Friday, 4 May 2012

A Guest Response from Malin Freeborn on the Moral Argument (Part 1 of 2)

[Note: This is a continuation of a conversation involving atheist philosophy graduate Malin Freeborn and myself (Jonathan McLatchie) regarding the moral argument for the existence of God. This is part 1 of 2 of Malin's rebuttal. Part 2 of his response will touch on my objections to his arguments from Scripture. For Malin's first guest post, see here. For my response, see here.]

Seeking a Definition for Transcendental

In the previous post I requested a definition for transcendental.  I hold that the word is generally used simply for writers to hide behind,  but I’m willing to work with any definition, and a definition was given.  So here’s the new challenge, as given by Jonathan - we must find an objective standard of ethics.  An action or behaviour[1] must be wrong or right regardless of people’s opinions.

I know that objective morals, in the required sense, do in fact exist.  However, I disagree with the statement that gods exist and disagree that any god can make ethics objective which would not be objective without the god.
At this point, more ambiguous language is used.  Morals are ‘grounded in the moral character of God’ or have an ‘ontological foundation in god, themselves being a reflection of God’s character and attributes’.  I know how to ground a house or how to ground a lightning rod, but of course that is not what it meant.  So what is meant?  I think I see what is being pointed at, but whether or not I understand the position (or indeed, if anyone really does) this is not a good way to show that ethics are objective.

The presuppositional theists’ story seems to be something like this:

For morals to be transcendent, they must be objective.  If they are to be objective, they have to be unchanging - not simply jumping around as different cultures arise and fall, each with their own values.  We already know that we can look back in time to ancient Rome or across the seas, to different cultures, and find that they did things which are objectively wrong.  Therefore we need an account of this.  This account is that Yahweh holds certain attributes.  While I like arbitrary things like my own family and certain foods, Yahweh empathises with people (that is,  he is compassionate) and he gives things to people (that is, he is generous).  Yahweh will not change his mind, nor his attitudes - he is, in this sense, timeless.  Therefore, we can now say ‘That practice is wrong’, and when an ethical relativist says ‘Wrong in regards to what?’, we can say ‘In regards to god’s perfect moral character’, which is the standard by which we judge actions.

The problem is twofold.  Firstly, we can derive morals without this argument.  Secondly, this argument does not in fact give us a solid foundation for morals.  Yahweh may be unchanging, but even if he existed, this would not be enough.  Imagine for a moment that I find a rock and carve into it a set of injunctions - this rock now contains ‘Do not steal’, ‘Do not kill’, ‘Do not put anchovies nor pineapple on pizzas’, ‘Do not disrespect the rock’, et c.  Now imagine that the rock is timeless and unalterable - it will never change.  Is it a good foundation for ethics?  Certainly not, because it is arbitrary.

So we must ask - why should the character of a god be a good source for ethics?  You might say that it is because god is good.  But what is good?  How do we know that the character traits of Yahweh are in fact good?  Simply because they are Yahweh’s traits?  Because Yahweh simply is good?  It doesn’t really answer the question.

This is known as the Euthyphro dilemma, and there is no way around it because it is an exhaustive divide[2] - if something is good and X shows it to be good, then it is either good with or without X, or it is good because of X.  We cannot escape it by saying that Yahweh’s ‘character’ rather than his words make it good.  We cannot escape it by saying that Yahweh is perfect, because we then have to ask, ‘Perfect in regards to what?’, and if the answer is ‘Perfect in regards to everything, including morals’ then we are back at square one.

Gods, if they existed, could aid our moral epistemology, but never our moral ontology.  Without gods, not everything is permitted - and this is precisely the point.[3]

Alternative Moral Systems

I have given a list of alternative moral systems, including:

● Kantian Ethics.
● Utilitarianism (a form of non-relative naturalism).
● Virtue Ethics.
● Theological ethics.
● Relativism.
● Intuitionism.

This list is not complete, there are others.  However, they are the bulk of theories[4] which Philosophers have been discussing since records began.  Jonathan seems to have little regard for them and offers a short disproof.  If Jonathan has provided a successful disproof, then he would have succeeded in bringing a final answer to over two thousand years worth of very detailed discussions.  However, I do not think that he in fact succeeded.  We should have a brief look at his answers:

        Relativism: ‘Of course, Meyer responded at length to moral relativism, and few are able to maintain this position consistently.’

