Is there objective morality in the Universe?

I received a number of emails about the Harris vs Craig debate, and I thought it would be fun if we had a forum to discuss a question that’s been on my mind since listening to the debate: does objective morality exists?

We’ll start with one of the letters I got from a fan of the show:

Hi there TGA,
I just thought I’d say that I really enjoyed the debate you posted between Sam Harris and Something Craig. However, as an atheist I was surprised to find that I was disappointed by Sams showing. It seemed to me that he spent most of his time rehashing arguments he’d made at previous talks rather than addressing the statements made by Professor Craig. Specifically, I felt that the Prof adopted an almost pantheist or deist framework, refusing to acknowledge the sectarian beliefs we all know he holds, while Sam spent the debate firing heavy artillery at those very sectarian contentions, thereby missing Craig’s assertions entirely.

There are a lot of flaws in Craig’s argument that weren’t discussed and it’d go along way in satisfying my urge to shake some sense into him, in a way sam didn’t, if you’d address them in your next podcast.

Before I talk about this on the podcast, I think it’s important for me to say that I’m not entirely convinced there is such a thing as “objective morality” in the Universe. That’s not to say I don’t believe in right or wrong; I’m just not convinced there’s any empirical evidence to suggest human morality is somewhat built on the premise certain actions are Universally wrong and Universally right outside our own species.

So I’m presented with a bit of a dilemma: while I think Craig’s argument – this objective morality is grounded in the concept of a morally perfect God – fails to address a number of issues, Sam similarly fails in my view to demonstrate how an objective morality exists outside of our own framework.

Still, I haven’t yet read his book, and his argument may be simply incomplete. So while I try and spend the next few days securing and analyzing his tome, I want your opinions on whether you think objective morality in fact exists!

Comments (23)

  • avatar

    shillyer

    Haris, in his book, falls into the same problem he gets into in the debate. He just starts at human flourishing is good, and goes from there. But, there is no argument to believe his first premises, and I don’t think that there can be one. But, god doesn’t fix the problem because of the Euthephro dilema. So we are stuck. People need to be okay with the fact that there are no objective morals. But we have the same problem with a bunch of things.

  • avatar

    Bradley Blackmere

    Morality cannot be objective, but that’s not the same as saying that it is real.

    Let us take a sentient alien species that frequently has non-consensual sex, and lets say that this rape has no adverse psychological or social harms for this species, and causes no suffering… then clearly there is not a moral harm occurring. No suffering was caused, nor is any suffering likely to spin off from this behavior. This doesn’t mean that rape isn’t still morally wrong in a human context. Sam’s argument doesn’t rest on some external objective moral right and wrong, but rather rests on the far more pragmatic assertion that societies and behaviors that cause less suffering and more well being are better organized, and therefore more moral, than societies and behaviors that cause more suffering and less well being.

    It’s the same principle that allows us to study the subjective property of “Love” even though a “love” gene or chemical cannot be directly measured. You simply observe a subjective physical phenomenon, in this case, well-being, and can then make objective statements about what promotes or detracts from this state.

    @shillyer Harris directly addresses your concern both in his book, and in this debate. Any argument, regardless of what it is about, will start from some unsupportable first principles, which must stand on their own merit. In this case I think his a priori assertion “that the worst possible suffering for the greatest possible number is bad” is a perfectly reasonable place to build from.

  • avatar

    Noah Sandler

    There might be some higher level discussion of “objective” vs “subjective” that I’m missing. I get the feeling that some people see “objective” as meaning easy to understand, free of context, and not debatable. I see objective as being something that could be definitively stated as being true given perfect information. Meaning that a lack of agreement on a subject does not make it “not objective.”

    I think that with perfect information, there is nothing subjective about how an act affects reality, and how choosing between a fixed set of possible actions can alter future realities in logical ways. So once a baseline principle is set, that only conscious beings can “care” about existence, and that the worst possible existence for all is inferior to any other reality, then you can admit that making moral decisons is a complicated but ultimately logical and objective activity. It’s possible that “well-being of conscious beings” is somewhat of an argument from ignorance, but I don’t see Sam claiming that his definition is the ultimate one rather than a very plausible starting point. Science itself is based on a set of underlying principles about observation and logic.

    The problem with moral relativists is that first they claim that there is no starting point possible for morality, and then they go further and claim that therefore all solutions are just as viable. That’s just as much bullshit as “we don’t know what the first cause was and therefore god did it is just as viable as a multiple universe hypothesis. People like that need to be excluded from the discussion. There is a limited number of viable starting points, and once you pick one all further decisions are completely objective.

