For those who don’t know, the Moral Argument is a class of theistic argument that attempts to argue for God’s existence from the existence of a universal moral law. Here I’m concerned with defending a single moral argument. It’s formulation is similar William Lane Craig’s (however, unlike Dr. Craig, I’m leaving out any mention of values for the sake of space) and is quite simple to follow:
- If God does not exist, objective moral duties do not exist.
- Objective moral duties do exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
Moral Values and Duties
Objective and Subjective
Moral Ontology and Epistemology
1. If God doesn’t exist, objective moral duties don’t exist
When I first started reading about the moral argument, I thought that this premise would be the one I’d need to defend most often. I was startled to realise that the very opposite is the case. Much more often than not people I’ve spoken to just accept this premise without further question. “That’s just obvious” one of my friends said. When I articulated the above argument to another friend his first question was, “How do you know objective moral’s exist?”. Apparently he thought the first premise was self-evident.
Nevertheless it will serve us well to defend it. So how shall we defend it? Well, we can start by asking along with Craig, “if theism is false, then what is the basis for objective moral duties?” This is a good question since on atheism humans aren’t any different, morally speaking, from other animals, and animals don’t have moral obligations to one another. Animals take, they don’t steal; they kill, they don’t murder. It’s not like a lion has done something objectively wrong when it kills its prey.
Once we reflect on the nature of duties we soon realise why atheism cannot give us any basis for objective moral duties. Duties arise from commands from a competent or qualified authority. Let me give some examples to show you what I mean. If you’re driving a car and a random person commands you to stop your car on the side of the road you aren’t obliged to do so. In this case we have a command but no competent authority. However, if you’re in the same situation but this time it’s a policeman commanding you to pull your car over, you are legally obliged to pull your car over. Why? Because the policeman is a legal authority over you and when he gives. So this understanding fits right in with our intuitive understanding of how duties arise.
But on atheism, who or what imposes these moral duties on us? There is no universal lawgiver who is a moral authority to command us to do anything, and so there can’t be any moral duties imposed upon us. Thus it seems quite clear that if God doesn’t exist, objective moral duties can’t either.
2. Objective moral duties do exist
What can be said in defence of premise 2? I think, broadly, there’re two ways to defend this premise: (1) by showing the unbearable implications of denying objective moral duties and (2) by giving a positive reason for thinking objective moral duties exist, even though we might not know them perfectly. Let’s consider each in turn.
2.1. The implications of denying objective moral duties
What follows if we say moral duties are subjective? Well I guess if this is the case then it becomes impossible to condemn war, oppression, genocide or any crime as evil. After all, if right and wrong differ from person to person then they’re indistinguishable from one’s taste. You can no more say someone is wrong in doing an action than say they’re incorrect in liking certain foods or music, since right and wrong change from person to person. Rape might be right to some, even if it’s not right for you. Hate crimes against homosexuals might be right to some, even if you don’t like them.
Some might try to escape this by saying that right and wrong aren’t relative to people, but societies. So we can condemn people for going against social conventions (our ‘morals’ in the context of society). But this doesn’t fix the problem, since we still can’t condemn people in other societies. If, in some society they thought rape of children or hate crimes or the killing of people over 60 was OK (or even morally obligatory), we couldn’t condemn those actions as wrong any more than we can condemn other countries from driving on the other side of the road. In fact, making moral duties relative to a society raises yet another issue: it leaves no room for social reform. Not just that, but it makes social reform wrong! Take for example to fight in South Africa against Apartheid. Since white supremacy was part of the societal norms, it follows that white supremacy (and racism against non-whites) was right. Not only that, but the people who fought against it were actually doing something morally wrong! Likewise with the fight against slavery in America, those who fought against slavery were morally wrong and should be punished! We could think of a society where all the women were oppressed purely because they were women. In this case, it would be wrong to fight for women’s rights. And people should feel compelled to stop anyone from doing so.
Clearly these situations are absurd, but they follow quite naturally from the denial of objective moral duties. It doesn’t take much to think of more and more examples that we’d just completely disagree with on moral grounds. Some might complain that this doesn’t prove that objective moral duties exist, and they’d be correct. However, I needn’t prove objective moral duties exist to someone who already believes they do. This “thinking through the implications” might show some that they don’t actually believe that moral duties are relative because of how absurd the conclusions of such a position are. In this case, we needn’t show that moral duties are objective.
2.2. We should trust our moral perceptions
Nevertheless, it would be nice to have some positive reason for thinking moral duties are objective. William Sorley made an apt observation which is summarised by Dr. Craig in his book, Reasonable Faith (3rd Edition),
[Sorley] admits that in a sense one cannot prove that objective values exist, but insists that in this same sense one cannot prove that the external world exists either! Thus, the moral order and the natural order are on equal footing.
Now many of those who would have us believe that moral duties are subjective would still accept that we perceive them as objective, even if that perception is mistaken. After all, everyone makes moral judgements as though they are binding on everyone (and therefore act as though these morals are objective). Even after I’ve pointed out to people that doing so is inconsistent with a denial of objective moral duties (and they agree) I later find them continuing to make these moral judgements. I can only think that such behaviour points to a deep conviction in the person that these duties are objective and binding even if, intellectually, they don’t want to accept it and so say their perceptions are mistaken.
But why think this apprehension of an objective moral realm is mistaken any more than our apprehension of an objective physical realm around us? As Craig says, “in the absence of some defeater, we rationally trust our perceptions, whether sensory or moral”.
It’s impossible to test whether our sensory perceptions (ie. our 5 senses) are correct but this doesn’t stop us from trusting them. Likewise, we should trust our moral perceptions unless we’re given some reason to undercut our trust in them (called an undercutting defeater). So, the person who claims that our moral perceptions are faulty needs to give some reason as to why they think so (possible reasons will be dealt with later under objections). In the absence of such a defeater we are compelled to trust their deliverances that there is an objective moral realm, meaning that there are objective moral duties.
We must be careful to keep in mind the distinction between moral ontology and moral epistemology at this point. I’m not claiming that people perceive that the same things are right and wrong (that would be ridiculous) since that is a question of moral epistemology. Rather, I’m claiming that people perceive that there are things that are right and wrong in the first place (that objective moral duties do exist). Notice the difference? It might not be the case that people perceive the world around us in the same way (some are colour blind, others have blurry vision) but it is the case that people perceive that there is a world around us at all. So just as six people might agree that there’s a table in the room while disagreeing over the colour of the table, six people can agree that objective moral duties exist while not agreeing over whether abortion is right or wrong.
It also doesn’t matter that some people genuinely don’t perceive this objective moral realm (although I would say if people were honest with themselves we’d have a lot less people claiming this). Just like the existence of blind people doesn’t undermine the existence of the objective physical realm, so these people don’t undermine the existence of the objective moral realm.
So there we have it. We have reason to think objective moral duties exist because we perceive an objective moral realm and should trust our perceptions.
I’ll close this part with a extensive quote from Craig (Reasonable Faith, in which he also quotes David Brink from “The Autonomy of Ethics” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism):
Speaking several years ago on a Canadian university campus, I noticed a poster put up by the Sexual Assault & Information Center. It read: “Sexual Assault: No One Has the Right to Abuse a Child, Woman, or Man.” Most of us recognize that sexual abuse of another person is wrong. Actions like rape, torture, child abuse, and brutality aren’t just socially unacceptable behaviour – they’re moral abominations. By the same token, love generosity, equality, and self-sacrifice are really good. People who fail to see this are just morally handicapped, and there is no reason to allow their impaired vision to call into question what we see clearly. Ethicist David Brink thinks that the objectivity of moral values is thus the default position. “There might be no objective moral standards… But this would be a revisionary conclusion, to be accepted only as a result of extended and compelling argument that the commitments of ethical objectivity are unsustainable.”
Now we turn to objections against the moral argument. I guess objections could be raise to each of my defences (1, 2.1 and 2.2) and I’ll take those in turn. Also, I’ve found that there are general objections which aren’t raised against either premise per se (already we should be suspicious of such objections) which I’ll consider at the end.
3.1 Objections to 1.
There are four common objections to the first premise, they are as follows.
Evolutionary considerations pop up often in objections to the moral argument. This objection says that we have evolved morals and therefore don’t need God to ground these objective moral duties. But clearly this won’t do.
Firstly, it makes no sense of moral duties, since merely evolving an awareness to morals doesn’t imply we ought do those things. So evolution does not give us sufficient basis to ground our moral obligations and prohibitions (ie. our moral duties) apart from God.
Secondly, it doesn’t explain the existence of objective moral duties, since people in different areas of the globe could very well have evolved different morals (like they’ve evolved different skins and different languages). So evolution is a very inadequate alternative (if we can even call it an alternative).
3.1.2. Redefining right and wrong
Another common response to the first premise is to redefine what we mean by “right” and “wrong”. Usually this involves defining “right” as something like “advantageous to human survival”, or “flourishing of concious life” or something along those lines and then defining wrong similarly. Again we can respond in two ways.
Firstly, it’s not good enough to just redefine the terms “right” and “wrong”. In the argument we’re not concerned with moral semantics (the definition of moral terms) but moral ontology. We’ve been using the terms in the sense they’re usually understood, as obligations (what we ought do and ought not do). In fact, this whole time we’ve been speaking about these moral duties, so just redefining “right” or “wrong” is really just a red herring.
