Couldn’t Morality be a social construction?

A student asks if morality could simply be the result of social progress and construction. See Frank Turek’s reply


  1. My notes:
    FT is morality a social construct

    FT: no. Why not? If MSC: then we cannot say “the Nazis were wrong”. (F)
    Q: What shows this to be true? (Nothing it seems) (terms need to be defined)
    If Morality is something we make, and we make “wrong” = “doing harm”, then it is true that the Nazis were wrong!
    FT: If morality is a social construct, the Nazis might have their own social construct (Definitions?) (T)
    If the Nazis have their own definitions (different definitions than ours) then you cannot have morality (F)
    Many people say that the Nazis had a moral obligation to disobey orders (T)
    The Nazis had a moral obligation to disobey orders (T, if “moral” means “if you are kind and brave, and wanted to see those values realized, you would have tried to disobey those orders”)
    There is a known standard beyond all governments/persons that determines our obligations (F)
    There are laws of nature, gravity (T)
    There are social laws/legal laws (T)
    There are international laws (T)
    There is a moral law, something all people must do, that is made true by god (F)
    God wrote morality on our hearts (F)
    The moral law exists (F) and is a reflection of god’s nature (F, and vague!)
    God’s standard overrides any other standard (F)
    If a standard is one of many, then that standard can’t (necessarily) adjudicate between cultures (T)
    If a standard is one of many, then that standard can sometimes adjudicate between cultures (T)
    FT: No, you are not born with an “innate” sense of objective morality (T)
    FT: you are not born with knowledge (T!)
    When people get older they often know what murder is (T), and that it is wrong/harmful (T)
    Apart from a naturalistic meaning of “wrong” there is another known meaning and reality (F)
    You can think there is nothing harmful about murder (T). You would be mistaken (T)
    Some people sense/feel/intuit/belief that some things are absolutely/OMW (T)
    Thus there is a known, real, meaningful, true sense of OMW (F)
    Torturing babies for fun is not nice (T)
    TBFF is OMW (F, since here it means from god)
    TBFF is wrong/harmful (T)
    There has to be something that shows that TBFF is harmful, if it is true (T)
    There is something that shows that TBFF is OMW, apart from things like harm (F)
    When you have a standard, and you have a deviation from that standard, we often call that wrong (T)
    When the standard in chess is white goes first, and the Black side goes first, we call that wrong (T)
    In that case it IS wrong, a deviation from that standard (T)
    Anything about this shows that there is a godly standard (F)
    If god’s standard doesn’t exist, then there are human opinions (and human standards) (T)
    FT: Sam Harris would probably say the Nazis were wrong (T).
    What SH says/believes helps prove that OMW exists (F)
    That David Silverman objected to some things about Christianity shows that OMW exists (F)
    DS said “the Nazis weren’t really, Objectively, godly wrong” (T?) He is wrong (F).
    FT replies to DS: you are wrong! (F). FT: I disagree/think DS is wrong (T)
    That FT disagrees with DS shows DS to be wrong (F)

    1. Again, all of your grounding for this lies on a fundamental objective morality that you cannot ground in atheism. You have said that right and wrong is determined by not doing harm. But why should it be that? If the Nazi claims that the best thing is to move the evolutionary process forward and therefore harming Jews is good what reason can you say they are wrong?

      Simply that you disagree? Or is there some greater objective standard for morality?

