Moral Relativism: Idolatry In Our Generation

This post differs from many others on this blog in that I am going to base it on my settled belief in the God of the Bible, and not try to make an argument this time in favor of that belief. In other words, you will agree with this or not based on your existing beliefs regarding God and the Bible. Or maybe, just maybe, by seeing how one atheist treats morality, some skeptics, agnostics, or atheists will come to recognize that to deny the God of the Bible is to take up a seriously untenable view of life.

In comments following my post on The Basis for Moral Realism, doctor(logic) has persistently stuck with his opinion that morality must be evaluated and regarding strictly in terms of one’s feelings. You can pick up that line of his starting about here.

As Thomas Reid wisely pointed out,

A feeling is a temporary state of sensory, subjective experience. It has different properties than a belief. It is not possible for a feeling to be true or false (my “happiness” is not false).

So we see that a feeling is not a belief, and therefore it is impossible for one to have a feeling of a moral proposition. This is not to say that feelings cannot have beliefs as their causual antecedents, of course.

Nevertheless, we cannot deny that there are propositions that can be attached to feelings. “I feel good,” or “Seeing people hurt makes me sad” are both propositions about feelings. But these are statements about self. So when doctor(logic) insists that all moral opinions and evaluations are feelings statements, he is saying that all moral opinions and evaluations are made with reference to self. Moral opinions are not about acts, he would say; they are about my reactions to acts.

doctor(logic) confirmed this by saying,

What do I mean when I say morality is subjective? I mean that if I draw a line around the mugger and his victim, morality is nowhere to be found there. But if I draw the line around you (as observer), the mugger and his victim, then morality is objectively in your preferences. It will be an objective fact that you will disapprove or feel bad about the mugging you are observing. However, the immorality will not be in the mugging itself.

Is mugging good? No, it’s not good. Is mugging bad? No, it’s not bad either. It’s neither, in itself. But you may disapprove or feel bad about it. That’s what morality is, to doctor(logic).

Even from a simply ethical perspective, this has a nasty, putrid, awful smell to it. It literally makes morality all about one’s preferences. It makes me my own king of morality. It is idol-worship of the worst kind, for it is self-worship, putting self in the place where all good and evil is decided, the place that is rightfully God’s.

On this view I can—or must, for I cannot avoid it—set up my own moral system over and against God’s. Quoting from doctor(logic) again:

Look, let’s suppose Horace is a rapist. He likes raping for lots of reasons, including the feeling of power he gets. He thinks that girls who dress in revealing clothes deserve it. He’s integrated his rape behavior into his personal identity. Jesus comes along and says that rape is objectively evil. If Horace believes Jesus is real, tells the truth, and is an authority on morality, wouldn’t Horace then be in some sort of conflict?

Which is followed by,

To Horace, God is subjectively evil, even if he believed God was objectively good.

doctor(logic) thinks Horace’s view is to be taken as equivalent to God’s. The next paragraph says,

If my space ship approaches yours, and relatively, our ships are inverted, I could say you were subjectively upside down. If the universe had an objective “up” direction, we might agree that you were right-side-up, but you would still be subjectively upside down to me.

Space ship 1 or space ship 2, neither has authority over the other. Horace or God, neither (says dl) has authority over the other.

Idolatry always leads to corruption. The form of corruption that comes from this particular idolatry, making oneself king over one’s own morality, is not just that one might decide to do anything, and call it right. It is not just that every person can be right in his or her own eyes. It is both of these. But it also entails the plainly unethical view that morality is whatever suits me best. What could be more obviously wrong than that?

This is the characteristic idolatry of our generation. It is the idolatry that at this point is likely astonished that I would state the matter so bluntly and negatively, and would fault me for doing so. But if I am wrong and these idolaters are right, then there is no fault in my act, just as there is no fault in mugging. The only charge they can bring against me is, “That made me feel bad! If you make me feel bad, then you’re an awful person!” My answer to that is, I do not glory in making others feel bad. I do not like to do it. But I do not accept feelings as ruling sovereignly over what is actually true, and sometimes idolatry must be confronted for what it is.

Moral relativism is idolatry. Those who do not know that God is the only God may not recognize the malodorous nature of this idolatry, but those who do know God in this way must realize that it is a stench in his nostrils.

Comments

  1. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    In comments following my post on The Basis for Moral Realism, doctor(logic) has persistently stuck with his opinion that morality must be evaluated and regarding strictly in terms of one’s feelings.

    No, you’re the one in the bubble, not me.

    I’m saying that we all have subjective feelings about morality. And I’m saying that abstract statements about what is absolutely good or evil (even if true) won’t amount to a hill of beans when it comes to making decisions.

    Do I have the choice to be (absolutely) evil?

    I assume you would say that I do have that choice. Of course, no one spontaneously decides “I’m going to be evil.” Rather, they decide to be subjectively good, and do what they feel is right. (All the best movie bad guys are like this, btw.) In your philosophy, a person who does what he feels is morally right MIGHT be doing something absolutely evil. I’m accepting that premise for the purpose of my argument.

    So, here I am, doing what I feel is right. Over there is God, master of the universe, telling me that what I am doing is absolutely evil. Now, what is my reaction going to be?

    I can choose to be absolutely good, follow God, but suffer through acts which I subjectively find to be profoundly, morally offensive.

    Or, I can choose to be absolutely evil, and do what feels right.

    I’ve asked before… why should I choose to be absolutely good? Let’s discount the damnation factor, for now.

    You seem unable to reason about this because your subjective moral feelings are in lock step with your God. The point of the thought experiments is to bypass your bias.

    Simply put, if (hypothetically) God says it is morally right to do the things I consider morally wrong, I would prefer to be evil. If (hypothetically) God wanted me to commit genocide, kill and torture children, rape, etc., then I would rather be evil and go about my merry way, loving and reducing suffering, and let God kick my butt later. (Of course, I might luck out and find that God is the god of the universalists!)

    You reject my hypothetical without any consideration. You just say that God isn’t that way. Well, sure he isn’t, but without subjecting yourself to the hypothetical, you’ll not see things from Horace’s perspective.

    I’m not saying Horace isn’t being absolutely evil if he decides to disobey God. I’m saying that

    1) It would be rational for Horace to disobey God and be absolutely evil (unless God threatens Horace with greater subjective evils).

    2) Consequently, belief in moral realism is ineffective because people do what they feel is right, and damn the torpedoes,

    and

    3) your system of morality makes a mockery of the word good and evil by saying that God is absolutely good, no matter how evil his actions may appear to us.

    One of the rationales for this sort of discourse is to avoid subjective evils. We all hope that this sort of discussion will ultimately lead to less theft, for example. This is because we coincidentally agree that theft is unpleasant. But if theft was pleasant, why would we ever want to do away with it?

  2. Richard Wein

    Tom, since the gloves seem to be off I’ll speak frankly. You’re just engaging in wishful thinking. You can’t stand the thought that your moral values do not have the privilege of being a matter of objective truth. For all of us that’s an uncomfortable thought. But to follow rational discourse wherever it may lead, we must be willing to leave our comfort zone, if only temporarily.

    To call moral anti-realism “idolatry” is absurd, since it’s a disbelief in something. (You used the term “moral relativism”, but that term doesn’t correctly describe my position, and probably not DL’s either.)

    You say this thread is based on the starting point that God exists, but I say God has nothing to do with it. Even if you showed me compelling evidence of your God’s existence and I accepted that existence, I would remain a moral anti-realist, because that’s the view that makes most sense, whether God exists or not. I would be adamantly opposed to eating babies even if God told me it was the right thing to do.

    I should add that I disagree with DL on a couple of points, and it would be unwise to assume that all DL’s views are typical of moral anti-realists. I think people are influenced by their belief in objective moral truth, and that such belief is overall a good thing for society. But that doesn’t make it true.

  3. Post
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    Tom Gilson

    doctor(logic), you wrote,

    So, here I am, doing what I feel is right. Over there is God, master of the universe, telling me that what I am doing is absolutely evil. Now, what is my reaction going to be?

    I can choose to be absolutely good, follow God, but suffer through acts which I subjectively find to be profoundly, morally offensive.
    Or, I can choose to be absolutely evil, and do what feels right.
    I’ve asked before… why should I choose to be absolutely good?

    A) You are not God
    B) Your feelings are not God
    C) Your feelings are not the basis of truth
    D) Feelings can lead people to same very, very bad opinions, conclusions, and actions
    E) God is the basis of truth
    F) God is good

    So why make that choice? Well, it depends. Which do you care about more, feelings or truth?

    (In fact following God works for my feelings as well as satisfying my hunger for truth, but that’s a little ways off your topic.)

    Simply put, if (hypothetically) God says it is morally right to do the things I consider morally wrong, I would prefer to be evil.

    Hence my post here about idolatry.

    If (hypothetically) God wanted me to commit genocide, kill and torture children, rape, etc., then I would rather be evil and go about my merry way, loving and reducing suffering, and let God kick my butt later.

    I don’t get it. I just really don’t get the reason for this thought experiment. You say, Tom, I don’t agree with your conception of God, and to show that your conception of God is false, let’s look at some conception of God that neither of us believes in, and let’s agree that this alternation conception of God is a horrible thing to contemplate. There. Now we see that your conception of God can’t be counted on.

    You complain that “You seem unable to reason about this because your subjective moral feelings are in lock step with your God.” Here you go again, taking morality to be equivalent to feelings. You are wrong, by the way: my subjective moral feelings are often in conflict. I addressed that once already, a point you did not respond to at the time. But I confess I am at a loss to understand what the point of this thought experiment can be, as I have just said.

    I think your point is, hypothetically there could be a God that we might rightly disagree with on morals. Could you explain what follows from that hypothetical, and how it matters in view of the fact that we both know it’s false?

    You seem unable to reason about this because you have re-defined morality as a matter of feelings only, thus begging the question.

    One of the rationales for this sort of discourse is to avoid subjective evils.

    It is your only rationale, for “subjective evil” is the only kind of evil you can conceive of.

    We all hope that this sort of discussion will ultimately lead to less theft, for example. This is because we coincidentally agree that theft is unpleasant. But if theft was pleasant, why would we ever want to do away with it?

    Again, why raise hypotheticals that we both know are false? Why take it that our agreement about theft is coincidental? I think we agree it’s “unpleasant” partly because we both know it’s wrong. Wrong in itself.

    For my part, I do not only hope that this kind of discussion will increase pleasantness or feelings of good, and decrease unpleasantness or feelings of evil. What a namby-pamby way of looking at the world! I hope that this discussion will lead people to grab the truth of real right and real wrong by the horns. I hope it will lead people to pursue real right and to shun real wrong. I hope it will lead people to the one true source of truth and goodness, and that thereby they will find the way to follow truth and goodness.

  4. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Richard,

    Tom, since the gloves seem to be off I’ll speak frankly. You’re just engaging in wishful thinking. You can’t stand the thought that your moral values do not have the privilege of being a matter of objective truth. For all of us that’s an uncomfortable thought. But to follow rational discourse wherever it may lead, we must be willing to leave our comfort zone, if only temporarily.