Secondly, even if we accept this re-definition as a viable objection, it still doesn’t work, since it contradicts what we’d usually understand as right and wrong. For example, it seems that killing all people over 60 or all people with chronic diseases might be advantageous to the flourishing of the human race as a whole. Furthermore, these re-definitions are insufficient just as the appeal to evolution was insufficient because they do not result in obligations. Just because some action is advantageous to concious life how does it follow that I ought do that action? Where does the obligation come from?
3.1.3. Appealing to Atheistic moral realism
One final objection to this premise might be to appeal to something Craig calls Atheistic Moral Platonism. On this view, our moral values and duties just exist as independent entities. So, for example, the proposition “Humans ought not murder other humans” exists as an actual, non-physical object in reality. This commits the objector to a certain ontology of abstract objects called Platonism (hence the name). We can mention a few problems with this objection.
Firstly, Platonism is inaccessible to materialists (those atheists who claim that only physical things exist) and in my experience, most atheists are materialists.
Secondly, if the Atheistic Moral Platonist only categorises moral values as self-existent then there is no reason to think this “alternative” results in our having any obligations. After all, why ought I align myself with one set of values (like mercy, love and compassion) over another (like hate, greed and selfishness)? However, if this Platonist were to include obligations with these self-existent entities then we’re verging on incoherence. What does it even mean for a command to just exist without someone issuing it or without some will lying behind it? For sure, normal Platonists can hold that obligations can exist as independent entities, but they’d say that they come into existence once a command is issued by someone, not just as self-existent entities.
Thirdly, as Craig points out (in Reasonable Faith),
… it is fantastically improbable that just that sort of creature would emerge form the blind evolutionary process that corresponds to the abstractly existing realm of moral values. This seems to be an utterly incredible coincidence when one thinks about it. It is almost as though the moral realm knew that we were coming. As William Sorley saw, it is far more plausible to regard both the natural realm and the moral realm as under the hegemony of a divine Creator and Lawgiver than to think that these two entirely independent orders of reality just happened to mesh.
I think that is sufficient response to the appeal to Atheistic Moral Platonism.
3.1.4. Euthryphro Dilemma
The Euthryphro Dilemma can be seen as an argument for Atheistic Moral Platonism. “The objection, first recorded in Plato’s Euthryphro, goes as follows: either something is good because God wills it or else God wills something because it is good.” (Craig, Reasonable Faith) If we go with the first horn, then we have to admit that what is right becomes arbitrary. God could’ve willed that we hate one another, and we’d be obliged to do so. On the other hand, if we go with the second horn then we undermine premise 1 in accepting some form of Moral Platonism, which we’ve already seen isn’t a viable alternative.
However, it seems that we can accept the first horn without having the problem of God’s commands being arbitrary: our moral duties arise from commands from an essentially loving and just God. On this view, God is by nature loving, compassionate, merciful, fair, kind, and so on and his nature is the paradigm for moral values and forms the basis for God’s moral commands to us (so there isn’t a possible world in which God commands us to hate one another). So far from being arbitrary, they are grounded in a perfect, necessary goodness. And God is a morally competent and qualified authority since he is the paradigm of moral values. Thus moral values are secured (since God couldn’t be someone other than he is) and moral duties are grounded adequately.
Craig answers the question, “Why pick God’s nature as the definitive of the Good?” in the following way:
God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being, and a being which is the paradigm of goodness is greater than one which merely exemplifies goodness. Unless we are nihilists, we have to recognise some ultimate standard of value, and God is the least arbitrary stopping point.
3.2. Objections to 2.1.
Admittedly I haven’t really heard any objections to the reasoning besides the complaint I mentioned (and responded to) in my above defence of the premise. So with that we’ll turn to the next defence.
3.3. Objections to 2.2.
3.3.1. Because we’ve evolved them, our moral beliefs are false
Once again evolutionary considerations pop up, this time twice in response to the same premise! Here the claim is that “since our moral beliefs have been instilled in us through socio-biological pressures, those beliefs are false and so objective moral values and duties do not exist.” (Craig, Reasonable Faith) But this route is a simple case of the genetic fallacy, which is an attempt to falsify a belief based on how one came to form that belief.
Even if us evolving our moral beliefs means they’re fallible, it doesn’t follow that objective moral duties don’t exist. At most it just means this we can’t infer their existence from our perceptions.
3.3.2. Because we’ve evolved them, our moral perceptions are untrustworthy
This objection speaks directly to that last insight. It also responds directly to the second defence of the second premise: it attempts to give a defeater for us trusting our moral perceptions. If we’ve evolved them, then there’s no reason to trust them. So even if there is an objective moral realm, there’s no reason to think that our moral perceptions give us any reason to think it exists, since they’ve evolved solely for survival and not for determining truth.
The problem with this objection is that all our perceptions and faculties have evolved solely for survival, not just our moral ones. Our evolving our moral perceptions no more undermines their apprehension of a moral realm any more than our evolving our sensory perceptions undermines their apprehension of a physical realm.
Furthermore, our reasoning faculties would fall prey to the same criticism as our moral faculties, meaning we couldn’t even trust ourselves to come to rational conclusions about anything, let alone the existence of God or the truth of evolution (this is Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism). Because of this, this objection is just self-defeating since if it were true we’d have no reason to affirm it.
It’s also question-begging, since it assumes atheism is true. Since if theism were true, there seems to be a good chance that our evolved moral faculties would be at least somewhat reliable.
3.3.3. Because our moral beliefs are imposed on us by society, they are false
Again, just like objection 3.3.1. this commits the genetic fallacy. We can’t dismiss our moral beliefs because of how we came to hold them.
3.3.4. Because our moral perceptions are imposed on us by society, they are untrustworthy
Similar to 3.3.2. except this time, instead of questioning our having evolved our moral perceptions and beliefs (in which case it brought down our other perceptions too) this objects on the grounds that our moral perceptions and beliefs have been imposed by the society or culture we find ourselves in (maybe even by our parents). It should be noted that society imposing our beliefs about what we think is right and wrong does nothing to undermine our moral perception of objective moral duties, since the former deals with moral epistemology and the latter with moral ontology. So this objection must be raised against our moral perceptions if it’s to be relevant.
But, firstly, what on earth does it mean for society to impose a perception on us? Certainly our society can tell us that right and wrong exist, but that doesn’t cause us to perceive such things as reality. It can at most cause us to believe that these rights and wrongs exist objectively. But this isn’t the defence. In fact the whole point of this defence was to encourage such belief based on our perceptions.
Secondly, it seems evident from experience that humans have an innate perception of right and wrong prior to and independent of outside teaching. Just like we never have to tell a child that the external world around them exists, neither do we need to tell them that objective moral duties exist; rather we just need to explain to them what their duties are (moral epistemology). I don’t think there’re many parents who’ve needed to explain what they mean by “wrong” in the statement “taking things that don’t belong to you is wrong” when reprimanding a child, because the child already has an innate idea and perception of the moral realm (like their idea and perception of the physical realm).
Thirdly, simply affirming that our moral perceptions are there solely because society imposes them upon us is insufficient. What reason can be given to think that this perception didn’t develop or evolve (at least in part) just like our other perceptions? It seems only natural to assume it did since we would expect our perceptions to develop in similar ways. The objector needs to give some reason for thinking that this perception is a special case.
3.4. General Objections
The following objections aren’t so much against either of the premises, but against the moral argument as a whole.
3.4.1. The God of the Bible killing innocents
Many New Atheists are quick to point out that “the God of the Hebrew Bible is a moral monster!” and somehow think that they’ve evaded this argument. It should be noted, however, that (1) the argument isn’t for a specific God and so such an objection is a red herring, (2) sufficient answers can be given to such claims against Christianity (hopefully in a later post I will give some) and (3) such an objection only lends further support to the second premise of the argument.
3.4.2. Atheists do live moral lives
Most recently I’ve seen this complaint/comment here. Now hopefully you realise that the claim that people can be good without the belief in God is obviously true. More than that, without the belief in God, a person could still come up with a moral system that any theist would largely agree with. But that’s not the argument’s contention. Its contention is that without God, such belief in objective moral duties cannot be grounded in anything and so these objective moral duties that the atheist claims to grasp aren’t actually there. So without God, people can’t live moral lives, because morality doesn’t exist. It’s not because all atheists are by definition horrible people or don’t know how to live moral lives. That just confuses moral epistemology with moral ontology.
This treatment of the moral argument is but a mere introduction into the discussions around a single formulation of it. Chris Shrock identifies three different categories moral arguments can fall into (I think this one would be an explanatory one) in his paper Three Flavours of Moral Argument for God’s Existence. One could also look to Robert Adams’ Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief for an overview of different arguments. For another defence (a defence on which this one is almost entirely based) you could look to William Lane Craig’s website, reasonablefaith.org which is named after his book, Reasonable Faith. The website is full of great resources dealing with a number of arguments for God’s existence, but with respect to this argument the article The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality is very good. Also he’s answered a number of questions on the topic in his Q&A Archive which are valuable to further understanding and clarification.
15 thoughts on “Defending the Moral Argument”
Hey Roland, Peter here.
First thing first, Kudos on the blog, it looks really great. Also this was a great post, however I have some issues with it and thought I’d perhaps try to spark some sort of discussion. I should preface this by saying that this will be my first philosophical discussion so forgive me if this whole response has an amateurish sort of vibe to it.
