Dismantling Moral Relativism: The Meaning of Objective Morality and What it Means for the Credibility of Government Law

Questions concerning morality and ethics have been pondered on since the dawn of consciousness. The ability to make our own decisions have brought along responsibility for us to distinguish between right and wrong, and most of us have some degree of conscience to remind us of our principles in circumstances with difficult choices. Conscience can, however, vary in judgement depending on the culture and individuals at hand, and a theory of morality dependent thereof is thus doomed to be relativistic, so it cannot in itself be relied on if we want to devise or “discover” an objective theory of morality. While some may think there is no such thing as an objective morality, others rely on their conscience and intuition to argue therefore, but in this essay I’ll present perspectives by Friedrich Nietzsche and Hans-Hermann Hoppe to gain a broader understanding of how an objective morality may be possible.

Morality as a Function of Power

While Karl Marx’s contended that “Religion is the opium of the people”, his contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche had the even more radical impression that morality in itself may be a function of power, or at least that those in power were affecting the public perception of morality to their advantage. Insofar as “the law” has nearly universally been considered sacred, he was as right in the 19th century as his quote applies to our time – and far back throughout human history. If the government is to set the standard of morality, it is as Nietzsche says in On the Genealogy of Morality that

The free human being is immoral because in all things he is determined to depend upon himself and not upon tradition: in all the original conditions of mankind, ‘evil’ signifies the same as ‘individual’, ‘free’, ‘capricious’, ‘unusual’, ‘unforeseen’, ‘incalculable’.

Where Nietzsche is wrong in his reflections on morality, in my opinion, is when he from this observation deduces that this is a reason morality itself cannot be relied on rather than a reason to devise a more objective theory thereof. Max Stirner further took this to its logical conclusion: “A Nero is a ‘bad’ man only in the eyes of the ‘good’; in mine he is nothing but a possessed man, as are the good too [Ego and Its Own, p. 51].” A passage by Nero’s mentor Seneca, who tried in vain to curb the former’s violent tendencies, further illuminates Stirner’s position: “Show me a man who is not a slave; one is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear.” Nietzsche and his followers thus ended up looking

on bad conscience as a serious illness to which man was forced to succumb by the pressure of the most fundamental of all changes by which he experienced, – that change whereby he finally found himself imprisoned within the confines of society and peace.

This line of reasoning, however, leads us to back the same moral relativism as if we were to rely on conscience, albeit with pretty much opposite conclusions.

Although Nietzsche’s theory of morality ended up with disagreeable conclusions, he and Nietzscheans like Stirner and Mencken quite rightly shed light on the fallacies of theories of morality revolving around legality. Governments have historically been involved in horrific atrocities: slavery, wars, genocide, famines, etc. Given this track record, no clear-sighted analysis of the history can reasonably end up with the conclusion of placing “the law” at the center of a serious theory of morality. After all, this is just as relativistic as the previous perspectives discussed; it all depends on who is in the government at a given time, an institution that inherently attracts people with below-average degree of moral restrictions by their conscience.

The Morality of Vigilantism

In recent years, such “legality-centric” theories of morality has also received – perhaps unexpectedly to some – subtle critique in popular culture through movies and TV-shows involving vigilantes. Here government services like the police and the courts are presented as insufficient and counter-productive due to heavy bureaucratization, as well as being corruptible to special interest groups and “criminal masterminds”, making it up to those with special skill-sets and background stories to take on the task of “serving justice” in their place. The police force in the United States has been especially corrupted in this regard, as I’ve delineated in-depth before, and in real life as well as in the movies, the government either doesn’t manage to or doesn’t want to serve “justice” in any noble sense of the word: some get worse punishment than they deserve (some of which are innocent), while others get less (or avoid punishment altogether).

Even some the villains in these series have real-life counterparts. Sean Malone of FEE explains, for instance, that Wilson Fisk, a villain in Marvel’s Daredevil series, is quite similar to Robert Moses, a public official hailed in the media as “master builder”, who fully exploited the powers of eminent domain to force people and businesses to relocate with low compensation and destroyed infrastructure to rebuild New York “in his image” in the mid-1900’s. Though there are real parallels to such villains, however, there doesn’t seem to be as many vigilantes, as the government tends to get infinitely more efficient and aggressive when it gets competitors or people seeking to explicitly challenge the system or establishment politicians/bureaucrats.

