Monday, April 11, 2011

The "Is-Ought" Problem and God's Morality

The “is-ought” fallacy dates at least back to David Hume. The idea is that one may not describe how something is and then conclude this is what one ought to do in terms of morality. In the recent Craig-Harris debate, during the Q&A portion, a young man asked Craig how he was not committing the is-ought fallacy by saying “because God exists, we ought to do this or that.”

The question does need to be addressed: does the Christian or one who believes in objective moral values commit the is-ought fallacy? I think the answer is “no.” First, consider the nature of the fallacy. It is primarily a problem for naturalism, not a theistic view.[1] The idea is that one cannot take a statement of fact itself to be a prescription for moral activity. One cannot say, “it is true I don’t like to be struck; therefore, you ought not to strike me.” This was precisely Hume’s point.

Second, the objection assumes that one derives the “ought” of moral obligation from the “is” of God’s mere existence. This is simply not what the theist does when defending objective moral values. Craig says,
            Suppose that God never created a concrete world at all. . .so that there were no created            moral agents. In that case, God would not issue any commands, and so there would be no moral obligations or prohibitions of any sort. I suspect the questioner was confusing moral values with moral duties (these are not the same: it would be good for you to become a doctor, but you’re not morally obligated to become a doctor). The former are grounded in God Himself, the latter in God’s commands.[2]

So it is not the case that God’s commands are rooted in his mere existence.[3] Under the comments section on the Craig-Harris debate here at Possible Worlds, I alluded to this. We’re not saying, “God’s nature is good, therefore one ought to behave a certain way,” but rather “God’s nature is good, therefore what he commands we ought to obey.” This distinction between objective moral values and moral duties is critical.

Finally, the objection fails to take into account definitional scenarios. For instance, it is helpful to recognize it is not the “is-ought” fallacy to say, “Because X is a moral obligation, one ought to do it.” The reason is because this is simply what it means to have an obligation! If one wants to be aligned with moral obligations in her life, then she ought to perform these obligations. God’s nature grounds objective moral values, and his commands will always be in alignment with his nature. By this definition, then, she has an obligation to perform whatever commands are binding upon her in order to be in a right standing with morality! In summary, it seems God’s grounding of objective morality is not an instance of the “is-ought” fallacy after all.

                [1] William Lane Craig, “Question 208,” <>, accessed April 11, 2011.

                [2] Ibid.

                [3] It’s also worth discussing it seems that atheists may want to do away with the fallacy altogether. For instance, Harris alluded to “health” to be a counterexample of how we may say, “Bill has such-and-such disease, and we can say he ought to do such-and-such to get rid of the disease.” The problem is the “ought” is in accordance with a proposed standard independent of the fact of Bill’s having the disease.

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  1. I'm not sure if I understand exactly why the is-ought problem is a unique problem for moral naturalism. It looks as if Craig (if I understand him correctly) sees himself escaping the is-ought problem because he has a particular kind of identity claim, which I will phrase as follows:

    1. The moral good is that which is the competent moral authority.
    2. God is the competent moral authority.
    3. Therefore, God is the moral good.

    If we say that identities like this are immune to the is-ought issue, then it seems like naturalists could do a similar sort of thing. For example,

    1. The moral good is that which is chiefly promoted by sound moral judgement.
    2. Well-being is that which is chiefly promoted by sound moral judgement.
    3. Therefore, well-being is the moral good.

    If this is the case, then one can't argue against the naturalist by simply appealing to an is-ought gap. Instead, the objection must be located in the a priori claim or the a posteriori claim made by a naturalist of this type. In other words, it seems as though that if a posteriori identities get Craig out of the is-ought gap, then moral naturalists can get out if it too.

  2. Hi Jake, thanks for commenting! It seems that (1) on the naturalistic argument is problematic at worst and ambiguous at best. First, I could ask the question what is "sound moral judgment?" The answer is seemingly "whatever is good." So, good is what we judge to be good so long as that judgment is truly good. This seems to be epistemological rather than ontological (unless you are saying good is whatever we decide, which it is unlikely you are saying this). Second, I could ask the question as to what is meant by "chiefly promoted." Does this mean the major effect of sound moral judgment? But if that is the case, then there's no reason to believe our judgments about what we ought to do are right unless we already believe that well-being is that standard!

    I suppose an easier explication of this situation is to point out that the mere fact of something's occurring doesn't obligate us in any prescriptive way to these moral situations. Why, on naturalism, ought we to do these things? Even if we grant well-being as identical to good (which I do not), why think that because it is good we owe this abstraction any kind of duties at all? I think any atheistic account of objective morals should rather appeal to a Platonic realm (though this has its own set of problems, but at least it accounts for obligations somewhat).

  3. Why owe these abstractions any duties? Why owe a God any duties? To say 'out of gratitude' presupposes that 'gratitude' is a good, which is 'smuggling in' a good. If the duty is out of fear then it stops being about morality at all.

  4. Hi Andrew. My comment there is within the context of abstract and concrete beings. Abstractions cannot place any obligations on us, but concrete things can. We don't owe God any duties out of gratitude; at best that may be a sufficient explanation of a motivation for doing these. However, I'm also not speaking of motivation but of ontological grounding. We have a moral obligation to adhere to duties commanded out of the nature or grounding of the objective moral value of good itself, that is, if we wish to align properly with moral values and duties.

