Sunday, January 06, 2008

How subjectivism undercuts the argument from evil

A redated post from 06.

I have been arguing 1) that there are arguments from naturalism to moral subjectivism ( I have more to say about that later) and 2) moral subjectivism undercuts the argument from evil. Now I agree that if the atheist can show that his theist opponent is a moral objectivist who somehow implicitly accepts the moral premise of the argument from evil, then he would have a reductio ad absurdum argument against that theist. But once the reductio is done, the theist may not reject theism, he may just deny the moral premise of the argument from evil, in order to make his position consistent. What you actually have to show is that theism, or Christian theism entails that moral premise, but showing that would be a tall order.

It's not true that no theists defend moral subjectivism; I got the impression that Marilyn McCord Adams, a leading Christian philosopher first at UCLA and later at Yale, is a moral subjectivist of some kind. Her husband Robert Merrihew Adams (making the two of them the philosophical Adams family) is a moral objectivist, (see, a philosopher couple can disagree about a few things!) but in a paper originally published in Philosophical Review which later appeared in his book The Virtue of Faith, entitled "Must God Create the Best," argued that God did not have the obligation of creating the best of all possible worlds, or even the best world that he had the power to create. In that essay, and in another essay entitled "Existence, Self-interest, and the Problem of Evil" Adams argues " that ethical views typical of the Judeo-Christian tradition do not require the Judeo-Christian theist to accept the view (that this is the best world God could create). He must hold that this world is a good world. But he needs not maintain that it is the best of all possible worlds, or the best world that God could have made." Now if you're a moral objectivist, you can argue that this position is morally unacceptable based on a moral standard you share with Adams and other theists. If you are a subjectivist, you're out to lunch in the face of an argument like this.

William Lane Craig, in a debate with Keith Parsons, argued that since God had created the Amalekites, he had the right to have them slaughtered down to the last man, woman and child. Parsons expresssed "outrage" at this position. I don't buy Craig's theology here at all, but as a subjectivist, I would have no right to complain about it. I could not argue that Craig was being irrational in accepting this kind of a moral position. I don't know if Parsons is a subjectivist or not, but if he is, his outrage is just his personal feeling, and there is no way he can make it binding on Craig.

So I think that even though it is theoretically possible to use the argument from evil as a subjectivist, the theist has some counter-moves which look awfully difficult to stop, consistent with moral subjectivism.


Jason Pratt said...

"I don't *but* Craig's theology here at all"

{g} I think you mean, you don't _buy_..

(In completely unrelated news, the word verification program actually made a word this morning: jawbip! ... ... Well, it's kind of a word... {g})


Blue Devil Knight said...

If someone is a Christian and a subjectivist about morals, do they claim that God is not objectively good?

Steven Carr said...

I think the laws of chess are purely subjective, and created by man.

Does this mean I have no right to complain if my opponent tries to castle after moving his king?

Blue Devil Knight said...

JD doth protest too much, methinks.

Another good example: What side of the road should you drive on?

The existence of certain rules for guiding behavior does not depend on a higher being (e.g., chess, road rules). Moral realists think that moral truths exist, but the existence of such man-made cases puts the burden of proof on the realist to show why we should make special ontological provisions for 'Do not murder' but not 'Drive on the left.'

The realist can't just refer to our psychology (e.g., we expect people to play fair), because that is just subjective.

Mike Darus said...

"The existence of certain rules for guiding behavior does not depend on a higher being (e.g., chess, road rules)."
Human rules do not provide evidence against moral objectivism. Objective morality admits that rules are human interpretations defining behavior, but maintains that the rules can be traced to an objective standard of morality (sometimes called a precept or principle). In this sense, both the prohibition for murder and the rule of driving on the correct side of the road (sometimes right, sometimes left) support the same principle of respect for life. Moral objectivists decry ethical systems that decay into meaningless rules as legalsim.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Just to be clear, I didn't mean the rule that we drive on some side, but the left as opposed to the right.

That is clearly a convention. That we picked some side after a period with no such laws makes perfect sense for the safety of people who travel on or near streets.

Steven Carr said...

If God wants to play by the rules of decent society, then he has to do his share of altruistic acts, and not freeload as he does now.

Just as somebody who wants to stay in a chess tournament has to agree to abide by the laws of chess, even though he might think other games are just as good.

Blue Devil Knight said...

JD, you are preaching an extreme form of psychologism, which is a decidedly nonrealist position.

