Russell vs. Copleston on the Moral Argument

On his Dangerous Idea blog, Vic Reppert asks for comments on who won the famous debate between Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston, S.J. on the existence of God, broadcast by the B.B.C. in 1948. I recently commented on this debate in the chapter “Bertrand Russell” in Icons of Unbelief, edited by S.T. Joshi and recently published (2008) by Greenwood Press. My scorecard is: Russell clearly won the first round on the argument from contingency. The second argument, on religious experience, is not argued well by either side, but I give a slight edge to Russell. The moral argument is clearly won by Copleston. Here is a quote from Icons, pp. 365-366:


COPLESTON: The vast majority of the human race will make, and always have made, some distinction between right and wrong. The vast majority I think has some consciousness of an obligation in the moral sphere. It’s my opinion that the perception of values and the consciousness of moral law and obligation are best explained through the hypothesis of a transcendent ground and an author of the moral law (Seckel, p. 141).

Here again Copleston is offering an inference to the best explanation.

Russell’s reply is, first, that there is no identifiable universal or absolute moral law (Seckel, p. 141). If there were such a universal law, it would have to have some specifiable content, but when we look across cultures and through history we find a great multiplicity of contradictory norms. For instance, at one time cannibalism was acceptable (Seckel, p. 141). Copleston replies that the fact of historical and cultural diversity in moral judgments does not mean that there is no true absolute law (Seckel, p. 141). Russell scoffs that, in that case, the true moral law has been revealed to only a small portion of humanity, coincidentally including Copleston (Seckel, p. 141). Copleston admits that societal norms will reflect particular cultural and historical contexts, but he counters that when individuals criticize the accepted moral code of their own societies, which they sometimes do, they must appeal to an objective standard (Seckel, pp. 141-142).

Russell thinks that there is a naturalistic explanation of the sense of moral obligation: It is merely the inner sense of imagined approval or disapproval that we get by internalizing the teachings of parents and nurses (Seckel, p. 141-142). Copleston replies that moral obligation is a unique and basic concept that cannot be reduced to any other terms. For Copleston (Seckel, p. 142), moral obligation takes the form of what Kant called a “categorical imperative”—the recognition that we are bound by universal and unconditional moral duties. Therefore, attempting to explain our sense of moral obligation as “really” something else is not to explain it at all, but to explain it away, to turn it into something else, like a feeling of guilt or shame.

Copleston clearly wins this round. Russell is certainly right, indeed it is an anthropological truism that norms vary across cultures. However, Copleston’s claim is that those who reject the prevailing norms of their own time and place in the name of a higher morality, and these have included some of history’s great spirits, do so by appealing to ideals of goodness and justice that transcend particular, culturally-specific codes. Further, some acts, like Nazi atrocities, are clearly intrinsically reprehensible, regardless of whether any person or society endorses them (Seckel, p. 143). Copleston therefore holds that we do acknowledge some objective, trans-cultural moral standards, and Russell never addresses this claim directly. Also, Russell fails to recognize that Copleston is not speaking of a feeling of moral obligation, like a sense of guilt or shame—which we might explain away in psychological terms—but is alleging an intellectual recognition of pure and unconditional duties, i.e., that, as Kant claimed, we are aware of being bound by categorical imperatives.

“Seckel” refers to Seckel, A., ed., Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1986.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    “For Copleston (Seckel, p. 142), moral obligation takes the form of what Kant called a “categorical imperative”—the recognition that we are bound by universal and unconditional moral duties.”

    Categorical imperatives contrast with Hypothetical imperatives. An example of a hypothetical imperative is: “If you want to get rich, then go into real estate.”

    Perhaps evaluation of cars should be thought of in terms of a hypothetical imperative: “IF you care about money, and you have to make a choice between buying one of two cars, and both cars are identical in all relevant respects except that car B costs half as much as car A, THEN choose car B.”

    The important condition here is “IF you care about money…” If you don’t care about money, then you don’t care if one car costs twice as much as the other (unless you don’t have twice as much available to pay for the car!- then it seems like you HAVE to care about the cost.)

    Perhaps I am lacking in imagination in finding it hard to think of someone who doesn’t care whether he/she pays 40,000 dollars for a car rather than 20,000 dollars. But I suppose that a multi-billionare would care very little about such a difference in price.

    Are there some hypothetical imperatives for which the condition is applicable to all human beings?