  5. Hey Randy,

    Thanks for the reply, and I apologize in advance for the length of this post.

    In the first part of your response, you pose some questions for the terms involved in the propositions 1 and 2 for the naturalistic account. I think that these are beside the point for a few reasons. First, one doesn't need an account of "sound moral judgement" in order to affirm the premises. Craig dismisses similar worries to the accounts of miracles, like "If God did X, how did God do X?" These questions are largely beside the point because one doesn't have to have a full account of divine intervention in order to conclude that God did X. Similarly, one doesn't have to have a full account of the conditions of sound moral judgement in order to identify people who are capable of such judgement. Secondly, the account I gave is just an example of how a naturalistic account might go by using a posteriori identities. The point is the general formula, not the particulars. Namely:

    1) The moral good is X.
    2) Y is X.
    3) Therefore the moral good is Y.

    In the second half of your comment, your first statement talks about the is-ought gap, but then the rest turns into what appears to be a reiteration of point 1 in Craig's a posteriori identity, which isn't strictly about the is-ought gap. Rather this is a substantial premise from a priori reflection to which the naturalist isn't committed (and I tend to think false). This is actually my point. It looks as though supposed is-ought gap considerations involving a posteriori identities actually degenerates into talk about the a priori conditions for moral goodness (point 1 in both cases).

    If the naturalistic identification is true, then thinking of moral duty as something owed to the moral good (in the same way I have obligations to persons) is mistaken, no matter how many times it is reiterated. We can point this out in response to the question you posed on the assumption of the naturalistic identification, "Why, on naturalism, ought we to do these things? Even if we grant well-being as identical to good (which I do not), why think that because it is good we owe this abstraction any kind of duties at all?" The supposed naturalistic answer, as it would occur to me in this case, would say that moral duty isn't like duty to persons (so we're not owing anything in that way), and that we ought to perform our moral duties to promote well-being because that's what goodness is. Much like, on the theistic identification, we ought to obey God because that's what goodness is. Note, here, that the issue of moral ontology is different from the issue of moral motivation, so concerns like, "So what? What's in it for me?" are beside the point.

    [I actually think that the identification with obligations to persons is incorrect in itself because inter-personal obligations are constituted by moral obligations (not the other way around), and thus are not fundamental. So the grounding of moral obligation by inter-personal obligation seems wrong-headed. However, this concern is a bit off-topic.]

    Thus, it seems to me that one cannot say that theistic accounts get a pass on the is-ought gap without the possibility of some naturalistic story pulling a tu quoque. If theistic accounts are free from strict is-ought considerations, then to avoid begging the question, the theistic proponent must provide substantial reason to disagree with the naturalistic identification, not merely the kind of identification made.

  6. Ah then it is apparent I had not understood your (1). That being said, and now properly understood, I don't see any reason to think (2) is true. But that is somewhat beside the point. There's just no reason to think well-being is prescriptive of moral duty. To say one is obligated to do what is good is to presuppose there is an obligation to do what is good! While our intutions surely grant this, the question is why on naturalism should we observe moral facts and thus derive a precription from them to do certain things? All that can be offered is that if you want to be aligned with the moral value good, then do this; but there are no moral obligations. Moral values don't entail of themselves moral duties; those are not identical.

    The theist can avoid the is-ought fallacy by a) distinguishing between moral values and duties and b) postulating a being assigning duties or obligations.

    As to your objection of not owing obligations to a person, I think this can be resolved by pointing out it is question-begging against interpersonal obligations. After all, the only reason to think all interpersonal obligations are not fundamental is because one already thinks that God is not the one to whom we owe an obligation. At best, you could offer this in terms of regular interaction, but not ultimate interaction (at least in a non-question-begging way.

    The reason Hume and others have found the is-ought fallacy to be such is because there doesn't seem to be any reason we owe any obligations or duties at all in the moral realm in an objective sense on naturalism; this criticism is avoided entirely on theism.

  7. Thanks for the continuing discussion. I'll attempt to be a bit more concise.

    You say that, "To say one is obligated to do what is good is to presuppose there is an obligation to do what is good!" I think that this is mistaken (or at least that a naturalist is not commited to it), chiefly due to the large gulf that you're putting between values and duties. I think it is perfectly viable for a naturalist to say that the notion of moral duties is built into the notion of moral goodness in the sense that a person would simply be confused if they said something like the following: "X is the uniquely morally good action, but I have no moral obligation to X." This reminds me of an analogue for rational obligation, "X is the uniquely rational action, but I have no rational obligation to X." That is, I don't see why a naturalist should accept moral values as being neither here nor there as far as obligation is concerned. [This, of course, doesn't deal with moral motivation, but that's not the issue at hand.]

