My Views On Morality (Is It Objective?)


Over the last couple of months a fair few
of you have asked me to explain my views on morality, and for even longer than that I’ve
wanted to… but, unfortunately, I haven’t been able. Albert Einstein once said that “If you can’t
explain something simply you don’t know it enough”, and in acknowledgement of these
words I knew that I needed to ruminate and converse with greater minds before publicly
expressing my thoughts. But finally, I believe myself to be at such
a standard, and so, for what it’s worth, here’re my views on morality. As many of you are already aware, in the current
state of moral philosophy we have three subject areas; metaethics, which is concerned with
where morality comes from and what moral terms mean; normative ethics, which is concerned
with forming standards that regulate right and wrong conduct; and applied ethics, which
is concerned with specific controversial issues, such as abortion, animal rights, climate change,
capital punishment, and nuclear war. Now, since I’m predominantly concerned with
metaethics (because that’s where I see the most confusion), that’s what I’m going to
primarily focus on within this video. The field of metaethics itself tends to be
divided into two overarching schools: objectivism and relativism, with the former positing that
morality exists as a matter of fact, and the latter positing that morality exists as a
matter of opinion. For example, Catholicism advocates an objective
metaethic, since it posits that morality exists as a product of divine law, and as such is
comparable to any scientific law. While cultural relativism advocates a relativist
metaethic, since it posits that morality is entirely a cultural construct. My view, however, is that morality is both
objective and relative. That is, it exists as a matter of fact and
it’s relative to certain conditions. Now on the surface (because of conditioning)
this might seem absurdly contradictory, but I assure you, it’s not. It’s no more absurd than the science of
health, which is a great comparison (that’s been utilised by the likes of Sam Harris before)
because while health is rightfully acknowledged as an objective science, it’s also acknowledged
as a relativistic science, since facts about health are relative to species, and in some
cases, individuals. Anyhow, I’m getting ahead of myself now. To back up a little, I’m going to take some
advice from Voltaire and talk semantics. First off, so far as I’m concerned, words
such as “good”, “bad”, “right”, “wrong”, “should”, “shouldn’t”,
“ought”, oughtn’t”, “virtuous”, “evil”, and, indeed, “ethical”, “unethical”,
“moral” and “immoral”, are, I would argue, utterly meaningless without a reference. They’re descriptive, and without a reference
(which is granted either consciously or unconsciously) they’re vacuous. To demonstrate this, consider the following:
is it “good” or “moral” to punch someone in the face? In general, no, it’s not. But notice that by saying “in general”
I just assumed a reference (that being our social contract). If I assumed the reference of a boxing fight
then punching someone in the face is “good”. In fact, it’s the “right” thing to do. And so my point being here is that from a
foundational perspective, words such as “moral” and “immoral” are meaningless. To say that something is moral is to say that
something is good… and we can’t say that something is good unless we have a reference. Moving on, what’s the definition of “objective”? Because this word, in my opinion, is the sticking
point for most people when it comes to morality, and I think it’s because while we’ve largely
outgrown religion, we’re yet to outgrown religious language. There are two prominent conceptions of objectivity,
one that’s scientific, and one that’s philosophical. Scientists (and many philosophers) tend to
view the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity as that of “fact” and
“opinion”, and thus define an objective statement as “A fact that isn’t affected
by an individual’s feelings, biases or interpretations” (and therefore can typically be verified). While other philosophers (and the religious)
tend to view the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity as that of “independent
of a subject”, and “dependent on a subject”, and thus define an objective statement as
“A statement that does not depend on a subject to exist”. Now both of these definitions suit their purpose,
of course, but people often conflate and confuse them, and they do so especially when it comes
to morality. To illustrate this, consider the following
question: is it objectively the case that you’re now thinking? If your answer is “yes”, then that’s
because you’re using the scientific definition of “objective” – it’s an objective
fact about human thought, and it’s something we can measure, infer, and indeed verify. But if you were using the philosophical definition
your answer would necessarily be “no”, because this “fact” depends on you (a
subject) to exist. The problem, of course, is that people erroneously
assert that because morality is subjective in the philosophical sense it’s also subjective
in the scientific sense, when this obviously isn’t the case. Anyhow, with moral semantics covered, I want
to touch upon the great David Hume’s is/ought guillotine. I’ll dedicate an entire video to this topic
upon a time, as most people (including some otherwise reputable sources) completely misunderstand
the problem, but for now, here’re some brief remarks. Hume famously observed that people erroneously
make claims about what “ought” to be based entirely on what “is”; that they attempt
(but fail) to derive prescriptive conclusions from entirely descriptive facts. For example, consider this seemingly sound
argument: Premise 1: Humans typically die if they’re hanged. Premise 2: Ken is a human. Therefore: We ought not to hang Ken. This looks like a valid deductive argument,
but it’s not… it’s a non-sequitur. Even with both premises being true, the conclusion
doesn’t logically follow. It attempts to get a prescriptive statement
from descriptive facts, but it fails. Sure, humans tend to die if hanged, and Ken
is indeed a human, but how exactly do these statement of fact tell us that we ought not
to hang Ken? Exactly, they don’t. And so Hume’s lesson, so far as I can tell,