    See above, and also my most recent comment to DL on the other thread. The discourse he has presented doesn’t lead anywhere, because there is no argument in it, as far as I have been able to discern. It is either:

    1) Let’s consider a thought experiment that we both know is false from the start, or
    2) Let’s define morals as feelings, which leads me to conclude that morals are feelings.

    It’s not just that I “can’t stand the thought” that morals are not objective; that is, it’s not mere emotion. It’s much more solid than that. It is absurd to suppose that the wrongness of the Rwandan massacre is only a matter of one’s emotional stance toward it. We all know that it is wrong in itself. How do people come to think otherwise? I think it goes like this:

    a) I see that the Rwandan massacre was wrong.
    b) But I do not believe there is a God.
    c) If there is no God, then the Rwandan massacre could not be wrong in itself.
    d) Therefore it must be wrong in relation to my own feelings.
    e) Thus I was mistaken in (a). I do not see that the Rwandan massacre was wrong; I only observe that I do not like how it makes me feel.
    f) I will label that feeling discovered in (e) this way: The Rwandan massacre was wrong.
    g) If anyone presses me on the logic of (f), I will hasten to add, “it was wrong for me, for my feelings, not wrong in itself.”

    Now, (e) is absurd in itself, and (f) and (g) reveal that absurdity. Since I do not agree with (b), and since I do know (a), I can’t imagine why I would deny what I know (a) on the basis of the weak argument in (b) and (c).

    To call moral anti-realism “idolatry” is absurd, since it’s a disbelief in something.

    DL’s position—the position I have in focus in this post—is certainly moral relativism,* and it is absurd to limit it to mere disbelief in something. He believes (how could you have possibly missed this?!) that morality is a matter of subjective feeling. He believes that humans’s feelings about morality may rule, over and above what any God might say. So do you, as you say later in your comment. That is not just a disbelief. (Did I really have to point that out? Was that hard?)

    You say this thread is based on the starting point that God exists, but I say God has nothing to do with it. Even if you showed me compelling evidence of your God’s existence and I accepted that existence, I would remain a moral anti-realist, because that’s the view that makes most sense, whether God exists or not. I would be adamantly opposed to eating babies even if God told me it was the right thing to do.

    But if you accepted the reality of my God’s existence, then you would be accepting the reality of a God who is good, by virtue of whose goodness morals are real, and who does not command you to eat babies. If you accepted the reality of some God that did not also lead you to accept his goodness as real, you would be accepting the reality of some God I never heard of.

    What is it with you and DL that you keep telling me how you don’t believe in an evil God? What is it with you that you think a God who might command someone to eat babies has the slightest relevance to this conversation? (Could you be any more offensive to the goodness of God than that if you even tried?)

    Of course God has something to do with it. If God exists, and God is good, and his goodness is intrinsic to his nature, then there is real goodness. If there is real goodness, then moral reality exists.

    I think people are influenced by their belief in objective moral truth, and that such belief is overall a good thing for society. But that doesn’t make it true.

    It’s a good lie, then?

    Sheesh.

    *What is moral anti-realism? It seems to me that it must be:
    (1) Morals exist in some sense but not objectively, or
    (2) Morals do not exist in any form.

    (2) is an unlikely position for you to take, to say the least; there is a topic in this discussion, after all. It seems to me that (1) entails moral relativism.

  5. Justaguy

    Actually, even cognitive neuroscientists (see e.g., Marc Hauser of Harvard) state there are biologically determined (i.e., non-subjective) moral standards and that these are apart from our feelings about right and wrong. The order of things is usually settled – we have bad feelings BECAUSE something is morally wrong. The bad feelings do not dictate the rightness or wrongness of something, but merely reflect what our innate biology informs us to be right or wrong.

    (This conclusion is so widely supported by science that it has made its way into lay cognitive neuro writings even – see e.g., Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide).

    Even those whom society thinks as a-moral – the sociopaths – have been shown to know right from wrong despite their lack of feeling good or bad about the rightness or wrongness of an act. While the sociopaths have been shown to be quite adept as discerning what is moral and immoral (even as kids, they knew torturing the tabby was taboo), they are nevertheless horrible moral agents and are so most likely due to their lack of feeling about an act due to a deficit in the orbitofrontal cortex (if I remember the neuroscience correctly).

    So, the stuff about feeling making it moral or immoral is balderdash, even to those who are a-theist who have actually studied the matter beyond speculating in the blogosphere. Mainstream scientists state that there is right and wrong beyond our feeling of it – and that it is in our biology.

  6. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    I continue to puzzle over how these obviously false hypotheticals about a morally repugnant God could be relevant to this discussion. It seems they could be if you thought I was arguing:

    A) There is some God
    B) Therefore moral realism

    To that, the answer could be

    A’) There is the possibility of some evil God
    B’) If some evil God existed, we might have moral feelings that we would prefer over what this God commands
    C’) If no God exists, then we must rely on our feelings for morality
    D’) Therefore we either can or must rely on our feelings for morality.

    But I am not arguing from the premise (A). I am arguing from either premise A” or D” (depending on the point in the discussion):

    A”) There is the good God of the Bible, or
    E”) We see that some things are really good and some are really evil

    The two premises relate to each other, but (for different purposes) either could be the starting point for a discussion. (A”) could be the conclusion of a discussion as well, but (E”) is something that we just know or “see.” It is common human knowledge on its own. (E”) was the starting point of the prior thread; it was something that both Jordan and I accepted.

    Other than that, this is the best I can make of your argument:

    1) Moral absolutes really exist (per Tom)
    2) If moral absolutes really exist, then the possibility exists that those absolutes are morally wrong.
    3) My feelings tell me what is morally right or wrong
    4) If some morally wrong moral absolutes existed, they would conflict with some of my feelings
    5) My feelings would be my signal that these moral absolutes are wrong
    6) But that is absurd
    7) So moral absolutes do not exist.

    There are so many problems with that, I don’t know where to begin.

    So as I have continued to puzzle over the relevance of these false hypotheticals, all I can get to is one argument that has nothing to do with anything I am offering for discussion here, or another argument that is riddled with holes.

  7. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Justaguy, I hate to say it but I don’t think the objectivity of moral standards follows from Hauser’s work. The atheist could say that moral opinions are hard-wired in the brain as something like instinctive behaviors, without any tie to an objective transcendent moral reality. Hauser’s work is certainly consistent with the theistic account of moral realism (that God has created us in his image, with moral knowledge as part of that), but it does not demonstrate the truth of moral realism.

  8. Holopupenko

    Tom:

    Frankly, I wonder why you’re wasting time criticizing warped understandings of reality animated by positivism and hyper-empiricism. Apart from exposing them for the disordered personal opinions they are, there’s little to gain: you’re up against barking moonbatism–those who oppose for the sake of opposition, not for truth. Anti-realism, positivism, moral relativism, atheism, scientism, naturalism, etc. are nothing if an anti-reasoning sicknesses of the soul. Their incessant, emotional (feelings!) cry amounts to little more than, “It can’t be done! It can’t be done!” They despise truth independent of us or our epistemic limits, and their anthropology is anti-human: (to borrow your correct words), it is nasty, putrid, awful smell[ing]. Their self-serving fallacious vision of God (“an old man telling me what not to do”) is a deep pessimism similar to (analogously speaking) the childishness of those who view automobile speed limits as pure restrictions rather than enablers of safe and effective driving for all. When criticized, they appeal to moral absolutes while decrying their existence or insisting they can’t be known. You should also be wary of the sophists (such as Hauser: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/hauser09/hauser09_index.html ) congregating at Edge.org, which likely inspired this reductionist “balderdash”: “Mainstream scientists state that there is right and wrong beyond our feeling of it—and that it is in our biology.” Morality “in our biology”? Unabashed question-begging.

    Teacher William Hundert from The Emperor’s Club had one of the best responses to such nonsense: “Youth ages, immaturity is outgrown, ignorance can be educated, drunkenness sobered… but stupid lasts forever.”

  9. Justaguy

    Tom,

    Thank you for your response. I guess it’s all about the parsing. I chose to address a particular aspect of relativism – which was expressed in doctor(logic)’s feeling thing.

    You’re absolutely correct in that cognitive neuroscientists such as Greene of Princeton, Tancredi of NYU (informative book: Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals About Morality), and Hauser of Harvard don’t posit an objective morality that originates from God or a god, but they do state unequivocally that much of morality is “objective,” i.e., not determined relative to a person’s individual, cultural, or momentary preferences, which is the foundation of the relativistic position.

    Their research doesn’t point to a morality that necessarily exists outside the existence of humanity (though it is not inconsistent with it), but it does conclude that morality is not subjectively determined, in the sense that an individual or a culture is the willful arbiter of that morality.

    It’s a big topic, so I chose to address one part of the discussion and did so via something other than syllogism.

  10. Post
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  11. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    A’) There is the possibility of some evil God
    B’) If some evil God existed, we might have moral feelings that we would prefer over what this God commands
    C’) If no God exists, then we must rely on our feelings for morality
    D’) Therefore we either can or must rely on our feelings for morality.

    This is pretty close, but it’s a little deeper than that. (I notice you did not dispute the syllogism, though, of course, you don’t accept the premises.)

    First of all, the thought experiment shows that revelations about moral reality won’t help convince anyone to behave “better”. Mere recognition of moral reality (e.g., via revelation) is impotent. (And, I remind you, one can only see this by considering a God whose morality differs from one’s own.)

    If we’ve just been following our feelings all along, it should be clear that the world would look the same even if moral realism were false. For example, we would still have a justice system, and we would still be evolving away from monarchies and towards democracies. I offer a simple argument for this: American freedom was not won at the point of an argument, but at the point of a musket.

    Second, the thought experiment shows that moral realism is absurd. In what way could reality be moral? What does that mean?

    Apparently, moral realism does not mean that rational persons want to act in an absolutely moral way upon seeing moral reality revealed in the abstract. Rational persons still want to act according to their feelings.

    I think the concept of moral realism makes zero sense, even if God exists and created our universe. (Euthyphro is relevant, here.) No threat of pleasure or pain can make God right, and it makes no sense to say God is right by definition when we already have a definition based on our personal emotional experience of good and evil. If we redefine the good to mean what God wants, why be good? It would have no correlation with the good I know, unless God and I agree on everything already (in which case, God is not doing anything for me, morally).

    To clarify my point: your argument for moral realism is that people do X because they think it is “really” wrong in some abstract sense. My thought experiment shows that what you are arguing for is false. People act on their internal moral feelings, and a revelation about what is “really” right is irrelevant to them. Morality isn’t an illusion, but the belief that moral feelings detect some external moral reality is an illusion. Moral realism is a rationalization for moral feelings.