    Secondly, regarding my side note on interpersonal obligation, I don't actually think take such a position is motivated only by thinking that there is no God to which we ultimately owe our obligations, and I didn't posit it as a way to rebut theistic concerns but merely to undercut them by positing an alternative that even Platonists could accept. However, I think such a position can be motivated, for instance, by noting the direction of explanation in describing our obligations to people. It seems to me that, when it comes to explaining why we have an obligation to X to a person, we explain X in terms of fundamental moral obligations. However, we don't explain moral obligations in terms of obligations to people. That is, we don't explain why it is wrong to lie to Jane in virtue of some personal obligation to Jane. This appears, to me at least, to get the direction of dependence wrong. (Of course, those already committed to certain sorts of theism will say that all such obligations somehow ultimately trace back to God, but there's no need to make that assumption here.) But, then, the assertion that one must assume that we don't have obligations to God in order to hold such a view appears to me to be just an assertion.

    Regardless of Hume's motivations for establishing the is-ought gap or what his assumptions were regarding 18th century naturalism, the only question is whether theism can escape the gap where naturalism cannot. Without requiring substantive premises that I don't think a 21st centuraly naturalist would be inclined to accept in the first place, there doesn't seem to be any reason to think that theism stands better in the issue. At the very least, Craig's reasons for thinking theism escapes the is-ought gap are insufficient.

  8. Jake, I agree with your intuition about people deriving moral obligations from moral values, but all that shows is that we have such duties, not how or why, given naturalism, those duties exist. To me, that we do have such duties seems so much the worse for naturalism! To be sure, duties may be derived from moral values, but are not entailments of moral values (at least not in every case). Consider that it is good to be a doctor; but we're certainly not at all obligated to become one!

    I see what you're saying, but in that case, again, I don't see it as undercutting at all (since none of these are ultimately explanatory--they only tell us what is wrong or evil, not necessarily why). Indeed, were we to examine our intuitions, we think lying is wrong because it is a mistreatment of persons (this explains why most people don't consider every act of lying to be wrong). Now, I myself do not necessarily subscribe to such thought, but on the instance of moral intuition you'll find many people believe the individual is to whom truth is owed. But in any case I don't see any reason that a non-ultimate way of viewing obligations owed equates to the ultimate standard; that is, the argument is not that moral obligations are owed to other people, therefore they are owed to God. The analogical argument is that obligations en masse or as a whole are owed to people.

    In any case, the statement of "ought" is not derived from God's existence, but "ought" is in relation to God's commands. Since every ought is in every case an instance reducible to some fact's existence, it shouldn't surprise us there is an "is" involved. However, it's not the existence of the "is" statement (that is, God is the locus of moral value), but the referential content of that (God grounds morality and issues commands in accordance with those values). Naturalism simply has no such grounding!

    I definitely appreciate the conversation and your cordial tone! :)

  9. I'd like a further explanation of what is meant by 'ought'. The word 'ought' implies a criteria - 'ought to do this GIVEN that'. 'Ought to do this, GIVEN desired result X', or 'GIVEN that we want to increase happiness', etc.

    An ought that is divorced from a criteria doesn't appear to have any meaning. You can say that as soon as you give it a criteria it stops being objective. But trying to solve this by removing a criteria means removing any meaning from the word 'ought' at the same time.

  10. In this article, as well as Hume's agnostic discussion of the is-ought problem, "ought" is in reference to objective morality (even though Hume was skeptical of its existence). His was hypothetical. Given naturalism, what "ought" we to do morally. Viewing a situation in the world as taking place does nothing to obligate one to do it. According to Hume, what is is not a sufficient criteria for what ought to be the case.

  11. I have to say to the naturalists, so what if something helps us survive? If the universe came about by random chance, and all there is neutral natural laws (same natural laws are in action when a baby's getting raped, as well as when a cop busts the pedo), who says humanity has to even live? It's good "for us" in the sense that we live, but so?

    If humanity were to be wiped out, the moral values would still exist. Why? Because God would still exist, and God's nature is what determines the values and purpose for the universe.

    Consider the following. Let's say there's an alien civilization on the same level of mental capacity as us humans, so they have the ability to choose between different possibilities using reason, unlike animals which work on instinct. Let's say there's a Creator who created all life and the universe itself. Let's say humanity is wiped out by a nuclear holocaust, World War 3, for example.

    Clearly, since the Creator took the time to create us, we are supposed to be around, we have some sort of a purpose (unless we're talking about some sort of Creator that works completely randomly). But consider the fact that our Earth civilization could be antagonistic towards the alien civilization and vice versa. (Note: probably, from the Creator's point of view, this shouldn't happen, since he took the time to create both species, so I find it hard to believe he'd want either to be wiped out, unless he's some sort of warlord type Creator that values a "survival of the fittest" type morality)

    For the alien civilization, it's a good thing we were wiped out. But the Creator wanted us to live. So, even if the alien civilization claims it's a wonderful day when they find out we're gone, the universe's moral laws which come from the Creator stand in contradiction with the alien civilization's values.

    (first post... more coming up)

  12. Simply put, for the naturalist, morality begins and ends with humanity. But with a Creator, even if humanity is gone, the same values still exist.

