Why moral absolutism requires the transcendent

In my last piece, I mentioned that moral absolutists cannot be satisfied with any secular account of morality, and in particular, no naturalistic account of morality. I should clarify why this is so.

The issue is not moral relativism, moral pluralism, or error theory, or any similar godless account of morality that explicitly denies objective moral realities. I think that if you want to have an accurate picture of the place of morality in the natural world, you should go in that direction, but that’s not the point. It’s that the kind of moral absolutes demanded by typical moral absolutists cannot be supplied even by ostensibly realist secular accounts of morality.

Take, for example, a popular direction to take if you want to make moral truths supervene on natural facts: refer to common human needs, good versus bad social strategies (in a game theoretic sense) and so forth. There are, after all, objective biological and social realities, and morality might be about good versus bad ways to negotiate such territory. And all this does put the “anything goes” variety of relativism out of play. (That is only a caricature of relativist/pluralist/error theory views anyway.) The problem is, even if such an approach were to deliver objective moral facts (I don’t think it does), it would not satisfy the moral absolutist. That is because no natural fact can provide the absolute, transcendent security and certainty the absolutist demands.

If morality supervenes on facts about human nature, the absolutist will be dissatisfied because then morality is relative to human nature. This is no idle complaint, especially in a time when biotechnology allows us to modify human nature. If we face a choice about meddling with human nature, a human-needs moral theorist can easily get lost. How do we make a choice when we are proposing to modify, even perhaps radically modify, the basis for evaluating choices? A theist, however, can at least hope to refer to ostensible knowledge about God’s transcendent purpose in creating human nature as it is.

Naturalists cannot satisfy absolutist demands, and I don’t see why we should try. Indeed, I see trying to preserve absolutist moral intuitions as part of the bad habit of nonbelievers to say that God is not real, but then to add that realizing this should not change anything important about our lives.

At some point, this becomes like saying that a theist should not worry that heaven and hell are not real, because we can achieve a state of immortality with rewards and punishments by naturalistic means. After all, it’s only science fiction now, but it is conceivable that we will make progress toward downloading human minds into machines, and similarly extend our conscious existence indefinitely. And with surveillance technologies developing similarly, we might even ensure rewards and punishments in such indefinitely persisting lives.

But, setting aside whether that is utopia or a nightmare, such a scenario could not and should not satisfy anyone who thinks that justice demands a state of reward or punishments after death. This is because if we take naturalism at all seriously, any technological approximation to a transcendent ideal will always fall short. It will inevitably be finite, approximate, imperfect, and impermanent. Someone who demands a transcendent variety of morality or justice will rightly refuse to be paid in naturalistic coin.

Naturalists should refuse to play such games. If a moral absolutist or a fan of cosmic retributive justice says that only a picture of the world that provides such things is acceptable, well, that’s their problem. In the context of trying to achieve an accurate understanding of our world, such demands are intellectually pathological. In other contexts, they may make more sense, but then I begin to lose interest.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    Take, for example, a popular direction to take if you want to make moral truths supervene on natural facts: refer to common human needs, good versus bad social strategies (in a game theoretic sense) and so forth. There are, after all, objective biological and social realities, and morality might be about good versus bad ways to negotiate such territory. And all this does put the "anything goes" variety of relativism out of play. (That is only a caricature of relativist/pluralist/error theory views anyway.) The problem is, even if such an approach were to deliver objective moral facts (I don't think it does), it would not satisfy the moral absolutist. That is because no natural fact can provide the absolute, transcendent security and certainty the absolutist demands.

    So, what you are saying is that people like Peter Railton, Philippa Foot, Richard Boyd, Michael Thompson, et al–who are naturalist moral realists–would not be satisfied by their own naturalized moral theories? That is, you say that naturalized theories (which are put forward by moral realists) would not satisfy moral realists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Wes: "what you are saying is that people like Peter Railton, Philippa Foot, Richard Boyd, Michael Thompson, et al–who are naturalist moral realists–would not be satisfied by their own naturalized moral theories? That is, you say that naturalized theories (which are put forward by moral realists) would not satisfy moral realists."

