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Moral Objectivity & Universality

Moral Objectivity & Universality

Is moral universality necessary to show moral objectivity? Is it sufficient?

Before we can answer those questions, we have to explain what we mean by these words. Moral objectivity contrasts with moral subjectivity, which relativizes moral truth to individuals, cultures, or subcultures. Moral objectivity is the contrasting (indeed, contradictory) idea that that some moral truths apply to everyone irrespective of their preferences, wishes, beliefs, etc.

Moral universality features an important ambiguity. It might mean, first, (a moral claim) believed by everyone. Or it might mean, second, (a moral claim) applicable to or authoritative for everyone. This is a crucial distinction to draw. Let’s call the first sense of universality Ub, and the second Ua.

Is moral universality necessary for moral objectivity? This is the same question as asking if the following conditional is true: If moral objectivity obtains, is morality universal? But then we have to ask this for both senses of moral universality. Let “MO” stand for “moral objectivity.”

The questions, symbolically expressed, then look like this:

(1) Is “MO –> Ub” true? an

(2) Is “MO –> Ua” true?

First, consider (1). If Ub is necessary for MO, then MO would be sufficient to show Ub. But it isn’t. The fact that something is an objective moral truth isn’t enough to imply that everyone believes it. So the answer to (1) is no.

What about (2)? Is Ua necessary for MO? It would seem so. If something is an objective moral truth, it’s applicable to everyone (capable of understanding it, at least). Moral objectivity is sufficient to show universality in this sense, and (equivalently) Ua is logically necessary for MO.

Now let’s go the other way and ask if universality is sufficient for moral objectivity. Again, we have to disambiguate between the two kinds of universality, so there are two questions here:

(3) Is “Ub –> MO” true? and

(4) Is “Ua –> MO” true?

In terms of (3), the mere fact that some moral claim is universally believed is not enough to show that it’s an objective moral truth. Everyone might turn out to be wrong, after all, perhaps systematically deluded. So the answer to (3) is no. But suppose we consider it in the form of an argument:

(5) Ub

(6) So, MO

This is not an entailment, for the same reason it’s false to claim that Ub implies MO. Nevertheless, as a less-than-deductive inference, it’s not necessarily bad. The universality (or near universality) of a moral belief can, in certain cases, provide reasons to think the belief in question is an objective moral truth. We see an analogous example or parity in reasoning in, say, science, when we take widespread agreement on a matter to have for its best explanation its convergence on an objective truth. Still, though, nothing like an entailment relation obtains, obviously enough.

What about (4)? Does universal moral applicability imply moral objectivity? It would plausibly seem so. If a moral truth applies authoritatively to everyone, that’s practically the definition of an objective, morally binding truth. (4) is true.

If this is right, then Ub is neither necessary nor sufficient for moral objectivity, although universality or near universality of belief may (if certain conditions are met) provide some evidence for an objective moral truth.

But Ua is both necessary and sufficient for moral objectivity. This would mean that universality, in this sense, obtains just in case moral objectivity obtains.

Another way of putting that last claim is that universality—in the sense of universal authority or applicability—is true if and only if moral objectivity is true. In other words, both of these claims are true: Ua is true if moral objectivity is true, and Ua is true only if moral objectivity is true.

Represented symbolically, they would look like this, respectively:

MO –> Ua, and Ua –> MO.

Such universality, along with moral objectivity, mutually imply one another, which can be expressed with a biconditional like this:

Ua <—-> MO.

Detective Morse and Post-Modern Relativism

By Tom Thomas

In the mid 1960’s, Detective Constable Morse ponders the death of a young bricklayer Barry Fink at Mapplewick Hall estate north of Oxford, England.  Detective Constable Morse is the central character in Masterpiece Theater’s ‘Endeavour’ series based on ground-breaking crime writer Colin Dexter’s novels.  Detective Morse is an Oxford University dropout.  When his love affair failed so did his academic performance.  He then joined the army and after his discharge the police force.

