moral relativism

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moral relativism

Postby EnlightenmentLiberal » Mon May 20, 2013 9:54 pm

It's always disheartening to find a moral relativist. One of my good friends at work is apparently one, sort of.

I finally got him to say that if he had superman powers, for a 13 year old girl who was raped, sentenced to death by stoning for the crime of adultery according to established local practice, and she was begging to not be stoned to death, then he would rescue the girl. However, he seemed to back off the idea of rescuing every girl in that situation, saying something to the effect of that he doesn't want to interfere in the normal established criminal law of another country, because he doesn't trust himself. He says "I could be wrong".

He would still vote against such laws if he lived in such a country, and perhaps take part in grassroots efforts to change the law if he lived in such a country, and he's even willing to try and persuade someone with words from such a country that their law is bad, but he's utterly unwilling to use any force of any kind.

I am willing to use force. I think you have to be willing to use force in cases like this if you want to be a decent human being.

Of course, whether I am for the use of force depends on the particulars, whether it will result in a net good or harm, and lots of other very important details. (Hence why I finally arrived at "suppose you're superman" above.) Furthermore, I don't expect or demand that someone take even a significant portion of their own life to help others in cases like this. You have the right to live for yourself and be happy for the most part.

However, with my friend who is against any and all use of force to change a foreign culture's criminal law, in all cases, on principle, because we might be wrong, then I have a problem. I mentioned that there are objectively right and wrong answers in some cases as to whether a specific public policy will promote or damage human freedom, happiness, well-being, and the other values of humanism. He had a knee-jerk reaction against the use of the word "objective", though he finally relented when I slowly repeated what I said and explained that the specific claim is not that it's "objective" that we should have such policies; it's merely objective whether a policy achieves specific ends.

It's funny. He said that any system that uses force to impose a value on a foreign culture against established norms of that culture, any value whatsoever, means that the belief system is inconsistent. I said "what about mine? I don't see an inconsistency here." He said that I had no justification for valuing and promoting the values of humanism. I think he finally relented on the technical point that that doesn't make it formally inconsistent. Related:
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StrawVulcan
So, it seems he has a problem with any belief system that uses force to impose values on a foreign culture in any way when it's against the norms of that culture, no matter what the norms are, if the belief system doesn't have "a justification". Furthermore, he agreed with me that the standard is impossible to meet, and there is no possible belief system that can fulfill that criteria.

(I happen to merely assert by fiat that we should promote the values of humanism, and I'm generally only willing to use force to prevent harm against unwilling people ala Mill's Harm Principle. He thinks that's overreaching, arrogant, and doomed to failure.)

He even brought up how this is the standard operating procedure for sociologists. A lot of his arguments had practicality aspects, that interfering usually makes it worse, that there's all these negative side effects you haven't thought of. That's why I agreed above that I'm not for the use of force in any old case whatsoever. That's the option of last resort, to be taken only after you exhaust other possibilities, and only then if you choose to - you're under no obligation or expectation by me to use force on another if that puts you at significant risk.

It was hard to disentangle whether he is against all use of force because of issues like this as a practical matter, or because of a principled matter. It seems both, and that saddens me. Perhaps how he thinks is that the practicality aspects are so bad, that he can't trust himself at all, that he reaches a principled conclusion that force in those situations is always bad.

With superman powers, he would save the one girl, but not save the thousands. Is there a name for that known bias that people care more about a single sob story than about the same things happening to a large number? That's got to be in play here.

How do such people exist? Is there any hope for such people who have been "brainwashed" into this specific brand of multiculturalism nonsense? Of course he's college educated and middle/upper class.
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Re: moral relativism

Postby Constantine » Fri May 31, 2013 6:48 am

I have had this same argument with a friend of mine regarding untouchables in Historical India. I maintain that it is immortal to devalue human life the way that untouchables have suffered, and he argued that you cannot impose a morality that values human life over cultural tradition because of the "we could be wrong argument." I would argue that we know how human happiness works, to some extent, that certain moral and social systems are more conducive to happiness, and that we can only base what is best on what makes people happier, sooner, in this life, because this is the only life that we have evidence for at the moment. If, someday, we prove that stoning a girl to death for being raped ultimately does lead to further human well being than we can modify our stance, but until that day comes, we should act on the best available evidence, not hesitate because we may be wrong when everything seems to be telling us we are right.
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Re: moral relativism

Postby EnlightenmentLiberal » Fri May 31, 2013 10:23 pm

I agree, but...

