In my last post, I talked about why I’m not religious and why I don’t think religion provides a good basis for morality. Whenever this topic comes up, one of the most common responses from believers is to ask: Well, if you don’t think morality comes from God, where do you think it comes from? If God isn’t defining which actions are good and which are bad, then who does? Does everybody just use their own definitions of good and bad? Are we stuck with a system of moral relativism, in which there’s no basis for saying anyone’s definition is more legitimate than anyone else’s, and the conceptions of morality held by the Nazis and the Taliban are considered to be no less valid than those held by Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi? Is morality really nothing more than a matter of cultural convention or personal opinion or preference – like a favorite ice cream flavor or something – with no objectively correct answer?
It’s a reasonable concern, because there actually are quite a few people who do believe in this kind of relativism. Some of them are well-meaning progressive types, who start from the premise that it’s good to respect other cultures (which is certainly true!) but then take that premise as such an absolute that they extend it far beyond its reasonable limits, to the point that they’ll readily accept even the most brutal and inhumane practices in the name of universal tolerance. This attitude can lead to some ugly results – as when, for instance, the government of Brunei recently attempted to justify its draconian penal code (which imposes punishments like amputation and stoning to death for offenses like adultery, theft, and homosexual behavior) with the assertion that “it must be appreciated that the diversities in culture, traditional and religious values in the world means that there is no one standard that fits all.” Not exactly that progressive after all, it turns out.
But in addition to the “all cultural practices are equally respectable” crowd (AKA “normative relativists”), there are also plenty of people – including professional philosophers – who are deeply opposed to the idea of tolerating all practices equally, yet can’t find any way of grounding that stance objectively, and so feel compelled to bite the bullet and admit that it’s all subjective (AKA “meta-ethical relativists”).
Personally, I share the intuition held by most people that moral relativism can’t be the right answer. But what’s the alternative? If people’s various conceptions of goodness and badness are totally subjective, how can we say that statements like “Torturing innocent people for fun is wrong” or “It’s immoral to enslave other people for profit” are somehow objectively correct? On what basis can we claim that objective moral truths exist? Is such a thing even possible?
I actually think it is. But before I explain why, I should point out that there are actually two distinct questions we need to answer here. The first question, of course, is how we can objectively say what’s good and what’s bad. But even if we manage to answer that, it doesn’t automatically mean that we’ve solved all of morality. There’s also the second question, which is: Even if we can objectively define good and bad, why should we then do what’s good rather than what’s bad? How do we ground the assertion that we ought to do what’s right rather than simply doing what’s best for ourselves?
There’s a lot of overlap between these questions; but they do require two distinct answers, and answering one won’t necessarily answer the other. Ultimately, I’ll try to answer both in this post. But let’s take them one at a time, starting with the first one.