25 Jan

Towards an objective morality

Objective morality

This morning I was involved in a debate in which a person noted that some atheists condemned the actions of God as immoral, and so he pushed them to give him the moral standard against which they were judging his God. He argued that without objective morality, there is no set-in-stone standard to make any meaningful judgements – and I’m inclined to agree with him. As soon as one admits that morality is subjective, then any one definition of it becomes as valid as any other, and being that they are all mutually exclusive, they each become valid and invalid in equal measure, and we can go nowhere. It seems imperative to me therefore that we be able to find an objective means to determine whether a given action is ethical or not, and to this end I set about approximately two years ago to establish for myself a theory of ethics1 based on the principles of compassion and rationality.

What we mean by ‘objective morality’

In order to do this, firstly we must decide what morality is for. Much disagreement on morality is made wastefully; we need to agree on some rudimentary description of what it means to behave morally. I have often found discussions of morality to devolve into word-games and semantics, where the word morality is simply being used differently by different people. To a Christian, morality is synonymous with God’s will, but to another it could be anything from Rand-style self-interest to Ghandi’s pacifism. My proposal therefore is to declare what the word morality in my mind ought to mean.

What I am talking about when I use the word morality simply stems from the recognition that there are better and worse ways to feel. The existence of this kind of morality is implied by the presence of minds that can experience a gradient in their quality of existence. Morality is what we call our mindfulness and respect towards other beings’ perspectives – if the universe only contained rocks, there would be no other perspectives to be considered and the concept of morality would be meaningless. Morality only matters to the degree that actions can affect conscious perspectives.

In order for an objective morality, there must exist something that is universally good or bad, and this can only exist in terms of its effect on conscious beings; the consideration of these things in relation to decision making can be called morality. Are there things that are universally good or bad for conscious beings? As it happens, yes, there are, and these can be used as the basis for moral objectivity.

Suffering, for example, is inherently bad, and well-being inherently good. It is part of these things’ very definitions. If suffering did not feel bad it would not be suffering, and likewise if well-being did not feel good it would not be well-being. These things are by their natures good and bad. Both well-being and the avoidance of suffering are valued by all creatures capable of feeling these things,2 and therefore they are objectively important.3 In this way, the existence of a morality that is defined as the respect afforded to others’ perspectives is implied by the existence of good and bad things.

Objective morality versus subjective morality

Now, I’ve had enough experience talking on this topic to know by now that many will have already dismissed this idea on the grounds that this definition of morality is no better or worse than any other. This, however, is mistaken – the word ‘morality’ may be abandoned and the argument still stand strong. Whether we accept this definition of morality or not, it would still matter whether or not we acted in accordance with it. Attacking the word does nothing; we may call this idea by any name – the argument does not crumble with it. Whether we follow this conception of morality is important regardless of whether we recognise it to be “morality” or not. The necessity to respect others’ perspectives is simply implied by the existence of inherently good and bad modes of existence and our ability to influence which kind conscious beings will experience.

I also must anticipate arguments from moral nihilists (who believe morality does not exist), who by now will likewise be objecting. Again – fine, don’t call it morality – call it whatever you like – but from the very admission that there are good and bad ways to feel, we have simultaneously made the additional admission that it is important for a being to feel one as opposed to the other. By admitting that a thing can be good or bad, we also admit that one outcome is better than another, from which one can infer that the outcome has a significance to it – it is in some manner important – it matters what the outcome is. So too in this case: it matters whether beings have a good quality of existence or a bad one, and it matters to the degree that they are vulnerable to experiencing bad things or capable of experiencing good things.

Another charge against objective morality that I’ve commonly seen put forward is that our morality is simply what has evolved, and therefore must be subjective. This is false; there is a distinction between our moral intuitions (which have evolved) and morality itself (which would exist independently of whether people happened to evolve intuitions in-line with it). Our moral intuitions are the result of game theory and Nash equilibria; whatever behaviours that happen to further the propagation of the genes responsible for them will be the ones that tend to survive. This says nothing of how we should act, only how we are biased to act.

The corollary to this is that our moral intuitions are likely very faulty.4 Indeed, we already know that they’re remarkably inconsistent.5 If we’re to establish a means of ethical conduct, it must be founded upon sound principles and steered only by reason. What is moral is not arbitrary, therefore there must be correct and incorrect means to determine moral action. If our starting premises are correct, then any logical inferences made must also be correct. Reason is our only means to be sure of our conclusions – uninformed intuition must be treated with extreme scepticism.6

Also what might be said is that because well-being occurs in one’s own mind, it therefore must be subjective, but this isn’t true. There’s a difference between what causes well-being and the well-being itself. Apples aren’t objectively good because it’s possible for someone to disagree and dislike them. Likewise for all things that cause well-being – they’re varied and depend on the individual, and their value to people is therefore subjective. However, the valuing of well-being itself is constant – those who like apples like them only because they contribute to their well-being in some way.7 Well-being itself is not subjective because it is valued by all conceivable creatures capable of experiencing it – to any given individual, it is either important, or it does not exist – these are the only two scenarios. But in both cases, and all else being equal, well-being will always be preferable to suffering.

