• Robot Brain
    4
    Morality has been fluid throughout all of human history, including today. Moral codes come and go, from Babylon's Law of Retaliation (e.g. an eye for an eye) to Christianity's Golden Rule (e.i. Love your neighbor as you would love yourself). Even in today's world we can see the tides of moral change. The recent societal shift towards acceptance of homosexual relationships comes to mind. With all this variation, it's hard to doubt that these different societies and cultures throughout time and space had a hand in shaping their morality. How very... Subjective.

    Now I want to know, is morality truly so subjective? Is it truly variable to the society, culture, or even individual who may claim it, or are there perhaps some first principals ingrained somewhere deep within all moral codes? Is there some tiny trace of objective morality that has emanated throughout all cultures in all time periods? Would such a thing hold true with all sentient beings, be them human or not? Please tell me your thoughts.

    As for my own thoughts, it seems to me that morality can only exist if sentient beings exist. If there was no being to perceive a moral code, be it God, gods, man, or other beings, there would be no medium (e.g. mind) for morality to exist in. I thus postulate that all moral codes would require sentient beings to exist in some capacity, otherwise said moral code would cease to exist itself. I think this holds true throughout history, but please prove me wrong. I can't think of any society in history which did not frame its moral code around the framework of human's (usually in the form of the society) continuing to exist. An eye for an eye, while sounding crude to my modern ear, was meant to deter people from harming others in some way. The less they harm each other, the better they can exist.

    Sure there have been individuals and groups which diverge from the morality of existing; however the moment this occurs, the moral code ceases to exist. Basically the moment you and your suicide cult friends drink the coolaide, bye bye moral code. But perhaps it's unfair of me to say that the "suicidal moral code" doesn't count as an alternative to my postulated objective morality. I mean it must have existed for a brief moment during which the poisonous coolaide was brought to the mouth. I find myself in a bind here.

    I'm curious about other's thoughts on a timeless or objective moral code. Perhaps you disagree with my existence postulate and think there are alternatives. Perhaps you say all morality is subjective. I'd love to hear more.
  • Sir2u
    1.4k
    Is there some tiny trace of objective morality that has emanated throughout all cultures in all time periods?Robot Brain

    Don't hurt the community, the future of it.
  • Wayfarer
    6.9k
    Welcome to the Philosophy Forum. Those are important questions, and a well-written OP.

    My attitude has always been that of moral realism, which, I have learned, is actually a controversial view, perhaps even a minority view. I recall a conversation from years back, where I ventured that there was an objective moral order, which I was then told was an absurd thing to believe.

    Subsequently, I have begun to suspect that the problem lies with the criterion of 'objectivity'. Notice in your post, that there is an implicit equation of what is 'objective' with 'what really exists'. But there are deep philosophical questions that are not really amenable to a truly 'objective' analysis. Really, what turns out to be 'objectively verifiable' are things that can be measured according to some common standard. Which basically brings you back to what science does.

    But then, there's the well-known 'is/ought' problem, which is that there is a fundamental difference between 'is' statements and 'ought' statements. Whereas the former are tractable in terms of scientific analysis, the latter are not. In effect, this means that 'ought' statements now become internalised, private - or, as you say, 'subjective'. The distinction which Plato thought fundamental, between knowledge and opinion, becomes impossible to sustain in respect of moral questions. That is the dilemma of morality in a secular culture, in a nutshell, as all consensus regarding any ultimate good is now a matter of individual conscience, and arbitration concerning what is real is left to science, which really has no say about 'ought' statements at all.

    So - it seems to me that what is needed to anchor morality is an objective good, a summum bonum. That is generally translated as the 'highest good' which naturally sounds religious, although Buddhism recognises a summum bonum which is not grounded in belief in God. But in any case, it has to be something which is truly, unconditionally good. Although as soon as you put it in those terms it will immediately trigger disagreement as to 'what is good'. So I think that it's an impossible argument to win on rhetorical or polemical grounds. However, I think 'persons of good faith', in the sense of having a genuine disposition towards truth, can sense that there is indeed a true good. The task then becomes, how to discern it.
  • Bitter Crank
    6.8k
    Welcome to the philosophy forum.

