Home > Callahan, humans, objective moral order, Shahar > Man & religion: Is there is an objective moral reality? In which I hazard a few thoughts

Man & religion: Is there is an objective moral reality? In which I hazard a few thoughts

I make no pretense of having any formal training in philosophy, but it strikes me that the answer is no.

I post here a few thoughts I penned in an exchange with Gene Callahan at his blog, Crash Landing on May 18 and 19, in connection with conversation that Gene was conducting with budding philosopher Danny Shahar (who also comments on climate change skepticism):


At 9:25 AM Blogger Gene Callahan said…
Well, Vichy, you have correctly identified a problem. Unfortunately, just as when someone is yelling “A cliff!” to another person who is rushing towards it while declaring “I care nothing about cliffs!” the “problem” exists for only one of us.
At 4:02 AM Blogger TokyoTom said…
“the “problem” exists for only one of us.”
Yes, Gene – for the one without a glider or parasail.
Likewise, any “objective” moral order would be true only relative to the physical and mental endowments of the species and, as each individual has objectively different cognitive and other physical endowments, and of such species` individual members.
If we limit the discussion to humans (Homo sapiens sapiens), at most, it seems to me that we can speak of is being genetically endowed (via a process influenced by natural selection over eons) with a range of moral beliefs, which find differing expressions given our gender, environment etc.
Yandle touched on some of this here: http://www.thefreemanonline.org/featured/the-commons-tragedy-or-triumph/
At 4:06 AM Blogger TokyoTom said…
For clarity, we aren`t endowed with beliefs per se, but with a capacity for them.
But what we end up with is heavily influenced by our upbringing/social millieu, gender/brain chemistry etc.
At 7:50 AM Blogger Gene Callahan said…
“Likewise, any “objective” moral order would be true only relative to the physical and mental endowments of the species and, as each individual has objectively different cognitive and other physical endowments…”
Of course slime molds do not think, “Hmm, it’s wrong to steal.” But how is the relevant? Does the existence of blind people make you doubt that light is objectively real, or think, “The laws of light propagation are only true for sighted people”?
The same point shows the irrelevance of cultural millieu, upbringing, etc. to the question of objective moral truth. Of course these things influence what our moral beliefs are! Did you think I was unaware of the existence of other cultures?
But, again, what is this supposed to demonstrate? Does the fact that before 1900 no human being believed in quantum mechanics, and today few people understand it yet, mean that there is no objective truth about the topic?
At 11:54 AM Blogger TokyoTom said…
Gene, while I consider it objectively true that human individuals display a moral sense, I see it as a biological trait (based on genotypes but with a wide and heavily environment-influenced phenotype) that exhibits a range across the species.
Outlines of the moral sense can be generalized, but each individual possesses his own, which may be quite different.
Needless to say, or biologicial relations, if as conscious and self-reflective as we, would have a different moral sense.
At 12:01 PM Blogger Gene Callahan said…
Right, Tom. And that relates to the question of whether or not there is objective moral truth just how?
(We all have unique sense organs. Does that mean that there can’t be any objective truth to the statement ‘Light travels at 186,000 miles per second?)
At 10:23 PM Blogger TokyoTom said…

Gene, while my own sense organs are limited, flawed and play tricks on me, it does seem to me that there is an objective world outside of me. At least, my experiences lead me to believe so. 

Scientific method and technology allow us to discover ever more about such objective reality (even while giving us conundrums about the particle/wave duality of electromagnetic radiation, and bizarro world of quantum mechanics).

The physical world is real, not only to us, but to other life forms that have entirely different ways of sensing, experiencing and interacting with it.

“Light”, including parts of the EM spectrum that aren`t directly visible to man, and sound (vibrations that can be sensed) exist in the real world, Gene.

But where is the “objective moral order”, that exists independent of humanity (or other life forms that act in ways both familiar and unfamiliar to us), communities and individuals?

Even if there were an objective moral order apart from our own feeble abilities to perceive it, it seems to me far more useful to regard our thinking about it in the context of our human nature, as beings subject to group selection pressures.

At 5:11 PM Blogger Gene Callahan said…

Tom, other than just saying, “Well, physical things just are objectively real and moral truths just aren’t, ha-ha!” I don’t see you arguing for your position in any way at all. Sure, if you assert from the start that physical things are objectively real (or so it “seems to you”, huh, Tom — kind of subjective there!) and moral truths aren’t, then of course that is the conclusion you will reach at the end.

So what?

At 10:04 PM Blogger TokyoTom said…

Gene, thanks for coming back on this, but have you addressed my comments fairly, or just taken a long time to punt?

I think I`ve been probing rather than reaching conclusions, much less ones ending “ha-ha!”

In part, I`m trying to figure out what YOU mean by an “objective moral truth”, which appears to be something real and can be tested for despite the inability of a particular observer to perceive directly – like beings that can`t directly perceive light (or like us who can`t personally physically observe much of what technology allows us to).

Is that what you mean?