      1. FT A student tries to justify morality with atheism Video

        Student: The Bible is not a good place to get your morality from you. You shouldn’t do that.
        FT: Where did you get the word should? S: the English language!
        FT: Where did you get that standard/what do you mean?
        (S should say: The Bible says unloving things. If you value love, you will be wise to ignore some Biblical advice)
        S: The Bible condones slavery, murder, and rape. Examples: Leviticus
        FT: What is wrong with those? (Sad that FT has to ask)
        S: It sucks to be a slave, raped, murdered. (They aren’t desired states) (T)
        FT: But it might be fun for the doers (T). And so? (????)
        A1: an act can’t be both good and bad (F: it can be desired by some, not desired by others)
        (So: FT is right and so is the student).
        You are importing a moral law to criticize the Bible (T, he is using a standard: kindness)
        FT: the Bible says some things that are unloving (T), i.e, “wrong morally” (T)
        FT: “X is immoral” can only be true if there is a standard for morality (T)
        FT: “The Bible is immoral”/unloving only if god exists (F)!!! (The student wrongly says yes)
        FT: Atheists can’t say the Bible is immoral. (F) (Student: I just said it, and I’m an atheist!)
        FT: You can’t justify it (the assertion “the Bible is immoral”) (F)
        FT: You have no standard of morality, as an atheist (F)
        S: My standard is that enslaving, rape, etc are wrong.
        FT: That’s your opinion. (He changed the topic! The topic was, do any atheists have a standard. The student told FT the standard he used for calling something wrong).
        FT: others might have a different standard (T). Thus Atheists have no standard (F)
        FT: Hitler said murder was good, so you have different standards/values (T)
        FT: It’s your opinion AGAINST Hitler’s (F. It is a difference of values)
        FT: (Ultimately, your values aren’t “better” than Hitler’s values (T)
        FT: (So you can’t prefer you values, call actions “wrong”, criticize Hitler in the hopes that others who value what you value will be motivated to act(F))
        FT: If morality is a matter of values, then it isn’t a matter of objectivity, in that one value isn’t “better” than another, when “better” isn’t defined in terms of “better at making friends” (T!)
        FT: If morality is a matter of values, subjective, etc, there is nothing wrong with murder (F: it is not preferred by some, and for them, it is “wrong”, in that it is not preferred, wise to avoid by those with the same preference, etc.
        FT: If there is no god, there is nothing “wrong” with rape. (F: it is “wrong” to some, i.e, some don’t’ prefer it, and thus have a reason to avoid it. But yes! It isn’t “wrong” to others: that is, some prefer it, and have a reason to do it)
        FT: If X prefers Z, but Y prefers not Z, it is subjective (T, but adds nothing)
        S: Those that don’t do that are always better off (F)
        S: Those that don’t do that are sometimes better off (T)
        FT/S: We are going in circles (F)
        FT: If you are an atheist you have no standard by which to judge things (F), morally (F).

        So yes, the student didn’t say what he should have said.
        He should have said a little more:
        1. He has a moral standard (things he values)
        2. Others have different standards
        3. He can call rape wrong, and mean something (he doesn’t like murder…)
        4. None of which proves god
        5. But yes, some atheists are confused. (just not me!)

  2. What is my grounding? And how does it “lie” on a “fundamental objective morality”? Nothing you said seems to show that anything I said was false. If you think otherwise, please be clearer.
    I said that “wrong” often refers to harm. Most theists, and you as well, seem to think that “wrong” is something other than harm. If you do, explain what it is.
    Why should harm be wrong, you ask? I don’t know what you mean, until you define wrong. In contrast, I am saying harm is, for me, often referred to with the word “wrong”.
    Again, notice your questions, rather than arguments. Questions are often good, but arguments are usually better. If you have one, please give it. If not, I’ll answer any questions I can.
    The main problem is your lack of clear definitions for words like “wrong” and “best”. You ask, “if the Nazis claim that evolution…is the best, is that wrong”? Well, I have no idea what “best” or “wrong” means here. Please define those terms, and then we will be able to answer your question. If the Nazi claims “letting the strongest survive will make the moon grow in size”, then it is false. if the Nazi claims “letting the strongest survive is what I prefer”, then that could easily be true, and depends on what they prefer. You get the idea. None of this proves god though. But again, define the important terms before asking such questions. Otherwise, your question doesn’t help the conversation, but only confuses it.
    I prefer to not harm the Jews. Giving hugs is better than punches, if you want to bring joy and not harm.
    Again, none of this proves god.

  3. Alright, I’ll try to lay things out more plainly.

    When I say wrong I mean that to do such and such is wrong because there is something else that should be done. Wrong therefore is not doing what you should do or doing what you shouldn’t do. Doing harm often caries the characteristic of harm but not at all moments. For instance if I harm someone who is raping a girl to stop him the harm I committed would actually be right and not wrong. Also, leaving it simply at not to cause harm limits right action to simply leaving others along and therefore the best way to not harm someone is to leave them alone, but one should also do what they can to help someone.

    To my understanding you are claiming that what you should and shouldn’t do is determined by what causes the least harm. I would assume you would also say that you should also do what you can to help others. So for you good is defined by what causes the least harm and the most joy. You also state that this is simply your opinion though, aka a subjective truth. Subjective truth being an opinion that changes based upon person, place, circumstance etc.