The years have not tarnished the scholarly mind which entered Oxford with a scholarship.  Viewed in the police force as a bit of a fish out of water, he relishes poetry, classical music, and a pint of ale.  Fellow officers begrudgingly admit he has a brilliant nose for making abstruse connections in erudite Oxford crimes. While studying bricklayer Barry Fink’s suspicious death at Mapplewick Hall, Morse is also assigned to guard a controversial activist Mrs. Joy Pettybon.  Mrs. Pettybon is an outspoken conservative crusader against smutty language on TV.  She is bringing her national campaign ‘National Clean Up TV’ to Oxford.

Her ‘Clean Up TV’ crusade targets a nationally popular rock group ‘Wildwood’ (think Pink Floyd) who locates, of all places, at Mapplewick Hall estate. Mrs. Pettybon is to dialogue with ‘Wildwood’ on the weekly current affairs TV show Almanac.  As Detective Morse accompanies Mrs. Pettybon to her TV appearance, he wonders about the connection of Mapplewick Hall to the dead bricklayer and ‘Wildwood’.

The faceoff between Mrs. Pettybon and ‘Wildwood’ is broadcast.  Caricatured as an old fashioned ‘party pooper’, Mrs. Pettybon accuses ‘Wildwood’ of ramming down the throats of people in their homes sexually explicit and drug referent lyrics.  Viewers should not be subjected to ‘dirty’ lyrics in their home.   Rock group leader, Nick Wilding, is amused.  He smugly asks her, ‘What is dirty?’  This is the edgy, post-modern, ‘gotcha’ question relished by the ‘Endeavour’ writers. ‘Dirty’ is dirty’ she responds.  Nick retorts, ‘What’s dirty to you might be quite acceptable to someone else…quite normal in fact’.  Snigger, snigger.

Here the show ‘Endeavour’ revealed its post-modern penchant for pressing the philosophy of moral relativism.  Moral relativism holds actions are moral only for those who think them so.  They are not moral for everyone, let alone objectively or absolutely true.  Others may hold different behaviors are moral.  One cannot expect what one believes to be moral or true for anybody else who does not believe it.[i]

We watched ‘Endeavour’ to enjoy a good crime mystery; however, ‘Endeavour’ was interested in peddling moral relativism.  I was provoked with its ‘air’ of self-assurance that the argument is unassailable.  I wondered if they knew ethicists consider it a difficult ethical position to maintain.  It has been readily observed relativism’s own assertion is its logical contradiction.  If it is believed there is no moral claim true for everybody, then one is making a moral claim one applies to everybody!  The very claim ‘No moral claim is true for everybody’ denies the possibility of this absolutist statement.

Though Plato’s refutation of Protagoras’s promulgation of relativism is slick and not irrefutable, it exposes relativism’s vulnerability:

Most people believe that Protagoras’s doctrine is false.

Protagoras, on the other hand, believes his doctrine to be true.

By his own doctrine, Protagoras must believe that his opponents’ view is true.

Therefore, Protagoras must believe that his own doctrine is false (see Theaetetus: 171a) c).[ii]

That is, if Protagoras and relativists are true to their relativistic belief, they must accept their opponent’s rejection of their view.  They have to allow their opponents who say they are wrong are right!  Oddly, in making the case for relativism one argues for its own refutation!

Back to ‘Endeavour’ and Detective Morse.  If ‘Endeavour’ premises crime is not good, then the consequences ‘Endeavour’ portrays of a relativistic philosophy are telling arguments against moral relativism.  Just as the claim of relativism boomerangs back upon itself, so do its consequences.  Detective Morse finds out the bricklayer Barry Fink died at Mapplewick Hall while in bed with ‘Wildwood’ rock band lead singer Nick (who was found comatose from an overdose) and Pippa, a girl groupie – a bisexual threesome.  A fourth person, Emma, was stalking the bedroom that night and found no place in bed next to Nick.  She was jealous of Barry Fink for stealing Nick’s affections from her.  So, she strangled him.  Her intense jealousy led her to murder.  ‘Polyamory’ creates jealousy between ‘lovers’ which in turn incites murder which leads to criminal charges. One overdosed, one dead, and one charged with murder!  A pretty good night for moral relativism!  Unintentionally, ‘Endeavour’s’ moral of the story is, the moral consequences of a relativistic philosophy are its own telling argument against it!