My general idea on human morality is that its origin lies both within our species’s evolution and the society in which live. I also believe that it differs between groups of people. I’m going to attempt to prove that they came about naturally. I will also attempt prove that it is unnecessary to attribute any of our behaviours or views to objective morals making the notion superfluous and therefore easily discarded. Naturally I will also object to some of your arguments and attempt to prove them false.
That said, my first objection is with the proposition of the original argument. It states that
If God does not exist, objective moral duties do not exist.
Objective moral duties do exist.
Therefore, God exists.
My issue here is the use of the word ‘God’, this word is loaded with meaning. In fact you and Craig attribute many traits to ‘God’ throughout the argument. In ‘Objection 3.1.4’ you state that God’s choices are not arbitrary essentially because God is all loving and caring. There are a few other instances.
The problem here is that these attribute that you are assigning to ‘God’ are not derived from the original argument, these are ideas external to the argument itself. This ‘God’ that your proposition states must exist could very easily be just the opposite of the Christian God. It could also be some non-conscious entity that assigns morals at random.
Essentially some of your arguments rely on the assumption that if God exists it must be the Christian one, I don’t believe any of those arguments are valid. I would suggest replacing ‘God’ with ‘Some Supernatural Entity’ in the original proposition.
Okay so its getting late, I’ll continue this post tomorrow. In the meantime feel free to pick my argument apart. I’m especially interested in whether you think that what I wish to prove (the first proper paragraph of my argument) would be enough to discredit the idea and if not what exactly I must prove to convince you that morals are not objective.
Also could you expand on the more technical aspects of objective morals namely how it was introduced to humans. For instance did we get it once we’d reached some level of intelligence. Did God slowly introduce it as we evolved from single celled organisms etc.
Hi, so this is going to be somewhat of a copy paste job of my note on facebook with a few edits.
Firstly, Peter’s concerns over the specificity of God in this definition are justified. I feel that in this case we are referring to some kind of sentient/omnipotent/omnipresent singular being. The argument falls apart completely if we are talking about a polytheistic pantheon. Also, it does call into question omnipotence. I do make some further conclusions in my argument about additional properties that assuming the proposition implies. The idea of benevolence is also in question. Essentially, god’s benevolence is necessarily different to human benevolence.
Lastly, I completely agree with Peter’s assessment with respect to the connection between a sentient god and and abstract objective moral duty. I feel that the implication is a bit tenuous for a sentient being. And if an objective moral framework can be proven to exist (which is primarily the subject of my arguments) it doesn’t necessitate a god in any meaningful sense (one could treat them like the physical laws and constants of the universe). That said, here are some of my more specific arguments:
Opposing the Moral Argument
I am happy to work within the definitions given, I do feel that the phrasing of the example of moral values was poor, but it isn’t particularly pertinent to the argument.
The opening argument is based on proof by contraposition, which I am happy with.
Heading 1: “If God Doesn’t Exist, Then Objective Moral Duties Don’t Exist”
Essentially, the argument for this relation relies on a distinction between moral value and duty. It defines duty as following the command of some authority. This is a somewhat self-contradictory definition. If god exists then the laws he creates are morally subjective, but simply from his point of view. For this to not be subjective, then god first has to have knowledge of an objective morality which he did not create. Which must, be an external entity to god. If he created it, then it’s not objective. So, by definition the existence of god and objective morality are unrelated.
There is a way around this, whereby one defines “objective morality” as the subjective morality of god. If god’s morality can be summarised into a neat set of rules, then those rules would be “the law of god” which ties in quite nicely with the traffic cop metaphor.
I think at this point it is reasonable to start considering the logical implications of these definitions.
Let us first assume that a person has perfect knowledge of the law. If for some reason it appeared that it would be in the person’s best interest to break the law, then the person makes two decisions. First, there is a deeper evaluation in terms of the person’s “best interest”. Basically the person needs to weigh the potential reward for the action against the risks of the action. This is in no way a moral decision; it is made completely out of self interest. In this way a law that a person has no moral opinion on can dissuade them from a course of action that violates it.
Second, the person makes a moral decision. They don’t necessarily always make a decision in favour of the law, some laws may appear to bad in the context regardless of whether they are good. In essence, even with perfect knowledge of the laws, a person assigns a moral weight to the value of those laws. The weight in the decision is not related to the laws but to a person’s perception of them. Thus any set of laws essentially only exerts significant moral force on a person’s behaviour if they agree with the person’s moral perception enough that they perceive value in them.
Thus, a set of laws created by god, are only relevant if there is some kind of punishment for not following them and people know the nature of the punishment. Otherwise, they have no effect.
So if we assume that god existed, and he created a perfectly moral set of laws, and that he intended those laws to be considered, then he must also have created some consequence for not following those laws. Also, said consequence should be as absolute as he intends the laws themselves to be, ie the consequences of breaking a law should always be greater than the benefit of breaking them. This is a slightly more specific definition of god.
However, none of this has any sway over humanity unless we know those laws perfectly and we know the consequences perfectly. Some would argue that the bible/torah/Koran/whichever-religious-document-you-believe-in pretty much resolves this, and I will discuss the consequences of this case further on. Either way, there is some inconsistency within these documents and difficulties in terms of separating the perceived morality of the authors and the absolute morality of god. One would think that if god wanted us to follow his laws, he would make it clear what they were, as opposed to trusting in us, who he made imperfect to keep them clear.
Another possible way in which he could have communicated this to us is if we had some inherent understanding of these laws. People do seem to in general create moral guidelines for themselves, but these guidelines are continually in conflict with those of other people. So there does not seem to be a universal clear understanding of the law of god.
With these in mind, we can make the following conclusions based on the above definition of god (assuming god exists): either god does not want us to follow his laws, or there are no consistent laws, or it is beyond god’s power to communicate clearly with us.
Heading 2: ”Objective Moral Duties Do Exist”
2.1 “The Implications of denying objective moral duties”
Firstly, the implications of something (no matter how horrifying or pleasant) have no bearing on the truth of the statement unless they are inherently contradictory to some other tautological statement.
That said, the implications laid out aren’t particularly logical, so I will address a few points here and provide a naturalistic model which results in the changes we observe in society over time.
I do believe that human morality is fundamentally derived from the fact that we are social animals. Instinctually, we want the community to perceive us as a positive influence on them, so as to not be shunned from the community. Thus, there is historically little moral value attributed to the welfare of some “other” community. In this distant past people would think little of slaughtering a neighbouring village for pasture land. As our technology grows, it allows us to mingle more with more distant groups (as opposed to encountering, which is different). As we become more entwined with other communities our moral community grows, and it becomes amoral to subject those communities to our “other” treatment.
Sometimes artificial “othering” occurs, for political, personal or economic reasons. A good example is South Africa. When the colonists arrived, the local people were not even identified as people. This was considered a legitimate view at the time, as race had become a useful metric to distinguish the European community from the “other” communities, being the colonies. It was useful for the local people to be abused, as there were large economic rewards for maintaining this way of life (even in America the abolition of slavery caused a war between the areas that were economically dependent and those who weren’t). The segregation laws of South Africa came into effect at a time where similar laws were prevalent in many other countries. When those countries started switching to more modern moral systems (primarily due to a gradual realization that the “othering” that had been justified by “scientific racism” was based on false premises) the world was still strongly divided by nationalism (South Africa in particular). As communications technology improved with the space race, a rudimentary international community started to form in earnest. South Africa’s behaviour was recognised as deviant by the community and South Africa was shunned. As South Africa’s people became aware of South Africa’s place in the global community, they started looking into the reasons they were being shunned, and aligned their views with the larger community. So the morality of South Africa shifted due to globalization (to simplify a fairly complex process for the sake of debate, in general it was due to re-humanization of non-whites). There are concerns as to how positive or damaging globalization is, but these usually pertain to the loss of cultural identity, as opposed to quality of life. This is how a socially moral society changes its morality over time.
Secondly, there was a strong implication that questioning a moral convention is as morally wrong as breaking it. This doesn’t make sense, because in a system where there is no objective morality, an individual makes decisions on a case by case basis, thus questioning moral conventions and perspectives all the time. I won’t say anything about causality, but there does seem to be a correlation between the strength of a society’s emphasis on objective (religious/traditional) morality and the progressiveness of its laws.
2.2 “Objective moral duties do exist”
This section opens with a quote pertaining to solipsism, essentially comparing our ability to prove the existence of the natural world with our ability to prove the existence of the moral world. Even if the statement were true (and we’ll get to that), one can’t compare two similar but unrelated claims and claim that the truth of one implies the other.
For example, consider a red flower behind a pane of glass and a red firework. They both appear red, though without being able to interact with them meaningfully we don’t know why. It may seem reasonable to compare the two, perhaps if we knew why the flower was red, or could prove some hypothesis pertaining to the flower, it could be extended to the firework. But this is not the case, the flower is red because a pigment in it absorbs other wavelengths of light, and the firework is red because of light released in a chemical reaction. They both relate to light, but you can’t say that because we don’t understand light completely and we call both things red that information you can infer by considering the flower pertains to the firework.
After the quote there is a section which makes some rather broad statements, based as far as I can tell on anecdotal experience. At this point, I think it is relevant to point out that our society has been deeply rooted in religion for centuries, and atheistic moral considerations have only been socially acceptable on a broad scale for a comparatively short period of time. As there is in general fairly little discussion of these concepts, it becomes very difficult to separate the terminology of objective and subjective morality, because there isn’t convenient terminology within widely spoken English. This may account for some of the inconsistencies that may have been perceived. Additionally, people who have grown in to a moral system, as opposed to having been raised within it, are often less coherent in the expression of that system, because they are still fighting against instincts which are groomed into them as a child.
