In my recent series of posts in which I've attacked the idea that morality is objective, I have not sought to deny that morality of some kind is inevitable for human societies. I think it is . I also think that much of its actual content is inevitable for us ... i.e., for human beings or any species much like us. In a sense, then, we might want to say that some of the basic content of morality is objectively justified, after all, because we would not want to do without it.
In that very weak sense, I could call myself an objectivist, though this is not how the words "objective" and so on tend to be used in meta-ethical debates. (Then again, much of the terminology in meta-ethics is not used with total consistently ... to say the least.)
It would be a weak sense of "objective", as Blake Stacey said in a response to my previous post on this site. On this picture, the justification for morality is a kind of pragmatic one, based on human needs, values, interests, etc. It is also a subjective justification - not in some extreme, nihilistic sense (it's not a matter of "Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law"), but just in the sense that justifications of morality are not independent of our needs, values, interests, etc.
Still, if someone wants to claim to be a moral objectivist, or a moral realist, meaning no more than all the above, then I have no substantive quarrel with them. The trouble is that a sense that morality is much more strongly objective seems to be assumed in (much) commonsense meta-ethical thinking, and of course naive religious meta-ethics typically claims that there is a grounding for morality in the will of a deity, which creates absolute standards of right and wrong. It is a trite observation that people with this naive divine-command theory often wield great political power.
I think that there are at least two sets of practical issues that arise out of all this, and affect how we might imagine the human, or post-human, future.
First, it seems that "our" needs, values, interests, etc., are somewhat indeterminate and contested, and this leads me to conclude that the detailed content of morality - as opposed to the broad outlines - will always be both (1) underdetermined by naturalistic facts about the universe (there may be no one perfect way to meet "our" needs, etc.) and (2) pluralistic (there is no single overriding value that morality gives expression to, but rather a range of values that human beings actually tend to have). I think that this recognition could have many practical implications. E.g., no one cultural system of moral norms may do a perfect job of meeting human needs, etc., but many may do some sort of reasonable job, judged against the contested - but largely agreed - values that we want to apply.
This seems to justify a certain kind of sophisticated moral relativism: we should not be too quick to condemn the moral codes of other cultures, which might be functioning reasonably well, however bizarre they look. At the same time, it allows that some moral systems may do a better job than others, when judged by standards with much inter-cultural acceptance. Thus, it refutes the naive relativism which insists that all cultures are equal.
More generally, a pragmatic and pluralistic approach to morality might lead to considerable revision of our traditional moral norms, and might guide us in what norms should be retained, invented, or rejected. Is this norm (we might ask) actually promoting our more fundamental values? If not, pitch it into the flames. Many inherited moral norms may not withstand scrutiny, once it is asked whether they are actually performing such functions as creating happiness and minimising suffering (I take it that these, at least, are widely-agreed values).
Here, I agree with Joshua Greene, who has written much in this area (including a PhD thesis that is expected to be published in 2008). Greene argues that the kind of meta-ethical approach I'm describing, and which he defends eloquently, will push us somewhat in the direction of utilitarianism. I don't think it pushes us quite as far in that direction as Greene thinks it does, but I certainly agree that it has practical implications for how we live our lives and what policies we support.
Phew, that's one set of issues.
Secondly, there's a question of what do we do about it, once we come to believe that morality is not as it seems.
It appears (at least to me) that naive thinking about morality typically involves an illusion: the illusion that, in a strongly objective sense which transcends human interests, there is right and wrong built into the framework of reality. Once we see through this illusion, how should we act (given whatever values, etc., we share)?
Should we try to revise our moral language, as Greene argues? How do we bring up kids - do we use the old, simpler language, or some new kind of language? Are we better off if most people continue to live under the illusion that morality is strongly objective? How easy or difficult is it to shake them free of it? (Perhaps, as Richard Joyce has argued, we evolved to have this illusion, which may have had some survival advantage; perhaps it takes a very special kind of abstract thinking to break the spell, even temporarily.)
It also hasn't escaped me that these questions are analogous to questions about the belief that one or more powerful supernatural beings are taking an interest in us. If this is a deeply-entrenched mistake, how urgent is the need to say so? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
My own bias is toward dispelling illusions, and to expecting that the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages. If we could live, and set policy, without illusions, I believe it would help us lead better lives (judged by values that are largely shared). For example, if we all saw things more clearly, much irrational rejection of biomedical technology might dissipate like the mist. However, I grant that it's not straightforward. There are huge issues here about the future of morality (and religion) - and about the future in general, if we try to plan it in accordance with our actual values, rather than in the thrall of ancient illusions.
I've just mapped out a research program for myself for years to come. Who wants to join me?