  • avatar

    Michael Sizer

    How hard is it for people to understand. Harris clearly states in his book that once we admit that moral principles are based in the well being of conscious creatures, there is no other option but scientific means to determine moral principles. It’s driving me friggin insane that everyone is saying “but why is wellbeing important?” WTF??

  • avatar

    Eric

    I think there is an objective morality, that is to say, one conception of morality that would produce ideal circumstances. It is true that many different cultures and countries have different conceptions of morality they practice, the the different between them is only their beliefs about morality. There is a large difference between morality and beliefs about morality. For example, slavery nowadays seen as immoral, but there was a time when it was accepted by some people as a normal practice. Did morality change? No, our beliefs about morality changed.

  • avatar

    Jacob Fortin

    ^ Mike, I think it stems from the fact that we want the fewest possible axioms that we must accept as “true”, similar to the way people try to create mathematical proofs. I think, however, the solution is unsatisfying, since like Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, you can never really prove something without relying on at least one other axiom. You have to eventually decide on the fewest possible, so perhaps these people are simply wishing for this

  • avatar

    Mike

    “That’s not to say I don’t believe in right or wrong; I’m just not convinced that there’s any empirical evidence to suggest that human morality is somewhat built on the premise that certain actions are Universally wrong and Universally right outside our own species.”

    With all due respect I do not think that is what Sam Harris is describing.

    His idea of objectively morality as measured by the well being of conscious creatures is simply predicated on the idea of that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad (objectively), and that any improvement in the well being of conscious creatures over that is by definition better. In accepting this, and seeing that it leads to a continuum of well being, we then have an objective way of measuring the morality of actions based on how they impact the well being of conscious creatures.

    I also don’t think he’s saying that human morality is in some intrinsic way actually based on this idea, rather he is saying that this is the way in which we *should* think about morality and moral questions (and hence why religion is so wrong on most important moral issues). Morality should be judged as the impact to the well being of conscious creatures, and that this is something to which science can contribute.

    Mike

  • avatar

    Mike

    Oh and his retort to people who cannot support the axiom on which this is all based – the importance of well being of conscious creatures – is interesting.

    All other branches of science have at some base level unscientific values as axioms, and that requiring a science of morality to be above other branches is science is changing the rules of the game.

    And, specifically with respect to those axioms – if someone does not value logic, what logical argument can you give that would convince them? And if someone does not value evidence, what evidence can you provide that would convince them?

    When it comes to morality, how can you respond to someone that does not value the well being of conscious creatures? There might be nothing scientific in valuing the well being of conscious creatures, but a science of morality built on top of it does not and should not need that axiom itself to be scientific.

    Or something like that ;-)

    Mike

  • avatar

    Courtney

    I was dissapointed by the book (partly as I had such high hopes). Harris does make a good case that if well being is the goal then it is scientificly possible to know the right and wrong answer or action in any scenario, so I think these ideas really should be explored further. It has massive potential to illuminate the world and shed stupid laws and tollerance to backwardness.

    The really annoying part is he frames it entirely the wrong way. To say science can or should provide an answer as to what action in some specific situations would provide more well being is fine (he does use this approach at times). My main problem with it is that it seems to use the word ‘moral’ for ‘what gives the most well being to conscious creatures.’ It seems to give undue importance to whe well being of conscious beings. Should we be able to destroy ecosystems if there are no conscious beings therein and it would benefit conscious beings not in it?

    Having said all that I don’t think that there is a problem with having objective morality. Of course morality isn’t some etherial substance but rather a measurement, sort of like mathematics. We don’t have a concrete definition of what “morality” is. In truth what we think is moral is generally what WE think is right. In short a good moral is “the right thing.” This of course means nothing as it requires no explanation as to why ‘the right thing’ is the right thing but by it any religious or irational rule is perfectly valid to be called a ‘moral.’

    What then is wrong with saying whats moral is that which provides the most well being for living beings, conscious beings being the most important? ‘Moral’ isn’t a supernatural quality, it’s just a word currently with a wishy washy definition reliant on personal belief. Why not change the definition to a question that can be universally scientifically tested and applied regardless of what imaginary friend you have or havent got, where in the world you live, what year it is, whether or not you are charismatic or famous. Something that relies on a dose of science instead of faith.

    Hmm, I seem to have acidentally converted myself. In conclusion you should get Sam on the show!

  • avatar

    BlueIndependent

    I don’t think objective morality is possible, at present, and maybe never, because reality is changing in such a way that things that are considered moral now won’t be later, as has been the trend for thousands of years now. We’re reducing the immoral things, but will we ever be free of them? Doubtful. And technology continually raises moral questions for us, so something that isn’t moral now, might be later. We can’t predict either way. To assume moral objectivity is to assume that morality will reach a point where absolutely nothing about the system changes, and that’s just not how the universe with humanity in it works.

