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We are a worldwide social network of freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.

I return from a vacation and can't resist being a bit of a fire-brand. I am going to touch on a sensitive topic here, bear with me because I think it is a point worth making.


I reject outright the concept of objective and absolute morality and one of the primary reasons is that the system is dreadfully inconsistent.

Let me explain why objective morality cannot be applied consistently. We accept that morality is complicated, and that things generally considered wrong, such as theft or murder, are not always necessarily wrong. We accept that the cost of the means and the benefit of the ends can be difficult to weigh against one another. In order to make my case here I will take the example of one of the least ambiguous and most universally abhorred evils I can think of: Rape.  Much of the following will be considered in poor taste, but I must use such commonly reviled language in order to make my point. Apologies are due in advance.

We may accept that theft and murder are justifiable under some circumstances, but what about rape? Who can think of a hypothetical in which rape is permissible? I certainly have trouble doing so, but let us first define rape for this discussion: Copulation against the will of the partner and often by force or under coercion. I think that should suffice for our purposes here.

I have trouble thinking of a way to show that rape is not objectively wrong until I allow myself to be somewhat less anthrocentric in my thinking. Humans are not, after all, the only creatures on this planet that can copulate, exert force, or have things done to them against their will.

Suddenly the idea that the act of rape is objectively wrong is completely dissolved. If a male lion kills the cubs of a pride and rapes the females, we hardly consider that morally wrong. If we see a male dog mount a poor and haggard female, who is obviously less than willing, and take her against yelps of protestation, we might conjure up a moment of sympathy for the bitch and perhaps boot the male if the couple happens to be close at hand, but we’d hardly think the male had committed a morally reprehensible act. Now let us imagine that the female lions were able to speak the King’s English and express to us their grief over the loss of their cubs. Imagine that a bitch dog were able to cry on our shoulder after being victimized and express her disgust at the seed growing inside her. I do not need anyone to admit that animals are capable of entertaining such thoughts, only to contemplate the hypothetical. When we do it becomes immediately clear that we now deem the acts of the males to be morally wrong. The point I am trying to make here is that the physical act of rape is irrelevant to us if the victim can only stare at us with dumb beast eyes, but if that victim is able to express itself in a way with which we sympathize, then the act now qualifies as being “wrong”. The act is not objectively or absolutely wrong, it is only wrong subject to a set of conditions, namely that we can sympathize with the victim and understand its will to be subjugated for the brutish pleasures of another.

Now some people may flippantly disregard the above example and simply say that animals are not afforded the same considerations under God’s objective law. The act of forcible copulation against the will of the recipient is not rape amongst animals; it is only rape amongst humans.  Fine, if a Theist wishes to play that game I will play.

Imagine that a typical man rapes a typical woman. That act is morally wrong. Now imagine that we have a genetically altered male, whose genome is altered just enough that he is not quite human, but to all but the most detailed observation still appears to be human, and considers himself as such. Imagine that this hypothetical sub-human rapes a woman. Is this act still morally wrong? Imagine that we have a woman altered in the same fashion, and now a sub-man rapes a sub-woman. To any observer they still appear to be human, and they consider themselves as such. In fact only a detailed examining of their genetics would betray that they are not human, is this still rape? We are inclined to say that this act is, indeed, still morally wrong.

Now imagine several hundred creatures along a gradient from normal recognizable human to dumb beast. We don’t think twice about a dumb beast mounting a female and doing the work of nature regardless of the female’s reception, but we find a stalker raping a woman on her way home to be among the most vile acts imaginable. At what point along the gradient do we say the act is no longer wrong? What particular anatomical property, emotional state, or genetic marker do we claim humans posses that makes the sovereignty of their genitals able to be transgressed against that a dog does not have? A Theist may be tempted to say that the distinction is based on the soul. Apparently only creatures with souls can be raped. My response to this is simply a reformulation of the previous question; at what point along the gradient from normal human, to indiscernibly modified human, to clearly inhuman is the soul lost or gained? If it is impossible for us to tell, then by what criteria do we determine which entities qualify for certain moral absolutes and which do not?

In closing I want to make it clear that I have not made these arguments in order to claim that rape is not wrong. I am simply making the case that rape is not absolutely or objectively wrong, and nothing can be. All morality is subject to us, to you and me and the next person over. Our common goals, interests, desires, and fears drive morality in an evolving way. Morality builds and grows as different cultures clash; ideas are shared, compared, discarded and promoted as we encounter new and unprecedented situations generation after generation. That is exactly the way it needs to be if we have any hope of continued growth. Of course those who would say that we were made perfect and in the image of God wish only that we regress to a state we have fallen from, rather than progress to the independence we have purchased for ourselves through centuries of exploration and thought.

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Sorry for the confusion, but it's actually James (the OP) I had in mind when I replied to you. You made me remember that there are indeed many interpretations of 'objective', and I thought a clarification was required.

