The Various Forms of Objective Morality

Based on the title of this blog post, I am sure you can guess that I am a ton of fun at parties!

It has been said, by various people, of various factions, and of varying backgrounds, that the tenets of morality exist beyond the realm of science. In fact, some have said that morality exists EXCLUSIVELY within the realm of religion. I have been told by those of strong religious backgrounds that atheism, and by extension, atheists have absolutely nothing to say on the topic of morality.

I am here to dispel that notion, because I think it is unfair.

First of all, atheism itself is not a “world view”. It is a view on religion, and there is no reason to extend it beyond that. For some reason, people of religion have said that since religion gives them their views on morality, atheism takes views of morality away, as though atheism covers the same ground religion does. It does not; atheism, while certainly a view on religion, is not a branch of religion as one who is religious might define it. To give a practical example, among Christians, there are many sects. Many of the sects of religions believe different things. Well, atheism, when compared to this form of Christianity, there are atheists who believe any wide number of things.

So where does morality come from? One who is religious might say The Bible, though having read only two parts of it for their reference material (Exodus 20, in which the ten commandments are laid out, or from “The Golden Rule”). These are considered valid forms of reference material because these moral tenets were provided by God, who defines morality.

Why does God get to define morality? I mean, if one reads the full Old Testament, one finds incredible violence, and wanton breaches of the Ten Commandments by those that God himself has identified as Just and Righteous. So, by reading the Old Testament, we find that God himself puts little stock by his own moral tenets. I mean, reading the book of Judges, one finds that God commands (and not just once) that His own people slaughter the men, children, livestock, take the women as slaves. destroy property.

God, the being who (by theistic definition) defines morality, broke… How many commandments? Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods, (presumably) thou shalt not commit adultery (why else would only the women be taken?). To me, this is not OK, but perhaps I am the crazy one.

So I’ve covered Western Theistic Morality. What other types of objective morality are there?

There is scientific objective morality. I will warn you, it is not ‘romantic’. It was not laid down by a loving creator. This is purely fact-based reasoning for why non-theistic persons would express strong moral reasoning.

The reason a non-theistic person might display morality is for reasons of the principle of “reciprocal morality.” This is discussed in some depth by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, and by Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape. The very short version is that I do something nice for someone else in the hopes that someone else will do something nice for me. Like I said, this is hardly a romantic notion, but it works in the form of reasoned morality.

But why might science say we should be moral at all? Well, that comes down to the Biological Imperative. Our entire goal, as living organisms, is to pass our genes onto the next generation, and by doing so survive into immortality through the proxy of our offspring. Let’s give a large-scale real world example, then:

We are on the brink of war, The United States and China are facing off in a Nuclear Standoff. I control the power to press the button for USA, and Tsz-Chung holds the button for China. If I press the button first, I am guaranteed a better outcome than China, and if Tsz-Chung presses the button first, China will come out ahead. The moral option, of course, is for both of us to not press the button, allowing for maximum survival on both sides (holy shit, I just accidentally recreated the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Neat.).

Objective morality states that to maximize my gene’s chances of passing to my offspring is for me to survive, and the same is true for Tsz-Chung. If Tsz-Chung presses the button, there is a chance USA will retaliate, and he will die. If I press the button, there is a chance China will retaliate, and I will die. In either case, there is a chance that the genes of the person holding the button pass on.

What is the best case scenario for me, the button holder? I do not press the button, for that would reduce my chances of passing along my genetic material. The same is true for Tsz-Chung.

Morally speaking, using theistic morality, I should do unto him as he would do unto me. Simple, the Golden Rule, and neither presses the button.

Speaking from a non-theistic morality, I want to maximize my chances of survival, and that maximizes Tsz-Chung’s chances for survival.

Both have the same outcome, but non-theistic morality does not require a supernatural arbitrator.

It will likely never happen, but consider this scenario:

Chuck says “If it weren’t for God, I would kill Mark.”

Science proves that God doesn’t exist.

Chuck kills Mark.

The problem with any moral framework that requires a “soft” (in this case, removable) underpinnings is prone to failure.

Non-theistic morality has a soft underpinning, there is some considerations to make there. If someone does not want to be alive, the biological imperative no longer applies. That is a weakness, but there are religious people who kill or steal, so even the perfect moral framework does not qualify as a prison, forcing adherents to make certain decisions. There is nothing that can FORCE a person to be moral.