The main argument under this heading revolves around the perception of a set of moral duties and the lack of a defeater to it.
It does make some sense that an individual will have some “general rules” which they will use; simply because a person’s moral circumstances are unlikely to change on a daily basis. So your average person doesn’t need to make the decision of whether or not to kill their own mother every day. They may create a rule in their head “don’t kill your own mother”, or someone can tell them “don’t kill your mother” and that may be an acceptable rule their whole life, and appear to be objectively moral. This doesn’t mean that it is an indication of a complete distinct set of moral values. In the end, we create the rules as humans, some of them with social considerations in mind. We teach these rules to our children in the same way we teach them that a sharp knife can cut them. One can’t take the fact that when they grow up they treat the two statements as equally universal or intuitive as some kind of judgement on the profundity of the statements.
The defeater of the perceptions is that while the perceptions don’t agree, we can observe how they arise. They aren’t a first order sense built into us, they are intuitions trained into us. With solipsism we can’t say anything about how the perceptions arise so we can only judge them by those perceptions. These perceptions are independently observable.
Going back to the example of the rose and the fireworks, considering them now as differing moral situations, we have more than that they are red. We can open the box and examine the rose, and we can look at the debris that falls to the earth. With scientific insight we can say why they aren’t the same, because we can answer the more fundamental question of “what is redness” and ascertain why it may be an ambiguous measure of the properties of two objects.
One can argue that the social instinct is mostly universal amongst humans, but one cannot argue that that instinct is dependent on god, as it has an obvious evolutionary benefit, and it could hardly be considered a duty as it isn’t defined in any coherent way.
3.1.1 Evolution says nothing about the existence of moral duty, but it does address part of the reason why we me think that we perceive moral duty. Thus it performs the role of the defeater in the case of an inherent perception of duty. It does say nothing about religious documents as a guide to god’s law.
3.1.2 I’m mostly happy with this argument; the benefit of society only has partial relevance to the creation of society’s most common rules. Additionally these rules have nothing to do with the existence of objective duty.
3.1.3 A “rule” that people use would strictly be a non-physical object, but it doesn’t exist in the traditional sense. It is just a name for an ideological state. Ideas don’t need to exist in a metaphysical sense in a naturalistic interpretation, because they represent a subset of physical states in the brain.
3.1.4 This counter argument essentially comes down to: god is perfectly good so the moral duties he would create are universally good. This result was partially addressed when I considered the implications of god having created a universal set of moral values. Essentially seeing as we don’t have an intuitive moral sense of duties, then we must fall to either an explicit communication by god of these duties, or a lack of any precise communication of these duties. In the first case then we can only pick some prophet and hope that we choose correctly. In some cases this means that some of god’s laws would not align very well with common moral values. In many cases they encourage prejudice, violence, and dehumanization of women while condoning practices like slavery. But, by this definition of morality this is the only morally correct way of viewing things. So either way god wants us to suffer, either at our own hands or at his. But that’s ok because his will defines what is good.
If there isn’t precise communication of these laws, then we can only assume that either we are being punished arbitrarily for fumbling in the dark or there is no punishment for not following the laws. Either way the laws have no bearing on our existence and may as well not exist.
Lastly, this argument cannot be used in this context. This is a proof of god, if we assume god in order to prove the premise we need to prove god, the argument is completely circular anyway.
3.3.1. Agreed, but you end with precisely my point: you cannot infer the existence of moral beliefs by your perceptions of them.
3.3.2. Yes, all of our perceptions are in a sense incomplete, but morality isn’t a first order perception, it is built by thought and is not an observation.
Yes, my conclusion would be that our reasoning abilities do fall prey to our moral abilities, here is an interesting meta-study which supports this with data: http://www.dan.sperber.fr/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/MercierSperberWhydohumansreason.pdf. Essentially we are dependent on discussion in order to approximate logic, so there is still the possibility of finding truth through logic, but it is challenging to any individual.
Yes, if one assumes theism and that god defines morality then the existence of god doesn’t contradict any of the points in this argument. If you define an objective set of moral duties as having necessarily been defined by god, then proving that they exist would prove the existence of god (though they don’t actually mean what they intuitively sound like in this context, the intuitive definition not having any link to the question of god’s existence). Seeing as we cannot perceive these duties or their effect on our lives there is no reason to believe that they exist except by the proclamation that they do in religious texts. God’s existence is also proclaimed in these texts, and this whole argument reduces to whether one can trust a religious text or not. It isn’t in itself a proof of god as much as an extension of the manner in which god is defined.
If the world without something is completely indistinguishable to the world with something, then it stands to reason that any claim of the existence of that thing, (be it objective morality or god, or an invisible intangible flying spaghetti monster) has the burden of proof.
Finally, if god exists, has created an objective set of moral duties, and cares that we follow them; then by virtue of all the disagreements of all the religions, and the internal ambiguity of many of them, then the odds of being able to abide by those duties are very low, even assuming that one followed those laws perfectly. In the end, if damnation exists it is virtually unavoidable, and it makes more sense to define what as an individual we would choose to achieve in our lives, so that at least we can be happy with our actions.
Thank you Peter and Brent for taking the time to reply, it’s greatly appreciated. However, I think most of your responses are predicated on misunderstandings, so I’m sorry if wasn’t entirely clear in my post. Hopefully I can take this opportunity to clear some things up 🙂
Peter, it should be pointed out that even if I were attributing those properties to God it still wouldn’t mean I’m assuming that the God mentioned in the argument is the Christian God. A general theist, who does not accept the Bible, can equally hold that God is greatest conceivable being or hold to Essential Divine Command Theory (the theory I laid out in response to the Euthtyphro dilemma). But do I attribute such properties to God? Admittedly I wasn’t entirely clear on this, but the Essential Divine Command Theory was just one model the propnent of the argument might use to escape the Euthryphro dilemma. I’m sure there’re a host of other models that might do the same trick, but I only need one model to escape the conclusion that even with God we still can’t adequately explain objective moral duties. And since I already believe in Essential Divine Command Theory, why not use that one? So I’m not attributing these properties to God, but merely showing that the Euthryphro dilemma isn’t a problem for the theist.
You might also be concerned with the mention of a divine Creator and Lawgiver in 3.1.3. But again, this isn’t saying that this is the case. Rather, it’s to show that on theism we have at least one plausible explanation as to why the moral and natural realm would coincide as they do.
I’m not sure where else I might attribute extra properties. I do assume the God mentioned is personal, since non-personal or non-concious entities can’t really issue commands (and therefore, can’t impose obligations). But that’s hardly an issue, since we usually identify God as a personal being anyway. So I see no need to replace the term “God” in the original argument to “Some supernatural entity”, because I don’t think such a broading adds anything. Surely any supernatural entity that can impose moral obligations would need to be at least personal?
As far as opposing the second premise goes, if you offer an adequate defeater for our moral perceptions and somehow respond to 2.1. then I guess that would defeat my defences. However that still wouldn’t show (I would suggest not using the word “prove” because in doing so you set the bar too high for yourself. It’s notoriously hard to prove anything. All you need are arguments with greater warrant than mine) that objective moral duties don’t exist, all it would show is that we can’t infer that they exist. To show they don’t exist, as David Brink said (2.2.), you’d need a “compelling argument that the commitments of ethical objectivity are unsustainable”.
As for how objective moral duties were introduced to humans, the argument as it stands commits us to no view. It could be that our perception of moral duties evolved just like our other perceptions (although presumably it evolved later than the others) or God imbued us with consciences with which to vaguely discern right from wrong or something else. Personally, as a Christian, I think that God created us in his image (please don’t anyone pick on the word “created”, it’s a far more ambiguous word than some would have us believe) and part of that involves us having consciences and so a perception of rights and wrongs (since I say “as a Christian” I should probably back this up with a scripture reference: Romans 2:14-15 cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34) but a general theist might have a different answer to the question.
(I continue my responses, this time to Brent, further down)
Because I’m feeling lazy tonight I’ll just respond to your response and not raise any new points. It may be many weeks before my entire argument sees the light of day 😛
So I feel that while you may not be specifically referring to the Christian God, you are applying some of his characteristics to this general notion of a ‘God’ that you defined in your premise. For instance in this paragraph:
“However, it seems that we can accept the first horn without having the problem of God’s commands being arbitrary: our moral duties arise from commands from an essentially loving and just God.”
How exactly do you ascertain that if a God exists it is Loving and just? The moral argument attempts to prove that a ‘God’ exists but of this ‘God’ we can say only the following: ‘God’ imposes moral obligations on us. There are absolutely no other characteristics that this argument allows us to apply to it, we most certainly cannot say that it is “loving and just”. With this in mind you have not proven that this ‘God’s’ commands are not arbitrary.
To make this more clear a brief example: Having a chaotic neutral God, who chose arbitrary moral obligations to impose on us, would satisfy the premise.
My second objection is to your idea, that if ‘God’ imposes moral obligation on humans, then he must be a personal God. I’d like to re-iterate that all we can say about ‘God’ at this point is that it imposes moral obligations. With that in mind a ‘God’ that satisfies this condition could function as follows:
If sentient life is detected. Assign random moral obligation to it, continue doing this for a while, then stop. (Where does it get these moral obligations? Perhaps some platonic bank filled with them and universal constants :P)
Anyway a ‘God’ defined this way satisfies the above condition, and is not personal. And it is for this reason that I use ‘God’ in quotes. It’s just that this notion of a ‘God’ that this argument derives is radically different from most of the concepts of God that we already have.