I'm advocating some caution, but we also have to avoid analysis paralysis. Examples: Some details of economic policy? I might be wrong. Stoning to death a 13 year old girl for being raped? I'm not wrong.
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Re: moral relativism

Postby Mandibles » Wed Jun 05, 2013 8:06 pm

Ok, a couple of things I got to say here. First, I personally think that stoning a 13 year old girl for being raped is wrong. I just want to approach this from an unbiased position.

1. If stoning a 13 year old girl for being raped is objectionally wrong, why did it happen?
2. Did the people involved in the execution think it was wrong to do it, regardless of their religious law?
3. Did the executioners hesitate or feel bad about what they were about to do or while they were doing it? And if they did, was it a thing they didn't want to do, but felt compelled because of social pressures? Or if they didn't feel bad, what does that say about the event being objectionally wrong? Does not empathy play a major role in moral decisions?
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Re: moral relativism

Postby nottamun » Sat Jul 06, 2013 9:59 am

Bravo, Mandibles; I think you have asked some highly relevant and significant questions which deserve a response.

I am sure that, were you to ask the executioners for a justification for their stoning to death of a 13 year-old girl for being raped, they would – in one way or another - refer you to the source of their objective morality. If this happened to be the Qur’an, then you might want to speak to an imam or ulama for further edification. Interestingly, however, you will certainly not get exactly the same answer from two different clerics. You may, indeed, get dramatically different responses. One might favour execution for all significant infringements whilst another might want to encourage a far softer line, the ‘way of peace’. Yet they would be working from the same basic source.

If you took this further you would find clerics who put great faith in the Qur’an but rejected the Hadith. Everybody would give you a different answer, even if, sometimes, the difference was only subtle. But subtle differences have led to wars.

Yet it could be argued that they are all following the same source for objective morality, the only True God in the Universe. What is this worth if everybody interprets it differently? This may be the prime purpose of clerics, to bring faith into line.

The same observations might be made equally about Christianity, which again refers to the One True God. But is this the same One True God as for Muslims? I am sure that there may be many interesting discussions which could be held between Muslim and Christian before the judgement of the young girL Both would claim God as their reference, both would think that they were objectively right and they could well have diagonally opposite points of view.

If, as an individual, you then assert that it is ‘right’ to intervene and save the young girl, how is this not an arrogant assumption that your objective morality is superior to that of somebody else?

This is the problem I have when people proclaim objective morality. With theists there can at least be reference back to a divine source for rules of morality. How much more difficult is it for atheists to assert objective rules? They may decide, for example, to base all decisions on the sayings or works of a Stalin or Mao Zedung, assigning them semi-divine status. They may, on the other hand, reference ‘secular principles’, though if there is a rule book for this, then I have not seen it.

Enlightenment Liberal points out the clear dangers of ‘analysis paralysis’; we could argue ourselves into a state of complete inactivity. I do not, however, find his dismissal of moral relativism to be a fruitful one.

I am working my way round to saying something which, to me, is blindingly obvious. Everybody on earth has a different view and interpretation of morality. Everybody has gone through a process of moral internalisation which is similar to that of acquiring a language. Even when rule books are available, the interpretation of the rules has infinite variations.

So, as social beings, I think of morality as something which has to be negotiated. This means accepting compromises, which we are all adept – though to varying degrees – at doing. If that makes me a moral relativist, it does not mean that I do not have boundaries beyond which I am not prepared to negotiate. And that is how wars start.
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Re: moral relativism

Postby EnlightenmentLiberal » Sat Jul 06, 2013 9:56 pm

nottamun wrote:With theists there can at least be reference back to a divine source for rules of morality.

Why can the christian god be a "(divine) source of morality" and I cannot?

I am working my way round to saying something which, to me, is blindingly obvious. Everybody on earth has a different view and interpretation of morality. Everybody has gone through a process of moral internalisation which is similar to that of acquiring a language. Even when rule books are available, the interpretation of the rules has infinite variations.

