The Moral Landscape

Last month, myself and Elina attended a One Life session on Ethics, to tell the young people why they are wrong.

Specifically, about why I believe morality is objective, rather than subjective.

For many years previous to this I had argued that morality must be subjective – after all, without a god, what universal source is there to say what is right or wrong? This is the position that most non-believers take and ultimately forms quite a coherent world view – but does mean that you have to admit that in some ways, you can’t say what Hitler did was wrong because that’s only your subjective point of view and from his point of view, he was doing the morality right thing.

Of course, they should automatically lose the argument by resorting to Godwin’s Law, but it is something that has never sat particularly well with me.

However, after reading The Moral Landscape, the new book from Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith – the book which really got me passionate about atheism, it presented to me for the first time a worldview which makes coherent sense with objective morality without a god.

I didn’t entirely buy into it at first, but after a few months mulling the topic over, I have to hold my hands up and say that I believe Harris puts together the best argument and so I will hold my hands up and say I now beleive I was previously wrong about the nature of morality.

To give you an overview, Harris’ argument is this:

Morality is a human construct, but it’s actually about an observable fact.

When it comes down to it, the field or morality is about welfare. If you do something which is good for the welfare of others, it is a moral act. If you do something which is bad for the welfare of others, it is an immoral act. And if you do something which has no impact on the welfare of others it is an amoral act. Of course others actually includes yourself, and isn’t limited to humans, but it seemed like a more poetic term to use.

So, if we work on this basis, every act can be measured by it’s impact on welfare and then judged to be moral or immoral accordingly. How you define welfare is of course very complicated – but although it’s a hard concept to define, we all really know what we are talking about when we use the term.

Based on this then, we have an objective way to measure an action as moral or immoral. If it does more harm than good overall, it is a immoral action and if we did more good than harm then it is a moral action. Objectively.

This is great because you can now say “Hitler’s actions were objectively immortal” rather than just “I believe Hitler’s actions were immoral, in my subjective opinion.”

In fact, it’s clearest to see at the edges. Take an action, for example throwing acid in a woman’s face without cause – that is clearly wrong, not wrong in our Western society but OK in the correct cultural settings – it’s just wrong! Indeed, another advantage of objective morality is you can tell the cultural relativists to go fuck themselves when they say it’s OK for certain cultures to practice beating wives, stoning homosexuals and the horrific practice of genital mutilation because that’s their tradition.

Of course, the next question is, “well how do you know what is right and wrong? Surely there are too many variables to take into account – it’s never that simple.” You’re right, it never is as simple as my example above, but that is beside the point. Just because it’s very tricky to work out what whether an action causes more harm than good, doesn’t mean it’s inherently subjective – it just means it’s very difficult to work out!

A lot of physics is also extremely difficult to work out, but it’s definitely objective (and I will be so bold to insist that that does include quantum mechanics). Similarly, just because we don’t have all the information just yet, it doesn’t mean that eventually we won’t be able to find the objective answers to the question or morality, and until then, we can give it our best educated guess.

And if we’re wrong, then we’re wrong. It’s not that it was moral to keep slaves when the slave trade was thriving – it was immoral back then as well, but people were just wrong about it. We still don’t have to blame them, because they didn’t know, just like we don’t blame people for being wrong about the world not being flat, but never the less, the world wasn’t ever flat, even when everyone knew it was.

Another common criticism is that if morality is objective, it can never change. This seems inherently wrong because morality has to change depending on circumstances – killing is wrong in cold blood, but acceptable in self defence. Another example would be that killing animals for food was acceptable thousands of years ago when you had to to survive, but now that you don’t have to, it’s not acceptable.

But this is a misunderstanding of the kind of objective morality Harris puts forward in his book. Objective facts can change. For example, my age is 25. That is an objective fact. But next year, my age will be 26 and that will be the same objective fact about my age – it’s just that time has moved on and things change. My age still remains objective.

Finally, another potential criticism of this somewhat utilitarian view is that it supports ideas that we would not agree with – as the old joke goes, nine out of ten people enjoy gang rape. That is to say, of course, the nine rapists enjoy it, and the one victim does not – the greatest good for the greatest many and all that.

This doesn’t hold up to any kind of examination of course – none of us actually want to live in a world where we could get gang raped at any time, even if nine of out ten times we would be the rapist and enjoy it (not that any of us actually would enjoy it of course, but hypothetically), we would spend our lives living in fear and so overall welfare would in fact decrease. Therefore such nonsense is not by any stretch of the imagine, tolerated under a utilitarian system.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on enough. Please give The Moral Landscape a read, it’s £12 on Amazon and I’ll happy lend you my copy if you’re too cheap to buy it. It really offers some fantastic food for thought and challenges an area of debate which I think many of us considered closed – of course nothing is closed given we claim to be the freethinkers and all.



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This entry was posted on Saturday, November 12th, 2011 at 12:18 pm and is filed under Books, Reviews, Science. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.