What does it mean if morality does not objectively exist?

This topic was being addressed in a thread that was inexplicably deleted, but I’m still interested in continuing the discussion.

So: can we behave morally if there is no such thing as an objectively true moral standard? Ignore for a bit the question of whether we can agree on what that standard might be, and just deal with the question I raised above.

Most people think of themselves as moral individuals: pretty much everyone has a moral code of some kind. The question is, is there any rational reason for having such a standard if morality exists only subjectively? As a practical matter it certainly makes sense to appear to follow the law and to be a “good” person, but appearing to be good and being good are not the same thing, especially if “good” itself is a meaningless attribute.

It appears to me that if right and wrong have no objective meaning then there is no reason to behave as if they did, which means that it makes no sense to have a moral standard. Why would I conform my behavior to a standard that doesn’t actually exist? Instead why shouldn’t I do whatever I perceive to be in my best interest, regardless of what that entails? As a practical matter I would want to appear like Dr. Jekyll, but in actuality I would want to act like Mr. Hyde.

Ender

Let me answer your question this way. Does beauty in any form have an objective standard? Does good music or good poetry have an objective standard? Does fine wine have an objective standard? Does good teaching or tutoring have an objective standard? I think the answer to these questions and many more similar to them is probably not. The standard is, after all, man-made. Yet we measure our preferences, our likes and dislikes, according to some standard, subjective though it may be, and react accordingly. I think the same can be said of morality.

Sounds very utilitarian …

Yes indeed beauty has an objective nature. Somebody may be “value blind” to say the beauty of this or that fine work of art or beauty of nature. That though does not mean that the beauty is not there and that there is not a right value response to it.

As to morality - there are objective truths that yes one must conform to - so as to live a moral life. Good and evil. And no the standard is not simply “man made”.

Yes, one of the criteria of beauty insofar as face research is concerned has been found to be an appreciation of symmetrical lines and forms, which appears to be a cross-cultural norm. Still, people do have different opinions regarding who they label as beautiful and who is average or ugly. I knew a woman many years ago who told me she thought a beautiful man had to have a touch of ugliness; otherwise, she thought he was too pretty, and therefore not really beautiful or handsome. In other words, judging the beauty of a face, a body, an animal, an object, a musical composition, a painting, a flavor, even a human life is, to some extent at least, in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. Might not the same be true in judging a moral behavior? Surely there are certain behaviors which virtually all normal people would consider either immoral or moral, black or white; but then there are also those gray areas in which people rely on their individual opinions, well- or ill-informed, shaped by their religious teachings and interpretations, their family upbringing, their cultural values, their prior life experiences, their educational awareness, their reasoning and logic, and, not least of all, their own personal conscience.

But I don’t want to argue this point. The purpose of this thread is to examine the implications of believing it does not exist. What would that mean? Yes, I too believe morality objectively exists, but a lot of people believe the opposite and their minds will not be changed simply by asserting they are mistaken.

So: let’s assume morality does not objectively exist and see where it takes us.

Ender

OK, but if we are justified in choosing heavy metal over Mozart in music then are we not equally justified in choosing stealing over giving in the matter of morals? If music and morals are only free personal choices with no intrinsic values associated with them then what is the argument that I should ever behave in a way that is not in my own best interest? Make the case that I should not steal, rape, or murder if I thought I could get away with it.

Ender

If there were no such thing as objective morality, then man would have no inherent dignity. If that were the case, then someone could go their whole life lying, cheating and stealing, they could commit adultery, drug a woman’s drink and rape her, they could ultimately murder over 6 million people in concentration camps and ultimately none of it would be of any more consequence than wiping the mud off of one’s shoes before they walk into the house.

Someone once said that if God doesn’t exist, then we sure better pretend that He does. How very, very true. In appreciating the beauty of the animal kingdom, we often overlook the brutal savagery that exist in it. Morality is the only thing that separates the two of us.

Very Guinan-esque.

But I think part of the issue is that it is extremely rare for a word, in any language, to have just one specific meaning without any even slight range or variation. For example, if I asked you for two “grey” objects it is unlikely that you would show me two things that were exactly the same color. But we would still call them both “gray” because it would be highly impractical to have million different words for different shades of grey.

