Conscience: What does it tell us?

Jeff Cook’s series on arguments for God continues with this reflection on conscience. What does the argument for conscience do for you?

We are quickly approaching the half way point. This is an argument from Peter Kreeft. Both Aquinas and Aristotle use the style here, and it’s a helpful framework for those arguing for God’s existence: placing the known possibilities up, knocking down all the contenders save God, and then conclude that if there are no other possible sources for something like morality or the origin of the universe or the universality of logical laws—then the only option we have is a being like God.

  1. It’s never right to disobey your own conscience.
  2. There are only four possible sources of the conscience:
    1. From something less than me (nature)
    2. From me (the individual)
    3. From others equal to me (my society)
    4. From something transcendent
  3. I cannot be absolutely obligated by something less than me—for example, by animal instinct or the chemical reactions in my skull (~2a).
  4. I cannot obligate myself absolutely, for I do not have the right to demand absolute obedience from any human being, even myself. (And if I am the one who locked myself in this prison of obligation, I can certainly let myself out, thus destroying the absoluteness of the obligation.) (~2b).
  5. My society cannot absolutely obligate me. (How do my equals establish a right to impose their values on me?) (~2c)
  6. The only source of absolute moral obligation left is something transcendent, and this transcendent source of moral obligation we call “God”.

If 1 and 6, then God exists.

Again, one can deny the first premise and the argument fails (which depending on who you are may not be difficult). You can be skeptical of premise 2 and say, “There may be other unknown possibilities,” but such is a step into blind conjecture. You may say the combination of nature, myself and my society collectively together have more authority than they do individually, but certainly nature, society and I will often differ on what is good (natural selection can be pro-genocide for example). Perhaps you think “reason” can discover moral truths, but this begs the question of why I “ought” to obey reason—should I obey reason for rational reasons (which is circular) or because of something else?

Like the argument from moral truths, the argument above is easy to dismiss if you are willing to bite certain bullets, but it has real strength if you are not.

Jeff Cook teaches philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado and is the author of Everything New: One Philosopher’s Search for a God Worth Believing in. He pastors Atlas Church in Greeley, Colorado. www.everythingnew.org

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Percival

    I would certainly deny #1. Aquinas never had an understanding of how our conscience is formed by society and upbringing. There are people who feel guilty for doing what is right because their conscience has been warped.

    However, I believe that the conscience infers a morality higher than the individual and the society since human across cultures have generally the same standard of the golden rule. So it is not the conscience of the individual, but rather the human conscience in general that infers something transcendent.

  • Tim

    This is weak. If one attributes to nature (and should one be an atheist, why would this be “less” than them?), then they are obviously without absolute morality.

    But if attributing morality to sociobiological underpinnings universal to our species, one could accept a universal morality with respect to humanity.

    Under such a model, the only step then required to be “obligated” to one’s conscience at that point is to embrace their humanity. Alternatively, if one wants to be “superhuman” and free of their morality (a better term might be “inhuman”), what would be required of such a person wold be for them to reject a core aspect of their humanity.

    But the vast, vast majority of people out there happen to identify with their humanity, and value those aspects of us that make us human.

    So as long as you take that one step, then you’re self-obligated to follow your own conscience no different than if you felt under compulsion from God himself.

    So we tend to embrace our humanity along with its moral underpinnings – whether to the theist as absolute, or to the atheist as merely universal to our species.

  • NateW

    Perceval – I was thinking the same thing. Perhaps there’s a distinction to b made between each of our subjective experiences of conscience and its objective roots? That is, conscience might be universal, but the out workings of that in each situation may be primarily shaped by social and environmental factors.

    I think of Huck Finn’s famous conundrum about turning in Jim, concluding with “alright then, I’ll go to Hell!” The idea of helping a slave escape went against his conscience on the most immediately accesible level — his desire to be loyal to his “us”, the values of his society and family. This itself isn’t a bad thing (loyalty towards one’s own people) except it came to an existential conflict with his desire to be loyal to someone who was different and “other”. In Huck’s case, we see a situation where it was clearly right for Huck to go against “his own” conscience as he saw it, although from an objective perspective we can clearly see that he wasn’t actually going against his conscience, but only thought that he was.

