Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ethics without God, or ethics without metaphysics

I am redating this old post.

One interesting point about many ethical philosophies is that while they make no reference to a theistic God, they do seem to be grounded in metaphysics, and the kind of metaphysics at work is one that a modern naturalist would have trouble accepting. Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics are prime examples. Plato's moral philosophy is based on the Form of the Good, which shares certain characteristics with the theistic God, and which can be known through a process of recollection where we recollect what we were aware of in a pre-existence. Aristotle is based on the idea of an inherent purpose for human life, and Stoic ethics is a response to Stoic metaphysics. No one seems to be suggesting that ethics will be all just the same regardless of metaphysics. Even if a personal God isn't required for ethics, doesn't it seem plausible that at the very least some sort of metaphysics is required that most naturalists today would have a hard time accepting. Is it reasonable to reject what Kant called a metaphysics of morals?

135 comments:

David Wood said...

I think the recent Hitchens-Wilson Debate is an excellent example of the problem atheists must deal with.

exapologist said...

I would like to see a plasible metaphsic for morality that fits naturally with Christian theism, and that doesn't fall apart under close scrutiny. Perhaps someone can point me to the relevant literature (if you're thinking of the work of Robert Adams, William Alston, or Mark Murphy, don't bother).

Thanks,

EA

exapologist said...

Sorry for the sloppiness!

David Wood said...

EA,

Whenever someone raises the question of an atheist foundation for morality (which is an important topic, considering that atheists are currently calling all sorts of things "evil"), you immediately change the subject to theistic foundations for morality. I think you're trying to imply that atheists and theists are in the same boat here. But we're not.

Consider the following imaginary conversation between an atheist and a theist, which roughly follows the Hitchens-Wilson debate:

ATHEIST: Christianity is evil!

THEIST: Why is it evil?

ATHEIST: Because all sorts of evil things have come from it!

THEIST: How do you identify those things as evil?

ATHEIST: Well, we've evolved some moral views, and some tendencies to do right and wrong.

THEIST: But why are certain tendencies "right" and others "wrong"? They both evolved.

ATHEIST: You're saying I can't do good things! You're saying that all atheists are immoral!

THEIST: No. I simply asked on what basis you distinguish between "right" evolved tendencies and "wrong" evolved tendencies. What foundation do you have for this distinction?

ATHEIST: Atheists can do good things too!

THEIST: I haven't denied this. I'm simply asking how you can say that some things are bad while others are good.

ATHEIST: But I can do good things just like a theist!

And so on, and so on.

Now let's look at a different conversation.

THEIST: Hey, stop murdering people!

MURDERER: Why should I?

THEIST: Because an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good being became a man, told us to love one another, died for our sins, and rose from the dead.

MURDERER: Well, is he "wholly good" because he lives up to a certain standard outside of himself? If so, then there is a standard outside of God.

THEIST: No, goodness is part of God's nature.

MURDERER: But his nature could have been otherwise! Would that other nature then have been "good"?

THEIST: No, God could not have been otherwise.

Here the conversation would become quite difficult, as theist and murderer attempt to understand how morality relates to God's nature. But this is quite different from the situation with the atheist, who can't so much as defend the concept of morality.

In other words, if theism is true, then an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good being has told us how we should live. We may wonder how morality relates to God, but surely God understands such things and actually knows what we should do. But if atheism is true, then some tendencies that evolved (I'm going with Hitchens here) tell us how we should live. But do these tendencies really know what is right and what is wrong? Isn't there a marked difference between the statements "God said it" and "It evolved this way"? Be honest. Even given all of your philosophical objections, wouldn't the former statement, if true, carry far more weight than the latter? If so, are atheists and theists really in the same boat?

John W. Loftus said...

David, David, David. You cannot speak about people changing the subject, my friend. Do you remember the debate we had about the problem of evil and you wanting to talk about the existence of God, the teleological argument, and the problem of defining evil for the atheist? That's changing the subject, and I think I made my points on those issues enough that you know what I'm talking about.

When it come to a godless ethic, I am meeting the challenge head-on beginning here, and also here.

David Wood said...

John,

I'm not sure why I'm answering you, since it will ruin any chance of the good conversation that we were about to have. (Sorry EA.) But here goes.

(1) In our debate, you spoke before I did, and you're the one who brought up arguments for the existence of God. If it's off topic, why did you bring it up? If you raised the subject, how did I change the subject? Since you brought up the topic, I can only assume that you really understand that it's relevant. You're only complaining now because you know you never gave a good answer.

(2) The topic of our debate was whether the extent of evil in the world makes the existence of God implausible. If you were making the logical argument from evil, that would be one thing. But you were making the evidential argument from evil. That is, you were claiming that evil is a certain amount of evidence against the existence of God. Hence, if you are going to show that the extent of evil makes the existence of God implausible, you must show that something about evil outweighs all evidence for God's existence. I brought up arguments for theism and asked you, quite reasonably, what it is about the argument from evil that makes it inherently better than all these other arguments. That seems like a relevant question. You never answered it, and you still haven't. Moreover, you're still complaining that I asked a completely relevant question.

(3) You note that I brought up the problem of defining evil for atheists. How is this "changing the subject"? If you're saying that God can't exist because of evil, don't I have a right to ask on what basis you're identifying evil, especially if I believe, as I do, that God is the ultimate foundation for distinguishing good from evil?

So here you accuse me of changing the subject based on (a) the fact that I brought up an issue that you first brought up and which was entirely relevant to the debate, and (b) the fact that I inquired into your foundation of morality, which your argument rested on.

Now let's compare this to what I said to Exapologist. The question raised was a simple one. Do atheists have a foundation for morality? Exapologist said (perhaps in reply, perhaps just as a related question): What foundation do theists have for morality? These are two different questions. We can answer either without appeal to the other.

But we can't answer the question "Does the extent of suffering in the world make the existence of God implausible?" without considering what you mean by evil and whether other evidence bears on the question. So, nice try.

P.S. Didn't you say I'm no longer worth your time, after calling me "idiot," "moron," etc.? I liked it better that way, for obvious reasons. Conversations with you degenerate quite quickly, and little ground it gained for anyone.

Victor Reppert said...

Look, I made a very specific claim. I maintained that the modern secularist typically does not only reject theistic morality, but also rejects morality based on transcendent forms that we can know, and an inherent purpose for human existence. So what I had in mind was leaving theism out of it and trying to see that there have to be some "metaphysical" commitments made in order to have anything that looks like an adequate moral theory. For the purposes of this discussion it would be better if everyone forgot about the fact that I happen to be a Christian theist and addressed the problem I actually posed.

Loftus's discussion of godless ethics doesn't do much for me. Of course we all want happiness; different people are happy doing different things, and some people, like Ted Bundy, think that they can achieve happiness by harming others.

Why do I have some compelling reason to pursue the interests of others if, given my temperament and situation, it looks as if I have to pass on satisfying my desires in order to do the "right" thing.

If I have strong social desires I may want either to do what others think is moral or at least appear to do what others think is moral. (Lots of people thought Ted Bundy was a great guy).

Look, if you accept my point an you don't like Christian metaphysics, maybe you can try resurrecting a Platonist or an Aristotelian or a Stoic metaphysics. Or if you must accept an Epicurean metaphysics, maybe you should accept an Epicurean ethics as well. (I don't find that very satisfactory. Do you?)

exapologist said...

I'm not trying to change the subject, but to uncover the point of these sorts of posts. I can't be sure, but my hunch is that there's an implicit argument of the following sort:

1. Either Christian theism is true or naturalism is true.
2. If naturalism is true, then everything that exists is reducible to the physical.
3. Moral properties exist, and can't be reduced to the physical.
4. Therefore, naturalism isn't true.
5. Therefore, Christian theism is true.

In any case, this is one construal of the implicit argument. It may be a more complicated deductive argument (e.g., one that starts with a disjunction between theism and naturalism, and concludes with the truth of theism. From there, any of a wide variety of arguments could be given to move from theism to Christian theism in particular). Or perhaps instead the argument is inductive or abductive.

In any case, if the argument is anything like the one above, I think it's pretty terrible. A non-theist need not be a naturalist in such a crude sense that all entities are physical or reducible to the physical in some sense or another (e.g., in terms of logical supervenience). One could hold a gazillion different views here. Here's the one I hold at the moment: all *contingent* being is reducible to the physical, but since abstracta exist (including moral properties), and exist of metaphysical necessity, then they need no causal or explanatory ground in terms of the physical; nor, for the same reason, need they be caused or explained in terms of a god (being the necessary beings they are). If this is plausible -- and I think it obviously is -- then (2) is implausible. On the other hand, if you're just dead set on characterizing physicalism so that it requires the reducible of everything to the physical, then since the alternative view I mention is plausible, then (1) is implausible (well, it's implausible anyway; this is just an extra reason for thinking so).

On the other hand, if you think moral properties are abstracta, then I'm still waiting to hear an account of theistic activism that doesn't just fall apart.



So my point is that the argument that seems to be implied in these sorts of posts is just ridiculous, and poses no threat at all to a non-theist. There just is no interesting argument here, so far as I can tell. I think that *both* Christian theism and crude naturalism are implausible, and so we need a middle road: metaphysic that allows for abstract objects that are independent of God. Such a view is compatible with both theism and naturalism.

David Wood said...

Vic,

I agree that an atheist would have to make some metaphysical commitments in order to have a real ground for morality. I just can't think of any that would qualify. The most promising approach I see for atheists is to say that moral laws are similar to certain logical laws. Triangles have properties, whether or not any triangles exist. One might argue that "Do not kill" is similar to "The three angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees." If no people exist, then the moral laws don't obtain. But as soon as there is a group of people, some laws go into effect, just as some laws go into effect when there is a triangle.

I think this would only push the problem back one level. But utilitarianism is a lame foundation, and atheists need some metaphysics. So I think this would be the best direction to go.

David Wood said...

EA,

It sounds like you're in substantial agreement with Vic.

Regarding the purpose of the question, I'm not sure what Vic has in mind, but there's more relevance to such questions than the Moral Argument for God. Two of the most common claims I hear from atheists right now are (1) God cannot exist because of evil, and (2) religion is bad. The question of an atheist ground for ethics is certainly relevant to both of these claims. And I would have to say that neither claim can really be defended on standard atheistic accounts of ethics. Would you be interested in going into more detail regarding your view?

David Wood said...

EA,

Here's a scenario from the Hitchens-Wilson debate. I don't think Hitchens answered very well, and I think you would answer differently. I'd be interested in hearing your reply:

"Take the vilest atheist you ever heard of. Imagine yourself sitting at his bedside shortly before he passes away. He says, following Sinatra, 'I did it my way.' And then he adds, chuckling, 'Got away with it too.' In our thought experiment, the one rule is that you must say something to him, and whatever you say, it must flow directly from your shared atheism--and it must challenge the morality of his choices."

John W. Loftus said...

Vic, I'm pretty sure I won't say anything you or Lovell haven't considered before. I stand in the happiness tradition of ethics and will try to defend it for my readers and not for scholars like you two.

