Is morality objective?

This is a terrific question. Historically, the dominant picture of morality was once one of absolutes. Things were considered either right or wrong, generally by divine decree, with little or no ambiguity. The main thing that changed this conception was a growing awareness that different societies –or the same society in different eras– have had very different moral standards. As an example, I am a Christian, and thus part of a moral tradition that extends back to the ancient Israelites. Yet some of my moral convictions (such as my affirmation of pacifism) are diametrically opposed to some of theirs (i.e. their warlike tendencies).

The recognition that moral judgments change with time and vary from place to place led to moral relativism, the idea that all moral judgments are subjective and contextual. At most, so the reasoning ran, one could be evaluated by his or her own moral standards and convictions. This too, however, seems wrong. Infanticide, cannibalism and slavery have been practiced in many times and places, yet we would hesitate to call them right, even for their own contexts. Similarly there are virtues –generosity, compassion, honor –that seem worthy of universal affirmation.

Observations of this nature led to a third approach to morality, often called the “perennial philosophy”, the idea that there are common moral principles affirmed in all great philosophies, regardless of time and place –such as the “Golden Rule” (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), variants of which are found worldwide. The problem with this idea, however, is threefold. First, there is no clear and uncontroversial way of establishing what actually belongs in the perennial philosophy; second, there is a danger of ending up with a washed-out “consensus morality” that offers no real guidance beyond base intuitions; and third, it seems to preclude all possibility of moral progress –the concept that our morals can get better with time.

My own opinion on the matter is that there are both objective and subjective aspects to morality. I think, objectively speaking, that each entity (such as a person or an animal) and each collective (such as a society, a culture, a species) has a “responsibility” to express its own unique existence, yet no less of a responsibility to promote the interests of all other denizens of the universe. From this kind of standpoint, we can even evaluate the morality of creatures very different from ourselves –judging (for example) a mitochondrion, which supports the functioning of almost all earthly life, as morally superior to a virus, which promotes its own interests at the expense of its hosts.

From a subjective point of view, however, it is clear that there is an ample amount of ambiguity and context-dependence inherent in evaluating even these simple criteria. What is the proper balance between self and society, between one’s own interests and the interests of the universe? And how can one know what serves the interests of the universe in the first place?

It is here, I believe, that religion reenters the picture. Religion –with its connection to the infinite –is what gives us the ability to navigate moral issues with confidence. Yet even faith in an unchanging deity does not mean that human societies, which exist in a changing and evolving world, might not experience changing answers to deep moral questions.

4 thoughts on “Is morality objective?”

  1. Hi,

    I am new to your site and I just ran across this article.

    I wanted to see if you could please expand on this statement: “It is here, I believe, that religion reenters the picture. Religion –with its connection to the infinite –is what gives us the ability to navigate moral issues with confidence.”

    From where does this confidence derive itself? The Bible? The Church Hierarchy?

    I’m sure you’ve answered this question already somewhere else, so if you could please point me in that direction I would really appreciate it.

    Thanks!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I haven’t explicitly answered this question before and it’s a very good one. For me as a Christian Existentialist, the most important thing is the actual direct relationship with God. If we take God as the source of all good, then familiarity with God should arguably help us discern what “the good” is in any given moral situation.

      Ideally, both the Bible and the Church aid that process, but both the Bible-as-we-interpret-it and the guidance of the Church draw all their worth from their important role as conduits for communication with God. If they become alienated from that role, they lose their value.

      None of this is to claim that a person who does have a genuine relationship with God must be infallible. As human beings we make mistakes.

      1. I have a follow up question:

        Ideally, the Bible and the Church help us communicate with God so that we can be aware of “the good” decision to make in any moral situation. The Bible and the Church can only aid us in that process if they are steadfast in their commitment to being conduits for communication with God.

        My question is, what mechanisms are we supposed to employ to ensure that the Church and the Bible are always fulfilling their responsibilities as conduits for communication with God? Many times throughout history, the Bible and the Church have both been horribly wrong on any number of issues (like slavery) and I can’t imagine that they were always the conduits that we needed them to be. I’m sure you would argue that these instances where the Bible and the Church have failed us are examples of the Bible and the Church losing their worth as viable instruments of communication with the higher power. But that leads us back to the initial question. When we are unsure of what to do, and both the Bible and the Church are leading us in a direction that is questionable, then what are we supposed to do to make sure that the “good” decision, the decision that God would have us make, is clearly communicated to us?

