I’ve been wanting to sketch out my model of morals and ethics for some time now, but it’s such a big undertaking that I’ve been hesitant to do so. My interest in the topic has gotten the better of me though, so here it is.
Fair warning, I’m not a professional ethicist, so this is just me taking a stab at it. Even so, I’ve tried to think through this well, and hopefully what I outline in this series will be useful to you as you think through your own perspective on morality. Also, I do want to say very briefly that there is a difference between morals and ethics, which I will talk more about in my next post. However, because the two are closely related I will be using them somewhat interchangeably in this first post, and I’ll just try to be careful about doing so.
In short, the topic of morality and ethics is tied up in the question, “what is the right thing to do?” Unlike some philosophical topics that have little or no real-world application, which sometimes just feels like mental masturbation, the question of ethics and morality is inherently practical in nature. It’s not just a question of how we should think, but how we should live. Not just what we believe, but what we do. And of course this informs all sorts of areas of life, such as politics, relationships, raising kids, and having drinks with friends.
You know, the basics of life.
To be sure, many people have attempted to outline the ideal model of morality and ethics. We’ll look at some of those in the next post. But before we can talk about which model is best, we should probably ask a more fundamental question about morality: do objective morals exist?
This is an important question because it sets the tone for what we’re talking about here. You see, if objective morals do exist, then our task is to discover what those are. However, if objective morals don’t exist, then it is up to us to create a system of morality that can be used in lieu of objective morals. It’s kind of the difference between looking for a house to buy and building your own home. The end result may look very similar, but how you get there and what goes into the process will be wildly different.
So, here we go.
Do Objective Morals Exist?
Many people believe that objective morals do not exist. After all, why should they? And even if they did, how would we know what they are? Who gets to decide what counts as an objective moral? I mean, perhaps when most people in a given community had the same religious beliefs they could point to their collectively recognized holy (wo)man, sacred text, or deity as the final arbiter and communicator of what is objectively moral or not.
But we live in a pluralistic world full of all sorts of different religions, philosophies, and worldviews. That’s not really something that’s up for debate (though some people try), it’s pretty much a settled fact. You don’t have to like it, but that’s the way things are. That pandora’s box is open, and there’s likely no closing it.
Amidst this panoply of perspectives, the thinking often goes that there are no objective morals and all moral principles are subjective, or at the very least social constructs. So, for example, is it wrong to have more than one wife? Well, it depends on your culture. After all, in some cultures (such as modern America) polygamy is seen as very wrong (though polyamory is gaining traction in some circles). However, most cultures throughout history have actually seen polygamy as perfectly acceptable, and in some circumstances, due to social customs and obligations, it is actually considered wrong not to take a second or third wife.
Even something as severe as killing another person can have varying degrees of moral (or immoral) value in different cultures. So in most human societies it is considered immoral to kill someone for no apparent reason. However, in the first half of the 20th century, before Christian missionaries arrived, the Sawi people of Western New Guinea actually celebrated needless killing if it was done in a particularly clever way. This of course raises the question of whether or not Christians should have imposed their morals about killing on the Sawi people, which is itself a question that presumes doing such a thing to have (im)moral value. Moreover, even in our society which tends to look down on killing, we make exceptions for special cases (i.e., war, self-defense, court-ruled executions).
So the thinking sometimes goes that there is not (and perhaps shouldn’t be) a universally accepted standard of right and wrong. One society can have different morals or ethics than another society, and that’s okay. Nobody, and especially no society, has a right to tell another that something they think is okay is actually evil. After all, their deity may say otherwise.
But, of course, this assumes that there is at least one absolute, objective moral: namely that nobody should impose their moral will on another. And yet, if there are no objective morals, then by what standard do we say that it is wrong for one people group to tell another people group that something was wrong? Moreover, the fact that almost everyone thinks negatively about Hitler and the Nazis betrays the truth that we don’t actually hold this view. Think about that—in World War II we have an example of one people group (the Nazis) doing bad things to another people group (Holocaust victims), and a third people group (the Allies) going to great lengths to stop the first group. And we’re all okay with that. But why? After all, if there are no objective morals, then it wasn’t objectively wrong for the Nazis to do all the things they did to their victims, and it seems out of step for the Allies to have interfered in what these other two groups were doing. Yet, we do believe it was wrong. In fact, on the whole, we believe that any systemic oppression and genocide of one people group over and against another is wrong, and should another similar situation arise (e.g., the Rwanda genocide) we think it wrong not to try to stop it again.