    It’s not surprising that you are only interested in considering a God who defines a morality which matches your own personal feelings. My thought experiment shows that it’s nearly impossible for you to do otherwise. Any God who disagreed with you would be irrelevant to your life. You’re following in the footsteps of the ancients. While we modernists struggle and contort to fit the Abraham story into our morality, the ancients understood it in its own simple terms. Obedience to the chief was more of a virtue then than it is now. Genocide was more acceptable when the OT was written than it is today. The ancients defined God in their own image, just as you are doing, and just as the faithful have done for centuries. Look at any slice of history. I mean, pick a year between, say, 400, and 2000. At every step of the way, believers have had not one dispute with God’s morality, even as morality has evolved over the centuries. The staying power of religion has a lot to do with the fact that it is vague and can be interpreted with flexibility. God is a personification of your moral ideals.

    And this brings up a good point. You keep saying that being a moral relativist means always being on your best behavior. (never having to say you’re sorry) 🙂 I hope you appreciate that your claim is oversimplified. Even moral relativists have moral ideals that they want to live up to. Even moral relativists can say, I wish I had acted differently because, in hindsight, I would prefer I had taken an alternative action. The experience is the same as it is for you realists. The thing is, we relativists don’t need to pretend that our moral ideals are more than mental idealizations. We don’t need the ideals to be external, nor do we need a God to personify those ideals for us.

  12. Holopupenko

    Tom:

    Did no one notice the huge and quite illicit is-to-ought jump from morality’s objectivity allegedly grounded in “our biology”? When Hauser speaks of “objective” morality as “grounded in biology” he’s speaking exclusively from an MES perspective, i.e., he’s presupposing moral objectivity in a particular biological organisms known as a human being, and trying to set out to prove it under (again, illicit) neo-Darwinian rubric which is mechanistic at its base because it reduces actions to reaction from external stimuli.

    The is-to-ought thing is assumed for any number of reasons… many times from the correct understanding that anti-realism and moral relativism are ultimately repugnant and unsustainable nonsense. The personal opinion “even moral relativists have morals ideals they want to live up to” is not locally incoherent, it’s ultimately incoherent: there is no way to live up to or accept an ultimate “why”? It is farcical because at the end of the day it means nothing: to act “good” simply for one’s local “moral ideals” is, as you rightly noted, Tom, (meaningless albeit dangerous) idolatry—to put one’s self at the center of the universe… and I thought secularists keep drumming into the heads of people of faith, “we’re not the center of the universe!”

    Hauser’s approach is no explanation, and certainly brings little of any understanding. Invariably, all formulations that share the is-to-ought presupposition beg the question of what morality is in the first place. Morality and a moral sense presupposes a free will whose sine qua non is rationality—an immaterial capacity—otherwise, it makes no sense to speak of things moral. No matter how circuitous the route, no matter what “run away!” qualifications are superimposed, the MES biological basis for moral objectivity is reductionist and hence cannot by its nature jump the is-to-ought gap.

    Anti-realists, atheists, naturalists, etc. give up at this point: they invariably fall into relativism because they can’t “see” the point beyond their scientism. In response (as noted above), people like Hauser vainly try to locate moral objectivity in what are ultimately material entities and physical phenomena—which, of course, stops them at the is-to-ought gap… they have no bridge by which they may cross into “ought.” Both parties (again, intentionally to belabor the point) avoid or fail to first tell us what a moral capacity is, and end up either denying objectivity or vainly locating it in things accessible to the MESs.

    Morality is not objective because it’s grounded in “biology;” it is objective through human nature in the creator of human nature: God. Notice what happens when a nature is reduced to the collection of physical properties accessible to the senses (i.e., to the MESs): complexity matters, and one is invariably led down the road of brute animal “morality.” It is a physical evil for a man to be born blind because it is in the nature of men to see, but it is not a physical evil for men not to be able to fly: a privation of wings in a creature whose nature precludes wings is no evil. It is a moral evil for a man to murder because it takes away the victim’s own nature (hence dignity) and potential good the victim could have brought to the world. The latter is—rightfully—enshrined in the Ten Commandments not because it’s the policeman’s rule, but because God created us to act out our natures instead of opposing our natures… And, we can unfortunately do so because we are the only creature on earth that can intentionally choose to act inhumanly (what, after all, is atheism but a denial or reduction of our very humanity?). When God commands “Thou shalt not murder,” He’s asserting that as a good per the nature of humans that He created. To violate a commandment is to deeply surrender our very humanness to our own whims, and to spit in the face of He who made created us.

    Unfortunately (and to be fair to the loyal opposition), some people of faith DO mistakenly locate moral objectivity in a merely prescriptive notion of God as policeman whose laws must be followed simply because He said so (presuppositional and fideistic nonsense are highly at fault here, and this makes them almost blindly reject the Natural Law). If one rejects the notion of a human nature from a scientistic position (animated by, among other things, nominalism), there can be no objective morality. But this is also true for those who reject the Natural Law: leaning on “God said, I believe it, that settles it” is, while perhaps true at a certain non-thinking level, nonetheless intellectually repugnant. To believe the Ten Commandments are good and correct and stop there is to be robotic: fides quaerens intellectum is rightly demanded. (If one believes in blind obedience—which is quite distinct from the trust of faith—then one should become a Muslim.) We are rational animals, and should not sacrifice that gift to presuppositionalist nonsense and those who wholly decry human reason through their theological gymnastics. That we are fallen creatures is one thing, but to claim utter depravity is heresy.

  13. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    doctor(logic), you say

    I notice you did not dispute the syllogism, though, of course, you don’t accept the premises.

    I think that B’ makes a very unlikely assumption, but since neither one of us accepts A’, what does it matter?

    First of all, the thought experiment shows that revelations about moral reality won’t help convince anyone to behave “better”

    Wrong. Read some Christian history, please. I recommend Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity. You are wrong about my own life, too, by the way.

    Mere recognition of moral reality (e.g., via revelation) is impotent.

    Now, that I can agree with, and have said so on this blog. There is a relational dynamic that must accompany the knowledge of moral reality.

    (And, I remind you, one can only see this by considering a God whose morality differs from one’s own.)

    Of course. God’s morality is not my own, it is his. It is up to me to adopt it. I have not, for all your blusterings to this effect, adopted a God whose morality fits mine; it is the other way around: the God whose morality is his own has adopted me as his own.

    If we’ve just been following our feelings all along, it should be clear that the world would look the same even if moral realism were false.

    See above. I’ve stated it a hundred times and you don’t even acknowledge it: it is moral convictions about moral truth that led to the ending of the slave trade, the freeing of slaves, the civil rights movements, the end of infanticide, the ending of suttee, the end of treating women as property. Though I haven’t dwelt on it in this forum, it is also the case that it has led to the establishment of the first hospitals, the first genuine care for the genuinely sick in times of plague. It led to the Salvation Army and the Red Cross. It led to Florence Nightingale and William Wilberforce and George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and Mother Teresa. It led to the Magna Carta. You are just historically wrong about this, and repeatedly and persistently so for no apparent reason.

    American freedom was won by the force of moral convictions. You are clearly and completely wrong on that point, too. Thomas Paine was as crucial as anything else to the movement, as was Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. Those muskets didn’t fire themselves. They needed men of character and courage behind them. George Washington was a better general than the British ones (except possibly Cornwallis) because he was a stronger character (the earlier British commanders were playing to their reputations at court more than to the successful accomplishment of their mission; Washington was there for his mission, his men, and his country).

    Second, the thought experiment shows that moral realism is absurd. In what way could reality be moral? What does that mean?

    It doesn’t mean anything. I didn’t say reality was moral, I said that morality is real. (I don’t say that reality is New York City, I say that New York City is real.) Morality is real in the sense that there are moral duties and values whose existence is founded in the root of reality, God himself.

    Apparently, moral realism does not mean that rational persons want to act in an absolutely moral way upon seeing moral reality revealed in the abstract. Rational persons still want to act according to their feelings.

    Right. It’s called having a sin problem. Read Romans 1, Romans 2, Romans 3, and Romans 7. The solution is in Romans 4, Romans 5, Romans 6, and Romans 8.

    it makes no sense to say God is right by definition when we already have a definition based on our personal emotional experience of good and evil.

    Really? Did we already have that definition 100,000 years ago? Would it make sense to say that God was right then, if there was a good God then? Of course it would. It’s not in the least bit meaningless.

    My thought experiment shows that what you are arguing for is false. People act on their internal moral feelings, and a revelation about what is “really” right is irrelevant to them.

    People act on their moral feelings, yes. But this is not about actions, it is about propositions and beliefs about propositions. The reality of morality is not just a principle for action, it is a proposition about what morality is ontologically. And it is also about consequences, by the way: good is rewarded in the end. The end has not reached us yet, but it will.

    Moral realism is a rationalization for moral feelings.

    There you go again, begging the question as always.

    It’s not surprising that you are only interested in considering a God who defines a morality which matches your own personal feelings. My thought experiment shows that it’s nearly impossible for you to do otherwise.

    My statement above reveals again how you have failed to notice that I don’t do what you say. The reason I have trouble imagining another kind of God is not because it/he/she wouldn’t match my moral feelings; it’s because I know that the God that exists must exist in every possible world. It’s a matter of who God is as the maximally perfect being.

    Look at any slice of history. I mean, pick a year between, say, 400, and 2000. At every step of the way, believers have had not one dispute with God’s morality, even as morality has evolved over the centuries.

    So naive to Christian history. I wish I had time to go into it more, but we’ve got some work to do around the house. Can someone else help him with this for me today?

  14. Franklin Mason

    dl says: [I]t makes no sense to say God is right by definition when we already have a definition based on our personal emotional experience of good and evil. If we redefine the good to mean what God wants, why be good? It would have no correlation with the good I know, unless God and I agree on everything already (in which case, God is not doing anything for me, morally).

    To clarify my point: your argument for moral realism is that people do X because they think it is “really” wrong in some abstract sense. My thought experiment shows that what you are arguing for is false. People act on their internal moral feelings, and a revelation about what is “really” right is irrelevant to them.

    dl, I’m not sure that you’ve got the view you wish to attack right. Why be good if God defines goodness? The answer is simple from a Christian point of view. We were made by God to enjoy and return his love for us (and to enjoy and return the love of other creatures). This is what at bottom we are for,and only this can fulfill us and make us happy. Thus the good he has made is not just his good. It is our good too. Our good and God’s good are intertwined. We were made to love him (and one another); and he wishes that we give that love.

    You seem to assume that our good and God’s good can decouple. From a Christian point of view, this simply is not possible. Why be good if God defines goodness? The goodness that he defines is my goodness; it is our goodness.

    dl, you also seem to assume that it’s a quite simple matter to determine what we feel and thus to define our good in terms of that. It does not seem to simple to me. I often do what I think is wrong; and what I think is good I often do not do. I am not at peace. I am not whole. (In this, I think that I’m not alone. We call have acted, and do act, in a way contrary to what we think is good.) I reach for momentary goods and ignore the greater, the higher good in which I believe. I succumb to anger and sloth (and worse). Thus I think it a mistake to seek out a subjective morality based upon what I happen to feel. I am at war with myself, and thus any moral view that considers only me and me alone will of necessity be contradictory.