With that in mind I’d like to take another crack at redefining the proposition.
1. If an entity doesn’t create moral obligations, then moral obligations do not exist.
2. Moral obligations do exist.
3. Therefore an entity creates moral obligations.
While its not as catchy I believe it to be more accurate.
As an aside I found the moral argument quite interesting, could you recommend a book filled with strong arguments for theism?
It might do us good to reiterate what a sufficient rebuttal to this argument would look like. This might help us to understand the context that the Euthryphro Dilemma is brought up and hopefully you’ll see that I’m not actually attributing these properties to God.
Since the argument is valid (as Brent said, it’s just simple contraposition, or you could say it’s a modus tollens if you want to be fancy) we need to deny one of the premises if we’re going to deny the conclusion.
So what does that look like? What does the opponent of the argument need to show in order to rebut one of the premises?
In order to rebut the first premise you need to either show that (1) if God didn’t exist, we could still ground objective moral duties or (2) even if God did exist, we still couldn’t ground objective moral duties. In the second case you wouldn’t actually rebut the first premise, but you show that theism is equally inadequate to ground objective moral duties as atheism is and so positing God’s existence doesn’t solve anything.
If you take a look at my objections section, 3.1.1-3.1.3 all attempt the first approach. However, 3.1.4 attempts the second approach. By bringing up the Euthryphro dilemma the opponent of the argument attempts to show that even on theism we cannot adequately ground objective moral duties.
To the opponent, having arbitrary morals is inadequate for a moral theory (and I tend to agree) and so he says the first horn of the dilemma isn’t good enough. But we’ve seen that the second horn is also isn’t good enough since it leads to atheistic moral platonism.
So is the theist equally unable to develop an adequate grounding for objective moral duties like his atheist friend? I say no. Either we can (1) “bite the bullet”, as it were, and say that the first horn of the dilemma IS adequate enough or (2) we can show that this dilemma poses no problem for the theist by articulating AT LEAST ONE moral theory in which the theist does ground objective moral duties adequately.
All I’ve done here is go the second route. I’ve done this because I think at least some objective moral duties are necessarily so, meaning I don’t like the first horn of the dilemma. However, there are theists who accept the first horn as adequate and it seems that you have no problem with arbitrary moral duties so this escape is uneccesary. I might’ve been able to give another model where God isn’t essentially good while escaping the arbitrariness objection. So, in principle, I’m not “applying some of his characteristics to this general notion of a ‘God’”.
But let’s say we’ve finished with this argument, agreeing with the conclusion and holding that this God imposes moral obligations on us. The obvious next quesiton is, “how does God ground objective moral duties?” Assuming we think that at least some moral duties aren’t arbitrary, we need a model that adequately answers the question. Say we find this Essential Divine Command Theory to be the best answer to the question (as I do), then on that basis we infer that this model is actually the case.
So the argument might go, more or less, like this:
1. God imposes moral duties on us
2. Only adequate moral theories can be true
3. Essential Divine Command Theory (EDCT) is the only adequate moral theory
4. Therefore, EDCT is true
This is the position in which I stand, personally. Of course, if you deny premise 3. (which I assume YOU do), then you could have your arbitrary commands like the theists I mentioned earlier. I have no problem with that.
But notice that these considerations of which of the moral theories is correct only comes AFTER the conclusion of the original argument. So we needn’t (and in fact I don’t) assume EDCT in the original argument itself. I only use it in response to the Euthryphro Dilemma.
I hope I’ve been clearer here. This is what I was saying in my first response to you. If it’s still not clear, please ask away.
You then say, “My second objection is to your idea, that if ‘God’ imposes moral obligation on humans, then he must be a personal God. I’d like to re-iterate that all we can say about ‘God’ at this point is that it imposes moral obligations. With that in mind a ‘God’ that satisfies this condition could function as follows:
If sentient life is detected. Assign random moral obligation to it, continue doing this for a while, then stop. (Where does it get these moral obligations? Perhaps some platonic bank filled with them and universal constants )”
I agree that all we can say at this point is that God imposes moral duties. But I take it to follow from that statement that God is personal. Why? Well I’ve already answered that question: (1) considering how obligations arise it seems we need a command or will from an qualified authority and only personal beings are capable of commanding and willing and being authorities and (2) Atheistic Moral Platonism or some Platonism where there isn’t any command issued is insufficient to impose moral duties (as explained in my objections section 3.1.3).
In your ‘God’ example you don’t spend much time explaining how the obligations are grounded. But the answer to this question is exactly why I think God must be personal. You do mention a platonic bank in passing, but without interacting with my responses to Atheistic Moral Platonism (which is pretty much what such a view is).
If such a model was sufficient, then you’ve shown my first premise to be wrong, since you’ve given some model where God doesn’t exist and we ground objective moral duties. But in order for you to show such a model is sufficient you need to interact with my defence of the first premise and my objections to Moral Atheistic Platonism. And you’ve done neither.
So I cannot agree that “a ‘God’ defined this way satisfies the above condition, and is not personal.” Since you haven’t dealt with the key issues of the condition.
Finally, I should say what’s needed to show the second premise false (since I’ve been thinking about it recently). Naturally, you need to show that moral duties are not objective. How would you do that? Well, you could start by responding to my two defences.
To respond to 2.2. you need to offer a defeater for our moral perceptions. For example you could try show that our moral perceptions arised SOLELY from society (meaning you’d also need to respond to my responses to this claim). However, in doing so be careful not to assume that moral duties are subjective or that they couldn’t be objective, since both of these begs the question.
But say, somehow, you did offer a defeater for 2.2. You’d still need some positive reason for thinking that moral duties are subjective (or some response to 2.1.) since 2.1. infers what’s called prima facie warrant for believing they’re objective.
As for your last question I could probably mention a few books! But I’d say I like Reasonable Faith (I have the 3rd Edition myself and I linked to the amazon link in the post), by William Lane Craig.
I could also give you a few links of different authors’ articles on the various arguments (by various philosophers) if you’d like that? In the mean time I’d suggest looking at Craig’s website: http://www.reasonablefaith.org
Brent, your response is long and my response is equally so. Maybe we could focus on a single objection and work on that for the sake of space. Anyway, you start off by saying,
“Firstly, Peter’s concerns over the specificity of God in this definition are justified. I feel that in this case we are referring to some kind of sentient/omnipotent/omnipresent singular being. The argument falls apart completely if we are talking about a polytheistic pantheon. Also, it does call into question omnipotence. I do make some further conclusions in my argument about additional properties that assuming the proposition implies. The idea of benevolence is also in question. Essentially, god’s benevolence is necessarily different to human benevolence.”
I think I’ve explained why such concerns are not justified since there is really very little that needs to be assumed about God. I’m not sure why this being need be omnipotent or omnipresent; I certainly didn’t assume anything of the sort. As for the polytheism, the argument is again independent of such considerations. The first premise is “if God doesn’t exist…” but you could equally say “if at least one god doesn’t exist…” but then you’d have to deal with any complications of forming a viable moral theory in the context of polytheism (and good luck with that). However, unless polytheism is required for objective moral duties (which it isn’t) there’s no need to posit multiple gods to ground them. At most this argument shows that one God exists; you’d need some external reason for thinking there are multiple gods, which is out of the scope of this argument. We’ll wait until your arguments before we make comments on benevolence.
“Lastly, I completely agree with Peter’s assessment with respect to the connection between a sentient god and and abstract objective moral duty. I feel that the implication is a bit tenuous for a sentient being. And if an objective moral framework can be proven to exist (which is primarily the subject of my arguments) it doesn’t necessitate a god in any meaningful sense (one could treat them like the physical laws and constants of the universe).”
Right! If the first premise is wrong, then the argument doesn’t work. So with that, let’s get on with your responses. First you complain that my definition of moral values was poor. How might you improve it? I’m always open to helpful advice.
You then reiterate my definition of duty. Except I did not define moral duty like that at all! I’m not sure how carefully you read the post, but I did not define “duty as following the command of some authority”. I thought I was quite clear that by “moral duties” I mean “moral obligations and prohibitions… what we ought and ought not do” (under the heading “Moral Values and Duties”). Now this is the typical understanding of moral duties; we ought do what’s right, we ought not do what’s wrong. I haven’t redefined them in any special way.
So where did my talk of commands and authorities come in? Well, I said that once we reflect on the nature of duties (ie. obligations and prohibitions) in everyday life we realise that “duties arise from commands from competent or qualified authorities.” (1.) Again, I haven’t defined anything here, I just analysed our natural understanding of how obligations and prohibitions arise, which the example of the policeman showed.
With regard to your ‘contradiction’, I admit I should’ve been more specific with my use of the word “objective”. Naturally God’s commands are dependent on what he thinks and are therefore subjective to him. However, they are objectively binding on humans (or whoever the commands were issued to) since they are independent on what we think. The concern in the argument is whether duties are objectively independent of what we think or subjectively dependent on what we think. Thank you for the chance to clarify that. Also, I think the first option you mentioned is just Atheistic Moral Platonism, which I don’t think is viable.
