Why There Is No Objective Morality
"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so"
-- William Shakespeare (Hamlet)
Some people claim that there are objective values. It could not have been wrong by Hitler to systematically murder 6 million Jews if there are no objective values, they say. Therefore, they argue, we should believe in the existence of an objective morality. What they fail to realize is that if there was an objective morality, it could as well have been morally correct by Hitler to do what he did. Those of us who oppose the killing may be wrong, and Hitler may have been right. At least this would be logically possible, while if there are no objective values, it could not have been right for Hitler to do what he did.
Apart from these arguments not being arguments for or against values being part of the fabric of the world, this is not to the point. If Hitler was right or wrong in killing 6 million Jews has nothing to do with it. These people would have been killed regardless of whether it was wrong or not. What would have mattered is if Hitler had thought it wrong to kill them, not whether it actually was so.
Different people who advocate the idea that there is some kind of objective morality do not seam to have the same meaning of the term. This makes these things difficult to discuss and perhaps the disagreement between me and them is not a disagreement in belief, but on the words we use to communicate our beliefs to others. Therefore I will start this essay by explaining what I mean by objective morality.
Definition of terms
By morality I mean opinions on what is good and bad. For example, I may say that to exterminate Jews without their concent is bad, and by that I mean that my opinion is that we should not kill Jews. A nazi, on the other hand, would say that killing Jews is very good, thereby giving his opinion that Jews should be killed. It is obvious that I and the nazi disagree on what is good, so we disagree on a moral subject.
Objective denotes something which exists regardless of whether there are beings who perceive it or not. For example, when a tree falls in the forest, it is an objective fact that the tree falls. Those who do not believe that the tree did fall may go there for themselves and look, and they will find out that the tree actually did fall. The word objective only makes sense when it is used for those things which affect reality. For example, if you don't believe that a tree is falling against you, the objective fact that it actually is will very soon make itself very clear to you. Thus an objective morality would be a morality which exists regardless of the existence of beings able to perceive it, and it would also leave its marks in reality. An objective morality, thus, would be empirically detectable.
Often objective morality is confused with absolute morality. I think the reason for confusing the terms is that the advocates of objective and/or absolute morality have not thought things over hard enough. They don't really know what they argue for, or it could be that they use the words differently from the way I use them. The way I use the word absolute, it refers to something that is objective and unchangeable. For example, the absolute truth is that in the decimal system 2+2 always equal 4. The equation 2+2=4 could be objectively true, but changeable so that tomorrow it is false and instead the equation 2+2=5 is true. But if it absolutely true, the answer will be 4 for all time. Thus an absolute morality would be a morality which is part of the fabric of the world and which is unchangeable.
The truthfulness of moral statements
Logical statements concerning the truth are correctly expressed as "it is true that p". For example, if I claim that the president of the USA anno 1998 was William "Bill" Jefferson Clinton, what I'm actually stating is that "it is true that in 1998, the president of the USA was Bill Clinton". If somebody says "I think every man has the right to wear arms" all he says is that it is true that he thinks so. He does not say anything about whether it actually is right, only that his opinion is such. Even if he is wrong, it is still true that he has this opinion.
Since it is quite impossible to know whether it is right or wrong to kill six million Jews, there is no foundation for the statement that it is true that it is right to kill Jews. We could not verify it empirically. If we could, it would be a task for science to find out what is right and wrong, but since we can't it is not a matter of fact, but of opinion.
But perhaps it isn't a matter of opinion after all? When it comes to scientific truth, it may not be possible to know the absolute objective truth either. Often science is describes as getting closer and closer to the truth, but not being able to find it perfectly. Perhaps it is the same with morality? This seems like an absurd idea to me. The reason is that when we talk about objective facts, we are referring to things which affect reality. If someone is throwing a hand grenade at me, it does matter, regardless whether I believe it or not, because when it explodes I will be severely injured. But would it make any difference whether it was right or wrong to kill six million Jews? Would the world look any different if the nazis were wrong than if they were right?
The way I use the words objective and morality, I cannot see how anything could be called objective morality. It is just an abstract construction without any relevance. It is meaningless. What affects the world is not if actions are right or wrong, but what results they have on reality.
