Culture & Ethics
A Follow-Up Question on Evolutionary Ethics
Thoughtful reader Paul, a university freshman in the U.K., asks about Michael Egnor’s article from last year, “From the Annals of Evolutionary Ethics.”
I have recently been studying the topic of morality, specifically whether or not objective moral values and duties exist. I have found many sources favouring the view of relative morality, but few supporting the existence of objective moral values and duties.
“A Simple Issue”
Per the reader’s request, I asked Michael Egnor to “defend the reality of objectively real morals.” Dr. Egnor’s answer:
I see it as a very simple issue. If there is objective moral law, then acts are right or wrong in themselves.
If there is no objective moral law, then moral law is just individual opinion. Of course, an individual may have the opinion that all people ought to do X, but that’s just one opinion out of 7 billion opinions. Who is to say what opinions ”ought” to be done? We could vote, but there’s no reason to apply democratic reasoning to moral law (the Holocaust was fairly popular in Berlin in the early 1940s and would undoubtedly have prevailed in a referendum).
Since there is no rational way to adjudicate moral law if it is merely individual opinions, moral relativism always boils down to power. “X is right” because I, who believe X is right, am stronger than you, who believe X is wrong. If you disagree, I’ll beat you up.
If objective moral law is not real, then nothing is right or wrong in itself. Killing innocent people, raping babies, torturing puppies is merely a matter of taste, like preference in ice cream. “I hate genocide!” has the same probity as “I hate pistachio!”
If you don’t believe in objective moral law, a law outside of human opinion, that’s fine. But then you are forced to acknowledge that your opinion on genocide/puppy assault/rape, etc., has the same moral standing as your opinion on art or ice cream. Opinion is opinion, and if you want to decide whose opinion wins, let’s arm wrestle.
If moral law is real, then genocide and rape are really wrong, in themselves, no matter what anyone thinks. But if 1) moral law is real, then there must be 2) a lawgiver.
That’s the problem for moral relativists. They don’t want to admit 2, so they deny 1.
It’s a simple matter. The literature may be interesting, but it’s just simple logic really.
By the way, if you don’t think that genocide would have been popular if put to a vote in Germany, read Daniel Goldhagen’s eye-opening book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.
Photo: Entrance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau death camp, by Nelson Pérez [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.