Can Theistic Morality Be Objective?

Here and here, I argued that Luke Muehlhauser misled the audience at Colorado State University by declaring as subjective a God-based morality William Lane Craig does not actually endorse [a.k.a., refuting a strawman].

Luke’s response was to attack my character by labeling me a troll in his 7-point rejoinder, which I believe I successfully rebutted. Now, instead of responding to that rebuttal, Luke has declared in some sort of odd, melodramatic exit stage left that he’s “finally given up” on me. I won’t tire you with why I think that’s not a move a person with good desires would make. I’d rather dig a little deeper into one of the counterarguments I made in my aforementioned responses.

To clarify that counterargument: as defined by Luke Muehlhauser, objective morality is fully consistent with a morality decreed by the God of the Bible, who is typically described as omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and incorruptible.

Luke of course claims that “God-based morality is a SUBJECTIVE theory of morality, just by definition.” We ought to begin with an obligatory heads-up to two of the biggest troublemakers in moral philosophy: the terms objective and subjective can be tricky words that often convey different concepts for different people, so much so that some [wiser] philosophy professors actually prohibit their freshmen students from using them. So, in the interest of maximum clarity, let Luke explain precisely what they mean in his arguments:

…usually, the phrase “OBJECTIVE moral value” means something like “moral value grounded in something beyond the attitudes of a person or persons.” Right? If what you’re calling “moral value” is just based off somebody’s personal attitudes, that’s called SUBJECTIVE morality. [The Science of Morality: No Gods Required]

Well, God-based morality says there’s this person named God, and whatever he thinks is good, is good! So this is another subjective theory! If God approved of rape, rape would be good. If God approved of racism, racism would be good. God-based morality is a SUBJECTIVE theory of morality, just by definition. [ibid.]

Fortunately, those are pretty clear statements. My only concern is that Luke doesn’t explain what he means by “grounded in.” What does it mean to say that X is “grounded in” Y? In common use, we say a boat has grounded when it ceases to float on water and becomes fastened unto land, right? This would seem to imply that stability need be inherent in any reasonable definition of “grounded in.” To head in a different direction, an electrical engineer might use the term grounded in to denote the reference point in an electrical circuit from which other voltages are measured.

Now that we’ve established some relatively firm goalposts to play with, recall my counterargument: as defined by Luke Muehlhauser, objective morality is fully consistent with a morality decreed by the God of the Bible, who is typically described as omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and incorruptible.

Next, recall that Luke’s definition of objective moral value is, “moral value grounded in something beyond the attitudes of a person or persons.” The key word there is attitudes, and Luke makes clear that he means attitudes of the arbitrary or whimsical variety when he says, “If God approved of rape [and racism], rape [and racism] would be good.” As I’ve said before, I wholeheartedly agree with Luke that this kind of God-based morality cannot rightfully be called objective. However, it is not valid to infer that type of God-based morality from any reasonable exegesis of scripture. As we saw yesterday, the Bible strongly implies that God cannot pronounce moral truths arbitrarily [cf. Hebrews 6:18, 13:8 ]. In other words, the Bible clams that God cannot decide via mere change in attitude that lying – or rape or racism – are suddenly “morally good.”

To further support this, I offer the non-controversial claim that truths or facts about the real world cannot rightfully be described as mere attitudes. As such, if the Bible is true, then God would necessarily retain unbridled access to all truths and facts about the real world, and this would seemingly have to include moral truths and facts. Therefore – and this is where desirism might actually come into play – any decree issue by such a God is necessarily grounded in an empirical, mathematical evaluation of the moral calculus [inviolably executed via God’s omnipotence; correctly determined via God’s omniscience; benevolently motivated via God’s omnibenevelonce, and eternally stable via God’s incorruptibility]. Provided you agree that truths and facts are not equivalent to attitudes, it should be easy to see how a biblical God-based morality cannot rightfully be called subjective by Luke’s definition. New objections may be offered at this point, and I’ll address a few below, but Luke’s claim that “God-based morality is a SUBJECTIVE theory of morality” only applies to the “based-on-God’s-arbitrary-attitude” morality that the Bible denies and Luke wrongly attributed to William Lane Craig.

