No Comments

Last night the New Zealand Parliament overwhelmingly voted to go ahead with the marriage Equality Bill. A common comment is that it’s time had come. It would have not been possible 10 years ago.

Is this just an example of moral relativism, laws and rules being decided by what is fashionable? By our current whims and fancies? The situation which is supposed to result from subjective morality.

Or does it illustrate progress? Are we getting better at deciding what is truly “right” or “wrong?” This implies that there are some sort of objective standards – an objective basis for human morality.

I argue for the second position – you can see that from my earlier posts Objective or subjective laws and lawgivers and Subjective morality – not what it seems?This is like Matt Dillahunty‘s argument - “If it was wrong then, it is wrong now.” If we decide today that marriage equality is morally right, then it was also right 10 years ago when we didn’t recognise that.

Slavery, racism, discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation may have been socially acceptable in the past. We may have believed them to be OK morally. But they were still morally wrong. Marriage inequality was socially acceptable 10 years ago, but it was still morally wrong.

Human morality based on evolved biological value

I say that because I think there is an objective basis to human morality. At least on some issues, we can say there is a “correct” moral decision – even if society doesn’t see it. That “correct” position does not depend on popular vote, fashion, or the whims and fancies of a leaders, society, a divine “lawmaker” or a god.

In Subjective morality – not what it seems?“  I briefly outlined an objective basis for human morality derived from evolved biological value. I won’t develop that further here, although I recognise some people find it controversial. But if there is an objective basis for human morality why do we see the differences we do between different societies and cultures? Why do we see this moral drift within our own society? Despite an objective basis in our evolved biology our moral decisions can differ over time and place. What drives these differences?

I also compared our moral system to a modern camera in the last post. Most people in most situations use their moral camera in the “auto mode”. It’s far more efficient to rely on feelings, emotions and our reaction to them than to consult our “holy books” or carry out a logical consideration for each moral situation we face. We would have gone extinct long ago if that was the way we worked.

Using the “manual” mode

However, we do sometimes use the manual mode – that’s what happened in Parliament last night. The manual mode is necessary when we rehearse moral arguments, consider new ethical situations, deliberate on ethical rules and laws. As the caption to the photo of Joshua Greene in the last post says our automatic ethical responses just “may not be effective in handling modern moral problems such as global warming.”

Mind you we are more a rationalising species than a rational one. An individual considering their response to a moral situation is not necessarily using good or unmotivated logic. They rarely are. In fact modern research suggests that inevitably our feelings and emotions are involved in our apparently reasoning, logical considerations. So the manual mode is far from perfect (and admit it, how often do you make mistakes when you use your camera’s manual mode).

We don’t always get it right.

Reasoned consideration of ethical situations works better when more than one person is involved. Rationalisations are more likely to be noticed. Diverse opinions can be represented. But there is still no guarantee that it results in the “correct” moral decisions determined by the objectively based nature of our values and the situation being considered. I think, though, like scientific knowledge it is something that improves with time and experience. Society can recognise the mistakes of the past, correct them and learn from them.

Another reason is that our human nature is complex. We may have an inbuilt tendency to empathy and the golden rule, but we also have inbuilt tendencies to violence, and to a tribal “them vs us” mindset.  We are a complex species, our interactions with other humans, and with members of other species is also complex. We are not always going to make the “correct” ethical decision – even when we think we have applied careful reasoning and involved multiple viewpoints. There is always the option of in future correcting our mistakes of the past.

Effectively the NZ parliaments was doing that last night. It was recognising that previous marriage legislation had problems and that the Civil Unions Act they passed 8 years ago had still not resolved all of them.

On the whole, I think our drifting moral values indicates progress and not moral relativism.


In my next post on this subject I will discus how deliberate and intentional use of our moral camera in the manual mode can also adjust the auto mode. And even if you never use the manual mode you might find that your auto mode tends to update itself.

Similar articles