Is Morality Arbitrary?

In the previous post below, I asked what justification, under atheistic premises, would there be for selfless behavior. To merely assume its rightness would suggest (and strongly) a Christian premise, or one derived by two thousand years of its influence. But certainly not an atheistic premise.

A reader responds with asking why the feeling of empathy is not sufficient reason. And further goes on to state that morality is arbitrary. As blog owner I’m going to arbitrarily make my comment a post, because I can, and I thought it furthered a terminated conversation. I missed the first volleys due to work and will probably be doing so again as I only have a single day off until next Thursday.

I pick up after the declaration that morality is arbitrary: And note I did not settle the question definitely but merely showed where the argument led.

So, would you agree that your desire to live and your murderer’s lust to shed your blood have equal moral status? Or the mob’s lust for your blood, say, if you were an apostate in a Islamic state? If morality is arbitrary, your protests are pointless squawkings of no more import or meaning than the arbitrary preference for Skippy peanut butter over Jif.

Except to you, but I suppose even the gazelle has some say as it falls to the ground under the lion’s teeth. But the lion also has his arbitrary say in the growl of his stomach. Neither “opinion” contradicts the other – except that the lion wins by Might.

That is the project you propose for humans with an “arbitrary morality”.

Morality as arbitrary = Might makes Right.

“We are just speaking on this particular scenario, in which I am acting in my own right.”

Cherry picking and concept stealing. You are merely hiding behind a safe action, the moral import of which only an Objectivist would disagree. You are denying morality while hiding it in your back pocket.

Tai, and I as well, were talking about universal principles of human action (more popularly known as morality). You want to stick to one action only (the safe, non-objectionable one) and then to declare the whole field of morality as invalid – which is what is meant when someone says morality is arbitrary.

You do not leave anything open for discussion. You say your question was never answered after disregarding the entire subject. This is like presenting us with a question of mathematics, but that you don’t believe in mathematics so we will have to answer you by non-mathematical means.

Tai’s response to your declaration of the arbitrariness of morality, “Well, there it is then.”, was perfectly just and the only response possible. Suppose you proposed to enter into a discussion of epistemology and as your starting premise you asked the table to accept, as an axiom, that man is a wholly determined creature of no free-will, that he functions as a falling rock functions, or as the snail-darter functions. The conversation would be wholly senseless then – everyone would, on those premises, have to believe whatever the unfathomable forces that determined his mind made him believe – and yourself likewise.

A sounder foray into the field of morality, indeed one of its founding questions, is: Are there universal principles of right action (and the resultant finding of right action which we call virtue) applicable to all men at all times or are there not? The question of whether morality is arbitrary or not reduces to: Is there morality, or is there not?

An arbitrary morality is a contradiction in terms.

You are also smuggling in a morality while declaring it arbitrary. Where did your empathetic feeling come from? And is it just that the needy have to wait for your empathy to spring up? Or are you one of the rare breeds that bleeds with the pain of the world 24/7? Don’t have a day where the world can just go piss off? Or that you are just indifferent? Bored, cynical, spent? Rolling in your own merriment (a date, perhaps) to give two hoots about some stranger’s discontent on this fine day? After all people the world over suffer everyday. Can’t you have a day off, two, three, a hundred?

If it is all arbitrary, each of those feelings are just as valid. You can’t really blame the person who can step over the homeless man without pausing to look or care. He simply has not the special feeling that unerringly compels him into action. You can’t object to him not having it any more than a psychologist can cure a depressive by screaming, “JUST BE HAPPY!”

And there is certainly nothing to say to the person who takes advantage of the person in need (robbery, murder, etc) he obviously is responding to a different emotional response. You may not like his action, nor the feeling that gave rise to it, but so what? He has his feeling, you have yours. Now, if you are bigger than he is, or have better weaponry, or a bigger gang or mob, you may enforce your arbitrary empathy over his arbitrary lust and greed.

Or do you say it is wrong for him to take advantage of someone in need?

Wrong? By what standard? You have disregarded those by disregarding morality.

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2 responses to “Is Morality Arbitrary?

  • Oscar Rivera

    I suppose I should just respond here:

    So, would you agree that your desire to live and your murderer’s lust to shed your blood have equal moral status? Or the mob’s lust for your blood, say, if you were an apostate in a Islamic state? If morality is arbitrary, your protests are pointless squawkings of no more import or meaning than the arbitrary preference for Skippy peanut butter over Jif.

