A Humanistic Alternative to the Failed and Misleading Concept of ‘Objective Morality’

Doug Mann

This article begins with a critique of four propositions—one that is religious and three that are philosophical—that summarize many failed attempts to define and defend the existence of “objective morality.” After explaining the linguistic trap that objective morality presents for secular humanists, I will propose a replacement for the illusory goal of objective morality in the form of a descriptive phrase that is both scientifically accurate and deeply humanistic: our evolved moral wisdom. I then analyze this phrase as a means to correctly locate the origin, nature, and authority of morality in the natural history of humankind and in the current deliberations of the human moral community.

A Failed Religious Proposition about Objective Morality

“Morality is objective because divine goodness is the source of unchanging, universal moral rules, and divine authority enforces the rules.”

This sort of claim is associated with monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In this worldview, universal moral rules are of divine origin, exist independently of humanity, and are ultimately enforced by God. This proposition is emotionally appealing to many people but is fatally flawed due to its lack of supporting evidence and faulty logic.

The proposition’s subjective appeal is based on several human traits and beliefs. The human conscience is an evolved trait that connects powerful positive and negative emotions to well-learned moral rules, so that humans experience moral rules as an important part of their core cultural identity. Moral rules, such as the prohibition against murder, have a strong emotional impact on us that makes them feel “true” in a way that less important cultural rules, such as rules of etiquette, do not. Another relevant trait is persistent human anxiety about the stability of the fragile social order on which we all depend for security and well-being. Human anxiety about social order feeds the desire for unchanging, universally applicable, and universally enforced moral truth, which could make society more stable by making people more accountable and morally reliable. Furthermore, divine authorship and enforcement of morality would make the world into a morality play in which all good deeds are eventually rewarded and bad deeds punished. People could therefore hold the comforting belief that life is ultimately fair and just. (Studies have shown that this “just-world hypothesis” is widely believed despite mountains of evidence contradicting it.) Finally, the concept of a divine, loving father figure who enforces morality projects the familiar and comforting structure of the human nuclear family onto the vast, indifferent universe. The appeal of the concept of “objective morality,” especially in its religious form, is subjective and emotional, not rational or scientific. To assume that objective morality exists is to engage in what could be called “the epistemology of wishful thinking”: a widespread human cognitive bias by which ideas that are comforting and reassuring are judged more likely to be true than are less comforting ideas.

The assumption that morality is objective has been employed by Christian apologists, such as Michael Peterson and William Lane Craig, to make a variety of fallacious arguments. The evidence they present to support this assumption is remarkably weak. Peterson offered the following claim as evidence for the existence of “objective moral knowledge”: “Historically, the human community has been gripped by the profound conviction that we have true moral beliefs … .” In Peterson’s view, then, any strongly and widely held human belief, even a poorly defined belief that is unsupported by scientific evidence, can constitute knowledge (which is another way of saying that faith equals knowledge).

Similarly, Craig relied on the unsubstantiated assumption of the existence of objective morality when he debated atheist author Sam Harris concerning the origins of morality at the University of Notre Dame in 2011. The topic of the debate as presented on a slide used by Craig was “Is the foundation of morality natural or supernatural?” However, Craig began by talking about “objective moral values and duties,” not simply “moral values and duties.” Like Peterson, Craig claimed that strongly felt human convictions about behaviors that are morally right and wrong are evidence that objective morality exists. Unfortunately, Harris did not refute this claim, because he had his own version of objective morality to present. Also, when Harris did research for his 2010 book The Moral Landscape, he chose to ignore information about the natural history of morality, which he dismissively referred to as “the descriptive project.” Without this background information, he was unable to provide an alternative scientific explanation for the source of strong human convictions about right and wrong, which involves a description of the evolution of the human conscience and of the process by which people acquire a cultural identity. This scientific explanation of the origins and nature of strong human moral convictions undermines the claim that objective morality exists independently of human beings and undercuts the question-begging arguments made by Peterson and Craig about the origin and nature of morality.

