What would it be for morality to be objective?

In order to provide a useful answer to this question, I must first clarify what is meant by the two terms in the question -- "morality" and "objective". 

That which is moral is typically applied to actions and how they relate to our conceptions of other notions such as freedom, avarice, happiness, greed, selfishness, generosity, etc.  If the concept of morality is established outside of the human experience then it loses its meaning.  Of course, not all actions have some moral worth.  At the simplest level, we typically apply the concept of "morality" to actions involving an interaction between more than one person.  Most philosophers include thoughts (especially intentions) along with actions.  Some philosophers narrow the category severely.  Kant, for example, dismisses actions which are motivated by one's own self-interest.  Williams, as a counter example, includes any thought (nascent action) that involves regarding the interests of others as making some valid claim on oneself.  Authoritative Rule moral systems, on the other hand, evaluate actions on whether they adhere to some rule, regardless of intentions or consequences. 

Abstracting away from these further criteria, and keeping the definition as loose as possible for this discussion, we can establish that "morality" pertains to actions of an agent which have as their intention or consequence the benefit of other individuals besides the agent (where the "other individual" has, perhaps, to include whatever Authority is behind Authoritative Rule morality).  The concept of "morality" then, refers to the rightness, wrongness, goodness, or badness of an agent's actions.  And of course, such evaluations are only appropriate for a subset of actions -- those within the moral realm.

Next, I need to establish what "objective" means, given the word's versatility.  In philosophy, objective refers to something independent of the human mind.  The object of perception does not change with our feelings, interpretations, and prejudices.  Things that are objective are therefore discovered, not invented.  There is also the attribute of universality.  This applies when the basis for objectivity is not confined to a particular time and space.  Universality is predicated on objectivity for it is difficult to imagine subjective perceptions or interpretations applying to all people, in all places, and at all times.

Given these understanding of the words involved, what would it be for morality to be objective? According to Shafer-Landau ("Whatever Happened to Good and Evil"), it would be for there to be right and wrong, good and bad, etc. independent of what human beings think or feel or desire.  To say that morality is objective is to say that notions of right and wrong, good and bad, moral and immoral, are universal and fixed for all times, in all places, for all people.  What are right and wrong here today has been and always will be that way for all times and all cultures in all places.  Regardless of what we may think about the issue.  It would also mean that morality is to be discovered and not invented or created.  There would have to be moral facts of the matter that we can discover if we know how and where to look.  And it would also mean, obviously, that moral language is cognitive, and that moral propositions have truth values.

This does not mean, however, that the moral facts that exist necessarily have to be "queer" (a la Mackie) in the sense of possessing to-be-doneness properties independent of other natural properties.  This is an option, depending on the moral theory one posits.  But conceiving moral facts as supervening on natural (physical) facts is an acceptable alternative.  It also does not mean that moral facts are "intuitively obvious" or "plainly visible" to any who choose to look.  Again, this is an option.  But it is also an acceptable posit that moral facts require training, careful observation, and intelligent consideration to detect and characterize.  As an analogy, consider the Darwinian concept of "inclusive fitness" which also requires similar applications of empirical expertise to discover the facts.  For morality to be objective does not entail that the objective facts of the matter need be easily discovered.  The universality of an objective morality would mean that the truth vales of moral propositions would be constant over all time, all places, and all peoples.  Although, of course, that does not mean in all circumstances -- an objective morality can be relative to circumstances.  Although again, depending on the moral theory adopted, it doesn't have to be.

An interesting aspect of what it would be for morality to be objective, is its implication for moral dilemmas.  One the one hand, because moral propositions have a definitive truth value, actual moral dilemmas do not exist.  In any "dilemma" situation there would necessarily be a clear cut "right" answer.  On the other hand, because an objective morality is consistent with theories that make moral facts perhaps hard to discover, it is possible that apparent moral dilemmas might exist for any given agent as a result of the agent's ignorance of those facts or of an acceptable decision procedure.  Similarly, because an objective morality is consistent with theories that make moral facts relative to circumstances, two agents in differing circumstances can properly reach opposing moral judgments -- again giving rise to an apparent moral dilemma because of ignorance of the moral facts or of an acceptable decision procedure.

But the most telling aspect for what it would be for morality to be objective, is that it would render moral and ethical discussion, debate, and argumentation more than simply my opinion versus yours.  If all that matters is opposing opinion, moral disagreement will eventually resort to might (force of arms, or personality) -- the reason that religious zealots seek to legislate their morals into law.  But if there are objective moral facts to be discovered, then any such disagreements promise the opportunity for a peaceful and mutually beneficial resolution.

 

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