The question is this: Do I require objective reasons for morality? Personally, I do not. I know I like to be happy, and do not like to be sad. I assume others, for the most part, feel similarly. If I can be happy without making others sad, and others can be happy without making me sad, everyone wins, because we all get to be happy. To me, it seems simple.

Why is morality such a complicated question?

The thing is that humans are complicated. There might be 50 things that could make a person happy. Some of those might make someone else sad. I’d say, as a moral adviser, that we simply take the things that make us happy without making others sad, and stick to those. We ignore the things that make others sad.

If only the world were so simple…

To be fair, The Golden Rule is a very good moral guideline. I do not have to believe in the God of Abraham to see that. Why should I?

By that same token, I respect the precepts of Jainism perhaps even more. The core of Jainism is basically “You shall not, through action or inaction, cause harm to any other living being.” Yes, that requires vegetarianism (which I obviously am not), but I respect it a great deal as a supreme moral code.

3 thoughts on “The Various Forms of Objective Morality

  1. A morality based on evolutionary biology seems plausible on its face, but I think it suffers from some basic flaws: 

First, while the evolutionary answer may serve as a description for how moral sentiment came about, morality by definition is prescriptive – it concerns what a person ought to do. While it may be true that decency served my ancestors well, that does not necessarily imply that I ought to act the same way. 

By its very nature, evolutionary science describes slow, gradual changes through random variations and natural selection. To begin by describing variations in a species over time, and afterwards to take one of those variations and consider it imperative for all members for the rest of time goes against the character of evolutionary biology as a discipline.

    Second, the evolutionary answer assumes part of what it is trying to explain. While “humankind developed morality because moral sentiment helped avoid conflict and aided the survival of the species” seems plausible, this explanation depends on reciprocal agreements between multiple individuals. But evolution would first require an isolated individual to develop moral sentiment and find it an aid to survival while every member of the species around him still refused to make a “moral agreement”. Then the “moral gene” would be passed on, morality would spread to other individuals, AND THEN reciprocal arrangements could be made. 

So evolution still has not answered the key question: how exactly would unrequited morality benefit a single individual? Perhaps there is an answer, but until it is presented nothing has truly been explained: moral individuals have to exist (and survive!) before moral agreements can be made. 

Third, the evolutionary answer offers no argument against immorality. True, being altruistic may, in the end, help me survive. But I could also increase my chances of survival by stealing from others. Since I cannot say for certain which choice will give me the greater chance for survival, why should I consider the first “good” and the second “bad”? 

For any account of morality to be useful, it has to answer this sort of question: why do people who are “bad” seem to prosper? and, if being “bad” will sometimes benefit me, where is my motivation to always be “good”? Plato, for example, begins his “Republic” by asking this question; evolutionary biology, conveniently, avoids the question altogether.

    Fourth, the explanation relies too much on uncertainty. In the examples given, the motivation for acting altruistically today is that someone will return the altruism to me in the future. True, that is one possible outcome of altruism. Yet, what is the moral argument against (to use the example provided) a group of people not to send aid to Africa – choosing instead to care for their own members today? After all, the future is always uncertain: they may never need aid themselves; they also cannot guarantee that they will be provided for if they do need aid. Perhaps their survival is best served by NOT giving aid. 

The reciprocal argument for morality only explains altruism insofar as the altruists believe they are “paying it forward”. In this sense morality is little different than purchasing insurance, or saving for retirement: I pay today just in case I can’t pay tomorrow. 

Yet this argument from uncertainty actually undermines morality. As an individual, as I decide what the moral choice is in a given situation, how exactly do I know what will benefit my species? how do I know what will maximize happiness for everyone around me? how do I know what will give my genes the best chance of being passed on?

    Of course I cannot know any of this with any certainty. So on what basis can I decide that one of my choices is “right” and one is “wrong”? 

    Finally, the evolutionary answer does not account for individual action.The examples cited concern only improbable “lifeboat” situations where the lives of many people are at stake – but this is not primarily what we are concerned with when discussing morality. Morality more often concerns the choices that individual actors make in their everyday lives. The choice of whether one group should kill another in order to save itself is not a choice most people will face. The choices facing each individual to take this or that thing, tell this or that lie, speak in this or that way, or do this or that thing – these choices never cease. 

