Objective Morality and Challenges

So this happened. I was working on a video response to a video on the Incoherence of Subjective Morality when I got distracted by the general concept of objective morality. And this video was the result.

I thought that this would be a short detour, but it wasn’t for a few reasons. First, it just wasn’t. Second, it takes a long time to composit even the simplest of digital image assets. Third, it takes a long time to scrounge around the internet for image and video assets. Fourth, creating videos takes longer when you aren’t set up to create them. Fifth, when your project file get corrupted 80 per cent of the way through. Sixth, when you realise that 80 per cent complete was really 60 percent complete. And seventh, when you take the opportunity to start over to upgrade your video editing software only to realise that the vendor has made substantial changes to the interface—some for the better, some for the worse.

For those preferring to read, here’s the source script.

What is objective morality? In this segment, I outline the challenges with the claim of objective morality, primarily through the lens of a subjective moralist.

In the simplest terms, objective morality is the belief that morality is universal, that it’s not up for interpretation. So let’s start there by framing the concept.

Let’s agree that there is some objective morality out there, beyond subjective experience. Following the Biblical account of Genesis. God created the earth from the void, and somewhere in these seven days, objective morality was created. Time, which was also created, presumably at the start of this endeavour, passed, until such time that humans were objectively subjected to this morality waiting in the wings. I suppose that this objective morality might have been created when God imparted the decalogue to Moses. Who’s to say. It feels like morality is bigger than the Ten Commandments, which, for the record, feels more like a highlight real. For our purposes, this objective moral code existed prior to our existence, and we are bound by it. Let’s continue.

This thing existed.

Let’s call this thing morality.

Because it exists independent of observers or subjects, we can further consider it to be objective. We’ve got objective morality. I think we are on to something.

And then god created the heavens and earth. I’m not sure where He was living before that time or why He felt it necessary to establish this. But reasons. Whatever. Let’s march onward, Christian soldiers.

Finally, the part we’ve all been waiting for. Humans. That’s us! Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, begetting and begotten. Wandering and wondering, pandering and pondering, we discover morality. Cain oft Abel, giving us evidence that this morality thing predated Moses on the mount. See how that works?

Let’s rewind a bit, and check out this objective morality thing. We’ve got morality springing from the void. It had to have even predated the heavens and the earth. Before the light. Before the first dawn. I’m not sure this is important to our narrative, so let’s ignore the actual when.

Eventually, there were humans that needed to adhere to this code. Non-humans are not required to abide by this code. But don’t be that dog who attacks a human, because you’ll be taken down as sure as you were subject to this code.

These wandering wondering humans were just chillin in the Garden, and someone ate an apple, a forbidden fruit. Thee forbidden fruit. No names. We all know the story. No reason to linger. Time to let bygones be bygones and leave the past in the past. Obviously, someone should have known about this objective morality. Shaking my head.

There it was. Apples. Figleaves. Objective morality. Apples, bad. Serpents, evil. We’ve got it all sussed out. Or do we. At this point we’ve got all that is, and then what is bad. Or evil. Take your pick. I’m not wholly sure I’ve got the distinction. Love the sinner. Hate the sin. Now I’m just confused. Time to leave this behind. No need to dawdle.

Humans are sensate beings. We sense things with perception. We perceive things. Generally speaking, we consider humans to have five senses. sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. To simplify the narrative, I’ll employ sight as a stand-in for all sense-perceptions.

The narrative goes like this: a thing we call morality exists objectively in the world, and then we discover it. Like a tree or a tiger, we perceive it. As said, our eyes are sense organs. They act as lenses. Light reflects off objects and our eyes collect this light, via rods and cones, but that’s TMI. The vertically inverted image is cast on our retina. But wait. There’s more.

Eyes are sense organs, but they don’t actually perceive anything. I hope I didn’t lead you astray. Eyes connect to a brain via an optic nerve. The brain translates sense-perceptions, and this is how we make sense of the world.

Now, back in the day, there was a cat named Descartes. He was meditating on how he could know if he existed. In doing so, he determined that if he was thinking that he was here to do the thinking, that at least he existed.

His thought experiment went along these lines.

He acknowledged that he perceived via input through sense organs.

Eyes, for seeing—scale, shape, contrast, and colour.

Ears, for hearing—amplitude, pitch.

Nose, for smelling. He had a large nose.

Tongue, for alimentary tasting. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.

And skin. Fingers, toes, and so on, for touching. Smooth, rough, and so on.

Humans don’t get senses for echolocation like bats and cetaceans , electroreception like sharks, magnetoreception like migratory birds, infrared vision like snakes or ultraviolet vision like some birds.

Descartes reflected on his sense organs and commenced enumerating sensory processing disorders.

