Objective vs. Universal Moral Values and Duties

At our last meeting we spent some time discussing various meta-ethical issues, such as the possibility of an atheist/agnostic’s being able to provide an adequate theory for the grounding of objective moral values and duties. Somehow this led to my making a distinction between the words objective and universal with respect to moral values and duties.

I argued that objective means simply that a value or duty is such independently of human opinion and knowledge. The opposite of such a notion would be subjective, implying that the value does depend on human knowledge and opinion.

Universal denotes something akin to being applicable over all times and places, regardless of circumstance or contextual factors. The opposite of universal, used in this sense, would be particular, meaning that it only has a localized application.

Notice that a value could be objective, and thus beyond mere human opinion, yet not universal. It may be that moral values have evolved for their survival value, being instilled by evolution, and are thus objective, not being derived from human opinion or knowledge. In this case they would not be universal because they presumably wouldn’t have existed before they evolved, and they may change, perhaps drastically, in the future. On such a view the laws are not universally applicable, but they meet the criteria for objectivity.

A value could also be universal without being objective. Imagine a world in which all human beings agreed entirely upon a certain set of moral laws, a set which they developed themselves by a deliberate process of focused contemplation and debate. In this case, the values would be universal, being shared by all and thus applicable to all, yet they would be completely subjective. So objectivity does not equate to universality.

A question arose after the meeting about the practical application of such a distinction. Maybe the distinction is technically correct, but is it useful? This surprised me, not because I think it a silly question, but because, as a person with a reasonably strong interest in philosophy, I often appreciate discovering obscure truths for their own sake. That is, I so enjoy uncovering a truth that I often fail to analyze its applicability in the field. That’s not to say that these truths never pay dividends, or that they never become battle-tested. I just normally leave them dormant in my mind until a situation arises in which they spring to life in all their efficacious vigour. This happens to me rather frequently.

In this instance, however, I was forced to think about its usefulness on the spot, and it seems to me that the distinction between objective and universal moral values and duties is practically useful indeed.

I take it as a general principle that the smaller the pill I have to ask the sceptic to swallow the better. This is generally applicable in both philosophical and theological discussions. If I can utilize elements that are already accepted by my opponent, if I can concede much of their presuppositions, even if only for the sake of argument, yet still make my point with clarity and existential force, then it’s much more likely that my interlocutor will take my view seriously.

This is why I don’t debate macroevolution with unbelievers. It’s not that I think the topic uninteresting; rather, it’s extremely fascinating, but a person can easily retain his belief in macroevolution and believe the Gospel. This may prove inconsistent with Scripture, but I’m not asking him to accept that the Bible is authoritatively given by God; I’m asking him to accept the saving Grace of God made manifest in the work of Jesus Christ in His death on a cross and resurrection three days later. The evolution debate can happen later.

If we take this principle to the issue of grounding objective moral values and duties, I think we can see an analogous application. Many people in Western society believe that there is no universal morality even within our own time, let alone over the course of human history. Of course, I think that this is false, but getting a person to drop this baggage, accumulated over a lifetime spent in our increasingly relativistic culture, is a mammoth task. But there is a great argument for God’s existence from the existence of objective moral values and duties, sometimes called the axiological argument. This argument is compelling, and I find that it has great impact on many. But it depends entirely on a person’s accepting with little argument that there are, in fact, objective moral values and duties. Now if this concept of objectivity is tied up with notions of universality, if objective values and duties are conflated with universal values and duties, then people will be far less likely to acknowledge that objective values and duties exist at all.

So the distinction is practical as well as abstract, because it gives us the opportunity to leave an otherwise thorny issue aside, and focus on something that is far less controversial in the minds of our listeners. Once (if) they accept and obey the Gospel and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, the interesting, yet less critical, debates can take place, with much more fruit being produced.


About Shawn Clayton Ferguson

I have a B.A. in philosophy with distinction from the University of Calgary. I'm a Christian seeking to share the good news of the coming Kingdom of God. You can learn more about me on my website at www.waxaxiomatic.ca.
This entry was posted in General Apologetics, Objections, Philosophy, Religions and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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