In more general terms, the religious proposition about morality, when expressed as a typical set of theistic beliefs, forms a circular and therefore fallacious argument. These beliefs are:

  1. Objective morality exists, because we feel strongly that it does;
  2. The existence of objective morality supports our belief in the existence of God, whose goodness and authority are the source of objective morality; and
  3. The existence of our good and watchful god reassures us of the existence of objective morality.

Thus this “argument” comes full circle without being supported by any evidence for the independent existence of objective morality—or any evidence for the existence of a god with the moral qualities and interests described by religious apologists. The religious proposition about objective morality is comforting to believers, but it is an utter failure as a philosophical or scientific claim.

Three Failed Philosophical Propositions Concerning Objective Morality

Three general propositions are sufficient to summarize the many ideas expressed by philosophers in their efforts to make morality “objective”:

  1. “Morality is objective because moral rules reside in an ideal, unchanging form in a realm of existence beyond the natural world.”
  2. “Morality is objective because there is a single sufficient and universally acceptable foundational principle underlying ethics and morality.”
  3. “Morality is objective because true moral rules can be derived from facts about the world.”

The first proposition is commonly associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who described “Forms” or “Ideas” that are not part of the physical world. In this view, the “Form of the Good” is the eternal, ideal, unchanging source of human ideas of truth, justice, and beauty. However, Aristotle subsequently held that since these “Forms” are not part of the physical world, there is no reason to believe that they exist, and therefore they are irrelevant to human ethics. The proposition that moral ideals exist separately from our physical world has little if any support among philosophers today.

The second proposition represents many attempts by philosophers over the past several thousand years to ground morality and ethics on a single unifying principle. For example, Confucius and other teachers have put forth versions of the Golden Rule as a foundation for ethics. Aristotle described a specific set of virtues that could be acquired through human diligence, resulting in an ethical life. In the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant articulated the “categorical imperative” that people should evaluate a possible action by considering whether the action, if made into a universal law, would be good for society. John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham developed the concept of utilitarianism, in which ethical decision-making seeks to produce the largest total amount of “utility” (happiness or well-being) summed across all members of a group of people. Such philosophical efforts have produced a useful set of principles and tools for ethical decision-making, but they have not identified a single sufficient, universally accepted, unifying principle that would make morality “objective.”

Also in the eighteenth century, David Hume observed that it is difficult to see how an argument that begins with descriptive “is” statements about the world could be justified in deriving prescriptive “ought” statements about human behavior. The third philosophical proposition claims that this problem can be overcome so that “true” moral rules can be derived from facts about the world. However, no proposed solution to the is-ought problem has achieved widespread acceptance among professional philosophers. As Ronald A. Lindsay has observed, solutions to the is-ought problem, no matter how lengthy or involved, tend to be based on sophisticated appeals to intuition rather than resting on clear, rigorous arguments.

The theories put forward in relation to all three philosophical propositions share a further shortcoming: they all fail to solve the “value problem,” which requires a justification for the claim that moral rules are universally binding and obligatory for all human beings, a claim that is central to the concept of objective morality. (Russell Blackford and Ryan Born discuss the “value problem” in their reviews of The Moral Landscape.) In summary, it’s clear that all the religious and philosophical efforts to substantiate objective morality have failed when evaluated by the criteria of supporting evidence, philosophical rigor, and completeness.

Referring to Objective Morality Puts Humanists At an Inherent Disadvantage

Objective morality isn’t just a failure as a philosophical concept; it’s also misleading, because of the previously mentioned cultural familiarity of associated religious concepts. Hearing or reading the phrase objective morality can automatically make an audience think about culturally familiar ideas about morality and God. (In cognitive psychology, the general name for such a mental process is activation of related concepts.) Remembering these related concepts may cause people to make inferences and jump to conclusions without the involvement of any conscious reasoning process. As a result, simply hearing or reading the phrase objective morality may make people more likely to assume that objective morality exists; that morality can best be made “objective” (unchanging, universally applicable, and universally enforced) through a culturally familiar appeal to divine goodness and authority; and that “objective morality” is the gold standard by which all theories of morality should be judged.

