As I understand it, an “objective moral truth” would be a morality that exists outside the human mind. In this view, a moral statement like “theft is wrong” has a truth independent of human belief, like “the moon orbits the Earth.”
In comments on a post by Brad Wilcox at Family Scholars Blog, I wrote:
Brad, I don’t believe in an Objective Moral Truth, partly because so many people who do believe in such things have acted in ways that seem to me to have been unkind and unjust.
In that thread, Schroeder responded:
However, when you say, “I don’t believe in an Objective Moral Truth, partly because so many people who do believe in such things have acted in ways that seem to me to have been unkind and unjust,” it strikes me as self-contradictory (at least by implication). If there is no Objective Moral Truth, how do you know that it’s bad to be unkind or unjust?
Brad Wilcox agreed with Schroeder, writing:
Barry – Based on what you blog about and the way you blog about it, I think you are strongly committed–in practice, if not always in theory–to objective truth and to a moral law that binds all of us. And that’s why you rely on thoughtful arguments, persuasive evidence, and a spirit of civility to engage others, including me, in an effort to find common ground for the common good.
This is all highly flattering (thanks, guys), but also bad logic.
If there is no Objective Moral Truth, how do I know that it’s bad to be unkind or unjust? I don’t “know” it, any more than I “know” that Peanuts is artistically a better comic strip than Hi & Lois. It’s my opinion that it’s bad to be unkind or unjust, all else held equal. That opinion – like my opinion of Peanuts - is informed by a great deal of thought and experience. It’s an opinion I’d be willing to argue for, and it’s an opinion that I think most other thoughtful people who have put time into thinking about morality (or about the relative artistic merits of American comic strips) will readily agree with.
But it’s still an opinion, and it is therefore not objectively true the way that “the moon orbits around the Earth” or “two plus two equals four” are objectively true.
Brad’s reasoning contains the same basic flaw. He is correct that someone could decide to use “thoughtful arguments, persuasive evidence, and a spirit of civility” 1 “in an effort to find common ground for the common good” because one starts from the premise that there is a “moral law that binds all of us.” But his argument falsely assumes that a moral law binding all is the only premise that would lead us to value persuasive evidence, civility, etc.
In this case, my premise is that it’s preferable to treat people as I’d prefer to be treated. 2 That premise is not, in my view, a universal, objective truth that exists outside of people’s minds. Indeed, I don’t think that it can exist independently of people’s minds; without people, there is no such thing as “prefer.” It’s merely an opinion I hold – and, obviously, an opinion that many people share with me. Because it’s a commonplace opinion, it can often provide common ground for discussion, which is useful.
But doesn’t the fact that the Golden Rule is so common, prove that it’s an Objective Moral Truth? I don’t think so. Objective Truths are not determined by opinion polls. Even if 99% of people believed that the Earth orbits the moon, for example, it would still not be true.
Nor is the existence of an independent Objective Moral Truth the only possible reason for a commonly shared belief. The Golden Rule arises fairly naturally from the human trait of empathy, which in turn may have come about through the amoral process of evolution.
Finally, let’s remember that although Schroeder and Brad believe that an Objective Moral Truth exists, they can’t demonstrate its existence to a skeptical observer. That makes their belief in Objective Moral Truth… just another opinion.
- I blush! I blush! ↩
- We could develop that and make that more complex – For instance, if I know someone is hungry, do I give them a bacon sandwich, under the theory that I’d prefer a bacon sandwich? I’d say that it would be better to first determine their preferences (maybe they’re vegetarian, maybe they keep kosher, maybe they’re on a hunger strike, etc) before acting, under the theory that I’d prefer others to determine my preferences before trying to help me. And so on. Even the golden rule is complex in application. But for purposes of this post, I’m ignoring those complexities. ↩