If morality does not objectively exist, or more properly if moral objectivity does not exist, the only alternative is moral relativism. In moral relativism, an entire spectrum of morality is said to exist, and no single element of the spectrum is more or less licit than another. Result=war, pestilence, famine, and death. Because adherents, either sooner or later, would be in conflict with each other and with/within themselves. Moral relativism negates the formation of an upright conscience.

Conversely, if moral objectivity does exist, where is the Voice?

If you wish to discuss this topic, it is a good idea to define what does the word “morality” mean? I suggest the definition put forth in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/. It is quite verbose, but it can be summed up in a simple sentence: “The written and unwritten rules of socially acceptable behavior in a specific society at a specific time”.

Obviously these written and unwritten rules themselves exist objectively, but they are not the same in different societies and in different times. The written rules are usually codified into a legal system, which rules are enforced by some police and the judicial branch of the society. The unwritten rules are usually enforced by the informal acceptance or rejection by the members of society, which can be positive or negative. The negative assessment carries a “social stigma”, or “shunning”. If someone adheres to these rules, then she is called a “moral” person. If someone rejects these rules, she is usually called an “immoral” or “amoral” person.

This is the suggested definition.

But usually you cannot get away with it - precisely because you live in a society. There is no need for arguments. As they say, even the best arguments lose to properly wielded weapon.

On a desert island you can do whatever you want, in a society your freedom is curtailed. (Of course Christians say that you are never “alone”, God, Satan, the angels and the demons are always there. But that is irrelevant, since they are unable to substantiate their assertion.)

Yes, that’s a good point…

I suggest the definition put forth in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/. It is quite verbose, but it can be summed up in a simple sentence: “The written and unwritten rules of socially acceptable behavior in a specific society at a specific time”.

…but I don’t think this alone is a satisfactory definition. I think there are two definitions that may reasonably be used, one based on the assumption that morality exists objectively, and one that assumes it does not. An admittedly imprecise definition of the two would be this: morality is the extent to which an action is right or wrong, versus the extent to which an action is acceptable.

According to the first definition adultery would always be wrong, while according to the second it would be wrong only until it became popular enough to become generally acceptable at which point it would become right.

Obviously these written and unwritten rules themselves exist objectively, but they are not the same in different societies and in different times. The written rules are usually codified into a legal system, which rules are enforced by some police and the judicial branch of the society. The unwritten rules are usually enforced by the informal acceptance or rejection by the members of society, which can be positive or negative. The negative assessment carries a “social stigma”, or “shunning”. If someone adheres to these rules, then she is called a “moral” person. If someone rejects these rules, she is usually called an “immoral” or “amoral” person.

I understand this. It begs the question, however, as to whether a society can sustain itself when the public believes that there is no right or wrong, but only legal and illegal - or socially acceptable or not.

But usually you cannot get away with it [doing whatever you want regardless of the laws]- precisely because you live in a society. There is no need for arguments. As they say, even the best arguments lose to properly wielded weapon.

This actually seems unlikely; there simply aren’t enough police (forest rangers, tax inspectors, border patrol…) to catch all (or even most) of the miscreants that decide every day to ignore the laws. How well do you think they’d function if everyone was liberated by a moral code that justified stealing, cheating, and poaching?
*We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. *(John Adams)
You may reject his assertion, but I think we are on the verge of discovering whether or not he was right.

Ender

Oh

I will not then continue on that or respond further to the OP.

(I would rather not assume such though…nightmares that would mean…)

Since my religious tradition focuses more on behavior than it does dogma or philosophy, I will point out that the behavior of some people who think of themselves as righteous and holy human beings by virtue of their religiosity has sometimes left much to be desired, in modern, medieval, and ancient cultures. This less-than-righteous behavior even applies to leaders of the Catholic Church, as well as Protestant ministers, rabbis, imams, Buddhist monks, and so on. In some cases, atheists can be more virtuous than holy men if one evaluates them by their active behavior. I do not assume they are only seeking self-gratification because they do not believe in G-d.

