Do Objective Moral Values Exist?

  1. What are “objective moral values”
  2. Evidence that objective moral values exist
  3. Do moral relativists really exist?
  4. Why are we moral relativists?

Do objective moral values exist? Many people in our culture today would say that they do not. Ethical Moral Ethics Wrong Right IntegrityMorality, 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 suppressing this knowledge. And in the final section I will try to show why we are attracted to moral relativism despite its implausibility.

I. What are “objective moral values”?

To begin with, let’s define what we mean by “objective moral values”. Objective moral values are qualities like kindness or love which are morally good independent of the belief of human beings. For this reason, philosophers who affirm the existence of objective moral values sometimes speak about them as moral facts. A purported fact can either be true or false, but it is qualitatively different than an opinion, which is a matter of personal preference. So when we say that objective moral values exist, we mean that a statement like, “Murder is evil,” is making a claim about some objective moral reality in precisely the same way that the statement, “There is a chair in my kitchen,” is making a claim about objective physical reality. In contrast, a moral relativist claims that a statement like, “murder is evil,” is a subjective claim about our (or our society’s) preference. The statement, “murder is evil,” expresses a subjective preference similar to the statements, “curry is tasty,” or, “bluegrass is the best musical genre.” If objective moral values exist, then statements like, “the Holocaust was evil,” can be objectively true. If objective moral values exist, then this statement would be true even if the Nazis had won World War II and had convinced every human being in the entire world that the Holocaust was good. In contrast, the position of moral relativism commits one to the proposition that moral statements like, “the Holocaust was evil,” are subjective. If some person or some society, like Nazi Germany, believes that the Holocaust was good, then the Holocaust would indeed be good “for them”. There would be no objective moral standard to which their assessment could be compared.

I believe that this definition of objective moral values is not particularly controversial, since it is used by moral realists and relativists alike. What is controversial is whether objective moral values, as defined above, actually exist. It is the evidence for this position that I hope to present in the following sections.

A few other important clarifications. First, in defending the existence of objective moral values, I am primarily making a claim about moral ontology, not about moral epistemology. Moral ontology deals with whether a realm of objective moral values exists; in other words, what is the basis for something being “good” or “evil”? Moral epistemology deals with how we know what is good and evil. Clearly, one can have real objective moral values without knowing how we perceive these values or even how we know which actions are good and which are evil. Second, I am also not claiming that our perception of moral values is perfectly reliable. I will argue that we have a very strong and reliable intuition that there are objective moral values; but I will not argue that our perceptions about which actions are good and which are evil are always accurate (in fact, I believe that in many cases our moral intuitions can be quite inaccurate). Third, I am not making the claim that one must believe in objective moral values in order to act morally. Far from it. I know many people who explicitly deny that good and evil exist, yet who live loving, compassionate lives. I also know people who believe in the existence of objective moral values yet who live evil lives. The question I am asking is not whether our lives are consistent with our beliefs, but whether our beliefs are true or false!

A very helpful extended analogy can be made by comparing the existence of objective moral values to the existence of the external objective universe. First, the question of whether the external, objective universe exists is a question of ontology; is there a real world that really exists outside of my own mind? Is there really a chair in my kitchen, or is this just a figment of my imagination? This question, like the question of the existence of objective moral values, is independent of epistemology: how we know that such a world exists. The objective external universe could exist, even if we have no reliable way to know that it exists. Second, the external objective universe can exist even if my perception of facts about it are not always reliable. Consider the development of the natural sciences over the last four centuries. Scientists in the 17th century had incredibly poor and often erroneous ideas about the natural world. Since that time, our ideas have presumably become more and more accurate. But it does not follow that the objective universe does not exist or somehow depends upon our perception of it. In the same way, our perception of what is good and evil may change over time without affecting the claim that objective moral values exist. I would be very foolish to use the evolution of our understanding of science over the last four centuries to argue against the existence of an objective universe subject to physical laws. Finally, one does not need to believe that the universe actually exists to live a fairly normal life. A person might be fully convinced that they are living in some computer-generated fantasy world like the Matrix and might still choose, as a personal preference, to live as if buildings and sidewalks and tables and chairs were objectively real. In the very same way, a person might deny the existence of objective good and evil and could still choose to live a moral life. So a denial of the existence of objective moral values does not demand the adoption of a particularly immoral lifestyle.

Hopefully, this section has cleared up some important misconceptions about what the second premise of the moral argument does and does not claim. In the next section, I will try to provide several good reasons to believe that objective moral values do exist.