Appeal to facts of psychology would not justify any moral claims. What if, psychologically speaking, humans were wired like Nazis. Would that make killing Jews moral? You are undermining the one strength of moral realism: it lets you say the Nazis were wrong, and would be wrong even if they had won and history (or biology) had turned out differently.

Next, on science. As a biologist, I never appeal to a peer's psychology to determine the truth/validity of her claims. I turn to the world and try to replicate her findings. A psychologist studying Aristotelian astronomy would not have the resources to say it is false: that takes experiments and knowledge of the target field. You can read any random scientific journal to see what I'm talking about.

Eric Thomson said...

JD: of course human knowledge requires a human mind. As long as you aren't saying something like "Cheating is bad because we want people to play fair", and act like that to be sufficient to justify any kind of claim to its moral legitimacy, then you're OK. If everyone wanted people to kill Nazis, that wouldn't make it good for any moral realist. So we agree on that.

In other words, realists can't avert to the particulars of our psychology (our beliefs and desires) to justify moral claims. It seems you agree.

Ultimately, I think our brains paint the world with a moral hue, just as our visual system paints it with colors and the like. These properties aren't objectively real, but the acts and institutions so painted are real, and can be changed. They are a fixture of our psychology, and normal people have a drive to paint the world a better place. As a naturalist, I don't think it is independent of our biology/history/culture. I am just one more biased organism painting the world with a moral hue.

The best place to start is with cases much simpler than cross-cultural moral judgments. E.g., give a rich account of morals about child rearing practices, and then extend this to more complicated cases where there are more variables present, such as political pressures and different languages/cultures... Different minds. In biology, we don't start with the most complicated example of a phenomenon, but model systems, the simplest system that still has the property of interest. The same methods would be useful in philosophy.

Eric Thomson said...

JD said:
"in your view morality is just a 'convention', based on what helps a society to function smoothly"

I never said this. I think this is true of certain rules, such as conventions about which side of the road to drive on. I just needed a single example to make a general point about behavior-governing rules.

I don't consider all norms to be mere conventions. Different morals aim toward different things, and I don't think any single principle neatly sums them up. For instance, I don't think people should be tortured, and I extend this to other cultures. Ultimately, I can't give a deductive proof that the goal of abstaining from torture is a good goal to have, but in practice this doesn't matter. Most goals are agreed upon, and we can use them as fulcra around which to turn moral arguments. Since the satisfaction conditions of moral claims are conditions in the world (e.g., abortions would not happen as often), we are free to argue about how to change things in the world and not get bogged down in philosophical analysis. E.g., you won't disagree with my premise "We shouldn't torture people" just because I am a naturalist and you weren't!

Incidentally, I think the arguments by postmodernist types effectively claiming that our own values shouldn't extend across cultures leads to immoral behavior, such as not giving aid to African countries.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I agree that justifying basic moral principles, to the extent this is required, looks tough for the naturalist. It is also very tough for the theist b/c of Euthyphro-type arguments.

Namely, is X good because a god says it is good, or is X good independently of a god's will? If the former, then a god could have willed child torture as a good. In such a case, I would argue that, while he may be many things, a god that wills child torture isn't a good god, and would use my psychological moral faculty to reject that god.

If X is good independently of a god's will, however, then the god isn't required for the justification.

Just like we can apply concepts of flourishing and health to plants and ecosystems, so we can do the same for individual humans and cultures. A child confined to a dark room for the first six years of life would not flourish the way a child loved by two parents would flourish. You could then ask me to justify the claim that human life should flourish, or justify the claim that maximizing human flourishing is a good thing. Ultimately, I think the universe doesn't care if humans suffer or flourish, any more than it cares if flowers flourish. However, there are objective differences between flourishing and nonflourishing flowers, and the same goes for people.

Via historical knoweldge, stories of human suffering, of family suffering, I think a mixture of empathy and a desire to not be in a system where these awful things could happen to us, society has evolved toward a more Rawlsian/Golden Rule centered state where we are more likely to flourish and where the state values flourishing more than any particular ideology about the best way for individuals to reach that flourishing state (it could be via religion, science, art, secular psychology, etc)..

Starting with the minimalist liberal moral kernel, that flourishing life is better than nonflourishing life, gets us a lot of mileage. It has produced the best governments in history.

Because we are not perfect, rules and institutions that help keep us on track have emerged. They haven't emerged from a Hobbesian state of nature, but a state of imperfect knowledge of the conditions for maximizing human flourishing, a state of incorrect thinking that some particular religion is the key to flourishing (whether it is here or in some eternal afterlife). We have recently re-aquired knoweldge of what can happen in totalitarian regimes, or states where religious freedom is not honored.

