TAYLOR: Morality’s existence rests on presumption
Column: Unfiltered Truth
Is there such a thing as objective morality? In contemplating this question I quickly came to my own answer.
I believed studying the works of prolific philosophers could give me guidance and clarity. Plato, for instance, places justice in the highest class of “good.” One of his pupils said that having experienced injustice men created laws. But he goes on to say that people are only just, when they know they will be held accountable for their actions.
I do not believe this to be the case in every instance and that it more so depends on who the person is. This brings the idea of conscience into question. What is it and why is it not uniform throughout all people? Does it even exist? Although there is no scientific way to prove it, yet from experience, most would agree that it does in fact exist.
I believe there is some level of intrinsic good within everyone and that most people have a desire to be good people. But “good” is relative. In the case that God does not exist, good is simply defined as what most people believe it is.
Therefore, one’s conscience is nothing more than a reflection of what the average person would want you to do in every situation. Many people in Nazi Germany were brainwashed into believing that they should report Jews found hiding their identity. It would go against their conscience not to report such instances. And yet we would call that act one of pure evil.
So one’s conscience is not tied to any objective standard of morality because there is not one, and instead hinges on the wishes of the masses. But if a God does exist and has set out laws for us to live by, then there would be an objective standard of morality and you could for a fact call the acts of Nazi Germany or Leopold II of Belgium (Congolese genocide of 12 million) evil.
Aristotle believes human beings do evil out of ignorance. I have not found this to be the case. At what age are we expected to know better? Is “evil” not obvious? Alas, in entertaining the thought I have forgotten that there is no objective evil, thus invalidating Aristotle’s original sentiment entirely. There are no evil acts: only acts.
Human beings are unworthy of defining what evil is. What man’s word is more valuable than another? What majority is of more worth than a minority? If we (I and the reader) can agree that all human beings are equal, and that we cannot uniformly agree on anything throughout all of humanity, then who decides what evil truly is? No man, woman, majority or minority is qualified.
And so there are no evil actions: only actions.
There is a difference between what is good by definition and what is good for the society we are all a part of. We can define the latter. In this case, evil is often any act that breaks the law. But laws are made by men and men are not perfect, thus explaining why laws are repeatedly changed over time.
Additionally, most of us would agree that just because something is against the law, it does not make it evil. Escaping from slavery was against the law. Does that make it evil? Is a human being wanting to be free from forced labor evil?
So we cannot possibly look to our laws as proof that objective morality exists. So what are we left with? What do you believe? Do you think the ethical connotations of rape and murder are subject to opinion? This is exactly the case if God does not exist.
We have already agreed that all human beings are equal. So no one person or majority can decide what evil is. Therefore, if someone were to murder a member of your family, you have every right to call them evil but absolutely no way to prove it. The murderer may believe what they did was good. Perhaps it gave them joy and they perceived their actions as beneficial toward society as a whole.
Your word is of no more value than theirs because you are both human beings. Or do you believe that what they did is objectively evil? Do you know for a fact that rape, murder, slavery and everything similar to these things are evil? Is objective morality real? If it is, then there would have to be someone or something, far greater than human beings, who decides what is and is not evil. That thing is what religious people refer to as “God.”
You may be satisfied with the notion that evil is simply what most people say it is. But if you believe that objective morality is real, and evil can be labeled so by definition and not opinion, then you must believe that God is real. In clinging to the notion that God does not exist, you are declaring that morality itself is nonexistent as well.
For without God we are not moral beings at all: simply beings.
Paul Lewis Taylor is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in psychology. His column, "Unfiltered Truth," runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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