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Moral objectivism is the position that certain acts are objectively right or wrong, independent of human opinion.

Models of objective morality may be atheistic, monotheistic (in the case of the Abrahamic religions), or pantheistic (in the case of Hinduism). The moral codes may stem from reason, from the divine, or from a combination of the two. These various systems differ as to the nature of the objective morality, but agree on its existence. It is this diversity between codes of objective morality, and the seemingly endless debates between people over irreconcilably different claims to objective morality that lead many to reject the concept entirely, in favor of subjective morality (see moral relativism).

In their effort to overcome these difficulties, advocates of objective morality have proposed a number of means to bridge the gap between the objective and subjective.

Sources of objective morality[edit | edit source]

Systems of objective morality are seen as proceeding from many sources, including:

The Divine alone[edit | edit source]

Many codes of objective morality hold that moral codes originate in some divine entity, either God or cosmic forces such as karma.

Within the Abrahamic religions, it is believed that God communicates his will to humanity through prophets, who inform us of God's will for our behavior. The messages may come in the form of covenants, such as the Noahide Laws or Ten commandments. They may also come in the form of teachings and healings, such as those performed by Jesus, or prophetic utterances such as the Qur'an.

Within Hinduism and Buddhism, it is believed that a number of great teachers (gurus or buddha's, respectively), who have achieved a higher level of consciousness and understanding of the universe through spiritual development, and are able to pass these lessons on to those who have not yet reached that level of spiritual understanding.

Many systems of objective morality hold that humans are bound to external standards of morality or immorality, and are rewarded and punished insofar as they attain to those standards. For example:

  • Islam holds that Allah rewards and punishes human beings through heaven and hell, based on the morality or immorality of their actions on Earth.
  • Hinduism holds that one's objectively moral or immoral acts have corresponding effects on one's karma, which has a direct effect on the quality of one's next life. One is therefore rewarded and punished by the universe for one's good or bad actions.

Reason alone[edit | edit source]

Other systems of thought are based on the idea that objective morality can be derived from various aspects of the natural world through the use of reason alone. This does not negate religion or the existence of god(s). Reason alone has been used to derive moral principles in both theistic and atheistic models of objective morality.

For instance, one line of thought is based on rational self-interest, which is the principle that moral acts are those that truly benefit the agent, and immoral acts are those that truly harm the agent. The key element of this mode of morality is that the agent must desire what is truly good for him. In his Ethics, Aristotle wrote:

What is the Good for Man?
"Most men, i.e. men of the most vulgar sort, appear (as might be expected from the lives they lead) to identify the good, or happiness, with pleasure; and this is just why they love the life of enjoyment. But there are three outstanding types of life:
(a) the one just mentioned [pleasure],
(b) the political
(c) the contemplative.
Now as regards (a), the majority of people are manifestly altogether slavish in their tastes, preferring a life similar to that of the beasts;
As regards (b), consideration for the principal types of life shows that persons of superior refinement and active disposition identify happiness with honour; for this is, roughly speaking, the goal of political life. It is, however, clearly too superficial to be what we are seeking; for it is regarded as dependent on those who confer honour rather than on the person honoured, whereas we divine the good to be something proper to a man and of which he is not easily deprived. Again, men seem to pursue honour in order to persuade themselves that they are good; at least they seek to be honoured by men of practical wisom, among those who know them, and on account of their virtue. Evidently then, in their view at any rate, virtue is better ...
Wealth is clearly not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and has something else in view; ...
Honour, pleasure, reason and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves, but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, supposing that by their means we shall be happy ...
Happiness then is something final and self-sufficient, and is the goal of activity." (Ethics, p. 7 et seq).

According to Aristotle, Happiness is the end of human activity, and honour, pleasure, reason, and virtue are the primary means to that end. Therefore, those who apply their lives to the virtues will be both moral and happy; but those who apply their lives to "slavish tastes" will be neither moral nor happy.