I would say that yes, it is wrong, because it is not something that I would want to happen to me under any conditions.  Nor would I want to be sold into slavery, murdered, beaten unjustly, or stolen from, but there may be strange exceptions in strange cases.  I think a solid argument for what is or is not a moral act is whether or not you would see it as moral on the receiving end.  These are all acts that empower the abusers over the victims, and are generally only seen as moral by the abusers.  Slave owners and slaves are a good example.  The slave owner feels that his actions are morally acceptable, while the slaves feel violated in many ways.  I think rape is different, because most rapists don't feel that their actions are morally acceptable.  They act out of lust and anger, taking what they want for the high that it gives them.  I can't see many rapists trying to explain the moral justification for their actions.

I can't see many rapists trying to explain the moral justification for their actions.


Some rapists justify their actions by assuming that's what the other person wanted, as in "she was asking for it, wearing that short skirt" or something like that. Despicable.


I think there is an awful lot of missing the point going on here, I could be mistaken though, so let me try a re-presentation of the argument.

As I said in the final paragraph, I am NOT arguing that rape isn't wrong. I am arguing only that rape is not objectively or absolutely wrong. We say it is wrong with a much broader sweep than we do almost any other act, but it is still not absolutely wrong. If it were then the wrongness of the act would be contingent upon nothing other than the act itself.

If rape is copulation against the will of the recipient, I think I made a good case that we do not consider that act objectively wrong. Most people think the wrongness of that act is subject to the victim being human.

Now it may seem easy to discard this point offhand with the statement "well of course animals don’t get the same moral considerations", but I do not think that is the case. That was the point of my hypothetical of an animal being able to express to us fear, hurt, shame, and anger at having been violated. Again I do not need anyone to admit a dog can feel these things, only to entertain the hypothetical. If a Dog were able to express to us that they felt the same way about being raped that we do, then I have no doubt that each and every one of us would not consider a male dog raping a female wrong, where we do not normally even consider the will of the bitch at all.

This shows us that our idea that rape is wrong is not even subject to the victim being human, but rather subject to the victim being able to express their displeasure in a way we sympathize with.

This is further enforced by the idea that we think animal torture is wrong. Animals do not express that they feel shame over being molested, and it is probably true that they don’t at all, but they CAN express that they feel pain in ways that we sympathize with. The cries of a wounded animal can be heart wrenching. Meanwhile cockroaches cannot express pain in a way we sympathize with, so gasing a room full of roaches with a bug bomb doesn’t bother us in the least, while doing the same to a kennel of Dogs would result in a felony.

Is it not clear as day that in this case torture is NOT objectively wrong? It is subject, not to the victim being human, but rather to the victim being able to express their pain in a way we sympathize with. Deliberately killing a thousand ants in a slow and painful fashion is not morally wrong, but doing it to a single horse is. The wrongness of the act is obviously not absolute or objective if there are distinguishing criteria.

So, to reiterate, I am not claiming that rape is not wrong. I am not trying to come up with some hypothetical where rape to save a bus full of orphans would be ok, I am trying to make the case that the act of rape itself does not have any aspect of "wrong" objectively in it, but the wrongness is derived souly from our reaction to the act and sympathy for the victim, and this is demonstrated by the fact that we do not consider the act wrong when it is committed on entities we cannot sympathize with in that fashion, but if we allow that dog being mounted behind the barn to shed even a single tear, speak a word of sadness, or express shame then suddenly the doors of morality fly open to eager accept this creature, once we can sympathize with it, into the group against which rape is wrong. If the act of rape is not wrong of itself, but only wrong subject to the above mentioned factors, then I think we have an open and shut case that rape is not objectively or absolutely wrong.

I am not specifically trying to discredit the wrongness of rape here, I am seeking to undermine the idea of objective morality all together, and I feel I need to use one of the most universally abhorred acts in order to do that. What I want people to do is set aside their instant feeling of outrage and disgust, we all feel that, and instead ask themselves what they are REALLY calling wrong? Certainly I have established the forcibly copulating with an unwilling creature is not intrinsically wrong, so then what is it that we are calling wrong? I think a judicious application of the Socratic Method will quickly uncover the fact that even an act we feel so universally against, is indeed only wrong when subject to a set list of criteria and not absolute or objective in any sense.

You want us to set aside the very thing that allows us to judge the morality of something in order judge the morality of something?  I don't get it.


Moral decisions are deeply seated in our ability to empathize.  Disparage it all you want, but it is too intertwined with the moral question to be disassociated. 


And I don't accept the notion of absolutes in an objective sense.  My moral compass, something that is subjective, points to rape always being wrong no matter what, even if it accomplished some greater good.

There is, I feel, a very good reason why we MUST set aside our disgust, repulsion, and emotional response to a thing when talking about morality. The best example is homosexuality. We often hear people say that homosexuality is disgusting, unnatural, abhorrent, reviled, ect. I often find myself telling these people, "You need to present me with a good REASON why this is wrong, how it makes you feel is irrelevant."

