There is Objective Morality in Nature

April 6, 2010

We frequently hear that only religion can supply moral objectivity. This claim has no merit. 

However, even opponents of religion have sometimes thought that naturalism can't support moral objectivity , either. This claim is wrong, too.

Let's start with religion. Religion as a whole is a realm of moral confusion and contradiction. Of course, a religious person finds moral objectivity in just the religion they happened to be raised into, or (most likely) just their own preferred denominational version of a specific religion. This method of deciding morality doesn't sound so objective after a while.

Those who claim that only religion can supply moral objectivity are either ignorant of what the term 'objective' means, or they are using 'objective' in a peculiar way to actually mean 'absolute'.  'Objective' is the contrary of 'subjective' -- where 'subjective' means dependence on a subject (an individual person), 'objective' means independent from an individual person.  

Science knows about objectivity. And science can study subjectivity, too. However, if morality is reduced to just what psychology can grasp, then there is a risk of justifying moral subjectivity. In a previous post I pointed out how a naturalistic understanding of morality should support moral objectivity . And then I read Paul Bloom's essay "How do morals change" which also worries that psychology can't have the whole story about morality.

Morality is a paradigm example of something that can be, and usually is, independent from any individual person. Whether a deed is moral or immoral does not depend on the judgment or feeling or whim of any single person. Unless that person is God, a religious person might say. However, the simplistic religious view that morality depends on the will of God is just subjectivism on a cosmic scale.

Even if the Divine Subjectivism theory of morality is avoided, I can't see how religion could prove that only religion can supply moral objectivity. There is a classic theological argument to consider, which tries to show that only the supernatural can account for moral truths. Let's set aside 'objective' morality for the moment and speak of 'absolute' morality instead, to best see what is really at stake in this argument.

Premise 1. There are moral truths that are absolute: both universal (true for everyone) and eternal (must always be true).

Premise 2. For any moral truth, there must exist something that is responsible for making that moral truth true.

Premise 3. Nothing in the natural world, such as individual people, human societies, the whole world, or the wider universe, can be responsible for absolute moral truths.


C. The truth of absolute moral rules requires the existence of a supernatural reality to explain their truth.

Premise 3 is probably correct because we can't find eternal things in nature: there is nothing permanent about human beings (their bodies and minds keep changing) or human societies (they gradually change their moral standards over time) or the earth (a scene of constant change) or the whole universe (which is always changing).

On the other hand, naturalists reject premise 1: they do not believe in the existence of absolute moral truths, because their existence has not been sufficiently established by either experience, reason, or science. Many religious people very much want to believe premise 1, and do believe premise 1, and feel very afraid of a world in which some people do not believe premise 1. However, these feelings cannot prove the existence of absolute moral truths. Wanting to believe in something, and feeling certain about something, are only the high roads to subjectivism.

Furthermore, finding any substantive moral rule that most religious people believe, or even a substantive moral rule that most people in the same religion really believe and consistently live by, is a very difficult task. Consider how all religions have modified their moral rules over the centuries, and how they have all broken apart into sects and denominations, precisely because they cannot agree on serious and specific moral principles ("Love thy neighbor" doesn't count). Religion, even one particular religion, is a poor place to go looking for allegedly universal and eternal moral truths.

Friends of religion often claim that if there are no absolute moral truths, then there are no moral truths at all, and that morality is simply whatever each person wants to be moral. This nasty alternative is called moral subjectivism. Now, there are no absolute moral truths. But morality is not simply subjective, either.

Let's look at the natural facts about morality in the real world. Most of morality consists of culturally objective truths. Most moral truths are best explained by social rules accepted by most members because they are members of that society and they were raised in that society. Morality is an essential part of culture, and a person should be moral in order to live a cultured social life with others. There are some basic moral rules found across nearly all societies, but only each society can really know the specific morality needed for its distinctive culture. This is the start of a naturalistic understanding of culture and morality. The social sciences are naturalistic no less than the biological or physical sciences.

Can I name one moral rule that a naturalist can say is objective? Sure: "Torturing innocent people is morally wrong." I could list many more such moral rules. I know this moral rule because I learned it, I believe it, and I live it, and I'm glad to live in a society that tries to follow it. Its validity does not depend on my private whim -- I know that it would remain valid even if I became mentally deranged and cruelly violent.

