I want to start out by thanking Professor Coel Hellier for joining me in this debate. As I have said before, I think that it’s important for those who disagree to come to the table with their ideas and opinions and discuss them in a civil way. I have enjoyed these debates because instead of two men bantering back and forth, we address each other indirectly and let the audience (readers) sort out the truth.
The subject of this debate is whether morality is objective or subjective. First, let us define our terms.
Defining Our Terms
Objective Moral Values and Duties are moral values and duties that are valid and binding independent of human opinion.
Subjective Morality means that morality itself is dependent of each person’s personal opinion.
Professor Hellier has, more or less, defined Objective Morality in his own blog the same way that I have defined it here. So we both agree on the definition of Objective Morality. If he disagrees with my definition of Subjective Morality, then I will await his, presumably, more clear definition since he is the one who will be advocating for it. However, I think that we will agree, for the most part, on the terms.
In this debate, I am going to defend two basic contentions:
- That objective moral values and duties do exist.
- That morality is not exclusively subjective.
The evidence that I will give to support my first contention is as follows:
- Personal Experience and Common Sense – Clear examples of things that most everyone would agree are objectively evil.
- Evidence against a Sociologically Conditioned Morality – “The Baby Lab”
- Universal Ethics
- Expert Testimony
1. Personal Experience and Common Sense
Let me give you a common example of objective morality. I’ve used it before but it bares repeating given our topic.
Everything that the Nazis did during the Holocaust was 100% legal, 100% accepted by their culture and society, and 100% in line with their personal convictions. Was what Hitler and the Nazis did, in exterminating the Jews, evil?
This is an extreme example but that doesn’t make it any less true. If you believe that morality is purely subjective, like Professor Hellier, then you cannot say that what Hitler and the Nazis did during the Holocaust was evil according to any model that supports moral relativism. If, however, you do believe that what the Nazis did, by exterminating the Jews during the Holocaust, was evil, then you believe that at least one objective moral value and duty exists. This is a very simple explanation that gives credence to the fact that at least some objective moral values and duties exist.
Likewise, do you believe that the terrorism perpetrated on 9/11 was evil? If so then you must believe in objective morality. If you take a relativistic position, then you cannot say that it was an act of evil because those who carried it out thought that it was good according to their religious beliefs. The Professor can only say that he thinks or feels that it was not morally acceptable. “But what is evil to me may not be evil for you.”
But, perhaps, Professor Hellier will concede that he does not believe that these two examples were acts of evil. Then we will move to further evidence for objective moral values and duties.
According to these two extreme examples, we can see that some things are objectively evil.
2. Evidence against a Sociologically Conditioned Morality – “The Baby Lab”
Do we learn our morals from our parents and others or are we born with them? It has long been believed that morality is a sociological conditioning over the period of one’s life. However, studies have shown that morals are, in fact, found in infants as young as three or six months old. At Yale’s Infant Cognition Center, nicknamed “The Baby Lab,” Dr. Karen Wynn has done extensive research that we are born with a sense of morality (CNN report on Baby Lab). So, due to this evidence, I think that we can rule out sociological moral conditioning.
3. Universal Morals and Ethics
In this world there are many different cultures. These cultures are very different in many different ways. In some cultures people shake hands as a greeting, in others they bow. In some they pat the head of a child to show affection, in others to touch the head is strictly forbidden. The languages, dress, and ethical standards differ sharply across cultural boundaries. So why is it that the moral standard is so similar across the board?
In virtually all societies, murder, rape, theft, and other moral issues are strikingly consistent. Professor Hellier would have us believe that it is because evolution has programmed morality in such a way that all peoples have essentially the same view on main moral issues. But would it not be more plausible, if the Moral-Evolutionary Theory were true, that evolution would be observably more advanced in some races of people than others? If macro-evolution is true then just as some species are more advanced than others, wouldn’t it be obvious that different kinds within a species would also exhibit different rationales and codes of behavior?
I would maintain that the only way that morality could be so consistent across the cultural line is if there is a common source from which morality was derived. I think that the best explanation for this is that we, the human race, were made in the image of a single morally perfect Being, and that the conviction, that is the emotional and psychological pain, that stems from our immoral behaviors is as a result of a deviating from that moral perfection for which we were created.
4. Expert Testimony
This is purely statistical evidence but is compelling because of the results. Morality falls into the realm of philosophy. As such, philosophers are the closest thing that we have to experts on the subject. The amount of philosophers who are moral realists outnumber the moral relativists approximately two to one (The Largest-ever Survey of Philosophers). Also, in the same survey, the number who profess atheism is a staggering 72.8% oppose to only 14.6% who claim theism. From a merely statistical standpoint, these numbers are going to be difficult to argue against.
The Moral Argument
The moral argument goes as follows:
- If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
- At least one moral value and duty exists.
