I recently (for a given value of ‘recent’) had an anti-abortionist named laodeciapress comment on my post, “‘Potential’ People” a few times before moving on. In our argument, he hinted at objective morality, a concept which I currently find incoherent. Combined with today’s Doggerel that discussed confusion between fact and theory, it got me thinking about a sort of moral equivalent of theory and fact.
I can’t resist the urge to once again endorse some QualiaSoup videos, since the third one of the series deals with the concept of objective moral values: Morality Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. I’m not an expert in philosophy (if such a thing really exists), so I may miss out on some technical definitions and nuance, but I tend to think of secular morality as a form of moral relativism that strives for something resembling objectivity: The methods and reasoning aren’t arbitrary, even if you can claim it’s arbitrary to value happiness, peace, and freedom as a foundation over the alternatives of suffering, strife, and tyranny.
Claiming that morality has an objective basis, rather than subjective human feelings is an idea I can’t understand. To me, it sounds like a claim that there are moral laws floating in the ether, detached from life experience. If this is the case, how does one discover and measure these objective moral facts? What’s binding about them? Why should we seek to conform our behavior with these ethereal laws? What if we discovered an objective moral law that prescribes torture? I suggested to laodeciapress that if he brought in Anubis, the Feather of Ma’at, and a scale to measure my soul against the Feather, that might make objective morality more empirical and give me something to discuss. Unfortunately, that’s as far as the conversation has gone.
This touches on my use of ‘theory.’ In the case of secular morality, we have evolution to explain why we value peace and prosperity. We also have moral reasoning to try to figure out strategies for maximizing happiness while minimizing suffering. Actions that tend to increase suffering or reduce happiness without compensating benefits are morally less preferable. Secular morality has a sort of goal in mind, and we adjust our moral positions based on the evidence of what produces better societies. We have understandable collective desires and we use our understanding of the world and our circumstances to fulfill those desires as optimally as we can. Secular morality is essentially an ethical theory we use to determine what sorts of actions will most likely benefit society and individuals, just like a scientific theory is used to predict experimental outcomes.
That’s something I see lacking in “truly” objective morality as I understand it. Objective moral laws are “facts” without a theory to explain why they are what they are, even assuming you could measure them. I see no goal or reasoning for moral laws unless you add in subjective preferences. Throwing in a god worsens the case, since you’d be reducing morality to “just god’s opinion” and favoring his opinion over all others for arbitrary reasons. “Just my opinion” is exactly the problem objectivists accuse people like me of with their straw men. It’s rather hypocritical as far as I can tell.