What is Objective Morality?

by Brian Hearn

Right WrongWe should start with what objective means given the word’s versatility. In philosophy, objective refers to something outside of the human mind where the object of perception does not change with our feelings, interpretations, and prejudices. Objective moral values are therefore discovered, not invented. This is in stark contrast to subjective morality which changes from person to person, culture to culture, etc. If morality is objective, the next logical question to follow is: What is the mind-independent basis for objective morality and is this basis sufficiently binding? In other words, it will not do to merely show an external ground for morality if we are not obligated to it.

There is also the attribute of universality. This applies when the basis for objectivity is not confined to a particular time and space. Some would say it is enough for moral values to apply equally to all individuals in relevantly similar circumstances. Either way, universality is predicated on objectivity for it is difficult to imagine subjective moral values applying to all people, in all places, and at all times. And of course only volitional beings can act morally. If there were no minds, there would be no morality. If all actions were compulsory, again, there would be no morality. The atheist who accepts objectivity will likely argue that morality is meaningless without man. The theist will probably view things differently. For example, if the human race had been completely wiped out in World War II, the Holocaust would still be objectively wrong today under theism. The mind of God and His judgment persist.

We see in Christianity moral values have their objective and universal basis in the immutable nature of God. He neither arbitrarily created the moral law, nor is there an external moral domain in which God is subject. Moral values are, because of who God is. Now there is a common misconception where it is thought all monotheists, such as Christians, are moral objectivists and all non-monotheists (agnostics, atheists, pantheists, etc.) are moral relativists. This is not the case. Whether an individual position can be reasonably argued or not; there are plenty of worldviews where it is thought morality finds its objectivity in something other than God. Those like the late Ayn Rand believe man’s self-interest or human survival is the objective foundation for ethics. There are environmentalists who think the perpetuation of the earth’s biosphere is an objective foundation. A former colleague and atheist told me the continuation and growth of human knowledge was an objective basis for morality and meaning – though later he realized its subjectivity. Some eastern religions believe in a sort of Platonic realm which is the source of our moral perceptions. So it’s safe to say all sorts of worldviews hold a belief in objective morality…

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