    Read what I actually say. I have not, in this conversation, brought up the issue of moral realism. I have been discussing moral absolutism, specifically the kind of absolutism sought out by a particular subspecies of religious person. There is a difference.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    Taner,

    Who are some of the moral absolutists of whom you speak? Is this strictly a religious position, or are there mainstream philosophers working on this? I honestly don't know who they are (and I'm an ethicist; well, an ABD ethicist, at least).

    In seminary (I was a pastor before I became an atheist), I took a couple of classes in Christian Ethics (TA'd another and taught still another) and moral absolutism never came up. In fact, we talked a lot about Fletcher's situation ethics and other approaches that didn't seem absolutist at all (and these were mainstream, evangelical seminaries: Fuller Theological and Golden Gate Baptist).

    I guess I'm just curious (since you're not talking about realism) what this supposedly wide-spread belief is that skeptics are falling into a trap of trying to placate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Wes, I am not talking about the rarefied world of the philosophy of ethics. There, as far I can see, you are absolutely (heh) correct: absolutism is hard to find.

    But in popular apologetics, and in works expressing motivation for authoritarian religious belief, I think the absolutism of the sort I described is not rare. Think of no end of conservative apologists writing jeremiads on the need for moral absolutes.

    You don't need even to consult the popular apologetic literature. For example, I'm reading Ali A. Allawi's The Crisis of Islamic Civilization right now. He's not a philosopher by any means. And predictably enough, in passing, he makes the classic move of appealing to transcendent moral absolutes and saying nothing else is acceptable unless we are to be lost in relativism.

    Moral absolutism is philosophically naive, sure. And so you don't see a lot of it in more sophisticated circles. But I think it's alive and well not just in popular religion but as a general purpose anti-modern sentiment.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    Fair enough. I'm sorry I misread your original point. I wrongly assumed you were talking about moral realism, because I was not familiar with the distinction of moral absolutism (at least, in that context; I've heard it used in the context of claiming that there can be no true moral dilemmas).

    I still wonder if it is such a widespread problem into which skeptics fall, but, as I've demonstrated, I'm not as familiar with the non-philosopher apologists who are pushing this, nor the non-philosopher skeptics who are trying to accommodate them. Thanks for clarifying.

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

    I think another way of putting Taner's point is that the moral absolutist is one who hankers for a categorical imperative. The absolutist cannot accept that ethics can rest upon merely hypothetical imperatives that say "If you want this, then do that." They must have a categorical statement that imposes an unconditioned duty: "Do this!" No "ifs," "ands," or "buts" allowed. The authority for this categorical imperative must be reason itself (whatever that is). No contingencies can matter. In particular, anthropology is out; nothing about human nature or circumstances can be relevant to the absolute demands of pure duty.

    The problem, of course, is that nobody has yet come up with anything like an acceptable Categorical Imperative. As Mill noted, Kant's attempt is almost grotesque in its failure. With a modicum of cleverness you can devise rules that let you do pretty much whatever you want while still following Kant's dictum to "Always act on that maxim that you can, at the same time, will to be a universal law."

    I am a neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalist. I think we can, in broad outlines, characterize what constitutes human thriving, "eudaimonia" in Aristotle's terms. Ethics, in that case is, as Owen Flanagan puts, it, a matter of human ecology. If you would have humans thrive and flourish, this is what you should do. The injunctions of ethical naturalism are all hypothetical imperatives that tell us what to do to promote human well-being.

    What if someone were to say–and he really means it and isn't just being a smart ass–that he does not give a damn about human thriving, not even his own? Well, I don't think that there is much we could say in the way of philosophical argument. You might appeal to his feelings if he has any. I do not see really what the ethical naturalist could say to the true misanthrope who does not want human well-being, not even his own. However, such a person is not likely to be any more amenable to the arguments of moral absolutists either, so I see no disadvantage for naturalism in this regard.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Keith Parsons: "I think another way of putting Taner's point is that the moral absolutist is one who hankers for a categorical imperative. The absolutist cannot accept that ethics can rest upon merely hypothetical imperatives that say 'If you want this, then do that.'"

