A lot of atheists feel the need to argue that there is something called “Objective Morality” and that we have it just as well as any group that believes they received it from higher authority.
I think this is a nice idea, and have many friends who believe it. However, I believe it is both unnecessary and (more importantly) false. There is only subjective morality.
I was watching a theological debate the other day, as I often do while drawing my comics. In it, the theist argued that it only makes sense to posit objective laws if there is a lawgiver. I have to say, this makes at least a certain amount of sense, as long as you’re talking about certain types of laws. That is, I’m willing to believe that a law like “like charge repels like” could be a random member of any number of functional sets of simple physical laws, and therefore might not require a lawgiver. However, I’m less comfortable with the idea that there’s some law like “A male of a certain primate species should not mate with a female of that same primate species until she has existed for as long as it takes a certain planet to go around a certain star a certain number of times.”
Of course, we all agree with that rule. But, do you think it’s a rule of the universe, the same as “1+1=2?”
My friend Matt Dillahunty, who believes in objective ethics, defined it nicely by saying (paraphrased) “If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now.” That is, the ethics are outside of humans. Slavery is wrong. Even if every human being thought it was right, it’d be wrong. When pretty much everyone thought it was acceptable practice, it was wrong. For this essay, that’s how I’ll be defining objective. Subjective will mean that the rules are conceived of and agreed upon by humans, but have no existence outside of humans. That is, if humans perished, the rules would go with them.
Let me start off with an analogy. Let’s think about two sports: Basketball and Pankration. For those who don’t know, Pankration is an ancient Greek sport, which is basically MMA with no rules. I understand there may have been some minor rules, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Pankration was a sport with no rules. It has a goal – to make the other player concede loss. But, it doesn’t have any rules, like “no biting” or “no breaking fingers.”
On the other hand, Basketball has tons of rules. For example, you can’t punch a player. You can’t take 3 steps without bouncing the ball. You can’t hold the ball, then bounce it, then hold it, then bounce it. Of course, we accept that you COULD in principle do these things. But, since there are rules against them, you don’t.
An interesting thing about Pankration is that, by observing it, you could determine that there are in fact “rules.” For example, you might have a rule like “If both players are fit, and one player outweighs the other, the heavier player is likely to win.” Or you might say “Breaking fingers is a quick way to win.” Or, you might say “Always kick for the crotch.”
You can readily see there is a difference between the rules of Basketball and the “rules” of Pankration. The Basketball rules are given by humans in order to make the game fun. The “rules” of Pankration emerge from the state of the system – the shape and makeup of the human body and the space it occupies. The fact that “kick for the crotch” is a good rule for Pankration is not due to any human rulemaker. It’s a fact of the history of the universe in general and of human life in particular.
In other words, the “rules” of Pankration don’t really exist in the same way the rules of Basketball do. The Pankration rules emerge, fuzzily, from more basic rules of the universe. The Basketball rules are simply asserted upon the system.
Now, suppose instead of rules of sports, we’re talking about rules of ethics. The question you might ask yourself is whether the rules of ethics are more like Pankration or like Basketball.
To a fundamentalist theist, the rules of ethics are like those of basketball. They were arrived at by an authority above the players and are therefore to be obeyed. Period. If the rules of ethics really are like those of basketball, I think it is perfectly reasonable to posit a lawgiver. The rules are very specific and pertain to a particular species of beings on a particular planet. It is hard to imagine that a universe, which could have any set of rules, would happen to have a set of rules for this species. If you hold that there is a lawgiver, these rules are sensible. If you do not, you have to say that “Do not splash a human child’s face with acid” is (as Sam Harris suggests) a known rule of ethics, same as we know that energy is conserved. Both “Energy is conserved” and “A certain species of primate should not put free ions into the sensory apparatus of a juvenile of same species” are rules of reality. It could be the case, but it sure seems absurd to suppose that the latter law, which concerns a single species that inhabits a single tiny speck in a massive universe, was created by anyone other than that species.
In fairness, we could probably make a version of ethical rules that would sound more “basic.” Like, we could say “a system capable of suffering shall not intentionally cause suffering to another such system.” Even then, you’ve got problems. There are all sorts of circumstances where benefits can outweigh the suffering of a small number of individuals. Suppose then we said “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule, though it is one I try to abide, is still anthropocentric. Suppose we were an intelligent species of eusocial hymenoptera. In the case of humans, the “other” in the golden rule is someone who is by and large your equal. In the hymenoptera, there are “others” of your species who are objectively, always, your inferior. So you see, this rule is a rule for primates, not for the universe. It makes sense if the universe is somehow human-oriented, as in the case of a certain class of deities, but it doesn’t make sense in a world without such a deity.
Now, suppose the rules are like Pankration. That is, they are very basic rules – rules of the universe, not of primates. In time, these rules give rise to all sorts of emergent rules, like “If you kill your children, you will be unhappy.” We can delineate the rules of ethics, but only in the way that we delineate the rules of Pankration. They require us to make observations and decide on a goal.
For example, we observe that when we kill each other, it generally makes us sad. So, in general, ethics systems favor not murdering. If we lived in some sort of video game universe where killing didn’t make you sad (and in fact got you coins or points or something), I suspect we wouldn’t have the rule. If it were written into the universe, we might discover it. If it emerges from our history, we aren’t discovering anything but what makes us happy. That is, we’ve created rules in order to achieve certain results. This doesn’t have to be true, but it is in no way absurd to suppose it is. It doesn’t require you to posit an unobserved giant consciousness, nor does it require you to posit an intentionless universe which nevertheless has rules for a certain species of primate on a certain planet around a certain star.
And I don’t see what’s wrong with this. Ethics can work by human imposition just fine. In fact, we have all sorts of subjective ideas that are nevertheless useful. There is no objective definition for “skyscraper” but it’s useful to distinguish certain types of buildings. There’s no objective set of civil laws, but we can still observe societies and see what laws seem just. There’s no objectively delicious food, but you’ve eaten many delicious things in your life. There’s no objective definition of love, but you’ve given and received it your whole life.
I think it’s wrong to splash acid in a little girl’s face, but not because there are objective laws of ethics or because there’s any such thing as a science of ethics. I believe it’s wrong because the society that appears to me to be most happy is one in which people don’t perpetrate corporal punishment upon each other. I don’t say this is objective truth. It’s what seems to me to be the possibility that makes me happiest based on my biology and history. My ethics are the Pankration ethics. They’re real, but they’re effects, not causes.