What you move on to say further gives me the impression that you haven’t really read the post. I was quite clear that “this argument is solely about moral ontology, not epistemology.” But the next section in your reply completely ignores moral ontology! Rather, you choose to speak about normative ethics, moral epistemology and moral accountability, none of which is relevant to either premise of the argument. Consider the various conclusions you draw throughout the section:
“Thus any set of laws essentially only exerts significant moral force on a person’s behaviour if they agree with the person’s moral perception enough that they perceive value in them.”
“Thus, a set of laws created by god, are only relevant if there is some kind of punishment for not following them and people know the nature of the punishment. ”
“either god does not want us to follow his laws, or there are no consistent laws, or it is beyond god’s power to communicate clearly with us.”
How do any of these affect the two premises of the argument? None of these shows that “if God doesn’t exist, objective moral duties don’t exist” or “Objective moral duties exist” is wrong. In fact they’re not even aimed at the premises as far as I can tell (despite coming under the heading of objections to premise 1). I can’t help but think that this could’ve been avoided had you heeded my warning at the beginning of the post to “distinguish between moral ontology and moral epistemology”
That said even the considerations you give in support of these conclusions are faulty. I won’t go through all the problems (since these comments are about the post and not some other argument) but I will mention something in response to your second section. Why does God have to ensure we have perfect knowledge of his moral commands? Surely our consciences, as fallible guides, are sufficient. God can hold us accountable based on how each of us has acted according to what we know from our consciences, for example. Furthermore the problem is slightly over-exagerated: apparently anthropologist Clyde Kluckholm has noticed significant common ground in morality amoung cultures: “Every culture has a concept of murder, distinguishing this from execution, killing in war, and other “justifiable homicides.” The notions of incest and other regulations upon sexual behavior, the prohibitions upon untruth under defined circumstances, of restitution and reciprocity, of mutual obligations between parties and children – these and many other moral concepts are altogether universal.” (in “Ethical Relativity: ‘Sic et Non'”, Journal of Philosophy (1955)) Also, disagreement over what is right and wrong no more undermines the existence of objective moral duties than disagreement over the colour of a table undermines its existence.
With that, we move to your objections to the second premise. In your objections to 2.1. you once again betray the possibility that you might not have read my post carefully. You say,
“Firstly, the implications of something (no matter how horrifying or pleasant) have no bearing on the truth of the statement unless they are inherently contradictory to some other tautological statement.”
which is EXACTLY what I say before I offer a reason why this point is still relevant to the argument at hand,
“Some might complain that this doesn’t prove that objective moral duties exist, and they’d be correct. However, I don’t need prove objective moral duties exist to someone who already believes they do. This “thinking through the implications” might show some that they don’t actually believe that moral duties are relative because of how absurd the conclusions of such a position are. In this case, we needn’t show that moral duties are objective.”
I am astounded at what follows. You say, of my “thinking through the implications”, that,
“the implications laid out aren’t particularly logical, so I will address a few points here and provide a naturalistic model which results in the changes we observe in society over time.”
yet you neither tell us why you think the implications are illogical nor do you give us any reason to think that your “naturalistic model” is correct – you just affirm it as your belief. Besides, why not think that people did those things because they felt that humans have inherent moral value and thus have rights? The impression I get from history is that social reform comes about due to peoples belief of inherent, objective human value and that it is wrong to oppress other humans.
Regardless, you give a model of how subjective morals could’ve emerged (although I fail to see any mention of obligation there) but you don’t have anything to say by way of rejecting what I think are the implications of such a view are. So the concerns of this point still stand.
Then you say,
“Secondly, there was a strong implication that questioning a moral convention is as morally wrong as breaking it.”
I’m not sure where you got that from. I certainly didn’t intend to imply that.
Ok, so you didn’t really respond to my first defence. Let’s move to my second defence. The thinking behind this point is that we should be consistent with the way we deal with our perceptions until we’re given some reason not to be. So, since we have this perception of a moral realm we should trust our perception until such time as we’re given a reason not to. We’re not comparing two unrelated things, we’re comparing perceptions and how we deal with them.
The use of anecdotes was simply to make the paragraph a little more readable; it was simply and example, in my experience, of the statement at the beginning of the paragraph. The lack of terminology (of which I don’t there is any) does nothing to the statement. It’s not as if we misunderstand people when they condemn something as wrong or get offended by morally wrong acts. If people really perceived morals as only subjective truths, akin to taste in food or social conventions like which side of the road we drive on, then they wouldn’t get offended by morally wrong acts just like they don’t get offended when someone eats something we don’t personally like, or when someone drives on the other side of the road. These offences serve as evidence that people at least perceive morals as objective (even if, intellectually they don’t want to affirm such duties objectively exist).
You then explain that “The defeater of the perceptions is that while the perceptions don’t agree, we can observe how they arise. They aren’t a first order sense built into us, they are intuitions trained into us.” But this is the genetic fallacy. Just because we know how certain beliefs came to be held doesn’t mean those beliefs are wrong. Also, this assumes that the ONLY REASON we think that objective moral duties exist is because of social conditioning (after all, if we also came to hold such things because of an innate moral perception then we still have reason to infer the existence of objective moral duties). As far as I can tell I’ve responded to this objection in my post (3.3.3 and 3.3.4). Also, be careful of lapsing into moral epistemology again. That our parents teach us what is right and wrong is irrelevant to our having an innate perception that some things are right and wrong.
Also it’s not only on solipsism that we can’t observe our perceptions themselves independent of those perceptions. That’s true regardless of such metaphysical commitments.
You finish with, “One can argue that the social instinct is mostly universal amongst humans, but one cannot argue that that instinct is dependent on god, as it has an obvious evolutionary benefit, and it could hardly be considered a duty as it isn’t defined in any coherent way.” I’m not sure what you mean by this, because any sense I can make of it I’ve already responded to in my post.
Your comments on 3.1.1-3.1.3 do not interact with any of my responses. Also, 3.1.* only deals with the first premise, so they wouldn’t deal with the objectivity of moral duty. When you interact with 3.1.4. you misunderstand the objection and ignore my response. You concern yourself with moral epistemology again and randomly mention our perception of moral duties (which is irrelevant to this objection, since it’s against premise 1).
Then you say, “Lastly, this argument cannot be used in this context. This is a proof of god, if we assume god in order to prove the premise we need to prove god, the argument is completely circular anyway.”
No-one assumed God exists. The objection raised by the Euthryphro dilemma is that even if God did exist we still couldn’t make sense of objective moral duties. So in order to respond to the objection, I need to show that at least one model exists where God exists and we make sense of moral duties.
For 3.3.1. you say, “Agreed, but you end with precisely my point: you cannot infer the existence of moral beliefs by your perceptions of them.” not realising that the very next point responds to this objection.
For 3.3.2. you say, “Yes, all of our perceptions are in a sense incomplete, but morality isn’t a first order perception, it is built by thought and is not an observation.” As far I can tell, through evolution our perceptions are not developed (by observation) for determining truth, so our observations don’t serve to elevate our sensory perceptions. Also, our reasoning faculties don’t develop through observation either, should we not trust them? You don’t respond to any of the responses I made in the post, again.
You say, “Yes, my conclusion would be that our reasoning abilities do fall prey to our moral abilities” but I don’t know who you’re agreeing with because I never said any such thing. My contention was that this objection also raises a defeater for our trust of our reasoning faculties and so is self-defeating.
Now we turn to your final comments. You are quite mistaken in thinking that “this whole argument reduces to whether one can trust a religious text or not” and I think you need to reread the post when you have more time, since your final comments betray even more misreading than can be inferred from your responses. Also you say “If the world without something is completely indistinguishable to the world with something, then it stands to reason that any claim of the existence of that thing, (be it objective morality or god, or an invisible intangible flying spaghetti monster) has the burden of proof” and you can read my response to such “burden of proof” claims in an earlier post. Your final paragraph is as much a red herring as the two General Objections in my post (3.4) so I won’t respond to it.
Sorry if I got a bit short towards the end there. I didn’t mean anything offensively. Replying to such a long message is fatiguing 🙂 Maybe we should keep these shorter, taking a bit at a time. I think Peter’s post is a nice length 🙂
I think perhaps there is a misunderstanding in terms of the crux of my argument. There are tonnes of details to be clarified one way or the other, but lets break things down to the main arguments for now.
First, when discussing models without objective moral duties, there can be no distinction between ontology and epistemology, so to say “oh but your model confuses the two and thus doesn’t count” does not make the model invalid, it makes the model independent of the assumption of objective morals.
What I am primarily trying to achieve is to show that moral epistemology is sufficient to describe all of human moral behaviour. Then, I show that we don’t need an inherent sense to justify our perception of morality. Thus I show that there is no reason to expect Objective Moral Duties to exist, thus begging burden of proof. I would like to add, in response to your citation of common morality as observed by an anthropologist, that all examples cited are within a community and beneficial to the success of a community. This falls in line with an evolutionary model. My model of expanding communities is also a viable explanation showing how moral progress can occur even given a constant and simple evolutionary need to not be shunned.
I then try to lay out some properties of a fair set of Moral Objective Duties, in order to show that if they did exist we would know. I lay these properties out:
1. The duties must be unambiguous (they can still be complex, but they can’t be “up for interpretation” as that would defy the point).
2. The duties must be clearly communicated in some way to those who are expected to abide by them. (at this point I discuss the two ways in which they may have been communicated, then sensory and the explicit, showing that the sensory is neither clear nor necessarily existent even. Thus if this condition is satisfied, then there must be some direct way in which these duties are communicated).
3.a There must be consequences for failing to abide by the duties.