    “If you want to avoid excruciating pain, then…”
    “If you want to maintain your sanity, then…”
    “If you want to be alive tomorrow, then…”

    I suspect that moral imperatives are something like such hypothetical imperatives.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Bradley: I agree. I think that my reply to Copleston would be to deny that there are any grounds for asserting the existence of categorical imperatives–pure, unconditioned duties dictated by reason itself. Kant’s categorical imperative, at least in the form that enjoins us to act only upon that maxim that we can will to become a universal law, is really just a demand for logical consistency. You cannot excuse your action by invoking maxim M unless you can coherently prescribe M as a norm for every rational person to follow (no special pleading allowed!). Now the demand for consistency, and the concomitant ban on special pleading, may be a necessary condition for morality, but it clearly is far short of a sufficient condition. As John Stuart Mill observed in Utilitarianism:

    “But when he [Kant] begins to deduce from his precept [the categorical imperative] any of the actual duties of morality, he fails, almost grotesquely, to show that there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say physical) impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct.”

    For instance, The Grand Ayatollah could consistently demand that everybody follow the rules of the sharia as he interprets them (presuming his interpretation has no internal contradictions). EVERYBODY has the duty to stone adulterous women!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    Change that to “stone adulterers” and the CI seems somewhat relevant, in the sense that the adulterer who said that would be saying that he himself (or she herself) should be stoned. Not necessary, perhaps, but suggests something like consistency.

    I believe the CI is still “crypto-consequentialist”: yes, Mill (and SO’sters) are right to claim that Kant er, can’t prove an obligation (at least easily) but he can via the CI pose the basic issue of “what would happen if everyone followed this maxim, or proposed maxim”? That’s sort of important, not just for the usual college-ethics BS session around the kegger, but for any proposed political or economic policies.

    Imagine Gov. Ahhnuld doing a bit of Kantian deontology: “”what if every girrly mann drove a Hummer??”” Not a pleasant scenario. So even if crypto-consequentialist, still sound.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    I think there are some reasons why Kant would firmly reject rule utilitarianism and simlar forms of consequetialism.

    First, utilitarianism, at least as presented by Mill, is grounded in certain human desires or psychological tendencies (e.g. empathy). One must first care about the happiness or well being of other people, and then based on this desire formulate moral rules that would be helpful to promote or maximize human happiness or well being.

    Kant was opposed to grounding morality in human psychological tendencies, because these tendencies vary in strength between different people and vary in strength for an individual person over the course of time. Today I might be feeling very loving and empathic, but tomorrow I might not give a damn about other people. Kant believed that moral duty was not so weak and wavering as human psychological tendencies appear to be.

    Also, I think Kant was too much of a rationalist to base morality on messy empirical facts. Kant was very pro-science, but he probably understood the need for skepticism and doubt and for the constant evolution of hypotheses and theories in empirical science. Again he viewed morality as being more like religious commitment, something that we should be certain of, something that would not be subject to the sort of doubt and churn that must accompany serious empirical investigation.

    We are too weak and limited in our capacity to know empirical reality, especially when it comes to making accurate predictions. So basing morality on “knowledge” of the consequences of hypothetical changes to a moral code is just too messy and uncertain for Kant. He wants moral duties to have a clearer and firmer basis than that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    Applying Kant’s categorical imperative in many real world cases would require knowledge of a certain sort, which would entail knowing, or predicting to some degree the consequences of an action, or proposed action. In some (indeed, many cases), to universalize an act–” act as if your maxim was binding on all”–one needs to have some knowledge of the effect of the act. That’s one reason why deontology is impractical, though perhaps useful in some cases.

    There is a “kingdom of ends” in Rawlsian terms. Kant wants people to be aware of their choices (and thinks something like Freedom exists) via the Categorical Imperative, so in a sense he must grant some choices result in certain outcomes, and thus by implication suggests a “Kingdom of Ends”. By granting choice Kant seems committed to saying some choices are better, depending on outcomes: consequentialism (though I think lying is one example which Kant holds to be inherently wrong: truth being correct, and non-truth, incorrect).

    You are correct the CI’s not the desire-based code of Mill and co, but produces an “ethical commonwealth” ala Rawls, who held his own system led to a somewhat Kantian like justice, but without the transcendent and subjective elements. It’s related to distribution (and brings up say division of labor issues).

    Im not defending the CI across the board, but saying some type of universalization may be necessary at times, more at macro, or political level: a CI type of thinking then can be produced of something like Rawls original position, though that poses other problems. (Or one just stays on the USS Darwin-Nietzsche)

    The CI does apply to consumerism, in a sense. What happens via the C-I if Buffy decides to go gambling? Is she saying everyone everywhere should gamble? She may be: she might decide then, I don’t want to contribute to the gambling racket, and save her shekels. (Or, change that to buying veal) So ethics via the CI also becomes somewhat political in a sense: which is what Kant probably wanted. the CI begins from subjectivity, but is meant to apply to all acts, political, economic, or “moral.”

  • Mike

    I’m skeptical of your selfish gene…
    You are still not answering what good and evil is. How is death, dying and decay evil? Seems like a natural course of things which is normal.
    Furthermore, how is the cycle of life good? On what grounds is it good or evil?
    You haven’t answered the fundamental question… what makes something good? You have made an assumption without any relevant facts to support the claim.


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