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Objective Morality Reconsidered

Leah Libresco at the Unequally Yoked blog has responded to my blog post about objective morality, as have many commenters. I’ll try to hit the ball back over the net and respond to some of these ideas.

A serving of vegetables that we need to get out of the way first is the definition of “objective.” I tried to nail down the definition that I wanted to use, but I still think many readers and I were not on the same page.

Here are three definitions that I see being used. Each is reasonable, but we need to agree on the one we’re using.

1. Objective means “strongly or viscerally held.” Christian apologists often use this. “By ‘objectively wrong,’ we refer to those things that we all know are just wrong,” they’ll say, and then give something hideous (torturing babies is popular) as an example.

2. Objective means “universally held” or “that which reasonable people can be argued into accepting.” Consider this statement: “Bob’s car is yellow.” No one cares much about this claim, but ignore that—suppose that you wanted extraordinary evidence. I could send you a photo of me in my car. I could email you the names of people who could vouch for this claim. I could show you my driver’s license (connecting my face to my name), my car registration (connecting my name to a particular car’s vehicle ID number), and then the yellow car in my garage (with that VIN). And so on.

I think that this is what the Declaration of Independence means when it says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” “These truths” are such that someone either already accepts them or can be convinced that they’re valid.

3. Objective means “grounded outside humanity” or, as Merriam-Webster defines it, “having reality independent of the mind.” 1 + 1 = 2 may be objectively true by this definition, for example. Leah’s example: “Russell’s teapot is orbiting the sun.” This claim is hard to prove, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s either true or false.

Each of these definitions has its place, and I can accept each. But now let’s focus on the topic at hand: objective morality. Objective morality by definitions 1 and 2—strongly held or universally held moral beliefs—certainly exists but I see no evidence for objective morality of the third kind. Return to William Lane Craig’s definition for objective morality: “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not.” This is what I see no evidence for.

Consider this parallel to humans’ common moral instinct: our common appreciation of cuteness. Small, helpless, big-eyed things like babies or kittens provoke caring feelings in most of us. “Kittens are cute” is probably objectively true by definition 2. We can analyze why we feel this way (evolution probably selected adults who are drawn to help human babies and similar-looking things) but that doesn’t matter. What’s interesting is that it’s a sense shared among most humans.

Why do we react instantly when we see someone in serious danger—stepping in to pull someone out of harm’s way, shouting  for help, and so on? We just do, and almost everyone would act in a similar way. We can analyze the action from an evolutionary or physiological standpoint, but again the point is that this is a shared human instinct.

About Leah’s debate with Hemant Mehta, who shares Leah’s sense of objective morality, she says,

I was trying to press him on where the yardstick or rulebook or whatnot comes from.

My answer is that morality is composed of an instinctive part (the Golden Rule, perhaps) along with a societal part. The first part explains the commonality among people, and the second explains the differences.

Obviously, the instinctive part doesn’t express itself identically in every person. For example, the popular TV series Dexter is about a sociopath (someone without this instinct) who was taught how to pass in ordinary society. Similarly, every person from Seattle doesn’t express an identical Seattle moral sense. These are tendencies, not immutable constraints.

There’s my answer, but how do proponents of objective morality answer this? I’d like to know more about the external grounding of this morality, and I wonder why it’s even introduced since it seems a far more fanciful explanation that no better explains the morality that we see in society.

Leah said:

[Bob is] claiming that we can’t even ask if [a widespread moral] consensus is correlated with anything, since there’s nothing for the consensus to be true about.

I’ll agree that there’s nothing absolute for the consensus to be truth about. When we say, “Capital punishment is wrong,” there is no absolute truth (the yardstick) for us to compare our claim against. Is capital punishment wrong? We can wrestle with this issue the only way we ever have, by studying the issue and arguing with each other in various ways, but we have no way to resolve the question once and for all by appealing to an absolute standard.

Let me bring up accessibility again. If there is objective truth about capital punishment but we simply can’t access it (as if God’s Big Book of Morals exists but we don’t have a library card for God’s library), the objective moralists have won a pyrrhic victory. Yes, objective moral truth exists, but if we can’t reliably access it, what good is it?

If Bob doesn’t think there’s some external standard that his personal understanding of morality can grow to more perfectly resemble, then I’m really baffled about how he approaches new questions. Is the goal just to more perfectly and consistently live out your essentially arbitrary moral preferences?

Again, I get stuck on this idea of an external standard. I’ve seen no evidence of such a thing.

As for “arbitrary,” my morals may be arbitrary in an absolute sense, but of course they don’t feel arbitrary in a throwing-darts-at-a-list-of-possibilities sort of way. I consult my conscience with moral questions, and it gives me answers. No need for an external anything. (If you say, “Wait—where did that conscience come from? Didn’t that get put in there by an external agent?” then I point to evolution as the source.)

If we were bears or Klingons, we’d evaluate situations differently. We can be horrified at the actions of other species, but by what external standards do we judge those actions objectively wrong?

As it stands, I don’t understand why Bob feels a particular loyalty to his arbitrary moral preferences. Any debating atheist knows that we’re running on buggy hardware [that is, we have lots of biases]…

As for loyalty, that suggests that I have a choice, but all I have is a conscience that tells me what’s right and what’s wrong. I have no higher authority to appeal to to check its imperfect moral claims. If Leah’s point is that we shouldn’t be too smug about what our fallible brains tell us, I agree. But these imperfect brains are all we’ve got.

There’s no reason for Bob to treat his moral preferences as any more sacred or central to his identity than his gastronomic preferences.

My moral preferences certainly aren’t any more sacred in an absolute sense (as if God tallied my morals but didn’t care about what I ate). But from my perspective, I think that my morals are more important. If you violate my moral sense, I might tell you that you’re mistaken or I might even take action to stop you, but not much happens if you violate my culinary sense.

Either [moral or gastronomic preferences] could be maladapted to his current environment, and it’s worth poking around to see if he can come up with something better. Does he really think we’re powerless in the face of these questions?

There’s evidence that evolution built us to think that rape and slavery are okay, as long as you’re on the giving end. We see this attitude in the Old Testament, for example. However, modern society teaches us something different. This is the instinctive moral sense being overridden by the societal moral sense. Sam Harris writes about this in his The Moral Landscape. As I understand this, he argues for an objective morality of the second kind—one that we can hone with science and reason.

Here I agree with Leah that we aren’t stuck with our evolutionary programming. We can and do rise above our instincts.

I’m left rejecting objective morality (again: I’m using the William Lane Craig definition, above) for two reasons. First, this resolves no puzzles. The natural explanation is sufficient. And second, I see no evidence for it. The dictionary doesn’t appeal to an objective element to morality, and I see no need to either.

Religion gives people bad reasons for acting morally,
where good reasons are actually available.
— Sam Harris

Photo credit: Wikimedia

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Quintin

    I know I’m going off topic, but I personally hold a very similar opinion of capital punishment as I have of banning abortion: whether it’s right or wrong, what it comes with (extra costs and the inevitable execution turning out to be a murder respectively no reduction in abortions while abortees (is that a word?) are more likely to die) is unacceptable. Maybe I’m too much focused on improving living standards and too little on “justice” but I couldn’t really care.
    On topic though I find your tactic of appealing to evolution as an explanation ingenious, if done intentionally. By appealing to what you and Leah agree on (being a Catholic, we should expect her to accept evolution) instead of what you disagree on, you effectively force her to agree. She could counter by saying that she thinks the supernatural explanation superior, but then is a natural explanation not always superior to any supernatural explanation, given that it always makes one less assumption?
    In any case, I think it’s much more interesting why we think one thing to be moral and the other immoral than why one thing is moral and the other immoral. I suspect even that by presuming to know the answer to the latter, you become immune to the answer to the former, which could inform you again about the latter.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Yes, I think that the plausible natural explanation always trumps the (inherently implausible) supernatural explanation. I suspect that everyone acts that way, though they may make an exception for their own religion.

  • Brian Lynchehaun

    A link to a discussion on this topic.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1H3ZoWeURYU

  • GregPeterson

    A god could not be a source of objective morality. If things are moral only because a god SAYS they are moral, then they are not objectively moral, and what is right or wrong could change on a whim. If things are moral because a god KNOWS THEY ARE MORAL, then this god can be a source of information about morality, but not for morality itself. It’s an ancient rebuff to the old “you need gods for objective morality” trope, Euthyphro’s Dilemma, and it’s decisive. Every effort–including those by Craig–to answer this objection have failed.

    Further, how could a god, prior to creating humans, have ANY knowledge of what is moral? Courage is a good thing; but toward what would a god need courage? Self-sacrifice is a good thing, but how could a god demonstrate it (apart from creation, I mean)? Long-suffering, sharing, justice…name a moral attribute that a god could have all by itself.

    A god wishing to create a race of beings that are fruitful and multiple might run some simulations in its mind, do some calculations about what sorts of behaviors might best engender the sort of flourishing it had as its goal. And it might well then instill the results of these calculations into the minds of this race of beings, disguising them as disgust and taboo and painful guilt on the one hand, and the pleasure of altruism and fellow-feeling and warm reciprocity on the other hand.

    And what a god might have done, evolution has in fact done. That’s it. No magic required. That which a god, who could not “know about” morality on its own, anyway, would have to imagine and predict, evolution has carried out in fact, as a simple, powerful algorithm.

    The intuitions that result from this powerful algorithm indeed have a feeling of objectivity about them, often enough. That’s because they are mostly REASONABLE, based on the simple heuristic of treating other people as one would wish to be treated. Things that can be demonstrated to be reasonable, and that can arise naturally, benefit not all from a god hypothesis.

    Finally, how is that any of the gods of revealed religions can be a source of objective morality, given the content of their revelations? If the same being that gave to me the still, small voice of a god’s conscience also inspired the Hebrew Bible or the Christian scriptures, or the Koran, why when I read those books is my conscience so aroused by what I see as unfair, disgusting, degrading, uncharitable, jingoistic, monstrous, egomaniacal, irrational, ignorant, and dehumanizing?

    • Mr. X

      “A god could not be a source of objective morality. If things are moral only because a god SAYS they are moral, then they are not objectively moral, and what is right or wrong could change on a whim. If things are moral because a god KNOWS THEY ARE MORAL, then this god can be a source of information about morality, but not for morality itself. It’s an ancient rebuff to the old “you need gods for objective morality” trope, Euthyphro’s Dilemma, and it’s decisive.”

      No it isn’t: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/god-obligation-and-euthyphro-dilemma.html

      • Brian Lynchehaun

        I really hope that you don’t consider Feser’s response to the problem to be a good response. It’s entirely lacking in substance.

        The argument can be found in his 4th paragraph. The rest is waffle.

        Hence the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is ruled out: God can never command us to torture babies for fun, because torturing babies for fun is the sort of thing that, given our nature, can never in principle be good for us.

        There are no grounds for this objection: we don’t have “natures”, nor is there a singular, universal ‘human nature’ to appeal to. This objection reduces down to ‘the first horn is ruled out because I said so’.

        This is not a legitimate objection.

        But the essences that determine the ends of things – our ends, and for that matter the end of reason too as inherently directed toward the true and the good – do not exist independently of God.

        1. Evidence that essences exist? Zero.
        2. Evidence that god exists? Zero.

        Rather, given the Scholastic realist understanding of universals, they pre-exist in the divine intellect as the ideas or archetypes by reference to which God creates. Hence the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is also ruled out.

        Only in evidence-free, make-it-up-as-you-go-along Theist thinking.

        (And I apparently can’t preview, so here’s hoping the html works out…)

        • Mr. X

          “There are no grounds for this objection: we don’t have “natures”, nor is there a singular, universal ‘human nature’ to appeal to.”

          So how do you explain the fact that people in similar circumstances tend to act in similar ways?

        • Mr. X

          Or, for that matter, that fact that certain behaviours seem universal among human societies? If this isn’t due to some shared nature, what is it due to? Pure coincidence?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          X: Evolution explains this. We Homo sapiens are the same species, and we have a shared moral instinct.

        • Darren

          Well, it seems clear that Humans do have a shared set of behaviors, preferences, avoidances, etc. Call it what you will, Human Nature by any other name. Materialist and Theist both agree upon this. Heck, even we Reductionist / Simulationist (and that is a synthesis I would be curious to find out how many on this board fall into) would agree to their being something readily definable as Human Nature.

          The questions lie in what is that nature, how malleable is it, and from whence does it spring?

    • http://theophor.us Ignatius Theophorus

      A god could not be a source of objective morality… If things are moral because a god KNOWS THEY ARE MORAL, then this god can be a source of information about morality, but not for morality itself.

      The theological answer to these problems is that God commands us to be loving because he is Love. He commands us to be good because he is Good. He exists as both the one who commands the morality as well as the source of the Morality. (There is a reason that Plato was so popular among the early Christians)

      If things are moral only because a god SAYS they are moral, then they are not objectively moral, and what is right or wrong could change on a whim.

      You do realize that part of the definition of God, at least in the monotheistic religions, is changelessness, right (It’s part of that whole “perfection” in philosophy thing. Read Plato or Aristotle)? God does not have whims.

      …Euthyphro’s Dilemma…

      AH, so you have heard of the Greeks. Very good. The dilemma has always struck me as a false-dichotomy. There is no reason to believe that God cannot command something because it is good objectively, and for something to be good because God commands it. (In a way it reminds me of Boolean Algebra).

      Further, how could a god, prior to creating humans, have ANY knowledge of what is moral?

      To a theist that believes in a God where all time is a simultaneity, this question is meaningless. There is no difference between thought, word, and deed with God. There is no difference between now and five minutes from now.

      And what a god might have done, evolution has in fact done… evolution has carried out in fact, as a simple, powerful algorithm.

      What has it done other than provide for a bizarre and unrealistic sense of Karma?

      That’s because they are mostly REASONABLE, based on the simple heuristic of treating other people as one would wish to be treated. Things that can be demonstrated to be reasonable, and that can arise naturally, benefit not all from a god hypothesis.

