Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 6 May 2016

Is morality objective?

This is another 'Question of the Month' from Philosophy Now (Issue 113, April/May 2016).

There is a constraint on length (400 words) otherwise I'd elaborate more. I have addressed this issue before regarding a specific case, which I cite in my essay below.


There are two types of morality that co-exist virtually everywhere and at all times, yet they are, for the most part, poles apart. They are morality in theory and morality in practice and they align with objective morality and subjective morality respectively. I will demonstrate what I mean by example, but first I will elaborate on morality as it is practiced. For most people morality stems from cultural norms.

Many people rely on their conscience to determine their moral compass but one’s conscience is a social construct largely determined by one’s upbringing in whatever society one was born into. For example, in some societies, one can be made to feel guilty about the most natural impulses, like masturbation. Guilt and sex have been associated over generations but it is usually one-sided. Women are often forced to carry the greater burden of guilt and homosexuals can be forced to feel criminal. Both these examples illustrate how cultural norms determine the morality one was inculcated with from childhood.

In some societies there are cultural clashes, usually generational, where the same moral issue can inflame antithetical attitudes. For example, in India in December 2012, a young woman, Jyoti Singh, a recently graduated medical student, was raped and murdered on a bus after she went and saw a movie with her boyfriend. A documentary by British filmmaker, Leslee Udwin, revealed the cultural schism that exists in India over this issue. Some believed (including the lawyers representing the gang who committed the crime) that the girl was responsible for her own fate, whereas others campaigned to have rape laws strengthened. This demonstrates most starkly how culture determines moral values that become normative and then intransigent.

In many cultures it is taught that God determines moral values, and these are often the most prescriptive, oppressive, misogynistic and sometimes brutal examples of enforced cultural mores. People who practice this often claim that theirs is the only true objective morality, but, in truth, when one invokes God to rationalise one’s morality, anything, including the most savage actions, can be justified.

On the other hand, morality in theory is very simple: it is to treat everyone the same and give everyone the same rights, be they men, women, homosexuals, people of different faith or different skin colour. One only has to look at the treatment of refugees to realise how even the most liberal societies struggle with this precept.

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