Culturally objective morality is not absolute, but only objective. Therefore, it is not the case that something is moral only because one’s culture says it is. Permitting one’s culture to dictate one’s morality would make that culture morally absolute, much in the way that many religions try to make their moralities absolute. A culturally objective morality is much different. A culture’s morality is objective because that morality is independent of whatever any individual person wishes morality to be. A good analogy is a country’s laws. Laws are valid because they are politically objective: the law is not whatever any person wants it to be. On the other hand, the law can be changed by the people after political thinking about the ultimate justifications for laws. In the same way, the people of a society can change their culture’s morality after ethical thinking. Individuals can disagree with a culture’s morality, of course, by appealing to a different morality or to a higher ethical standard.

Any effort to thoughtfully justify or improve a culture’s morality is the work of ethics. An appeal to a higher standard to pass judgment on some moral rule is an appeal to an ethical ideal. For example, Why should I follow the moral rule that I should not lie to others? Because of the ethical ideal that you should not do to others what you would not have done to you. Ethical ideals are also part of our human heritage, grown from the long experience and accumulated wisdom of living on the earth. The basic moral rules and the higher ethical ideals are simultaneously natural and cultural. Put another way, for us humans, to be encultured IS our natural way of life.

Naturalists of course do not regard ethical ideals as absolute moral truths, either. However, people do appeal to ethical ideals when they compare, criticize, and modify the moralities of cultures. From the standpoint of naturalism, it is perfectly natural to expect people to try to change a morality using ethical thinking when they see problems with that morality. And it also quite natural to expect that ethical ideals are the sorts of things that people do not agree about, and that ethical ideals also change or disappear over time.

Culture is not the opposite of nature; we are naturally moral. It is a misunderstanding of naturalism if you suppose that a naturalistic understanding of humans must entirely strip away culture and ignore how humans are cultured humans. If you want to study humans unaffected by culture, study early-term fetuses or study isolated genes, but you won't find morality there. It is also a misunderstanding of naturalism if you expect that a naturalistic understanding of morality must derive warm moral 'oughts' from cold scientific facts. 19th Century naturalists once talked that way -- they perpetuated the root religious notion that morality could be discerned in the natural design of things -- again obscuring how people are naturally encultured. A contemporary naturalist should not repeat outdated religious notions.

Humans naturally use the cultural wisdom bestowed by earlier generations. This natural fact explains how religions teach morals and pass down ethical ideals, by the way. There is nothing in objective morality that cannot fit into the naturalistic worldview. Wrongly supposing that morality can't be natural is akin to supposing that agriculture can't be natural. Basic morality and higher ethics, and even religious ethics, can all fit into a naturalistic worldview.


#1 SimonSays on Tuesday April 06, 2010 at 8:57pm

For me moral decisions boil down to three factors: intentions, alternatives, and predictable consequences.

In other words, when examining an action and determining its morality what needs to be examined is what the person was trying to do, what the other options were (if any), and whether they could/should have anticipated what happened.

In general, I believe there should be a standard that all moral systems are held to (like the above-but perhaps more comprehensive or well thought out). That should include religious as well as secular moral codes which can be judged on their respective outcomes and merits.

#2 Joshua Blanchard (Guest) on Wednesday April 07, 2010 at 2:01pm

Often the worry about “secular” morality is that it is difficult to locate not just a source (say, a lawgiver) but also a place in the natural universe for essential features of morality, e.g. overriding normative force. So the theistic claim might be that if the atheist were truly rational he would accept some sort of “error theory” about morality. Moral claims purport to be objective, they are descriptive, etc., but invariably false. The strongest error theory will say they don’t just happen to be false, but must be false, because there just are no moral truths about the universe. In fact your exposition in this post seems entirely consistent with a moral error theory.

Everyone agrees that humans *do* this. But referring the questions upwards to, say, the culture does you know better in terms of the fundamental question about the place of normativity in a naturalistic universe.