Vic, ...some people, like Ted Bundy, think that they can achieve happiness by harming others.

I will claim Bundy was not being rational. I will defend the idea that rational self-interest has the least number of serious problems. I recognize they all have serious problems, and I don't think you would disagree, correct?

Vic....Why do I have some compelling reason to pursue the interests of others if, given my temperament and situation, it looks as if I have to pass on satisfying my desires in order to do the "right" thing.

The answer seems easy to me and is suggested by the late Louis Pojman: argues that it is reasonable to choose and to act upon an over-all “life plan,” even though there will be many times where I may have to act against my own immediate or short-term self-interest in keeping with that plan. “To have the benefits of the moral life—friendship, mutual love, inner peace, moral pride or satisfaction, and freedom from moral guilt—one has to have a certain kind of reliable character. All in all, these benefits are eminently worth having. Indeed, life without them may not be worth living.” “Character counts,” Pojman wrote, and “habits harness us to predictable behavior. Once we obtain the kind of character necessary for the moral life--once we become virtuous--we will not be able to turn morality on and off like a faucet.” With such an understanding “there is no longer anything paradoxical in doing something not in one’s interest, for while the individual moral act may occasionally conflict with one’s self-interest, the entire life plan in which the act is embedded and from which it flows is not against the individual’s self-interest.” Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong 5th ed. (p. 188).

exapologist said...

Hi David,

I take moral truths to be true of necessity. So, for example, "torturing babies for fun is bad" isn't just contingently true, but true of necessity. From here, things can go in a number of different ways, but at the moment, I'm a virtue ethics person. It think that Plato and Aristotle were on the right track. I think that what's good or bad should be spelled out in terms of what furthers or hinders flourishing, respectively. The relationship between flourishing and the good is known a priori. However, *the particular things that turn out to be good and bad (in this case, for humans)* is discovered empirically. So, for example, "slavery is bad" is necessary truth, although it was an empirical discovery that it is. Such facts are therefore necessary a posteriori.

So much for the (in some cases) moral properties of good and bad. What about the moral properties of right and wrong? Here I think we can learn from Christian philosopher Robert Adams, who builds off of an independent account of the good and the bad. Adams thinks that it's grounded in obligations, which logically supervene community practices of commanding that are in accordance with what is good and bad.

The basic metaphysic requires abstract objects, such as normative properties of the good and the bad. But my own form of "naturalism" requires that only contingent entities must be grounded in the physical. But since abstract objects are timeless, spaceless, necessary existents, they need no causal or explanatory ground in terms of the physical, since they never "arose" at all.

In any case, this is a rough sketch of my current account.

Regards,

EA

David Wood said...

EA,

It seems that the list of necessary moral truths that could be derived on your view would be quite limited. Your example was "torturing babies for fun." Here you added a specific motive ("for fun"), and I suspect that such motives would usually be required.

For instance, you couldn't say that "killing babies" or "killing old people" are necessarily wrong. But you could say that killing old people "for fun" is necessarily wrong. (By the way, Richard Carrier disagrees with you even when it comes to torturing for fun. It's not, on his view, necessarily wrong.)

Now, since we need more from an ethical system than things like "don't torture babies for fun," how would you derive the rest of your moral precepts?

For instance, how would you rule in the following case. Our medical knowledge is increasing rapidly. With this knowledge, we can treat people who would have died otherwise (due to old age or diseases). But when we do so, we preserve bad genes that otherwise would have been eliminated from the gene pool, thereby causing problems for future generations. And we increase the number of old people in society, which causes a drain on the economy and lessens the overall happiness.

To be honest, I only say that the medical field should keep old people (or people with certain diseases) alive because of my commitment to the view that humans have inherent worth. I would never have said such a thing when I was an atheist.

So my question is this: when you cannot pronounce necessary moral truths (I'm not sure you can pronounce any, but let's assume you've got some), how do you keep your moral theory from degenerating into the standard atheistic utilitarianism?

To put it more bluntly, would your moral theory really amount to more than utilitarianism with a metaphysical cloak?

John W. Loftus said...

David, I think the whole problem in the debate aftermath, if you will allow me this one time, is that you considered it of the utmost importance that people considered you to be the winner of that debate. If it were not for that need you had I think you and I can carry on a decent respectful discussion, and I would like this from you. But at the time I did consider you to be acting like an idiot. You re-read what was said in the future when your emotions have subsided and I think you'll be embarrassed. In any case, I hope we can have reasonable discussions in the future, even if you consider what I just wrote to be wrong.

Cheers David.

David Wood said...

John,

You've called me "idiot" and "moron" in many different situations, usually when you simply can't refute whatever I'm saying. You've called me a dumb jock; you've said I can't intellectually fight my way out of a wet paper bag; you've said that I will never make a contribution in philosophy, and that if you were one of my advisors, you would never pass me. (Thankfully, my advisors are respected philosophers.) I don't really care that you say these things. Indeed, I take it as a sign of weakness when you repeatedly resort to this tactic. Nevertheless, people have their limits. If a person ends up insulting me whenever we disagree, I'm inclined not to want to discuss things with that person anymore. I'm also inclined to cut short any conversation of which you're a part, including this one. I'll catch everyone later.

Victor Reppert said...

EA: There's no underlying argument, and certainly not a deductive argument. At least I intend for the points made here to be considered on their own merits without regard to what they do for an apologetic programme.

John W. Loftus said...

Well, David, hold on to what I said for as long as you can. Memorize those things. Repeat them in your mind every single day, and then prove me wrong! I'd like to see that. I really would. Believe it or not I'd like you to do well. Afterwards thank me for inspiring you to make that contribution to philosophy. And then when you've matured come back and re-read what you said in the debate aftermath and you'll see exactly why I said what I did at the time.

I wish you well.

David Wood said...

Sorry Vic. I couldn't resist. It's a weakness I have.

John,

You have repeatedly said that I should thank you for whatever contribution I make in philosophy (except for all the times when you've said that I will never make any contribution). Do you really believe that? Have you inspired me? Are you my muse? I had been studying philosophy for ten years before I ever heard your name when you sent me that email, yet you seem to think that John W. Loftus inspires everyone to greater heights? How so?

You've also said (repeatedly) that I changed my dissertation topic to the Problem of Evil because I was so impressed with your arguments that I saw that it was a threat to theism. Is that what you think? I've read the arguments of people like Mackie, Rowe, and Draper. I'm not impressed with any of them, and I'm far less impressed with your misunderstanding of their arguments. (For the record, I asked my friend Mike Licona which of several topics are most important, and he suggested PoE.)

The point is this John. The universe, from your perspective, seems to revolve around you. If someone does something or achieves something, it must be thanks to you. (Unless, of course, you do something bad. Then it's everyone else's fault!) If someone takes some position, it must be because they're impressed with your arguments. Do you have any idea what people really think of you, John?

exapologist said...

Hi David,

I guess I'm not seeing a problem for the moral theory I sketched in your case about the elderly. On my theory, if some medical technology or procedure will continue to the flourishing of the elderly, then it's *good*. If it is, then if our community generates an obligation about this, then it's *right*. (sorry -- earlier I aligned myself with virtue ethics. But actually I'm only borrowing an idea *discovered*, or at least *emphasized* by virtue ethicists, viz., *flourishing*).

Is the problem supposed to be that there's a moral dilemma here, and my account doesn't come out on the right side? Why are you thinking it has that implication? My theory doesn't decide from the outset what's right or wrong -- only what's good or bad. If you give me facts about community practices of commanding, and whether they're in conformity with what is good, *then* my theory will tell you which has priority.

exapologist said...

Victor,

Thanks for clarifying.

EA

John W. Loftus said...

David, as always I'm seeing a trend with you. Like those who argued against Walter Kaufmann's Critique of Religion and Philosophy and those who defend inerrancy, you gerrymander what is said just enough to make others look bad and you look good (just as inerantists defend the Bible). I'm better off not dealing with you anymore. Too many non-sequiturs, red herrings, exaggerations and even a false statement or two. The problem is that no one cares about it here, so I'm dropping it. I have wallowed in the mire with you for far too long. When I do I get dirty with you.

Cheers.

David Wood said...

EA,

My difficulty is that I'm not sure how we can tell what the necessary moral truths are. You said that it's empirical. So human beings "discover" that slavery is wrong, because we realize that it conflicts with human flourishing. But what do you mean here? Do you mean the flourishing of each individual human, or the flourishing of the greatest number of people?

If it's the latter, then you're stuck with the moral dilemmas. I'm not even sure you could say that slavery is wrong on such a view. That is, suppose slavery, though bad for slaves, ultimately contributes to a greater overall human flourishing. On the other hand, if you're talking about what will help each individual human to flourish, then there are conflicts of interest. For instance, it might help me to flourish if I have a slave to take care of various tasks that distract me. But it wouldn't be good for the slave.

John W. Loftus said...

David from now on I won't enage you if there are personal charges to be made back and forth. I'll just link to where I think you made a fool of yourself and be done with it, even if people will not care to trudge through all of it. Link

Cheers.

exapologist said...

Re: the epistemology of moral statements: It depends. It's necessary and a priori that whatever conttributes to flourishing is good. But it's necessary a posteriori that, say, friendship is good.

Re: right and wrong: actions that are *right* are communally generated commands that are also in accord with what it *good*; *wrong* actions are those that go against such commands.

Re: individual vs. collective flourishing: this is tricky, since the two seem interdependent when it comes to flourishing (as opposed to, e.g., pleasure). As Plato and (especially) Aristotle saw, the flourishing of the individual depdends to a large extent of the flourishing of the state and vice-versa. So, for example, suppose we decide to cut back on the medical procedures on the elderly for the sake of what produces flourishing for humans as a species. It's debatable whether this *would* contribute to the flourishing of our species. It's not just happiness that's important, but the actualization of our capacities qua humans. If we're essentially social; if social flourishing requires friendships, etc.; if these require sympathy and fellow-feeling; and this would be hindered by such a decision, then it wouldn't *be* good.

David Wood said...

Exapologist said:

"The basic metaphysic requires abstract objects, such as normative properties of the good and the bad. But my own form of 'naturalism' requires that only contingent entities must be grounded in the physical. But since abstract objects are timeless, spaceless, necessary existents, they need no causal or explanatory ground in terms of the physical, since they never 'arose' at all."

So you believe in abstract objects?

exapologist said...

You bet. I think they're necessarily existent objects.

David Wood said...

So you believe in a timeless, uncaused ground of morality that exists independently of the physical world. On this we are in full agreement. (And you are not far from the Kingdom of God.)

Do you have some independent reasons for believing in these abstract objects? Or does your reasoning run as follows:

(1) If a transcendent ground of morality does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values exist.
(3) Therefore, a transcendent ground of morality exists.

exapologist said...

Hi David,

No. I feel pushed to accept abstract objects (properties, propositions, possible worlds, sets, etc.) for theoretical reasons (e.g., Quinean indispensability arguments; explaining the phenomena of resemblance, predication, and abstract reference; etc.) -- the standard sorts of reasons why huge swaths of contemporary philosophers accept their existence.

