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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Objective Morality

 

From time to time, when working with clients, the topic of morality is addressed and creates a unique challenge to how I conduct practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Before proceeding with this blogpost, it may be useful to define terms.

 

When discussing “morality,” I’m addressing principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior and actions. Likewise, I’m referring to a particular system of values and principles of conduct, especially one held by a specified person or society.

 

Fundamentally, morality is comprised of morals. Regarding this matter, I stated in a blogpost entitled Morals and Ethics:

 

A moral is a person’s standard of behavior or belief concerning what is and isn’t acceptable for the individual and other people. As such, morals generally relate to what’s considered good, bad, right, wrong, or otherwise acceptable or unacceptable.

 

An ethic is a set of moral principles, especially ones relating to or affirming a specified group, field, or form of conduct. Whereas morals relate to what is thought of as pleasing or unpleasing behaviors and beliefs, ethics are essentially the rules one pledges to live by—based on morals.

 

Expanding upon this definitional standard, in a blog entry entitled On Truth, I stated:

 

Morals are subjective and considered to be based on what is perceivably true. Subjectivity relates to that which is based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions. Conversely, objectivity addresses that which is not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in consideration of or representing facts.

 

Though some people have argued with me on this matter, I maintain that there is objective reality and truth. Humans may try to know these elements, mainly experienced through subjective interpretation of data, though I posit that no one entity may lay claim possession of reality or truth.

 

Still, others have taken issue with my assertion regarding morality. I conclude that morality is essentially subjective while others declare that there is a cosmological, spiritual, or ethereal code of morality that is objective in nature.

 

For instance, when I once subscribed to the dogma of Judeo-Christian teachings, I believed that Jehovah, Yahweh, G-d, or whatever name or description one maintains for a divine creator and ruler of the cosmos was the one who devised an objective standard of morality by which all elements of creation were governed.

 

As an example, Exodus 20:15 states, “Thou shalt not steal”—a commandment said to have been issued by the Creator. From an REBT perspective, I recognize that “shalt” is a form of demandingness which in essence is a should, must, or ought-type statement.

 

If one’s religious convictions (i.e., beliefs) are predicated on the notion that a deity creates objective moral standards, then the act of stealing would violate a biblical demand and would thus be considered wrong or sinful. Concerning punishment for this immoral action, an individual is beholden to personal responsibility and accountability.

 

As a Christian, it was my religious duty (responsibility) not to steal. If I violated the objective moral demand, I would receive spiritual punishment for my actions (accountability).

 

However, I no longer subscribe to spiritual or religious principles. In fact, I’m agnostic in relation to the religious doctrine to which I once subscribed. Maybe there’s a deity that established objective morality, though I cannot be certain of this matter.

 

Psychologist Albert Ellis, who originated REBT, stated of religiosity:

 

This, in a nutshell, is both religion and neurosis; the establishment of a false or unprovable belief – faith unfounded on fact – which gives one the illusory sense that one has solved the real life problem for which one, usually quite unwittingly and unconsciously, developed the unprovable belief in the first place.

 

Therefore, an individual who rejects irrational beliefs by foregoing religiosity may struggle with the concept of objective morality. Nevertheless, there remain others who eschew religious dogma though subscribe to conceptual notions of spirituality, astrology, and others such belief systems.

 

For instance, one source describes the Libra astrological sign thusly:

 

The symbol of the scales is based on the Scales of Justice held by Themis, the Greek personification of divine law and custom. She became the inspiration for modern depictions of Lady Justice. The ruling planet of Libra is Venus along with Taurus. Libra is the only zodiac sign that is represented by an object; with the other eleven signs represented by either an animal or mythological character.


 

If a person believes that planetary energies impact human life on earth, one may conclude that morality is objectively represented by that which is materially verifiable. Whereas an individual cannot prove or disprove the existence of G-d, one can verify the existence of Venus.

 

Nevertheless, just as I don’t subscribe to the notion of Jehovah ruling the world through His objective moral demands, I have no use for the idea that celestial or cosmic entities determine objective morality. This is because such concepts don’t pass the test of falsifiability.

 

While I understand that not everything can be explained through a materialist, scientific, or rational approach to living, I stand by what was stated in my blogpost entitled In Theory:

 

Consider Hitchens’s razor—what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence. Now contemplate the Sagan standard— extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

 

Therefore, an individual who rejects irrational beliefs by foregoing spirituality, astrological, and other such belief systems may struggle with the concept of objective morality. Consequently, a nonbeliever in otherworldly elements of moral consideration may face a deterministic dilemma.