II. Evidence that objective moral values exist

In this section, I will provide a few reasons for accepting the premise that objective moral values do exist. Indeed, I will go a bit farther than the original premise and will argue not only that objective moral values exist, but that we have immediate, intuitive knowledge of their existence. However, it is extremely important for readers –especially skeptical readers– to keep in mind that I am attempting to defend a basic premise (actually, premise 2 of the Moral Argument for God’s existence). A good, basic premise cannot be deduced from a logical argument because, if it could, the premises of this first argument would serve as the actual premises in the subsequent argument. In other words, we should not demand that someone prove a premise to be true; we can only ask them to provide reasons that it is true. Furthermore, for belief in a premise to be warranted, the reasons given to support the premise merely need to be more compelling than reasons given to disbelieve the premise. To show that there is not a chair in my kitchen, I have to do more than criticize the evidence for the existence of the chair. I have to also present positive evidence that there is not a chair in my kitchen. Skeptical readers need to take special care that they do not violate these basic principles of argumentation in evaluating the evidence I present below. I fully admit that I will not prove the premise that objective moral values exist. I also agree that there are ways to avoid the weight of each of the points I will present below. However, the question is not whether the evidence in support of the premise can be avoided, but whether there exists better evidence to deny the premise. In fact, I believe that while there are many good reasons to accept the existence of objective moral values, there are no good reasons to deny the existence of objective moral values.

Keeping these issues in mind, let’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 altruistic acts which lead to no 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.

Let’s examine each of these pieces of evidence and consider whether the existence and intuitive perception of objective moral values explains them.

1. Cultures across the world and down through human history affirm that objective moral values exist. Indeed, cultures throughout history and across the world have affirmed many of the same moral values that we profess today (murder is wrong, theft is wrong, lying is wrong, etc…). It is not surprising that nearly all cultures affirm these kinds of basic ethical practices since any culture that encouraged murder, theft, and lying would quickly disintegrate. However, what is far more perplexing is the existence and persistence of altruism throughout human cultures. By altruism here, I mean what evolutionary biologist Dr. Jerry Coyne calls true altruism, behavior that will not even indirectly confer reproductive benefit to oneself or ones’ relatives. For instance, it is possible to envision a scenario in which generosity would indirectly benefit the giver and increase his reproductive fitness. But it is incredibly hard to envision a scenario in which it is genetically advantageous to throw one’s body on a live grenade to save one’s platoon or to adopt and raise children of another race. Reflecting on the existence of true altruism, Coyne says “we don’t know whether true altruism … has any genetic basis in human society. True altruism like that isn’t known in any other species, and I suspect that, to the extent it occurs in ours, it’s an epiphenomenon: a byproduct of our general social cooperativeness….In short, we know nothing about the evolution of true human altruism except that it probably didn’t evolve.” [from Why evolution is true blog, 5/18/11] Richard Dawkins agrees, seeing altruism as a happy accident of evolution, but not one that leads directly or indirectly to any reproductive benefit. What is important here is that both Coyne and Dawkins recognize that altruism is an evolutionary accident. What puzzles me most is why –on this view– true altruism persists in the human race. Shouldn’t altruistic acts like self-sacrifice or adoption have been weeded out of the human population by natural selection eons ago? How could the pressures of natural selection have tuned the eye to detect single photons yet have failed to prevent people from rushing into burning buildings or diving into icy water to save others?

2. As I mentioned in the first section, the vast majority of self-professed moral relativists live moral lives. Indeed, many moral relativists will emphasize that they live lives which are indistinguishable or even morally superior to those of moral realists. Yet this leads to a curious observation. The behavior of moral relativists can indeed be partially explained by self-interest. If I value comfort, pleasure, and freedom, I cannot simply walk around punching people in the face, lest I be arrested and imprisoned. But every one of us finds ourselves in situations in which a moral infraction would lead to clear, immediate benefit with little or no chance of detection. Why not shoplift? Why not cheat on your taxes? Why not drive away from the fender-bender if no one noticed? No doubt some of the responses of moral relativists can be explained by fear of detection. And other relativists may indeed act “immorally” in these situations. But if my reader is a moral relativist, I wonder if he can truly explain all of his behavior in these terms? Was it all self-interested? Or was it motivated by an odd compulsion or preference to do what was “right” even when no one was watching?

