There Is No Absolute Morality But That Doesn’t Mean There Aren’t Right And Wrong Answers

The idea that if you don’t believe in a God that you have no right to express your thoughts on right or wrong because you’re merely a composition of chemicals is an annoying one. Religion continues to push the idea that we need moral absolutes (or objective morals) that were passed on from deity to human. This means there is a right and wrong answer and some religious people will argue that everyone knows this (because it’s written on our hearts or some such nonsense) but it only takes a quick scan of the internet to see that morally speaking, each region of the world operates very differently. In some places, whipping is a good way to punish someone. In other parts, people consider the death penalty a good form of deterrence.

Everywhere you look, you see the reality: no deity handed down anything. We as a species decide what is right and wrong and only we enforce it. That may be a scary thought for some, but I find it comforting. After all, secular morality outstrips religious morality at every turn.

It’s as if some people can’t understand why rape is not a good idea. They can’t consider what the victim would feel like. Do they want to live in a society where being raped is okay? Do they really think that the best way for our species to flourish is to run around raping people? Do they not have any compassion for other people? Can they not read and take in information on what rape does to other people both physically and mentally, and come to the conclusion that rape isn’t good for individuals, neighborhoods or societies?

That doesn’t mean there won’t be grades of ‘good’. There may be more than one answer to a moral question and as time goes by and we gather more data, we may find better ways to deal with certain situations.

For example, for a long time (and even today) we have thought that incarcerating and shaming people who are addicted (or even use) to drugs was the best way to deal with drug abuse.

However, we are currently analyzing data from Portugal that shows decriminalizing all drugs may be a far more effective way of handling the drug issue. Fourteen years ago, Portugal decriminalized drugs and they have seen drug use drop ever since.

I saw a video the other day from Grappling Ignorance, and in his video he says:

US congress arrived at its current legislation by evaluating practical needs, benefits and potential harms of its citizens. It decided that the practical way to live would be to offer the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to as many people as it can, provided that their efforts in doing so do not infringe on the rights of others to do so- and not a word of that practical policy was derived from holy scripture. People want to live in a society where other people don’t steal from them, or have the ability to murder them without deterrent or consequence. The people collectively demand it, the government deems it practical by discussion and debate, and it becomes law. No need for divinity.

We’ve been taught that subjective morality is a dirty thing, but I think it’s the best way to describe an ever-changing ethical code that has nothing to do with a deity and everything to do with us. We determine right from wrong and while some answers are easier than others, there can clearly be right ways of promoting human flourishing and wrong ways.

Another neat talk I saw about this subject a while ago was given by Sam Harris. I’ll post both videos at the bottom. I hope you’ll watch them.

I seriously think we need to get past the idea that we need objective morality and embrace the idea that reason, empathy, and compassion and our desire to promote happiness is a far better marker for creating ethical codes that actually work.



    • I actually rushed this one out before leaving for work. I had a frustrating conversation before writing this about this subject. Pretty much the guy just kept calling me stupid and going on about chemicals and a need for objective morality or rape would be just as wrong as a flavor of cola or something. Very frustrating.

  1. You suggest that we have no need of absolutes to ground morality, but then hedge away with appeals to “happiness” and “compassion” and “better” [measured on what scale you don’t say, but I’m guessing it’s not an objective one]. If all of those terms are *not objective* then what obliges any individual to accept and act in accord with your particular outlook. ie how do you get to “should”?
    [BTW, I’m not saying you have to land at God, I’m just asking whether your non-objectivity is consistent.]

    • “[measured on what scale you don’t say, but I’m guessing it’s not an objective one]”

      A human one.

      “If all of those terms are *not objective* then what obliges any individual to accept and act in accord with your particular outlook. ie how do you get to “should”?”

      Do you get that now? Do you always follow the law? Do you never jaywalk? All over the world people act according to different ethical codes, laws, rules, social norms, cultural norms, religious norms etc. There never was an objective thing that forced people to act according to anything. Even religious texts are read by believers and they subjectively follow the rules they find sane.

