Do we have universal and objective moral values and duties to do what’s right? If we do, what grounds them? Atheists and agnostics frequently suggest our social development, the heritability of social traits, or utilitarianism offer an explanation of grounding, yet these explanations fail for several reasons. Below I have identified the reasons.
Do we have universal and objective moral values and duties?
Moral values refer to whether something is good or bad, while moral duties refer to whether something is right or wrong (Craig, 2008). “To say a person ‘has a value’ is to say that he has an enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct or end-state of existence is personally and socially preferable to alternative modes of conduct or end-states of existence” (Rokeach, 1972, p. 159-160). To say moral values or duties are objective is to say they do not vary as a function of a person’s opinion. To say moral values or duties are universal is to say they are shared by all people globally, regardless of race, culture, sex, religion, color, and other demographic characteristics. They are the standards against which we judge practices, behaviors and actions. For example, truth is an objective moral value whose meaning does not vary as a function of any one person or group of people. We assess whether someone is lying by matching his words or behaviors up against what we know as the truth. The Golden Rule is an objective moral duty whose meaning does not vary as a function of any person or group of people. We assess whether people follow the Golden Rule by whether and how their words or behaviors match up to a standard of benevolence.
While universal moral values and duties often are also objective, there could be instances in which that is not the case. For example, if the Nazis had won World War II and taken over the world, forcing the world to discriminate against “lesser” races, discrimination would be considered a universal value, yet it would not be objectively right. It violates truths we hold to be self-evident, such as equality, liberty, justice and freedom.
Using the moral realism perspective, Hopster (2017, p. 764) helped to better define objectivity in morality. “Consider the claim that the Earth revolves around the sun: this claim is true, it states a fact, and this truth or fact is fully independent of what any agent thinks or feels about it. Similarly, moral realists maintain that moral truths or facts are fully independent of the attitudes of any agent.” Similarly, Street (2006) argued there are objective, “stance-independent” moral truths. But what are they?
In multiple studies of hundreds of samples in eighty-two countries and representing culturally diverse people of varying ages, genders, occupations, and geographies, Schwartz (2012, p. 17) drew a conclusion that he considered “astonishing.” After ranking ten values in order of importance, results indicated universals in values. The “vast majority” of respondents across all cultures ranked benevolence as the most important and #1 value, followed by universalism and self-direction. Schwartz defined the constructs as follows (p. 6-7):
Benevolence refers to “preserving and enhancing the welfare of those with whom one is in frequent personal contact (the ‘in-group’). Universalism (note this is not to be confused with moral universalism) refers to “understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature. This contrasts with the in-group focus of benevolence values. Self-direction refers to “independent thought and action—choosing, creating, exploring. Self-direction derives from the needs for control and mastery (e.g., Bandura, 1977; Deci, 1975) and interactional requirements of autonomy and independence (e.g., Kluckhohn, 1951; Kohn & Schooler, 1983).”
Schwartz (2012) defines values as guiding principles in people’s lives. They are standards or goals that guide actions and they transcend specific situations or actions and are ordered by importance. Schwartz (2012) posited that having the pan-cultural values he discovered may be attributable to adaptions by humans to maintain order in societies over time.
Along similar lines, Kinnear, Kernes, and Dautheribes (2000) consulted the religious texts and sacred writings of seven major world religions (Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Judaism, and Islam) to identify whether any universals could be identified. They further consulted atheist and humanist organizations, along with the United Nations. They found these commonalities:
- Commitment to something greater than oneself
- To recognize the existence of and be committed to a Supreme Being, higher principle, transcendent purpose or meaning to one’s existence
- To seek the truth (or truths)
- To seek justice
- Self-respect, but with humility, self-discipline, and acceptance of personal responsibility
- To respect and care for oneself
- To not exalt oneself or overindulge – to show humility and avoid gluttony, greed, or other forms of selfishness or self-centeredness
- To act in accordance with one’s conscience and to accept responsibility for one’s behavior
- Respect and caring for others (i.e., the Golden Rule)
- To recognize the connectedness between all people
- To serve humankind and to be helpful to individuals
- To be caring, respectful, compassionate, tolerant, and forgiving of others
- To not hurt others (e.g., do not murder, abuse, steal from, cheat, or lie to others)
- Caring for other living things and the environment
In a similar study, Dahlsgaard, Peterson and Seligman (2005) examined the ancient texts from eight religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Athenian philosophy, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, and Hinduism). The authors found six recurrent values: courage, temperance, justice, transcendence, humanity, and wisdom.
