Objective Morality

First, let’s define these two words:

ob·jec·tive
əbˈjektiv/
adjective

1. (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.
“historians try to be objective and impartial”
synonyms:    impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced, nonpartisan, disinterested, neutral, uninvolved, even-handed, equitable, fair, fair-minded, just, open-minded, dispassionate, detached, neutral
“I was hoping to get an objective and pragmatic report”

mo·ral·i·ty
məˈralədē/
noun

1. principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.
synonyms:    ethics, rights and wrongs, ethicality More

Together it is “A set of principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior that is not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.”

In other words, if you have a standard of morality that cannot be influenced by your own feelings, you can have objective morality.

My proposed standard:

1) Does the action cause unnecessary mental, physical or emotional suffering?

Note: some suffering is necessary and even good for us, such as the mental anguish a child “suffers” when denied a cookie. Yes, it is possible to objectively show giving the child the cookie would do more harm than good. i.e. too many sweets are bad for your teeth along with other possible health risks such as increased risk of diabetes.

One could argue about whether something is necessary or not, but good luck justifying how the harm caused to a rape victim might be necessary. One scenario might be “Rape the girl or the whole village dies.” But then the person making the threat would be the one acting immoral since the threat is really what is unnecessary and to be forced to make such a horrible choice is really just that…a horrible choice.

2) Does the action diminish the other person in some meaningful way?

Example: Stealing diminishes another person’s wealth, however, stealing from someone with an excess of resources likely won’t diminish the other person in a meaningful way and if the theft was to reduce suffering such as feeding your starving family, it can easily be argued that the theft was more moral than allowing your family to starve. A theft that doesn’t meaningfully diminish another, but equally doesn’t reduce the suffering of others, such as illegally downloading music, is unnecessary and thus can be said to do more harm than good.  I admit that there is some subjectivity to what constitutes “meaningful”, but I think it can be defined as “if it causes the person to suffer undue hardship”.

If the answer is “Yes” to either 1 or 2, it’s objectively immoral. It is difficult for personal feelings or preferences to rationally influence the answer, at least not in a way that can’t further be examined objectively to remove the personal bias.

Is God required to have objective morality? No, you just need a standard to compare the behavior to.

Sam Harris has a great TED talk discussing how science can answer moral questions. I recommend anyone with questions about this give it a go.

Until next time, keep drinking the Kool-Aid.

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4 thoughts on “Objective Morality

  1. Wil C. Fry

    “…if you have a standard of morality that cannot be influenced by your own feelings, you can have objective morality.”

    I suspect that when theists speak of “objective morality”, they’re not using the same definition of “objective” that you’ve quoted here, though this seems to be the most common meaning in all other contexts. Oxford, for example, lists the next definition as: “Not dependent on the mind for existence; actual.” Just as the Earth’s orbit is a matter of actual objective fact, regardless of the existence of humans, many (most?) theists believe morality is an actual objective fact in the Universe, with or without humanity’s opinion on the subject.

    And yes, I remember that you addressed this elsewhere too, and quite well, if I recall. You asked a theist whether *that* morality was subject to God’s whims or whether God was subject to that morality. If the former, then it’s still subjective (to God), and if the latter, then God isn’t omnipotent. (Something along those lines.)

    A theist, of course, would argue that it’s not quite so simple, that objective morality and God are kind of bound up together in one neat bundle, that it is part of God’s nature and therefore became part of the universe when he created it. (Which to me sounds like a baseless assertion arising from zero evidence for both God and its objective morality.)

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