Objective moral values are moral values that are “independent of human desires, perceptions, beliefs and practices”. Those who hold that moral values are objective are known as moral realists, and they believe that statements such as “slavery is wrong” are true or false regardless of who says them, and where and when they were said.
Atheists such as Nietzsche, Hume and Mackie all agreed that there are no objective moral values in a godless universe. Although this is a common position, not all atheists hold to it, and a recent post concluded that it is possible to maintain that objective moral values could exist without God. This involves accepting that brute moral facts just happen to exist in our universe, and that they match our moral beliefs.
By contrast, theists explain moral facts by appealing to the necessary existence of God, which neatly explains moral obligation and why moral facts are correlated with our moral beliefs. The theistic view seems more persuasive, but of course the theistic worldview entails many other commitments which atheists find untenable.
Why do atheists like Wielenberg even think objective moral values exist? Given their commitment to an evolutionary account for our existence, it seems logical to attribute our moral beliefs and our intuitions about these beliefs to natural selection, at least indirectly. But doing so makes it difficult to be a realist about moral values, as it leads to Sharon Street’s “Darwinian dilemma” – either evolutionary forces have somehow conspired to produce moral beliefs that match these objective moral values, or our moral beliefs don’t coincide with whatever objective moral values exist at all. If objective moral values are jettisoned, the Darwinian dilemma dissolves, so why hold to this position?
Interestingly, it’s a very common position. In fact the majority of philosophers surveyed are moral realists. Given that over two thirds have a preference for atheism, it seems moral realism is widespread even amongst atheists.
David Enoch contends that believing morality is objective has considerable appeal to us, and he gives three reasons why this is so.
Firstly, Enoch uses a joke to illustrate what he calls the spinach test. A child who hates spinach says “I’m glad I hate spinach, because otherwise I might have eaten it, and it’s yucky!”. It’s funny because the only reason for not eating it is because of personal preference. If you did like it, it wouldn’t be yucky.
But it isn’t funny when it’s about a moral position. It seems quite reasonable to say, “I’m glad I wasn’t born in an era when slavery was acceptable, because I would have accepted it, and I think slavery is wrong”. This sentiment seems reasonable because we are thinking beyond our personal preferences. We think slavery is objectively wrong.
Enoch’s second test is about how moral disagreement feels – the phenomenology of disagreement. When we have an argument about a topic such as abortion, or some other issue we care deeply about, it doesn’t feel like an argument about personal preferences such as the taste of chocolate. It feels like an argument about something objective. Enoch compares it to a debate on global warming, which we know to be an objective matter irrespective of our position on it.
The third test is the “what if?” – or counterfactual – test for objectivity. If our beliefs or practices were very different, would it still be true that so-and-so? Enoch gives the example of smoking causing cancer. If we believed smoking was harmless, would it still be true that smoking causes cancer? Of course – it is an objective fact that smoking causes cancer, no matter what we believe. We can apply the same test to moral beliefs. If we believed slavery is acceptable, would it still be wrong? It seems clear that the answer is yes, slavery would still be wrong. We would want a society that believes slavery is acceptable to change their views.
Enoch contends that these tests demonstrate that we very much want to regard morality as being objective. We want to be able to say that torturing babies for fun is objectively wrong no matter what some people may think.
But we are still left with the Darwinian dilemma and consequently have at least one good reason to think that morality is not objective. Of course, some sort of theistic evolution can counter this, but are there any good arguments for objective morality other than our intuitions?
Yes, and they will be explored in part two, coming soon!
4 thoughts on “Are there objective moral values?”
So what about keeping the command to keep the sabbath stated on the stone?
Good question given the picture!
Yes, I think keeping the Sabbath is an objective moral value. Christians and Jews believe it was commanded by God and thus meets the definition of a moral value that is independent of human minds.
There’s a caveat though – keeping the Sabbath was a command given to a specific group of people for a specific time. Much of Old Testament law is also in this category.
Thus it is an example of an objective moral value that has certain constraints on who it was intended for, meaning it is not universally applicable. So I guess it is a special type of objective moral value.
I should also add that I haven’t elucidated the difference between objective moral values and objective moral duties – I’ve lumped them together here. Moral values are to do with moral worth – how good or bad something is. Moral duties are to do with right and wrong – the obligations we have and the prohibitions we are subject to. Keeping the Sabbath is a moral duty rather than a moral value.
Given man’s fallen or flawed moral nature, it is hard for him to live in agreement with moral absolutes. When it is convenient for man to look away from moral absolutes, he does so. Moral relativism is rampant in today’s world. This is partly due to a corruption of religion and partly due to a rise in atheism.
It’s true, many people just don’t want there to be moral absolutes. They want to do what they want to do, without anyone telling them it’s wrong.