Hi Scott — sorry I am so late to reply.
R Scott Smith, PhD

Dr. Smith, thanks for the response. I don’t know why I’ve recently become so interested in this topic, but I have — so I appreciate you humoring me when you have a spare minute or two. When I log into Medium through my browser on my phone I don’t have a “response” box either.

OK so… do moral values exist? Like, are they immutable facts? I can imagine a few scenarios which would justify a “yes” answer but I believe I have a pretty succinct refutation for each. Here are some examples:

God/Gods: If moral values are divinely inspired or revealed, that makes it pretty easy to say that they’re absolute and self-justifying. However, this is a flawed concept because humans don’t all believe in the same, or any, deity — and we won’t ever know who’s right or wrong about that. Plus, even if we DID all believe in the same god, how would we know that this god is benevolent? Would this god’s moral directives be justified if they appeared to be in opposition to humanity’s well-being? What if the deity is evil, or perhaps an apathetic nihilist? How would we know? What about when the deity lays down the laws once, and for thousands of years stays silent while the needs of humanity change? I think that God/gods is an insufficient source of moral value determinations.

The Greater Good/Utilitarianism: (If you haven’t yet, maybe you should check out “desirism” or “desire utilitarianism.” I’m pretty interested in that one right now.) Maybe the “rightness” of an action is based upon it’s potential to bring about the most “good” for the most people. Sure, this makes more sense I guess… but who says what’s good? Is anything intrinsically good? Happiness, maybe? Why? That reminds me of the god thing. Plus, every single thing that we do or think creates an infinite momentum of cause and effect, which effectively makes a determination of the net-positive/net-negative consequence of anything impossibly complex. There isn’t a true and final “end” to the effects of any event. At what level of distance from its origination should an action’s consequences not matter anymore? This idea doesn’t work either. Although Utilitarianism doesn’t create intrinsic moral value, I think that Act Utilitarianism is the most sensible of the main “prescription” moral systems one can use on a personal level, and Rule Utilitarianism is the only sensible way to legislate.

Kantian Duty: The only thing that is intrinsically “good” is “good will” or good intention, since outcomes are unpredictable? I actually agree with that, on a functional level. However, ignoring outcome prediction when making action decisions seems to support the notion that outcomes aren’t important. If outcomes aren’t important, how can we learn from our actions? I get that it’s a golden rule kind of thing, and that’s cool… but it falls apart when considering intrinsic moral value. Subjective perception completely obliterates universal duty.

Here’s what I think: there’s no such thing as intrinsic moral value. Humans have evolved to require a certain set of baseline behaviors that aid us in cooperative living. It all boils down to basic human needs: emotional/psychological safety and physical safety. Cultural differences have resulted in moral value determinations that differ from each other because people from different cultures will likely have a dissimilar frame of reference, and therefore need different things in order to be emotionally and physically safe. However, a few things are ubiquitous: honesty, compassion (at least for your tribe), fairness, loyalty…. I’m probably missing a lot, that’s just off the top of my head. Those things are, as far as I know, valued just about everywhere and have been just about forever, but the manner in which a culture or society judges how actions work for or against those ubiquitous values is relative. And it should be!

So…. perception being subjective, moral truths are both relative and absolute. Relative in a broad, worldwide history-spanning sense; & absolute in a zoomed-in here-and-now sense.

Of course then there’s my wife, who beautifully simplifies the whole thing: “Think of stuff that assholes do. Then don’t do those things.”

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