-EA

David Wood said...

But which of these reasons accounts for your belief in a ground of morality?

exapologist said...

Hi John,

I'm not sure I know what you're asking for. If you're asking for why I think moral properties exist, it's because I treat certain moral intuitions, moral statements, practices, etc., as data, and then I posit the existence of theoretical entities (in this case, moral properties) to partially explain the data, as they play an indispendabile role in my moral theory.

Perhaps you're asking for something else?

exapologist said...

Sorry, I meant *David* -- I'm confusing two conversations I'm having at the moment.

Jason Pratt said...

Wow, that was a fast 33 comments! Largely substantial, too. (Well, not from John really, but he was having a more substantial discussion with Steve Lovell again elsewhere. Which will probably continue being substantial until Steve makes the mistake of giving John a colorful philosophical _compliment_, after which John will be so insulted he won't be capable of paying coherent attention any more. Things will get kind of surreal after that. {rolling eyes})

Without denigrating the discussion between Exap and David so far, I have only one comment to make, regarding something Exap is trying to accomplish: {{a metaphysic that allows for abstract objects that are independent of God. Such a view is compatible with both theism and naturalism.}}

Whatever else may be said about the virtues of such an attempt, it is _not_ technically compatible with theism. It might be technically compatible with some kind of cosmological dualism, though (God/Nature for instance). If it is, then either the abstracta are nevertheless dependent on Nature's existence (if not on God's); or else the abstracta are dependent on some other unstated 3rd (or more) Independent Fact(s); or else the abstracta are being proposed themselves as being ontological IFs.

In latter two cases the proposal isn't compatible with naturalism, either. Naturalism and supernaturalism, and atheism and theism, which are all distinct claims--though the two sets can mix in type--are all single IF positions. Strictly speaking the first case would be a multiple IF position, too, and so not strictly compatible with naturalism either, although it would be indistinguishable from naturalism for all practical purposes. (Abstracta are only compatible with naturalism, if they depend upon Nature as the IF. If they are not dependent upon Nature-as-the-sole-IF for their existence, then some other ontological claim is being tacitly proposed over-against naturalism, and this should be identified for purposes of clarity.)

Back to the sidelines again. {bowing to David and Exap for their respective and respectable attempts}

JRP

Jeff said...

The following paper maybe of interest Ethics Without God, by Ozzie Osgood.

David Wood said...

XA (I think that's cooler than EA) said:

"I treat certain moral intuitions, moral statements, practices, etc., as data, and then I posit the existence of theoretical entities (in this case, moral properties) to partially explain the data, as they play an indispendabile role in my moral theory."

A jump to non-physical, theoretical entities is somewhat extreme, yet you feel it is necessary, for some reason that doesn't convinvce most other atheists.

Nearly all atheist philosophers are reductive or non-reductive physicalists. But you find physicalism altogether inadequate.

You said that you posit theoretical entities based on the data of your moral intuitions. But other atheists have the same data, and they are content to appeal to the physical world.

Take Hitchens, for instance. He has all the same intuitions as you. Then he simply says, "My intuitions evolved."

But you're not willing to say this, which means you are for some reason taking moral intuitions much more seriously than Hitchens. That is, for you, these intuitions are not so easily explained, and appeal must be made to something other than evolution.

Is it because you believe, based on your intuitions, that morality is objective? If so, then why wouldn't the following argument be an accurate representation of your reasoning:

(1) If a transcendent ground of morality does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values exist.
(3) Therefore, a transcendent ground of morality exists.

exapologist said...

Hi David,

What you say may well be true of many atheists who aren't philosophers (BTW, I'm not an atheist myself -- I'm agnostic). However, I'm not sure if it's true of philsophers. Lots of philosophers I know who are atheists accept the existence of at least some sorts of abstracta.

Regarding your (Craigesque) deductive argument about moral values: I won't fuss much about that way of formulating it. It's just that I wouldn't put it in terms of a deductive argument. I see the evidential relation as of the sort that holds between theory and data, which is a bit more tentative.

(Hi Jason. I agree with much of what you say, except that I think that my account of abstracta and moral values is logically compatible with theism. It's just that less things would be dependent upon God if some form of theism turns out to be true).

Steve Lovell said...

Exap,

Given our recent interaction elsewhere on this blog, I'm guessing I know your answer ... but I'm yet to see you explicitly respond to my presentation of theistic ethics. Jason and John have responded, but Jason and I are pretty much in agreement and the jury is out on John's response just now.

Has anyone read Linda Zagzebski's "Divine Motivation Theory"? I've had it on my bookshelf for a few months but haven't read any yet. In very general terms it's a presentation of an agent based (virtue theory-ish) version of theistic ethics, in which the "virtues" of God provide the basis of moral standards.

Steve

exapologist said...

Hi Steve,

Shoot, I haven't seen your presentation of theistic ethics. Would you point me to it? I'd be happy to read it.

I haven't yet read Zagzebski's book you mentioned, although I think she gave the basic argument in a special issue of Faith and Philosophy several years back. I've read that, but can't remember the basic argument. I'll have to go back and check it out.

Best,

EA

Steve Lovell said...

Exap,

You should be able to get at the PhD chapter via www.apollos.ws, but I seem to have problems connecting to that site just now. I host an older version of the same at my site, but for the full version drop me an email (the address is steve [at] annotations.co.uk).

Steve

David Wood said...

Sorry I'm late. I'm taking a summer course in French.

X-A said:

"Lots of philosophers I know who are atheists accept the existence of at least some sorts of abstracta."

But surely not in the sense you're using. Empiricists generally reject abstracta because we don't have sense-data for them. And physicalists will only hold to a very limited notion of abstracta.

But you're basing a moral theory on such theoretical entities.

Now I have a question. You said that slavery is necessarily wrong because it is at odds with human flourishing. Which of the following is your claim:

(1) So long as we grant that whatever is in accord with human flourishing is right, then we may empirically derive moral principles based on our commitment; or

(2) It is necessarily the case that whatever is in accord with human flourishing is right.

In other words, is the idea that human flourishing is the goal itself an abstractum? Or must we first grant this and then derive ethical principles?

exapologist said...

Hi David,

It's hard to know what to say here. It's kind of common knowledge, relative to those within the philosophical community, that lots of atheist philosophers accept some sorts of abstracta. Quine and Russell were atheists, yet they both thought that abstract objects exist. Michael Jubien, Peter King, people in my department, etc., etc., think that abstract objects exist. I was just at the Pacific Division Metting of the APA conference in April, talking to several such philosphers. So I don't know where you're coming from about this. But in any case, on to your point.

I guess I accept neither (1) nor (2), although if you replaced 'right' with 'good', then I'd be on board with (2). Human flourishing is a property, so it's an abstract object in my book.

-EA

David Wood said...

(1) I said that empiricists generally reject abstracta (which is true) and that physicalists typically subscribe to a very limited notion of abstracta (which is true). The point was that even those who appeal to abstracta rarely do so in the manner you're using. That is, saying "slavery is necessarily wrong" is quite different from saying "the three angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees."

(2) Granting that "human flourishing" is a property, in what sense is "human flourishing is necessarily good" a property?

(3) I understand, given belief that human flourishing is good, how one might say that we can discover empirically that slavery is therefore bad. However, how does one go about empirically discovering that human flourishing is necessarily good? It seems that such a statement would really amount to nothing more than "I like human flourishing so much that I'm going to say it's necessarily good."

It seems that all you could really say here is that just about everyone would agree that human flourishing is good. But that's far from showing that it's necessarily so.

exapologist said...

Re:(1): I'm not following. The way you put it with your geometry and your moral propositions, it sounds like you're taking 'abstract objects' as synonymous with 'a priori propositions', which is a misuse of the term.

Re:(2): 'Human flourishing is necessarily good" isn't a property at all, but a proposition. However, the property of human flourishing has the essential property of being good, on my view.

Re:(3): One doesn't go about discovering empirically that human flourishing is necessarily good. As I said in a couple of earlier comments, I take that to be a priori.

exapologist said...

Whoops: re: (2): ...human flourishing has the property of being good essentially...

David Wood said...

X-A said: "Re:(1): I'm not following. The way you put it with your geometry and your moral propositions, it sounds like you're taking 'abstract objects' as synonymous with 'a priori propositions', which is a misuse of the term."

The triangle is the abstract object. We know it's an abstract object because it has certain properties that hold whether an actual triangle exists or not. You've argued for moral properties. But surely these cannot be verified in the same manner that we verify the properties of a triangle. In fact, I can't think of any way to verify them as properties of abstract objects.

X-A said: "Re:(2): 'Human flourishing is necessarily good' isn't a property at all, but a proposition. However, the property of human flourishing has the essential property of being good, on my view."

Consider the following propositions:

(1) Human flourishing has the essential property of being good.

(2) Sex has the essential property of being good.

(3) Rejecting God has the essential property of being good.

(4) Torturing old ladies has the essential property of being good.

I assume you would reject (2)-(4). But it seems that the only ground for doing so is (a) you agree with (1) but not with the others, or (b) most people would agree with (1) more than with the others. But surely we can't be deciding what is necessary based on personal preference or majority vote. Which brings us to . . .

E-A said: "Re:(3): One doesn't go about discovering empirically that human flourishing is necessarily good. As I said in a couple of earlier comments, I take that to be a priori."

Here I just don't understand what you mean by "a priori." "Tom is a married bachelor" is a priori false. "I've got a square circle in my pocket" is a priori false. "If Tom is a bachelor, then he's unmarried" is a priori true. Now here are some more propositions:

(5) Human flourishing is good a priori.

(6) Animal flourishing is good a priori.

(7) Mosquito flourishing is good a priori.

(8) Cancer flourishing is good a priori.

Would you grant (6)? How about (7)? How about(8)? My point here is this. To say that slavery is necessarily wrong, in our conversation, presupposes your claim that human flourishing is good a priori. But this claim itself presupposes a certain value of human beings, one which makes us more valuable than, say, cancer cells. Do we have to add, then, that human beings are more important than other living organisms, a priori? If so, it seems that we're just taking whatever we want to say and adding "a priori" to it, and I'm not sure this is a realistic approach.

(P.S. I said in a comment before we started that I think this is the best approach for atheists who want a ground of morality. When I was an atheist, I rejected the idea of objective moral values, and I think that's the correct view if atheism is true. Nevertheless, for atheists who want a foundation, I'd say you're on the most plausible track. I think it's full of holes, but it's still better than the "Evolution made it so" response.)

XCGMouse said...

John Loftus,

There's sort of a tautological character to your life plan idea, isn't there?

Your saying, the telogical character of one's life plan should conform to the moral life of the society.

Why not say the moral life of the society should conform to everyone life plan?

exapologist said...

Hi David,



David: Consider the following propositions:


(1) Human flourishing has the essential property of being good.

(2) Sex has the essential property of being good.

(3) Rejecting God has the essential property of being good.

(4) Torturing old ladies has the essential property of being good.

