April 18, 2011
Today I’d like to examine three different questions that come up in discussions over so-called “objective” morality, and I’d like to argue that two of them are essentially worthless in terms of answering what most people seem to perceive as the core question.
The first question is, “Why are those values objectively good? Why is X objectively good, as opposed to Y?” I was recently asked this after I had offered, “love, patience, kindness, charity, thanksgiving, honesty” as an approximation of good. While the question carries an air of intellectualism about it, it’s actually quite fruitless. As this atheist commenter aptly illustrates, we can ask “why” in response to seemingly any proposition. For example, 2+2=4. Why? Asking “why” in response to a proposition does not constitute a sound objection to that proposition. Nonetheless, the general answer is simple, perhaps even tautological: why are values X-Y objective? Well, because they meet the definition of objective! It doesn’t get any simpler than that.
The second question is, “Do objective moral values exist?” This frames the question purely in terms of ontology, and we see an example of a rebuttal to this here. The person who asks this question seems to be asking if moral values can exist without a valuer, perhaps as something like Platonic forms. While I don’t think they can, the question is fruitless to what I think most people are after in discussing so-called objective morality. Nonetheless, I agree that if such entities did exist, they would qualify as “objective moral values” in this purest sense of the word. Also, note that the first pseudo-intellectual question could still apply: we could ask “why” these moral entities exist as opposed to some other moral entities, in the same way we can ask “why” electrons exist and not some other elementary particle.
The third question–the one I think the vast majority of people have implicitly in mind when they discuss so-called objective morality–is something along the lines of whether or not moral realism is true. Or, to phrase it another way, whether or not it can be true to say there is something all people should or should not do. I suspect this is the question at the core of the debate over so-called objective morality. I answer yes. I argue that “objective morality” can only exist within a theistic rubric, and I have yet to see a successful refutation of this position. Euthyphro’s horns can only pierce a God capable of whimsical, arbitrary morality.
Along these lines, drj asks:
The only way you can tell anyone what they “ought” to do is to appeal to some value or desire they hold. God-morality can’t even overcome this. What if I truly value hell, more than anything else? Well, then God-morality has nothing to say about what I ought to do. I ought to do what I can to piss God off, so that he throws me in hell.
Of course, on the surface, this seems true. I agree with drj that we must appeal to some value or desire that an agent holds in order for any “ought” to have sway. However, if hell really is the absence of all that entails joy, and the presence of all that entails suffering, it seems silly to suggest that somebody might value that. Somebody might object, noting that there are people who really want to die. This might be true, but why do they want to die? Is it not because they believe death would provide a respite from the privations of life? I have yet to encounter a person who has a fulfilling life and wants to die. My point here is that rejection of objective morality is not refutation of objective morality. You can seemingly always find somebody who wants to buck the norm. This doesn’t mean there’s no norm.
On my question of whether or not atheism is compatible with objective morality, drj writes:
…it should be easy to see how morals can be built on naturalism. If some value exists on naturalism, that is universal, valued above all else, and held by all sentient creatures, then we can similarly have reasons to do X, not Y.
Of course, one can “build” morals on anything. That’s never been denied. The question is whether the morals one builds have truth value outside the scope of the builders. We can “build” morality on the coattails of evolution or utilitarianism or something like that, but this doesn’t mean my statement that “you should do X” has any truth value. Even if all of humanity could agree on a universal morality, this would not make it true or objective in the sense that God-based morality would be true or objective. If every person on Earth said we should all cook meth, does that mean we really should all cook meth?
Heading in a different direction, J. Simonov writes:
If God’s goodness is necessary, rather than arbitrary, you are taking the horn in which God is held to a standard. Necessity is the author of goodness on this account, rather than God as such.
This is incoherent. Like value, what we call “necessity” cannot exist without an agent with a need. Necessity cannot be the author of anything because necessity has no authoring power.
There are many objections to God-based morality, but few that seem to stick.