Welcome to my series of articles on the topic of morality and religion. This box will appear at the top of each article as a table of contents for the series. They are intended to be read in the following order:
2. Objective Morals
3. From Human Nature
4. The Problems With Faith
5. Doing It Right
Christians and Muslims often claim that “morality cannot exist without an absolute moral standard that is above us.” This belief is completely incorrect.
1) Clarification of our terms
When we discuss morality and the concept of objective and subjective moral notions, we need to clarify three things before beginning:
- Objective means: (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.
- Subjective means: based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
- When we speak of morality, we are discussing two ideas: the ultimate purpose or goal we mean to achieve, and the actual practices by which we mean to achieve it. These aspects of morality could be referred to respectively as purpose and doctrine.
2) Morality is not objective
I described the different meanings of morality is the previous article, Morality: Defined.
The first of these was that morality just refers to what a person or group thinks that people should do; what they consider good or bad. Moral values under this definition are subjective because they merely describe what people desire without regard to their goals.
So the concept of “objective morals” amounts to nothing but “objectively refer to what people think is good or bad”. This would simply mean to describe what different people want to do, not explain what everyone should do. It is similar to a term like “objective favorite color”. Morals, like a favorite color, are inherently subjective by definition so the concept of objectivity cannot be applied to it unless we define morality more specifically.
And since a moral doctrine, or way of acheiving a purpsoe is of ocurse depnent on what that purpose is, there is no such thing as objective morality insofar as the general definition of the word is concerned. Religious believers often contend that he existence of a god who has the power to cause suffering could certainly sway some people’s beliefs about how they should act, since they fear punishment. But in that case, the god is merely a factor they account for in their moral beliefs which remain subjective by definition.
However, people tend to use the word morality in a more specific way, to refer to the purpose of alleviating suffering and increasing happiness. This concept of morality is also subjective since whose suffering they wished to alleviate and whose happiness they wished to promote is entirely dependent on their personal subjective feelings.
(Consider that some people may be concerned with only their own well-being, or that of their family, ethnicity, religious cult, or other possibilities. Others may be concerned with all people or all sentient life. And of course there are even people who are only happy when they harm others, and would be miserable if they could not do so; or some people may simply be so miserable and unable to be helped or changed that they have no reason to care about others.)
Therefore, unfortunately no one ever has an objective basis on which to pursuade others to follow a particular moral doctrine unless they agree on a subjective purpose. But as I will discuss later, there may be a way to achieve something close to this ideal.
3) Morality based around a god is still subjective
Remember that the definition of Objective is: (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts. So for morality to be objective, it must not be dependent on any opinions.
This means that concepts of morality based around God are subjective too. And this is true regardless of the form this takes:
Some Christians believe in the notion of Divine Command Theory which asserts that right and wrong are based on what God says at any given time. That concept of morality is subject to a being’s will and is therefore subjective by definition.
Other religious believers claim that morality is indeed universal and above God (which calls into question the notion that God created everything, but that issue is for another post). They believe that God can only possibly think in accordance with reason, unlike humans, and therefore God is just our way to access correct moral knowledge. But the problem with this concept is that humans still have to rely on our own imperfect minds to determine what God says or if what they claim is in fact the nature of God – or if any god even exists. So there is no use at all to basing morality on a god since we still must rely on our own reason no matter what, and any gods remain ultimately irrelevant.
Also, the existence of a god would not change the subjective nature of morality. The definition does not change. morality is still whatever people consider to be right or wrong. And for people who consider right and wrong to be simply guides for alleviating suffering, as I do, then the exitence of a god would only be a factor in deciding what to do.
By this I mean, if a god existed that was like the Christian god one that would punish us for not following his rules and who would reward us with eternal happiness if we did follow them and who we could pray to in order to reduce our suffering – then it would be rational for us to do as this god says (unless the tyrannical being could be persuaded to act otherwise or be stopped from hurting us). But this would not be the same as morality being “based on God”. That phrase can be ambiguous. Our concept of morality would still be based around ending suffering; obeying the god would only be a means to an end, not the purpose of morality itself.
4) Moral doctrines are objective means to achieving subjective goals
The purpose of morality is subjective, but achieving a purpose is an objective matter.
This is because the ways to achieve a goal, including a moral one, are ultimately not subjective. Some methods and practices will be more effective than others in fulfilling the goal, just as in any endeavor.
And this applies to suffering as well, because the occurrence of the experience of suffering can be objectively confirmed. The experience is subjective, but the observation that it occurs can be done by objective means.
We could compare morality to the study of astronomy. Although some people might believe that the moon is only fifty feet above the trees, critical scrutiny and study of the evidence indicates something else. And we need to update our ideas with new information. This includes and requires using reliable logical methods to determine the nature of reality (e.g. If Hell exists then we should take up the religion which will most likely help us to avoid it).
So if your studies of either astronomy and morality are to be objective, then in neither endeavor can you just declare each to be defined by a set of inflexible beliefs. The objective standard of morality therefore is the evidence of what produces or alleviates suffering, and the objectively correct beliefs are the ones that currently can be most strongly evidenced to be able to achieve that goal.