Now let’s turn to the the corollary question: Can God-based morality as described in the Bible be rightfully called objective by Luke’s definition? I say yes, God-based morality can be rightfully called objective by every sense of Luke’s definition. Other commenters have echoed various iterations of the argument I’m making. In fact, it happened again just a few days ago, and Luke’s most recent response went like this:

I still think God-based morality can be objective. If there is an all-perfect being, wouldn’t he or she know all objective truth, including moral truth? [Jugglable]

But then that’s not God-based morality in the sense I mean it. That’s a theory where morality is grounded in something beyond God, and God is a messenger. [Luke]

Luke’s response to Jugglable is essentially a truncated version of the response he gave me in the thread of his post, Dr. Craig and Objective Morality:

… If God is really a Desirist who just has more epistemic access to moral truth than we do, then Desirism is correct, and God is a messenger of moral value rather than a ground for it… . Such a theory would be as objective as Desirism because it IS Desirism. But I’ve never heard anyone propound such a theory and call it divine command theory. Am I missing something?

Now, about the ellipsis, lest anyone mistake them for an attempt at quote-mining or cherrypicking, I deliberately removed Luke’s remarks about DCT because I am not concerned with addressing the type of DCT Luke argues against, and I provided you with the courtesy of a first-order source. Remember, I’m simply claiming that biblical God-based morality is compatible with Luke’s definition of objective moral value, not that DCT as defined by Luke is objective. Those are two different claims, and I’m unconcerned with the latter because Luke defines DCT as “grounded in the attitudes of God.” That said, the part of Luke’s response that I’m concerned with is, “If God is really a Desirist who just has more epistemic access to moral truth than we do, then Desirism is correct, and God is a messenger of moral value rather than a ground for it[.]”

Objection 1: Is God merely a messenger of moral truths and facts given the God-based morality I offer? Is morality grounded in something besides God in the God-based morality I offer? These questions run corollary to the Euthyphro dilemma, and I believe the answer is no to both of them. In the God-based morality I’m offering, God is first author and then messenger of moral truths and facts. Okay, but when I say “God is first author,” aren’t I faced with the “morality is based on God’s attitudes” objection all over again? In other words, couldn’t God have simply “authored” another morality where things like lying, rape and racism are good? I believe the answer is no, because – if the Bible is true – any decree by God is non-contingent, i.e. necessarily grounded in an empirical, mathematical evaluation of the moral calculus [inviolably executed via God’s omnipotence; correctly determined via God’s omniscience; benevolently motivated via God’s omnibenevelonce, and eternally stable via God’s incorruptibility]. Recall the electrical engineer’s definition of grounded in as denoting the reference point in a circuit from which other voltages are measured. The Bible claims that God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and also that it is impossible for God to lie. Given these statements and a God that is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and incorruptible, it would be 100% correct to describe God as the point in the moral circuit from which all other moralities must be measured. IOW, morality would be grounded in God, not something beyond God, as Luke argues.

Objection 2: Can the God-based morality I offer be rightfully called desirism? Again, I believe the answer is no. The God-based morality I’m offering cannot possibly be desirism, because desirism makes no allowance for “decrees of the Gods.” As Alonzo has said many, many times, and as Luke echoes here, “desirism refers only to things that exist.” Since, according to desirism – in fact, straight from the mouths of Luke and Alonzo – God does not exist, then it is incoherent for Luke to claim that the God-based morality I offer “is desirism.” Further, the desirist definition of a morally good desire as “a desire that tends to fulfill other desires” is incompatible with the God-based morality I offer. No theory grounded in God’s decrees or that denies the desirist defintion of a morally good desire can be rightfully called desirism. It appears to me that Luke is contradicting himself.

