Objective Morality: Clarifying The Questions

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.

29 Comments

  1. dguller says:

    cl:

    >> The first question is, “Why are those values objectively good? Why is X objectively good, as opposed to Y?”

    Personally, I think that the vast majority of human beings, with the exception of the mentally ill, for example, would agree upon a common list of values, and the fact of that agreement is good evidence of its objectivity. However, where people differ is in respect to the ranking of those values, which varies from individual to individual, and from time to time, place to place, and context to context.

    For example, we all agree that preserving and maintaining the health of the community is a value, but we also agree that preserving and maintaining the health of myself is also a value. Occasionally, these two values clash, such as when I must sacrifice my personal health for the health of the community, or vice versa. There is no contradiction in values, but only in ranking.

    As for the question of “why” those values are valuable, then I would just say that the rejection of those values altogether would result in total and utter chaos, and thus they are essential to maintaining both our individual and collective well-being in general. It is like the values of objectivity, following the evidence, maintaining consistency, and so on, which are essential to any kind of inquiry. To reject them is to make genuine inquiry impossible, because it would be plagued by prizing personal opinion, avoiding evidence, contradicting oneself, and so on. Similarly, our moral values are just essential for us to interact with one another in any beneficial way at all.

    >> The second question is, “Do objective moral values exist?”

    I agree with you. If human beings never existed, then moral values would not exist at all. They are utterly dependent upon us for their existence. It is like currency. Currency is not an objective part of the universe that would exist without human beings. It is utterly dependent upon our existence for its existence, but that does not mean that it is a haphazard practice without any objective rules. There are rules, but they depend upon our agreement, which depends upon our underlying set of capacities and dispositions, which are sufficiently stable to allow social rules and practices to develop in the first place.

    >> 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.

    Here I disagree. There is no single act that everyone should do in all contexts and situations. It all depends. Something that must be done in one context would be horrific in another. Personally, I dislike such absolute claims that are supposed to hold in ALL contexts. Wittgenstein opened my eyes to the fact that often “it depends”, and it depends upon on a number of usually unspoken assumptions. I think that the best that we can do is to determine that if most people did X under similar circumstances, then the outcome for themselves and the community would be better than if they did Y.

    >> Euthyphro’s horns can only pierce a God capable of whimsical, arbitrary morality.

    And some would argue that the classical God of theism falls upon neither horn of Euthyphro’s dilemma, because there is no distinction between God and goodness. In other words, there is a strict identity relationship between God and goodness, and thus there is no either-or at all, because Euthyphro’s dilemma depends upon there being a distinction between God and Goodness, which according to Aquinas is incoherent.

    >> My point here is that rejection of objective morality is not refutation ofobjective morality. You can seemingly always find somebody who wants to buck the norm. This doesn’t mean there’s no norm.

    True, and an excellent point.

    >> 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 make we really should all cook meth?

    A lot to unpack here.

    First, why does moral truth have to exist independently of the builders? Does currency and economics have to exist independent of individuals in a market economy for them to be true?

    Second, your hypothetical is ridiculous. If every person on earth agreed to become addicted to meth, then humanity would quickly perish. Evolution necessitates that overall there must be sufficient survivability in a population for it to persist, and so any trait that was completely counter-productive in a population in an environment would be selected out over time.

  2. cl says:

    dguller,

    Personally, I think that the vast majority of human beings, with the exception of the mentally ill, for example, would agree upon a common list of values, and the fact of that agreement is good evidence of its objectivity.

    Surely you’re not suggesting that agreement authors fact, right? Since you’re an atheist, you surely don’t mean objectivity in the sense of external decrees from God, right? So, objectivity in what sense?

    I don’t know if you ever saw it this, but it might shed some light on how I use these words.

    For example, we all agree that preserving and maintaining the health of the community is a value, but we also agree that preserving and maintaining the health of myself is also a value. Occasionally, these two values clash, such as when I must sacrifice my personal health for the health of the community, or vice versa. There is no contradiction in values, but only in ranking.

    Well-said. I agree.

    As for the question of “why” those values are valuable, then I would just say that the rejection of those values altogether would result in total and utter chaos, and thus they are essential to maintaining both our individual and collective well-being in general.

    I take a colder approach. I’d say those values are valuable because and only because agents who value them exist.

    If human beings never existed, then moral values would not exist at all.

    I don’t think that’s true. If no sentient beings existed, then, yeah, I’d say this is probably true–and note this is not the type of claim that relies on science and evidence for its truth.

    There are rules, but they depend upon our agreement, which depends upon our underlying set of capacities and dispositions, which are sufficiently stable to allow social rules and practices to develop in the first place.

    Surely you would admit that these “human rules” are arbitrary, though, right?

    Here I disagree. There is no single act that everyone should do in all contexts and situations. It all depends. Something that must be done in one context would be horrific in another. Personally, I dislike such absolute claims that are supposed to hold in ALL contexts. Wittgenstein opened my eyes to the fact that often “it depends”, and it depends upon on a number of usually unspoken assumptions. I think that the best that we can do is to determine that if most people did X under similar circumstances, then the outcome for themselves and the community would be better than if they did Y.

    I think you might be thinking I meant something I didn’t. I generally eschew questions of the variety, “Is X wrong?” in favor of questions of the variety, “When is X wrong?” Normally, I consider killing another human wrong. Yet, there are instances where I believe one can be justified in killing another human being.

    And some would argue that the classical God of theism falls upon neither horn of Euthyphro’s dilemma, because there is no distinction between God and goodness. In other words, there is a strict identity relationship between God and goodness, and thus there is no either-or at all, because Euthyphro’s dilemma depends upon there being a distinction between God and Goodness, which according to Aquinas is incoherent.

    I’m in that camp. Are there any refutations that you find persuasive? If so, point ’em out. I haven’t been able to find anything that sticks.

    First, why does moral truth have to exist independently of the builders?

    For the same reason natural laws have to exist independently–because humans don’t author facts by mere agreement [of course, except for trivial instances, i.e., we authored the fact of WWII because we made it happen]. We don’t author “natural laws” by agreement. If we all agreed that there were no oceans on Earth, this wouldn’t change the fact of oceans on Earth. So, IF objective morality exists, it does not exist because we agreed it into existence.

    If every person on earth agreed to become addicted to meth, then humanity would quickly perish.

    Not if they used in moderation and led otherwise healthy lives, right? Regardless, my hypothetical was meant to be ridiculous, and I’d say very strong arguments can be made that humanity perishing would be a good thing, in the context of all sentient creatures and the Earth. I’d say ask all the other species we’ve wiped out, but their voices have been forever silenced by our desires for convenience and comfort.

  3. dguller says:

    cl:

    >> Surely you’re not suggesting that agreement authors fact, right?