      The problem with the categorical imperative (or “treat others…”) is that “how you want to be treated” is often very different from “how you ought to be treated.” For example, I would not want an addict to provide me with cocaine, even though that is what he wants that of me. There must be something else.

      If the same being that gave to me the still, small voice of a god’s conscience also inspired the Hebrew Bible or the Christian scriptures, or the Koran, why when I read those books is my conscience so aroused by what I see as unfair, disgusting, degrading, uncharitable, jingoistic, monstrous, egomaniacal, irrational, ignorant, and dehumanizing?

      How often do you read these books? Of those times, how often do you jump right to the parts you don’t like? In reading this sentence, two things come to mind. 1. You probably don’t read these books very often (so why have you phrased the question that way) and 2. this smells of confirmation bias (are you sure you’re not just seeing what you want to see?).

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Greg: Great summary, thanks.

  • jose

    Careful about being too quick assigning shared perceptions of morality to instincts and evolution. It’s not necessarily so. For example, every human culture in the world has body-tweaking practices (serrated/extracted teeth, haircuts, piercings, tattoes, carvings, whatever). Doesn’t mean they aren’t entirely cultural.

    The question of where our values come from can be wonderfully intrincate. Patricia Churchland is the go-to science writer for this sort of thing.

  • Greg G.

    I agree with your definition of “objective”. Morality is relative to the vulnerabilities of the subjects. Murder would not be a moral consideration to immortal beings. Theft would not be a consideration to beings that could produce items effortlessly. Lying would not be a moral consideration to omniscient beings.

    Because we humans are vulnerable to these things, we place value on life, acquired property, and information. Since we must interact with creatures with a long memory, it behooves us to act in ways that will persuade others to treat us beneficially, and to do this, we must treat them beneficially. That is the basis for what we call morality. We must convince others that we are a credible moral agent so we must act morally. It doesn’t matter whether there is a god.

  • DrewL

    If Leah’s point is that we shouldn’t be too smug about what our fallible brains tell us, I agree. But these imperfect brains are all we’ve got.

    I’d call this a “functionally omniscience “or “functional infallibile” approach to morality. You recognize you could be wrong, but you set this possibility aside and, for all intents and purposes, act as if you could not possibly be wrong.

    You still have a glaring inconsistency: You afford yourself the right to follow your conscience wherever it may lead, outside criteria be damned. Why does no one else in the Bob universe get this right? Why do you get to write gay marriage editorials making appeals to objective morality, and telling churches they’re a disgrace, but no one else gets to make these claims?

    I’d call this the self-declared unchecked dictator approach to morality: Bob gets the right to impose morality on everyone else, and he refuses to recognize that his actions are subject to any criteria of human rights, justice, or fairness. Sounds terrifying.

    (and cue the “Everyone else does this too!” response–still not a rational argument or even empirically accurate)

    • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

      What makes you think “no one else gets to make these claims”? I haven’t seen Bob proposing that no one whose values differ from Bob’s should be allowed to advocate for them or act in accordance with them. And he isn’t claiming that no one else gets it *right*, he’s claiming that “is it right?” is a wrong question to ask about moral matters.

      And where do you get this from? “… and he refuses to recognize that his actions are subject to any criteria of human rights, justice, or fairness.” It looks to me as if those things do in fact matter to Bob. Whence the terror? (Because Bob doesn’t regard those things as objective external constraints? So what? Yes, if Bob gets a lot of power and comes to think that those things don’t matter after all then he might do horrible things. But, equally, if you get a lot of power and come to think that those things don’t matter after all then you might do horrible things too. You’d probably claim that those horrible things were Objectively Right, and hypothetical-nasty-Bob probably wouldn’t, but that doesn’t look like an advantage to me. Is there any evidence that moral realists change their moral values any less than moral nonrealists?)

      • DrewL

        Bob has a difficult choice to make. Either:
        a) anti-gay groups like Westboro Baptist Church have the same right to follow their conscience and impose their morality on others that Bob has. In this case Bob has to personally affirm that they are “right” to do what he personally affirms they are wrong to do, since Bob thinks denying gay marriage is “reprehensible.”

        b) or anti-gay groups are second-class citizens in the Bob universe and DON’T get the right to do what Bob does. None of us do because we weren’t born as Bob. Bob is a self-declared tyrant with exclusive rights to impose his morality at will, with no criteria to keep his actions in check.

        Perhaps there is a third option? I’d like to hear it…

        • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

          I don’t think he has to choose either your (a) or your (b), and in particular I think (b) is full of stuff you’ve just made up. Here’s roughly what I think Bob would say. (He may of course come along and disagree with me.)
          1. Terms like “is right” and “have the right”, strictly, are only meaningful when you say what moral system you’re working with.
          2. WBC are right-according-to-WBC to do what they do; they are not right-according-to-Bob to do what they do.
          3. Being right to do something needn’t be the same (in any moral system) as having the right to do it. Nor need it be the same as having the right to impose it on others.
          4. By definition, whatever Bob considers right is right-according-to-Bob, but it needn’t be right-according-to-Bob-for-Bob-to-impose-on-others.
          5. The only exclusive tyrannical right Bob has on account of seeing things this way is that his values (and no one else’s) determine what’s right-according-to-Bob. That doesn’t mean, e.g., that it’s right-according-to-Bob for Bob to impose his views on other people.

          So, in particular, (a) is wrong because Bob doesn’t hold that WBC is right-according-to-Bob to do what they do, though he would concede that they’re right-according-to-WBC to do what they do. And (b) is wrong because Bob doesn’t (so far as I can tell) consider it right-according-to-Bob for Bob to impose his morality on everyone else at every turn, nor (so far as I can tell) does he consider it wrong-according-to-Bob every time someone else attempts to impose their morality on others, even if Bob’s morality differs from theirs at relevant points.

          I think you’re being led astray by thinking about Bob’s position as if, despite what he’s said, he really holds absolute, agent-independent, purportedly-objective moral positions and then just pretends that he doesn’t. I think that’s an error.

        • DrewL

          G, very nice articulation of Bob’s view. You are correct: I am not buying that Bob doesn’t have objective moral positions embedded within his views.

          I think you’re right in the sense that Choice A does not encompass Bob’s views. However, your argument against B….

          …because Bob doesn’t (so far as I can tell) consider it right-according-to-Bob for Bob to impose his morality on everyone else at every turn, nor (so far as I can tell) does he consider it wrong-according-to-Bob every time someone else attempts to impose their morality on others, even if Bob’s morality differs from theirs at relevant points.

          …is largely an assumption that Bob abides by some social contract or notion of modern liberalism that affords each person his own rights of conscience (Jason agrees here). His two major choices here would be Lockean social contract theory or a John Stuart Mill-like utilitarianism. However, both theories ground particular notions of the good or particular notions of rights outside individual subjectivity. Utilitarians and Social Contract theorists are not subjectivists; subjectivists are not utilitarians or social contract theorists. Bob must choose, and he has chosen subjectivism.

          A route around this would be: Bob subjectively chooses particular values of utilitarianism or social contract theory, such as the rights of others’ conscience, to hold subjectively. This has two problems: first of all, one cannot subjectively hold beliefs that violate subjectivity and still be a subjectivist. If we think about a cafeteria of options for the subjectivist, some food items simply are not available, just as, to step into the metaphor, vegetarians cannot choose particular foods and still be a vegetarian. So while inalienable rights are very attractive beliefs to us modern liberals, Bob has parted ways with those things because they are fundamentally at odds with subjectivism. If you don’t believe me, you need to read Nietzsche, who tore apart Locke, Mill, and Kant to land on the subjectivism Bob is advocating.

          (As an aside, I actually like that Bob stands proudly in the Nietzschian tradition of morality ultimately being about individual will and power. Notice that he has to concede some of the militant theist commenters’ points about atheist not believing in grounded notions of right and wrong; this is exactly what he just argued for! The far more cowardly response is for atheists to desperately cobble together some completely unverifiable (and therefore faith-based) batch of trendy universalist humanist values, as the Atheism+ movement has done. These people don’t have the stomach to embrace the conclusions their beliefs lead to and are frantically groping around for some moral crutch to lean on.)

          The more accurate reading of Bob’s beliefs, and one that does not violate the fundamental properties of subjectivism, is that Bob believes in the sacredness and rights of one person and one conscience in the Bob universe: Bob’s own. We know Bob is not shy about imposing his morality on others at times (a trait he shares with the Christian Right). What can we say about the frequency and force in which Bob exercises this self-granted right? In Bob’s universe, we can say nothing. Perhaps he writes letters supporting gay marriage, perhaps he sodomizes and pours acid on the children of conservative legislators until they comply with his legislative wishes…we have no objective criteria to judge the former any more wrong than the latter. We may, as Bob does, declare his actions to violate our own moral standards, but as Bob says in his first post, an objection boils down to simply “I am annoyed you violated MY law (or really, preference) of not sodomizing and torturing children.” After all, we cannot appeal to any theory of democracy or civil society or individual rights, all of which rest upon beyond-subjective morality. In the Bob universe, Bob was “following his fallible brain,” which is “all he has” and, in his mind, really all that is. Again, this is a self-granted ticket to unchecked tyranny.

        • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

          (This is of course really a reply to DrewL, but the Patheos comment system doesn’t like super-deeply-nested comments so I can’t actually make it be one.)

          Yes, I think Bob probably goes with some broadly modern-liberal-y system of values. I think it’s simply incorrect to say that there’s any inconsistency between this and moral nonrealism; the two questions “what moral values do I hold?” and “what sort of thing are my moral values, really?” are quite separate and one can adopt almost any answer to one together with almost any answer to the other. Saying this isn’t a “route around” anything (more precisely: it may be, but that’s not why it’s there). Being a utilitarian — in the sense of valuing things in so far as they promote (say) more net satisfaction than frustration of people’s desires — doesn’t at all conflict with holding that moral values are necessarily subjective rather than objective. (If you define “utilitarian” as “one who holds that net total desire satisfaction” is *actually*, *objectively*, what *really matters*, then indeed you can’t be a utilitarian and a moral nonrealist. In that case maybe you’d want some other name to denote someone whose moral values are utilitarian whatever their meta-ethics, but that seems like a useful category whatever name you give it.)

          You can’t choose to eat meat and still be a vegetarian. But you can be a vegetarian — a real, sincere, vegetarian — despite agreeing that other people eat meat and not claiming that there’s anything objectively wrong about their position.

          Your last paragraph seems to me to amount to “It’s bad to say that moral values don’t have objective reality, because then you are left without objectively real moral values”. Of course you’re welcome to say that, but I don’t expect Bob will be much moved by that criticism: it’s rather question-begging.

          I do not think your comments are enhanced by their repeated assertions and implications of bad faith and general nastiness on the part of those whose religious views differ from yours. I note in particular that you apparently hold (1) that any atheist who embraces moral realism is “cowardly” and “trendy” and “doesn’t have the stomach” and “frantically groping around”, and also (2) that atheists like Bob who don’t embrace moral realism but do have moral values “act as if they could not possibly be wrong” and are “self-declared unchecked dictators” and “terrifying” and have written themselves a “self-granted ticket to unchecked tyranny”. The only remaining option would seem to be (3) a frank embracing of outright moral nihilism — holding no values at all — and it isn’t hard to guess what you’d actually say about anyone who did that. This is all rather unseemly — it gives the impression that really you’ll take any stick you can find to beat atheists with — and I wish you wouldn’t do it. But then I would say, that, wouldn’t I?

        • DrewL

          Being a utilitarian — in the sense of valuing things in so far as they promote (say) more net satisfaction than frustration of people’s desires — doesn’t at all conflict with holding that moral values are necessarily subjective rather than objective.

          I will grant you this point, but subjectivists will be on flimsy grounds to defend their subjective notion of “net satisfaction”–a nearly impossible concept to define even within an objective moral system. Since the possibility of grounding “net satisfaction” within any objective “good” for society is not present, subjectivist utilitarians would probably save time by admitting their promotion of “net satisfaction” is merely an unchecked imposition of their own private will on society (once again, resembling a dictator). However, your next sentence…

          (If you define “utilitarian” as “one who holds that net total desire satisfaction” is *actually*, *objectively*, what *really matters*, then indeed you can’t be a utilitarian and a moral nonrealist.

          …I believe implicates Bob for trying to have his cake and eat it too. On a comment posted Oct. 23rd on the other thread Bob protests the spuriousness of being “merely” subjectively opposed to slavery by arguing…

          “Spurious”? That’s the best you can say about the elimination of slavery, for example? We can’t find any social value in this? No economic benefit, for example, in a society that has no slavery?

          You can see here he’s slipped into utilitarianism. “Social value” is dangerously ambiguous–he will not be able to say abolishing slavery has objective social value, of course–but then he appeals to economic benefit, which is a type of objective utility. Is economic benefit an “objective good” for a society? I certainly read Bob’s statement as implying that, but I’d be willing to hear other readings. I’d consider this a retreat from his subjectivist position and a smuggling in of the “actually objective” notion of good you say subjectivists cannot hold. (Also, historical sidenote: arguments for economic benefit were generally a slaveholder’s best friend, and any economist would admit slavery is quite effective in lowering the cost of production. Not sure what economic benefit Bob is getting at.)

          I do not think your comments are enhanced by their repeated assertions and implications of bad faith and general nastiness on the part of those whose religious views differ from yours.

          This isn’t directly a conversation about “religious beliefs.” Bob’s moral views are actually quite common among practicing Christians, Jews, Mormons. Despite what the Christian apologists are telling you, most of the people in the pews on a Sunday would adhere to everything Bob is saying here.

          This is all rather unseemly — it gives the impression that really you’ll take any stick you can find to beat atheists with — and I wish you wouldn’t do it. But then I would say, that, wouldn’t I?

          …point taken, I did not intend to come across as uncivil. Good philosophical argumentation often appeals to our senses as much as our rationality, so it’s generally common practice to point out when someone’s philosophical beliefs force them to condone something that strikes us as reprehensible (to use Bob’s word). This goes back to Plato. My criticism of Atheism+ was meant to praise Bob’s unflinching embrace of what others seem hesitant to profess. You seem to imply I was nasty toward the “religious beliefs” of the Atheism+ crowd; while I find this charge amusing, I have no problem recognizing we are dealing with people’s very sacred personal identities, so I will attempt to be more respectful.

        • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

          What distinguishes tyrannical dictators from everyone else is not their preference for their own values — everyone prefers their own values, whether they identify them with the Will Of God or the Nature Of The Universe or their own personal whims — but their actual imposition of those values on other people, on a large scale, by force. Unless you see Bob doing that, which I don’t, what he’s doing is no more “like a dictator” than “like a paedophile” or “like Mother Teresa” or “like a Protestant martyr” and the only point of the comparison, so far as I can see, is to sling mud.

          I agree that giving a good definition of “net satisfaction” is a serious technical difficulty for preference utilitarianism. It isn’t the only one; e.g., any form of utilitarianism (indeed, any form of consequentialism) in principle requires you to predict the long-term outcomes of whatever you do, which is really really hard, and there are all sorts of fascinating conundra about how to compare outcomes involving very different *numbers* of people. But it seems altogether unfair to fault Bob for this, for two reasons.

          Firstly, we don’t really get to (not should we, in any sense I can think of) choose our moral values freely on the basis of computational feasibility or philosophical clarity. That applies whether moral realism is correct (in which case the underlying moral structure of the universe is whatever it is, whether or not we understand it well and have good ways to work out what’s good and what isn’t) or incorrect (in which case our values are to a great extent the result of brain hardware that we have no good way of changing).

          Secondly, this isn’t a problem unique to utilitarians or unique to moral nonrealists. A moral-realist utilitarian has all the same technical difficulties. A virtue ethicist has similar troubles (what should be considered a virtue? can it really be right to commend someone for an action that predictably does immense harm?); so does someone who takes morality to be defined by the nature of God and works out moral principles by consulting their religious tradition (the nature of God is famously inscrutable and hard to be sure of; religious traditions are usually full of internal disagreements, things for which it’s very unclear how literally to take them, multitudinous moral principles whose relative weighting is totally unknown, centuries-old things that need updating but no one knows how, etc.). If there are any positions that don’t have difficulties like these, they’re the really simplistic ones — total moral nihilism where you just do whatever you feel like, or boneheaded fanaticism where you just take commands from your Glorious Leader and don’t think at all.

          I disagree with your analysis of Bob’s comments on slavery. Let me offer what I think is both a more charitable and a more accurate paraphrase. “You seem to be saying that if I’m not a moral realist then my disapproval of slavery is a purely arbitrary choice. But it’s nothing of the kind. Slavery has lots of implications for other things I value and I bet you do too: I expect societies with slavery to be unhappier and poorer and less stable, for instance. If you think I need some kind of objective external Thing to make me prefer happiness for myself and others, I don’t know what I can say to you; and richer stabler societies are better in the not particularly moral but quite objective sense that they will tend to survive longer and grow more and their values will therefore tend to spread.” None of this seems to me to involve claiming that there are objective *moral* values.

          For the avoidance of doubt, when I say “religious views” I mean “views on topics generally considered religious”. Atheism and agnosticism are religious views in this sense even if the people holding them don’t in any sense consider them sacred or treat them like religions, and it was no part of my purpose to complain that you’re being nasty about people’s “very sacred personal identities”. My complaint was rather that, although on the face of it you’re arguing about questions of meta-ethics, in practice it looks a lot as if what you’re actually doing is looking for opportunities to be nasty about people who are atheists. By way of illustration: You say that “most of the people in the pews on a Sunday would adhere to everything Bob is saying here”; have you been saying the same things about the people in the pews as you have about Bob? That they seek to be tyrannical dictators, etc.? (For what it’s worth, having spent plenty of time among people in pews myself, I think their meta-ethical views tend to be quite different from Bob’s.) But if you truly are more respectful in future, I suppose I don’t mind very much whether your reasons seem to me like good ones :-).

        • http://theophor.us Ignatius Theophorus

          One thing I don’t understand is that if morality is a matter of preference, then why does he get so vocal about people with differing views? It seems like that would be the same as getting annoyed over whether or not someone shared your preference for wensleydale over yellow American. Especially since it is highly improbable that he would see any benefit from the dismantling of religious institutions, or the ending of the abuse of women in Africa, or the various ethnic cleansings that happen from time to time.

          If the human race is doomed (which we are according to, well, everyone, it is just a matter of time), and we have no more objective value than, say, a rock or a slug, then why care what happens to us? Even if global warming were completely reversed, he would not see the benefit. Even if the world entered into a new utopia where man no longer raises weapons against man, he is not likely to experience it. And while he might be trying to help the next generation benefit from his efforts (which, I think, is the noblest of his possible efforts), they’re dead too.

          On a large enough scale, everything dies. We can act to try to preserve the life of the human race and perhaps add another few generations (if we’re lucky) to the end of our life as a species, but that strikes me as futile, especially since we are completely unable to benefit from it (and if you’re looking for that warm feeling in your gut you get from helping others, there are easier ways to feel good). In a world where life is dictated by preference, why should a man do anything but look out for number one?

        • keddaw

          Ig, maybe one’s preference is for fairness – not least because in a fair society one is less likely to experience unfairness and so have a better chance at looking out for number one (whatever that means) in a much better way than living in a society which is unfair.

          Perhaps his wish for marriage equality is simply a recognition that the ability to limit marriage according to some ancient whim also allows for the banning of inter-religious marriage which he may not want. Or perhaps he wants societal institutions to play by logical and consistent rules and sees a ban on gay marriage as having no logical basis. Or he sees it as inherently unfair that two adult members of a society can or cannot do something based solely on gender and fairness is a rather basic impulse in (most) humans (and any social mammals for that matter).

          “we have no more objective value than, say, a rock”
          But we have much more subjective value! And while we’re here being all subjective that’s all we need.
          “why care what happens to us? “
          If the universe was infinite and humans would breed into eternity our actions would have permanence, but we wouldn’t. In that case why would we care about what happens to us? We would because we do. We care about the subjective well-being of ourselves and other humans. Why? Because we’re empathetic, we care about others, we’re tribal, we like being part of a whole greater than ourselves, because our moment to moment experiences are important to us even if their long term effects are transient.

        • DrewL

          What distinguishes tyrannical dictators from everyone else is not their preference for their own values — everyone prefers their own values, whether they identify them with the Will Of God or the Nature Of The Universe or their own personal whims…

          I’ll stop you right there: what I mean by the unchecked dictator is that Bob does not believe his moral beliefs or actions can be judged by any outside criteria because, to him, such criteria doesn’t exist. The unchecked imposition of one’s values is a secondary symptom, one that results from the same problem: not believing in any outside criteria to gauge when imposition is and is not appropriate.

          Your 2-4 paragraphs essentially argue: morality is hard. Yes, it is. But Bob actually makes it easier because there are no outside criteria to comply with. Oh his confused utilitarianism endorses gross violation of human rights? Not really a problem: “gross violation of human rights” is another way of saying he “annoyed” a few people in violating their personal preferences. This is on the same level of serving someone a drink they don’t like at Starbucks. All of your “it’s so complicated!” points don’t really work for Bob’s subjectivism because Bob cannot fail to be perfectly moral within his system (his fallible brain is all he has, after all).

          …and richer stabler societies are better in the not particularly moral but quite objective sense that they will tend to survive longer and grow more and their values will therefore tend to spread.

          Right off the bat: “richer stabler societies” oftentimes have greater amounts of inequality, so trying to categorize them as “objectively better” is going to get you in trouble with Marxists or anyone who does not equate the GDP with indication of human flourishing. And your “not particularly moral but quite objective sense” move is really conceding the argument: instead of trying to convince your opponent you’re just putting forth a moral axiom that in the guise of a self-evident, unquestionable statement. That’s an extremely poor move to make in moral discourse: it’s on par with someone standing against gay marriage because they know in a “not particularly moral but quite objective sense” that marriage is between a man and a woman.

          But secondly, Bob would be permitted to reason in the way you’re suggesting within a subjectivist system, but he’s on borrowed time in the sense that he and his opponent must share in holding identical personal moral preferences in the same self-evident manner. Where those moral preferences diverge, he’s out of luck, it all falls back down to the level of spuriousness. The slaveowner may easily turn your “nearly objective” economic argument back against you: slavery is good for profits, after all, and keeps consumer prices low! Here Bob has met someone else with strong ungrounded personal preferences just as he has. Most moral debates at this point appeal to general principles, but Bob can’t fairly do that since he only believes in his conscience. This brings us to the emotivism problem: debates are really nothing more than using someone as a means to an end, of manipulating their preferences to match your own. To say something of a higher nature is going on would require something outside of individual wills, which is not available in the Bob universe.

          I can share the survey data with you about people in the pews being subjectivists, but I doubt you’re interested. Regarding your “nasty” comment, you seem quite uneasy about comparing people’s moral systems to “tyrannical dictators” in a way that I don’t really understand–this is not far from how Plato reasoned with people. At some point, philosophical debates, particularly on the internet where Nazi comparisons run rampant, aren’t a place where one can expect to avoid criticism. Look at Bob’s gay marriage letter: he’s saying anyone who believes differently than him might as well be a segregationist. I don’t find his argument to be out of bounds or “nasty,” but I’m guessing you do? I’m all for civility, but I don’t fault Bob for appealing to historical examples of immoral action, which is the same as what I’m doing here. Perhaps your (non-objective) standards are different.

        • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

          Yes, I get that when you say “unchecked tyrannical dictator” what you mean is merely that Bob doesn’t believe there’s some external authority that has an objective right to judge his actions. I’m saying that it’s completely unreasonable to describe that situation with that language.

          I’m not merely saying “morality is hard”. I’m saying: *you* pointed out some ways in which morality is hard for Bob, but it’s hard in similar ways for everyone else too so the fact that it’s hard for Bob isn’t in itself evidence of anything wrong with Bob’s position.

          It most certainly is possible for a moral nonrealist to “fail to be perfectly moral within his system”. Being a moral nonrealist means (kinda) not distinguishing between “what I approve of” and “what’s right”, but it doesn’t mean not distinguishing between “what I do” and “what I approve of”. Most people who aren’t completely amoral or completely oblivious do things they disapprove of all the time, and being a moral nonrealist doesn’t change that.

          When I say “richer stabler societies are better in the objective sense that X”, I do not mean “richer stabler societies are objectively better in every way, because X” and I do not mean “richer stabler societies are objectively morally better, because X”. (And in this particular case I was trying to be hypothetical-Bob; I wouldn’t myself argue in quite the way I take him to have been arguing.)

          It’s quite true that if Bob tries to have an argument about a moral issue with someone whose values don’t have enough in common with his, then he’s “out of luck”. Exactly the same is true of everyone, moral realist or not. Two moral realists with conflicting ethics and/or metaethics can get every bit as badly stuck. You say “Most moral debates at this point appeal to general principles”; what they actually need is *shared* principles, whether or not they’re “general” and whether or not they’re objective.

          I don’t see any reason to agree with your characterization of what debates are allegedly about for moral nonrealists. (Though I’m sure that many many debates are *to some extent* about trying to manipulate one another, no matter who they’re between.) Being a moral nonrealist doesn’t mean not caring about truth, it doesn’t mean just wanting to make everyone share your values, etc., etc., etc. Once again you’re talking as if you think that being a moral nonrealist is the same thing as *not having moral values* when in fact it is merely a particular metaphysical theory about what kind of thing moral values are.

          If you have survey data about the metaethics of people in pews, I am very interested indeed. (I am also interested in what makes you say you doubt I’m interested; what about my comments here has given you the impression that I wouldn’t be?)

          I don’t see how to get from “Plato sometimes did X” to “X is not a nasty way to behave”. (I guess that when you say Plato, you actually mean Socrates as portrayed by Plato.) I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone should be immune to criticism. I am, however, suggesting that the level of debate would be improved if we stuck to criticizing one another’s *ideas* and avoided attacking other people’s character and intentions. Yes, there’s lots of rudeness on the internet, but that doesn’t mean we should all be rude just because we’re on the internet. (Note for the avoidance of doubt: I am not claiming to be anything like perfect in this or any other respect.)

          I had a look at the last dozen or so of Bob’s posts and didn’t see any letter in which he says that those who oppose gay marriage might as well be segregationist. (I didn’t watch the video in his very recent post; was it in there?) So I can’t comment on what he said and whether I disapprove; sorry. Anyway, I don’t get how saying that Bob is like a tyrannical dictator is “appealing to historical examples of immoral action” in any sense that makes it anything other than gratuitous mudslinging. I’m probably missing the point somewhere.

        • DrewL

          G, you seem like someone who thinks far too systematically and philosophically to be fooled by the perils of emotivism. Instead of continuing this awkward “Bob might say this”/”Bob couldn’t say this” exchange (which I am just as much responsible for as you), why don’t you take a look at the wikipedia article on emotivism:
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotivism

          You can see some of the works that point out its flaws. Go take a look at them on google books and let me know what you think.

          Here’s a BBC guide walking through emotivism and why it fell out of favor:
          http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/emotivism_1.shtml

          Here’s a summary of Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique that the distinction between “manipulative and non-manipulative” social relations is lost with emotivism:
          http://books.google.com/books?id=TN7sop-yILMC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA133#v=onepage&q&f=false

          Feel free to map out your own course on how emotivism overcomes the many critiques raised against it. Hats off to you if you can overcome these critiques.

          Of course, I think most commenters here by now have recognized: Bob is only an emotivist when he’s not trying to convince us his morality is “better” than everyone else’s. So if you can philosophically defend the position, you may be the only one here to actually adhere to it, but you will certainly have my respect.

        • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

          I agree that Bob is a non-cognitivist about ethics. I don’t see why you’re so sure that he’s specifically an emotivist.

          I do not know of any philosophical position that hasn’t had many critiques raised against it. If you have the impression that moral nonrealism has been abandoned by philosophers on account of those critiques, you’re mistaken. (Go to http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl and search for “meta-ethics” for the result of an informal survey of quite a lot of professional philosophers. There are more realists than nonrealists, for sure, but there are plenty of nonrealists. Incidentally, if you’re inclined to crow about the realist majority then I suggest you first search on the same page for “theism”.)