So the term "objective morality" is a logical contradiction. Objective facts about reality are objective simply because they affect us whether we believe it or not, but this could never apply to moral values. Thus objective morality could not exist any more than square circles. The term is a logical contradiction and thus logically impossible.
Morality as subjective truth
But even if there is no objective morality, what can be said about moral statements? Wouldn't any discussion about morality be completely irrational without objective morality? Could a logical argument about morality be made? If we again look at how logical expressions are correctly expressed, we see that a statement on the nature of morality is of the kind "it is true that p". Thus when someone claims that "it is right to kill 6 million Jews" what he is claiming is a statement about the fabric of the world, by claiming that "it is true that it is right to kill 6 million Jews". Since there is no objective morality this is false (just as much as "it is true that it is wrong to kill 6 million Jews" is false).
Now, this seems to imply that there are no moral values at all, but that is not completely correct, because though moral values are not part of the fabric of the world, they exist in our minds. Even if there is no objective morality, it may be true that somebody believes that this-and-that is true. The belief may be false, but it is still true that the person holds this belief. Thus when somebody says "I believe that it was wrong by Hitler to kill 6 million Jews", he is expressing an objective truth (unless he is lying), because this is the same as saying "It is true that I believe it was wrong by Hitler to kill 6 million Jews". It is a statement about the person in question, not the fabric of the world.
Morality as subjective opinion
With this in mind, it seems that the moral nihilism I'm proposing has dangerous results. After all, it is our beliefs about morality and not the (hypothetical) objective morality in itself, which affects how we behave. Thus if more people were to know this, they wouldn't have any moral beliefs. Someone who previously believed that the killing of six million Jews was bad could be convinced that after all, it wasn't bad at all. (I wonder how long it will take before some theist quotes this paragraph out of context.)
But, ignoring for the time being that the previous paragraph is no argument against the truthfullnes of nihilism, it should also be noted that it is just as applicable for someone who believes that the killing of six million Jews was a good thing (which actually was what the German nazis believed). Thus it would lead to more humble people and less fanatism if more people were aware that there is no objective morality. This, however, isn't any argument in favor of the truthfulness of my stance. It only says that if it is true, then it would be a good thing if it was wider spread.
This last sentence may seem like a logical contradiction. If there are no values, how could it be good or bad to spread the kowledge about this when good and bad are in themselves values? The answer lies in the subjectivity of values. Even though values are not part of the world, and even if someone does not believe that they are, he may have an opinion on what is desirable of undesirable. For example, a nazi who was convinced that the killing of six million Jews was not right, may still desire it. Either for personal reasons, in which case his opinion would not have much to do with morality, or because he would find a higher value to it. This higher value would be his moral opinion, but it is important to realize that this has nothing to do with faith or belief, but with his personal opinion.
Thus, even though I don't believe that killing off 6 million Jews is a bad thing, I feal awful at the thought of it. I am detested by it, and find it undesirable. These are the underlying emotions which makes me think that it was bad to systematically murder 6 million Jews. I don't believe that it is true that this kind of killing is wrong, I have an opinion against it.
And... back again
I've just picked morality apart, now let's build it up again. Language is a tricky thing, and even though objective values are ontologically impossible, we can still make objective definitions of words. Even if we are aware that "nazis were wrong to kill 6 million Jews" is just our opinion and not a fact, it is possible to formulate the sentence as if it were a factual statement. If we by the expression mean, not that it is actually true that this-and-that is wrong, but that it is true that our opinion is that way, we may still use that kind of language. And I think that is what most people mean when they make statements about reality. Moral statements do not say much about the fabric of the world, but much about the person who utters them.
There is also the question of what we mean by the term moral. I can hardly believe that a normal human being would find the killing of 6 million Jews a good thing, unless he had been brainwashed by the nazi ideology. We all find certain things desirable and other undesirable. Thus it is likely that people will agree on fundamental opinions about what is right and wrong. As long as we are aware that these opinions are just our opinions, I think that we are justified in expressing them as if they were factual statements. To be honest, when you say that "this-and-that is wrong", don't you really mean that it is your opinion that it is?