I assume you would reject (2)-(4). But it seems that the only ground for doing so is (a) you agree with (1) but not with the others, or (b) most people would agree with (1) more than with the others. But surely we can't be deciding what is necessary based on personal preference or majority vote. Which brings us to . . .

I accept (1), on the grounds that flourishing is good as such.

What about (2)? Well, it depends. Some kinds of sex don't contribute to human flourishing --- e.g., abusive sex. However, plenty of instances of sex contribute to human flourishing. That's known a posteriori, since it was an empirical discovery (albeit a relatively simple one) that certain kinds of sex contribute to human flourishing.

What about (3)? That's going to depend on empirical research as to whether it contributes to human flourishing.

That leaves us with (4). This is another one of those simple empirical discoveries that something doesn't contribute to human flourishing; as such, it's bad.

I'm not sure why you would have thought that those sorts of decisions would lack a principled basis on my theory. It's a part of my theory that flourishing is good, and what hinders it is bad. If so, then I have an objective basis for these sorts of judgements.

As a side note, I want to say that I find it fascinating that you find this theory so odd. This theory is kissing cousins with natural law theory, which has been one of the dominant ethical theories for Christians since at least the time of Aquinas (the ideas of which are rooted in Aristotle's notion of flourishing). It's still a highly popular theory among Christian philosophers, so I thought that you would be very familiar with it. In any case, you might want to take a look at the volume, Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Peterson and Van Arragon, eds.). Christian Philophers/natural law theorist Craig Boyd and Raymond Van Arragon duke it out with Christian philosopher/divine command theorist Janine Marie Idziak -- in my opinion, the former guys clearly get the better of the exchange.

David: Here I just don't understand what you mean by "a priori." "Tom is a married bachelor" is a priori false. "I've got a square circle in my pocket" is a priori false. "If Tom is a bachelor, then he's unmarried" is a priori true.

Me: This is the trickiest part, and the least thought out portion of my theory. I have two sketches, both of which are tied to the seminal work of Kripke and Putnam re: names and natural kind terms.

On the first account, I exploit Kripke's notion of reference-fixing descriptions and the contingent a priori. Kripke showed us that there's a difference between giving the meaning of a term, on the one hand, and fixing its reference, on the other. Names and natural kind terms are kripkean rigid designators -- they pick out their referents in all possible worlds in which they exist. So, I can introduce a term by associating it with a description that contingently picks out a referent. So, I can say, "from now on, let 'Red' denote the ball on my lawn." So now 'Red' rigidly denotes the ball that is associated with the referent of that description in the actual world. The proposition, "'Red' is the ball in my back yard" is therefore a contingent proposition that is nonetheless known a priori. It's contingent, since the description could've failed to refer to that object in other situations and possible worlds. But it's a priori because I *stipulated* that the name 'Red' (which is a rigid designator) would rigidly refer to that object.

Putnam independently came up with this sort of account, but for natural kind terms. So on this account, one associates a natural kind term -- e.g., 'water' -- with a description that contingently refers to the intended referent in the actual world. These propositions are contingent a priori as well -- E.g., "Let 'water' denote the stuff that falls from clouds, is clear and potable, fills rivers and streams, etc. in the actual world." However, on Putnams account, the description is what he calls a "stereotype": a robust description that captures the salient features commonly associated with tokens of the referent natural kind.

But Kripke and Putnam go beyond this, and show that not only are there contingent a priori reference-fixing descriptions, but there are necessary a posteriori statements as well.

From Kripke and Putnam, we learn that there are contingent a priori propositions. They don't spell out the essential properties of the terms, but rather fix their referents. We can know a priori that water is whatever fills the role of the stereotype, but it's an empirical discovery that H20 is identical to the stuff that plays that role in the actual world.

Applying these points to my ethical theory: On my view, "'Goodness' denotes whatever contributes to flourishing" is a reference-fixing description; as such it's continent yet a priori. On the other hand, "Sex contributes to human flourishing" is a necessary a posteriori proposition. From this one and the reference-fixing description, we can deduce that sex is good. (BTW, Robert Adams puts forward this sort of account for the meaning and reference of moral terms in his seminal book defending his divine command theory, Finite and Infinite Goods).

I'm tired from that long intro. to Kripke/Putnam semantics, so I'm going to save the other account for another occasion.

David: Now here are some more propositions:

(5) Human flourishing is good a priori.

(6) Animal flourishing is good a priori.

(7) Mosquito flourishing is good a priori.

(8) Cancer flourishing is good a priori.

Would you grant (6)? How about (7)? How about(8)?

Me: I of course grant all of them. I'm not sure what the problem is supposed to be. See my discussion above about reference-fixing descriptions, the contingent a priori, etc.


David: My point here is this. To say that slavery is necessarily wrong, in our conversation, presupposes your claim that human flourishing is good a priori.

Me: My account only entails that slavery is necessarily *bad*; facts about right and wrong are contingent upon obligations generated from social practices of commanding, and of course the a commands proscibe what is morally right iff they are in accordance with what is good (BTW, this is exactly Robert Adams' view, who of course is the world's most sophisticated living propnent of divine command theory).

In any case, though, whether something is necessarily right or wrong certainly does *not* depend on whether certain propositions about what is good are a priori or not. That's just a flat-out non-sequitur.

David: But this claim itself presupposes a certain value of human beings....

Me: It does, and I've given an account of this above, which doesn't seem to me to be problematic in the least. Or in any case, if it does, then such a charge falls equally on the natural law theory of Christians.

David: ...one which makes us more valuable than, say, cancer cells. Do we have to add, then, that human beings are more important than other living organisms, a priori?


Me: This isn't really a problem for my theory. For again, I *grant* that the flourishing of any member of any species is *good*; what's *right* or *wrong* depends on what we proscribe as a community (on the condition, once again, that it's in conformity with what is good).

David: If so, it seems that we're just taking whatever we want to say and adding "a priori" to it, and I'm not sure this is a realistic approach.

Me: In light of my discussion above, we can now see why my account doesn't suffer from this charge of arbitrariness.

exapologist said...

N.B.: Disregard the Kripke/Putnam stuff in my previous post. It's not quite right, but it's just too late at night for me to devote time and attention to it to fix it right now. Just stick an I.O.U. on it, because I've been wanting to spell this part of my moral theory out since I took my last grad seminar on ethics.

Thx,

EA

David Wood said...

X-A said: I accept (1), on the grounds that flourishing is good as such.

What about (2)? Well, it depends. Some kinds of sex don't contribute to human flourishing --- e.g., abusive sex. However, plenty of instances of sex contribute to human flourishing. That's known a posteriori, since it was an empirical discovery (albeit a relatively simple one) that certain kinds of sex contribute to human flourishing.

What about (3)? That's going to depend on empirical research as to whether it contributes to human flourishing.

That leaves us with (4). This is another one of those simple empirical discoveries that something doesn't contribute to human flourishing; as such, it's bad.

I'm not sure why you would have thought that those sorts of decisions would lack a principled basis on my theory. It's a part of my theory that flourishing is good, and what hinders it is bad. If so, then I have an objective basis for these sorts of judgements.


The point of those additional propositions was that we can say that they have the essential property of being good just as easily as we can say that human flourishing has the essential property of being good. Someone could easily make it a part of his moral theory that sex is good, or that rejecting God is good, or even that torturing old ladies is good. For a more realistic example, take the claim “pleasure has the property of being essentially good.” Note here that I’m not saying that pleasure is good because it’s in accord with human flourishing (as I wasn’t saying that with the other propositions). I’m saying it has the property in itself. I could then construct a moral theory based on my claim that pleasure is essentially good. I then define sex as necessarily good. Someone asks me, “How can you say that sex is necessarily good? That just doesn’t make sense!” To which I reply, “Well, according to my theory, pleasure is good a priori. And sex is pleasurable. Hence, sex is necessarily good.” I still wonder why, using your method, I couldn’t define practically anything as essentially good.

X-A said: As a side note, I want to say that I find it fascinating that you find this theory so odd. This theory is kissing cousins with natural law theory, which has been one of the dominant ethical theories for Christians since at least the time of Aquinas (the ideas of which are rooted in Aristotle's notion of flourishing).

I think all ethical theories have problems. Theories don’t get a free ride just because they’re promoted by Christians.

X-A said: On my view, "'Goodness' denotes whatever contributes to flourishing" is a reference-fixing description; as such it's continent yet a priori. On the other hand, "Sex contributes to human flourishing" is a necessary a posteriori proposition. From this one and the reference-fixing description, we can deduce that sex is good.

So, just as you can point to a ball and say, “That’s what I mean by ‘red,’” you can point to whatever contributes to human flourishing and say, “That’s what I mean by ‘good.’” Granted. But when you use terms like “necessary” and “a priori,” I assume that you’re using them as other people use them. Hence, when you said that human flourishing is a priori good, I assumed that you meant that human flourishing is either analytically or synthetically a priori good, and I didn’t see how it was either. But now, as I’ve said more than once, it seems that you’re just defining human flourishing as good and saying, “It’s good a priori, since I’ve defined it that way.” And I’ll say again that what you’re doing isn’t very different from saying, “I like human flourishing a lot! Say ‘Yes” to human flourishing! Down with whatever doesn’t contribute to human flourishing!”

X-A said: I *grant* that the flourishing of any member of any species is *good*; what's *right* or *wrong* depends on what we proscribe as a community (on the condition, once again, that it's in conformity with what is good).

So now you’ve granted that the flourishing of cancer is a priori good, and that the flourishing of humanity is a priori good. So if Bob gets cancer, it’s a priori good for the cancer. To say that we should put Bob through chemotherapy presupposes that humans are more valuable than cancer cells. Is there a scale of a priori goods? Is the order of the scale itself a priori? Or do we select the ordering based on personal preference?

X-A said: David: If so, it seems that we're just taking whatever we want to say and adding "a priori" to it, and I'm not sure this is a realistic approach.

Me: In light of my discussion above, we can now see why my account doesn't suffer from this charge of arbitrariness.


No, we can’t. But perhaps the longer account you're planning on writing would help.

exapologist said...

Hi David,

David: So, just as you can point to a ball and say, “That’s what I mean by ‘red,’” you can point to whatever contributes to human flourishing and say, “That’s what I mean by ‘good.’” Granted. But when you use terms like “necessary” and “a priori,” I assume that you’re using them as other people use them. Hence, when you said that human flourishing is a priori good, I assumed that you meant that human flourishing is either analytically or synthetically a priori good, and I didn’t see how it was either. But now, as I’ve said more than once, it seems that you’re just defining human flourishing as good and saying, “It’s good a priori, since I’ve defined it that way.” And I’ll say again that what you’re doing isn’t very different from saying, “I like human flourishing a lot! Say ‘Yes” to human flourishing! Down with whatever doesn’t contribute to human flourishing!”

Me: You've got your finger on the part about which I said that it's not quite right. As I said in my previous post, put an I.O.U. here, because I'd like to clean this up when I get a chance. But in the meantime, I can tell you that the *basis* of fixing the reference of the term 'good' here isn't arbitrary in the way you mention. There are principled grounds for pinning the term on things that satisfy that description. I'll fulfill this promissory note in the next couple of days or so. In the meantime a stack of final exams has my name all over it.

