Sunday, April 10, 2011

Morality Is Not Objective

Morality, the intrinsic sense of right and wrong, is not objective. If there were a single fount of morality then surely we would be able to trace it back to the head. Our connection to that fountainhead would necessarily correlate to our morality. That's not what we see in churches. That's not what we see in mixed (secular and non-secular) society. And that's not what we see in cultures largely untouched by Abrahamic faiths. Morality is the adhesive between social creatures in the struggle for finite resources. Sometimes we cooperate. Sometimes we compete. Usually we do both.

It is a balancing act between perceived self interest, varying degrees of loyalty to various group with which we self-identify (in-groups) and perceived out-groups. In any given situation we have to consider what is best for our self, what is best for our group(s) (family, employer, political party, nation, denomination, neighborhood, etc.) and what forces or entities encroach on our self- or group-interest. This is the way of all social creatures.

But this is a motivator that works primarily at an emotional level. And like most emotions, reasoning beings can intellectually overrule their feelings. Well, theoretically. When resources become more available at the self level we tend to be more charitable to the group. When resources become more available at the group level we tend to expect to benefit personally. When we and our group are doing well we tend to be less hostile to minor encroachment. So too do we reduce our hostility to out-groups when we recognize they are merely a more remote extension of our in-groups.

In addition to the emotional responsibility we feel toward our groups we can also understand and appreciate the benefits of an official civil structure based on codified ethics, rules and laws. While these go hand-in-hand with morality and tend to serve similar functions they are artificial constructions, both extragenic and extrinsic.

If we want to credit a capricious ghost in the sky for our morality (intrinsic selfless social responsibility) but not our selfishness we still have to speculate where that selfishness came from. Assuming we were created, and the god did not put selfishness in us, where did that extra ingredient come from? Were there more fingers in the pie than were reported in the Judeo-Christian creation myths? God and divine creation are very poor explanations for the visceral gymnastics we experience when our various interests are in conflict.

Apologists argue that without an objective source there can be no morality, or perhaps that it is meaningless or that there can be no true justice. But morality is not something that comes to us, it is something that comes from us. It is a balance of interests which are ultimately self-interest. It may seem counter-intuitive to credit self-interest for the creation of morality and selflessness. It may seem vulgar to think that our finest examples of humanity are merely extensions of our basest drives. Though the idea may be hard to stomach, it is staring back at us with pedantic patience. Morality is an intrinsic emotional balancing of often conflicting personal interests in a social environment. While Creation skips over the creation of selfishness, evolution explains both selfishness and selflessness, lo, they are the same.

If everything we could ever need or desire were infinitely available, there would be no competition for resources. Nor would there be an evolutionary selection force for cooperation, other than reproduction. But even reproduction is a need/desire.

When I first recognized that I was no longer a theist I came to the conclusion that morality is a lie and that we need rely only on ethics. Some years later I realized that ethics is a construct that we build. Ethics are cultural and intellectual. And yet even children have an innate sense of justice when objectively observing social exchanges. While they may not be able to articulate why something is fair or unfair, but they are good at identifying injustice when they are a disinterested third party. When they are not disinterested, they tend to make excuses favoring their self or their friend/family.

My first guess is that we are using the term "morality" to represent two different but similar and overlapping ideas. Traditionally, morality is an system of conduct based on ideas of absolute right and wrong. Additionally, such a code of morality is or was typically ascribed as divine edict. That which is permissible by that doctrine is moral. That which is forbidden by that doctrine is immoral. There is also the common belief that morality is ingrained in us by supernatural authority as a sense of right an wrong.

In the absence of divine authority "ethical" and "unethical" should carry the same weight as "moral" and "immoral". Yet they do not. Why is that? What is the difference between ethics and morality? If "morality" deserves more weight than "ethics" we should be able to say why.

When we speak of morality we tend to suppose that good and bad, right and wrong are absolute (or nearly so) and must be recognized. We seem to be appealing to an inescapable source of discernment. When we speak of ethics we are never referring to an innate sense of right and wrong, rather mutually accepted rules for civility or specific activities. Ethics tend to be based on common values. These values are not arbitrary or prescribed. These values are the description of what most people feel intrinsically about what is good or bad, right or wrong. It is not a matter of what is believed, understood or reasoned. It is a matter of what is felt. Is there a word for this raw, unreasoned, pre-intellectual, intuitive, subjective sense of what is good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust?

What is that word?

I use the label "morality" for that unreasoned sense which is within us as the foundation of social responsibility. If we had another word for it I would use it happily. It is unfortunate that we do not. The traditional definition of morality as a moral code of conduct leaves the subject wide open to the theist's favorite tool of misinformation: the equivocation.

Where I describe morality as "an intrinsic emotional balancing" I refer to that innate feeling of right and wrong that triggers our conscious intellectual consideration of what is right and wrong. In this sense morality is not our end judgment, not our conclusion of what is right and wrong, but rather our initial motivation (in any given situation) for considering what is best.

Before we devote any objective reasoning to a "moral" or ethical question, it is likely that the more subjective regions of the brain have already assigned values to the variables.


  1. Even theists can't claim an "objective" morality for their deity. Supposedly certain things will earn you a trip to Hell, but then all is forgiven by Christ, so what the Hell?

    I think we need to remember that most people need to have an intrinsic morality for the species to survive, but not all. There will be outliers that can't or won't play by the same rules. The psychological term is "anti-social" which is very apt. So the rest of the social group will try to restrain the outliers, which I think is the origin of supernatural ideas of punishment. We won't catch all murderers, rapists or arsonists but we get comfort from believing they'll "get theirs" someday.

    Great essay.

  2. Apologists and theocrats operate under the assumption that morality is and needs to be an external force.

    Just looking at dictionary definitions for "morality" there are several similar but distinct definitions. It is too easy to use one definition to rationalize a broader or different perspective of "morality."

    The "objective" in "objective morality" is just one more opportunity for equivocation. I didn't even consider that until I'd finished this essay. I may look at that (or equivocation in general) in a latter essay. But when reviewing apologists arguments regarding "objective morality" it's not hard to see they equivocate "objective" as well as "morality." That is to say, they use one definition of "objective" to rationalize a broader or different definition of "objective."

    Thanks for reading. I have enjoyed your insights at