Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Alternate Accounts of Objective Morality

When debating the moral argument, the Christian theist will sometimes encounter those who deny morality is truly objective. However, many thoughtful (and regular) people really do believe in objective moral values. Things really are right or wrong, good or evil, whether anyone believes in them or not. So what will the atheist do in order to avoid the conclusion “God exists”? He must deny the other premise (“If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist”).

In order for the atheist to deny this material conditional, he must show that objective moral values exist without God’s existence. A few alternate accounts of objective morality will be discussed.

1. Society accounts for what is objectively morally good and evil.

There are a number of problems with this. First, it appears this form of morality really isn’t even objective after all. Since society indisputably changes from time to time and geographic location to geographic location, what is morally good in one culture can be evil in another. Second, it remains unknown why we owe society a moral obligation. That is, why should we do what society says? Finally, this is “might makes right” morality at its worst. As long as one can muster the might, he can make it right! Most people intuitively believe this is wrong.

2. One should do what is best for society.

This account of objective morality states that what falls into the categories of “good” and “evil” is whatever contributes to the good of society. While “good of society” is quite a vague term most people believe the explanation is what contributes to society’s flourishing.

First, societal flourishing can be achieved apart from some actions which we would otherwise call morally good. For instance, suppose my wife baked a dozen cookies, for no particular purpose. She has asked that I eat none of them before dinner. I partake of two, and later, when confronted, I tell the truth. Telling the truth (even in this instance) is considered virtuous, yet no societal flourishing comes as a result of it. Suppose also my wife thinks it unimportant that I tell the truth in matters of societal insignificance. So my telling the truth is not a morally good action; at best it is morally neutral. But there are worse ramifications of this view.

Second, societal flourishing makes it possible for a morally good action to result in what is bad for society so that such an action becomes, perversely, morally bad. Suppose there is a society such that it achieves maximal flourishing and happiness by going to war with weaker countries and obliterates them. Suppose a member of that society starts a movement to end these atrocities. Such an act is ex hypothesi not only outside of the realm of moral good, it is actually contrary to it and is evil! For a real world example, consider: it is a moral good to become a doctor, and it is a moral good to become a structural engineer. Suppose a person X is talented such that it is reasonably certain he would be a success in both fields. Suppose further there is, proportionately to the needs of the society, one more doctor than structural engineer. Not only would this theory of objective morality render X’s choice to become a doctor not morally good, but X’s choice would be evil!

Finally, society’s flourishing as a standard of objective morality means good comes from actions most people would find morally evil and abhorrent. Take China, which recently announced a population of 1.34 billion.[1] With such a large population comes economic hardship, especially in the villages. Such a hardship does not, by definition, contribute to societal well-being. The hardship must be rectified but it cannot be during overpopulation. In fact, reducing the population would in fact be what is best for society in this case! Eliminating by either forcibly deporting or executing weaker citizens (such as children and people with deformities or disabilities and the elderly) would yield a better societal condition overall, and thus would be a moral good. This causes one to ask, as we did before, “why should we do what society wants?”

It is often responded that doing what a society values or wants or what contributes to its overall flourishing will respond in one’s own flourishing. But we can think of multiple instances in which this is not true. What of the times in which society’s flourishing does not result in my good? What if my flourishing can take place to the detriment of society (such as robbing a bank and getting away with it)? Further, this view then really collapses into…

3. One’s own survival, well-being, or flourishing is objective morality.

This notion is prima facie incoherent. It states an objective truth in a relative way. It is impossible to maintain that everyone is obligated to do what is best for him/her. Remember, the definition of objective moral values is “things that are true and independently binding, whether anyone believes in them or not.” Things like love, justice, and mercy are always good. Yet it is not true that love, justice, and mercy will always “get you ahead” in life. This is really just subjective morality in a masquerade.

4. One should do what will bring the greatest good and the least amount of harm.

This is a particular favorite of new atheists who also want to retain objective morality. It appeals to our sense of morality, and thus strikes us as plausibly true. There are a number of issues, however. The first issue is epistemic. It is impossible to know what will bring about the ultimate good or least amount of harm. Suppose John invites David on a fishing trip (and David has no friends). Most would say this is a morally good action. However, we have no idea if John’s action is actually good since we don’t know how David will react. Suppose (unbeknownst to John) David is mentally disturbed and kills John. John’s action (in theory) did not result in the greatest good, and definitely included harm. Even then, there’s no way to know; perhaps John’s death leads to enhanced preventative measures that save the lives of tens of thousands in the future. This leads us to our second objection against this view of morality, which is:

This is a consequentialist view of morality. If I told you that I believed any action was justifiable, so long as it had a positive outcome, you may very well be appalled. We call that “the ends justify the means,” and most people think this is not a very good ethical theory. Yet this is precisely what this view entails (even if it’s not what is intended). Perhaps then some will back off of this claim. They may say instead of embracing what is ultimately good (since then atrocities like John’s murder would be considered good), each action should be judged on its immediate effect. For example, it would always be wrong to steal, since that brings harm to an individual.