In conclusion, I say yes, Luke, you are missing something, in fact a few things:

1) William Lane Craig doesn’t argue the “based-on-God’s-arbitrary-attitude” morality you mistakenly attributed to him;

2) the “based-on-God’s-arbitrary-attitude” morality you mistakenly attributed to William Lane Craig doesn’t flow logically from the Bible;

3) the morality I offer does flow logically from the Bible and is 100% compatible with your definition of objective moral value;

4) the morality I offer cannot possibly be desirism, because no theory grounded in God’s decrees or that denies the desirist defintion of a morally good desire can be rightfully called desirism.

I believe I’ve those claims. What do you think?

10 Comments

  1. bossmanham says:

    Since, according to desirism – in fact, straight from the mouths of Luke and Alonzo – God does not exist…

    Then isn’t desirism just a practice in begging the question?

  2. cl says:

    Yeah but that doesn’t bother them. They feel the evidence is sufficient to “simply assume” that God doesn’t exist. Is it uncannily presumptuous for self-described rationalists with a penchant for hard evidence? I certainly think so, but, if they actually take that sort of reasoning seriously, I don’t know what to say. I’m at the point where I’m done pounding sand. For the most part, at least :)

  3. Garren says:

    Oh great! I tried to cope with the lack of any preview by using angle brackets to quote you. They got interpreted and vanished. I’ll try something else (feel free to delete the failed attempt above.)

    ———————————————————

    … “the terms objective and subjective can be tricky words that often convey different concepts for different people”

    No kidding. Sometimes I’m tempted to treat them under an expressivist theory.

    … “The key word there is attitudes, and Luke makes clear that he means attitudes of the arbitrary or whimsical variety when he says”

    Not necessarily. If moral truths are constituted by attitudes, the attitudes in question doesn’t have to be variable. Constant attitudes would simply produce constant moral truths.

    A divine attitude theorist about morality might go ahead and embrace Luke’s characterization of “subjective morality,” so long as it’s made clear this is a special case of subjective morality which does not in fact change.

    … “To further support this, I offer the non-controversial claim that truths or facts about the real world cannot rightfully be described as mere attitudes.”

    Not all facts are attitudes, but some attitudes constitute facts. “Pumpkin pie is Mary’s favorite dessert” is a fact just in the case Mary has a particular attitude toward pumpkin pie. The question is whether “Rape is wrong” is a fact just in the case God has a particular attitude toward rape.

    … “wrongly attributed to William Lane Craig.”

    Doesn’t Craig follow Robert Adams’ view in which “X is the right thing to do” is true when:

    1. X is a good thing to do.
    2. X is commanded by God.

    This is an interesting combination because divine attitude is necessary but not sufficient to constitute deontic truths. I’m not arguing here. I just want to make sure we’re on the same page about what Craig and Adams are claiming.

    … “In other words, couldn’t God have simply “authored” another morality where things like lying, rape and racism are good? I believe the answer is no, because – if the Bible is true – any decree by God is non-contingent, i.e. necessarily grounded in an empirical, mathematical evaluation of the moral calculus”

    Are you suggesting moral truths are like — or are perhaps constituted by — pure reason?

  4. cl says:

    Garren,

    The key word there is attitudes, and Luke makes clear that he means attitudes of the arbitrary or whimsical variety when he says… [cl]

    Not necessarily. If moral truths are constituted by attitudes, the attitudes in question don’t have to be variable. Constant attitudes would simply produce constant moral truths.

    Well, in programming, constants *are* variable, *and* they produce constant “truth”. That an attitude might be “constant” is no guarantee that it is not of the arbitrary, whimsical or variable. That is to say, a constant attitude that “rape is bad” could have been a constant attitude that “rape is good.” In that sense, constant != non-contingent: If the same God could have said either that “rape is good” or that “rape is bad,” then we are talking about a morality based on arbitrary, whimsical, variable attitudes. These could still be constant attitudes. It would just be the case that God establishes morality like a programmer establishes a constant variable: it can take any legal value, but, once declared, it can only contain the initialized value [unless of course you change it again]. That would still qualify as subjective morality, because the God in question could “simply choose” whether rape is good or rape is bad. IOW, the prescriptions would be contingent.

