So! The first thing I can say with some degree of certainty is that I am a moral anti-realist. I know this for two reasons: 1, someone cleverer than me told me I was and 2, I read up on anti-realism and wiki-walked my way through a few related definitions and found it corresponds with my belief that there are no moral absolutes, no eternal moral truths we can pluck from the ether to be a yardstick (meterstick?) to measure our own morality by and definitely no god given rule book.
Having decided there is no Platonic perfect morality to draw on, another problem presents itself: Does any moral position have a basis in reality? This is essentially a choice between Cognitivism and Non-Cognitivism. Cognitivism holds that moral statements (propositions) can be demonstrably true or false, for example “stealing is wrong” carries the same veritas as “London buses are red”. At first glance this might look as though Cognitivism requires moral realism, but it would in fact be just as correct to say that “stealing is wrong” is a false statement. (The anti-realist position known as Error Theory states that all moral propositions are false). Nevertheless, my own position is that of Non-Cognitivism, which says that moral propositions are neither true nor false but are expressions of opinion (“stealing is wrong” is equivalent to “I believe stealing is wrong” or “Boo to stealing”).
However, many moral propositions while not what a proper philosopher would call ‘truth apt’ do have a high degree of ‘truthiness’ that endows them with a visceral certainty that makes them feel like the basis of an objective morality. This is particularly so of those moral positions that are often considered universals such as murder is wrong, stealing is wrong, cheating is wrong and the like. One would be hard pushed to find anyone in any society that would disagree with those statements (even if they do in fact kill, steal and cheat), possibly because either cultural or biological evolution has encouraged our internalisation of these ethics as a consequence of being a social species. But there is nothing obvious on deeper dispassionate reflection that makes any of these normative ethics intrinsically true. These same gut instincts also tend to inform (or misinform) our beliefs about more contentious moral statements such as; “homosexuality is wrong”, “sex outside of marriage is wrong”, or “recreational drugs are bad”. These are deontological ethics handed down to us by society or (more usually) religion that are even more transparently subjective when actually thought about although often presented as moral givens.
If all morals are subjective, as I believe them to be, we are then left with the thorny issue of moral relativism. I am not a moral relativist and to be honest I don’t think I have ever met anyone who is. It is one thing to acknowledge that different societies and different times hold differing moral standards (descriptive moral relativism) and entirely another to state that it is inappropriate or impossible to judge one against the other (meta-ethical moral relativism). If the latter were true we would not be in a position to agree that slavery, which used to be morally acceptable, is a moral evil and always has been. We don’t tend to say of slave owning cultures “oh, they were just the product of their time”; rather, we judge them as barbarous and backward. In the same way I am not prepared to defend female genital mutilation in Somalia just because it is a cultural norm there. But in my anti-realist, non-cognitive subjectively moral world what basis do I have to deem such practices as immoral?
My answer, for what it’s worth, is that although morals are not objective, outcomes of actions often are. I am a consequentialist and a utilitarian who believes that it is possible to apply reason to moral dilemmas and point to a rational system of ethics which in principle could be agreed on by everyone, ascertaining the costs and benefits of a particular action to the actors involved and devising a course that causes the least aggregate harm or even the most possible good (by harm and good I am limiting these to the measurable, economic and corporeal). However this becomes problematic if a society sanctifies cultural and religious norms to the extent that a critical examination of the assumptions behind them is impossible, requiring reconciling a putative infinite “spiritual” harm against a limited physical good, which is why such societies are able to justify honour killings and the mutilation of children. By rejecting deontological morality I believe I am justified in condemning such actions and rejecting cultural relativism on rational and scientific grounds.
There is not enough space here to explore all the ramifications of this, but Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism whose philosophy of universal utilitarianism can be read >here< and in his book has articulated similar ideas. Also Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape offers a scientific route to a moral society.
The links on this page all point to reliable sources of information about moral philosophy, so dive in if you dare…