The Nihilism of Subjectivism

I’ve been involved in a discussion over at AtheistForums with several atheist posters. Despite being otherwise rational when it comes to obvious issues such as the existence of god, we see here evidence that just being an atheist says nothing about the accuracy of your worldview, or your rationality as a person. That is why is it important to choose your ideological allies carefully.

A recurring theme I have encountered is the position that morality is a relative / subjective matter – that it is a product of human social interaction; that it arises from evolution; that it changes over time, and is based on societal norms. I have never held this position myself, and not many atheists I know do – this is because a brief analysis of relativism will reveal its bankruptcy and contradictions. Despite the fact that many intelligent people are led by reason to disbelieve in god and call themselves atheists, all too often a warped philosophy is left untreated – and philosophy is the basis for any study of life.

What is most revealing is the fact that moral subjectivists tacitly subscribe to some form of moral objectivity in order to make moral statements. This contradiction will appear all the more egregious shortly. (The quotes that follow are from a relativist on the thread linked to above. It is the position of subjectivity that I wish to attack here, and not any particular person or poster.)

“Morality is not about facts, like the earth orbiting around the sun. It’s about principles that guides us in what course of action is acceptable by the community in which we live.”

The subjectivist denies that morality is a matter of fact; denies that morality has certain truths that we can discover. The subjectivist here asserts that whatever is “good” or “evil” is subject to the opinion of a community. This basically means that one community could consider slavery good, and another community could consider it evil – and both of them are right. The subjectivist who considers slavery evil has only to walk to the next village, and slavery will be good. Does any subjectivist really think like this? Without a means to decide between competing positions, both positions are equally unable to form a foundation from which to make moral judgments. So when the subjectivist says “rape is wrong” – he might change his mind next month or when he moves country, so his opinion is meaningless.

“People in the recent past, and even today, would litter the grounds with cigarette butts or paper tissues they had just used or anything that was inconvenient as they went about. It didn’t enter their minds that such insignificant things could pollute the earth, as they thought in those days the earth was so immense that polluting it didn’t even enter into their minds. Or people went fishing as if the oceans were infinite and the number of fish would never dwindle. Yet today, we have different perceptions because we know better — that we CAN pollute this planet or make certain species extinct, and that such actions are adversely affecting our health and the bio-equilibrium of the species with which we must share this planet.”

Notice the assertion that certain actions are wrong. The subjectivist claims that excess fishing is wrong; that polluting the planet is wrong; that living together in peace is good; that littering is wrong. But on what grounds can a relativist make such a claim? Is he saying that these things are always wrong?? But that would require an objective standard. Is he saying that these things are wrong at the moment? Well why would they be wrong today but not wrong a hundred years ago? Or does the subjectivist claim that whatever is right or wrong at any particular time is whatever that society decides to do? Well in that case, the assertion is a meaningless tautology – by this reasoning, any society at any point in time in human history was always moral – because they did whatever they thought was right. But if morality was “doing whatever you think is right” what would be the point of morality? Why would the word even exist?

The subjectivist would like to compare two societies at different times, as if to prove human morality has changed or improved. But comparison is impossible without a standard. Only objectivity provides that standard.

“We don’t discover moral truths. We invent them in order to solve certain problems which affect the social, political, environmental, and psychological fabric that surrounds us. That’s why morality is a work in progress, and in time will change.”

Notice the stolen concept of objectivity here? If morality is a work in progress, what is it progressing towards? If the increase of certain actions means an increase in morality, then it must mean that certain actions are moral and it is favourable to see an increase of them – then the objective standard would be “actions X Y Z are moral because…” – therefore there are objective moral truths.

Moral subjectivism is an offshoot of relativism in general, another symptom of which is the insipid multiculturalism. Relativism in general holds that all opinions or cultures are of equal value. This is flat wrong: if one holds the opinion X that “all opinions are of equal value or merit” then my opinion that X is rubbish is to be taken with equal merit as X itself! Therefore the truth of X would require that we reject it. Therefore X is either false or rubbish.

