrong in this case. We would not worry about the possibility of a mass hallucination on the part of the observers, nor would we worry that we are living inside the matrix. We would say simply that the consensus of so many competent observers establishes the objective existence of the table as well as anything can be established.
We would say something similar about objective facts in science. We gain confidence that science is telling us something objective about the world when large numbers of scientists repeating the same experiment get the same results. Once again, it is large-scale consensus that gives us confidence we have discovered an objective truth.
There is always a lingering danger that the consensus is wrong, of course, but that is neither here nor there. The point is that appealing to the consensus is just the best we can do when trying to distinguish what is objectively true from what is a subjective belief.
I see no reason why we cannot apply the same standard to discussions of morality. It’s not simply that there is large-scale agreement on basic moral principles, it’s that we feel these principles instinctively and recoil from anyone who demurs. As C.S. Lewis famously pointed out, we all have an innate sense of fair play and decency. Virtually everyone understands basic empathy, and understands that it is just wrong to inflict pointless suffering on sentient creatures. Why is that not a reason for feeling confident that there are objective moral truths, just as surely as a scientific consensus makes us confident that there are objective physical truths?
Some people will demur from the consensus, but so what? Scientists argue about all sorts of things, but no one takes that as evidence that science is just about subjective preferences. There can be objective truths without everyone agreeing about what those truths are.
Others might retort that standards of moral goodness have changed over time. Might makes right was once an operative moral principle, and still is in some parts of the world. Again, so what? There can be objective moral truths even if people don’t realize what they are. Perhaps we can only learn about such truths by observing the doleful consequences of getting it wrong.
This sort of argument is why I feel perfectly comfortable speaking about objective morality. It had better be sufficient, because I don’t see where you’re going to find anything better. Certainly bringing God into the mix isn’t going to help. If the near universal agreement of humanity on basic moral questions is thought to be a subjective and arbitrary standard, then I don’t see how it’s an improvement to hypothesize God into existence, declare that He has the authority to speak definitively on morality, and then further hypothesize we have some way of knowing what He wants from us.