You write things like “A culture’s morality is objective because that morality is independent of whatever any individual person wishes morality to be.” But that’s also consistent with error theory and particularly forms of so-called cultural relativism. You seek to avoid this with a legal analogy, but this devolves into just saying that people, by thinking, can change “politically objective” laws. These people appeal to “high standards” and “ethical ideals.” But the critic isn’t disputing that people do this. The critic says that the high standards could be just anything, as long as enough people agree. Or as long as there’s some sort of long tradition behind them, which you seem to favor.

I haven’t tried to provide a theistic underpinning for ethics, and I’m not sure how that could be done. But I don’t think your post has made any achievements in the direction of refuting the negative side of the theistic critique.

#3 Joshua Blanchard (Guest) on Wednesday April 07, 2010 at 2:04pm

know better = no better…. yikes

#4 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Thursday April 08, 2010 at 6:11am

I don’t have much time today but your idea of “objective morality” is really strange. 

What are your examples of this objective morality?  Once you find those we can go on to the difference between morality as professed and morality as practiced because I think you’ll find there is a rather sizable disconnect you’ll have to explain away to get to something “objective”.

There is nothing objective about morality that I’m aware of.

#5 John Shook on Thursday April 08, 2010 at 7:36am

Anthony, objective morality is the most ordinary thing in our world. You still don’t see what is front of your nose. Here is an example:

“Telling lies to lots of people on a daily basis will eventually decrease your ability to sustain cooperative activities with others.”

Because this proposition is objectively correct (it is empirically verifiable for any person), and you believe it to be correct regardless of whether you subjectively wish it to be true, there is nothing subjective about this proposition. This is why you also believe this proposition:

“In ordinary circumstances where I am depending on cooperative activities with others I should avoid telling lies to them.”

This objective moral rule is not absolute, in the sense I specified, for these obvious reasons:

A. Sometimes I get into extraordinary circumstances where lying is necessary to protect higher priorities than cooperation.

B. There could be possible societies that communicate in some bizarre way that the whole difference between truths/lies is irrelevant.
Etc., etc.

Figuring out what to do instead when in situations A or B is the work of ethics. However, just because we can imagine exceptions to an objective moral rule confirms that it is objective, and neither subjective nor absolute.

#6 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Thursday April 08, 2010 at 5:11pm

I’ll answer more later, but I doubt I could think of an example that obliterates the idea of an objective moral stand than when and under what conditions lying is acceptable.

Maybe the problem is that you think it’s a question of objectivity vs. subjectivity, when it’s far more personal and interested than that.  The attempt to purify and isolate collective experience and action in order to mount them for academic consideration isn’t going to get you much in the way of living reality.  Though it might get you a publication.

#7 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Friday April 09, 2010 at 3:51am

I think the problem is the insistence on the term “objective”, which seems to be used in an odd way.  If I said that something was objectively true I’d mean that someone would be compelled by evidence and reason to accept the truth of it despite personal preference. I might want someone to be guilty of a crime because I thought they were dishonest and evil but if there was no evidence they committed the crime, I would have to go so far as to say that there wasn’t evidence they had committed the crime.  But if someone confessed to committing the crime, someone with no connection to the first person and there was compelling evidence supporting their confession I’d have to objectively agree that my favorite suspect was innocent. 

When you are talking about morals, you are talking about something about which there is no agreement as to what is and isn’t moral.  I think John Yoo is a criminal for his promotion of torture, including asserting that a president ordering child torture of a particularly gruesome kind isn’t illegal.  I think that and other things done by the supporters of the war in Iraq should be prosecuted for crimes.  The people who lied us into that war should be prosecuted as well.  However, it’s obvious that others disagree.  I’m not sure what Sam Harris is saying about the war in Iraq these days but Christopher Hitchens certainly was enthusiastic about it.  Apparently the administration at Berkeley doesn’t agree with me about Yoo being a criminal, or at least unacceptably amoral since they’ve hired him to be on their law faculty, as other people I think should be in the dock at the Hague have been hired by a number of the most allegedly august institutions of higher learing in the United States.

Note, that just about all of those are among our most accomplished liars for no good purpose.

I’ll go into Sam Harris’ ideas on nuclear first strikes later.

#8 Ronald A. Lindsay on Friday April 09, 2010 at 7:27am

First, let me congratulate John on an insightful post. It is always a challenge to tackle difficult philosophical questions in the confines of a blog post, and John does a good job of it.