Relativism is nothing short but the disposal of objectivity in reaching a conclusion, and there is only one ultimate objective standard: reality. Relativism, especially in morality, is the rejection of reality as a guide for actions. But reality is our only standard by which we integrate our knowledge according to the rules of logic. The relativist in making any statement or holding any position loses the argument by default: unless his opinion is logical, rational, and consistent with reality, he cannot say anything – he might as well be talking about flying pink elephants who play poker in your backyard.

Objectivism identifies that morality is not based on subjective opinions or intrinsic values – it a code of rational values that guides our actions – these values are objective because they are necessary to the life of a rational being – they arise because of man’s relationship to reality. Whatever is beneficial and furthers the life of a rational being is good. Whatever diminishes or inhibits a rational being is the evil.

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31 Responses to “The Nihilism of Subjectivism”

  1. Tim R Says:

    Nice summary.

    So how has it gone generally on the atheist forums?
    Have they been open to objectivist ideas? Are there many participants?

    I personally know many atheists and agnostics, but no objectivists.

  2. evanescent Says:

    Hi Tim, thanks for the comment. My conversations on there have been very active, but not very fruitful in terms of an intellectual exchange. Most of the people I’ve encountered are very ignorant of Objectivism, which makes it hard to discuss a topic out of context (it is necessary to cover much preceding ground which takes time). I’ve also found that many atheists there aren’t aware of the problems with their own philosophy. Atheists yes – but this just means they’ve reached one rational conclusion: god does not exist. It doesn’t necessarily mean they apply rationality to all areas of their life.

    I’ve only encountered one Objectivist on there so far, called lumpy_munk.

  3. John P Says:

    E.

    I’m an objectivist myself, believing that there is a morality out there that everyone should and will agree on. It may not be all that obvious, or easy to discover, but it’s there. The history of civilization is also the history of the discovery and incorporation of objective morality. For instance, it’s doubtful that anyone thinks murder is right (not killing, murder). Same thing with rape, genocide, nose picking (wait, that last one is arguable) etc. Even if there are people who do think it is either right, now, or right sometime in the past (such as slavery) objectively it is always wrong.

    Take slavery. Sure, slave owners in the past had all kinds of rationalizations for it being good, both from an altruistic POV and a selfish one. But ask any one of them if it was OK to enslave them, or their family, or their close friends, without question, they would say no. It’s easy to arrive at a relativistic view of morality that does not affect you, but when it does, you get a lot closer to the objective viewpoint, ironically enough.

    If that makes any sense. It’s late….

  4. Ergo Says:

    Well said. Another point many of these relativists make is that since morality is essentially communal, i.e., that it requires the existence of a society or group, morality is irrelevant to an individual as such. Therefore, whatever an individual does to the furtherance of his survival, health, fitness, or flourishment is merely “prudent” or “generically good”, not *moral*.

    This reveals that morality is divorced from practicality. That practical actions taken in connection with our own survival or the achievement of our goals are not moral actions. Hence, they claim, capitalism is a necessary evil, because it is practical in producing wealth and prosperity, but it is immoral because surely morality is not just “what works in reality”; morality has to be idealistic, inachievable, impossible to man and divorced from what works in reality–like their notion of perfection is, or God is; man is beneath moral ideals and not worthy of it; hence, selfishness is a vice and the impossible code of altruism is a virtue.

    It also reveals that morality is divorced from man’s mind. Man’s mind is afterall the consciousness that holds moral principles and moral concepts; these things are only relevant to a consciousness capable of grasping them. But by claiming that morality is irrelevant to an individual in the jungle, they wish to insist that morality exists *external* to an individual’s consciousness–or somehow emerges among a group of men or society, but not in an individual’s mind alone. An apple is only “generically good” to an individual alone in the jungle. But they refuse to acknowledge that man has to volitionally, deliberately, focus his mind into deciding to *choose* to eat the apple. It is a volitional act in pursuit of a life-sustaining value. It’s not merely a generic description of the goodness of an apple (because that would be intrinsicism, a contradiction they haven’t realized yet), but a moral evaluation of the existence of an apple and man’s choice to eat it: the evaluation is that the act is good–morally.