    When it comes to describing the subjective experience of human beings, then human agreement of what that experience is like does determine the fact of the matter. Where else would it come from? So, specifically with this case, if human beings agree with a specific set of values, then it is a fact that those values hold for all human beings, and that is sufficient to demonstrate their objectivity, especially if it can be shown why human beings have those values to begin with, whether due to neurobiological pathways, evolutionary history, and so on.

    >> Since you’re an atheist, you surely don’t mean objectivity in the sense of external decrees from God, right? So, objectivity in what sense?

    No, I do not. Objective in the sense that it is a preference that is limited by a variety of factors, and is not open to my personal whim and fancy. Take currency, for example. A dollar has a particular value, not because the dollar is tapping into a deep metaphysical principle of the universe, but by virtue of human agreement, and that once this agreement occurs, due to a variety of historical and current factors, no-one can just reject its value for their own personal preference without suffering legal consequences.

    >> I take a colder approach. I’d say those values are valuable because and only because agents who value them exist.

    Yes, but our values do not exist in a vacuum, but are likely byproducts of a long evolutionary history. A fascinating approach to this question is that valuing is actually something present in even single celled organisms. You can clearly see this by virtue of a prokaryote’s behavior that there are some things that it approaches as valuable and other things that is avoids as harmful. That is based upon its underlying biological value of maintaining its life by balancing its homeostasis, according to its genetic blueprint. And it is from this primitive and mundane foundation that our complex valuing mechanisms evolved, and it is easy to look out our sophisticating appraisal systems, but forget their more mundane origins.

    So, we have the values that we do, because we are part of a long history of biological organisms valuing the maintenance of their structural and functional integrity, and that we value those things that do the same for us. There is even evidence that our emotions and feelings of pleasure and pain are simply subjective registers of whether our bodies are maintaining themselves within the optimal range of homeostatic balance, or are falling out of such a range. If you are interested in a fascinating book on the subject, then I recommend Antonio Damasio’s “Self Comes to Mind” (2010) where he defends this thesis well.

    >> I don’t think that’s true. If no sentient beings existed, then, yeah, I’d say this is probably true–and note this is not the type of claim that relies on science and evidence for its truth.

    Fair enough. You are correct that even other primates appear to have values, and based upon what I wrote above, any living thing can be conceived of having values, even though they may be unable to be aware of even having them at all due to an insufficiently developed nervous system. However, the basic point remains. Without living organisms that are constituted by underlying value systems, there would be no values in the universe.

    >> Surely you would admit that these “human rules” are arbitrary, though, right?

    Ahh. Here we get into a fascinating set of ideas. They are arbitrary in the sense that at their origins, there may have been a number of possible alternative ways to go, but once they were started, they developed a degree of inertia that became impossible to overcome, and the fact that they were so incredibly fruitful and useful, made it even more impossible to reject them. And these rules are consistent with our underlying set of natural dispositions and capacities, which provide a set of limiting factors that any set of practices must be consistent with. This is all consistent with a thorough evolutionary account of life on this planet, because these rules are common to all life forms.

    >> I think you might be thinking I meant something I didn’t. I generally eschew questions of the variety, “Is X wrong?” in favor of questions of the variety, “When is X wrong?” Normally, I consider killing another human wrong. Yet, there are instances where I believe one can be justified in killing another human being.

    Sorry. You wrote: “whether or not it can be true to say there is something all people should or should not do”. I thought that is what you meant.

    >> I’m in that camp. Are there any refutations that you find persuasive? If so, point ‘em out. I haven’t been able to find anything that sticks.

    Feser’s book on Aquinas was absolutely a delight to read, and I found most of his reasoning compelling and very difficult to argue with (but I tried!). However, when it comes to determining the properties and qualities of God, I think that the case becomes weaker. I’d have to revisit my marked-up version of the book to give you details, but I recall that it was in that area that things just got suspicious for me.

    >> For the same reason natural laws have to exist independently–because humans don’t author facts by mere agreement [of course, except for trivial instances, i.e., we authored the fact of WWII because we made it happen]. We don’t author “natural laws” by agreement. If we all agreed that there were no oceans on Earth, this wouldn’t change the fact of oceans on Earth. So, IF objective morality exists, it does not exist because we agreed it into existence.

    Fair enough. I would only add that our systems of morality are a complex combination of our underlying biology and psychology, and subsequent social agreements and broader culture, which ultimately affected our underlying psychology, as well, resulting in a feedback loop of some sort. So, the issue is very complex, because there are aspects of morality that exist by virtue of our underlying nature, and there are other aspects of morality that exist by virtue of arbitrary agreements that have the benefit of inertia and pragmatic usefulness, and these two aspects feed off one another to the point that there is no clear cut division at all. I doubt that we will be able to tease things apart at this time, and thus are stuck with this mess.

    >> Not if they used in moderation and led otherwise healthy lives, right? Regardless, my hypothetical was meant to be ridiculous, and I’d say very strong arguments can be made that humanity perishing would be a good thing, in the context of all sentient creatures and the Earth. I’d say ask all the other species we’ve wiped out, but their voices have been forever silenced by our desires for convenience and comfort.

    Those are all fair points, and I am happy that you agree that your example is ridiculous, and thus should be replaced by something more persuasive. I think that you have a good point to make, but are going about it in the wrong way, maybe. I think that better evidence of your point comes from our collective incapacity to restrain our desires for the sake of counteracting global warming. This is an excellent example of humanity engaging in an act of collective madness, agreeing to engage in behavior that will ultimately destroy our existence itself, which is similar to your meth example.

    However, I think that it fails to make your point, which was that morality cannot possibly be due to collective agreement alone, which I was not saying at all. Remember, I believe that our agreement upon moral rules and practices is built upon a variety of dispositions and capacities that are rooted in our evolutionary history. So, there is more to it than just a bunch of people randomly deciding upon something at some point in time. I think it is more likely that morality emerged without explicit conscious reflection at all, which occurred centuries later. Instead, it was a byproduct of our evolution of mirror neurons, empathy, and other psychological capacities that made social cohesion possible at all, and the activation of disgust by socially inappropriate behavior simply increased group cohesion.

  4. cl says:

    …if human beings agree with a specific set of values, then it is a fact that those values hold for all human beings, and that is sufficient to demonstrate their objectivity…

    I disagree. This was the point of the “ocean” question. If all humans agreed the ocean didn’t exist, this would not be sufficient to demonstrate the objectivity–the objective veracity–of that claim.

    Objective in the sense that it is a preference that is limited by a variety of factors, and is not open to my personal whim and fancy.

    It is open to your personal whim and fancy. If there is no God who decreed that stealing is wrong, you are free to decide that stealing is right. How can someone prove you wrong? The most they can do is say, “I disagree.”

    Without living organisms that are constituted by underlying value systems, there would be no values in the universe.

    I’ve always agreed with those who say that value cannot exist without a valuer.

    You wrote: “whether or not it can be true to say there is something all people should or should not do”. I thought that is what you meant.

