What is objective morality anyway?

I’m not a huge Michael Ruse fan. Scratch that, I’m not any kind of Michael Ruse fan. However, after seeing a friend criticize this for supposedly being consistent about moral realism/anti-realism, I’m starting to wonder if Ruse has a point about morality. This is because there are several different questions we could be talking about when we talk about “moral realism” or “objective morality.” Here are two of them:

(1) Is morality reducible to what somebody (or bodies) says or thinks is moral?
(2) Is morality reducible to something contingent and local to planet Earth?

There’s an obvious way to say “no” to both questions: if moral truths are written in some Platonic realm. There’s also an obvious way to say “yes” to both questions: if morality is reducible to what humans say or think is moral. But there’s a famous moral view that says “yes” to (1) and “no” to (2), namely the sort of divine command theory endorsed by William Lane Craig, which makes morality reducible to what God says.

Now here’s Ruse:

How does a non-realist like me proceed? One could be some kind of social contract theorist and think that a group of wise old people sat down one day and made up the rules of morality. This seems to me to be unsatisfactory both as history and philosophy. I go rather with the late John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, thinking that natural selection put morality into place. Those proto-humans who thought and behaved morally survived and reproduced at a better rate than those that did not. (There are all sorts of good biological reasons why cooperation can be a much better strategy than just fighting all of the time.)

So what does this make of morality? Sure, it is something that is part of our psychology. Frankly, who would ever doubt that? If you like, the controversial part is that it is only part of our psychology. I think that is the world into which David Hume pushed us. But because it may be the case that we can do what we like, it doesn’t follow that we should do what we like. As evolved human beings, the rules of morality are as binding on us as if we were the children of God and He had made up the rules.

So that is why what Jerry Sandusky allegedly did was wrong – really and truly wrong. That is not a matter of opinion.

This sounds puzzling, but maybe Ruse wants to say “no” to (1) and “yes” to (2), by making morality rooted in human psychology (though not, apparently, in a way that’s open to straightforward scientific study). And it’s not really obvious saying “yes” to (2) in this way requires you to say “yes” to (1). Just because a fact is psychological doesn’t mean it can be changed by getting people to agree to say something different about it. If that’s right, it’s wrong for Craig to insinuate that on Ruse’s view, morality would be changed “if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them.”

My gut inclination is to want to say “no” to both (1) and (2), to follow G. E. Moore and Russ Shafer-Landau if not Plato. But maybe Ruse (if I understand him correctly) has the right approach, “no” to (1) and “yes” to (2). That could be right even if Ruse doesn’t have the most plausible view of this sort. Russell Blackford has complained that “too many people assume that the only alternatives are a very crude moral relativism or a naive moral realism.” And I’ve been thinking of picking up Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project, which I’m told treats morality as a kind of technology (and facts about technology aren’t automatically changed by what people say or think).

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  1. You mentioned in your earlier post that you become quite frustrated when you read theologians, find them using words in non standard ways, and then find nothing that clarifies the non standard ways in which they are using words.

    I have the same problem when I read people who claim to believe in the existence of an objective morality, but who do not believe that such an objective reality would be platonic. I’ve found that many such people tend to be very, very emotionally wed to the language of moral absolutism and the language of objective morality. Some (camels with hammers blog) will openly admit that this is an important concern for them, and that it drives their writing. Unfortunately, this tends to just lead to some terrible confusion. Statements like Ruse’s concluding one in the above quote are just asking to be misinterpreted by an audience not familiar with his definition of morality, because someone not using his definitions would express exactly the same concept by saying the opposite.

  2. >someone not using his definitions would express exactly the same concept by saying the opposite.

    Is that really true?

    Ruse apparently thinks “morality is only part of our psychology.” Presumably by “saying the opposite,” you’re referring to the last sentence, you’re saying someone else might say the same thing as Ruse by saying “morality is a matter of opinion.”

    But it seems to me that on anybody’s English, “a matter of opinion” is not the same as saying “only a matter of our psychology.”

  3. No? Maybe my statement wasn’t very precise, I suppose.

    But in general, if I hear each of the following spoken

    1. “Apples are delicious- really and truly delicious. That is not a matter of opinion.”
    2. “Whether apples are or are not delicious is a matter of human psychology.”

    I would not take them to be expressing the same thought, or even a broadly compatible one.

    And the tendency of certain philosophers to do this, in large part based on what I perceive as a struggle over who gets to claim the turf of the traditional language of objective morality, makes me trust them less. I do not, after reading this sort of thing, feel that I can safely trust their words to have the face value meanings they ought, rather than having super secret different meanings that are designed to affect me in a way unrelated to the meaning that will be claimed upon interrogation.