Of course, these series rely on the individual conscience of the vigilantes to determine what constitutes justice, and while some learn from their mistakes and seek to become better, others “live long enough to become the villain”. Nevertheless, they show the perceptive viewers that it may be naive to consider morality to revolve around law and that true justice may be the exception rather than the rule when it comes to government police and courts. As citizens get heavily propagandized through over a decade of state education as well as the media, it tends to be rather difficult to overcome the conviction of assuming the law by default to be in line with morality, or at least accepting it regardless of particular disagreements. In this regard, unplugging from the power-based perception of morality that the Nietzscheans warned about allows us to take a step back and contemplate a more objectively-based theory of morality.

Defining Objective Morality

Though we may have obtained some insights from the preceding reflection of what cannot serve as adequate theories of morality, we have yet to uncover what an objective morality might mean. To make this arduous task more straightforward, devising an adequate definition and limiting the scope of the concept “morality” is in due order. Perhaps most importantly, with the understanding that it’s meaningless to judge the actions of animals as “good” or “evil”, we can restrict morality only to apply to humans. My second premise for defining morality, perhaps somewhat more controversial, is that while a person in isolation from others may engage in behavior that can be called unproductive, disagreeable and even self-destructive, that behavior cannot legitimately be called “immoral” and even less so “evil” in the sense the terms tend to be meaningfully used. Based on these two premises, I’ll here define morality as “A set of interactive behaviors between humans that are categorized as right (acceptable) or wrong (unacceptable).”

Having defined what morality – or a “moral system” – is, the difficult task now is setting clear principles for how a moral system may be considered more or less objective or universal. Since we’ve restricted the definition of morality only to be within the scope of human interactions, one plausible standard that fits these criteria is that active actions against others that furthers the deterioration or extermination of the human species can be categorized as immoral. This may be considered obvious if we are to rely on our intuition or conscience to classify morality, but recall that our present purposes are not merely to state an opinion about what morality should be followed, it is what a universally applicable objective morality may look like, and as such the standards of proof are far greater. In this context, “active actions” are contrasted with “passive actions”, the latter referring to the consequences of not doing something. The morality of passive actions or lack thereof can often be a grey area, and is beyond the scope of this essay. I will here focus on the more clearer aspect of morality concerning active actions, and perhaps leave the discussion of passive actions for another essay (or the reader may share personal thoughts on the topic in the comments).

Utilitarian Justification of Morality Classification

As a justification for this principle, we may, for instance, utilize the thought-experiment of what an omniscient, benevolent being would wish for humanity (regardless of whether or not you believe in any god(s) and what characteristics you believe it possesses). Surely it couldn’t simultaneously wish the best for humanity and wish for it to be exterminated – that would be a contradiction of the highest order. Only if it had some other goal that it for some reason valued more highly that could not be pursued while the human species remained extant would it even consider such a course of action. Furthermore, the same argument also applies to every step humanity may take towards bringing about their own extinction, as this hypothetical being would neither wish for humanity’s immediate extinction nor further approximation thereto. If you’re rather of the atheistic persuasion, you may prefer the argument that following a moral system that prevents or delays the extermination of the human species at the very least is convenient in that it’s an evolutionary advantage we’d benefit from.

The main argument of this thought-experiment may at first sight appear somewhat of the ad absurdum variety, which would only be valid insofar as we’d subscribe to epistemic contextualism or take for granted our current ideological structure of thought, but its most important features are (1) the logical connection between wishing humanity not to go extinct to wishing humanity not to get closer to extinction, and (2) the use of this as a justification to the principle for objective morality explained above. The first meaning that, as we would classify a person who’d theoretically to be immoral/evil of the highest order who’d hypothetically attempt or succeed in eradicating the entire human species, as would it be immoral to do it on a smaller scale: i.e. in the form of murder, as well as provoking unnecessary physical conflict. In this regard, the principle for objective morality presented here may be considered utilitarian, but still have similar characteristics to Immanuel Kant’s Universalizability Principle (or Categorical Imperative).

Argumentation Ethics as Basis for Objective Morality

Another perspective to justify the principle set forth lies in political philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s so-called “argumentation ethics”. Concerned with the problem of the ambiguity in the natural rights tradition, Hoppe ventures to solve this based on the premise that

it is not the wider concept of human nature but the narrower one of propositional exchanges and argumentation which must serve as the starting point in deriving an ethic.

In a setting of propositional exchanges and argumentation, the reasoning goes, both parts must accept that there is some objective truth independent of themselves, and that the point of the interaction is to uncover which propositions are more objective than others. He continues,

Any truth claim, the claim connected with any proposition that it is true, objective or valid (all terms used synonymously here), is and must be raised and settled in the course of an argumentation.

[…]

This is to say nothing else than that a mutual recognition of each person’s exclusive control over his own body must be presupposed as long as there is argumentation (note again, that it is impossible to deny this and claim this denial to be true without implicitly having to admit its truth).

