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On The Futile Search For Universal Morality

The study of morality would vastly be improved
If god could be removed

Without the false assumption that a culture’s moral laws
Had supernatural cause

There’s no Platonic heaven where morality is found
But rather, look around!

Morality will not be seen expressed as an ideal
Morality… is real

So, yeah… I guess this one is based on a report of a debate or disagreement or something, between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, on the topic of morality—or rather, on “objective moral values”. Interesting, or tedious, or whatever. Craig wants morality to be based on God’s revelation, Harris will find it in our brains, our DNA, or some such.

Of course, they are both wrong.

Both want universals, though of a different sort. It’s as if “universal morality” is the all-or-nothing position—and it is certainly the case that (some, at least) theists will pounce on any sort of non-universality as taking the “anything goes” position. But the fact that these theists frame the question that way is no excuse for looking for an atheist equivalent, when none is required. And indeed, the site reporting the argument appears also to be looking for a universal morality:

Gravity is not dependent upon our worldview. And if objective moral values exist, neither should they.

At any rate, Harris argues that something is morally good if it promotes the flourishing of conscious creatures. Craig counters by saying something is morally good if God says it is. With Craig, we are back to the question of which god. As for Harris, I tend to agree with him, but even he has to admit his starting point is wholly arbitrary self-interested.

But why should objective moral values be universal? Let us suppose our needs are universal (even “promotion of the flourishing of conscious creatures”, though I don’t honestly think that’s it)—our environments are much varied, and the ways our needs may be filled are necessarily dependent on our varied environments. And morality is (when you look at what it is and does, rather than what is claimed) a means of controlling behavior, promoting some things and prohibiting others, independently of any sort of governmental law. From here (Hocutt, 2010, an excellent analysis of morality):

What, then, is morality? Protagoras, the greatest of the Greek sophists, got the answer right when he argued that morality is social practices. Morality in the real world consists not of a priori principles but of customs and conventions, tacit understandings about what conduct will be accepted and what will not. Members of diverse groups, we human beings are each of us subject to rules made by our group for our group, so applicable to our group and no other. These rules, some more important than others, are not written down anywhere and, being ad hoc adjustments to contingent circumstances, are always unsystematic and ill defined; furthermore, they are subject to change. They exist, however, in the form of more or less regular practices reinforced by more or less effective sanctions.

Looking for universals in a varied environment is a fool’s errand (which is every bit a strike against those who claim a genetic morality as against those who claim to speak for a god—in both cases, the incontrovertible fact of differing moral standards across cultures speaks against any sort of universal morality).

Because of the contingency and fallibility of these rules, we cannot discover them by thought alone or by using the test of utility. Instead, we learn our moralities by being rewarded for complying with them and punished for contravening them—methods that teach us to feel good when we ―do the right thing, guilty when we do not. Furthermore, our duty to obey these rules has nothing to do with culturally transcendent standards. Duty consists entirely in the fact that obedience to the rules is a condition of good standing in the group. We human beings are certainly rational animals, but we are even more fundamentally tribal animals; and while prudence is a dictate of reason, morality is largely tribal instinct and group custom. We are bound to it in the first analysis by a genetically based need for the approval of our fellows and in the final analysis by their coercion to behave as they desire—not, as Kant erroneously claimed, by choice of an undetermined will. In fact, as even the intellectually honest Kant admitted in the end, the idea of such a will is unintelligible.

Morality is, fundamentally, about human behavior. And the thing is, we have sciences dedicated to looking at that.

The obvious conclusion is that moral philosophy ought to begin with empirical psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Of course, these behavioral sciences won’t tell us what moralities we ought to have, but unlike gaseous talk of archetypal Justice and theological talk of moral law, they will tell us something about the moralities that we do have and perhaps enable us to understand why we have them, which might enable us to figure out how to improve them. Once we understand the uses and deficiencies of these moralities, we might be able to see how their purposes could be served more effectively.

So, is there an objective basis to morality, or is it all just made up? There is no moral god, there is no moral gene—there is, however, the real world, which varies across time and space. The good news… once we recognize and admit the reality of morality, it becomes something we can improve. The bad news… the (for now) majority currently views morality as handed down by a god some thousands of years ago, and that any change is, by definition, detrimental to morality.

Comments

  1. says

    Doesn’t this mean one cannot assert with any confidence or authority that something is immoral (for instance; the execution of gays in Uganda)?

    Is this just moral relativism? If so, how does it advance the moral conversation?

  2. Cuttlefish says

    The same authority or confidence that any other system of morality has–and better, since it can be questioned. After all, gays in Uganda are being executed by virtue of a system of morality that claims almighty god on its side–I, for one, would question that.

  3. Robert B. says

    The phrase “what moralities we ought to have” is delightfully meta. What are the turtles standing on?

  4. consciousness razor says

    I don’t know where you got the concept of “genetic morality,” or the claim that it’s “universal” in the sense that you’re using it. No one at all is disputing the very obvious fact that people behave differently in different places and times, nor are they claiming there has never been disagreement about what is moral. As wrong as Harris may be about many, many things, these are certainly not the things he is wrong about, because he has certainly never claimed them. That would be really a stupid claim, which no one else would take seriously, so you wouldn’t have reason to waste any more pixels debunking such low-hanging fruit even if someone really has said it.