    Hmm…I don’t think those are really valid questions. I don’t particularly think I have a murderer’s lust for blood, nor do I think the mob has it out for me. But let’s say they did. Let’s say I pissed some people off so much that they want me dead (I can’t imagine why, I’m a pretty likable guy). They’re certainly welcome to want this, and I’ll definitely take all necessary precautions to protect myself. I would also presumably employ the assistance of law enforcement since, you know, that’s their job. I don’t see how my desire to live is particularly arbitrary. I think that’s a pretty fundamental tenet of my biology. Plus my own value-system kind of needs me to be alive in order for me to hold to it.

    “Morality as arbitrary = Might makes Right.”

    I mean, yeah. That’s just how it is, even now. But see, the thing about society is that we created laws to help its citizens flourish. That’s the point of building a society, no?

    “Tai, and I as well, were talking about universal principles of human action (more popularly known as morality). You want to stick to one action only (the safe, non-objectionable one) and then to declare the whole field of morality as invalid – which is what is meant when someone says morality is arbitrary.”

    I want to stick to one action only because there’s only one scenario at hand – and if you think action safe you’re more than welcome to posit a more difficult scenario. If another scenario were to present itself, then I would have to decide based on that particular scenario. For example, say a dog is drowning in a pretty slow-current river. Say there is actually no harm that would come to me by going in to this river and saving this dog – I’ll probably go in and save the dog. But say, conversely, that my death is assured if I were to try and save the dog. And what’s more, I wouldn’t even save the dog, so both of us would die. What would the point be in attempting to save the dog? In both scenarios, the circumstances inform my decision, and they lead to different actions taken by myself. While you and Tai may be speaking on “universal principles of human action”, I am saying that there’s no such thing. And I don’t think my stance on this invalidates the conversation, it merely changes the premises.

    “An arbitrary morality is a contradiction in terms.

    I suspect this is merely semantics at this point, but I suppose this conversation does warrant stricter perspicacity. To be fair, though, I never claimed that morality is arbitrary, I believe that was just you. For clarity’s sake: I contend that morality – as in a “universal principles of human action” – does not exist, and that it is merely a social construct.

    “Where did your empathetic feeling come from?

    Biology. Plus my own self-serving motivations in wanting to establish connections.

    “And is it just that the needy have to wait for your empathy to spring up?”

    There are other empathetic people out there. So I don’t see why they would have to necessarily wait for me. Now, if the question were amended to ask if the needy would have to wait for my empathy to spring up in order to receive help from me in particular, then yes. They would have to wait. But like I said, there are a lot of empathetic people out there, many of whom are more empathetic than myself.

    “Or are you one of the rare breeds that bleeds with the pain of the world 24/7?”

    Not even close.

    “Don’t have a day where the world can just go piss off? Or that you are just indifferent? Bored, cynical, spent? Rolling in your own merriment (a date, perhaps) to give two hoots about some stranger’s discontent on this fine day?”

    Yep – there are plenty of days where I’m bored, cynical, spent, and overall just caught up in my own life to not care about anyone else.

    “If it is all arbitrary, each of those feelings are just as valid. You can’t really blame the person who can step over the homeless man without pausing to look or care.

    Nor would I.

    “And there is certainly nothing to say to the person who takes advantage of the person in need (robbery, murder, etc) he obviously is responding to a different emotional response. You may not like his action, nor the feeling that gave rise to it, but so what? He has his feeling, you have yours. Now, if you are bigger than he is, or have better weaponry, or a bigger gang or mob, you may enforce your arbitrary empathy over his arbitrary lust and greed.

    I wouldn’t say there’s “nothing”, but I respond to that below. Other than that, yeah, pretty much.

    “Or do you say it is wrong for him to take advantage of someone in need?

    Wrong? No. I wouldn’t personally say that the subject is wrong for I would have no basis to claim as such. Society, however, would argue for the subject’s guilt. Society, as a collective construct, would contend that the actions taken by the subject would be wrong, but that’s because society is built on its own constructs, by which it abides.

    Last, but certainly not least, thanks for the welcome to your humble abode 🙂

    • Oscar Rivera

      Ah, it seems I misread the first question you posited, “So, would you agree that your desire to live and your murderer’s lust to shed your blood have equal moral status?” But I think my response still addresses it.

      Sorry about that.

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