Sunday, April 09, 2006

Objective Morality without God

It is a common belief that, without a divinely inspired morality, our moral systems are inherently relative. Man, with his limited intellect, earthly temptations, and subjective judgment, could not hope to arrive at any true definition of right and wrong. At best, a system of relative morality could be adopted, which could be imposed on a specific population for a limited time. But such a system would necessarily reflect the flawed reasoning, and limited understanding of mankind.

I grew up with the notion that such relative systems, could be extremely dangerous. Take, as an extreme, but not isolated case, at Nazi Germany. Once the assumption that Aryans were racially superior, and that Jews were a threat, was accepted, then persecution and genocide were not immoral. On the contrary, the Holocaust was a highly moral action - within the specific assumptions and relative thinking of the Nazis.

Objective Human Morality does exist, and is a beautifully elegant and eternal code. It is based on the simple and undeniable truth that the human race shares a single planet. Man does not live alone, but in community. While the principle sounds very simplistic, it has vast, sweeping consequences:

- Objective Morality is the law which governs how man can live together.

- Behaviors which will make it impossible for people to live together successfully are prohibited.

Or, as Hillel said, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man”.

What are some of the consequences of this?

You may not murder someone else, regardless of what prejudices you hold.
You can not steal.
You can not enslave.
You can not cause physical harm.
You can not oppress.

You can do anything in the whole wide world which does not harm your fellow man.

Note that this is very different from the concept in the Bible of “Love thy neighbor as you yourself.” This concept works only in the abstract. If it were to be objectified in the same way as Hillel’s concept, everything would go haywire. You do not give your neighbor your food, your car, your tuition, your PIN number. Essentially, you don’t love your many neighbors as you love yourself. (If you are somewhat rational.) So, one can say that this is a metaphor for altruistic behavior, which is highly laudable. But is not a concrete moral concept.

One of the fallacies about objective morality is that it is a system of defining what the ‘ultimate good’ consists of. While that may be a nice thing to think about when you’re waiting in line at the supermarket, it is completely different from and irrelevant to morality. Ultimate good, or ultimate purpose is a concept which is very individual, and just as people have different personalities and skills, and therefore have different jobs which they enjoy and excel at, they also have different paths to their own self-actualization. ("Life-Purpose without God" will have to wait for a future post.)

How do we know that the "Hillel" system of morality is, in fact objectively moral? Are we accepting the precepts of the Declaration of Independence "That all men are created equal"? No, although I certainly hope that such an idea stands on it's own merit. All that we are assuming is that for a person to have the expectation that he will maintain his basic rights, he must respect the rights of others. You can not lay claim to your own right to live if you kill others. You can not expect that your ownership of property will be protected unless you respect the right of your fellow man to own property. This has been called 'Reciprocal Morality', and perhaps that name fits, but whatever the name, the idea is based on the single basic fact of community.

Unfortunately, the existence of a moral system does not ensure moral conduct. The history of our world is filled with the story of the struggle of morality to emerge. People violate moral law, sometimes out of economic desperation, sometimes out of selfish aggression, often because of a notion which places their own humanity above that of others.

The story of the human race, from the beginnings of history up to the preset, is the story of the slow, imperfect, non-monotonic adoption of morality. To a great degree, the process mirrors the globalization of mankind. At the dawn of civilization, man could define their community of 'fellow men' only in very local terms. As transportation and communications gradually grew, that community grew to include regions, nations, countries, and, ultimately, the world.

But it is a story not only of geographic inclusion but of intellectual inclusion. Immoral behavior has been caused and justified by theories of exclusion. Ideas take hold which teach that a certain person or group is excluded from the 'fellow man' group, or even from the human race. They can be based on a theory of prejudice, they can be taught as 'God given' concepts, they can be motivated by selfish expedience, or by hatred. As our planet has evolved, many prejudices and fears have slowly been overcome. Tragically, many have not.

Objective human morality offers challenges. It does not obviate the need for examination of social ethics. Can you kill in self-defense, and how far can you take that concept? Can you impose restrictions which limit freedom in order to preserve security? (These same questions must be asked within the ‘divine’ moral systems which have been proposed.) Also, while the principle is absolute and unchanging, it recognizes the fact of social context. If a society has the custom of greeting someone by pinching their cheek, then that is not a ‘hateful’ behavior for that specific society, though it may be for others.

But, unlike divine morality, human morality offers no excuses. You can not kill idol worshipers. You can not oppress those who believe differently. You can not persecute people for their race or sexual orientation.

Not in the past, not now, not in the future.


Blogger Chana said...

First, this is a beautiful post.

I have a question about the main assumption, however- the idea that " “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man”" can govern people.

