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).

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    Interesting post, Bradley. I would say that you've been quite correct in your critique of Dianelos's position. (I've just read the earlier thread that you referred to.) It seems to me that Dianelos is engaging in special pleading. He expects the atheist to provide a logical basis for his moral claims, but exempts the theist from doing likewise. The view that you've described above–that we can learn moral truths by some sort of direct perception–is not unique to theists. I believe some atheist moral philosophers take this view too.

    I would say that the more fundamental question is not the epistemological question of how we can know the moral facts, but the ontological question of whether there are even any moral facts to know. What does it even mean for something to be immoral? What is this property of being immoral? We have a strong intuitive feeling that such a property exists. But no one can explain what it could possibly be. Moral claims appear deeply mysterious, given that they are fundamentally different from other claims (they are normative, not just descriptive), they can't be derived from other facts (you can't get an "ought" from an "is"), and that no one can explain what they mean. Moreover, positing the existence of moral properties is not needed to explain any observations. So on the basis of parsimony we should reject the unnecessary and deeply mysterious claim that such properties exist.

    In the earlier thread you wrote:
    "As far as I can see, neither theism nor naturalism provides clear insight into the nature of morality or ethical judgments. Additional moral theories are required by both metaphysical systems, and nobody has a really good moral theory."

    I would say that moral anti-realism–the view that there are no objective moral properties–is a perfectly good moral theory. If there are no objective moral properties, then the only thing that needs explaining is our intuition that such properties exist. But I think that's explicable as a psychological disposition, plausibly arising from evolution and social conditioning.

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

    P.S.

    It might be logically impossible for God to "return evil" in the same way in which it is logically impossible for God to create a four-sided triangle, in which case the ultimate premise of Dianelos' bit of moral reasoning would be a truth of logic, not a moral truth.

    If we understand "return evil" to involve taking action against someone who has harmed oneself, then it would be logically impossible for God to return evil, assuming that it is logically impossible for God to be harmed.

    If God is changeless by definition or by logical entailment from the necessary conditions for being God, then it is logically impossible to harm God, because harming a person (it would seem) requires that one cause a change to that person's well-being or happiness or health, etc.

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

    Bradley,

    My intent in the previous posts was mainly to show that on theism the “ought” is entailed in the “is”, because what is fundamental in reality is not a mechanism but a person, personhood entails moral character, and ethical propositions refer to properties of moral character. Therefore on theism moral propositions refer to ontological facts and are objective, exactly as our intuition has it. Now I suppose it may be difficult to mentally interiorize the view that reality is at bottom personal and not a collection of objects; that reality is basically qualitative and not quantitative. This mental picture is difficult to apprehend, for atheists and theists alike, I might add. Theists, for example, often conceptualize God as a person *within* reality, and not as the person who *is* reality, in the sense that there is nothing in reality that is not either God or a manifestation of God. Perhaps a way to yank one’s mind into the right direction is to consider that Pontius Pilate’s question “What is truth?” is ultimately meaningless; the right question would be “Who is truth?”

    So the first fundamental theistic claim is that God is the nature of reality. The second fundamental theistic claim refers to the nature of each one of us, namely that we are made in the image of God – in the way that an architectural plan is the image of the house to be built, or an apple seed is the image of an apple tree. The key point here is that the image is meant to be realized in actuality. This is accepted by all Christian traditions, but most explicitly in the Eastern Orthodox one, where the purpose of our life is “theosis”, i.e. for us to become as morally perfect as our Father in heaven is (see Matthew 5:48). What this view entails is that what we do in life, both in action, and in thought, and in willful disposition, has a transformative effect on us, an effect that can bring us closer to God by perfecting our nature, or else to keep us distant from God. For, again, on theism we are spiritual beings made as to be transformed from an image to a likeness of God. A basic fact of our condition, albeit one not often discussed, is that the quality of how we are, as well as the quality of our experience of life, are not a static given, but are dynamic. So the answer to the question “Why should one be moral?” can also be “Because that’s the natural way we are built to grow.”

