Is there an objective morality?

If so, how can we learn about it?  Or is the whole idea of a universal morality misguided? A post on Self Aware Patterns raised the question and I felt moved to answer it.

No I do not agree with Jason Mckenzie Alexander (Professor in Philosophy at the London School of Economics) that “morality is a social technology, one that goes out of date and frequently needs to be upgraded.”

Morality is not personal preference. Morality is not subjective. And I don’t give a damn about game theory. Yes, we have evolved chaotically, in a Darwinian sense. We have evolved to fight and kill and maim to ensure that we survive and to do the next man out of his food and his shelter. The more hideous elements of capitalist society and politics continue to live this way and presumably see nothing wrong with their conduct. And it is certainly true that different societies over the ages have developed different moral standards, biased no doubt by their survival needs.

My own “belief” however (for it is of course only a belief) is that there is an absolute morality but we are only beginning to grope our way towards it.

I keep going back to that kindly old buffer at the recent royal wedding: love he said. Love is all. And I believe that, very firmly. That we are groping our way towards it seems indicated by the fact that in general we are becoming better behaved towards each other.

I will tell you a funny tale. I was having a drink with an ancient colonel one night at his house down in Kent. He was talking about Africans, black Africans. Can’t remember in which country on that sad continent but this mad old buffer was talking about “blacks” and how the only way to keep them in their place was to shoot them. Or a few of them anyway. Few people think like that from later generations; hopefully anyway.

Yes, different ages have different standards, different morals. Read the books of John Buchan to see how things have changed in the past hundred years. But I like to think we are changing for the better and not just for utilitarian purposes. I am afraid that like Teilhard de Chardin I see us heading towards the Omega point.

But that is mere belief. And wishful thinking no doubt. Nonetheless the kindly old African American at the Royal Wedding had it right. Love. That is the essential and immutable moral from which all else should flow.



  1. Maybe morality has a constant layer and a layer of culturally-specific variables. The constant layer – the golden rule – is fairly simple, and is constant even as expressed differently by Kant, Jesus, Plato, Confucius, et al. As the Dalai Lama puts it: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” For the culturally-specific (more relative) layer, it’s as you say about different ages, different standards.


  2. I agree to some extent that humans may be gradually learning to get along together better than we did, and increasing the scope of what we care about, even to include the environment, other species or the whole cosmos, but I disagree entirely with your conclusion that this indicates a grasping towards an absolute or universal moral rule. You give this as “love”, which seems plausible on the face of it, but is indeed misguided. Why? Well, simply because it is a word, a label, and has no fixed relation to physical acts in the real world, which is the only place in which moral or immoral acts may be judged.

    When we try to practise love, it becomes a true area of morality, since it now involves acting in the world, but here is where the problems begin. Evidence you’ve pointed towards itself demonstrates this, since many of the abuses in history were excused by referring to love as the motive. Ignorant, half-human slaves were loved by being given clothes and a Christian education and beatings to instill it in their stupid heads. Children were beaten so as not to spoil them. Tough love. Of course, some were just excuses while the perpetrators “knew” (believed) they were doing “wrong”, but many believed these were acts of love. How do we know any of our current decisions are moral, representing an act of love? Was it loving to defend Britain from Nazi Germany, given the cost, or better to roll over and become Germans and live in relative peace under occupation? Is it more loving to suffer the bombs and rockets of Muslim terrorists and invite them to tea to talk peace, or try to kill them? If aliens invaded, bent on wiping out humanity, what would “love” tell us to do?

    Nicely, Daedalus Lex makes the distinction between culturally variable acts and the other “layer”, but incorrectly, like you, identifies the other as an absolute, pointed at vaguely by just another approximate synonym, “compassion”. Is it compassionate to abort a foetus that will have a great deal of suffering to bear or which endangers the mother’s life, or compassionate to protect it? Same problem: compassion, like love, is just a handy pretend catch-all, just another way to avoid a proper approach to moral philosophy. The Golden Rule is a nasty thing in the hands of a masochist.

    Does the fact that I’m talking about improvements, good things and nasty things indicate that there must be something there, though, behind the complex questions of how to practise compassion? I’m not sure, to be honest, but I suspect, in the final analysis, the answer is no. Even if we agreed that happiness and surivival and harmony for most of the universe is the best goal to work towards, this is clearly a subjective choice, and it is probably just our evolution as social animals that convinces us that it is somehow absolute. Since universal happiness is an impossible goal, approximating it involves judging the value of one thing against another, and there’s no given mathematics for that, just lots of subjective opinion. And what of happiness? Why is that so important? Isn’t it selfish to care about being happy? Is selfishness good? How does a happy Buddhist know that his happiness is better than that of a carnivorous dinosaur chewing on another dinosaur? It feels nice to each. :\


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s