    Morality in naturalism isn't too meaningful, at least when compared with traditional values of right and wrong. It's nothing more than "what helps us survive". But who said we have to survive in a randomly evolved universe? It came here by chance, it was designed, thus there was no INTENT (coming from intellect) to make it this way. It randomly came here from the neutral and rather mindless forces of nature. Who is to say the nihilist isn't correct when they state there's no value to anything? The only reason we say that is because they are the minority. That's all.

    Say you're an animist. Animists are very superstitious and want to appease spirits found in objects we believe are inanimate (some simply worship nature as sacred). So if they believe that there's a spirit in a tree, [perhaps, OBVIOUSLY NOT ALL ANIMISTS WOULD BELIEVE THIS] they won't cut the tree, even though they need to do so, in order to obtain fire wood to help their family survive. Why? Because it's wrong to upset the tree spirit, (and, for the purposes of this argument) especially if this animism is more a "nature-worship" variety (rather than mere animistic magic/divination which helps the human survive), which values nature as sacred (even if the spirit won't take revenge as in the magic/divination version which is meant to appease the spirits). So much for survival.

    I could create my own meaning of life right now (since there's no objective morality coming from a source outside of ourselves which, and this objective morality is derived from an objective purpose/meaning of life) based on the idea that anyone who doesn't wear green pants on Fridays is EVIL and deserves to be tortured. Only thing that makes me "wrong" is the fact that I'm in the minority.

    (end of second post, third one coming up)

  13. Again, who says survival is the most important thing? What if you're a suicidal nihilist who believes the main goal of life is to destroy the planet? Who says reason HAS to be applied to help humanity? Or help life in general? Why? Because you don't see any other animals trying to be suicidal? So? We don't see animals coming up with medicine, technology, etc. That doesn't faze us.

    Totally different values from secular ethics which "help us survive". Secular ethics are based on the assumption that humanity has value, and that it's a good thing to survive. Therefore the morals will follow along with the goal. What's right is what helps us survive. What isn't right is that which doesn't help us survive.

    Nowhere does it say that we "have to survive", except for the fact that the majority believes so. But the majority used to be religious (and still is), yet the atheist won't think much of that. If the majority of society were full of pedophiles, would that make pedophilia legal?

    Naturalistic ethics are a joke.

    I'm some sort of a deist by the way (not antagonistic to any religion, though; in fact, I respect religions very much indeed especially the monotheistic ones for having a logically coherent concept of God, as far as human reasoning can go really, I doubt we'll ever understand God).

  14. Hi Jackson--thanks very much for commenting! I'm sorry I didn't get around to approving them earlier. I totally agree. You outlined my (and countless others') argument against naturalism. I respect the fact you're a deist. I am certainly not trying to pressure you or argue with you--what would you say about Christianity and specifically the Resurrection? Take care!

  15. Hi Randy, sorry for so long to reply.

    At the moment, I am not yet settled on anything, but if further research reveals more interesting information, I consider all options being as objective as I can.

    As for the Resurrection, again, I'm not saying it's impossible if God wanted to, neither am I saying it doesn't seem to have some valid logic as a concept for redemption. I don't pick on every little thing in the Bible like the other "skeptics" (skeptic except for when it comes to questioning their own worldview, that is).

    I hope that answers your question.

  16. Thanks Jackson it does. Please take this in the warm spirit in which it is offered: I urge you to receive Christ as your Savior. :) I know you know we're not a bunch of crazies, and we do have some decent reasons to believe. But I will not press you, or try to push you into a decision. Just making a plea. For if what we say is in fact real, it is of the utmost importance. What could be more important than the truth? Thanks for reading and commenting! :)

  17. Randy,

    I appreciate the fact that you are so well-intentioned. I always said to myself that if something is true, then a thorough (objective) analysis and scrutiny can only confirm it. So if what you believe truly is correct, then I assume I'll find my way eventually. I'm only 19 so I have plenty of time to settle for a belief. And I've only begun this process of research about 2 years ago, so settling on something like a worldview isn't the easiest and simplest issue to resolve. I just know I have much more in common with Christianity's teachings (and other monotheistic religions) than I do with atheism, or other pantheistic type religions like Buddhism/Hinduism/etc. Monotheism provides logic and means things run according to the reason injected by the deity. I mean, you have to understand, when I say I'm open minded towards different possibilites, I really mean that. I don't even accept evolution (not even a theistic version of it), nor do I accept the Big Bang, or other such things. The proof given doesn't impress me. The facts can be fit into any paradigm almost so until I see actual observational confirmation, I'm not impressed. Computer simulated evolution doesn't count. I'm so open to these various things that, if I ever become a Christian, I could probably even accept Young-Earth Creationism if that's what the Bible really teaches. I don't treat science dogmatically like so many in the scientific community do. I think of those atheistic evolutionists as some sort of strange pseudo-priests of naturalism (even assuming evolution is true, why would that imply atheism?). And the New Atheists are like these really dedicated fanatic evangelizers who cannot accept any heretics with views which are anathema to official dogma. To finish off the metaphor, those people using computer programs to "simulate evolution" are some sort of modern-era techno-shamans attempting their strange witchcraft rituals, no different than using some bones for divination purposes.

    I also agree that the most important issue is the truth. Which is why I never stop doing research. I do research on the Bible too. So I'm trying to cover as many bases as possible.

