Can actions be objectively right or wrong?
A note at the beginning
Looking down the barrel of a gun, the question is trivial. People agree morality is objective when put in certain situations. The web of definitions and multiple meanings obscure the simple truths about morality.
This article came about after I debated a moral relativist. I also talked through my thoughts with a friend (who was very patient with me and was rewarded with some chocolate). I hope that this helps you recognise the moral understanding which is present through your experience.
But what does it all mean
We need to start with an attempt at definitions. People refer to different things when they reference morality (and objective). So, we are going to begin with some distinctions which will help us down the road.
Morality A and B
I am going to refer to ‘Morality A’ and ‘Morality B’.
Morality A is going to refer to what people mean by ‘societal’ morality. I.e. it is the rules society agrees and enforces, e.g. through social norms, police, judiciary and so on. This is not necessarily objective morality. This is what a sociologist or anthropologist might do when looking at morality. For them, it is a curiosity, a set of developments which just happen to be the case. In society 1 they say this is right, but in society 2 they say it is wrong.
Morality B is what we are interested in here. It is objective morality.
What do I mean by ‘objective’?
Objective means that something’s truth or falsity is independent of other factors. These factors are things like:
- If a moral law exists, it exists across time and space. For example, for someone who thinks murder is wrong, it would be as wrong yesterday as tomorrow
- It exists across societies. You society saying something is right or wrong doesn’t make it so.
- If you disagree about it, you are either right or wrong. Its rightness or wrongness is independent of your opinions.
We need to be careful here. A moral truth is true or false independent of what people say, think or do, but knowledge of it obviously depends on some of these factors. If I am brought up in certain environments, I might remain ignorant of certain truths, whereas in others I discover them.
Furthermore, I will argue that moral truths are tied to experiences. Our opinions and thoughts about morality do not determine what morality is, yet the truth about moral decisions literally exists self-evidently through our conscious experience. Similarly, If I saw a red bucket in front of me, I could not deny the redness I experienced; if I persuaded myself I was seeing blueness I would be wrong.
The web of terminology and other confusions diverts our attention from what we’re aware of.
Follow your heart
Let us imagine a world populated only by people ‘like’ you. They are like you in that the nature of their experiences are the same.
(On reflection, if there was no similarity in experiences at all, even the word experience would refer to different things!)
Let us concentrate on a simple case: your toenails are being ripped out by a torturer. The pain is incredible. Compare that to hanging out with your friends. Alternatively, compare the most painful experience in your life to a truly special one. Perhaps being in love compared to some personal or bodily harm endured.
Now, don’t focus on the cause for the time being. Focus on experiencing it only.
The experience is undeniable. Just as, if I look at a green wall I cannot deny the ‘green-ness’ (even though I might deny that the cause came from a wall), from these experiences we begin to have a definition of morality, one which is objective. Of course, it is essentially ineffable beyond this: words relate to experience, ideas, etc, and I am already conjuring up your experiences and asking you to derive knowledge from them. Our first understanding of morality is based on this knowledge, gleaned from the different states we can experience. It is undeniably true that some experiences are wrong, in that another set are better and that if you had the choice, you should choose one over the other.
If others are identical to you in the quality of your experience, you have a guide for how to behave towards them. It was the nature of your experience, that an experiencing being had that experience, which made it bad. Thus it is equally bad in others if others’ experiences are comparable. You might be a different cocktail of emotions and thoughts, with a different way of making decisions, but the nature of experience itself at the fundamental level is the same.
How should I feel? – It’s complicated
I must stress this isn’t a formula to apply. The types of experience are unbelievably complicated. For example, feeling sad should not automatically be considered bad at a family or friend’s funeral. This is largely because our emotions are extra-ordinarily interconnected in a complicated way. If we failed to grieve, it wouldn’t feel right, and we wouldn’t come to terms with a loss. Hence the simplistic example, as the rippling effects of an emotion make its desirability complicated.
Are others different?
I will give a few possible assumptions or approaches for this. If others’ experiences are substantially the same, then moral comparison and decisions are doable. If you know nothing about them, then they are impossible.
- Others have a degree of rationality. Thus they reveal preferences about mental states and thus their nature through their actions. Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave a method of comparing across individuals. How are you supposed to weigh their welfare against yours, especially if they might be different in some fundamental way? However, it does allow you to make improvements for an individual.
- There is a degree of similarity in the nature of experience. That others experience along similar lines to how I do. Their sensory experiences matter less, more important are their emotional experiences
- Consciousness is not as self-contained as we assume, and we can gain knowledge of others’ experience through our own.
Over the course of the next few years, I will be able to tackle the problem of other minds more thoroughly, so I will temporarily park this issue.
What about difference between societies?
We are now in a position to tackle the differences between societies.
Perhaps societal differences on moral questions are not as different as you’d think. Societies typically view certain ‘types’ of being as deserving of certain rights and behaviours. Those which encourage murder of other people cast the other people as lesser people, and those doing the killings fail to associate the properties of experience, intelligence and other factors with the people (or animals) they mistreat.
The shift occurs in societies and individuals when the people in it recognise the experiences of others as valid and existing. When this occurs, they then treat them with greater respect.
Selfishness is still to be expected. After all, we acutely aware of our needs whereas others’ are like a distant country! We are constantly bombarded with what improves and worsens our experience, but don’t get similar information about others’ experience. In this account, failure to act morally is really a failing of understanding, of reason. Only when we can get past the barrage of information which reminds us that we have experiences that matters can we try and improve another’s experiences!
A lack of disagreement?
People disagree over whether morality is objective. Yet I do not believe that they can really deny the information provided in their experience. I think in their actions, those who deny objective morality show that they really do think there are concrete differences and there is a truth in there. If there are just ‘things that happen’ to which ‘shoulds’ don’t apply, that ignores the reality of our daily experiences. The Holocaust didn’t ‘just happen’, human rights abuses aren’t things which ‘just happen’, nor are mistreatment of billions of animals. They are things we should care deeply about for good reason.
All the rest?
What about all the other aspects of morality? Is fairness and justice a good? Do I have moral obligations to friends and families which go beyond my obligations to strangers?
Perhaps. I haven’t denied that any of these things might be possible, but at least we now have a basis for some moral judgement. Moral philosophy is confusing and complicated, and I will tackle these issues in other articles.
Where were we?
Okay, that was a lot to digest.
To recap, we made a distinction about the type of morality we were interested in. We tried to be careful about definitions and what we were examining. By pinpointing one thing, we thought it was clear that certain truths were apparent in experience, and morality is tied to that. There were several approaches which allowed us to apply this moral thinking to others, but