Monday, May 30, 2011

Objective Morality?

The idea of objective morality is one of the most appealing things about Orthodox Judaism. The concept of morality being subjective and therefore at least somewhat determined at the discretion of individuals is quite disturbing, especially as history has shown that people can create moral arguments to justify just about anything. Therefore, one could argue that for morality to exist at all in any meaningful form, it must be objective. Because only a truly objective source can determine objective morality, it logically follows that any objective moral system must be given by an omnipotent being, God. This God-given system would then be the objectively-correct way to live, and the moral value of any action would be determined based on its consistency with this moral code.

A typical response given to this claim is that the Torah endorses behavior that society considers immoral and therefore cannot be objectively moral. The fallacy of this response is that it assumes that the current societal definition of morality is in fact moral, and that therefore killing off nations, slavery, and permitting a father to marry of his minor daughter are in fact immoral. If there is such a thing as objective morality, and the Torah is the source of that morality, then those actions would in fact be moral and there would be no contradiction.

There is, however, a fundamental flaw with the objective morality argument. The argument assumes that if moral instructions are given by an objective source, the result will be objective morality. The difficulty with this argument is that the users of this moral code are fallible human beings. People do not generally think objectively and any intellectually-honest person will admit that his or her intellectual opinions are affected by emotions. Therefore we see that even those who claim to have a God-given moral code can and do modify the code as needed to satisfy their own, subjective, ideas of right and wrong.

The examples of this are too numerous to mention. Catholics believe in the unchanging divinity of the entire bible, yet today's Catholics would be horrified to see the church burn a heretic at the stake. How is it logical to believe that 500-years ago God supported the burning of heretics yet today he is opposed? There are no shortage of such instances within our Jewish tradition as well. Today rabbinic loopholes are found to allow things that are considered morally praiseworthy and prohibitions are created against otherwise-permissible things that are morally objectionable. Not only that, we routinely see people use Torah-sources to justify their personal moral opinions. Does the Torah support the prosecution of Jews accused of crimes? Well, it depends on who you ask.

Okay, so one may ask that if everyone makes subjective moral judgments, what harm is there in believing in objective morality? If a person believes in objective morality it may well lead one to attempt to consider opinions more carefully to try to determine if they are "objectively" right or wrong, which would seem to be a positive act.

The problem is that if one is convinced that there is a source of objective morality, one can therefore be more easily convinced by others that his moral instincts are incorrect as they oppose the objective moral source, or at least the speaker's interpretation of it. In its extreme form, this can lead an otherwise sane person to totally push aside his natural compassion and blow-up a building full of civilians. Even in more moderate forms, this line of thinking can lead people to discriminate against others, commit minor crimes,or oppose positive ideas.

17 comments:

  1. > Therefore, one could argue that for morality to exist at all in any meaningful form, it must be objective. Because only a truly objective source can determine objective morality, it logically follows that any objective moral system must be given by an omnipotent being, God.

    Sure. But it is equally valid to argue that morality does not exist in any meaningful from, there is no objective morality, and therefore there is no need for a Source for morality.

    I wrote about this subject a couple of years ago, here: http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/2009/07/objective-morality-or-gods-classroom.html

    G*3

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  2. Look at the number of torah obseerving orthodox jews and their crimes of molestation, fraud, embezzlement, arson, etc. and tell me that there is an objective morality.

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  3. >The difficulty with this argument is that the users of this moral code are fallible human beings. People do not generally think objectively and any intellectually-honest person will admit that his or her intellectual opinions are affected by emotions. Therefore we see that even those who claim to have a God-given moral code can and do modify the code as needed to satisfy their own, subjective, ideas of right and wrong.

    While this is very correct, its not an argument against the initial claim of there BEING objective morality. It means we are human, and though we fail at times, it doesn't mean we never succeed either.

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  4. >Today rabbinic loopholes are found to allow things that are considered morally praiseworthy.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but rabbinic loopholes a) never allow what is biblically prohibited b) permit only that is rabbinically prohibited.

    So while a given biblical punishment is not meted out, it is still not allowed.

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  5. HH,

    In theory, you are correct. In practice, here is the general approach:

    Chumash: Lays down a basic law
    Tanakh: Adds a story somewhere referencing the law
    Mishnah: Serves to define the law more narrowly than Chumash
    Gemara: Cuts that narrow law down even further than the Mishnah, then constructs a ring of Rabbinic fences around it.

    Take Shmitta: clear rule, rendered meaningless through a series of legal fictions and process. Prozbul is the most extreme, especially combined with Ribi.