    However, if the same God could *only* say that “rape is good” or “rape is bad,” then we are talking about a God with fixed moral attitudes. Prescriptions would be non-contingent. The latter is what I argue.

    AFAICS, the only way it could “not necessarily” be the case that Luke is talking about arbitrary or whimsical attitudes is if Luke meant to imply the latter. I don’t think he did, but I really don’t care at this point.

    To further support this, I offer the non-controversial claim that truths or facts about the real world cannot rightfully be described as mere attitudes. [cl]

    Not all facts are attitudes, but some attitudes constitute facts. “Pumpkin pie is Mary’s favorite dessert” is a fact just in the case Mary has a particular attitude toward pumpkin pie.

    That was exactly the subject matter of the other post you commented on [Surviving Philosophy: Objective and Subjective].

    [pauses]

    Okay – to argue hypothetically against myself here – what if we say, “It’s a fact that God approves of child rape?” Then, God’s pro-child-rape attitude would be based on a fact [the fact that God approves of child-rape]. God’s pro-child-rape attitude would also be based on an objective truth [that God approves of child-rape is as objectively true and “true for everyone” as Jan likes chocolate ice cream]. The question becomes, “Are there parameters that even God must abide by? Or, could God simply declare as moral whatever God wishes?” I argue that there are parameters, and the parameters flow logically from God’s nature.

    Doesn’t Craig follow Robert Adams’ view in which “X is the right thing to do” is true when:

    1. X is a good thing to do.
    2. X is commanded by God.

    I believe so. Then again, I’m not a WLC expert. All I’m positive of is that WLC would not agree to Luke’s caricature of DCT as, “If God liked rape, then rape would be good.”

    Are you suggesting moral truths are like — or are perhaps constituted by — pure reason?

    Possibly, but I have no idea what baggage any of those words entail from your angle. I believe something like desirism is true, in the sense that I believe God takes human desires into consideration. One important difference is in the authority. With “atheist desirism,” there is none, hence, no real knowledge can flow from the theory. However, with “theist desirism,” we actually have an authority that can make reliable, accurate prescriptions.

  5. honeyspider says:

    Okay, CL. Let’s follow your argument for a while and see where it takes us. For the moment I am happy to stipulate the following:

    1.) God exists.

    2.) God has the four essential properties that you ascribe to him: omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and uncorruptibility.
    3.) Goodness is defined by God’s essential nature.

    4.) Moral duties are defined as God’s commandments to humanity.

    5.) God’s commandments to humanity flow necessarily from his essential nature, which is good by definition.

    Now, please tell me if I have mischaracterized the particular version of DCT that you and Craig espouse. If I have not, then how do you get from those five stipulated facts to “child rape is wrong”, or any other particular moral prohibition or obligation? Where is the bridge?

    How do we detect and verify God’s commandments? How do we detect and verify God’s nature? You claim that God is good and good is God. This is, of course, circular. So, how do you break out of this circle to get to particular prescriptions for human behavior?

    If you are willing to take up this challenge, pick any particular moral prescription (you can use child rape if you want or anything else) and show the specific logical steps that take you from the five stipulated facts outlined above to the particular prescription of your choice. If you require additional premises, please state them explicitly.

    If I have mischaracterized DCT in the five facts I listed above, please correct my misunderstanding, but answer the same challenge: identify the axioms that must be assumed to be true under DCT and then show how you get from those axioms to a particular moral prescription for human behavior.

    Thanks for considering it. I look forward to your reply.

  6. cl says:

    honeyspider,

    Now, please tell me if I have mischaracterized the particular version of DCT that you and Craig espouse.