    I meant it in an “all else being equal” sense. For example, I will say that unjustified killing is always wrong, as opposed to, “killing is always wrong.”

    Feser’s book on Aquinas was absolutely a delight to read, and I found most of his reasoning compelling and very difficult to argue with (but I tried!).

    So isn’t that at least a chink in your atheist / materialist armor? Isn’t that at least good preliminary justification for belief in the God of the Bible?

    As a bit of backstory, I used to deny Aristotle’s argument which Aquinas extends, just a few short years ago. Today, it’s one of the few arguments I consider, ahem… conclusive.

    I doubt that we will be able to tease things apart at this time, and thus are stuck with this mess.

    I agree. That’s why I think the Strawson discussion hits a wall. We need a correct, complete ontology first. The catch is, we can never know if we have one. It’s hard being small-minded humans in such a big universe!

    Those are all fair points, and I am happy that you agree that your example is ridiculous, and thus should be replaced by something more persuasive.

    That’s just it: its ridiculousness is its persuasiveness. Obviously, we cannot agree our way to objective moral truth. The meth example illustrates this perfectly.

    I think that better evidence of your point comes from our collective incapacity to restrain our desires for the sake of counteracting global warming.

    That’s a good example, too. Although, I would replace “incapacity” with “unwillingness.” We are most certainly capable of restraining our desires for the sake of counteracting global warming, and indeed, many already have [to varying degrees, of course].

    This is an excellent example of humanity engaging in an act of collective madness, agreeing to engage in behavior that will ultimately destroy our existence itself, which is similar to your meth example.

    I agree. Could this have happened without science?

    I think that it fails to make your point, which was that morality cannot possibly be due to collective agreement alone, which I was not saying at all.

    Well, now I’m confused: so, do you or do you not hold your opening position that, “…if human beings agree with a specific set of values, then it is a fact that those values hold for all human beings, and that is sufficient to demonstrate their objectivity…?” This seems to be an affirmation of the claim that we can agree our way to objective morality.

  5. dguller says:

    cl:

    >> I disagree. This was the point of the “ocean” question. If all humans agreed the ocean didn’t exist, this would not be sufficient to demonstrate the objectivity–the objective veracity–of that claim.

    Yes, but you are comparing apples and oranges. The ocean would exist with its full properties independent of the existence of human beings. Our morality is not the same thing at all, and its existence and properties are fundamentally dependent upon human beings and their underlying nature and psychologies.

    >> It is open to your personal whim and fancy. If there is no God who decreed that stealing is wrong, you are free to decide that stealing is right. How can someone prove you wrong? The most they can do is say, “I disagree.”

    No, it isn’t. At this point in our civilization, if I suddenly decided to steal, then I would be arrested and put in jail for it. There are other factors that have come into existence that are highly resistant to change. I would have to convince the majority of those in my community that theft is a good thing that they should all do, and once that happens, then a variety of effects would occur that would ultimately destroy the community itself. Look at any stable society, and find me one that permitted free and unlimited theft with no restrictions. Remember, by virtue of our underlying dispositions and capacities, which are a byproduct of our biological and cultural evolution, we are operating under a number of limitations that cannot be casually disregarded, except by philosophical thought experiments, which are utterly divorced from reality.

    >> I meant it in an “all else being equal” sense. For example, I will say that unjustified killing is always wrong, as opposed to, “killing is always wrong.”

    Thanks for clarifying. That makes a lot more sense.

    >> So isn’t that at least a chink in your atheist / materialist armor? Isn’t that at least good preliminary justification for belief in the God of the Bible?

    No. It is good preliminary justification for theism, which would be consistent with the Qur’an, the Vedas, the Bible, and any other religion that posits a single fundamental reality from which everything else that exists is derived from.

    >> As a bit of backstory, I used to deny Aristotle’s argument which Aquinas extends, just a few short years ago. Today, it’s one of the few arguments I consider, ahem… conclusive.

    Agreed. The first three ways are conclusive to me, and I am unsure about the fourth, but I have my doubts about the fifth way, because it introduces elements of human consciousness that I am unsure has metaphysical and cosmic importance.

    >> I agree. That’s why I think the Strawson discussion hits a wall. We need a correct, complete ontology first. The catch is, we can never know if we have one. It’s hard being small-minded humans in such a big universe!
    Fair enough, but if you buy into Aquinas’ arguments, as you seem to, then you also presuppose the veracity of the underlying metaphysical system, which involves necessary causation, and the necessity of an external cause to convert potential to actualization, and that would have to include the will. I know that Aquinas does not conclude this, because he includes the will with the intellect as being part of the immaterial mind, but this is arbitrary, I think.

    >> That’s just it: its ridiculousness is its persuasiveness. Obviously, we cannot agree our way to objective moral truth. The meth example illustrates this perfectly.

    No, it does not. You are assuming that you could have a sustainable community of individuals who agreed in advance that meth use is a valuable activity. Perhaps this would be possible with various constraints and regulations to control its use, in the same way as alcohol is controlled, for example. In that sense, your example fails, because there is a clear situation where a mind-altering substance that can be quite destructive when used excessively has been accepted by the general consensus of society. Is it moral to use alcohol? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no, and society has generally endorsed the idea that moderate use is a positive thing, and excessive use requires rehabilitation services.

    >> I agree. Could this have happened without science?

    Nope, it could not. As you rightly pointed out, science has both positive and negative aspects, and it is an open question whether it is a net positive or net negative activity. However, I believe that this has less to do with science itself, and more to do with human frailty and selfishness, which is what has destructive potential. But I suppose that one could make the same argument about guns, which in and of themselves are harmless, but in the hands of fallible and foolish human beings, become very dangerous. The solution is not to abolish science, or to prohibit firearms, but rather to regulate and contain them as best that we can. And remember, science is ultimately just a tool for knowledge about the world, the best one we have, in fact, and thus if one believes that science is a net negative, then one also concludes that knowledge is a net negative, which means that ignorance is a net positive. That is very disturbing to me, but I will admit that it is a possibility that only time will tell is true.

    >> Well, now I’m confused: so, do you or do you not hold your opening position that, “…if human beings agree with a specific set of values, then it is a fact that those values hold for all human beings, and that is sufficient to demonstrate their objectivity…?” This seems to be an affirmation of the claim that we can agree our way to objective morality.

    Yup, but our agreement is a consequence of the fact that certain values are better than others in terms of increasing our subjective and objective well-being. I kept trying to mention that our agreement is conditional upon underlying shared dispositions and capacities that are a consequence of our biological and cultural evolutionary history, which is the true foundation of morality, and the ground of its objectivity. In other words, given how we operate in the world, there are better and worse ways of living, which means that there are better and worse values, much as there are better and worse treatments for medical illnesses.

  6. J. Simonov says:

    cl;

    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.

    Could you please clarify why you believe it is a brute fact that the aforementioned qualities are objectively good?

    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.

