Friday, April 8, 2011

Wanting objective morals without an objective moral standard

Listening to the Harris vs Craig debate last night on "Is good from God?" I noticed, yet again, a person defending objective moral values in a relativistic fashion. In the opening statement, it appeared that both men agreed on objective morality. What is objective morality? Objective morality, put simply, is a standard of morals that is binding on us whether we acknowledge them or not. I wouldn't want to confuse objective morals with universal morals because universal morals are morals that are recognized universally not necessarily objectively. Right now, universally people acknowledge that murder of an innocent is wrong. What if tomorrow, universally, people acknowledged that murder of an innocent wasn't wrong? That would mean that it's fine to go down the street, gun blazing, killing everyone you see and you could get away with that action. Objective morality means that even if tomorrow, the universal opinion is that killing the innocent is fine, that objectively killing the innocent is not fine, it's bad even if you don't acknowledge that it's bad. That is objective morality. 

Having said that, I think some defenders of objective morality are actually defending universal morality. Why do I think that? Well, for one because such defenders are basing their arguments on either a) evolution or b) utilitarian principles. Objective morals cannot be a product of evolution/herd/culture morality. Why? If objective morality developed by evolution, then I understand that it would have developed by natural selection. If the objective standard was developed by natural selection, then how could that be "objective?" Objective morality is the standard whether we acknowledge it or not; it's true without any help from us. An objective moral value is selflessness. Can selflessness be a product of natural selection? No. In natural selection the self is maximized. Greg Koukl gives a good explanation:

"So, in abbreviated form, the reasoning goes like this: I ought to be unselfish because it is better for the group, which is better for the species, which is better for me. So why ought I be unselfish? Because it is better for me. But looking at what is better for me, is selfishness. So all of this so-called description of where morality comes from, gets reduced to this ludicrous statement: I morally ought to be unselfish so that I can be more thoroughly selfish. That is silly. Because we know that morality can't be reduced to selfishness. Why do we know that? Because our moral rules are against selfishness and for altruism. They are against selfishness and for the opposite. When you think about what it is that morality entails, you don't believe that morality is really about being selfish. Morality is about being unselfish, or at least it entails that. Which makes my point that this description, based on evolution, does not do the job. It doesn't explain what it is supposedly meant to explain. It doesn't explain morality. It is simply reduced to a promotion of selfishness which isn't morality at all." 1

We can see from this observation that objective morality cannot have evolved over time. When dealing with evolution, it's all about the self. When dealing with morality, it's all about selflessness. 

What about good deeds? They're really done just so you can get something back right? The old "scratch my back I'll scratch your back." Well, I can think of a few things people do without getting anything back in return. I'm doing a good thing when I help someone that I do not know. So, I'm not trying to preserve my family, my "herd" at all, this person is a complete stranger. I'm in a restaurant waiting for a table, sitting down on an already crowded booth in the waiting area. An old man walks in and I give him my seat. Why do I do this? There's definitely not a reward; I'm not getting money or a free meal for this action, I'm not his grandson, cousin, brother; I'm simply a human being doing a good thing for another human being who is a complete stranger to me. 

Why does a soldier jump in front of enemy fire for an innocent bystander? There's definitely no reward for him in that action. There's no preservation of his species when he does that. He is not looking out for himself. When you see a person stranded with car trouble on the side of the parkway, you stop to help him. You have no connection with him, yet you help him. You don't help in hope of earning money or recognition; you help because you felt like you ought to help him. No one else had stopped to help and you felt it was the right thing to do. Objective morality imposes the ought on us whether you acknowledge it or not. Evolution can't explain morality. 

Can utilitarianism explain morality? First we should define what utilitarianism is. Utilitarianism (also called consequentialism) is a moral theory developed and refined in the modern world by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). It can be defined as follows: An action or moral rule is right if and only if it maximizes the amount of nonmoral good produced in the consequences that result from doing that act or following that rule compared with other acts or rules open to the agent. 2 I'm going to be borrowing heavily from J.P. Moreland's critique of utilitarianism because he answers my question quite well. In fact, I'll just post his rebuttals here. 

