The Faceoff: The great ethics dilemma

"The independent variable of all morality… is human action."

-Alan Gewirth, "The Objective Status of Human Rights"

By Jesse Goldberg | News Editor

In today's world of globalization and inter-cultural exchange, many people have abandoned the thought that any kind of objective morality is possible without appealing to some kind of divine source.

This rejection is ill-founded. God is not necessary for morality, and a denial of God's existence does not equate to a denial of moral truth.

Philosophers including Thomas Nagel, Richard Taylor, Michael Smith and Alan Gewirth have implicitly and explicitly denied David Hume's suggestion that we cannot derive conclusions of what should be from observations of what is.

If we accept that denial and agree that we can in fact discern what should be by referring to what is, then ascribing to certain objective moral principles seems necessary.

I am not the first to make this kind of an argument. I am in debt to each of the aforementioned philosophers for providing the basis for many of the ideas expressed here in this abbreviated argument for objective moral realism.

For many, value is the perennially subjective component of morality. The thinking goes that all cultures and people have different values and therefore finding objective value is impossible, especially in our post-modern world of cultural relativism. While this may be true for many values, there are, in fact, certain foundational values that objectively matter. Two such values are freedom and consciousness.

Consider freedom abstracted away from conflicting circumstances. Given the choice between more freedom and less freedom, which would you choose? More restrictions or fewer restrictions, just for you; which is better?

I'm betting you picked more freedom over less freedom, less restrictions over more restrictions. Think about it.

It's hard to make statements about human nature, but I think it's fair to say a couple of things. One is: humans do things. In order to do things, humans need the ability to act and conditions that allow them to act. By restricting the conditions necessary for action, a basic feature of agency is denied.

Human beings instinctually desire more freedom over less freedom, and so freedom perpetuates its own worth.

Now consider consciousness. Once consciousness begins, it too perpetuates its own value. When you have consciousness, you don't want to relinquish it. Sure, we fall asleep each night, but we only do so because we believe we will re-acquire consciousness in the future. There is an inherent instinct in most people to preserve their own consciousness – of course, there are exceptions, but to a certain extent widespread instinct does count for something.

People want to live. It could be argued that this is just biology talking, but even if one beliefs that biology has absolute explanatory power, it is a fallacy to believe that morality is non-existent simply because the self-preservation instinct is attributable to biology.

If we can objectively establish that concepts like freedom and consciousness hold intrinsic value, then we can develop parts of ethical systems since morality is commonly understood to depend on value. Slavery is morally wrong because it denies human beings the objective foundational value of freedom. Killing is morally wrong because it denies human beings the objective foundational value of consciousness.

It is therefore possible to understand objective morality without appealing to the divine.

"The Overman ... Who has organized the chaos of his passions, given style to his character and become creative. Aware of life's terrors, he affirms life without resentment."

-Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

By Aaron Davis | Opinion Editor

In the beginning, Man looked up into the sky and saw the infinite expanse of stars looking back at him. He shivered, decided that infinity was too much for him and replaced it with God so that he could reconcile just how insignificant his existence was in the scheme of things. Delusion followed.

It is tempting for humanity to believe that there is evil in the world on the basis that if evil exists, then there must also be goodness inherent in some people. Usually this goodness is ascribed to the grace of God, but sometimes people simply believe in polarity. It's not true, though: There is no good and there is no evil.

We're a uniquely arrogant species in our assumption that we can be ordained to such a lofty position of morality. To their credit, some humans have argued against this presumption; perhaps the most notable of these arguments was proffered by Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously composed the philosophical treatise Thus Spoke Zarathustra. "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him," Nietzsche wrote.

What Nietzsche meant was that any notions of absolute morality are invalidated by the greatest strengths of mankind: adaptability and logical thought. With these forces in play, there can be no absolutism; polarity exists only in the unthinking reason of computers, not in the emotional exigencies of human experience.

In the face of this nihilism, how can any person hope to assess relative value or to live a life of decency without falling into depression in the face of the hopeless brevity and insignificance of the individual human life?

The answer lies in self-determination. The only morality is that which each individual constructs for himself based on his own experiences and prerogatives. Nietzsche puts forth the idea of the Übermensch (the Overman): Through the strength of his personal drive to live a good life, the Übermensch self-determines the parameters that will govern that life, eschewing traditional assumptions about good and evil and instead following the principles that he determines to be most beneficial to himself and to the advancement of the human species.