Countering Arguments Against Objective Morality

We've had a lot of debate over the nature of morals recently. I noticed some confusion relating to definitions and those arguing for subjectivity are holding any theory of objective morals to a much higher standard than other sciences. I do not intend to present a complete theory of morality. I will tackle that after I've created and defended a theory of quantum relativity. In other words, not at all.

The first bit of confusion arises from placing deontology opposite consequentialism, when there is nothing saying that a moral theory cannot be both. A valid moral theory should ultimately stand up to both logical and empirical arguments, as any valid scientific theory should. A number of physical phenomena have been observed only because a deductive approach predicted the existence of that phenomena, and a fair number of phenomena have shown bad logic in deductive theories. The next bit of confusion results from connecting consequentialism to subjectivism. They are in fact orthogonal to each other. A consequentialist can be either a subjectivist or an objectivist. The common statement of objective morality - "Man must act morally to achieve man's highest values" - is itself consequential.

Physics we know to be objective. Even when there is no one around to observe it, gravity is still approximately an inverse square field. Jupiter will continue revolving around Sol. Well not really - oh, Jupiter will still revolve around the Sun - there are some really wierd things in quantum physics. If there is not someone to observe the position of a photon, the photon will not have a position. Experiments dealing with quantum phenomena depend on the observation, repeating the experiment changing the method of observation changes what is observed. Shouldn't physics be considered subjective, or at least quantum physics be considered subjective? No, because experiments can still be designed where we can take into account the act of observation. We can still combine deductive reasoning and empirical observations to work out theories to describe the laws of quantum physics. There are still facts of nature to be described. Likewise we do not take seriously anyone who claims that physics is subjective because some physicists disagree about things. We know that one side or maybe even both sides are wrong, and we know there is some objective fact dealing with the subject of the disagreement. We just don't know what that fact is yet.

I have seen a number of comparisons between Locke's natural law and gravity, with the explanation that "no one needs to be taught about gravity". "The law of gravity is not the same as Don't Steal, no one can violate the Law of Gravity." That is an invalid comparison. First of all, we do have to learn that attempts at violating the law of gravity by use of a Superman cape hurts, and that the higher the object we jump from the more it hurts. Fortunately, most of us figured it out long before we jumped into the Grand Canyon. Most of us acknowledge that cheating at Monopoly(R) is wrong. Why? Because you'll soon find no one willing to play Monopoly(R) with you, the joy of winning just isn't the same, and you'll lose friends and respect. So the equivalent moral law is "If you cheat, you will lose more than the game." or "playing fair is more fun and you'll keep your friends". And guess what? You can't violate that law. You can cheat all you want, but you still lose more than the game, and if you play fair, you'll have more fun and keep your friends. I'll let you, the intelligent reader, generalize that to more important moral laws.

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Hi David, interesting post.

Hi David, interesting post. I was the one (or one of the ones) who brought up the comparison between natural laws and social ones, with the assertion that 'you can't violate the law of gravity'.

I'm interested to explore it further, because I don't think your rebuttal quite holds.

We certainly need to test the law of gravity to know it works, but when we do we find (provided our tests are sophisticated enough) that it always works the same way no matter how or how often we test it. Violating the law of gravity would not involve falling without being hurt, it would involve being set apart from one of the forces which hold everything together.

Violating social laws will certainly have knock-on effects (as every choice does), but the reason we (some of us, at least) continually test these boundaries (wheras we learn quickly not to test the natural ones) is because the effects are neither prescribed nore predictable.

On a side note, i'm interested to have a general feel for what you mean by 'objective morality'. I'll be happy to compare and contrast with my own view on the matter.

Bernard: ..we find ... that

Bernard: ..we find ... that [gravity] always works the same way...

I think this phrase helps me package the problem of "subjectivity in morals" in fewer words.

By Objective, we mean that no matter how we plead or beg, we do not change the outcome of a system. When I deal with other people, I can beg and plead and they cut me some slack. Therefore, any field of study involving human volition is inherently subjective.

Is this the crux of the argument, or am I simplifying things too much?

As I understand the problem

As I understand the problem it's how do we determine what is the right action at the right time.
The ancient Aztecs not only believed that it was moral to sacrifice prisoners of war it was a moral imperative to do so to appease the gods. The Spanish conquistadors were horrified by the Aztec's actions. They conquistadors then proceeded to kill, enslave and forcibly convert the Aztecs to Christianity. An objective morality would be able to tell us who was right and should also be able to tell us what to do when you are faced with another person who is actively engaged in an immoral action. After all fines, jail and execution are just different words for theft, kidnapping and murder.
The problem is what yardstick do we use and how do we go about finding this yardstick.

Bernard, I would take it

Bernard, I would take it then that you hold economics to be subjective. Now I will agree that we have some subjective effects to deal with, which is why I brought up quantum physics.

I demonstrate an

I demonstrate an indispensible ought here.

Is Catallarchy going to re-enable trackbacks?

David, my reasoning differs

David, my reasoning differs slightly from yours at root.

Here's how I see things:

Reality is objective.

We approach reality by making models of various degrees of sophistication which we use to inform our decision making.