    Ethical truths then do not just refer to the nature of God, which is the end-point of the journey as it were, but also to the path that brings each one of us there. And as we are all different in the way we are and in the conditions we face in life, there are as many paths towards God as there are people. And this explains why it has proven impossible to devise a theory of ethics: what one should do is not just a function of the external conditions, but also a function of how one is. In ethics there may be universal general principles, but no universal precise formulas. To use the analogy of the apple seed: In order to grow well an apple seed needs water and sunlight, but there may be states of affairs where it is best not to water it, or perhaps to move it away from the sunlight. Another analogy I often use is that of a mountain one is climbing in order to reach the summit: Which the way is one *ought* to follow depends on where exactly one stands. The general but not always applicable principle is to walk uphill, but for person X the right way may be to move north, and for the person Y the right way may be to move east. (The analogy of the mountain is useful on a different level too: As anybody who has done any climbing knows, how the summit looks like depends on where one stands, and sometimes completely disappears from view.) Ethical knowledge then is not a matter of applying some formula, but something one discovers by ultimately engaging with the moral fabric of reality (in some of the several ways I described in a previous post).

    After hopefully having spelled out the big picture, in the next post I proceed to comment on some of the issues you raise.

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

    Bradley:

    You write: “ God does not return evil. (directly perceived ultimate premise).

    What one actually perceives is not a pattern in God’s actions, but rather God’s moral character. God’s moral character is part of the very fabric of reality, and we perceive it through what one may call our “sense of the divine”. Incidentally, the acuity of this sense is by far not as good as the acuity of the five physical senses on which perception the natural sciences depend. Indeed, we are born with a sense of the divine which is severely shortsighted, so much so that many people doubt it is actually there (that’s what John Hick called the “epistemic distance” to God). But all major religions teach that there are ways to improve that acuity and “see clearer”. And one way all of them propose is that of purification (So, in Christinity we read that “the pure in heart shall see God”, Matthew 5:8).

    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.

    No. The action is contingent on the moral character, not the other way around. So, it’s not that an action is good because God does it, and evil because God doesn’t do it. Rather: An action is good in that it manifests God’s character, and evil in that it contradicts it. Or more specifically: An action is good to the degree it transforms one’s character to resemble God’s.

    God believes the proposition that returning evil is morally wrong for any person.

    Two comments:

    First, similarly as before, moral truths (and hence God’s moral beliefs) are contingent on God’s moral character, and not the other way around. So it’s not like God does not do some evil thing, because S/He believes it is evil. Also, it is not like God has any doubts, or must reason about ethics, or makes any kind of effort to know or do what is right. Rather, the ethics of God’s actions are a direct manifestation of God’s character. Where God’s freedom comes in is in the creative aspects of God’s actions, not in their ethical aspect.

    Secondly, ethical precepts do not apply to all persons, for there are no universal formulas [1]. I can’t think of any example right now, but there may be state of affairs (external and internal) such that it is good for a human being to return evil. But, as is easy to see, the closer one’s character is to God’s the more universal one’s ethics becomes.

    It might be logically impossible for God to "return evil" in the same way in which it is logically impossible for God to create a four-sided triangle, in which case the ultimate premise of Dianelos' bit of moral reasoning would be a truth of logic, not a moral truth.

    Well, I certainly think it is impossible (and hence logically impossible) for God to do evil, but this is not a truth of logic simpliciter, but is rather a truth of logic applied to the ontology of God. The converse though does not obtain: Among all ethical actions open to Him/Her, God freely and creatively chooses what to do.

    If we understand "return evil" to involve taking action against someone who has harmed oneself, then it would be logically impossible for God to return evil, assuming that it is logically impossible for God to be harmed.

    I personally think that God can be harmed; this is particularly clear on the Christian dogma of incarnation. And in any case I wonder whether to return evil always entails being harmed; arguably a judge who sentences a person to prison returns evil without herself having been harmed. In any case I used the precept “you should not return evil” as a mere example; I could have used another one, such as “you should love unconditionally”.

    [1] A nice illustration can be found in the Gospels: I have always sympathized with Judas' opinion that Mary Magdalene should not waste the precious stuff to wash Jesus' feet, but should rather sell it to help the poor. What Judas did not see is that what is good for him need not necessarily be good for her.

