Categorized | Religion

The closest thing to objective moral values

[Continued from Do objective moral values exist?]

The Christian apologist William Lane Craig says that certain actions like rape and torture are not just socially unacceptable behavior but moral abominations. He also argues that the Holocaust would still be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them. And I agree with him on both counts. However, the term “moral abomination” does not necessarily mean objectively wrong since we have no way of finding out if our list of moral abominations would still be the same had we evolved in a different way, and I would also argue that we’re only able to make such judgment on the Holocaust precisely because we haven’t been exterminated or brainwashed by the Nazis and, more importantly, because evolution has “taught” us that genocide is not a very good way of perpetuating our species. The moral values that evolution has conditioned into our minds may not be objective since they cannot exist independently of our minds, but they are definitely more than just moral fads.

Not surprisingly, Craig expresses skepticism with evolution-based morality:

[T]here’s no good evidence that our perception of moral and aesthetic values has been programmed by evolution. Darwinists are extremely imaginative and creative in coming up with what are called “just so” stories in order to explain things via evolution for which there is no empirical evidence. Indeed, these stories are almost endlessly adaptable, so that they become almost irrefutable and, hence, unfalsifiable.

I admit that Craig has a good point, and I admire his skepticism. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to apply the same skepticism when it comes to the existence of objective moral values:

Why should I think that objective moral values exist rather than that evolution has made me believe in the illusion that there are objective moral values? Because I clearly apprehend objective moral values and have no good reason to deny what I clearly perceive.

This is the same answer we give to the sceptic who says, “How do you know you’re not just a body lying in the Matrix and that all that you see and experience is an illusory, virtual reality?” We have no way to get outside our five senses and prove that they’re veridical. Rather I clearly apprehend a world of people and trees and houses about me, and I have no good reason to doubt what I clearly perceive. Sure, it’s possible that I’m a body in the Matrix. But possibilities come cheap. The mere possibility provides no warrant for denying what I clearly grasp.

I think the key difference between moral values and the physical world lies not in the perception but in the applicability. The physical world applies to everyone and everything regardless of their sense capabilities and even whether they are sentient or not. For example, a blind zebra and a deaf bat will both hit a tree standing in their paths, and even the unconscious wind will have to blow around that tree. Lack of perception does not exempt anyone or anything from the reality of the physical world.

Moral values, however, apply only to the acts of those who are able to perceive moral values in the first place. Non-human animals do not commit murder when they kill other sentient beings, and even young children and mentally disabled adults are often excused from certain moral duties. It is only the mentally-fit humans who can perceive moral values, and it is only the mentally-fit humans to whom these values apply, making moral values doubly dependent on perception. How then, can we call such values objective with the same confidence that we say that the physical world is objective?

Now without objective moral values, what are we left with? It seems that no matter how we try to get some purchase for our morality, there is an is-ought gap we just can’t quite cross. Just what is it in life, or the flourishing of life, that makes us ought to act in certain ways?

Others are more qualified to answer that, so I’ll just try to approach it from the semantics angle, particularly with the word objective again, which happens to have another definition: undistorted by emotion or personal bias. In this context, objective moral values could mean something like the kind of morality Richard Dawkins says he wants: “thought-out, reasoned, argued, discussed, and based upon – you could almost say – intelligent design.” And I believe we have what is arguably the closest thing to objective moral values, and that is the objective reasoning of an evolved brain.

 
DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the position of the Filipino Freethinkers.

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