I had an interesting discussion with some friends recently on the subject of morality. At the core of it was the question: could morality be described as objective?
There are of course arguments in the affirmative, provided by religion. If God creates a moral code, then what is right and wrong is forever arbitrated by that code, regardless of the apparent societal norms of the people. Without the existence of a God, would people just run around stabbing each other? Frankly though, for someone who doesn’t believe in such a thing, it’s kind of a non-argument. One way to develop this idea, for a secular perspective, is to look at whether or not the morality of a culture is determined by its religion. They are of course fundamentally linked, but seeing how members of all religions reinterpret their respective teachings then it is tempting to say that a religion’s moral code, in respect to the things that matter, mirrors that of the culture it is in. For example, most Catholics I know are ok with gays and contraception. Regardless, this does not address the nature of morality itself.
The natural way to turn then, is that as morality has no meaning outside of human interaction, then it must be a completely human construct. Completely subjective, and completely a result of society. However this ignores two key points: where the morals came from in the first place; and why there is an apparent consistency in the moral codes around the world (that is, most cultures look after the weak and are against theft, and I would defy you to find one that thinks of murder as a good thing).
The view I took here was that morality was a useful product of evolution, a mechanism that allows society to live and work together. This makes it no less real, and makes good acts no less good for preserving the society that they take place in, rather they act as an explanation for why moral acts can be almost instinctual. Whether or not this makes them objective is a matter of semantics. They do depend on the mind of the individual, but they are a product of biological effects on the mind that are as fundamental as our need to reproduce. However, this would only be true for some fundamental moral points, and as the only way to observe what these were would be to see consistency across cultures. In this sense, rather than objectivity, we would be looking for consistency, which might operate similarly in this context, but is a fundamentally different philosophical concept. Orwell famously said “sanity is not a statistic” and that should be observed here. Just because the majority believe something does not make it correct, and certainly does not help define the full nature of morality.
It should be noted here that I consider morality a real, tangible thing that affects my everyday actions. In viewing morality as subjective in nature, if not in practice, I do not devalue it. Rather, I am inexpertly attempting to explore what it is, and how it works. I am a child pulling apart a remote control to see what makes it do what it does.