“The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” ~Carl Gustav Jung
As intelligent, sentient beings, we humans love to live in assurance. We believe in facts and use them to hold values that we feel are important in our lives. When someone questions us, we may talk with them because we want to prove that we’re right, either to them or ourselves - because living under a false reality isn’t all that enjoyable.
A fact can be defined as a statement or assertion that can be objectively verified and proven to be true or false. These are based on empirical evidence, observation, or documentation and are not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or opinions. A value is a principle, standard, or quality that is considered important or desirable. Values are subjective and can vary among individuals, cultures, or societies. They often reflect personal preferences, beliefs, or cultural norms. A belief is a conviction or acceptance that something is true or exists, often without direct proof or evidence. Beliefs can be based on personal experiences, cultural influences, religious teachings, or individual interpretations of reality. Beliefs are typically more malleable and open to change as compared to values, depending of course on the individual. I did a whole episode on the nature of beliefs, where I talked about why it’s necessary to question beliefs time and time again, whether our own or those of others. When we think of facts, beliefs don’t matter. For example, the existence of a downward force acting upon the Earth is an observable reality that we call gravity. The existence of gravity is a fact, verifiable by observation and testing, and so it is not a matter of belief or opinion.
Morality is no different - because although it may seem like a subjective matter on the surface, morality is also an objective matter, one that can involve conversations about right and wrong, devoid of beliefs.
Let me explain.
Right and Wrong
Questions about right and wrong relate to facts, facts about the well-being and suffering of conscious creatures, i.e. humans and animals. Suffering typically involves various forms of uninvited and non-consensual distress, pain, hardship, or adversity. It includes physical, emotional, or psychological discomfort and is often associated with negative feelings or states of well-being. Conversely, well-being refers to the overall state of health, happiness, and prosperity of sentient beings. The opposite of suffering, well-being reflects a state of flourishing and contentment and may be emotional, physical, social, etc.
The reason why these two can be attributed solely to humans and animals is that only humans and animals are capable of experiencing well-being and suffering. In terms of physical pain and pleasure, humans and animals, specifically vertebrates, both have central nervous systems, without which they would be incapable of feeling any physical sensations. Plants do not have central nervous systems, and so are incapable of feeling pain and pleasure. Take a knife and cut off a leaf from a tree, and then compare it to cutting off a human’s or an animal’s finger, the difference is noticeable. The same can be said for rocks. Our views of right and wrong don’t extend to rocks because they are incapable of well-being or suffering.
Similarly, emotional or mental pain or pleasure can be attributed to sentience, which refers to the capacity to have subjective experiences, feelings, or consciousness. Sentient beings can have a range of experiences, including pleasure, pain, emotions, and other mental states. Once again, plants show signs of intelligence but not sentience, and so are incapable of experiencing pain, pleasure, or emotional states.
Based on this, it’s safe to conclude that the right actions are those that increase the well-being or reduce the suffering of conscious creatures. For example, eating nutritious food, exercising, meditating, talking to friends, helping other people, obeying the law, and so on. Similarly, wrong actions are those that reduce the well-being or increase the suffering of conscious creatures - such as theft, bigotry, emotional or physical abuse, cheating, rape, murder, addiction, etc.
When we address actions as right or wrong, viewing morality as an objective reality is not difficult, and most people would agree that acts such as abuse, cheating, rape or murder are in fact, wrong. Why then do we believe that morality is a subjective matter? Where did we convince ourselves that any of this is a matter of opinion?
When conversations about morality zoom in on the actors, rather than the actions, that’s when things get tricky. That’s where context can make things appear to be a bit grey.
On what matters
German philosopher Immanuel Kant is considered to be one of the most influential philosophers in history. He was well known for his work around epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. Kant’s view on ethics has been described as a form of moral absolutism, the view that morality is essentially black or white and that certain actions are always right or wrong.
For example, Kant’s view on the act of lying was that lying, under all circumstances, is ethically wrong. In two passages in his ethical writings, Kant seems to endorse the following pair of claims about this duty: first, "one must never under any circumstances or for any purpose tell a lie;" second: "if one does tell a lie, one is responsible for all the consequences that ensue, even if they were completely unforeseeable".
Kant supported this view with what he called a ‘categorical imperative’, a centrepiece of his subsequent works. One formulation of the categorical imperative is often expressed as:
"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
This means that the ethical nature of an action can be determined by imagining what would happen if every individual in the world were to act that way. In this case, what would happen if every individual in the world were to lie to one another, or abuse, murder or steal from one another? If an action or principle cannot be consistently applied as a universal law without contradiction, according to Kant, it would be considered morally impermissible or irrational.
Generally speaking, there is a consensus among society that lying is wrong. Whether we’re talking about lying in relationships, lying at the workplace, or lying in a courtroom, lying is not something that is entertained by everyone. However, there are certain cases where lying can be beneficial as well. Some games for instance involve feinting or bluffing which, when done properly, can mean the difference between loss and victory. Similarly, magic tricks that incorporate sleight-of-hand techniques rely on manipulation and illusion to make them entertaining. For a more specific example, consider the following:
Say a psychopathic murderer is on the loose looking for his victim who has been running around town to escape him. The victim knocks on an individual’s door asking him to let him in and hide. The homeowner allows him to enter and hide. Shortly after, the psychopath knocks on the homeowner’s door and asks if he knows where the victim is.
