By Danielle,

Are Moral Judgments Objectively True?

5/09/2012 DK 0 Comments

This is an essay I wrote for my philosophy course on moral relativism and objectivism and whether I believe that there are universal moral truths. It was rushed so when I look back I can see that I have made some silly mistakes here and there.
Moral compass (Source)
Are moral judgments objectively true?

I disagree with moral objectivists' claim that moral judgments are objectively true. However, I do not particularly hold a relativist's view - that moral judgments are true relative to a particular moral code - since I would need to be historically, culturally, religiously and politically aware for all eras (past and present) of all countries to be able to conclude (or believe that I have reasons to conclude) anything once and for all. 
Instead, I intend to show why I believe moral objectivism is not plausible and that in fact, moral relativism and objectivism are not as different from each other as it seems.

For the purposes of this essay, I will omit religious aspects of moral objectivism. A religion can provide reasons behind its moral codes and why we ought to employ them as our own. And if it were universally accepted or if we can absolutely prove the plausibility of the religion, there would not be any discussion on moral objectivism and relativism or other various types of theories regarding morality. However, there are countless religions with different moral codes and a large number of people who are not influenced by any. And to accept one particular religion as the basis of human morality (e.g. Because God said so!) would not lead to a sophisticated argument for or against any particular theory.

Moral objectivists claim that there are universal moral truths, and since there are conflicting moral codes across (and even within) cultures, some cultures are mistaken about some moral codes. However, both of these claims face the same question: by what standard?

Believing that something has a definite 'yes' or 'no' answer which applies to all beings in the world would (and should) mean that it is a factual matter, with its facts supported by proven reasons. For example, it is a universal fact which is true at any time and place that one plus one is two. This is a good example of the concept, 'fact', since we do not have to rely on scientific researches or any outside resources to prove that when we put one pencil next to another pencil, we can count two pencils altogether. If a person believes that one plus one does not equal two when counting or adding logically, then we can objectively say that this person is mistaken.
On the other hand, moral codes are not factual. To say that it is wrong to murder is to merely state a moral code agreed upon by people over time; it is not known to be true that killing another is wrong, although we would agree that it is not beneficial. However, to say that:
  1. committing murder will end someone's life, and;
  2. almost all of the time, the family members and friends of the murder victim would be devastated, and/or;
  3. if everyone could and would freely murder others, people would most likely to be afraid of each other,

is to state facts on which we can agree to be true, as these are not opinions or judgments.
These facts, however, would not result in the big conclusion that 'it is wrong to murder' or that 'people should not murder other people,' since these would merely be logical and rational solutions and judgments to the above facts, not statements of fact by themselves. Thus, the widely used law and unwritten agreement on the moral code against murder do not exist because they are objectively and factually true, but because they are logical solutions of objective truths such as above. Then, it would not be objective to say that a country without laws against murder, or people who do not think that committing murder is wrong, are wrong or mistaken, since they just have not reached the same (and probably the preferable) conclusion from the given facts.

My point here is that the belief that moral judgments are universally and objectively true is not an objective belief itself. It is biased, preferring one seemingly most logical conclusion from various given facts to others.
I should clarify here that I am not suggesting that it is irrational to make overall moral judgments based on facts or non-moral judgments; concluding that murder or communism is bad based on its consequences is, I admit, logical and rational. My point is that, no matter how "objective" a judgment seems, it is still biased, based on personal preferences and ideologies.

An objectivist might say, then, that preferring one most logical and rational conclusion is indeed how objective moral judgments are made. For example, in response to a relativists’ question, ‘where does moral knowledge come from?’, and in defending objectivism, Michael Huemer, a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado wrote as an undergraduate student:
“… [I]t may be argued that communism is a bad system of government on the basis that it has caused tens of millions of deaths, that it impoverishes the country in which it is adopted, and that it greatly restricts people's freedom. I think that is a good argument. It certainly is not some kind of simple logical fallacy… since I am deriving a moral judgement from other, non-moral judgements.”
(Emphasis added) (Huemer, 1992)
In other words, objective moral judgments come from what one “objectively” believes to be the best possible judgment from given facts and “non-moral judgments”. I would not be one to argue that it is not objective for Huemer or any person to say that something is bad if it directly or indirectly a)causes tens of millions of deaths; b) impoverishes a country; and c) greatly restricts people’s freedom.
However, what needs to be noted here is that whether these points are true or not, the overall judgment that ‘communism is a bad system of government’ is not the best possible judgment to be derived from them. For instance, based on the above points, one might conclude that all communist governments in the past and present have not properly applied the ideal communist systems to its country, or that the system itself cannot adequately work in human societies due to various factors including human nature. Moreover, this overall moral judgment is a judgment made by one whose ideal society is different from the kind of society presumably resulting from communism; It is formed from a biased point of view that communism is not what a particular person wants, not from an objective point of view that communism so far has not worked well and so should be greatly improved or it is a good thing that currently the majority of the countries in the world are not communist. 

So far, I have concluded that moral judgments cannot be objectively true because they are not factual and, although derived from other facts or non-moral judgments, they still reflect personal preferences; there is no such thing as "objective moral truths" if the "truths" are, in the end, people's opinions and judgments. In this case, "objective" moral judgments have their roots in people and their opinions (since we are not looking at it from religious views that for example, God is the root of all objective moral judgements, or that objective moral truths were decided by God). Then, they cannot be said to be greatly different from the concept of moral relativism, which says that 'the "right" way is the way which the ancestors used and which has been handed down.' That is, morality has derived and been developed by people and what they believed to be right. Thus, both objectivism and relativism have their moral roots in people and their preferences and ideologies. And since objectivists claim that some cultures must be mistaken about morality about a certain thing if all cultures do not share the same moral codes about that certain thing, it is clear that objectivists prefer one moral judgment over others. In other words, they prefer the moral codes of some groups over those of the others. In this sense, the only difference between objectivism and relativism is that relativists are accepting of different moral codes of different cultures or individuals, whereas objectivists are only accepting of those moral codes consistent with what they believe to be right. For example, following Wong's example of Eastern morality versus Western morality, it would be hard to imagine an objectivist of an Asian background claim that it is not immoral to leave an ill parent to persue one's own dreams and goals. Instead, he would most likely say that the objective moral judgment to make in this case is to look after the parent since it would be wrong to do otherwise. This would be so, since a) that is his moral attitude towards the situation; b) because only one moral judgment would be objectively true; and c) one cannot "objectively" judge and conclude something when he already has his own preferences.

My final conclusion is that there is no such thing as objective and universal moral truths, as they would not be pre-existing moral codes with its roots somewhere absolute (as would be the case if it were a religious view). Instead, the so-called objective moral truths are made by people from given factual and non-moral judgments. One cannot make an objective overall moral conclusion when he himself has been influenced by his culture, community, family and their moral values. Even if it were possible to do so, it would still be his own opinion and "objective" judgment, not an objective fact or truth. Therefore, moral objectivism and relativism are, in fact, not so different in that they both base their moral judgments on personal or cultural preferences and attitudes. However, the difference lies in thatobjectivists only accept one moral judgment to be the "right" one, the one that is consistent with their own beliefs.

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