Tough Questions Answered

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What Is Objectivity? Part 1

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.


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Comments

  • Boz

    Bill Pratt said: “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.””
    -
    That is a false dilemma.

  • Boz

    re: objective or subjective morals, I am open to being persuaded, but I’m not seeing any arguments. I’ve only seen assertions that morals are objective. Will there be any arguments posted on this site?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Ryan/511764596 Andrew Ryan

    If God came to earth and began torturing human children, would we react with moral outrage and accuse him of atrocious immoral acts, or would we say to ourselves, “That’s a shame He is torturing kids, but as God is morally perfect, that means it must be fine for him to torture human children.”

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    We would know it isn’t God because a morally perfect being would never torture a child for fun.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Ryan/511764596 Andrew Ryan

    But your whole standard of what IS moral is based on God’s nature. If God does something, by definition it IS moral. Once you start stating actions that a God could not morally take, you’re appealing to a standard OUTSIDE of God.

    I’d understand if you said there’s something intrinsically immoral about baby torture, but then you’d be talking about a standard that God must keep to, a standard that would exist with or without a God. If ‘good’ and ‘bad’ follow God’s nature, not the other way round, then it would make no sense to say ‘God could not do action x’.

  • tildeb

    As I’m sure most readers know, this particular mulberry bush is called the Euthyphro dilemma, which asks Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God? WL Craig answers this with the former, called Divine Command Theory, which leads us into the moral rabbit hole of justifying atrocities – like the Canaanite slaughter of innocents – by divine command… morally equivalent to the justifying of any reprehensible actions of people just following orders.

    If we’re just going to become pious automatons, as Bill – like Craig – seems to be trying to advocate under the banner of god-sanctioned ‘objective’ morality, then we lose any claim to being autonomous moral agents once we agree to follow these orders. The argument then clearly becomes an issue whether or not pious followers of divine orders can even be capable of being moral agents or if such believers are, in fact, amoral.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Ryan/511764596 Andrew Ryan

    Tildeb, as I pointed out on Josh’s site, WLC trips himself up when he says that Allah couldn’t be God because his moral nature doesn’t match up with the qualities that a perfect God would have. Elsewhere however he says that whatever qualities God’s moral nature has must by definition be the perfect ones. He ignores the fact that if Allah was God, whatever qualities Allah’s morality had would BY definition be the perfect ones. WLC complaining about Allah’s nature runs into the same problems that Craig claims atheists run into when they complain about the nature of the God in the bible.

  • tildeb

    “…if Allah was God”? A very good thing we know a priori that that’s the wrong god!

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