Talk to you soon,

EA

David Wood said...

X-A,

I accept the I.O.U.

Just to clarify something from earlier, I said:

"To say that slavery is necessarily wrong, in our conversation, presupposes your claim that human flourishing is good a priori."

You responded:

"In any case, though, whether something is necessarily right or wrong certainly does *not* depend on whether certain propositions about what is good are a priori or not. That's just a flat-out non-sequitur."

I said "in our conversation," i.e. in the context of your moral theory. Certainly something is not right or wrong based on the failure of a particular moral theory. But if we are discussing whether something is right or wrong in the light of a specific theory, then we can talk about it being right or wrong based on that theory.

exapologist said...

I had a moment to take a grading break, so I thought I'd give a snapshot of an answer. It's different than the one I started to give earlier. I can see how the stuff about Kripke/Putnam semantics can be used to flesh out some of the points, but I think connecting it to that apparatus would ultimately be a distraction. So to put that stuff aside, here's a snapshot of my answer:

From the "outside", from a
third-person, objective point of view, there just are
facts about what is good *for* human beings as a
biological species. From the "inside", it's
*constitutive* of human nature to seek what is good
for one as a member of a species, in the sense that
we're somehow "hard-wired" to conceive of what's good
for us as a non-instrumental goal or basis for action.
As such, it's not a priori in any traditional sense
that the good is what is good for us; rather, it's
*constitutive* of our nature to identify what is good
*for* us as a non-instrumental goal of action, and the
latter we just *stipulate* to be what we mean by
'good'. In this way, we come to identify the good with what is good *for* us.

Edward T. Babinski said...

At what point is morality not simply being defined by theists via pure authoritarian fiat?

And why is that so much better than ethical concerns arising between two organisms with similar biologies, similar physical and psychological needs and wants as they interact together?

Authoritarian fiats are not arguments, and certainly not capable of proving any particular behavior is more "moral" than another, i.e., simply on the basis of "said so!"

Speaking of the second view I mentioned above, before human beings evolved, their primate ancestors already existed in social groups, got into fights, and forgave one another.

"Forgiveness is not, as some people seem to believe, a mysterious and sublime idea that we owe to a few millennia of Judeo-Christianity. It did not originate in the minds of people and cannot therefore be appropriated by an ideology or a religion. The fact that monkeys, apes, and humans all engage in reconciliation behavior (stretching out a hand, smiling, kissing, embracing, and so on) means that it is probably over thirty million years old, preceding the evolutionary divergence of these primates... Reconciliation behavior [is] a shared heritage of the primate order... When social animals are involved... antagonists do more than estimate their chances of winning before they engage in a fight; they also take into account how much they need their opponent. The contested resource often is simply not worth putting a valuable relationship at risk. And if aggression does occur, both parties may hurry to repair the damage. Victory is rarely absolute among interdependent competitors, whether animal or human." [SOURCE: Frans De Waal, Peacemaking Among Primates]

See also We're all Machiavellians by Frans B.M. de Waal* See also de Waal's interview, The Two Apes Within Us.

Neither does it seem necessary to me that such behaviors require an authoritarian explanation in order to account for them, or to keep us all from slipping into total ethical and moral chaos. Don't the vast majority of us agree that we don't like being murdered against or will, or stolen from, nor demeaned via harsh words or tone of voice? And don't the vast majority of us love living in a human society where we can interact with other human beings, share our joys and also lighten each others sorrows? "Joys shared are doubled, while sorrows shared are halved" seems a keen observation regardless of one's religious beliefs or lack thereof.

Also, the Brit philosopher Mary Midgley pointed out:

Darwin proposed that creatures like us who, by their nature, are riven by strong emotional conflicts, and who have also the intelligence to be aware of those conflicts, absolutely need to develop a morality because they need a priority system by which to resolve them. The need for morality is a corollary of conflicts plus intellect:

“Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection... Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed as in man.”(Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

That, Darwin said, is why we have within us the rudiments of such a priority system and why we have also an intense need to develop those rudiments. We try to shape our moralities in accordance with our deepest wishes so that we can in some degree harmonize our muddled and conflict-ridden emotional constitution, thus finding ourselves a way of life that suits it so far as is possible.

These systems are, therefore, something far deeper than mere social contracts made for convenience. They are not optional. They are a profound attempt--though of course usually an unsuccessful one--to shape our conflict-ridden life in a way that gives priority to the things that we care about most.

If this is right, then we are creatures whose evolved nature absolutely requires that we develop a morality. We need it in order to find our way in the world. The idea that we could live without any distinction between right and wrong is as strange as the idea that we--being creatures subject to gravitation--could live without any idea of up and down. That at least is Darwin’s idea and it seems to me to be one that deserves attention. [SOURCE:
Mary Midgley, “Wickedness: An Open Debate,” The Philosopher’s Magazine, No. 14, Spring 2001]

T. A. Grady said...

There is a problem with defending morality on the grounds of societal-individual utilitarianism. In that system, the evolution of ethics is paired with the Darwin's survival-of-the-fittest paradigm. Under that system, the most advantageous position(of any individual) is to enforce some form of ethics/morality on society while personally holding to none (so long as he can convince the society at large that he is following the same morality/ethics that he is advocating they follow.)
Think of a criminal posing as a bank employee.

Anyone who is advocating this position must neccessarily either be such a person or support the dominance of such people. Some weak excuses such as, "it is no use to operate outside of the moral/ethical constraints of a Hobbesian system for an individual because of the risk" are clearly destroyed by the historical success of tyrants, robber-barrons, etc.

Just a thought.

RD said...

VIctor,

The argument you've given is very close Mackie's argument from queerness, posited in "Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong." For Mackie, an error theorist, the argument purports to be a problem for all moral realists, whether they happen to be theists or atheists. Why is it a problem specifically for atheists?

Gordon Knight said...

The arguqueement from queerness is a bad argument. By the same lights, mathematics and logical truth are "queer."

Anonymous said...

Just to leave an anonymous aside...

While David Wood and exapologist's discussion is interesting, Vic's original post didn't explicitly mention Christian theism - in fact, he referenced Aristotle, Plato, and the Stoics, with the (in my view, accurate) claim that not only do these systems seem difficult to accept for most naturalists, but that they seem linked to/imply (strongly?) a God of some sort.

Meanwhile, exapologist explicitly states their position is one of agnosticism rather than atheism, rejects 'crude naturalism', and posits a scheme that they at least intend to be compatible with both theism and naturalism in a hybrid/acceptability sense.

In other words, it seems Vic's original thought is playing out right here. Maybe God or the Godlike is needed for these things to go through, and it all comes down to which God. I think even Aquinas could agree with that. Hell, I think most theists and apologists, past and present, could agree with that.

Rob G said...

Seems to me that T.A. Grady has a point, one that was not lost on Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, and Richard Weaver, among others: If no metaphysics, then no ground for ethics.

As one writer put it, "Either God (alright, if you must, the transcendent ground of all Being, or the Absolute) exists, and moral purpose and meaning follow, or all there is is the ego and its pleasures and its will to power."

GREV said...

ROb G -- thanks for the excellent comment -- "Either God (alright, if you must, the transcendent ground of all Being, or the Absolute) exists, and moral purpose and meaning follow, or all there is is the ego and its pleasures and its will to power."`

Sort of explains some of the people I have encountered lately.

BenYachov said...

David Wood,

A Theistic Personalist and advocate of Theocity?

I wonder what you think about Brian Davies & the Classical Theist solution to the Problem of Evil?

It would be interesting for me to pick the Brain of the polar opposite of my view.

Papalinton said...

@ David Wood

"(1) If a transcendent ground of morality does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values exist.
(3) Therefore, a transcendent ground of morality exists."

Is this a plan for building a wheel? It is completely circular.

Steve Lovell said...

Pap,

Whatever one might think about the argument you quoted, it's a simple modus tollens. If that makes it circular then logic is in serious trouble.

Steve

Papalinton said...

@ Steve Lovell
"Pap,
Whatever one might think about the argument you quoted, it's a simple modus tollens. If that makes it circular then logic is in serious trouble."

Steve, modus tollens is not as straightforward as its companion, modus ponens. Although common in argument, a modus tollens is not necessarily true, as the major premise (If X is true then Y is true) says nothing about falsehood. If, however, X and Y are bivalent (both can be either true or false) and X can only be true if Y is true, then the modus tollens stands.

The proposition: "1) If a transcendent ground of morality does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist". Why? Who says this is true apart from Apologists?

Of course, Modus Tollens is the root of falsification, as proposed by Karl Popper and since used as the cornerstone of scientific proof. But you have to start with a known 'true' proposition. The modus tollens, in and of itself, does not distinguish true from false.

B. Prokop said...

The inseparable connection between ethics and the metaphysical is best demonstrated, not by syllogisms and logical exercises, but by experience. I.e., we must use inductive rather than deductive reasoning.

I've posted these quotations from Holocaust survivor Primo Levi before, but they bear repetition.

After being subjected to a particularly pointless cruelty at Auschwitz, Levi asked his tormentor:

"Warum (Why)", I asked him in my poor German. "Hier ist kein Warum" (Here there is no Why), he replied.

Later on, Levi sums up his experience in the camps:

"In Auschwitz there were no criminals and no madmen. There were no criminals because there was no moral law to contravene, and there were no madmen because we were wholly devoid of free will."

I regard these short passages as the most devastating witness ever against the notion that morality is somehow still possible without God, without a "Why". As Dostoevsky so perfectly demonstrated in his masterpiece, "The Brothers Karamazov", without God, everything is permissible. If the universe is ultimately without a transcendent purpose, there is no meaningful difference between an act of kindness or mercy and one of hatred or greed.

Auschwitz is the INEVITABLE consequence of living in a world with no "Why".

Blue Devil Knight said...

Bob have you ever been to Sweden? Is everyone in that secular country a vile reprobate?

GREV said...

Whether it is Sweden or the US all types of people confront us.

Whether ethics can be built without God is still a question.

Much of what is secular is an attempt to be religious without the religious language and meaning. The Enlightenment was one long unsuccessful attempt at that.

B. Prokop said...

BDK: No one is saying that atheists or secularists (or Swedes) are particularly vile or reprobate. We ALL are. At the risk of injecting some Actual Religion into this thread, that's why we need Jesus! This is Christianity 101.

As for Sweden and the rest of secular Europe, they may (so far) have avoided going down the atheist totalitarian path, but they are nevertheless rapidly committing continental suicide. Have you looked at their birthrates lately? That, plus immigration, will spell the end of "Europe as we know it" within a generation.

Unfortunately and tragically, the nutcase that just shot up Norway is probably just the first of many, many more such horrors as marginalized wackos see their countries go the way of the Middle East. We have secularism to thank for that.

And don't give me any nonsense about the shooter being a self-identified Christian. That doesn't make him one, any more than Bin Laden's ranting made him a good Muslim (which he wasn't). There are far bigger issues that this nut job's twisted thinking involved here.