    So, I would say that we would need to be careful to define this “conscience” that is “always wrong to go against” as more than “your own” before presenting it as a proof for God. I firmly believe that the objective human “conscience” is common to all (and defined by Christ in his self-emptying dying Love for those outside his own religion, tribe, nation, and church), but there is such a foggy subjectivity involved that I’d have to agree with Jeff’s conclusion. This argument will work for the one who has ears to hear (who wants to hear, and is open to understanding new things) but is frivolous to any who don’t.

    Actually, I think this is pretty much the same for every proof of God.

  • Craig

    Such poor “philosophical” arguments give philosophy a bad name. Philosophy has much to offer, so please stop this series.

  • DMH

    Craig #4 What is it you are offering?

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Percival (1). You wrote, “It is not the conscience of the individual, but rather the human conscience in general that infers something transcendent.” I like your comment. Would this take us to the argument from moral truths? here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2012/10/17/top-ten-arguments-for-god-jeff-cook/

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Craig (4). Pitch your counter arguments friend.

    If these so obviously fail, do expose them.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Tim (2). You wrote, “if attributing morality to sociobiological underpinnings universal to our species, one could accept a universal morality with respect to humanity.”

    Why follow it? What gives the evolutionary framework the authority to dictate to you what you should and should not do with your life?

    You wrote, “Under such a model, the only step then required to be “obligated” to one’s conscience at that point is to embrace their humanity.”

    Who counts as a human being, and how do you know? What actually is defining humanity–and can that be altered? Why think humanity valuable and where does that value come from? I’d love your thoughts.

    You wrote, “But the vast, vast majority of people out there happen to identify with their humanity, and value those aspects of us that make us human.”

    Yep. Its relative and therefore alterable based on subjective opinion. Humanity as a whole can collectively choose to hate all gypsies, iraqis or gays and systematically eliminate them. You’re pitching a might makes right argument, and I think these fail on many fronts. See: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2011/08/03/erasing-hell-might-makes-right-jeff-cook/

    You wrote, “So as long as you take that one step, then you’re self-obligated to follow your own conscience no different than if you felt under compulsion from God himself.”

    See Premise 4. Thoughts?

  • Craig

    DMH, The point I am making uses the present posting for illustration. These days there are many good philosophers and philosophical arguments of relevance to Christians. There are, however, far too many evangelicals who, after a little philosophical training, begin to call themselves philosophers (or sometimes “apologists”) only to pass along to their fellow Christians undergraduate-quality arguments that merely resemble contemporary philosophy in form and jargon.

  • Robert

    Craig, can you show why the arguments are so weak? Surely an undergraduate quality refutation would be easy to present. But you seem to put yourself above undergraduate quality, so it should be even easier. Help us out, perhaps we are stupid people that you can help.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Craig (9). You wrote, “There are, however, far too many evangelicals who, after a little philosophical training, begin to call themselves philosophers (or sometimes “apologists”) only to pass along to their fellow Christians undergraduate-quality arguments that merely resemble contemporary philosophy in form and jargon.”

    Craig, philosophically, you are making fun of the arguments and not showing why they are false (which is a logical fallacy).

    Do step up to the plate for the sake of the rest of us, because some of us who are professional philosophers (like Dr. Kreeft above) need to grow in our understanding. It would be a horrible thing for us to continue on under a cloud of ignorance, promoting reasons to believe that are undergrad quality jargon.

    For the sake of us, Craig, speak.

  • Craig

    Robert, the poor quality of the argument might be best demonstrated as follows. Of the argument’s five premises, each is highly problematic. Since it would be tedious to explain this for all five, I will instead offer to show this for any premise you choose.

  • RJS

    I don’t think it is so easy to dismiss either 2.1 or 2.3 – but this is where the discussion becomes a bit messy. The inability to dismiss 2.1 or 2.3 also validates 2.4, it just means that this “something that transcends me” is not necessarily God. It may be the laws that govern the behavior of the materials that come together to make me (I can deny that those laws are less than me). It may be the larger social forces (I can deny that those social forces are equal to me). I find the reasons given in 3 and 5 unsatisfactory.

  • DMH

    Craig #9 I guess I can agree with you that evangelicals sometimes do what you suggest, though I have not found that to be generally true on this blog. You will have to fight that one out :)

    “These days there are many good philosophers and philosophical arguments of relevance to Christians.” Who and what are these? Rather than your criticisms I am more interested in your positive case.