And are you asserting that, for every conscious and self-aware being – regardless of species – that there is a uniform, objective moral order in the universe? [Leaving aside the question of how this objective moral order applies to type of organisms that are not conscious, or are conscious but not self-aware.]

Or are you only talking about an objective moral order that exists only for humans, that perhaps someday can be identified and located in universally shared mental processes, based on brain activity and arising from shared genes?

Or an objective moral order that exists for some humans, but not all – depending on physical development of the brain as we mature (with the development of some being impaired via genetic or other defect)?

Sure, if you assert from the start that physical things are objectively real (or so it “seems to you”, huh, Tom — kind of subjective there!)Yeh, kinda tricky how despite the fact that, in our search for understanding we have to rely on a brain that plays all manner of tricks on us, I agree with your basic premise that some parts of the world we inhabit is objective.


  1. Amanojack
    September 9th, 2009 at 05:02 | #1

    “2+2=4 is simply true by the definition of the terms used.”

    Yes, it seems that objective ethicists have the desire to impart their own personal ethics with the definitive authority of a logical proof. Witness Rothbard: “Where there is no property there is no justice; a proposition as certain as any demonstration in Euclid.” They so WANT it to be so.

  2. TokyoTom
    May 29th, 2009 at 03:26 | #2

    Danny Shahar (whom Gene Callahan predicts “will be a philosophical star very soon”) sent me the following comments by email, which post with his permission:

    “I think the concerns you voice are pretty much on the money.  I agree with the idea that understanding morality is a matter of understanding human psychology.  In the comments section of one of the posts on my blog, I laid out the groundwork for my position in a set of ordered propositions; I think it sounds a lot like what you were saying.  The proposition to which Gene took exception was the very first: “1) Value is a mental phenomenon which proceeds from evaluation (conscious or unconscious); without evaluating minds it would be incoherent to speak of value.”  Gene wrote, “#1 is certainly wrong, just as it is true that, without mathematicians, 2 + 2 would still equal 4.”  But I have no idea what Gene thinks he’s saying here; 2+2=4 is simply true by the definition of the terms used.  This seems to clearly not be true of the claim, “Capriciously killing is wrong” or “You ought not to kill capriciously.”  

    Do you know what’s going on?”

    FWIW, Danny`s blog is here:  libertarian-left.blogspot.com

  3. TokyoTom
    May 29th, 2009 at 03:01 | #3

    Bill, many thanks for your level comments.

    I think we are on the same page, at least in concluding that there is no “objective” moral order existing outside of mankind (or of life altogether).

    As for what objective moral order exists for man, I think that it is readily apparent that we frequently feel conflict between narrow self-interest and conformity with group norms (and the norms of overlapping groups).

    It seems to me that the existence of group norms (and their varying rigidity) reflects both genetic and cultural evolution. Yandle has some interesting insights into this in the last article that I link to on this page: http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2007/10/02/starve-a-cold-feed-a-fever-links-to-austrians-on-environmental-issues.aspx

    Further, I would note that we do not uniformly apply group norms to all humans, but treat people differently, depending on mental capacity, familiarity with the rules, membership in the group, status, age, etc. This leads me to question whether there is even a fixed human nature, shared at all times by all humans (from conception theough death).

  4. TokyoTom
    May 29th, 2009 at 02:56 | #4

    Mountjoye, thanks for your visit.  It was brave of you to comment, knowing that you might inadvertently aid a “busy enemy [who] has bored exceedingly deep during [the] lazy stupor” of freedom-lovers.

    However, you seem to entirely misunderstand the thrust of my comments, which are not focussed primarily on whether there is a human nature but to whether there is an objective moral reality that exists on its own, apart from human beings altogether.

  5. May 28th, 2009 at 19:40 | #5

    There are moral rules that are the same for everyone and independent of “opinion”. But to say they are “objective” is more difficult. What is “right” is what increases one’s sense of fulfillment, and so it is impossible to separate “rightness” from subjectivity. And yet I think that the general path to maximum fulfillment is the same for all humans in general, whether it be the product of God or of eons of time, physics, and chance.

    Thus, though morality cannot be objective in the sense that it is truly “outside” the individual, yet it is objective in the sense that it is invariant across humanity. It is also independent of individual opinion inasmuch as people who diverge are simply ignorant of the truth of their own nature.

    Those behaviors which are moral are those which lead to the maximum long-range hapiness (fulfillment) of the individual. These behaviors generally include such things as freedom, responsibility, integrity, honesty, honor, love, compassion, etc.


  6. May 28th, 2009 at 08:33 | #6

    Indeed, there most certainly is “objective moral reality!” Yet, I’m intrigued that this ‘existentialist’s dilemma’ appears, of all places, on this most-illustrious site. I submit the appearance of this question here represents a loud warning to each freedom-loving reader that the busy enemy has bored exceedingly deep during our lazy stupor. I am all too happy here, to encourage any with the mysticism-vanishing, stunning simplicity of human “objective moral reality.”