[i] Trigg, Roger, Philosophy Matters: An Introduction to Philosophy(Madlen, Mass:  Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002), pp. 59-60

[ii] Swoyer, Chris, “Relativism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

Image: “The World’s Greatest Dective.” by Kit. CC license. 

Sophocles and the Doctrine of Sin: A Reflection on Teaching Greek Tragedy


Josh Herring

This past year I taught 9th grade Ancient Literature for the second time. My first year teaching this curriculum I spent too much time in Homer, and did not make it to tragedy; this year, my goal was to pace the course correctly and work through the most significant plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Along the journey, I discovered an unexpected blessing of teaching Greek tragedy: no other literature I have taught highlights quite so well the reality, the unavoidability, and the consequences of sin. I spent seven weeks with sixty 9th graders discussing questions of justice, inherited guilt, atonement, reconciliation, and grief. As a Christian educator in a secular school, I feel a burden to urge my students to consider topics I believe will prepare them for the gospel, and teaching Sophocles led to just such a discovery.

In setting the context for Oedipus Rex, I explained the play’s basic assumption that the plague in the city of Thebes resulted from a violation of the universe’s moral law; the action of the play then, is a mystery solving the crime and rooting out the perpetrator. When the story unfolded and Oedipus’ guilt became increasingly plausible, I learned one of my students was a fervent relativist. He asserted adamantly that every person has a value system and that no one value system is preferable to another. People are good or bad based on how well they achieve their chosen values. This student left me scratching my head; how could I steer him towards truth without coming right out and telling him he is wrong? How do I guide him dialogically to discover that his thinking is insufficient? Fortunately, Sophocles himself resolved my dilemma.

That night, the students read a section of Oedipus Rex which made the incestuous relationship between Oedipus and Iocaste unmistakable; my student came in the next afternoon with a new declaration: “Mr. Herring, that’s wrong!” “Whether it fits his value system or not?” I responded. “Yes – that, that right there, is wrong.” Leave it to the Greeks—their licentiousness notwithstanding—to enshrine moral rock bottom in their literature. The battle for truth is in no way won; I suspect this student and I will go back and forth on the nature of truth for the next three years. But his declaration of “wrongness” struck me: Sophocles reached for a universal category in his drama, and in so doing he communicates down through the ages to our own “secular age.”

There is a sense in which it is harder to teach virtue than it used to be; teachers of years past could frame their moral instruction capitalizing on a common biblical literacy. Today, the idea of “loving your neighbor” because “God first loved you” simply does not compute without lengthy preparation. If we have lost the common cultural framework of biblical literacy, however, we are not left to our own devices to begin re-establishing the categories of sin and guilt. These are universal human experiences, and they underpin the best literature.

Sophocles can teach us moral fundamentals; sleeping with your mother and producing children offends the universe, human sensibility, and civic law. In Antigone, Sophocles has the title character appeal to the “unwritten laws of God” to justify her actions. In this line lies the glory of human literature as a moral teacher. On the other hand, therein also lies its insufficiency. Poets can discern sin, just as Paul calls the law the teacher of sin. Incest, pride, atheism, child murder: the tragedians illustrate the wrongness of these things. And yet, they can point to nothing more certain than the “unwritten laws of God” to prove the wrongness of these actions. These tragedies pull on a common human awareness of wrong actions, but fail to answer the desire for something clear, certain, and definitive.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the divine wrote down the rules? And then clarified them for us? This of course is exactly what we have in the Bible. We have the clarity of the Ten Commandments and the extensive development of practical outworkings all grounded in the nature of a loving God who created all things and knows our best interests. Suddenly, we have a sense of why hubris is dangerous: because God made us humans for a certain place, and the man of pride reaches for more than God intended. In the overreach lies the dangerous fall. Incest, too, offends the created order, wherein God intended human beings to form new covenant communities to diversify across the earth so that new facets of his image are revealed across creation. Scripture also shows us an alternative for guilt. We run not away from the angry Greek gods of Sophocles but to the loving God who through bloodshed atones for our wrongdoing. The Bible looks to the same universal problems and longings Greek tragedy addresses, but with hope.