Good without God
As you can see, we run into all sorts of problems and contradictions if we try to maintain that there are no objective morals. Hence why, although most college freshmen seem to assume that objective morals do not exist, their professors (who’ve actually done the mental legwork) think otherwise, particularly professors in the philosophy departments.
This is, of course, not to say that philosophy professors are therefore theists and believe that morals come from God. On the contrary, roughly 73% of philosophy faculty surveyed are confessing atheists.1 So how do you hold to objective morals without having an objective moral Lawgiver?
A good example of this is found in Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape.2 In short, Harris argues that while the experience of moral values is and always will be a subjective experience, and while there may be no single objective moral perspective on a number of issues, the fact that certain values lead to the survival and flourishing of the human species, whereas other values lead to our destruction, is itself objectively and empirically verifiably true. As the name of Harris’ book suggests, we can think of the success of various moral values across human culture as a series of peaks and valleys, where the peaks (that which leads to health for humanity) are really and objectively different and higher than the valleys (that which leads to death for humanity).
However, as William Lane Craig was quick to point out in their debate, Harris has done an excellent job of giving us a framework for creating human flourishing based on objective reference points, but he has not given us any objective grounding for morality itself, not even the notion that human flourishing is even the right thing to pursue in the first place.
I think a simple thought experiment might help to highlight the shortcoming of Harris’ moral landscape view.
The Post-Apocalyptic Adam and Eve
Imagine that some major catastrophe had befallen the human race leaving only a single man and woman left on the planet. Now suppose that prior to this major catastrophe the woman had experienced extreme sexual trauma at the hands of men, so much so that she is now incapable of sexual arousal. Let us suppose further that this sole surviving man happens to be one of her abusers.
As nightmarish as it would be for the poor woman to be left on earth with no other human being than her own rapist, let us further consider the harrowing truth that for the human species to survive and flourish, it will require these two people to have sex and procreate. But the woman cannot bring herself to be near the man, much less to allow him access to her body for further sexual exploitation.
This of course raises all sorts of questions for Harris’ moral landscape framework. Would it be the moral thing for the man try his best to have sex with the woman? Wouldn’t it be less than moral for him not to at least give it a shot? If humanity is to survive, he might have to rape her… again, perhaps even multiple times until she becomes pregnant. What about the woman? Is it immoral for her to withhold her body from her abuser? Should she just toughen up and do the deed? I mean, the survival and future flourishing of the human species depends on it.
I think that anyone with a decent moral compass would have to say, no! That woman is under no moral obligation to have sex with the man. She would not be a bad person for withholding herself from him, and he would not be a moral person for forcing himself upon her. On the contrary, even with no society or other human beings around, even with the fate of the human species in the balance, I think (or hope) we can all agree that it would be absolutely morally heinous for the man to rape the woman, or even to verbally pressure her.
As much as Harris wants to marry his moral ethic to the term “objective,” he just hasn’t provided what could be properly deemed objective morality. And yet, morality is still a thing, even in this post-apocalyptic scenario. But if it’s not simply a social construct, and it can’t be grounded in the peaks and valleys of human flourishing, then where does it come from?
Invention and Discovery
One thing that often comes up when folks are trying to dispel the idea of objective morals is to argue that humans invented morality by showing how morality has evolutionary advantages. For instance, it is sometimes argued that learning to treat others well and get along with one another allows a species to create a herd or community. And when your species is trying to survive the dangers of the wild, there is safety in numbers.
So why do we avoid killing and abusing each other? Well, because doing those things would destroy our sense of social cohesion, which would be bad for survival. Morality then is sort of like a survival tactic, a little bit like how contestants on the show Survivor will make alliances in an attempt to stay on the show a little longer. There are no objective morals, only more useful ways of staying alive.
… or so the thinking goes.
I happen to think that this line of logic commits what is known as the false cause fallacy (or perhaps the genetic fallacy), since it assumes that because human evolution, whether biological or sociological, has developed alongside our sense of morality then morality is simply the product of our evolution. It is something that we created along the way.
