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There’s hope for objective moral standards—but how can we better live up to them?

June 2, 2021
illustration of group of people separated from the scales of justiceGetty Images

In responding to news of hate crimes, mass shootings, police brutality, or discriminatory policies, many of us react with moral indignation. We see these things as violating core principles concerning the inherent worth and rights of persons—moral principles that seem to be objectively true, not mere matters of taste or convention.

But does science leave room for such philosophical ideas, or does it instead explain them away as illusions stemming from our evolutionary conditioning? And if it does leave room for them, can it shed light on how human beings might better live up to objective moral standards?

In an article in the magazine of science and culture Nautilus, William FitzPatrick, the Gideon Webster Burbank Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy at the University of Rochester, accomplishes two aims. First, he lays out a case for hope that there is indeed “an objective and universally true human morality” (albeit one that still allows for nuance and variations according to circumstances across cultures). Second, he considers whether, given the global rise of tribalism and nationalism, “’the better angels of our nature’ are robust enough to create and sustain a better world.”

In considering “whether we should accept the debunker’s contention that our moral beliefs simply reflect ‘morally blind’ causal influences from evolution,” FitzPatrick argues that, “as in other areas of inquiry, we are capable of developing and deploying our evolved faculties, in cultural contexts of rich traditions of inquiry, in ways that are largely independent of specific evolutionary micromanagement.” It is plausible that we can do the same, he argues, in reasoning about moral issues, to discover objective moral standards, at least with the right cultural and institutional support.

But social media has enhanced the power of figures who spread false information for political gain, stoking fears that lead to tribalism—“the opposite of moral progress.” He concludes, “Our prospects for moving closer to the ideals of a plausibly objective and universal morality depend on reversing the trends that have led us here and creating an environment where the better aspects of human nature can lead us forward.”

Fitzpatrick, a specialist in metaethics, normative ethical theory, and applied ethics, is an associate editor at the journal Ethics and the author of Teleology and the Norms of Nature (Garland, 2000), in addition to numerous scholarly articles and book chapters.

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Category: Voices & Opinion