DavId: If you’re saying then that mathematical ideas exist in our universe in some way…
GE: In some abstract way.
David: In some abstract way, could other kinds of ideas exist in the same way? Could there be moral ideas that were there? I’m not advocating that there are, but it occurs to me if you say, well, the square root of two was always there, by what authority would you say, well, moral truths couldn’t be?
GE: Now we’re getting to interesting territory here. The fact that it is possible to think of moral thoughts is a very, very deep fact about the universe: the fact it’s possible to think that things are good and evil, bad and so on.
And then my direct answer to your question is, do I think that it could be that there is a space of moral reality? And my answer is yes. I’m a moral realist. I’ve written a book about this called On the Moral Nature of the Universe with my friend Nancy Murphy, and we defend strongly the idea of a moral reality.
Now what you have to do there is then say, well, what is the nature of the moral reality? And you then have to realise that the simplistic views of morality are not correct. Real morality is not a set of ten laws on a tablet which you can write down, because those are a terrible approximation to the real thing, and from my viewpoint, the deep nature of reality, which is discovered by the spiritual members of all the great traditions in the world, is that the deep nature of morality is to do with self-sacrifice and giving up on behalf of other people. It’s counter-intuitive. It’s not a logical argument, and people are looking for logical laws that they can apply. But the deep nature of morality, from my position, is that it is the counter-intuitive thing: that if you want to get something, and create greater good, you must give up, and the way to getting what you want is giving up what you want, and that’s the way to get what you want.
The religious literature has known this for thousands of years: the fact you feel good about something doesn’t mean that it is the good thing to do. Good and evil is not scientifically measurable and so it’s not a scientific concept.
Ard: But the point is just because you can’t measure it scientifically doesn’t mean that it’s not true.
GE: Oh, I think it’s true. As I say, I think there’s a moral reality. I believe passionately that apartheid in South Africa was an evil. I believe that the Holocaust was an evil. I think that that’s a fact, a moral fact.
Ard: And you were involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Do you want to tell us a little about that?
GE: Well that’s a whole other story.
Ard: But you passionately believed…
GE: I believed that it was morally wrong what was going on. Not that it was socially wrong or that it was politically wrong, but that it was wrong, fact.
Ard: And that motivated your anti-apartheid…
David: And the way that you are describing moral facts, you would have felt that that was a moral fact that apartheid was wrong with the same certainty and power as the square root of four is two. They are both truths.
Ard: And there are people, surely, in your social class or in your friendship groups who believe apartheid was fine?
GE: Yes, yes.
Ard: So you would say they are wrong?
GE: There certainly were people who thought in various ways it was right, and I happened to believe they’re wrong. Now it’s not a scientific thing: I cannot prove scientifically they were wrong. It’s a moral or philosophical understanding, and so if you say prove it, I can’t prove it. All I can say is it is my belief that this is the way things are.
Ard: But if you say, ‘Oh, it’s my belief, I can’t prove it’, that sounds like you’re taking a step back and saying, ‘This is my belief. Your belief is that apartheid is fine, and, you know, let’s leave it that way.’
GE: My belief is that there is an abstract moral standard.
Ard: And do you think that in the anti-apartheid movement this idea that it was wrong, and that that was a fact, played a big role for those who fought against apartheid?
GE: Oh, I think so.
Ard: People sacrificed for this?
GE: Absolutely. I mean the point about this is exactly that. I take someone like Desmond Tutu as being the classic person doing that. For him it was absolutely not the slightest question that it was an evil, and this wasn’t an opinion, but it was a fact that this was an evil.