    Each conscious individual is thus “sublimely equipped with the ultimate survival tool to competently deal with reality successfully,” … a phrase first coined by Dr. Nathaniel Branden (the father of ‘self-esteem.’) To the degree one is in sync with his empirical, natural, day-to-day physical environment (an Aristotelian logic concept, deeply & gradually undermined starting some 2600 years ago) he alone is to a similarly comparable degree, uniquely invulnerable to loss from the vacuous, immoral, Platonic ‘sleight-of hand nothingness disease’ of existentialism & the meaninglessness of ‘species’ to his individual ‘fight or flight’ survival & prosperity. Power of intention over choice, (unlike the merely instinctual, therefore perpetually-innocent beasts,) causes us conscious human beings to appropriate the unavoidable imperative of morality.

    Each conscious individual is endowed with the practical facility & responsibility to judge in the best interests of only s/his & only s/his own abiding happiness (this is the purpose of the conscious human being’s one-&-only life s/he’ll ever have): i.e., “Good for me = Moral.” This is not at all a cultural nor species-conundrum; morality is distinctly an individual pursuit in which collectives are only a resultant, secondary, incidental, conceptual, aggregate. One cannot ascribe objective moral imperative to a non-sentient concept. A culture, a group, a species ~ no matter how enlivened by its highest indivisible entities within ~ has no moral capital nor value except that of its least sentient, indivisible member.

    Antithetically, an individual may choose actions “Bad for me = Immoral,” if he defaults on factors that are extant & influential to his uniquely self-discernible reality. Of course, something cannot be ‘good for me’ if it brings undeserved harm to innocent others. Nor will my good self-esteem survive my overly-recurrent violations against others when I lay my self-directed, introspective head down at night, no matter how self-beneficial a thing may appear or feel to me or any others, in the short term.

    To explain, in any scenario where I net more than I’ve earned through some unfair value exchange, my ‘usurpment’ triggers my conscience, which is my baseline in sanity, & my only inescapable authority & judge (not fundamentally cultural or subjective, nor residing anywhere outside of me.) Reflexively finding myself honestly guilty of undermining the abiding happiness (purpose) of my own sentient life, my objective conscience is thus hardwired to plunder my good self-esteem when I cause destruction. This is perhaps my most dependable life-lifting mechanism as a social being, existing to cause me internal pause long enough to repair this ‘Bad for me = Immoral’ destructive orientation, which (potentially) is then caught & stopped from any longer running adverse to my creative, cognitive, real human purpose. So, to wrangle with a quote from Gene, I iterate that “Likewise, any objective moral order [better ‘imperative’] would be true only relative to the physical and mental endowments of the” … individual, … as each individual has “buck stops here authority” over his own, but only his own, ‘Good for me = morality’ or ‘Bad for me = Immorality.’ Culture simply smalls to zero, when one is faced with his own personal decision “whether or not to do good work during Sunday’s cultural rest.” Hence, there can be no empirical “objective moral order” that exists independent of the individual’s own objective ‘Good for me = Moral.” I say, for example, even cannibalism is moral should I need live off another’s cadaver, as long as that individual’s life is not in the least involuntarily destroyed for my gain.

    ‘Bad for me = Immoral.’ This includes the likewise unnatural actions committed through the anti-civilized initiation of force, threat, or dishonest coercion by others (government, chief, don, king, president, club, family, included) against me, (or vice versa.) In a similar modus operandi to myself, another individual’s default on their own survival tool (consciousness) lies diametrically opposed to their own ‘Good for them = Moral’ conscious, human hardwiring. For to trade fairly & voluntarily of oneself with others in order to achieve success in dealing with life (discernible reality) competently, is the underpinning of all earned abiding happiness, & simply not available to mere-conceptual, inanimate, individual-derivitive groups.

    Indeed, this discussion significantly touches upon the crux of the peaceful prosperity & freedom R3volution this Dr. Ron Paul generation now battles. Armageddon (a personal spiritual war, not a collective or species schism) can only be won by the self-honestly integrated, net-productive individual ~ for himself & himself alone. This battle will not end, to the last human, except through that highest, indivisible conscious entity known as the conscious human individual deciding, & finally trumping the mystically divisible collective (a beast of ultimate disunity) with his own self-directed self-leadership ~ in his own best interests, & judging from his own life’s self-standards. ‘Group’ is a permanently subjective concept; non-empirical, … divisible, easily disjunctive, manipulable, vulnerable to waxing, waning, & disintegration, as if built on blowing sand. Dr. G. Edward Griffin (freedom-force.org) has much very worthwhile to say about this; he has been particularly focused & poignant on this very matter over some decades now.

    To further pursue this pedantically, the writings of Ayn Rand, Hayek, & early Dr. Nate Branden, are advisedly handy to have around the house; & while logician Aristotle was mystic-ridden Plato’s superior as regards objectivity, yet Dr. Julian Jaynes (Princeton) stands as the premier scholarly authority of all.

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