      There isn’t always an easy answer – the answers might not fall from the sky like religion claims.

      Also, how did Americans arrive at the ‘should’ with same-sex marriage? Certainly a large segment of the population isn’t in agreement. If the bible is the objective standard, Americans don’t seem to be following it. They somehow decided that equal rights was more important than the objective morality that god supposedly set down.

      The same way they arrived at ‘should’ is how humans do it. They debate, look at facts, analyze those statistics, debate the ethics behind certain actions, look at the impacts and so on and so forth.

      It’s not the best system, but it’s what we have to work with.

      • So you’re going with cultural relativism then? I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t go there but that perspective comes with certain bullets you have to bite, one of which is the absence of universal claims. Your post reads to me like you want to dismiss any concern over the need for an objective moral standard while making claims that require objective moral standards.
        And it’s not a question of forcing anyone to do anything nor of universal compliance, the issue is whether there’s any moral judgment that is universally binding such that one could say, “doing x is always and in all cases morally wrong”. That says nothing about whether or not anyone actually does the right thing, just that there’s some measure.

        • “So you’re going with cultural relativism then?”

          No and I tend to avoid labels because they (in my experience) try to usher you into a corner where you must agree with everything that label supposedly stands for.

          “Your post reads to me like you want to dismiss any concern over the need for an objective moral standard while making claims that require objective moral standards.”

          Fair enough. I’m not sure where you’re getting that impression though.

          “And it’s not a question of forcing anyone to do anything nor of universal compliance”

          In your other comment you said you use ‘human dignity’. To uphold your moral standards in society,you would need to convince everyone that your moral judgement is correct.

          I bet a majority of people would admit that upholding human dignity is a good idea and a good standard to set for ourselves as a species and a society.

          Someone comes along and says they think it upholds human dignity to make women wear a bag so men don’t feel the need to rape them and if they refuse to wear this bag, they will be punished severely and even killed.

          Using your method, who are you to say they’re wrong?

          Do you think the best way for our species to flourish, and for human dignity to be upheld is to force women to wear a bag?

          Don’t get me wrong, I think you’re on to something and I think there are ways to measure human happiness and the flourishing of our societies. I do think there are grades of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and sometimes those grades are easier to distinguish than others.

          • I don’t need to convince everyone to follow my moral judgment, I just need to believe it and act on that belief by trying to follow it myself. As a member of society and by acting in society my adherence is an upholding of those moral standards “in society”. Sometimes that entails making unpopular choices but rarely has it been the case that there’s any correlation between “right” and “popular,” as any American news channel will quickly confirm.
            Now, others will of course see my behavior and its outcomes. If my worldview is correct, then the result will attractive to those others; if others are attracted, then they’ll likely take up the same values. In this way, my moral behavior (if its principles are correct) is increasingly likely to have a [from my perspective] positive effect on society as a whole. [And if I’m wrong? Well, rest easy knowing that my view requires I not seek your injury (so I won’t be coming to hurt you) and that my presence in the world is finite (so any annoyance or inconvenience I cause will be relatively short-lived).
            How can I judge the definitions of “human dignity” put to use by others? Easy. I believe the values I’ve adopted are universally true (because I’m a moral realist). Can others disagree? Sure, but, from my perspective, they’re wrong. That’s how, for instance, I can determine whether I find a civil law just or unjust (and thereby support or oppose it).
            The impossibility of judgment is a moral non-realists problem: If moral judgments are only (for instance) the result of essentially arbitrary intersubjective cultural values, then “right” and “wrong” only have any meaning within the specific cultural system, leaving members of one culture no judgment to make about another that doesn’t ultimately mean “they’re not like us” [and, of course, “us” is always already better than “them”].
            The major problem I see with the position you’re trying to advance is that “human flourishing” is either based on an immaterial, transcendent ‘essence’ of “human” [which, to my knowledge, has been scientifically demonstrated to exist with about the exact same level of success as most versions of “God”] or else it’s just a projection of your own values…which would of course make it subjective again.
            There have been several attempts to ground and justify subjective moral judgment but I’ve not found them particularly workable in my life. Sartre’s “existential humanism” I keep revisiting, though I’ve never been convinced that he hasn’t slipped in an essentialization. Nietzsche’s ‘evolutionary’ perspective has a lot going for it (and I do still think GS§341 is one of the most brilliant tests of one’s own life ever articulated) but it’s far from a slam dunk (and it may be too late anyway). De Beauvoir, for my money, did the best job in “Pyrrhus and Cineas” but 1) nobody reads it and 2) I don’t know that it excludes moral realism, just that it may not *need* it…

