The deeper I get into debates over metaphysics, the more abundant the arguments from universal morality. They go something like this: "Since science and logic are unable to establish a universal morality, we must hold that there is more than science and logic, otherwise we are doomed to live in an amoral/immoral world."
This is the aforementioned crazy talk.
This argument doesn't work because it betrays a lack of understanding about how morality works in practice, and because it confuses a moral codes with the imperative to follow a moral code.
To expose the bankruptcy of the universal morality argument, I'll explain why subjective morality doesn't lead to immoral doom. Then I'll describe the impossibility and amorality of universal moral law. Finally, I'll say a few words about humanity's apparent moral progress, and how we might continue to make moral progress.
Suppose there is no universal morality, and morality is just a matter of personal taste. In that case, when Mary does what she thinks is right, Paul may see her actions as wrong or evil. The question is, what does this say about Paul's ability to hold Mary accountable for her actions? If Paul is a physicalist, then he knows that his moral preference has no more universal significance that Mary's moral preference. Does that imply that he should allow Mary to do whatever she wants? Plainly it does not. This is a contest of wills, not a contest of oughts. Paul must decide whether he is willing to act to stop Mary from taking her actions or not. Likewise, Mary must decide whether to forego her actions in light of Paul's disapproval and potential retribution.
Now imagine the same scenario with many more people in the mix. What emerges is a social contract. The greater the commonality of the moral preference, the greater its reflection in the contract and the greater its enforcement. The social contract may contain clauses that Mary disagrees with, but Mary benefits overall from being a signatory. For example, Mary is protected from car theft by the social contract, and that may be more important to her than the loss of her right to smoke on an airplane.
Then again, Mary might not be inclined to obey certain clauses in the contract, nor submit to the penalties for bypassing those clauses. If the overall contract is good, but Mary finds clause 1.2.56(a) objectionable, she may opt to act surreptitiously in violation of that clause. If caught, Mary may be more likely to flee social justice because it lacks personal justice in her eyes. However, Mary must weigh the consequences that Paul may similarly violate clauses that Mary holds dear. Mary may have to compromise.
This is how subjective morality works to create a social morality that appears to have some form of universality.
History teaches us that social morality changes. Slavery was once good. Racism was once good. Homophobia was once good. These things are now evils. What happened?
Two things. First, humans became less fearful and more empathic. I think that the more we saw blacks as human, the less tolerable it was for us to accept that they should be enslaved. Discrimination against homosexuals is fading as men become better educated and more secure in their sexuality, and as homosexuals are viewed as fully human.
But ratchet up the fear another level, and our morality goes out the window. Spying on Americans without safeguards? “Gee, I’m terrified by the terrorists, let’s do that.” Racial profiling? “They scare me!” Torturing people? “They might be terrorists, so I’m sure our boys and girls were justified.” Invasion of another nation without cause? “There might be terrorists there! Better safe than sorry.” Holding the families of suspects in an effort to bring in wanted men? “Well, I won’t kick up a fuss about that, because the wanted men fill me with terror.” And on it goes.
Osama is winning this thing as long as our morality crumbles in the face of his terror.
The second reason that bad "-isms" are fading is that democracy has displaced dictatorship, making the common man's choices more politically important.
I conclude that, given only subjective morality, the world would look much as it actually does, and that moral progress is possible.
Keen positivists in the audience (if I have an audience that has read this far through my post) will recognize this discussion of universal morality is moot. The concept of universal morality is literally meaningless. How would you determine whether an action was universally moral?
If there is no way to know an absolute morality when you see one, then the term must be meaningless. The age-old principle applies: if you cannot devise a recipe for assigning widgets to category X, then category X is meaningless (as in, undefined).
Suppose there were some way to know that a moral code was universal. Such a recipe would still rely upon subjective moral appeal!
Imagine that there is a Federal Institute for Moral Research, and that this agency discovered that all pleasurable food consumption was universally wrong. Not that there were any universal penalties for consuming tasty food, but simply that it was wrong. All tasty food would have to be made bitter and distasteful for its consumption to be moral. Would you choose to follow such a moral code? In other words, what use are moralities if they have nothing to do with outcomes?
We have no reason to expect that universal moral laws would be appealing to humans - or so the universal moralists will gladly inform us when we object to their claimed universal code!
If moral considerations had to be blind to outcomes then few would choose to be moral for morality's sake. A moral code is nothing without an imperative to follow it.
Thus, it would seem that a universal moral law is nothing without a universal regime for compliance. Of course, moral universalists are willing to posit the idea that we are each individually punished (infinitely and disproportionately) for our transgressions - the ultimate compliance scheme. Unfortunately, the cost of inventing Heaven and Hell is an acknowledgement that morality is a function of nothing more than subjective taste and a sense of consequence. That's why Hell is exactly what we don't want, no matter what our personal tastes.
And, this brings us back full circle. Advocates of universal moral law like to argue that we must accept the existence of universal moral truths, or else the things we regard as subjectively immoral would be acceptable. This claim is contradictory because the claim acknowledges the value of subjective morality, and wrong because subjective morality leads to social contract.
Ironically, it is authoritarianism that poses the greatest threat to our subjective moral good (unless you're the authority, that is).
When to be convinced by a moral argument
Having dispelled the concept of universal morality (until such time as the dissenters voice comment), I want to say something about moral progress.
We think of the elimination of slavery, racism, sexism, torture, illiteracy, etc., as forms of moral progress. Yet, if morality is subjective, how was this progress made, and how can we continue to make moral progress?
Our social contract changed for the better when we became less fearful and more empathic. Once we became secure enough that we weren't going to lose our prosperity by losing our whites-only, aristocratic, patriarchal way of life, we let go of our bad habits.
History has a few lessons for us about moral progress. When considering whether to grant or revoke a right:
- Purge yourself of irrational fears,
- Empathize with those who favor and oppose the new legislation,
- Maintain perspective by studying the scope and scale of the consequences.