Moral Truth and Rationality

450px-the_thinker_closeWhy does one believe in anything?

Unless one is a cartesian skeptic, one accepts some things that haven’t been proven absolutely. Presumably, the basis of our core beliefs is perception of things. One accepts that the physical world is real, after all, because we perceive it. While it is true that one may be wrong to do so, it seems far more reasonable than to believe that reality is all simply a delusion.

Many who are deeply committed to the reality of the physical world, however, are hostile to this same reasoning process when applied to other areas.

In this case, I’m speaking of moral truth.

Many insist upon “evidence” for objective morality, by which they seem to mean something that can be shared via the senses. Apparently, we need no evidence that the senses are reporting (however imperfectly) a real world, but we need evidence that the moral sense is (again, imperfectly) a touchstone of the real.

This seems completely inconsistent, and the only response I’ve ever been given is descriptions of moral beliefs in terms of the physical (i.e. sociobiological evolution). Surely, one can do this. But one can equally explain the physical in terms of the mental (or even the moral). This disproves the reality of neither. Nor does it establish that one simply reduces to the other.

All this seems to show is that the truth is difficult for humans to understand. But this seems a reason to be more, not less, open to seriously considering multiple facets of reality. Walling one’s mind off from anything which doesn’t fit into a particular category which is easy for us to investigate is not seeking truth.

I suspect that, were it not for the current zeitgeist, it would be next to impossible to believe that having a physical explanation of a thing precludes the validity of any other kind of explanation. That is rather tidy, but isn’t any more defensible than a similar argument against the physical.

That being the case, I’m inclined to think that (while I may misperceive it, as I do the physical) moral truth is as real as the physical universe.

3 responses to “Moral Truth and Rationality

  • Allallt

    “haven’t been proven” or “aren’t proved”. Sorry, I’m not normally a grammar Nazi — my own blog is filled with missing words and spelling mistakes. But my students often get the present perfect tense wrong, and so correcting it is now a gut reaction. Redundant, I know. I apologise for the smugness.

    In and around that small grammar error (that in no way affects your meaning — so “error” is probably the wrong word) is another issue “proved absolutely”. Nothing is proved absolutely. Even mathematics is an incomplete discipline. The point is to apportion your belief to the evidence. Things are not “proved”; they are ‘corroborated’, ‘supported’, ‘demonstrates’ and occasionally are the ‘best inferences’ (but it is probably best not to put so much confidence in claims that are only ‘best influences’).

    I agree, by the way, that moral truths are real. I make a short case for it here (

    [To add a footnote to that post, you can make non-objective but practically useful best guesses at a person’s wellbeing. It is a way to guess at the objective truth, and although you run the risk of getting it wrong, it is the only practical way we have of implementing the method at the moment. However, in principle, the fMRI scanner gives an objective read out. That it is objective means your best guesses can be wrong. Therefore it is still objective.]

    • Debilis

      Actually, I appreciate grammar correction. I’m always looking to improve my writing. So, thank you (and you’ll note the correction has been made).

      I also agree that one should apportion belief to support–though “evidence” is quickly becoming a loaded word. Most who emphasize it have a strange definition which excludes anything relevant to the question of moral truth.

      I would disagree, however, that this technique is useful for all fields (yes, mathematics is incomplete, but apportioning to evidence is not a sound approach). Metaphysical demonstrations would be among the exceptions.

      I did have a look at your post. I’m worried that it conflates “morality” with “well-being”. That is, “well-being” is objective insofar as it is measurable, but it is not “morality” until we can give some argument for that. That is the key point to be defended there.

      Last, if I understand your footnote correctly, I agree with it.

      And, otherwise, best to you out there.

  • Mining in the Moral Landscape: explaining why Sam Harris’ moral framework is still better than a religious one | Allallt in discussion

    […] to the ideas that I share here (I run a constant ask me anything policy). A blogger called Debilis shared a few challenges to The Moral Landscape that I want to discuss. I may not be the best person […]

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