    • dfxc, you can’t measure one person’s happiness against another’s, nor can you adequately define what it is in other that general terms, anymore than you can define “Liberty” or “Freedom” as concept words.

      What is happiness to one person is apt to be boredom to another: what is pain to one person might be a mild annoyance to someone else. How DO you measure concepts, or emotions, by the way?

      • You’re agreeing with my point–if those are subjective concepts, then morality is ungrounded.
        As to how I personally make such distinctions– I embrace a system of moral realism that is grounded on a particular notion of inherent human dignity; phenomena that violate dignity so construed are “wrong” or “evil” and those that support that dignity are “right” or “good”…
        What’s your way?

        • dfxc:
          happiness, unhappiness, contentment or boredom are states of mind. They have nothing to do with morality, as near as I can see it. Morality is a judgment call, and varies from society to society. What may be morally proper in this culture could be construed in another as worthy of the guillotine. I think you’re trying to argue apples and buttercups here, and are confusing emotional states of mind with cultural attitudes (or even personal ones) concerning right and wrong behaviors.

          As far as morality goes, I consider what harms another living thing without reason or jusitification to be immoral. What takes away dignity or life or freedom without cause is immoral.

          • Just for the record, the “apples and buttercups” conflation was in the original post. I wasn’t introducing those terms because, in this context, I generally agree with your outlook. My replies here ( at least where my personal view hasn’t been directly solicited) are aimed at questioning the internal consistency of GC’s claims, not to offer a different solution.

  2. Morality is a very personal event, isnt it. you can impose judgement, or rules, or penalties for public indiscretions but most of those indiscretions are public violations of something that the person involved has a difficult time seeing as a personal morality issue.
    Chew that slowly.

    There is the public (imposed) morality that everyone in a religion or society or culture is expected to follow, for the sake of the community involved: thou shalt not do this or that, because it disrupts the flow for whatever reason, it’s a hurtful act, or one with future repercussions (murder, abuse, theft, rape); most of the time we go along with it because the penalties can be severe and permanent.

    But there is also the private, personal morality that we all carry with us. Some people can’t lie, and they never had to be taught that, it’s a part of them. Some people (myself included) cannot steal. I can borrow, and do, but never with intent to steal. “I borrowed your scissors”, I say, “they’re right there on the desk if you need them back”.
    I can’t trespass on someone else’s property with letting them know Im there. That may be a New England thing, my husband and one of our neighbors, all locals, are the same way. I notice folks from away don’t have the same sense of ownership. But its still a kind of personal morality, isn’t it. Thou shalt not trespass.

    Morality of the public kind ensures the kind of society we aim for, and each religion has its own rules, often quite harsh, about what works or doesnt. And it behooves us all, sometimes on pain of death, to know the rules/morals imposed in each kind of culture we deal with, so as not to embarrass, or offend, or put ourselves in front of a firing squad.

  3. “Everywhere you look, you see the reality: no deity handed down anything. We as a species decide what is right and wrong and only we enforce it. That may be a scary thought for some, but I find it comforting. After all, secular morality outstrips religious morality at every turn.”

    I am a Christian (catholic), and you might be surprised to know that I agree at least with the spirit of this statement.

