Objective Morality – 4

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Objective Morality – 4

Our approach so far has been fairly catechetical – we’re building a foundation of knowledge about morality.  Let us apply some of that knowledge, and have a little fun besides.

Generally speaking, atheists break themselves off into a few different groups with respect to morality.*

First, one has the intelligent, reflective atheist – here is one who recognizes that something needs to be said about morality, who further realizes it is not a matter of proving that individual atheists can be good people.  He wants to maintain that objective morality is real, and he’s trying to figure out how.  For him, I have respect.

Second, one has the intelligent, reflective atheist who concedes there can be no objective morality without God.  One finds an example in Nietzsche, among others.  The intellectual integrity of such people, I respect; their prescriptions for human behavior cause me to tremble.

Third, you have your atheist who declares that belief in God is not necessary to be good, because…well, look at him, the atheist.  He’s a good person!  Plus, evolution.  Here is one who is confused and proud of it, and we will deal with him later.

Fourth, you have your atheist who both denies objective morality, then tells you how terrible Christians are.  And God.  God is the worst.  But seriously, if Christians would just stop doing X, Y, and Z, they’d be good people, too, and everyone would be better off.


Let’s have fun with the fourth atheist.  Bearing in mind our illustration from last time, consider this:

Imagine you are in a dark room with a blind man.  You know that you have sight, and you know that light exists, but at the moment you can’t see any.

You come to find out – because he told you so – that this man does not believe in the existence of light.  In fact, he used to have vision, but when he realized that light was just an illusion, he blotted out his own eyes, so that he would not get confused about whether there was any light.

This seems rather drastic to you, but he is strangely proud of the fact.  So proud that he wants to convince you that there is no such thing as light, too.


Blind man:  Well yes, of course there’s no light.

You:  Uh…

Blind man:  Oh, you’ve been duped, too?  Not completely your fault; your parents probably taught you there’s such a thing as light.  Well, we now know there is no such thing.

You:  Why do you think that?

Blind man:  Light is an illusion!  Go ahead – prove to me that light exists.

You:  But you’re blind.

Blind man:  No, I see perfectly that there is no light!  Can’t prove it, then?

You:  Well- I mean, you just see light.  That’s how you know it’s there.  It’s obvious.

Blind man:  Ah, but Science has shown us that this is just an illusion, just as I’ve been telling you.  You only think you can see light because you have not been enlightened yet.


You let some time pass.  How did you end up in this room, anyway?  Maybe there’s a door here somewhere…


Blind man:  Excuse me, could you step to the side, please?

You:  I’m sorry?

Blind man:  Yes, could you step to the side?  I can’t see.

You:  (speechless)

Blind man:  Well?

You:  Listen, that doesn’t even make sense.

Blind man:  You’re a Christian, I bet.  Still believe in bronze-aged myths and a sky daddy?

You:  What does that-

Blind man:  Look, your body is opaque, you can’t help that, and for the most part you’ve stayed out of my line of sight.  But now your shadows are kinda bothering me.  If you would just take one step to the side, I would be grateful, and I think we’d get along splendidly.

You:  (Well, what would you say?)


This is just the sort of absurd thing our fourth atheist is doing.  He wants to deny there is objective morality (in the story, “light”), and finds some irrelevant way to dismiss it.  How could you prove to him that there is objective morality if, when you point to it, he dismisses it as an illusion?

That’s one thing.  To say there is no objective morality is to say that there is no moral difference between genocide and mowing the lawn.  Some people swallow that pill, and they usually experience bottomless despair as a result.

But our rather stupid fourth atheist goes one further, as he is wont to do.**

He now has the unmitigated temerity to correct your morality, though he denies objective morality.  He thinks that if Christians would just give a little ground on, say, abortion, that would be a step in the right direction.  Then they would be better people, morally.

This is just absurd, and beyond absurd.  It is like denying there is such a thing as light – effectively declaring oneself blind, unable to see because there is nothing to see – and then being critical of someone else’s shadows.