  • Craig

    DMH (14), on any particular topic that interests you, I would suggest starting with the free, online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which generally provides good, up-to-date overviews and bibliography written by professionals who specializes in on the topic in question. These entries will typically introduce the reader not only to the range of different positions that one might reasonably take, but also to the many of the central problems associated with any one position. This alone is usually quite a helpful contrast to the representation that a Christian apologist typically provides. If you are a podcast listener, you might browse through the interviews at Philosophy Bites. These are very short, accessible, intelligent interviews with reputable philosophers on specific topics.

    As in any field there is also a lot of garbage. For whatever reason, many more fools fancy themselves philosophers than chemists or physicists. Instead of wasting your time on what is likely garbage, make a serious effort to identify good sources. Look for reputable philosophers who teach at reputable philosophy departments and publish in the top philosophy journals. If a philosopher, or a piece of philosophy, has won the general acclaim of his/her/its peers, pay attention. On any topic that might interest you, there’s bound to be plenty of reputable stuff out there; some of it will be generally accessible.

  • NateW

    To me, the entire argument about the origin of “conscience” is pointless. Is there any profit to argue whether a tree “comes from” “beneath the soil”, “within an acorn”, “from another tree” or from God? Who am I to say that “conscience” does not come from self, society, or biology? The question changes along with the answer’s perspective. There are many answers, none of which are necessarily any less correct.

    What if, instead of asking where “conscience” comes from as evidence for God, we were to try to ask “where would it lead us?”. Where is it going? I suspect that the answer to that question will be much more meaningful because wherever it leads, it will end at unity with whatever serves as the “god” that births our conscience. Perhaps, in the end, we will find that all of us, regardless of our self-identity-defining adjectives (atheist, evangelical, fundamentalist, christian, muslim, agnostic, etc.) have consciences that prick us towards the exact same thing and that whatever differences between aren’t a product of what we believe the source of our conscience to be, but grow only from our refusal to allow our consciences to lead us to the common end.

    Personally, I most often call this end towards which our consciences lead “unity with God”, but in my mind that is the same as saying “the state of all people mutually loving all others more than self”, or “full embrace of what it means to be human.”

    Another big problem I have here, is this idea that God is the “source of absolute obligation.” I can’t even begin to express how firmly I disagree that the God being argued for here has anything to do with the God manifested in Jesus Christ. Christ reveals a God of Grace, not obligation. A God who tells us who we ARE, not who we MUST BE. A God who Loves, not a God who Demands. A God who seeks out those who suffer from shame and stands up for them, loves them as they are. The “source of absolute obligation” is NOT GOD, but our perceived distance from God (or whatever other name we give to that peace and happiness we all seek).

    The God being argued for here is a petty role player, a Deus Ex Machina, a being who exists, acts, and claims authority from outside the natural world. Jesus reveals a God who enters into, gives his existence to others, serves, and is crucified by this world. To think about God as an All Powerful Law Giver (a.k.a. the source of absolute obligation) is literally childish. A child sees rules as arbitrary and parents as authoritarian because he lacks the capacity to understand the complexities of their world. Once he is grown, if he has matured, he realizes that this was due to his lack of understanding and not the nature of his parents. A parents request for a child not to climb any higher into a brittle dead tree is not based on transcendent/arbitrary objective moral grounds (to climb high is evil, to be on the ground is right, you must obey me because I’m the parent) but on the fact that the physical law of gravity is in full effect and the child’s life is in danger. In other words, if God IS the source of the conscience, then we should expect his commands to be in full active unity with natural laws regarding the way things really are, though the immature (I mean this in a developmental, not a pejorative way) will see them as arbitrary authoritative commands opposed to personal flourishing. A child can’t understand that the commands make sense because they lack broader perspective, they only seek their own happiness and believe freedom lies at the top of the tree.

    To say that, as a source of conscience, God exists to the exclusion of natural physical/biological/societal laws is incoherent.

  • DMH

    Craig 15 I can see I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. I have really been asking more personal questions- What are your “reasons” for believing (in whatever you happen to believe in)? Something more like what NateW just gave us.