        In the case of Slavery, many God-fearing people in the 1800s were adamant that their personal relationship with God was condoning their participation in the slave trade, and it was a position that was backed up with guidance from many churches, the entire Old Testament, and 6 different passages in the New Testament (Eph 6:5, Col 3:22, Luke 12:45, 1 Tim 6:1, Tit 2:9, 1 Pete 2:18). In addition, these were all people that truly and earnestly believed they were approaching God with the intent to really listen to what God had to say, without injecting their own personal biases. Today, we are right to condemn these people for the atrocities they committed in the name of God, but how is it that Christians everywhere finally came to the conclusion that slavery is wrong, in all its forms, when the Church and the Bible were hardly leading us in that direction? When the Church and the Bible were hardly giving us the confidence to make the right decision?

        Sometimes I think that when people say their close relationship with God enables them to make the “right” decisions, they are really just arriving at conclusions that the dominant religious culture in their lives wants them to adopt. If that culture happens to be one that condones slavery, then their “relationship” with God will also have them come to the conclusion that slavery is okay. If they somehow come to the conclusion that slavery is not okay, they will be confronted with a culture that will adamantly oppose that conclusion, and even go so far as to call it “Satanic” so as to rob it of all credibility. If people value their relationship with God, they’ll steer clear of anything considered “satanic” and their religious culture will have failed to guide them in the right direction. Moreover, their feelings of righteousness, and the confidence they will have in their amended conclusion (that slavery is okay) will be amplified by the culture that rewards them for it. They will have no way of knowing that God really does not like slavery, UNLESS they have the opportunity to immerse themselves in a culture that condemns slavery, or they become slaves themselves.

        So, to reiterate, when the Bible and the Church have failed to give us confidence, how are we supposed to know that our relationship with God is genuine, and is leading us in the right direction?

        1. I can’t give you one answer to your question, but I can give you three:

          1. At the most concrete level, I would argue that the most useful way to read the Bible (for a Christian) is to start from the words of Jesus as found in the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), and to interpret everything else in the Bible (including the letters of Paul, and the entire Old Testament) as if it were commentary on that message. That approach, in my experience, yields the best, most consistent moral guidance.

          2. At the most abstract level, there’s little else to do but acknowledge your concerns as a variant on the most intractable theological dilemma for anyone who believes in a Good and All-Powerful God — the “problem of evil.” Why is there evil in the world? Why is there evil in the church? Why do bad things happen? Why do good people make bad decisions? To my knowledge, there is no comprehensible, completely satisfying answer to this question –not for people of faith, and not really for people without faith either.

          3. In between the two extremes discussed above, the question becomes a pragmatic one –“what support is there for thinking that making moral decisions from a religious standing is better than making moral decisions without one (particularly in light of the fact that many very religious people have made many very morally bad decisions)?”

          From a purely existentialist standpoint on religion, there is no true meaning to morality outside of your own personal relationship with God. If you have that relationship, and if you cultivate it, you will be guided morally in life (although your perceptions and understanding of that guidance will not be infallible). The religious and moral claims made by other people, and the decisions, right or wrong, that they come to are relevant to your personal moral choices only in as much as they illuminate those choices. If a million churchgoers claim that their relationships with God tell them slavery is correct, that neither proves that slavery is correct nor that the million’s relationships with God are valid. If your own personal relationship with God tells you that slavery is wrong, then the consensus of the majority, church-endorsed though it might be, is irrelevant, and your responsibility to oppose that majority is made no less acute by the fact that they claim to serve the same God that you serve.

          If you don’t, in fact, have a personal relationship with God yourself, then the question largely becomes a statistical one. Is joining a church likely to give me good moral guidance? Is joining a particular church likely to bring me closer to God and/or make me a better person? Like most other things in life, it’s a bit of a gamble. I would argue that the Church’s overall moral record (some outstanding crimes notwithstanding) is actually very good, but I could certainly see there being room for argument on that point.

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