Physics is subjective, because our models and laws are refined over time as we make minor improvements (through increasingly sophisticated models and, far less often, major improvements (through falsification and paradigm shifts). However, it's much better understood, and thus far less prone to error than the humanities (see below).

Economics is more subjective than physics, because more of the variables we use in our modelling are put in arbitrarily to cover our lack of knowledge (our exploration of human decision making is improving, but we still have a lot of problems making even basic predictions). Its subjectivity is compounded because the intricate interplay of variables make empirical testing in the sense we understand with the hard sciences impossible.

I'd contend that it's our very inability to discern objectively which makes empirical science so important. Falsifiable hypotheses and rigorous empirical testing would be irrelevant if objectivity were within our grasp.

Don't worry John, we're (and

Don't worry John, we're (and by we I mean Qiwi) working on getting the TB situation under control. I think TBs work now, but they're displayed threaded inside the comments, rather than in the old method. The goal is to approximate the status quo ante, and I think we're getting there rather quickly (look at how drastically the comments sections have changed in the past day).


JTK, trackbacks are enabled,

JTK, trackbacks are enabled, we got one from Modulator today. Are you getting an error when you try to trackback to us?

Sorry, I just overlooked the

Sorry, I just overlooked the trackback url because the format has changed a little.

Who Needs Objective

Who Needs Objective Oughts?
Moral subjectivists hold that there are no oughts, that there is nothing which men ought or ought not do. Moral objectivists hold that there are oughts indispensible to any man.


Bernard, lets get rid of the

Bernard, lets get rid of the objective/subjective labels then.

Are morals something that can be studied? Can there be a moral theory that can be shown to be true (within the inherent limits of theories) or false, or at least provide a good approximation? Obviously there are serious difficulties, much like economics.

Going back to your previous comments - the law of gravity shows that an object not on land or water will fall towards Earth with an acceleration of 9.8m/s/s right? Airplanes don't do that. There are lots of ways to make things appear to violate physical laws, but reality is that the interaction of the many physical laws can create lots of different results.

Shadow Hunter - both the Aztecs and the Conquistadors were immoral, but I won't demonstrate it here. My purpose here is to show that morals can be determined, studied, and potentially refuted by scientific methodologies.

JTK - how did you used to

JTK - how did you used to grab the trackback URL? I'm trying to get this version as close to the old one as possible.

Which begs my question, by

Which begs my question, by the actors standards they were moral. By your standard they were both immoral. What is the yardstick or scientific methodology you're using? How did you come by this yardstick of morality you use to measure all previous human acts?

Qiwi, On the main blog I


On the main blog I used to see this format:

Immigrant Song (and Subsidy)
Posted by Doug Allen at 12:03 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0) | Cosmos

I'd pick up the TB link there. You can still see the old format in Google's cache.

So you did "copy link

So you did "copy link location" on the link labeled "Trackback"? Okay, I'll fix it.

David, Mark said something

David, Mark said something important (thanks Mark). Let me use it to define what I would understand as an objective moral law.

An objective law is one which would hold true for every example. Where we find examples which don't, we either need to refine the law (a la your aeroplane example) or scrap it altogether and explain things in terms of some deeper phenomenon.

Now, because the consequence of any given action will vary according to who you are and who you are dealing with, the objectivity of any brushstroke moral law can (I believe) always be refuted. If Kim Jong il cheats at Monopoly, noone is going to call him on it, and the consequences will be completely different from those facing Joe Normal II if his dad catches him cheating in a family board game. Likewise, the prohibition of murder is often raised as a moral absolute, but murder simply means 'unlawful killing', and the specifics of the law differ significantly from one society to another.

That being said, I believe you're right that if we drill down far enough, it's possible to interpret human decision making within a coherant framework which starts to look scientifically testable. I'm still trying to work out details, but I believe that I can do a fair job of explaining moral behaviour in terms of long-term or genetic best interest, if you're interested.

I mainly object to the claim

I mainly object to the claim on the part of some people that objective morality is an intrinsic quality of the universe, rather than a property of human societies. One can look at the structure of a society and determine a morality that will work within that society. However, as I've said before, there was nothing particularly immoral about nomadic hunter-gatherer bands killing strangers, because those bands were largely self sufficient and hadn't discovered trade yet.

One could say that it was the invention of agriculture and trade that really allowed morality to change, so that we can truly say murder is wrong today. Since Dave considers morality to be an offshoot of praxeology, I can't really disagree with him, though.

Even given an objective morality, however, if we accept that our understanding of morality is imperfect and will change over time, is this really that different than saying that morality arises in the intersubjective realm of human relations and is itself subject to change? At least that prevents anyone from claiming perfect knowledge of an objective morality, which is really what bugs me the most about the idea of objective morality in the first place.

Bernard, I think we may

Bernard, I think we may actually be on the same page, if not we're at least in the same chapter. We need a Newton of moral philosophy, if you're volunteering to tackle that role I'm interested.:deal:

Shadow Hunter - defining the units is part of creating a valid theory.

BTW, are smileys objectively good or what?:twisted:

JTK, You're welcomed to

You're welcomed to trackback, but usually, trackbacks are a two-way thing in the blogosphere. A link to us from the post you're trackbacking from would be appreciated.