Morality as a Human Institution

Ronald A. Lindsay

The Mystery of Moral Authority, by Russell Blackford (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, ISBN 978-1-137-56269-2). 119 pp. Hardcover, $69.99.

Most of us think that moral norms are binding on us. For example, “Don’t kill a child for pleasure” is not a rule we can simply choose to follow or not, depending on our current desires and attitudes. Indeed, one point of the institution of morality seems to be to subordinate our personal preferences to the common good. The authority of moral norms, and the precedence they take over our personal desires, is often indicated by stating that moral norms are “objective.” The objective nature of moral norms is also often contrasted with the “subjective” nature of our personal desires. I may prefer pistachios over cashews, but my personal tastes are clearly not binding on anyone else. They are my own preferences; they are subjective.

But there’s something strange about the felt authority of moral norms. What’s the source of this authority? When we make moral judgments—“Killing that child for fun was wrong”—we typically are confident that these judgments are in some sense “true,” but which features of the world make such judgments true? When I say “The cat is on the mat,” we have no problem identifying the empirically verifiable facts that make this statement true (or false), but what constitutes a moral fact?

These questions, and related ones, are addressed brilliantly by Australian philosopher and Free Inquiry columnist Russell Blackford in The Mystery of Moral Authority. This concise book expertly summarizes the latest philosophical research and debates on these issues and provides Blackford’s own cogent arguments regarding the purported objectivity of morality.

The conclusions Blackford reaches may be disquieting to some, at least at first blush. Blackford denies that morality is objective. Specifically, he maintains that actions do not possess properties of “wrongness” or “rightness” that would justify treating moral judgments as true. According to Blackford, “talk of moral wrongness is analogous to talk of witches, or to talk of sin in a godless universe.”

Blackford pinpoints a critical obstacle for those who maintain that morality is objective. They need to identify a source of moral norms that would provide these norms with authority over us regardless of our interests. There are three possibilities here: morality is built into the fabric of reality (a position philosophers describe as “moral naturalism”); God; or reason provides a transcendental foundation for morality. But all attempts to ground moral judgments on empirical properties have failed. Plausible forms of moral naturalism all have implicit references to widely shared human interests and goals. For example, a very high percentage of people in all cultures undoubtedly would say that the judgment “Killing a child for pleasure is wrong” is true, but that’s because a very high percentage of people in all cultures have interests that align with norms forbidding the killing of children for pleasure.

As humanists are aware, trying to ground morality in a deity doesn’t work. Either we follow God because following his commands is morally required or because he commands only what is morally required. With respect to the first alternative, we have no moral obligation to follow anyone’s commands just because he or she is more powerful than us. With respect to the second alternative, saying we follow God because he commands only what is morally right presupposes that we can tell good from bad, right from wrong. In other words, we can determine what’s morally right and wrong on our own; God is superfluous.

That leaves reason, which a number of secular philosophers have argued provides a secure foundation for objective moral authority. Many of these arguments take the familiar form of contending that certain norms must be accepted by any rational person because they are necessary for a functioning society. One major flaw of this type of argument is that it fails to take into account the difference between saying it is irrational not to want certain norms to prevail in our society and saying it is irrational for an individual not to regard these norms as binding on his own conduct. In some sense, it is in everyone’s interests for society to regard promise-breaking and stealing to be immoral; it’s even in the fraud’s or thief’s interest that such norms be generally accepted. However, this does not establish that it is irrational for a thief or fraud to steal or deceive. To the contrary, it is possible that from the perspective of their individual interests, it is perfectly rational for them to do so.

Importantly, even though Blackford concludes that morality is not objective in the sense of being binding on us regardless of our desires or interests, he does not think that morality is arbitrary. There is, and has been, a great deal of cross-cultural consensus about the norms that should govern our conduct. The institution of morality does facilitate security and social cooperation, and to achieve those ends, certain norms must be generally followed, such as “keep your promises,” “don’t steal,” “don’t kill,” and so forth. Almost all societies have had such rules. (Some philosophers have referred to this set of core norms as the “common morality.”) There has been consensus about these core norms because many human interests are relatively stable and widely shared. Effectively, these shared interests operate as a constraint on the type of norms that we should follow.

Given this background of shared interests, we can have genuine disagreements about which actions should be considered right or wrong. Morality is not merely a matter of personal taste. In fact, Blackford thinks we should critically examine our moral norms to determine whether they serve some useful purpose or merely impose restrictions with no adequate social benefit. For him, morality is a social technology that should be evaluated for its responsiveness to our interests; it is not a set of rules dogmatically imposed from nowhere.

Blackford’s arguments are persuasive, and I am in general agreement with him. Morality is a human institution, responsive to human interests and concerns, and there is no standard external to our interests by which we can judge something to be morally right or wrong. That said, I would characterize these conclusions differently. In particular, I would disagree with Blackford’s conclusion that morality is not “objective.” As I’ve argued previously in these pages (“How Morality Has The Objectivity That Matters—Without God,” FI, August/September 2014), to claim that morality is not objective because moral judgments are not true in the same way that descriptive statements are true is to require moral judgments to be something they’re not: namely, descriptive statements. Morality is objective in ways that matter, which is to say that moral judgments are not arbitrary; we can have genuine disagreements about moral issues; people can be mistaken in their moral beliefs; and facts about the world are relevant to and inform our moral judgments. If I read Blackford correctly, I don’t think he would disagree with any of these points, but, as indicated, he maintains that morality is not objective because there are no moral facts in the world (or at least no moral facts independent of human interests), nor does morality have any metaphysical underpinnings that could substitute for the absence of moral facts. I’ll grant that objective is often used the way Blackford employs that term, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the most appropriate use.

So is my disagreement with Blackford only semantic? Perhaps it’s more than that. For a number of reasons, I think it is important to distinguish moral norms from truly subjective judgments. To use my pistachio example again, if I like pistachios and you like cashews, we don’t have a disagreement; nor can we say that one of us is mistaken. There’s no disputing tastes. But that’s not true of morality even if we agree with Blackford that morality is not independent of human interests. Put another way, moral judgments may not be objective in the way that statements of empirical fact are objective, but neither are they subjective like the assertion “I like pistachios.” Blackford’s invitation to us to treat morality as a social technology implies that we can have genuine discussions and disagreements about how that technology should be employed, and so to accept that invitation we need to distinguish morality from truly subjective preferences.

A note about the list price and the target audience for this book: the publisher seems to have had academic libraries in mind as its principal market. This is understandable given that the book is meticulously researched and Blackford’s arguments are rigorous enough to withstand scrutiny by academics. But Blackford has a gift for explaining complex philosophical issues in terms understandable to the intelligent layperson, so don’t think you need to be a philosophy major to follow the arguments in this book. And the book is now available from some retailers at significantly reduced prices. At the original list price, the book would be worth the investment; at a reduced price, it would be (almost) immoral not to buy it.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.

Most of us think that moral norms are binding on us. For example, “Don’t kill a child for pleasure” is not a rule we can simply choose to follow or not, depending on our current desires and attitudes. Indeed, one point of the institution of morality seems to be to subordinate our personal preferences to the common good.

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