Why do morals need to be justified?

To many people the question in the title will seem peculiar. Of course morals need to be justified! Otherwise, who is to say that the morality of Martin Luther King is any better than that of Pol Pot?

The answer to that, by the way, is “people”. There isn’t anyone else. I return to this theme after catching up with the blog of Michael Nugent, who is currently doing a sterling job leading Atheist Ireland to notable successes.

In a series of posts, Michael responds to a challenge laid down by David Quinn, a Catholic, of the Iona Institute:

That’s all very well, but it doesn’t explain why we are morally obliged to treat other human beings with love, dignity and respect. We might do it because we want to, because we feel like it, because it might serve a useful purpose. But why are we morally obliged to do so? Where does the obligation come from? Certainly not from nature.

David Quinn is right! When we analyse morality down to bedrock, the only actual basis for “treating other human beings with love, dignity and respect” is because that’s how we want to live, that is the sort of society we want to live in. And there is nothing second-rate or inadequate about that answer! There is no “moral obligation” beyond human notions of what we find laudable and acceptable. But nor do we need anything more.

David Quinn’s alternative is, of course, that we are obliged to treat other humans well because God wants it that way. But why is a moral code founded on what God wants any better than one founded on what humans want? Michael Nugent, quite rightly, responds to David Quinn with the Euthyphro argument, which destroys the idea that there is an objective basis for judging God as “good”. And since “might makes right” is a non sequitur, there is no a priori reason to suppose that a powerful creator god is a morally better being than Mrs Jones of Aberavon.

David Quinn then gives the game away, declaring that: “I believe [God’s nature] is good because the nature of Jesus is good”, and “We respond to Jesus as we do because we instinctively see the best of ourselves in him, and the reason for that is precisely because we are made in God’s image and likeness”.

Decoded, this boils down to saying that we judge Jesus as being “good”, based on our values. And from there we should reverse Quinn’s suggestion: we have conceived God/Jesus in our own image, as embodying “the best of ourselves”.

So, either way, morality comes down to human judgements as to how we want humans to treat each other. There is nothing external to humans that imposes any moral obligation to act in particular ways, no oracle giving objective moral prescriptions. To quote from Life of Brian: “you’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!”.

While I agree with most of what Michael Nugent argues against David Quinn, I consider that he errs in not going the whole hog, and in suggesting that there can be an objective justification for moral codes:

What do I mean by morality? I mean that an outcome is objectively bad if it harms a sentient being. And an action is objectively wrong if the agent unjustly harms a sentient being.

I confess to not understanding what “objectively wrong” in the moral sense even means. I understand what it means when a given person judges something as morally wrong (it means they deplore it, and that they want to live in a society where it is discouraged), but that is necessarily their subjective judgement, deriving from their value system. The whole concept of “objectively wrong” in the moral sense seems to me to be incoherent — it is the idea of a value judgement but without anyone doing the valuing, without anyone making the judgement. Michael Nugent defends his position saying:

I believe that morality is an evolved attribute of our brains. It has evolved in the brains of social animals, including but not limited to humans, because both cooperation and competition help us to survive.

I am agreed so far.

We see three phases of evolving morality among social animals. The first phase is empathy and compassion. The second phase is cooperation and reciprocity. The third phase is understanding fairness and justice.

I agree on the first two sentences (though they are probably not distinct “phases”: we likely evolved empathy and compassion as part of becoming cooperative, social animals). But the third sentence suggests that “fairness and justice” are objective concepts that we can come to “understand”. I don’t see how they can be. They are again judgements that we make and that derive from our value systems. There cannot be a judgement that something is “fair” or “just” without some sentient being making that judgement.

One might attempt to derive justice and fairness (and hence morality) from first principles using reason alone, but you won’t succeed. Doing so will require the declaration of axioms that, even if they seem “self evident”, in truth derive from your value system.

Michael Nugent states: “We can know that something is wrong, because we can understand that it causes unjustified harm”. But this requires the axiom: “causing unjustified harm is morally wrong”, and also requires humans to judge when harms are “justified”. It would be easy enough to obtain widespread agreement about your axioms and judgements on such things, after all human nature is similar and ubiquitous across humanity, but they can never be derived from reason alone. As with gods, rational moral schemes are repositories of our values, not the source of them.