So why do we have secularism to thank for the Norwegian terror attacks? Because if Europe had remained Christian, society would not have lost its sense of purpose, and birthrates would never have plummeted to today's non-replacement levels. Europe is terminally ill as we speak, and we should not be surprised as we witness its (bloody) death throes.

Steve Lovell said...

Pap,

Modus Tollens is a logically valid argument form:

(1) If not P then not Q
(2) Q
(3) Therefore P

Not at all more problematic than modus ponens. In fact, the validity form of one entails the validity of the other.

Steve

Steve Lovell said...

Or alternatively

(1) If P then Q
(2) Not Q
(3) Therefore not P

The logical form is the same either way.

Papalinton said...

Bob
"... but they [Sweden] are nevertheless rapidly committing continental suicide. Have you looked at their birthrates lately?"

So, level of religion=level of fecundity?

Steve Lovell said...

Exap,

When this thread first came around, I wondered whether you had read my contribution to the theistic ethics project.

You can now find my entire PhD thesis on my site with Chapter 2 being the most relevant part. There's also an earlier, less Lewis centric, version here.

Steve

B. Prokop said...

Papalinton: Yes.

This has been demonstrated.

Jesse Parrish said...

I take a Humean, skeptical stance on ethics. I don't see any difficult metaphysical commitments there.

Excellent question though, Victor Reppert. It's always good(!) to check such things.

Heuristics said...

As a swede I would like to stress that this constant use of sweden as some sort of atheistic high church is just plain wrong, there really is no more then about 1/3 atheists here and most of them have other beliefs such as beliefs in ghosts and ufos.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Good point Heuristics. China might have been a better example. Very religious, but also very atheist.

The tortured logic of trying to blame recent shooting on secularization gets into Pat Robertson madness type of reasoning.

In practice, atheists are just as moral as Christians. If you use jail rates (rather than the non sequitor of birth rates) as a measure, then more so.

But I don't, and I generally find these arguments ridiculous. That's because one's ontology of moral judgments has very little bearing on one's actual moral judgments. Regardless of whether you ground it in God, or a desire to maximize human flourishing, or (like most people) you just have and use a moral compass and don't know/care where it comes from, we will agree on most moral claims. E.g., don't rape babies.

Larry Tanner said...

It's clear that morality requires no personal god. No one disputes this.

It's also clear that we need to establish certain unwarranted axioms to make morality "work." Personally, I don't have a problem with such functional delusions as "purpose." So long as we remember that these are not eternal and binding truths--and that they are (and should be) fair game for discussion--I'm OK.

Shackleman said...

BDK: "In practice, atheists are just as moral as Christians."

This implies the existence of an objective morality against which both Christians and atheists are measured, (as an aside, yours is a completely unsubstantiated claim, but that's for another day).

As a naturalist, where do you say this sense of an objective morality comes from if not for God? If you say it comes from being human, then it ceases to be objective as no two humans have exactly the same moral compass, and some, as in the case presented above of the Auschwitz torturers, have none whatsoever.

Larry Tanner said...

"This implies the existence of an objective morality against which both Christians and atheists are measured"

Balderdash.

B. Prokop said...

BDK: One can label the Norway shootings as a harbinger of the Death of Europe (which I in fact do) without saying that atheists as individuals are less moral than Christians.

You jumped the track in your last posting by switching from an "ism" in one sentence (secularism) to individuals in the next (atheists).

Be careful when moving between categories like that. Otherwise, you'll find yourself blaming x, y, and z on, say, television, and then follow that by blaming a very specific action on a specific television viewer. Doesn't necessarily follow.

The lunatic who shop up all the people in Norway can't be shoe-horned into anyone's category, other than the criminally insane.

But, without blaming individuals, there is very much a societal climate of hyper-secularism in Europe which is plainly bringing about a slow motion continental catastrophe. At my age, I may not live to see the real horrors which are sure to come, but unless something changes, my children will. (But there's always hope. After all, Nineveh repented after hearing Jonah's prophesy.)

Blue Devil Knight said...

My point: we won't disagree on substantive moral issues because of our ontology. We will both be happy to use, as a premise when talking to each other or to the legistlature, that torturing babies is wrong. Few to no substantive moral claims fall out of one's moral ontology.

Arguing about the origins and justification of our moral compass is very interesting for many people, but I'm not doing that today.

Ethics without metaphysics is fine. And much more productive in practice.

Blue Devil Knight said...

But, without blaming individuals, there is very much a societal climate of hyper-secularism in Europe which is plainly bringing about a slow motion continental catastrophe.

This is what I am curious about. Is it the high-quality education, the low infant mortality rates, the respect shown to gays/women, or the ability to get health care regardless of how wealthy you are that bugs you most. :)

B. Prokop said...

"This is what I am curious about. Is it the high-quality education, the low infant mortality rates, the respect shown to gays/women, or the ability to get health care regardless of how wealthy you are that bugs you most."

Actually, having lived 10 years in Europe, I greatly admire all those things you listed. I sincerely wish we had them here in the States! But curiously, not one of them is the product of a secular state. They are all the hard won achievements of generations of Christian Socialist governments on the continent (and there are good reasons they labeled themselves that), and of analogous political groups in the UK.

Conversely, the result of only one to two generations of hyper-secularism has been a pervasive belief among the young that the entire universe dies along with each one of us, and there is no good reason to have regard for the future. The consequence? A fall-off to near zero in marriages in Western Europe, and a plummeting birth rate to far, far below replacement levels. But Europe requires a new generation, and if the current occupants aren't going to supply one, they'll just have to import one. From where? Why, from next door North Africa and the Middle East! But these immigrants are not in the least secular or non-reproducing. They are very much Islamic (and quite serious about being so), and have staggeringly high birth rates. So just a few short decades from now, your pretty little bauble of a secular post-Christian Europe is going to more closely resemble contemporary Syria than Denmark.

And this is NOT racist, xenophobic hyperbole! It is a coolly rational acceptance of "facts on the ground". The brute fact is that secular societies don't perpetuate themselves. Look at our own USA. The highest birthrates are among Catholic Hispanics, Mormons, and Evangelicals. The lowest are among atheists and the "no religion" groupings. In an ironic twist to Darwinian "Survival of the Fittest", atheists ultimately lose out to those of faith over generations. It's happening as we speak in Europe. It's just that in their case, the religion that will replace lack of faith will be Islam instead of Christianity (barring a miracle, which I do happen to believe in).

Jesse Parrish said...

Yep, soon we'll all be swamped by foreigners thanks to secularist laxity and impermanence.

That's no xenophobia. Nope. Nor are the implied solutions: desecularization, Christianization, and isolationism as designed to preserve racial and religious status quos.

Should I even begin on the rest of your comment, Prokop, or do you have qualifications which you'd like to make?

B. Prokop said...

Jesse:

I prefer religious renewal and revival (and this from a Catholic!) to your implied solutions. The answer lies within us, individually. Imposition from without solves absolutely nothing.

Jesse Parrish said...

Excellent, and as a Catholic, might you want to qualify who deserves credit for the benefits of modern governance?

I'm granting that the churches often played a positive role. But I think that secularists deserve a little more love than you seem to allow them.

Now I wonder: what do you suppose the effects of religious revival would be, include how `without imposition' you expect this to prevent the formation of a New Syria. (I'm also curious why you think that a continuation of secularism would lead to a New Syria.)

Papalinton said...

Bob
"So just a few short decades from now, your pretty little bauble of a secular post-Christian Europe is going to more closely resemble contemporary Syria than Denmark."

Bob, it is not atheism that is the problem. Atheism, in and of itself is defenseless. It is the metastatic disease of religion that must be addressed. And you are right, Bob, the Islamization of Europe will be a catastrophic blow to human flourishing and the future theo-political line is being redrawn with the emergence of an Islamic Europe, marshaling its jihad warriors ready to wipe all before it, just as it has attempted to do for the past 1400 years.

Interestingly, it is apparent that the christianization of China, in its battle against Communism [both aggressive competing ideologies] will also inadvertently kill off atheism, as we are now witnessing in Europe.

And the new apocalyptic confrontation between the religions with its inherent seeds of war and destruction so deeply and fundamentally embedded in its character, will raise its ugly medusa-like head again.

The geo-political landscape will in generations coming, see a Christian China and an Islamic Europe duking it out, each utterly committed to destroying the other's 'faith' claims, and in the process, human advancement in secular humanism and science will once again be thrown into the abyss of a religious Dark Ages. Competing religious claims are humanity's Achilles' Heel. While humanity is ever unable to lift itself out of the primordial and infested swamp of theism, it will never attain the good life. It would seem that the seeds of human destruction inherent in religion will bear the rotten fruit of the Apocalypse as is written in St John's Book of Revelation.

There is no ethics in religion.

Jesse Parrish said...

What I'm looking for may be illustrated by some quotations, and I recommend the cited articles for reading.

Orwell (1):

“It will be seen that at each point Burnham is predicting a continuation of the thing that is happening. Now the tendency to do this is not simply a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration, which one can correct by taking thought. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in cowardice and partly in the worship of power, which is not fully separable from cowardice.”

Orwell (2):

“A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist — that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating — but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.”

Luxemburg (3):

“From the moment when the workers of our country and of Russia began to struggle bravely against the Czarist Government and the capitalist exploiters, we notice more and more often that the priests, in their sermons, come out against the workers who are struggling. It is with extraordinary vigour that the clergy fight against the socialists and try by all means to belittle them in the eyes of the workers. The believers who go to church on Sundays and festivals are compelled, more and more often, to listen to a violent political speech, a real indictment of Socialism, instead of hearing a sermon and obtaining religious consolation there. Instead of comforting the people, who are full of cares and wearied by their hard lives, who go to church with faith in Christianity, the priests fulminate against the workers who are on strike, and against the opponents of the government; further, they exhort them to bear poverty and oppression with humility and patience. They turn the church and the pulpit into a place of political propaganda.”

Jesse Parrish said...

Vatican (4):

“For, indeed, although the socialists, stealing the very Gospel itself with a view to deceive more easily the unwary, have been accustomed to distort it so as to suit their own purposes, nevertheless so great is the difference between their depraved teachings and the most pure doctrine of Christ that none greater could exist: "for what participation bath justice with injustice or what fellowship bath light with darkness?"(7) Their habit, as we have intimated, is always to maintain that nature has made all men equal, and that, therefore, neither honor nor respect is due to majesty, nor obedience to laws, unless, perhaps, to those sanctioned by their own good pleasure. But, on the contrary, in accordance with the teachings of the Gospel, the equality of men consists in this: that all, having inherited the same nature, are called to the same most high dignity of the sons of God, and that, as one and the same end is set before all, each one is to be judged by the same law and will receive punishment or reward according to his deserts. The inequality of rights and of power proceeds from the very Author of nature...”