    Thanks for caring enough to make a plea, it means something.


  18. Jackson, you have no idea how much you have encouraged me concerning our generation's young people (as if I am so old--just 28 you know!). I can very much appreciate the fact that a worldview is no easy thing to adopt. That's why I tell people I don't do easy believism--for what we are called to believe is not easy!

    Only God (and possibly you) know what circumstances under which you would receive him. While I urge you to consider how much time you really have, I also readily agree that we can trust you will recognize it in time, all things being equal.

    If you ever want to discuss anything or ask an "insider" question just let me know!

  19. Right, is there any way I can contact you privately for a somewhat related question?

  20. Absolutely. You can submit through the Q and A link above or more directly " me at randyeverist dot com " :)

  21. Hi! Thanks so much for posting this! Seriously, I've been thinking a lot about objective moral values based on God nowadays, so this helped a lot. :)

    This might be a bit semantic, sorry. Are you saying God is "good" by definition? So is "good" basically what God is? Does that make "good" arbitrary?

    Sorry if this has nothing to do with what you're saying.

  22. Hi thanks for commenting! :) I'm glad this could be of some help or encouragement.

    God, as the locus or grounding of objective moral values, is the good; so yes, God is good by defintion. However, good is not itself arbitrary. For on my view (and on most theist's view), God does not just choose what is and is not good; on the contrary, what is good is what aligns with his essence or nature. Since God grounds this, he can no more will something evil to be good than he can violate his own nature! Does that help?

  23. Ohh, I see what you're saying! That's pretty cool! Thanks!

    Sorry, I have a follow-up question. If a theist can say that good is grounded in God, why can't a naturalist say that good is grounded in nature?

    Also, can God's nature change? (I understand if you're hesitant to answer this, cuz it would be sort of like speculation, eh?)

  24. I certainly appreciate both of your questions! I will tackle the second one first, if you don't mind.

    When theists speak of a nature (whether God's or otherwise) we basically mean that which defines a person (kind of in the same sense as the law of identity; something is what it is). It's worth noting this is also the standard view philosophically regardless of one's position on God. So if God's nature were to be something other than what it is, then he would not be God, but some other being (by definition).

    To your first question, naturalists do in fact sometimes appeal to nature's grounding of objective morality (see Sam Harris). However, first and foremost, they owe us an account of what this even means. As much as they try, it is just inexplicable why blind impersonal forces give rise to personal morality. Further, even if we grant that these objective moral values exist, somehow grounded in nature (that is, good and evil are just built in), it remains even a larger problem to explain how or why it is that anyone owes anyone else moral obligations! That is to say, other natural facts exhibit no obligations upon us whatsoever (that is, we are not obligated to do anything with knowledge of how to get to the moon, for instance). One may try to evade this by saying objective moral values exist without obligations, but this seems unlikely for exactly the same reasons objective morality's non-existence seem unlikely; they are inextricably linked. It's late, so if you have any questions about what I have said or if any confusion abounds, the fault is mine and I apologize! Please let me know what you think! :)

  25. This has nothing to do with the conversation, but Sam Harris really annoys me. Actually, Hitchens is the only New Atheist I have an inkling of respect for.

    Back to the point:

    Oh, right. I get it! Thanks dude! :) But can God change His own nature? I mean, as an omnipotent being? Or is that sort of impossible, because if He did that, He'd no longer be God? Maybe I should stop thinking of God in human terms, eh? Haha.

    And that Law of Identity thing sounds like "I am what I am", eh? That's pretty cool.

    Well, with regards to objective values, I mean, instead of saying "good" is God's nature, couldn't they just say "good" is nature, period? It sounds like the same logic to me. Or would that be changing the definition of "good"--would they have to invent a whole new word for it? Plus, OK, I guess then we wouldn't have any obligations to not kill OTHER species. Hm..

    But I see what you're saying about obligations. That makes sense. Is the only reason theists think they have "obligations" is cuz God said they do?

    BTW, I saw your comment on YouTube!!!! It was the only comment I liked, and now I find out it was yours! That's so cool.

  26. Hey man thanks for letting me help any way I can! Yeah, they all annoy me to a certain extent, but then I remember these are all people in need of a Savior, just as I was (and am; I am no better than they).

    God cannot change his nature because he cannot do the logically impossible. But this should not be thought of as a deficiency, for God himself is truth. This means that what is logical is a reflection of God's nature! So, for those who think it is glorifying to God to say that he may do the logically impossible, I respond the only way we can truly glorify God is to recognize who he is!

    There are panentheists who claim nature contains inherent value, like what you are saying. There are two problems. 1. The grounding problem. Because theists and atheists alike see problems with objective morality just "existing" as a part of nature without being grounded by anything whatsoever. 2. If nature grounds what is good, then whatever nature produces is good, and hence, obligatory. So then if we do wipe out another species (say alien lifeforms of our approximate level), since nature allowed it, it was in fact good!

    I have made several youtube comments, so I was wondering which one you were referring to? :)

  27. Dude, they're in need of guidance, not a Saviour. But we'll agree to disagree, eh? :P

    :O Mind. Blown. I had never thought of it that way! Logic is also grounded in is saying something illogical equivalent to doing evil? Because both go against the nature of God?