    I have not studied comparative moral systems, so I'm speaking without any authority of knowledge here, but I am guessing that if you did a survey of the moral systems of which we have a record, you would find that there is a normal distribution of moral prohibitions, moral requirements, and the like. For instance, I think you would find that most moral systems disapprove of arbitrary killing. Most moral systems are going to disapprove of theft, and so on.

    Is there some universal source? Yes -- human beings. People living in groups face common problems, which is why moral systems will require similar things.

    Since morality isn't a matter of physics, we can't say that any moral system is "objective" the way we can say that a principle of physics is objectively true, whether you like it or not. But morality isn't individually relative. (Well, morality could be individually relative for somebody who lives on a planet by themselves.) People live in societies, and societies devise rules which they expect people to follow. The society's morality really isn't optional. The morality of a south sea island people may be quite different than the morality of the French or Irish, but that doesn't really make morality "all relative". Let's say that specific moral systems are applicable to the people who live within their domain.
  • T Clark
    3k
    Is there some universal source? Yes -- human beings. People living in groups face common problems, which is why moral systems will require similar things.Bitter Crank

    I agree with this. I'd like to make sure we include biology in the mix. Human beings evolved as social animals. I believe a lot of our social behavior, including morality, is built in, human nature.
  • Baden
    6.9k


    There's an indefinite amount of context required to resolve any moral statement into an "objective" truth, and no moral principle beyond a truism (e.g. "We should always do what is right") does not admit of exceptions, so you need to pick a level of generality that's practical and run with it. Anything beyond that is a matter of faith. But this doesn't mean morality is simply "subjective" in the sense of being "whatever you want". Rather, it's inter-subjective, by necessity a matter of agreement between conscious agents that may or may not reflect some higher level of truth.
  • Bitter Crank
    6.8k
    I'd like to make sure we include biology in the mix. Human beings evolved as social animals.T Clark

    Philosophers, janitors, city planners, auto mechanics -- everybody--ought always and everywhere to include humanity's animal nature in their thinking, doing, planning and being. We are never disembodied beings. We are all body all the time from which comes mind. No body, never mind.
  • Wayfarer
    6.9k
    I believe a lot of our social behavior, including morality, is built in, human nature.T Clark

    The problem I have with this (and mine is an unpopular view), is that it invariably reduces morality to survival. After all, the only criterion for success in biological theory is reproductive fitness. Evolutionary biology is explicitly NOT concerned with ethical issues, except insofar as they can be understood through that prism.

    There is an important OP by academic philosopher, and Heidegger scholar, Richard Polt, that I often refer to in this connection, who says,

    I have no beef with entomology or evolution, but I refuse to admit that they teach me much about ethics. Consider the fact that human action ranges to the extremes. People can perform extraordinary acts of altruism, including kindness toward other species — or they can utterly fail to be altruistic, even toward their own children. So whatever tendencies we may have inherited leave ample room for variation; our choices will determine which end of the spectrum we approach. This is where ethical discourse comes in — not in explaining how we’re “built,” but in deliberating on our own future acts. Should I cheat on this test? Should I give this stranger a ride? Knowing how my selfish and altruistic feelings evolved doesn’t help me decide at all. Most, though not all, moral codes advise me to cultivate altruism. But since the human race has evolved to be capable of a wide range of both selfish and altruistic behavior, there is no reason to say that altruism is superior to selfishness in any biological sense.

    In fact, the very idea of an “ought” is foreign to evolutionary theory. It makes no sense for a biologist to say that some particular animal should be more cooperative, much less to claim that an entire species ought to aim for some degree of altruism. If we decide that we should neither “dissolve society” through extreme selfishness, as Wilson puts it, nor become “angelic robots” like ants, we are making an ethical judgment, not a biological one. Likewise, from a biological perspective it has no significance to claim that I should be more generous than I usually am, or that a tyrant ought to be deposed and tried. In short, a purely evolutionary ethics makes ethical discourse meaningless.

