My Appearance on the Atheist Experience Defending Objective Morality

A while back, my then-colleague at Freethought Blogs, Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience wrote me for my views on objective morality. I wrote him a detailed response that I think he found it overwhelming to try to respond to. But when we met face to face at the American Atheists convention this past March, he was eager to pull me aside and grill me as a sort of theist’s advocate, challenging my particular views with the kinds of things he is inundated with from theists when he talks about morality. We had a great, productive conversation when all was said and done. He can be an excellent, probing antagonist. So, recently, I mentioned to him the idea of talking about these issues on The Atheist Experience and he and Martin Wagner were gracious enough to lend me about twenty five minutes to do so (starting two minutes into the video below).

In the video I also make some promissory notes that something worth calling objective morality is worth defending and should be a priority to atheists. Now different skeptics of objective morality have a wide range of challenges they focus on. So, if you scroll down below the two embeds of the video, I am going to guide you through the links of my posts defending the ideal of objective morality. Hopefully you can find the posts most likely to address your particular concerns based on what your point of skepticism or curiosity might be.

Alternate if that doesn’t work:

The story that I allude to about the Christian who set off alarm bells that he might be gay because he simply believed Jesus called people to be non-judgmental is one I blogged about here.

If you would like to start with an overview, integrated account of my responses to typical objections, I recommend my post replying to Leah Libresco’s stated reasons for becoming Catholic that I mentioned on the show and that viewers have been reading all week.

One of the biggest barriers people have to accepting my views is that they conflate moral objectivism with moral absolutism. In my post needling nihilists who “mourn their Christian ‘soul mates'”, I talk about why I think atheists who do that are failing to properly overcome Christian categories of thinking. Relatedly, in two posts from the spring I try to defend the use of the phrase “moral objectivity” on pragmatic grounds and show how on my definition of moral objectivity it can be found and justified in various common sense ways. We need to wrest people away from the theistic delusion that there can be no objectivity if we have contextual values that exist on spectra and need to be figured out situationally. Similarly I talk about how there can still be multiple, different, good moralities, either across time or across cultures, consistent with there also being standards for judging some cultures’ moralities to be worse than they could and should be.

Morally objective pluralism is not total relativism. Our only choices are not absolutism and relativism. My account of objective morality is consistent with recognizing it as a product of our evolutionary development and consistent with thinking there are imperfections and imprecisions to some of our brains’ natural categories for moral processing. Moralities do not have to be conceived of as eternal and unchanging in order to be objective; they merely need to have mechanisms for changing that would increase their rational fitness and justification, and objective criteria for being evaluated. I even argue that if we understand the term “intrinsic good” properly, we can have socially constructed intrinsic goods (paradoxical as that might sound) like marriage. We do not need “the universe totally independent of humans” to care about goodness or morality in order for them to be true categories.

It is worth pointing out that one peculiar stress in my thinking is that we need a more general and morality-neutral, account of objective goodness that can serve as the context for understanding moral goodness as a specific, narrower, kind of goodness, rather than identical with all goodness. I defend the idea that we should take objective goodness to be equated to “effectiveness” because our most factual sense of the word “good” is where it means “powerful/successful at being a thing of a certain specifiable kind” or “useful for bringing about result x”, etc. I explain this in the key post Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness). I argue that if we equate goodness with effectiveness we can explain how values are a species of objective facts (even though what can be called “subjective valuing” is something different and not always done objectively.)

I also defend perfectionism, egoism, and indirect consequentialism. And crucial to my whole naturalistic ethical project, I talk about the legitimacy of talking about objective functions in nature. Though I am a consequentialist of a sort, I am not a utilitarian. I do not think the highest good is pleasure or the worst evil is pain. I give what I call a “perspectivist, teleological account of the relative values of pleasure and pain. I also dub pleasure and pain “intrinsic instrumental” goods and then develop what that means further in response to objections. James Gray and I had a clarifying debate about these points. Unlike James I am not a moral intuitionist. And speaking of debates, my debate with “Ivan” also features a nice dialectical presentation of my ideas and some clever challenges to them.

I analyze in detail numerous problems with trying to base ethics on the Christian God’s will. And I make the case that even were ethics something that came from a perfectly good God, there would still be no reason for faith-based ethics. And speaking of faith, where some try to equate ethical thinking to a form of faith, I argue on the contrary that ordinary people’s grasp of ethics is as rational in character as their grasp of physics. Both help them navigate the world quite successfully and rationally, completely independent of their lack of abstract, expert, theoretical understanding of why that is.

Moving from values to norms, I write about how to overcome the alleged is/ought problem. I explain why duty matters to us, why dutifulness is a virtue, how obeying duty is consistent with our autonomy, and how morality is consistent with our ultimate goal of personal flourishing. I even show how dying for others can be justified on an ethics that’s about personal fulfillment. Talking about objective goodness can be perfectly consistent with recognizing that what is good for different individuals can vary quite a bit. Some people excessively fear that talk about “objective morality” is inherently a path to judgmentalism. Relevant to that, I give an account of good moral judgment vs. destructive kinds. I also think that we can in general defend morality without becoming unseemly authoritarian moralists. Objective goodness is also consistent with recognizing that often a kind of activity can be done well in more than one way, rather than only ever according to one monolithic standard.

I show how belief in objective values is necessary for science, not just for morality; and how once one allows just enough objectivity in norms and values for science, one has conceded all that is necessary for such objectivity in morality. That post concluded a series of attacks on nihilism: one on the view that morality is only subjective, non-cognitive expressions of emotions, a polemic about the dangers of actually being a consistent nihilist, one about moral nihilism’s self-contradictory character, and one briefly rebutting each of a few familiar challenges moral nihilists lob at moral objectivists.

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