While the nonhuman bits of the universe don't care about human flourishing, and while we may not be able to give a scientific justification for using our powers of empathy and reason to try to maximize flourishing, we continue to do it because we are human, and because we care about our families, their suffering, and want to ensure the state doesn't take away our hard-won freedom to have a space in which to flourish.

Anyway, these impressionistic ramblings hint at how I would approach this as a naturalist, if I didn't have experiments to do.

Blue Devil Knight said...

By the way Eric Thomson is obviously me (that is from my neuroscience blog). Blue Devil Knight is my chess blog name.

Blue Devil Knight said...

If you are claiming that a naturalist can't give an objective, scientific account of how we ought to behave, then you would not get any arguments from me. The cousin of utilitarianism I am supporting is not a scientific hypothesis. It is a moral claim reached via reasoning from the rest of what I believe. As a naturalist in this post-Quinean age, that's about the best we can hope for.

On average, the US political institutions have trended toward increased freedom that creates a space for individuale flourishing. Part of this is the secularization of government to allow for freedom to select how you will flourish. Compare early Puritan forms of government in New England to those that exist now. This trend has not been subtle! Even in China, freedoms are starting to emerge because of diffusion of classical liberal values across the cognitive divide (and by liberal, I obviously mean it in the classical sense, not referring to policital party). This is a good thing.

As for objective criteria for flourishing, if you have ever grown flowers, then you have an idea what I mean when I talk about a healthy flower. There are clearly objective criteria by which to recognize a healthy flower: green and flowering, for instance, versus dessicated and wilting. Owen Flanagan has written a lot on this topic, as has Bill Casebeer (Natural Ethical Facts). However, the claim that a healthy flower is good (and a healthy HIV strain is not good) is not something that science can provide.

I understand the standard response to Euthyphro arguments, but am unpersuaded by them: if we had independent knowledge of the existence of a god that only willed good things, then your argument would flow.

At any rate, being human, having a brain that hues the world morally, doesn't bother me metaphysically any more than being a human that paints the world with colors. While there are problems with this view if you are attached to moral realism, it doesn't preclude the discovery of beauty, morality, and wonder any more than the perception of shades of red.

Steven Carr said...

' I don't find Euphythro arguments very convincing at all, especially when all the great monotheistic faiths have honed in on the fact that generally God does not condone child abuse or any other evil....'

God doesn't do anything!

Perhaps JD can tell us the last action of God...

Blue Devil Knight said...

Since I need to work on a grant, and will inevitably keep repeating myself, I'm gonna have to bow out of this interesting discussion.

I misjudged you, JD. Based on your initial response to Carr I thought you'd be just another arrogant but ignorant CCC Fundy stereotype. It is clear you aren't ignorant! Good luck with your studies.

Steven Carr said...

'My God works in everything'

Including famine, war , pestilence and drought?

JD gives God the credit for work done by humans. Who can argue with somebody who claims that he is doing the work of God?

God allows evil to fill people with horror.

Ezekiel 20:25 I also gave them over to statutes that were not good and laws they could not live by; 26 I let them become defiled through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn —that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am the LORD.'

What is a few child sacrifices, compared to letting people know who God is?

gap said...

If God wants to play by the rules of decent society, then he has to do his share of altruistic acts, and not freeload as he does now.

hello steven,

define altruistic act. if God moves in my bedroom chamber, or living room for that matter (read: heart) and causes me to reflect on my life and that in turn changes my outlook and that outlook produces action on my part which leads to my sharing...say my money with people who have no food to eat, or harder yet for a self proclaimed misanthrope such as myself, caused me to open up to the very idea of compassion toward other human beings - has God not performed an altruistic act? one might argue that God's influence in changing one single person doesn't altruistic make, but I disagree on the basis that God wishes to impart on some small scale that very benevolence through one person if only simply to touch another one person. none of my life recently can be defined as being sifted by a freeloading God who withholds, but instead by a God who requires i shape up and start acting like a vehicle of change capable of loving other humans rather than living as an isolated, angry animal.

akakiwibear said...

Have you noticed how as a thread grows so too does the length of the comments?

“one might argue that God's influence in changing one single person doesn't altruistic make, but I disagree on the basis that God wishes to impart on some small scale that very benevolence through one person if only simply to touch another one person” quite so – what can be added to such wisdom!

Since I can’t add to it I will change the subject. I think we give too much credibility to the AoE and the debate about subjectivism lends it a weight it does not deserve.

There are far more fundamental objections to AoE which we implicitly dismiss by moving to more complex arguments such as this one.

Sala kahle - peace