 

If one maintains that morals aren’t determined by a deity, planets, energy, or whatever, is morality truly objective? If so, according to what are such morals predicated? Regarding this consideration, one source opines:

 

It is clear that morality is a feature of humanity. However, if morality were objective then every member of our species would share the same moral values. But it is patent that we do not share the same moral values. For example, there’s clearly a lack of moral consensus with respect to our views on euthanasia, abortion, or our treatment towards non-human animals.

 

I concur with this supposition. As well, I appreciate what a separate source states about this matter:


Objective: truth independent of bias and prejudice.


Morality: that which ought to be done to achieve certain values.


Value: anything that a volitional being exerts effort to gain to maintain.


So, to know if there is objective morality we need to know:


1. Are there values that exist independent of bias and prejudice?


2. Are the means of achieving such values independent of bias and prejudice?


We can answer (1) in the affirmative by introducing an unbiased, unprejudiced volitional mind that determines the values (God). Some try to suggest that this would mean that morality is still subject to God and thus subjective; this is problematic because under such a view everything would be subjective in theism, and so the words “subjective” and “objective” would have no meaning. Instead, recognizing that an omniscient God can have no prejudice, we can see that values held by such a being would, using the above definitions, be objective.


We can also answer (1) in the affirmative using non-theological reasoning: all volitional beings, so long as they use their volition to preserve and continue their existence, in doing so demonstrate that their existence is a value (every time you choose to eat, you prove that you value your life – and your life is the only thing that enables you to hold values). Thus if values exist at all, then the volitional consciousness which creates the values is itself a value; this value is a priori, thus unprejudiced and unbiased. In summary, this view holds that each life, so long as it lives, necessarily holds itself as at least one of its values: thus there exists a universal value which is necessarily prior to all other values and experiences. Objective, albeit in a different way than the theological position holds.


Answering (2) in the affirmative is quite easy, as we live in a predictable, cause and effect world. Given some set of values, the effects of a decision will be either in line with said values or not. Some actions will necessarily not achieve the value, regardless of the actor’s opinion, and other actions will do so, again regardless of the actor’s opinion.


So, I think there are good grounds for believing that morality is objective.


Now, identifying the code of conduct that objectively achieves these objective values is non-trivial. But we must not confuse moral ontology with moral epistemology; they are distinct philosophical concerns.


As one can imagine, drawing conclusions about objectivity – whether in regards to truth, reality, or morality – is no simple task. These concerns have been contemplated by philosophers, theologians, intellectuals, and radical thinkers throughout the centuries predating this blogpost.

 

Personally, I maintain that there may be an objectively moral code that applies to humans. However, I cannot fully identify why I believe this, point to where this code originates, or accurately highlight who (if anyone) is responsible for the code. Therefore, my supposition implies subjectivity.

 

Likewise, I understand that even regarding matters of objectivity, there will be people who disagree with some proposed moral codes. As an example, consider the act of murder—the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another.

 

While I maintain there is a proper time to kill another human being (e.g., self-defense), I believe that murder is a moral bad. Nevertheless, some people may disagree with this proposal.

 

Person X may conclude that killing – regardless of whether or not it’s lawful – is conclusively wrong, no matter the circumstances. Person Y may believe that murder is justified, depending on this individual’s unique set of moral values. Using a syllogism, here is how logic and reason of this sort unfolds:

 

Logical form –

 

Major premise: a is b.

 

Minor premise: c is a.

 

Conclusion: Therefore, c is b.

 

Example –

 

Murder is acceptable under limited circumstances (e.g., retaliation).

 

The premeditative and illegal killing of a person who raped me weeks ago is murder.

 

Consequently, the premeditative and illegal killing of a person who raped me weeks ago is acceptable under limited circumstances (e.g., retaliation).

 

Because I disagree with these premises, person Y uses a moral standard that conflicts with mine. Even if person Y concludes that the preservation of human life is a moral good, this individual’s moral code is predicated on a specific caveat.

 

The qualifier of murder being acceptable under limited circumstances is subjective in nature. Nevertheless, person Y may conclude that it’s objectively true that murdering a person in retaliation for rape is morally acceptable.

 

Even though legal authorities may disagree with person Y, this individual may genuinely declare retaliation of this sort as an objectively moral good. Moreover, many people may agree with person Y’s conclusion.