  5. plonkee @ the religious atheist Says:

    But in practice, morality is subjective. What is considered moral or immoral varies from person to person and society to society, and it definitely changes over time. And most people think that the particular moral standards that they hold themselves are an improvement on the past – but you can’t be certain that this is the case.

    One thing to consider about collective vs. individual morality, is that in practice, there is no such thing as an individual that does not belong to society. So it’s quite difficult to establish whether they would have morality or not.

  6. evanescent Says:

    Plonkee said:

    But in practice, morality is subjective. What is considered moral or immoral varies from person to person and society to society, and it definitely changes over time

    Plonkee, this doesn’t mean that morality is subjective – it means that peoples’ perceptions and realisation of it can change.

    Understanding your actions is an important part of being morally accountable for them – but it doesn’t change the objectively morality or immorality of those actions. What changes is human perception – but morality doesn’t.

    And most people think that the particular moral standards that they hold themselves are an improvement on the past – but you can’t be certain that this is the case.

    Well if morality is subjective there is no such thing as improvement. For morality to be improving, it must be moving in a direction and not another – which means there are objective truths.

    One thing to consider about collective vs. individual morality, is that in practice, there is no such thing as an individual that does not belong to society. So it’s quite difficult to establish whether they would have morality or not.

    Your thinking here Plonkee demonstrates the sort of thinking I wanted to address in the article, but decided not to: collectivism. I take it your belief is that morality is a relationship between two or more people – but if you follow this through you’ll find it reduces to the same moral subjectivism.

    Now, Objectivism identifies that morality is a code of values to guide your actions. It tells YOU the best way to live your life – as such, morality is a person matter for all individuals. It does not depend on mutual cooperation, social convention, and is not a mystical intrinsic phenomenon that emerges in society – although this is the misconception that many people hold, and they hold it because society tacitly accepts the morality of altruism – “thanks” largely to Kant and Christianity.

    A man on a desert island still needs a code of values to guide his actions. He still needs to discover what is of value TO HIM; what is good or bad TO HIM AS A RATIONAL BEING – from eating an apple to staying away from cliff edges, morality tells each individual how to live his life. This is why it fundamentally applies only to individuals, and TO ALL individuals. Now, in a social situation, man still needs this code of values – but he also needs the freedom from force to be able to act according to his values (viz, morally). That is where Rights come in. Rights are a social matter, morality is a private matter.

  7. theistscientist Says:

    Craven cowardice(redundancy intentional) is bad for the gene pool. Your friend ebonmuse banned me because he was losing a debate with me. I have two earned doctorates and that is understandable but banning someone for that is beyond the pale. kindly ask him to debate me man to man. theistscientist

  8. evanescent Says:

    Theistscientist, I’ve known ebonmuse for many years now and I’ve found him to be an intelligent and distinguished gentleman – although we do not agree on every topic and have debated ourselves on the odd occasion. More than likely he withdrew from debate because you were being irrational and ignorant – but that’s just a guess of course. Also, if you could provide details of your doctorates, including a link to the university you attended and who your mentor was, and a link to any thesis’ you’ve written, it would help. In the mean time, please post any comments on my Contact Me page, not here.

  9. Gary McGath Says:

    On some atheist forums, particularly with Dawkins-influenced atheists, I’ve often run into moral intrinsicism — the idea that we have an inborn, evolved moral code. The people who take this position are generally taking altruism as a given and trying to establish a “scientific” basis for it. They select supposedly altruistic inclinations in our genetic makeup as moral guides, while ignoring any biological inclinations (such as the need to survive) that don’t support their conclusion.

  10. evanescent Says:

    Excellent observation Gary – I have came to the same conclusion too. Now, I’m not denouncing Dawkins’ expertise for a second – in fact, he suffers from the same problem. He assumes morality is altruism, then tries to explain it evolutionary. This proves again that one’s philosophy is the starting point for all investigation. This preconception of altruistic morality colours their attitude toward selfishness, and the notion of the moral as the practical.