    Furthermore, evolutionary biology doesn't necessarily have much to say about existential questions. Again, from the viewpoint of evo-bio, we're simply another species. The fact that we can question the nature of meaning, pursue science and philosophy, and many other things, is to all intents invisible to that perspective. Yet nevertheless, many people persist in believing that they are 'explained' by it.

    [See also It Ain't Necessarily So, Anthony Gottlieb.]
  • T Clark
    3k
    Furthermore, evolutionary biology doesn't necessarily have much to say about existential questions. Again, from the viewpoint of evo-bio, we're simply another species. The fact that we can question the nature of meaning, pursue science and philosophy, and many other things, is to all intents invisible to that perspective. Yet nevertheless, many people persist in believing that they are 'explained' by it.Wayfarer

    I don't think human morals are established by biology in any definitive way. I don't think you can draw a specific line between a gene and a behavior. I just think we have evolved as people who like each other. Who want to be around each other. With a capacity for empathy.
  • Wayfarer
    6.9k
    Doesn’t add up to a lot, though, in respect of the question at hand.
  • T Clark
    3k
    Doesn’t add up to a lot, though, in respect of the question at hand.Wayfarer

    I disagree. I think that all moral codes grow out of our nature as social animals. That ties in with what Bitter Crank wrote about the social basis of those moral codes, although I don't think it's exactly the same thing. To the extent that human moral codes are universal or timeless, it is because of something in us.
  • Wayfarer
    6.9k
    To the extent that human moral codes are universal or timeless, it is because of something in us.T Clark

    What do you think that ‘something’ might be, though? Is it a product of the instinct to survive? Is it social in origin?
  • gurugeorge
    517
    I'm curious about other's thoughts on a timeless or objective moral code. Perhaps you disagree with my existence postulate and think there are alternatives.Robot Brain

    I think there are a gazillion timeless moral codes - pick any perspective, any point of view, and the world automatically crystallizes as having objectively good or bad bits in relation to that point of view, and objectively good or bad things someone can do who takes on that point of view. A rock, a tree, the human race, one's people, one's self, etc.

    I also think there's less variation in morality than seems at first glance. I believe Pinker has gone over this, but there's a good deal of commonality in moral codes. If you look at the history of the concept of "natural law" it came about precisely in the context of Greek and Roman conquest and hegemony, when jurists and philosophers were surprised to see that foreign systems of moral codes and laws had their own peculiarities as expected, certainly, but also some commonalities.

    This is largely because biology forms a sort of tether - we can mold our behaviour in all sorts of ways at need (i.e. we can "act" in all sorts of ways), but it doesn't stick unless it fits nicely with our biologically given predispositions.
  • T Clark
    3k
    What do you think that ‘something’ might be, though? Is it a product of the instinct to survive? Is it social in origin?Wayfarer

    I just know that I like people. I like being around them. I like to think I can feel what they are feeling. Maybe that's presumptuous, but I know I can imagine what they are thinking and feeling and sometimes I'm right. I wish them well. And it all feels like part of me. Not something imposed from the outside. Whatever the complications of human behavior, I feel the same impulses in other people.

    For me, those feelings are the base of morality. Where did they come from? Sure, as BitterCrank said, we are taught and socialized. But it seems like more to me. It is my understanding that's true. Our social behavior shares lots of characteristics with other animals with similar genetic and evolutionary backgrounds. I don't know the mechanisms by which this all expresses itself in our lives. It's on my list of things to explore more deeply.

    Anyway, I'm not talking about sociobiology - some sort of one-to-one correspondence between genes and particular behavior.
  • Wayfarer
    6.9k
    I just know that I like people. I like being around them.T Clark

    Sure, I absolutely respect that, and from everything you write, you seem to be a good person to be around! But the thread is asking a pretty specific question about ethical theory. It seems to me almost every response has been along the lines of - 'it's up to us', which also stands to reason, in the present social context. (Although at this point I'm beginning to think the OP is a drive-by.)
  • Galuchat
    482
    For human beings, morality has subjective and intersubjective aspects. It cannot have an objective aspect, except when talking about a morality common to all living things (i.e., not just plant morality, squid morality, bee morality, etc). And this last statement presupposes that inanimate objects do not possess motivation and volition (i.e., a mind), hence; cannot be held responsible (morally or legally, and by whom or what?) for their "actions" (e.g., water freezing, melting, condensing, eroding shorelines, evaporating, raining, etc).