          Obviously you aren’t really expecting that here deep in the comments of Bob’s blog anyone is going to offer the sort of book-length treatment that’s necessary to defend any position against all the arguments philosophers have come up with against it. I’ll limit my response to this: I am pretty well aware of what’s been said on both sides of this issue, and it doesn’t seem to me that either realism or nonrealism has been refuted or anything close to it.

          Your apparent unwillingness to make any comment on this issue without attacking the character of your opponents (I’m selfishly glad that it always seems to be Bob rather than me, but I don’t see that he deserves it any more than I do) is depressing but no longer surprising.

          Were you going to tell me why you thought I wouldn’t be interested in the results of surveys on the metaethics of pew-sitters? Let me repeat for the avoidance of doubt that I *am* interested — so yes, please do share the data like you said you could. Thanks!

        • DrewL

          So you have now moved from my arguments being “nasty” to me conducting “character attacks.” I’ve given up in understanding what you mean by these terms. I think we fundamentally disagree on how philosophical debate is carried out, which may reflect reading from different traditions. You seem to enjoy using this as a means of establishing moral superiority in every comment you post. Earlier I apologized; this led to you merely upgrading your charges of malevolence. I’m sorry again, this time because it doesn’t seem like I can please you.

          I would love to see your thoughts on why Bob isn’t an emotivist, since he states quite clearly morals amount to nothing more than preferences. He sometimes retreats to “very serious” preferences, but there doesn’t seem to be any criteria by which he can define what a “serious” preference is. I find his strategic shift to either utilitarianism or objective moral language (in his gay marriage editorial) quite indicative that he finds emotivism inadequate at times, and his shift actually supports the thesis that emotivism is ultimately about manipulation; otherwise appeals and arguments made on false premises is generally frowned upon.

          You have made some remarkable assumptions about my personal position. I personally lean away from moral realism; at the least, I completely reject how any Christian apologist argues for moral realism (the popular Christian apologists many people here read are very very poor philosophers). That philosophers are divided on the issue is not surprising nor disturbing to me. However, emotivism is a particular strategy for holding a nonrealist position, one that, as the BBC guide argues, has largely been abandoned (your linked survey noticeably doesn’t poll on it specifically). I find the critiques to be fairly convincing; perhaps I am being unrealistic in thinking Bob should address these critiques?

          So my argument against Bob is probably threefold: a) he is professing a belief in emotivism (he has not provided any response to this, I believe because he doesn’t like “labels”) b) philosophers have leveled serious critiques against his beliefs (unfortunately he doesn’t like reading those critiques on other websites) and c) he seems to struggle being a consistent emotivist, when it comes to defending the spuriousness of his preferences or a particular moral value he wants to push on others. He has provided some response here, though nothing about utilitarianism.

          I’ll provide the survey data on a thread below to give us a fresh start….

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Drew:

          I am not buying that Bob doesn’t have objective moral positions embedded within his views.

          You’ll have to point this out.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          IT:

          One thing I don’t understand is that if morality is a matter of preference, then why does he get so vocal about people with differing views?

          Most people–you too, I’ll bet–think of their moral instincts as a different and more important category than mere preferences of cheese. Your favorite flavor doesn’t affect me. Whether you beat your children does affect me.

          Especially since it is highly improbable that he would see any benefit from the dismantling of religious institutions, or the ending of the abuse of women in Africa, or the various ethnic cleansings that happen from time to time.

          And yet my instincts still tell me that another human’s suffering is, in a small way, my suffering.

          Why ask these questions when you can answer them yourself? You think and respond the same way that I do.

          why care what happens to us?

          You don’t have the same instincts I do? A punch in the nose and a bowl of your favorite ice cream provoke the same reaction? This is the ridiculous assumption that the only purpose is objective purpose. You can’t have just purpose?

          I can assign purpose to your life, but wouldn’t it make more sense for you to do it?

          Your laments about futility referred to ultimate futility. Whether God has my life plan sketched out in his Big Book or not, my life has the same purpose.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Drew:

          I’ll stop you right there: what I mean by the unchecked dictator is that Bob does not believe his moral beliefs or actions can be judged by any outside criteria because, to him, such criteria doesn’t exist.

          My actions can be judged by you. Or any other commenter here. Or, indeed, any other human. Or society in general. Or the legal system.

          So, yeah–there are outside criteria.

        • DrewL

          My actions can be judged by you. Or any other commenter here. Or, indeed, any other human. Or society in general. Or the legal system.

          So, yeah–there are outside criteria.

          Million dollar question: which criteria, if any, will you recognize as legitimate?

        • Jason

          Bob is consistent in his position because he supportes the right for people to follow their own conscience. This is still not objective truth. It’s collective bargaining.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Drew:

          Maybe if you’d read my stuff thoroughly, you wouldn’t get yourself into a lather over misunderstandings.

          a) anti-gay groups like Westboro Baptist Church have the same right to follow their conscience and impose their morality on others that Bob has.

          Obviously. Whose conscience would they follow? And as for “impose,” you flatter me to think that I can impose my will with the wave of a hand, but it doesn’t work that way. I can use my intellect to argue for my position just like anyone else can. It may sound like Hell to you, but it sounds like reality to me.

          In this case Bob has to personally affirm that they are “right” to do what he personally affirms they are wrong to do, since Bob thinks denying gay marriage is “reprehensible.”

          I don’t know where you live, but I live in America, where the First Amendment allows the Ku Klux Klan or Fred Phelps say pretty much whatever they want. Letting all speak their mind may not for the faint of heart, but it works for me.

          b) or anti-gay groups are second-class citizens in the Bob universe and DON’T get the right to do what Bob does.

          I’m a dictator only in your mind. But you flatter me with that imaginary power–thanks, I guess.

        • DrewL

          I don’t know where you live, but I live in America, where the First Amendment allows the Ku Klux Klan or Fred Phelps say pretty much whatever they want. Letting all speak their mind may not for the faint of heart, but it works for me.

          Sounds like you’re affirming a “right.” Rights are always grounded in natural law, social contract theory, utilitarian theory…something that creeps out of individual subjectivism. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not share your unassuming tone of “if you violate this, you’ve really just violated my personal law, which ain’t much.” And your definition 2 of Objective Morality isn’t sufficient enough for rights: think about MLK Jr. appealing to rights from prison, locked up in a southern state where he’s a criminal and deviant, and holding values that is nowhere close to the universal consensus or self-evident….yet he’s making an appeal for his rights! Rights are not going to meet your first or second definition of morality at times, and we certainly don’t treat them like our personal moral views (“I personally feel I have the right to be an atheist and politically-active, but that’s just my personal thing, I can understand if you are going to use violence and threats to keep me politically uninvolved.”)

          I keep bringing up the “imposing” your moral views thing because in an earlier thread you said:
          There’s no absolute standard, but there is mine. You’re probably not surprised that I take it very, very seriously. Moral breaches (again, from my standpoint) may be serious enough for me to take action (step in physically, write a blog post, fume silently, or whatever).

          …and also said….
          Most Christians define “moral relativism” as someone who says, “I have my truth and you have yours, and I have no right to judge your truth.” That’s not me, so I’m not that kind of moral relativist.

          (FWIW, I like both of these statements)
          So you aren’t denying that you a) set up your personal standard as the yardstick to measure up other people’s moral views, and b) will step in physically when needed in the case of someone doing something morally offensive to you. Where this can turn into unchecked tyranny is that it’s not clear that you see yourself as subject to any standards outside yourself and your “fallible” brain: so I don’t get the sense there is anyone or anything in the Bob universe that gets to make the claim “Ok Bob, you went too far.” I don’t think there could ever be “too far” because whatever you do is not too far. It’s kind of a Divine Command Theory only Bob Command Theory.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Drew:

          Sounds like you’re affirming a “right.”

          A right instituted by society. “Government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed,” remember?

          The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not share your unassuming tone of “if you violate this, you’ve really just violated my personal law, which ain’t much.”

          Again, I suppose I should feel flattered, but the UN has a larger amount of power than I do. But thanks for equating us.

          yet he’s making an appeal for his rights!

          Uh huh. Are those rights objectively grounded? Show me why “MLK should be freed” was the objectively correct path rather than “MLK should be kept in prison.” Y’know–instead of this being just your opinion.

          Bob said: “Moral breaches (again, from my standpoint) may be serious enough for me to take action (step in physically, write a blog post, fume silently, or whatever).”

          And I challenge you: when you see someone beating a chained-up dog, what will you do? Or will nothing provoke you to take action that would curtail someone else’s position? And if you agree, what’s your point?

          So you aren’t denying that you a) set up your personal standard as the yardstick to measure up other people’s moral views, and b) will step in physically when needed in the case of someone doing something morally offensive to you.

          For the love of the god that isn’t there–stop whining about my position and offer something better!

          a) What other standard of morality than my own would I have access to??

          b) Duh.

          Where this can turn into unchecked tyranny …

          is when I become a tyrant. As it is, I’m just an ordinary guy. Bob’s unbridled rule of tyranny is a long way off, I suspect, so you can sleep easily–for tonight, at least.

          … is that it’s not clear that you see yourself as subject to any standards outside yourself

          Are we the same species? Are my actions truly alien to you? I don’t understand where these ridiculous fears are coming from.

          I answer to my family and friends, laws, social expectations, and on and on. Society is a web of expectations and obligations. Probably just like you do. My morality has been and continues to be shaped by all this.

        • DrewL

          Eh, this is a very anti-Bob sentiment, are you quoting it in jest perhaps?
          A right instituted by society. “Government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed,” remember?

          “Just powers” is not a compatible term with the Bob universe, or more accurately, it’s a redundant term: there is no objective notion of justice, so there is no just power or unjust power, there is only power.

          That means if you happen to believe in rights, you don’t do it under the pretense of it being just (there is no just or unjust), or because the governed consent to it (this would require a theory of democracy, which have always been presented with a very anti-Bob-ian objective grounding in nature or natural rights), you only believe in rights because they happen to be coercively and effectively imposed by the society in which you find yourself.

          I think your next statement actually backs up this: you don’t evaluate the CONTENT of UN Declaration of Human Rights, but the amount of power it has to be enforced. I give you props for consistency on the might-makes-rights position.

          So government doesn’t derive it’s just power from the consent of the governed in the Bob universe, there is no JUST power, and the governed don’t matter anyway: there is only power. So I will return to the original inquiry: does Bob believe in the rights of those he disagrees with, or is he merely kept in check by the current power asymmetry between him and the police force that would show up at his door were he to knock off Fred Phelps one day? I don’t see the two as the same.

          (This all makes your op-ed even more alien to the Bob universe: might-makes-right means might-makes-marriage-discrimination-right in the current context…..so why protest?)

          I’ll tell you: I do think MLK Jr. should have been freed, regardless of who had the might and power in Birmingham. This is simultaneously a) my opinion, but b) something I might ground in political theories of justice and c) something I might ground in a very particularistic belief in the rightness of responding to oppression with non-violence. To use your means of evaluation, yes, the Birmingham police force had the necessary power to lock him up….that’s not at all relevant to my evaluation of the situation. Is it relevant to yours? If you’re a might-makes-right guy, I believe it’s the final word in yours, but please, correct me.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Drew:

          Is this conversation going anywhere? I sense that you’re just chatting here to pass the time, since these riddles seem to be pretty answerable by the many posts and comments that have come before.

          “Just powers” is not a compatible term with the Bob universe

          When you become a judge or sheriff (say) by due process, you have just powers. My society has granted you powers, and the rules were followed.

          there is no objective notion of justice

          So what? The dictionary doesn’t demand any.

          So government doesn’t derive it’s just power from the consent of the governed in the Bob universe

          Wrong again.

          So I will return to the original inquiry

          Don’t bother. I’m getting tired of answering questions I’ve already answered. I’m afraid you’ve driven away my interest in informing you of my position.

          And I guess you’re throwing in the towel on any evidence to show us that objective morality exists?

          I do think MLK Jr. should have been freed

          Yeah, but who cares? Since when do you have any interest in personal opinion, anyway?

          The challenge to you was to show the objectively correct path, not your own opinion. (Unless opinions are all we actually have and objective truth is a fiction … ?)

        • DrewL

          “Just” power is power that follows procedure or due process in the Bob universe. Inversely, for power to be unjust, it has not followed procedure or due process.

          Compare to MLK’s letter from the Birmingham jail:

          Any law that degrades human personality is unjust….

          An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself….

          We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.

          MLK believed in particular principles against which he could evaluate a law’s justness–and we’re clearly talking about laws that were passed with due process.

          Bob the social reformer actually does the same thing (see the gay marriage op-ed). But Bob the armchair philosopher will only say: “in my personal opinion this violates my personal morality”–which “ain’t much” according to Bob the armchair philosopher. Hmm…not quite as powerful.

    • chris buchholz

      “You afford yourself the right to follow your conscience wherever it may lead, outside criteria be damned”
      where do you see him saying that? That appears nowhere, in fact it’s just the opposite.

      • DrewL

        I see him saying it everywhere. Please, offer a different interpretation if you have one. But…

        We can wrestle with this issue the only way we ever have, by studying the issue and arguing with each other in various ways, but we have no way to resolve the question once and for all by appealing to an absolute standard.

        Again, I get stuck on this idea of an external standard. I’ve seen no evidence of such a thing.

        I consult my conscience with moral questions, and it gives me answers. No need for an external anything.

        …all I have is a conscience that tells me what’s right and what’s wrong. I have no higher authority to appeal to to check its imperfect moral claims. If Leah’s point is that we shouldn’t be too smug about what our fallible brains tell us, I agree. But these imperfect brains are all we’ve got.

        From the other thread:

        …my answer is that no objective standard is needed. I consult my own conscience to figure out right or wrong.

        What ideal norms? If you’re referring to objective morality, show us that it exists. I’ve seen no evidence. More importantly, that hypothesis is simply unnecessary.