is “Don’t assume that you can draw moral conclusions directly from statements of fact,
and watch out for arguments that do.” It’s a brilliant observation, and a very
useful tip, but it’s not the same as saying that “Morality doesn’t exist” or that
“We can’t derive a valid ought”, is it? So how, then, can we derive a valid ought? Well, it’s actually very easy – it’s
by having a valid deductive argument that includes at least one ought. Or in other words, it’s by getting an ought
from an ought. For example: Premise one: We ought to live
consistently with our evolution (this is an “ought”). Premise two: Humans evolved to eat meat (this
is an “is”). Therefore: We ought to eat meat. To put this in the language of mathematical
logic, this argument is valid (since its conclusion does indeed follow from its premises), and
it’s objectively verifiable (especially given recent advancements in scientific tools),
but it’s not necessarily sound, because most people don’t believe that “We ought
to live consistently with our evolution.” And so my point being here is that we can
deduce a valid ought, but whether we find it to be sound is dependent on if we personally
accept the premises. And this, finally, brings me to what is the
most unique aspect of my moral perspective. I’m convinced that there are two types of
oughts (or “goods”, or “shoulds”, or “morals”, etc.,) – and I currently
refer to them as “axiomatic oughts” and “contingent oughts”. Axiomatic oughts are “Feelings of obligation
that exist self-evidently”, and they do so without proof or argument (they just are;
they’re facts of nature). An example is my current conviction that “I
ought to survive”. I didn’t reason myself into this ought,
I just have it… it’s an axiomatic fact of nature (not an assumption)… now that
might seem dissatisfying, but so too, at least in my opinion, are all axiomatic facts. While it’s not justified, it really is the
case that I have this compulsion, this ought, this impulse, this urge to behave in a certain
way, and this can be objectively verified through the scientific method (And so it’s
a scientific fact), and what’s more, thanks to Darwin, we now know precisely why I have
it in the first place (hint… no god needed). And contingent oughts are “Feelings of obligation
that are predicated on axiomatic oughts and one or more statements of fact”, and because
they’re predicated on statements of fact that may or may not be correct, they too may
or may not be correct. To illustrate this, let’s take two contingent
oughts – the first being that “I ought to vaccinate my child”, and the second being
that “I ought to remove a segment of my child’s genitalia” – how is it that
I can say that one ought (or moral statement) is right and that the other is wrong? Well, it’s by viewing them in their entire
context. Unlike axiomatic oughts, contingent oughts
are, well, contingent on premises, and in both of these cases they’re contingent on
the same axiomatic ought (that being “I ought to prevent my child from suffering”)
and at least one statement of fact (or “is” statement). And so syllogistically, the first argument
goes as follows: Premise 1: I ought to prevent my child from suffering. Premise 2: It is the case that vaccinating
my child will reduce her chances of suffering. Therefore: I ought to vaccinate my child. And the second argument goes: Premise 1: I
ought to prevent my child from suffering. Premise 2: It is the case that removing a
segment of my child’s genitalia will reduce her chances of suffering. Therefore: I ought to remove a segment of
my child’s genitalia. Now both of these arguments are valid (as
their conclusions follow from their premises), but only one of them is sound. And so the reason I can say that the vaccine
ought is correct (or sound) and the circumcision ought is incorrect (or unsound) is because
it is indeed scientifically, objectively the case (given the current conditions) that “Vaccinating
a child will reduce their chances of suffering”, and it is not objectively the case (given
the current conditions) that “Removing a segment of a child’s genitalia will reduce
their chances of suffering”. Thus, the former is right because its premises
are correct, and the latter is wrong because its second premise is incorrect. Now again, we can quarrel about the axiomatic
ought, but here’s the thing: if you already accept it (for whatever reason, or, let’s
face it… lack thereof), then for all intent and purposes, what’s the problem? Nature has made it so that we’re born with
axiomatic oughts, and while, again, this is intellectually dissatisfying, we just have
to get on with it. As inconvenient as it might be, we are not
born with a blank slate, and all moral discourse must, finally, accept this brute fact. Anyhow, to some up, I do not believe, for
example, that it’s always morally wrong to murder… there’s no transcendent objective
law that we must abide by, and I don’t believe that we “must” do anything, but I do believe
(as a matter of scientific fact) that we’re born with intrinsic axiomatic values, goals,
and inclinations (or in other words, axiomatic oughts), and that we construe contingent oughts
in reference to these axiomatic oughts and perceived facts, and because those facts can
be erroneous, so too can the contingent oughts predicated upon them. Or to put this more personally, while we all
have different values and preferences, and we all believe different things, the vast
majority of us have the axiomatic ought of not wanting to suffer, and consequently we
want to live in a world in which no matter who we were conceived by, no matter what genetic
disposition we inherited, and no matter what environment we grow up in, we were given ample
love, patience and opportunity, and so given this mutual acceptance of what is “good”,
let’s work together to create a better future. Now the last thing I want to say is that,
if I’m honest, I’m not entirely sure on how you’ll respond my views, as so far as
I can tell they’re largely unique, but what is for sure is that I’m excited to digest
your responses. If you think I’m right, let me know. And likewise, if you think I’m wrong…
well, you’re already typing… As always, thank you kindly for the view,
and an extra special thank you to my wonderful patrons and those of you who’ve donated
via PayPal. Until next time my fellow apes, until next
time!

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