    Last point: I would grant that even when I speak of a greater or higher good, I speak of what I \feel\ (in a broad sense) about the good. But I do not think that this makes God irrelevant. I hold that what I believe to be the higher good has God as its source. Indeed, the supreme value that I place in it – the reason why I think that it ought to constrain my lower, more base desires – derives from my belief that it is of divine origin. Thus even if were to begin with a purely subjective point of view – a point of view that considers only me and how I feel – I am driven outside myself to a divine foundation of the good.

  15. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    Apparently, moral realism does not mean that rational persons want to act in an absolutely moral way upon seeing moral reality revealed in the abstract. Rational persons still want to act according to their feelings.

    Right. It’s called having a sin problem.

    Cool. People have this “sin” problem. Maybe I should have put it that way from the beginning.

    When faced with revealed abstract moral truth (whatever that means), they won’t rationally decide to act against their moral feelings. People would prefer to be evil (sin) because, from their perspective, the alternative is subjectively evil.

    You go on to say that belief in moral realism changed the world, ended slavery, created the United States, gave us unlimited rice pudding, etc., etc. However, your statements about history and sin are contradictory UNLESS those people who made these perceived moral advances already possessed moral feelings that lined up with the moral (realist) positions you say they had. Those who ended slavery weren’t trying to be subjectively evil. They invented moral reality to fit their moral feelings.

    If you were right about moral realism, and if my thought experiment was wrong (i.e., sin didn’t exist), then Christianity should have altered the world overnight. The slave traders should have packed it in pronto, and democracy should have sprung forth from the church. That didn’t happen. Why didn’t it happen?

    Your explanation is sin. The tendency to behave as in my thought experiment. Sin is just your word for people following their internal moral compass. The world didn’t change overnight because the peoples of the era didn’t want our modern morality, they wanted their own.

    The problem with “sin” as an explanation is that it renders your realist world into my subjectivist one. You’re basically saying that the world changed as people’s internal moral compass evolved to be more like God’s (= our modern morality).

    My explanation is that morality is driven by subjective moral feelings, and that people feel differently when they are safer and live in closer quarters with other ethnic groups. If I think I might die three weeks from today, and I think my children have only a 40% chance of reaching adulthood, I’m going to treat you and the people around me very differently. More harshly. The fact that Bob around the corner has slaves is not gonna be real high on my list of priorities. Bottom line: as society becomes safer, more populous, more learned and more integrated, we start to see others as being more like family than like the enemy. The moral compass evolves.

  16. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Sin is just your word for people following their internal moral compass.

    You didn’t read the original sources I directed you to, did you? Look at the passages in Romans.

    And really, come on. I have accused you of historical naivete. But you can’t be so out of touch with the world as to think that sin is people following their internal moral compass, can you? Are you saying that nobody ever does anything that they think is wrong when they do it?

    Why are you having this discussion with me if you won’t involve yourself in some personal reflection?

    You’re basically saying that the world changed as people’s internal moral compass evolved to be more like God’s (= our modern morality).

    What, you think our modern morality came from nowhere? It came from people’s moral compass evolving to be more like God’s! Your own explanation is atheistic wishful thinking, and it doesn’t recognize the historical truth of the examples I gave you, with which you refuse to engage.

    Do you even have an argument in favor of your position yet?

  17. doctor(logic)

    Franklin,

    I’m not attacking the target you think I am.

    I’m saying that a man’s God is that man’s personification of his moral ideals.

    As you say, it’s perfectly possible for us to derive a set of moral ideals that we fail to live up to. Our moral ideals usually reflect our best long-term judgment. However, I can be tempted to act contrary to my ideals. I can eat a second slice of pie, but will regret it as I stand on the bathroom scale the next morning. Such moral ideals do not need an accompanying moral reality.

    I understand that you believe God is the source of your moral ideals, and that you find no contradictions. However, I would argue that you will never find any contradictions (at least, none that you wouldn’t also encounter as a moral subjectivist).

    IIRC, when you first began commenting here, you were agnostic, or, at least, shopping for a faith. What made you click “buy”? If the product you purchased did not match up with your moral ideals, would you still have bought it? I put it to you that you would not have adopted a faith that seemed contrary to your subjective moral ideals.

    I understand that you think there is an arrow of causation from an invisible moral reality to your subjective moral ideals, but this isn’t parsimonious, IMO. My moral compass has adequate explanation from biology and culture. I don’t need a second “explanation”, especially not one that has no mechanism and is opaque to reason.

  18. William Bradford

    Sin is just your word for people following their internal moral compass.

    What an absurd and completely warped statement. Is an adult who rapes a two year old child following some internal moral compass or simply indulging his sinful nature?

  19. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    Whoa!

    But you can’t be so out of touch with the world as to think that sin is people following their internal moral compass, can you? Are you saying that nobody ever does anything that they think is wrong when they do it?

    Sure, that does happen, and that is one meaning of the word sin. That second slice of pie is an example. I prioritize immediate gratification over some longer term ideal (like my waistline).

    But you brought up sin in response to my thought experiment. In the thought experiment, the agent doesn’t ignore the absolute morality because he’s going against his internal compass but because he is going with his internal compass. You referred to this following of the internal compass in place of revealed moral truth as “sin”. If you didn’t mean that, then maybe you don’t understand the thought experiment.

    You say:

    What, you think our modern morality came from nowhere? It came from people’s moral compass evolving to be more like God’s!

    If this discussion was about people overriding their internal moral compass, your statement above would be irrelevant. We can just as well override God’s compass as our own, and so there would be no improvement in moral practices. The point is that people follow their internal compass, and your use of the word sin was in reference to that compass being different from God’s.

    So sin as we were using the term in this context doesn’t refer to sacrificing moral ideals for short-term gain, but refers to sacrificing moral absolutes for subjective moral ideals.

    What is the central moral directive of Jesus? Isn’t it that we ought to treat others like loved family members, even if they’re not related to us?

    Now look at this from a biological standpoint. Can you think of any adaptive advantage a species might gain by treating its family with preference? How about a social species treating its group with greater preference? How about a knowledge-based species taking actions that are likely to preserve knowledge and practices of the group?

    Of course, all these things are adaptive. So if we interact with others in larger groups, and everyone seems more like part of our in-group, we’re going to treat them more like family (e.g., not enslave them).

    This explanation for evolving morality makes sense, which is a lot more than I can say for a theory based on inexplicable supernatural powers.

  20. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    doctor(logic),

    Let’s just pause a moment and let you tell us whether you have an argument against moral realism or not. So far I’ve seen you say that psychology and neurology provide such arguments, but they don’t. I hope that was settled the first time it came up.

    You’ve argued:

    1) If moral realism were true, it would make no difference in people’s behavior.
    2) Therefore moral realism is not true.

    That doesn’t follow.

    You’ve argued:

    3) Moral feelings can be explained in evolutionary terms.
    4) Therefore moral realism is false.

    That also doesn’t follow.

    You’ve argued,

    5) People make God in the image of their own moral opinions.
    6) Therefore moral realism is false.

    But (5) is false, and besides that, (6) doesn’t follow anyway.

    You’ve argued,

    7) Morality is defined as persons’ moral feelings.
    8 ) Therefore moral realism is false.

    That’s already been identified as being circular.

    You’ve argued:

    9) Supernatural powers are inexplicable.
    10) Therefore moral realism is false.

    But that doesn’t follow either; and (9) is only partly true: God is understandable and explicable only partially, but we do know enough about him to be able to derive moral reality from what we know.

    So before we continue any further on this path, could you explain to me what I’ve missed, if anything? Do you have an argument whose premises are at least plausibly true, and whose conclusion at least plausibly follows from its premises?

  21. Doug

    Funny that it has recently become trendy to hypothesize an “evil God”, when, in fact, the Creator of the Universe sent His Son to suffer and die for the very creatures who so insult Him. Jesus came to show us the morality of the Father. And He was full of Grace and Truth.

    The “alternate moralities” of the likes of dl remind me of a personal event more than a decade ago. My (very young, at the time) daughter was taking piano lessons, and I was trying to expose her to Mozart and Bach. One day, she very seriously offered her own composition as a step above Amadeus and Johann. Um. It is good, honey, but as much as I love you… no.

  22. Holopupenko

    Tom:

    C.S. Lewis correctly pointed out one must first show how a person is wrong before considering why a person is wrong. We are perhaps approaching a thousand ways DL has been shown to be wrong in the “how” sense. The “why” is straightforward: an atheist diminishes his/her own humanity (whether they want to admit so or not) by intentionally violating the First Commandment. DL is wrong in the “why” sense for several reasons: (1) a priori anti-faith bias, (2) ignorance, (3) hyper-empiricism, positivism, scientism, and (4) atheism has severely damaged his ability to reason.

    That’s my feeling, anyway…

  23. SteveK

    The tragic irony in all of this is even if DL is assumed to be correct (he’s not), it doesn’t change anything about the Gospel message and the fate of those who stand against the Son.

  24. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    There are two ways to attack moral realism. The first is to show that there’s no positive evidence for moral realism. The second is to produce positive evidence that morality is subjective.

    The evidence from psychology and neurology is clear. Humans are material mechanisms with largely predictable responses to social situations. The same goes for other primates. There are adaptive advantages to moral behavior. This means there are reasons for moral feelings and behavior that do not require absolute morality. Now, this is not conclusive, exhaustive evidence for subjectivity, but it does mean we would behave as we do without the need for any absolute morality. This counts as positive evidence for subjectivity.

    Note that things didn’t need to be this way. We might have found no mechanism for morality in us (nor any brain in us, for that matter), no morality in primates, and we might have found that morality is maladaptive. Only we didn’t.

    When we look for positive evidence of moral realism, none is to be found. You intuit that morality is something external, but you’ve got no real evidence to back up your intuition. What would count? If we could detect evil through an “evil-permeable membrane”, that would counts as positive evidence. (That happens in Dungeons and Dragons, btw.) If stolen gasoline had different properties than fairly purchased gasoline, that, too, would be positive evidence. Of course, predictive moral realism isn’t the kind of realism you’re arguing for. No, you’re arguing for a moral realism that looks EXACTLY like moral subjectivism. There’s no more evidence for moral realism than there is for realism in musical taste or taste in food or favorite colors. Morality is calibrated to our feelings and goes on to predict… how we are likely to feel about a moral situation. That sure sounds like a map of subjective character to me.

    It’s at this point that realists start talking about how horrible the world would be if relativism were true. This is where my evol God argument comes in. The argument shows that the world would be no different. People follow their hearts, and invent a moral reality to rationalize it. Remove the rationalization, and things play out about the same. Relativism isn’t the bogeyman.

    It wasn’t intended as an argument against realism, although it is, in a way. It predicts that God’s morality matches each believer’s moral ideals. When you claim that God’s morality isn’t your own, I assume you mean that you can’t live up to what God demands. However, would you really say that God’s morality differed from your ideal subjective morality?

