Do Objective Moral Values Exist?
by Neil Shenvi
Do objective moral values exist? Many people in our culture today would say that they do not. Morality, says the moral relativist, is constructed by individuals or societies; what is moral for you might not be moral for me. In contrast, the claim of moral realism is that there are objective moral values which specify concepts like good and evil, right and wrong, and which transcend cultures and individuals. To my surprise, I found very little information on the Internet presenting evidence for moral realism, in spite of the fact that it is the majority position of academic philosophers. Although I do believe that we can have immediate personal knowledge through our conscience that objective moral values exist, I believe that there are also several pieces of objective evidence to support this position. Indeed, my claim is that we have many good reasons to believe that objective moral values exist and few -if any- reasons to believe that they do not exist.
In part one of this series I will explain what we mean by “objective moral values.” I will also emphasize the difference between moral ontology and moral epistemology, and between moral ontology and moral behavior. In the second section, I will present a positive case that objective moral values exist. I hope to show that there are many good reasons to accept the existence of objective moral values. In the third section, I will do something far less theoretical and far more personal; I will try to show that every one of us knows that objective moral values do exist but is suppressing this knowledge. And in the final section I will try to show why we are attracted to moral relativism despite its implausibility.
I. What are “objective moral values”?
To begin with, let’s define what we mean by “objective moral values”. Objective moral values are moral values that are true independent of the belief of human beings. For this reason, philosophers who affirm the existence of objective moral values sometimes speak about them as moral facts. A purported fact can either be true or false, but it is qualitatively different than an opinion, which is a matter of personal preference. So when we say that objective moral values exist, we mean that a statement like, “Murder is evil,” is making a claim about some objective moral reality in precisely the same way that the statement, “There is a chair in my kitchen,” is making a claim about objective physical reality. In contrast, a moral relativist claims that a statement like, “murder is evil,” is a subjective claim about our (or our society’s) preference. The statement, “murder is evil,” expresses a subjective preference similar to the statements, “curry is tasty,” or, “bluegrass is the best musical genre.” If objective moral values exist, then statements like, “the Holocaust was evil,” can be objectively true. If objective moral values exist, then this statement would be true even if the Nazis had won World War II and had convinced every human being in the entire world that the Holocaust was good. In contrast, the position of moral relativism commits one to the proposition that moral statements like, “the Holocaust was evil,” are subjective. If some person or some society, like Nazi Germany, believes that the Holocaust was good, then the Holocaust would indeed be good “for them”. There would be no objective moral standard to which their assessment could be compared.
I believe that this definition of objective moral values is not particularly controversial, since it is used by moral realists and relativists alike. What is controversial is whether objective moral values, as defined above, actually exist. It is the evidence for this position that I hope to present in the following sections.
A few other important clarifications. First, in defending the existence of objective moral values, I am primarily making a claim about moral ontology, not about moral epistemology. Moral ontology deals with whether a realm of objective moral values exists; in other words, what is the basis for something being “good” or “evil”? Moral epistemology deals with how we know what is good and evil. Clearly, one can have real objective moral values without knowing how we perceive these values or even how we know which actions are good and which are evil. Second, I am also not claiming that our perception of moral values is perfectly reliable. I will argue that we have a very strong and reliable intuition that there are objective moral values; but I will not argue that our perceptions about which actions are good and which are evil are always accurate (in fact, I believe that in many cases our moral intuitions can be quite inaccurate). Third, I am not making the claim that one must believe in objective moral values in order to act morally. Far from it. I know many people who explicitly deny that good and evil exist, yet who live loving, compassionate lives. I also know people who believe in the existence of objective moral values yet who live evil lives. The question I am asking is not whether our lives are consistent with our beliefs, but whether our beliefs are true or false!
A very helpful extended analogy can be made by comparing the existence of objective moral values to the existence of the external objective universe. First, the question of whether the external, objective universe exist is a question of ontology; is there a real world that really exists outside of my own mind? Is there really a chair in my kitchen, or is this just a figment of my imagination? This question, like the question of the existence of objective moral values, is independent of epistemology: how we know that such a world exists. The objective external universe could exist, even if we have no reliable way to know that it exists. Second, the external objective universe can exist even if my perception of facts about it are not always reliable. Consider the development of the natural sciences over the last four centuries. Scientists in the 17th century had incredibly poor and often erroneous ideas about the natural world. Since that time, our ideas have presumably become more and more accurate. But it does not follow that the objective universe does not exist or somehow depends upon our perception of it. In the same way, our perception of what is good and evil may change over time without affecting the claim that objective moral values exist. I would be very foolish to use to the evolution of our understanding of science over the last four centuries to argue against the existence of an objective universe subject to physical laws. Finally, one does not need to believe that the universe actually exists to live a fairly normal life. A person might be fully convinced that they are living in some computer-generated fantasy world like the Matrix and might still choose, as a personal preference, to live as if buildings and sidewalks and tables and chairs were objectively real. In the very same way, a person might deny the existence of objective good and evil and could still choose to live a moral life. So a denial of the existence of objective moral values does not demand the adoption of a particularly immoral lifestyle.
Hopefully, this section has cleared up some important misconceptions about what the second premise of the moral argument does and does no
t claim. In part two, I will try to provide several good reasons to believe that objective moral values do exist.
Neil Shenvi is the author of Neil Shenvi Apologetics, a website on which he publishes many articles and essays with the skeptic, seeker, and those reaching out to them in mind.
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