(A short story. Continued from Part 1.)

“Well, that’s a pretty big leap!” said Professor Harris. “So here’s my question for you, John: Is there an objective moral standard? By that, I mean a standard that is mind-independent and reflects facts that are true all the time regardless of personal feelings or preference.”

John thought for a moment. “It sure doesn’t seem like it. It’s more like morality is relative and in the end, it comes down to personal opinion or preference. I mean, what you call cheating I might call working smart. It depends on the person and the situation, I guess.”

The professor nodded and walked to the whiteboard at the front of the class. There he drew two large circles next to each other.

“Alright, suppose there was a society in which there were two groups of people; we’ll call them Group A and Group B.” The teacher wrote the letter A in the circle on the left, and the letter B in the circle in the right.

“Now, let’s say Group A preferred that Group B was exterminated.” Here the professor drew an angry arrow from the left circle to the right and then scribbled over Group B as if scratching it out. “And suppose Group A went about enacting laws and re-aligning social norms to the point that they now had legal and social warrant for exterminating Group B. So everyone in Group A shared the opinion and preference that Group B should be wiped out. Does this make the extermination of Group B morally acceptable?”

John cocked his head. “Are you talking about Nazi Germany?”

“Sure, that’s a good real-world example of my hypothetical question.”

“Well, the Holocaust was certainly morally wrong.”

“I agree. And if we want to claim that the Holocaust was objectively wrong, we have to be referring to a moral standard that is over and above social norms or preferences.” The professor drew a long line that extended above both circles. “There must be a moral standard that transcends both personal preference and the laws of any particular nation or culture.”

John nodded his head slowly. “Okay.”

“So where does that higher moral standard come from that says cheating and stealing are objectively wrong, regardless of preference, law or culture?”

John’s brow furrowed as he took it all in. He looked around at his classmates for help but found only the curious stares of spectators, as if this were a tennis match.

“I don’t know, Professor. But I’m just not sure how someone could say there is such a thing as objective morality. It seems to me that morality in human history has been a sort of fluid, evolving thing. Some societies thought it was morally acceptable to sacrifice humans, or commit genocide, or have forty wives and that sort of thing.”

Professor Harris nodded and began slowly pacing. “Sure, there have been cultural differences in the definition of exactly what is and isn’t moral. But every society shares a common moral standard. For example, different cultures may have different definitions of what exactly constitutes cheating, but all cultures agree you shouldn’t act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, right?”

“I suppose.”

“And there may be different cultural norms for what constitutes stealing, but all cultures agree there is such a thing as stealing; taking another person’s property in an immoral way. Likewise, all cultures have honored bravery and condemned cowardice, though they may have differed on what sort of acts should be considered brave or cowardly, right? So where do we get that higher moral standard that says the concepts of cheating, stealing, and causing unnecessary suffering are objectively wrong, regardless of preference, law or culture?”

John crossed his arms and thought for a moment. “Good question. I guess it has to come from something bigger than any one society or culture.”

“It would seem so, yes. So let me ask you this. Which is worse, stealing someone’s phone charger or stealing their car?”

“They’re both stealing, of course, but it would obviously be worse to steal their car.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s more valuable. It’s a bigger loss to replace.”

“And which would be the more immoral act; killing someone’s houseplant or killing their dog?”

“It would obviously be worse to kill their dog because, again, the dog is more valuable.”

“So following that logic, would you agree it would be worse to kill your neighbor than to kill your neighbor’s dog?”

“Obviously.”

“So human life is more valuable than animal life, or plant life, or material possessions like phone chargers and cars.”

“Yeah, I would agree with that.”

“Okay, so now we’re getting to a foundation on which morality can be grounded. All these things we’ve been talking about—cheating, stealing, hurting people, human flourishing, and so on—they all have something in common. What is it? What connects them all?”

The room fell silent for a moment. A student in the back spoke up timidly, “They all assume human life has value?”

“Yes! If the value of human life is the ultimate ground for our moral standard, then it makes sense that things like love, kindness, and respect are morally good, right? Because they honor something of objective value, namely human life. And things like murder, rape, and robbery are immoral because they damage something valuable.”

John furrowed his brow. “What makes human life so valuable?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it? And I’m going to be honest with you, class, I don’t know the answer. So help me out. What gives human life its value? On what basis can one claim that human life is more valuable than animals, plants, cars and the rest?”

Someone on the left side of the room offered, “Because we only get one life, and when it’s done, it’s done.”

The professor replied, “Ants and dandelions only get one life, too. Why is human life more valuable than ants or dandelions?”

A woman in the first row suggested, “Because life is a gift?”

“A gift? What do you mean by that, Amanda?” the professor probed.

“Well, we didn’t ask to be born. We’ve been given the gift of life so we need to, like, take care of it?”

The professor shrugged. “Your dog didn’t ask to be born either. Why is human life more valuable than a dog’s life?”

John leaned back in his chair and looked up, deep in thought. His eyes were darting back and forth as if the answer was hidden somewhere in the ceiling tiles. “Maybe the idea that human life is valuable is something that developed in humans over millions of years as we evolved. And morality is like a social construct that helps us to thrive in society with one another and guarantee the survival of our species. That would explain why morality is bigger than any one society or culture.”

The professor crossed his arms and nodded slowly. “This is where I’ve arrived too, John. To me, it’s the only explanation that makes sense.”

John sat back and tried to summarize. “So I guess we’re saying what? That in the end the reason it’s wrong to cheat on a test or do anything else immoral, is because it violates a sort of inherent social pact?”

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