Post Author: Bill Pratt
We’ve recently featured several blog posts centered around the idea of moral objectivity. Objectivity is also a concept that can be applied to truth, knowledge, interpretation, and even beauty. Although we’ve tried to carefully define objectivity versus subjectivity, it might be worth revisiting this concept to see what contemporary thinkers have to say about it.
Philosopher Tom Howe provides a brief, but insightful survey of several contemporary views on objectivity in his book Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation. Howe starts things off with a quote from the famous agnostic Bertrand Russell:
Subjectively, every philosopher appears to himself to be engaged in the pursuit of something which may be called ‘truth.’ Philosophers may differ as to the definition of ‘truth,’ but at any rate it is something objective, something which, in some sense, everybody ought to accept.
We start with the idea that something is objective if it is something that everybody ought to accept. If we take the clear moral truth, “It is wrong to torture a child for fun,” this statement would be objectively true if it is a statement that everyone ought to accept.
Howe then describes Paul Helm’s “ontological” objectivity. According to Howe, “This is basically the question of whether the extra-mental reality exists apart from human perception or is the construct of the human mind. As Helm puts it, ‘Does the character of the world change with the very fact that we are interpreting it?'”
Here we see another important aspect of objectivity. Something is objective if it exists “apart from human perception.” Taking our example again, the moral truth, “It is wrong to torture a child for fun,” would be objective if the statement was true regardless of whether any human being perceived it to be true. In other words, if all human beings went extinct tomorrow, it would still be objectively true that torturing a child for fun is wrong.
Here is an interesting thought experiment. If an intelligent alien race came to earth and began torturing human children, would we react with moral outrage and accuse them of atrocious immoral acts, or would we say to ourselves, “That’s a shame they are torturing kids, but they obviously just have a different moral code than we do. It must be morally acceptable, under their moral system, for them to torture human children.”
I think that we would obviously be morally outraged. In fact, this very situation, or something like it, is portrayed in dozens of science fiction movies where intelligent aliens attack and/or torture humans. The humans in these movies are almost always portrayed as holding the aliens morally culpable, but if moral facts only exist in human perception, then it would be truly bizarre to hold aliens morally accountable.
They might have their own moral facts, or they may perceive no moral facts at all. Why is it, at least in the movies, humans always assume that hostile aliens have the same moral sensibilities we do? I submit that it is because the writers of these movie scripts, just like the rest of us, assume moral facts exist apart from human perception.
Attacking aliens aside, this aspect of objectivity seems to confuse many atheists, because they fail to see how something like a moral fact could exist without human minds perceiving it to be true. For theists, of course, truth also exists in the mind of God, so we have no problem with moral facts being objective in this sense. If you are a non-theist, you could posit that moral truths exist as brute, fundamental facts of the universe, but this answer merely leads inevitably to the question of why the universe would come furnished with moral facts.
In our next post, we will continue to look at the notion of objectivity.