March 20, 2010
As I'll be discussing morality and ethics a bit more in-depth over the upcoming weeks, specifically Alonzo Fyfe's desirism, I felt I should share my thoughts concerning morality and ethics as they relate to (a)theism, so people have at least some concrete idea of where I stand. This should make it easier to identify areas of disagreement, and I felt I should begin by explaining exactly what I mean when using the terms objective and subjective morality, since most everything else flows from there.
The terms objective and subjective morality are mutually exclusive in my book: either some objective "source" of morality exists "out there" in the universe or perhaps beyond – or not.
If an objective source of morality such as God or some sort of moral field exists, then we have real-world reason (i.e., something besides individual or group opinion) to ground moral statements, which are essentially answers to "should" questions of any sort.
To aid in understanding what's proven to be an oft-misunderstood phrase, by moral field, I mean something like an undiscovered field in the universe that prefers or selects for specific behaviors over others. If such a field could be accurately identified and understood, we could refer to something besides individual or group opinion when considering any possible "should" questions that might arise. Presuming we can identify the behaviors the field selects for, we can ground any possible "should" statement we might make, for example, "the moral field exerts cellular damage on those who X, so we should not do X," where X represents some behavior. This is what I allude to when using the phrase objective morality.
On the other hand, if there is no objective source of morality, i.e. nothing that prefers or selects for any one behavior over another, then any "should" statement one can make becomes akin to either individual or group opinion, and this is what I mean by subjective morality.
The way I see it, Euthyphro's dilemma arises regardless of the source of our morality. For this reason, invoking the dilemma as an argument against any source of morality is meaningless, because the dilemma applies regardless of the source of our morality. This is because any source of morality that can be established can also be questioned.
I think we can best illustrate this with a short story. Imagine that some squirrels are trying to decide whether or not it's morally good for them to inhabit Farmer Bill's oak tree. Up to this point, every reason the squirrels conceive of points to the answer that yes, inhabiting Farmer Bill's oak tree would fulfill more and stronger desires than it would thwart, such that it would be good for them. Still, just to be sure, the squirrels decide to inquire of the most intelligent and powerful being they know of, the one with ownership rights to the entire property, including the oak tree: Farmer Bill.
Note that by my aforementioned definition of objective morality, Farmer Bill represents an objective source of morality relative to the squirrels, in the sense that he is the source of a moral imperative with real-world consequences that remain in effect regardless of the squirrels' consensus about the matter. That is, if Farmer Bill has an aversion to squirrels in his oak tree such that he shoots them on sight, then all squirrels have real-world reason not to inhabit Farmer Bill's oak tree. In such a case, the squirrels can answer "no" to the question "should we inhabit Farmer Bill's tree" with reference to a real-world reason — outside themselves — as opposed to answering "no" simply because some percentage of squirrels doesn't like oak, or another percentage believes oak offends their religion.
Now here's where things get a bit tricky: even though he represents a source of objective morality relative to the agents — that is, to the squirrels — the same questions apply to Farmer Bill's aversion to squirrels in his oak tree: is Farmer Bill's aversion right because it is right, or because Farmer Bill says it's right? Is there any reason outside Farmer Bill that the squirrels should accept Farmer Bill's aversion as "good" or "right"?
Granted, there might be some real-world reason Farmer Bill has for his apparently intolerant position regarding squirrels in his oak tree, which would seem to make his decision ultimately good. For example, what if the oak tree is scheduled to be uprooted the following week? In such a case, Farmer Bill would actually be acting with the squirrels' best interests in mind — though they certainly might not see it that way.
However, what if Farmer Bill just likes shooting squirrels for no good reason? Then it would seem he's just a sick and twisted farmer who likes killing innocent animals for his own enjoyment.
Unless the squirrels were at least as intelligent as Farmer Bill, how could they know? Where's their moral litmus test?
In this I see a corollary to the "what caused X" line of reasoning often pursued in first-cause discussions: if we say that all things require cause, we entail an infinite regress of causes required. Similarly, if we say that all moral statements require justifications, we entail an infinite regress of justifications required – i.e., Euthyphro's dilemma.
For example, if one group of squirrels says, "we should find another tree because Farmer Bill said so," another group could always counter that Farmer Bill's aversion requires a justification, i.e., "yes, but is Farmer Bill's aversion good because it's good, or because Farmer Bill says it's good? We don't think it's good, so we say screw that old farmer, let's inhabit his oak tree anyways."
The dilemma persists even if Farmer Bill appeals to an objective source of morality to uphold his aversion. For example, perhaps God has ordered Farmer Bill to shoot all squirrels in his oak tree, and God is even willing to unequivocally appear to communicate this message, at dusk for all squirrels to hear. The first group of squirrels might attempt to further justify their own position with something like, "see, it's not just Farmer Bill being a jerk, God actually commanded Farmer Bill to shoot us, so we shouldn't inhabit the oak tree."
Yet still, the dilemma persists, as the second group of squirrels could simply question the source of Farmer Bill's aversion with something like, "yeah, but what makes Farmer Bill's God good? We say screw that Farmer Bill and his God, and let's inhabit the oak tree anyways."
Since it seems undeniable that any source of morality can be questioned, how are we to ground any moral statements that might be made?
While I've got some ideas, for now, I'll just summarize what I see as the salient points from today's post:
1) objective and subjective morality are mutually exclusive;
2) a source of morality is not "good" or "right" just because it's objective relative to the agents;
3) any source of morality can be questioned;
4) per 3, the Euthyphro dilemma arises regardless of the source we attribute morality to, hence it lacks meaning as an argument against any particular source of morality.
Are we on the same page? If not, where do we disagree?