The Christian blogger Anthony Freeland has invited me to debate the topic of whether morals are objective or subjective. Anthony has written the first post, arguing that objective moral values and duties do exist.
I’m arguing that morals are subjective, and will structure this post as a reply to Anthony, though elaborating on my wider views at times (for more of which see these three posts). To start with, I’ll concur with Anthony’s definition of the terms. Subjective morals derive from and are dependent on human feelings and opinion on the matter. Objective moral values and duties need to be independent of human opinion (though, as below, more broadly they need to be independent of the feelings of any sentient being).
I regard human morality as part of our evolutionary programming. We have evolved to have feelings about how humans treat each other in order to enable and facilitate our cooperative way of life. If a species evolves to cooperate, say by hunting communally, then it needs ways of policing the divvying up of the meat.
Let’s suppose that there were some objective “oughtness” about the universe, such that particular acts were objectively moral or immoral. Evolution, being a “blind watchmaker” with no insight or foresight, would have no way of knowing about that objective morality.
Our evolved intuitions and feelings would not be about that objective morality, they would be about the subjective moral feelings that evolution programs us with for the entirely pragmatic reason that, in a cooperative ecological niche, those who cooperate best and succeed best socially will (in general) be best at surviving and leaving descendants.
Once we discount our feelings and intuitions as arguments for objective morality, the moral realists are then left with essentially no good arguments.
Anthony Freeland, of course, disagrees.
(1) He first appeals to “personal experience and common sense”, and asks:
Was what Hitler and the Nazis did, in exterminating the Jews, evil? . . . do you believe that the terrorism perpetrated on 9/11 was evil?
Most humans regard the Holocaust as among the vilest and most abhorrent crimes ever, and I hope that all readers feel the same way. That condemnation comes from human feelings on the matter. But, Anthony asks, is it objectively wrong?
Well, to be honest, I don’t even know what that question means. The “wrong” could mean that it is harmful. But one can only define “harm” in terms of what humans like or dislike, which gets straight back to anchoring the concept in human subjective feelings.
Alternatively, one might suggest that something is “objectively” wrong if it is the opinion, not of humans, but of a god. But that simply substitutes the subjective opinion of one entity for that of another, and runs straight into the Euthyphro dilemma.
A wider definition of “objectively” wrong would be wrongness that is independent of any sentient being’s feelings on the matter. In order for an act to be “objectively” wrong it would have to be in-principle possible that the act was “morally wrong” even though every sentient being in the entire universe saw nothing wrong with the act and indeed regarded it as commendable. But, if that were the case, then what would it being “wrong” even mean?
Now, let me accept that most humans have an intuition that their moral feelings reflect an objective standard. I suggest that that intuition was programmed into us as an easy way of making our moral feelings more effective. If you try explaining to people that our morals are “merely” evolutionary programming and do not reflect an absolute standard, they often accuse you of debasing morals and making them sound unimportant — and from that you see why the trick works!
Even though most of us do have an intuition that morals are “objective”, I see no reason why our intuitions would be reliable on that point. As above, our intuitions would have evolved for pragmatic reasons that had no way of knowing about any “objective” standard of conduct.
To illustrate this point, consider this image. Are the squares A and B the same shade of grey?
Everyone’s intuition says “no”. The correct answer is “yes”. The reason we are fooled is that our brains have evolved as pragmatic devices to interpret the world, and here they are making assumptions about the effects of lighting and shade, and thus getting it wrong. Since it is that easy to fool human intuition, we cannot use our intuition as a reliable guide to whether morals are objective. We need, instead, to use solid evidence and sound reasoning. The whole point of science is to do better than coming to conclusions merely on intuition.
(2) Anthony’s second argument rejects a purely “sociologically conditioned morality”, the idea that human babies are born as “blank slates” and that our moral feelings are purely a matter of cultural and social conditioning. Anthony rebuts this by pointing to studies showing that even young babies have the rudiments of morals.
I entirely agree with Anthony on this and reject the “blank slate” idea. I maintain that vast swathes of human nature are the product of both genetic programming and upbringing and environmental influences. My whole stance is that human moral feelings are part of our evolutionary programming, and so I am not surprised that their rudiments are present in babies (though nor am I denying that cultural influences are also important).
(3) Anthony then points to the universality of morals and ethics, saying:
In virtually all societies, murder, rape, theft, and other moral issues are strikingly consistent. Professor Hellier would have us believe that it is because evolution has programmed morality in such a way that all peoples have essentially the same view on main moral issues. But would it not be more plausible, if the Moral–Evolutionary Theory were true, that evolution would be observably more advanced in some races of people than others?
