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whiteliondreams's avatar

How are the validity of moral obligations objective?

Asked by whiteliondreams (1698 points ) July 8th, 2012

I’m currently studying ethics and relativism is a subject we are currently reading about. I want to understand, how are obligations, which are moral or legal conditions that depend on accepted terms and beliefs in order to be committed, objective in contrast to subjective? What evidence or inference has been or is in existence, which states that obligations are objectively valid? In other words, are obligations, which are moral by definition, humanistic or independent thereof?

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20 Answers

elbanditoroso's avatar

In my view, they can’t possibly be. Moral views are almost by definition those of a particular person; not necessarily shared by society at large, and very seldom backed by objective evidence or actual law. It essence, these morals are – boiled down – personal and situational, and based largely on one’s background. In short, they are subjective.

As such, they cannot be objective – there isn’t a neutral yardstick by which to measure obligations, and there isn’t – and cannot be – universally shared views of a moral issue.

marinelife's avatar

Legal obligations are most objective. Because there is an implied contract between the person who participates in the society to accept the laws of that society.

I happen to think that moral obligations are objective too. There is a clear line about killing a person (wrong) or stealing someone else’s stuff (wrong). But, obviously, morals differ from society to society and even within societies.

Kardamom's avatar

@marinelife Your examples are not always true. Most people would find it justifiable to kill a person who was attacking/harming someone else. Like the man who recently killed a child molester who he caught in the act of molesting his own daughter. And in some instances, it would be better to kill a person than to let them continue to suffer, if that person has asked you to kill them, a mercy killing if you will. And in the US (although I do not agree with it) the death penalty is still legal in some states. And it is not only legal, it is the job of military personnel to kill their human enemies (the ones that have been proscribed by the government, not just anybody).

In the case of stealing other people’s stuff, in some instances, it might be justifiable for a person to steal some expensive medicine from someone else (maybe a pharmacy or a store) to save the life of their child if they had no means to pay, or legal right to possess the medication for a variety of reasons.

I don’t think there is any objectivity with regards to obligations whether or not they are considered to be legal, or moral or humansistic. Although I do agree with you that legal obligations are closer to objectivity because of the implied contract. You can’t have a society without laws and contracts.

josie's avatar

Morality only deals with the basis for making decisions that will affect your own survival and well being and happiness as a human creature.

Such moral oligations are objective, since the nature of man as a living, self interested, and reasoning creature is easy to observe.

On the other hand, social obligations are subjective. There is a manifest difference between moral obligation and social convention. And yet, people constantly try to argue that they are the same thing. No wonder nobody can talk to each other, when something so basic is a focus of equivocation.

marinelife's avatar

@Kardamom Self defense is something separate (although even that can get sticky). But in the case of the man who killed the pedophile, I do not believe it was justifiable. He was usurping the right of the state. Also, mercy killing is illegal because it is also a very dicey proposition. Where are the safeguards to ensure that the person is acting in their own best interests or right mind?

As to stealing, I do not think it is justified in the case you laid out.

Kardamom's avatar

@marinelife This is the exact point I was trying to make, that things are not objective, because other people and I find some or all of my examples to be clearly justified and other people do not. I’m not saying that I’m right and you’re wrong, just that people have very different ideas about what they believe is right and wrong, or what is justifiable and what isn’t, that’s what makes these situations not objective. It’s all based upon what each individual, or in some cases what each society, or members of any particular religion, believe. And beliefs come out of all sorts of places and reasons. Could be personal history (what happened to you and what you saw or think you saw), could be fear, could be the desire to do what one is told for ritcheous reasons, could be the desire to do what one is told because it’s easier, could be delusion, could be that a space alien foretold some prophecy.

gorillapaws's avatar

On my first day of a Moral Theory class I took many years ago, we only spent one class on relative and subjective moral theories. The professor basically trashed them because they are worthless. You can’t make claims like the Nazi’s were wrong, or removing the clitorises of young women against their will is morally wrong, or marrying very young girls to old guys to be raped is wrong, or slavery is wrong, or apartheid is wrong etc. if you subscribe to a relative or subjective moral theory. Which begs the question, what’s the point in having a moral system if you can’t make statements like that?

Obligations are objective insofar as they are derived from an objective moral theory, such as Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Mill’s theory of maximizing utility, or Rawls’ theory of distributive justice. The moral authority of any particular moral theory is a Meta-ethical question.

ETpro's avatar

Zi Gong asked Confucius, “Is there one word that may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” The Master said, “Is not RECIPROCITY such a word? Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” It’s articulated in the Golden Rule, the Code of Hammurabi, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece. Pretty objective stuff, if you ask me. A vast number of human thinkers all independently realized the sound logic of it.