What matters in this universe is only the way conscious beings feel. Absolutely nothing else has any significance whatever. Indeed, there is no way to say that anything can be important if it is not important to some conscious being that has a stake in it – and this stake is inevitably how they (or others) will feel. I have proposed suffering and well-being be the terms to represent the two ends of the spectrum in terms of the ways conscious beings can feel. Others may ask why I did not choose pleasure versus pain, or happiness versus sadness, and so on – these things are encapsulated by the terms of well-being and suffering (pleasure, happiness, content, etc. all being constituents of well-being; pain, sadness, discontent, etc. all being constituents of suffering). All these things and more matter to conscious creatures, and in this way they naturally contribute to one’s sense of well-being and suffering, but not necessarily to their pleasure and pain, or their happiness and sadness, which each hold narrower scopes.

An outline for a system of objective morality

Once we have established values we should be respectful of, we next need to determine what constitutes respectfulness. Some suffering, it must be said, is necessary. Almost every action carries with it a chance of inflicting suffering of some kind, and generally we have an incomplete knowledge of the consequences of our actions. Additionally, we might agree that in certain circumstances we are justified to inflict a certain degree of suffering in order to defend some higher principle (for example, self-defence might harm one’s attacker). Suffering is inevitable in these respects, but what is not inevitable is the suffering that is not considered to be necessary: Any suffering that we freely choose to support where we are neither justified nor coerced into doing so must be avoided if we’re committed to behaving morally.

Well-being similarly; we generally consider ourselves not to be obligated necessarily to go out of our way to help a person, which would be neither moral nor immoral – simply amoral. However, helping a person would be indisputably moral. It is my reasoning therefore that a person, unless they have freely consented to accepting additional lawful responsibility (such as a doctor’s responsibility to his patient or a mother’s duty of care to her children), ought not to be able to be condemned for crimes of omission, which exists neither here nor there, but only for those acts which he himself freely commits.

Additionally, I mentioned earlier that we do not generally operate with a full knowledge of the outcomes of our actions; the best a person may do is to act with good intentions. Some of the worst crimes in history have been committed with good intentions,8 but these cannot be easily condemned because we could not have expected the criminal to have acted any differently given their faulty beliefs. Only when we can have an expectation that a person have been reasonably able to have acted in another way can we condemn them,9 which we cannot do if they were directed by thoughts of good intentions. If two drivers are driving equally carelessly, and one happens to accidentaly hit and kill a child while the other does not, on what grounds can we judge the killer more harshly than the other? Justice is not a matter of one’s luck, it is a matter of reason and principle.

For these reasons, I deny consequentialism10 – the view that consequences are the only means to judge the moral worth of an action – and therefore classic utilitarianism (which is a consequentialist philosophy). Similarly, I reject deontology, which states that it is the actions themselves that are either moral or immoral, and that we are duty-bound to act in accordance with universal ethical rules. Up until this point, I agree with it, however the rules proposed I often do not. One of the guiding principles in deontology is that you may not treat a person purely as a means rather than an end in themselves (meaning that it is unethical to manipulate a person in order to achieve a perceived greater good). Because of the absence of my belief in free will,11 all reason not to treat a person as a means evaporates. With free will, each person is an autonomous agent capable of self-direction; treating them as a means to an end restricts their freedoms, and therefore inflicts upon them a transgression. Without free will, this doesn’t apply – we are all the time completely confined to our path, whatever it may be, and that path either includes being used as a ‘means’, or it does not. In either scenario, no transgression has occured; the person’s freedoms have been respected in equal measure in both cases, and he remains equally confined.12

So, in the absence of these philosophies, what is left to be proposed in order to guide the ethics of our behaviour? The most fundamental conclusion to be reached I’ve attempted to place concisely into one statement, applicable to the judgement of all actions:

Any action, intentionally committed, made in the presence of an understanding of its expected consequences, whose intended effect would naturally lead to the unnecessary harm or the unjust suffering of another, that is committed in the absence of unreasonable coercion, nor is committed as a result of a choice deemed to be the lesser of evils, ought rightly and universally, irrespective of time or culture, be declared immoral.

- Fundamental imperative

This rule is foundational. There is much to added and further concluded, but at the very least, this statement is as certain as anyone ought to require, and so we ought to support it, as well as any changes where we determine there to be space for improvements.