And it is precisely in the realm of individual moral choice that evolutionary biology falls silent and offers no insight. This is the price paid for taking a natural science and expecting it to yield philosophical answers – a discipline take out of its context will not give answers that are of any value.

    So natural science cannot give a satisfactory explanation of moral thought – does this mean that an appeal to theism is the only alternative? And if not, are we left with no objective standard of morality?

    I don’t think either of these is the case. Morality implies universality – that all people at all times ought to be committed to moral behaviour. This in turn, implies that morality is something which operates independently from shifting cultures, circumstances – and yes, even religious beliefs. 

This is borne out by the way atheists and theists often criticize each other on moral grounds – in doing so, they are assuming a morality which the other side should be aware of and be committed to, irrespective of differing religious beliefs. 

While space does not permit a fully developed moral theory, I will at least try to give a partial answer to the question “what is the foundation of morality?” According to my own criteria, this foundation has to be appealing to theists and non-theists alike. It cannot be based in evolutionary science, nor in appeals to a holy text. What then?

I submit that morality is based on the nature of man himself. It cannot be denied that man has a nature – fundamental characteristics which make a human person a human person. The atheist may believe man’s nature comes from evolution; the theist believes man’s nature was created by God. That man has a nature, however, is beyond dispute.

    Moral philosophy, or at least the most robust examples, has almost always been approached from this “natural law” perspective. 

As I spent some length trying to show, an empirical, “scientific” approach to morality cannot be sustained. A different sort of reasoning is needed – a philosophical, logical-deductive approach. We do not begin with a hypothesis, observation and testing; instead we begin by stating what is necessarily, fundamentally true about man, and then reasoning outward. In so doing, we arrive at a morality which is objective, universal, and which avoids the disagreements between theists and atheists. 

One example of how this approach works can be found in Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty. While the entire book is intended as a political philosophy rather than a moral philosophy, Rothbard spends the first 4 chapters expounding on morality based on natural law. The full text can be found for free online here:


    • Morality need not be universal at all, as evolutionary biologists have (tried) to point out repeatedly. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion points out the Math of Morality (basically, how much of a population need have strong moral values versus the the percentage of that same population who ‘make use of’ or ‘abuse’ those people (by theft, bullying, rape, or murder, take your pick). Populations are very sustainable, both theoretically and practically, without need of a universal morality, or “nature of man”.

      To use a universal morality discounts too much of the human condition, in any case; if morality were a universal construct, whence comes rape, theft, murder, or even legal abuses of morality that allow the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor. How does one define these deviations?

      Now let’s talk about the evolution of morality; I will assume that morality evolved earlier than humankind, as there are several animal populations that exhibit behaviours that humans would call moral, such as care for the sick or weak, cleaning of parasites, distracting predators to allow for the rest of the group population to escape (this is a common trait in many birds, and for more information I would recommend the second half of The God Delusion by Dawkins, The Moral Landscape by Harris, and the papers published by Professor Marc Bekoff). The three authors just cited could argue morality in the animal kingdom far better than I ever could, but suffice it to say, biologists today agree there is a moral governance in animals outside of homo sapiens.

      In any case, you raised the question of the primeval morality; the first moral being. While certainly we cannot hope to fully grasp the evolution of something like morality, as fossils themselves can obviously not paint the picture of philosophical morality in the primordial past, we can certainly make educated guesses. The first moral being may have evolved to give a gift of the food he found to a predator, or perhaps even before that to leave bait for the predator that allowed it to escape predation. Later, the instinct that governed the leaving of that bait (which allowed this creature to survive) may have evolved to sharing food resources as leaving bait to aid in survival could have led to scarcity among members of the species. A species governed by a mutual sharing of resources could more easily form a cohesive group, as they needn’t have feared each other and the theft of precious resources, which would allow the population to grow even faster as they all worked to help each other survive. This continues for many generations, and over millions of years, a moral framework developed primarily for the purposes of surviving predation.