- Therefore, God exists.
Now, we are not debating the existence of God so this argument does not help my case in any way. I just want to explain how and why Professor Hellier and I differ, as well as the ramifications if we are to think that objective morality does not exist. Also, since the initial burden of proof is on me, given the proposition, I still seem to have less of a burden than the Professor. Prof. Hellier is going to have to show that all morals are purely subjective in nature. However, if I can show that some, or even just one, objective moral value and duty exists then I think that I have carried the burden.
Contention #2 – Morality is no exclusively subjective.
Professor Hellier’s View
The good Professor believes, I presume, in the first premise. Of course, he does not believe that God exists, therefore, he does not believe that objective moral values and duties exist. However, this debate is on the validity of the second premise.
Professor Hellier believes that morality came about through evolutionary processes in order to facilitate human flourishing on this planet. But in his blogs he has not given any mechanism by which this could be possible. In other words, if everything can be explained by science, that is by a materialistic worldview, then we should be able to trace the physical evidence of morality through the chain of evolution to a source, or common ancestry. If it cannot be explained by way of physical evidence, then according to science itself, it is not considered to be true. Of course, this is not possible since the issue of morality is not a scientific issue but a philosophical one.
Moral relativism has been around a relatively long time but really came to fruition in the post-modern movement. Post-modernism says that there are no absolute truths and everything is relative. When asked about it, Dr. Ravi Zacharias said that post-modernism is “dying the death of a thousand qualifications.” This is because no one can hold to the view that there is no absolute truth. He went on to say that the one aspect of post-modernism that people will continue to cling to is moral relativism. This is because it is the only way to get rid of God.
I’d like to offer an argument for moral truths…
- If absolute truths do not exist, then objective moral truths do not exist.
- At least some absolute truths exist.
- Therefore, at least some objective moral truths exist.
Surely, Prof. Hellier does not believe that there are no absolute truths. However, if absolute truths do exist, then how can one simply cast away absolute moral values and duties? Now, I’m not saying that every “truth” is absolute. Some things people differ in their opinions and one opinion is as valid as another. That is what makes them opinions and not truth. However, there are some, in fact many, truths that are absolute. As a parallel, morality is much the same way. Our opinions can differ on certain moral issues but that is not to say that there are no objective moral truths.
- Murder is evil.
- Compassion is good.
- Rape is evil.
- Hospitality is good.
Prof. Hellier cannot affirm any of these very simple and self-evident statements. All he can say is that he thinks or feels that one is better than the other, but that does not mean that it’s true, because there is no moral truth. Immediately we can see the flaws in his view of morality.
I assume that Prof. Hellier will want me to give evidence for his “Absolute Shouldness Scale” as he puts forth in one of his blogs. He seems to imply that Moral Realists are searching fervently for this “Absolute Shouldness Scale” and without it we have no basis for believing in Objective Morality. He says…
Perhaps the biggest red-herring in mankind’s history has been the quest for the false grail of Absolute Ethics, the idea that there is an Absolute Shouldness Scale, and that if we could consult the scale we would know for sure whether we “should” do X or “should” do Y or “should not” do Z. (Science can answer moral questions).
As I have said, one can distinguish between good and evil the same way one distinguishes between truth and opinion. There is no scale by which to measure what is more true than something else. This is where the Law of Non-Contradiction comes in. If we have two truths before us, how can we measure which is more true than the other? By definition, if they are both true then one cannot be more true than the other. By comparison, if we have two mutually exclusive truths then one of them cannot be true. Now, there is a grey area and that is what we call opinion. But an opinion is not truth unless it is backed up with facts. Then it is no longer an opinion, it’s truth.
In much the same way, if we are presented with two evils it makes no sense to say that one is more or less evil than the other. One may have a worse effect or consequences but evil does not measure on a scale. It simply is evil. The same is true with good. We can say that something is better than something else but all we mean is that it will have a more beneficial result or may lead to more potentially good options. Also in talking about good and evil there is a grey area. Often we debate these grey areas in the public arena of ideas. But to say that morality can only be objective if it can be put on a scale to be measured is simply not true.
The fact of the matter is that the way that we measure good and evil is with our conscience. And the only logical way to explain why such a vast amount of different peoples, nations, cultures, and races share such a consistent moral standard is if we all have a common source from which our conscience stems. And the only reason that one would be emotionally and psychologically damaged from committing an immoral act like murder is if we have deviated from the perfect moral standard that such a source must have created us to achieve.
Even in the animal kingdom we typically don’t see lions killing each other. However, when it does happen we don’t seem to have any indication that the lion who killed the other is in any way convicted about his actions. There’s no reason to think that he is remorseful in any way. This is because animals are not moral agents. Humans are very unique in this way. And I don’t think that this uniqueness can be explained by evolution.
– Anthony Freeland