        They’re wrong in my opinion. That’s it. It’s all I’ve got.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Drew:

      You still have a glaring inconsistency: You afford yourself the right to follow your conscience wherever it may lead, outside criteria be damned.

      Christians enjoy stating that, even if the Nazis had won and brainwashed everyone to their evil plans except that one Christian, they’d still be right in their opposition to the Holocaust–outside criteria be damned.

      Why do you get to write gay marriage editorials making appeals to objective morality, and telling churches they’re a disgrace, but no one else gets to make these claims?

      Wait … did I just get elected Dictator and Conscience of the world? Sweet! But in case you’re just teasing about that–everyone else can make whatever claims their moral sense guides them to make.

      • DrewL

        Christians enjoy stating that, even if the Nazis had won and brainwashed everyone to their evil plans except that one Christian, they’d still be right in their opposition to the Holocaust–outside criteria be damned.

        I’m not totally sure what you’re arguing for here. Is the single Christian right in his assessment, wrong in his assessment, or something else….?

        But in case you’re just teasing about that–everyone else can make whatever claims their moral sense guides them to make.

        Do they get to drop the “In my personal opinion….” prefaces too and feign objectivism when it’s convenient? How do we know we Lewis wasn’t a closet subjectivist too, just more closeted than even you….

        • Bob Seidensticker

          I’m not totally sure what you’re arguing for here.

          I’m saying that the hideous thing that you accuse me of is what everyone does.

          Do they get to drop the “In my personal opinion….” prefaces too and feign objectivism when it’s convenient?

          You’re not taking those deep breaths that I encouraged you to take are you? Remember to do so whenever you imagine me making objective morality claims and you’ll probably see things a lot clearer. No, I don’t make such claims.

  • J-Rex

    Not believing that a god created the earth =/= believing life is pointless and accidental.
    Not believing a god gave us morals =/= believing there is no right or wrong and we should do whatever we want.
    Our morals help us survive in a group. We do best living in a group and we do best in a group if we can keep each other happy or at least not cause anyone harm.
    I think Christians get confused with this even though it’s really simple. No, killing someone isn’t “wrong” in the sense that you’ll be punished for it for all eternity. It’s “wrong” in the sense that it causes physical and emotional harm to that person and the community. People feel unsafe and unhappy if you kill someone, so they’ll want to kill you or lock you away. You don’t kill for your own safety and acceptance in the group. And we’ve evolved empathy because it makes us more likely to get along with a group.

    • http://theophor.us Ignatius Theophorus

      Not believing that a god created the earth =/= believing life is pointless and accidental.

      So then… how do you define the value of life objectively? Because from where I’m standing you are simply voicing an unwarranted bias in favor of the living over the non-living, the animate over the inanimate, mammal over non-mammal, and humans over other mammals. Why shouldn’t you prefer the inanimate?

      Not believing a god gave us morals =/= believing there is no right or wrong and we should do whatever we want.

      This is exactly the opposite of what Bob posits.

      Our morals help us survive in a group.

      So if an individual (or group of individuals) becomes undesirable we can kill them? Or it is OK to harm, so long as we do no harm to the group as a whole? This also does not address the question of whether it is right to facilitate a genocide which is already occurring. Dropped in 1941 Berlin, would you work to get rid of Jews? Because that would be best for you

      We do best living in a group and we do best in a group if we can keep each other happy or at least not cause anyone harm.

      I find it wonderful how “do best” really isn’t defined here, but this is not correct. We are happiest when we are spared the choice whether to do harm or good. We are happiest when our own desires are affirmed. We are made uncomfortable by others being less well off, but we can easily put that out of our minds.

      Perhaps, however, you are talking about “doing best” as a reference to the species as a whole. This makes me ask, “why do you care?” So long as you have your Nike’s, how do third world sweat shops matter to you? You don’t see them, you don’t hear them, and their low wages are improving your quality of life.

      I also like how, “not cause anyone harm” is amazingly ambiguous, but I hope I’ll get into that at some point later.

      I think Christians get confused with this even though it’s really simple.

      This statement just wreaks of arrogance. Do sweeping judgements come easy to you?

      People feel unsafe and unhappy if you kill someone, so they’ll want to kill you or lock you away.

      So… we shouldn’t kill because we might get caught? How is this better than the fundagelical saying that he is moral because of a divine policeman?

      And we’ve evolved empathy because it makes us more likely to get along with a group.

      I’ve also evolved an appendix. If it becomes inconvenient, though, I’ll get rid of it. Why shouldn’t empathy be similar?

  • avalon

    Bob,
    You’re on the right track with defining definitions, but you forgot one very important definition in this debate: INTUITION.
    When you say “intuition” you mean: ‘a natural process of the brain which results from nature and nurture’. When theists say “intuition” they mean: ‘the voice of God in the soul’.

    When Leah says, “there’s a darned near universal intuition” that is proof of God and proof of the objectivity of moral values because she assumes intuition comes from God.
    The apologist Peter Kreeft put it plainly when he said, “The simple, intuitive point of the argument from conscience is that everyone in the world knows, deep down, that he is absolutely obligated to be and do good, and this absolute obligation could come only from God. Thus everyone knows God, however obscurely, by this moral intuition, which we usually call conscience. Conscience is the voice of God in the soul.”

    William Lane Craig put it like this: ” I would say that we have fundamental moral intuitions. In fact, the Bible says that God has planted these on the heart of every human person so that we intuitively recognize objective moral values.”

    It’s time to define the term “intuition” and address it’s source because it means something very different to theists and non-theists.

    avalon

    • GregPeterson

      Avalon:

      Or you could read what I wrote:

      “The intuitions that result from this powerful algorithm indeed have a feeling of objectivity about them, often enough. That’s because they are mostly REASONABLE, based on the simple heuristic of treating other people as one would wish to be treated. Things that can be demonstrated to be reasonable, and that can arise naturally, benefit not all from a god hypothesis.”

      And since you apparently could benefit from some reiteration, I’ll say again: Why did the god of the Bible put this set of intutions inside me, inspire his book to SAY that he put those intuitions inside of me–and then have page after page after page of that very same book defy those intuitions in really alarming and substantial ways? Something has to give. And since there are completely natural sources for both the intutions and for the mythology you refer to, the thing that gives is theism…at least theism as it relates to the personal gods of the revealed religions.

      • avalon

        Hi Greg,
        Greg said:
        “Why did the god of the Bible put this set of intutions inside me, inspire his book to SAY that he put those intuitions inside of me–and then have page after page after page of that very same book defy those intuitions in really alarming and substantial ways?”

        avalon:
        I’ve heard plenty of apologists reason this away with claims of our limited knowledge vs God’s infinite knowledge. Apologists are willing to overlook their own intuitions whenever they become inconvenient. One would think that intense human suffering would be considered objectively bad by theists, but look what William Lane Craig says: “What I am simply saying is that God’s aims in this life, in this world, are for a maximum number of people to come to know God and His salvation as fully as possible. And it is possible that that would not be achieved in a world that did not involve as much suffering and evil as this world does. Far from being counter-intuitive, I find that very plausible. In fact, I have recently done a study, using a missions handbook, of nations of the world in which there has been intense suffering, and what I found over and over again is that it is in precisely those nations that evangelical Christianity is experiencing its most rapid and sustained growth.”

        Greg said:
        “since there are completely natural sources for … the intutions ”

        avalon:
        I was curious why Leah Libresco would reject evolution as a source for moral intuitions so I poked around her blog. It seems she thinks evolution would not bring about altruistic behavior: “Evolution Doesn’t Select for Ethics” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked/2012/02/evolution-doesnt-select-for-ethics.html). Leah asks, “Evolution is a wholly amoral process, so why would I expect that it would preserve and amplify whatever signal points us to the Good and the True?” She seems unaware that there is an objective mathematical theorem that shows how altruism evolved as a benefit to humans, the Price equation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price_equation).
        She also claims, “So even if we believed that evolution was favoring moral improvement, it would be easy for progress to come to a halt far short of its potential.” That is, evolution won’t provide maximum altruism. But would maximum altruism be advantageous? Strangely enough, George Price, the man who wrote the theorem for the evolution of altruism, became a living example of why extreme altruism is not advantageous. He suffered a mental breakdown/religious conversion. Taking a very literal
        interpretation of the New Testament, he gave up science in order to dedicate his life to altruism. He sheltered the homeless in his flat, and gave away all his money and possessions to the poor and needy, and his life spiralled out of control. He became deeply depressed shortly after Christmas of 1974, and was found dead in his squatter’s tenement on the 6th of January 1975. He had cut his throat with nail scissors. As an evolutionary experiment, extreme altruism failed.
        This shows two things: 1) evolution provided us with a balanced blend of altruism AND self-interest and 2) while Christians claim they get their moral guidance from the bible, few are willing to follow Prices example. They prefer to stick with what evolution has provided for them rather than taking the words of the bible literally.

        avalon

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Great anecdote. Thanks.

        • DrewL

          As an evolutionary experiment, extreme altruism failed.

          This was an “experiment”? Really? One guy? And we now know “extreme altruism” fails?

        • http://theophor.us Ignatius Theophorus

          @avalon

          This shows two things:

          No it doesn’t. It’s anecdotal evidence at best. Saying that someone could draw conclusions based on that story is equivalent to someone saying, “I read about a plain crash once. Everyone died. Therefore planes are a very dangerous form of travel. I prefer to take the bus across country.”

          few are willing to follow Prices[sic] example.

          One thing I tire of is the seemingly endless obsession that non-theists have with telling Christians that we’re doing it wrong. Several points come to mind at once:
          * Saying, “Look here is a Bible verse that proves my point” and then running away is just annoying. It puts you on the same level as the YEC’s that say, “No, evolution is a theory!” and then stick their fingers in their ears. It is intellectually dishonest.
          * More often than not, these quotes are taken out of context (and in this case in particular, you are taking things out of context), meaning that the verse they thought “proved their point” proved only their own unwillingness to bother with learning the context of a passage.
          * There is an OBSESSION with taking the Bible at face value. I could go into a long tirade explaining how wrong that mentality is, but unless you’re willing to say that Christians believe that Christ literally herded sheep, was a path, was physical light, was a gate, or actually believed that any of the parables are literal, you don’t really have legs to stand on.(Dawkins does much of this same nonsense. He mocks Christian’s because he views Christ as having been rude to his mother (he calls her “woman”) without bothering to find out what Christ really meant (“woman” was a way of saying “ma’am”).)

  • kalim

    What is death?

    I want to share this sentence from a book: from Risalei-Nur Collection by Said Nursi

    Death is either eternal annihilation, a gallows on which will be hanged both man and all his friends and relations; or it comprises the release papers to depart for another, eternal, realm, and to enter, with the document of belief, the palace of bliss. The grave is either a bottomless pit and dark place of solitary confinement, or it is a door opening from the prison of this world onto an eternal, light-filled garden and place of feasting.

  • B-Lar

    If you dont have an ultimate universal yardstick, just make one up! If other people agree that your yardstick is the best, most awesome, super-duper yardstick then it must be!

    I think the question of objective morality is one which is designed by the mind that wishes for absolute morality. There doesnt need to be a yardstick. Morality is composed of equal parts honesty and empathy.

  • Laurence

    I’m very sympathetic to the views of Christine Swanton (an academic philosopher and contemporary proponent of virtue ethics) on objectivity. She totally rejects that having an outside-the-universe kind of objectivity. She think this is actually a vice called hyperobjectivity. Hyperobjectivity does not allow us to take into consideration all the intricacies and nuance of the situation. Her conception of objectivity is rooted in the world which to me seems much more plausible than the kind that William Lane Craig or Leah Libresco are asking for.

  • J. Cormier

    In real life, few, if any, care about your morality at all if you admit that it is completely subjective and merely your personal viewpoint. People will even begin to respect your opinion only when you think what you think is wrong is really wrong, that your morality is consistent with real morality. If your idea that something is wrong is completely subjective, your opinion is simply worthless. Pretty much everyone accepts the principle. For example, look at how this teen gets bashed when he admits that his opposition to incest is purely from his personal viewpoint : http://www.virtualteen.org/forums/showthread.php?t=141073&page=2

    Teen A : To give a more justifiable argument, you have to leave religion, social standards and what the majority of people believe out of it because there’s nothing to say that how incest has always been considered has ever been entirely fair.
    Teen B : I think it is rather sickening in most ways and therefore disagree with incest and all those who participate in incestual acts.
    Teen C : You still have yet to rationally justify your claim.
    Teen B : This is one of these debates where it comes down to your own morals and what you personally think. I have said I disagree with it and think it is a rather disgusting act.
    Teen D : You can think lots of things are wrong, but who’s to say if they are?
    Teen B : It is just wrong in my personal opinion. It is kind of the point of it being illegal. Because it is deemed immoral and wrong. I don’t see why people are making a big deal out of what I am saying. I just find this one thing wrong.
    Teen C : If you’re going to have an opinion, at least be intelligent enough to have a legitimate reason why rather than ” because.” This isn’t 3rd grade.

    Teens A, C, D are assuming that incest is not “really” immoral. They are assuming “real” morality, which may directly contradict traditional/conventional/shared/subjective morality. They are assuming that Teen B’s idea of right and wrong is worthless if it is purely subjective, even if all human socities have agreed with it. They are assuming that it is unfair to regard incest as immoral – and, considering the way they speak, it is highly unlikely that they mean that it is unfair according to their private and subjective opinions that are no truer than Teen B’s. They are saying that it really is unfair.
    In fact, they seem to think that Teen B does not have the right to voice his opinion at all if it is just his personal opinion. They don’t even bother giving an argument FOR incest, because Teen B’s opinion, being subjective, is not worth countering. Teen C suggests that only 3rd graders condemn something just because they personally don’t approve of it ; kids older than that are supposed to know better.