3. This brings me to my third point, which is perhaps the most obvious: all human beings do seem to have an innate sense that some things are objectively right and others are objectively wrong. In the same way, all human beings have an innate intuition that they have free will and that the external universe actually exists. Now these intuitions might well be illusions. But I think it is undeniable that they exist. I have recently seen first-hand evidence of this fact in interacting with my two-and-a-half year old son. As parents, we have to teach him to share, to be kind, to be gentle, and to do what is good. Often, teaching him to do what is good is a difficult task. But he has not once asked me what I mean by “good”. Indeed, he takes it perfectly for granted that some things are objectively good and some things are objectively bad. He does not occasionally confuse “good” with “whatever Mommy and Daddy impose on me by force” or “what will eventually lead to my own benefit.” Another equally important point is that I can’t even begin to conceive of how a true moral relativist would raise a child. If a child asks his parent why he should not hit his sister, I find it hard to believe that the moral relativist would answer “Because of self-interest. If you hit her, then she might hit you back.” Nor would the parent say “Because I am bigger than you and will punish you if you disobey.” Even the most committed moral relativist will find himself answering “Hitting is wrong. Stealing is wrong. Love and generosity and kindness are good.” Now the moral relativist might console himself with the thought that he is merely introducing a fictional short-hand to be replaced with the bracing truth of moral relativism once the child is old enough to understand. But I find it extremely interesting that thinking in objective moral terms is nearly unavoidable for both children and parents.

4. Although there are a fair number of moral relativists among modern philosophers, moral realism is the majority position among professional academic philosophers, according to a recent poll. Indeed, among those who have a clear preference, professional philosophers favor moral realism over moral antirealism by two to one. Obviously, an appeal to professional philosophers does not prove that objective moral values exist. But it should give a moral relativist pause. Surely, of all people, philosophers ought to be the most familiar with explanations of morality based on self-interest or evolutionary psychology or group selection. Isn’t it odd, then, that they would persist in affirming that objective moral facts exist?

5. What I think is some of the most compelling evidence for the existence of objective moral values actually comes from the affirmation of the Neoatheists, particularly Sam Harris. Harris utterly and vehemently rejects moral relativism and has made the existence of objective moral values one of the central issues in his books. Yet to me and to many of my atheist friends, the idea that objective moral values can exist in the absence of God is an obvious and transparent fantasy. If nature is all that is, then to me and to many atheists, there is obviously no way to call one thing “good” and another thing “evil.” There is no way from bridging the gap between “is” and “ought” as myriads of philosophers have pointed out throughout history. My question, then, is why these naturalistic philosophers so vehemently defend the existence of objective moral values, when their existence is so problematic if nature is all there is (see the recent Craig-Harris debate or the following scathing review of Harris’ book The Moral Landscape by atheist philosopher Michael Ruse). In light of these criticisms, why don’t naturalists like Harris simply deny that objective moral values exist? Why not simply be consistent and dismiss moral values as subjective preferences inculcated into us by our society or programmed into us by our genes? Why vehemently defend a proposition that is seemingly incompatible with one’s worldview?

Having outlined these five empirical observations, I would now like to invite readers to consider two possibilities. The first possibility is that objective moral values exist and that all humans have immediate, intuitive apprehension of their existence. The second possibility is that objective moral values do not exist and that any belief that they do exist is therefore an illusion. Now ask: which of these two possibilities better explains the five points listed above? I am not asking which of the five points proves one conclusion or the other. I am merely asking which of the two possibilities has the most explanatory scope and explanatory power. It seems clear to me that the actual existence of objective moral values and our immediate, intuitive apprehension of their existence is a far more compelling explanation of these five pieces of evidence. If you disagree, I suggest you read through each of these pieces of evidence again, and compare the two alternatives for each case. Obviously, it is possible that these pieces of evidence can be explained by some confluence of group selection (points 1 and 3 — although this theory is extremely controversial and is rejected outright by evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne), social pressure to conform (point 2), and peer pressure among philosophers (point 4 and point 5). But is this as plausible an explanation as the hypothesis that objective moral values actually exist and that we all know it? To hold to moral relativism, we would not only need to dismiss each of these pieces of evidence, but we would have to present positive evidence which supports the non-existence of objective moral values. Unless the reader can make such a case, he needs to seriously consider whether his denial of the existence of objective moral values is warranted.

In this section, I have tried to show that belief in the existence of objective moral values is warranted by several pieces of empirical evidence quite independent of our own personal intuition. Even point 3 was the empirical observation that the vast majority of humanity has an immediate, intuitive belief in the existence of objective moral values; I did not appeal to our own personal intuition. To these five points, I might also add that you and I personally have this same strong intuition that objective moral values exist. This intuition is just as strong in us as our intuition that the objective universe exists or that we have free will. We might reject this intuition because our worldview tells us that it must be an illusion. But I see no compelling reason that the presuppositions of our worldview should permit us to either disregard the evidence. However, rather than dwelling on our personal moral intuition, I would like to shift our focus slightly. In fact, I would like to attempt something quite startling. I will attempt to demonstrate that none of us are really moral relativists; we all actually know that objective moral values exist even if we deny this fact intellectually.