    Sorry, this confused me a bit. So you're saying that anything that nature DOESN'T do, for instance it didn't fix my bad eyesight, we have a moral obligation not to do (so I shouldn't wear glasses), and vice versa? And we can't prevent people from claiming something is natural vs. nurtured? Actually, what is nurtured would arise from the nurturer's ability to go against their "nature", which is in fact part of nature, so whatever is nurtured is a by-product of my natural ability to think outside the box?

    That is so cool!!!!!

    Er, I don't remember the video name anymore. It was like a 5 min excerpt of Harris debating Craig, and this questioner from the audience was asking about ought being grounded in God, and I'm pretty sure you commented something like, "Craig isn't saying God is, therefore we ought. He's saying God IS the ought". Or something.

    I'm sorry, I don't quite remember. And I may be wrong; it might've been someone else. Sorry.

    ALSO, I have so many questions about Jesus, but they don't really have to do with the topic at hand. I've tried asking my Christian friends, but they just stare at me blankly. Am I allowed to ask them here?

  28. If something is strictly illogical, then it is impossible, so I am not sure that it is evil--but I agree with your saying that it is analogous to evil! :)

    And yes, your conclusions are correct from a atheistic/naturalistic viewpoint.

    You may, of course, ask any questions here or by my personal e-mail, which is "me at randyeverist dot com" (I wish to avoid spam so I am spelling it out)

    I am curious: what is your background religiously? Do you have those same views now? In any case, feel free to ask anything about Jesus. If I know the answer, I'll glady do so, if I don't I'll help you find it, and there may even be some questions we just don't have answers to. :)

  29. Awesome, thanks! I'm going to email you ASAP. Expect an email from someone called "La la" (I do that cuz my real name is pretty darn unique, haha.)

    (Just to be clear: the actual EMAIL address is the word "me" at [yourname]? If so, that's pretty snazzy.)

    I'm a Muslim--both by background and by choice. :) My super-devout Christian friend is always trying to convert me, haha. Poor guy.

  30. Oh OK cool! Yes you have it! That would be awesome if you sent me an email. I do sympathize with your "poor" friend however. ;) If Christianity is true, it is of the utmost importance, would you not agree? What kind of people would we be if we didn't care enough to say something? :)

  31. I think morality is inherently subjective regardless of the existence of God. Why? Because the words 'ought', 'should', 'duty', 'obligation' and so on all have subjective underpinnings. What do these words mean? I propose that the word 'should' can have one of two meanings (the other words are similar):

    (i) "You should not do X" means "I do not want you to do X".
    (ii) "You should not do X" means "It is not in your interests to do X".

    These meanings, or a mix of them, cover all common usages of the word 'should'. For example, in the statement "You should go to the doctor," carries the implied premise that you want to be healthy, so the statement reduces to "If you want to be healthy, you should go to the doctor." If that premise is not true, then the statement is meaningless to you.

    If the word 'should' doesn't mean one of these two things, then what else does it mean? You can try something similar with the other words and try to pin down what they mean. So the statements

    "You should not murder"
    "You have a duty not to murder"
    "You ought not to murder"
    "You have an obligation not to murder"

    seem to have objective meanings to them, but if you try to actually pin down the words used and describe the statements in a more fundamental way, it becomes evident that these words don't actually have any meaning that is independent of value-laden premises. We can get away with realising this because we never really closely examine the meaning of what we are saying.

    A similar problem is posed with the words 'good' and 'evil'. Now in this case, you can try to define 'good' and 'evil' in an objective sense and say "Good is what God commands" (or literally anything else). The problem with this is, in attempting to define 'good' in an objective sense, you have removed the useful meaning of the word. You can see this by performing the substitution "good" -> "what God commands." Then saying "Murder is not good" is simply "Murder is not what God commands." This doesn't mean anything to somebody who doesn't already share your (subjective) value of God's command.

    The fundamental point of the is-ought gap is that the word 'ought' means 'It is in your interests to do'. THIS is why you cannot move from is -> ought without a premise regarding preferences. If this premise regarding your preferences is not present, then you can just keep asking "Why?" The fundamental point of my comment is this: the statement

    "If I want to commit murder and there are no consequences that I care about, then why should I not commit murder?"

    has no answer. Introducing a deity doesn't change that.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! It does seem to me, as formulated, your argument clearly begs the question. For it just *is* the question as to whether objective morality is in the mix for meanings, so to declare it does not in your premise is to assume what you want to prove.

      Nonetheless, it seems we can tweak it to account for this, and just say that if at least one of these two meanings is present in each instance of purported morality cases, then these are sufficient to account for what we mean by morality, and thus it isn't objective.

      The problem is this is clearly false: while I may mean "I do not like what you're doing" when one bullies a homosexual for fun, I also *mean* that it is going against a real standard. So why should we think it ruled out?