    The trouble is, your portray the Christian religion as if it believed (traditionally) that morality came down to the earth in the form of a book, and that it didn’t derive from the reasonable faculties of men. You likely believe that the modern phenomenon of Fundamentalism (the view that the Bible dropped out of heaven and that we must take every word “literally”) is at the heart of Christianity, when, in reality, it popped up around the late 19th century as a response to aggressive secularism. You may be quite surprised to learn that the Catholic Church has been interpreting scripture allegorically and on the basis of reason since the beginning.

    I do struggle significantly with your final sentence, though: “Secular morality outstrips religious morality at every turn.” Your line of argument gives away a flaw in your reasoning. You begin by declaring that there is no objective morality and prove it by saying that cultures everywhere see the world and morality entirely differently. This is true presently, and also historically. To say that secularism is highly “moral” is a remarkable statement when you consider the outbreak of eugenics, mass racial genocide, war, and drug abuse that was the 20th century, and which was marked by the championing of liberality, secularism, and aggressive atheism.

    It is difficult not to draw a correlative line between the theory (and may I say myth) of Darwin which portrays the progression of life as a fierce survival struggle which consists of stronger species beating out weaker ones, to Nietzsche and his appeal to the “will to power” as the sole moral motivation for a secular mankind, and his ghastly appeal and hope that men might evolve beyond good and evil and achieve the ideal of the overman, and that religion was created by the poor to oppress the strong, and that the strong should cast aside the weak for the sake of their own glory; to the sterilization of criminals and the “insane” in the form of eugenics, to Hitler and the Nazi party who tried to eliminate the biologically weak and breed a race of supermen.

    What I am saying is that, given the unsupported conclusion that secular morality is presently strong and vibrant, what will keep it that way? The late 20th century atheists would despise and mock the present softness and “equality” of modern atheism. What will stop atheism and the secular world from becoming vicious again? What will even keep the secular world atheistic? Even now a vague eastern spiritualism is rising in modern culture, in the same way that it rose in the early 20th century. The Church has fought against asceticism and hedonism, atheism and idolatry, false spiritualism and dry materialistic rationality over the centuries (fun fact: one of the reasons the Romans persecuted the early Church was that they thought that the Christians were Atheists).

  4. ”And, Moses. Before you go. Pay special attention to the one about One God. That’s Me , Dipshit, got it? If you don’t worship Me you will never be moral ‘cos all your morality is from Me. And also the one about; Thou shalt not kill – that really means don’t murder, okay? Although you can wipe out those frakking Canaanites, no problemo. But no more shagging goats, for MY sake. That’s just disgusting. Now, piss off and don’t drop them. It took me bloody ages to chisel them out.”

    Saw the Portuguese drug report thing and the stats regarding recovery and employment since legalizing all drugs is impressive to say the least.

    I wonder if the US or Eh? will take note?

    I was once offered hashish on a main street in Porto by a dealer who was selling his wares as if they were groceries. There was a traffic cop on point duty not fifty yards away! I kid you not. I was gobsmacked. And this was before drugs were legalized.
    I didn’t click what he was saying at first because of his accent but when he realised I was not Portuguese but my wife is he asked her in Portuguese: ”Doesn’t he know what Hashish is? Marijuana?”
    I speak enough to understand and I understood that all right and told him politely to have sex and travel.

    Looks like our ”mate”, James has put the clamp on me again as there are quite a few comments in moderation and not a single blasphemous word among them – so I don’t know if he’ll release any of my comments on your new post.

    He has done several ”evidence” posts recently so if I can suggest ( plea?) for an ”evidence” post from an atheist’s perspective that would be a welcome read to offset all the backslapping over bloody Josephus and his friggin’ TF.

    You could bring up Mike Licona and the Dead Saints resurrection controversy of 2010. That should have the fundies frothing at the mouth!

    This is a smashing post, by the way, and spot on, too.

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