So, as social beings, I think of morality as something which has to be negotiated. This means accepting compromises, which we are all adept – though to varying degrees – at doing. If that makes me a moral relativist, it does not mean that I do not have boundaries beyond which I am not prepared to negotiate. And that is how wars start.

Let me make it easy. If you are going to stone to death a 13 year old girl for nothing else besides being raped, and I am in a position that I can use force against you to stop it, then I will first try dialog, but failing that, I would use force against you, and to hell anything you have to say.

In other words, some things are negotiable. This isn't insofaras I will not negotiate on this point.
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Re: moral relativism

Postby nottamun » Sun Jul 07, 2013 11:16 am

Reply to Enlightenment Liberal:

Your reply was very interesting.

Why can the christian god be a "(divine) source of morality" and I cannot?

You can be a source of morality for yourself. Of course you can. So can everybody else. I hope I made it clear that I was referring to bases for common agreement. If lots of people genuinely believe that a supernatural being left commandments which need to be obeyed, then there is a clear basis in which they can have common discussion and even agreement (chance should be a fine thing). I don’t think that you are arguing that your own axioms should be a source of morality for others, or are you? If not, then you are referring to subjective morality, which is between you and you. I am searching for what people mean when they talk about objective morality, which is something else altogether.

Let me make it easy. If you are going to stone to death a 13 year old girl for nothing else besides being raped, and I am in a position that I can use force against you to stop it, then I will first try dialog, but failing that, I would use force against you, and to hell anything you have to say.

Enlightenment Liberal, I only know you through your posts here and in Reasonable Faith (?!). You seem to be a decent person. You say, “Let me make it easy,” when I am very aware that you know it is not easy. I need to say this as a prologue because I am going to attack your proposition in order to explore the basis of moral beliefs. I am having a go at the issue, certainly not at you. I need also to say at the outset that the situation regarding the little girl, which was one which really did happen, enrages and upsets me. I have asked myself many times, how can anybody on earth believe that such a thing is justifiable and/or necessary? But they do.

The captors of the little girl will not give her up lightly. Let’s assume that negotiation is exhausted and execution is imminent. You will certainly need substantial force. A battle will probably break out. You are by no means assured of success. People will probably get killed. That may include bystanders. Maybe children. I am trying to keep this brief.

If you fail, then the girl will probably still be executed to prove the point and other people who may or may not have been directly involved could have been killed or maimed. Furthermore, the defenders will now have strong propaganda to use against aggressors who are trying to assert their will upon others. This could be directed against, for example, all Westerners, whether justified or not. That would immediately make other Westerners in the country vulnerable. A crisis could very easily develop.

If you succeed, then you are likely to leave a trail of blood behind you. The little girl is safe but removed from all her family and cultural ties. This could, of course, be partly alleviated. But in the wake of your actions there will be all the other repercussions outlined above, multiplied tenfold. Diplomats around the world may become terrified of the consequences for their charges.

But it would assuage your moral qualms.

We could ask, what would happen if you stood by and did nothing? Nothing would change in the situation; you would remain angry and the little girl would die.

We could also ask if there were alternative actions which might serve the world – but not the little girl – better in the long term. In 1977 a princess of the royal Saudi family was executed for adultery. It took, apparently, seven blows to sever her head. An independent film producer made a documentary about the event, entitled, Death of a Princess, which caused a storm around the world. It was attacked, amongst other things, for being factually incorrect. I don’t know all the ins and outs of the issue. But that is an example of a possible alternative action which could produce some benefit from the princess’s death. Taking a surreptitious photo or video of an incident is, these days, a distinct possibility. These could be posted publically and the media involved. It would not, however, be possible to foresee all the consequences and there would certainly be harmful as well as beneficial ones.

So, since you couched your response in stark terms, so shall I ask this stark question;

Do you think it is justified in leaving a trail of destruction and likely death with unforeseen further consequences so that you can satisfy your internal moral imperative?

I am arguing that truly effective moral responses frequently require pragmatic and even political considerations and thought for long-term as well as short-term consequences. There is always the risk of analysis paralysis (I love that term which first I read in one of your responses). That is what makes effective moral responses difficult to achieve. This might sound like relativism but I believe that it is far more likely to achieve beneficial outcomes in the long term. And it does not depend on me being right and everybody else being wrong.

