There is Objective Morality in Nature

April 6, 2010


We frequently hear that only religion can supply moral objectivity. This claim has no merit. 

However, even opponents of religion have sometimes thought that naturalism can’t support moral objectivity , either. This claim is wrong, too.

Let’s start with religion. Religion as a whole is a realm of moral confusion and contradiction. Of course, a religious person finds moral objectivity in just the religion they happened to be raised into, or (most likely) just their own preferred denominational version of a specific religion. This method of deciding morality doesn’t sound so objective after a while.

Those who claim that only religion can supply moral objectivity are either ignorant of what the term ‘objective’ means, or they are using ‘objective’ in a peculiar way to actually mean ‘absolute’.  ‘Objective’ is the contrary of ‘subjective’ — where ‘subjective’ means dependence on a subject (an individual person), ‘objective’ means independent from an individual person.  

Science knows about objectivity. And science can study subjectivity, too. However, if morality is reduced to just what psychology can grasp, then there is a risk of justifying moral subjectivity. In a previous post I pointed out how a naturalistic understanding of morality should support moral objectivity . And then I read Paul Bloom’s essay "How do morals change" which also worries that psychology can’t have the whole story about morality.

Morality is a paradigm example of something that can be, and usually is, independent from any individual person. Whether a deed is moral or immoral does not depend on the judgment or feeling or whim of any single person. Unless that person is God, a religious person might say. However, the simplistic religious view that morality depends on the will of God is just subjectivism on a cosmic scale.

Even if the Divine Subjectivism theory of morality is avoided, I can’t see how religion could prove that only religion can supply moral objectivity. There is a classic theological argument to consider, which tries to show that only the supernatural can account for moral truths. Let’s set aside ‘objective’ morality for the moment and speak of ‘absolute’ morality instead, to best see what is really at stake in this argument.

Premise 1. There are moral truths that are absolute: both universal (true for everyone) and eternal (must always be true).

Premise 2. For any moral truth, there must exist something that is responsible for making that moral truth true.

Premise 3. Nothing in the natural world, such as individual people, human societies, the whole world, or the wider universe, can be responsible for absolute moral truths.


C. The truth of absolute moral rules requires the existence of a supernatural reality to explain their truth.

Premise 3 is probably correct because we can’t find eternal things in nature: there is nothing permanent about human beings (their bodies and minds keep changing) or human societies (they gradually change their moral standards over time) or the earth (a scene of constant change) or the whole universe (which is always changing).

On the other hand, naturalists reject premise 1: they do not believe in the existence of absolute moral truths, because their existence has not been sufficiently established by either experience, reason, or science. Many religious people very much want to believe premise 1, and do believe premise 1, and feel very afraid of a world in which some people do not believe premise 1. However, these feelings cannot prove the existence of absolute moral truths. Wanting to believe in something, and feeling certain about something, are only the high roads to subjectivism.

Furthermore, finding any substantive moral rule that most religious people believe, or even a substantive moral rule that most people in the same religion really believe and consistently live by, is a very difficult task. Consider how all religions have modified their moral rules over the centuries, and how they have all broken apart into sects and denominations, precisely because they cannot agree on serious and specific moral principles ("Love thy neighbor" doesn’t count). Religion, even one particular religion, is a poor place to go looking for allegedly universal and eternal moral truths.

Friends of religion often claim that if there are no absolute moral truths, then there are no moral truths at all, and that morality is simply whatever each person wants to be moral. This nasty alternative is called moral subjectivism. Now, there are no absolute moral truths. But morality is not simply subjective, either.

Let’s look at the natural facts about morality in the real world. Most of morality consists of culturally objective truths. Most moral truths are best explained by social rules accepted by most members because they are members of that society and they were raised in that society. Morality is an essential part of culture, and a person should be moral in order to live a cultured social life with others. There are some basic moral rules found across nearly all societies, but only each society can really know the specific morality needed for its distinctive culture. This is the start of a naturalistic understanding of culture and morality. The social sciences are naturalistic no less than the biological or physical sciences.

Can I name one moral rule that a naturalist can say is objective? Sure: "Torturing innocent people is morally wrong." I could list many more such moral rules. I know this moral rule because I learned it, I believe it, and I live it, and I’m glad to live in a society that tries to follow it. Its validity does not depend on my private whim — I know that it would remain valid even if I became mentally deranged and cruelly violent.

Culturally objective morality is not absolute, but only objective. Therefore, it is not the case that something is moral only because one’s culture says it is. Permitting one’s culture to dictate one’s morality would make that culture morally absolute, much in the way that many religions try to make their moralities absolute. A culturally objective morality is much different. A culture’s morality is objective because that morality is independent of whatever any individual person wishes morality to be. A good analogy is a country’s laws. Laws are valid because they are politically objective: the law is not whatever any person wants it to be. On the other hand, the law can be changed by the people after political thinking about the ultimate justifications for laws. In the same way, the people of a society can change their culture’s morality after ethical thinking. Individuals can disagree with a culture’s morality, of course, by appealing to a different morality or to a higher ethical standard.

Any effort to thoughtfully justify or improve a culture’s morality is the work of ethics. An appeal to a higher standard to pass judgment on some moral rule is an appeal to an ethical ideal. For example, Why should I follow the moral rule that I should not lie to others? Because of the ethical ideal that you should not do to others what you would not have done to you. Ethical ideals are also part of our human heritage, grown from the long experience and accumulated wisdom of living on the earth. The basic moral rules and the higher ethical ideals are simultaneously natural and cultural. Put another way, for us humans, to be encultured IS our natural way of life.

Naturalists of course do not regard ethical ideals as absolute moral truths, either. However, people do appeal to ethical ideals when they compare
, criticize, and modify the moralities of cultures. From the standpoint of naturalism, it is perfectly natural to expect people to try to change a morality using ethical thinking when they see problems with that morality. And it also quite natural to expect that ethical ideals are the sorts of things that people do not agree about, and that ethical ideals also change or disappear over time.

Culture is not the opposite of nature; we are naturally moral. It is a misunderstanding of naturalism if you suppose that a naturalistic understanding of humans must entirely strip away culture and ignore how humans are cultured humans. If you want to study humans unaffected by culture, study early-term fetuses or study isolated genes, but you won’t find morality there. It is also a misunderstanding of naturalism if you expect that a naturalistic understanding of morality must derive warm moral ‘oughts’ from cold scientific facts. 19th Century naturalists once talked that way — they perpetuated the root religious notion that morality could be discerned in the natural design of things — again obscuring how people are naturally encultured. A contemporary naturalist should not repeat outdated religious notions.

Humans naturally use the cultural wisdom bestowed by earlier generations. This natural fact explains how religions teach morals and pass down ethical ideals, by the way. There is nothing in objective morality that cannot fit into the naturalistic worldview. Wrongly supposing that morality can’t be natural is akin to supposing that agriculture can’t be natural. Basic morality and higher ethics, and even religious ethics, can all fit into a naturalistic worldview.