    The Nazi defines good differently. The Nazi doesn’t see good or what you should do as what causes the least harm and greatest joy. He believes what you should do and good as what helps the German race thrive and survive which then in his opinion helps move the evolutionary process forward.

    So while you and I say you should not harm Jews the Nazi believes that we should. If morality is a matter of opinion than you have your opinion against the Nazi’s here and nothing to determine which is the real ‘should’ or ‘good’ in the circumstance.

    When you say that “I prefer to not harm the Jews.’ and not ‘it is objectively wrong to harm Jews’ your moral claims have no more power than saying you prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla.

    Perhaps here could be a summary of my argument.
    Morality must be objective otherwise one cannot call an action morally wrong when there is disagreement.

    We can call a Nazi’s action wrong objectively not simply because we prefer other actions but because there is an objective standard of what is right or wrong to do that is not simply the opinion of someone.

    To restate my previous question perhaps a bit clearer.

    Do you think that killing all of the Jews is an action that we should not do or is it simply your opinion that we shouldn’t kill all of the Jews?

    If it’s just your opinion that we shouldn’t kill all the Jews why should the Nazi listen or follow your opinion against his own when it is simply just your preference?

  4. Reply to BD
    Thanks for the longer reply. Saying “wrong” means “shouldn’t be done”, doesn’t really help. What does “shouldn’t be done” mean, and what determines that, for you? I would say “shouldn’t be done” roughly means “is contrary to some goal, such that, if you want that goal, it will be unwise of you to do”. Hence, “murder shouldn’t be done” = “murder is unwise to do if your goal is to be kind”. Is this roughly what you mean by “shouldn’t be done”? If not please offer a clearer explanation of what you Do mean.
    Yes, not all action harm, although all harmful actions do. Yes, not all harmful actions are those that are “wrong”, i.e. motivate us to avoid. Killing Hitler, or harming the rapist, is “right” (preferred by many of us). That doesn’t change the fact that for most of us, when you go to ordinary life, “harming the mailman” is “wrong” (not preferred, etc.)
    All we learn here is that few things are absolute: harm is not something that most people always avoid.
    No, I am not making some absolute principle like gravity. I am not saying “harm” insists that no one do it. I am saying that harm is something that many people don’t prefer, and when they don’t, they have a reason to avoid doing it.
    If person prefers harm, then they “should” do it, and by that I mean only that they have a reason to do it. I don’t think there is a “deeper/deepest” sense of “should”. So no, I am not claiming that all people should avoid harm. I am saying those that prefer to avoid harm shouldn’t punch others, if they want to satisfy their preference.

    Here is a great example. I might say to another: don’t eat that pickle, it’s super sour! They might say, “I love sour things!” Then I would say, “Oh! Well then continue: it makes sense for you to eat hat pickle”. The point: when we say what people “should” do, we are appealing to some preferences/standards, and the truth of the “should” statement assumes certain things (like when I assumed the person wouldn’t enjoy sour things), and when those assumptions are inaccurate, our judgment often changes, and reasonably so.
    So, I try to help others, often. For me, I therefore “should” help someone who needs a bandaid.
    No, I don’t think that everyone “should” help others. I think those that value certain things “should”. Those that enjoy chocolate “should” try the new chocolate thing. Those that don’t, “should” not.
    Yes, for me, “good” often refers to things that do the least harm. When I am buying a gift for someone I care about, the “good” gift is not poison, but a toy, or a sweater, etc.
    No, these are just opinions. Some things are preferred, and some things do harm. What you mean is, not everyone prefers the same thing, which is also true. That one’s preferences can change doesn’t alter the fact that it is often true that yesterday X preferred Y, and today X prefers Z. So here we only learn that preferences can change, but it is still true that assertions about those preferences can be true.

