Moral objectivity is an imperfect human quality. It does not require a perfect God's-eye view.

A perfect God's-eye view is impossible. Each of us understands the world through one mind situated in space and time, with one set of senses. Our understanding is limited. Our senses have a limited range and our minds have limited capacities. All that we do understand is mediated by our culture. Even those who believe in God recognise that we are not ourselves equal to God, and do not share his perfection (if he exists).

This may seem obvious, yet many common human ways of thinking ignore it. Those who claim to know the truth through divine revelation often seem to forget that, even if it is true that God is giving us messages, our understanding of those messages must be limited, human, and imperfect. It's not just that we don't have a hotline to truth via God, we couldn't have a hotline to truth via God. If all that religious believers have is "faith", then only very tentative and provisional conclusions could ever be built on it. Identifying a scripture, or a tradition, as a source of truth would have to be just as tentative, because the very identification of what to have faith in depends on nothing more dependable than faith.

It is not only religious believers who often seem to assume that they have a God's eye view, though. It is also those who draw over-strong negative conclusions about the lack of justification for morality based only on uncertainty. Uncertainty is a justification for holding provisional beliefs, not definite ones which dismiss the grounds for morality. The most common basis for dismissing morality and thinking of it as merely subjective is the fact-value distinction. This is the belief that morality is in a different category of justification from scientific fact. Scientific fact is "objective", but morality merely "subjective". This is little more than a prejudice (though unfortunately one that is widespread amongst philosophers). A little closer examination of the justifications for both science and morality reveal that both are imperfect, both depend on limited human understanding, and both are justified to some extent but not perfectly. Different scientific claims differ in their degree of justification, and so do different moral claims.

Both extreme camps here depend on a basic assumption that has cursed Western philosophy since Plato. Plato wrote "You can't use the imperfect as a measure of anything" (Plato Republic 504c). The absolutists take this to mean that we should turn to some perfect source of knowledge - even though we probably don't have one, and couldn't understand it even if there was one. The relativists, on the other hand, take this to mean that there is no measure, no basis for knowledge. Both of these are wrong. The imperfect is the only measure we have, and it is the basis of relative, provisional knowledge, both of "factual" and of moral matters.

Links to further discussion

The possibility of progress without a God's-eye view

The nature of progress through the Middle Way

The thesis: full academic discussion

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8 Central claims of Middle Way philosophy

imperfection

progress

metaphysics

practice

relativism

science

philosophical problems

practical ethics

 

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moralobjectivity.net copyright Robert Ellis