On Truth and Objectivism as a Moral Philosophy

On the whole, I like objectivism as a philosophy. It deals with morality in the most concrete way possible, which is, as I see it, desirable. History has proven time and again that subjective morality is dangerous. I’m of the opinion that few (if any) human beings wake up in the morning and decide that they’re going to do something really evil that day. The roads to war, poverty, and genocide are paved with the best of intentions. (Stalin probably woke up every morning and thought about what a great place he had made Russia.) In truth, I would wager that humans cannot really coexist peacefully without some sort of objective reality; we need some way of understanding what is “right” or “wrong.” The question doesn’t just go away once we’ve installed a government that’s capable of telling us what’s legal or not. If anything, the question of right or wrong just becomes more important, because we’ve given the authority to the government to imprison us on the (tangentially) related grounds of legality. (There is, and should be, a distinction made between “right” and “legal” – an article for another time.)

As much as an objective reality is necessary for us to understand morality, objectivity in and of itself poses a problem for us.

Science is often touted as being the key to our ability to begin to understand the universe in an objective manner. And, for the most part, I agree; we can’t ever come to a significant understanding of the physical world if we do not use scientific reasoning to get there. But I think that objectivity needs to be qualified as followed: there exists an objectivity relativity, provided we allow for axiomatic truths.

Let me elaborate.

Newtonian physics works in virtually every context that we encounter in our daily lives, but it is still totally useless when we try to apply it to matter that is too large, too small, or is traveling too fast. Is Newtonian physics objectively wrong? No, not really. We just have to make assumptions about how the world works. We assume that the “stuff” we’re talking about is a lot larger than one atom and a lot smaller than a star, and is moving at a speed much slower than the speed of light. And it that context, the Newtonian framework works fine. In other contexts, we may require statistical mechanics, electrodynamic theory, special/general relativity, quantum mechanics, etc. But those aren’t strictly right, either. Quantum mechanics and general relativity still have yet to be unified; there is no one branch of physical theory that has successfully been able to describe how the universe operates, and yet all of these theories prove time and again to be experimentally true. So all of these theories are true, but only if we make assumptions about our initial conditions. In short, science requires assumptions. Therefore, our objective reality can only be objective if we all make the same assumptions about our “initial conditions,” which doesn’t sound a whole lot better than subjectivity to me. But qualifications notwithstanding, the claims that follow these assumptions are still held to high standards of scientific rigor, which is the key difference between qualified objectivity and organized religion. (Even if we assume God exists, the Bible, or any other religious text, does not become empirically true by means of our assumption.)

As a result, I think it’s imperative that we be absolutely clear about our assumptions about how the world works when we argue about morality. Our discussions must begin on common ground. (Any real debate at all must follow that rule.) We are never in a position where we can argue deductively without first being clear about what we assume to be true or of importance in the first place.

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