Please don’t dismiss this as being merely ‘disheartening relativism’.

I have lots more to say about this but it is already becoming unwieldy.
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Re: moral relativism

Postby EnlightenmentLiberal » Sun Jul 07, 2013 9:54 pm

You didn't answer the first question.
If lots of people genuinely believe that a supernatural being left commandments which need to be obeyed, then there is a clear basis in which they can have common discussion and even agreement (chance should be a fine thing).
Could lots of people genuinely believe that I - a mere natural being - left commandments which need to be obeyed, and if so could there be a clear basis in which they can have common discussion and even argument? I am asking if you are giving "supernatural" any more special benefits than me for this purpose.

As to your second point. I am for enacting policy that will improve happiness, freedom, safety, well-being, and the other values of humanism. If some proposed policy does not advance these goals, then I am not for it. However, to your specific question:
Do you think it is justified in leaving a trail of destruction and likely death with unforeseen further consequences so that you can satisfy your internal moral imperative?
If the damage was limited to those who were going out of their way to carry out the execution, and after negotiations failed, including offers of extraction, then yes it is justified. I would sleep well at night too. I'm all for improving well-being, but once you go out of your way to hurt someone for no justifiable reason, then you have waived your protections especially if I can help out an "innocent" - whom you are trying to hurt - by hurting you.

Thus, if I am not in a position to use force to help more than hurt (ignoring those asshats who are going out of their way to do the execution, etc.), then I would be against the plan to use force.

Please don’t dismiss this as being merely ‘disheartening relativism’.
I understand. I thought I addressed this point clearly already. I hope I have done so now.
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Re: moral relativism

Postby nottamun » Mon Jul 08, 2013 5:56 pm

Reply to Enlightenment Liberal:

You started by saying, “You didn't answer the first question.” Unless I am mistaken, I thought your first question was, “Why can the christian god be a "(divine) source of morality" and I cannot?” to which I gave an eight-sentence reply.

Could lots of people genuinely believe that I - a mere natural being - left commandments which need to be obeyed, and if so could there be a clear basis in which they can have common discussion and even argument? I am asking if you are giving "supernatural" any more special benefits than me for this purpose.

I thought I dealt with that quite clearly in my reply. I stated my clear assumption that you were not ‘arguing that your own axioms should be a source of morality for others’ and requested clarification if I was wrong in that assumption. I at no point suggested that a ‘supernatural’ basis was in any way superior to your own basis. I am an atheist; it is not likely that I would believe that. It was not what I was trying to argue. My point was about finding common bases for belief. Christians – divided though they are – have a common basis for belief in the Bible. Muslims have the Qur’an, Hadith and Sura. And so on. Does that make a Christian or Muslim belief intrinsically better than yours? Of course not. But it does help to differentiate Christian moral responses in general terms from Muslim moral responses. You speak for yourself, which is perfectly fine, but I was not aware that you were offering your defining principles as an example for others. If you are, then please feel free to do so. In my very first post I suggested that the lives of Stalin and Mao Zedong (and his ‘Little Red Book’) have been offered as bases for ‘objective’ beliefs, so I fail to see how you could think that I only favoured ‘supernatural’ sources. I happen not to believe in any of them.

I suspect that we don’t differ dramatically in our responses to the dilemma regarding the little girl. Except that I definitely don’t believe that the emotional response is automatically the moral response. In fact I think that it is extremely unlikely to be, because it ignores more profound consequences which could decrease the wellbeing of many others.

Taking this argument further, we reach the margins between a moral response and a pragmatic response, or between a moral response and a political response. So my next question will be, is there a genuine difference between these?
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Re: moral relativism

Postby EnlightenmentLiberal » Mon Jul 08, 2013 7:33 pm

Sorry, just wanted to double check. You're saying the bible provides a convenient rallying cry for christians. Is that what you're saying, more or less? Sure, it does.

Taking this argument further, we reach the margins between a moral response and a pragmatic response, or between a moral response and a political response. So my next question will be, is there a genuine difference between these?
Whether there is a difference depends on how you want to define terms, and I'm sorry but it matters. Using my preferred definitions, no there is no difference. One "problem" is that our mental heuristics can be off. In this case, we might object strongly to the girl being stoned, and want to do military intervention, but that can cause worse harm to others, and thus we may have to resist our immediate moral urges in this case based on a more level-headed analysis.