    I was referring to necessity in the sense of “something that cannot fail to be true”. If you want to assert that God’s goodness is not arbitrary, you are claiming that it must be a certain way in order to be good…that it could not be other than it is. That has nothing to with agents or their needs.

    Additionally, if the use of the word “author” is unacceptable to you, then disregard it as a figure of speech. Necessity would be the source of goodness, if you prefer.

  7. cl says:

    dguller,

    Yes, but you are comparing apples and oranges. The ocean would exist with its full properties independent of the existence of human beings. Our morality is not the same thing at all, and its existence and properties are fundamentally dependent upon human beings and their underlying nature and psychologies.

    True, but you seem to echo my point, and I’m still not sure if/where we disagree. Since our morality IS dependent on our attitudes / nature / psychology / etc., then it CANNOT be objective in the same way the existence of the ocean is–at least, not without God. Now, I understand why many people object here. They think, “How does invoking God solve the problem?” and this is where I think the first and second questions tend to get conflated. A God who decreed morality for humans would certainly qualify as objective morality. However, this can’t prevent people from continuing to ask questions of the variant, “Well, why are those values objective?” IOW, people often ask that but really mean something like, “Well, why are love, goodness, charity [etc.] the moral good?”

    No, it isn’t. At this point in our civilization, if I suddenly decided to steal, then I would be arrested and put in jail for it.

    It is. That you can be jailed for stealing does not mean “thou shalt not steal” is engraved within the fabric of the universe of the minds of human beings, unless a God exists who imposed such a command on us via His sovereignty. Without that, morality remains subject to personal whim. Moral claims reduce to variants of “I prefer X,” as opposed to “X is true.” That the majority can inflict their will upon you for breaking their rules does not make their rules objective.

    …and once that happens, then a variety of effects would occur that would ultimately destroy the community itself.

    I think that might be an instance of the slippery slope fallacy. There are societies who have abandoned property rights and flourished.

    Look at any stable society, and find me one that permitted free and unlimited theft with no restrictions.

    You mean a society that pools all their resources and shares? They exist. Like consentual rape, the concept of “permitting theft” is self-refuting. If you permit it, it’s not theft.

    It is good preliminary justification for theism, which would be consistent with the Qur’an, the Vedas, the Bible, and any other religion that posits a single fundamental reality from which everything else that exists is derived from.

    Yet, it directly challenges materialism. That’s what I’m getting at. Those arguments are good preliminary justification for abandoning atheist materialism.

    Fair enough, but if you buy into Aquinas’ arguments, as you seem to, then you also presuppose the veracity of the underlying metaphysical system, which involves necessary causation, and the necessity of an external cause to convert potential to actualization, and that would have to include the will. I know that Aquinas does not conclude this, because he includes the will with the intellect as being part of the immaterial mind, but this is arbitrary, I think.

    I’m not super-big on Aquinas to be honest. I think Aristotle nailed it the first time around, but I’ve never undertaken a detailed comparison of their arguments.

    No, it does not.

    I think you’re mistaken. The meth example illustrates that we can’t suddenly make meth use “objectively good” just because we all agree that it’s good. The negative ramifications you allude to reinforce that point.

    As you rightly pointed out, science has both positive and negative aspects, and it is an open question whether it is a net positive or net negative activity.

    Really? On my view, science has done far more damage to the planet and all species than meth, no doubt about it. Tweekers are often a nasty bunch, but they don’t threaten our future existence.

    …if one believes that science is a net negative, then one also concludes that knowledge is a net negative, which means that ignorance is a net positive.

    I don’t think that’s correct. One can believe that science is a net negative without believing that knowledge is a net negative, or that ignorance is a net positive.

    In other words, given how we operate in the world, there are better and worse ways of living, which means that there are better and worse values, much as there are better and worse treatments for medical illnesses.

    I agree with this, but it strays from my interest in this discussion. On atheism, there is nothing to ground morality. It’s just a big set of preferences that may or may not work for everybody. There’s nothing you can use to justify a moral claim, other than appeal to values which people may or may not share.

  8. cl says:

    J. Simonov,

    Well well… good to see you outside the context of CSA.

    Could you please clarify why you believe it is a brute fact that the aforementioned qualities are objectively good?

    Because I believe they are non-contingent properties of a non-contingent God. IF that’s true, THEN we have qualities that can be legitimately referred to as objective qualities.

    I was referring to necessity in the sense of “something that cannot fail to be true”. If you want to assert that God’s goodness is not arbitrary, you are claiming that it must be a certain way in order to be good…that it could not be other than it is. That has nothing to with agents or their needs.

    Necessity has everything to do with agents and their needs. If I posit non-contingent properties of a non-contingent God, it is inaccurate to say that “Necessity is the author of goodness on this account,” because necessity cannot author anything. It is also inaccurate to say I take the horn in which God is held to a standard. I argue that God is the standard.

    Necessity would be the source of goodness, if you prefer.

    Actually, God would be the source of goodness. That’s how I run it, at least.

  9. J. Simonov says:

    cl;

    Well well… good to see you outside the context of CSA.

    I kind of wish you had stuck around.

    Because I believe they are non-contingent properties of a non-contingent God.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this another way of saying that you think it’s a brute fact because it’s a brute fact?

    Necessity has everything to do with agents and their needs.

    Really. Well…dandy?

    If I posit non-contingent properties of a non-contingent God, it is inaccurate to say that “Necessity is the author of goodness on this account,” because necessity cannot author anything.

    If the properties just can’t be any other way in order to be called “good”, if logic or metaphysics or what have you necessitate that they be that way for the “good” label to stick, then God’s volition does not enter into an account of why the properties are that way. Necessity is the ultimate reason for said properties, and I don’t know why you don’t see this.

    It is also inaccurate to say I take the horn in which God is held to a standard. I argue that God is the standard.

    You do indeed argue that, but then you contradict yourself trying to explain why, if I’ve read you correctly. You think the facts regarding God’s goodness are necessarily true. Whether you realize it or not, you are holding God to a standard when you say “His goodness can’t be anything other than X, Y and Z”.

    Actually, God would be the source of goodness. That’s how I run it, at least.

    For no discernible reason as far I can tell.

  10. dguller says:

    cl:

    >> True, but you seem to echo my point, and I’m still not sure if/where we disagree. Since our morality IS dependent on our attitudes / nature / psychology / etc., then it CANNOT be objective in the same way the existence of the ocean is–at least, not without God.

    I wonder why we need morality to be objective in the same way that the existence of the ocean is objective? Do we also need economics to be that objective? What about chess? I think that there are a number of human activities that fall short of your standard of objectivity, but that it does not follow that there is total chaos or a free-for-all subjectivity. There are limits and rules that have to be followed and they are bounded by human nature in many respects.