  25. doctor(logic)

    The “why” is straightforward: an atheist diminishes his/her own humanity (whether they want to admit so or not) by intentionally violating the First Commandment.

    Oops! I’ve just been dehumanized. I assume you’ll let me know when I have to board the train to the camps, Holo?

    The tragic irony in all of this is even if DL is assumed to be correct (he’s not), it doesn’t change anything about the Gospel message and the fate of those who stand against the Son.

    Yep! Out of the oven, and into the fires of hell I go.

    Captcha: Dr escalate

  26. Holopupenko

    It’s YOU who are dehumanizing yourself, DL–not us. We don’t want you to board a train of your own making that’s headed to a “camp” of your own making. Point one. Point two: interesting how you’re now crying moral foul in an absolutist fashion. Point three: it’s seems you don’t know what the general term realism means: “… you’re arguing for a moral realism that looks EXACTLY like moral subjectivism. There’s no more evidence for moral realism than there is for realism in musical taste or taste in food or favorite colors.” You’re more straight-jacketed in your “thinking” than I thought.

  27. Charlie

    Tom to DL:

    You complain that “You seem unable to reason about this because your subjective moral feelings are in lock step with your God.” Here you go again, taking morality to be equivalent to feelings. You are wrong, by the way: my subjective moral feelings are often in conflict. I addressed that once already, a point you did not respond to at the time.

    Of course. God’s morality is not my own, it is his. It is up to me to adopt it. I have not, for all your blusterings to this effect, adopted a God whose morality fits mine; it is the other way around: the God whose morality is his own has adopted me as his own.

    DL doesn’t seem to worry about what he hears on this forum when he already has his presuppositions in place:

    One class of people you could talk to in order to falsify this belief would be recent converts to Christianity.
    One thing many will discuss is how the things they felt were morally permissible before, under a subjective value system, no longer are.
    Why are their lives changed and their morals no longer reflective of their subjective perspectives?
    One famous example:
    Lee Strobel [link disabled]

    Part of the work of being a Christian is trying to allow God’s will to become our own. Part of that is in trying to learn his will.

    There are many things which people will view as wrong because God said so, but will not see the ethical value in the commandment from their subjective point of view.
    God says adultery is wrong, but there are people who will not see why, and will not value this, in their own situation. They may obey God, and in so doing value the commandment because it is His, but without seeing the intrinsic importance. They may see a particular marriage as a farce, they may believe that nobody is getting hurt, etc.
    If they go through the trials of such an affair, however, they could well see that what they knew was wrong objectively, was also wrong subjectively. God’s admonishments are often protections.

    A person may know that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” but may think that in their case, where they are barely getting by themselves, there is no benefit to gifting.
    They know they ought to, for it is right, but they do not value that ought in their situation.
    When exercising faith in these little things, however, people can come to see that what they knew was right in God’s eyes is also intrinsically valuable.

    It is also a fact that a moral realist will change their opinion about what is a moral reality. Further prayer and study may enlighten them on the sanctity of life, or marriage, or (hey, Eric) observing the Sabbath. These could well be issues upon which their subjective feelings had been exactly opposite God’s will.
    Often times it is through study of the Bible that I find that there is a moral wrong which I had never considered to be, and then set to making myself understand this standard.

    I’m sure this is as hard to follow as it is to try to articulate. But the point is that although some people do try to make God in their image by accepting what they like and discarding what they don’t, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, I would suggest that all Christians find themselves face to face with oughts which they would not have written themselves, given their druthers. This is why we pray and try to grow in our faith and our obedience to God’s will.
    Charlie | 12.15.06 – 3:18 am | #

    ….

    DL,

    We choose our methodology precisely to guarantee our preferred moral conclusions.

    Perhaps the relativist does.
    The realist, as discussed twice before on this thread, will recognize that there are things which are right, duties to which he is bound, which he would not prefer.
    Premarital sex is a good one. How many chaste Christians do you think would have chosen that route based upon their personal preferences?
    Charlie |

    12.22.06 – 8:09 pm |
    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/C246305481/E20061208094246/index.html

    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/C1983916159/E20071123125506/index.html

    Hi DL,
    From Tom,

    We theists spend a whole lot of energy trying to get our mixed-up subjective morality to line up with God’s objective morality!

    Boy, it would be nice if you heard it that time and quit pretending otherwise.
    Charlie | 11.29.07 – 11:25 pm | #

    http://www.haloscan.com/comments/tgilblog/E20071123125506/#225775

  28. Dave

    Hi doctor(logic)

    A recent article might shine some light on this debate…
    _______________________

    […]

    For some weeks, I’ve had a note in my calendar to wrap up a piece of unfinished business from my coverage of the University of Chicago Darwin conference – i.e., to say something about Marc Hauser’s fascinating plenary lecture on the origins of morality. Hauser argued that moral behavior is largely insensitive to gender, education, cultural background, class, or even religious belief. Rather, humans seem to be hard-wired (biologically) with a moral sense. Find a member of the species Homo sapiens, Hauser argued, and you’ve located an organism that knows some actions are right, and others, wrong.

    Here is how Hauser put his case in a recent essay:

    Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life.

    This code, a universal moral grammar, provides us with an unconscious suite of principles for judging what is morally right and wrong. It is an impartial, rational and unemotional capacity. It doesn’t dictate who we should help or who we are licensed to harm. Rather, it provides an abstract set of rules for how to intuitively understand when helping another is obligatory and when harming another is forbidden.

    Now, the announced title of Hauser’s Chicago talk was “Where Do Morals Come From? NOT Religion!” So I expected a Richard Dawkinsian or PZ Myerish attack on nasty old pernicious religion – but Hauser had almost nothing to say along those lines. Indeed, he had almost nothing to say about how Darwinian evolution explained the origin of human moral behavior.

    What Hauser did present was piles of evidence for human uniqueness, with respect to morality. Summarizing new experimental data, for instance, showing the predictable onset of self-sacrificial behavior in children – at about the age of 8, children begin to act on a sense of “fairness,” and will give valuable objects to others, which they might just as easily have kept for themselves – Hauser said, “This type of behavior is uniquely human. We see nothing like this in other animals.”

    In the weeks since Hauser’s lecture, I have often reflected on its remarkable content (I hope Jerry Coyne follows through with his commitment to make the videos of the Chicago talks available online), and have found myself cheered up. Why? Because a design theorist could have given Hauser’s lecture. Maybe even the Apostle Paul:

    For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness…(Romans 2:14-15)

    The “law” here, of course, comprises religiously-codified proscriptions and commands, as contained in sacred texts such as the Pentateuch. Hauser denies that morality arises from religion, but Paul would have agreed with him. Only a tiny fraction of the great mass of humanity around Paul in the Mediterranean world of the first century AD were Jews, with the Mosaic law.

    Nevertheless, Egyptians and Romans and Greeks and Persians knew that murder, and adultery, and theft were wrong. The law was written on their hearts, by design.

    […]

    Full Article

  29. Richard Wein

    Tom,

    It is absurd to suppose that the wrongness of the Rwandan massacre is only a matter of one’s emotional stance toward it. We all know that it is wrong in itself.

    No, you believe that. There’s a difference. I utterly disapprove of and condemn the Rwandan massacre. But that’s different from saying it’s objectively wrong.

    How do people come to think otherwise?

    I’ve given you my argument in the other thread. It’s nothing like the argument you proceeded to decribe.

    DL’s position—the position I have in focus in this post—is certainly moral relativism,* and it is absurd to limit it to mere disbelief in something. He believes (how could you have possibly missed this?!) that morality is a matter of subjective feeling.

    I haven’t missed it. That’s my position too. But it isn’t strictly moral relativism.

    “Conversely, the subjectivist need not be a relativist.”
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-anti-realism/moral-subjectivism-versus-relativism.html
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/

    I prefer the term “moral anti-realism” to “subjectivism” because the latter is sometimes associated with a particular interpretation of moral statements which I don’t share:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethical_subjectivism
    But I’ll answer to “subjectivist”.

    I don’t have a strong objection to your use of the term “moral relativism”, since it’s common to use it in the way you do. But I didn’t want to use the term to describe my own position, since I realise that it’s not strictly correct. I wasn’t making it an issue, just trying to be correct in my use of terminology.

    Having said all that, DL’s position is different from mine in some ways, and maybe his view is a form of moral relativism in the strict sense. He seems to accept the term.

    As for the substantive point, do you want to deny that people hold subjective moral values at all? Since different people hold conflicting moral values, they cannot all be objectively true. Wouldn’t you agree that the false ones are held on a subjective basis? If so, then I’m not proposing the existence of anything you don’t believe in. I’m just saying that all moral values are held on a subjective basis, not just some.

    But if you accepted the reality of my God’s existence, then you would be accepting the reality of a God who is good, by virtue of whose goodness morals are real, and who does not command you to eat babies. If you accepted the reality of some God that did not also lead you to accept his goodness as real, you would be accepting the reality of some God I never heard of.

    OK. I retract the word “your”, and restate it as follows: even if I accepted the existence of a God who did all the things the Biblical God is claimed to have done, I wouldn’t be a moral realist, because moral anti-realism would still make more sense. I would still disapprove of eating babies, even if that God told me it was the right thing to do.

    I continue to puzzle over how these obviously false hypotheticals about a morally repugnant God could be relevant to this discussion.

    The point is that you are on the horns of a dilemma. How would you react if God told you that eating babies was the right thing to do?
    – If you answer that you would accept this moral value and start eating babies, that strains credulity, and I doubt you would want to take that position.
    – If you answer that you would reject this moral value, then you accept that you put your own moral values ahead of God’s.

    I suppose you could escape the dilemma by saying that under no circumstances would you believe this was God talking to you.

  30. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    doctor(logic),

    Now you’re speaking clearly at last. If morality can be explained without objective morality, then that’s evidence that it is not objective. And there’s no positive evidence for objective morality, you say.

    I would say that there is positive evidence for objective morality in the fact that people “see” that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. We know it directly. All of our discourse reflects this. We don’t (just) say, “The Rwandan massacre made me feel bad.” We say it was wrong. We don’t (just) say, “The ending of apartheid made me happy.” We say it was a moral good.

    It is my strong contention that there is only one way a person comes to doubt this, and that is through a metaphysical route:

    -There is no God
    -Therefore there is no objective morality
    -Therefore morality is subjective

    I doubt you’ll ever meet a subjectivist who got there any other way, with this exception: the culture is so inundated with this approach now, that persons think they are subjectivists or relativists without having thought it through that way. Note that I said they think they are: they will hold on to relativism until someone says something outside the boundaries. If someone says to them, it’s wrong to cohabitate, they’ll say, “Who are you to judge?” and make a moral judgment against the person. If they meet someone who hates gays they’ll tell them they’re wrong.

    As to this:

    Note that things didn’t need to be this way. We might have found no mechanism for morality in us (nor any brain in us, for that matter), no morality in primates, and we might have found that morality is maladaptive. Only we didn’t.

