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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Why Objective Morality Does Not Exist

In various debates about atheism, I have heard religious apologists argue that there can be no objective morality and hence no law & order without religion. This claim is spurious because objective morality does not exist.

Asking whether objective morality exists is like asking whether objective language exists. Is there a language that can be proven through logic and measurement alone to be superior to all others? Of course not. People can communicate in Japanese just as easily as in English or Cherokee. Morality, like language and money, are nothing more than tools which make it easier to live together.

However, just because these tools are arbitrary does not mean that it is impossible to say something is objectively better than another. You can say something is objectively better as long as there is a measurable difference. It doesn't matter what standard you use as long as you use the same one for all the things you compare. For example, it's easy to objectively say that an elephant weighs more than a person because the difference can be measured, and it doesn't matter whether you use pounds, kilograms, tons, or stones. The fact that there are different standards for measuring weight does not mean that it is impossible to objectively say something is heavier than something else.

Likewise with morality, just because there is no objective morality does not mean it is impossible to objectively say one action is good or bad. If the question is rephrased as something with a measurable difference, the mystery vanishes. For example, the question "is the death penalty moral?" has no objective answer. However, the question "do states with the death penalty have lower murder rates?" has a definite numerical answer:

Murder Rates in Death Penalty States and Non-Death Penalty States (click to enlarge)

In similar way, it is impossible to objectively say that the moral and legal system of the Taliban is bad, but is possible say whether their system is correlated with literacy, health, or per capita income.
There is no great mystery here. Objective answers to moral questions exist. It's just at matter of asking the right kind of question.

Addendum: There may be other reasons to objectively argue the death penalty is good, but deterrence is not one of them.

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