    >> It is. That you can be jailed for stealing does not mean “thou shalt not steal” is engraved within the fabric of the universe of the minds of human beings, unless a God exists who imposed such a command on us via His sovereignty. Without that, morality remains subject to personal whim. Moral claims reduce to variants of “I prefer X,” as opposed to “X is true.” That the majority can inflict their will upon you for breaking their rules does not make their rules objective.

    That is my point. I do not think that “thou shalt not steal” must be engraved in the fabric of the universe in order to be a true and useful principle to guide our social organizations. Again, the fact is that there are features of human nature that ultimately delimit what kinds of human organizations are feasible, and a society founded upon cruelty, lying, hate, fear, and so on, ultimately become self-defeating and unstable. Is it any wonder that the societies that happen to be stable and survive are those that exhibit certain general characteristics that can be construed as a system of morality?

    >> I think that might be an instance of the slippery slope fallacy. There are societies who have abandoned property rights and flourished.

    Right, but did they wholesale abandon the majority of what we consider to be values? The way that I conceive of values is akin to variables in a mathematical equation of the sort W = ax + by + cz, where W is well-being and x, y and z are values and a, b and c are different weights for the different values. I can conceive of a number of different values of those variables where a high degree of well-being can be achieved. In other words, there is no single set of values that necessarily brings well-being to people, and as Harris says, there may be multiple peaks in the moral landscape.

    >> You mean a society that pools all their resources and shares? They exist. Like consentual rape, the concept of “permitting theft” is self-refuting. If you permit it, it’s not theft.

    Obviously I am not talking about sharing. As you mentioned, if one gives permission, then it is not theft. I am talking about theft, i.e. the taking of property without the consent of the owner. A society based upon theft, and not some redefinition of theft, will ultimately fail.

    >> Yet, it directly challenges materialism. That’s what I’m getting at. Those arguments are good preliminary justification for abandoning atheist materialism.

    Only if the fundamental substrate of the universe is a personal God or some sort. If it is similar to Spinoza’s substance, then that is no danger to atheistic materialism at all.

    >> I’m not super-big on Aquinas to be honest. I think Aristotle nailed it the first time around, but I’ve never undertaken a detailed comparison of their arguments.

    I really think you should read Feser’s “Aquinas”. It is great. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

    >> I think you’re mistaken. The meth example illustrates that we can’t suddenly make meth use “objectively good” just because we all agree that it’s good. The negative ramifications you allude to reinforce that point.

    I suppose that the question is why there is human agreement upon the range of human values, even if the ranking is the source of disagreement. I think that it is because a combination of human nature and culture have shown throughout our history that those are qualities that facilitate human flourishing and well-being, and that those who actualize the majority of those values actually appear to have a greater degree of well-being than others, and thus are to be emulated. None of this requires that morality be as objective as the existence of the ocean.

    >> Really? On my view, science has done far more damage to the planet and all species than meth, no doubt about it. Tweekers are often a nasty bunch, but they don’t threaten our future existence.

    If you really believe that science is a net evil, then why do you use the fruits of its discoveries? That is like using Hitler’s cutlery to eat your food with.

    >> I don’t think that’s correct. One can believe that science is a net negative without believing that knowledge is a net negative, or that ignorance is a net positive.

    How so? Science is just a methodological and rigorous way to discover knowledge about the world. It is a tool, nothing more, nothing less. You cannot object to the tool, but only to what the tool is being used for, and if you object to science, then you object to knowledge, because that is its purpose. I mean, if you felt that knowledge was a net good, then wouldn’t you also support the use of the most successful tool to acquire knowledge?

    >> I agree with this, but it strays from my interest in this discussion. On atheism, there is nothing to ground morality. It’s just a big set of preferences that may or may not work for everybody. There’s nothing you can use to justify a moral claim, other than appeal to values which people may or may not share.

    What grounds morality is human beings, which are delimited by aspects of their nature, and necessary rules for social order, cohesion and well-being. We cannot just do anything and still maximize well-being, individual and social.

  11. cl says:

    J. Simonov,

    I kind of wish you had stuck around.

    I didn’t leave. I intend to go back and catch up with it. I just don’t dedicate as much time there anymore.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this another way of saying that you think it’s a brute fact because it’s a brute fact?

    Pretty much. You asked why I thought those values were objectively good. I’m saying because I believe they meet the definition of objective. If I believe we were created by God, and I believe that God created us with inherent acknowledgment of the good, it is consistent for me to believe this is an instance of objective morality.

    Necessity is the ultimate reason for said properties, and I don’t know why you don’t see this.

    Because it’s not. Necessity is an abstract concept. God would be the reason for the properties.

    Whether you realize it or not, you are holding God to a standard when you say “His goodness can’t be anything other than X, Y and Z”.

    You could be right. Thing is, you can’t just assert it, at least, not if you want me to take your objection seriously. I’m not holding God to a standard. I’m claiming that objective morality = being held to God’s standard. Huge difference. If you think otherwise, lay it out so I can see it.

  12. J. Simonov says:

    cl;

    You asked why I thought those values were objectively good. I’m saying because I believe they meet the definition of objective.

    Oh your God. I have to laugh a little at this point. I think you mean well, but you have to realize how vacuous this is, surely. You keep explaining circular statements with more circular statements.

    Because it’s not. Necessity is an abstract concept. God would be the reason for the properties.

    I realize that the order of causality does not run from abstractions to reality, but rather the reverse. The thing is, if necessity as an abstract concept describes a necessary state of affairs, the fact that they are necessary is the reason that they take the form that they do. If God can’t make them otherwise, then he has no control over them, and is not responsible for them in any meaningful sense (especially if you also want to claim that they’re brute facts). If I remember rightly, this is a point that you have no trouble grasping when the subject is determinism and free will; people who can’t choose other than they must don’t really have freedom of action, correct?

    You could be right. Thing is, you can’t just assert it, at least, not if you want me to take your objection seriously. I’m not holding God to a standard. I’m claiming that objective morality = being held to God’s standard. Huge difference. If you think otherwise, lay it out so I can see it.

    OK, let’s say someone comes along and claims that being capriciously cruel is objectively moral because God wills it, or it’s in his nature, or what have you. You then retort “God cannot be cruel. It is impossible for him to have that trait, because the definition of goodness cannot include cruelty”. You have laid out a standard, and held God to it.

  13. dguller says:

    cl:

    >> I’m not holding God to a standard. I’m claiming that objective morality = being held to God’s standard. Huge difference. If you think otherwise, lay it out so I can see it.

    Sorry to jump in, but this stuck out for me. There are two aspects to this identity relationship, (1) “objective morality”, and (2) “God’s standard”. My question is how do you know what counts as (1) and what counts as (2)?

    I would presume that (2) is derived from religious texts, but there are a number of problems with (2), some of which include the fact that religious texts are notoriously contradictory and inconsistent in terms of the moral precepts they endorse, and they are ultimately shrouded in mystery regarding their origins, and thus their authenticity is very difficult to establish.