    The Nazi prefers different things, and thus says “good” for them refers to being motivated to do harm. They prefer harm, and call it “good”. I prefer no harm, and call that “good”. Yes that may cause confusion, but only because we both use the word “good” but with different meanings. Once we go to the meaning, the confusion ends. They prefer harm, I do not. They are motivated by goals that I do not share.
    When you say “the Nazi believes “we” “should” harm the Jews, it is unclear what you mean. I will consider some possibilities:
    The Nazis think that I prefer harming the Jews (False)
    The Nazis think I will benefit from harming the Jews (False)
    The Nazis prefer harming the Jews (true, with your assumption about the Nazis)
    I never said “morality is a matter of opinion”. That’s not my view. My view is that preferences exist, and they differ, and that moral language ultimate is about such preferences.
    I prefer no harm. They prefer harm. Those who believe that I prefer no harm hold a true belief, even if that is also their opinion/view/belief.
    You complain that there is nothing to determine what the “real ‘should’ is here. I have no idea what that means. Please explain. There is no “real” or “should” beyond our preferences. If there is, explain what those words mean, and show that some assertion is “real”, etc. Lots of work here to be done for you, it seems.
    Perhaps this is a better answer:
    If morality refers to the fact that you prefer X and I prefer Y, then yes, there is no overriding judge to say which preference is “better”, and “better” here makes no sense (at least not yet, until it is explained). One might say “better” in the sense of making friends. Doing harm is worse at making friends, and doing no harm is better at making friends. That’s a fine explanation of “better”, but it doesn’t help prove god, or falsify anything I’ve asserted.
    I am not asserting that my moral claims have power, so your comment, “your moral claims have no more power than saying you prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla” is irrelevant.
    Yes! When there are different preferences, there is no guaranteed overriding sense of “ought”. So you are right: there is no objective morality, and thus “one cannot call an action morally wrong when there is disagreement.” (at least not in any deepest sense). The problem here is that “morally wrong” is undefined/undetermined.
    You don’t prefer the harm of the Nazis, as do I. You say that you also think their actions are objectively wrong. I see no evidence of what this means, nor that it is true. Instead of evidence, you just repeat, “there is an objective standard of what is right or wrong to do that is not simply the opinion of someone.”. This needs to be proven. As of now, it is not.
    I prefer not to kill people. Those who have this preference “shouldn’t” do that action, which is to say, they have a reason to avoid certain actions. It is my opinion, and also a fact, that I prefer not to kill. Those who prefer chocolate have a reason to eat chocolate. Those who prefer harm have a reason to harm. I can show that chocolate has certain consequences, and that might override one’s desire for chocolate (like getting fat), but this is just trying to appeal to a preference that the person might value more. If they prefer health to immediate pleasure, then they “should” not eat the chocolate, if they prefer immediate pleasure to health, then they “should” eat the chocolate.
    So, people should do different things; that is, what they have a reason to do often differs from person to person. There is no known godly overriding for everyone standard which says, regardless of your preferences you just have to do X (with no other explanation).
    I don’t expect the Nazis to have my preferences, so you last question makes no sense:
    “If it’s just your opinion that we shouldn’t kill all the Jews why should the Nazi listen or follow your opinion against his own when it is simply just your preference?”
    When I appeal to a Nazi, I’m appealing to their values. If they do care about kindness, they might say “what have I done?!? And realize they “should” do something else. If they don’t care about kindness, then there may be nothing else to appeal to. (Re-consider the pickle story).

    To summarize:
    I think there are (basically) only preferences when we are talking about moral language. Hence I think “which preferences are better?” is a question that makes no (ultimate) sense. Of course you could ask, which preferences are better at 1 . making friends, 2. Surviving 3. Graduating from college, etc. None of those senses, nor any other senses, of “better” help prove that god exists.

    You seem to say:
    You prefer to do no harm.
    I prefer to do no harm
    The Nazis prefered to do harm.
    But also, something makes harm “wrong”, and that thing is god.

    I agree with 1-3, but not 4. As I mentioned earlier: you need to explain what “wrong” is here, how we know that a harmful thing also has that property of being wrong, and how it proves god. You haven’t done those things, it seems.

    Mostly, what you have done is say, rightly, if there is no god, then there are (basically) only preferences, and thus there is no deep(est) sense in which the Nazis (just) Were wrong (whatever that means). I think that’s accurate. Ultimately morality is a description of our values, which can differ, not some odd, poorly defined property called “wrongness” that we know to exist, which seems to be your view. Your view says more things exist in reality than I do. Your view needs to be proven with evidence.

    FYI I appreciate that you discuss these matters thoughtfully without getting emotional, as many people do.