As long as objective morality is the goal and the standard of comparison for theories of morality, humanists who describe a more limited, nuanced form of objective morality or moral truth may be seen as offering a second-rate version of morality that is less robust than the fallacious but emotionally appealing objective morality offered by theists. For example, Lindsay provided an insightful functional analysis of morality and described morality as having “the objectivity that matters.” Unfortunately, “the objectivity that matters” sounds rather limited and less reassuring in comparison to the illusory gold standard of unchanging, authoritative objective morality. The same concern applies to Michael Shermer’s description of moral rules as possessing “provisional truth.” To be perfectly clear, the foregoing is not a criticism of the philosophical arguments put forth by Harris, Lindsay, and Shermer; it’s a description of the potent psychological effects of the familiar cultural ideas associated with the concept of “objective morality.”

Several thousand years’ worth of efforts to substantiate objective morality have failed, and to use the phrase (or its variants) to frame a discussion of morality evokes an unachievable goal and plays into the hands of Christian apologists. It’s time for humanists to discard objective morality in favor of a description of morality as it actually exists, a description based on morality’s long, rich natural history.

Morality Emerged from a Lengthy Process of Genetic and Cultural Evolution

In a previous Free Inquiry article (“The Science of the Evolution of Morality,” February/March 2019), I described the evolution of morality in three phases. I will briefly summarize them here. The process began with a lengthy phase of genetic evolution that produced a few highly social species, first among insects and then among mammals. Members of a group within a highly social species conform to specialized roles and frequently make sacrifices for the good of the group. Such behaviors are strengthened by natural selection if they help a species to survive and spread. High sociality among a small number of mammal species continued to develop as primates evolved. (The social nature of many mammal species was discussed as a step in the eventual evolution of human morality by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man.) Among some of our primate ancestors, traits of self-control, deference to authority, awareness of rules of behavior, reciprocity (exchanging favors), and strong attachments to others emerged. Humans share these qualities with chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest living evolutionary relatives.

In the second phase, which began after early human culture emerged about 250,000 years ago, social pressures within hunter-gatherer bands favored individuals who could conform to group rules and practices such as egalitarian food sharing; these intense social selection pressures produced the human conscience. Building on previously evolved traits, the human conscience linked powerful emotions to well-learned cultural moral rules, which strengthened individual self-control and continued the self-domestication of our species. The evolution of language then made it possible to codify and teach a group’s rules of behavior, and moralistic gossip became essential to rule monitoring and enforcement. The prosocial traits and essential moral rules that constitute the core of human morality were all in place by about 50,000 years ago and were refined during thousands of generations of human hunter-gatherer life.

The final and shortest phase of the evolution of morality began with the invention of agriculture about 11,000 years ago. Larger human communities produced a degree of anonymity that reduced the effectiveness of moralistic gossip in enforcing rules of behavior. Cultural evolution responded by producing religions that featured supernatural moral watchers who took a strong interest in individual human behavior. Cultural evolution is powerful because it is based on rapidly changing human ideas rather than slowly changing human genes, but the ideas that take hold in a culture can produce mixed results in terms of human well-being. This problem is illustrated by the fraught relationship between organized religion and morality, in which some moral rules and practices codified by religions diverge in harmful ways from the straightforward focus on human survival and well-being that characterized the moral rules and practices of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Fortunately, several modern countries that are largely nonreligious are also quite orderly, happy, and prosperous, demonstrating that religion is not essential to morality in modern societies.

To summarize, a lengthy natural process that combined genetic and cultural evolution produced the prosocial human traits and the cultural rules and practices that constitute one of our most precious resources: the evolved moral wisdom of humankind.

Our Evolved Moral Wisdom

One way to understand the humanistic and scientific impact of the phrase our evolved moral wisdom (or variants such as the evolved moral wisdom of humankind) is to explore the ideas evoked by the phrase’s individual words, so let us consider each word in turn.