However, it would decrease the risk of confusion if we admitted that it was our opinion, rather than stating it as if it was the objective truth. Thus we should avoid general statements about the fabric of the world, and instead express them as our opinions. That's my opinion.
Moral Objectivity is a kind of subjectivity
Another argument against the objectivity of values is that it is intrinsically contradictive. The reason is that moral objectivists treat moral judgements the same way they treat scientific facts. They stick to the most plausible explanation, they say, and change their minds when new facts arrive. The reason why this is contradicitive is that they give moral statements the same weight when deciding the truth as they do factual statements. The most obvious example is when they criticise moral subjectivism for leading to unpleasant results. For a moral subjectivist this would not be a problem, because how evil the truth is, it is still the truth, but to the moral objectivist, an evil truth can not be true, because it is morally wrong. If it is morally wrong it is false according to moral objecticvist, and hense scientific or philosophical explanations should be discarded if they are judged to be undesireable -- thus moral objectivism is in the end one of the most extreme subjectivisms.
This is the exact kind of thinking pseudoscientists such as the lysenkoists in the soviet union, racists and creationists. They all have a pre-concieved idea of what is good, and this idea leads them to reject solid scientific facts and to invent their own "facts" to suit their political agenda. One of the most common arguments against evolution from creationists is that if evolutionary theory was true, then it would have bad consequenses for morality -- the exact same argument many moral objectivists have against the subjectivity of values. They commit the same fallacy and this they do for exactly the same reason. How evil they think evolution of moral subjectivism is is not to the point, because that has nothing to do with the truthfullness of the theory.
In the Soviet Union they had a problem with the laws of heredity proposed by Mendel, because they thought it was against marxist theory. While Mendel explained that evolution proceeded by a selective process in which the least productive species are replaced by more successful ones, the bolsheviks thought that the main cause of evolution was that the weak were strengthened by harsh conditions and that acquired qualities could be inherited to the offspring. Thus evolutionary scientists were sent to Siberia and a man by the name of Lysenko was put in charge of the Academy of Agricultural Science with disastrous results for Soviet agriculture. That is the result of disguising subjectivism as objectivism.
Of course, that moral objectivism leads to bad consequenses is not a problem for a moral subjectivist, because as I stated above, that a position is bad does not make it false. However, since moral objectivism claims that moral values are objective the conclusion of a moral objectivist would be either that these consequenses are desireable, or that moral objectivism is in itself bad, and therefore contradicts itself. According to the laws of logic, a contradiction is always false, so this would make moral objectivism false according to its own premises.
The obvious conclusion of this essay is that we must take personal responsibility for what we allow to be the motives of our actions. We can't blame it on "objective morality", or that we were only doing our duty. If a nazi says that killing 6 million Jews is right, it says nothing about the fabric of the world, and everything about himself.
Additionally, moral objectivism is a kind of subjectivism where opinion is confused with, and given the same weight as, scientific facts. The result is all kinds of pseudoscience, which in some cases have had disastrous consequenses for entire nations. This is a problem for the moral objectivist, because the only possible conclusions from those consequenses is that either they are desireable, or moral objectivism is false.
Further reading concerning objective morality
- J. L. Mackie, Ethics (inventing right and wrong), Penguin Books 1977
- Lars Bergström, Grundbok i värdeteori, 2:a upplagan, Thales 1997
- Frederick Edwords, The Human Basis Of Laws And Ethics - explains why theism cannot defend an objective absolute morality, and how a Humanistic morality may be justified
- Albert Einstein, Morals and Emotions - Explains why we behave morally, what Einstein consider to be a good moral conduct and why.
- Albert Einstein, Why socialism? - Contains a discussion on altruism and egoism
- Julian Huxley, Heredity East and West - Soviet genetics and world science - About the Lysenko controversy.
- Julian Huxley, The New Divinity - A good introduction to Huxley's philosophy.
- Answering to Moral Nihilism, by Francois Tremblay - A page that purports to respond to my essay. (As far as I'm concerned, the author misses the target, but please read it and decide for yourself.)
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Created: Saturday, April 03, 1999
Last update: Monday, May 08, 2006