There is no expression of incredulity, not even the Internet classic “WTF?”, which would address this criticism with adequate disdain.  One is rightly moved to violence; and rightly restrictive of the impulse.  After all, there is such a thing as objective morality.

And don’t forget…he is the enlightened one.  Best to leave him alone, in the company of his only intellectual peer.


*This is how I have fun, anyway.  Oh, that?  Of course one may have fun with atheists!

**If the allusion is missed, it should not be lost.  Also, this seems to be a quintessential demonstration of stupidity, and I intend the word precisely, not as mere mud-slinging.

Objective Morality – 3

In the last post, we distinguished between the concepts of moral ontology and epistemology.  I now propose a leap, and an illustration.  If you will make the leap with me, we will come back around and see how and why it is made.

I want to suggest that our knowledge of morality comes from a moral sense.

And the illustration:  This is a sense much like our other senses.  Sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell…and moral cognition.

How can we do this?  Consider one of the examples of an action I gave last time:

I walk down the street at 4.5 miles per hour.  Is this right or wrong, morally?

Well, is it right or wrong?  Naturally, the answer is that it is neither.  When we consider the mere act of walking at a normal speed, we do not detect any moral quality in this action, neither good nor ill.  This is a perfectly rational conclusion if we have a moral sense.

Now consider:

I walk down the street at 2 miles per hour, helping an elderly man to his car.

Is this morally good, or wrong?  Naturally, it is good – I have assisted someone in his frailty, so that he may avoid pain and suffering as the result of a fall.  Here, we detect some quality of the action which was not present in the first example, which we judge to be “good.”

In the same way, our eyes detect light.  We can discern between a brighter room and a darker room, even between wavelengths in the spectrum of light, because of our vision.  A person who is blind has no such ability, of course.   The room may be brilliantly lit, or the lights may be off, and our blind friend would not have the first idea which it was.

These senses both deliver knowledge to us.  Our eyes deliver knowledge which no other sense can deliver, and without which we would have no concept of light; and it is just so with the moral sense.  None of our other senses or faculties could deliver moral knowledge, and without that sense, we would be toward morality like the blind man is toward light.

Good so far?

Now let’s turn the thing over and look at it another way, which will advance our study.  Consider that, if there were no such thing as light, we could not make any sense of our eyes.  The very reality of light is a pre-requisite for vision to exist, much less to comport with our experience of having eyes.  There wouldn’t be any eyes, one imagines.

Light, then, is an objective reality.  It is something which exists independent of us, independent of our thoughts and feelings about it.  And we might even distinguish between visual ontology and visual epistemology.

Visual ontology would be the study of light itself, the existence and foundation of light.  (One may want to know why light exists at all, or if it was necessary for light to exist in any possible Universe).

Visual epistemology would be the study of our understanding of light.  We start from our senses, which deliver immediate knowledge about light (maybe it’s bright, or green, or distant), and we apply our other faculties (namely, our reason) to advance our knowledge (red-shifts in the stars, the wave-particle nature of light, the wavelengths of the different colors).

We want to say something similar about morality.  Most of the time, we wrestle with moral epistemology:  What is the right thing to do here?  How should a person conduct her life?  What general principles may we follow, and how can we sharpen our understanding of them?

Yet all of our moral deliberations rest on that which we examine less frequently – that is, moral ontology.  And just as our vision is grounded by the reality of light, our morality must also be grounded by some objective reality.

This objective reality has, across the world and over the centuries, been referred to as “the good.”

Next time, we’ll examine the folly of rejecting objective morality (and why so few do it).  Then we’ll begin to examine our options regarding this good upon which our morality rests.

Objective Morality – 2

We kicked off the morality parade in the last post, promising to deal with ontology and epistemology in this one.  Let it be so.

Morality, we said, is a system of beliefs about what is right and what is wrong.  Elementary, no?  Yet, for our purposes, we must make some hay out of this simple assertion.