      This is merely speculation, but it certainly is one way in which it could have happened. Even predators themselves benefit from a basic moral framework; to get enough food to survive, often a predator will need to kill an animal much larger than it (wolves killing mammoths, for example). It cannot do this itself, so it must in groups, but for groups to even exist there must exist a mechanism in base instinct that prevents these predators from killing their own kin. Again, this leads to a base moral framework that underpins all of the animal kingdom, outside of human influence.

      Now we must speak about why “bad” humans are able to prosper, and your motivation for being good. As mentioned, Dawkins expounds this at some length, stating that the abuse of morality in others does allow a certain number to prosper, but not everyone can do this, the population would destabilize. If your profit is made at the expense of everyone else, and all people subscribe to this method of profit-seeking, you will run out of moral beings to abuse for profit. Further, the population of the rich (and as is required mathematically for our systems to function) is far outnumbered by the population of the poor. We simply cannot sustain a population of takers.

      Your motivation for being good then becomes the fact that we have an agreement, hard wired into our brains, that allows us to bond socially that relies on millions of years of evolved morality. You are correct in that perhaps we would be best served by not giving aid and, instead, working on assisting only our own social group (where you draw those boundaries is an interesting exercise; family, neighborhood, city, province, country, race, gender, species… Where do you draw the limits of your own social group?). I would argue that, instinctually, your moral tendencies towards your family are stronger than your moral tendencies towards your city, and you continue to see a reduction in instinctual morality as you branch out — but if you would tell me that if you went to Africa and saw a child suffering there, you would feel zero inclination to help? Well, that is a strong statement indeed. But all of this is bore out by evolutionary science.

      We want our genes to survive, and we share a significant amount of common genetic material with every other human in the world, depending on your metric. From an evolutionary perspective, it benefits us to have humans survive and be healthy and reproduce.

      I would not call this a cohesive, point-by-point rebuttal of your argument, but my own key points are this; the strict definition of morality is not universal, there is no strict, universal definition of “man’s nature”, and morality exists outside of humankind.

      Perhaps animals do not see something as right or wrong, but they act as though they do. The important thing to realize is this: the fact that we are having this reasoned argument at all makes morality much MORE likely to be part of evolution than part of some universal agreement built into us in some *strictly* wired way.

      I would say that something is “right” only in the way that we receive a hit of dopamine when we do something our brain agrees with, and our brain, through millions of years of evolution, agrees that upholding primeval social contracts is a valuable endeavour. Unfortunately, by that same token, our brain ALSO gives us a hit of dopamine when we do something that greatly enhances our personal chance of survival, and I think I can take a few more words to explain that somewhat.

      You are a child who has just stolen a chocolate bar. This enhances your chances for survival because that bar is very rich calories and carbohydrates, which we can use to survive. You feel great, your brain has given you that sweet, sweet dopamine hit it wants, even though what you just did goes against social contracts. Even if you know it is wrong, mind you; even if this is your second offense, and your parents have told you “this is wrong”. That is an important point; even if you know it is wrong consciously, your brain is still hardwired for personal survival.

      But what happens when you are caught? ESPECIALLY if you know it is wrong before even being told? Your brain punishes you with cortisol (a hormone linked with stress), you feel bad. Why? Because your brain understands that it has broken a social contract.

      It is fear of this negative feeling that defines what is “wrong”. What is wrong has very little to do with mere words and thoughts, it has to do with instincts and hormones. This is the method by which morality exerts itself in the animal kingdom; without high levels of conscious thought, instincts are not so easy to ignore. How many species of animals commit suicide? Dolphins have, but we know their brains function on a level that is incredibly high. So why doesn’t an abused dog commit suicide? Because it does not have the conscious thought required to override the biological imperative.

      The thing about a brain as highly evolved as that of homo sapiens is that it has the power to override base instinct. This is obvious in humans that commit self-harm, for example, in direct contravention of the biological imperative.

      So what does that mean? Morality is coded into us, though we are free to ignore its pulls as benefits our own survival.

      All of this evidence, if my point is not clear (and I fear my point seldom is clear), lays out what morality is more clearly than “right” or “wrong”, but in terms of the survival of a species. But it also points out flaws in your argument that morality is a universal construct; there are many differing types, even among humans. We are all wired differently.


  2. Pingback: An Expansion of Objective Morality | My Stream of (semi)Consciousness

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