What if I don't mind if someone steals my refrigerator, so I decide to take someone else's? What if I personally am suicidal and don't mind if someone kills me, so I kill someone else? What if I don't mind if others gossip about me, so I gossip about others? In other words, what if the "hateful" behaviors are somehow not hateful to me...

It would seem that the system would descend into chaos at that juncture, unless perhaps there is still a solution?

April 09, 2006 9:14 AM  
Blogger Big-S Skeptic said...

Interesting post. I think your approach is essentially that of Kant, although you'd have to check me up on that. There are many problems with it, of course, including (as Chana points out) that the notions of "benefit" and "harm" can be highly idiosyncratic. Anyway, there is no system of morality that will be entirely without problems. What usually bothers me about the debate over "secular vs. religious morality" is that religious morality is ultimately no less "relative" than secular morality. (Unless, of course, you think that God dictated the specifics of religious morality, in which case there's no debate, but there's also no reason to consider "morality" as a subject distinct from any of God's other completely arbitrary injunctions.) In evaluating the two systems of morality, the real choice is between a system of morality that we consciously try to develop based on some reasonable principles (say, Hillel's principle) vs. a hodge-podge assortment of behaviors that accreted thousands of years ago as a reaction to primitive fears and tribal imperatives. So choose your poison.

April 09, 2006 12:49 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

What I don't fully understand about your post is the why? I mean, why should I have this sort of human morality? What if I happen to like killing people and I can get away with doing so? What if I can help my community live better by wiping out some other people? Perhaps we can define this as 'immoral', but why shouldn't I do it anyway?

And on the other hand, I don't think you really solve any of the big problems. Are you allowed to oppress those who you feel are 'immoral' to you? to third parties? What if they are dangerous not now but by spreading an ideology that you think will lead to 'immorality'? And suddenly we're right back to the question of oppressing those of other religions- the only difference is that you don't feel that the other religious questions are worth fighting for because they're not part of your morality.

April 09, 2006 2:57 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


One preliminary point to make is that, though Hillel’s dictum is stated in the singular, and it certainly has relevance to each person, a more formal construction would speak to the norms of what the individuals in humanity would find hateful. Hence, a psychotic masochist would still be violating moral law by hurting others.

Having said that, it is a very good question. Imagine, for example, a society in which, by agreement, everyone is allowed to use each others cars. Is taking a car and not returning it theft? Probably not. Is preventing someone else from using your car in violation of Hillel’s morality within that society? Probably yes. Which it would certainly not be in our culture.

Or, perhaps a more difficult case. Imagine a society in which health and vigor are valued very highly, and people typically prefer euthanasia over the decline of old age. Is killing an elderly person immoral? I do not know the answer to this one, though I would venture to say that it is not fundamentally different from euthanasia which is routinely (and quietly) practiced in our hospitals in cases of painful terminal illness. (Which is to say that there it is an actively debated topic with differing opinions.)

You can also ask the opposite question. If someone is hypersensitive to noise, is it immoral for someone to speak to him? Here, the reciprocity of the Moral Code does not help him, since he is being hurt, but the action is not ‘immoral’ by the offender. The answer may be that one should have enough empathy to say “if I were that sensitive, I wouldn’t like to be spoken to”, this may be a ‘higher’ standard of behavior, and it also opens up many other questions (as chasidus often does).

A moral system does not prevent moral conundrums. It does, however, offer a methodology to maneuver through them. Perhaps there will be multiple points of view which will be debated and contested. That is fine. But it does not make the methods or standards less ‘objective’. The validity of Hillel’s code is based on the unquestionable benefit for humanity.

April 09, 2006 3:35 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


Basically, I agree. Although, as I’ve said, I do think that Hillel’s code is compelling not because it obviates the concept of ethical dilemma, but rather because of its universal relevance. I also believe that it contains a principle which is critical in giving it supremacy, which is that it is inherently human. That is, it inexorably ties our own human experience with our standard of conduct.

I could go on and on about what I do not like about theocratic morality, but perhaps the most sweeping thing is this: A divine code attempts to remove moral judgment from humanity. We undergo a sort of moral lobotomy. If God say’s “do this” we do not question its morality. (e.g. sacrifice your son, kill Amalek). The suspension of independent moral thinking is elevated to the highest moral practice. Even in present day, our set of moral priorities is set on its head – finding a nice etrog is more important than helping the homeless.

April 09, 2006 3:55 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


As you are correctly implying, it falls to man for enforce morality. There are, unfortunately, immoral people, and perhaps even immoral governments. Sometimes they do ‘get away with it’. This is the same as why we have a code of criminal law and must sometimes create consequences and deterrents.

Can moral law be enforced without immoral action? I don’t know all of the answers to this. However, morality does not go away because we must act in self defense. A person or group do not lose their human rights because they are a threat, and it is not okay to oppress them. The Hillel principal must still be considered. This is true on both a personal level and national level.