    Well, omnibenevolence was one of my four qualities, and you left that out, so… I’d say we’re at least a little bit mischaracterized already. Also, leave Craig out of it. I’m not sure if our ideas match up enough to be lumped together.

    …how do you get from those five stipulated facts to “child rape is wrong”, or any other particular moral prohibition or obligation? Where is the bridge?

    Child rape is malevolent, not benevolent–therefore wrong. We were created by God, to do that which is good, not rape children–or write bad checks, or steal from one another, or kill one another, or get so wasted we can’t fulfill our duties to one another… that sort of thing.

  7. honeyspider says:

    Dear CL,

    Thank you. You have both answered my question and also fallen into the trap that I set for you. The trap was fairly simple. I suspected that you couldn’t build a bridge from the facts I stipulated to specific prescriptions without adding an assumption that would make God’s existence unnecessary. Your assumption of omnibenevolence does exactly that.

    Let’s add a sixth stipulation:

    6.) God is omnibenevolent.

    This, of course, is where all the substance lies. According to dictionary.com, “benevolent” means “desiring to help others”.

    If God is omnibenevolent, he must desire to help humanity to survive and flourish. Since God is omniscient, he must know which moral commands would in fact help humanity to do this. Therefore, God must issue commands that, if obeyed, would in fact help humanity survive and flourish.

    If this is the case, then we can just define morality as “that which facilitates human flourishing”, the way Sam Harris does, and cut out the middle man. “That which facilitates human flourishing” is something that can be objectively investigated and discovered using the methods of science, and it’s something that everyone, atheists and theists of all denominations, can agree on.

    Thus, God’s existence becomes an extraneous assumption. This not only violates Occam’s Razor, it is also deeply dangerous. By adding the thoroughly unnecessary God assumption, you’re essentially telling atheists they should ignore morality entirely, and you give theists a green light to misinterpret the voices in their heads’ as commands from God, which can lead to all sorts of evil behavior.

    In fact, defining morality in a way that depends on the existence of a being whose existence and nature are disputed, when an alternative definition gives you the exact same practical conclusions, is almost certainly not conducive to human flourishing as it creates countless opportunities for unnecessary and often violent conflict. As such, it seems that one of the first commands issued by an omniscient, omnibenevolent being, if such a being existed, would be to not define morality in a way that depended on its existence.

    Have I missed something?

  8. cl says:

    honeyspider,

    Oh my! You got me in this ingenious and clever trap! What ever will I do!?

    Have I missed something?

    Yeah, quite a bit actually. Although, here’s where I more or less agree:

    If God is omnibenevolent, he must desire to help humanity to survive and flourish. Since God is omniscient, he must know which moral commands would in fact help humanity to do this. Therefore, God must issue commands that, if obeyed, would in fact help humanity survive and flourish.

    …and here’s where you start to drop the ball again:

    If this is the case, then we can just define morality as “that which facilitates human flourishing”, the way Sam Harris does, and cut out the middle man.

    Ha! And you fault me for making assumptions? Eh, okay…

    “That which facilitates human flourishing” is something that can be objectively investigated and discovered using the methods of science,

    Well sure, in the fallible, “success by repeated failure” type of approach that is science. Of course, this method’s been attempted. Ever heard of eugenics?

    …and it’s something that everyone, atheists and theists of all denominations, can agree on.

    Tell that to Alonzo Fyfe, and everyone else who disagrees with Sam Harris.

    Thus, God’s existence becomes an extraneous assumption.

    Sure, if you just wish to posit an infinite causal regress or something out of nothing.

    This not only violates Occam’s Razor…

    Don’t be silly.

    By adding the thoroughly unnecessary God assumption, you’re essentially telling atheists they should ignore morality entirely, and you give theists a green light to misinterpret the voices in their heads’ as commands from God,

    Slippery slope fallacy, perfectly executed. Hopefully you can understand why I’m not persuaded–but I doubt it.

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