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

    A bit more on my P.S.:

    (1) God never returns evil.

    This not a logical or necessary truth if it implies that God exists (I believe that "God exists" is a contingent proposition, assuming it is a proposition).

    However, one might argue for an interpretation of this statement which does not imply that God exists.

    A young boy says, "Superman rescues people from danger."
    His father responds saying, "Superman never rescues me from danger."

    I'm inclined to say that the father's comment makes a true statement.

    It is true that Superman has never rescued him from danger in the past,and it is true that Superman will never rescue him from danger today or at any time in the future, because there is no Superman.

    For "Superman never rescues me from danger" to be a true statement, it must be interpreted to mean something like this:

    (2) Whenever someone rescues me from danger, it is never the case that the rescuer is Superman.

    If "is Superman" is cashed out in terms of a definite description (faster than a bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, etc), then this is just a claim about the observable characteristics of the people who rescue "me" (the person making the assertion).

    So if (1) does not imply the existence of God, it would mean something like this:

    (3) Whenever anyone returns evil it is never the case that the person who does so is God (i.e. is an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good person).

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

    RichardW said:

    "I would say that the more fundamental question is not the epistemological question of how we can know the moral facts, but the ontological question of whether there are even any moral facts to know. What does it even mean for something to be immoral?"

    ==========
    Response:

    The question of moral realism vs. anti-realism does seem to be a more fundamental one. However, I'm not clear on the ontology vs. epistemology distinction here. Maybe you can help me.

    There are moral facts if and only if there are moral propositions and some of those propositions are true.

    I suppose it could be the case that there were moral propositions but we humans have no way of determining whether they are true or false (there is a question of the relationship between verifiability and meaningfulness).

    In any case, the question "Are there any true moral propositions?" seems more of a question in epistemology and logic than in ontology. I guess it could be a question in both areas.

    When we say "The cat is on the mat" this claim, if true, seems to be true because it represents a state of affairs in which one entity (a cat) has a certain spacial relationship (X is on Y) to another entity (a mat). Thus, the truth of this proposition is grounded in ontology. If there are no cats, or no mats, then the proposition cannot be true.

    The spacial relation (X is on Y) seems a bit mysterious, but we know how to verify whether the relation holds, so the idea of truth finds a firm foothold here.

    The truth of descriptive statements or propositions depends on what exists. Must the truth of a moral proposition be similarly grounded in ontology, in questions about what entities exist or don't exist?

    Is the only way for a moral statement to be objectively true that the statement represents or describes some state of affairs? It seems to me that if some moral statements or propositions are true it must be for some other reason than this. They have to be something more than or other than descriptive claims.

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

    Dianelos said:

    You write: “ God does not return evil. (directly perceived ultimate premise). ”

    What one actually perceives is not a pattern in God’s actions, but rather God’s moral character. God’s moral character is part of the very fabric of reality, and we perceive it through what one may call our “sense of the divine”.

    ==================

    Response:

    If what one directly perceives is “not a pattern in God’s actions” then one does NOT directly perceive that “God does not return evil”.

    Consider the following similar statements:

    1.Bradley does not return library books.
    2.Susan does not keep her room tidy.
    3.Mark does not give to charities.

    These claims are all about “patterns” in somebody’s actions, so it seems that the statement “God does not return evil” would also be a statement about a pattern in God’s actions.

    Let’s consider a similar statement that one might be likely to interpret as implying more than just a pattern in a person’s actions:

    4.Jack does not tell lies.

    Is this a statement about Jack’s moral character? There does seem to be the suggestion here that Jack is a sincere and honest guy. But I think it reads too much into the statement, to take this as a logical implication of (4).

    Jack might not tell lies because Jack is incapable of distinguishing fact from fantasy, due to mental illness. Jack, in other words, might not have the mental capacity required to tell lies.

    Jack might be in a coma and thus not be in a position to communicate any claims, either true or false.