One feature of the human species is that we have very little genetic diversity compared to most other species. Humans very nearly did not make it out of the Pliestocene (the era ending about 12,000 years ago). The evidence from our genetic diversity is that the total human population went through repeated “bottlenecks” where the total population of our ancestors dipped to perhaps only 6000 or so individuals around 50,000 years ago. That’s pretty recent in evolutionary terms. The result is that we’re all from pretty much the same breeding stock. It’s only in the last 20,000 years that human populations have climbed dramatically.
The result is that (barring a few minor local adaptations such as skin colour) humans are pretty much the same worldwide. Each of us is genetically about 99.5% identical to any other human! (Though that number depends a bit on how one quantifies differences.) Thus, the fact that human morality is basically the same worldwide is very much in line with my stance.
(4) As a fourth argument, Anthony turns to “expert testimony”, saying that “morality falls into the realm of philosophy”, and that philosophers are thus the experts on the subject, and he points to the fact that moral realists outnumber moral anti-realists among philosophers.
My response — sorry about this philosophers! — is simply to deny that philosophers are the experts on the matter. To my mind philosophers rely way too much on human intuition as primary. I consider that human intuition is very misleading on this question, and suggest that it has misled all of those philosophers.
The correct way of understanding human morality — as with most things about humans! — is in the evolutionary context. In the relevant sciences moral realism is much less prevalent, and it is taken for granted that human moral sentiments derive from evolutionary programming, which then gives us no reason to suppose that morals are objective.
(5) At this point Anthony challenges my argument head on, saying:
Professor Hellier believes that morality came about through evolutionary processes in order to facilitate human flourishing on this planet. But in his blogs he has not given any mechanism by which this could be possible. In other words, if everything can be explained by science, that is by a materialistic worldview, then we should be able to trace the physical evidence of morality through the chain of evolution to a source, or common ancestry.
I make three replies to this. A minor point is that our evolutionary programming is not about “human flourishing”. Evolution is not for the “good of the species” (that is a common misconception), rather evolution is mostly about individuals competing with their conspecifics.
But, on the mechanism for programming us with moral feelings. First, let’s consider aesthetic feelings. It is obvious that evolution would program us to like eating nutritious food such as sweet fruit, and to dislike bitter, poisonous food. An individual with reversed preferences would likely leave fewer descendants. Thus, natural selection leads us to have aesthetic preferences that align with having more descendants.
The same mechanism explains moral feelings. Suppose you’re in a small group who hunt communally and share the meat. Suppose one of your number then treacherously steals all the food and leaves you with nothing. Obviously such behaviour reduces your survival chances. Thus evolution will program you to dislike cheating, stealing and treachery, and to like fairness, loyalty and comradeship. You’ll be programmed to deter stealing and treachery by punishing it.
When that happens, any cheat might gain short-term advantage from extra meat, but risks long-term disadvantage by being expelled from the group. Thus evolution will program us with a conscience, a way of preventing us acting in ways that would get us expelled from society or killed. (In the same way, we are programmed with a fear of heights, a wariness of snakes, and a disgust at putrid meat, all to discourage actions that might harm us.) From such considerations arises the full complexity of human society.
Thus, the mechanism that Anthony asks for is standard Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Such ideas have been tested using the mathematics of “game theory” and consideration of games such as the iterated prisoners’ dilemma.
That sort of mathematical modelling shows that being nice — cooperating nicely with ones fellows — is evolutionarily favoured whenever cooperation is a good overall strategy (crudely, whenever your share of the meat when hunting communally exceeds the amount of meat you’d get by hunting alone).
The strategies that best benefit the individual are those of being fair to others, giving them what they want, so that they’ll want to cooperate with you and give you what you want. From there it is a short step to the Golden Rule. In such ways, evolutionary theorists have worked out how and why cooperation evolves, and why morality evolves to enable and police cooperation.
Anthony also requests that we be able to “trace the physical evidence of morality through the chain of evolution”. However, behaviour doesn’t fossilize, and nor do our thoughts and feelings! What evidence is being asked for, that it is reasonable to expect?
We can look at our nearest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees who split from the human line about 8 million years ago. And, yes, chimpanzees do exhibit the basics of morality. If you watch their complex social interactions you see notions of fairness, loyalty, treachery, shame — everything that is present in humans is also present in rudimentary form in chimpanzees (indeed, more so than in the human babies that Anthony pointed to above!).