Other global studies have found similarly. In a survey using psychological, historical, juridical, theological, and ethnographical research, Westermarck (1906) identified universals in the approval of honesty, charity, mutual aid, and generosity, along with the prohibition of theft and homicide. Henrich and colleagues (2005) examined fifteen societies, finding that fairness and trust were exhibited in all.
Haidt and Joseph (2004) surveyed evolutionary theories about human and primate sociality, along with lists of virtues and taxonomies of morality from psychology and anthropology to moral concerns or virtues that were shared widely across cultures. They established five foundations of morality: care/harm, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority, and purity/sanctity. Graham, Haidt and Nosek (2009) identified political variations in the attention to the five foundations. People considered more liberal on the political spectrum were primarily concerned with care/harm and fairness/reciprocity, while more conservative individuals drew more evenly across all five foundations.
Taken together, these studies indicate similarity in the objective, self-transcendent foundations upon which to judge human behaviors and actions. Yet the question of grounding is outstanding.
What grounds universal and objective moral values and duties?
Charles Darwin (1871, p. 110-111) stated: “So in regard to mental qualities, their transmission is manifest in our dogs, horses, and other domestic animals. Besides special tastes and habits, general intelligence, courage, bad and good temper, etc., are certainly transmitted. With man we now know through the admirable labors of Mr. Galton that genius, which implies a wonderfully complex combination of high faculties, tends to be inherited; and on the other hand, it is too certain that insanity and deteriorated mental powers likewise run in the same families.”
Since Darwin’s time, we have been able to dial down on some of the causes of the variability in human populations due to studies on phenotypes, which are observable characteristics influenced by our environments, and genotypes, which is our genetic code (Ilies, Arvey, and Bouchard, 2006). Evolutionary biologists and psychologists often make the cases that our moral behaviors can be explained as a function of humanity’s adaptations to their environments over time. In other words, they made a descriptive case for morality, which is an attempt to describe “as is” conditions in practices and behaviors. The descriptive arguments in favor of evolution tend to focus on the idea that cultures adapted to their environments over time, both competing for resources and cooperating within in-groups to enhance their chances of survival.
MacKay and Whitehall (2015, p. 17) delineate the adaptationist perspective on religion, which is the view that some of the religious “byproducts” we have observed, such as prosocial behaviors (cooperative and competitive, or coopetition), may have become useful for the survival of individuals and groups as their cultures evolved. This approach helps to explain the growth of large-scale societies from smaller bands of hunters and gathers, farmers, and local communities. They argue that small group psychology in which families and small groups would hold cheaters and free-riders accountable would not work when societies grew into larger empires. In those cases, an external force was needed to monitor behaviors, which they propose could be a God or gods. In other words, religion provided a needed system of external accountability.
Some have also argued that as societies grew, rituals developed as a signal of good character, such as signals of trustworthiness and the willingness to cooperate (Bulbulia et al., 2013). The theory of credibility enhancing displays (CREDS; Heinrich, 2009) posits that some members in society secured the trust and commitment from followers by becoming role models and walking the walk or talking the talk. By serving as moral exemplars, these people helped to spread moral ideals though their societies. The CREDS theory helps to offer one potential explanation for the prevalence of gurus, role models, and formal or informal leaders within all religious groups who pave the example for their followers.
These are a few of numerous theories and propositions developed in attempts to explain our social development. Oftentimes, those who posit these ideas propose they eliminate the need for God as an explanation for our empathy and desire to do what’s right. I argue that our social development coexists with God. Over the centuries, we have evolved to seek meaning and purpose and have gradually and continuously been getting closer to the standards of love and goodness that God has established.
Heritability of social traits
Ilies, Arvey, and Bouchard (2006) noted that traits, work attitudes, values and interests, and behaviors are heritable. More specifically, the authors reported that the heritability of intelligence is between .60 and .80 (Bouchard, 1998). The heritability of five factor model of personality is .41 for emotional stability, .49 for extraversion, .45 for openness to experience, .35 for agreeableness, and .38 for conscientiousness (Loehlin, 1992). Empathy is a facet of agreeableness. The heritability of positive and negative emotionality is .43 and .47 (Bouchard & McGue, 2003). The heritability of a person’s attitude toward being the leader of a group is .41 (Olson, Vernon, Harris & Jang, 2001). For all of these traits, the genetic component is less than half. Non-genetic components, such as the environment in which a person is raised, are in each case more important in determining how people behave. These findings offer strong evidence against an evolutionary hypothesis for morality (Garte, 2019, personal conversation).
As noted, while biologists and psychologists have described descriptively our “as is” genetic predispositions and environmental influences on certain behaviors, they cannot explain our “should be” moral oughts and duties. It is a category error for them to define our moral prescriptions using a tool that is descriptive. An explanation of our moral foundations rests in the wheelhouse of philosophers.