    NateW 16 “What if, instead of asking where “conscience” comes from as evidence for God, we were to try to ask “where would it lead us?”.” Agreed. I think an approach more along this line is more productive for all the traditional arguments for God.

  • Craig

    DMH 17, your question now seems too broad, or unhelpfully open-ended. My particular reasons for holding a belief will typically differ from case to case, naturally depending on what the belief in question is. Isn’t that to be expected? Maybe you could be more specific, and in a way that would also respect the themes of this thread?

  • SSG

    I used to be a proponent of a similar argument that CS Lewis made in Mere Christianity. Then I became skeptical as the challenges of the Euthyphro Dilemma and a Platonic explanation seemed to better explain moral obligation. But then after reading Alston’s analysis of Divine Command Theory “What Euthyphro Should Have Said.”

    Any treatment of this line of argument from morality to God, I think, has to wrestle with the Euthyphro dilemma: Is something good because God says it is or does God call something good because it is good? The problem is if you take the first horn, then God just arbitrarily dictates morality (and what is keeping him from decreeing tomorrow that genocide is good!). If the latter, then God is explanatorily irrelevant; he does not determine and is unneeded to explain moral reality.

    Alston distinguishes, and I think correctly, between “rightness” and “goodness.” In other terms, obligation and value. In technical terms, deontic categories (The category of actions being right or wrong, the category of rules. Things in this category are either obligatory, permissible, or impermissible) and value categories (the category of things, actions, people, etc… being good or bad). Value seems more gradated – something can be more or less good on a scale – while deontic categories just come in 3 flavors: either right, wrong, or permissible.

    So Alston’s suggestion (and it is merely that, a suggestion) is for the Divine Command theorist to see God as not explaining all of morality, just the deontic categories. This goes through the horns of Euthyphro’s dilemma: God’s commands are not arbitrary because he doesn’t just willy nilly decree how something ought to be valued; value is an intrinsic property of people, actions, etc… However, there is something different about obligations. Their authority, maybe they cannot be logically derived from values, their resemblance to laws, etc…

    I don’t know how promising that suggestion is for Divine Command theory or the argument in the post. Part of the reason I am posting this is because any argument from morality to theism should be clear on what exactly it is about morality that needs explanation in terms of God.

  • http://www.everything.org Jeff Cook

    Craig (12, 15, 18) You still have yet to pitch any counter argument.

    NateW (16) Love the line, “I can’t even begin to express how firmly I disagree that the God being argued for here has anything to do with the God manifested in Jesus Christ. Christ reveals a God of Grace, not obligation.”

    I think this is worthy and needs to be thought through. Do you think there are *any* moral obligations? And if so what is their metaphysical grounding?

  • Craig

    Jeff, since Robert seems to have left us, I will extend to you the offer I had made to him. See 12.

  • http://www.everything.org Jeff Cook

    Let’s start with 1 and work our way down.

  • http://www.everything.org Jeff Cook

    SSG (19). I would love for you to wrestle with the way the argument is structured. the Theist may not know how moral obligation arises from God, but given the argument it must–and this in itself establishes God belief if the rest of the argument holds.

  • Tim

    Jeff Cook (8),

    In answer to your questions, I’ll be putting on my “naturalist hat” as it were, and respond non-theistically. The purpose in doing so is to give the naturalistic argument the best hearing. This is a little awkward as I myself am a theist. But one perhaps that sees God working more synergistically through nature than one who alienly forces his design into it.

    That said…

    You wrote, “What gives the evolutionary framework the authority to dictate to you what you should and should not do with your life?”

    Why do you feel questions of morality must be dealt with by deference to some authority? For a naturalist, why should this be a starting point?

    We know that Bees have their own form of pro-social interaction. What authority dictates this? Closer to us evolutionarily, we know that Bonobos do as well. To what authority do they bow their knee?

    Animals, humans included, do not need any philosophical or theological understanding of moral authority to be guided by their innate pro-social dispositions.

    For us humans, would not identity suffice? That we identify as humans?

    To answer your question, “who counts as a human being, and how do you know?”…

    I would say it depends on what aspect of humanity you are addressing. Sociopaths are anatomically and reproductively human. Cognitively as well, with one important exception. They experience no innate moral sense. No conscience. No empathy or compassion for those in pain. The neural structure that supports these moral functions and experiences in the vast, vast majority of humans fails to fulfill the same function in sociopaths. So in a moral sense, they are “inhuman.”