III. Do moral relativists really exist?

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 section, 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 situation which probes our reactions to admittedly unlikely circumstances. I urge the reader to take these questions very seriously.

First, imagine some extremely evil action that would provide you with something you greatly value. For instance, since presumably all of us value money to some degree, let us imagine that we could acquire millions of dollars simply by subjecting some innocent child to a painful death. To make things clear, let us also say that our culture condoned such an action, as might have been the case during the Rwandan genocide. What would you do? I think all of us would say that we would absolutely not kill the child. However, the reasons given by a moral realist or a moral relativist would presumably be very different. A moral realist would say that murdering an innocent child is objectively wrong and that no personal pleasure could induce them to commit such an unspeakably evil act. In contrast, a moral relativist might also abhor the murder. But they would have to base their decision on the fact that the negative emotions they would experience from killing the child would far outweigh the positive emotions associated with the money. Since there is no objective standard of good and evil, they would have to appeal to their own preferences to explain their actions.

Second, let’s press this thought experiment further. Now let’s imagine that we faced the same choice, but could also choose to have the memory of our action erased (I think about Cipher’s bargain with the machines in the Matrix). The child would still die painfully, their family would grieve and mourn and lament your action, but you would be utterly oblivious to your deed. You would have the money and would be able to enjoy it free from any memory of the decision. Now what would we choose? Hopefully, we would again choose to let the child live. But this time, the moral relativist has to be a bit troubled. If asked for the reasons behind his decision, he must again point to his personal preference for love, compassion, empathy, happiness, etc… But we could then remind him that he would derive no negative moral emotions at all from the killing as a consequence of his amnesia. In contrast, he would have the very real and concrete positive emotions that would come from his enjoyment of the millions of dollars. Again, a moral relativist would have to appeal to some sense that he prefers an objective reality in which there is no suffering even if he himself is oblivious to it and can derive no pleasure from it.

But this is where the trouble really starts. We next need to ask whether the moral relativist takes daily steps to deaden and kill his negative moral emotions. For instance, there is no question that we all enjoy certain items like money, sex, food, sleep, and leisure. On the other hand, there is also no question that certain moral emotions like guilt and empathy are extremely unpleasant. Anyone who has wept and wept comforting a friend who has lost a loved one or who has stared in horror at images of poverty or starvation, knows that we do not seek out or enjoy these experiences. But if moral relativism is true, then there is nothing inherently good or right about feeling empathy. And since guilt has no objective basis in a moral reality, it is nothing but an extremely unpleasant illusion. Then why does the moral relativist not spend more time trying to divest himself of all feelings of guilt, empathy, and remorse? If these emotions often prevent us from enjoying pleasurable items like money and sex, then why not work to deaden or kill these negative moral emotions? Why does he not work to develop an indifferent attitude towards those in need so that he is free to devote his entire life on his own pleasures? Here again, the moral relativist has a problem. Surely, the cost-benefit analysis is perfectly clear. If there is some way to destroy all negative moral emotions while retaining my ability to enjoy all the easily accessible positive emotions, shouldn’t I be working to find it? Why is it that I, as a moral relativist, don’t devote more time to either shielding myself from human misery or working to harden my heart against it?

There is a final question. Imagine that I offered you an “amorality pill”. This hypothetical pill would permanently destroy all of your capacity to experience negative moral emotions like guilt, empathy, and remorse. But it would leave intact all of your capacity for positive emotions like love, joy, excitement and happiness. To put it starkly, you would still be able to love your wife and children, to experience the vicarious joy of giving them gifts, to feel a rush of tenderness when you kiss them goodnight. However, if you decided one morning that killing them all with an axe would give you great happiness, you would be able to do so without a single twinge of regret or remorse. You could pile the corpses of your children into the fireplace and spend the rest of the day exquisitely enjoying your coffee and the crispness of the autumn leaves. You would be a completely amoral individual like Christian Bale’s character in American Psycho. The amorality pill would set you free from the illusory shackles of morality to pursue your own happiness, utterly indifferent to the pain and misery of others. Would you take the pill?