If I am willing to tell others to set aside their emotional braying and give me reasons, then I must be willing to do so myself.

If you set aside your repulsion to an act, and there are still good reasons to call it immoral, then you might be on to something. If you set aside your disgust and have nothing left, then you are on poor ground for making a case. In the case of rape there are still plenty of reasons to call it immoral, I am not making the case that rape is not wrong. I am making the case that rape is not Objectively wrong, because nothing is objectively wrong.

Now what is the point of setting aside our knee-jerk caukle-rising teeth-gnashing hatred for rape when discussing if it is absolutely wrong? When we set that aside we can ask ourselves what is it really that we are objecting to in the act? We can break the concept down and see what it is that is really getting under our skin. In the case of rape, and indeed for all moral considerations, I am making the case that there is nothing wrong about the act itself, there is no manifest property of the event that is objectively or absolutely wrong, all "wrongness" of the act is subject and relative to our considerations, not just for rape but for all acts, and therefore the entire concept of Objective or Absolute morality is…well…bunk.

You have simplified it too much.  That I might personally find it disgusting to have sex with another man is not what drives my moral compass.  I also might find it disgusting to have sex with a brunette female or an obese woman.  This does not mean that it is immoral to have sex with brunettes or obese women.  Because I CAN empathize, I can understand the pleasure one might derive from engaging in this activity.  That I might not enjoy it or even find it disgusting is beside the point.  Empathy is still the key.


I know your frustration, though.  Too many people let their personal emotions drive their decisions on what is moral and what is not.  But, that being the case, does not mean that our empathy does not or should not play a role in evaluating morality.  I contend that without empathy, morality would be an issue never discussed. 

I would never suggest that empathy should be completely abandoned. I am saying that how you feel emotionaly regarding an act is not sufficiant justification for passing moral judgement on it. If you think rape is terrible, great, so do I, but that is not enough alone. We need to also show that it causes harm and that general well-being is better promoted by prohibiting it. In the case of Rape that is easy to do.


I want to say again, I am not making a case that Rape is ok. I am using rape, since it is an act that we can all agree is wrong, to demonstrate that Objective or Absolute Morality is an illusion. I wish people would stop getting hung up on this being a case for rape specificaly, it is not, it is a criticism of the idea that anything, even somthing we are so universaly digusted by, can be considered objectivly or absolutly wrong.  I make the case, useing animals as an examples, that all of this morality is in fact subjective and relative.


I could have used Murder or Theft, but we can all easily think of hypotheicals in which those acts are ok, and I am not debating whether or not we can streatch our imaginations to come up with a hypothetical to justify an act, but whether or not the concept of objective morality is valid or not, so towards that end I chose an act that there is almost no concieveable hypothetical excuse for in order to dodge that whole part of the discussion, but I seem to have only invited it in greater amounts.

I'm not hung up on your choice of an example.  What I am saying is that empathy and sympathy are emotions in discussion.  They are related.  While I can't sympathize with the guy who wants to marry a blonde woman (for sake of argument only since I married a blonde!), I can certainly empathize with his desire to be with whomever he likes.  I don't need to love the wives of my friends in order for me to approve of their marriages.  And I don't need to love the idea of gay sex to appreciate that others do.


I guess my point or counterpoint is that you can't subtract an element of the morality question that is the basis of morality to begin with.  How I feel about something is important.  And my empathy is important, too.  I empathize with the person being raped.  I do not empathize with the need to rape someone.  Maybe that is where the distinction needs to be explored.  But, I don't think that there is much to explore there.  

Then you are accepting the claim I made in my post, that the rightness or wrongness of rape is not Objective or Absolute, but rather subective and relative to us and whether or not we sympathize or judge the act to be detremental?
Uh...I wouldn't state it that way.  I am making a distinction between the objective (innate) and the subjective (not objective?).  The wrongness of rape is subjective simply because there is no objective that cares.  The universe is a cold, uncaring bitch.  But the universe does not construct morality.  Beings did and because of that, morality is a subjective endeavor.  And because it is subjective, we must rely on our subjective prowess to make determinations of morality.  We can argue over which process is better, but arguing that there is an objective, absolute morality is beyond silly.  So, in one sense I agree with you, but I must qualify it heavily because of the way you have presented it.

James, you should explain, precisely, what you mean with 'objective morality' first. If 'objective' here is a mere synonym for non-contingent, immanent, or transcendant, then everyone will agree with you. But as far as morality is concerned, it's not a very useful definition: after all, the scope of morality is limited to conscious and introspective beings, it doesn't apply to things like gravity or quadratic equations. So I'd find such a definition even more useless than the theistic view of 'absolute morals'.


If, on the other hand, you accept the definition of 'objectve' I gave earlier, I'll have to stick with the argument I presented in my first post: I think there's such a thing as 'objective morality', because (human) rape can be shown to be objectively wrong. You need not to agree with this argument, but at least you should point out which part of it you disagree with.


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