  11. Eric G. Says:

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been following your debate over at the other forum and have found it enlightening. As much as I’ve enjoyed your posts on objectivism, I’ve learned a lot more by reading your discussions with(/smackdowns of) relativists like Joe. While I can’t say I’m ready to accept objectivism on the whole, I can definitely say I’m ready to reject the morality joe espouses. Not too long ago, I probably would have defended a similar position. It’s only when you see it forcefully challenged that its absurdity becomes obvious.

    Anyway, seems like that debate is circling the drain. Just thought you might want to know it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

  12. plonkee @ the religious atheist Says:

    As it happens, I have no definite ideas on whether morality as a concept is defined relatively, or objectively. I’m just saying that in practice, what is defined as a moral action is relative to the society. And in practice, is where I happen to be right now.

    If most people believe that there own personal moral code is better than someone else’s, that doesn’t imply that there is an objective code that it really is a closer fit to. It’s my experience that people are not always rational and logical – and feeling that your morals are better doesn’t mean that they are.

    I think I’m woefully ill-informed for this, I keep coming back to “why does it matter whether morality is objective or subjective?”, and I think that means I’m missing the point entirely.

  13. evanescent Says:

    @ Eric, thanks for your comment – that means a lot.

    @ Plonkee: without an objective standard, it is impossible to denounce or applaud any action. “Morality” then becomes a matter of taste, like rock music vs R&B, or BMW vs Mercedes.

    Now, where some subjectivists go wrong is to think that just because a society accepts or rejects certain “moral” ideas, that makes it subjective – but that is like saying that just because some countries drink dirty or diseased water and some countries drink pure clean water, there is no objective standard for water. No – the standard is there, only recognitions and acceptance of it changes. Also, I think some subjectivists confuse responsibility with acting morally. In order to be morally responsible for an action, a person must have control and understanding of their actions. A slave-owner is immoral, but you could not necessary punish the slave-owners of the 18th century who were labouring (pardon the pun) under the delusion that slavery was acceptable. No doubt society plays a part in what we’re raised to believe is acceptable, I don’t deny this – but the subjectivist thinks this is the definition of morality! He then tries to imply that we’re progressing towards “better morality”, a statement that implies progress towards a standard, which means objectivity.

    Nothing disproves subjectivity as much as the fact that it contradicts itself. Nothing proves the necessity of objectivity as much as the fact that you cannot make any meaningful statement without it.

  14. Mark Says:

    If I may, I would like to provide you and your readers with some reading material I recently found. These are mostly for Eric G. and Plonkee. (For those who have been following the discussion on Atheist Forums, my username is Daggett.)

    An evaluation of two arguments, one for moral relativism and one for moral objectivism: http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/0029-4624.00156

    An empirical study of moral judgment: http://dingo.sbs.arizona.edu/~snichols/Papers/Afterobjectivity.pdf

    The limits of moral objectivity (starts on the right and goes on to the next page): http://www.jstor.org/view/00930334/ap060107/06a00140/0

    For some good philosophy: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/2178/

    For criticisms of Objectivism by the same person: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/2178/oism.html

    Evanescent,

    You have an issue with what you say subjectivists define morality as. Why? There is no single “right” definition of morality, not unless you consider the correct definition to be whatever its coiner defined it to be.

  15. Mark Says:

    Also, to those who perhaps don’t pay enough attention to capitalization, “Objectivism” and “objectivism” are two different things. The former is like a species, whereas the latter is like a genus (i.e. Objectivism is more specific than objectivism and contains more claims).

  16. evanescent Says:

    Mark, I have no problem with you providing the links that you have – you have still grossly missed the point, and my readers are free to research any topic they want whether its complimentary or critical of Objectivism.

    You still cannot deny the need or existence of objectivity – as this article shows.

    I still think you have not grasped that the definition of morality is a philosophical issue, that precedes any study, empirical or not.

    Anyway, I’ve covered all this in my article here so there’s no need to repeat myself.

  17. Ergo Says:

    Here’s a link to an essay that responds to the criticism of Objectivism by Robert Bass that Mark linked to above.

    http://www.noblesoul.com/rl/essays/triad.html

    The footnotes to that essay are perhaps more insightful than the essay itself. It addresses some of the many other criticism of Objectivism that Bass launches from his already flawed understanding of the philosophy.