Osman and Wiegmann (2017, p. 17) described a heated debate between a philosopher and two psychologists. “Shaw, the philosopher, argued that the field of moral psychology lacks a moral compass, and should acknowledge that as a field its dependency on psychological and biological facts makes it morally irrelevant, and reveals nothing about moral propositions of a normative nature. The two psychologists, Haidt and Pinker, replied that their research was never supposed to be understood as a normative guide – and that this should not only be obvious but is also explicitly stated in the works.”
One of the psychologists, Jonathan Haidt, directed his challenger to a passage in his book: “Philosophers typically distinguish between descriptive definitions of morality (which simply describe what people happen to think is moral) and normative definitions (which specify what is really and truly right, regardless of what anyone thinks). So far in this book I have been entirely descriptive.” (Haidt, 2012, p. 271). In other words, our social development or the heritability of social traits do not explain our moral prescriptions. Skeptics might agree, so they often turn to utilitarianism to suggest this moral conception offers grounding to our objective and universal moral values and duties.
Consequentialism and Utilitarianism
Consequentialism falls in the normative ethical teleological framework. People who lean heavily on consequentialism to make ethical decisions consider the morally correct action to be the one with the best consequences. Consequences take into account both actions and everything the actions cause.
English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1863, p. 14) popularized consequentialism with what he labeled the Greatest Happiness Principle. “According to the Greatest Happiness Principle…the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality, and the rule for measuring it against quantity, being the preference felt by those who in their opportunities of experience, to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self-observation, are best furnished with the means of comparison.” In a similar vein, Harris (2010) stated that which is morally right is that which maximizes well-being, which he defined as the maximization of pleasure and happiness.
Happiness (also known as “well-being” or “pleasure)” is often considered to be the “ideal” consequence, so some adherents believe that this consequence grounds moral decisions. Yet I would make the argument that happiness is only a minor goal within a much more complex set of goals and ideals. Given the aforementioned studies of all world religions, atheism, and humanism, one should note that “happiness” is never mentioned. Instead, seeking purpose and meaning, benevolence, universalism, and self-direction are mentioned. These values, along with others identified in global studies (e.g., courage, humility, and temperance) do not necessarily correspond to happiness. Accordingly, consequentialism in that respect that does sufficiently ground humanity’s objective moral values and duties.
A special form of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which accentuates the idea that we should do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The greatest good is often that which maximizes happiness or well-being or pleasure over pain for the greatest number of people.
In Rawls’ Theory of Justice (1971), he stated that each society sets its own moral standards. To set the standards, he argued that each society requires a certain set of initial conditions, which include rational actors and mutually disinterested parties. Yet human nature is often in opposition to these rather strict, somewhat extreme conditions (c.f., Zollo, Pelligrini & Ciappei, 2017). Behavioral economists have found that people are often predictably irrational (Ariely, 2010) while agency theory (Fama, 1980) has often been drawn upon to make a strong case demonstrating that people act in their own self-interests. Cross-cultural scholars who study values have found that humans don’t always act in rational ways and rationality is subjectively defined (Hofstede, 2001, p. 6) and becomes problematic in cases of uncertainty (March & Simon, 1958). Rational (or optimal) decisions require that all alternatives to a problem are perceived by the problem-solver, and in organizations, that is rarely the case (Tosi, 2009). Furthermore, the means people use to generate personal happiness may be at the expense of the happiness of others. Consider that the Nazi prison guards may have derived happiness and pleasure by torturing, starving, and murdering people, which is obviously egregious and morally wrong.
Harris (2010, p. 225) seemed to acknowledge this shortfall when he asked these questions. “What if the laws of nature allow for different and seemingly antithetical peaks on the moral landscape? What if there is a possible world in which the Golden Rule has become an unshakable instinct, while there is another world of equivalent happiness where the inhabitants reflexively violate it? Perhaps this is a world of perfectly matched sadists and masochists. Let’s assume that in this world every person can be paired, one-for-one, with the saints in the first world, and while they are different in every other way, these pairs are identical in every way relevant to their well-being. Stipulating all these things, the consequentialist would be forced to say that these worlds are morally equivalent. Is this a problem? I don’t think so. The problem lies in how many details we have been forced to ignore in the process of getting to this point.”