Our …

Morality belongs to humanity; it is central to our genetic and cultural heritage as a hypersocial, highly successful species. Moral traits reside in human beings, not in some mysterious, independent reality. Human moral communities determine cultural moral rules and practices, including the means by which morality is monitored and enforced. Human vigilance and continuous effort are required; without them moral order can break down, disrupting the society and harming everyone in a moral community. Morality is our unique responsibility as human beings, and it is the key to our well-being and the stability of our societies.

The fact that morality is entirely human and negotiated among the members of each moral community provides the only possible answer to the “value problem.” The authority and diligence of the members of each community make moral rules binding on the individual members. Each of us is obligated to follow the rules of our moral community, and our consciences and strong sense of cultural identity help us to do so. Most of us desire to remain members in good standing within our communities; following moral rules is the straightforward path to ongoing membership and social approval, and to all the other benefits that communities provide to members. This answer to the “value problem” is inevitably on a finite and contingent human scale, reflecting our human traits and frailties. When we break a moral rule, our moral communities provide the only path to forgiveness and restoration.

… evolved …

The evolution of morality was not inevitable; it was not the result of a divine plan. Scientists, beginning with Darwin, have discovered that morality has a long natural history involving both genetic evolution and cultural evolution. The foundations of morality can be traced back to the emergence of the first mammals about 200 million years ago, when the unique characteristics of mammals led to the slow evolution of the “attachment system” and the eventual emergence of the trait of caring for others. Morality emerged because trait-driven behaviors, such as cooperation and altruism, helped species to survive and thrive. The evolution of morality is a beautiful demonstration of the central principles of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

The theory of evolution leads us to expect that moral traits and intuitions, like other characteristics shaped by genetic inheritance, will vary within a group of people (as described in Jonathan Haidt’s research). This fact about evolution makes it easier to understand how different people within the same culture can have different moral views and priorities.

Morality has evolved to serve multiple purposes: maintaining social order and control; balancing individual well-being with the needs of the group; constructing a distinctive cultural identity for the group; defining individual roles; maintaining hierarchical power relationships; repressing any form of behavior viewed as deviant; and maintaining group institutions. The relative importance of these various purposes for morality have varied across time and between groups as cultures evolved.

Morality must continue to evolve and adapt to new challenges faced by humanity. Armed with the knowledge of morality’s evolutionary history and the best ideas of philosophers and moral leaders, human beings today must participate in the conscious, rational evolution of morality. Harmful moral beliefs and practices that are the result of powerful but error-prone processes of cultural evolution can be challenged and changed. Moral leadership is essential to guide humanity into moral beliefs and practices that give us the best chance for survival and well-being as we face new challenges to social stability due to population growth, migration, and changes in the environment.

… moral …

Morality has unique characteristics that distinguish it from mere social conventions. Human beings express moral traits in infancy and learn moral rules rapidly as part of acquiring a cultural identity. Blushing with shame when a moral violation is discovered, which begins as early as the age of two, is evidence that the conscience emerges early in human development. Cultural moral rules rely on the human conscience for their effectiveness. The conscience links deeply evolved emotions such as pride and shame to well-learned cultural moral rules.

Moral rules serve the needs of individuals and their communities. Each person in a moral community has a responsibility not only to follow moral rules but to monitor and help others to follow moral rules. Moral monitoring, moralistic gossip, and group solidarity in confronting and disciplining rule breakers are essential to the effectiveness of morality as a human institution. Humans often resent small moral communities as “fishbowls” in which “everyone knows everyone else’s business,” but small moral communities also make people feel secure and cared for. This uneasy balance between the intrusiveness and the benefits of moral communities is an unavoidable part of human social life.

… wisdom.

Our evolved morality constitutes a type of wisdom, not abstract “objectivity” or moral “truth.” Wisdom resides in human beings. Moral wisdom must be learned, maintained, taught, and refined in a continuous cycle of human effort.

Wisdom evolves slowly. It is hard-earned, time-tested, and pragmatic. Moral wisdom is about achieving and maintaining balance between competing human impulses and goals. The needs of individuals must be balanced with the needs of the group; when this balance is accomplished, all group members benefit, the group thrives, and collective human wisdom grows. Abstract ethical principles are all part of cumulative human wisdom concerning morality. Human wisdom is required to choose and apply the most relevant ethical principles to an important moral decision.