  4. Your (1) and (2) obviously aren’t expressing the same thought, but so what? Is there any reason to think that Ruse’s last sentence must be expressing the same thing as the previous paragraph?

    On the other hand, if they were actually incompatible, that would be a problem. But it’s not clear to me that they are contradictory. (1) looks to me to be false, but the reason it’s false is that people disagree on what’s tasty and there’s no way to decide who’s right. Or something like that. At any rate, it doesn’t seem that being a matter of psychology is sufficient for being a matter of opinion.

    This is an imperfect analogy, but lots of facts about how we perceive the world are a matter of how our brains and sensory systems are set up. There are still, however, facts about questions like “is that apple red?” that are not a matter of opinion.

  5. > There are still, however, facts about questions like “is that apple red?” that are not a matter of opinion.

    Not necessarily :]

    If you phrase it as ‘does the apple have the right (non–phenomenal) properties such that an observer with a certain type of visual processing will have a red perception of it,’ then this would clearly have an answer. But as for whether the apple itself ‘is red,’ this isn’t the same thing. I don’t think this is a trivial analogy; to say that our perception of morality is like our perception of color gets very close to the whole idea of antirealism, I think.

  6. Morality is reducible to behavior with a specific purpose. Namely, morality is those actions and behaviors that leads to the good health and well-being of individuals and communities.

    There is no requisite that a specific entity package what the specific forms of moral behavior are. Each individual can determine by whatever means suits them whether a specific action will lead to good health or well-being of a specific person (themselves, maybe) or a community of persons (or other living things).

    However, morality is also codified into laws due to necessity and/or convenience. For example, murder does not improve the well-being of communities and so laws are instituted to regulate the killing of others. Every law, rule, and regulation is based in morality.

    Politics and religion employ selective morality. If we are not careful, we get lost in a war between group A who says A-type behavior is correct and group B who says B-type behavior is correct. For example, group A will claim everyone has a right to eat hamburgers and group B will claim hamburgers clog arteries and are therefore unhealthy. Allowing freedom to make one’s own choices is moral behavior. Avoiding dietary foods that cause illness is also moral behavior. Both A and B are right and their disagreement is a sign that both sides are narrow-minded and out of balance.

  7. I think Ruse has been extremely unclear about his position on morality, both in the linked article and in previous ones. He appears inconsistent. I recognise that philosophers can come up with all sorts of weird and wonderful positions which do not fall into established categories, and may turn out not to be inconsistent once they are understood. Still, I think a philosopher who adopts such a position must work hard to make his position clear, and Ruse comes nowhere near doing so. Perhaps he has elaborated his position in more formal writing elsewhere, but if so he should at least have mentioned that fact. As it stands, he just comes across as muddled.

    Moreover, he is using this position as the basis of a critique of other people’s views, people who are not philosophers and who he has accused of philosophical naivety. This would be a foolish thing to do if he was aware of the peculiarity of his own position and the difficulty of explaining it. So this gives further weight to the impression that he is not taking an unusual and subtle position, but is just muddled.

    One issue which affects both Ruse’s writing and the discussion above is the ambiguity of the word “morality”. There appear to be two senses of the word relevant here: (1) the human faculty for making moral judgements; (2) the set of true moral facts. In much of Ruse’s article he seems to be using “morality” in sense (1). But as far as he limits himself to that sense he is saying nothing about the subject in question, which was the nature of moral facts and how we can know them. To me he gives every impression of conflating the two meanings and, in effect, committing a fallacy of equivocation along these lines: morality (sense 1) is the product of evolution; therefore morality (sense 2) is the product of evolution.

    Although Ruse is reluctant to use the word “objective” and denies being a moral realist, he believes that “what Jerry Sandusky allegedly did was wrong – really and truly wrong.” In other words he believes that such a fact is true without any qualification. It is not true only in a relative or subjective sense (as a relativist or subjectivist would insist). To me it’s misleading to call this anything but “moral realism”, but let’s leave labels aside. (Incidentally, Ruse has taken a less realist view in the past, asserting in 2010 that morality is “an illusion”.) I find it extremely hard to understand how facts of this sort can be “a product of evolution”. The assertion makes no sense to me. By virtue of what does evolution make such facts true? If Ruse really is using “morality” in sense 2, he owes us an explanation. If he isn’t using morality in sense 2, then he’s failing to address the subject.

    My conclusion is that Ruse is unlikely to be making a subtle point here. It seems more likely that his position is just as confused and crude as it appears, and significantly worse in my view than those of the people he excoriates for philosophical naivety.

  8. Chris,

    The nearest I can see to Ruse giving an explanation of why he calls himself a non-realist is when he denies that he is talking about “something external”. I’m not sure how this fits with your question 2. I think Ruse just has the idea that calling himself a realist implies that he believes in an external law-giver.