Objective morality is a standard of right and wrong that is unchanging. This standard exists and persists throughout time regardless of outside or opposing factors such as culture or religion. The “what” of this question is actually quite easy to answer and so the more difficult question becomes the most important and it is this: Is objective morality a reality?
Is Objective Morality A Reality?
First, let’s look at the implications of this reality if indeed it is so. If there exists a universally objective moral standard then it follows that “right” is right regardless of personal beliefs. This means that objective morality is the same whether you are a Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Agnostic or Atheist or any other religion or non-religion.
Many of the proponents of objective moral values are Christians and for good reason. In this case objective morality is not independent of religion or personal beliefs but is actually the cause of it. Christians believe that their moral values are objective because God has given these values and holds to them Himself and also that God is unchanging and the ultimate being. If God is the cause of objective morality then because He is the ultimate being and never changes then so too must His values be ultimate and unchanging. It is not hard for Christians to believe that stealing a penny is evil because of their objective and absolute moral values. And if God exists then Christians are totally right in this respect. This being true, let’s look at a culture that holds different moral and ethical values than that of Christians.
A People Very Different Than Us
The Aztec culture was very different from our own. To the Aztecs, human sacrifice was just one of many ways to repay their gods for sacrificing themselves for them. Huitzilopochtli was one of the Aztecs primary gods. Human offerings to this god would be placed upon a sacrificial stone where the abdomen would be cut through with obsidian or flint blade. The still beating heart would be torn out and the priest would hold it high towards the sky in honor to Huitzilopochtli; they would carry the body away and it would be either cremated or given to the warrior responsible for the capture of the victim.
If the warrior received it, then he would be responsible cut it up for use in either ritualistic cannibalism or the pieces would be sent to people of importance as offerings. The warrior would then attain a higher status in the social class system of the Aztecs. This system rewarded the success of the warriors by doing this.
When comparing the Aztec culture to our own we can see the stark contrast in what was considered right and wrong. This is where many would say something along the lines of “See here! The moral values of the Aztecs were completely different than those of our modern culture, but that is what was “right” for them.” However, we should note that there is a big difference between what is right and wrong (or good and evil) and certain perceptions of the same. Our perceptions can and most likely do on many cases differ from the actual set standard.
For instance, let's use an example from the criminal justice system. There is a standard set by the Federal Government of the United States that says that using marijuana for any purpose is illegal. It is listed as a Schedule 1 drug, which means that it is considered highly addictive and having no medicinal value. Nonetheless there are multiple states that have legalized its use for medicinal purposes and in Washington and Colorado marijuana usage is totally legal. It is obvious that in these states the most commonly held opinion is that marijuana should be legalized because otherwise it would not have been voted to be so by the residents of said states.
Still though the Federal Government holds the law that it is illegal for consumption, cultivation, possession or distribution and so as the higher authority holds, it is illegal and the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) has the legal right to arrest and charge anyone who consumes, grows, has or sells it for any reason and it will be backed by the Federal Government. I know that this example is subjective, as the federal law prohibiting use of marijuana may very well change in the future based on societal changes in opinion, but nevertheless it does do a good job of describing the issue of objective morality.
The higher standard (in this case the Federal Government) states that marijuana is illegal but the opinion (society’s perceptions) is in many cases that marijuana is good and should be legal. Such is the case with the Aztecs. The higher standard (objective morality) says that murder and cannibalism is wrong regardless of reasoning but the opinion (Aztec perceptions) was that it was good and pleasing to them and to their gods. And one would be hard pressed to give an argument that argues for the validity of murder and/or cannibalism as a good and healthy practice.
Perceptions And Reality
As you can clearly see, there is a difference between popular perception and what is actually right and wrong or good and evil. Just because the Aztec people thought a thing was right does not make it so and so it is with any other peoples or cultures. The point here is that if there are objective moral values then personal opinion doesn’t really matter because the moral values are not subject to individual perceptions but exist outside of subjective reality, as is the case with the Christian reality that God is real and that He does exist outside of this subjective reality and indeed is the cause of both objective moral values and objective/subjective reality.
But this presents another problem because without God there exists neither objective reality nor objective morality and neither can there be. But let’s keep this article in an ontological (studying if a thing exists) light rather than stray into the epistemological (studying how we know that a thing exists) although that in itself does frequently present itself as yet another obstacle.
