Saturday, 28 September 2013

Multiple axes of morality

I have, in the not too distant past, engaged in a long rambling discussion with a theist on the topic of William Lane Craig’s argument from morality.  Much of this argument has centred (in fuzzy sort of way) on the nature of morality – specifically on the question of moral objectivity.

For the atheists engaged in this discussion, the core problem we encountered is an inability or unwillingness on the part of the theist (LNC) to comprehensively define what “objective” means and then stick to that definition.  As a consequence of wrestling with this issue, it occurred to me that there is more than one “axis of morality”.  I’ll try to explain.

LNC insisted on discussing “objective morality” as if it lay on one axis, as illustrated below:

I'm being a little inaccurate here.  Let me try again.  LNC's axis of morality looks a bit more like this:

Occasionally LNC would resort to some bizarre grammatical version of moral nomenclature, claiming that if you make a moral statement concerning the subject of a clause, then you are being a subjectivist but from the vast bulk of his communication it is quite clear that he’s comparing moral objectivism with moral relativism.  In The Problem with Sam, I touched on why some are loathe to be labelled as moral relativists, and it appears that LNC is similarly loathe to be labelled as a moral absolutist, despite the fact that his discussions certainly indicate that he is in fact a moral absolutist.
The thing is, the opposite of “objective” is not “relative” but rather “subjective”.  And the opposite of “relative” is “absolute”.  This gives us two axes:

I’m going to allow for the possibility that there is a sliding scale on the axes, rather than just the two extremes.  I’m not claiming that moral values with respect to an issue can actually be a little bit absolute, although I’m not rejecting the notion out of hand.  What is more possible is that a moral system could comprise of some elements that are absolute and some elements that are relative and that an individual’s mix would thus be graduated.

Once we accept the idea of multiple moral axes, the question is then “how many and what might they be?”

Here is my suggestion:

I’ll briefly sketch out what I mean by each axis.


An objective position is such that no matter who makes the determination, the result will be the same.  An example is the measurement of a weight using a standard set of scales.  Fifty kilograms on the scales will be measured as 50kg no matter who is doing the measuring.  A subjective position is based on personal circumstances or opinions.  A strong person when bench pressing 50kg may consider that a light weight, while light weights such as myself will think it is far too heavy to deal with for more than a few minutes (if we can manage that).

An objective moral judgment could be made on the basis of how much harm is caused by alternative options (smacking a child does more harm than good, based on the levels of pain experienced by the child, therefore smacking a child is morally wrong).

A subjective moral judgment could be based on no more than opinion (illegal immigrants are parasites on civilised society, therefore shooting them when they try to cross the border is morally right).


An absolute determination is invariant whereas a relative determination varies with context.  Say we were wondering around with a lux meter measuring the light levels on an airplane.  We find that the lighting from a globe in the galley and from an indicator light in the cockpit is 60 lux.  This is an absolute measurement (I know, it’s only absolute-ish, but I’m trying to give an analogy here).  However, in the galley the globe is too dim (since the rest of the plane would be at about 250-400 lux) and the indicator in the cockpit is too bright (since it cannot be blinding at night when something like 2-5 lux would be appropriate).

Absolute moral judgments are based on obedience to some moral law or “moral fact” which does not vary (the Bible says not to lie, therefore lying is always morally wrong).

Relative moral judgments are made in a context and can vary (exposing one’s midriff in Australia was morally unacceptable in the 1940s but is fine today, but it is still morally unacceptable in Saudi Arabia).


By the real-imaginary axis, I mean as in the difference between Balto (the Siberian husky that was the lead dog on the team that brought diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska in 1925) and Boris the talking Snow Goose in the film Balto (in which the eponymous character is transformed into a talking hybrid Siberian husky/white wolf).  One of the two is made up.

Real in terms of morality relates to the idea of Platonically real moral values, being moral values that are somehow integral to the universe.  Such moral values would not necessarily be absolute, even though I suspect that if they existed they would.  It is possible that our interaction with “Platonically real moral values” would be contextual and thus relative.

Imaginary, on the other hand, refers to the idea that some people think that “Platonically real moral values” exist, and others of us don’t.  We think that the idea of “Platonically real moral values” is made up – although we might not think that moral values themselves are made up …


The natural-artificial axis could also be considered as a real-artificial axis, since the word “real” confusingly has more than one meaning.  I am referring here to the idea that morality could have evolved naturally, or it could have been imposed artificially.  For example, a man in a tent could have sat down and wrote a long list of moral rules off the top of his head.  These would be “artificial”.  On the other hand, you could have the natural moral rules that emerge out of an imperative to survive.


This is getting a bit more esoteric and could be covered by other axes, but with this axis I am trying to point out that the man in the tent mentioned above could have just written down “ a bunch of crazy shit” or he could have thought it all through carefully.  Take a look at Deuteronomy some time to see which approach Moses took.


This one is especially for LNC.  He seems convinced that consistency is essential in morality.  I think we all agree about that.  What we don’t agree about is who is being consistent and who is being inconsistent.

Consistency in morality would mean that, for example, if being raped in the city is wrong then being raped in the country would be equally wrong.  Inconsistency would mean treating the two cases differently and stoning to death different people depending on where the rape occurred (good old Deuteronomy).


With this axis I am making reference to the idea that there are people who see things in terms of black and white (see the second image above) and there are others who perceive a vivid spectrum – or at least distinguish shades of grey.  If when asked “is lying wrong?” you respond with “Yes!” then you are a simplex sort of person.  The rest of us will likely say something beginning with “Well, it depends …”


This is another one included for the benefit of people like LNC and it’s very much about the practical application of morality.  There are two extremes when it comes to moralists, those who are implacable in the application of their morality (think of Inspector Javert in Les Misérables ) and those who are more flexible (think of the Bishop of Digne who absolves Jean Valjean and “buys” his soul for god).  If you can put aside your petty morality in order to strive towards a “higher goal” of some sort, you are a flexible type.  If you think that you can’t (perhaps because you mistake your petty morality for some higher morality), then you are an implacable type.

I’m completely open to the idea of adding more axes or combining some.  Any thoughts?

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