    Now, does Bob know better than 3rd graders? Let’s examine what he says in his other post :

    Bob : I insist that you keep your commitments to me, that you follow the basic rules of civility, and so on. When you don’t, I’m annoyed not because you violated an ABSOLUTE law; you violate MY law.
    Teen D : You can think lots of things are wrong, but who’s to say if they are?
    Bob : I’m happy to say that the Nazis were wrong, but when I do so, the word wrong is grounded in my point of view.
    Teen C : You still have yet to rationally justify your claim.
    Bob : I have my views of right and wrong. Most other Homo sapiens share those views. That’s where morality comes from.
    Teen A : To give a more justifiable argument, you have to leave religion, social standards and what the majority of people believe out of it because there’s nothing to say that how incest has always been considered has ever been entirely fair.
    Bob : The morality of gay marriage is quite clear to BOB.
    Teen C : If you’re going to have an opinion, at least be intelligent enough to have a legitimate reason why rather than ” because.” This isn’t 3rd grade.

    People often say that teens nowadays are stupid. If Bob is right, these teens are so stupendously stupid that they’ve reverted to moral objectivism that even 3rd graders do not accpet. Sad.

  • keddaw

    “evolution probably selected adults who are drawn to help human babies and similar-looking things”

    Sorry, but I just had to fix this… Evolution selected for babies with an appearance that would draw adults to care for them. Such things included big eyes, non-threatening appearance etc. Evolution also selected for small so they wouldn’t immediately kill their primary food source at birth. You have to get the order right in evolution.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Kidding, I assume?

      • keddaw

        No, but not serious enough to make an argument of it… ;)

  • DrewL

    I know Bob is not a fan of wikipedia or extra reading assignments, but for people more open to reading critical views:

    Bob is professing a belief in emotivism:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotivism

    You can see there that utilitarians challenge this. Anyone with a notion of justice or human rights also rejects emotivism. Atheism+ is not an emotivist movement.

    Two major criticisms of emotivism are: a) emotivists almost always seem to be communicating more than an emotional preference in their moral statements (see Bob’s gay marriage editorial, it does not read as an expression of personal taste and individual preference, there is a strong OUGHT there) and b) moral argumentation becomes not a practice in leading your interlocutor to a “better” or “more noble” or “more moral” position on a moral issue. Rather, it becomes a practice in leading people to your own position; this is essentially an act of power over others. Your interlocutors are reduced to manipulable and exploitable agents who serve as a means to the end of propagating one’s own opinions and taste.

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  • Darren

    A tree falls in a forest, but no one is there. Does it make a sound?

    A tree falls in a forest and crushes a baby deer, but not one is there. Is it sad?

    1 + 1 = 2 even with no humans to comprehend it. It is true even with no sapients of any kind, ever, anywhere.
    Gravity is a thing that exists. It has existed before humans, or any other agent, and will exist after.

    Both mathematics and Gravity are Objectively True. Can there be such a thing as Objectively True morality?

    I contend that there cannot be. Everything that is Objectively True, gravity, mathematics, the speed of light, pi, each of these Objective truths is amoral and devoid of meaning. Is Objective Morality to be the one exception? Both Objectively True and yet also possessing meaning? We certainly have no precedent for such a thing, in the manner of extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.

    The search for Objective meaning strikes me as all too similar to the First Cause argument. Everything that is Objective is devoid of meaning, except for Objective Morality, which has meaning = Everything that exists must have a cause, except for God, who exists but does not required a cause.

    Camels with Hammers (sorry, still have not figured out how to insert hypertext in Patheos comments) has done an admirable job attempting to show how Objective Morality can exist, but I think it falls short. What he establishes is that there are, possibly, Moral Laws that sapient agents would most likely follow. The arguments are worth reading, he is a far better reasoner than I, but the Moral Laws could just as easily be described as Game Theory stratagems. Any rational agent will likely answer the Prisoner’s Dilemma in the same manner, just as any organism that evolved in a world with mobile predators/prey and plentiful visible light will most likely develop eyes.

    Game Theory is a long way from Objective Morality, but it appears to be the best we have.

    • Mr. X

      “The search for Objective meaning strikes me as all too similar to the First Cause argument. Everything that is Objective is devoid of meaning, except for Objective Morality, which has meaning = Everything that exists must have a cause, except for God, who exists but does not required a cause.”

      Your description of the First Cause Argument is an over-simplification at best, a straw man at worst. The First Cause Argument doesn’t say “everything that exists must have a cause”; in fact, it pretty famously says that not everything has a cause, since God is uncaused.

      “Is Objective Morality to be the one exception?”

      There are lots of different types of fact: scientific facts, mathematical facts, historical facts, philosophical facts, and so on. Including moral facts in that list doesn’t seem particularly ontologically extravagant.

      • avalon

        Mr. X,
        X says:
        “There are lots of different types of fact: scientific facts, mathematical facts, historical facts, philosophical facts, and so on. Including moral facts in that list doesn’t seem particularly ontologically extravagant.”

        avalon:
        We’re talking about moral VALUES. Values carry labels like “good” or “bad”.
        Moral values pertain to an individual’s behavior and choices which is why we don’t think of innanimate objects as having morals. Morals require a mind that thinks and chooses. Something which requires a thinking mind cannot, by definition, be “outside of all human minds” or independent of a subject’s (person’s) dispositions, views, feelings, etc.
        To label something as good or bad, moral or immoral; is to say it seems that way in our human minds and in accord with human experience. To say that an objective moral good exists outside of all human minds and independent of anyones views or feelings leaves one open to the possiblity that an objective moral ‘good’ might be experienced by us humans as something entirely evil.

        avalon

        • Mr. X

          “We’re talking about moral VALUES. Values carry labels like “good” or “bad”.
          Moral values pertain to an individual’s behavior and choices which is why we don’t think of innanimate objects as having morals. Morals require a mind that thinks and chooses. Something which requires a thinking mind cannot, by definition, be “outside of all human minds” or independent of a subject’s (person’s) dispositions, views, feelings, etc.”

          I think you’re begging the question here. Whether or not moral ideas are “values” existing only in our minds or whether they do in fact exist independently of what we think of them is precisely the issue in contention. And whatever your opinion on the matter, I hope you can agree with my original point that “Moral facts, if they existed, would be the only sort of facts that relate to morality” is a bad argument.

          “To label something as good or bad, moral or immoral; is to say it seems that way in our human minds and in accord with human experience.”

          Not necessarily. A virtue ethicist, for example, would say that to label something moral is to state that it is in accord with our telos, and that there is nothing in principle to say that a thing can’t be in accord with our telos even if literally everybody disagrees (or vice versa, of course).

          “To say that an objective moral good exists outside of all human minds and independent of anyones views or feelings leaves one open to the possiblity that an objective moral ‘good’ might be experienced by us humans as something entirely evil.”

          That is indeed a theoretical possibility. In fact, it’s quite easy to think of examples when people misjudge what is or isn’t good due to inadequate information. (E.g., a small child being vaccinated might think the experience is just an example of his doctor being nasty to him, whereas it is in fact an example of the morally comendable desire to prevent him catching a dangerous disease later in life.)

        • avalon

          Hi Mr. X,
          X:
          “I think you’re begging the question here. Whether or not moral ideas are “values” existing only in our minds or whether they do in fact exist independently of what we think of them is precisely the issue in contention.”

          avalon:
          My question would be, “Can a value exist without a mind making a judgement first?”

          X:
          “And whatever your opinion on the matter, I hope you can agree with my original point that “Moral facts, if they existed, would be the only sort of facts that relate to morality” is a bad argument.”

          avalon:
          Sure, that’s fine, as long as you agree that a “fact” has no value in itself.

          X:
          “That is indeed a theoretical possibility. In fact, it’s quite easy to think of examples when people misjudge what is or isn’t good due to inadequate information. (E.g., a small child being vaccinated might think the experience is just an example of his doctor being nasty to him, whereas it is in fact an example of the morally comendable desire to prevent him catching a dangerous disease later in life.)”

          avalon:
          Then perhaps you can explain to me how objective moralists can use examples (Nazis, murder, and rape being the most often cited) of objective moral values? By what standard are these judged objectively true, if not by the consensus of normative human emotion? Is it not possible that Nazis, murder and rape are objectively good even if no one agrees they are?
          The example you gave will result a good eventually (consequentialism), but with objective morals it must be possible that an objective moral good will never be experienced, ever. by anyone as actually feeling good. Such a possibility removes all meaning from the words “good” and “bad”.

          avalon

      • Darren

        Nope, have to disagree on this. Not a straw man. Simplified for brevity and flow, but the argument I have presented is the same as used by Hume in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Aquinas in Quinque Viae, and even Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort in their “Face Off” debate.

        To be more accurate, the argument does go: everything has a cause, every cause has a cause, therefore there must be a first cause which is God. Where I took a small liberty was skipping to the end and including the inevitable apologist appendix of “Oh, and God does not need a cause.” The addition of the appendix makes it logically invalid and empirically it puts it into the category of Extraordinary Claim.

        Not to mention being an Invisible Dragon cop-out…

        If you, personally, have a more nuanced version of this argument which you feel will convince your fellow readers of God’s existence, by all means enlighten us. I try to be a good Rationalist, which means if presented with a sound argument backed by valid data, I have to change my mind. But the argument as I presented is not a straw man.

        “There are lots of different types of fact: scientific facts, mathematical facts, historical facts, philosophical facts, and so on. Including moral facts in that list doesn’t seem particularly ontologically extravagant.”

        Interesting. Have we any grounds for claiming that there are lots of different types of facts? Considering that this discussion is around the search for Objective Morality, and not Subjective Morality, I would go out on a limb and say there are only one type of Objective facts. Scientific facts, mathermatical facts, historical facts, and philosophical facts, if they are actually Objective facts, are all the same type of thing.

        Either a man named Jesus Christ arose from the dead after three days or he did not. If we want to go all Post-Modern and talk about the Truth Value of the Gospels, independent of their Historical accuracy, then that is a completely different argument.

        • Mr. X

          “Nope, have to disagree on this. Not a straw man. Simplified for brevity and flow, but the argument I have presented is the same as used by Hume in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Aquinas in Quinque Viae, and even Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort in their “Face Off” debate.”

          Well I don’t know about Hume or “Face Off”, but it’s definitely not the same as the argument used by Aquinas.

          “To be more accurate, the argument does go: everything has a cause, every cause has a cause, therefore there must be a first cause which is God. Where I took a small liberty was skipping to the end and including the inevitable apologist appendix of “Oh, and God does not need a cause.” The addition of the appendix makes it logically invalid and empirically it puts it into the category of Extraordinary Claim.”

          First of all, the argument does not say “everything has a cause”. In fact, it quite specifically says that not everything has a cause, since God is uncaused. (What, do you really think that Aristotle, Avicenna, Maimonides and Aquinas would have failed to notice that “everything has a cause” and “God in uncaused” are contradictory statements?) And the bit about God’s uncaused-ness being an “appendix” is way off: this claim isn’t tacked on to the argument, it’s integral to it.

          “If you, personally, have a more nuanced version of this argument which you feel will convince your fellow readers of God’s existence, by all means enlighten us.”

          I don’t claim to “personally” have a more nuanced version; I just know the argument as given by Aquinas. Put simply, though, the argument holds that change takes place when something’s potentiality is actualised (e.g., setting fire to a table actualises the potential for combustion in the wood; moving a ball actualises its potential for motion; and so on), and that only something already actual can cause change (since potentiality doesn’t properly exist yet, and hence cannot cause anything). A chain of causation, therefore, is a chain of various things having their potentials actualised by things prior to them in the chain, and in turn actualising the potentials of things later on in the chain. To start off the chain, there would have to be a being of pure actuality (as, if it had potential which had to be actualised by something else, it wouldn’t actually be the first in the chain, this something else would be). Such a being would not be a physical object, as being made of matter implies potential for change; nor would it exist in time, as this also implies potential for change. Hence it would be outside of time and space altogether, i.e., eternal. Since it actualises all other things, it is the source of all powers, i.e., it is all-power-full. Since it is pure actuality, it does not lack anything, as this would imply it has the potential to gain what it lacks, in which case it could not be pure actuality; and, since evil is (according to the Scholastics) a lack of goodness rather than a thing in its own right, the being of pure actuality would be entirely good, i.e., it would be perfect. And this eternal, all-powerful, and perfect being is what we call God.

          Obviously the above is very truncated, and TBH I don’t really think I can do the argument justice in a com-box exchange. If you want more detail, I’d recommend reading Aquinas by Edward Feser. The following links might be helpful as well:

          http://edwardfeser.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/so-you-think-you-understand.html
          http://edwardfeser.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/cosmological-argument-roundup.html

          “Interesting. Have we any grounds for claiming that there are lots of different types of facts?”

          Well, we use lots of different methods of ascertaining facts, which suggests that there are indeed lots of different types of facts.

        • Darren

          Then the argument as you lay out it logically meaningless. Everything A requires B, except for C. Therefore, C exists (and is lord and master of the universe).

          So far as whether or not a collection of medieval scholars noticed this or not, since David Hume thought it was widely enough accepted, in the form I laid out, that he devoted time to debating it… If it comes down to Ad Hominem, then I suppose we will have to settle for you standing with Aquinas and me standing with Hume.

          I am afraid everything else in your justification, well written and detailed though it may be, boils down to question begging or mystical mumbo-jumbo. By mumbo-jumbo, I am not being pejorative, just indicating an elaborate, nested, hierarchy of Exceptional Claims (un-caused causer, outside of time, eternal). Things that sound plausible and suitably mysterious, but ultimately boil down to nothingness. Example – how can a being that exists outside of time yet still be possessed of will, and choice, and able to interface with a universe that is inside of time? These are all Invisible Dragon or Pink Unicorn mental fancies that allow the true believer to maintain the internal illusion of intellectual honesty.

          I will, however, read the link you kindly supplied. In return I will post two links of my own, one humorous (though with excellent content) the other a condensed clearing-house of any and all refutations, limited depth on any one topic, but copious links.

          http://www.examiner.com/article/five-questions-for-christians

          http://whynogod.wordpress.com/

          So far as facts, and the possibility of differing types thereof, I am not convinced that having different methods of ascertaining facts leads to their being different categories of facts. We can divide them as to how we use them, or their subject matter, and in that way we can have Historical Facts or Scientific Facts, but this no more makes them different in their nature than say, Facts About Dogs are any different than Facts About Cats. Sure, we can buy a cat at the cat store, put it into a lab and run every imaginable test on it to determine our Cat Facts. We can also go into an abandoned home, observe the dog dish, the half-empty bag of dog food, the family photos of the family dog, and a couple of books about dogs and deduce almost as copious a pack of Dog Facts, but they are still the same facts. Thus, no special Religious Facts that have a radically different burden of proof from Cat or Dog Facts.