    Actually on theism it did have to be that way, for all of that is reflective of the character of God and his creating us as physical persons in his image.

    It’s at this point that realists start talking about how horrible the world would be if relativism were true. This is where my evol God argument comes in. The argument shows that the world would be no different.

    The problem with this argument, which I’ve tried to show by the possible worlds argument, is that you cannot imagine, and I cannot imagine, a world without God, because all of the equipment on which and through which you do your imagining is done in a world thoroughly imbued with what and who God is. If you want to imagine a world without God, you would have to imagine one in which nothing, including yourself, has been created. You think you’re imagining a world without God, but if your world has any moral motions in it, they were put there by God. You haven’t chased those out with your thought experiments.

    When you claim that God’s morality isn’t your own, I assume you mean that you can’t live up to what God demands. However, would you really say that God’s morality differed from your ideal subjective morality?

    I’ve been seeking to align myself to God’s morality for a long time.

    Richard:

    As for the substantive point, do you want to deny that people hold subjective moral values at all? Since different people hold conflicting moral values, they cannot all be objectively true. Wouldn’t you agree that the false ones are held on a subjective basis? If so, then I’m not proposing the existence of anything you don’t believe in. I’m just saying that all moral values are held on a subjective basis, not just some.

    This sounds a lot like the Arithmetical Argument for Atheism, and the response is the same. Once you take the number of moral realities down to zero, you’re not just subtracting one, you’re changing the entire mode of existence of reality. I don’t have time to spell that all out this morning, but it’s in that linked post.

    The point is that you are on the horns of a dilemma. How would you react if God told you that eating babies was the right thing to do?

    God doesn’t do that. You’ve created a dilemma equivalent to, Are circles square, or are they triangular?

    even if I accepted the existence of a God who did all the things the Biblical God is claimed to have done, I wouldn’t be a moral realist, because moral anti-realism would still make more sense. I would still disapprove of eating babies, even if that God told me it was the right thing to do.

    You’ve just made a square circle. How does one do that?

  31. Franklin Mason

    dl,

    Why did I buy in? I’ve always been convinced that moral obligation was absolute and not a matter of what this or that person might prefer. It seems to me that, on reflection, this view is best situated within theism.

    I’ve also had a series of experiences that seem to me to point to a reality outside myself. No doubt you will discount those.

    I also do not believe that God is irrelevant in the explanation of our moral views. I have found that I’ve been pulled up short a number of times and been forced to rethink this or that moral belief. I locate the reason for this outside myself, in a moral order that I did not make. It seems to me that I’ve undergone a change that cannot be explained by my own little pitiful intellect; and it does seem to me that this change comes from a source with an authority that I cannot deny.

    When I survey the world and our place in it, I find one belief inescapable. It serves for me as a kind of postulate. (We all have them.) It is this: there is good, there is evil, and these were not made by us.

  32. Tom Gilson

    I’m adding one more comment in the sound booth at church at the end of sound check here, since my last line to Richard was too brief.

    Here’s why that’s a square circle: You said you would hypothetically accept that God did what the Bible says he did; and that still if he gave you an evil command, you would not obey it.

    But God’s goodness is not revealed only propositionally, as in tablets handed down from heaven, saying “I am good.” His goodness is revealed in all of the Bible; so if you accept all it says about him, then you know that he is not evil and will not issue evil commands. God’s nature is good, and he will not deny his nature. He could no more issue an evil command than you could draw a square circle.

    So your hypothetical could not be instantiated in any possible world where the Bible reveals God the way ours does.

  33. doctor(logic)

    Holopupenko,

    It’s YOU who are dehumanizing yourself, DL–not us.

    But now that I’ve dehumanized myself, you don’t think I deserve rights anymore, correct?

    You were just floating this idea a few days ago:

    We ban the use of alcohol …
    narcotics are completely banned
    we ban pedophilia, necrophilia, bestiality, and marriage between more than two people…
    In terms of outright danger (per the body counts of the 20th century), shouldn’t atheism be included in that list as well?

  34. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    I’ve been seeking to align myself to God’s morality for a long time.

    This isn’t much of an answer, and I know I’m prying, to you can just tell me to back off, if you want. Is there any part of your ideal morality that mismatches with God’s?

    As I said, I’m sure you don’t always live up to your moral ideals. Neither do I. But do your moral ideals depart from God’s?

  35. Holopupenko

    DL:

    No, of course you have no “rights”–your own words bear this out: “Humans are material mechanisms…” Material mechanisms have no rights. You’re a complex pile of 10^28 atoms that has no claim on “rights”… apart from the blatant question-begging of not defining what a “right” is and how it connects to a “material mechanism,” while huffing-and-puffing in absolutist “feelings” that you deserve “rights”? It is to laugh. Again, you’ve dehumanized yourself, but try to pawn the blame off on others.

    Richard:

    You are one of the weakest proponents of anti-realism I’ve run across:

    No, you believe that. There’s a difference. I utterly disapprove of and condemn the Rwandan massacre. But that’s different from saying it’s objectively wrong.

    First, what a childish non-argument it is to assert “No, you believe that…” and not to follow up with anything substantive. That’s serious intellectual rigor, for sure.

    Second, because you are clearly animated at the very least by the spirit of that failed, self-immolating project called positivism as well as material-based hyper-empiricism (you reduce objectivity to sensory-accessible reality to validate external verities), you’ve a priori tried to foist these upon others in your “arguments.” Tsk-tsk.

    Third, you make a first-order incoherent claim: “I utterly [!!] disapprove of [as if it’s up to your personal opinion for approval] and condemn [really? based on your feelings what you believe? how droll, how anti-intellectual, how vaporous in any moral weight] the Rwandan massacre [huh? what possibly could “massacre” mean to a relativist–and you are definitely a relativist with clear implications of will to power]. But that’s different from saying it’s objectively wrong [so “utterly” really means “kinda” to avoid objectivity].

    You claim relativism of moral categories based on your failed a priori epistemic limitations and yet you feel perfectly free to impose (that’s your will-to-power) your personal feelings in the most absolutist language (“utterly”) and then quickly hide behind alleged non-objectivity. Why should anyone critical thinker take such word-play nonsense seriously?

    What are you going to do? Cry “foul!” in moral absolutist terms because your “feelings” have been exposed for the incoherent nonsense they are?

  36. olegt

    Holopupenko wrote:

    You’re a complex pile of 1028 atoms that has no claim on “rights”

    This straw man doesn’t even have legs, Professor Holopupenko.

  37. woodchuck64

    Tom:

    It literally makes morality all about one’s preferences. It makes me my own king of morality. It is idol-worship of the worst kind, for it is self-worship, putting self in the place where all good and evil is decided

    This doesn’t follow. If naturalism is true, human beings are evolved social organisms with a hardwired need to be with other humans. Therefore, no human being can consider self alone when it comes moral choices or risk being cast out of society. Therefore, morality under naturalistic assumptions can not default to “self-worship” under any scenario.

  38. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    woodchuck64,

    This doesn’t follow. If naturalism is true, human beings are evolved social organisms with a hardwired need to be with other humans.

    It follows from the theistic assumptions I stated at the beginning of the post. Please re-read the first paragraph.

    Therefore, morality under naturalistic assumptions can not default to “self-worship” under any scenario.

    Self-worship means in this case putting oneself in the place of God, and honoring one’s own morality instead of his.

    olegt,

    This straw man doesn’t even have legs, Professor Holopupenko.

    From where do rights come on naturalism?

    doctor(logic),

    This isn’t much of an answer, and I know I’m prying, to you can just tell me to back off, if you want. Is there any part of your ideal morality that mismatches with God’s?

    I have been working on this for 35 years now, and my ideal morality after all that time is as close as I can match it to what I understand God’s to be. That has been my purpose and my intention, and I hope I have come close to achieving it.

    But now that I’ve dehumanized myself, you don’t think I deserve rights anymore, correct?

    That’s just getting it wrong. That’s all it is. Holopupenko did not dehumanize you, and he didn’t say you don’t deserve rights. But if rights derive from being human, and if you dehumanize humanity itself in the literal sense of denying what makes humanity specifically different from the rest of the natural order, then what becomes of rights that derive from being human?

    But I do reject Holopupenko’s suggestion that it makes sense to ban atheism. That doesn’t follow from the rest of what he said.

  39. Thomas Reid

    Richard,
    Although your questions were directed to Tom, I wanted to address them as well. I think there is a subtle, yet crucial, mistake you might be making here in the way you are using “subjective” and “objective”.

    As for the substantive point, do you want to deny that people hold subjective moral values at all?

    As a moral realist, I maintain that objective moral values exist, which means simply that there are true moral propositions (what makes them true, their grounding or ontology, is a related but slightly different subject that we need not address here as its been addressed in Tom’s recent thread). I also maintain that individuals, the subjects, realize the truth of these prescriptive statements to varying degrees. There are no such things as “subjective” moral propositions, just as there are no “subjective” mathematical propositions. There are propositions that are either true or false (or meaningless), and the subjects hold beliefs about the propositions.

    In this way, there are no “subjective moral values”, because there are no “subjectively true” propositions. Each individual’s beliefs are either true or false. When you place “subjective” in front of “moral values”, I think you are attempting a miscategorization. Indeed as I pondered this topic in the past, I came to see the moral realist need not use “objective” in front of moral values either. But I speculate the use of this term persists because today’s culture is steeped in relativism of all kinds.

    Since different people hold conflicting moral values, they cannot all be objectively true.

    Quite right. Although as a Christian theist I believe that all people do indeed recognize at least some true moral propositions, in accordance with the teachings in Romans. Nevertheless your basic point remains: two conflicting propositions cannot both be true.

    Wouldn’t you agree that the false ones are held on a subjective basis?

    Here is where it is crucial to reflect on the manner in which you’re using “subjective”. As I said before, the moral realist maintains that all subjects hold moral beliefs, be they true or false. To say that we hold a belief on a subjective basis is merely to assert that the subject holds the belief (whether true or false), not to say that something is “true for the subject”. The former is trivially true of all the claims any of us are making on this thread, while the latter is really a miscategorization as I explained above. Another way to draw the distinction is this: the thrust of the conversation is not about whether it is true that you hold a particular belief, but whether the particular belief you hold is true. As I said before, it is impossible for a proposition to be “subjectively true”.

    Now I think you have been pretty consistent on this and prior threads in your stance that there are no true moral propositions. For example you claim to disapprove of the Rwandan massacre, and quite consistently avoid saying it was wrong (since the latter is a claim unavailable to you as a moral anti-realist). But when you began using “subjective moral values” I wanted to clarify terms. Someone who believes there are no true moral propositions should not be using the term “subjective moral values” in an attempt to defend that something “is true for them” or other such nonsensical concepts. You of course have not used those exact words, but I’ve encountered this position many times in the past, thought you were heading in that direction, and wanted to cut it off at the pass.