    As for “moral genes,” whatever the hell that’s about…. I don’t even know where to begin.

  5. doublereed says

    Badly strawmanning Harris’ position here. In fact, he seems to be saying exactly what you’re saying, just on a lower level.

    I have no idea what you mean by “improve morality.” Improve it at what? Killing people? Oppressing women? Making paperclips? In order to say that one morality is better than another in any way you need to say what your objective measure is. And Harris is saying that that is the “flourishing of conscious creatures” which fits perfectly fine.

    And Harris is not implying that it is not dependent on the environment or situation. On the contrary, that implies the exact opposite, because what makes conscious creatures flourish is completely situation dependent.

    Think of the conversation like this: they’re arguing over the definition of morality. What exactly do people actually mean when they say “morality”? WLC is saying that “Morality is defined as doing what God commands” (essentially a slave morality), and Harris is saying that “Morality is defined as benefiting conscious creatures” or “human well-being”. Harris’ morality is far more vague, because it relies on things like empiricism and the changing environment.

    Generally, most people use Harris’ definition of morality. It’s something that helps humans or animals in some way or fashion. And while I think the conversation can feel rather stupid and silly at times, I think it’s important to remind religious people that they don’t actually care what God says. All they really care about is helping other people.

  6. niceforkinmove . says

    Hello

    I think evolution causes a real problem for the reliability of moral beliefs. (at least in a moral realist sense) This would include Harris’s assertion that the objective measure of improving morality is the “flourishing of conscious creatures.”

    The problem with his belief is it seem unlikely it tracks reality. I mean we might be able to see how holding this belief would help us survive. But if we are to believe its true there should be some sense in which this belief corresponds with reality. Evolution does not offer a good explanation for that, when it comes to moral beliefs. Sure it can track the truth of other beliefs. Like beliefs about the material world. But I think its impossible that it could track moral truth.

    I would recommend people read Richard Joyce’s book the evolution of morality.

    Or Sharon Streets article:
    http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/Street-A-Darwinian-Dilemma-for-Realist-Theories-of-Value.pdf

    I published my own blog dealing with the issues they raise here:

    .http://trueandreasonable.co/2014/02/24/a-problem-with-the-reliability-of-moral-beliefs/

    I would love it if someone is interested in debating these issues. Even if you are not well versed in meta-ethics I try help people understand the issues regardless of their religious beliefs.

  7. Matt G says

    If you want to look for the roots of ethics/morality, look at intelligent animals and infants. A holy book which sanctions genocide and slavery is not really going to help you.

  8. johnhodges says

    Religion does not provide any such “objective basis” for goodness or morality. Religion offers a hearsay account of some guy claiming to have had the subjective experience of meeting a really big ghost who claimed to be the Creator of the Universe, demanded obedience, and offered promises and threats. We have to take on faith that the account is correct, that the “prophet” was telling the truth about his subjective experience, that he was not hallucinating or dreaming, AND that the ghost he encountered was telling the truth, was not some local shade playing a practical joke, or a demon who feeds off worship and sacrifices. Nothing that you have to take on faith is an “objective basis” for anything.

    For an “objective basis” for ethics, look at the consequences of actions for real people in this world. Because we are social animals evolved by natural selection, who survive by cooperating in groups, the great majority of people are going to value the health (survival-ability) of their families and the peace of their communities. A “good person” is a desirable neighbor, desirable from the point of view of people who wish to live in peace and raise families. If you want to maintain peaceful and cooperative relations with your neighbors, don’t kill, steal, lie, or break agreements. This is objective. As Shakespeare wrote, “It needs no ghost, Milord, come from the grave, to tell us this.”

    There is a long history of philosophical thinking about ethics. Morality is not based on authority, but on reason and compassion. If I had to recommend just one book on ethics, it would be GOOD AND EVIL: A NEW DIRECTION by Richard Taylor.

  9. doublereed says

    Religion does not provide any such “objective basis” for goodness or morality. Religion offers a hearsay account of some guy claiming to have had the subjective experience of meeting a really big ghost who claimed to be the Creator of the Universe, demanded obedience, and offered promises and threats. We have to take on faith that the account is correct, that the “prophet” was telling the truth about his subjective experience, that he was not hallucinating or dreaming, AND that the ghost he encountered was telling the truth, was not some local shade playing a practical joke, or a demon who feeds off worship and sacrifices. Nothing that you have to take on faith is an “objective basis” for anything.

    Well, practically speaking this is not what Religions preach. After all, God doesn’t exist, so he can’t be the basis for anything. What it’s really saying is that one should trust the priest’s authority because he’s more godly or something.

  10. Joseph McCarron says

    Matt G

    I don’t really think watching infants or animals is a good way to learn morality.

    John Hodges

    You seem to switch between being a moral relativist and being a moral realist.

    “the great majority of people are going to value the health (survival-ability) of their families and the peace of their communities.”

    This makes you sound like a relativist. As if morality is based on what people value. But you also suggest people look at an “objective basis” for ethics. (your quotes) This suggests you are a moral realist. Unless you put it in quotes because you think ethics are relative.

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