There is some rather convoluted Talmudic logic which applies to this which may work. I’ll give it try later this still isn’t making sense to you.

April 09, 2006 4:17 PM  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

What do you mean when you say some set of moral principles is 'objective'? When I wear my relativist hat, I simply don't see how that word applies to the subject of morality - it is as if I said that empericism was yellow, or that nihilism tasted good.

You need to define the ends against which your morality is judged, and the choice of those ends is subjective.

I may personally believe that a system of morality that maximizes the total amount of individual freedom is the best morality. Somone else may believe that a system of morality that forces people to be the most effecient economic engines possible is the best morality. I literally do not understand what it means to say that either or both of these are 'objectively' wrong. Help me out please.

In my 'happy atheist' days, I decided that while the universe did not care about morality, I did. I would make moral decisions knowing that they were nothing more than my opinion, but valuing that opionion nonethless. I found that this greatly reduced my tendency to judge others negatively, while still allowing me scope to make such judgements as
1) I dislike this, and will apply social sanctions against people who do it .
2) I am opposed to this, and will use the political system to try and prevent people from doing this. If I fail, the value of a stable political system exceeds the harm of allowing this behavior to continue.
3) I am opposed to this, and will use force to prevent it. Even if the universe doesn't care about whether this behavior is right or wrong, I do and I have as much right to prevent the behavior as the people acting this way have to act in this fashion.

April 10, 2006 12:38 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


While I take your point, and have my own problems with the term ‘objective’ in this context, this is the lexicon which has been used. Objective morality means that it is a systems based on things which exist independent of an individual’s subjective perception. Thus, that we all live on the same planet is objective. I guess that to say that it would be better for existence on this world to continue harmoniously rather than deteriorate into chaos can be attacked as being subjective, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that it is a fairly objective truth. Additionally, Hillel’s code is based on what can be objectively agreed to – i.e. you have a fellow man, rather than what we may subjectively believe about that man – i.e. his life, rights, liberties, etc., are (or are not) less valued than my own.

April 10, 2006 8:01 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

I haven't thought this through, but I am of the opinion that morality in aggregate is a myth.

My opinion is that the notions of morality originally evolved from simple needs for mutual security in a society. People evolved to understand that they were much better off economically when they were in a group and they realized that certain rules were needed to keep the group from collapsing.

So, my theory is that most of these rules were very pragmatic and only later evolved into what we'd call Western morality. I think this bears out when you look back at the various mores over the years. Things that we'd consider immoral today were accepted by pretty much everyone across societies.

Even in this country, until recently, most people, good Protestants all, believed that it was their G-d given right to blow away a tresspasser on their land.

April 11, 2006 5:51 PM  
Blogger Shlomo said...

Excellent post.

The argument that JS Mill developed further than any previous philosopher was the 'harm principle', that is, people should be free to engage in whatever behavior they wish as long as it does not harm others.

Now to behave in a way that does not harm others in no small feat. One has to begin considering others before considering taking any action for oneself. How often do we really do that? Not nearly enough I imagine. This simple notion would make each of us more thoughtful.

See? No gods required!

April 12, 2006 9:04 AM  
Blogger dbs said...


Thanks. Boruch she'kivanti.

April 13, 2006 1:04 PM  
Blogger jewish philosopher said...

“Objective morality” is simply an apologetic for atheism. Obviously, without God, everything is permissible. However atheists are embarrassed by this. Therefore “utilitarianism” and similar systems have been formulated to make it appear as if atheists are as much bound by humanitarian morals as anyone else.

An atheist may be nice to people because doing so makes him feel good and\or helps him to be more successful in life; however he cannot claim that he is compelled to be nice to people, because he does not believe that anything exists which can compel him.

April 15, 2006 11:53 PM  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

Objective morality means that it is a systems based on things which exist independent of an individual’s subjective perception.
To me a system of objective morality would be analogous to a system of objective physics - truths which are written into the very fabric of the universe. That is why in my first post I used language like 'the universe does not care'. The universe cares very much that an unsupported object in a gravity field falll. I don't think the universe cares whether I am kind or cruel to my neighbor.

April 16, 2006 7:23 AM  
Blogger dbs said...


Yes, I get your point. I think that objectivity extends beyond physics, and certainly the word is used to describe non-subjective observations in other spheres. In any case, to the extent that humanity is part of the universe, I think that the 'universe' does care if you are good to your neighbor.

April 17, 2006 1:23 PM  
Blogger ChayimKeh said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 14, 2009 6:28 AM  
Blogger ChayimKeh said...

"I think that the 'universe' does care if you are good to your neighbor."

"The universe cares?!?!"
Does that sound like a theism or was I just hearing things?

July 14, 2009 6:32 AM  

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