"Several objections show the inadequacy of utilitarianism as a normative moral theory. First, utilitarianism can be used to justify actions that are clearly immoral. Consider the case of a severely deformed fetus. The child is certain to live a brief, albeit painless life. He or she will make no contribution to society. Society, however, will bear great expense. Doctors and other caregivers will invest time, emotion, and effort in adding mere hours to the baby's life. The parents will know and love the child only long enough to be heartbroken at the inevitable loss. An abortion negates all those "utility" losses. There is no positive utility lost. Many of the same costs are involved in the care of the terminally ill elderly. They too may suffer no pain, but they may offer no benefit to society. In balancing positives and negatives, and excluding from the equation the objective sacredness of all human life, we arrive at morally repugnant decisions. Here deontological and virtue ethics steer us clear of what is easier to what is right.

Second, in a similar way, utilitarianism denies the existence of supererogatory acts. These are acts of moral heroism that are not morally obligatory but are still praiseworthy. Examples would be giving 75 percent of your income to the poor or throwing yourself on a bomb to save a stranger. Consider the bomb example. You have two choices — throwing yourself on the bomb or not doing so. Each choice would have consequences and, according to utilitarianism, you are morally obligated to do one or the other depending on which option maximized utility. Thus, there is no room for acts that go beyond the call of morality.

Third, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of human rights and human dignity. If enslaving a minority of people, say by a lottery, would produce the greatest good for the greatest number, or if conceiving children only to harvest their parts would do the same, then these could he justified in a utilitarian scheme. But enslavement and abortion violate individual rights and treat people as a means to an end, not as creatures with intrinsic dignity as human beings. If acts of abortion, active euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and so forth maximize utility, then they are morally obligatory for the utilitarian. But any moral system that makes abortion and suicide morally obligatory is surely flawed.

Finally, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of motives and character. We should praise good motives and seek good character because such motives and character are intrinsically valuable. But utilitarianism implies that the only reason we should praise good motives instead of bad ones, or seek good character instead of bad character, is because such acts would maximize utility. But this has the cart before the horse. We should praise good motives and blame bad ones because they are good or bad, not because such acts of praising and blaming produce good consequences.

In sum, it should be clear that utilitarianism is an inadequate moral theory. Unfortunately, ours is a pragmatic culture and utilitarianism is on the rise. But for those of us who follow Christ, a combination of virtue and deontological ethics is a more adequate view of common sense morality found in natural law and of the moral vision contained in the Bible." 3

Evolution and utilitarianism fail to explain morality, especially objective morality, which more and more people seem to be acknowledging. However, they're "accepting" it, then smuggling in their preferences, which is not adhering to an objective moral standard. Someone may say, "I believe in objective morality," but then he says that women should be beaten if they don't give in to sex. That's relativism. You cannot make objective moral statements when your worldview is relativism. On relativism, anything goes! What's true for you is not true for me goes both ways. On relativism, we wouldn't have women's rights or the abolition of slavery. On relativism, rape, murder, adultery, could not be wrong. Relativism is personal preference and guess what? Personal preferences are very diverse. Relativism if thought through critically is not what any sane person really wants to commit to because of its volatile nature. Relativism, evolution, and utilitarianism cannot explain morality. 

The major thing to realize here is that people want objective morality. People want to acknowledge that some things are objectively good and some things are objectively bad, and that we realize the ought in us pushing us to do the right thing. We all want to acknowledge that. Why do some dislike it though? Why do some people want objective morality in a different way? Because the objective moral standard can only be explained by God. Some people want the objective moral standard without the sufficient grounding for the moral standard, which is God. 


3. ibid. 

Related content

Clicking the above link will lead to more resources for morality.

Wintery Knight's morality posts (more resources here too.)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Reformed Seth appreciates and encourages your comments, but we do have guidelines for posting comments:

1. Avoid profanities or foul language unless it is contained in a necessary quote.

2. Stay on topic.

3. Disagree, but avoid ad hominem attacks.

4. Threats are treated seriously and reported to law enforcement.

5. Spam and advertising are not permitted in the comments area.