    That's a very good way of expressing it. Thanks!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    I am a neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalist.

    That's where I lean as well. Foot's Natural Goodness was very influential in my thinking about metaethics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner Edis said: “ There are, after all, objective biological and social realities, and morality might be about good versus bad ways to negotiate such territory.

    Yes, but what is it that makes a moral theory a good rather than a bad way to negotiate such territory? That’s a fundamental meta-ethical question, and unless you can find a plausible way to ground its answer on objective reality you have failed to defend moral realism.

    After all it’s trivially easy to create a moral theory that supervenes on objective facts. Here is one: “Always act in ways that will tend to increase the number of human genes.” But what is it that makes an ethical theory a good or a bad one? How do we compare two conflicting ethical theories to find out which is better?

    There are several arguments why on naturalism moral realism is false:

    1. You can’t get a moral “ought” out of a naturalistic “is” (a la Hume). Some think that the force of this argument is logical: Unless you know of an “ought” property entailed in natural facts you can’t get an “ought” truth by making inferences about them. (In contrast there is an “ought” property in theistic facts – so moral realism is possible within theism.)

    2. Mackie’s “queerness” argument: From the naturalistic point of view any reality which entails moral truths would be strange beyond imagination.

    3. The absence of evidence: As no naturalist has yet proposed even a vague idea of how to answer the meta-ethical question above on naturalistic grounds, it’s quite improbable that such an answer exists.

    4. The “look-no-hands” argument: According to naturalism reality consists of a large number of bits the state of which blindly evolves following mechanical laws. Given this view there can’t be anything in that reality which would make some parts of if more valuable (more “good”) than some other parts.

    I find these arguments to be overwhelmingly strong.

    Taner Edis said: “ And all this does put the 'anything goes' variety of relativism out of play.

    Well, it depends. A moral theory which supervenes on objective facts is still only a subjective preference if moral realism is false. So, for example, suppose that you proposed the above moral theory, and I being an animal lover would propose the exact opposite, namely that one should act in a way that would diminish the number of human genes. We could then argue about who is right until hell freezes over.

    Taner Edis said: “ Naturalists cannot satisfy absolutist demands, and I don't see why we should try.

    Moral absolutism is the idea that there are some moral imperatives the validity of which is absolute independently of the context and of the subject. Even though religions are known to declare such categorical moral imperatives, in fact the religious worldview does not imply moral absolutism. Indeed it appears that moral absolutism is a simplistic idea which does not work. As Keith Parsons argues in another thread we need to know about the state of affairs, external and internal (and particularly about the subject’s beliefs and desires), before it makes sense to speak about whether a particular action is good or bad. If a co-worker sends to your boss a letter full of false accusations against you because he believes that this will move your boss to give you a raise – then your co-worker’s choice is not morally reprehensible. Similarly there is the well-known Gospel story of Mary Magdalene using some kind of precious perfume to wash Jesus’s feet; if moral absolutism were right then Judas rather than Jesus would be right in the ensuing moral dispute. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition at least it is expressively taught that blindly following “the Law” is unfruitful. In conclusion I say that not only naturalists but also theists cannot satisfy and need not satisfy absolutist demands. One way or the other, reality is just more interesting than that.

    But there may be meta-ethical moral imperatives though, such as "You should never do what you believe is wrong".

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parsons said: “ The absolutist cannot accept that ethics can rest upon merely hypothetical imperatives that say ‘If you want this, then do that.’

    I can’t accept it either, for propositions in this form belong to engineering rather than to ethics.

    Keith Parsons said: “ As Mill noted, Kant's attempt is almost grotesque in its failure.

    An empirical fact about ethics is that all ethical theories proposed appear to be failures, indeed to be easily disprovable. I submit that ethics is the most important field of knowledge there is, for what good is there in knowing anything else if we don’t know how we should use that knowledge. It’s therefore maddening how unstable our ethics is.

