Perceiving Moral Truths?

Dianelos Georgoudis has put forward a theistic view of ethics and moral reasoning in his comments on “A Question of authority”, a recent post by Taner Edis. Given the intriguing combination of ethics and philosophy of religion involved here, I was unable to resist engaging Dianelos in a discussion of his views.

Although I am skeptical about the views he expresses, I envy him for having a theory of ethics and moral reasoning, when all I have are a motley collection of thoughts, hunches, observations, and inclinations on these topics. Perhaps this dialogue will help me to develop my own theory or viewpoint on the nature of ethics and moral reasoning.

As I understand it, Dianelos takes the position that the potential of an infinite regress in moral reasoning can be avoided through the use of ultimate premises that are known to be true by direct perception. This is analogous to the idea that the potential of an infinite regress in theoretical reasoning can be avoided through the use of ultimate premises that are know to be true by direct perception (e.g. an observation statement, such as: “The litmus paper turned blue.”). Furthermore, and this point is a bit more fuzzy and unclear in my mind, the direct perceptions that ground these ultimate moral premises are (in some way, shape, or form) perceptions of God or of God’s nature.

Here is one of the recent exchanges on this topic:
Bradley said:
“If what is being perceived is a fact about the nature of God, then wouldn’t the proposition that represents this perception be something like: “God’s nature is X” or “One aspect of God’s nature is X.”? ”
Dianelos responded:
“Yes, indeed. And that’s what moral propositions refer to, namely to the moral nature of God. So, for example, the proposition “you should not return evil” refers to an aspect of God’s moral character, namely that God does not return evil.”

The focus is on an example of a moral proposition:

1. You should not return evil.
Given that the discussion is about moral judgments or propositions, we can clarify (1) to make this explicit. Statement (1) has basically the same meaning as the following statement:

2. If you return evil, then you have performed an action that is morally wrong.
I believe the pronoun “you” here is intended to be understood as a plural pronoun (similar to the southern expression “you all” or “y’all”). If so, then proposition 2 can be further clarified:

3. If anyone returns evil, then that person has performed an action that is morally wrong.

Although proposition 3 has the form of a conditional statement, I think it should be analyzed in terms of a universal generalization. If so, then statement 3 can be restated as follows:

4. For any x and any y, if x is a person and y is an action performed by x and x’s performing y constitutes returning evil, then x’s performing of y is morally wrong.

It seems implausible to me that such a universal generalization can be known on the basis of direct perception.

It still seems to me that any direct perception of the truth of proposition (4) would (if possible) be a perception of a set of actions and the characteristics of the actions in that collection. Furthermore, it will be a set of actions performed by persons.
If God is not a person, then the direct perception of the truth of (4) would not involve a direct perception of God. If God is a person, then the direct perception of the truth of (4) would include perception of God, but would also include direct perception of other persons.

If there are some actions that are morally permissible for God, but not for human persons, then a universal proposition having a form similar to (4) about such actions being morally wrong would be a false proposition, because although one might directly perceive that such an action would be morally wrong for human persons, one could not directly perceive that God’s performance of such an action would be morally wrong (unless direct perceptions can be mistaken).

I think the idea that there are some actions that are morally permissible for God but not for human persons is a coherent and even plausible idea. So, this provides support for my view that there is a problem with directly perceiving proposition (4) to be true. Multiple perceptions are required, and all of the relevant perceptions must be in line with the universal generalization. Otherwise, how could potential counterexamples to the generalization be precluded?

Furthermore, it seems to me that Dianelos is actually engaging in moral reasoning here, and not just in direct perception:

5. God does not return evil. (directly perceived ultimate premise).
Therefore,
1. You should not return evil. (moral proposition inferred from an ultimate premise).

But this moral reasoning is defective and falls prey to the IS/OUGHT gap, or something similar to the IS/OUGHT gap. If proposition (5) is a purely descriptive claim (if we can analyze “God” and “return evil” in some purely descriptive way), then Dianelos needs to add a normative principle to make the moral reasoning work:

5. God does not return evil.
A. Any type of action that God never does is a type of action that it would be morally wrong for a human person to do.
Therefore,
1. You should not return evil (i.e. it is morally wrong for a human person to return evil).

Making the normative assumption explicit also reveals a problem with the ultimate starting point of this bit of moral reasoning. There are lots of things that God does not do, and only some of those things are avoided by God for moral reasons. For example, God does not get married (according to Christian theology).

6. God does not get married.
A. Any type of action that God never does is a type of action that it would be morally wrong for a human person to do.
Therefore,
2. You should not get married (i.e. it is morally wrong for a human person to get married).

My reconstruction of what I take to be the moral reasoning implicit in Dianelos’ comments, suggests a different interpretation of the ultimate starting point of this bit of moral reasoning. It is not an accident that God does not return evil, nor is this a byproduct of something specific and peculiar to God’s nature. God does not return evil presumably because God believes it would be morally wrong to return evil. This insight allows us to reformulate the moral reasoning, (to eliminate the defect discovered when we made an unstated assumption in the moral reasoning explicit):

7. God believes the proposition that returning evil is morally wrong for any person.
B. For any proposition P, if God believes P, then P is true.
Therefore,
1. You should not return evil (i.e. it is morally wrong for a human person to return evil).

What is Faith - Part 6
Eternal Accountability
Naturalism, Theism, and Moral Ontology: A Reply to William Lane Craig
Geisler & Turek Rebuttal: Chapter 9 (Part 2)
About Bradley Bowen

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