    With regards to the first issue, one would have to bring in (1) to decide which moral precepts to follow in religious texts to begin with, which means that there is something above (2) that we refer to. With regards to the second, it is difficult to know what (2) is at all.

    Any thoughts?

  14. cl says:

    J. Simonov,

    Where is the contradiction? Where have I said X, but also ~X?

    Oh your God. I have to laugh a little at this point. I think you mean well, but you have to realize how vacuous this is, surely. You keep explaining circular statements with more circular statements.

    Didn’t you already say I’d abated the circularity charge, here?

    The thing is, if necessity as an abstract concept describes a necessary state of affairs, the fact that they are necessary is the reason that they take the form that they do.

    I don’t think that’s the case. If something is the way it is because it is non-contingent, the buck stops there. That thing is the way it is because that’s the way it is. It’s not circular so much as linear, the end point of a terminus, so to speak. I think human beings just have a very difficult time accepting the fact that causal sequences can have a terminus.

    If I remember rightly, this is a point that you have no trouble grasping when the subject is determinism and free will; people who can’t choose other than they must don’t really have freedom of action, correct?

    Correct, and in a very real sense, God apparently lacks “absolute” freedom of action. If what the Bible says is true–for example that it is impossible for God to lie–then God is not “absolutely” free.

    OK, let’s say someone comes along and claims that being capriciously cruel is objectively moral because God wills it, or it’s in his nature, or what have you. You then retort “God cannot be cruel. It is impossible for him to have that trait, because the definition of goodness cannot include cruelty”. You have laid out a standard, and held God to it.

    I don’t think that’s the case. If I were to say “the definition of goodness cannot include cruelty,” I would be making a statement based on my own moral intuition about whether or not cruelty and goodness seem compatible, to me.

    It seems your missing my point entirely, so let’s back it up, outside the context of “good” whatsoever: I argue that the moral decrees of a Creator would qualify as objective moral decrees, and further, that this would hold even if those moral decrees conflicted with our moral intuitions. Do we have complete agreement there?

  15. dguller says:

    cl:

    >> I argue that the moral decrees of a Creator would qualify as objective moral decrees, and further, that this would hold even if those moral decrees conflicted with our moral intuitions. Do we have complete agreement there?

    First, I think that a Creator could not possibly know what it is like to be a subjective human being. He would have to BE a human being with conscious awareness in order to know pleasure and pain, as we experience them. Without this knowledge, he may believe that a particular course of action is moral when it actually is completely immoral by virtue of its impact upon sentient beings, such as ourselves. I mean, how could a Creator know the pain of having his heart broken unless he had an identical consciousness as we do? And without a knowledge of pain, how can one have any sense of what is a moral transgression and what is not?

    Second, you are assuming that the Creator is a moral being himself. How do you know this? What if the Creator is actually quite immoral and a prankster who is lying to us for his own sick amusement? What if our moral intuitions are actually correct, and the spiritual test is to see if we will follow our hearts and not the Creator’s commands?

    Third, even if the Creator was genuinely moral and offered moral teachings, then how could you know what these teachings are?

  16. drj says:

    Cl wrote:

    >>>> 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.

    ME:

    So someone ought to avoid hell because ultimately it will lead to immense suffering, and the total absence of joy. So you seem to agree, that its just silly to question why someone should desire something so contrary to their well-being? If so, we’re pretty darn close to Sam Harris’ neighborhood now. Your biggest disagreement here might simply be over the empirical question, “Does hell actually exist?”

    Cl wrote:

    >>>> 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?

    ME:

    If by “outside the scope of the builders”, you mean something like “outside their personal opinions (which are often wrong)”, then yes – this sort of naturalistic moral view can surely give us true prescriptions.

    Now if “outside the scope of the builders” excludes any and all facts about the nature of the builders, then no. No moral theory could offer true prescriptions. Think about it.. if human nature was so elastic, and could be truly constituted in such a way, as to get lasting and genuine fulfillment and well-being from eternity in hell, what kinds of moral prescriptions could Yahweh possibly give that would be binding on such people? None.

    But of course, our nature is such that to be tortured for eternity is not something that can result in genuine well-being. So the fact that hell is universally “bad”, is ultimately bound to fixed traits of human nature, not moral prescriptions of Yahweh.

  17. cl says:

    Hey drj. Good to hear from you outside CSA. I was wondering, is it “Doctor J?”

    So you seem to agree, that its just silly to question why someone should desire something so contrary to their well-being? If so, we’re pretty darn close to Sam Harris’ neighborhood now.

    What do you mean “now?” I’ve always thought Harris’ criterion was more or less on the mark. I think he does a far better job than Luke and Alonzo Fyfe, who offer a completely circular definition of moral good: “desires that tend to fulfill other desires.” At least Harris plants a stake.

    If by “outside the scope of the builders”, you mean something like “outside their personal opinions (which are often wrong)”, then yes – this sort of naturalistic moral view can surely give us true prescriptions.

    How so? How are you defining “true” there?

    …if human nature was so elastic, and could be truly constituted in such a way, as to get lasting and genuine fulfillment and well-being from eternity in hell, what kinds of moral prescriptions could Yahweh possibly give that would be binding on such people? None.

    I agree, and I have a question. When you said,

    Now if “outside the scope of the builders” excludes any and all facts about the nature of the builders, then no. No moral theory could offer true prescriptions.

    …how are you defining “true” there?

    So the fact that hell is universally “bad”, is ultimately bound to fixed traits of human nature, not moral prescriptions of Yahweh.

    I don’t think we can divorce one from the other, but this isn’t a disagreement per se, just a different way of looking at it. On my view, hell would still be “bad” even if humans were never created, and spiritual entities were all that existed.

    dguller,

    I notice you ducked the question:

    I argue that the moral decrees of a Creator would qualify as objective moral decrees, and further, that this would hold even if those moral decrees conflicted with our moral intuitions. Do we have complete agreement there?

  18. drj says:

    By true prescription, I simply mean “we can tell someone what they should to do, and be right about it”. And what I generally think it means to tell someone what they “should” do, and be right about it, is that there is an objective, rational, reason (above all others) to act in a certain way. And you seem to agree, that this is really what most people are after, when they say “objective morality”.

    I guess I just don’t see what your particular disagreement is about the existence of true prescriptions on naturalism.

    And yea, its doctor j… but that’s just a nickname, not a real title.

  19. cl says:

    drj,

    What does it mean to say that a reason is “objective?” Aren’t reasons subjective, in that they are inextricably intertwined with desires?

    By true prescription, I simply mean “we can tell someone what they should to do, and be right about it”.

    If you just mean that a “true” prescription is one that fulfills the desire in question, then this would seem to put you more in the desirist camp, which means no… we do not agree. Hitler had reasons for killing Jews. Apparently, he really believed he was doing the world a service, in the same way the philanthropist really believes they are doing the world a service.

    I guess I just don’t see what your particular disagreement is about the existence of true prescriptions on naturalism.