Pascal famously wrote of a “God-shaped void” in every human heart; Greek tragedy can illuminate this void, but does nothing to fill it.

After seven weeks in the wonderful poetry of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes, I reached three conclusions. First, tragedy operates in a pre-evangelistic manner. The stories are simple, but so well-crafted that the reader becomes imminently mindful that he may have committed some great evil unawares just like Oedipus. Second, tragedy highlights a missing certainty in 21st century post-postmodernity. Reading Oedipus Rex worked to “blow the roof off” of my student’s assumptions that morality is completely relative, beginning a further conversation about the existence of moral truth. Third, tragedy is like a cancer diagnosis without chemotherapy; it provides no hope. Without the gospel, without the real word from a real God, we are left with Oedipus in despair over what our understanding reveals. Unless God is real and the Bible is true, we stand with Nietzsche gazing into the abyss of existence with no authentic response but despair.

Pascal famously wrote of a “God-shaped void” in every human heart; Greek tragedy can illuminate this void, but does nothing to fill it. In seeking some sort of atonement, Oedipus blinds himself, Iocaste commits suicide, and (in a later play) Antigone ends the evil of her existence by hanging herself. Tragedy looks at the human experience, sees the reality of sin, and concludes that nothing but despair remains. Where the tragedians despair, the gospel proclaims hope. Christ himself enters our tragedy and in the greatest eucatastrophe in human history reverses the tragic into the salvific.


Image: Bénigne Gagneraux, The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods, Public Domain 

Chapter 5, Part 2b, C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations, “Constructivism”:

Summary by David Baggett

God and Moral Obligation by C. Stephen Evans 


Perhaps one might think the objectionable features of Harman’s view come from his decision to treat moral obligations as the outcome of relativistic social bargains that individuals freely enter into. It’s thus worth investigating whether moral obligations can be understood as the result of a social agreement that is ideal and perhaps for that reason universal.

Ronald Milo has proposed a view that he calls “contractarian constructivism.” It holds that moral truths are most plausibly construed as truths about an ideal social order. On this view, a certain kind of act is wrong just in case a social order prohibiting such acts would be chosen by rational contractors under suitably idealized conditions. This introduces a number of questions. For example, are the decisions based on making possible some good? And if so, isn’t this an abandonment of contractarianism, since it’s the good the guides the contractors’ decisions? Milo tries to avoid this by saying the practical reasoning of the contractors will be shaped by “means—end” reasoning as to how best to satisfy our desires. The aim is to improve the satisfactoriness of our lives. But Evans notes that this stance still involves a theory of the good, namely, a desire-fulfillment theory, and such an account of the good is as realistic as any other, since it seems committed to the claim that it is objectively good for humans to satisfy as many of their desires as possible. It’s also a controversial theory, but there is a more fundamental problem with the whole project.

What authority do the decisions of these hypothetical contractors have over actual individuals? Even if we decided that there are true counterfactuals of this type and that we could know what they are, why should the decisions of these non-actual people be binding on actual people? If I don’t accept their view of the good, then there is no reason to think I would agree with the views about right and wrong that they base on their theory of the good. One might try to avoid this by saying the contractors have no theory of the good at all, but this should only make us more suspicious.

The best attempt Evans knows to resolve this problem of authority is provided by David Gauthier in his Morals by Agreement. He tries to motivate a social contract approach to moral theory by seeing such an agreement as a way of trying to resolve “prisoner’s dilemma” situations. In these scenarios, two accused criminals—call them Ed and Fred—have the chance to confess to a more serious offense. The situation is stipulated such that it appears that whatever Fred does, Ed will be better off confessing. If Ed and Fred, though, could somehow count on each other not to confess, then each would get a small penalty. It looks like the best strategy for both of them would be to reach an agreement not to confess, but there is little reason for them to behave in this way without some assurance the other will keep the agreement.