Consider this thought experiment: suppose my friend is deathly afraid of submarines. He needed to get to an appointment quickly, but the fastest way was via submarine (unbeknownst to him). He arrives at the travel station, seeing a long hall with the letter “A” on the left and the letter “B” on the right. He further knows boarding one of them will lead him to a train, while the other will lead him to a submarine. He asks me, “I trust you. Which way is the train?” I know that the submarine is just as safe as the train, that he is unlikely to find out he is on the submarine (silly, but it’s a thought experiment), and that it’s extremely important to make it on time to his appointment. I point him down to B, which is actually the submarine. His mind is placed at ease, which is a good immediate effect. He further will end up at his meeting on time, which is a substantially good effect. But suppose he finds out mid-trip that he was not on a train. He would experience mental anguish. Most people would not think the momentarily good effect justifies the mental pain I ultimately brought about (or the feeling of betrayal, etc.). The illustration is only heightened if we consider some tragedy happened (such as death). No one would say the action which produces a somewhat good effect but then later produces a horrible or tragic effect is justified.

These views fail precisely because they are unable to be lived out fully and consistently and because they fail to provide an adequate basis or grounding for objective morality. Only a transcendent God can provide this!
1 “China says its Population has passed 1.34 Billion,” < http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110228/ap_on_re_as/as_china_population > accessed March 1, 2011.

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  1. Randy,

    I'm wondering if truly objective morality can really be had outside of some sort of platonic form type of existence. It would seem that moral values determined by God are subjective and could possibly change. Subjective in that they are grounded in the attitudes of a single being, and open to change upon the moment of creation (I think Craig's view could entail this). Your thoughts?

    For my own views, I've traditionally thought of myself as a type of Social Contract theorist (a la Rawls). This gets kind of tricky because the view seems fairly objective, but I think you would want to say it isn't ultimately objective. I think Craig's debate with Shelly Kagan is a good back-and-forth on this topic.

  2. I should also say Alonzo Fyfe has been doing a free podcast with Luke from Common Sense Atheism called Morality in the Real World. In it, they are laying out the case for desire utilitarianism (desirism) as a moral theory. You may be interested to check it out.

  3. Hi Mike, thanks for the resource I may indeed check it out!

    To be completely clear, we should distinguish between objective moral values (things that are good and evil) and moral duties or obligations (things that are right and wrong). With God as the grounding point of objective moral values it follows even he cannot change something which is good into evil. However, he can, in divine command theory, assign specific duties. Here's a brief example:

    It is a morally good value to save lives, and it is always good. Doctors save lives. Suppose Jim the Christian wants to be a doctor. Suppose further God tells Jim (unmistakably, for the sake of argument) he wants Jim to become a Christian lawyer and take cases for free or something. This is also a morally good value (to help people for free out of charity). However, to disobey God is always evil, and objectively so. So a command given to Jim by God constitutes that becoming a doctor, for Jim, is wrong (insofar as a moral obligation goes). If Jim commits this wrong, that action itself entails a moral evil. So, we can see that something that falls under a moral value of good could potentially result in an entailed action which is evil (since it is always evil to reject God). This wouldn't make Jim's being a doctor evil inherently, but his being a doctor in this case is only in rebellion against a moral obligation.

  4. I'm not sure that places us in a better position than the social contract. So, if we imagine our perfectly rational being behind the veil of ignorance, then the decisions she makes from that position would be grounded in objective reasoning. And stemming from that, there would be right and wrong actions. You might question if we can ever really know what a perfectly rational being would choose in this circumstance. That is certainly a dilemma, but I'm also wondering how we know God's moral commands. The Bible, while being quite a large book, cannot possibly cover everything. Are we then turning to intuition, prayer, etc.? This seems like shaky ground that would be fraught with many incorrect interpretations.

    Now, I might want to say that the moral values comign from the social contract are universal, rather than objective. And I would wonder if God-based morality would have the same problem. You've said God could not change moral values, but I'm not sure why without getting into the Euthyphro dilemma. It would seem like you don't want to say these values are external to God, and it would also seem like they emanate from God and could possibly have been different.

  5. Hey Mike! Moral epistemology can be a challenge, but it's worth noting the Bible is not essential to a divine command theory (though it is the primary source). It's also important to know that the Bible is largely not a list of "dos" and "donts" (aside from the first five books); it contains guiding principles for action. What's interesting is Craig's account of what is permitted, commanded, and prohibited (Reasonable Faith, 181-183, I believe). So that if the Bible does not cover a particular topic, or if it does not fall under a category of guidance, it is permitted for the believer. Further, the divine command theorist is not forced to say that God is necessary to know moral values and duties. Indeed, we may appeal to all the same grounds as a "moral naturalist" would (of which I think moral intuition is largely helpful).

    To answer the last question, God is viewed as a metaphysically necessary being by theists. This being said, if he is the ground of moral values and moral values are necessary (and not arbitrarily chosen), it follows such a grounding is necessary as well. But whatever is essential to a necessary being cannot change (on pain of logical contradiction). So the Euthyphro is avoided here by this alternative. :)

  6. Randy,

    I agree moral epistemology can be a challenge. That's something with which every theory has to cope.