Nugent continues:

I subscribe to a variation of John Rawls social contract theory of morality. Essentially, that is: How would a perfectly rational set of people design principles of justice for a society, if we don’t know in advance what position we would hold in that society? That is, we don’t know if we will be rich or poor, male or female, healthy or sick. This veil of ignorance forces us to be impartial, and to develop universally just principles.

But Rawls’s theory is purely descriptive. It describes what humans (or rational beings) would judge to be “just” and “fair”. And again, under Rawls’s veil of ignorance, the judgments of fairness are being made by people. Further, Rawls’s theory is not normative; there is nothing here that obliges humans to act in particular ways, nothing that says: “well you humans might judge X as fair and just, but, actually, in purely rational and objective terms, X is unfair and unjust, and you need to adopt Y”. And so there is nothing in Rawls’s theory that says we “should” adopt judgements arrived at under a veil of ignorance, other than that we may well want to.

So both Michael Nugent’s and David Quinn’s conceptions of morality come down to human judgements as to what is “fair”, “just” and “moral”, and how we want society to operate. We may want something more — a god or Reason, a hankering after a parent telling us what’s good for us — but in the end it’s up to us humans to get along as best we can, and, if we wish, to try to influence society to that end.

Overall we’re making a fair stab at it, with standards of human welfare and respect for each other generally and gradually rising across the world. And judging from the world today, this process is only aided by moving from religious conceptions to secular conceptions of morality.

Morals cannot be ultimately or rationally “justified”; philosophers have been trying that for eons and failed. One can only appeal to the humanity and values of your fellow humans — but if we finally abandon the notion of objective justification for morals then we won’t miss it.

7 thoughts on “Why do morals need to be justified?

  1. Rob Brown

    Absolutely agree. Morality cannot be objective. There is no way to prove that X is morally right and Y is morally wrong. All we can say is that this or that percentage of people say that they believe something is or isn’t morally right or wrong. But that is not objective proof of moral rightness or wrongness. The fact is that morality is a human construct and not something handed down to us by god(s). It’s taken most of human history for a few of us to come to this realization and even today the majority of people still refuse to believe it. But it’s the truth. And most often it is religion that blinds people to this truth about morality. We cannot rationally justify our morals. All we can do is try to persuade others – we cannot prove that we are right.

  2. Rob Brown

    I said morality is a “human construct” and should have added that it is based on subjective feelings programmed into us by evolution to get us to act cooperatively with those around us because doing that helps get our genes out there. That’s all it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s not, or shouldn’t be, important to us or that we have to justify our moral feelings. When I say that torturing babies for fun is wrong what I am really saying is that such a an act horrifies me. I don’t need to justify my horror with some objective proof that my subjective horror is anything other than what it is – a subjective feeling.

    1. YF

      Well said and true, though not widely understood or accepted. Even hypothetical imperatives (means-ends reasoning as applied to moral questions) do not yield objective grounds for morality. Serial killers can use hypothetical imperatives just as validly as doctors.

  3. Brent Meeker

    I quite agree. As Hume pointed out, reason can only be the servant of the passions…although I’d say “…of the values.” I only wish that people would distinguish ethics and morals. Most of the above essay is about how we interact and treat other people (and animals) which is ethics. Morals are your standards for yourself. As Sartre remarked, “Getting out of bed in the morning is a moral choice.” But it’s not an ethical one.

    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Brent,

      “Most of the above essay is about how we interact and treat other people (and animals) which is ethics. Morals are your standards for yourself.”

      Is that distinction generally accepted? Dictionary definitions of the two terms don’t make that distinction.

  4. c u n d gulag

    When the Invisible Sky (Guy/Gal/Thing) comes around, and tells me why if (He/She/It)Is all-poweful, why do children get cancer, good people of ALL F’IN’ religions are poor, women are abused, children molested, and…

    Well, I think you get the idea.

    1. Brent Meeker

      True, dictionaries and common usage don’t distinguish morals and ethics. But there is an important distinction between personal standards of behavior and public standards of interaction. This was the distinction that separated church and state; the distinction between sin and crime. The public standards, which I refer to as ethics, can be “objective” in the sense that people in a culture can agree on them, and people moving between cultures can decide that they like one better than the other…so there is an “objective” sense in which limited democracy is better than authoritarian depostism.

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