    And how do we “know” what it means to be human? We define it by our shared, common experience. And this can be further illuminated scientifically as well through psychological, sociological, neurological, biological, anthropological, etc. research. We see common innate pro-social dispositions that correspond to what we think of as our “moral sense”. We see cultural variance as well of course. But we do recognize a common biological base, embedded deep in our genes as a species.

    Now, you wrote, “what actually is defining humanity–and can that be altered?”

    Sure, we could alter it. We could, for instance, selectively breed only sociopaths and euthanize everyone else. Your new human race would be alien to what you and I know in moral terms. Morality, right and wrong, would cease to have the same meaning in such a society. You would no longer be able to say that killing innocent children, for instance is wrong. That value system would likely not hold for a race of sociopaths. But that is not how we experience humanity. That is not our moral fabric. And so our judgements and sentiments would no more apply to such a race as to other animal species with which we are familiar that act in ways we would be horrified to see in our societies.

    You wrote, “Why think humanity valuable and where does that value come from?”

    I would say it’s valuable because it’s us. We see other mammals care for their little ones, their companions, their kin. We see them play, enjoy life with an exuberance. And they are not plagued by nihilism. We tend to value life because of our living of it. Our experience of it.

    You wrote with respect to human morality, “It’s relative and therefore alterable based on subjective opinion.”

    If your statement is meant to imply total malleability, I very much disagree. Our innate senses of love, empathy, compassion, reciprocity, etc. are not at the complete mercy of subjective opinion. Our cultural and individual values and worldview do very much effect how we express them. For instance, we do see targeted cruelty. Often expressed along a different facet of the human experience – tribalism. We see the callous attitudes towards the killings of men, women, children, and infants even of other peoples expressed in the Old Testament. These outsiders to the Hebrew tribes were dehumanized as “idolaters” and “wicked” people. Deserving of their fate. Much like the Nazis dehumanized the Jewish people as vermin. A disease to be exterminated. Our innate moral sense does not exist without tension from other aspects of our humanity. Tribalism, lust, greed, etc. all tug against it. But we do not equate morality with lust, or tribalism, or greed, etc. any more than we equate morality with hunger. These are different aspects of our constitution. They are not interchangeable or equivalent.

    You wrote, “You’re pitching a might makes right argument, and I think these fail on many fronts.”

    No, I’m pitching an identity argument. How we run our societies civilly based on that identity of course does often align with the will of the majority. You may have a minority of sociopaths that think, for instance, that indiscriminate killing should be legal. But the rest of humanity, while it remains the humanity that you and I know and (I hope) value, will not permit such behavior. Consider this the tyranny of the majority if you will. But it is no more tyrannical than any other social norming behavior we observe other species exert. With no apparent philosophical qualms. As just an extension of their constitution as a species.

    You wrote, “See Premise 4. Thoughts?”

    Regarding absolute obligations, there can be none under a non-absolute reference point such as God. However, to assume that obligations must be absolute in order to be meaningful or relevant is to in essence assume the correctness of your argument at the start. In other words, it is begging the question. I have already discussed a non-absolute, but very much objective (biologically speaking), universal (with respect to our species), and relevant (for those of us who identify with our humanity) morality. No absolute quality needs to exist for that to work.

    I hope my responses have answered your questions Jeff. Please let me know if there is anything specific you’d like me to address or clarify further.

  • Craig

    Premise 1 is either (a) straightforwardly false, (b) reliant upon a highly dubious conception of “conscience” (where it would be highly doubtful that such things exist), or (c) true, but true for reasons that may have nothing to do with what we might call the authority of the conscience or of moral obligation. Consider these possibilities in order.

    (a) The premise is straightforwardly false under plausible conceptions of the rightness of an action. The rightness of a given action, like the wrongness of an action, may be independent of the agent’s beliefs about the action’s moral status. So also, the rightness of an action may be independent of deliverances of an agent’s conscience. Suppose, for example, that the agent must either break up with her boyfriend or continue to “lead him on.” Her sensitive conscience may speak against both alternatives, empathizing with the pain that each would inevitably cause. One of these actions may nevertheless be the right thing to do. For a different case, suppose a child has come to falsely believe that stepping on a crack will break his mother’s back. As such, his conscience tells him to never do so. Does this mean that it wrong for him to step on a crack, even unwittingly? If it is sometimes not wrong for the child to (unwittingly) step on a crack, then it is presumably morally permissible for him sometimes to do so. Rightness may simply mean moral permissibility.

