Moral Absolutes

In a comment on my previous post “Terrorism and moral outrage“, wgreen asked

The inward sense of justice is evidence of the existence of moral “absolutes”. How do you justify the existence of such absolutes?

Is an inward sense of justice really evidence of the existence of moral absolutes? Consider the concept ‘justice’. Without any absolute (universal and objective) moral standards, it would be impossible to judge any action (particularly the actions of others). And without such judgement, there could be no such thing as justice. To the extent that a person has a sense of justice, he recognizes the existence of moral absolutes. An inward sense of justice is evidence of a (possibly implicit) belief in the existence of moral absolutes, but in itself, it is not evidence of the existence of moral absolutes. But where does a sense of justice come from? What is the basis for the moral absolutes on which a sense of justice depends?

A sense of justice comes from the constant necessity of judging actions (both one’s own and those of others) to achieve one’s goals. Those actions that further (or appear to further) one’s goals are judged as good. Those actions that hinder one’s goals are judged as bad. The requirements of one’s chosen goals become a personal standard by which actions are judged. This personal standard can be used objectively, since the requirements of any particular goal can be objectively determined. But by itself this standard is not universal. It is only when one projects one’ s own goals on other people (whether consciously or unconsciously) that the personal standard becomes a universal one and gives rise to a sense of justice. Is such a projection proper?

Since man has free choice, he may choose any goal. But the achievement of his goals is not merely a matter of choice. He cannot achieve any goal without meeting its requirements. No matter what his goal is, he cannot achieve it if he is not alive to pursue it. In this sense, his own life is his ultimate goal. Without it, no goals can be achieved. The requirements of his life are a part of the requirements of any goal he may choose. Since the requirements of life are essentially common to all men, the principles required to pursue these requirements successfully are moral absolutes – moral because the principles are guides to action and have to be voluntarily followed, absolute because they are objective and universal.

But what about goals that are not consistent with the requirements of life – goals that can only be achieved with damage to one’s life? It is certainly possible to choose such goals. Indeed, altruism – the dominant moral code today – considers such goals and the sacrifice necessary to achieve them as noble. What does the acceptance of altruism do the idea of moral absolutes? When man’s life was dominated by religion and a concern with the supernatural, it was possible to hold moral absolutes inconsistent with life. Today, when the influence of religion has weakened and men are concerned with their lives on earth, moral absolutes inconsistent with life cannot survive. Since it is impossible to practise altruism consistently – the ‘noblest’ men would become martyrs – an (implicit) acceptance of altruism inevitably leads to a rejection of moral absolutes and a gulf between the moral and the practical. It leads to a culture that believes that the manufacturing of cars requires adherence to absolute principles, but the life of a man (which is far more complex and sensitive) requires none.

As long as man is concerned with his life on earth, he must consider any goal that is inconsistent with the requirements of his life as destructive. He must discover the correct moral principles that are required to lead his life successfully. He must recognize that some of these principles are absolute and others are contextual but all of them are objective – based on his nature and the facts of reality. The resurgence of violent radical religious movements (like Islamic terrorism and Hindu vandalism – both of which bemoan decaying moral values) is evidence that man cannot live without absolute moral principles in perpetual doubt and uncertainty. The decay of moral values is a definite trend and it cannot be addressed by an uninspiring stew of tolerance, moderation, permissiveness and compassion that rejects all moral principles. Reversing that trend requires a discovery and assertion of the absolutism of correct moral principles.


9 Responses

  1. > “Without any absolute (universal and objective) moral standards, it would be impossible to judge any action . . . .”

    Epistemologically,* I think of absolute as “fixed (unvarying, set) within a certain context.” In this sense, religionists can have absolute moral standards. An example is the Jewish and Christian commandment, “Do not kill.” As stated, it is definitely universal. As stated, however, it suggests no limiting context. “Never kill” is what it says. It is contextless. It implies no context because it is supernaturalist. The commandment does not come within the context of what we know. Instead, the commandment comes from “revelation” from outside our minds. It is therefore not objective, that is, it is not drawn logically from observation of the facts of the natural world.

    An example of an objective moral absolute would be: “Do not initiate the use of force against others.” This principle suggests a context, living peacefully in society; and it suggests that one may use deadly force, not in initiation, but in defense against force initiated by others.

    Objective moral principles are contextual because all knowledge–other than basic axioms–is contextual.