Argumentation ethics is here used to further elaborate the practical application of the central principle set forth on a smaller scale that may appear more difficult to categorize morally than straight-forward cases like murder, homicide, and genocide. An argumentative setting intended to uncover some objective truth may not necessarily succeed in every case, but therein it’s set an inter-subjective agreement that each part have exclusive control over themselves, and that any initiation of violence would replace the intention of discovering objective truth with that of doing harm to the other part. Thus arises the principle of non-aggression – or “NAP” – and can be used as basis for a theory of objective morality as breaking it would violate the setting of accepting each others’ self-ownership as part of the process of discovering objective truth.

Huemer’s Criticism of the NAP

Now, it’s clear that this principle can be considered far more uniform and universal than individual conscience or laws, but are there cases we may consider exceptions thereto – wherein neither our conscience nor reason could possibly accept applying it to? Political philosopher Michael Huemer, the author of The Problem of Political Authority, has listed five cases in which he considers illustrative of why using the non-aggression principle as a standard for morality can be problematic. As a remedy, he suggests the following updated version of thereof:

It is wrong to use force against others, unless:
(i) Doing so is necessary to stop them from using force against others (unless: (a) their force was itself justified by one of the conditions listed herein, in which case it is still wrong to use force against them), or
(ii) It is necessary to enforce a contract, or
(iii) It is necessary to force someone to pay compensation for defamation, or
(iv) It is necessary to stop someone from using someone’s property without the property owner’s consent (unless: (b) the use of the property is necessary, in an emergency situation, to prevent something much worse from happening, in which case it is still wrong to use force against that person), or
(v) It is necessary to prevent some vastly greater harm from occurring.

The thought-experiments Huemer takes basis in to come to these conclusions largely involves using ad absurdum and ad populum argumentation, but given their general appeal I consider them worthwhile to analyze for our present purposes.

All of Huemer’s conditions involves the initiation of violence being “necessary” for one reason or another, but this begs the question of who is to be the judge of what may be considered as such. If what is “necessary” is to be decided by the police, judges, and the law, then it cannot be used as a standard for objective morality as it lacks universality/uniformity, and if (i) is to be applied universally, then it at the very least also has to consider vigilantism moral as well. Although (i) may be appealing, therefore, to be logically consistent one has to either abandon (or possibly update) that condition or keep it and consider vigilantism to be at least as legitimate as law enforcement.

Regarding the second condition (ii) concerning the violation of a contract, that could be largely mitigated by the wording of the contract specifying what the consequences of breaking it entails, and that when both parts have signed the contract they’ve accepted such. Furthermore, another fact which generally self-regulates such traders is that they tarnish their own reputation severally by such behavior, making it increasingly less appealing to do business with them. Another concern is what degree of violence is to be accepted to enforce a contract, as protection rackets (say, by the mafia) may wreak havoc in order to collect on debts. Generally, it’d be immoral to take this out on someone not responsible for the violation of the contract, but what about if someone owing the protection racket’s clients hired security firms to fend them off? It could lead to a gang war, at worst. In such a scenario, condition (v) could be turned around to imply that not using force is necessary to prevent some greater harm from occurring, as Huemer considers the five conditions to be of higher value as standards for morality than the non-aggression principle. As such, (ii) and (v) are incompatible when enforcing a contract leads to some greater harm occurring, and if we’re to follow Huemer’s logic in that one or a few counter-example means that a principle is either wrong or ought to be updated, we may suggest Huemer do the same with his own conditions.

The case of defamation, i.e. condition (iii), may appear reasonable at first glance, but whereas the enforcement of a contract is voluntarily agreed upon by both parts (being invalid if it was involuntarily initiated), defamation concerns neither the violation of the body nor private property of anyone. It concerns false statements about somebody with the intention of desecrating their reputation. As Walter Block explains in Defending the Undefendable, however, one doesn’t own one’s reputation as it’s simply the collective of others’ perceptions about oneself. As such, one doesn’t have the right to demand compensation from, and especially not initiate violence against, someone trying to desecrate one’s reputation any more than if they were to argue for a position which he disagreed with. Although an unfortunate circumstance, the one(s) being defamed must find ways to counteract it, i.e. exonerate themselves by disproving the accusations (or pointing to the lack of evidence thereof).

Condition (iv) takes us to the discussion of to which degree one is entitled to defend one’s private property. Hoppe argues for the right to own property by noting that

if no one had the right to acquire and control anything except his own body […] then we would all cease to exist and the problem of the justification of normative statements […] simply would not exist. The existence of this problem is only possible because we are alive, and our existence is due to the fact that we do not, indeed cannot, accept a norm outlawing property in other scarce goods next and in addition to that of one’s physical body. Hence, the right to acquire such goods must be assumed to exist.

