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Russia’s war crimes are proof that morality is objective

Many have argued that morals are relative, but Russia’s war crimes reveal the hollowness of that belief. Morality is universal and objective.
Freshly dug graves for unidentified civilians killed by the Russian military in Bucha. (Credit: Oleksandre Butova /  Ukrinform / Future Publishing via Getty Images)
Key Takeaways
  • The world has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its indiscriminate slaughter of civilians. But if morality is subjective, then on what basis can we make this moral judgment? 
  • The answer is that morality is not subjective. It is rooted in human nature and the “natural law.”
  • Intuition and evidence from academic research strongly suggest that morality is universal and objective.

For the better part of a year, the world has watched in horror as war rages in Ukraine. Innocent civilians are dying by the thousands while an already impoverished nation is increasingly reduced to rubble. Food and energy shortages exacerbated by Russia’s invasion have extended the suffering to millions more people around the world. The EU was so enraged by these developments that its lawmakers have declared Russia a “terrorist state.”

But this raises an important question: Why is killing civilians a “war crime” instead of a cultural disagreement between Russia and the West? On what grounds do we condemn the documented cases of rape, torture, and murder of innocents in Ukraine?

The answer is simple: We know intuitively that these are heinous crimes because every person shares the same objective understanding of right and wrong, which is rooted in human nature.

Natural law: Where morality comes from

Everything in this world has a distinct essence or nature, that is, the characteristics that make a thing what it is. In the case of a living organism, its nature dictates its proper function. According to philosopher Edward Feser:

“There are certain ends that any organism must realize in order to flourish as the kind of organism it is, ends concerning activities like development, self-maintenance, reproduction, the rearing of young, and so forth; and these ends entail a standard of goodness… Hence, we are obliged (for example) to… sustain our lives and our health and to avoid what is damaging to them…”

Put simply, you have a right to do things that nature requires of you. To use some very basic examples, you have a right to acquire food, seek shelter, and form relationships with other people because you could not survive otherwise. Anybody who frustrated your attempts to fulfill these essential needs — by taking your life, for example — would therefore violate the natural law. As Feser puts it:

“We cannot pursue any good or fulfill any obligation at all if our very lives could be taken from us by others as they saw fit; thus, the natural law entails that every human being (or at least every innocent human being) has a right not to be killed.”

This is why we can rightly condemn an invading army that shells civilian targets and kills innocent people in the process.

Morality is universal and objective

This chain of reasoning might sound pedantic. Surely everybody agrees that murdering civilians in war is wrong. That much is true, but the more important conclusion to draw out of this natural law framework is that we have an objective basis on which to evaluate any and every human behavior.

It’s an especially forceful argument because it’s intuitive. No matter our cultural context, human beings generally recognize good and bad behavior when we see it. A February 2019 study of 60 societies spanning the globe found that seven cooperative behaviors — helping kin, helping your group, reciprocity, bravery, deference to superiors, resource sharing, and respect for prior possession (property rights) — were embraced by every society. The study authors concluded:

“In every society for which there were data, these seven cooperative behaviors were considered morally good. There were no counterexamples, that is, societies in which these behaviors were considered morally bad. The survey also found that these cooperative morals were widespread — with most appearing in most societies — and that they were observed with equal frequency across all cultural regions.”

These results fortify a theory called “morality-as-cooperation,” which stipulates that “evolution has equipped humans with a range of biological — including psychological — adaptations for cooperation.” To claim that evolution has “equipped” us with adaptations aimed at particular outcomes is a roundabout way of saying that human nature directs us toward behaviors that are good for us. To quote Feser again:

“Accounts of the function of [DNA] regularly make use of such concepts as ‘information,’ ‘code,’ ‘instructions,’ ‘data,’ ‘blueprint,’ ‘software,’ ‘program,’ and the like… But every one of these concepts is suffused with intentionality, that is to say, with the notion of a thing’s pointing to something beyond itself… in this case, to an organism’s physiological and behavioral traits.”

This isn’t to say that all ethical dilemmas can be resolved with simplistic black-or-white answers. Doing the “right” thing is often dependent on context. Nevertheless, nobody talks about “my truth” or “lived experience” when children are killed in war. These relativistic concepts are incapable of helping us understand or respond to the evil that pervades the world. As a result, we should abandon them and acknowledge what reason and empirical investigation tell us: Morality is objective.


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