Morality: Objective? Convergently subjective? Emergent?


The link may not be worth reading all of.  This fellow thinks morality is objective.  Out there in the world independent of culture.   I don’t buy that rationally although I like it viscerally.  I really am not comfortable, viscerally, with the idea of subjective morality.  Subjective morality is effectively meaningless.  I have mine you, have yours, none to judge but god if s(he) exists… Hobbes would be pleased.  What does that leave us with for a framework?  I don’t think this area of philosophy is very RW useful.  But thinking that morality is objective, immutable, independent and intelligible is either equally useless or worse.

The idea of an emergent morality, the way intelligence is emergent, or crowd behavior is emergent  has been tickling my mind.  But what would it mean. What would it look like?



5 Responses to “Morality: Objective? Convergently subjective? Emergent?”

  1. 1 evanescent
    September 8, 2007 at 10:19 am

    But thinking that morality is objective, immutable, independent and intelligible is either equally useless or worse.

    Hi there, I’m the fellow who wrote the original piece.

    I’m not sure at all why you think that an objective morality is equally useless or worse. What is your basis for that conclusion?

    Many famous philosophers would disagree with you, and maintain that morality is an objective thing regardless of culture, time, or attitude. Many ways in which I argued this can be found in the original article.

    Granted, times and cultures may change and their subjective perceptions of morality can change, which is why we don’t burn people at the stake anymore or torture them like in the Spanish Inquisition, but these things were still wrong! There were wrong then and they’ve wrong now; that different cultures are more tolerant at different times speak to their ignorance and superstitious more than it does morality.

  2. September 10, 2007 at 3:32 pm


    First off. Thanks for the well considered article and the comment. The problem I see with objective morality, aside from the many disreputable people who claim to be the prophets of such morality, is that it is indiscoverable and mutable.

    To quote you qutoing Ebonmuse paraphrasing utilitarianism

    It is clear therefore that, to borrow from Ebonmuse: anything that increases net human happiness is good, and anything that decreases net human happiness is bad.

    If that is so, then is is patently true that there is no objective good. “Net” is the key. If aggregate happiness is the goal, then the good is, necessarily, determined by the times the culture and the technology. Burning petrochemicals increased the net happiness and was “good” for generations. It is still good in the developing world. It is potentially bad in the future. The good is determined (according to the utilitarian rubric) culturally by what makes folks happy. Further, what makes folks happy is culturally determined. Beheading infidel increase the net happiness for some cultures. Utilitarianism never claims an objective morality.

    What then, is a standard that does find the objective good? All the “objective morality” schemes I’ve seen are painfully cultural in nature. I challenge you to give me one objectively moral dictum that is categorically correct. I would love to see that one. (Aside: there is one I believe in, but I’m fairly sure it is a product of the culture that shaped my personal moral framework.)

    Go ahead, ev. Rock my world.

  3. 3 evanescent
    September 10, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    Perhaps I’m missing you, but didn’t I provide a definition of objective wrong in the article: “causing unnecessary harm to another person”. If this is the definition of wrong, then I believe I argued we can therefore choose wrong actions or not based on this.

    “Treat others how you would like to be treated” also seems to work pretty well, and this is certainly not subjective or culturally dependent.

  4. 4 evanescent
    September 10, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    I’m going to give this more thought because you’ve given me a lot to think about. I’m going to go and do some more research on the things I’ve talked about and get back to you. ;)

  5. September 11, 2007 at 1:49 pm


    “Unnecessary” to what? This line of reasoning can still take you down the road to a Stalinist omelet. But what is necessary. Is it necessary for china to pollute, potentially harming future generations in order to bootstrap the current generation out of abject and degrading poverty? Was it right for us to do it in the west? Polluting to create a world in which prosperity and a green revolution are imminently and jointly possible?

    As far as the ‘golden rule’ that Christ and Kant liked so well, come on. How I, or you, or anyone would like to be treated is entirely culturally determined. Unless you believe that there is a deterministic biological commonality to “how we would all like to be treated” then this is not universalizable. This principle (golden rule) is similar to the (culturally derived) moral principle I believe in; the zero aggression principle (ZAP) or nonaggression principle. Though I think most proponents of ZAP believe that it is natural law.

    For me an objective morality should guide us unerringly to the right action. Neither of the principles will do so, especially in situations of intercultural (mis)communication. As I see it morality is a tool of social engineering. Always. Like any tool it can be used well (ZAP, IMO) or badly (insert fundamentalist religion of your choice here.)

    Despite looking, I’ve yet to come to an Objective morality. Good luck on your quest, Quixote.

    Zap: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-aggression_principle
    More succinctly: http://www.ncc-1776.org/whoislib.html

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