Gauthier believes that such prisoner’s dilemma situations are not simply unusual possibilities, but capture many features of actual human social interaction. There are many situations in which, if every individual in a group pursues his or her self-interest, the outcome for everyone in the group will be much worse than would be the case if the individuals accept some restraints on their self-interest. Without an agreement regulating our behavior, in the actual world we are doomed to “non-optimal outcomes that, in ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma-type’ situations, may be little better than disastrous.” The solution is an agreement that creates duties that limit our quest for self-interest, though in the long run the agreement actually furthers our self-interest. Duty overrides advantage, but the acceptance of duty is truly advantageous. The authority of the agreement lies in the advantages the agreement makes possible, along with the fact that those who are party to the agreement will withdraw their cooperation towards those who fail to comply.

Is the agreement actual or hypothetical? Evans thinks Gauthier thinks that both can be true. The agreements may be implicit rather than explicit, but they are not a “mere fiction” since they give rise to new modes of interaction. Gauthier thinks that the authority of actual agreements depends on the degree to which they resemble an ideal agreement. He argues that ideal agreement is one that adheres to the “principle of minimax relative concession,” in which the maximum that each party is asked to concede is as small as possible, thus giving everyone reason to commit to the agreement.

Gauthier’s attempt to see morality as a solution to the disasters that stem from unfettered pursuit of self-interest is powerful, and it’s a creative effort to get beyond Harman’s relativism. But Evans thinks many of the same problems beset Gauthier’s solution. For example, it’s still not clear why an agreement that would be made by ideally rational agents under certain conditions (which in fact do not hold) is binding on actual individuals. It seems unlikely that the agreement that it would be reasonable for an individual to keep if other people could be counted on to behave morally is binding on actual individuals, who know that in the real world people frequently lie and cheat.

It’s true that those who are known to violate the agreement can be penalized by others who keep the rules, but this only gives a reason to keep the agreement when breaking it is likely to be detected and the offender is likely to face some serious sanction if it is detected. Gauthier admits he isn’t claiming it’s never rational for one person to take advantage of another, never rational to comply with unfair practices. But Evans points out that this is simply to abandon key elements of the Anscombe intuition, since on such a view moral obligations are not always overriding and do not apply with equal force to everyone.

Perhaps to solve such a problem Gauthier suggests another response to the problem of why individuals should keep their agreement to behave morally. Morality can’t really survive if we are purely self-interested individuals who behave like “economic man.” What must happen is that we must strive to be like the “just man,” whose feelings are engaged by morality and adheres not because of self-interest, but because he simply loves the ideals he is committed to. But this limits the authority of morality to those with the relevant feelings.

The last difficulty Evans raises with Gauthier’s theory concerns the scope of the moral obligations as these are understood. Evans has argued that moral obligations are universal in scope: applying to all humans, and at least some obligations extending to all humans. It’s hard to see how an agreement grounded in self-interest could be the basis for obligations of this type. Gauthier concedes that animals, the unborn, the congenitally handicapped and defectives fall beyond the pale of morality tied to mutuality.

Nor is it easy to see why people in one human society should have obligations towards people in some distant land, particularly if the people in the distant land are too poor and weak to threaten or benefit the people in the first society.

Gauthier imagines such cultural contact between privileged purple people and impoverished green people, and gives three reasons why the purples might decide to treat the greens in a moral way. First, it may in the purples’ self-interest. Second, the purples may have become the kind of people who are so disposed to kind and compassionate treatment that they literally have no choice but to treat the greens well. Evans says this would only be plausible if human nature were completely transformed.

Third, the purples may possess a certain measure of sympathy for all whom they consider human. Evans replies, though, by saying it’s hard to see how such feelings of sympathy by themselves could be the basis of real moral obligations. All of the considerations to which Gauthier appeals manifestly fail to provide a foundation for genuine moral obligations that are overriding, binary in character, motivating, and universal. The contrast between such a view and a divine command account of moral obligations is clear.

Find the other chapter summaries here. 

Image: “Construction Time Again” by Victory is Mine. CC license.