Michael Horner's Blog

    “How do you know objective moral values and obligations exist?”

    Written by Michael Horner

    Photo by Jeremy M Farmer

    How do you know objective moral values and obligations exist? You haven’t proved it. You are just manipulating people’s emotions with these examples, and this conclusion is based on nothing more than feelings, not evidence!”

    Last time I mentioned that even though most people respond to examples of horrible violations of moral values by recognizing the objective reality of those values, there are still a few who don’t buy it. They sense that something is up – some sleight of hand has taken place.

    Well, they have a point. What they have correctly perceived is that I have not provided any arguments or evidence for the claim that objective moral values and obligations exist.  At the heart of the matter is the fact that they cannot  accept the idea that someone could know something to be true without there being some empirical evidence in support of the belief.

    There are probably elements of three ideologies behind their response: empiricism, scientism and evidentialism. You will likely be on familiar terms with these three ‘isms’ even if you aren’t familiar with their definitions. They are, to a large degree, just part of the cultural milieu in which we have been brought up.

    Empiricism is the view that all knowledge is the result of sensory experience. On this view if what you claim to know has not been sensed by one or more of your 5 senses, then you do not have knowledge.

    Scientism is similar in that it claims that knowledge can only be obtained through the scientific method, which of course involves empirical observation. Evidentialism is the view that one is justified in holding a belief only if one has good evidence for it.

    My guess is that for most people brought up in the west, at least empiricism and evidentialism, and possibly scientism, are at the core of their epistemological assumptions – that is, they determine what one counts as knowledge. I have recently discovered that I have been influenced by these 3 ‘isms’ much more than I had previously realized.

    And this is why I think some people find it difficult to accept that objective moral values and obligations exist in the absence of proof or evidence. When I ask them if torturing toddlers for sport is morally wrong, I’m not providing empirical evidence. I’m merely trying to help people directly experience the moral truth at hand.

    Rather than providing arguments or evidence, which I can and do on other occasions, I find it more persuasive for most people to directly experience the moral truth that, for example, torturing toddlers for sport is wrong.

    The moral order of values is on similar footing as the natural order of physical objects. Just as we assume the reality of the world of physical objects on the basis of our sense experience, so too we assume the reality of the moral order on the basis of our moral experience.

    Philosopher W.L. Craig comments, “Philosophers who reflect on our moral experience see no more reason to distrust that experience than the experience of our five senses. I believe what my five senses tell me, that there is a world of physical objects out there. Similarly, in the absence of some reason to distrust my moral experience, I should accept what it tells me, that some things are objectively good or evil, right or wrong.”

    Having been thoroughly conditioned by empiricism and evidentialism, I was quite surprised when I finally realized that I can and do gain knowledge of some moral truths apart from the use of my five physical senses. This is an example of what philosophers call knowledge by acquaintance.

    Can you think of any other category where we might have knowledge of reality apart from empirical evidence?

    One Response to ““How do you know objective moral values and obligations exist?””

    • david says:

      for most people moral choices do not involve matters of the holocaust or torturing children. If a person could comprehend the gravity of moral realism in common matters of human life, what might be the aspects of such an understanding ?

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