@ Mr. McCarthy: That there are moral disagreements, there is no doubt. But because we naturally tend to focus on our disagreements, we tend to overlook the fact that there is a large amount of moral consensus about core moral norms. We could not live together if it were otherwise. Thus, it is prima facie wrong to lie to someone, to fail to keep your commitments, to kill someone, to injure someone, to take someone’s possessions without permission, and so forth. I say “prima facie” because circumstances may require the obligation to be overridden. This does not make it any less of a recognized moral commitment.

I’m not sure I would adopt all of John’s terminology or methodology, but this is a quibble. I believe that the inter-subjective validity of core moral norms derives from the fact that morality is a practical enterprise with certain objectives. Morality enables us to live together in peace, engage in cooperative activity, and ameliorate harmful conditions which affect us. Because humans have lived in similar conditions, almost all human cultures have had similar core moral norms.  The biggest change in morality has not come from changes in the norms themselves, but from the scope of individuals included in the norms. For example, membership in the moral community used to be restricted to persons in one’s own tribe, and even then typically only males had full moral status. The moral community is much broader now, in part because of changes in our circumstances (e.g., we can’t have global trade unless we can count on persons in different cultures to keep their commitments).

Of course, persons are free to refuse to abide by the core moral norms accepted by the community (and the community is free to punish them). If you want to say that makes morality “subjective,” that’s fine. But that seems akin to saying if one refuses to abide by the rules of baseball, the rules of baseball are “subjective.”

BTW, my position does not rule out moral reform. One can always question whether a particular rule furthers the objectives of morality (just like one can question whether the rules of baseball should stay the same or be changed to further the objectives of the game). Interestingly, however, as indicated, there has been little, if any, change in the core norms throughout human history. What has changed is the identity of the individuals to whom the norms are considered applicable.

#9 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Friday April 09, 2010 at 8:21am

But because we naturally tend to focus on our disagreements, we tend to overlook the fact that there is a large amount of moral consensus about core moral norms.

There is?

OK, now I’m beginning to see a real problem with the way “moral” and “morality” are being used, because it’s all way, way to abstract in this discussion to have any real meaning. What are you talking about?  Specific moral stands that are so clear cut and which enjoy consensus in large amounts.  If you talk about these things as abstractions, you can pretend you have some kind of clarity but it is clarity about something that doesn’t exist in the real world.

#10 Sheldon (Guest) on Friday April 09, 2010 at 9:12am

Very clearly expressed. It has been a pleasure following your reasoning on this. Just to express my thoughts along these lines:

The Hume argument doesn’t even apply to this. This is about using is’s to inform an is. There is no ought. I think this is simply a remnant of 1) a lack of understanding of where morality comes from in terms of its evolution and 2) a consequence of moralities dictated by religions. Also, perhaps 3) a confusion of morality with ethics. For so long we have lived in this culture of, you should do xyz because it is good - and the reason for it being good is either because it’s good period or because this or that god said it’s good. The reality is that there have always been real purposes for these “morals”, they existed for a reason, to produce results. Those results may be of a wide variety - better social cooperation or more adherence to a creed, etc etc. But there is always a ground for these “moral” decisions. The whole point here is to uncloak that reasoning, have it be clearly expressed and then be able to gather information. Using the words ought and good don’t really work in this context, nor do they make sense. This goes beyond an ought, we don’t need “good” and “ought” to make productive decisions about our culture, our future, our ethics, and our laws. To do something because we “ought” to or because it is “good” is just that old way of invoking because god said so, because because because…it is the old way of hand waving because we didn’t really know what was going on consciously.

PS. Glad to see you at CFI, Dr. Shook.  I am one of your former students from OSU, and took four classes from you because you were such a brilliant professor. Fun to still be urged to think critically and learn from you via CFI platforms.

#11 John Shook on Friday April 09, 2010 at 10:13am

@Anthony #9. You ask for “Specific moral stands that are so clear cut and which enjoy consensus in large amounts.”

But I already gave you one, which you have ignored in your rush to fault abstractions. Here it is again:

“In ordinary circumstances where I am depending on cooperative activities with others I should avoid telling lies to them.”

