Disclaimer: I am not espousing any particular normative moral theory; rather I only wish to advance a meta-ethical one: moral objectivism.
The answer to the first part of this inquiry is by no means definitive, so I will present what I accept as a correct depiction of “objective morality.”
Morality refers to the rightness, wrongness, goodness, or badness of an agent’s actions. (Of course, such evaluations are only appropriate for a subset of actions – those within the moral realm.)
Moral objectivism is the assertion that there are objective moral values such that there are better and worse ways for a human being to comport oneself (and of course, by extension, for society to behave). That is, there are objective facts about what constitutes moral behavior, and these facts lie in the nature of the agent’s action, regardless of cultural and individual opinion.
The three main competing positions are moral subjectivism, moral relativism, and moral nihilism. Moral subjectivism asserts that morality is determined by an individual while moral relativism asserts that morality is determined by a culture. These views do not allow for any kind of independent evaluation beyond the beliefs of an individual and culture, respectively. Moral nihilism says morality is merely an invention of the human brain with no basis in reality; consequently moral claims have no truth content.
In order to further explain what moral objectivism is, let’s look at what it is not: Moral objectivism is not the view that there are necessarily universal moral principles (espoused by classic theism) that hold true regardless of context, i.e., intentions, consequences and circumstances.
Nor is it the view that there is necessarily a “best” and a “worst” way to behave in any given scenario. This is because morality is a spectrum, a continuum along which certain actions are morally worse or better than others. The view also allows for more than one “right” action in a given scenario and conversely, more than one “wrong” action.
Moral objectivism is not the view that there are moral facts without human existence. This absence would eliminate human action, which is the basis of moral evaluation. It does not follow from this that humans determine morality (this is relativism and subjectivism); rather humans identify or “discover” morality. That is, like scientific theories for example, moral theories require people to formulate them but this hardly means that humans create or determine morality any more than they create or determine science.
Why should we buy moral objectivism?
I posit we ought to subscribe to moral objectivism because first, if we don’t, evaluative judgments regardless of feelings, opinions, or cultural norms, cannot be made. Let’s see how things look if moral objectivism is not true. If it is not the right theory we cannot make the following assertions:
1) Happiness is better than suffering.
2) Kindness is a virtue and cruelty is a vice.
3) It is wrong to punish someone for a crime he/she did not commit.
4) Hitler engaged in immoral actions.
5) Slavery is wrong.
6) Rape is wrong.
7) Genocide is wrong.
8 ) Fairness and equal opportunity are necessary conditions for a just society.
9) Saving a child from drowning in a shallow pool is morally right.
10) Actions that stem from racism and homophobia are wrong.
11) Female genital mutilation is wrong.
Denying any of the above claims seems absurd – and it is. This is because there is an objective moral truth to each claim. Does a rational human being really wish to say the truth of these claims depends on individual opinion or cultural norms? One is forced to say this if moral relativism or subjectivism is endorsed, and this is a very unsavory, and more than that, irrational result.
It is incredibly important to understand that an action can be immoral whether or not the agent ought to be blamed (and conversely; an action can be moral whether or not the agent deserves praise) – this is a separate issue. This is simply because different people at different times in different cultures can not all reasonably be said to have the intellectual tools or evidence to discover various ethical truths. Not understanding this point may misguide one to embrace moral relativism or moral subjectivism.
Another common error is to posit that because we can’t always know a morally right or morally wrong action in a given scenario, this is evidence for the falsity of moral objectivism. As I’ve just demonstrated with my list, we often can make very robust ethical judgments. And, it is because of this fact, moral objectivism is correct. Think of all moral actions as a pie – if we can carve out even a sliver of what we know to be right or wrong actions in a given scenario, the case has been made. Moreover, this error is a conflation of epistemological matters versus metaphysical ones. An easy illustration of this is to look at scientific claims. Just because we used to not know (sadly some still don’t accept this) that evolution is the process by which human beings came to be or that the earth revolves around the sun (again, shockingly some still don’t accept this), this has no relevance to the fact that these are true statements regarding how the world works. That is, just because people may not have the intellectual tools or evidence to figure out a claim’s truth, it does not follow that there is no fact of the matter.
To parallel science again, there are many scientific questions that we still cannot answer. Again, as in the realm of morality, this is not because there are no answers; rather it’s due to lack of intellectual tools and/or evidence: why should we expect anything different with moral questions? And even if we never get to a point where we can answer the great lingering scientific questions, we wouldn’t necessarily say there are no answers; we’d admit the limitations of the human brain – why not do the same for lingering moral questions?