  5. Hey I appreciate you not getting emotional in the discussion as well. Sorry that I haven’t been on top of things to reply to your comments. But I appreciate the discussion and I think it helps me make sure I am stating my case clearly.

    I think your summary is a good place to settle for a bit.

    1. You prefer to do no harm.
    2. I prefer to do no harm
    3. The Nazis preferred to do harm.
    4. But also, something makes harm “wrong”, and that thing is god.

    You agreed with 1-3 but rejected 4 which is probably fair in one way. Lets break it down further. Instead I propose.

    1. You prefer to do no harm.
    2. I prefer to do no harm
    3. The Nazis prefered to do harm.
    4. There is something (moral law) in which humankind agrees makes harm wrong.
    5. This Moral law is something outside of mankind
    6. By the law of cause and effect whatever invented the Moral law must be greater than (in the sense of being more powerful, not in that it ok for it to break the law) than the law and mankind which is accountable to it.
    7. The inventor of the law also must be personal
    8. An inventor that is more powerful than mankind, and personal could rightly be called God.
    9. the existence of a moral law is evidence (perhaps not conclusive) of God.

    Of course I foresee you wanting evidence for 4-9 or so so I’ll give some and wait for your feedback. I see your biggest hang up probably being #4. I once again must appeal that there are things which mankind says are wrong whether an individual agrees to, prefers to, etc. If I preferred torturing babies for fun humanity doesn’t simply answer ‘well if that’s your preference’ instead there is a resounding ‘you ought not’. This is the moral law, and it is the moral law that one is appealing to when humanity ever says there is an injustice being done.

    Perhaps a question I could ask you is if there are any actions which someone could commit which you would say someone should not do whether they prefer to do them or not. I assume that you would have one or two.

    I’ll end there for now and see what you think.

    1. So yes, our focus in on # 4: whether there is a moral law (this again needs much more clarification) that makes harm “wrong” (this also needs a clearer definition). We say that “gravity” “makes” objects fall to Earth, etc. What we mean mostly is, objects tend to move in these predictable ways. Nothing about that is analogous to your attempt to prove there is a moral law. Perhaps you mean, people generally prefer not to be killed, and thus you call that a “moral law”. If so, nothing about that proves god. If you don’t mean that (and you don’t), explain what you mean, using that at least as a guideline for clarity.
      Yes, 4-9 are all false, as far as I can see. But let’s stick to # 4 for now.
      That mankind says things are wrong is hardly evidence of its truth. But first we need to know what is meant by “things are wrong”. “stabbing often leads to bleeding” is known to be true by science/experience. We understanding “stabbing” and “bleeding”. When you say “doing harm is wrong”, I understand everything but what you mean by “wrong”. Please define it in a way that we clearly can say exists, like bleeding.
      You say “there are things which mankind says are wrong”. I agree. But your focus should be on the claim, “there are things which are wrong”. Explain “wrong”, and then prove that a thing/action, etc, has that property. You haven’t done that it seems. Focusing on “what mankind says” is a distraction, and irrelevant, it seems.
      That much (but not all) of humanity says to torturers, “you ought not torture” doesn’t show that they in fact “ought not torture”. Nothing shows what this means, and what shows the claim to be true.
      Oddly, you said the moral law is people simply “saying” “you ought not do X”. If that’s your view, it has nothing to do with god, but only with people.
      You say that when people say “you ought not do X”, they are “appealing to the moral law”. Nothing shows this to be true, nor that there exists any “moral law” in this scenario.
      No there no actions that one “should not do”, full stop. There are of course millions of things one should not do, IF…. One should not eat pickles IF they hate pickles, or if they love pickles, but pickles will kill them, and they value life over the taste of pickles. All of these meaningful “should” statements have nothing to do with god, and have everything to do with “having a reason/motivation for doing something”.
      Again, I have unpacked my meaning of “should” in a way that refers to real things, whereas you have not.

  6. It’s been a whole year! You never showed that doing harm is actually “wrong” for all people: that this is a moral law/absolute truth, and one that leads to God. I said that doing harm actually exists, and many people prefer that suffering not happen, and many people refer to that desire to not have suffering happen using the world “wrong”. None of this proves God, and you’ve offered nothing to show that anything here (or elsewhere) does prove God.

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