One of the most uncompromising supporters of ethics based on rational self-interest alone is Objectivist philosophy, which holds that the fundamental values are Reason, Purpose, and Self-esteem. Applying these essentially self-interested values to one's experience through reason is seen as the path to virtue, or the "conceptual life." Controversially, Objectivist philosophy sees Religion, Altruism, Charity, and Duty as immoral, because they are believed to be contrary to the agent's self-interest.

Aristotle's view that Happiness is the end of human activity has been influential in the development of another objective moral philosophy, utilitarianism. Utilitarianism rejects the notion of self-interest as the basis of morality, arguing, for example, that self-interest is inherently subjective because it depends on the specific circumstances and preferences of a given individual, and that self-interest cannot be used as a universal standard of Good because the interests of different people may not be compatible. Instead of self-interest, utilitarianism takes the happiness of humanity as its standard of Good. Thus, according to the utilitarian view, moral acts are those that benefit humanity overall and immoral acts are those that harm humanity overall.

Utilitarianism was originally developed in 18th century England by Jeremy Bentham and others, though the tradition of utilitarian ideas can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophers such as Parmenides. It has been influential in political science, particularly in the development of democracy.

Finally, in yet another line of thought, Immanuel Kant argued for the existence of moral objectivism on the basis of the Categorical Imperative, which he formulated as follows:

"Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

To illustrate, when a man is attempting to decide whether to steal, he should ask himself, "But what if everybody were required to steal?" In such a case, the entire society would descend into chaos. Since one cannot reasonably wish that everybody should do what one is considering doing, one must not do it. Consequently, one acts immorally when one attempts to set up a different standard for himself than for the rest of humanity.

The divine and reason[edit | edit source]

A third category of systems hold that the divine command and the ways of reason coincide completely. This idea is based on the principle that God gives commands to humanity for the benefit of humanity and in line with reason, so that religion and reason are inseparably linked together.

Thomism holds that the fundamental values of reason lead directly (by way of arguments for the existence of God) to belief in God, and further, to Christianity. St. Thomas Aquinas, the author of Thomism, strove to synthesize Christianity with the thought of Aristotle.

Aquinas held that the nature of the universe and essences of objects do not depend on the free will of God, but on His intellect, and ultimately on His essence, which is unchanging. The natural law, springing from the mind of God, is therefore also immutable. Consequently, immoral acts are immoral not simply because God forbids them, but because they are inherently immoral. (Zigliara, 1889) Aquinas concluded that it is possible to gain knowledge of God and morality through reason alone, but that because most men are not capable of such expansive reason, God in his Grace gave humanity the divine revelation necessary to allow humans to achieve salvation.

In general, this philosophical tradition has promoted a fusion between various religious and secular forms of objective morality (see examples above), arguing that they are not only compatible but outright inseparable.

The origin of immorality[edit | edit source]

Unlike moral relativism, proponents of moral objectivism face a unique challenge: explaining why people act immorally. To the moral relativist, the answer is simple: people behave differently because they hold different values, and those considered "immoral" are immoral only because their values differ from social consensus. Immorality is simply a result of varying codes of value.

Moral objectivists have provided different explanations as to why, if there is an objective moral code, people so often fall short of it.

Aristotle[edit | edit source]

In his Ethics, Aristotle attributed acts of immorality to the "irrational element" within the soul, which struggled against the rational principle. He described the irrational element as:

"by its nature opposed to the rational principle, which fights and resists that principle. Exactly as paralysed limbs when we decide to move them to the right turn contrariwise to the left, so the impulses of the self-indulgent man's soul move in opposition to the rational principle." (Ethics 26).

To Aristotle, the tension against the rational principle was an inherent part of our souls, but in the rational man, the irrational element obeyed the rational element just as a son obeys his father.

The key to bringing the irrational element into obedience to the rational principle was, to Aristotle, practice. One learns to be virtuous by acting virtuously.

