Can Morality Be Objective without God?

7. Objectivity as Impartiality

Justitia at Court of Final Appeal, Hong Kong

Statue of Justitia (Lady Justice) at Court of Final Appeal, Hong Kong

Now, you may think that I have misappropriated the word 'objective' to suit my own philosophical position. Let me say just a few brief words on this point. All of the major dictionaries give a central sense of the word 'objective' as pertaining to things external to the mind. This is true and I accept this. However, all of the major dictionaries list a second central meaning of the term as 'impartial' and 'unbiased'. Here, I point you to the British Dictionary, the Penguin Macquarie Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary. Just to quote Merriam-Webster's, it gives this sense of 'objective' as:

free from favor toward either or any side. . . . OBJECTIVE stresses a tendency to view events or persons as apart from oneself and one's own interest or feelings

[Merriam-Webster's Dictionary: Synonym Discussion of objective]

It's precisely in this sense that our laws are held to the ideal of being applied 'objectively'. Consider our Lady Justice, who sits outside many of our courthouses, sporting a blindfold. Wikipedia has a good summary of what that blindfold represents:

The blindfold represents objectivity, in that justice is or should be meted out objectively, without fear or favour, regardless of money, wealth, fame, power, or identity; blind justice and impartiality.

[Wikipedia, Lady Justice, 2016]

Book cover: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Thinking more broadly about our two definitions of 'objective' and our two definitions of 'subjective', I think we can say that ethics has both an 'objective' and a 'subjective' dimension. To say that it is either one or the other is to cast a false dichotomy. Let's look at each of these in turn.

The subjective dimension encapsulates the human-centeredness of morality. I think it captures two aspects:

  1. the evolutionary underpinning of our behaviours. Here, I include the coding of kin altruism in our genes and the social learning aspect of reciprocal altruism (refer to Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene/Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle)
  2. how our moral norms are historically grounded in social contracts, customs and laws
Book cover: The Expanding Circle by Peter Singer

The objective dimension, on the other hand, encapsulates the impartial nature of morality. This dimension explains these two key aspects:

  1. our appeal to reason and argument based on general principles
  2. the barring of appeals to parochial interests (Think again of John in our scenario saying, 'I just like it that way.')

Copyright © 2017

You will be interested in
Book cover: The Little Book of Humanism: Universal lessons on finding purpose, meaning and joy by Andrew Copson and Alice Roberts
Book cover: Philosophy of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction by John Heil
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
Book cover: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton
Book cover: A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume
Book cover: The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics by Peter Singer and Katarzyna De Lazari-Radek

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