3.b The scale of these consequences must also be communicated to those expected to follow these duties. (The consequences are necessary to provide a non-epistemological moral force).
If some power is creating these moral laws, there is a question as to why they would. If they intend these laws to be followed, and they understand the reasoning of the people who are meant to follow them, then all of the above properties must hold. If the moral duties exist, but the creator of them doesn’t care if they are followed, or sets things up in such a way that they cannot be followed then there is no point in trying to comprehend them, because either there is no consequence, or there is consequence but it is unavoidable. Thus the existence of the laws would have no effect on our lives one way or the other.
I think my difficulty in understanding of your definition of moral duties, comes from the same lack of language that I mentioned later on. You specify that these objective duties are in terms of what morality “ought” to be doing. I interpreted this as some kind of moral force at the time of reading, but am willing to admit that I am mistaken in this regard.
Lastly, very few materialists actually exist (and if they do they are kind of retarded) because materialism denies the existence of physical laws, and so they need to make up all sorts of fringe bs to explain things (like the luminiferous aether). Most modern “materialists” are actually physicalists which allow for physical laws, and if we considered a moral duty as a physical law, then it still circumvents the need for god. Yes, you still have an abstract thing who’s existence needs proof one way or the other, but it shows that there isn’t a necessary logical link between objective morality and god.
Doh, poor editing (my excuse is I haven’t been very well of late and it’s affected my coherence :P). The second last paragraph is mostly to do with the ought in this context requiring a moral force by definition. I do hold that a moral force is necessary to determine whether objective moral duties are meaningful.
Brent, sorry to hear that you’re sick 😦
Anyway, you start by saying, “First, when discussing models without objective moral duties, there can be no distinction between ontology and epistemology, so to say “oh but your model confuses the two and thus doesn’t count” does not make the model invalid, it makes the model independent of the assumption of objective morals.”
In here, I think you betray your key misunderstanding. There is, by definition, a distinction between moral epistemology and moral ontology. Here moral ontology deals with the existence of objective moral duties. It asks the questions “Can objective moral duties be grounded in some atheistic source?” and “Do objective moral duties exist?” Moral epistemology deals with our knowledge of the content of moral duties. It asks questions like “How do we know what these moral duties are?” and “To what extent do we accurately know what our duties are?” Ontology and epistemology (in general and here) ask completely different questions.
Now, clearly, the moral argument in my post is dealing exclusively with moral ontology. If you are responding by answering a question posed in moral epistemology then clearly that answer does nothing to affect the argument. It would be like me asking “do humans exist?” and then your response would be “I can give a model for how we can tell the colour of human hair”. Clearly I can say that answer doesn’t count since it’s irrelevant to the question! And this is exactly what I do when you start raising objections with moral epistemology, since they’re irrelevant to the argument.
We can see this even in this latest response of yours. You say, “What I am primarily trying to achieve is to show that moral epistemology is sufficient to describe all of human moral behaviour.” Of course what we think our moral duties are is sufficient to describe our behaviour! But this is does nothing to either premise of the argument.
I’m not sure what you mean by the next sentence to be entirely honest. My original defence was because we have a perception of the moral realm like we have a perception of the physical realm we should be consistent with the way we deal with our perceptions and trust them until we come up with a defeater for this perception. You have not offered a defeater that hasn’t already been responded to.
As far as I can tell the model that you affirm (without defence) serves to show how we might’ve decided what is right and wrong if objective moral duties didn’t exist. But this neither shows that objective moral duties can be grounded in some atheistic way or that objective moral duties don’t exist. So it doesn’t respond to either of the premises in the argument.
The points you mention next are irrelevant since they deal with moral epistemology, moral accountability, etc. just as I said in my first response. They do not deal with either of the premises (which are, funnily enough, solely about moral ontology) nor any of my defences.
I’m not sure what you mean by a moral force. For all I know you might mean what is meant by “ought”. But I have not used the word “ought” in any special way. It’s analogous to the example of the policeman where you ought listen to him (legally speaking). For example we ought do our obligations and we ought not do our prohibitions.
Lastly, these days people use the term materialist and physicalist interchangeably. Also you can’t just say that moral law is reducible to a physical law and think that’s somehow fixed the problem. I’ve responded to such a “redefinition” approach already (3.1.2). Essentially it doesn’t adequately ground duties since you can’t explain how you get moral obligations from some law (like we were able to explain moral obligations coming from God). However, at least this does attempt to rebut the first premise which concentrates on moral ontology, by trying to give an atheistic grounding for objective moral duties.
Brent, I’ve been thinking about the model you articulated earlier. I’ve been trying to make sense of it and think of how it might act as a response to one of the premises/defences. The best I’ve come up with is that your model shows that “even if objective moral duties didn’t exist, we might still have a perception of the moral realm and thus we can’t trust our moral perceptions.” So construed it forms a defeater for our moral perceptions in 2.2. Is this an accurate understanding of the purpose of your model? If it is I think I have a few points of response.
1. The original defence wasn’t based off the assumption that our perceptions are always accurate. I admit that it is wholly possible that our moral perceptions are mistaken, but until we’re given some reason to think that they are we should trust them just like we do with our sensory perceptions.
2. This also forms a defeater for our belief in the physical realm, since even if the objective world didn’t exist we might still perceive it. It seems possible that we’re all really brains in a vat somewhere and this physical world around us is merely an illusion similar to the matrix. Or you could be the only person in existence and this is all a dream, like inception. Or solipsism could be true for some other reason. In all these cases, while the physical realm isn’t really there we might still perceive it. Now if the mere possibility of our perceptions being wrong meant we couldn’t trust them (as the defeater above assumes) it follows that we couldn’t trust our sensory perceptions either.
I could also make some notes about your model (since I’m not sure it could even get to the point where it’s considered a defeater like the above one):
1. As far as I can tell your model only explains how we might’ve come to believe what is right and wrong (moral epistemology). But it says nothing about why we think some things are actually right or wrong in the first place (moral ontology).
2. Your model says that we associate “right” with “things to do so as not to be shunned by society” and “wrong” similarly. However, in normal human experience we easily distinguish between things that are socially embarrassing from things that are morally wrong. Also, this model has obviously subjective moral duties, but then how did we come to perceive these moral duties as objective?
3. History seems to refute the model. Take Apartheid, for example. The vast majority of South Africans didn’t accept it as morally OK which can be seen by their continued resistance to it. Also at least Martin Luther King Jr., as far as I know, rejected racism in America on moral grounds which were contrary to the social norms at the time.
What is up Roland! So, found this blog and I dig what you’re up to. More people in the world need to evaluate, critically analyse and understand their worldview (whatever it is) so big up.
My biggest issue here is assumption number 1. Because I don’t see how it is true.
What are you using to back up this massive statement?
Also, do you think the lack of universal objective moral duties in ALL people (i.e. the big amoral/ psychopathic people of the day – those lacking a moral code- Stalin etc) negates the argument? i.e. Would God have failed to successfully create a UNIVERSAL moral code in ALL humans? Because then I see it as:
1. If God does not exist, (UNIVERSAL) objective moral duties do not exist.
2. (UNIVERSAL) Objective moral duties do (NOT) exist.
3. Therefore, God (DOES NOT) exists.
Perhaps our moral code is innate, perhaps they have been shaped by the role of those around us – I’m yet to hear of a study in which a baby is allowed to grow up away from any human contact and see if he or she develops the same “objective moral duty”. I don’t know.
What’s your take on Dawkins (and others) who argue that much of the OT is, from an “objective moral duty” viewpoint completely immoral. Murder, Rape, Theft etc. How could a “good” God who created this “objective moral duty” then commit acts of “evil”?
Personally, I would rewrite the argument above as:
1. If God does or does not exist, our society as a whole would have predefined objective moral duties.
2. Our society has predefined objective moral duties.
3. Therefore, God does or does not exist.
Your thoughts, sir. And again, I dig it.
Hey Seth, thanks for the comment 🙂
To be honest I think I’ve answered many of your questions either in the post itself or in the comments.
Consider your question, “What are you using to back up [assumption number 1]?” I defended this in section 1. I guess the most relevant bits of that section would be where I said
“…we can start by asking along with Craig, “if theism is false, then what is the basis for objective moral duties?” This is a good question since on atheism humans aren’t any different, morally speaking, from other animals, and animals don’t have moral obligations to one another. Animals take, they don’t steal; they kill, they don’t murder. It’s not like a lion has done something objectively wrong when it kills its prey.”
“Once we reflect on the nature of duties we soon realise why atheism cannot give us any basis for objective moral duties. Duties arise from commands from a competent or qualified authority…But on atheism, who or what imposes these moral duties on us? There is no universal lawgiver who is a moral authority to command us to do anything, and so there can’t be any moral duties imposed upon us.”
The claim isn’t really THAT massive. If it were I’d imagine it would be trivial to come up with a atheistic grounding for objective moral duties. But I think you’ll quickly realise that that is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
In your next “section” of questions you introduce the idea of “universal”. Now I’m not really sure why you include that word. I mean either you understand “universal” as (1) “absolute, obligatory regardless of the situation” or (2) “obligatory to everyone”. Now I don’t intend to use (1) at all in this dicussion. There are cases in life when we’re only confronted with evil choices. In these cases we would be obliged to make the least evil choice. So I take care to avoid the whole idea of “absolute” duties. But if, by “universal”, you mean (2) I think such an understanding has been implicit in the discussion the whole time: that all human beings (at least) have moral duties.