    But basically, The Mishnah/Gemara narrow down the Biblical restriction so tightly that you mostly deal with Rabbinic rules anyway, which solves the problem.

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  7. I gave an interview last summer partly about this subject. To paraphrase what I had said:

    People like to say that you can't have morality without God. And this is actually the best argument that religious people have. But I say, how can you have morality WITH God? In the TaNaCh, God commands slavery, genocide, rape, theft and murder. If these things are moral simply because God commanded them, then 'morality' is a worthless term.

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  8. Great piece, Fence! And great comment, Tova! Linked your post on the OTD Resources web page: https://sites.google.com/site/otdresources/topics/morality

    Keep it coming, Fence!

    PS pro is spam.

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  9. Also, who are we to say that our deity's system of morality is the right one?

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  10. HH,

    It is a claim against objective morality since no book, no matter how large, can address every possible moral issue. Therefore, even if God provided specific moral instructions, it would not lead to objective morality since the applications are by definition subjective.


    Tova,

    Anyone who would claim that their group's deity provided an objective system of morality would also claim that the deity is all-knowing and therefore would provide a perfect moral system.

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  11. >It is a claim against objective morality since no book, no matter how large, can address every possible moral issue.

    Ok, go from there. That doesn't mean the issues that WERE addressed aren't objective. For example...child labor (not addressed). Today, its considered immoral? But why? If you treat anyone, of any age morally (which is addressed), who cares how young they are in the moral sense?

    >Therefore, even if God provided specific moral instructions, it would not lead to objective morality since the applications are by definition subjective.

    I disagree. Thats just an argument that we might not get things right, not that there is no objective morality. Now, you might say "well who cares if there IS initial objective morality when we end up subjectively applying it." That would be a good question, but I think only to a limited degree. Because, for example you are not all of a sudden going to see a ban on adultery, murder, theft, kidnapping, rape overturned. Punishments may change...but it still remains a moral crime.

    I think, if I understand, your problem is something more grey like modesty. Chassidut says a woman cant' laugh around men. An MO says they can. They both believe modesty is a requirement, but yet define it differently. I think the problem here may come up because Judaism gets way to anal when it comes to legal text.

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  12. its not taht simple. the hasidic, or fah-frumta way modesty is treated is viewed as a hollier approach - so even the ones that they themselves do not necessarily keep to such strict standards, it is understood that to do more is holy and righteous.

    this attitude is why so many kids "flip out" like haemtza blog has been talking about.

    my point is, its not grey. its not just "they do it differently" the balck hatters do it right and the MO are more lax in their practice, they do it. your basis is wrong.

    ksil

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  13. They do it differently. Correct. MO are more lax. Correct.
    Therefore what?
    Objectively morality does not exist?

    Both MO, LWMO, Hassidic all agree Modesty is essential. But is it a moral issue if they are not dressed up to par with the minimum of halacha???? I mean, would these people be called evil?

    Most of what chassidut does now is a reaction to anything around them. That doesn't mean that anyone that doesn't mean their restrictions is not moral.

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  14. "That doesn't mean that anyone that doesn't mean their restrictions is not moral. "

    according to them (chasidim, yeshivish, whatever), it is immoral to dress and behave the way that MO do.

    if there is an objective morality, how can that be?!?!

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  15. >if there is an objective morality, how can that be?!?!

    My short answer is that just because someone is wearing a short sleeve shirt instead of a 3/4 sleeve shirt doesn't make it a moral issue. And it doesn't matter how much they stump their feet and say it is.

    For example, I have a friend that was saying tfillin, TFILLIN!!!!, is a moral issue. I didn't even know how to tell him how wrong he was.

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  16. "n its extreme form, this can lead an otherwise sane person to totally push aside his natural compassion"

    Humans are meat eating mammals. What evidence is there that compassion is natural to our species? Brutal warfare between tribes, cannibalism and infanticide are as ancient as mankind.

    The only source of morality is a belief in a supreme being, a humanitarian divine law and ultimate reward and punishment in an afterlife.

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  17. > For example, I have a friend that was saying tfillin, TFILLIN!!!!, is a moral issue.

    HH, I take it you didn’t grow up in the yeshivish community. Of course, tefillin in and of itself is not a moral issue. There is nothing inherently moral or immoral about wrapping leather straps around your arm. The moral issue stems from the belief that someone who doesn’t put on tefillin is causing damage to Klal Yisroel. (The same goes for tznius.)

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