    The closest humanity can come is to try different moral systems across different societies, and slowly evolve the best possible one for the widest segment of the population. And like the scientific process, the closest we can get to objectivity is interpersonal review and widespread acceptance after testing and verification. I think that is a solid system given what we have available to us, however tolerant of evil it may still be.

    WLC’s use of the word “objective” – or any other theist’s for that matter -is nothing more than window dressing on their moral system. Their god’s morality is subjective whether he/she/it created the universe or not. He even said the “character” of god. Euthyphro shows this. If god is telling us what is moral because he says so, it’s by definition subjective; if he’s the messenger, then true objectivity might be possible. Now I don’t think WLC thinks his god is merely a character in a story, but the point is that he is imparting something human upon this god thing. Additionally, WLC is subjectively judging his god’s morality to be objective, which makes the morality subjective anyways, because some humans have decided to practice it or versions of it.

  • avatar

    Kyle

    In the debate, Harris briefly made what I thought was a brilliant analogy and I wished he’d expaneded upon it as I think it may have made is position a bit easier to grasp. I’m about half-way through the book right now, so I don’t know if the comparison is in there, but it really should be.

    What Harris did was to compare society to the human body.

    No one worth paying attention to would dispute that science can be used to determin what is best for the body. And, while I think it’s obvious that we still have a lot to learn about exactly how to achieve the best possible health for everyone, it’s only through scientific inquiry that we might possibly achieve such a thing.

    Society can be looked at as a body of sorts. It’s a serries of interconnected systems which functions as a whole.

    So, if scientific inquiry can be used to discover what is required to achieve the best possible health for one group of interconnected systems (the body), than why not another (society)? And if science can be used to discover how to achieve the greatest possible well-being for everyone, than can we not say that actions which bring us closer to that goal are moral, and actions which detract from it are immoral?

    It makes sense to me.

    To perhaps strain the analogy a bit further, a doctor would not declare a patient healthy if everything else — heart, liver, lungs, eyes, etc. — checked out fine, but he was spewing blood from his anus. Just as we would not declare it moral for the majority of conscious beings to thrive thanks to the abject suffering of a minority.

    Also, Harris allows for the idea that there might be multiple peaks on the moral landscape. Which is to say that it’s entirely reasonable to believe that we might learn that the way to achieve the greatest possible good for everyone does not apply universally, that what works for one group might be completely different for another, as in the hypothetical example Bradley Blackmere presents above. What can work to help achieve the best possible health in one body might not work for another. My cousin is near deathly allergic to berries and tomatoes. I eat a large amount of both because they’re full of tastey, tastey phytochemicals.

    So, yes, I agree with Harris’ position

  • avatar

    Scott Parrish

    I Haven’t read the book yet, but I have a few thoughts.

    The first is this. Until we meet another sentient race we can communicate with well enough to share ideas and concepts, Universal means all of us. We can’t wait until we do hear from Spock, we have to move forward and be prepared to backtrack when hailing frequencies are opened.

    Math is built on a tremendous structure based on a solid base of a few axioms and theorems. But we didn’t know what all of those axioms and theorems were, until well after we were doing various types of math.

    So why can’t Harris’ starting place be good enough for now. We can start looking at what an objective morality is, based on that standard, now, without all of the base definitions being defined. Even if we completely throw out the first definition and have to start all over again, so what? we will have learned much in the process, and the next iteration will be better for us having done it.

    His first principle sounds pretty good to me, let’s go from there and see what happens. When new data shows up, we’ll do what every good scientist does and reevaluate our ideas then.

  • avatar

    L.Long

    I have found that all ‘morality’ is completely relative.
    For every instance of ‘absolute morality’ I can find an exception. Or at least so far I have.

  • avatar

    Noah Sandler

    Ecosystems are only important to morality if they benefit conscious beings in some way. If an unconscious ecosystem could bring about consciousness in a billion years, then it would affect conscious well-being and would deserve moral consideration. Anything that isn’t conscious cannot care about anything. If consciousness could never occur, existence would be entirely meaningless.

    This doesn’t mean that we should destroy our environment because that would directly affect the experience of conscious beings. Sam’s “objective morality” isn’t really a guide to figuring out moral problems. Most moral situations outside of a vacuum are incredibly difficult to solve if not currently impossible. To know if a decision is morally correct you would need to have god-like powers to see the future, know all percentages for every occurence, have perfect logical skills etc… But just because we don’t have those powers doesn’t mean that there aren’t logical ways to estimate the effects of a decision.