    For those not inclined to reading the entire essay, here’s the conclusion:

    “The argument Bass offers is fatally flawed. As a criticism of Objectivism, it fails because two of the beliefs he discusses (that time is non-cyclical and that all events have prior events as part of their causal conditions) are not in fact part of Objectivism. As a criticism of Objectivists, it still fails, because the second leg of his triad (the belief that all events have prior events as part of their causal conditions) is not in fact the belief of many Objectivists. And on either interpretation of his argument, it suffers because the third belief he discusses (that there are no actual infinities) is a part of Objectivism and a belief of Objectivists, but he has misunderstood its application to past events. In effect, this means that his interpretation of the third premise is not a belief of many Objectivists, even though there is a common Objectivist belief that uses similar terminology.

    One aspect of the discussion above is that my objections from sections (2) and (3) are compossible — that is, they might both be true at the same time. It is conceivable that while an infinite series of past causes is consistent with Objectivist theory on infinities, there was not in fact an infinite series of past causes. However, since problems (2) and (3) are fatal to the argument Bass presents in his essay either separately or in combination, a rebuttal of Bass does not require that both be true. Either one will do to refute his argument.”

    ———

    There are more essays that adequately reveal the radical misunderstandings of Objectivist critics on the Internet. Most of these critics have written their works in the early years of Objectivism (it is, afterall, a rather young philosophy), and their works do not have the benefit of being informed by more recent scholarly expositions and developments. Some others simply have bitter vendettas against Ayn Rand and her philosophy (like the National Review magazine). For example, Scott Ryan’s venomous screed against Objectivism stems from his idealistic brand of rationalism. He used to be an Objectivist–perhaps of the cultish mindset, judging by his own accounts–and apparently had a bitter experience with some leading Objectivist at the time. This motivated him to reject the philosophy and seek other pastures. What he found was religion. Scott Ryan is a self-confessed Deist, and believes that the existence of an Absolute cannot be dismissed out of hand. I’m not sure rational readers here should think they have an intellectual kin in this theist.

  18. Mark Says:

    Did you happen to know that Bass made a reply to that criticism?

    http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/2178/triad2.html

    It’s always courteous to let someone defend their views.
    Plus, it isn’t an argument against Objectivism per se, just an argument against some things that many Objectivists seem to believe.

  19. Mark Says:

    Furthermore, he presents many arguments against Objectivism. Your post made it look like he attempted only one, and a bad one at that.

  20. joe Says:

    Hello, I’m very young and i’ve just recently become acquainted with these ideas that are being spoken about in this article and post, such as objective morality. I have never considered myself an atheist until recently. And in a way, it makes me sad. It’s been hard for me to adjust to the idea that everything I have been taught about life, religion, and morality are just naive and misguided, and sometimes just untrue. Realizing that there is no “meaning of life” and that all of our actions really just boil down to our need to survive has been tough. I don’t believe in fate or any type of spiritual afterlife anymore. And this realization has been extra hard for me because my father died a few years back and up until now, I believed that I would eventually re-connect with him in some spiritual form or way. All of you seem to be much more well informed than me. Maybe I’m naive, and maybe I just don’t get the point, but i’m understanding these concepts more and more.
    Am I right in my understanding, evanescent, that there is no real “moral good” other than what is good for us to survive. And in saying that, doesn’t that contradict the idea of a moral and good spiritual higher power. I used to believe that we all try to become the best humans we could be by striving for a moral good that meant more than our existence and survival. And now i just feel lost.

  21. evanescent Says:

    Joe, thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I used to believe that we all try to become the best humans we could be by striving for a moral good that meant more than our existence and survival.

    Joe, “good” and “bad” require a VALUE judgment – and ‘value’ presupposes the question: “of value to WHOM?” Only lifeforms can have values, and only humans specifically can have any choice in accepting a value or not.

