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Friday, July 5, 2013

Objective vs Subjective Morality

Published by Steven Novella
Originally published January 11, 2013

I am fascinated by the philosophy of ethics, ever since I took a course in it in undergraduate school. This is partly because I enjoy thinking about complex systems (which partly explains why I ended up in Neurology as my specialty). I also greatly enjoy logic, and particularly deconstructing arguments (my own and others) to identify their logical essence and see if or where they go wrong.

In a previous post I wrote about the philosophy of morality. This spawned over 400 comments (so far), so it seems we could use another post to reset the conversation.

The discussion is between objective vs subjective morality, mostly focusing around a proponent of objective morality (commenter nym of Zach). Here I will lay out my position for a philosophical basis of morality and explain why I think objective morality is not only unworkable, it’s a fiction.

First, let’s define “morality” and discuss why it is needed. Morality is a code of behavior that aspires to some goal that is perceived as good. The question at hand is where do morals and morality come from. I think this question is informed by the question of why we need morals in the first place.

I maintain that morals can only be understood in the context of the moral actor. Humans, for example, have emotions and feelings. We care about stuff, about our own well being, about those who love, about our “tribe.” We also have an evolved sense of morality, such as the concepts of reciprocity and justice.

Further, humans are social animals, and in fact we have no choice but to share this planet with each other. Our behavior, therefore, affects others. If we had no cares at all about what happens to us or others, or our actions had no affect on anything but ourselves, then there would be no need for morality, and in fact morality would have no meaning.

We can take as empirical facts, however, that humans have feelings and our actions affect others – these are therefore well-founded premises for a moral system. Philosophers have tried to derive from there further premises as a starting point for a moral system. The goal is to derive the most fundamental principles, or determine the most reasonable first principles, and then proceed carefully from there.

The entire blog post is here.
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