LostInParadise's avatar

I recommend Michael Sandel’s book Justice. Sandel systematically looks at various theories of justice and comes to the conclusion that justice must contain a component based on values, which are of necessity subjective.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@josie So morality, for you, is individual as a mechanism of survivability, yes? I think I can agree with that, but is that how it is actually defined? Perhaps, not, but I will hold on to that notion.
@LostInParadise Would you say that cultural (social/subjective) morality is a legal sort?
@ETpro I just read about the such recently and am aware of the “rule”, but I just learned that morality has an innate function in human beings. If some moral attributes are innate, would it still beg the question as to whether or not it is intended to be personal or interpersonal? Of course, it becomes broken down into the social construct of a society or a group, but never the less, if it is innate, one must infer (based on the science of Michael Gazzaniga) that such chemical compositions are part of an individual and personal trait attributed to man for his own good. It becomes a completely different notion when comparing to socialization.

Bill1939's avatar

The examples that @gorillapaws gave supports the notion that morality is a social construct, which is relative to the culture to which one is a member. While religions often offer the promise of an absolute or objective morality, over time the articles of their morality change. The Christian Bible endorses the subjugation of women and the ownership of slaves, for example.

A distinction may be made between morally reprehensible and morally wrong. While declaring the actions of those who believe in apartheid as morally reprehensible would be reasonable, such acts would only be morally wrong if committed by persons in our country. Subjective morality is the individual’s rationalization and justification for going against customary morals.

LostInParadise's avatar

@whiteliondreams , I am a bit confused as to what you are asking, so please excuse me if I am off base here.

There is a controversy in biology as to the mechanism for the evolution of altruistic behavior, which would include much of what we think of as moral. Previously there was a general agreement that altruism evolved through kin selection. An organism might help a relative at cost to its own survival chances, because it would help to insure the survival of their shared genes. This was used to explain, for example, why all the closely related sterile worker bees in a honey bee colony work so hard to maintain the colony. The problem with this theory, IMHO, is that it does not cover altruistic behavior among those who are not closely related.

The more recent theory is that altruistic selection occurs at the group level, without regard to kin. Imagine two groups. In one group there is no altruism. Each organism is out for itself. Within the group, these organisms will dominate. Now imagine a second group that has an altruism gene. If the group remained isolated, the gene would die out. But now imagine a confrontation between the two groups. The one with the altruism gene will prevail due to the heroic efforts of some of those with the gene, thus assuring the survival of both the group and the altruism gene.. There is a mathematical theory for this, which I have not had a chance to look at, originally proposed by the mathematician George Price. Note that group selection explains honey bee altruism just as well as kin selection. Since the bees are so closely related, once an altruism gene sneaks in, it will be prevalent throughout the colony.

E.O. Wilson, a highly respected biologist who previously advocated kin selection, has created a stir by coming down on the side of group selection in his latest book. Here is a brief discussion.

LostInParadise's avatar

One last point. In addition to warfare heroics,the group with the altruism gene may prevail over the other group because the group overall is fitter due to greater cooperation and increased sharing.

ETpro's avatar

@whiteliondreams There are seemingly moral behaviors seen in numerous animals. @LostInParadise covers some, and the reasons evolution might logically have selected for them. That alone tells me that morality isn’t entirely a social construct.

Unquestionably, there are behaviors certain cultures demand that they consider moral (self mutilation, genital mutilation of women to establish male dominance, off fashions of clothing and body decoration) that the culture practicing them may argue are moral behavior but much of humanity would find immoral or senseless. Those are clearly social constructs. But the moral behavior that actually ensures survival of a species doesn’t change and can even be found among many species. Thus, this fundamental part of morality I say is objective.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@ETpro In that case, morality should be called something else in the innate sense because innate morality is not about good/bad or right/wrong; it is about trial and error. Those categories mentioned are irrelevant. Therefore, morality should be named so in accordance with civility and culture (socialization). Innate principles should be called just that, innate principles. The problem lies in the semantics of defining good/bad, etc.

LostInParadise's avatar

Can you give an example of something that is moral but not what you call an innate principle?

whiteliondreams's avatar

I am amoral, so I cannot give you an example. Innate morals are those that have been discovered by neurologists; ”[once] thought of as purely spiritual matters, honesty, guilt, and the weighing of ethical dilemmas are traceable to specific areas of the brain” Frans de Waal’s Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996). Adhering to such principles cannot be moral if no one else can acknowledge them, therefore it must be social in order to be moral by definition: “concerned with or adhering to the code of interpersonal behavior that is considered right or acceptable in a particular society”—dictionary.

gorillapaws's avatar

@whiteliondreams many philosophical positions view morality as “a priori laws”, just as mathematics, or the laws of nature. I don’t think it’s appropriate to dismiss these out of hand simply because the dictionary has oversimplified the philosophical complexity of the issue.

ETpro's avatar

@whiteliondreams I fully agree with @gorillapaws. But not being the arbiter of such decisions, I rest my case.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@gorillapaws And I can agree with that, but I’m too tired to think right now.

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