Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Does Objective Morality Exist?

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This blog entry is part 3 in a series on the moral argument. The blog entries:
  1. The Moral Argument for God Part 1: Going from Morality’s Existence to God’s Existence
  2. The Moral Argument for God Part 2: Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist?
  3. The Moral Argument for God Part 3: Does Objective Morality Exist?
  4. The Euthyphro Dilemma
  5. Epilogue: Awakening the Sensus Divinitatis

Does Objective Morality Exist?
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Although this is part of a series on the moral argument, for the most part this article works as a standalone entry on arguing for objective morality. In part 2 of my series on the moral argument I mentioned the following deductively valid moral argument for God’s existence:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
This blog entry will largely be about justifying premise 2 (in the previous blog entry, I argued for premise 1). But sometimes one person’s modus tollens is another’s modus ponens; an atheist could accept the first premise but conclude that, since God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist either, and thus such an atheist would reject the second premise. So what about the second premise? Why not accept moral nihilism in light of everything mentioned in part 2 of the moral argument? At least, why not leave it as a live option?

The Argument from Example

Do we really know that objective moral properties exist? I think the answer is clearly yes. When it comes to flagrantly morally wrong behavior like impaling babies with bayonets just for fun, most of us intuitively recognize that there is something in reality, transcending our opinion, that says people shouldn’t behave that way. It seems that raping children and committing genocide would remain morally atrocious regardless of what we believed. Even for many who don’t believe that God is the source of moral obligation (as I didn’t at one time), there just seems to be some component of reality beyond us, even if we can’t identify what it is, that says we should not do such things. So there appear to be clear examples of at least some things that are morally wrong independently of human opinion.  If we know examples of things that are objectively morally wrong, then we have grounds for believing that moral objectivism is true.

Beliefs like there being something morally wrong with torturing innocent sentient life (as infants) just for fun arise from moral intuition, but here I’m using “intuition” in the philosophical sense, as opposed to e.g. a guess based on a hunch. In philosophy, intuition refers to what the consciousness immediately apprehends and what is directly present one’s consciousness. Examples of intuition include sensory experiences and various intuitive perceptions like a person mentally “seeing” that 2 + 1 = 3. Another example is the intuition that the external world is real, as opposed to (for example) being merely a lifelong dream. It is logically possible (in the sense of not being self-contradictory) that our intuitions about morality existing are wrong, but it’s also logically possible that the external world you perceive is a computer-generated illusion and that you are really just a brain in a vat of chemicals hooked up to a supercomputer. At the end of the day we have no more reason to doubt the reality of objective moral properties than we do to doubt our intuition of the external world existing.

I’ve seen some criticize the appeal to examples like “There is something morally wrong with torturing infants just for fun” as emotional appeals, but I find that objection to be off the mark. It’s not as if the appeal to example is saying, “Torture makes one feel sad, therefore it is morally wrong.” It’s true that emotions are often tied up with moral beliefs, but if we were somehow rendered emotionless, it seems we could still rationally believe that there is something morally wrong with torturing infants just for fun. If certain atheists believe otherwise, the onus is on them to provide some sort of argument.

One could point out that not all moral beliefs are agreed upon, and argue that if moral objectivism were true moral disagreements would not be so widespread. But it’s unclear why anybody should believe that. At one point there was disagreement about whether the earth was flat, but clearly there’s an objective truth of the matter; the earth wasn’t flat millennia ago simply by people believing it to be so. A fact being objectively true does not (unfortunately) entail that it will be agreed upon by most people; indeed it is the very nature of an objective fact to be true independently of human disagreement. And while the truth of some moral issues may not be clear (just as some truths about the physical world may not be clear) that isn’t enough for us to reject what seem to be clear moral truths. For example, the existence of disagreement on some moral issues doesn’t provide adequate grounds for rejecting the idea that the morally wrongness of impaling infants with bayonets just for fun holds independently of human opinion.

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