This part succeeded - relativism is a dead philosophy.  We can indeed hold it consistently, but only at the expense of all morals.

        Intuitionism: ‘Intuitionism and theological ethics are perfectly compatible because, as Christians, we believe that God has written the moral law on each of our hearts. We thus have an intuitive knowledge of right and wrong. In the absence of the transcendentalism provided by theism, however, what is to say that one man's intuitions are more valid than another?’

Intuitionism may be compatible with theism, but that’s hardly the point.  The point is that it can be argued for on its own.  I don’t think that the theory is up to much, because people disagree about ethics, and if we all disagree, then our intuitions do not lead to objective morals.  This should indeed lead us to abandon it.  However; if ‘God has written the moral law on each of our hearts’ then why do we disagree about ethics?  It’s easy to say that we do not and than people simply want to do evil things, but this view cannot be backed by the evidence.

Consider that many of the vegetarians of the world consider rearing animals in captivity for the purpose of eating them to be unethical.  They don’t simply find the practice distasteful - they really do think that it is immoral.  If a theist admits that some people find eating animals to be unethical, and also that some people find that eating animals is ethical then not everyone has the same sense of ethics, and therefore no standards of ethics is intuitive, or ‘written in our hearts’.
So if we are to discount the other moral theories, we must also argue against Intuitionism.

        Utilitarianism: ‘The problem with ethical systems like Utilitarianism, which is defended by neo-atheist Sam Harris among others, is that it presupposes morality inasmuch as it assumes that the greatest good of the greatest number is to be preferred on ethical grounds.’

Utilitarians, such as I, presuppose nothing.  We are not ‘presuppositional moralists’, I can assure you.  Instead, we argue for our case.

        Kantian Ethics: ‘With regards Kantian ethics, Christians generally believe that Christian ethics are deontological, and so we are mostly in agreement. It would seem warranted to compare Jesus' golden rule to Kant's categorical imperative, other similarities are treating people as ends rather than means.’

Jonathan seems to have lost the thread of the argument at this point.  I said in the original post that theism is not required to create an objective standard for ethics, because there are other possible systems.  Obviously, as a Utilitarian, I believe that they are wrong, but we can’t simply say ‘All the other systems are wrong, so mine must be right’.  We must argue our case.  And so far, it has not been argued that Kant’s categorical imperative cannot secure a good foundation for morality on its own.

        Virtue Ethics: ‘There are Christians who are virtue ethicists as well, although Platonic virtue ethics are unable to ontologically ground objective moral duties.’

Why?  If you do not argue your case then you are simply stating that the other moral systems are incorrect.  The virtue theorists may as well make glib comments about theism being far too long-winded, and conclude that the ontological foundation of morals is the virtues.

Does Free Will Imply the Existence of God?

Jonathan states that a god is required to allow us to have free will, because we can only believe in free will if we are dualists and we can only be dualists if we believe in a god.

The first premise here is that free will requires dualism.  In fact I think that dualism is an incoherent philosophy altogether.  Adding dualism allows us only to replace one ill-defined and anti-empirical notion with another and thus shift the topic of debate, though being a dualist in no way logically entails having free will.

A quick question for any aspiring dualist, from Sam Harris, is this: Why is it that whenever we damage a part of the brain, a part of the mind is also damaged in a predictable manner?  If one part of the brain is damaged, our memories can go.  When another part of the brain is damaged, our emotions leave us.  Yet apparently if the entire brain rots away, the mind will lift off, intact and whole and conscious.  Can we explain this?  Could we even coherently claim that this is the case?

As to the idea that dualism requires a god, a brief argument is given:

I would refer readers to Angus Menuge's brilliant book "Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science." Menuge differentiates between "strong agent reductionism" (which denies the legitimacy of the notion of agency, human intentionality and practical reason) and "weak agent reductionism" (which claims that, though evolution is void of any kind of agency, humans nonetheless have the real thing). Strong agent reductionism is internally incoherent. It is also corrosive to the scientific enterprise because science presupposes robust notions of practical reason and intentionality. In the case of weak agent reductionism, then, Menuge explains, "what may show that even [this] is false is a demonstration that the capacities of human agency cannot be given a materialistic explanation because these capacities are contingent on another, nonmaterial agency." I think it would be extremely difficult to explain, given atheism, how a nonmaterial mind could arise that is not contingent on some pre-existing agency. Determinism also presents a number of problems for the ethicist as if our moral decisions are the product of deterministic natural processes it is problematic to argue that people ought to be responsible for their actions.