St. Paul[edit | edit source]

Whereas Aristotle spoke of the "rational" and "irrational" aspects of the soul, Paul spoke of "Sin" and the "Spirit," twin forces which struggled for control of the man. To Paul, Sin has a will of its own, contrary to the will of the man.

He believed this because of a unique experience: the perception of wanting to obey the Law, but breaking it anyway. This was a mysterious phenomenon to Paul. For why should a person do things they did not want to do? If he truly wanted to do those things, surely he would do them without guilt. But if his guilt indicated that he didn't actually want to do those things, then why did he do them?

The answer, to Paul, was that there was Sin living in him.

Paul wrote:

"I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin." -- Romans 7.

Attaining objective morality[edit | edit source]

A number of thinkers have considered why mankind always seems to fall short of objective morality, and how we are to attain to it. Generally speaking, they have argued that while objective morality is the highest good for humans, we are not naturally given to it, and must be educated or trained in order to value what is good, and properly execute our reason in attaining it.

  • In Plato's Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one 'who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distate would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of the age of reason; that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.' Republic 402a.
  • Aristotle wrote that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought, so that when the age of reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in 'ordinate affections' or 'just sentiments' will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Eth. Nic. 1104, 1095.
  • The early Hindu concept of the Rta corresponds to the pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order and the moral virtues. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya, or truth, corresponding to Reality.
  • "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." Proverbs 22:6 KJV
  • In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis argues in favor of the concept of natural law, and against the concept of subjective morality. He identified his concept of objective natural law as the Tao. The Tao, or Way, encompasses the principles and codes of behavior by which humans were intended to operate. They are encapsulated by Lewis in the Christian principle: "Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself."

Moral objectivism and free will[edit | edit source]

Semi-religious arguments for moral objectivism have to do with the relationship between free will, choice, and morals. Some have argued that without free will, the universe is deterministic and therefore morally uninteresting (i.e., if all moral choices and moral behavior are determined by outside forces, there can be no need for any person to ponder morality), though this would depend on whether free choice is required for an action to be 'moral'. If free will exists, it stands to reason that the universe allows moral behavior. From this, some believe this feature is integral to the universe's reason for being. A softer, more theological, line of reasoning is that God may 'need' to permit us to have choices, but leaves the concerns of those choices (and their consequences) up to the people making them. In this case, moral objectivism is a subjective decision (i.e., free will must, by definition, include the freedom to choose what is moral).

These views are generally not accepted by those who deny free will. Some, in fact, deny free will and still accept moral objectivism — and argue that these two beliefs are inextricably tied.

Criticism of moral objectivism[edit | edit source]

A primary criticism of moral objectivism regards how we come to know what the 'objective' morals actually are. The authorities that are quoted as sources of objective morality are all subject to human interpretation, and multiple views abound on them. They claim that for morals to be truly objective, they would have to have a universally unquestioned source, interpretation and authority. Therefore, so critics say, there is no conceivable source of such morals, and none can be called 'objective'. They claim that even if there are objective morals, there will never be universal agreement on just what those morals are, making them by definition unknowable.

Proponents of theories of objective morality, however, counter these criticisms from two angles.

  • First, they claim that these criticisms essentially amount to attacking metaphysics with epistemology; they hold that, even if it were impossible to know the substantial nature of objective morality, that would not mean that it is not metaphysically objective. A critic might, in turn, respond that this completely undermines the very value of an objective truth: a moral truth which it is impossible to identify can serve none of the purposes (namely, to inform behaviour and judgment) for which it is relied upon, so leaves the world in no better a position to resolve moral disputes than if moral relativism (or even moral nihilism) were the case.
  • Second, they argue that consensus and truth are not necessarily equivalent — a proposition does not need to be universally held to be true for it to be actually true, and that a proposition may indeed be universally held to be true does not mean that it is actually true.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  • Zigliara, "Sum. phil." (3 vols., Paris, 1889), ccx, xi, II, M. 23, 24, 25)

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