    (b) Suppose that the conscience would never deliver such conflicting or false judgments. While this may avoid the worries raised by (a), it does so at the expense of positing a faculty whose existence is highly doubtful.

    (c) It may be that the conscience sometimes delivers faulty assessments, but it is, because of some other norm, nevertheless always inappropriate for the agent to disobey it. (Let’s be clear: in this case we’re supposing the following: if the suicide bomber’s conscience told him to proceed with the mass killing of women and children, it wouldn’t be right for him to refrain from doing so.) You might, for example, similarly think that it always wrong for an agent to do that which he or she believes is wrong—whether or not the action would be wrong independent of the agent’s beliefs about the wrongness of the action. You might think of this as a violation of an agent’s moral integrity or something. But this makes the wrongness of the disobeying the conscience somewhat like wrongness of violating a norm of rationality. You violate a norm of rationality if, for example, you act in a way that obviously undermines your own end, whatever your end may be. Here it’s not the necessity or even the appropriateness of your particular end that accounts for the norm you violate. Rather, it is simply the fact that you happen to be holding that end. So the norm you violate here is formal, or structural. Understood in these terms, it is doubtful that your argument can get off the ground. To see why, you might try to construct a parallel argument on the basis of one of these premises: “It is never rational for you to do that which obviously undermines your own end,” or “It is never rational to do that which is self undermining” (like to try to succeed at nothing). Try to get from one of these alternative premises to the existence of God.

    To avoid the problems that these possibilities pose for your argument, you must develop and clarify a plausible alternative conception of the conscience and of the rightness of actions under which premise 1 is both true and fitting.

  • Andy W.

    NateW @ 16

    Love what you wrote here!!

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Tim (24) You wrote, “Why do you feel questions of morality must be dealt with by deference to some authority? For a naturalist, why should this be a starting point?”

    If Premise 1 holds, then we must “never disobey”. You can reject premise 1, as I said in the post. But if you feel that is immoral you should establish why.

    You wrote, “We know that Bees have their own form of pro-social interaction. What authority dictates this? Closer to us evolutionarily, we know that Bonobos do as well. To what authority do they bow their knee?”

    When an animal kills another animal, I do not call it murder. When a human being does, I may. I affirm a difference between species.

    You wrote, “How do we “know” what it means to be human? We define it by our shared, common experience.” This was to clarify your claim, “Under such a model, the only step then required to be “obligated” to one’s conscience at that point is to embrace their humanity.”

    If this is true, then “humanity” is subjectively assessed and any one of us may fall out of the graces of others at any moment–and another’s moral obligation to us would dissipate as well. This would show that your grounding for a “universal morality” in post (2) isn’t fixed, but relative. As you affirm when you wrote, “Your new human race would be alien to what you and I know in moral terms. Morality, right and wrong, would cease to have the same meaning in such a society. You would no longer be able to say that killing innocent children, for instance is wrong.”

    You wrote, “If your statement is meant to imply total malleability [of morality], I very much disagree. Our innate senses of love, empathy, compassion, reciprocity, etc. are not at the complete mercy of subjective opinion … Our cultural and individual values and worldview do very much effect how we express them. we do not equate morality with lust, or tribalism, or greed, etc. any more than we equate morality with hunger. These are different aspects of our constitution. They are not interchangeable or equivalent.”

    Given materialism, these aspects of ourselves are the result of an unguided evolutionary process. *Of course they are malleable.* Malleability is the primary design tool of evolution. And of course genocide can have as much (if not more) evolutionary benefit as love, empathy, compassion, etc.

    In response to my claim that your argument is a might makes right position, you wrote, “You may have a minority of sociopaths that think, for instance, that indiscriminate killing should be legal. But the rest of humanity, while it remains the humanity that you and I know and (I hope) value, will not permit such behavior … Consider this the tyranny of the majority if you will. But it is no more tyrannical than any other social norming behavior we observe other species exert. With no apparent philosophical qualms. As just an extension of their constitution as a species.”