Further, my religious tradition focuses more on positive behavior than negative behavior. But how many of us go out of our way or comfort zone to help others in need, even if we are not accusatory of their bad choices that may have gotten them into the dire conditions they currently face? And I do not mean merely quoting Biblical verses that command us to help our brethren, but performing actual deeds on behalf of others in our everyday lives. Again, it is my impression that many of us are more self-focused than other-focused. We are often quick to cast blame and slow to offer aid. And again, I am not sure that atheists have a monopoly on this kind of self-centered behavior, or what may be called sin by omission.

Sure. Simply claiming to believe in a moral system doesn’t mean a person will actually behave accordingly. I’m not trying to judge how people behave; I am discussing the arguments they use to justify their behavior, and whether or not those arguments are reasonable.

Further, my religious tradition focuses more on positive behavior than negative behavior.

This assumes you have a standard for distinguishing between positive and negative behaviors. That standard and your basis for holding it are what I would like to discuss.

But how many of us go out of our way or comfort zone to help others in need…

What reason is there for me to help someone in need unless it in some way benefits me? What is the argument for gratuitous charity?

Ender

To answer your last question, maybe because we all belong to the same human family. I do not believe that the only, or even primary, reason we help others is based on reciprocity. While some of us have that in mind, either an earthly or heavenly reward, I am sure that people help one another also because it is the right thing to do, apart from receiving something in return. That right thing is based on individuals’ moral and human values, which may or may not be largely influenced by their religious beliefs. And the same person may display inconsistencies in helping others, sometimes yes, other times no, despite their religious beliefs.

As an aside, helping behavior is one of the topics I teach in my social psychology classes. There are a multitude of situational theories concerning why and when we help or do not help, including evolutionary kin selection and protection, social-responsibility norm, time constraints, modeling others’ helping or non-helping behavior, diffusion of responsibility in large crowds, cost-benefit analysis, perception or lack of perception of others’ needs, and so on, not to mention personality and cultural influences on our (helping) behavior. We do not have to choose one theory: all of them probably play some role.

That makes no sense. You need a definition, and THEN you can investigate if the referent of the definition objectively exists or not. Of course there is no problem with the definition I presented. The OBJECTIVE existence of the rules and regulations is undeniable. What is problematic is the actual content of these rules. Adultery, cohabitation, abortion, violence and other “trifles” :wink:

How can you decide if an action is “right or wrong”? It is easy to decide if an action is legal or not; and also if the action is socially acceptable or not.

How can you decide if “adultery” is right or wrong? Moreover, the concept of adultery presupposes a certain kind of marriage. In the stone age there was no marriage, so there was no adultery.

Everywhere the society considers that legal and socially acceptable are “right”. Ours, too, and it can sustain itself. Of course there can be individuals who disagree. That disagreement may or may not carry certain consequences.

Why would “everyone” believe that? A handful of psychopaths and sociopaths thinks so, but the legal and judicial system can keep them in check.

Definitions are great, of course, but they only go so far. Googling “wrong” yields several definitions, the relevant one of which is:

unjust, dishonest, or immoral.
“they were wrong to take the law into their own hands”
synonyms: illegal, unlawful, illicit, criminal, dishonest, dishonorable, corrupt;

which I fine, but I don’t think it tells me anything I didn’t already know.

How can you decide if an action is “right or wrong”? It is easy to decide if an action is legal or not; and also if the action is socially acceptable or not.

It’s not always easy to decide if an action is “right or wrong”.

At the risk of bringing up unpleasant memories for myself, I’m reminded of something I read in school. Possibly from John Dewey but I’m not sure. One part talked about how the concept of a “chair” is developed … Long story short it’s not an easy matter to determine if something is a chair or not.

That is why I chose one, which is the derivative of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A definition cannot be a list of synonyms.

You are right, but that is a technical difficulty. Without a clear definition it is impossible to find out if an action is right or wrong.

Indeed. But a chair is not an action, it is an object. Nevertheless, this is a very good example to show that the concept of “essence” is sheer nonsense. Does not belong here, but good to point out.

I’m reluctant to agree and I’ll tell you why: because mostly what I’m seeing is language limitations.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.