Morals Are Objective

We can’t seem to decide whether moral principles are subjective or objective.

On one hand, facts about right and wrong don’t seem to have the robust objectivity that facts about physics can boast. Philosophers have long noted an “is/ought distinction,” which delineates facts from values. Our values—what we feel to be good and bad, right and wrong—can never be straightforwardly observed in the world around us. I can observe the properties and regularities of the natural world. But the universe has no special particles, no unique forces, that can inform me what is the right thing to do.

On the other hand, moral truths don’t seem to be subjective — that is, made true solely by an individual’s whims and feelings — either. If someone announces his or her belief that undeserved suffering is morally good, this person is mistaken.

But mistaken in virtue of what, exactly? After all, we’ve just granted that facts about the world don’t dictate truths about values. In a recent piece for Medium titled “Morals Are Not Objective,” She Sells Sea Chels proposes to add “contingent”as a third kind of fact, in addition to subjective and objective facts:

Contingent “facts” are arbitrary in the sense that they could have been different in a world not different from our own.

Assuming moral truths are such contingent facts appears to solve our problem, because their contingency makes them “a kind of objective truth because we live in this world and not in some other one,” but not a necessarytruth. While the idea is intriguing, it ultimately does not succeed.

Morality vs. Cultural Norms

To begin, it’s important to clarify that “morality” is not a matter of cultural norms.

She Sells Sea Chels sees this and rightly points out that:

[T]here’s nothing more objectively sensible about shaking hands as a greeting instead of cheek-kisses or bowing; different cultures just agree more or less randomly on each of them.

The author correctly identifies the realquestion:

What about when you’re talking about things beyond just everyday customs? What about the objectivity…of morality?

When we interrogate the very nature of morality, what we seek to understand is not merely polite customs, such as you should say “bless you” when someone sneezes. It’s determining the truth value of more fundamental principles such as you should not cause wanton suffering. We try to follow cultural norms merely in a rule-involving manner. That is, they involve employing our social knowledge of explicit or implicit rules, that distinguish what is correct from what is incorrect, or what is allowed from what is disallowed. It’s illegal to overstay a parking meter and it’s incorrect to remain silent when your companion sneezes.

Fundamental moral principles, however, go beyond everyday customs. By contrast, we try to follow moral principles in a reason-involving manner. They are about what you should do, regardless of what your culture (dis)allows or considers as (in)correct. There are reasons for you to follow moral principles that are above and beyond acting in an accordance with mere arbitrary social habits.

Imagine a culture that considered undeserved suffering to be good. Perhaps, according to their social rules, it would be correct to cause undeserved suffering. However, it could never be true that you really should cause undeserved suffering. We have a much more compelling reason not to cause undeserved suffering; a reason that is not merely a matter of getting along socially. That’s the difference between acting in reason-involving way and acting in a rule-involving way.

The question is, then, what are those morally compelling reasons, the ones that go above and beyond cultural norms?

What “Wrongness” Is

Here’s another way of grasping the difference between these reason-involving norms and rule-involving norms. Social rules can be clearly delineated and characterized. We can truly say that, when you break these rules (e.g., you fail to acknowledge a sneeze), what you have done wrong is breaking a social rule. We can’t say the same, however, about doing something wrong in the reason-involving sense. For an act to be wrong above and beyond social customs, it must involve more than the breaking of rules that are valid in one social context, but perhaps not in another.

An act that is merely a matter of etiquette does not in itselfgive us a reasonto act. There’s nothing inherently correct about such acts. They are only correct in a given culture. Let’s return to our imagined culture which cultural norms permit wanton suffering. Suppose that, according this culture’s rules, I ought to kill someone who doesn’t finish all the food on his plate. The fact that this culture’s rules dictate I should kill someone a consideration does not mean that someone failing to eat all his peas in itself gives me a reason to kill him. We can recognize rule-involving normative facts but coherently deny that these facts give us any reasons to act in certain ways beyond social cohesion—that they give us moral reasons to act.

Fundamental moral principles, though, such as causing undeserved suffering is bad, are reason-involving—that is, they do in themselves give us reason to act.We don’t need to check with a travel guide to see if it’s okay in this culture to cause undeserved suffering. It’s never okay. The act of causing undeserved suffering inherently provides us with reasons to avoid doing it. Fundamental moral truths are just those that in themselves provide a reason to act or refrain from acting.

What Makes Fundamental Moral Principles True?

The question that remains is how we can claim those fundamental moral principles are indeed objective. Most of us see ourselves as capable of recognizing what is good, bad, valuable, and worthwhile. We think of ourselves as beings whose moral beliefs — about the badness of suffering, for example — are objectively true.

But that doesn’t mean they are in fact objectively true.

To validate our moral knowledge as knowledge, we need to, as She Sells Sea Chels writes, “justify these beliefs to an objective standard,” but is “not sure” that we can. Because we have returned to our original problem: What could make those moral beliefs true? How do they give us reasons?

Could “Contingency” Help?

Let’s return to the idea that there may a category in addition to objective and subjective: contingent.

