A Matter of Taste: Objective Morality, Raw Sewage, and Nutrition
Is morality a matter of taste, or a matter of objective right and wrong?
My answer to that question is “yes.”
To explain, let’s look at two hypothetical college students who are working in a computer lab. Their instructor is taking them through a rather complicated piece of software. Mike notices that Jerry, who is sitting next to him, has made a mistake. Mike believes that we should always help people when we can, so he points out the mistake and offers to help Jerry. However Jerry believes that he’s using the program correctly, and even if he wasn’t he’s the kind of person who would rather figure it out himself. He politely turns down Mike’s offer of help. In this situation neither Mike nor Jerry is wrong. Mike is just trying to be helpful, and Jerry would rather try to figure it out himself. Here the “right thing to do” is a matter of personal taste. It’s analogous to Mike offering Jerry some pistachio ice cream; if Jerry doesn’t like pistachio that’s no big deal.
Life is full of these kinds of situation. The right thing to do in one situation may not be the right thing to do in others. Different people have different needs and different ideas on what the best thing to do is. Because of this it can be very difficult to say who is “right” in certain kinds of situations, and we can have long discussions going over the merits of different moral approaches, just as we could discuss the merits of different flavors of ice cream.
Because of this it’s understandable why people would be drawn to the idea of moral relativism: the idea that morality is a matter of personal perspective, and that there is no objective “right or wrong.” From a relativist point of view those who believe in objective morality are as silly as someone saying that vanilla ice cream is the best flavor and the only one we should eat. How absurd! You can’t have “wrong” tastes after all.
The trouble is that we can have wrong tastes. If someone had a taste for sewage we would recognize that something is wrong with their taste buds, and that this is an unhealthy substance to eat. If someone had a taste for arsenic we would understand that their tastes are out of alignment. Similarly if someone has a “taste” for murdering children then we should recognize that they are still wrong to do so. If a man starts eating dirt and lead paint we know that something is very wrong with their sense of taste; similarly if someone goes on a killing spree we know that something is very wrong with their moral sense: their conscience, you might say.
Some might quibble that there is nothing objectively wrong with enjoying untreated sewage. Perhaps, but it is objectively a bad taste to have if your aim is to preserve the health of your body. Eating things that are toxic will damage your health and well-being. Similarly, certain moral actions will damage the character of the person performing them. This is a belief that has been held by adherents of objective morality for thousands of years. A “sin” is not only morally wrong but is also self-destructive. We cannot hurt others without also hurting ourselves. Socrates understood this: he encouraged us to seek the virtuous life over everything else, not out of duty but out of a kind of self-preservation.
Some moral actions, such as rape or murder, are obviously wrong, just as some tastes, such as sewage and cyanide, are also obviously out of whack. Other actions, and tastes, are less black and white, but still dangerous. If you just love trans-fat laden french fries, deep fried chicken skins, and buckets of cookie dough, your doctor may rightfully advise you to change your eating habits. Is it so strange then that moral authorities advise people to change their moral habits? Some people will lie, cheat, and steal in order to preserve or enhance their own happiness, just as some people will devour copious amounts of unhealthy food for the same reasons. These things may bring temporary happiness but are ultimately self-destructive. In this way the field of ethics is analogous to nutrition. A nutritionist may give strict orders to their patients: no more saturated fats, reduce your sodium intake, eat more fruits and vegetables. An ethicist does the same: don’t lie, don’t steal, practice empathy, be sincere. Just as good nutrition keeps the body in good shape good ethics keeps your character in good shape. With this in mind, objective morality makes more sense. Can you imagine a relativistic nutrition, where every patient chose whatever foods felt right to them? Naturally you have the right to eat what you like; but it’s pure folly to think that the person who chooses to eat nothing but cookie dough and pork rinds will be just as well off as the person who eats a balanced diet.
Some may be quick to point out that we can observe and measure the body and its health, but we can’t do the same for a person’s character. It’s true that nutrition can be empirical, while ethics is non-empirical. However not all truth is empirical in nature. The body can be directly observed, but a person’s character, their mind and soul, is currently (and may always be) unempirical in that it can’t be directly measured and recorded. Still, a person’s character can be observed by those around them on a non-empirical basis. We have no scale that can measure good character, but we can observe that Mother Theresa had a better character than Saddam Hussein, or that the kind woman down the street who always makes time for those in need has a better character than the drug dealer who has participated in several drive by shootings. Thusly, the measure of a good ethical system can be found in observing those who practice it. Are they better people? Has their character grown healthier? This knowledge is relational rather than empirical in nature, but that doesn’t make it less valid.
All this, in a nutshell, is to help explain what is meant by “objective morality”. It is the idea that just as some things are objectively harmful to consume, some actions are objectively harmful to commit, to both ourselves and others. There is more to it than that, of course. Choosing to eat sewage is one thing; choosing to rape and murder someone is obviously something very different. However these examples do share some essential points: both are self-destructive acts, and both are obviously wrong to those whose senses are working properly.