Tuesday 29 May 2012

A Rebuttal to Malin Freeborn on the Moral Argument

[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 my response to part 1 of Malin's rebuttal. Part 2 of Malin's response (which will touch on my objections to his arguments from Scripture) will be released subsequently. For Malin's first guest post, see here. For my response, see here. For his first rebuttal, see here.]

Revisiting Euthyphro's Dilemma

Malin writes,
The problem [with the moral argument] 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 - 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."
Traditionally, euthyphro's dilemma is concerned with right action, not with good simpliciter (though if that is your concern I can address that too). The question is posed this way: Is x the right thing to do because God commands it, or does God command it because its already the right thing to do? I take the former option. Normally, the problem with accepting the horn is that there is a presumption that the commands in question from God are arbitrary (i.e. God could have commanded that we ought to lie). But that's just false. The theist wants to say that God is essentially loving, honest etc., and therefore, in all worlds at which God exists, his commands are going to be consistent with his nature. And therefore, in all worlds, he will disapprove of lying. 

Alternative Moral Systems

Malin agrees with me that relativism is "a dead philosophy." On Intuitionism, Malin writes,
"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."
Of course, Malin is quite correct that one need only show that a non-theistic system can provide a coherent ontological foundation for objective morals in order to make God redundant in regards to ethics. I merely made the point that many theistic ethicisists are also intuitionists. They are not mutually exclusive. And I don't think that this system of ethics can stand on its own. As I stated in my previous article, "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 is a moral epistemology. For the theist, it is one of several sources of moral information.

With regards to utilitarianism as a non-theistic foundation of ethics (the most common formulation of which claims that ethics are determined by what constitutes the greatest happiness for the greatest number), one difficulty lies in the fact that it attempts to balance two different scales employed to assess the moral virtue of an action (i.e. the amount of utility produced and the number of people affected). This can often lead to conflicting answers -- in some cases an activity might be considered better for a greater number of individuals whereas a different activity might create a greater overall utility. Utilitarians try to maximise with their actions the utility of the long-term consequences of those actions. However, short of possession of omniscience, it is impossible to evaluate the respective long-term results of different activities. Utilitarianism also does not take into account the individual's intent -- Activity X could be done sincerely by an individual who believes that what he is doing will create the maximum utility. But if activity X turns out in the long-term not to produce the desired utility then his action, under the philosophy of utiliterianism, would be considered less moral than an activity that created more utility.

The difficulty with virtue ethics is that it cannot be held consistently by the naturalist, since naturalistic evolutionary theory renders essentialism, teleology, objective purpose, etc. (which are foundational to classic virtue theory) quite implausible.

Does Free Will Imply the Existence of God?

Malin writes,
"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?"
Cartesian dualism does not claim, as Malin implies, that the material brain is unnecessary for cognitive function. Let's take an analogy. Suppose you're sitting in the driver's seat of a car. If certain key components of the car (e.g. engine, gears, stearing wheel, tyres) are dysfunctional, you are not going to be able to drive to the desired destination. But that doesn't make you reducible to the car. Likewise, the car -- even if all the parts are correctly working -- will not move to the desired destination without the input of an intelligent agent. Similarly, I think that the brain is necessary for cognitive function, but I do not think that it is, on its own, sufficient for cognitive function.

An Invalid Argument

Malin continues,
"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."
Malin is correct, of course, that many naturalists do hold that there is a qualitative difference between humans and animals. But the question of relevance here pertains to the implications of the naturalistic worldview. Whether or not certain naturalists hold to a position that is inconsistent with their professed worldview is irrelevant.

Malin then quotes my re-statement of the argument given by Stephen Meyer:

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.
Malin disputes the first two premises. We've already discussed his objection to Premise 2. On Premise 1, he explains that " there may be many reasons to treat things differently despite their having no qualitative difference". He gives us an analogy: "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."

This is a good point. Stephen Meyer's argument is an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum defeater for naturalistic ethics. However, insofar as his argument presupposes there is no qualitative difference (by in turn presupposing that no non-theistic ethics can differentiate the two), it is not clear that Meyer's argument is not question-begging.

Finally, as an aside, I would point out that my re-formulation of Meyer's argument is not, as Malin asserts in his conclusion, "invalid" (where a conclusion doesn't follow from the premises), though it may be argued that it is unsound (where the conclusion follows from the premises but one or more of the premises is incorrect).


In conclusion, none of the ethical systems listed by Malin offer a coherent non-theistic ontological foundation of moral values and duties. His objection to Cartesian dualism on the basis of degeneration of cognitive function in response to loss of brain tissue is unconvincing; and he has yet to offer a convincing reason why free will is compatible with materialism. His criticism of Meyer's reductio is, in my judgement, fair although he falsely categorises the syllogism as being invalid (rather than simply unsound).

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