Regardless, let’s move to your comments. I think you confuse moral epistemology and moral ontology. You can see the distinction in the opening section of the post and in my reply to Brent:
“There is, by definition, a distinction between moral epistemology and moral ontology. Here moral ontology deals with the existence of objective moral duties. It asks the questions “Can objective moral duties be grounded in some atheistic source?” and “Do objective moral duties exist?” Moral epistemology deals with our knowledge of the content of moral duties. It asks questions like “How do we know what these moral duties are?” and “To what extent do we accurately know what our duties are?” Ontology and epistemology (in general and here) ask completely different questions.”
Now when you talk about “moral duties IN people” I can only understand that as you saying “people’s knowledge of their moral duties”. So then your question becomes “If some people don’t have knowledge of their moral duties [or different people don’t agree on what their moral duties are] then does that negate the argument?”. But I’ve already responded to this question in section 2.2 in the post (and further in the comments if you’re willing to read all of them :P)
You see, this argument is concerned with moral ontology, not moral epistemology. I don’t know why we need to presume that God would have to give us all perfect knowledge of our moral duties. Also, as mentioned in the comments, we can have duties without knowing what they are. Furthermore, the argument you give is invalid (ie. the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises). Also, in order to defend your point 2 you’ll need to consider my defense of the existence of objective moral duties and then further provide a defence of the non-existence of objective moral duties (the comments in the paragraph above are concerned with moral epistemology, not moral ontology, and your second premise is about moral ontology, so that paragraph does nothing to support your premise).
The proponent of the moral argument is not forced into any theory of moral epistemology, so your “Perhaps…know” paragraph doesn’t seem to concern this argument.
With regard to your question about Dawkins and co. I’ve already anwsered it in the post (section 3.4.1).
The final argument you give is a completely different argument to the one I’ve given (and defended) in the post. I’m not sure why you’d rewrite it like that at all.
Thanks for the reply!
Perhaps because I was not writing as a proponent of atheism nor an opponent of theism, and perhaps because my intention was not to suggest an alternate argument, you misunderstood me pretty much completely there, but let’s try get in on track!
Your defense of the big, big, big assumption of (1) is: “if theism is false, then what is the basis for objective moral duties?”. How about “I don’t know.” I find it difficult to point it at God’s feet only, because I think there are more factors involved, and I find this argument too simplistic.
Without getting caught up in semantics, which I find a bit exhausting in this subject, perhaps you could simply answer this question.
You use the phenomenon of human morals as proof that a God exists.
If humans lacked a moral code, that would obviously defeat this particular argument, as the premise would be invalid.
So, surely ALL humans have to illustrate the premise for it to be proven? (Otherwise, as I see it, you’d have to define an arbitrary value of moral humans in order to prove sufficient moral prevalence. And that would be problematic.)
Therefore, do you not think that the lack of a moral code illustrated by a number of human beings negates the argument? And I don’t mean those who rape and feel remorse. I mean those who can not comprehend ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Those without a moral code.
If the existence of morals deserves an explanation, then an absence surely should too?
My “perhaps…know” paragraph was an admission that I do not believe that morality is a concrete case on which to build anything, much less the case for a creator, because i believe that morality as a concept has not been explored sufficiently. If there was a child who was raised in an environment without being exposed to any other humans, and who spontaneously developed a complex moral code, more weight could possibly be given to your premise (no 2).
“With regard to your question about Dawkins and co. I’ve already answered it in the post (section 3.4.1).”
You wrote: sufficient answers can be given to such claims against Christianity (hopefully in a later post I will give some) and (3) such an objection only lends further support to the second premise of the argument.
I do not see a sufficient rebuttal in your post. Indeed, you can get away with avoiding the argument by arguing for a non-specific God, which is fine, but that was not my question.
“Also, as mentioned in the comments, we can have duties without knowing what they are.”
I find the whole concept of “unknown morals” a bit crazy. There’s morals, but we don’t know them. So the proof of their existence? But we don’t have to get into that, because overly-theoretical ideas without practical examples make my head hurt.
“The final argument you give is a completely different argument to the one I’ve given (and defended) in the post. I’m not sure why you’d rewrite it like that at all.”
I was simply sharing my position, not to defend it, or to re-write yours. Just to share. Hence “Personally”. Sorry for the confusion.
ps. some of those comments were a bit on the (TL;DR) side of things.
…and that’s why I didn’t read them as much as I could have, before posting.
Hey Seth, sorry for taking so long to reply!
I’m still at a loss as to how the first premise is so big. Like I said in my previous reply to you, “The claim isn’t really THAT massive. If it were I’d imagine it would be trivial to come up with a[n] atheistic grounding for objective moral duties. But I think you’ll quickly realise that that is extremely difficult, if not impossible.” My defense of the premise isn’t to simply ask a question. I quoted entire paragraphs in my last reply to you which contained my defense. The initial question was just to help people think about the premise and the intuition behind it. Once we think about it we realise that on atheism there aren’t any ways to ground objective moral duties because:
(1) On atheism we are no different from other animals and these other animals don’t seem to have objective moral duties
(2) There is no qualified authority to impose moral obligations and prohibitions on us (which is needed, as we realise once we reflect on the nature of obligation)
(Note: these are the TL;DR’s of the two points that come through in the two paragraphs I quoted. Consider going back to the section and rereading it)
You’re concerned because you think there are more factors involved. Would you care to share these factors? I’m not sure what other factors are involved when it comes to this question. We’ve considered the concept of “moral agents” and the nature of obligation and prohibition which seem to be the only relevant topics when it comes to the first premise.
I’m afraid semantics are very important if we’re going to get anywhere. This is why I defined the words I used in the beginning. However, the concepts aren’t too difficult to understand if you think about them for a bit.
You confuse my second premise (“Objective moral duties exist”) with my defence of my second premise. I use the moral perception of human beings as a *defence* that objective moral duties exist. If you defeat my defence, you haven’t thawrted the argument per se, since there could be (and are) other defences for my second premise. You need to give some reason to think that moral duties are subjective if you want us to think so. The subjectivity of moral duties isn’t the default position and I think 2.1. gives us (those who share in these feelings) prima facie warrant for thinking that moral duties are objective.
So, if all humans lacked a moral code (by which I assume you mean “perception of morals”) all that would mean is I couldn’t use my defence to defend the second premise. However, there might be other ways of defending the premise, so we can’t just immediately say the argument is invalid (or, rather, unsound. Since the argument is *valid* regardless of the truth of it’s premises, since its conclusion follows from its premises).
It’s certainly not true that all humans need to have this perception of moral duties (although most of us do). I said as much in my post:
“It also doesn’t matter that some people genuinely don’t perceive this objective moral realm (although I would say if people were honest with themselves we’d have a lot less people claiming this). Just like the existence of blind people doesn’t undermine the existence of the objective physical realm, so these people don’t undermine the existence of the objective moral realm.”
You then ask, “do you not think that the lack of a moral code illustrated by a number of human beings negates the argument?” Clearly my answer is no. Although I must ask where you’ve heard of these people, because I’ve never heard of anyone like this.
You say, “If the existence of morals deserves an explanation, then an absence surely should too?” I’m assuming you’re talking about the people who don’t perceive that there are moral duties. This lack of perception can be explained much the same way we’d explain blind people: malfunctioning faculties.
I should clarify that I haven’t argued for a creator. That’s the conclusion of the cosmological and teleological arguments, not the moral, ontological and other arguments.
I’m not sure how much more you want to explore morality, I mean we’ve been thinking about it and exploring it for at least 2000 years (since Plato and Aristotle). If we can’t make judgements by now, then when? Also, for this argument we only need an understanding of obligation and moral agents, both of which I think we have sufficient understanding (as do a number of philosophers, atheist and theist, some of which appear in William Lane Craig’s article I linked to in the post).
Let’s consider your example of the child being raised in an environment where he (assuming it’s a boy) isn’t exposed to other humans. Now, obviously no-one’s tried this yet (because it’s morally wrong! :)) but I think we can still say some things. Firstly, the first people (who are analogous to this senario) wouldn’t have had other humans to tell them about right and wrong, yet they still developed this moral perception. The same goes for people outside of modern civilised culture. Secondly, I’ve mentioned that no-one needs to teach their child *that* they have moral duties (ontology), they only teach their children *what* their duties are (epistemology). This gives credit to the idea that the perception of moral duties is inherent in us. Thirdly, even if the child didn’t come to think that there are moral duties, this doesn’t undercut the existence of objective moral duties anymore than the child not coming to think they have legal duties (of the country the island belongs to) undercuts the fact that they *do* have legal duties. It would at worst mean that we only properly develop our moral perceptions in a social environment, which is consistent with them being trustworthy.
What would most likely happen (based on the first two notes above) is that the child would perceive he has moral duties, but maybe come to believe that some things that we consider wrong are in fact right, since he’d presumably be less inclined to altruism.
As for your “God of the OT” question. I thought you were asking about there comments with regard to this argument, in which case my first and third notes (in section 3.4.1) are directly applicable. However, I’m assuming (from the fact that you picked on my second note) that you were asking how I respond to such an accusation as a Christian. This isn’t what this argument is about, so I’m not going to respond myself, but I think William Lane Craig (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites and http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-slaughter-of-the-canaanites-re-visited) and Paul Copan (http://www.philchristi.org/library/articles.asp?pid=45&mode=detail) have given pretty good answers to those questions. Maybe give them a read.