He recognised that the eyes were fallible. Among animals, visual acuity is fairly mediocre. Eagles can see more clearly at twice the distance than humans. Beyond this, the eyes or visual perception could be tricked by hallucinations. Magicians routinely fool the eyes with legerdemain. Humans perceive a series of still frames as moving, whence motion pictures. We don’t have to mention dreams and chemically-induced visual perception challenges. It seemed real enough. Right? Had Descartes have the Internet in his day, he may have had an opinion on the blue versus gold dress debate.

The ears are fallible as well. We can’t hear sounds as low as elephants and ferrets or as high as bats, dogs, and whales. I’m not sure if he’d even consider the Yanni and Laurel debate.

Aside from anosmia and hyposmia, respectively the inability and diminished ability to smell, olfactory perception has as many challenges as sight and sound. Interestingly enough, smell and taste are tightly linked, so a problem with smelling can affect taste.

Speaking of taste. Like the nose, the tongue can experience similar deficits as ageusia or hypogeusia, the inability and diminished ability to taste . Dysgeusia, which is where a person’s taste senses to be confused, is estimated to occur in about 15 percent of the population, but few people actually seek treatment. Still, Descartes accounted for its fallibility.

Finally, we’ve got the sense of touch. Yet again, we’ve got phantom limb sensations for amputees, and many other somatosensory disorders. We all likely know the pins and needles feeling when our leg ‘falls asleep’, and as we get older neuropathic sensations and discomfort becomes more probable.

Descartes didn’t even mention synesthesia, where auditory cues are processed and interpreted as visual information, so musical tones might have taste; sounds and shapes have colour, and so on. Even so, Descartes came to the realisation that our senses are crap. And don’t get him started on challenges with other cognitive functions or memory degradation. Now where were we?

Right. To throw a spanner in the works, morality isn’t actually a thing. It’s an abstract concept. But, that’s not fair. That’s from a subjectivist’s point of view. Not to put words into the mouths of a moral objectivist, but I’ll suggest that, rather than label it as an abstract concept, they might be more comfortable referring to it as something outside of the material realm. Not to be snide, but that’s a typical fallback. If you want to refer to something otherwise unreferenceable, just make a claim that it is outside of the material sense-perception realm.

The challenge for an objectivist, now, is to reconcile how this non-material sense-perception content is perceived. For the subjectivist, it’s simple. It’s a culturally transmitted social construction. But this isn’t about subjectivists, so let’s forge on.

The claim of objective morality isn’t merely a conceptual claim. It’s a truth claim. It wouldn’t be meaningful to make an argument for objective morality if it weren’t a claim about the truth of an objective morality.

Here, we have a challenge. There is some objective morality out there. Following the logic, it doesn’t exist in the material world, so we have multiple subjects, with all of the inherent sensory processing fallibilities. As with the blue and gold dress or the Yanni-Laurel debate, how do we mediate this truth? Who is the arbiter of Truth? Let’s consider another couple examples.

Whether morality is subjective or not, perception is. There is no way to determine if you and I perceive anything the same way.

Colour is experiential. Besides this point that different cultures and languages name colours differently. I don’t mean that the colour of this cylinder is red in English, rouge in French, and roho in Spanish. In essence, colours are the categorisation of the visual spectrum, arbitrarily dividing the spectrum in ranges. These colour ranges don’t align perfectly. Some languages don’t have colour names for colours that otherwise exist, and some languages derive colour names by attributes not based on frequencies. Some cultures have no colour names. Moreover, what Newton referred to as blue in his colours of the rainbow, we now consider to be cyan, so colour names can drift. I could produce an entire series on colour and perception, so I’ll stop here and share some anecdotes.

Aside from this inconvenience, I’ll convey a personal story. I had a mate who had a colour perception disorder. What I saw as the colour red, he perceived as mustard.

What I perceived as mustard. A colour in the dark yellow portion of the spectrum, known in English as flax, or mustard-colour by the uninitiated, he also considered to be mustard. Check out this cool mustard car.

To put a bit of a spin on it, he perceived the condiments, mustard and ketchup, as the same colour. In a dish, he couldn’t tell the difference without smelling or tasting.

Another mate of mine had a visual disorder. Although he could see, he was legally blind. Also. His eyes functioned perfectly. They would have made a nice organ donor gift. His disorder was caused by a deteriorated optic nerve due to medical malpractice at birth. He also has anosmia and ageusia, but I’ll share his optical challenges.

His disorder resulted in, firstly, his visual perception reduced everything to a 20 percent scale. Think of it as what the world would look like if you viewed in through the wrong end of a telescope. He would perceive a 182 centimetre person as about 35 centimetres, a 5-foot person would appear as 1-foot-tall to him.

