Monday, October 22, 2012

Objective morality

Due to my recent run-ins with this I have decided to make objective morality (hereafter OM) the subject of my belated first post! I will attempt to outline my position but it should be noted that I am not particularly well versed in all the arguments for the idea that there does exist an OM, or I am aware of only a few at least.  This is a “my two cents” look at it.
 As you shrewd and astute readers have already figured out, I am opposed to the notion that there is an OM.  Almost all the arguments I have encountered in support of the idea have been of the form “Well, it really seems like there is. Contrary any good opposing evidence I will therefore assume there is”.  This is an appeal to intuition and I have no real problem with that if we are applying intuition to a subject on which we have little or no data/evidence. I would concede that morality is a subject that is not particularly amenable to empirical evidence. Despite intuition having a less than inspiring record, it is really all we have to work with in the absence of verifiable fact.  What I find most strange about these arguments is that those making them really do believe that it does seem like there is an OM. I just can’t fathom why that is. I don’t feel like it seems that way at all.
I think it is fair to say that were there an OM which we have at least some intuitive access to, it would be reasonable to expect a fair amount of agreement. As a social, mammalian species it seems reasonable also to expect a fair amount of agreement on what is enjoyable or objectionable experientially. If we are both a social mammalian species with roughly similar desires, fears etc. and a species with intuitive knowledge of an objective morality, I would expect a large amount of agreement on moral matters. Even a cursory glance at the various human cultures through the ages should be enough to detonate the idea that we are mostly in agreement on moral issues. Even on the most basic issues humans do not seem to have had the same moral intuitions most modern defenders of OM would point to. Killing for sport should be a shoe-in for an objectively wrong act but history is replete with examples of people thoroughly enjoying the murder and torture of other people as an entertaining spectacle, even as en entrenched part of their societies. So well known is the human penchant for enjoying violence that I don’t think it is necessary to furnish you with examples; you have already thought of some.  The point, of course, is that were morality an unchanging objective fact of the universe that we can intuit, it doesn’t seem sensible to me that moral attitudes to almost everything would have changed radically over time. Where once the torture and killing of entirely innocent people for entertainment was completely acceptable to today where such an act would land all of the spectators in counselling for trauma, our history is a record of a primate species slowing developing a morality in defiance or our more sadistic urges.
On the other side of the coin, our urges to enjoy the suffering of others have been and still are as common as our more noble impulses. Is this not also intuitive? Consider a show like the X-factor. Ostensibly a competition between performers for a prize, (incidentally, a show that almost perfectly sieves out any actual “X-factor” and produces the most bland and stereotypical acts imaginable) the shows early stages are the emotional equivalent of the Colosseum. We are treated to utterly deluded hopefuls committing a kind of performance hara-kiri. They are included explicitly as fodder for our laughter and derision. I am sure that many a life has been ruined, at least temporarily, by this kind of national and international humiliation. I have yet to hear anyone propose an objective cruelty that we all have an intuitive grasp of.  Would the “Well, it really seems like there is. Contrary any good opposing evidence I will therefore assume there is” arguments not be equally suited to this as to moral intuitions?
The best tool we have for disposing of the intuitive objective morality idea is probably Occam’s razor. Our history is exactly what you would expect if we assume the following:
We are a primate species that has inherited the brutality of our animal origins.
We are a social species and as such need to cooperate and find some means of peaceful cohabitation.
We are subject to the laws of nature and ever changing environments.
Nothing more need be added to explain morality. There is absolutely no need whatever for it to be objective. Objective morality is a means for us to ameliorate our discomfort with the knowledge that morality is little more than subjective opinion.  If there really was an OM, we could be right, really objectively right, in our moral opinions. It's not just opinion, it's moral fact!

Cosmology seems to me to illuminate the parochial, human-centric nature of OM. When you consider the  scale of the universe and our vanishingly small part in it, its mechanistic nature and its utter lack of concern for its past, present or future,  it is truly absurd to suppose that the actions of primates have a value as an integral part of this grand machine.  There is another way to interpret “objective” morality, that being that certain things are true of our experience and that certain experiences are universally considered undesirable. These facts can form the basis of an objective evaluation of behaviours, actions, and ideas that are at least somewhat independent of any particular mind. Firstly, it is impossible to start this exercise without employing a subjective presupposition. If we grant this starting point I think we can get close to a universal morality. There still isn’t a whole lot of objectivity to it. Secondly, it seems more a recasting of our individual subjectivity onto the collective subjectivity of humans. Even the latter is something with considerable variance on moral issues but even were there complete agreement it would still be the view of a single species who share almost everything in common.  

OM seems to me an almost childish view. It seems a reassurance and a means of avoiding the problems that an admission of the subjectivity of morality is sure to bring. I accept that there are probably decent arguments I haven’t encountered and if that is the case, I would be delighted to hear the very best them.


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