    That is my understanding at this point.

    *Metaphysically, a fact is absolute in the sense that it is what it is independent of our cognition of it. The fact that man needs food is metaphysically absolute.

  2. Burgess,
    Thanks for your comment. It drew my attention to the fact that I have used the word ‘objective’ with two different meanings in my post.

    1) Objective in the sense of providing definite guides to action.
    2) Objective in the sense of based on reality.

    Regarding your example of “Do not kill”, I would say, the commandment is universal and obective in the first sense but not in the second. This is probably true of most religious commandments. They are objective in the sense that they are actionable principles though not based on reality. And because they are actionable, they can offer (mis)guidance to people who are not comfortable with moral relativism.

    You wrote “Objective moral principles are contextual because all knowledge–other than basic axioms–is contextual.”
    Are all objective moral principles contextual? Consider the principle “Be rational”. What is the context? Isn’t the principle really universal?

  3. I am still exploring these issues. Here is my understanding at this point in time.

    1. “Objective,” in my philosophy (Objectivism), has two meanings. First, in metaphysics, it means existing independent of consciousness. The redundant phrase “objective reality” captures this meaning. Second, in epistemology, “objective” refers to knowledge that is drawn (inferred) logically from facts of reality. (See “Objectivity,” The Ayn Rand Lexicon.)

    2. All of ethics, and therefore ethical principles, is contextual. The more fundamental branches of philosophy–metaphysics and epistemology–set a context. (A context is the set of ideas which “condition” a certain idea.) (See “Context,” ARLex.) Also, just prior to ethics is the context-setting decision to live or not. If one does not choose life then the virtue of rationality is inapplicable. All virtues are inapplicable.

    3. What applies to normal life might not apply to an emergency situation. E.g., normally, in society, it is wrong to initiate force against another person, but in a “lifeboat” situation it might be, to survive. This is another example of contextual ethics.

    4. It is important to distinguish the fact that all objective ethics is contextual from conventional “situation ethics,” which usually seems to mean that some situations intrinsically call for different actions. This approach, as well as I can tell from casual observation, is pragmatist in that it eschews principles that apply broadly throughout normal life.

    P. S. — Ethics is a fascinating topic. I have been participating in an online study group in Study Groups for Objectivists. We have just finished covering the first half of Ayn Rand’s essay, “The Objectivist Ethics.” The second half begins in January. We will be covering about 3 pp per day.

  4. Burgess,
    1) The metaphysical meaning is implicit in the epistemological one, but I agree that it is good to make it explicit. These meanings are also very close to the dictionary meaning, which is good. But what about objective as in objective law or objective criteria? Here the thrust is on definiteness. An example would be a law that only allows voting after 18 years of age. This law is objective because the criteria it specifies are epistemologically simple. I believe this is also a common use of the word objective. Would you suggest some other concept for this?
    2) I disagree a bit here. Epistemologically, in the formation of ethical principles, I agree that there is always a context. But as long as one does not explicitly choose to die, as long as one still has some purpose, rationality is a virtue. It is still applicable, metaphysically. Logic and the laws of reality are not optional or context dependent whether one recognizes it or not. And a lot of people do hold rationality as a virtue *.
    3) Fine.
    4) I suppose you wrote this to emphasize why context is important and subject to the reservation in 2) I agree.

    * As you might have realized, I am at best an amatuer philosopher. My interest in philosophy is primarily to validate my ideas and enable sound activism (even if it is only at a personal level). As such, I am interested in being able to relate Objectivist ideas to those who do not explicitly accept its epistemology. I have realized that it is impossible to communicate with someone who does not accept Objectivist metaphysics, but I believe it is possible to have constructive debates with people who have some commitment to rationality.

    Ethics is definitely a fascinating topic. I looked at SGO and will consider if I can commit the time required for a scheduled study. I am about to take on a project over and above my regular work and am a little unsure.

  5. Just as an aside KM. Loved some of the exchange at Desicritic comments and was pained to see the way people can reject reality and be proud of it too.

    I have been in situations where I try to defend ‘being logical’ (even if I dont use the -ism word, because that is when they literally flare up) and sometimes when it is with your close ones, it takes a lot out of you emotionally.

    Was wondering is it really worth it to debate, when you know the party is not interested in ‘logic’ anymore. How do you know when to stop, or try a little more ,lest you realise it was just a little more and he would have understood it. That becomes so delicate at the end of it.

