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Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Simplified Account of Moral Objectivism

In religious discussions, among other situations, we often raise the issue of whether or not moral values are objectively determined. By "objective" moral values, we typically refer to moral values which are not determined by human opinion or disposition. For instance, CSUSB philosopher Tony Roy characterizes objective moral values as those which are not "dependent on the attitudes of a person, group of persons, tradition, practice, or the like directed at" accepting that value.[1] Apologist-philosopher William Lane Craig considers an objective moral value to be one discovered "independently of whether anybody believes it to be so."[2] In this way, moral objectivism springs from the sense of morality laying in large part beyond our creative power, either as individuals or even as a society. Indeed, I take the view that circumstances far beyond our control determine the most fundamental moral values, and that no mere human opinion or social trend can change the morality or immorality of a given behavior. I thereby propose a trim but rigorous account of moral objectivism designed to capture the spirit of the typical view of objective moral values, and which might serve as a reference for future discussions.

We begin by noticing that a moral code assigns to each of a certain set of behaviors under one of a variety of possible conditions a particular moral value. For our purposes, we require two natural simplifications: First, we restrict the range of possible moral judgments to three distinct values: moral (M), immoral (I) and non-moral, i.e. neither moral nor immoral (N). So, we do not permit one moral behavior to be somehow "more" or "less" moral than another, and similarly with immoral and non-moral behaviors. Here we treat the non-moral judgment as a catch-all for behaviors which are neither moral or immoral, even if they are not explicitly addressed by the given moral code. So, if a moral code is silent concerning some behavior, then we take that behavior to be non-moral. Our second simplification is that, instead of distinguishing between behaviors and contextual circumstances, we shall merely take otherwise identical behaviors performed under differing circumstances to be distinct. So, for example, we might be tempted to say that crying 'fire' is a behavior which is moral when there is a dangerous conflagration nearby, and immoral when seated in a non-blazing but crowded theater. On this account, however, we shall instead regard these two behaviors as distinct insofar as they are performed under different conditions. This way, we can consider sets of behaviors exclusively, without any additional regard for contextual circumstances. Given these simplifications, we may identify moral codes with functions mapping a set of behaviors into the set of possible moral value judgments.

With these considerations in mind, we may proceed to construct our account. Let F be the set of all possible societies S made up of agents, at least some of which may be rational, and let G be the set of all possible behaviors by individuals living in a society S∈F (even if those behaviors are not possible across all societies S∈F). For each society S∈F, fix a moral code φS:G → V, where V:={M,I,N}. Now we put H:={φS:S∈F}, and define a moral code ΦH:G → V as follows: Let T∈F be a society. If for each society S∈F we have φS(B)=φT(B), then ΦH(B)=φT(B); otherwise ΦH(B)=N. We also define a new term: A rational agent x of a society S∈F is sufficiently informed regarding a behavior B∈G if and only if x takes B to have a particular moral value y, and given any arbitrary body of true information, if x learns it, then x still takes B to have the value y.

We say that ΦH is an objective moral code if and only if it satisfies the following three conditions:
(1) For each S∈F and B∈G, we have that φS(B)=M if and only if, for each rational agent x of S, if x is sufficiently informed about B, then x takes B to be moral;

(2) For each S∈F and B∈G, we have that φS(B)=I if and only if, for each rational agent x of S, if x is sufficiently informed about B, then x takes B to be immoral.

(3) There is B∈G such that ΦH(B)≠N.

If ΦH(B)=M or ΦH(B)=I for some behavior B∈G, then we say that B is objectively right or objectively wrong, respectively. If B is objectively right or wrong, then we call that fact an objective moral value.

It follows immediately from our account that any objective moral code is unique. However, we have not guaranteed the existence of such an objective moral code. Notice also that our account does not specify what moral values are. So, we should not mistake it for some kind of ethical theory. Instead, however, I suggest we regard it as a partial framework for communicating an actual ethical or metaethical view. In this way, should we decide how to interpret moral values, we shall at once have a plan for investigating moral objectivity.


[1] Roy, Tony. "Objective Moral Values and Metaphysical Queerness," p3 (online article).

[2] Craig, William Lane, "The Indispensability of Theological; Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality" (online article).


awatkins69 said...

Tony Roy is my professor. :-)

awatkins69 said...

I like your account! It's very clear. Honestly, I can't really find anything objectionable about it. Maybe some people will be confused by the use of set theory. Thanks!