I will leave this aside from now, as the argument is vague and certainly not sound in its present, brief form.

An Invalid Argument

Meyer stated that one of the implications of naturalism was that humans and animals should be treated the same, while another implication was that we should kill both humans and animals when it suits our purposes.  The first argument had false premises (it stated that naturalists hold that there is no qualitative difference between humans and animals) and the second argument was invalid.

Jonathan stated that the ‘point that some naturalists claim that there is indeed a qualitative difference between humans and animals is largely irrelevant since the real question concerns the implications of naturalism (not the views to which naturalists inconsistently hold).’

I am not sure what this means.  Perhaps Jonathan has failed to grasp that treating humans and animals alike is not an implication of naturalism, since naturalists do not have to believe that there is no qualitative difference between humans and animals.  Perhaps not.  The reading is unclear.

The second argument given by Meyer has been shorn up by Jonathan.  So, in full, the other thing which is supposed to stem from Naturalism is:

1. If there is no qualitative difference between x and y, then there is no reason to treat the two differently.
2. If atheism is true, then there is no qualitative difference between humans and animals.
3. Therefore (given atheism), there is no reason to treat humans and animals differently.
4. We treat animals in way x (killing them when it suites our purposes).
5. Therefore (given atheism), there is no reason not to kill humans when it suits our purposes.

Premise 1 happens to be untrue - there may be many reasons to treat things differently despite their having no qualitative difference[5] - but that does not matter as naturalists are not bound to it, whether true or false.  Premise 2 has similar problems - it’s simply not true that atheism implies a lack of qualitative difference between humans and animals.

In Premise 3 we are told that there is no reason treat humans and animals the same, and in premise 4 we are told that we do in fact treat animals rather badly.  The first problem here is a re-hashing of the old is/ought distinction.  Simply because we have reason to treat animals and humans alike, tells us nothing more based on how we do in fact treat animals.  The second problem is that we generally treat our fellow humans with respect, or at least basic rights.  According to this argument, we have reason to do the same to the other animals (for recall Premise 3).  But of course this is absurd - if we have an obligation to treat x and y the same way, and we in fact do not, it does not follow either that we ought to treat x as we currently treat y, or vice versa.

This old is/ought fallacy was smuggled in by using the phrase ‘no reason to’ instead of ‘we should not’, but the same rules apply to what we have reason to do and what we in fact do.


It has still to be shown that theism can provide a moral system which does not suffer from the Euthyphro dilemma.  Even if it could, there would then be the problem of choosing a deity from which to derive our morals, and if a deity could not be found which can provide a coherent framework then the theory that ontology is grounded in some god will not be very fruitful.

It must further be shown that free will requires dualism and that dualism in turn requires a god.  After this has been shown it must also be shown that we ought to believe in free will in the required sense.  Only then will there be some reason to believe in a god.  This is a heavy ontological commitment, with a long history of debate.

Finally, it has been shown that naturalism does not imply the kind of automatic contradiction which Meyer suggested, for both ‘Naturalism Take 1’ and ‘Naturalism Take 2’ had invalid premises.  Further, ‘Naturalism Take 2’, was invalid in both its original form (due to an is/ ought fallacy) and in its updated form (due to a nuanced is/ ought fallacy).

I would advise any theists not to attempt an argument of ‘death by a thousand tiny cuts’ - that is, I would advise against a large number of small arguments.  Instead, it is better to take one’s strongest argument and make it work.  If the strongest argument cannot work, then the project should be abandoned.

[1] Many philosophers think that actions and behaviour are the wrong place to look for morality, but I’ll leave this aside as it is not central to the debate, and actions are a good place to start when defining morality.
[2] I was not, as previously suggesting, providing a false-dilemma.
[3] Consider that if you found out that no gods existed that this would not change your behaviour in regards to foundational morality, say theft and murder; though it could change morality in regards to your attitudes to clean and unclean animals or homosexuality.
[4] Another important one is ‘Social Contract Theory’, with Nozick’s interesting recent addition of the ‘Veil of Ignorance’ theory.
[5] For example, if there are two packs of rice in the supermarket, both of which are £5, one of which is 400g and the other is 2g, then we ought to take treat the largest as more valuable, though there is no qualitative difference between the two.

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