The Argument From Morality
As Dr. William Lane Craig put it: “In moral experience we apprehend a realm of moral values and duties that impose themselves upon us. There’s no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world.” Dr. Craig argues the following:
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
This argument is logically valid, and is ontological in nature and so is in keeping with the theme of this article. The first premise of this argument is simply that the existence of God is necessary for objective moral values and duties to exist. Premise two is a claim that objective moral values and duties do exist, as is evident in every day life. And so these two premises draw the conclusion that (3) is indeed true and that God does exist.
Evolution and Objective Reality
And so, is there an objective moral standard that persists and exists in spite of the ever changing world? There are many proponents of the evolution theory that believe that the human brain is a product of evolution and change over millions of years and not the product of a Creator, and so if the human brain changed in this way then moral values were developed and changed in the same way and so they may be changed again if humanity continues to “evolve”. Objective morality could be a problem for evolutionists because there cannot be any objective truth unless there is an objective being or power behind it and according to the evolutionary theory there is no such being.
Of course this would only be a problem if God were scientifically proven to be a reality, in which case the theory would fall apart. But how can one subject an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being to mere humanity’s “scientific method”? How does one keep God in a controlled environment in which circumstances can be repeated and actions and effects be recorded over a lengthy period of time? I don’t really see how to be honest.
But let’s look at the implications on this side as well. If there exists no objective morality and all moral values are subjective and depend upon the time, place, culture, heritage, religious beliefs, sex, age, and any other number of factors that would have to be taken into account to get an accurate recording of the data, then we could expect many things to change in the future. But how soon in the future? How long exactly did it take humanity to evolve into what we are today? And how long will it take for the overwhelming population to be settled into a moral code that differs from our own today? If morality is subjective then it is good for the Aztecs to murder their victims in sacrifice to their gods then eat their mutilated bodies during rituals, but it is evil for an American citizen to do the same.
I understand that this example is on the extreme side and that many of you may be wondering about things that society deems less important in what they consider to be good and evil, so let’s look at that. Is it bad for a starving child to steal one small morsel of food to stop the hunger pangs? Is it wrong for a father to steal medicine for his child to ease their pain? Or does the end justify the means?
If there is objective morality, then yes, these actions are still wrong regardless of the reasons that they were committed. I cannot speak for individual perception on this kind of thing because there will be a widely ranging difference in opinion. If morals are subjective then it is right for the child and the father previously spoken of to act in that way because of the end matter, but it is only right for them. Subjectivity is in itself subjective. So it could be right for them, but not for the rest of society. But that is a non sequitur in this case because no matter what the cause for the thievery, it is of course just that.
I’ll go so far as to admit that there are many, many people who do this and they have good reasons. The world is not perfect and that means that not everyone gets what they need. However, the lack of human perfection and compassion in the world is a topic for another time. So, that child and that father above would of course be punished with a punishment fitting the crime if they were to be caught.
There is obviously, in the civilized nations at the very least, a certain standard of moral values that are set in place because of their universality. Does it then follow that this seemingly objective moral standard that we live by every day in civilized America comes from a higher objective truth? Or is it just a product of human evolution and societal norms? To believe the former, because of its inherent need to have a so far “scientifically unproven” higher power, requires the faith of the individual in said higher power as is the case with the Christian belief in God. The latter however requires no faith and is therefore much easier to be believed individually and corporately, and there is also evidence in favor of this view.
In conclusion, I would urge you to seek the answers and study this further. Proponents of both sides have much evidence to be dug through by the determined student, and the truth can be sought. Indeed, if God exists, as Christians believe, then the truth can be known in certainty and the topic of this article is a reality as well.
I hope that you do seek and find what you are looking for, if indeed this article did spark a desire in you for the truth. And so I’ll end with a verse from the Bible, even though I’m certain that some of you won’t like it, but it has spurred me forth in my quest for the truth and in truth I believe that I have found it. In the book of Luke chapter 11 and verse 9 it says this:
“So I say to you, ask and keep on asking and it shall be given you; seek and keep on seeking and you shall find; knock and keep on knocking and the door shall be opened to you.”
God bless America and the right to write!