I would suggest that we have found a correlation (even a strong one), but not necessarily a causation. Rather, I would argue that morals exist whether we evolve to know them or not. In this sense, we did not create morals so much as we have been discovering them and growing in our awareness of them. This would be similar to our relationship with numbers and mathematics. While we have certainly created models and methods for how we use numbers (much like we create models of ethics and morality), and while being able to use numbers certainly has evolutionary advantages (it helps to know how many tigers are attacking you), we most certainly did not invent numbers ourselves. On the contrary, we have discovered the world of mathematics and grown in our awareness and mastery of it. In fact, some of the greatest discoveries regarding numbers only came about relatively recently in our species’ history. But that certainly doesn’t mean we created numbers or how they work, and I would submit that the same is true of morality.
Here be gods
So if we are willing to grant that objective morals do exist, then we must ask the question: where do they come from? I mean, they’re out there, right? But where? Do they live in our brains? Are they sort of just floating about in the aether, alighting themselves upon us from time to time?
It sounds sort of fairytale-ish, but this is perhaps the last option for someone who wants to believe in objective morals, but not in God. Morals are things that exist in the universe, sort of like forces of nature (e.g., gravity), and we simply follow them because it is part of the natural order to do so.
The first problem I have with this idea is that it still doesn’t quite explain why we should then choose certain moral principles over and against others. I mean, things like love, generosity, and forgiveness would be some of these moral principles that we might adhere to. But so would things like hatred, greed, and abuse. These would also be morals floating about in the universe. I mean, hating and mistreating others, or hoarding resources for ourselves, certainly aren’t morally neutral. So, if morals are just elements of nature, why should we prefer love to hate? The call to choose good rather than evil seems no more imperative than choosing the color green over purple. If both good and evil have moral value (whether positive or negative), there must be some reason for choosing one over the other, the positive over the negative. Without some unifying element that favors good over evil, there really just isn’t an impetus for picking positive morals over negative ones.
The second objection I have to the idea that morals are just objective forces of nature is that we can (and do) ignore and reject morals. Unlike gravity, which humanity has gone to great technological lengths to defy, virtually anyone can deny goodness. We do it almost instinctively. In fact, we can even do it unwittingly and on accident. Ever heard of unintentional racism? This is not how we understand forces of nature to work. Nobody just accidentally levitates off the ground. Children do not instinctively and without any instruction switch to seeing a different range on the electromagnetic spectrum. In fact, I would argue that our experience of natural forces is so different from our experience of morality, that we would be bending over backward to try to equate the two. That isn’t to say there aren’t some similarities, or perhaps even a relationship; but, on the whole, they don’t appear to be the same sort of thing.
My third objection to the notion of morals-as-forces-of-nature isn’t so much an objection as it is an observation. Simply put, this starts to sound an awful lot like polytheism reborn, wherein we find a number of gods, some that seem benevolent and others that seem malevolent. In this sense, the idea of a pantheon of gods starts to make a surprising amount of sense, especially if we understand the gods to be anthropomorphisms of these moral principles. Of course, this leaves us with a sort of monolatry or henotheism, where we choose to worship and obey some gods rather than others without denying the existence and power of the other gods. Again, while this may give us a framework (even a mythological one) for understanding what morals are, it unfortunately leaves us with no real imperative for choosing some morals rather others. Why is it important to worship Athena and Freyja rather than Ares and Loki?
The last thing I’ll say is that it sort of becomes difficult to leave these objective moral principles as dispassionate forces of nature since morality seems to be inherently personal. Rocks don’t hate and quantum particles don’t love. In order for something to have attributes of morality, it would seem that such things must also have some degree or sense of personhood, either as their source or in and of themselves. So maybe those old pagans weren’t so crazy for imagining, say, love to be a personal goddess (e.g., Aphrodite). And if we are going to accept the existence of gods to give us consistency in our understanding of morality, monotheism doesn’t seem far behind.
Okay then, I think that’s enough for today. Next time I will delve a little deeper into the more practical side of things, turning to a number of models of ethics to help find a unifying principle for which god(s) we should follow and why.
Thanks for reading!
1: David Bourget and David J. Chalmers, "What do philosophers believe?," Philosophical Studies 170 (3):465-500 (2014), https://philpapers.org/rec/BOUWDP
2: Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Free Press; New York, NY, 2011).