Moral wisdom conveys authority. Moral leadership is an expression of this precious form of authority for the benefit of human moral communities. Without moral leadership, beneficial social change occurs very slowly, if at all. Wise moral leaders hold the future of humanity in their hands.

After reading the foregoing analysis of the meaning of our evolved moral wisdom, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the feelings it evokes. Personally, I feel reassured that moral traits are deeply evolved and encouraged by every culture’s moral rules and practices. However, I cannot passively rely on cultural institutions to enforce morality. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to do my part in the evolution, enforcement, and improvement of morality. I must be vigilant, as though living in an ancestral hunter-gatherer moral community in which individual moral convictions and actions affect the survival and well-being of my group daily. Today’s moral challenges arise on many levels, because we live in moral communities as small as a two-person relationship and as large as the global human moral community. Such responsibility cannot be delegated; it is central to what it means to be a fully functioning human being.

Conclusion

An overarching theme of this article is that the specific words or phrases we use as labels to frame discussions of important topics (such as morality) matter a great deal. Such labels can influence the assumptions and conclusions of a discussion (see George Lakoff’s work on framing and metaphors in politics for a particularly clear explanation of the power of our choice of labels). When discussing the origin and nature of morality, the phrase objective morality is likely to evoke either culturally familiar religious ideas that lead to fallacious conclusions about the origin and nature of human morality or abstract philosophical ideas that fail to unify or justify morality and ethics. However, the phrase our evolved moral wisdom reminds us that morality is a shared and cherished human quality with a long, fascinating evolutionary history. This naturalistic view of morality, while challenging, has the virtue of being true and is therefore our best guide as we strive for moral understanding and progress.

It’s up to the human moral community to continue to adapt, improve, model, monitor, and enforce morality. There is no evading our responsibility to do so. Secular humanists understand that life is not a divine morality play in which moral accounts are settled in an afterlife; the truth is that human life is lived entirely on this fragile planet, where moral struggles with uncertain outcomes are central to the human drama. The convictions of secular humanists help us to focus on human rights and responsibilities and on human quality of life during the limited time each of us has on Earth. Therefore, secular humanists have a natural leadership role to play in the continuous effort for moral understanding and progress that is essential to meet the challenges of today’s complex and troubled world. Through such leadership, secular humanists can contribute to the ongoing evolution of our moral wisdom and to a better future for humankind.


Further Reading

  • Blackford, Russell. “Book Review: Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.” Journal of Evolution and Technology, December 2010.
  • Born, Ryan. The Moral Landscape Challenge: The Winning Essay. 2014. Online at https://samharris.org/the-moral-landscape-challenge/; accessed July 27, 2018.
  • Craig, William Lane, and Harris, Sam. The God Debate II: Is Good from God? Indiana: University of Notre Dame. 2011. Online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqaHXKLRKzg; accessed November 5, 2016.
  • Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray, 1871.
  • Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon, 2012.
  • Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press, 2010.
  • Lakoff, George. “Framing the Dems.” The American Prospect, September 2003.
  • Lindsay, Ronald A. “How Morality Has the Objectivity that Matters—Without God.” Free Inquiry, August/September 2014.
  • Mann, Doug. “The Science of the Evolution of Morality.” Free Inquiry, February/March 2019.
  • Peterson, Michael, and Ruse, Michael. Science, Evolution, and Religion: A Debate About Atheism and Theism. New York: Oxford, 2017.
  • Shermer, Michael. The Science of Good & Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule. New York: Henry Holt, 2004.

Doug Mann

Doug Mann, PhD, is an experimental psychologist and former medical school professor. Research on empathy in the doctor-patient relationship led to his post-retirement interest in moral psychology and the evolution of morality.


This article begins with a critique of four propositions—one that is religious and three that are philosophical—that summarize many failed attempts to define and defend the existence of “objective morality.” After explaining the linguistic trap that objective morality presents for secular humanists, I will propose a replacement for the illusory goal of objective morality in …

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