    There’s never going to be an answer like “rape is always wrong” ever. Every time a conscious mind makes a choice between a finite set of possibilities, the effects of each choice on every conscious being need to be weighed. There will always be an objectively correct answer or equivalent answers every time a conscious being makes a decision. These answers will definitely change over time as 1. more evidence is compiled on cause-effect 2. the society changes in a way that the action will have different consequences.

    For example, I could flick off a stranger today and they might be offended. But in the future, it might become a friendly gesture and might become the morally correct action. But even if that changes, it was still wrong to do today based on the available evidence.

    This is different from a moral relativist stance which might refuse to condemn parents beating children because it may be morally acceptable in other cultures. While it is possible that there are instances where beating a child could be beneficial, people who tend to do so are being ignorant of the effect it may have on general well-being. They aren’t doing the moral math correctly and are making decisions based on bad evidence. As outsiders we can do the math ourselves, and should judge accordingly.

  • avatar

    shillyer

    response to bradley

    The “first principles” in Harris’s pragram are more contentinous than any other thing in philosophy. It is very easy to come up with a situation where “the worst for the greatest number” is a good thing. Imagine 99.9% have a contagious deadly disease. 100 percent deadly. we should burn all of them. and that seems pretty bad for all of those people. but I think that that is prob the right thing to do.

    Harris’s starting point is by no means commonly accepted. he should give stronger defense.

  • avatar

    shillyer

    sorry about the typos

  • avatar

    shillyer

    As wittgenstein says “give me one moral truth” while he threatens Carl Popper with a fire poker.

  • avatar

    Tim

    Mortality mostly is a human construct/idea and as such I normally dont consider it objective.

    However I agree with Sam Harris to a degree that some morality is objective as demonstrated in his causing the maximum pain or happiness to concious entities.

    I’ve only watch the first half of the debate, but I couldn’t believe Craig got away with the assertion that a God would be the ultimate good. He just appears to correlate Good being defined by Authority not morals.

  • avatar

    Darren Taggart

    Morality is not objective; I doubt anyone would assert it is universal and independent of the observer.
    I could see that it could be asserted reasonably that there are elements which necessarily follow from a premise that for a social species to evolve and survive certain behaviours are likely to be favoured, but then extending this beyond ‘don’t kill me’ and ‘don’t take my food’is a bit fatuous.

    Hume’s is/ought gap is in no danger of being bridged. We cannot infer from observations about how things are anything about how they ‘ought’ to be. It is entirely up to humanity to decide what is good and valuable and that’s a good thing because it means things can change. The assertion that all pain is bad is incorrect; the s&m fan might take a subjective view!

    There’s also the ‘so what?’ in all of this. If it were proved that morality was in fact objective, so what? If it turned out that making another species extinct for example wasn’t immoral, how would we react? I think there would still be people who disagreed and you would need to show from fundamental principles and there is nothing fundamental about morality; you could not isolate it from humanity. You cannot detect it on mars for example.

    Conservation of momentum/energy and the speed of light in a vacuum are objective, universal principles. Morality isn’t even universal on earth; that should be enough to suggest that what ever it is, objective it ain’t!

  • avatar

    Bradley Blackmere

    @shillyer

    We do all have a contagious and deadly disease. It’s called aging. Are you suggesting that because of this framework that there’s no point working toward a better life? Your argument seems to reveal you as morally blind and nihilistic.

  • avatar

    Mike

    Sam Harris has chosen to respond directly to criticisms of his debate with Craig http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-god-debate/

  • avatar

    OE

    There is a book “Cult of Freedom & Ethics of Public Sphere” that shows and proves that there could be the only one possible true objective ethics (OE). This ethics is objective in the sense that its source is in objective reality independent of any possible moral actor. Objective ethics is the basis for actions of and relations between any intelligent beings not connected personally. It has nothing to do with religion, traditions or science. The foundations of OE are purely metaphysical although its practical norms are found and formed through a trusted fair contract between free moral actors. However, OE is not based on contract. Rather it is contract that based on this ethics. Universal common ground for consensus is freedom, and in order to achieve it OE demands the elimination of all forms of violence, coercion, oppression, influence and the like that may violate free expression of the will. Therefore OE leads humanity to a free and just society that is a moral alternative to the modern oppressive order. OE brings no practical benefits, goods or utility, and its ultimate goal is absolute freedom even if it is unreachable.

    There is also a site dedicated to objective ethics – http://ethical-liberty.com. It is based on the book and presents all of the important ideas. Thanks.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to top