      You write here, "if you try to actually pin down the words used and describe the statements in a more fundamental way, it becomes evident that these words don't actually have any meaning that is independent of value-laden premises." and you claim this is a problem, but you don't actually spell out *why* this is supposed to be a problem. Presumably, you think:

      A. There are no non-analyzable [fundamental] terms

      is true. But it is almost manifestly obvious that A is false. So why should we think A or something relevantly like it is true? Why can we not think that moral truths are at bottom fundamental or primary? You don't say here.

      You also seem to conflate moral values and duties. I don't claim, and neither do most philosophers who are divine command theorists, that Good is what God commands. Why can "good" not be a fundamental term, not further analyzable in terms of other more fundamental terms? Unless you think A is true (which, quick argument to show it isn't: if you can only say a term has objective meaning just in case it is analyzable in terms of another more fundamental term, then no term will ever be meaningful for you. For you will never have an infinite number of terms, much less understand them, and so there will always be a fundamental term than which no more fundamental term exists.), what's the problem? Now right and wrong is *constituted by*, not *defined as*, God's commands and violating them, respectively. But the problem you list won't apply to this account.

  32. Yes, I missed out on some possible meanings for the words of morality. There is an infinite array of possible meanings for any word. What I was trying to get at is that words are nothing but tools of communication: saying 'evil' doesn’t do anything unless it is a handle on an understanding. What matters is the underlying cognition. When I say words like dog, jump, happiness, etc., I have sensations in my mind to which I can anchor these words.

    “Why can good not be a fundamental term, not further analysable in terms of other more fundamental terms?”

    I can understand that in speech, some terms could be called fundamental, such as the core words of a language, which are hard to define non-circularly such as 'the' or 'a'. That does not mean that the concepts these words are anchored to are fundamental. When 'the' is said, everyone knows what it means. How? Kids gradually learn through perception what is meant when 'the' is said. Maybe in speech, 'the' is a fundamental term, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t tethered to a mutual understanding that allows communication.

    Now, to what are the labels good and evil tethered? If you say that they aren’t tethered to anything, then the statement “Murder is evil” is literally rendered meaningless to me. I can offer meanings that I attach to the label evil, but they’re all relate, one way or another, to subjective values.

    I ask you: what meaning do you have anchored to the labels good and evil? I am asking you to transmit your understanding attached to those labels through speech. Now, what if you can’t do that, like for 'the'? Well then there must be at least some way for me to learn it at least, it must be accessible to me in some way, otherwise it really is meaningless.

    Maybe you define good as going against a standard, as you did in your comment. But what standard? Unless you are more specific in your definition, then it could be any standard. That’s not objective morality. What if you define it in terms of a specific standard? In that case, while you’ve succeeded in providing an objective definition, you’ve rendered the word meaningless to anyone who does not already share your convictions. “Murder is evil” reduces to “Murder does not conform with this specific standard.”

    “Nonetheless, it seems we can tweak it to account for this, and just say that if at least one of these two meanings is present in each instance of purported morality cases, then these are sufficient to account for what we mean by morality, and thus it isn't objective.”

    I understand that this may not be your core argument, but I’ll address it anyway. If I am understanding you correctly, you are saying that the following definition could be used:

    Evil := { Murder, Rape, … }

    Yes, in this case, you have succeeded in providing an objective definition. But just like the other possible objective definition “Evil is what goes against standard X.” You have rendered the label evil useless to anyone who doesn’t already share your values. “Murder is evil” becomes equivalent to “Murder is in the set { Murder, Rape, … }.”

    To finish off, I ask: "If I want to commit murder and there are no consequences that I care about, then why should I not commit murder?" You did not address this from my last comment.

    If you can’t answer the above question, then unless you define objectivity in a different way than I do, I would say that morality is subjective. Why? Because without anchoring the process of morality, moral statements and moral communication back to mutually shared values or revered consequences, then it is irrelevant. You make good and evil into useless labels. You might as well say “Murder is [invent new word].”

    My contention isn’t that you can’t assign objective definitions to good and evil, of course you can. My point is that the only reason these words are useful labels is because of their subjective nature, or because we might define them in terms of things we already value (that's subjective).

    1. Henry, thanks for your reply. Here's the main problem, as I see it, with what you're saying: "When 'the' is said, everyone knows what it means. How? Kids gradually learn through perception what is meant when 'the' is said. Maybe in speech, 'the' is a fundamental term, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t tethered to a mutual understanding that allows communication."

      This is precisely what it means. Otherwise, I have no idea what is supposed to be meant by "fundamental."

      Further, why can't we apply the same standard to your instances of "the"? Your point *cannot* be that "the" is rendered *meaningless,* because you just get through saying that you understand how it is used. So instead, you must mean "the" is subjective. But you've only described how language is used and learned (in other words, how meaning is acquired). It won't follow from this that *no terms have objective meaning.*

      Next, most people *perceive* that certain things are wrong, in the same way we perceive there are laws of logic and mathematics. If you do not, it is going to be admittedly impossible to show you. But just as a colorblind person shouldn't insist no one perceives qualia, so here.

      Your last paragraph betrays this kind of confusion, as you write that good and evil can have objective definitions, but that they have a "subjective nature." But nothing you have said yields that conclusion; it is a move from semantics to ontology, and one that isn't justified by any laws of deductive inference.