What, after all, does it mean for an action to be “right”?  And “wrong”?  Right or wrong with respect to what?

A few examples will make the point:

I walk down the street at 4.5 miles per hour.  Is this right or wrong, morally?

My child had her lunch money stolen.  I give her money for lunch, but no consolation.  Is this right or wrong, morally?  Relative to what standard?

I declare that cold-blooded murder is morally good.  Am I correct, or incorrect?

On the one hand, these are not challenging questions.  I suppose very few people would have any difficulty answering them, and that there would be a wide consensus on those answers.  More on this next time.

On the other hand, as any sophomore philosophy student will tell you, they are not as straight-forward as they seem.  The second question in the second example (Relative to what standard?) points to this, and the fact that I’ve asked questions about seemingly obvious situations is also suggestive.

The sophomore will want to contextualize the first example: Are you walking toward something?  Away from something?  Are you shirking your duties, or avoiding a conflict?  (Note that I meant merely the act of walking, apart from any context).

The example about praising cold-blooded murder as morally good is probably easiest to answer – but why?  How do we know that cold-blooded murder is wrong?  Are you sure?  (Freshman ethics courses are fraught with such questions).

To some extent, all we have done here is obfuscate the issues with hypothetical information.  The sophomore is just being difficult.

Yet, not merely difficult.  After all, it’s exactly when the context changes that our moral judgments are challenged.  But if the choice is easy in the first case, and difficult when the context changes, how are we to resolve this difficulty?

We require the moral standard itself.  What is “the good” against which we compare all moral actions?  When we have two choices, against what are they weighed in order to decide which is a morally better decision?

This is moral ontology, to investigate the nature of the good.

And how is it that we come to know the good?  When we are caught in a moral dilemma, how is it that we decide which action to take?  How can we be confident we know the good?

This is moral epistemology, the study of our knowledge of the good.

Many discussions of morality seem to bounce back and forth between moral epistemology and ontology, often without the speaker seeming to realize it.  I dare to say it’s a more subtle distinction that we’re used to.  We’ll get into this more in the next post.

Objective Morality – 1

The subject of objective morality is a troubled one.  Bring it up, even clearly and with care, and one is nevertheless met with some flavor of righteous indignation or a general misanthropy leaving us morally inferior to the apes.

For my part, I am as earnest as I am ambitious, and even troubled waters will not keep me from putting out to sea once more.*

First, what do we mean by objective morality?

Webster works well enough, and I paraphrase thus:  Morality is a doctrine or system of beliefs about what is right and what is wrong.

There is nothing foreign about this.  We pass moral judgments all the time, even without realizing it.  When someone speeds recklessly down the highway, flying past your own vehicle, you judge that this person is going much faster than is safe.  You further judge that they are deficient in their duties to the other drivers on the road, lacking in a value which can only be defined in terms of right and wrong.

Now, objective morality connotes a system of beliefs which is true independent of what anyone may think about it.

An example of an objective truth (which is not a moral truth) is that 9 x 9 = 81.  Even if the United Nations decided tomorrow that all of the world should answer that 9 x 9 = Porridge, it would remain true that 9 x 9 = 81, no matter what we say about it.

An example of an objective moral truth is that “Rape is wrong.”  If all the world should decide tomorrow that rape is morally neutral, or even morally praiseworthy, it would nevertheless remain true (according to the concept of objective morality) that rape is actually still wrong, no matter what we think about it.

Now – if you ask me, the first question we should ask in any discussion of right and wrong is whether there is an objective morality.

If there is not, then the discussion is drained of meaning.  We are now talking about personal preferences; even baser – we are talking about mere appetites.  There can be no moral objections, because there is no real meaning behind morality.  (More soon)

If there is, then we have some discerning to do.  How is it that we discover what is morally right and morally wrong?  According to what standard are these things judged?  This distinction is between moral epistemology and moral ontology, and we’ll discuss that next time.


*As before, in this space.