    On naturalism, “true” prescriptions seemingly reduce to preference-based pragmatism. Sure, it is “true” that killing Jews allowed Hitler to fulfill his desires. However, was it “true” that Hitler should have killed Jews? I don’t see how naturalistic morality can offer any meaningful answer to the latter question. After all, you said the only way we can make a “true” prescription is in response to some value or desire an agent holds, right? So why wouldn’t the prescription “Hitler should kill Jews” be true?

    On your definition, that Hitler should kill Jews seemingly becomes a “true” prescription, and that’s the line of thinking I’m objecting to. Under naturalism, there’s no ultimate authority to appeal to.

  20. J. Simonov says:

    cl;

    Where is the contradiction? Where have I said X, but also ~X.

    I believe it to be occurring when you claim not to be holding God to a standard, and then hold him to a standard.

    Didn’t you already say I’d abated the circularity charge, here?

    Indeed, appealing to brute facts will let you do that, but now the circular statements are back it seems.

    I don’t think that’s the case. If something is the way it is because it is non-contingent, the buck stops there. That thing is the way it is because that’s the way it is.

    Right, except the word I am using is necessary, not “non-contingent”, as in “it is that way because it must be that way”.

    Correct, and in a very real sense, God apparently lacks “absolute” freedom of action. If what the Bible says is true–for example that it is impossible for God to lie–then God is not “absolutely” free.

    On that we are agreed.

    I don’t think that’s the case. If I were to say “the definition of goodness cannot include cruelty,” I would be making a statement based on my own moral intuition about whether or not cruelty and goodness seem compatible, to me.

    I don’t understand if this is supposed to be an appeal to moral relativism or to the limits of epistemology. Either way, I don’t see what difference it makes.

    It seems your missing my point entirely, so let’s back it up, outside the context of “good” whatsoever: I argue that the moral decrees of a Creator would qualify as objective moral decrees, and further, that this would hold even if those moral decrees conflicted with our moral intuitions. Do we have complete agreement there?

    No, I don’t see why that would necessarily be the case.

  21. cl says:

    J. Simonov,

    I believe it to be occurring when you claim not to be holding God to a standard, and then hold him to a standard.

    How am I doing that if I argue that God IS the standard? It seems to me that you want to invent something above and beyond God that doesn’t exist on my view.

    Indeed, appealing to brute facts will let you do that, but now the circular statements are back it seems.

    For example?

    Right, except the word I am using is necessary, not “non-contingent”, as in “it is that way because it must be that way”.

    What’s the difference, and how does it change anything in our discussion?

    I don’t understand if this is supposed to be an appeal to moral relativism or to the limits of epistemology. Either way, I don’t see what difference it makes.

    It’s definitely not an appeal to moral relativism, as I don’t endorse that position. As for the difference it makes, you’re claiming that I hold God to a standard when I evaluate the compatibility between cruelty and good. I don’t think that’s the case.

    No, I don’t see why that would necessarily be the case.

    Maybe the problem is semantic. How do you define an objective moral decree?

  22. dguller says:

    cl:

    >> I argue that the moral decrees of a Creator would qualify as objective moral decrees, and further, that this would hold even if those moral decrees conflicted with our moral intuitions. Do we have complete agreement there?

    I made three points regarding this claim on April 20 at 5:26 PM, and have not “ducked” it at all.

  23. cl says:

    dguller,

    I read those points. Not one of them answers the ontological question I asked.

  24. drj says:

    >>>>” What does it mean to say that a reason is “objective?” Aren’t reasons subjective, in that they are inextricably intertwined with desires?”

    Please refer back to the quote of mine in the OP:

    “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.”

    (Note: I use desire/value interchangeably)

    So yes, reasons are subjective and bound up by desires. But what if a desire is universal? It would be objectively true, that *all* humans desire X, above all else. Do you think its possible that such a universal desire is possible under naturalism?

    >>>> “If you just mean that a “true” prescription is one that fulfills the desire in question, then this would seem to put you more in the desirist camp, which means no… we do not agree. Hitler had reasons for killing Jews. Apparently, he really believed he was doing the world a service, in the same way the philanthropist really believes they are doing the world a service.

    On your definition, that Hitler should kill Jews seemingly becomes a “true” prescription, and that’s the line of thinking I’m objecting to. Under naturalism, there’s no ultimate authority to appeal to.”

    Hitler could be (and was) mistaken about not only what was good and beneficial for mankind, but what was good for lasting fulfillment within himself. Its no different than the hypothetical person mentioned earlier, who really desires to go hell. They are mistaken. This doesn’t falsify the morality.

    I think we can all safely say that Hitler could have lived a more fulfilling life by fostering virtues like empathy and charity within himself, and those around him, rather than a life of attempted conquest and genocide which eventually lead to the deaths of millions and his own suicide.

  25. dguller says:

    cl:

    >> I argue that the moral decrees of a Creator would qualify as objective moral decrees, and further, that this would hold even if those moral decrees conflicted with our moral intuitions. Do we have complete agreement there?

    If this Creator had certain and indubitable knowledge of moral principles, was benevolently motivated to share this knowledge with us without any distortion or alteration, and could provide us with some guarantee that we have understood his communication, then sure, his moral decrees would trump our moral intuitions.

    The more interesting question is whether any of these conditions actually hold in reality.

  26. cl says:

    drj,

    So yes, reasons are subjective and bound up by desires. But what if a desire is universal? It would be objectively true, that *all* humans desire X, above all else. Do you think its possible that such a universal desire is possible under naturalism?

    Aha. That clarification helps. As for the question itself, well… it seems tempting to say that all humans desire maximum well-being, or something like that, but when we look in the world it seems we have clear examples of people who don’t desire maximum well-being. It seems to me that such a universal desire isn’t possible at all, under atheism or theism. However, let’s say such a universal desire was possible under atheism. Would that make it “objective” by your definition? What if one person didn’t share this universal value? Would the rest of the people be able to TRUTHFULLY say that this hypothetical dissenter should act in accord with this universal value? I think that’s the type of question I’m primarily concerned with here.

    Hitler could be (and was) mistaken about not only what was good and beneficial for mankind, but what was good for lasting fulfillment within himself. Its no different than the hypothetical person mentioned earlier, who really desires to go hell. They are mistaken.

    What if Hitler had “won” the war, conquered the world and attained the worship and adoration of all survivors, such that he and his minions actually were happy and fulfilled? Would he still be mistaken on your view?

    dguller,

    If this Creator had certain and indubitable knowledge of moral principles, was benevolently motivated to share this knowledge with us without any distortion or alteration, and could provide us with some guarantee that we have understood his communication, then sure, his moral decrees would trump our moral intuitions.

    But, would they qualify as objective, whether they were benevolent or not? That’s what I’m asking. Once we get that cleared up, I’ll tackle the questions you left April 20, 2011 at 5:26 PM.