      To answer your question, it's because the "should" is definitional. If 2+2=4, then why does 2+2=4? Because of the rules of mathematics. Similarly here. Your question only makes sense if you *assume* an instrumental "should," rather than a moral one. And if you do that, it won't be relevant.

      I hope this at least helps you frame your argument better, or understand why someone like me would find it very unconvincing.

    2. My point was that there are no fundamental terms. All words are tethered to some concept which can manifest itself either within the mind or in sensory perception. This correspondence must be learnable in some way, even if not directly via explanation – as with ‘the’ – otherwise the label isn’t useful. The reason I was trying to emphasise this, was because you said “why can’t good just be a fundamental term.” It seemed to me as if you were trying to evade providing a meaning to the word good. When other people say good, I understand it as them either saying “I like”, “society likes”, or I understand them as evaluating something using an arbitrary standard, i.e., “X is good for Y”. So I don’t need to make good a ‘fundamental term.’

      But to be honest, I think that is besides the point. These are all words after all. I’ll try a different avenue of argument, totally disconnected from language. It links into the question I asked you last time: “If there are no consequences you care about, why should you not do X.” Unless I am mistaken, you responded to this by saying “by definition.” I am honestly not sure what you mean to say “by definition.” What definition? Furthermore, I asked why – you didn’t provide me with any reasons.

      Let’s say you did try to argue that irrespective of the circumstance, “One should not murder.” And let’s say that should had some meaning conducive to objective morality. The problem is: this statement does not actually do anything. If I didn’t care about the consequences of murder (i.e., I subjectively preferred not to experience them), then I could live my whole life ignoring this statement, and absolutely nothing would happen to me that I cared about. My point here is that however you manage to twist the words: operationally, in practice, with respect to some action, it only matters how you subjectively value either that action or its consequences. No matter what clever argument you construct, showing that murder is ‘objectively’ ‘wrong’, I can ignore your argument to no avail until I face a consequence that I don’t like.

      My point here, is that ‘objective moral statements’ don’t actually do anything, they don’t affect reality at all. What’s the difference between a reality where “Murder is objectively evil” and “Murder is not objectively evil”? What does the “evilness” of murder actually mean to me in practice, apart from being a signal that you don’t like murder, or that murder results in what most people consider to be bad things?

      The truth of things such as whether gravity exists, or whether 2 + 2 = 4, actually result in consequences that matter to people. Furthermore, I can conceive of realities – that is, a set of experiences and perceptions – where these statements are false – even for the case of 2 + 2 = 4. I can’t see how the falsehood of “Murder is objectively evil” would change reality in any tangible way for me except that a widespread belief in the falsehood of such a statement may affect reality for me. I believe this is a symptom of the fact that you cannot construct an objectively true moral statement which has relevance to anyone who doesn’t already share your values – which is what I have been trying to show.

    3. Thanks for your reply! As I mentioned, there are a few major philosophical problems with your contentions, especially in the first paragraph. First, a term is fundamental just in case its referent cannot be explained non-circularly in terms of other, "more fundamental" terms. Next, if there were no fundamental terms, then no term's referent could ever be understood objectively. For these referents would need to be explained, and no new term could ever explain them (an infinite regress). You mention all concepts must be able to be learned, but this Lockean "tabula rasa" philosophy doesn't comport with what we actually do; namely, some in born or "a priori" knowledge must be present, or else we cannot even have discourse (e.g., laws of logic or mathematics). Next, I don't think we've seen a good reason to equate "useful" with "meaning;" you can know what someone means even if it doesn't serve a particular function for you.

      As to your question, you either mean "should" as an instrumental "should," or as a moral "should," when referring to moral duties. If you mean "should" instrumentally, then I don't have an answer, but it won't follow that because there's no instrumentality there's no meaning (otherwise, whatever I don't care about has no meaning). If you mean it morally, then you should refrain from X because that's what it means to have a moral command not to do X. Whenever someone says "should," you can always ask, "Should in order to what?" In this case, it's "should in order to comport with the command." By definition, you won't be comporting with the command if you violate it. Why is the command the way it is?, is a separate question, but it flows from objective moral values. I *did* provide you with this reason (it's contained in the definition). You mention in the next paragraph a problem, but I don't see how this is supposed to be a problem for someone who says that objective moral value and duty statements have meaning. So you don't care about the consequences: what about this entails there are no objective moral truths, or that these don't have meaning?

      Further, even your next paragraph doesn't follow even if we grant that instrumentality is essential for meaning (which I don't). Suppose, as for the vast majority of people, perceiving moral values and duties *does* affect them: it affects their behavior, anyway. The explicit point you raise, though, is different: that reality isn't affected whether moral duties are objectively true or false. But this isn't so, for a variety of reasons: first, reality would contain moral duties, which is a huge difference (whether or not I have an obligation not to murder someone seems to be a difference); second, one might argue that if we do have moral duties, we should expect to perceive that we do, and we do--having confirmatory evidence that suggests our lives are not illusory is different than lives that have much more illusory beliefs and experiences. And let's not forget: why should we think that practicality dictates truth?

      Finally, if the cost of your view is that 2+2=4 is not a necessary truth, then so much the worse for your view!


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