Under Kant’s ideology, the homeowner should not lie and reveal the victim’s location to the psychopath. However, by lying to the psychopath in this instance, the homeowner can potentially save someone’s life.
This is where Kant’s view of moral absolutism falls short. In all fairness to him, his work was written in the 18th century, a different time and society altogether. Regardless, situations like this lead people to believe that morality is therefore not objective, because it’s difficult to say what’s right and what’s wrong without looking at context. This view is known as moral relativism, the opposite end of the spectrum to moral absolutism - the idea that morality is inherently relative and dependent on multiple factors. However, the case I’m going to make stands for the middle ground. Like with most things in life, extreme views are also extremely limited and can blur the lines if we examine them closely enough. There is a third stance, known as moral realism.
As mentioned earlier, questions about right or wrong boil down to the well-being or suffering of conscious creatures. Moral realism is the view that objective moral facts or truths exist independently of human opinions or beliefs. In other words, moral realism asserts that certain moral statements are true regardless of whether people agree with them or not. However, the key difference between moral realism and moral absolutism, is that moral realism acknowledges the importance of context in situations. For instance, in the example earlier about lying to protect someone from being murdered by a psychopath, a moral realist would acknowledge that whilst lying is ethically wrong, in this case, it can be justified given the lie is preventing suffering.
Consider the act of murder. Moral realism would describe murder as a morally unethical act, given the amount of suffering involved to the victim and the ones close to them. However, there may be cases where murder may be the only course of action available. For instance, a case where someone is being attacked by someone else and they murder the perpetrator out of self-defence. In this case, whilst murder remains unethical, it can be justified given the complexity of the situation. Moral realists often distinguish between different types of actions and consider factors such as intent, proportionality, and the presence of alternatives when evaluating the moral status of an action.
Many types of actions are right or wrong, some being better than others, and some being worse than others. For example, having a prized possession stolen from you is a bad thing, but maybe not as bad as having a loved one being murdered in front of you. There is a scale we can use to compare the level of morality amongst actions. It’s akin to food. No one type of food can be considered healthy. Many foods are healthy, and many are unhealthy, but there’s a distinctive difference between food and poison.
There are always exceptions present, but that doesn’t change the way we think about facts. For example, we’re taught to believe that humans are born with and have 10 fingers. However, there are exceptions with people who have 11 fingers, or 9, or so on. That doesn’t mean we say that the number of fingers we have is subjective. We’re taught in school that the number is 10, but accounting for certain cases where it may be more or less.
How is morality any different?
Why any of this matters
If we accept that moral truths exist independent of human thoughts or opinions, we can see how our current standards of morality in society are flawed. With the view that questions of right or wrong come down to the well-being or suffering of conscious creatures, any factors that cause biases such as culture, beliefs, tradition, or religion don’t matter any more when examining the morality of an action.
Consider the following examples of cultural practices that take place around the world and think about whether these are ethically right or wrong, or if it’s hard to say:
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) - In some cultures, particularly in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, FGM is practised. It involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. FGM is widely condemned internationally as a violation of human rights and is associated with physical and psychological harm. FGM is often performed on young girls for cultural, religious, or social reasons. Proponents may argue that it is a rite of passage, promotes cleanliness, or adheres to cultural norms related to modesty and femininity.
Foot Binding: Foot binding was a historical practice in China, where young girls' feet were tightly bound to prevent natural growth. It was considered a mark of beauty and social status. Small, delicate feet were perceived as attractive and a symbol of a woman's eligibility for marriage. Foot binding caused excruciating pain, limited mobility, and led to deformities. It was a deeply ingrained cultural practice but was eventually outlawed in the early 20th century due to social reform efforts.
Animal Sacrifice: Some religious traditions involve the ritual sacrifice of animals as an offering to deities or as part of religious ceremonies.
It’s often observed that questions about right or wrong in cases such as these are shunned with the comment - “These are cultural practices and therefore, cannot be condemned.” However, all of these violate the principle of morality given the amount of suffering being inflicted on conscious beings. Whether they’re cultural practices or not, doesn’t change the nature of the action itself.
There are certain cultures and religious doctrines around the world that explicitly force their people to live a certain way, dress a certain way, eat a certain way, and behave a certain way. This behaviour is condoned by society with the comment: “Well who are we to say that any of this is wrong? It’s their culture and we must respect it.”
My response is, “Who are we not to say?”
I’m not talking about cultural differences such as the idea that one culture enjoys spicy food or a certain type of music or dance versus one another. If that’s a way they derive happiness, we can account for those differences. But cases where the behaviour itself affects the well-being of the people in question, and others around them are not the same, and saying that we don’t have the right to address it is a moral fallacy.
Consider the world’s view on racism, sexism, and any other form of bigotry. People are largely vocal about these issues, and for good reason - because we know that it’s ethically wrong. Regardless of culture, tradition, or religion, we have come to acknowledge that unjustified discrimination and bigotry are to be condemned. Sensitive subjects like religion, culture and tradition don’t matter then.
Now so far I’ve talked about the well-being and suffering of conscious creatures, with most examples alluding to humans and one example alluding to animals. However, this stance explicitly applies to animals just as much as humans and I will save this for another episode, simply because of how much there is to talk about.
Next time you’re in doubt as to whether something is right or wrong - ask yourself. “Is this action causing suffering or is it supporting the well-being of a conscious being?” If that doesn’t work, ask yourself how you would feel if you were the subject at the receiving end of the experience.
Let that determine your next course of thought and action.