    Anthropologist Donald E. Brown has determined that morality is a human universal (Human Universals, 1991, cf. http://www.humiliationstudies.org/documents/BrownUniversalsDaedalus.pdf)

    So, I think human morality is an intersubjective (species-specific) consensus gentium based on human nature (genetic predisposition) which has many subjective (personal) and intersubjective (cultural) manifestations. Specifically, that it is implemented in the human mind through theory of mind, empathy, ethical knowledge, conscience, introspection, and self-judgement, as follows:

    1) Once theory of mind has been attained at 2-7 years of age (Piaget), ethical knowledge begins to be acquired by human beings through the operation of empathy (which has affective and cognitive aspects).

    2) A person's morality construct develops in parallel with mental maturation, personal experience, and social influences (cf., Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development).

    3) Moral action-behaviour is informed by the operation of conscience, and self-judgement is activated by introspection.
  • T Clark
    3k
    Sure, I absolutely respect that, and from everything you write, you seem to be a good person to be around! But the thread is asking a pretty specific question about ethical theory. It seems to me almost every response has been along the lines of - 'it's up to us', which also stands to reason, in the present social context. (Although at this point I'm beginning to think the OP is a drive-by.)Wayfarer

    My only point, and it's a narrow one, is that I don't believe there is an objective moral order except to the extent we are constrained by our biological, psychological, social, and cognitive natures. I see that as a positive thing.
  • Shiva Surya Sai
    4
    Moral codes can either be deliberately written or "empathy" and "smarts" can be encouraged in population to correctly judge any situation and respond aptly.

    However pain is required for development. Without war, there wouldn't be defense or civilizations ( or basically anything ). So, the world isn't meant to be 100% moral. Pain is a part of life and so is immorality. Like angels don't protect you from the bully, your inner devil does. Good+bad = completion. It's the same as saying bible doesn't give a bully peace, bullying others does. And completion can only be attained when the both culprit and the victims perspectives are taken into account
  • Robot Brain
    4


    Although at this point I'm beginning to think the OP is a drive-by. — Wayfarer

    No drive-by, just distracted :)

    I believe a lot of our social behavior, including morality, is built in, human nature. — T Clark

    The problem I have with this (and mine is an unpopular view), is that it invariably reduces morality to survival. After all, the only criterion for success in biological theory is reproductive fitness. — Wayfarer

    I find myself leaning towards morality derived from evolutionary biology as my example of pro-existence morality may suggest. As T Clark said, morality, or in my opinion at least the first principal of morality, could be built into us as a species. Could it not be plausible that human morality is framed around the biological objective of reproductive fitness? For instance we notice throughout the animal kingdom that certain species will join together in order to increase reproductive success. A fish may swim in a school, an ant may work within it's colony, and a higher primate may operate in a social group. All of these behaviors came about through natural selection, and appear to benefit the organisms carrying them out.

    In a sense one could consider the morality of the fish to stay near it's fellow fish. Now the fish likely does not consciously consider this morality, and we humans would likely prefer to call this an instinct; but can we be sure that our human morality is not a biological instinct as well? Other higher primates have shown altruistic behaviors while interacting with their social groups. It seems form an evolutionary standpoint, these behaviors would increase the reproductive fitness of the group and thus be a desirable or "fit" behavior. Could it be possible that we primates evolved certain moral "instincts" through means of natural selection? Could my urge to help a dying child I see on the side of the road, be instinctual in nature, similar to my fear of heights? I find a genetic morality plausible, though maybe not empirically provable for the moment.