    This is still a might makes right position that fails for the reasons that I linked (among others). The position stated above still keeps moral truths firmly rooted in the subjective preferences of those who are most powerful numerically.

    You wrote, “To assume that obligations must be absolute in order to be meaningful or relevant is to in essence assume the correctness of your argument at the start.”

    Its the primary assumption at work here, yes. Again, you can deny it and the argument lacks power (which I say right at the outset after the syllogism). However, if you do there are consequences which ought to be acknowledged.

    Those are my thoughts. Peace.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Craig (25). You wrote three possible ways out of Premise 1. Your first out culminates with, “the rightness of an action may be independent of deliverances of an agent’s conscience.”

    This does not disprove the claim in Premise 1.

    You wrote, “Suppose a child has come to falsely believe that stepping on a crack will break his mother’s back. As such, his conscience tells him to never do so. Does this mean that it wrong for him to step on a crack, even unwittingly?”

    Yes it is.

    I think you believe this ridiculous. But on deontological or virtue ethical grounds it would be immoral. Consequentially one could also argue that the boy is doing damage to his ability to care for others even though said crack does not in fact break his mother’s back.

    You pitch (b)–your second way out– as “reliant upon a highly dubious conception of “conscience” (where it would be highly doubtful that such things exist)” but in the text you fail to establish any reason for thinking the concept “highly dubious”. You simply assert it. Well…why think this?

    Regarding (c) you wrote, “if the suicide bomber’s conscience told him to proceed with the mass killing of women and children, it wouldn’t be right for him to refrain from doing so.”

    As above this argument assumes a form of consequentialism. So perhaps you’re saying my argument fails because utility is true and therefore there are times where following my conscience does not lead to maximum happiness. At that point I’d be curious why you should affirm utility in the first place: is it because of your conscience or for some other reason. That is do you affirm utility based on a rational argument or emotive (conscience-like) reasons? And it seems this dialogue over normativity extends to the rest of your response as well.

    Peace.

  • Craig

    Jeff (28), Your comment is riddled with error and failures to grasp the import of that to which you respond. My doubts have grown regarding the fruitfulness of continuing a discussion.

    You lift one sentence out of context and assert, “But this does not disprove the claim in Premise 1.” If I thought one sentence alone sufficed to disprove Premise 1, why would I have given you such a long response?

    You appeal to the idea that under some deontological or virtue ethical accounts it may turn that it is morally wrong for a young child to unwittingly step on any crack in the pavement, as if this should convince anyone–or even just deontologists and virtue ethicists–that such an implication is plausible.

    You fail to grasp why it is dubious that human beings possess consciences that deliver only clear and truthful moral assessments.

    You say that a given argument assumes a form a consequentialism but you evidently don’t understand what consequentialism entails. (Either this, or you have completely failed to understand the simple conditional statement which you say “assumes consequentialism”.)

    These are the errors of an undergraduate student, and a poorly performing one at that.

  • Tim

    Jeff (27),

    I’m heading off to work so I won’t have time to respond till this evening. However, briefly I would state

    1) Nowhere do I see an acknowledgement on pro-social dispositions and behaviors among other animals such as bonobos, dolphins, whales, elephants, etc. Yes nature may be “red in tooth and claw”, but to pretend that is all it is is a one dimensional caricature.

    2) I think you misunderstood my point concerning “total malleability.” You ignored the “total” aspect. Of course everything is malleable to some extent in biology. However, our pro-social dispositions are not infinitely malleable by culture. They are genetically rooted. Very much a genotypic-phenotypic thing.

    3) I do not understand your point: ” You can reject premise 1, as I said in the post. But if you feel that is immoral you should establish why.”

    4) I do not understand again your “might makes right” point and how you feel this pertains to anything I’ve said

    5) I have serious reservations that you have a good working knowledge of sociobiology, and I worry that that is preventing us from having a meaningful conversation.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    Craig (29). Peace be yours.

  • NateW

    @Jeff Cook – “Do you think there are *any* moral obligations? And if so what is their metaphysical grounding?”