But again, I need to emphasize that this is not out of consideration for the people doing the stoning, but instead it's about other people in the region, myself, and my own country which could be negatively affected by the intervention, and so on.
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Re: moral relativism

Postby nottamun » Mon Jul 08, 2013 8:06 pm

Reply to Enlightenment Liberal:

This time I think I agree with you almost entirely. I am not sure that I would describe the Bible as a ‘rallying cry’ but rather as a tangible basis for discussion, response and action. I happen to believe that it is a horrible basis but that is beside the point.

I like your reply to my question about possible differences between moral, pragmatic and political responses. It does, of course, involve definitions, but you seem to accept that moral decisions are likely to be very blurred at the edges. That is very far from a nice, straightforward, cut-and-dried ‘thou shall not kill’-type morality which many people claim to espouse.

Neither have I any problems with you wanting – needing is probably better – to kill the people doing the stoning of the little girl. I think the world would have been a far better place had somebody put a bullet through Mao’s brain round about 1950. But we don’t have 100% foresight and consequences are very difficult to envisage. We can only do the best we can. As I have just said in another post, morality is a messy business.
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Re: moral relativism

Postby EnlightenmentLiberal » Mon Jul 08, 2013 8:08 pm

Sounds good to me.

Note that I don't want them dead, but if the only plausible option to save the girl was to kill some of the would-be stoners, I would, easily - but of course only if the overall analysis said it would do more good than harm, etc.

The world would also be a far better place if we had Star Trek set-phasers-to-stun guns. (Ok, I don't know that, but it would be interesting to contemplate.)
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Re: moral relativism

Postby nottamun » Mon Jul 08, 2013 8:18 pm

Reply to Enlightenment Liberal:

Having established basic positions, I would like to return much more closely to the point of your original post but it's getting late here. Another day. Sweet dreams.
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Re: moral relativism

Postby Tackster » Tue Jul 09, 2013 9:04 pm

Well, while there's a lull I'd like to bring up a proposition I've created that seems relevant to the topic. These are based on recent discussions with a moral relativist as well as reading into the principles of utilitarianism, libertarianism and others. I in no way hold that this is an original proposition, simply one that I am unaware of being out there. Also please disagree with any and all premises that seem incorrect - this type of discussion is so interesting to me.

Premise 1: All humans have a 'built-in' sense of morality. In order to differentiate this from a possible external morality i'm going to refer to individual moral claims as regarding ''Fairness'.

Premise 2: Not all humans agree on what constitutes Fair and non-Fair behaviour in every possible situation. If Fairness and Morality are indistinct then moral relativism holds by default.
(N.B. I'm not defining relative morality based on subjective viewpoints, i'm simply claiming that if Morality and Fairness are indistinct then they are the same thing by definition and Fairness is already defined as relative.)

Definition: Axioms of Fairness are intrinsic and equal Fairness values held by all humans due to evolutionary/bio-chemical/neurological processes. An example of an 'Axiom of Fairness' is the general principle that pain is preferable to non-pain. Immediately I can name 200 examples where this is not the case, but in general pain is still preferable to non-pain.

Definition: Beliefs of Fairness are non-intrinsic, non-equal Fairness values held by all humans. These beliefs are imparted through information/knowledge/culture. For instance, if my culture teaches me to think women are inferior, then harming women is would seem fairer then harming men.

Premise 3: The human sense of Fairness is resultant from a framework consisting of these 2 items or item groupings:

    Axioms of Fairness - Evolution/bio-chemistry/etc.
    Beliefs of Fairness - Knowledge/culture/etc.

Premise 4: Any two humans that held the same Beliefs of Fairness would be share the same sense of Fairness. To expand: by definition these humans hold the same Axioms and if they have the same Beliefs (i.e. the same knowledge or access to information) then they hold the same sense of Fairness as per Premise 3.


Argument:
Now we can assume a framework for Morality exists in the same way that a framework exists for Fairness with the difference being that in our framework for Morality all possible information is available, i.e. Morality deals with all truths about all information. Regardless of whether we know all truths, all truths exist and thus Morality (as the previously defined framework) exists. Not only can we agree on it's existence but we can agree on it's Morality/Fairness such that if any humans had access to all information (all truths) then their sense of Fairness would be the same as Morality.