Vatican (5) (referencing the previous):

“However, in spite of such great agreement, there were some who were not a little disturbed; and so it happened that the teaching of Leo XIII, so noble and lofty and so utterly new to worldly ears, was held suspect by some, even among Catholics, and to certain ones it even gave offense. For it boldly attacked and overturned the idols of Liberalism, ignored long-standing prejudices, and was in advance of its time beyond all expectation, so that the slow of heart disdained to study this new social philosophy and the timid feared to scale so lofty a height. There were some also who stood, indeed, in awe at its splendor, but regarded it as a kind of imaginary ideal of perfection more desirable then attainable. “

Jesse Parrish said...

The reaction of the Church to `modernism' is too well-known to spell out in detail. As highlighted in the rest of Vatican (5), the Church did work to alleviate the suffering of the poor, as it almost always had.

The difference between the philosophy of the Church and the philosophy of modern government, socialists, and liberals is this: the Church saw inequality as divinely sanctioned, whereas the Left saw it as an aberration to be remedied. Where the Church through charity cared for the poor only to maintain them in their place, the Left demanded structural remedies. Our modern governments are perfect examples.

Of course Christians are often included under `Left' as I have used it. Of course Christians very often fight against inequality and injustice. The churches in Nicaragua, supported by conservative Americans, fought hard against US aggression. But I think that any serious look at the history does not make for a triumphal story of Christian remedying of injustice, just as it does not vindicate viewing the Church as purely reactionary and anti-humanistic. The churches and their traditions were - and sometimes still are - opposed to the worst excesses of predatory industry. For that, I give them credit. But we often find them working against the interests of the disenfranchised as well.

So today we hear stories like yours about `inevitable paths of secularism' and other reactionary rhetoric, even as many of the benefits of the modern state are praised - though usually only after they are recast as a triumph of Christian virtue. [For the mindset, see Orwell (2) again.] Even today, just as in Vatican (4), we are still being told that modernism is or will inevitably devolve into complete nihilism.

Jesse Parrish said...

This is all mostly separate from my questions around the `New Syria', expect for the suspicions I have which are described by Orwell.

Tony Hoffman said...

OP: “Even if a personal God isn't required for ethics, doesn't it seem plausible that at the very least some sort of metaphysics is required that most naturalists today would have a hard time accepting[?]”

I think that this post and some of the comments here presuppose that we come to moral decisions from a purely intellectual (metaphysical, or top down) perspective. But it doesn’t feel that way, and we don’t observe that – clearly, a moral sense is part of humanity, as evidence from countless similar cultural mores indicates.

The question most of us face isn’t, “How should I feel about torturing the innocent?” but “Why do I feel so repulsed by the notion of torturing the innocent?” I don’t think it’s required that a metaphysical foundation is required for that which we feel first, although I’d agree that a good one can be useful in rallying agreement, and agreement is largely what ethics is all about.

I think all of us can take the epistemological trip from “I think” to “I want.” From those two things, we build our varieties of metaphysics. Metaphysics that work well (both elicit agreement, and prove beneficial to those who adapt them) succeed. Not much needs to be explained here.

Anonymous said...

It's clear that morality requires no personal god. No one disputes this.

Uh, no. Many dispute this. Unless you're defining "morality" so broadly to mean "any set of rules you come up with, no matter how arbitrary, no matter if they're grounded at all".

Likewise, atheists aren't "just as moral as Christians", and using prison statistics to determine this is idiotic. Is abortion moral or immoral? Remember, in the US it's not illegal. Nor is a lot of nasty crap.

Jesse Parrish said...

Anonymous,

There are other statistics, but the Guttmacher institute has the stats on abortion. There are limitations to these statistics since it asks people to self-report their religion and whether or not they had an abortion (and there's much higher variance for the smaller religious populations), but the US 2008 correlative factors (%abortions/%population) are as follows:

Protestant: 0.75
Catholic: 1.04
Other: 1.23
None: 1.59

The biggest factors, as usual, are poverty and difficult personal circumstances. If you have a problem with abortion, address those. You could also focus on making contraception more available and allow for education. But some people work to keep that from happening...

If you look at global statistics, less religious countries do not tend to have higher rates, just as places with strict laws have rates similar to places where abortion is legal.

If you want to prevent abortions - I also don't think abortion is a morally neutral act, though I do think it should be legal - don't encourage religiosity: encourage decent social programs and use of contraceptives.

Tursunov said...

Metaphysical naturalists (i.e. nearly all modern atheists) believe in determinism, at least on the macroscopic level [and even if they accept the reality of chance/indeterminism at some level or another, the fact remains that human beings are not "prime movers" - they are simply vessels through which the laws of nature operate]. On naturalism, the lives of human beings are simply unfolding physical events. These atheists cannot look back at any event in human history - say the Holocaust, or the Inquisition (those sicko Christians!) - and coherently maintain, "That event should not have happened!," anymore than they can coherently maintain, "The earth should not have formed!," "Evolution should never have taken place!," "That galaxy on the other end of the universe should not have died!," "That star over there should not have become a black hole!," etc.

I'm honestly baffled as to how a purely materialistic cosmos could ever in principle be a moral cosmos. There's no hope in such a world, because hoping is senseless. Things will be whatever the Big Bang intended them to be, and that's all there is to it.

Jesse Parrish said...

Tursunov,

I don't buy into free will, but I think we can speak in a coherent manner about morality and pass moral judgments, so long as we correctly understand their nature.

I would add that a God does little to help give the sort of `moral universe' that you require. If for any reason human action is subordinated to other forces, be they mechanistic operations or divine plans, we face the same problem.

Instead of making counter-factual judgments about historical events, we can retrospectively judge the outcomes as they happened and look for the factors which produced them. If one does not like such outcomes as `Inquisitions', one may reasonably prefer different institutions to the state/Church mixtures which produced them.

To me, this is what `should' statements like the one you mentioned actually mean. They do not need to mean `that should not have happened' as in `something much better could certainly have happened'. Instead, they need only reflect emotive judgments, like `that was bad'.

Then on the intellectual side, we can ask `how might stuff like that not happen', and act accordingly.

Fatalism is no more demanded by the non-existence of free will than is the denial of fatalism. No, that's not all there is to it.

GREV said...

"I'm granting that the churches often played a positive role. But I think that secularists deserve a little more love than you seem to allow them."

Granted without question. But what undergirds the value systems of these secularists who strove and strive now to make changes.

In my country, the leader of the Official Opposition has been diagnosed with another cancer.

He represents a party founded on solidly Christian ideas of justice for the poor but the recognition of such a history would not be recognized by most of the secularists who have dominated the party for a long time now.

Even Comte it seems when he proposed sociology in the 1800's viewed the replacement of religion with a new religion of sociology.

So, what undergirds the values the secularists fight the good fight with?

Jesse Parrish said...

GREV,

I agree that many secularists do not give Christians the historical credit they deserve. I add that in general, historical credit assignments are obsessed over to a completely absurd and unsanitary degree. I think that this is all very unfortunate: I view most of my Christian neighbors as allies or potential allies in the matters which I think are most important. That of course does not mean that I won't disagree with them in a very forward way about their views, as these are also important to me. But I can also recognize them as decent human beings, capable of and often having sentiments and desires similar to mine - especially sentiments about social justice.

To answer your question: I would object to the question as you phrased it. If you want me to describe what values secularists have, secular humanists - myself included - are very fond of moral universalism, however it might be theoretically maintained. Historically, utilitarianism has been very important. Non-cognitivists, Humean, and quasi-Humean folks like myself are well-represented. In my experience, Kantians are relatively rare.

Was that roughly what you were looking for?

GREV said...

Jesse -- Thanks for your response.

This takes me back to my political science and philosophy days.

I found your site and have enjoyed the limited reading I have done so far.

I can think of another philosopher who I talked to in the last few months who would question your valuation of utilitarianism but that is an argument for another day.

A must really commit myself to a more rigorous schedule of philosophy reading over the next few months.

My question remains I think from whence comes this moral universalism? I would argue it comes from our still bearing the image of deity and thus acting out of what we were created to be.

I know that seems a quaint if not absurd notion in many quarters but I think it still remains a valid option for considering how we act and why we act the way we do. Especially when we act for the good. Wich seems to be the focus of this thread to some extent.

I will pursue reading on your site. Thanks for contributing and giving me the chance to find out about what you are writing.

Anonymous said...

Nothing to add. I just wanted to post the 100th comment!

Jesse Parrish said...

GERV,

And thank you very much for your generous response!

I note very much in passing my response to the following: "My question remains I think from whence comes this moral universalism? I would argue it comes from our still bearing the image of deity and thus acting out of what we were created to be."

I suspect that the answer is multi-leveled. Part of it is that we can be sentimentally attached to abstract ideas. Part of it is that we tend to talk about moral claims similarly to the way we talk about ordinary factual claims (I think the reasons are psychological and due to the involvement of similar regions of the brain, esp. those involved language processing). Part of it is that they are so useful: how else to explicate laws and communicate our sentiments to each other? And part of it is that relatively simple principles, like the Golden Rule, make for near-interpolations of our particular judgments. I think that most of us can usually sensibly speak and work with such principles due to common upbringing and evolutionary commonalities, just as I think the failures of principles and the differences we have are explained by variation in cultures/upbringing/genetics.

Anonymous said...

As to whether our metaphysical claims have anything to do with our moral claims, don't certain very controversial moral claims depend heavily on one's metaphysics? Isn't the question of whether a fetus or a is a person, for example, a metaphysical question?

Larry Tanner said...

"Isn't the question of whether a [human] fetus or a is a person, for example, a metaphysical question?"

I don't see why. It seems better suited as a joint medical and legal question.

GREV said...

Larry -- "Isn't the question of whether a [human] fetus or a is a person, for example, a metaphysical question?"

I don't see why. It seems better suited as a joint medical and legal question.

That is an astonishing response and one that should trouble. A person is more than just a joint medical and legal question. Good heavens, judges are not exactly the most intelligent people at times, just the appropriate political appointment.

One retired Supreme Court Justice once observed, we rule according to the conventions/dictates of the community. If that doesn't give cause for anxiety then I don't know what will.

Larry Tanner said...

"A person is more than just a joint medical and legal question."

We're not talking about a specific person, we're talking about a question of person-hood, which is a made-up idea.

We are also not talking, I hope, about a single judge, a single lawyer, or a single doctor. Rather, we are talking about what we hope is a rational judicial system and an ethical medical system.

I understand the impulse behind "a person is more than x, y, and z." We always like to think there's some part of humanity that remains shrouded in mystery, but I don't see that impulse as being very helpful in this question. Just the opposite, in fact.

Don't take these thoughts as displaying a cold and/or callous attitude toward humanity and individual people. My attitude is quite the contrary.

GREV said...

I accept the fact you are not callous or cold hearted.

I also would argue that ideas determine how wew treat actual people and so the problem seems to remain.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Anon: Interesting case we've talked about here before on this very topic. My take is that everyone agrees with the moral claim that murder is wrong. The disagreement is about the ontological status of the fetus, not the moral status of persons. That is not the same as one's meta-ethical perspective determining one's first-order moral claims.

Shackleman said...

"We're not talking about a specific person, we're talking about a question of person-hood, which is a made-up idea. "

I think I rather like this idea. If we take metaphysics OUT of the equation, then it can be argued that a zygote is exactly a human person, no more no less, thereby protected with the same legal rights as all other persons.

Admittedly it needs work, but I can see the possibilities.

Shackleman said...

"My take is that everyone agrees with the moral claim that murder is wrong."

But this is demonstrably false. We need look no further than 9/11 as evidence that *some* people do not agree that murder is wrong. And, history is littered with other such atrocities.

If there is no objective standard by which we can measure morality, then those who murder are not "wrong" per se, but merely in "disagreement" with your personal moral claims. I see no way around this.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Shackleman supplement what I said with common sense qualifiers I hope I don't have to spell out. Those of us having this discussion agree that murder is wrong. It's not something I need to justify to you, nor vice versa. We can use it as a fulcrum in arguments without talking about ontology of moral beliefs.

If we had to agree on metaphysical basis of moral claims the country would grind to a halt.

Shackleman said...

BDK: " We can use it as a fulcrum in arguments without talking about ontology of moral beliefs."

Of course we can in private conversations, but that's not really the point of the OP. The OP is asking the ontological question: Do ethics require or imply a metaphysics?

If the answer is yes or probably yes, then score one for the believers. If the answer is no or probably no, then score one for the naturalists.

Now, I don't necessarily disagree with your comments, but they seem simply to dodge, rather than answer this question at hand.

As you suggest, when I apply my common sense to the question, I'm left thinking the answer is yes, ethics requires or implies a metaphysics. I don't think this argument is anywhere close to a slamdunk in favor of God, but it certainly pushes the ball in that direction...at least for me. I have little doubt you'll disagree but that's okay.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Shackelman yes, they dodge the question of the ontology entirely, but in practice it doesn't matter.

As I said, I enjoy arguing about the ontology but I'm not doing that today. :) We can both be indignant that so-and-so molested a girl down the street, and the ontology of moral propositions will never come up.

Anonymous said...

Blue Devil Knight,

Well isn't the disagreement about the status of the fetus a metaphysical disagreement?

Lots of moral dilemmas come down to the metaphysical question of who counts as a person. The Western world's disagreement with much that goes on in the Middle East comes down to a metaphysical disagreement over whether or not women are full persons, with the same rights as any other person.

I also think that there are issues on the horizon that are going to push apart the atheist and theist camps further. If Ray Kurzwell and his ilk are correct, human genetic and bionic enhancements are on the way that are going to challenge our conception of what it means to be a human being. Whether or not these radical changes are permissible or not depends again on the metaphysical question of what it means to be a person, and whether some changes are so fundamental that those who undergo them either become more than or less than persons.

Not to divert the conversation too radically, but for their part, many futurists in the Kurzwell documentary "Transcendent Man" predict that these issues will so divide the generation that has to deal with these questions that a large scale war is inevitable.

So, maybe metaphysics don't matter much now, so long as our neighbors down the street are modern Western folks. But I think that's just our present good luck, not a permanent situation.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Anon good point, but I see that as a different ontological question from one's general view on the metaphysics of morality. The latter is what I think radically underdetermines one's first-order moral judgments. About most things, anyway. There are likely some exceptions.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I want to amend that. It's not good luck that Western Christians and atheists agree to a large extent on moral issues. I think atheists agree with Christians on moral issues because they were raised in a world with Christian ethics. I think the societies in which most of us learned our morals are societies at the tail end of 1500 years of the absolute dominance of the Christian world view. That being the case, I don't think we know that there is this inevitable agreement between atheists and theists such that we can really say metaphysics don't matter.

I would guess that atheists and theists in ancient Rome also had widespread moral agreement. But probably no modern theist would agree with most of the ancient Roman theist's moral views on say slavery, the rights of children and women, etc. And the atheist of the time probably had similar views on these issues. I don't think that's because metaphysics don't matter, I think that's because they were all more Roman than they were atheists or theists. Their shared cultural upbringing was more dominant than their religious perspectives in the formation of their views.

I think the same thing is true of modern theists and atheists. I think Chesterton said that the West isn't full of theists and atheists, but of Christians and post-Christians. The modern atheist is perhaps too recent a product of a Christian culture to claim that his moral views are held independently of that culture.

Just one anonymous man's opinion.

Mike Darus said...

Anonymous,
Great comment. There are areas of divergence from theistic based morality that secularists are exploring, but how can they claim independence from the fundamental values? You also identified the progressive nature of moral development that biblical theists embrace.

Tony Hoffman said...

Anon: "I think atheists agree with Christians on moral issues because they were raised in a world with Christian ethics."

This may be true. My question then is what is distinctive in Christian ethics? And by distinctive, I mean what was both invented and remained true about Christian ethics for the past 2000 years that other ethical systems haven't discovered or practiced on their own?

It seems to me that there's nothing particularly consistent, distinctive or original about Christian ethical instructions (save one that I can think of) that we don't have examples of other ethical systems also finding and practicing.

GREV said...

It would appear that the only distinctive thing that Jesus said would tell the world that people were His disciples was the quality of their love -- in particular the love they have one for another -- see John 13:31-35.

In the end it really isn't about the ethics -- it is about the historical time and place actions of a certain Jesus of Nazareth and what that means for the life of every individual and the creation itself.

Anonymous said...

I think maybe atheists overemphasize originality when they're trying to minimize the importance or influence of Christian ethics. My point is more that there is a history of moral development in the West that is inextricably tied to Christian metaphysics, such that we have no idea what moral beliefs modern atheists would have had there never been such a thing as Christianity. For example some historians, like Elaine Pagels, believe that the concept of the inalienable human right is a direct descendent of the Christian idea of the equality of all men under God. Without that view entering the world of Rome in 33 A.D. the concept of the inalienable human right might never have occurred to anyone. (Note: I'm not saying you'll find the developed full-blown concept of the inalienable human right in the Bible, only that the influence of Christianity was essential in the later emergence of that concept.) We certainly don't find the concept of the inalienable human right in secular thinking prior to Christianity, and most of the non-Christian societies that later adopted the concept seem to have lifted it from Christian or post-Christian countries. Secularists tend to try to take credit for such notions simply because such notions don't explicitly make mention of God (anymore), but I don't find that plausible. Just because one can believe in human rights without believing in Christianity doesn't mean that the concept of human rights would have developed had there never been Christianity.

Mike Darus said...

Defending originality for Judeo/Christian morality is a trap. First, one would be arguing against conscience. "Law written on their hearts" predicts common ethical principles in all societies while at the same time expecting wild aberations due to rebellion against God.

Tony Hoffman said...

Mike Darus, if it's a trap to argue for the originality of Judeo/Christian morality then what exactly is meant by the term?

Anonymous said...

A comment: search for "origin" in the above conversation and you will note that nobody seems to be claiming any "Christian originality" for moralty here. Non sequitur?

Tony Hoffman said...

Anon: "Without that view entering the world of Rome in 33 A.D. the concept of the inalienable human right might never have occurred to anyone."

Anon: "A comment: search for "origin" in the above conversation and you will note that nobody seems to be claiming any "Christian originality" for moralty here. Non sequitur?"

Anonymous said...

ok, so there was a claim made for "inalienable human rights" as having been Judeo-Christian. Not for the moral concepts of of "right and wrong," though

I think there's been some confusion about the word "right" here.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Tony was certainly paying attention.

Anonymous said...

Tony, what I was referring to with my 33 AD quote was the idea that all human beings are equal under God, which I think is a uniquely Christian idea.

Tony Hoffman said...

Anon, okay, at least that's a claim. Are you sure that there is no such claim about the equality of humankind in Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, or some other more ancient religion? In other words, are you supposing that this is true, or do you know this to be a common religious opinion?

William said...

Islam: never abolished slavery in parts of its domain. Subjugates women still.

Hinduism: caste system.

Sihk: equality is stressed, especially contra the traditional Hindu system. Rights as such not mentioned as from God, but could be this is like Christian thought.

Zoroastrianism: equality of the sexes yes, but traditionally created a huge divide between those born into the religion and those born without.

...any more guys?

William said...

Buddhism: "Buddhism is a latecomer to the cause of human rights, and for most of its history has been preoccupied with other concerns."

Tony Hoffman said...

Okay, I am not sure what is meant for it to be unique that “all human beings are equal under God.”

What is uniquely Christian about the tenet of equality? The Greeks practiced a form of democratic equality, the Romans practiced a form of judicial equality, etc.

Tony Hoffman said...

William, to a historian it appears that Christianity is a latecomer to the cause of abolition (of slavery), and for most of its history has been preoccupied with other concerns.

Anonymous said...

Tony, I'll explain what I mean, but I reiterate that the uniqueness of Christian ethics is not an essential parts of the argument that I'm making.

As I understand it the Romans thought that the inequality of the human world was mirrored more or less in the world of their gods. Just like humans, the gods were only familiar with human beings who were famous or who had done great things. When a peasant started a prayer to one of his local gods he started his prayer by introducing himself, since unless he was famous he assumed that the god would have no idea who he was. And indeed, he had no guarantee the god would even so much as hear his prayer or pay it any attention, since Romans thought gods only paid attention to their favorites, who were usually famous.

Contrast that to the Christian God who loves everyone equally, knows everyone intimately, and will judge everyone equally. Not only are rich and famous people not automatically favored by God, but Jesus went so far as to say that fame and wealth could actually be spiritually dangerous. Romans thought it was a ridiculous idea that a slave was in any sense the equal to an Emperor. But Christianity stressed that the world was a temporal state of affairs, essentially just a moral proving ground. At the end of history and the beginning of eternity, the only thing that will determine the fate of any person is their obedience to God. And before the judgement, every human being who ever lived is on equal ground.

Now for my argument (actually it's not really an argument, more of a hypothesis) it doesn't matter if this idea is entirely unique or novel, even though I think it is. My only point is that in this idea of equality before God is the seed of the idea of human rights. I don't think it's a coincidence that the folks who first discovered human rights were Christians, and that those rights reached their first and most thorough explication happened in Christian countries. My point is, given that the development of human rights has this specific history, do we really know that atheists would have stumbled upon the concept in a world without Christianity? I personally doubt it.

William said...

Tony, I agree about the concerns about slavery being a very recent concern in Chritianinty! If the concept of human rights is ethically valid, it _should_ be universal for any religious view for which ideas of right and wrong are not purely voluntarism.


The quote I have regarding Buddhism is from an article that then proceeds to show how a typical view about human rights can be derived from classical Bhuddist ethics more or less by taking the viewpoint of the person for whom the Buddhist is to show proper compassion.

GREV said...

A uniquely historical thing that the early Christians did in Rome was to rescue the children abandoned by their parents.

Tony Hoffman said...

Anon, okay, I understand your hypothesis now. Thanks.

finney said...

What about Hilary Putnam's "Ethics without Ontology" (and also Richard Swinburne's view) that moral truths are like necessary mathematical truths. We wouldn't all say that there are floating incorporeal substances that make 1 + 1 = 2. So why ethics?