          But this is far afield of the original point of my post, that Objective Morality does not exist, and quite possibly is a meaningless question given that every other Objective Truth we have any knowledge of is amoral, therefore an Objective Morality would be amoral. One might as well ask for a colorless color. If we claim that Objective Morality is somehow a special case, the only Objective Truth that is _not_ amoral, we are left with an Extraordinary Claim and I am happy to review any and all Extraordinary Evidence supporting it.

        • Darren

          An excellent read in Edward Feser’s posting. Having deliberately read it in my best Rationalist frame of mind, being willing to change my opinion if presented a sufficiently sound argument, I conclude that the Cosmological Argument _can_ be a much more nuanced thing than I had, to date, encountered. I thank you for the education and would encourage anyone who might actually be reading this exchange to read the provided links.

          That said, I still find it unconvincing. While I accept the nuanced argument that runs along the lines of “everything that comes into being has a cause”, this admittedly boils down to the assumption that there exists _something_ for which its’ existence is not only possible, but necessary, to the point of its non-existence being inconceivable (if I am getting the argument right). This is a pretty big assumption. The flavor I get from Feser is that this foundation is no more problematic of a leap (to him) than the Rationalist ‘assumptions’ such as: I exist, reason is valid, we can have knowledge of the world. One _might_ make the argument that the assumption of a necessary Uncaused Causer corresponds to the materialist assumption that physical laws are universal (one of the big targets of the Young Earthers). Yet, I will be the first to stand up and affirm that the assumption of Universality is _provisional_. Give me, or any other materialist, sufficient evidence that physical laws do vary with time or space, and we will happily accept them. This has happened in our lifetimes with the discovery of dark matter / dark energy. This is just a value judgment on my part, though. I suspect that Feser would place the Uncaused Causer back on the level of I Exist, and I do not see sufficient justification for doing so.

          Feser fails to adequately defend against the God of the Gaps charge and the “First Cause is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, etc.” charge.

          The history of Western science over the last few centuries has been a slow but inexorable pushing of the Origin Question back and out. First the Earth, then the solar system, then the Universe. So, we are now down to a fraction of a second after the big bang and the Theist battle cry is “The first 10^-18 second! There is the fingerprint of God!” Someday science will find a question it cannot answer, but it is not a bet that I would put money on in 2012.

          Feser claims Aquinas has proved that you can logically derive the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent Christian god from the necessary Uncaused Causer but Feser provides not even a brief summary of what those proofs might be. Given the length of the article in general, and the strength of this objection, I find the omission suspicious. I shall put it on my list of things to look up, but considering Aquinas’ failure to address the Problem of Evil, I have my doubts that he actually has “hundreds of pages” of proof…

          For the time being, then, we will remain not far from where we began. It is logically possible and has _not_ been empirically _disproved_ that there exists, somewhere in the first femtoseconds of the universe, some undefined Uncaused Causer, though there remains no reason to ascribe to it sentience, or unity, or benevolence, or continued existence, or potence beyond sparking the big bang.

          So far as Aristotelien-Thomas metaphysics and such, I will have to demure. It was never my intent to disprove the Cosmological Argument in the first place. My philosophy is inadequate to find the flaw in “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles”, yet as a Materialist I do not fail to notice that tortoises are routinely overtaken by human sprinters. I shall have to take a similar stance on Cosmology.

        • Mr. X

          First of all, thank you for being so open-minded on the matter. A lot of people on the internet are only interested in reinforcing their own preconceived notions, and it’s nice to see somebody who is genuinely willing to consider opposing viewpoints.

          “That said, I still find it unconvincing. While I accept the nuanced argument that runs along the lines of “everything that comes into being has a cause”, this admittedly boils down to the assumption that there exists _something_ for which its’ existence is not only possible, but necessary, to the point of its non-existence being inconceivable (if I am getting the argument right).”

          Talk about something being necessary to the point of its non-existence being inconceivable sounds more like Anselm’s ontological argument to me. I think the actual reason the cosmological argument posits an uncaused causer is to avoid an infinite regress of causes. Since every change is caused by the actualisation of a potential by something already actual, you will if you follow a chain of causation far enough reach something which has actuality and no potentiality, as if such a thing did not exist the chain wouldn’t have got started in the first place.

          “The history of Western science over the last few centuries has been a slow but inexorable pushing of the Origin Question back and out. First the Earth, then the solar system, then the Universe. So, we are now down to a fraction of a second after the big bang and the Theist battle cry is “The first 10^-18 second! There is the fingerprint of God!””

          Not every version of the cosmological argument deals with the origins of the universe. Some do — e.g., the kalam cosmological argument, of which William Lane Craig (IIRC) is the most notable modern proponent — but Aquinas’ formulation was intended to work even if the universe were infinite (Aquinas doubted this, but couldn’t disprove it). Consider, say, a person playing a game of hockey. The ball’s movement is dependent on the hockey stick, which is dependent for its movement on the player’s hands hands, which are dependent on his muscles, which are dependent on the neurons, which are dependent on the current state of the nervous system, which depends on its current molecular structure, which depends on the atomic basis of that structure, which depends on… (etc.). Now all these causes are happening concurrently, at the same time; but nevertheless they are susceptible to a vicious regress unless there is a first mover (that’s “first” as in “first in the sequence” rather than “first in time”) undergirding it all.

          “Feser claims Aquinas has proved that you can logically derive the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent Christian god from the necessary Uncaused Causer but Feser provides not even a brief summary of what those proofs might be. Given the length of the article in general, and the strength of this objection, I find the omission suspicious. I shall put it on my list of things to look up, but considering Aquinas’ failure to address the Problem of Evil, I have my doubts that he actually has “hundreds of pages” of proof…”

          Feser deals with this elsewhere (he does so in Aquinas, I think, although it’s been a while since I read it and I might be misremembering). To put it (very) briefly, however: God is omnipotent in that He is the source of all power (since power is the ability to cause something to happen, and every chain of causation has its ultimate source in God). He is omniscient in that He undergirds everything which happens in the universe, and hence is knows whatever is happening, as He is present when it happens. And, since the Scholastics believe that evil is a lack of goodness rather than a thing in itself (e.g., the evil of death can only be understood as a lack of life; it’s nonsensical to call something “dead” if it was never alive in the first place, which is why we don’t consider a stone or a puddle to be dead, even though neither possesses life), and since God doesn’t lack anything (as if He did, He would have the potential to gain that thing, and could not therefore be pure actuality), God is perfect and has no evil whatsoever, which means He is all-good, and hence (since benevolence is a form of goodness) He is omnibenevolent.

        • Mr. X

          Having thought about the matter a bit more, I think it might be useful to consider the cosmological argument through analogy to evolution. If we knew enough about evolutionary history, we’d be able to trace the evolutionary tree of mankind back through various species until eventually we arrived at the first living thing, the ancestor of all life on earth. This first living thing could not have evolved (as, if it had, the thing it had evolved from would be the first living thing), but this isn’t an ad hoc piece of special pleading, it’s a logical necessity given the creature’s status as the first lifeform. Similarly, if you follow a chain of causation back far enough, eventually you’ll come to the uncaused first cause; and the fact that this being is uncaused is likewise a necessity given its position at the start of the causal chain.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          X:

          Now all these causes are happening concurrently, at the same time; but nevertheless they are susceptible to a vicious regress unless there is a first mover … undergirding it all.

          The infinite regress is a problem, but we solve it by imagining a first mover. Problem solved? No—problem simply moved in Whac-a-Mole fashion. Who/What is this First Mover? Where did it come from and why does it avoid the problem? And so on.

        • Darren

          “First of all, thank you for being so open-minded on the matter. A lot of people on the internet are only interested in reinforcing their own preconceived notions, and it’s nice to see somebody who is genuinely willing to consider opposing viewpoints.”

          Well, that seems like a lost opportunity. I flatter myself that I can contribute to the discussion, but most of the value lies in exposing myself to the thoughts of others.

          Also, I consider it a virtue to be able to change one’s mind, when presented with suitable evidence or a strong enough argument. A corollary to that maxim is that I should seek not to engage an argument at a week point, but where it is strongest. Thus my initial prickliness at the suggestion I was putting forth a straw man. I strive to not argue against straw men, though you rightly pointed out that I had done just that. In Aquinas I have found a more sophisticated expression of the argument that I had previously encountered, and for that I am grateful.

          “To put it (very) briefly, however: God is omnipotent in that He is the source of all power (since power is the ability to cause something to happen, and every chain of causation has its ultimate source in God). He is omniscient in that He undergirds everything which happens in the universe, and hence is knows whatever is happening, as He is present when it happens. And, since the Scholastics believe that evil is a lack of goodness rather than a thing in itself (e.g., the evil of death can only be understood as a lack of life; it’s nonsensical to call something “dead” if it was never alive in the first place, which is why we don’t consider a stone or a puddle to be dead, even though neither possesses life), and since God doesn’t lack anything (as if He did, He would have the potential to gain that thing, and could not therefore be pure actuality), God is perfect and has no evil whatsoever, which means He is all-good, and hence (since benevolence is a form of goodness) He is omnibenevolent.”

          Nicely put, I begin to understand the viewpoint. Feser’s post would have been improved by including something such as this.

          That said, I am less impressed with Feser’s other posts, in particular the Euthyphro post. I believe that I begin to understand point of the Thomist view, but in order for it to make sense, one has to read it in a very specific frame of mind. From a philosophical point of view, it may be valid to define this very rarified God in such a way as to satisfy the criteria of Omniscience, Omnipotect, et. al. I suspect that in so doing, what we have done is talk ourselves into Pantheism. I certainly fail to see that the Thomist God could correspond in even the slightest to any of the various iterations of Monotheist Gods that normally go by that name in daily conversation.

          To circle back to our original thrust, the Uncaused Causer, I will have to admit there is likely to be something at the beginning of all that is responsible for their being something instead of nothing, but I remain unconvinced that this thing need be anything resembling God, again except in the rather abstract Pantheistic sense of God. It might just as easily be some multiverse, one with differing rules such that causality is not as we know it.

        • Mr. X

          “I believe that I begin to understand point of the Thomist view, but in order for it to make sense, one has to read it in a very specific frame of mind.”

          Well, it’s true that Thomism (and classical theism in general) relies on a certain set of metaphysical assumptions. Still, the same could be said about any world-view, including atheism; we just don’t tend to notice because the metaphysical assumptions of atheism are quite common in our society.

          “From a philosophical point of view, it may be valid to define this very rarified God in such a way as to satisfy the criteria of Omniscience, Omnipotect, et. al. I suspect that in so doing, what we have done is talk ourselves into Pantheism.”

          The universe exists in time and is subject to change, neither of which is true of God; hence they cannot be the same, and pantheism must be false.

          “I certainly fail to see that the Thomist God could correspond in even the slightest to any of the various iterations of Monotheist Gods that normally go by that name in daily conversation.”

          Many people do have a rather simple mental image of God, it is true. Then again though, I’m not sure why we should define our terms based on what the man on the street thinks. The popular conception of atoms is quite hard to square with what actual physicists think about atoms, but that doesn’t mean that what physicists are studying aren’t actually atoms, or that refuting lay misconceptions is enough to disprove atomism.

        • Darren

          ”The universe exists in time and is subject to change, neither of which is true of God; hence they cannot be the same, and pantheism must be false.”

          Perhaps, I never said Pantheism was true, but in order to follow the argument that ”God undergirds everything, every quantum state of every particle in the universe, thus God is Omniscient” and “God is the original cause, and comprises every dependent cause, ad infinite, thus God is Omnipotent” _really_ starts to sound an awful lot like Pantheism. Just to claim “God is outside of Time, therefore Pantheism is false” is insufficient. I can read a book, and from the viewpoint of the characters within that book I would exist outside of their subjective timeline, and I could have perfect knowledge of their universe, but at the cost of being powerless to interact with it. In order to interface with the universe on such an intimate level, or perhaps any level at all, God must have some temporal component, even if only a deliberately created Universe I/O Module, otherwise no such interaction could exist. Pantheism would say that everything is God, it does not say that everything we can observe (i.e. the Universe) is the full extent of God. Thus, Pantheism is not ruled out.

          “I certainly fail to see that the Thomist God could correspond in even the slightest to any of the various iterations of Monotheist Gods that normally go by that name in daily conversation.” Many people do have a rather simple mental image of God, it is true. Then again though, I’m not sure why we should define our terms based on what the man on the street thinks.”

          Not appealing to the plebian conception of God, just stating that the Omniscient/Omnipotent/Omnibenevolent argument put forward by Aquinas fails to establish anything resembling the Christian God, or rather, anything _necessarily_ resembling the Christian God. Unless I am incorrect in my thought that Aquinas actually believed in any particular version of the Christian God that I would recognize instead of some Pantheistic or Deist abstraction…

        • Mr. X

          “Perhaps, I never said Pantheism was true, but in order to follow the argument that ”God undergirds everything, every quantum state of every particle in the universe, thus God is Omniscient” and “God is the original cause, and comprises every dependent cause, ad infinite, thus God is Omnipotent” _really_ starts to sound an awful lot like Pantheism.”

          I confess I don’t see how. God’s the beginning of every causal chain, true, but I don’t think that implies that the later items on the causal chain are identical to or a part of God.