Conclusion:
By the standard definition this Morality is therefore objective, whether or not humans are capable of knowing all information or all truths. We can/should/want to strive towards these objectives and approximate them as much as possible. The fact that we disagree just points to the different information or nurturing we've received.

What I like about this is that we can agree different Moral systems exist by replacing the word 'human' with 'animal' or 'alien' or whatever is mindful. I often see moral relativists express that all humans do not hold 'Axioms of Fairness' and I disagree. If our definition for Axioms of Fairness is based on all humans holding to them then anything outside of this is not human. For the purposes of ease of explanation this allows us to classify mentally afflicted individuals outside of this group (they obviously are human, I may change human to rational human or something). Now it is possible that the Axioms of Fairness amount to an empty set. Sure, but I can think of principles we can all agree on - e.g. pleasure is preferable to pain, life is preferable to death, etc. And before someone comes in arguing that those are false because of quality of life issues or depression or other situations I point our I said PREFERABLE. That doesn't mean absolutely better, just generally agreed to be better in most situations.

I have reservations of course. I intuit or posit the premises without necessarily being able to prove them. I do believe them to be true. Premise 3 seems exceptionally vulnerable because I freely admit my reason for it's truth is I cannot think of other contributors that are relevant. If we can't agree on the truth of that statement then the argument obviously no longer holds so I'm interested in opinions out there.

Anyway please let me know what you think and what you agree/disagree with.
Praise Reason!
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Re: moral relativism

Postby EnlightenmentLiberal » Wed Jul 10, 2013 10:19 am

Tackster wrote:Premise 1: All humans have a 'built-in' sense of morality. In order to differentiate this from a possible external morality i'm going to refer to individual moral claims as regarding ''Fairness'.

False.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychopathy
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociopathy
Now, if you say "most people", then that's true.

Premise 2: Not all humans agree on what constitutes Fair and non-Fair behaviour in every possible situation.
True.

If Fairness and Morality are indistinct then moral relativism holds by default.
(N.B. I'm not defining relative morality based on subjective viewpoints, i'm simply claiming that if Morality and Fairness are indistinct then they are the same thing by definition and Fairness is already defined as relative.)

I need some clear definitions please. I think there's a third option besides moral relativism and moral objectivism. I hold moral objectivity in the usual theistic sense is incoherent, ill-defined, and thus meaningless. I understand "moral relativism" to mean the idea that one should not enforce your values against the consensus of another culture, or on other people. My third option is to say that I am going to act to improve happiness, safety, freedom, well-being of people, and the other values of humanism. I am going use force on other people and other cultures against their will to enforce some of these values. Thus, I don't believe in moral relativism under that definition, and I still hold that moral objectivism is ill-defined.

Now, once you accept one (or more) "ought" axioms, then you can say that other ought statements are objectively true or false in that particular axiomatic framework. However, this is not what "objective morality" means in the usual (theistic) sense, and I request that you clearly define your terms. I'm not sure which you're advocating. My morality is objective in the sense that there are objectively right and wrong answers in my axiomatic framework. However, the axioms are still completely indefensible.

Definition: Axioms of Fairness are intrinsic and equal Fairness values held by all humans due to evolutionary/bio-chemical/neurological processes. An example of an 'Axiom of Fairness' is the general principle that pain is preferable to non-pain. Immediately I can name 200 examples where this is not the case, but in general pain is still preferable to non-pain.
You got that backwards, right?

By the standard definition this Morality is therefore objective, whether or not humans are capable of knowing all information or all truths. We can/should/want to strive towards these objectives and approximate them as much as possible. The fact that we disagree just points to the different information or nurturing we've received.
Somewhere, you broke Hume's is-ought distinction. Your four premises are about material facts of human minds and human preferences. Then, somehow, you conclude a "we should do X" statement. That does not follow. Instead, you need a fifth premise, roughly "we should behave according to these values". I accept that premise, however, but I think this is an important point.

Overall, I think the way you are phrasing it is clunky. I'll have to read it a few more times to try and figure out what you're trying to get at. I'll stare at it for a while.
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