No Moral Anarchy Nor Utility
As long as morality is grounded in human well-being, “anything” is not permissible. Rape is wrong because it clearly subtracts from human well-being. The pleasure the rapist might feel from the act pales in comparison to the suffering of the victim, the victim’s family, the victim’s community, and the world at large might experience by living in a world where something like that can happen to them or someone about whom they care. In this example, we see that collective well-being extends beyond utility and the direct benefits of a few, and incorporates the psychological well-being of all humanity. It is not morally permissible for doctors to grab a healthy person from the waiting room and dissect him for his organs in order to save ten lives. The idea of living in a world where such an act is permissible (and can happen to you or your loved ones) does far more damage to overall well-being than saving ten lives.
Changing Morality: A Tough Pill To Swallow
Even though there is an objectively correct moral choice (albeit often unknowable), the collective well-being on which morality is based is subject to change over time. An individual or group of people can have an effect on morality if they can influence others’ thoughts, feelings, and beliefs on well-being. For example, if society generally accepts that gay marriage is immoral, the idea of gay marriage may have negative psychological effects (no matter how irrational it may seem to us) on the vast majority of people that result in decreased overall well-being. If a person or group can influence enough people to change their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, then the balance of negative to positive well-being can shift to the point where the moral position changes. This idea is difficult to accept for some because of the historian’s fallacy, an error in reasoning that occurs when one assumes that decision makers of the past viewed events from the same perspective and having the same information as those subsequently analyzing the decision. It may be incomprehensible for us today to imagine how an issue such as women’s voting rights could have ever even been an issue worthy of debate, but this is because we are putting a moral issue of 100 years ago in today’s moral climate.
Morality does change over time, but only because our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about the world are constantly changing based on new information being available. Understood in this way, the relativity of morality is temporal only—objective in the moment, but relative over time. Morality is not geographically relative since the foundation of morality, human well-being, is geographically ubiquitous. A tribe living in the jungle that eats their babies as a form of population control may experience a high level of well-being within their tribe, but knowledge of such a practice by the rest of humanity has a deleterious effect on overall well-being. From a humanist perspective, the well-being of humanity takes precedence over cultural practices that violate human rights even if these practices might be “free expressions of religion.” In the humanist world view, there is no privileged status for religious practices that negatively affect human well-being making them exempt from moral judgment.
A Complex Topic Too Often Made Simplistic
I have presented examples that generally do not present moral dilemmas—issues such as rape, infanticide, and cannibalism. As we have seen, despite any objectivity that may exist in a morality grounded in well-being, our inherent inability to know the long term and far reaching effects that an action might have on well-being adds the subjective element to morality, and the reason for moral disagreement. Like it or not, morality is functionally democratic. What is considered moral is a collective reflection of human ideals and values. It may be the case that our collective moral judgment is one that detracts from our well-being but we just don’t know it, or it may be that the moral majority is in need of an attitude change due to the suffering of an ignored or unknown minority. If there is a “moral truth” we should accept, it is that morality is a highly complex issue that cannot be encapsulated in one rule or even ten commandments.
As humanists, we must not accept “moral truths” (including mine) without carefully considering the effects they may have on the well-being of all of humanity. Science can certainly inform moral decisions since, although far from perfect, well-being is a measurable construct. We must practice empathy and anticipate how choices might affect the well-being of others. We need to think both short-term and long-term. Most importantly, we must have the wisdom and the courage to distinguish morality from obedience, and act in accordance with maximizing collective well-being to the best of our ability.