    If so, then I’m not proposing the existence of anything you don’t believe in. I’m just saying that all moral values are held on a subjective basis, not just some.

    Any moral realist will agree that moral values are held on a subjective basis, this is trivially true. It is also entirely different from, and cannot be construed as a defense for, your position that there are no true moral propositions.

  40. woodchuck64

    Tom:

    It follows from the theistic assumptions I stated at the beginning of the post. Please re-read the first paragraph.

    I re-read the first paragraph, but I still don’t see how theistic assumptions can change what naturalism logically entails for morality. This paragraph:

    It literally makes morality all about one’s preferences. It makes me my own king of morality.

    … should read: It literally makes morality all about society’s preferences. It makes society king of morality. This is what naturalism entails for moral relativism because human beings are social beings.

    Self-worship means in this case putting oneself in the place of God, and honoring one’s own morality instead of his.

    Okay, but why then would an atheist who lays down his life for a friend be exercising a “nasty, putrid, awful smell[ing]” ethical perspective?

  41. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    woodchuck64, let’s go back to the beginning. You quoted me saying,

    It literally makes morality all about one’s preferences. It makes me my own king of morality. It is idol-worship of the worst kind, for it is self-worship, putting self in the place where all good and evil is decided.

    Then you said, “This doesn’t follow,” and you proceeded to discuss it in terms of naturalistic assumptions. But I hadn’t set it forth in terms of naturalistic assumptions, so why should I have to defend its logic according to naturalistic assumptions?

    That’s why I answered,

    It follows from the theistic assumptions I stated at the beginning of the post. Please re-read the first paragraph.

    Which of course I still maintain is true. You now answer,

    I re-read the first paragraph, but I still don’t see how theistic assumptions can change what naturalism logically entails for morality.

    I don’t see how theistic assumptions can change what naturalistic assumptions entail for morality either. So look, we’re agreed on that! Please bear in mind what I was trying to accomplish in this post.

    Now, when you say,

    … should read: It literally makes morality all about society’s preferences. It makes society king of morality. This is what naturalism entails for moral relativism because human beings are social beings.

    I think that could be disputed, because even as social beings each person makes his or her final decision about personal morality. But I would be willing to grant the social dimension, and call it idolatry anyway, because society is not intended to be king of morality either. What I mean, just to sort out the assumptions again, is that those who operate under naturalistic assumptions and make society king of morality under those assumptions can also be regarded, under theistic assumptions, as being rank idolaters. In other words, if their naturalistic assumptions are wrong and theism is true, then they are usurping the place of God.

    Okay, but why then would an atheist who lays down his life for a friend be exercising a “nasty, putrid, awful smell[ing]” ethical perspective?

    The laying down of the life would not be nasty etc. It would be good. But considering himself god of his own morality would still be foul. Worshipers of false gods frequently do very good things, but their false worship still stinks.

  42. Doug

    Can’t folks see even an itty-bitty problem with billions of little pseudo-gods each vying for a piece of the moral pie? If such a phenomenon were in tension with “the work of the law… written on their hearts,” then we’d expect… about the kind of moral landscape we actually see! (go figure) We’d also expect to see a slight moral edge to folks who recognize the problem. Oh my! We’re two for two!

  43. SteveK

    DL,

    Yep! Out of the oven, and into the fires of hell I go.

    We are told it’s not a pretty place so you ought to be careful what you wish for. In other words, a little humility would go a long way. Mr. Valentine knows.

  44. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    I have been working on this for 35 years now, and my ideal morality after all that time is as close as I can match it to what I understand God’s to be. That has been my purpose and my intention, and I hope I have come close to achieving it.

    Do you have an example of an ideal that you held in the past which you have since changed to something you previously found abhorrent?

    But if rights derive from being human, and if you dehumanize humanity itself in the literal sense of denying what makes humanity specifically different from the rest of the natural order, then what becomes of rights that derive from being human?

    I think it’s been shown that water sprites don’t actually exist. So have we “de-oceanized” the oceans? Clearly not. We just see the oceans for what they are.

    Admitting that we’re mechanisms does not change what we value. You seem to be confused about this. I think you may be carrying assumptions from your theistic worldview into the naturalistic world, and consequently reaching false conclusions.

    I’m assuming you maintain propositions like the following in your theistic worldview:

    (1) In order to hold a person accountable for his actions, that person must have exercised libertarian free will in choosing to do wrong.

    (2) Rights are granted by God to persons.

    (3) Humans are the only material beings that are persons.

    (4) All humans (at any stage of development) are persons.

    and that sort of thing.

    Suppose that naturalism is true. All of the assumptions and beliefs above go out the window, and moral feelings and behaviors must be re-evaluated from scratch.

    We start from facts, like:

    (a) Humans value persons, and value (to a lesser extent) potential persons.

    (b) Humans value non-persons, like dogs and cats.

    ( c) When enough citizens are willing to break the social contract for a social permission, that permission gets labeled a “right”.

    (d) Most people in the world strongly dislike genocide, and the first step on the road to genocide is to declare the target to be less than human and to declare them non-persons.

    (e) Humans have moral ideals that they generally fail to live up to because they value short-term gains instead of long-term gains.

    (f) Some humans think that their values are a reflection of a reality independent of human thought.

    The above are “is” facts. They are not metaphysical “oughts”. Under naturalism, there are no metaphysical “oughts”, but there are phenomenological “oughts”. A phenomenological ought is a drive, an instinct or a feeling that one must act (or not act) in a certain way. It’s an “is” fact, and “phenomenological oughts” do exist.

    Now, realizing the truth about reality doesn’t make me less human, nor does it make me less of a person. If I thought I was the Queen of Persia, I might feel like I’m a lesser person when I realize I’m not. But does that mean I’m truly less of a man or a person for realizing my delusion? Have I dehumanized myself by realizing I’m just Joe Sixpack? Not in my book.

    If I adopt naturalism, my phenomenological oughts don’t go away. I still prefer to be nice, and I still eat that extra slice of pie when I know I will probably regret it later, perhaps out of an irrational fear that there won’t be a later, and I will have missed that extra slice! And, what do ya know, I’m still sensitive about genocidal tendencies.

    Holopupenko did not dehumanize you, and he didn’t say you don’t deserve rights.

    Actually, he did dehumanize me, and he did so because of my beliefs. I’m convinced he desires to do this because it makes his hate more justifiable. He feels he shouldn’t hate people, but it’s a-okay to hate non-persons. Taking away my freedom of speech will do for starters.

    The Jews didn’t dehumanize themselves by being Jewish. Hitler dehumanized them because he wanted to slaughter them. Hitler dehumanized them by labeling them as less than human. That’s how dehumanization works.

  45. doctor(logic)

    Steve,

    Me: Yep! Out of the oven, and into the fires of hell I go.

    You: We are told it’s not a pretty place so you ought to be careful what you wish for.

    LOL! Dude! This is your response to my comment about being dehumanized, taken away on a train to a concentration camp, and burned in an oven?!!

    In other words, a little humility would go a long way.

    And how much humility do you display when I say the name Voldemort? Sigh.

  46. Holopupenko

    DL said: Hitler dehumanized them by labeling them as less than human.

    DL said: Humans are material mechanisms…

    Isn’t that labeling… as less than human?

    Holo said: No, of course you have no “rights”–your own words bear this out: “Humans are material mechanisms…” Material mechanisms have no rights.

    What is a “right” for a “material mechanism”? Isn’t that clear question-begging? Hasn’t DL just dehumanized himself… and others? After all, on previous occasions DL has dehumanized infants in the womb to justify killing them… which is very akin to the Nazi’s, to the Soviets, to Peter Singer… read: power over the weak. Why the deflection to others when DL does it himself? Why the fearful deflection when someone calls him on his own words? What is the fear on DL’s part to live up to his own assertions? And, why the repeated moralizing and complaining… in absolutist terms and in fallacious appeals to emotion (camps, ovens, etc.)? Because he’s permitted it but others are not? Isn’t that a form of will to power… over others? Isn’t it his atheism that’s driving him? Dostoevsky was correct: if there is no God, then anything is permitted… even DL’s absolutist moral complaints while decrying objective morality, even DL permitting himself to dehumanize others and then to falsely claim others dehumanize him when they call him on his own dehumanizing words?

  47. Dave

    Humanism

    “It is surely unreasonable to attack the doctrine of the Trinity as a piece of bewildering mysticism, and then to ask men to worship a being who is ninety million persons in one God, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.”

    Chesterton

  48. Richard Wein

    Tom,

    This sounds a lot like the Arithmetical Argument for Atheism, and the response is the same.

    No, that’s a completely different argument.

    God doesn’t do that. You’ve created a dilemma equivalent to, Are circles square, or are they triangular?

    So you’re claiming that it’s logically impossible for God to tell you to eat babies. Then the onus is on you to prove it. You continued…

    Here’s why that’s a square circle: You said you would hypothetically accept that God did what the Bible says he did; and that still if he gave you an evil command, you would not obey it.

    But God’s goodness is not revealed only propositionally, as in tablets handed down from heaven, saying “I am good.” His goodness is revealed in all of the Bible; so if you accept all it says about him, then you know that he is not evil and will not issue evil commands. God’s nature is good, and he will not deny his nature. He could no more issue an evil command than you could draw a square circle.

    1. Your argument takes as a premise that eating babies is evil. Since you’re making a claim of logical impossibility, you must prove that it’s logically impossible for that premise to be false.

    2. You must also prove that it’s logically impossible for God to do something evil. It’s not enough to say that the Bible “reveals” that he won’t do evil. Being contrary to the evidence (however overwhelming) is not the same as logical impossibility.

    For example, there’s overwhelming evidence that Mount Everest is not made of cheese. But it’s not a logical impossibility for Mount Everest to be made of cheese. And we can consider the hypothetical that Mount Everest is made of cheese. It’s meaningful (and true) to say, “if Mount Everest was made of cheese, it could feed many people”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logical_possibility

  49. Richard Wein

    Thomas,

    Thanks for that thoughtful post.

    Indeed as I pondered this topic in the past, I came to see the moral realist need not use “objective” in front of moral values either.

    I understand what you mean. But the term “moral values” is confusing, because it’s used in two different senses: (a) moral truths, and (b) the moral attitudes that people actually hold. In the other thread I used the term “moral attitudes” for the latter, and I should have stuck with that. I’ll return to it now, and I’ll use the term “moral truths” (without “objective”) for the former.

    All I meant to say above was that both realists and subjectivists think that people have moral attitudes, and that not all those attitudes correspond to moral truths. So the subjectivist doesn’t believe in something that the realist doesn’t. He just denies that any of our moral attitudes correspond to moral truths (because there are no moral truths).

    Someone who believes there are no true moral propositions should not be using the term “subjective moral values” in an attempt to defend that something “is true for them” or other such nonsensical concepts. You of course have not used those exact words, but I’ve encountered this position many times in the past, thought you were heading in that direction, and wanted to cut it off at the pass.

    Don’t worry. I have no intention of heading in that direction.

