Friday, January 20, 2012

Wrap-up On Objective Morality

To wrap up the series on arguments for and against objective moral values (that started way back in December), I have to say that I don't find the arguments on either side to be very compelling. I think the argument from disagreement might be the most promising one of the bunch, but it certainly isn't conclusive. The arguments for objectivism seem to me to be attempts to codify an intuition that moral values simply don't make sense unless they somehow exist "out there."

My intuition is the opposite: I don't see how moral claims can make any sense unless they are relative to some goal.

I'm not personally invested in one answer or the other. I think it would be very interesting if we could be sure that there were such things as objective moral values - I just don't see much hope for that view. It seems to me that if morals were like mathematics, we would see a lot more agreement about them than we do, and we would be able to identify the axioms from which moral judgements follow. In mathematics, there has been a tremendous convergence: nearly all mathematicians agree on the axioms and procedures and results. In morality, there has not, as far as I can see, been a similar convergence.

So my tentative conclusion is that there aren't any such things as objective moral values.


  1. I intuitions agree with yours that "there aren't any such things as objective moral values."
    I don't understand what criteria you have to decide that, "It seems to me that if morals were like mathematics, we would see a lot more agreement about them than we do."

    How much agreement do you think there is? How do you measure "agreement".

    For me, I think there is a surprising amount of agreement. And I think that is because of our genes which share a large amount of the same goals and same base. Thus, their is shared agreement, albeit relative due to our genetics. There is, of course, much variance too -- but the shared stuff isn't minimal, I think.

  2. I certainly agree with your view. Without a specific goal in mind, then there's no reason why saving one's life is morally superior to killing a person.

    The question is: what then, is that goal that we're talking about? Personally, I believe it is to ensure the survival and maximize the wellbeing (a vague word, I know) of every individual, be it physically or psychologically. Yet from what I've observed, more often than not, people regard the goal to be maintaining the status quo, and not challenging social norms, no matter how irrational it is. That bugs me quite a lot.

  3. Sabio wrote, "How much agreement do you think there is? How do you measure "agreement".

    Good questions. It seems like there's pretty good agreement of vague statements like "Don't hurt other people unless you have a really really good reason to," but when we try to get more specific, agreement goes away. Maybe it's specifically the absence of agreed-upon moral axioms that's bugging me.

    I think you're right that a lot of that agreement has a genetic basis, but I would add culture, too.

    humanisticperspectives: Once we agree that morality isn't just floating around out there, waiting to be discovered, then the question "What goal?" becomes crucial. From this perspective, the whole history of moral philosophy can be seen as a series of thought experiments in choosing "What goal?" Utilitarianism chooses some "greatest good," Kantian deontology chooses a set of generalizable rules, etc.

    I think our default setting - that part that's genetically programmed into us - is something like "Obey the status quo." That's the rule that helps us to fit in, get along, not rock the boat. But the status quo rules are a mish-mosh that resulted from historical accidents, power struggles among various factions, and the like. So they're not very rational.

    Fortunately, we are not slaves to instinct; we can reason about our societal rules. But the first step is to realize that the goals are something we choose, not something already in existence that we discover.

    Sorry if all that sounded dogmatic. I'm really not sure about any of this, it's just the way it seems to make sense to me at the moment.