Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Do objective moral values really exist? Is moral relativism true?

Neil Shenvi has written an article about it on his apologetics web page.

Thesis:

Do objective moral values exist? Many people in our culture today would say that they do not. Morality, says the moral relativist, is constructed by individuals or societies; what is moral for you might not be moral for me. In contrast, the claim of moral realism is that there are objective moral values which specify concepts like good and evil, right and wrong, and which transcend cultures and individuals. To my surprise, I found very little information on the Internet presenting evidence for moral realism, in spite of the fact that it is the majority position of academic philosophers. Although I do believe that we can have immediate personal knowledge through our conscience that objective moral values exist, I believe that there are also several pieces of objective evidence to support this position. Indeed, my claim is that we have many good reasons to believe that objective moral values exist and few -if any- reasons to believe that they do not exist.

In the first section of this essay I will explain what we mean by “objective moral values.” I will also emphasize the difference between moral ontology and moral epistemology, and between moral ontology and moral behavior. In the second section, I will present a positive case that objective moral values exist. I hope to show that there are many good reasons to accept the existence of objective moral values. In the third section, I will do something far less theoretical and far more personal; I will try to show that every one of us knows that objective moral values do exist but is surpressing this knowledge. And in the final section I will try to show why we are attracted to moral relativism despite its implausibility.

Outline:

[L]et’s look at the five pieces of evidence that objective moral values exist. If objective moral values exist and we can intuitively perceive them, this hypothesis explains five pieces of empirical evidence

  1. Nearly universally across human cultures, there exist the same basic standards of morality. In addition, there exist in all cultures truly altrustic acts which lead to no personal or genetic benefit.
  2. The majority of people who explicitly deny the existence of objective morality still act as if objective morality exists.
  3. There exists a nearly universal human intuition that certain things are objectively right or wrong.
  4. The majority of philosophers recognize the existence of objective moral facts.
  5. Many naturalists (like Sam Harris or Shelley Kagan) affirm the existence of objective moral facts, despite the problems inherent in grounding these facts in the natural world.

And more:

As I said in the first section, the basic premise of moral relativism is that there is no objective standard of moral behavior. All moral behavior is relative to individual persons or cultures; what is “good” or “bad” depends on the person, on the place and time, on the community, and on the culture. No action and no behavior can rightly be termed “bad” or “good” without qualification. Actions are only “good to you” or “bad to you”, “good to this culture” or “bad to this culture.” In the previous section, I tried to show that –based on the evidence– belief in moral relativism is unwarranted. It is theoretically possible to find ways around the evidence presented above, but each of these pieces of evidence seems to clearly point to the existence of objective moral values. In this secion, I will not attempt to show that belief in moral relativism is unwarranted; rather, I will try to show that no one actually believes in moral relativism. To do so, I will ask four questions. Each of them centers around a “thought experiment,” a highly hypothetical situtation which probes our reactions to admittedly unlikely circumstances. I urge the reader to take these questions very seriously.

The moral argument is probably the most intuitive and accessible argument for theism, with the possible exception of the cosmological argument.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 Responses

  1. Neil Shenvi says:

    No comments? I was hoping for feedback.

  2. I wrote a massive rebuttal but in the end I think only a few points are needed.

    (a) Moral Realism doesn’t implicitly require a belief in any higher being.

    (b) Objectivity is possible within a subjective system.

    (c) The evidence as to an OMS across societies throughout history is questionable at best and somewhat risible at worst.

    (d) Social behaviours throughout history are better explained by system modelling.

    (e) The case for Altruism is more comprehensively explained by other means.

    (f) Moral relativity doesn’t necessarily mean that an individuals morals are fluid.

    (g) Moral relativism is somewhat more complicated that your straw man argument claims.

  3. Neil Shenvi says:

    theasymmetricalkid,
    Thanks for the response. First, let me clear up something quickly. You wrote: “(a) Moral Realism doesn’t implicitly require a belief in any higher being.” But my essay only address P2 of the moral argument (OMVs exist) not P1 (If God does not exist, OMVs do not exist). That’s why I don’t spend any time discussing or defending P1.

    As to your other comments, I’d need to see more. For instance, you wrote “(b) Objectivity is possible within a subjective system.” But wouldn’t this violate the law of the excluded middle? Moral propositions are either objective or not-objective (A or not-A). Are you claiming that they can somehow be both? You also wrote: “(e) The case for Altruism is more comprehensively explained by other means.” Could you elaborate on these ‘other means’? If you are arguing for some form of group selection, could you explain how you solve the ‘free rider’ problem and what evidence you have that this solution actually occurred in human history?

    If you posted your response somewhere, could you link to it? I would be interested to read it.
    -Neil

  4. jweaksnc says:

    Is/Ought problem… no way to escape it. Either there are objective, absolute moral values (ethics) or there are no real morals at all, just desires, whims, and temporary agreements.

  5. Jared says:

    Wow, I don\’t remember seeing this post WK. It must have been when I was studying very hard for the Network+ exam. Anyway, this is an excellent post.

    the difference between moral ontology and moral epistemology, and between moral ontology and moral behavior.

    This is what I attempt to do when I discuss morality with non-theistic persons. Kagan for example, stays in the area of moral behavior and doesn\’t get into moral meta-physics or moral ontology (he doesn\’t in his debate with Craig anyway), which is something I wish Craig would have or could have whipped Kagan with.

    Here is a good chart to go by: http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/meta-theory-applied.png

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