          “Not appealing to the plebian conception of God, just stating that the Omniscient/Omnipotent/Omnibenevolent argument put forward by Aquinas fails to establish anything resembling the Christian God, or rather, anything _necessarily_ resembling the Christian God. Unless I am incorrect in my thought that Aquinas actually believed in any particular version of the Christian God that I would recognize instead of some Pantheistic or Deist abstraction…”

          I’m still a bit unclear on why you think the First Cause argument implies pantheism, so I can’t really comment on that. As for deism, though, I was under the impressions that deists essentially believe in a God who made the universe and didn’t interfere in it after its creation. But Aquinas’ God undergirds everything that happens, at every moment in time; so Aquinas’ view is actually pretty far from Deism (in fact, I’d even venture so far as to say that Aquinas’ view is further from Deism than that of most Christians…).

  • Huh

    -Hypothetical conversation between Bob and his son-

    Bob Junior : Dad, is slavery really a bad thing?
    Bob : What do you mean when you say “bad?”
    Bob Junior : Huh?
    Bob : If you mean whether it is “really” bad, well, your question is nonsense. I do not accept any objective standard of right and wrong. But if you mean whether it is bad according to me, then the answer is yes.
    Bob Junior : But, if it is not really bad, then why do you think it is bad?
    Bob : Because my conscience, evolution’s gift for humanity, tells me that it is bad.
    Bob Junior : But didn’t you say that there’s evidence that evolution built us to think that rape and slavery are okay, as long as you’re on the giving end? So, in fact, your belief is AGAINST evolution.
    Bob : Oh, but my morality also comes from society, you know. And most people thinks slavery is bad.
    Bob Junior : But I already know it. I’m asking why YOU think it is bad.
    Bob : Well, because our morals come from evolution and society. So what society thinks counts.
    Bob Junior : Strange. So, when our moral instincts and societal norms contradict each other, societal norms simply trump moral instincts?
    Bob : In this case, yes. But when it comes to, say, gay marriage, moral instincts may trump societal norms for me.
    Bob Junior : That sounds very arbitrary.
    Bob : If you’re talking about some absolute standard, it is. But according to Bob, Bob’s morality is not arbitrary at all.
    Bob Junior : So you don’t have any problem if I stop regarding slavery as bad, I assume?
    Bob : No, no, slavery is bad from my subjective viewpoint.
    Bob Junior : But it is not really bad…. So what is the matter if I decide that slavery is bad from my subjective viewpoint?
    Bob : Because my moral preferences, while just as subjective as my gastronomical preferences, are very important to me.
    Bob Junior : But they’re still subjective. Why’re you telling me that I should think slavery is bad if you think that it is merely your personal opinion?
    Bob : You had better agree with me. If you don’t, I can always impose my morality on me. I’ll punish you.
    Bob Junior : So it is only your personal opinion that slavery is bad, but if I say that it is not bad, you’ll punish me. How hypocritical!
    Bob : Hypocritical from YOUR viewpoint. In my viewpoint, the hypocritical one is YOU.
    Bob Junior : WTF?

    • avalon

      Huh and his son:

      Son: Dad, is slavery really a bad thing?
      Huh: Well, because there’s objective moral values that are true whether anyone agrees with them or not and slavery being bad is one of them.
      Son: But how do you know it’s true?
      Huh: Everyone knows slavery is wrong, they just feel it in their heart.
      Son: But if objective moral values are true whether anyone agrees with them or not, isn’t it possible slavery is like that? A moral good, even tho’ no one agrees?
      Huh: Well, yes,… I guess that would be possible…..But still, everyone KNOWS slavery is wrong.
      Son: But you said it doesn’t matter how people feel about it, no one might agree with an objective moral value and it could still be true. Suppose I think slavery is objectively good even tho’ I might not feel it is. How do we determine who is correct?
      Huh: Well son, God gave us a conscience so we’d know what’s really right and wrong. It’s like God’s voice in our heads.
      Son: So we should follow our conscience because that tells us about objective moral values? If that’s so, why do people disagree when they try to follow their conscience? Why are some consciences different from others if they’re all God’s voice?
      Huh: Because men are fallible humans and sometimes our conscience is just our own thoughts, not God’s.
      Son: How do you tell the difference in order to know which are really objectively true?
      Huh: You just have to have faith that some things like slavery are objectively true.
      Son: So you don’t really know for sure? You just follow your conscience and hope it’s God’s voice giving you objective truth? How is that any different from an atheist who follows his own conscience?
      Huh: Because I believe in objective moral values outside myself and those are a standard of right and wrong for all mankind. I may get them wrong sometimes and listen to my own voice thinking it’s God’s voice, but I’ll still say those thoughts are objectively true even if it’s just my own opinions. That’s what’s great about being a theist, we can impose our opinions on people and claim it’s from God. That’s something atheists can’t do because they don’t believe in objective moral values. They say the voice in their head is just their own.
      Son: But aren’t we then guilty of inflating our own opinions to the level of divine commands?
      Huh: I suppose that’s true. We can never know for sure if it’s God’s voice or our own, an objective moral truth or our own opinion. It could be that God doesn’t speak to us at all. But I have faith He does.
      Son: Dad, if God’s voice told you it was good to sacrifice me on an altar, would you do it?
      Huh: Of course I would! We can’t rely on our own opinions when God tells us something is good.We just might not have all the information to know it’s good.
      Son: Dad, I think I’d rather be an atheist.

      avalon

      • Bob Seidensticker

        :)

    • keddaw

      Bob Junior : Dad, is slavery really a bad thing?
      Bob : What do you mean when you say “bad?”
      Bob Junior : Huh?
      Bob : If you mean whether it is “really” bad, well, your question is nonsense. I do not accept any objective standard of right and wrong. But if you mean whether it is bad according to me, then the answer is yes. Or if you are using bad as a shorthand for a collection of shared preferences and values that most people in our society have then that too would make slavery bad.
      Bob Junior : What do you mean by “according to me”?
      Bob : Well, I have a whole load of preferences, values and things I think are right, some are basic biology (eating poo is not pleasant) and some are societal (everyone is equal) and some are more intellectual (if we allow certain classes of people to be treated differently then I might end up in one of the sub-classes). So, using all these various preferences and values, most of which you and I share, I would say slavery was not a situation I want to see implemented and could be described as wrong or bad in my opinion. And because we share so closely those values and preferences you would agree and we’d go on our merry way thinking that it just was a ‘bad thing’ rather than a ‘bad thing for fulfilling our preferences, values and goals’. But that’s clearly not the case because someone may have preferences that would ignore equality and they would like to start slave trading for profit. Their personal morality says slavery is a ‘good thing’.
      Bob Junior : But how would I go about convincing that person that slavery was bad?
      Bob : Slavery is not objectively bad and if you go talk to the wannabe slaver with that language you will simply talk past each other.
      Bob Junior : Okay, what would you do?
      Bob : I’d discuss the things that make up the ‘good’ for the slaver, the things he finds important, and see if I can show that slavery would adversely affect any of those things enough to outweigh the positives he sees. I would also show the negatives that I see (pain and suffering of slaves etc.) as well as the positives of not having slavery (equality, freedom, autonomy, etc. as beneficial to me and society as a whole) but I have to be aware that not everyone shares these values and preferences.
      Bob Junior : But what if he disputes your positives of non-slavery and ignores your negatives of slavery. What if he thinks the long term cheap labour is beneficial to society long term? How can you make him see that slavery is bad.
      Bob : I can’t. What I will do is try to persuade others of my opinion so that there are a majority of people who think slavery is bad so that he can never have it reintroduced.
      Bob Junior : Wouldn’t it be easier to just declare by fiat that slavery was bad and call everyone who disagrees a bigot, a racist and a genocidal maniac.
      Bob : Unfortunately it is, and it would save me actually thinking about things too.

    • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

      The principle to which you’re implicitly appealing: If any position is unconvincing when explained by someone who disagrees with it to a small child who is simultaneously obtuse and ingenious, it must be wrong.

      I do not find that principle convincing.

      • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

        (In case it isn’t clear, that’s a reply to Huh, not to either of the other replies-to-Huh.)

  • keddaw

    If people are comparing an objective moral law to, say, other natural laws, perhaps you’d like to explain why objective moral laws are subject to my whims whereas natural laws are not? I can no more break the laws of physics than make 2+2=5 yet I can break supposedly objective moral laws as easy as switching on a computer.

    • http://theophor.us Ignatius Theophorus

      I can no more break the laws of physics than make 2+2=5 yet I can break supposedly objective moral laws as easy as switching on a computer.

      That’s an equivocation.

      “Law” in Mathematics (completely impossible to deny in a cogent system) is different from “Law” in physics (theories which we are close to 100% certain about but can still be subject to revisal, which is why Newton is on the outs), which in turn is different from “Law” in other circumstances within the scientific periphery (Moore’s Law is going to be broken relatively soon), which is different from “Law” in the legal sense (whether I can go 55 miles per hour in a school zone), which is different from “Law” in the moral sense (moral law basically means that certain things are right and wrong and that those things are not subject to change (though most of us will say they are subject to circumstance)).

      Basically, in order to truly “break” a moral law (at least in the sense you are using the word “break”), you would have to make something which is completely immoral completely moral (or vice versa). Otherwise you are simply “transgressing” it, which, truth be told, actually affirms the law.

      • keddaw

        Good point.

        However, I was being a bit more lax with ‘laws’ of physics than you point out. What I meant was that in spite of the alleged moral law on killing someone for no reason, I could simply do it if I chose to, whereas there is a physical ‘law’ that says I can’t go outside and fly like Superman no matter how much I want to. While there are discovered laws of physics they are obviously subject to change, but much is fine tuning rather than fundamental shifts at the human scale – so I can’t just walk through a wall no matter how QM and Relativity are ultimately combined into a more correct representation of the universe, whereas no matter how accurately we define/uncover the objective rules I can ignore them if I wish to.

        • http://theophor.us Ignatius Theophorus

          What I meant was that in spite of the alleged moral law on killing someone for no reason, I could simply do it if I chose to

          Moral law doesn’t say that you can’t act immorally, it says you can’t make something immoral moral. Actions are irrelevant to the efficacy of the law.

          whereas no matter how accurately we define/uncover the objective rules I can ignore them if I wish to.

          You can also deny the reflexive property in Mathematics, that does not mean the property does not exist. It does, however, mean that your system will necessarily fail.

  • Pingback: A Flawed Analogy to Morality

  • DrewL

    In the discussion above, I made the observation that this is not directly a discussion about religion because religious people are really all over the spectrum on what moral values are and where they come from. My specific statement was that there are people in the pews who would adhere to everything Bob is saying. Surveys seem to vary in exactly what religious people believe about morality, but it probably comes down to how the question is worded.

    The Portrait of American Life Survey gives respondents three choices about the sources of morality. 44.9% of the American population believes right and wrong are a matter of personal conscience (as opposed to “Based on God’s law” or “Decided by Society”). Mainline Protestants (43.5%) and Catholics (50.5%) either match or exceed the general population in adhering to this belief; Evangelicals (29.4%) and Black Protestants (26.2%) were less likely to adhere to this. So consider this: about a quarter of the Evangelicals and half of the Catholics you meet would broadly agree with what Bob is saying.
    http://www.thearda.com/Archive/Files/Analysis/PSARE/PSARE_VAR235_1.asp#I-RELIGION

    A Pew Survey does not give respondents as many choices: they only ask if they completely agree or mostly agree that there are absolute standards of rights and wrongs. About 77% of the general population respond affirmatively; among religiously affiliated this only rises to 79%. Evangelicals are more likely to agree (85%), but Mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, and Catholics all come in at about the general population average (77%, 78%, 79% respectively). In this case, excluding evangelicals, being religious doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on whether you agree with Bob about no absolute standards.
    http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Demographics/Age/millennials-report.pdf

    Of course, there’s nearly always a difference between those who merely identify as religious and those who report regular church attendance: the former generally don’t differ much from atheists in most statistical outcomes. We can get a hint of this in a smaller poll looking at Catholics: About 56% of Americans agree that “morals are relative; that is, there is no absolute right or wrong for everyone,” amazingly, this is higher among self-identified Catholics (63%) but lower among Catholics attending mass at least once a month (46%). (Generalizing from the other studies, we could hypothesize the single alternative choice’s wording probably drove people away from it: “Morals are fixed and based on unchanging standards”)
    http://www.kofc.org/un/en/resources/communications/documents/poll_mil_religion.pdf

    This is mostly food for thought. If you perceive Christian apologists as speaking for what religious people should/must believe, you can interpret this as even religious people not drinking the moral objectivist kool-aid. Or, alternatively, you could probably argue certain forms of moral subjectivism are not incompatible with religious faith, making this whole debate somewhat superfluous to the purpose of this blog. I might lean toward the latter, but I am mostly presenting this data for informational purposes and not to be particularly polemical.

  • Darren

    Help. Off topic.

    Can someone tell me how to post with quotes in the box? Or how to hyperlink without having my posts flagged for moderation?

    Feel like a noob, but I just cannot find a listing for how to work this crazy thing (Patheos blogs).

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Use “blockquote” in the front and “/blockquote” at the end, but you must surround them with angled brackets (less than, greater than) instead of quotation marks.

      One hyperlink is fine, but the way things are set up, 2 or more get the comment moderated. (I’m usually pretty quick, though I’m on vacation in Hawaii at the moment and dealing with things more slowly.)

      • Darren

        Use “blockquote” in the front and “/blockquote” at the end, but you must surround them with angled brackets (less than, greater than) instead of quotation marks.

        Thanks!

  • Bob Seidensticker

    Drew:

    Million dollar question: which criteria, if any, will you recognize as legitimate?

    Possibly any. Good arguments are pretty convincing. You feel the same way, too, I imagine?

    (Now tell me about how I get my million dollars.)

  • http://mllamberth@gmail.com LordGriggsSkepticGriggsyCarneadesHume

    I find morality to be both objective and subjective.It’s objective like science in that we see the consequences of actions for sentient beings and the environment. It’subjective in that it depends on our evolved moral sense that we have to refine. Google covenant morality for humanity- the presumption of humanism to get my full remarks at various sites. And Google Lamberth’s naturalist arguments about God to see my own arguments and others’ . I make explicit what is already in the literature implicit.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Morality is objective in the sense that various propositions can be shared among almost everyone, which highlights the importance of agreeing on definitions. It’s not objective in the William Lane Craig sense.


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