Why I am an Objectivist

By Alex Newhouse

Often I find myself debating against people who argue that it is impossible to know the best way to live a life, or the best moral code, or the best way to understand the universe. More often than not, I find that Middlebury students especially hold subjectivism as their method of approaching these issues. From all of these conversations, I have learned something vital: It is really, really hard to come to any sort of definitive conclusion about the problems that affect the core essence of people’s identities. But I have also come to believe that even though it is hard, that certainly does not mean that we should not try. Just because you cannot prove beyond all shadow of a doubt that a certain way is the objective way does not mean that you should give up attempting to find the best way possible.

I believe in an objective moral truth because the alternative is too permissive, too dangerous and too contradictory to what it means to be human. As moral subjectivism becomes the norm, especially among Middlebury students, we find ourselves trapped in agnosticism that prevents us from making any definitive statement against morally reprehensible acts. Sure, we can say that our own moral codes direct us to speak out against violence and human rights violationsbut what happens when ritual violence is a core component of a culture? What happens when we have to confront religiously motivated mutilation, or sacrificial traditions that go back millennia, that cause harm to innocent people?

We find ourselves in a bind. On the one hand, our sensibilities are rightly hurt. We feel outraged at the horrifying abuses wrought against people. But on the other, how do we, as generally western-centric thinkers, feel justified in inhibiting a fundamental part of a culture? We are too often slowed by this indecision and by our fear that our moral code might be wrong.

This fear is not misplaced. It is terrifying to think that our western ideals might cause us to violate human rights in much the same ways as the people we are trying to stop. It is vital to understand that we do not have all the answers, and we have to respect the wishes of everyone in this world (to an extent). We do not have all the answers, and the popular western conception of morality is far from perfect.

Nonetheless, our moral agnosticism needs to give way. We, as humans, share a bond with all other humans in this world. We are of the same species. It is evolutionarily coded into our very being that we all want the safety that facilitates our survival, and the freedom to live without pain; to make our own choices, and, on a biological level, to reproduce. Just given this foundational aspect of humanity something that stands apart from any subjectivism, that is objectively true by its very naturewe can make a declarative statement about what constitutes a moral action. A moral action is something that protects those most basic desires of all humans. You strip all of society away, all of our environmental pressures away, all of our accumulated knowledge away, and you are left with humans who just want to survive and reproduce and, given that, to live a quality life. Thus, to cast aside that moral agnosticism, all you have to do is look at the hardwiring of our DNA, those elements that are the reasons why we all still live after two billion years of biological evolution.

People occasionally respond to this by saying that I have no way of knowing that this conception of morality works for everyone. I have no way of knowing that every single individual will perceive morality in this same way. They say I cannot make a declarative statement about morality, because there is no way I know that my code is better than any other individual’s.

They are right. I cannot prove it. But I do not need to prove it. I just know that, for virtually every person who has ever existed, life and the absence of pain are the most fundamental desires they have. To infringe on those is to be immoral because you are going against the very fabric of life. I also do not need to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt because as soon as a person’s actions bring them to potentially harming another person, morality automatically reverts to a more external, worldly conception than any of the individuals’ beliefs about it. If one of the individuals truly believes that it is moral to kill or maim or otherwise harm an innocent other, in all likelihood the other person will not allow this to happen if he or she is cognizant of the consequences. Thus, the two codes are in conflict.

A universal moral code would declare the first person immoral because they attempt to infringe upon the most basic, most fundamental rights of the other person. We do not have to treat all conceptions of morality as equivalent just because we cannot prove an objective moral truth. What we can do, however, is act according to those things which define us as organic life forms. We can act knowing that we are in the right because we are acting to improve the human condition for the greatest number of people.

Further, I do not need to prove it because proving it would be impossible. The range of human life is too diverse for us to ever discover a catchall moral standard that applies to literally every situation ever. But just like how gravity will always be an extremely high probability rather than a definitive fact, so too can a moral standard be more probable, more valid, and more widely applicable than everything else. If we were to insist upon a proof to understand science, science would not exist outside of individual observations.

So why do we hold morality to that same standard? It is fully acceptable to be a moral objectivist based on probability and not fact.

We should thus learn to accept the possibility that not every moral code is equal. Not every act that someone hails as morally justifiable is actually that. We should grow to understand that just because we can never prove something to be definitive, does not mean that that lack of proof is evidence for the opposite. I cannot and will not ever be able to prove that my conception of morality is right. But at least there is evidence to show that life and liberty are not just human inventions, but are rather biologically hardwired desires in humans. At least there is evolutionary evidence to show that people want to be good to one another and want to respect these rights. This is sufficient to hold protection of these rights as an objective moral standard. If another moral code wants that title, it better give a legitimate reason why.