Monday, December 2, 2013

Objective Moral Values - a conclusion

This summer, I started a personal evaluation of whether objective morals existed (here and at the links contained therein), by focusing first on what objectivity meant. In my sloth, I left that endeavor incomplete, and the world was left poorer for it. :-)

Let me tie up the loose ends. I started to realize that the word “objectivity” can be defined differently depending on what we are claiming to be objective about.

Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

It might be helpful to ask questions like a reporter would. Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?. Since the point of this disquisition is to sort out my thoughts on “objective moral values”, I’ll append a “what ought to be done?” to the list during the essay. How are these questions used, and when can we be objective about the answers we obtain?

When considering physical things - space-time, matter, energy and their behaviors and relationships - human beings can usually agree on what objects look like, sound like, behave like, consist of, etc. Given the right tools and techniques, we can observe and measure to a very high degree of accuracy. It may be that some approaches - powerful telescopes, particle colliders, radiometric dating - are available only to qualified experts, but those experts will usually agree on the results of the observations when the observations repeat to a very high degree. We can refer to these as being objective physical facts, because they will be the same for all observers, given a specified accuracy and the required tools and techniques. We can be objective about questions we’re interested in once we’ve reached a level of repeatability that is recognized as significant. (For LHC/Higgs fans, that figure was 5 Sigma, or a one in 3.5 million chance that the measurements obtained were erroneous).

When considering qualitative things - for example, what the meaning is of a particular set of observations - we run into divergence on interpretations. We then find objectivity - the ability to obtain the same interpretation by all observers - more difficult - even in the scientific arena. This leads to more hypotheses, more tests, and hopefully more knowledge.

Segue into the area of human affairs, and the need to do more interpretation and less physical measurement dictates that we get less consensus on what happened and why. We can be objective about many of the facts of what human beings have done, but not always. We begin to ask more qualitative questions - why and how - and we eventually get into the area of ethics and morals - what ought to be done. It is here that objectivity is often hardest to come by.


In the case of human affairs, the word “objective” starts to look like more of a consensus that groups of people hold about a topic. For example, I might think that I’m emotionally detached and non-judgemental about what should have been done in a situation, and can claim - without warrant, so far - to be objective. If I present that claim to a few people for scrutiny - the neighborhood, for instance - I might discover that my opinions coincide with theirs, thus the neighborhood might claim objectivity about that situation. If I subject my claim to a larger group, then that larger group can potentially achieve broader consensus, and thereby stake a larger claim to objectivity. There is no guarantee, however, that my neighborhood and a neighborhood half-way around the world will agree on that situation, therefore we can’t say that there is global objectivity about it.

The point above is that there will be differences among individuals and groups as to the affairs of humans. And what has been done, and what ought to be done, are subject to debate, consensus or disagreement, and any consensus will shift over time and context. That leads me to conclude that the term “objective” is a fluid concept when used about human affairs. Thus “objective morals” - although not completely absent in the world - are a very small subset of the morals that might exist across all people and all contexts. In the absence of any natural or supernatural agents actually specifying and enforcing morals that must be adhered to, I have to conclude that moral values are largely relative. I can see attempting to identify commonalities across legal, social and religious contexts, but I’d expect that very few ethical questions are unconditionally resolved in the same way in all contexts.

Objective moral values that all humans can agree to, then, seem limited to a very few topics. My interest in whether the existence of objective moral values is evidence that God exists is attenuated further by the fact that, until you and your interlocutor agree specifically on examples, you probably don’t know whether you’re talking about the same thing. Until these terms are stipulated, any argument that uses “objective moral values” in a premise is pretty useless.

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