The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

On Morality, Part I

As the world becomes increasingly secular, one of the biggest problems facing humanity is filling the moral trench left by Abrahamic religion. In an almost knee-jerking fashion, many who have closed the good book on religious doctrine quickly adopted moral relativism as the only alternative to strict moral dogma. I am sympathetic to those who turn this direction as it seems that, when deconstructed to its foundation, no form of morality has a totally exhaustive justification. However true it may be, this line of reasoning is largely antithetical to any reasonable conceptualization of a prosperous society. If not for how individuals should live or what constitutes a good life, what informs political, societal, or personal decisions? Sure, an individual’s own moral sense can be the driving force; but, that will inevitably fail as human beings are innately social creatures with decision-making almost always impacting other individuals within a community. Consistent moral guidance is paramount for not only a prosocial society but also order and civility within and between interlaced communities. Cultural norms and governmental law are nearly impossible to generate when relativism pervades. After all, isn’t the goal of norms and law to best reflect the moral standing of a society? It is important to clarify that these challenges neither disprove moral relativism nor prove moral absolutism, but they express what form morality needs to take for humankind to thrive long-term and on a global-scale — a target many appear to have in sight.

David Hume famously pointed out you cannot derive an ought from an is. Take this moral syllogism:

1. Matt is going outside.

2. The temperature is below freezing outside.

3. Parkas are successful in preserving body heat.

Conclusion: Therefore, Matt ought to wear a parka.

At first glance, such a line of reasoning appears valid. Naturally, when one prepares for cold weather, they bundle up to keep warm. However, within this syllogism, there is a hidden premise: Matt ought to keep warm—or even deeper, Matt ought to value his physical well-being. Without that hidden value premise, it is inconceivable that the above syllogism makes any sense. Herein lies the crux of Hume’s argument: no amount or quality of factual premises will result in a moral conclusion. This is completely consistent intuitively — how could science, an entirely amoral system, give rise to morality? It cannot, and from this conclusion, many turn to relativism and wash their hands of the matter.  

As mentioned before, stopping at relativism is misguided, or at the very least hypocritical. Many often point to science and rational thought as necessary foundations of morality, yet they fail to recognize the lack of justification for the foundations they hold in such high regard. When stripping a scientific claim down to its bare bones, one quickly recognizes that all facts depend upon our perception of reality being a fairly accurate model. But since our knowledge is entirely confined by perception, no external justification exists for the accuracy of our perceptual models. Yet, we treat rigorously proven scientific facts as though they are as good as certain. Why not caveat our each and every observation with constant epistemological skepticism? Simply put, because it’s not practical. The best we can do is start at an unjustifiable brute fact and carry on with our day. If not, we risk an ineffectual intellectual stagnation. In precisely the same way as with scientific truth, we can afford uncertainty at the bedrock of moral truth. We need not traverse through life fully embodying this uncertainty just as we don’t question the physics of water pressure when flushing the toilet.

Now with moral relativism rendered impractical, what can fill the moral hole previously occupied by traditional religion? Part II of this column will attempt to tackle this question.

Ben Klein is a sophomore studying Biology and Psychology at Louisiana State University. He is the Lead Academic Editor of the College Contemporary.

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