Anthony claims that “animals are not moral agents”. In one sense this is true. Human morality evolved to be about how humans treat other humans, whereas chimp morality would be about how chimps interact. These are separate moral systems; we humans would not consider a chimp a moral agent in human morality, but a chimp would indeed consider another chimp a moral agent in chimpanzee morality.
(6) The last major argument that Anthony presents is about whether any truths at all are objective. My answer is that, yes, truth is an objective concept and there are indeed objective truths. Thus it is an objective truth (something true regardless of any human opinion) that the distance between New York and San Diego is greater than the distance between New York and Philadelphia. However, I don’t see that as relevant to the question of objective moral truth.
Anthony’s argument is this:
1. If absolute truths do not exist, then objective moral truths do not exist.
2. At least some absolute truths exist.
3. Therefore, at least some objective moral truths exist.
I agree with 1 and 2, but 3 does not follow. That’s because objective moral truths (if they existed) would be a subset of all objective truths. Demonstrating members of the super-set does not demonstrate members of the sub-set. Compare:
1. If animals do not exist, then unicorns do not exist.
2. At least some animals exist.
3. Therefore, at least some unicorns exist.
While I’ll accept Anthony’s premise that truth is an objective concept, I don’t see how that helps establish objective morality. No amount of pointing to objective facts establishes that morality is objective, any more than pointing to horses and zebras establishes the existence of unicorns.
A minor part of Anthony’s argument is whether “truth” and “evil” can have degrees. Anthony says:
There is no scale by which to measure what is more true than something else.
I’m not so sure. For example, Newton’s theory of gravity is “roughly true” in the sense that it is good enough for most purposes and gives sufficiently right answers most of the time. Einstein’s theory of gravity is better, in the sense that it gives answers that are right all of the time (as far as we know). But, that’s a minor point about semantics more than anything. More relevantly, Anthony says:
. . . if we are presented with two evils it makes no sense to say that one is more or less evil than the other.
This rather surprises me. I’d have thought that most humans would readily rank immoral acts according to how heinous they considered them. Indeed, if Anthony really does think that good and bad do not have degrees, I wonder why he started his post with the example of the Holocaust, and not, say, an example of social-security fraud. But, this is a side issue.
Anthony refers to my concept of the “Absolute Shouldness Scale” and says “evil does not measure on a scale” and “to say that morality can only be objective if it can be put on a scale to be measured is simply not true”.
On that point I agree. I can grant that an objective morality might not be one that could be ranked on a scale (again, this is a side issue to me).
The point of Absolute Shouldness Scale, though, was not to rank moral acts, it was way more basic than that. The point was to get at what objective morality is even supposed to mean. As above, I don’t know what it even means! The Absolute Shouldness Scale was a satirical attempt to smoke out that meaning.
So let me finish by renewing the question. Anthony, a Christian, conceives of “a single morally perfect Being”. Now, what does that attribute “moral perfect” actually mean?
Does it mean that there is some objective standard of morality against which we can judge such a Being? And, judged against that standard, the Being scores full marks? If so, what is this standard, and by what authority is it established?
Or is it the case that whatever the nature of this Being, that gets labelled “morally perfect”? In which case “morally perfect Being” just means “Being with the nature that that Being has”. If this Being were a sadistic monster then being a sadistic monster would be moral perfection.
This, of course, is the Euthyphro dilemma again. The force of the argument has not lessened in the 2400 years since Plato, and it remains a stake through the heart of moral realism. Above all, it highlights that advocates of objective morality have still not properly explained what their claim of objective morality even means.
“Whatever God wants” is one answer, but an insufficient one, since it gives no reason for preferring “whatever God wants” over “whatever Satan wants”. To do that you’d need to rank the two of them against some objective standard, independent of either God’s or Satan’s opinion.
In contrast, subjective morality is straightforward. It is about human feelings. If someone says “Action X is immoral” what they mean is “I dislike people doing X”. This conception works, and this conception is fully in accord with our evolutionary understanding of who we are.
I grant that it is not in line with many of our intuitions, but why should we regard them as primary? With ideas such as quantum mechanics, physics has told us that the world is often highly counter-intuitive. Part of being a good physicist is to re-program ones intuition to cope with the fact that particles behave as waves. If the argument for moral realism boils down to mere intuition, then that is grossly insufficient.