Explaining what “contingency” means, She Sells Sea Chels tells us that “X is contingent with respect to Y,” where X is a (moral) statement and Y is a circumstance (such as a culture or a planet), means:

X is is true if you limit yourself to the setting Y. X could have been false, but it happened to not actually be false within a particular setting. The point is that Y is necessarily arbitrary but X is not arbitrary once Y is specified. … [B]ig moral laws like “don’t kill your kids” tend to be (or at least appear) contingent on the level of a species.

The moral principle that you ought not to kill (your kids) is true “because ithappened to not actually be false within a particular setting” (emphases mine). In other words, it’s true only in virtue of the rules that apply within a particular setting. There’s no inherent reason it’s true. It’s not true in virtue of the badness of killing or suffering.

That, I believe, is not so.

What a Moral Truth Can’t Be

As described above, fundamental moral principles demand we behave in a reason-implying way. They are about what you should do, independently of what is considered as correct or is allowed in a particular setting. The reasons for acting in accordance with fundamental moral principles are not specific to a particular setting. They make clear to what we ought to do, regardless of our context. If an act is wrong “beyond everyday customs,” then it can’t only be wrong simply because it violates the rules of a different setting. There must be further reasons.

If a principle is true “becauseit happened not to be false within a particular setting,” then this principle is not a truth about fundamental moral principles.Rather, it’s a truth about social rules. Fundamental moral rules should be independent of the culture we are in; indeed of the species that we actually are. The badness of undeserved suffering cannot be contingent on a setting.Suffering is bad, period—not just for a particular sufferer or in a particular setting, but any sufferer in any setting. An experience of suffering ought not to go on — such principles are either objective or else they’re social truths, not really moral truths. Adding “contingent” as a third option does not succeed in solving the subjective-objective conflict in morals.

Preserving the Gap

I have been arguing that cultural relativism fails to make sense of our deepest intuitions. In an excellent piece here on Arc DigitalJoshua Stein explains that, according to moral relativism, moral statements are true relative to a parameter.

A relativist might say that you should not spank children relative to our culture — but it might be okay in other cultures. To the relativist, you shouldn’t spank children might be a true statement, buttrue only relative to the parameter of culture.

As Berny Belvedere points out, however, that’s not how we normally think about the nature of moral truths. What it is for a truth to be a fundamental moral truth, is to be true independent of any parameter. “Making” moral truths true relative to such parameters is to give up on the very idea of morality.

Moral obligations apply to all of us regardless of our desires, wants, or goals. You can’t escape being under a moral obligation by changing your attitudes in the way that you can escape being under an obligation to practice your scales by changing your desire to learn how to play the piano. Therefore, we need to preserve the gap between moral opinions and moral truths. There must be an objective morality about which we might be mistaken or a culture might be mistaken. Whether moral beliefs, as a sociological fact, are prevalent in a culture is irrelevant for whether they’re true. Moral truth cannot depend on a particular framework of assessment.

Moral Realism Has Problems Too

This raises two immediate worries.

In claiming that morality must be objective, I’m insisting that moral truths are not dependent on anything that exists for their truth. In general, an a prioritruth is one we grasp merely conceptually, as opposed to verifying through our experiences. But as I characterize them, moral truths are not true merely by definition (as philosophers would say, they are non-analytic truths). Most other moral realists want to maintain that moral truths are more robust than that. It’s not clear, however, that there even are truths when I can’t explain what makes them true.

As Nietzsche observed about his English contemporaries, these philosophers

Believe that they know “intuitively” what is good and evil…and they therefore suppose that they no longer require [God or Nature] as the guarantee of morality.

It’s not clear, then, how an a priori but non-analytic truth would be a truth about which we can have reliable knowledge. Moral realism loses plausibility points because of the epistemological problems it faces. Grappling with this problem in his defense of moral realism, the late Derek Parfit writes:

We cannot yet fully explain how we can recognize any irreducibly normative truths. These gaps in our knowledge do not give us decisive reasons to believe that there are no such truths. … [Perhaps] we can know such things even if we don’t yet know how we know them. Most earlier humans knew many truths about what they could see, hear, touch, and smell, though they didn’t know how they knew such truths.

Parfit is not yet ready to throw out the moral realism baby with the bathwater. He still acknowledges, however, that an essential problem remains to be solved.

According to moral realism, moral judgments express unconditional requirements. They tell us what we have to do regardless of our attitudes or our culture, and by their inescapability are distinguished from merely following social norms.

This is where the second worry enters the picture.

It’s not clear that we can make sense of the notion of an unconditional requirement. It seems to mean that moral judgments have a kind of necessity. They tell us what we must do, whatever our attitudes or culture. But is has proven very hard to characterize what it really means when we say we must do something. Many philosophers have complained that the very idea of normativity independent of a standard is incoherent. As philosopher Philippa Foot argues:

It seems that in so far as it is backed up by statements to the effect that we do have to do what is morally required of us, it is uncertain whether the doctrine of the categorical imperative even makes sense.

Morality is supposed to be inescapable in some special way, but, for all that has been said, this may turn out to be merely the reflection of feelings about morality.

These are big concerns, and I don’t know how to solve them.

But is seems to me to be a misleading sleight of hand to solve them by bestowing a magical power on social rules to provide moral reasons. Truths about social norms are truths about social norms. Such facts are not fundamental moral truths.

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