Why Objective Morality Can Be Bad

Previously I’ve tackled the objective morality question, arguing, in part, that we can all agree that certain acts are immoral. These include things like murder, rape, and torture. If we all agree these things are wrong, then we have a moral foundation that is objectively true. But commonly I see the challenge arise from people who ground their morals in religious texts: “How do you know murder is immoral?” True, not all of us share the same black and white, here-it-is rulebook, and we acknowledge the difficulties in constructing objective morality in the social context. But we all — no matter where we live — do share similar black and white, here-it-is rulebooks that are as objective as we’re going to get. And I’m here to argue why that can be a bad thing.

I’m talking about penal code. Let’s take perjury for example. I’ll use California to illustrate this point. California’s criminal code for perjury is certainly black and white.

It’s a rather long code, most of it dealing with the prosecution for perjury. The meat of the law is in the beginning. In California perjury is when a person, “willfully and contrary to the oath, states as true any material matter which he or she knows to be false.” That’s it. That’s perjury. We’re talking about lying. The code then expands on the definition, equating educated guesses by lay people as perjury as well:

An unqualified statement of that which one does not know to be true is equivalent to a statement of that which one knows to be false.

In other words, in California we can be convicted of perjury if we make a false statement under oath even if we just believe it to be true. For example, pretend you are subpoenaed to testify in a child custody case about domestic abuse, and you testify that the husband regularly beat his ex-wife, but you’ve never seen the abuse; you’ve just taken the wife’s word for it. We later discover no abuse occurred. Without adding the caveat “she told me he beat her,” you’ve just committed perjury. And guess what! In California perjury is punishable by two to four years in prison.

The thing is that, despite this black and white law, no judge will convict you of perjury because doing so violates the spirit of the law (the subjective reasoning for establishing the law). Furthermore, doing so could cause eyewitnesses to be reluctant to come forward, but that’s beside the point.

Here we have an objective moral law about lying that equates guessing with maliciously making a false statement. But because we understand there is a difference between the two, the law is trumped by common sense. We acknowledge the objective nature of this law is wrong. Let’s look at another black and white law in Virginia.

There’s a Virginia code that makes wearing masks in public a felony. The code carves out some exceptions, but absent from this list is “during cold weather.” This means when a motorcyclist wears a face mask to protect him- or herself from sub-zero temperatures at 60 miles per hour, he or she has just committed a felony. There have been several attempts to change this statute; however, they have all failed. The language has not been amended.

When a police officer in Virginia stops a motorcyclist for wearing a mask in public, he or she often politely informs the cyclist that wearing a mask in public is a felony without making an arrest. This, despite the fact that police are compelled to make an arrest if they see someone commit a felony. In other words, the police are technically breaking the law by not arresting the motorcyclist. But the police understand that the language of the law is too strict, and it makes criminals out of thousands of innocent bikers.

Here we have two black and white laws with an objective reference point: state penal code. If I try to argue it’s immoral to wear a mask while riding a motorcycle because a book says so, then I’ve suddenly made life much more difficult for a lot of people, including police officers, who feel there’s nothing wrong with wearing a mask to protect your face from cold weather. If I say it’s immoral to guess under oath because a book says so, then I’m arguing that practically everyone who’s ever taken the stand during a court hearing needs to be imprisoned. Even judges disagree with this law.

If we base our morals on black and white texts, then we leave no room for the fluid movement of social behavior. In this case objective morality is an immoral constraint.

Finally, for anyone asking where we get our morals from if not from a god, I’ll draw your attention to one of thousands of academic journal articles that tackles this question. At this point we’re fairly certain we understand how morality came about.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
This entry was posted in Atheism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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