    So - it seems to me that what is needed to anchor morality is an objective good, a summum bonum. That is generally translated as the 'highest good' which naturally sounds religious — Wayfarer

    As for a "summum bonum," since the overall objective in evolutionary biology seems to be fairly straightforward, could the objective good simply consist of reproductive fitness? It seems to me that most human moralities help humans coexist together in their respective social groups. Social groups which, when compared to the rest of nature, have proven themselves to be one of the most powerful reproductive fitness tools. In this sense I could see how reproductive fitness could be a basis for morality.
  • T Clark
    3k
    I find myself leaning towards morality derived from evolutionary biology as my example of pro-existence morality may suggest. As T Clark said, morality, or in my opinion at least the first principal of morality, could be built into us as a species. Could it not be plausible that human morality is framed around the biological objective of reproductive fitness?Robot Brain

    As I indicated in my response to Wayfarer, I don't think biology has any kind of one to one relationship with morality. I don't think morality has anything to do with reproductive fitness except in the broadest, maybe even metaphorical way. We are not mechanistically moral. We, because of everything that has gone in to creating us, are the kind of creatures who care about others of our kind.
  • Wayfarer
    6.9k
    As for a "summum bonum," since the overall objective in evolutionary biology seems to be fairly straightforward, could the objective good simply consist of reproductive fitness?Robot Brain

    So basically you're answering your question in the negative.
  • Robot Brain
    4
    I framed my question a few different ways so I'm not sure which one you're referring to.

    I'm certainly not sold on the biological fitness = morality hypothesis I mention above. You pointed out some holes such as altruism and selfishness within a species; although I think they can both play roles in reproductive fitness. I also suspect that my statement of reproductive fitness being an evolutionary objective good could be a gross assumption. I'd like to give it more thought and hope people will poke more holes in it.

    I recall a conversation from years back, where I ventured that there was an objective moral order, which I was then told was an absurd thing to believe. — Wayfarer

    What are your thoughts on an objective moral order? Is this still your stance?
  • Wayfarer
    6.9k
    I'm certainly not sold on the biological fitness = morality hypothesis I mention above.Robot Brain

    OK then - but from your previous response, I thought that is what you were saying:

    As for a "summum bonum," since the overall objective in evolutionary biology seems to be fairly straightforward, could the objective good simply consist of reproductive fitness?Robot Brain

    Actually I had drafted a long response, but then I thought better of it, but now that you ask, I will try again. (Although I had thought that the Richard Polt essay I referred to was a pretty effective argument against that.)

    Anyway - the elephant-in-the-room has to be religion, I would have thought. The reason being that religion is, generally speaking, the very thing that posits something beyond the purely physical; it's a large part of religions' raison d'être. It says, we're something more than, and other than, simply the product of biology.

    But I don't want to come across as evangelical in saying that, as I certainly don't subscribe to any form of creationism or ID. I fully accept the empirical evidence for evolution; I grew up on Time-Life books and studied undergrad units in pre-historic anthropology and archeology. But I also don't subscribe to the 'conflict thesis' between religion and science, that is a big part of the 'culture wars'.

    So my view (albeit subject to constant revision) is that h. sapiens is capable of realising transcendent truths - which by their nature are indeed timeless; that is the domain of the timeless, if you like. In fact, that ability is what 'sapience' consists of, you could argue. (Hence, modern humans really ought to consider renaming themselves 'homo faber', some have said.)

    However, I favour a kind of religious naturalism - that such a capacity is indeed latent in humans, but one that it is not often realised. So, how I read religious philosophies, is that they are diverse accounts of individuals who have had such realisations, who have 'broken through' to the 'domain of the timeless'. And that's why most of the worlds' moral codes ultimately go back to religious revelations of various kinds (whether Semitic, Vedic, or East-Asian, among others.)

    So that is not actually incompatible with evolutionary biology, but it's certainly incompatible with the secular-scientific attitude that usually accompanies it. (Actually, the very word 'secular' is derived from 'the order of time in the world', to distinguish it from the 'eternal' which was ostensibly the domain of the sacred.)

    So that's about where I'm at, at this time. The process of evolution is not simply physical, but also spiritual - which is basically a taboo for Western secular culture, although it does have its champions. So, discerning that, or aspiring towards it, provides the basis for an ethical code that is not only about 'reproductive fitness', important though that might be.
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