The exclusive ownership and control of goods may thus be objectively granted in a standard of morality as defined above, but the term “exclusive ownership” is meaningless if anyone may come and utilize their property as they please, regardless of whether the violator may perceive himself as justified in doing so (i.e. “in an emergency situation [or] to prevent something much worse from happening”). Those trying to trespass on or steal another’s property are themselves committing aggression warranting self-defense by the owner(s).

We’ve already seen the incompatibility between conditions (ii) and (v), but how may we address the latter utilitarian concern if we analyze it separately? Rather inaptly, Huemer utilizes an example rather unlikely to occur in practice to argue for this condition, presenting the thought-experiment that

Powerful space aliens are going to bomb the Earth, killing 3 billion people, unless you deliver to them one recently-plucked hair from the head of Harry Binswanger. Harry, unfortunately, cannot be persuaded to part with the hair for any amount of money. (He really wants to live up to his name, you see.)

In the event that aliens were to come to attack the earth (which has never happened that we know of from public information), the hypothetical Mr. Binswanger would further have to value his hair higher than his own life and that of his friends/family (at least some of whom would be highly likely to die of the 3 billion), which hardly even the person most protective of his hair in the world would consider an acceptable trade-off from giving up a single strand of his hair. Furthermore, the aliens could hardly be so semantic as to reject a strand of hair that had been picked up after just falling off of Mr Binswanger rather than being plucked out, which I presume would leave no difference in scientific/experimental value for the aliens. In the former case, the strand of hair would no longer be part of his body, and thus you wouldn’t need to violate his bodily autonomy to obtain his hair as you would in the latter case.

If, however, we grant that this was just a bad example of his point at hand, we may remind ourselves once more who is to be considered the judge of what’s “necessary”, and in this case also who is to judge what is to be considered “greater harm”. To illustrate, let’s consider the example that a governmental agency like the CIA wanted to cover up some shady program like M.K. Ultra, of which some whistle-blowers and “conspiracy theorists” were to call attention to. From the perspective of the CIA, it’d be a greater harm that their funding and operations were jeopardized by such scrutiny than subtly taking the lives of some of the most threatening of them (as they possibly did in the cases of JFK, RFK, MLK, etc., but that’s for another essay to explore). Given the subjectivity of the terms “necessary” and “greater harm”, it seems here therefore to be inept to use as a standard for morality.

Conclusion

The pursuit of objectivity in our knowledge can be an arduous, and some would say impossible, task to achieve, and this is as much the case with morality as other forms of knowledge. Through the use of philosophical reasoning, however, we can at least venture to make an attempt, and reach as close an approximation as we can thereto. In this essay I’ve laid out some perspectives we may take basis in for getting a better understanding of what form an objective morality may take, and what it would entail. From the writings of Nietzsche and Stirner, we’ve seen that governmental decisions, i.e. legality, cannot serve as a basis for objective morality as it severally lacks universal application and would imply a double standard between the morality of the actions of private citizens and that of the government. For a moral system that can be universally applied, we have either to accept that private citizens may engage in vigilantism by serving what they perceive as justice just as much as with the State, or reject both having the right to initiate violence to protect anything other than themselves and their property.

The definition of morality utilized in this essay has been “A set of interactive behaviors between humans that are categorized as right (acceptable) or wrong (unacceptable),” and given that morality would be meaningless without the human species, the preliminary arguments for an objective morality thereby concerned classifying acts furthering the extermination thereof as immoral. Although intuition and conscience may consider this rather obvious, reasonably meeting the standards for objectivity in this regard requires far more explicit elaboration than just having an opinion about what morality should be followed. For a firmer base on how we may morally classify milder violations than outright murder, Hoppe’s argumentation ethics provided exactly what we needed in the form of the non-aggression principle – that you may not initiate violence against others or their property. This principle has gotten a lot of criticism, but even though it may sound reasonable at first sight, as was the case with Huemer’s conditions, at closer inspection they appear far too vague, contradictory, and subjective to be considered useful variables in formulating an objective morality.

I hold no illusion that I’ve once and for all settled the issue of an objective morality, but I hope this may start a debate for other writers, bloggers, philosophers, etc. to further share their own opinions and arguments about; what they agreed and disagreed with me about, as well as why. As said before, the perspectives, arguments, and dilemmas presented in this essay are intended as a foundation upon which we can further build to get a more explicit understanding of what is right and wrong rather than trusting one’s subjective intuition or conscience always to be the best judge. I may write more articles to elaborate on what I’ve discussed here, as well as address other perspectives and aspects of morality, but I hope others too will share their own thoughts, whether it be just in short comments or long, in-depth articles.

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