    Any moral realist will agree that moral values are held on a subjective basis, this is trivially true. It is also entirely different from, and cannot be construed as a defense for, your position that there are no true moral propositions.

    It’s a relevant fact, but it was not intended to be the whole of my argument against moral realism. My argument against moral realism is that we can explain our moral experiences as purely subjective mental phenomena. Therefore moral realism should be rejected because it requires us to accept a fundamentally mysterious (arguably unintelligible) concept of moral truth that is not needed to explain any observed phenomenon. (I hadn’t repeated the argument in this thread because I didn’t want to revist the subject of why I reject moral realism.)

  50. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Richard,

    There’s something more than passing strange about your 4:34 am comment. First there was this:

    Tom: This sounds a lot like the Arithmetical Argument for Atheism, and the response is the same.
    You: No, that’s a completely different argument.

    That was the extent of your counter-argument. It seems to me that it ought calls for at least some explanation. You just waved your hand at it, and that was it. I don’t really know how you know it’s a “completely different argument,” since my logs at the ISP indicate you did not follow the link to read the Arithmetical Argument for Atheism. I could flatter myself to think that you had it memorized already—it’s an original concept of mine—but somehow I doubt I should think that you had done so. Apparently you drew your conclusion on the basis of the short, introductory form of it I presented in the thread here—the one you seem to have also ignored.

    But then you went on to say that what the Bible says about God, which you had said you would take up as a hypothetical position (“even if I accepted the existence of a God who did all the things the Biblical God is claimed to have done…”) is not what the Bible says about God.

    The Bible reveals God to be good, to be pure, and to be unable to commit or to command evil.

    Now, I’m not going to waste my time proving that it’s logically impossible for it to be false that eating babies is evil. If you want to mount a challenge on whether that’s evil, mount it somewhere else. For my part I’ll just consider you obviously wrong and your position not worthy of further mention.

    As for proving that it’s logically impossible for God to do something evil, no, I don’t have to do that, either, because you have taken up the hypothetical position of accepting what the Bible says is true about God.

    Your Mount Everest example differs from God in that Mount Everest is what it is contingently, and the whole entire fabric of reality is not dependent on it being what it is. But God is the one necessary being, and is what he is necessarily. Further, if we suppose he could be different in some significant way—not entirely good—then we would have to assume that all of reality would as a result be unrecognizably different from what it is in ways we cannot imagine. In other words, setting aside for now that this is impossible by virtue of God’s necessary being and attributes, here is where your supposition leads:

    If there were some chance that God was evil or could do evil things, then there is no reason to believe that he would have created what he did the way he did, there is no reason to believe he would have created humans in his image, able to relate to one another as rational and caring persons, and there is no reason to think we could be having this conversation. On the contrary, there is strong reason to believe he would not have created humans able to do so. So if there were some chance that God could do evil things, we wouldn’t be here having this conversation.

    A final word on eating babies. When having a conversation like this, one sometimes wants to introduce an example of evil that everyone will react to as being obviously repugnant, wrong, aversive, or whatever word fits your understanding of what it means to be bad. It’s interesting how far out you thought you had to go to produce such an example that would be sufficiently, universally shocking. Our culture has degraded to the point that what everyone once understood to be wrong (rightly so) now seems right, and there are very few things left that everyone agrees is bad.

    That is the final word on that subject, by the way, in the sense that I’m calling a moratorium on discussing using that example here. It’s successful in producing a shock factor—too successful for me, and for what I intend this blog to be for its readers. The purpose of this blog is not to send readers rushing to the toilet.

  51. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    All I meant to say above was that both realists and subjectivists think that people have moral attitudes, and that not all those attitudes correspond to moral truths. So the subjectivist doesn’t believe in something that the realist doesn’t. He just denies that any of our moral attitudes correspond to moral truths (because there are no moral truths).

    That’s believing “in” something the realist doesn’t: that there no moral truths. It’s a belief in a completely different kind of reality than that which the realist takes to be true, a reality in which right and wrong have no meaning apart from human opinion, in which there is no God who supports the right and opposes the wrong.

    And I continue to maintain that we cannot explain our moral experiences as purely subjective phenomena. Our moral experience includes the gut-level conviction that some things are really right and some are really wrong. Only a metaphysical commitment to naturalism could produce the opposite sensation in us. If there are pure moral relativists who do not regard anything as really right or really wrong, it is because they have persuaded themselves that their metaphysics knows more than their moral sense does. Their metaphysical side has gagged their moral side, commanding it to “shut up, you stupid ninny, there is no such thing as right or wrong!”

    But the moral side still wants to speak. If it hears of a gay man being murdered for being gay, it tears off the gag and screams, “that’s wrong!” The metaphysical side may be quick or slow to re-apply the gag, depending on how careful the person is to protect his or her metaphysics; for when the moral side screams, “that’s wrong!” that’s when the metaphysical side is most in danger.

    That scream is a moral experience—if the metaphysical side will allow the experience without gagging it—that is not explainable as a purely subjective mental phenomenon. If not, then what does the term “moral experience” even mean? For this is an experience of something being really wrong.

    I’ve borrowed part of this comment for a new blog post.

  52. SteveK

    DL,

    Under naturalism, there are no metaphysical “oughts”, but there are phenomenological “oughts”. A phenomenological ought is a drive, an instinct or a feeling that one must act (or not act) in a certain way. It’s an “is” fact, and “phenomenological oughts” do exist.

    The factual is of a clock mechanism provides the ‘instinct’ that drives it to act in a certain way. Is this the same kind of phenomenological ought you are speaking about when you talk about humans?

  53. woodchuck64

    Tom:

    But I hadn’t set it forth in terms of naturalistic assumptions, so why should I have to defend its logic according to naturalistic assumptions?

    I wasn’t asking you to grant any naturalistic assumptions. Under naturalism, morality can not logically be self-worship. Naturalism finds humans one of millions of evolved social species and a social being by definition does not consider his/her own needs in isolation.

    This really is no different than if I were to claim that Christianity endorses cannibalism because of the teaching of the Last Supper. It would not help for me to say I’m making atheistic assumptions and therefore do not need to defend Christian assumptions.

    I’m not disputing that society-based morality is also idolatry under Christian assumptions. It’s just not as ugly since it is consistent with altruistic acts.

    Saw this in passing:

    A final word on eating babies.

    I think this probably originates with Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

  54. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    The entire section reads,

    Me, in the comment you are now responding to: woodchuck64, let’s go back to the beginning. You quoted me saying,

    Your quote of my earlier statement: It literally makes morality all about one’s preferences. It makes me my own king of morality. It is idol-worship of the worst kind, for it is self-worship, putting self in the place where all good and evil is decided.

    Me, again in the comment you are now responding to: Then you said, “This doesn’t follow,” and you proceeded to discuss it in terms of naturalistic assumptions. But I hadn’t set it forth in terms of naturalistic assumptions, so why should I have to defend its logic according to naturalistic assumptions?Then you said, “This doesn’t follow,” and you proceeded to discuss it in terms of naturalistic assumptions. But I hadn’t set it forth in terms of naturalistic assumptions, so why should I have to defend its logic according to naturalistic assumptions?

    I was saying that under theism—in God’s view, assuming the biblical understanding of God can be trusted—this kind of relativistic morality is self-worship. I wasn’t talking about what it is under naturalistic assumptions. Under naturalism you can call it whatever you want.

  55. Richard Wein

    Tom,

    That was the extent of your counter-argument. It seems to me that it ought calls for at least some explanation. You just waved your hand at it, and that was it.

    To be frank, I thought a wave of the hand was all your argument deserved, since (a) on careful reading it should be obvious that the arguments are very different, especially given my clarification to Thomas (which you’ve read); (b) the comparison between arguments didn’t seem necessary to your conclusion; and (c) your conclusion is a mixture of the trivial and the absurd. But since you ask for a response, I’ll skip straight to your conclusion:

    That’s believing “in” something the realist doesn’t: that there no moral truths. It’s a belief in a completely different kind of reality than that which the realist takes to be true, a reality in which right and wrong have no meaning apart from human opinion, in which there is no God who supports the right and opposes the wrong.

    So a belief that something doesn’t exist is a belief “in” something! Well, as a trivial matter of linguistic usage, it’s possible to use the word “in”: I believe “in” the nonexistence of moral truths. But the substantive issue is whether a belief in non-existence is appropriately analogous to a belief in existence. The context in which this discussion arose was your claim of idolatry. You’re saying that believing there are no moral truths (or believing in the non-existence of moral truths, if you prefer) is analogous to believing in the existence of false gods. That’s absurd.

    Sidebar. I can’t help noting that, regardless of whether this is a reasonable use of the word “idolatry”, it is quite obviously not a strictly correct use, as determined by dictionary definitions or standard usage. It’s an extended use for pejorative purposes. But this is just the sort of practice you’ve condemned on other occasions, namely the description of ID as a form of creationism and the description of Jesus’s turning water into wine as “magic”. I argued that such usage could be justified on a case-by-case basis, but your point seemed to be that it was unacceptable in principle. Yet here you’re doing it yourself.

    I don’t really know how you know it’s a “completely different argument,” since my logs at the ISP indicate you did not follow the link to read the Arithmetical Argument for Atheism.

    Then those logs are faulty or don’t do the job that you think they do, since I did follow that link.

    Now, I’m not going to waste my time proving that it’s logically impossible for it to be false that eating babies is evil. If you want to mount a challenge on whether that’s evil, mount it somewhere else. For my part I’ll just consider you obviously wrong and your position not worthy of further mention.

    Well, since you’re not prepared to argue over this vital premise of your response (to the dilemma I posed), I won’t waste time refuting your arguments over the other premise.

  56. Richard Wein

    P.S. In my previous post I took “idolatry” to mean belief in false gods, when actually its meaning is worship of idols. Correcting that only makes Tom’s use of that word worse. How can belief in the non-existence of something be a form of worship? Even “belief in a completely different kind of reality” (as Tom puts it) is not worship. It’s just belief.

  57. Richard Wein

    P.P.S. On reading some more about moral relativism, it seems there are varieties of moral relativism that do make claims of moral truth, but insist that moral truths are relative to cultures (or even individuals). Such views are not purely descriptive. Tom, if your OP is aimed specifically at those forms of moral relativism, then my objections to the word “idolatry” are not valid.

    As I said before, I don’t call myself a moral relativist (I think few people do). The word seems to be used to mean so many different things that I find it unhelpful. Perhaps I should have avoided a thread with “moral relativism” in the title. But I think it was worth at least pointing out that there are other moral anti-realist positions.

  58. William Bradford

    Richard Wein:

    How can belief in the non-existence of something be a form of worship?

    It is not the belief that is worship. Worship involves according great value to something and the acts of the worshipper reveal this. The object of worship may not exist in your mind or in fact but the concept nevertheless can have great value to the worshipper.

  59. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    It still boggles the mind that a naturalist can say his position is non-belief in something, and that his moral position is a position of non-belief. Is this anything more than a dodge?

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