    Some people, especially the religious, like to speak of “higher” morality and purpose, as if value could be divorced from the valuer. But this is a contradiction in terms. There is no value independent of valuation. There is no such thing as value without life. There is no such thing as morality without relation to a living rational being, because only rational beings can choose their actions.

    You are wrong that there is no meaning to life. There is no purpose to life external to life itself. Life evolved – it was not purposed. But lives can have purpose, given to them by the agent. There is no higher moral purpose in life than to pursue your own happiness, and happiness is the non-contradiction joy that arises from realising your values. If you want to be happy Joe, you must structure your values rationally and never sacrifice them.

  22. Burgess Laughlin Says:

    Mark Says: 27 January, 2008 at 3:15 am […]“Objectivism” and “objectivism” are two different things. The former is like a species, whereas the latter is like a genus (i.e. Objectivism is more specific than objectivism and contains more claims).

    1. The word “Objectivism” is a proper name. It names a particular philosophy, just as “Platonism” and “Kantianism” do.

    The word “Objectivism” is not the name of a species, which is an abstraction subsuming various units. There are elements of Objectivism, but no units of Objectivism.

    Instead “Objectivism” names a one-of-a-kind thing just as “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity” does. The particular philosophy named by “Objectivism” is the one Ayn Rand created. As such it is closed, never to be revised or expanded, for the simple reason that its creator is dead. The same applies to Aristotle’s philosophy and Kant’s philosophy.

    Of course, others can adopt all or part of Ayn Rand’s philosophy and carry on from there, but the resulting philosophy is their philosophy, deserving another name, not Ayn Rand’s philosophy, “Objectivism.”

    2. Generally in the history of philosophy, the word “objectivism” names a certain tenet, the conviction that a reality exists independently of consciousness. (See, as an example, the listing for “objectivism,” in the 9 or 10 volume Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at least as it was several years ago, the last time I looked.) This idea of “objectivism” is an element, indeed a fundamental element, of Objectivism, but it is only one element.

    I have also seen instances where egalitarians attempt to hijack Objectivism by making it the “people’s philosophy” with the “elitist” capitalization replaced with a lowercase “o.” Such usage deserves rejection as an act of envy, the leitmotif of egalitarianism.

  23. evanescent Says:

    Such usage deserves rejection as an act of envy, the leitmotif of egalitarianism

    Brilliant! What a fantastic turn of phrase! 🙂

  24. Meg Says:

    grr my browser just ate my comment…so i’m giving it another shot

    Hi Joe,
    I am sorry to hear of your loss. Like you, I don’t believe in God, and I’ve had some hard experiences when I was young.. I’m still young though, maybe not as you as you, but still pretty young. I would say that it’s important especially as a young person be open to ideas and people and not become too fixated on one particular philosophy or way of life, because you might miss out on something. It applies to theistic religions and also to other philosophies. I things get better and you start feeling better soon
    – Meg

  25. mlabossi Says:

    Louis Pojman has an excellent argument as to why moral relativism collapses into moral subjectivism and from there into moral nihilism.

    The gist of it is that it is impossible to define a culture in such a way as to exclude an individual from being a culture of one (there are, after all, some cultures that have literally died down to one member). If morality depends on the culture and there can be cultures of one person, then this would be indistinguishable from subjectivism. If morality is based entirely on the individual, then there is, in effect, no morality at all-hence the end result is nihilism.

    To use an analogy, imagine if everyone could make his/her own laws. The end result would be legal nihilism-no law at all.

    Of course, the awful consequences don’t prove that relativism is false-but if the argument is successful it does “defeat” relativism by showing that it cannot hold its ground and simply falls into nihilism.

    Naturally, many philosophers argue that moral relativism can be saved and that it is the correct moral view.

  26. evanescent Says:

    Of course the beauty of Objectivism is that morality is based on man’s nature and his relationship to reality, which makes it objective.

    It is impossible by nature of the fact to argue that relativism is the correct moral view. “Correct moral view” implies being able to differentiate objectively between right and wrong, which presupposes the existence of objective good and evil, which is exactly what relativism denies. Relativism is self-contradictory, which is why it is false. As a moral basis, it is evil.