    I think I’m beginning to understand why you view moral values as necessary. It seems you’re saying that God’s traits will be the same in every possible world, while God’s actions, like creating humanity, are contingent. Is this correct? Are there any aspects of God’s nature that you do not view as necessary?

    I guess I would question why God’s traits are necessary. Even if you think the proposition “God exists” is necessary in every possible world, it’s not clear that these traits follow in the same way. Intuitively (for whatever it's worth) there doesn't seem to be the same force for moral values as there is for creating a square circle. They are, at least, not obviously impervious to change compared to logical contradiction. It is certainly conceivable that God could create a world with different moral values.

    Is there a deductive argument for why these values would be the same in every possible world or do you simply find it plausible or probable?

  7. Hi Mike-you are correct that I view God's attributes as being necessary whereas his actions may be different (to be fair, Christian theologians have famously disagreed about this or the extent of its application).

    When we say "God exists" is necessary, it holds the same referent in every possible world, namely, God. Now, for a philosophy of identity, what is essential to X's being is X's nature (in the realm of theology, this is quite confusing, because what one means by "nature" theologically is not what we mean by "nature" philosophically). I guess we could try a syllogism:

    1. For any X, if the absence of P changes the identity of X, then P is essential to X.
    2. For any metaphysically-necessary being, whatever essential properties are possessed are so necessarily.
    3. God is metaphysically necessary.
    4. The absence of love changes the identity of God in the traditional account.
    5. Therefore, love is essential to God (from [1, 4]).
    6. Therefore, love is possessed necessarily by God (from [2-3, 5]).

    (1) just is a take on the law of identity and thus should be uncontroversial. It is (2) which I suspect you would want to know. But if a property is essential to a person/being, then the lack of it necessitates a separate being (no X can be the negation of itself) entirely. But since the being in question is metaphysically necessary, it follows this is impossible. (3) is just the postulation as a hypothetical, so it need not be challenged. (4) is definitional, and so can only be challenged on the basis that God doesn't actually possess that property (whether by some kind of inductive argument or appeal to logical incoherence). But in any case, it is true that on the traditional account, (4) is wholly true. (5) and (6) are logically-entailed conclusions and so cannot be false. I hope it was clear; I came up with the syllogism myself and have not checked it with anyone else. :) I am only attempting to show an internally-consistent account of a necessary grouding of objective moral values.

  8. Hi Randy,

    Your syllogism is clear to me and I'm fine with (1), (2), and (3) laying out the case from which to argue. I would also add "in the traditional account" to the end of (5) and (6) since you laid that out in (4). Otherwise, you could argue they don’t follow necessarily.

    A couple of questions arise from this. What makes something a traditional account? There is obviously much disagreement among theologians, and it could be difficult to adequately define an orthodox view. Is the method of determination biblical, majority view, or something else? And why should we accept the traditional account as mapping to truth? Our lack of epistemic access would seem to make this a difficult task indeed, if not impossible. Finally, we have the very tricky metaphysical issue of essential properties of a necessary being. It may be the case that the only necessary property is existence. In fact, I do think that's all we can say with certainty. Assigning properties beyond that must rely on theological assumptions.

    But I think you only want to say that, if the Christian account of God is true, then morality is objective, given your last sentence. I would grant that conditional if there were good reasons to think properties other than existence were essential. But falling back on the traditional notion puts you in danger of it only being trivially true. It’s kind of like saying that morality is essential to God because the traditional view is that morality is essential to God. And it would have fairly narrow scope, but I suppose that you’re not interested in defending the notion of God in general as much as the notion of Christianity in particular.

  9. What's interesting is that typically other arguments do indeed establish certain properties. There have been journal articles showing an omnipotent being must exist, the moral argument suggests the ground of morality as good (which is where we get omnibenevolent), and of course the ontological argument in all its forms gets us all of the properties. Of course, that discussion gets us quite far afield.

    A material conditional should be regarded as true if one holds either the denial of the antecedent or the truth of the consequent, but not both. So, you should grant that above conditional as long as you think it to be the case that the Christian account of God is not true or morality is objective (of course, the antecedent may be sufficiently vague: do we mean the Christian account of God would be true were God to exist, or merely that the Christian God is true, and hence exists?). You're right that as it relates to the moral argument, I'm only trying to defend (1) of the moral argument by asserting its logical coherence; an offensive presentation would be made elsewhere. Thanks for the discussion Mike! :)

  10. Well I would dispute that it has been shown that an omnipotent being must exist, but you're right that it would take us too far off topic.

    I don't really want to press anything further because I don't think we're really in disagreement over whether a coherent account can possibly be given. I was simply questioning whether we have good reason to think that's the case. But that would lead into a variety of areas not really related to your original post.

  11. Oh, and one last point, just in case you're interested. The reason Luke M., mentioned above, is into desirism is that it may be a candidate for bringing about Friendly A.I. For people interested in morality, it's an interesting project. How do we create morality for a machine? And how do we create it in such a way that it will maintain our interests? And should such a project even be done? If anyone is interested in that, you can search for "friendly A.I." or "Eliezer Yudkowsky."


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