Building on that point, it is noteworthy to consider that utilitarianism corresponds to some social classes and some negative personality traits. People with higher scores on psychopathy, life meaninglessness, and Machiavellianism had greater endorsements of utilitarian solutions (Bartels & Pizarro, 2011). Reynolds and Conway (2018) identified a negative correlation between psychopathy and more deontological judgments. Other scholars have found that when making moral judgments, members of the upper-class attempted to maximize the gains for a group by expressing a willingness to take actions that harm some but help many (Cote, Piff & Willer, 2013). Their tendencies to show less empathy increased utilitarian judgment (Cote, Piff & Willer, 2013).
These arguments suggest utilitarian decisions are agent-relative, not agent-neutral as others have argued (Holyoak & Powell, 2016). Holyoak and Powell (2016) argued for agent neutrality, claiming that what is right for one would be right for the group. Yet that is not necessarily the case. Consider an ethical dilemma in which a father in a burning building has the option to save his three children on one side or ten coworkers on another. He will likely reject the greatest good for the greatest number of people in favor of following his duty to value his children’s lives more, so what is right for one would not be right for the group. This dilemma is somewhat similar to the famous trolley dilemma, which is often used to force decision-makers to choose either reason using a utilitarian perspective or to follow moral duties to act virtuously.
Another shortcoming relates to the formulation of the “greater good.” “If ‘greater good’ is to be meaningful in the formulation of a criterion of morality, three conditions must be fulfilled: 1) ‘good’ must have a single meaning; 2) what is good in this unique sense must be measurable; and 3) the result of measurement must settle moral issues either directly or indirectly. Clearly, the necessary meaning of ‘good’ cannot be specified in moral terms. What Rawls says of utilitarianism is true of all consequentialism: Its point is to define ‘good’ independently of ‘right’ and to define ‘right’ in terms of ‘good.’ And, in general, consequentialists see this requirement and try to meet it. If consequentialists said that ethical considerations determine what a good consequence is, they would either be going in a circle or setting off on an infinite regress” (Grisez, 1978, p. 31).
Accordingly, while consequentialism or utilitiarianism may be of some value when making ethical decisions, claiming consequentialism or utilitarianism establishes grounding for our objective moral values and duties is erroneous.
In summary, the quest to understand what grounds our universal and objective moral laws and duties, skeptics often turn to our social development, the heritability of our social traits, or utilitarianism. Yet the same skeptics acknowledge that our social development and the heritability of our social traits are not prescriptive, but descriptive (e.g., Haidt, 2012), so they fail to explain our moral prescriptions (i.e., obligations or duties).
Utilitarianism as an explanation of our moral prescriptions is also faulty for several reasons. First, assuming humanity shares a common goal of “happiness,” “well-being,” or “pleasure” is superficial, given our much deeper and more complex universal moral values that have been identified in multiple global studies. A soldier who shows great courage and takes a bullet for another soldier and dies did not do it to make himself “happy.” He did it because in that moment of time, he displayed his tremendous love for his fellow man. In the hierarchy of moral values and duties, love rests on top. Happiness may or may not be an outcome of love in this life.
Second, defining happiness or well-being or pleasure-seeking as a “good” consequence while saying it is “right” to seek happiness, well-being, or pleasure is a mere play on words, leading to circular thinking. Even if we changed the goal to love or focused on our mutual duty to love, the thinking is problematic. Saying that it is good to love and it is right to love so we should love is true. We have a universal and objective moral duty to love. But saying that we can agree on the goal of love or our duty to love so therefore our shared goal/mutual agreement are both the objective foundation and the shared goal/duty is circular. It equates with saying that we have an underlying principle to be moral and a goal of being moral. The goal is also the grounding of the goal.
Third, the assumptions of rational actors and mutual disinterest are not met when establishing social contracts or shared goals. People often act irrationally and in their own self-interests. In other words, we cannot ground utilitarianism in the minds of humanity so we cannot explain our universal and objective morality using this philosophy. Instead, we must grant a universal and objective moral lawgiver who transcends humanity: God. Thank God for giving us our conscience to serve as a guide for our reasoning, intuitions, values, duties, purpose and meaning.
Accordingly, I offer a moral argument for the existence of God:
- If humanity has universal, objective moral values and obligations to do what’s right, there must be a universal source of righteousness that transcends generations.
- Humanity has universal, objective moral values and obligations to do what’s right.
- There is a universal source of righteousness: God.
Thank you for your time.
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 Many businesses have discovered the value of “coopetition,” which occurs when competitors simultaneously cooperate and compete with one another to create value (Bengtsson & Kock 1999; Walley 2007; Thomason, Simendinger & Kiernan, 2013). Cooperation focuses on trust and reciprocity while competition is focused on maximizing one’s own self-interests. The combination of both concepts may help to contribute to the explanation of the evolution of prosocial behaviors.