    I hope I am making any sense 😉

  6. I too am a philosophical amateur. Philosophy is a means to an end, not the core purpose of my life. I can only offer suggestions on issues I have wrestled with.

    (If money is not an issue, you might consider what I and a friend of mine have done on occasion: Hire a philosophical tutor. An example might be Robert Garmong, PhD Philosophy, if he is available now. Another alternative is to join the for-fee Harry Binswanger List and, over a period of months ask your questions there; you can make private contact with philosophers there [if they participate in the list discussions] and perhaps work out arrangements for paid tutoring. If you contact Harry, you can mention my name.)

    > “But what about objective as in objective law or objective criteria? Here the thrust is on definiteness. An example would be a law that only allows voting after 18 years of age.”

    An objective law is indeed a definite law. It is also a clearly written law. It is also a law understandable by average people. But all those characteristics–definiteness, clarity, understandability–are effects of objectivity. They are thus nonessential. Very important, but nonessential.

    “Essential” refers to a characteristic that explains all or most of the other characteristics of a thing. E.g., rationality is an essential characteristic of man (the rational animal). What is a cause metaphysically is an essential epistemologically. (See “Definitions,” The Ayn Rand Lexicon.)

    In the case of “objective law,” as I understand the usage, “objective” means that it can be logically tied to facts of reality. Consequences (effects) of that logical development are definiteness, clarity, and so forth. If a law is vague, then it has been poorly thought out, that is, it is illogically drawn from facts of reality–or it has not been drawn from facts of reality at all.

    If a law says, “All witches shall be burned alive,” that is clear (to some extent) and definite, but it is not objective. There is no way to logically develop the concept of “witch” from reality. It is a figment of imagination just as Santa Claus, God, and poltergeist are.

  7. > ” It is still applicable, metaphysically.”

    Yes. Here is a terminological distinction that I find very useful: context vs. circumstance. “Context” is an epistemological term. “Circumstance” refers to the reality itself. It is a metaphysical fact that man needs reason to survive. That remains the case whether I understand it or not and whether I agree with it or not. But that is a sort of circumstance, that is, a metaphysical fact.

    > “Logic and the laws of reality are not optional or context dependent whether one recognizes it or not. And a lot of people do hold rationality as a virtue *.”

    They are not optional. Logic (the laws of thought) and the laws of reality are context-dependent in a fundamental sense. E.g., they depend on the axioms Existence exists and Consciousness exists perceiving existence. If there is no existence, then there is nothing for logic to apply to and no logic (the art of noncontradictory identification . . . of the facts of reality. Likewise there are no laws (discovered by man) if there is no consciousness and no reality.

    “Laws of reality” is sometimes said as an anthropomorphic description of reality’s working in regular ways. But the only laws (conceptual formulations) that exist are the ones formulated by the mind about reality. Laws do no exist independent of the mind of man.

    It is true that the laws of logic do not change with particular circumstances and, therefore, in particular contexts. E.g., dark-skinned people do not have a different logic than light-skinned people.

    I think you understand these points, but it helps to make them explicit.

    Caution: I remind you that I am a philosophical amateur.

  8. Roshnai,
    “Was wondering is it really worth it to debate, when you know the party is not interested in ‘logic’ anymore. How do you know when to stop, or try a little more ,lest you realise it was just a little more and he would have understood it. That becomes so delicate at the end of it.”
    That is a valid question. Some of the objections on the desicritics thread were indeed outright dishonest. But it is possible to bring the dishonesty into the open (as I forced kerty to do with his neti-neti logic), and that is good.
    And my main reason for participating on a platform like desicritics is not to convince the specific debaters (who usually have quite strong ideas and are often unwilling to reason) but to demonstrate to those on the sidelines that there is a rational alternative. If we allow irrational voices to dominate culture just because we are disgusted by them, we have no one but ourselves to blame when those voices end up shaping the culture.

  9. Burgess,
    1) Thanks for the clarification of the meaning of ‘objective’ as in objective law.
    2) I need to think some more about your points on laws. I have been pondering this point for some time now after reading Roger Penrose’s “Shadows of the mind” (a fascinating book). Your points are possibly a new direction but at the moment, I think I am missing it. I will post something on it once I am clearer in my own mind.
    3) I will try to get into HBL as you suggest.

    Thanks for the excellent discussion.

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