This is the second in a series of four posts on morality. They are aimed at countering the usual religious claims for a god-given morality with current scientific understanding of how the morality of our species arose. Also, they attempt to justify a non-theist objective basis for much of the moral decisions we make. The first post (I: Religious confusion) discussed some of the problems religion has in its understanding of morality. This second post argues that there is an objective basis for human morality and no god is required for this.
Recently I was dipping into Roger Penrose’s book The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. In the first chapter he argues for an objective basis for mathematics and mathematical . I think that the objective basis of morality can be seen in the same way (see Where did our morals come from?). So, I was pleased to read that Penrose also believes that objective “‘existence’ could also refer to things other than , such as morality or aesthetics.”
A Platonic moral world?
“Plato made it clear that the mathematical propositions – the things that could be regarded as unassailably true – referred not to actual physical objects (like approximate squares, triangles, circles, spheres, and cubes that might be constructed from marks in the sand, or from wood or stone) but to certain idealized entities. He envisaged that these ideal entities inhabited a different world, distinct from the physical world. Today we might refer to this world as the Platonic world of mathematical forms.”
Talking about theof mathematical truth: Penrose makes clear that this isn’t existence in a mystical sense:
“What I mean by this ‘existence’ is really just the objectivity of mathematical truth. Platonic existence, as I see it, refers to the existence of an objective external standard that is not dependent upon our individual opinions nor upon our particular culture. Such ‘existence’ could also refer to things other than mathematics, such as morality or aesthetics.”
An objective basis for morality
So, just like mathematics, we can see morality as having an objective basis. The basis for mathematical truths could be considered as the real world, the existence of objects and phenomena, or even the potential (rather than actual) existence of objects and phenomenon. So the objective basis for moral truths can be considered as the existence (or theoretical existence) of intelligent, sentient, beings. In our case, members of the human species.
Consequently, just as we can derive mathematical relationships between objects and phenomena we can also derive codes of behaviour, desired relationships, between these intelligent, sentient humans.
It’s not hard, therefore, to see thatlike the Golden rule can be considered as objectively based.
And just as in, chemistry and biology and the mathematical relationships describing relationships in these spheres, no god is required to understand morality.
I think this concept of objective moral truths, akin to objective mathematical truths, is very useful. It helps us understand that some things are right or wrong, not dependent on culture or religion. We can see that racism, slavery, sexual discrimination, etc., are objectively wrong. They were (and are) wrong even in societies and times which condoned (or still condone) them. They are wrong even if your priest or imam claims them to be ordained by Holy Scripture or their god.
So in contrast to religious concepts of morality, this non-theist concept enables us to have an objectively-based, non-relative morality.
In the next post (Human Morality III: Moral intuition) I will discuss our moral intuitions and how reliable they are.