Related to this disorder, he had no depth perception. This made perambulation particularly difficult. Practically speaking, he can’t distinguish between a line on a sidewalk and a step, and vice versa. Subjective perception.

But these people are not normal in this regard. Their perception is atypical. I admit that this is true. Let’s continue.

I’ve rendered a red cylinder on the screen. The red I perceive is the red I always perceive as red.

Perhaps you perceive the red cylinder as this. I can’t know how you see red, or blue, or chartreuse, or flax. And vice versa.

You might defend that the colours evoke some emotional response. Red represents fire and passion. Blue is calm and cool.

The problem is that these emotions are just attached to the colour attribute. That firetruck is always red to you, and the ocean and sky are always blue. But it doesn’t have to match mine or anyone else’s rendition.

Where were we? Oh yeah. Perception is Subjective. Let’s take the popular example of the blind men and the elephant. Like objective morality, let’s consider this to be a conceptual elephant and not a physical, material elephant.

I suppose an objectivist might argue that the objective morality is perceived at once and for all, interpreted perfectly, but I’m going to push back with the defence that there is no evidence that it even exists in the first place. To stretch this to being fully grasped in one fell swoop, feels a bit much. This said, I’ll continue as if this objective morality exists, but I am going to entertain that one might suss out what it is through the experience of trial and error, which feels like it might parallel how we or other animals, figured out which plants and berries were edible. Sorry Grog. Rest in Peace.

In this scenario, the elephant is a metaphor for objective morality. These blind persons have never encountered or imagined an elephant to date, so they’ve got no experience. One blind person feels the trunk and perceives it as a snake whilst the other perceives the tail as a rope. I supposed these guys could taste or smell the elephant for a better assessment. Or walk around the elephant, feeling different aspects. But this didn’t happen. They never experienced this elephant holistically.

In the extended director’s cut, there are more blind people, each with restricted experience. Even if they are communicating amongst each other, it’s still a guessing game. And even if they create a sort of map to the terrain of this previously uncharted elephant territory. They have some aggregated collection of facts, a bunch of object nomenclature, yet they likely remain in the dark as to its purpose. Elephants have no moral truth value.

Let’s take some time to look at maps and terrains by example.

Rene Magritte created a famous postmodern painting, La trahison des images, The Treachery of Images. There is a representation of a smoking pipe. Written under the image are the words forming the sentence, Ceci, n’est pas une pipe. This is not a pipe.

Upon reflection, it’s almost immediately apparent that Magritte is letting his viewing audience into a secret. This is not a pipe because it is a picture of a pipe. This is a map, not the terrain, which is the object named pipe.

In The Matrix, the Wachowskis rendered a scene where the adept boy informs Neo, the protagonist and  proto-saviour, that there is no spoon. Neo perceives the spoon, but it doesn’t exist. In fact, the Matrix is an immaterial world. Everything is a figment. This is not the simulacrum of Baudrillard, but it is a simulation. This is not a map and terrain problem so much as the map has replaced a terrain that has never existed in the first place.

Now we go from Ceci, n’est pas une pipe to Ceci, n’est pas un éléphant. This argument is not following Magritte’s claim that it’s a representation of the object, and it’s not pursuing the Wachowskis’ line of logic, that it is somehow simulated. This reasoning is more along the path of Saussure. It’s merely a reference to the object itself, which Saussure deems a sign.

If we accept that anything exists in the world, this object exists in it, but is it an elephant or un éléphant. This object is a sign, an icon. We can assign this sign a nominative reference, and we can assign it all sorts of attributes,— scale, mass, colour, and composition, such as those discovered by the blind people. We can describe physiology and behaviour patterns, create lineages and hierarches. We can even categorise and differentiate these things. In fact, one major functional purpose of language is precisely differentiation. And we can classify all elephants into a bin and then sort them into Indian and African varieties. We can construct a concept such as time and then again a sub-concept such as age. And we can generalise these.

We can group in any number of ways. Elephants is one way. Large mammals is another, to liken them to whales or plesiosaurs. Or as land mammals, we can relate them to mice and men. Grey things liken them to my favourite jumper or pavement. Tusked animals sorts them with walruses and boars. Quadrupeds with horses, with whom they share lineage and DNA, as do their whale brethren. Sistren?

What we perceive as an elephant is a signifier, a symbol. Elephants only exist conceptually. Any description has been assigned to it. We can assign it a name with spoken or written words. Me Tarzan. You elephant. We can render a likeness through photography, by other art media. We can even represent it as a shadow puppet or by other reference, such as mimicking their telltale trumpeting sound or reproducing it onomatopoeically.

It’s important to note that a sign is only a sign if it is recognised as a sign. Conversely, I can create any number of meaningless, orphaned signifiers.

