Can Morality Be Objective without God?

3. Nature of Moral Reasoning

Book cover: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

To introduce this approach to moral reasoning, picture this scene. Three friends are sitting around the coffee table arguing over a moral question that is very much in the news—voluntary euthanasia. They are discussing whether people enduring unbearable pain much of the time while suffering a terminal illness ought to be able to end their lives as they choose.

  1. The first friend, Fred, says: 'The terminally ill ought to have that right as people have a right to act autonomously unless the act harms someone else.'
  2. The second friend, Mary, objects: 'The terminally ill ought not as instituting such a right will lead to abuse with some elderly coerced into ending their lives.'
  3. The third friend, John, says baldly: 'The terminally ill should be prevented from choosing the manner of their death.'

Fred and Mary ask John why he thinks so. After a brief pause, John replies: 'I just like it that way.' Fred and Mary press John further, 'Why do you want to prevent people from choosing how they die?' John pushes back, simply insisting, 'That is just what I want.'

I want to propose that Fred and Mary are offering a moral reason for their judgment. Their reasons are based on considerations broader than their own personal wants and preferences. Of course, we may disagree with one or both of their justifications, but I think it natural to say that they are advancing a moral argument.

Regarding John, however, I propose that he is not offering a moral reason for his judgment at all. Recall that John replied, when he was pressed to support his judgment, 'I just like it that way.' and 'That is just what I want.' By exclusively appealing to his own personal preferences, he seems not to have engaged in the moral debate at all. He may be advancing a prudential reason for his view. However, I think it's natural to insist that he is not putting forward a moral justification for his position. His stated reason is outside the bounds of moral discourse.

Copyright © 2017

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