From a different perspective: How would you approach the position that morality is totally derived from human neurological structure? That is, the basis for human social interaction is entirely based in the physical, and thus so are morals......My perspective, laid bare, is this: Moral standards are indeed based in the structure of the human brain, and arise naturally from patterns in human social behavior. So then morality cannot be called objectively true nor objectively false, it is entirely emotive and psychological.
Throughout human history, individuals and societies have constructed moral standards to govern their behavior and to give expression to their normative viewpoints. We call the fruits of these efforts conventional morality.
Conventional morality is created by us, for us, and serves an adaptive evolutionary role. Properly understood, there's no denying that conventional
morality is reducible to brain activity. In fact, every kind
of belief is reducible to brain activity, so there's nothing really unique about identifying moral beliefs with cognition. Beliefs of every kind have in common this feature of deriving from brain activity. No moral objectivist denies that conventional morality, as a set or system of beliefs, just is
the product of brain activity. But our beliefs, moral or otherwise, might be objectively true for all that. My belief
that the Rockies are taller than the Appalachians is totally derived from
brain activity, to be sure, but it also happens to be the case that my belief is objectively true. So what the moral objectivist insists on is the existence of a further, nonconventional morality, which is true independent of human cognition, and which can serve as a standard for assessing the merits and shortcomings of conventional morality. In other words, objectivism allows that conventional morals are fallible and can sometimes be mistaken.
Much resistance to moral objectivism stems from puzzlement about how there could be nonconventional or objective
moral standards that are not human creations. If brain activity doesn't fix the content of objective morality, then what does? Well, what fixes the objective content of natural laws in physics, biology, or chemistry? Certainly not our say-so. Indeed, our brains give us the vocabulary
for expressing physical laws in symbolic language, but our brains aren't the final arbiters on their objective truth. Imagine a world prior to ourselves and the existence of any language. There actually was such a world--this one. There were still countless facts about the earth's nature, despite the absence of anyone who could have said what they were. Further, those facts would have remained facts even if human beings had never existed--even if there never were any beings capable of conceptualizing them and rendering them into symbolic language. More importantly, the physical laws governing those facts existed long before us, and will continue to exist, long after we are gone. These laws are objectively true because they obtained prior to, and independent of, human opinion.
So here's the point. Since objectively true physical laws governed the world and everything in it long before the emergence of brain activity, it must be true that not every principle expressible in symbolic language is necessarily dependent on, or reducible to, or totally derived from,
human cognition. Gravity, which we discovered, operated long before we hit the scene, even though the principle of gravity
, a human invention, "is based in the structure of the human brain." Now, if we can have objectivity independent of brain activity, and if we can have objective physical laws independent of brain activity, why can't we have objective moral laws independent of brain activity? More importantly, what is it about moral laws which exclude them from being objectively true in the same sense as physical laws?
One common response runs as follows: while scientific
laws are objectively true, normative laws
--those that tell us what we ought
to do, or how we should
behave--are altogether different in nature. Even if we concede the existence of objectively true physical laws, we still need some reason to think that moral laws, which are obviously normative, are also objectively true. So, what the moral objectivist needs to show in order to build a plausible case for the possibility of objective moral laws are examples of objective normative laws, since objective normative laws would contain the same essential features objective moral laws would also contain (as opposed to objective physical laws).
Here's three examples: (1) the laws of logic and rationality are normative. They tell us what we ought
to do. But no one invented them. We gave them a vocabulary, to be sure, but the law of non-contradiction, which states that something cannot be both P and not-P, obtains independently of human opinion--indeed obtained long before humans ever hit the scene. (2) If you have excellent evidence for one claim, and this entails a second claim, then you
should believe that second claim. (3) If you are faced with contradictory propositons, and know that one of them is false, then you must
accept the other.
None of these are moral principles. But they are
normative ones. If any principles are objective, these are. So we have here objective normative laws, ones we use all the time in debates. These normative laws are beyond the purview or verdict of the physical sciences, yet they are objectively true. Just as brain activity is not the arbiter of objective physical laws, but an instantiation of them, so brain activity is not the arbiter of objective normative laws, but an instantiation of them. Lastly, laws and principles needn't be instantiated by brain activity in order to be objectively true, since physical laws, and the laws of logic, obtained long before humans ever hit the scene. Taking the limits of brain activity for the limits of a credible ontology is question-begging.
But suppose one insists that this is just white noise. These normative examples cannot be objective, we invented them, really! The difference being that evidence for physical laws is empirical
, and that
is why we can confirm that they alone are objective. Conversely, normative laws lack empirical evidence, so they cannot be objective. The problem with this rebuttal is that it undercuts its own authority by implicitly relying on the unquestioned objectivity of a normative claim. What do I mean by that? Consider:
P1: If one knows that a claim is true, then one must have adequate evidence for that claim.
P2: Adequate evidence must come in the form of empirical support.
P3: There is inadequate empirical support for any purportedly objective moral claim.
C: Therefore, there are no objective moral truths.
(P2) is false. In fact, if it were true, then we would not be justified in believing it, since there is no determinative empirical evidence that would substantiate (P2)! (P2) is a normative claim, and as such cannot be decisively vindicated by reference to empirical evidence, according to its own criterion. (P2), therefore, is self-contradictory. Moral claims, being normative/philosophical ones, are largely a priori and so not subject to empirical confirmation. The moral skeptic is in a bind here. He can either:
(1) Bite the bullet and accept that (P2) is false, in which case he must abandon the argument from empirical support
and find another to levy against moral objectivism.
(2) Insist that (P2) is true, in which case he is arguing against objective normative claims on the basis of an objective normative claim, which is contradictory.
Given that we now have examples of (nonmoral) normative laws that are objectively true, it is becoming increasingly plausible that objective (moral) laws might also exist as well. I certainly haven't proven that to be the case--far from it. Proofs are notoriously difficult to come by in philosophy. But I believe I have cast sufficient doubt on the assertion that because conventional moral principles are the product of brain activity, this must
rule out the possibility of an objectively true morality obtaining independently of human cognition.