Finally, we have the signified. If the signifier is denotative, the signified is connotative. What is evoked when you see or hear a signified. For elephants, I envisage Hannibal crossing the Alps. I think of nurturing animals, who never forget, who will exact revenge, and who are afraid of mice. I also think of Dumbo and Jiminy Cricket. And, of course, the colour grey, poaching, circuses and zoos, and the attributes they’re known for having, a trunk, tusks, large floppy ears, and the rest.

Let’s return to see how this works for the notion of objective morality.

We’re back with our two subjects observing some object. Only they aren’t observing anything. They are moderating a concept. If our two subjects have the same, let’s call it an opinion, on the Truth of the matter, we are in a relatively good place. But only relatively speaking.

The problem is that just because two people agree on something, doesn’t make it so. Just because a million or two-million people or even seven-billion people agree on something, it doesn’t make it true. There was a time when most people thought that slavery was a good idea. Even the Bible was cool with slavery, but let’s not stray into theological territory.

Objectivists have a solution for this dilemma. It’s the single source of Truth we started with. The one that not only predates humans, it likely pre-dates dates. Take that subjectivists.

Wait. What’s that. My producer is telling me I’ve still got a problem. Let’s see if I can work this through.

Our subjects are stuck in their own perspective, but there is a True Truth to be found. It’s just immaterial. Without exception. everyone is subject to the limitations noted by Descartes. Everyone is fallible. ahem. Apologies to the Pope.

I guess I can’t escape a theological account. Let’s see how that might play out. Let’s rewind back to before time, before it all began. Just the void. And God.

We’ve seen this already. God creates this objective reality. Time passes. More time passes.

Christ. God hasn’t yet created time.

Now time passes, and more time passes.

Our subjects appear. Bicker a bit about morality.

God appears to one of them. In a vision, I suppose. Perhaps it was someone else. In any case, the voice in the visions tells the visionary, ‘This is the moral code. Remember it. You’re not gonna forget it in the morning. For My sake. Write it down. Here. I’ll write it down.’

Stone tablet and all. 3-D printed in stone. Very edgy. ‘Now go tell your friends, Romans, and countrymen.’

‘Romans?’ you ask yourself.

God sniggers to himself thinking, ‘Oh, just you wait’.

Later. This smug visionary waits for the opportunity.

‘The way I see it…’

Bam! Right. ‘The way you see it. Mate, listen. It’s not about you. I’ve got the inside scoop. No reason to argue. I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth.’

‘Talking horses?’, your mate scoffs incredulously.

‘It’s a saying. I just made it up.’

‘Right. Cuz, I’ve never even heard of horses.’

‘Yeah, well. These are the rules. I’m calling it a code. And it’s not what you said.’

‘Wot?’

‘It’s what I was saying all along.’

‘That’s bollocks, mate. And you know it.’

‘Nope. I had a dream. It’s all true. And it’s all written down.’

‘You can’t write.’

‘Didn’t have to. Geezer in the dream did it for me.’

‘But you can’t read. No one can. Writing hasn’t even been invented yet.’

‘Then I suppose we can start with this.’

‘With wot?’

‘This stone tablet. It was just here. Well anyway, I remember what it said is all that matters.’

And so it goes.

All we’ve done is kicked the tin into the long grass. We’ve shifted focus from one incorporeal object to another. Introducing God into the equation did nothing to promote objectivity, if only because any God experience is just as subjective and just as unverifiable. It’s a veritable chain of evidence problem.

To add insult to injury, we’ve got some other blokes a few blocks down claiming that their god laid down some different laws. And it has to be true because the entire neighbourhood is in agreement.

And so it goes. Even if there were an objective moral truth, it is inaccessible, so the argument over its speculative existence it pointless. The defence that it’s immaterial doesn’t help the objectivists cause. This is akin to the parent telling the insubordinate child, because I said so.’ That doesn’t advance the argument or get us very far.

One final point. I know, right?

As Nietzsche pointed out. In a world with no objective morality, it will be difficult to maintain order. But just because it’s easier to control populations when they perceive a single unadulterated source of order and power, it doesn’t follow that it exists. As I illustrate in another video on moral subjectivism, you may have run out of petrol and are stranded in the desert, but it doesn’t follow that your inconvenience can conjure this need into petrol in the material world. You are just as stranded. Just because you can imagine a solution on an imaginary plane doesn’t mean it’s real or has any impact on the material world. Just as you can imagine throwing the winning hail Mary touchdown with seconds remaining in the Superbowl to bring your underdog ragtag bunch of misfits, a come from behind victory, you shouldn’t be surprised to discover it yields you nothing in this material world, for I am just a material girl.