When considering morality, questions about the subject are as important as the ethical conclusions reached within moral investigation. This subject, known as metaethics, asks not what is good but what is good. This question seems basal to the whole process; first we figure out what the hell an ethical conclusion is, then we can attempt to identify instances thereof and derive more practical outcomes. Is the good subject to the whims and feelings of the individual or are there murkier, more holistic and impersonal forces at work? Are morals subjective or objective, and what form does such objectivity take? There are some who deem objective moral values both desirable and unthinkable without a god or gods to send down such edicts and give us lowly primates a foundation upon which to stand. As with so many religious arguments this seems to succeed only in pushing back the problem one more step, and then placing great faith in the power of special pleading.
Objective morality, by its very nature, is something which can be assented to by any rational, dispassionate observer. To be subjective is to be open to debate precisely because there is no fact of the matter. I might say that Star Wars is a better franchise than Star Trek – and defend my conclusion to the bloody end – but since there is no demonstrable correct answer this is purely subjective. But were I to say that the first Star Wars film was released in 1977, there can be no disagreement of this kind. All of the available evidence leads to the inescapable conclusion that this is a fact; it is objectively true. Objective morality is of this kind. Objective moral propositions are verifiably accurate therefore are true regardless of your protestations or support. Based on this definition, objective morality must be based upon objective reality, not upon the conviction of a single being. A statement of an objective moral value will end in, “… because facts x, y and z are factually accurate to any rational observer.” A statement of a subjective moral value will ultimately end with, “… because I/he/they say so.”
I do not think that it is an exaggeration nor a misrepresentation of the theistic position that all believers regard their god or gods as a source, at least, of moral teaching and guidance. Many go further and state that their deities are the only source of solid and objective morality at all. The mantra is, “If there is no god, there is no foundation for objective moral values.” Such moral guidance as is forthcoming from gods may take the form of precepts in scriptures, vicarious communication through their representatives on Earth, or a conscience urging us towards the good implanted directly into our bodies. This godly morality applies to all people at all times and must not be contravened. It is thus dubbed ‘0bjective’. This is a very different definition of objective morality than the one offered above: No rational or dispassionate person can reject these ethical statements because the guy in charge said so. Rather this divine command theory eerily resembles subjective morality.
In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates confronts the eponymous character over his intention to prosecute his own father for manslaughter. Making the not unreasonable assumption that such a man must be confident in his own piety, Socrates performs his usual duty of relentlessly questioning his interlocutor into submission. His challenge is to request that Euthyphro define piety, which forces this hapless fellow onto the horns of a particularly ill-tempered dilemma. “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” If piety is something independent and is only communicated by the gods, deities become irrelevant middle-men between humans and holiness. If piety is simply that which is demanded by the gods, it is subject to the idiosyncrasies of of the mighty and holds no deeper meaning than that. The gods are rendered either irrelevant to piety, or piety is rendered meaningless by the gods. The same principle is exactly applicable to morality. Is the good loved by the gods because it is good? Or is it good because it is loved by the gods?
There are those among the unbelievers that entirely agree with this line of reasoning, and therefore hold that morality is subjective and cannot be defended in an objective manner. In the worst of cases they lapse into moral relativism, a position as repugnant as it is self-contradictory (A moral principle is good if the society deems it so, except for the moral principle of relativism, which holds among all societies). However, there is a way to construct an objective morality that does not depend upon the divine, but only upon those minds that seem to clearly be present: the minds of conscious creatures. On this view, objectivity is not a nebulous, universe-spanning concept, but applies only to a limited sphere, namely those entities which are capable of suffering. If we grant the uncontroversial premise that the best possible flourishing is better than the worst possible suffering, we have all the foundation we need to build an objective moral system. To argue that it is not good or moral to promote flourishing and avoid suffering is, to me, to lose sight of any reasonable concept of ‘good’. In any given situation concerning a human, there will be options as to how to proceed, and among those options there will be some which will cause suffering and some which will cause flourishing. This is simply factual. I can demonstrate that drinking brake fluid will cause me to suffer. Thus, it is objectively true that to drink brake fluid would immoral, insofar as it causes nothing but suffering. Because there is tremendous diversity and uncanny similarity among all conscious creatures on Earth – chauvinistically singled out because we do not as yet have any proof of extraterrestrial life – there will be no simple, sweeping answers to moral questions. But we will always be faced with paths which are more likely to cause suffering and paths which are less likely. The objectivity lies in the demonstrable conclusions and the ability to apply such a method in all cases, if not in practice then certainly in principle.
I once wrote an essay entitled, “Why Moore’s “Naturalistic Fallacy” is Neither Naturalistic Nor Fallacious”. While I hold only a tenuous grip on the conclusions that I reached in that particular composition, while still thinking I was mostly correct, I can report that it is very satisfying as a critic to find that your target fails on multiple levels. This may seem childish, but it is undeniably true in my own case. In the case of objective morality as based in gods’ existence, we find that not only is such morality not objective, it is not moral either. It is based on what some being or beings think, and is thereby subjective. There is no guarantee, and plenty of evidence to the contrary, that the thoughts of such beings as they are reported to us will be beneficial or in any sense good. (Should anyone doubt this, please consult any given holy book.) Rather this theistic morality seems an impediment to building the better and more comprehensive ethical framework towards which we are still struggling. Cast off the notion of divine parental permission, focus our energies on the eradication of suffering and the promotion of flourishing, and it seems clear that we can accomplish yet greater feats of compassion than we have thus far.
[Addendum: The ideas for a godless objective morality are not entirely my own, but have been heavily influenced and inspired by Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I highly recommend checking it out, as it makes a powerful case for the fusion of ethics and science, and lays out a plan for putting an end to quibbling over moral dilemmas – thus putting me out of a job…]