Epistemological issues in the moral argument

I am a proponent of a moral argument, taken from William Lane Craig, given in the following form:

  1. If God doesn’t exist, then objective moral values and duties don’t exist
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist
  3. Therefore, God exists

I’ve had a number of previous posts here dealing with specific details of this argument’s defence. Here I wish to discuss a defence of the second premise that goes like this:

  1. In the absence of any defeaters, we are rationally compelled to trust the deliverances of our various faculties
  2. In our moral experience we perceive objective moral duties and values
  3. We have no defeater for these deliverances of our moral faculty
  4. Therefore, we are rationally compelled to believe in objective moral duties and values

Clearly, this argument falls in the realm of epistemology. Perhaps it will be helpful to clarify a few terms for those who aren’t familiar with them.

Faculties

First, some examples of the various faculties we have are our five senses, inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, abductive reasoning[1], memory, and our moral sense. I suppose I should probably explain those three reasoning faculties a little more. Deductive reasoning uses principles of logic that seem to be objectively binding, like the principle of excluded middle (for any proposition A, A is either true or false), the principle of non-contradiction (for any proposition A, it is not possible for both A and not-A to be true at the same time), the validity of certain reasoning schemes (like, if A entails B, and A is true, then B is true), and so on. Our deductive reasoning faculty is that part of us that perceives that certain principles are true and others false, how to apply these general principles to specific examples, and so on. For example, I hope that everyone reading this will see that the examples I gave of logical principles are self-evidently true[2].

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Derivative Divine Command Theory

While I was having a discussion in the comments here it dawned on me that I might’ve stumbled upon a novel Divine Command Theory (DCT). Before I get there I should probably give a brief description of what a DCT is. DCT is a meta-ethical theory that seeks to ground our moral duties in the commands of God. To ground our duties involves giving a basis for them. So when asked, “why ought I be loving to my neighbour” the divine command theorist will answer, “because God has commanded that you ought be loving to your neighbour”.

This isn’t just a silly case of “because God said so”, for it properly applies how we see duties arise elsewhere to our moral duties: duties arise from commands from qualified authorities. To ground this intuition for you take an example of legal duties. If you’re driving your car down the road and a random person tells you to pull over to the side, you have no obligation to do so. In this case, you have a command, but no authority. Now if a policeman tells you to pull your car over, then you have a legal obligation to do so. This is because the policeman is a legal authority, so in this case you have a command and an authority.

Euthyphro and Essentialism

Now the divine command theorist will say that God is a qualified moral authority (reasons for are discussed later) and so his commands issue moral duties binding on us. Almost certainly, when one starts talking about DCT someone in the discussion is going to bring up the Euthyphro Dilemma. This dilemma arises from one of the Socratic Dialogues written by Plato (it’s called “Euthyphro”, if you were interested), in which Socrates asks Euthyphro, “Is something right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right?”[1]

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Piracy and moral duties

I had a thought the other day. We have legal duties to our government who are established as qualified legal authorities by us voting them in. When it comes to piracy it seems many people apply the following premise to make themselves feel better:
  1. If I can’t see why a certain law exists or don’t agree with a certain law, then it is fine for me to ignore the duties established by that law.
Now it clearly seems that we would disagree with this in cases like murder or rape, so why the restricted application?
One possible answer is that legal duties like murder and rape have moral duty counterparts, and so we have additional reason to obey those duties. But if one doesn’t think that there are any objective moral duties, such a move isn’t available.

We could, however, look to some objective fact for a differentiator, such as those duties that lead to the flourishing of human life or the survival of the fittest. But in the absence of objective moral duties why choose that fact over any other? What’s to stop one from picking the duties that lead to the most pain for others?

Is there an alternative to (1) that I’m unaware of, or a better reason for the restricted application of it?

Outrage, praise and empathy

I often defend the following formulation of the moral argument (taken from William Lane Craig):

1. If God doesn’t exist, then objective moral duties don’t exist
2. Objective moral duties do exist
3. Therefore, God exists

In defence of premise (2) I usually offer the following three points:

2.1. If objective moral duties don’t exist, then everything is permissible. But some things are not permissible.
2.2. If objective moral duties don’t exist, then moral outrage and praise is irrational. But they aren’t irrational.
2.3. We are rationally compelled to trust our perceptions until we are given a defeater for them. Since we perceive an objective moral realm and no defeater has been given, we are rationally compelled to trust our perceptions and so believe the existence of objective moral duties.

Now I’m not going to spend this post trying to defend all of this. I’ve tried in a previous post to defend 1, 2.1 and 2.3, so I thought I’d spend some time on 2.2 here.

So, what do I mean by the term “moral outrage”? In all honesty I don’t have a reductive analysis of it, but I think we all have an intuition for what I mean. Consider the following examples of moral outrage and praise:

  1. The daughter of two parents is raped and killed, and so they are outraged at the rapist when they come face to face with him.
  2. A gay pride stand is maliciously burnt to the ground as an act of homophobia, and onlookers are outraged at the people who did it.
  3. A group of people risk their lives to stop the oppression of women in a country, and they are praised because of it.
  4. A man stops another man from being shot by jumping in the way of the bullet and is praised for saving him at the cost of his own life.

These kind of situations are commonplace in normal life. They might not always be as extreme (sometimes we’re outraged at people because they are insensitive, arrogant or insulting and sometimes we praise people when they are selfless even when it doesn’t burden them all that much) but I think we can distinguish this outrage/praise from other forms. For example, with moral outrage we aren’t outraged at the effectiveness of the action. If I’m working with someone who is incompetent, I am outraged at their inefficiency. This outrage, I think, is better understood as irritation anyway. I can’t think of other kinds of outrage, but I’m sure there are others. I think if we keep a clear idea of the outrage and praise seen in the examples above we should be fine 🙂

Of Pens and Pain

Now, I hope most people would agree that the people in examples 1-4 are rational in their outrage or praise. But why? For the person who affirms the existence of objective moral duties we can quite easily see why: we are outraged at people who do what they ought not do and we praise those people who go beyond their duties[1]. So, the rapist in example 1 ought not have raped that girl and in doing so he has primarily wronged her and secondarily wronged the people who loved her dearly (such as her parents). It is wrong that he raped her and we are rationally compelled to be outraged at his actions because of it.

But suppose we deny the existence of objective moral duties.Read More »

Which Came First: Right or Law?

I was thinking about the law today, as people do, and I was wondering which of the following two categories serves to ground the other:

  1. Inherent human rights, value or dignity (we’ll just call this “value”)
  2. Human duties or law (we’ll just call this “law”)

By “duties” I mean [legal, moral and/or parental] obligations (what we “ought” do) and prohibitions (what we “ought not” do).

For example, consider the following questions and their plausible answers if value grounds law:

  • “Why shouldn’t we murder?” “Because human life is inherently valuable”
  • “Why should we have freedom of speech?” “Because humans have dignity and therefore deserve to have their opinions heard”
Alternatively, if you thought that duty grounds value then the questions and answers look something like this:
  • “Why is human life valuable?” “Because we have laws that preserve it”
  • “Why do humans have dignity?” “Because their opinions are protected by law”