5) The conception of morality closest to an objective standard
We can never have a way to convince everyone objectively that they should follow a certain moral doctrine, since each person has different feelings and goals. But it would appear that most beings have some core feelings in common: that they certainly wish to avoid their own suffering, and many people wish to prevent the suffering of many others they associate with. And people often have empathetic views extending beyond that too.
So this can help us formulate a concept of morality that can apply to the vast majority of beings. It is not an “objective morality” but it is a morality that addresses the subjective concerns of most beings, which is why many could be pursuaded to adopt similar views over time. The vast majority of beings could thereby achieve their primary subjective goals.
This concept of morality is to attempt to eliminate all suffering.
I think that we can demonstrate through evidence that the most effective way to alleviate the suffering of anyone, is to attempt to reduce suffering by the greatest extent possible among the most beings including every peaceful person, every criminal, every animal, and every sentient being that can be demonstrated to exist.
This would not achieve happiness for everyone, since people who harm others would need to be kept locked away. But even they could be treated well, and it could be established through means at least as objective as economics that the most possible suffering was being alleviated.
This effort would be a critical study – one that we as humans already engage in. But to achieve the most happiness for the most beings, we must use critical examination of the real nature of the situation that every being finds themselves in.
This means to examine and discern when we may be perceiving harm when there is none, or holding beliefs that cause ourselves to suffer unnecessarily. We need to examine external reality as well as the inherent needs of each individual being. This means to be utterly rational in these considerations and avoid fallacious thinking, or else we run an increasingly high risk of developing misguided solutions.
6) Regarding Divine Command Theory
A) To be objective, morality cannot depend on a god
As mentioned in point 3, Divine Command Theory which asserts that right and wrong are based on what God says at any given time. That concept of morality is subject to a being’s will and is therefore subjective by definition.
B) Morality must put the issue of suffering first
Morality is about the experience of suffering, and this fact remains unchanged by the existence of a god or its will. Any concept of morality that places the issue of suffering secondary to the will of a god cannot be classified as moral because in it suffering is made irrelevant to what is right or wrong, desirable or undesirable, good or bad. In that way such concepts of morality are morally nihilistic. They unwittingly reject even the concept of right and wrong being based around what reduces or causes suffering.
C) There is no objective way to determine a god’s will
Even if we assumed a god exists, you cannot objectively provide sufficient evidence of what God wants or believes, or if he has said anything on the matter yet at all. So even if you claim that God’s will is an objective standard, then you still have no objective morality because you cannot access it objectively. Thus your morality remains subjective whether you believe he exists or not. Without an objective basis to discern what he even commands, the whole concept of a divine morality is useless and inapplicable.
Believers often point to their own religious text as being the objective way to determine God’s wishes. But this is false because, as was just mentioned, there is no objective way to determine that any particular holy book is actually the word of a god – let alone a moral one. And choosing a moral code based on subjective or inconclusive reasons does not equate to objective morality. Any moral views are only as objective as the reasons for which it has been chosen.
Some Christians reject Divine Command Theory and instead hold the view that God is just extremely wise and “knows what’s best”. But not only would this mean that god is not necessary, but that view is flawed because 1) you have no objective basis to say that you know God is wise, and 2) you cannot objectively determine what he believes.
D) If God decides what is moral then “good” and “bad” are meaningless
The idea that an action is only morally good if God commands it – and hence that we can only be ethical by following God’s commands – is called Divine Command Theory. But this concept is disturbingly insane. To understand why, first consider this:
If God defines what is moral, then “good” and “bad” are meaningless because actions have no quality that can define them as good or bad. There would not be good actions and bad actions – there would simply be “actions”. Next, consider the Euthyphro Dilemma:
Does God command what is good because it is good, or does “good” simply mean whatever God commands?
If you say the second option – that God’s command is the standard for morality – that would mean that actions themselves, and their effects, are not ever objectively right or wrong. It completely depends on what God says at the time. That’s it.
So if God says that torture of children is right and good, then according to the Theist view, you would consider torturing children to be the right, beautiful, morally good thing to do. And according to that view, you would have no standard by which to judge that it would not be! Nor could you even claim “God wouldn’t say that”, because the only factor which determines if something is right or wrong is whether God commands it.
“Right” and “wrong” would be meaningless. What is evil today could be good tomorrow. According to this worldview, morality has no basis on the intent of an action or the affect the action has on the suffering of any beings. Actions don’t matter. Humans don’t matter. Suffering doesn’t matter. This is a wrong, sick, and dangerous idea that religions have spread for thousands of years.
As a final point on this matter, let me ask: Is it morally wrong to kill your child?
If you believe in God-given morality, then it is not objectively wrong to murder your child. If God says it is ok, as he did with Abraham and Jephthah in the Bible, then to murder your own child for no reason besides “God told me to” becomes morally good. Murder can be as righteous as giving clothes to the poor.