Telling truths or falsehoods is pretty concrete—you have opportunities for both all the time in ordinary life. If you yourself do not believe this proposition, or if you do believe it but you think that it enjoys no reasonable standing beyond your private whim to believe it, please inform everyone now.

Otherwise, just admit that here we have a concrete instance of a moral rule that you treat as objective and that you are happy to see as a general consensus in your society. And don’t complain that this rule gets violated or overridden sometimes—by “objective” we do NOT mean ‘absolute’. Leave absolutes to the faithful.

@Sheldon—How are you doing? Great to hear from you. If you fb, find me; or email me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) //';l[1]='a';l[2]='/';l[3]='<';l[4]=' 116';l[5]=' 101';l[6]=' 110';l[7]=' 46';l[8]=' 121';l[9]=' 114';l[10]=' 105';l[11]=' 117';l[12]=' 113';l[13]=' 110';l[14]=' 105';l[15]=' 114';l[16]=' 111';l[17]=' 102';l[18]=' 114';l[19]=' 101';l[20]=' 116';l[21]=' 110';l[22]=' 101';l[23]=' 99';l[24]=' 64';l[25]=' 107';l[26]=' 111';l[27]=' 111';l[28]=' 104';l[29]=' 115';l[30]=' 106';l[31]='>';l[32]='\"';l[33]=' 116';l[34]=' 101';l[35]=' 110';l[36]=' 46';l[37]=' 121';l[38]=' 114';l[39]=' 105';l[40]=' 117';l[41]=' 113';l[42]=' 110';l[43]=' 105';l[44]=' 114';l[45]=' 111';l[46]=' 102';l[47]=' 114';l[48]=' 101';l[49]=' 116';l[50]=' 110';l[51]=' 101';l[52]=' 99';l[53]=' 64';l[54]=' 107';l[55]=' 111';l[56]=' 111';l[57]=' 104';l[58]=' 115';l[59]=' 106';l[60]=':';l[61]='o';l[62]='t';l[63]='l';l[64]='i';l[65]='a';l[66]='m';l[67]='\"';l[68]='=';l[69]='f';l[70]='e';l[71]='r';l[72]='h';l[73]='a ';l[74]='<'; for (var i = l.length-1; i >= 0; i=i-1){ if (l[i].substring(0, 1) == ' ') output += "&#"+unescape(l[i].substring(1))+";"; else output += unescape(l[i]); } document.getElementById('eeEncEmail_9nWjUWuxSa').innerHTML = output; //]]>

#12 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Friday April 09, 2010 at 11:39am

“In ordinary circumstances where I am depending on cooperative activities with others I should avoid telling lies to them.”

“where I am depending on cooperative activities with others”

I would call that an issue of self-interest, which is hardly the same thing as a moral issue. 

“I should avoid telling lies to them”

Is this rather diluted moral imperative not conditioned on your self-interest?  Again, I would say that’s not an issue of morality but of personal gain. 

And, if in order to facilitate YOUR goal making this cooperation useful, you found it helpful to lie, would that be good or bad? 

It’s always so interesting to see what people resort to in order to make “morality” into an “objective” “truth”.  Especially interesting in your example is how transparently SUBJECTIVE the “moral imperative” is.

#13 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Friday April 09, 2010 at 3:00pm

If you want to say that makes morality “subjective,” that’s fine.  Ronald A. Lindsay

I didn’t say it was “subjective” I said it was “far more personal and interested than that” @6.

Categorization of something like morality in the way the argument proposes is hardly an instance of objectivity, it’s willful oversimplification of an extremely complex, uncertain and often contradictory hodge podge of professions of principle, often at odds with action.  Take the ubiquitous citation of Jesus, after Hillel, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you”.  I would guess that easily 90% of those who hold that this is not only true but the word of God constantly fail to even attempt to put it into practice.  And those who attempt to, will hardly be unanimous in the right way to do that. 

Even more, what is held to be moral is hardly uniform through human history and culture.  Even professions of morality are in conflict and contradictory.  The morals of the characters in Elizabethan drama are hardly morals that would be held to be acceptable even by those who are devotees of that body of work. 

I do see a problem with the assertion that something becomes an objective holding of morality based on its alleged ubiquity, the belief in a God or Gods is probably more widespread than any holding of morality.  How would the reality of God not become an objective truth under that principle?

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.