  27. Evanescent said.About Atheism. | catch the press on Says:

    […] a recent debate, I encountered several of these “New Atheists” who’d read a little Dawkins and Hitchens and […]

  28. G Says:

    No doubt society plays a part in what we’re raised to believe is acceptable, I don’t deny this – but the subjectivist thinks this is the definition of morality! He then tries to imply that we’re progressing towards “better morality”, a statement that implies progress towards a standard, which means objectivity.

    Evanescent,

    Hypothetically, what if one was to claim that morality was progressing, but not necessarily toward an objective ‘better morality’? It seems like the morality we have now is an improvement over past moral standards. I can imagine improvements being made to our current morality, but I also see the distinct possibility of – for example – a cataclysmic event which forces us to substantially re-evaluate parts of our morality that we currently deem ‘good’.

    In other words, what if our morality is similar to evolution? It progresses, but the process is unguided, and at best fulfills an expedient goal (e.g. survival) rather than an objective goal.

  29. evanescent Says:

    Hi G, thanks for commenting.

    Hypothetically, what if one was to claim that morality was progressing, but not necessarily toward an objective ‘better morality’?,

    The word “progress” means nothing except in relation to a standard. If that standard was not objective, then what might be considered progress today could be regress tomorrow. So we see that without objectivity, no meaningful statement can be made about anything.

    It seems like the morality we have now is an improvement over past moral standards.

    What are you basing this claim on? I mostly agree with you – but only because I have an objective base to make the claim. Here’s an example of what I mean: slavery is now illegal in the civilised world, but 200+ years ago it wasn’t. This is a moral improvement, but only because I can objectively claim that slavery is immoral. Without an objective standard, it makes no sense to say that we have “improved” on the past.

    And in many ways, the “civilised” world is still grossly immoral. Examples: socialist/democratic governments.

    I can imagine improvements being made to our current morality, but I also see the distinct possibility of – for example – a cataclysmic event which forces us to substantially re-evaluate parts of our morality that we currently deem ‘good’.

    This is only a possibility where the metaphysically given (reality) changes in such a way as to change the nature of the way man interacts with it, or if man’s fundamental metaphysical nature were to change so that he wouldn’t be a rational being anymore, in other words, no longer a man qua man.

    Inasmuch as man is a being of a certain kind (a rational being) and he must deal with reality in a certain way (by means of reason) – there will only be one acceptable code of morality: a rational hierachy of values, where life is the ultimate value.

    The only way this wouldn’t be the case is if reality wasn’t reality and man wasn’t a man.

    In other words, what if our morality is similar to evolution? It progresses, but the process is unguided, and at best fulfills an expedient goal (e.g. survival) rather than an objective goal.

    Well, the analogy is unsuccessful because evolution isn’t goal-directed or purposeful. Technically, evolution isn’t really progressive either, it’s just adaptive. Creatures evolve to suit their environment because this benefits procreation. In this sense (and only this sense) humans aren’t better than any other form of life – we’re just more honed at what we do. From a non-biological point of view, I believe humans are ‘better’ than animals, but that’s another discussion.

    and at best fulfills an expedient goal (e.g. survival)

    This seems to imply that there is a dichotomy between morality and survival. There isn’t. Morality’s precise purpose is to guide us in furthering our lives as rational beings. Without morality, we could not survive. So, if man is to survive as a rational being, he must have a morality! It is true that one can acheive varying levels of success with rationality and therefore morality, but the standard itself: life as a rational being, is objective and cannot be improved upon or negated.

  30. G Says:

    The word “progress” means nothing except in relation to a standard.

    Not necessarily true, progression can also refer to things like time, which does not have any sort of standard in the sense that you’re arguing that morality has a standard. Time (as we perceive it) has a measurement, but lacks progression toward an ideal, unless you consider the ‘end of time’ an ideal.

    It seems like the morality we have now is an improvement over past moral standards.

    What are you basing this claim on? I mostly agree with you – but only because I have an objective base to make the claim.

    I don’t think you need an objective base to answer this claim, the study of history (for example) does well enough in justifying the belief that current morality is better than past morality without the need for the objective base.