  27. dguller says:

    Cl:

    >> But, would they qualify as objective, whether they were benevolent or not? That’s what I’m asking. Once we get that cleared up, I’ll tackle the questions you left April 20, 2011 at 5:26 PM.

    Yup, they would count as objective. But then again, so would the pronouncements of a highly advanced alien race whose past history was similar to ours, and who managed to discover through intense investigation, as well as trial and error, what moral precepts have the maximum short-term and long-term benefits to our individual and collective well-being.

  28. cl says:

    dguller,

    Could you provide both 1) a general definition of objective, and 2) a more specific definition as you use in the phrase objective morality?

    Would reptilian or avian morality constitute objective morality by either of your definitions?

    Also, you seem to accept Sam Harris’ offering of “that which increases the well-being of sentient creatures” as the locus of whether or not an act is moral. Is that the case?

    As for your comment April 20, 2011 at 5:26 PM:

    First, I think that a Creator could not possibly know what it is like to be a subjective human being. He would have to BE a human being with conscious awareness in order to know pleasure and pain, as we experience them.

    So then, it might seem at least initially plausible to say that any true God would have reason to become human, wouldn’t it? To the extent that such seems plausible, doesn’t the claim of God in Jesus Christ make more sense?

    Without this knowledge, he may believe that a particular course of action is moral when it actually is completely immoral by virtue of its impact upon sentient beings, such as ourselves.

    I tend to disagree on the principle that an all-knowing God Who designed human beings would know which courses of action would lead to which results, but I agree with the importance of first-hand human experience you allude to.

    I mean, how could a Creator know the pain of having his heart broken unless he had an identical consciousness as we do? And without a knowledge of pain, how can one have any sense of what is a moral transgression and what is not?

    The shortest verse in the Bible reads, “Jesus wept.”

    Second, you are assuming that the Creator is a moral being himself.

    I’m not sure that I am assuming that. I think I’m assuming that the Creator is a being with non-contingent properties we describe as moral, which is why I disagree with J. Simonov and others who suggest God is being held to a standard.

    What if the Creator is actually quite immoral and a prankster who is lying to us for his own sick amusement?

    Hey, anything’s possible, right? ;)

    Seriously though, what if? Then God would be an entity we perceive as malicious.

    What if our moral intuitions are actually correct, and the spiritual test is to see if we will follow our hearts and not the Creator’s commands?

    It’s an interesting question. The Bible seems to portray God as testing in the reverse direction.

    …even if the Creator was genuinely moral and offered moral teachings, then how could you know what these teachings are?

    How can one “know” anything? I’m being partly facetious, but it seems that’s where this line of questioning leads. To me, the answer is obvious: we can’t, ergo the importance of faith if we wish to avoid a life stricken with debilitating skepticism. How can less-than-omniscient, created beings possibly hold an omniscient Creator to any standard? That right there suggests that if the God I believe in is true, no standard is possible.

  29. dguller says:

    cl:

    >> Could you provide both 1) a general definition of objective, and 2) a more specific definition as you use in the phrase objective morality?

    Well, this may be difficult, because there are different senses of “objective”. For example, there is the objectivity – say, objective1 – of entities and processes that would exist even if we did not exist, such as mountains, planets, stars. That fails to capture things like human brains, which are objective, but would not exist if we did not exist. So, human brains would be objective – say, objective2 – in the sense that their existence is independent of our wishes and preferences. In other words, even if we did not wish to have a brain, we still have brains.

    However, that fails to capture other objective things, such as currency, which only exists, because we collectively agree to the rules of currency exchange as part of our economic lives, but once the agreement occurs, the phenomena takes on a life of its own and has its own rules. So, the value of currency is not just something that I choose to be X, but rather depends upon a highly complex system of interrelated parts, including the behavior and actions of human beings, which I would call objective3.

    With regards to “objective morality”, I would say that it is more like objective2 than objective1 or objective3. It is not like objective1, because without human beings with their psychological states, behavioral dispositions, and underlying desires and motivations, there would be no morality at all. It is not like objective3, because I believe that part of it is rooted in psychological and biological features of our physical existence, just like our sensory experience and behavioral reflexes. They would not happen without us, but they do not happen just because we have collectively agreed for them to happen.

    Perhaps it would be better to say that objective morality is some combination of objective2 and objective3, because there are moral precepts that do depend upon our collective agreement (objective3), but that agreement presupposes certain necessary capacities and behaviors (objective2).

    Does this help?

    >> Would reptilian or avian morality constitute objective morality by either of your definitions?

    I suppose it would be more like objective2.

    >> Also, you seem to accept Sam Harris’ offering of “that which increases the well-being of sentient creatures” as the locus of whether or not an act is moral. Is that the case?

    I would agree with it.

    >> So then, it might seem at least initially plausible to say that any true God would have reason to become human, wouldn’t it? To the extent that such seems plausible, doesn’t the claim of God in Jesus Christ make more sense?

    No, it does not. I take the incarnation of God into Jesus Christ as a reductio ad absurdum of Christian theology, much like Jews and Muslims do. The idea of the infinite and transcendent God of classical theism shedding himself of his divine attributes to suffer the indignities of a tormented and tortured human being is just contradictory to me. I mean, if this is possible, according to Christian theology, then theology itself is compromised, because it means that the law of contradiction has been violated, and thus we cannot conclude anything using reason about God. Even Kierkegaard recognized this, which is why he said that faith transcends reason.

    >> I tend to disagree on the principle that an all-knowing God Who designed human beings would know which courses of action would lead to which results, but I agree with the importance of first-hand human experience you allude to.

    Fair enough. The issue is that morality must include reference to the psychological states of sentient organisms. To derive such a morality, one would have to be familiar with these psychological states, but it is impossible for God to know what it is like to be me in pain, and thus there is a lacuna in his understanding, which is essential to morality itself.

    >> Seriously though, what if? Then God would be an entity we perceive as malicious.

    No, he wouldn’t. A con man is not perceived to be a con man until it is too late. If God was a malicious prankster who took pleasure in foolish human beings by appearing to be benevolent and just, then we would perceive him as benevolent and just when the reality would be the opposite!

    >> How can one “know” anything? I’m being partly facetious, but it seems that’s where this line of questioning leads. To me, the answer is obvious: we can’t, ergo the importance of faith if we wish to avoid a life stricken with debilitating skepticism. How can less-than-omniscient, created beings possibly hold an omniscient Creator to any standard? That right there suggests that if the God I believe in is true, no standard is possible.

    I take the opposite conclusion. If our cognitive capacities prohibit any serious understanding of the divine, which is infinite and transcendent, and thus beyond our conceptual categories, then we cannot know anything about it, which means that we should just shut up about it. The world? We can know something about it. Other people? We can know something about them. Other biological organisms? We can know something about them. God? Nothing, if we are being honest, and not resorted to analogies or metaphors, which are never real understanding, but only tools of understanding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *