Thursday, June 25, 2009

When the secular foundation for morality wears thin

People who believe in a secular basis for morality usually look to our social needs and interactions to give us a reason to be moral. These motivations are legitimate, but may not hold up too well under the following circumstances.

1) People become convinced that appearing moral is all that is needed, as opposed to being moral.
2) People are in a position of control over others, and therefore do not consider their behavior toward those they control governed by ethics.
3) People just do not feel any need for social approval. Socially isolated persons often end up being serial killers, for example.

In these three situations, I do think the ordinary "social" reasons for leading an ethical life wear thin.

7 comments:

Joshua said...

I think this is why the Abraham religions' focus on protecting widows and orphans is so important. And we say that euthanasia is wrong, regardless of whether or not it is socially useful.

Clayton said...

"People who believe in a secular basis for morality usually look to our social needs and interactions to give us a reason to be moral."

Maybe if you focus on non-philosophers, but if this were a claim primarily about philosophers I think this is wrong. Do you have any evidence of this?

One Brow said...

In these three situations, I do think the ordinary "social" reasons for leading an ethical life wear thin.

I you think you may be confusing either the effectiveness of morality with foundation for morality, or perhaps claiming that socialo moralities are only accepted interms of what benefits the individual.

I would say that that even a morality derived from a secular basis can supersede other types of personal desires, just as a morality believed to derive from a supernatural basis can. You don't need a supernatural overseer to put the needs of humanithy above your own.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I wonder how Europe and Canada manage to have lower crime and higher sandatds of living than religious America. The devil must be doing it to challenge the faithful.

Doctor Logic said...

Victor,

I think this is getting tedious. You're going to have to make a quantum leap at some point, or just concede.

1) People become convinced that appearing moral is all that is needed, as opposed to being moral.

So what? If morality is more than just personal taste, you can't win this by appealing to my personal distaste for people merely appearing to be moral.

2) People are in a position of control over others, and therefore do not consider their behavior toward those they control governed by ethics.

Ditto.

3) People just do not feel any need for social approval. Socially isolated persons often end up being serial killers, for example.

Ditto. If morality is more than just personal taste, you can't win this by appealing to my personal distaste for serial killing.

Suppose moral realism is correct. In that case, moral axioms are not merely axioms (i.e., assumptions), but actual facts that are independent of personal taste. But how do the realists try to convince relativists/subjectivists of their position? By appealing to their personal taste!!!

Clearly, the argument is utterly useless as an argument for objective morality.

Maybe you're just trying to say I should deceive others into believing that morality is objective. Does that work?

Normal human social bonds and normal human preferences are just that - statistically normal. Some people won't fit or desire to fit into society. Some of these people will be seen as evil by the majority. So what?

You're not proposing a solution to the problem of immorality. Under realism, you get precisely the same thing. Realists can't agree on their moral facts because personal opinion is their only input. Hence we get the 9-11 terrorists who are objectivists and very virtuous ones by their own standards (i.e., their own preferences, which is all we ever have to go on).

Moreover, if you switch to realism, you merely substitute the realist's normality of perceived moral values and normality of moral virtue for the subjectivist's normality of personal taste.

So, you haven't even assembled a good reason for me to LIE to people to make them believe in objective morality.

Gregory said...

Victor is right on the money.

On a purely non-objectivist axiology, the Civil Rights Movement wasn't really a move towards moral, and hence societal, improvement. It was, simply, an arbitrary social change that, ontologically, lacks the very possibility of moral assessment; that is, the impossibility of objectively assessing whether it was "good" or "bad", "positive" or "negative", "right" or "wrong". These alleged evaluative terms are, simply, random bits of personal self-disclosure or psychological biography...and are not "realities" outside of the self.

Of course, you cannot make anyone "moral". You can, however, fortify or destroy a persons "reasons" to be moral, by philosophical or practical means.

I think Victor was pointing out that "peer" pressure (i.e. democracy/"mob-rule")--which is the only resource available to the secularist--is a weak substitute for the efficacy of objective moral intuitions in providing a constructive moral ground for individuals, in particular, and society, in general (i.e. a "reason" to be moral).

In terms of Christianity, however, there isn't an overarching need to be "moral", so much as there is a need to be "god-like" or "Christ-like". In other words, the telos/goal of the Christian life is transcendence over the world...even of death...through the salvific life of the Incarnate God. Therefore, there is more to "life" than simply morality. And it is going to be the death blow to any culture or people that exchanges the Christian "Way" for some nuanced ethical theory, which becomes couched or glossed in Christian terms.

The problem with secularism is that it has no "Life"....instead, it [secular living] is a meaningless grind which--inevitably--leads to a meaningless, forgettable death. So, it would really pay, for the so-called atheist/secularist, to actually meditate deeply upon Lord Russell's creed in "A Free Man's Worship"...and then to actually meditate deeply upon St. Athanasius' "On the Incarnation", and then ask themselves:

Which of these two--mutually exclusive--notions, actually resonate with my own intuitions?

I submit that most people, including the so-called atheists, instinctively recoil at, and existentially reject, Lord Russell's creed....for it is the "creed" of madness and suicide.

Doctor Logic said...

Gregory,

Points deducted for:

1) Using "really" when you mean to say "objectively".

2) Assuming subjectivism means an individual cannot make subjective progress. (You can pretty much have subjective (fill in the blank).)

3) Assuming people are moral for reasons. No one wants to be good for the sake of being good. If goodness meant eating babies, who would want to be good? People have an aesthetic view of action, and the "good" is a word for those acts they subjectively, aesthetically prefer.

So, it would really pay, for the so-called atheist/secularist, to actually meditate deeply upon Lord Russell's creed in "A Free Man's Worship"...and then to actually meditate deeply upon St. Athanasius' "On the Incarnation", and then ask themselves:

Which of these two--mutually exclusive--notions, actually resonate with my own intuitions?


4) Assuming, ironically, that what we aesthetically prefer is what is true. As to the question at hand, it doesn't matter whether you like Bertrand Russell's picture or not.

5) Assuming that the lack of an objective reason to live is the same thing as a reason to die.

#5 is especially flawed because, if the threat of a "creed of madness and suicide" were compelling to a man, clearly, he would not be the kind of man whose subjective desire was to be murderous or suicidal. So, you could not argue that his behavior would be better in his eyes if he believed his peaceful intuitions were an indicator of some objective reality.

Suppose you like french fries. Would I be able to convince you that taste in food is objective by saying that, if taste in food is only subjective, you might as well eat cow pats? How much fear do you have that you will start eating cow pats when you realize taste in food is subjective? And how much fear do you have that your neighbors will start eating them?

#5 costs at least 2 points.

-6 points to Gryffindor.