    This is a very difficult question to answer for me, Jeff. It’s not that I’m unsure of my response, it’s just that I am not sure I can speak of it in such a way as to be beneficial to all reading. I want to be very conscious not to plant a stumbling block into the mind of a brother or sister. If I were to deny the existence of objective moral obligations there are some who would hear me providing license for hate, greed, lust, etc., and, In a sense, I would be doing so. To say so then would be to open the door to much suffering for some who are not ready to hear it. Conversely, if I were to say that there ARE objective moral obligations some would hear me saying that they need to lead a more moral life and, if they are not ready to hear that, I may be adding shame on top of shame.

    You might say, based on the above, that my answer is obvious—I am working from a moral obligation to do no harm to another—yet I would similarly (and frustratingly) respond by both denying and affirming this. I am obligated to “do no harm” but I am not obligated to do so by any metaphysical grounding, but by my own genuine desire to love others that has been birthed from the love others have shown me.

    If I were forced to it I could say that we are all morally obligated to love one another as one and the same with ourselves. To be unified with all in the Love that is God. Yet, in the next breath I would also say that love cannot be born from moral obligations. Love is given voluntarily as a promise, as a self-binding obligation to another. Love is self-initiated, and self-giving or else it is something else — covetousness or lust.

    If love does not seek its own gain or reward and cannot be morally commanded, how is it that anyone would choose to obligate themselves in love to others? The old me would have said “God must mysteriously convert ones heart to make him want to love people.” Now I would say “Love is born in us when we accept the Love of another as unconditional.” When another shows grace, and we acknowledge it as such (as being independent of or unconcerned with our ability to oblige ourselves to them in return) then love begins to be born inside us and we begin to WANT to reenact the love shown to us for others.

    The only obligation that any person is under is to choose to holistically accept and believe that they are under no obligation. The peace and stillness in knowing that she can simply “be” and does not have to “be more” births freedom to release others from their obligations to her. It is the contagious freedom to love.

    Yet at the same time, for one who is not yet able to believe this, the apparent moral obligations of Christ can guard self and others from the deep pain and hurt that can arise when shame drives our actions.

    A God who is known by His moral obligations is a God who’s Word is “shame”, not love. Commands only speak to what about what I “am not” and have no power in themselves to show what I am.

    1 Cor. 8
    Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
    4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and zthrough whom we exist.
    7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and btheir conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

    1 Cor 10:23
    23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.

  • phil_style

    Craig, I’m sure you have some really good arguments, it’s just a shame that your communication style makes you come off as a bit of a prat. Maybe that’s just the accepted style of the philosopher, but it sure doesn’t pass as the style of someone who is keen to help others and provide careful and considerate contributions to a discussion.

  • Craig

    phil_style, I see what you mean, particularly upon re-reading my comments. I tend to react with heightened emotion when I see a Christian, with some philosophical training and credentials, exploiting such things so as to pass off terribly bad arguments among non-philosophers. Those who offer such arguments probably even know that they would receive only derision in a philosophy seminar room. There’s a lot of this in evangelical circles. I find it difficult to resist simply calling the person out for what he/she is, and responding to those arguments with the condescension that they, in my view, deserve. To these sorts of people, politely framed objection threaten to send the wrong sort of message. I should also add that I had just listened to a recent Justin Brierley interview with the person in question.

    Regarding the substance of what I’ve previously wrote, as opposed to its tone, I have no reservations.

  • phil_style

    Craig, thanks for your qualification. I don’t mean to go chasing after irrelevancies here either (i.e, ignoring your content, but critiquing your style).

    But that said, for folks like me, it’s more engaging to read a discussion that demonstrates empathy (especially when the first person pronoun “you” is being used).

    Thanks again for you willingness to respond to me.

  • phil_style

    ** Correction, in my last “third person pronoun” should read “second person pronoun”.

  • Robert

    It seems true to me that if one criticizes a view, it would be helpful to see why they do so in each case so as to discern whether to discard any assumptions that I might have if the critique is a valid one. As it stands, it never goes that far and we are none the wiser if it should be a poor argument.

  • Mike M

    What a coincidence; just attended a lecture at UW-M on animal behavior and got re-acquainted with Nikolaas Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch, all Nobel Laureates who applied other species’ behaviors to humans. Perhaps the biological imperative trumps the philosophical one and “conscience” needs to be defined in a biogical sense. I haven’t seen a good argument otherwise.


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