What Do We Know About Morality? Part 1

First, when one reflects on morality, there are certain objective moral facts that seem to be obvious; these facts can be known by intuition.  According to ethicist Greg Koukl, “Philosophers call this kind of knowing a priori knowledge (literally, ‘from what is prior’), that which one knows prior to sense experience.”   There are clear-cut actions that we know are wrong, such as murder, the torture of babies for fun, and rape. 

The great apologist, C. S. Lewis, argued forcefully that all men are aware of basic moral facts and that these moral facts do not vary from civilization to civilization or from time to time.  To prove his point he asked the reader to think of a “country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all of the people who had been kindest to him.  You might as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five.”  

Philosopher William Lane Craig has argued that people who can not see clear-cut cases of moral truth are morally handicapped and can be safely ignored when debating ethics.   Greg Koukl summarizes by claiming “all moral reasoning must start with foundational concepts that can only be known by intuition, which is why one doesn’t carry the burden of proof in clear-cut examples of moral truth.”

Clear-cut moral cases are then seen to be objectively true by intuition, by a priori knowledge.  A person may want to reject the existence of objective moral truth by arguing that people often vehemently disagree about particular difficult moral situations, and that this fact, therefore, demonstrates that morality cannot be objectively known.  Christian apologists Norman Geisler and Frank Turek respond to this argument by stating that “the fact that there are difficult problems in morality doesn’t disprove the existence of objective natural laws.  Scientists don’t deny that an objective world exists when they encounter a difficult problem in the natural world (i.e., when they have trouble knowing the answer).”  

In other words, the fact that there are disagreements over complex moral issues fails to prove that objective moral truth cannot be discerned by moral intuition.  The point to be understood is that there are straightforward instances of moral judgments – killing innocent humans is wrong, acting unselfishly is a virtue, and so on – that can be known by virtually all people.

Given the existence of objective moral laws, there are other attributes of morality that can be grasped upon further reflection.  According to ethicist Francis Beckwith there are at least seven aspects of morality that appear to be true, based on mankind’s common moral experience.  

We will review these seven aspects of morality in future posts, so stay tuned.

[quotation references can be provided on request]

  • Wes

    If moral can be known and is intuitive to all but the “morally handicapped,” to use Craig’s term, can we find moral truth by putting it to a vote? Would this work for all moral truths or just those that are intuitive?

    I think these are reasonable questions since many states are voting (more or less) on issues such as the definition of a family, euthanasia, and abortion issues. The votes tend to be split more or less evenly, but that doesn’t mean people are voting according to their intuition. They ma vote according to their desire. I’ve got some ideas about my questions but am curious to hear others’ ideas.

  • There is no such thing as objectivity. Every being — including God — views everything from the prism of one’s own perspective. In human’s, our perspective is colored by our own unique experiences, observations, knowledge and beliefs.

    In addition, one phrase in your opening paragraph struck me as decidedly odd: “the torture of babies for fun”. I don’t understand the significance of adding the words “for fun”. It almost sounds like you are suggesting that torturing babies is quite okay as long as it’s done for a reason other than simply fun and I’ve just got to believe you don’t mean that!

  • Bill Pratt

    Rambling,
    Is anything you said in your comment objectively true (meaning it applies to you, me, and everyone else) or are you just expressing a subjective opinion, like someone who said they preferred vanilla over chocolate?

    Put another way, is it objectively true that “There is no such thing as objectivity?”

  • All opinions are subjective — yours, mine and even God’s.

  • Bill Pratt

    Again, is it objectively true that “All opinions are subjective — yours, mine and even God’s?” Yes or No. Does your statement apply to all people, or does it just apply to you? If it really only applies to you, then why do you keep stating it as though it applies to everyone? If it does apply to everyone, then it is an objective statement! But you claim there is no such thing. Help me straighten this out.

  • I don’t know how to make my statement more clear. Everything is subjective and that clause is subjective. Every word you or I write is subjective. Every observation or experience is subjective. And yes, that’s my subjective opinion about the impossibility of objectivity.

  • Bill Pratt

    You are contradicting yourself, even though you don’t seem to realize it. Objective means that a statement applies to all people, all times, all places. Subjective means that a statement only applies to you.

    You are saying that every statement that anyone makes is not objective, but then when I ask you to clariify, you claim that this statement only applies to you (that’s what subjective means). Unless you are the source of every statement, you are stating nonsense. You can claim that some statements are subjective, but you cannot claim that all statements are subjective. That is a nonsense statement, like saying 2+2=5. The words are coming out of your mouth, but they don’t make any sense.