    Granted, that’s one way to justify the belief, that argument says nothing about the truth value of said justification, but this is ethics, not epistemology.

    Inasmuch as man is a being of a certain kind (a rational being) and he must deal with reality in a certain way (by means of reason) – there will only be one acceptable code of morality: a rational hierarchy of values, where life is the ultimate value.

    This only works if you buy into an Aristotelian scheme and believe that man always acts rational. Man, however, does not always act in rational interest (e.g. firefighters; who’s job description basically involves risking their life for a complete stranger, which is irrational) and if preservation of life is the ultimate value, then things like altruism and self-sacrifice are meaningless, if not objectively bad. Furthermore mankind does not always act rationally (I’d mention Hitler’s rise to power here, but that would Godwin the thread) with the preservation of life as it’s best interest. If it did, we would see most of high culture (music, art, etc…) fading into the background as more and more people pursued scientific advances in longevity and life-preservation. The fact that as time goes on, we’ve seen the opposite of this progression suggests that mankind does not always act as regarding ‘life’ as the ultimate value.

    This seems to imply that there is a dichotomy between morality and survival. There isn’t. Morality’s precise purpose is to guide us in furthering our lives as rational beings.

    I’m not arguing that there’s a true dichotomy between morality and survival — in that one must decrease so that the other can increase. I agree with you that morality and survival are linked, just not in the way you argue they are. I’m arguing that morality is a complex tool, we use it to our advantage or to our detriment. There were moral arguments for La Conquista and they must have made sense to someone, otherwise it (and other atrocities) would have never happened.

  31. Ergo Says:

    Not necessarily true, progression can also refer to things like time, which does not have any sort of standard in the sense that you’re arguing that morality has a standard. Time (as we perceive it) has a measurement, but lacks progression toward an ideal, unless you consider the ‘end of time’ an ideal.

    This is false. Time does have a standard, without which it would be meaningless to speak of time. Time is a measurement of motion, and all motion is relative to something set as a standard. For example, the concept of “future” is only meaningful in relation to the present or some moment in time. In any case, the use of the example of time is a bad analogy because time requires a metaphysical standard; such a standard has no moral value. In ethics, a standard must have moral worth, based on which we can decide whether actions are moral or immoral when it is consonant or discordant with the standard.

    the study of history (for example) does well enough in justifying the belief that current morality is better than past morality without the need for the objective base.

    Again, false. The study of history–or any study of morality from any perspective–must use a base standard by which it can make the assessment that our moral acts today are better–or more moral–than in the past. The question that needs to be answered is: better by what standard? Improved on the basis of which values? What about the actions are considered more moral or progressive? For example, history looks upon the holocaust as an undeniably immoral act on a grand scale. The question to ask is, why is genocide immoral? On what standard?

    The truth-value of any proposition is made in relation to an objective standard–specifically, in relation to the grasp of external facts by a human consciousness. The standard is objective reality as perceived by man’s consciousness.

    This only works if you buy into an Aristotelian scheme and believe that man always acts rational. Man, however, does not always act in rational interest…

    You are confusing philosophical categories. When Aristotle defined man as a rational being, he did not make the claim that men are rational, or that men are always rational. Man qua man is a rational being is an identification of metaphysical nature–it is man’s unique identity. You don’t call an elephant a “rational animal” even though the actions of an elephant are always in consonance with its identity and its needs for survival–i.e., the elephants actions can be said to be rational (or good) in the descriptive sense of the word, not in the ethical/moral sense.

    What you are stating (i.e., that men are not always rational) is a recognition of an ethical and existential fact. Indeed, it is precisely becaues men are not always rational that we need a moral code to guide man’s actions and ensure his survival. But man is a rational being is a metaphysically undeniable fact.

    There were moral arguments for La Conquista and they must have made sense to someone, otherwise it (and other atrocities) would have never happened.

    What you state is not morality, but subjectively held moral beliefs–not much different from what religious people people about various things at various times. This in no way invalidates the fact that morality is objective, exclusive to authority, subjectivity, and whim.


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