 

Furthermore, some societies or nation states may condone the actions of person Y who kills a rapist in retaliation for what is considered an objectively immoral act of rape. Therefore, determination of what is or isn’t good, bad, right, or wrong isn’t as simple as one may believe.

 

This is one major reason why I don’t dictate to clients about what I believe is objectively moral. After all, I’m an REBT practitioner and it would be hypocritical for me to dispute beliefs related to demandingness while simultaneously telling people what they should or shouldn’t do.

 

People don’t need me to moralize from upon high about their beliefs, behavior, or actions. This is why I invite individuals to discern for themselves about whether or not their moral code is in alignment with personal interests and goals.

 

Still, from time to time, some clients criticize my refusal to advocate societal interests and goals through use of a perceivably objective moral framework. For instance, clients may irrationally believe that in order to work with me in a clinical setting, I must believe as they do, because they presumably adhere to societal codes of morality.

 

One who maintains that I should not use moral relativism, must not succumb to moral subjectivity, and ought to maintain a well-defined code of morality will likely self-disturb when I reject this form of demandingness. It simply isn’t my place to tell people what they ought or oughtn’t to do.

 

Nevertheless, my refusal to join with a client’s standard of morality doesn’t imply that I have no moral compass. Rather, I think it’s unethical for me to determine what is good, bad, right, wrong, or otherwise when working in a mental, emotional, and behavioral health care capacity.

 

Likewise, I don’t think it’s helpful for people to rigidly demand that I must believe or behave as clients command. Besides, what I believe is moral or immoral may not be agreed upon by my clients or other people.

 

Ultimately, my role as an REBT practitioner is to help people get better, not to agree or disagree with one’s own moral code – or subscribe to what some consider objectively moral from a societal perspective. Retaining this level of flexibility, I’m able to work with people who have wide-ranging moral divergence from that which I consider good or bad and right or wrong.

 

If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—helping you to sharpen your critical thinking skills, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

 

As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

 

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

 

 

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW

 

References:

 

AEI. (n.d.). About Albert Ellis, Ph.D. Albert Ellis Institute. Retrieved from https://albertellis.org/about-albert-ellis-phd/

CyanDean. (2022). Is morality objective or subjective? Reddit. Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/intj/comments/qjagrs/is_morality_objective_or_subjective/

Filice, A. (n.d.). Is morality objective? Philosophy Now. Retrieved from https://philosophynow.org/issues/115/Is_Morality_Objective

Guerrero, C. (2024, January 5). Libra constellation [Image]. Playground. Retrieved from https://playground.com/post/libra-constellation-starry-sky-stars-constellations-clr0xzryg062ms601mzpro61w

Hollings, D. (n.d.). Blog – Categories: Disputation. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/blog/categories/disputation

Hollings, D. (2022, October 31). Demandingness. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/demandingness

Hollings, D. (2022, March 15). Disclaimer. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/disclaimer

Hollings, D. (2023, September 8). Fair use. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/fair-use

Hollings, D. (2023, October 12). Get better. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/get-better

Hollings, D. (n.d.). Hollings Therapy, LLC [Official website]. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/

Hollings, D. (2023, July 15). In theory. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/in-theory

Hollings, D. (2024, January 2). Interests and goals. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/interests-and-goals

Hollings, D. (2023, May 18). Irrational beliefs. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/irrational-beliefs

Hollings, D. (2023, September 19). Life coaching. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/life-coaching

Hollings, D. (2023, January 8). Logic and reason. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/logic-and-reason

Hollings, D. (2023, October 2). Morals and ethics. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/morals-and-ethics

Hollings, D. (2023, April 24). On truth. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/on-truth

Hollings, D. (2022, November 7). Personal ownership. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/personal-ownership

Hollings, D. (2022, March 24). Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/rational-emotive-behavior-therapy-rebt

Hollings, D. (2024, January 4). Rigid vs. rigorous. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/rigid-vs-rigorous

Hollings, D. (2022, November 1). Self-disturbance. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/self-disturbance

Hollings, D. (2022, October 7). Should, must, and ought. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/should-must-and-ought

Hollings, D. (2023, October 17). Syllogism. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/syllogism

Hollings, D. (2023, October 22). Unfalsifiability. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/unfalsifiability

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Hitchens’s razor. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hitchens%27s_razor

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Libra (astrology). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libra_(astrology)

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Sagan standard. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagan_standard

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