    It is self-refuting to say that all statements are subjective, because the words “all statements” necessarily entail objectivity. You can either say that all statements are subjective except those you utter (which is nonsense, because it turns out “all” doesn’t mean “all”) or you can admit that your statement is really subjective, which means it applies only to you, but again “all” ends up meaning “your particular statement.” It seems you’ve chosen the second path, but I doubt you really want to say that “all” means only your particular statement.

    Again, I agree that there is some subjectivity in the world of statements, but you cannot say that everything someone might say is subjective. That sentiment completely self-destructs. It’s like me saying “I can’t type a word of English.”

  • That’s not what subjective means at all. A subjective opinion or statement means that the statement or opinion is colored by personal experiences, biases, prejudices, emotions, etc. Consequently, it is my subjective viewpoint that there is no such thing as objectivity.

    For something to be objectively true, then everyone would have to agree that it’s true and I know of no topic in which everyone is in agreement.

  • Bill Pratt

    How about 2+2=4? Bachelors are unmarried. The world is not flat. The capital of of NC is Raleigh. Barack Obama is president of the US.

    Are these statements objectively true?

    How about this statement? “For something to be objectively true, then everyone would have to agree that it’s true.” Is that objectively true?

    How about this statement? “A subjective opinion or statement means that the statement or opinion is colored by personal experiences, biases, prejudices, emotions, etc.” Is that objectively true?

  • Mathematics is an abstraction and human construction. You can’t find a 2 or 4 in the natural world. You can use the words two and four to describe and quantify other things, but they don’t exist independently. In addition, in base 2 or base 3, 2 + 2 does not equal 4.

    If you lived in a society that does not recognize marriage as we do in the western world, then saying that bachelors are unmarried would make no sense whatsoever.

    Where I’m sitting right now is flat and where I’m sitting is part of the world, so, from my vantage point, the world does appear flat.

    North Carolina doesn’t actually exist. It’s nothing more than arbitrary lines on a map. If you were straddling the arbitrary state line between North Carolina & South Carolina, you wouldn’t know the difference between one side and the other.

    For that matter, the United States involves a lot of arbitrary lines too. So, in actuality, it doesn’t exist either. So what does it mean that a particular person is “president” of something that doesn’t exist?

    Every statement made by anyone remains subjective, EVEN when several people make the same statement.

  • Rambling,

    You said:

    “For something to be objectively true, then everyone would have to agree that it’s true and I know of no topic in which everyone is in agreement.”

    I must disagree with that statement. Something can be objectively true without everyone agreeing that it is true. For something to be objectively true all it has to be is “true”. For example, yesterday at 3 PM Eastern Time I sneezed. Someone might have looked at me at that time and said “No, you didn’t sneeze. You just yawned loudly .” Guess what, they were wrong, period. It is objectively true for a person in China that at 3 PM Eastern Time yesterday Darrell Boan sneezed. They don’t have to agree with it… it is a fact.

    Quite simply an objective truth is a truth that is true for every person all the time… it is a truth that is true no matter what a person thinks. They can disagree with it very passionately… but all they will be is passionately wrong.

    Your statement that “All opinions are subjective — yours, mine and even God’s?” is self defeating. You are trying to state that your opinion is objectively true (true for everyone) but in the process you state that no opinion is objectively true. Because, as you say, everyone’s opinion is “subjective”. Your statement defeats itself and is therefore, illogical.

    Darrell

  • Bill Pratt

    Rambling,
    What you are saying, with all due respect, is pure and simple nonsense. You continue to make statement after statement that you believe apply to everyone, but then you deny it in the next breath. If you cannot see that you’re statements about objectivity and subjectivity are illogical and nonsensical, I don’t know where else to go. You either see it or you don’t. I have tried to reason through this with you, but when someone won’t even admit that 2+2=4 or that bachelors aren’t married, the road of rational conversation has clearly come an end.

    It was a pleasure speaking with you and I wish you the best.

  • I am at a complete loss as to why you don’t understand almost any point I’m making. Yes, I am making statements that I believe apply to everyone, but the statements themselves are subjective. They represent my personal (and subjective) opinion. Why is this concept so difficult for you to wrap your mind around?

    You believe that the way you interpret the world is based on objective truth, but there are billions of people in the world — many with perspectives entirely different than yours — who think the same thing. So, who is objective and who is not?

    Finally, as the question of your arithmetic, who is to say that the human preoccupation with numbers, time and probabilities is natural? There are many who believe that, in space, time is nonexistent. In fact, if you hold to the belief that God always has been and forever will be, then time is nonexistent for God.

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  • Belva

    Rambling,

    Get a dictionary.