Saturday, March 19, 2005

Objective Morality?

These days, morality, in general, seems to be one of the prime political motivators. Only, an objective standard to determine what is and is not moral is conspicuously absent. The “conservative Republicans” lean toward a traditionalist Christian world view, while the “liberal Democrats” favor a more humanistic worldview...generally speaking of course.

As I was pondering the paradox of the mutual exclusivity of these two extremes, I was reminded of yet another metaethical theory…rational egoism. I ran across this essay by Will Wilkinson of The Fly Bottle. In it, Wilkinson critiques a book by Tara Smith entitled: Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality, in which she defends Ayn Rand’s definition of morality…
My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.
— Ayn Rand, Appendix to Atlas Shrugged

There are many other conceptions of morality to be sure, but I need not cite them now to make my point, which is: an objective definition of morality is elusive at best and nonexistent at worst.

Morality, at its core, seeks to distinguish “good from evil” and “right from wrong”. To say that such concepts are ambiguous would be a huge understatement. This is not to say that strong arguments don’t exist on all sides, but some are more convincing than others. That said, a universal moral measuring rod has yet to be far as I know.

Could this be construed as “moral relativism”?...perhaps by some, but if so, what’s the alternative? The idea(s) of morality that I’ve described are definitively subjective and thus aren’t universally accepted.

I submit that a desire for "moral authority", without agreement on a definition of terms, leads to endless and fruitless debate.

Since total isolation is impractical, some minimal code of conduct is essential to preclude interpersonal collisions. So what ought to be the guiding principles? I suggest that (in the interest of a pluralistic society) only actions that demonstrably cause harm to another’s person, property or liberty, without consent, could legitimately be considered "immoral". Actions that cause positive benefit, without causing harm in the process (i.e. theft for wealth redistribution), could be called "moral". All other actions would necessarily be neutral, and in self interest. Unfortunately, there seems to be a consensus that any/all actions must be either moral or immoral. By such thinking, people are manipulated in order to achieve the desired ends of the manipulator(s). This is especially true for religious institutions and political organizations.

Now, some assert that a particular moral code can be objective. That begs the question: on what basis? If on the basis of the respect for individual liberty, then I say it has merit. But the problem arises when a particular group consensually denies their own individuality in the name of communal living. This is certainly not what I desire, but there are those for whom codependence is "natural" and "good" in their estimation. For a one-size-fits-all moral code to be exclusively superior, the liberty to choose collectivism or some religious dogma must necessarily be suppressed. In such case, freedom is meaningless. As an individualist, I support the freedom of another to self destruct, as long as there are no other victims. Again, different moral codes can coexist as long as individual freedom and consent predominante.

I will say, that the concept of morality in general is an objective verity, but I reject the notion that any particular moral code is objectively superior, because reasonable, intelligent people can disagree on the fine points of subjective ideology.