The world is increasingly embracing diversity — religious, cultural, and political diversity, for example. Embracing diversity means being more tolerant of differences between individuals and groups, both large and small. This surge of tolerance is accompanied by an increasing moral relativism, especially among young people. Moral relativism is thought to naturally accompany tolerance.
Consider the burka, an enveloping outer garment some Muslim traditions require their women to wear. Burqas cover the woman’s body and often, her face. Many thoughtful non-Muslim people, especially in the west, while rejecting, or not accepting, burqas for women in general because, e.g., they seem sexist, do accept, or do not object to, the practice of wearing burqas where it is practiced. This is because wearing burqas is an integral part of an ongoing, robust culture. A westerner might say: “I reject burqas as sexist, but this is just my personal view; others have different views, and theirs are just as legitimate as mine.” This is relativism: the view that different moral norms are equally moral and are therefore to be tolerated.
Relativism, even if part of the story of human morality, cannot be the whole story. There is a need for clear, definite moral lines that cannot be crossed without (near) universal, robust condemnation: racial and gender discrimination, sexual harassment, terrorism, and ignoring global warming are often thought of as objectively morally wrong. But this moral objectivity seems to be accepted only for such big issues as those just listed. Relativism appears to hold sway over much of our daily conversations and judgments.
“… morality (or most of it, anyway) is just as objectively true as science and mathematics. The key ingredient is the notion of harm.”
There is, however, a clear path to a universal and powerful moral objectivity, the view that morality (or most of it, anyway) is just as objectively true as science and mathematics. The key ingredient is the notion of harm.
Every living animal with a nervous system can and does experience harm (it may be that every living thing experiences harm, but that is an issue for another time). Harm is marked by pain, fear, hunger, thirst, sadness, frustration, . . . any negative emotion. We live in a universe that randomly dishes out harm — consider the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, as just one example. But we can check both intentional harm, which is under our control, and other types of unintentional harm, e.g., environmental damage caused by development.
The question now is “Why ought we to check (or mitigate) such harm.” The answer is because it is harm. Harm is bad by definition. Morality requires us to avoid doing bad things, again, by definition. Hence we all have a moral duty not to harm other living things. This moral duty exists objectively because harm exists objectively. Just as 1 + 1 = 2 is objectively true, so “we should not harm other living things” is objectively true. This truth is based simply on the fact that harming exists and should be checked.
Of course, implementing this moral truth is quite complex. But that is a story also for another day.
This article is from TVOL’s project titled “This View of Morality: Can an Evolutionary Perspective Reveal a Universal Morality?” You can download a PDF of the project [here], comment on this article below, or comment on the project as a whole in the Summary and Overview.