    I once read James Rachels’s “The Elements of Moral Philosophy”. Rachels was an atheist by the way. In this well-written book a moral theory was presented, then a counterexample to it was presented, then a revised version of the same theory was presented, then a new counterexample was presented, and so on. The same procedure was repeated with a whole line of ethical theories: nothing worked. It seems ethics is such that it resists formalizing. But what most struck me is that the counterexamples were not presented as the author’s personal opinion, but as facts. Indeed they were all quite obviously successful in falsifying a given theory. But, how could the author know that these counterexamples worked? How could I? Unless there is an objective ethical ground in which we somehow partake, how can we possibly know that a counterexample falsifies (as it obviously does) a particular ethical theory?

    I am now reading Terry Eagleton’s “Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate” (a strange book). There he writes “Faith articulates a loving commitment before it counts as a description of the way things are”. In other words he suggests that a religious person first embraces an ethic and then builds an ontology that fits that ethic; the religious person puts the ethical horse before the ontological cart as it were. At first this sounded to me unreasonable; after all one would think that one should do X because reality is like Y. On second thoughts Keith’s point above reflects a common attitude, for example in theistic ethics it often goes like “If you want to go to heaven do this, if you want to avoid going to hell don’t do that” – first ontology then ethics. So Eagleton’s claim that faith works the other way around certainly appeared to be counterintuitive at first.

    But then I thought that I myself became a self-aware Christian only after reading the Gospels. And what moved me in the Gospels was Jesus’s ethics, and not the theology (which I did not understand) and certainly not the miracle stories (which I found irrelevant at best and embarrassing at worse). So in my case it was the ethical horse which started to move the ontological cart.

    Further, the by far more convincing argument for theism is for me the argument from the objectivity of ethical truths. That some ethical truths at least (e.g. “you should not gratuitously torture a sentient being”) are objective and do not depend on personal opinion, on social convention, or on the structure of my brain – is for me a basic belief of the incorrigible kind. I could not doubt that such truths are objective if my life depended on my doubting it. In comparison I find it much easier to doubt that an external world exists, or that other minds exist, or that the past exists, or that there isn’t a greatest prime number. So here again I find a case where it is an ethical insight which guides me into an ontological conclusion.

    What I suppose I am saying here is this: There is the “is” centered reasoning, and there is the “ought” centered reasoning. Which of the two is more, hmm, reasonable? Or, to put the question in a more pragmatical way: Which of the two kinds of reasoning will more probably lead to a good life?

    A related question I suppose is this: Is there any meaning to “truth” beyond what will more probably lead to a good life?

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

    There are many things in Dianelos Georgoudis' thoughtful comments that deserve an equally thoughtful response, but I'll focus on just one short passage:

    "Keith Parsons said: “ The absolutist cannot accept that ethics can rest upon merely hypothetical imperatives that say ‘If you want this, then do that.’”

    I can’t accept it either, for propositions in this form belong to engineering rather than to ethics."

    Precisely! For the ethical naturalist, ethics is a sort of engineering, the art of finding the best means to achieve a desired end–human flourishing in this case. Owen Flanagan calls ethics "human ecology," but I think "engineering" is a better term. Larry Arnhart in his remarkable book Darwinian Natural Right notes that certain values are universal among human cultures–found in large societies and small, in the arctic and on the equator, and in ancient times and modern. In this case, ethics is a matter of engineering, how do we dispose our laws, customs, and personal behavior to maximize those goods in society? Clearly, some societies are better at actualizing these values than others. So, cultural relativism is wrong. Some societies are objectively better than others because they do an objectively better job of actualizing those thngs that humans do value.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06803272307118921767 Sleeprunning

    …heck this all seems like self-referential gobblygook 2 me…here's how i understand it…its brain energy conservation…our minds must have frames to process the world…simple frames work best because they demand the least energy…many brains cannot process complexity well, i.e, w/ less energy….accident of birth/genes NOT choice…fear is primary function/trigger of brain…ergo religion/supernatural…'logic' of supernatural is post hoc…like most conscious/verbal processing…who's construct to save brain energy is then right/wrong?…supernatural beliefs 'work' then…can't fight thermodynamics….


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