If you are a moral relativist, you need to seriously grapple with these questions, especially the last one. If moral relativism is true, then there is no obvious reason to not take the pill. The completely amoral monster who could kill his own children has done nothing objectively good or evil, because there is no objective good or evil. The man (or woman) I just described might be rapturously happy. Yet you recoil in horror from the thought that this is the man you could become. Why? I would like to make a bold assertion: you are not really a moral relativist. You may claim that you deny the existence of objective moral truths, but your behavior and your answers to questions like the ones given above show otherwise.

IV. Why are we moral relativists?

In light of the discussion in Sections II and III, a very interesting question arises. If the hypothesis that objective moral values exist is a better explanation of the evidence than moral relativism and if our own behavior is inconsistent with moral relativism, then why do so many of us claim to be moral relativists? It helps here to take a postmodern view of our own belief systems. Postmodernism rightly recognizes that none of us is a purely disinterested, neutral spectator when it comes to the great questions of life. All of us come to these questions with a whole host of needs, desires, and fears that will greatly influence our consideration of the evidence. For instance, imagine a scientist who has spent decades developing a theory. At the last moment before publication, he suddenly finds what he thinks is a subtle flaw in his experiment which would invalidate all of his results. Can you understand the tremendous psychological pressure that he experiences to find ways of dismissing the error? We might hope that his commitment to truth would win out over his personal feelings. But all of us should be able to understand the terrible temptation he faces to ignore what could be a devastating blow to him.

What relevance does this situation have to the existence of objective moral values? Unfortunately, all the relevance in the world. If we deny the existence of objective moral values, then we never need to ask questions about the rectitude of our behavior. Indeed, there is no way for anyone to ask questions about our behavior because there is no objective standard by which our behavior can be evaluated. No one can ask whether we have lived a good life or a bad life, because there is no good or bad. No one can ask whether we have lived as we ought to have lived, because there is no “ought.” The poor might cry out at our gates that they have been neglected. The broken might weep that we have squandered our life on little luxuries rather than pursuing compassion and justice. But no one can bring an objective charge against us because there is no objective charge to bring. But what if there were? What if there were some standard of objective good and evil such that all of our betrayals, slights, and cruelties were moral abominations? What if our whole life could be compared against some perfectly good moral standard? Suddenly we see the charms of moral relativism. I believe that it is not the inherent plausibility of moral relativism that accounts for its popularity, but its emotional appeal. We can be our own lords and masters. We can live our lives to please ourselves. We can do whatever we want and don’t have to answer to anyone, not even our own consciences.

Yet even in the midst of our moral relativism, there is something to be learned from it. I imagine that moral relativism has no appeal at all to those who consider themselves to be good. A man who believes that he has done his duty to God and to his neighbor, who has kept all the commandments, who is righteous and pure, who is not like robbers, evildoers, prostitutes or tax collectors – this man embraces objective moral values with eagerness. The existence of an objective moral standard legitimizes his feelings of superiority. There is a moral law, perhaps even a moral Lawgiver, and it is in his favor. There is a clear line between good and evil and he is on the right side. For all the horrific evil, apathy and falsehood that moral relativism can produce, at least it can produce no Pharisees. In contrast, the very fact that we flee to moral relativism only makes sense if we know –deep down inside– that we are guilty. What appeal does moral relativism have, except to a sinner?

So what is the solution? It depends where you are. For a committed moral relativist, I would begin by radically reexamining your worldview. Can you really justify your commitment to moral relativism given the empirical observations I mentioned in Section II? Does moral relativism have more (or any) empirical support when compared to realism? If not, then intellectual honesty demands that you adopt moral realism. But you cannot stop there. You next need to determine which objective moral facts are true. Is extramarital sex good? Is abortion good? Is honesty good? Is charity good? You need to begin to drastically reorient your life around the existence of objective moral values. You also need to ask: what grounds these objective moral values? If they exist, then is naturalism a coherent worldview? Is it, after all, far more plausible that objective moral values are grounded in the character of a morally perfect God? These are all of the important philosophical questions that need to be answered. Moral realism is not for the faint-hearted.

But there is a far more important question that needs to be answered, and it is not a philosophical question. It is a personal one. If the biblical God exists, then He is the standard of objective moral values. It is not some abstract form of moral virtue that you have transgressed. You have broken and rejected the commands of a good, loving, holy and righteous God. You can certainly launch into a project of moral self-improvement. You can adopt moral realism and begin reading utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer. You can even become religious. But you will still not solve your problem. And you will live out your days in an incessant, toilsome, miserable and ultimately vain attempt to achieve a right standing before God by your own effort. What you need is someone to come and rescue you. The gospel, the central message of Christianity, is that someone has.

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