Summary

It is of course a mistake to ever assume that a moral belief is set in stone – we are constantly becoming more informed about how the world works, and this should affect our views of morality. Our value of well-being and our dislike of suffering, however, will never change, because it cannot. There will always be uncertainty in how best to react to this; uncertainty simply must be tolerated if we’re to go anywhere. We can’t pretend we’ve everything figured out already, because we haven’t. We need to remain humble in the presence of the facts. Facts, tempered by reason and directed by compassion – this is the only route to a world worthy of people’s vulnerability to suffer.

Morality must only be based upon reasoned convictions. Conviction held contrary to reason is not a virtue, it is only a burden. The risk of doggedly following a faulty compass, never questioning its advice, can lead a person tragically astray, often so far that they can never return. Until we can extricate ourselves from the tangle of fantastic differences handed to us by our egos, and we can care more about being right rather than only feeling right, we will remain trapped in a dense fog, so that even if the truth were right next to us, we would not be able to see it.

Above all, we must care to do what is right. We must hold reason in our minds and compassion in our hearts, for without compassion, reason is empty, and without reason, compassion is lame. Therefore, let’s be critical of any proposed system of ethics that is not based upon these things, because suffering is universal and if our universe holds any truth at all, it’s that we should not tolerate it.


  1. A theory of ethics is a long project; unfortunately there are still many questions I need to find the answers to, but I stand by the conviction that I will be a better person for my pursuit of them. 

  2. A being can’t dislike the feeling of their own well-being – it would be a contradiction. All else being equal, it will always be better from a being’s perspective to be in a state of well-being over suffering, and it’s this that holds true universally. 

  3. The difference between well-being and suffering is significant not only to the individual, but also objectively because it holds for all individuals as a matter of principle – a conclusion drawn from the natures of well-being and suffering themselves. It can be said of it then that it matters whether beings are in states of well-being or suffering, because from any possible perspective that one might consider, it is always better that, all else being equal, the individual be in a state of well-being over suffering. 

  4. ‘Faulty’ in the sense that if a person’s beliefs were inconsistent, they could also be called faulty, and so it is the same here. Note that that’s not to say that our intuitions aren’t useful – whether it’s useful to believe in God would say nothing as to whether God existed or not, and even if it was tremendously useful to believe in him, I would still classify a rationally-unjustified belief in him as ‘faulty’ – for it would be a fault of one’s reason – but this is the only point I wish to make. 

  5. For example, we feel far more empathetic towards one suffering person than to millions; as Stalin callously remarked, “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” 

  6. Intuition unfortunately often still reigns supreme in ethics, justice, politics, and such fields where one is tempted to think with his gut. All these fields demand reasoned inquiry, not innate or cultural biases. 

  7. Conceivably, a being could exist who liked apples despite finding them poisonous, ugly, and dastardly in every respect, yet appreciated them nonetheless because of the value they provide to humans. In this case, this being’s well-being would be dependent in some respect on humans’ well-being. Despite not directly benefiting from apples, his well-being would nevertheless be in some way contingent on apples because his well-being is to some extent contingent on others’ well-being, to which apples contribute. 

  8. For example, dictators who have faulty convictions about what is ‘best’ for their people. 

  9. Whilst we may not be able to condemn people for committing foul deeds as a result of coercion (from either bad beliefs or some other means), we can of course still condemn their actions. 

  10. Actually, what I am denying is technically referred to as actual consequentialism. The alternative, known as objective consequentialism (Railton 1984), places value on expected reasonable outcomes. See the entry on consequentialism provided by Stanford. 

  11. I hope to write an article on free will in the future, but until then I will simply say that I don’t believe in it. 

  12. Indeed, without free will we are so confined as to not be free to act in accordance with or against any conception of morality. So why bother in our attempt? Because whether free will exists or not scarcely makes a difference to everyday affairs. One might say, “If I have no free will, why ought I bother even to get up in the morning?” But in reality, of course they will be compelled to get up anyway. So it is in this case where, although we can’t blame a person for wrong-doing in any ethically-significant sense, we can still care about doing good in the world. 

2 thoughts on “Towards an objective morality

  1. It is strange that you believe in objective morality and at the same time do not believe in free will. If we are not free, there could be no morality, just following internal / external forces. But if we are free, you may ask, where do we get intentions to do something? That is the point. Our basic intention, as humans, is freedom itself. Morality serves freedom and is based on freedom. For instance, people may voluntary choose suffering or even giving up their life (an action which you would probably consider “objectively” bad or immoral because it can be avoided) for the sake of a higher good. If you are interested in this approach to morality, you may want to check the book “Cult of freedom and ethics of public sphere” which is available at http://ethical-liberty.com. Thanks.

    • Hey OE, thanks for leaving a comment. Yes, it does seem a little contradictory – maybe it would be worth addressing this point in another post. If morality exists, surely it has to be as an implication of agents’ ability to choose between good and evil? I agree with this view, but what I would contribute to it is that humans do make choices, even if they are not free ones. We are capable of considering the moral worth of our actions, and this moral consideration is what makes it useful and important in my opinion to consider ourselves as moral agents.

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