    Jack might be cognizant of his immediate surroundings and be able to distinguish fact from fantasy concerning what is going on in his immediate surroundings, while being unable to consciously move any part of his body, and thus Jack might be physically incapable of communicating claims to other human persons.

    I believe that (4) would be true in these various circumstances that I have described, but it would not necessarily follow that Jack was a sincere and honest guy. There just might be physical or mental obstacles preventing him from being able to tell lies.

    That was part of the point of the statement “God does not get married”. There are patterns in God’s behavior that are NOT the result of God’s moral beliefs or of God’s moral character.

    If the ultimate premises of moral reasoning are grounded in direct perceptions of God’s moral character, then those direct perceptions are not just about patterns in God’s actions.

    So, since “God does not return evil” is a statement that is just about a pattern in God’s actions, it cannot be an ultimate premise of moral reasoning, based on your view of the nature of ethics and moral reasoning.

    But you can fix the example you gave by reformulating the statement so that it makes a claim about God’s moral character.

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

    Perhaps I can start to answer my own question about ontology vs. epistemology in ethics.

    Relativists sometimes say "What is true for me is not true for you." So, relativism and subjectivism don't necessarily deny that there are "true statements". Instead, the whole idea of truth is reconceived, so that it ceases to imply objectivity or universality.

    Realism, by contrast, insists that truth be conceived of in terms of objectivity and universality. If a statement is true, that means it is true for everyone and for all time, not just for some people or from one point of view or for one culture or for one historical era.

    One can make statements that have a scope limited to just one culture or one historical era or even to just one person, but such statement, if true, are true for all people and all time and for all points of view.

    So, my assertion that "There are moral facts if an only if there are true moral propositions" is problematic because the concept of truth is part of what is at issue between realism and subjetivism and relativism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    Hi Bradley,

    >In any case, the question "Are there any true moral propositions?" seems more of a question in epistemology and logic than in ontology. I guess it could be a question in both areas.<

    It was probably a mistake for me to use the word "ontological". I just wanted a word to distinguish the moral realism/anti-realism question from the question of how we could know the objective moral facts if moral realism is true, and I couldn't think of a more suitable word.

    >Relativists sometimes say "What is true for me is not true for you." So, relativism and subjectivism don't necessarily deny that there are "true statements". Instead, the whole idea of truth is reconceived, so that it ceases to imply objectivity or universality.<

    I tend to ignore that position because I've never come across anyone who espouses it. I suspect it's pretty rare. (I've read work by Stephen Finlay, who espouses a form of relativism that doesn't reconceive the idea of truth, as far as I can tell.)

    Anyway, we can consider the moral realism/anti-realism question without considering every form of anti-realism. Moral anti-realism (as a category) is just the rejection of moral realism. Still, I made a comparative argument for moral anti-realism above, so I should have made it clear that I was basing that on a form of anti-realism that doesn't reconceive the idea of truth. To be more specific, my position is primarily error theory with a big dose of non-cognitivism thrown in. (I think that moral claims convey both cognitive and non-cognitive meanings.)

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

    Bradley,

    It is interesting to compare one’s relationship with other people with one’s relationship with God. Nevertheless I would suggest that as a general principle it is wrong to anthropomorphize God. God, like us, is a person, but 1) this only implies that language in personal terms can be used when speaking about God, 2) God is not a person of the kind we are, so it’s not like any broad truths about us necessarily apply to God or vice-versa, and 3) God is not just a person and therefore has both personal and non-personal attributes.

    You describe several cases of how our observation of patterns of actions by other people around us allows us to deduce some truths about their moral character, but, as you point out, this is sometimes difficult to do because we often miss relevant information about other people [1]. Now, do we similarly perceive patterns in God’s actions, and are we thus to some degree able to deduce truths about God’s moral character? Perhaps, but my point was that in the case of God we can also directly perceive His/Her character, which is epistemically a much more dependable method. Can we similarly directly perceive the moral character of people around us? I think that to some extent we can, and that is what makes trusting other people rational. After all, “trust”, by definition, is belief about another person’s character above and beyond the evidence we have from their actions.

    Now “to directly perceive God’s moral character” may sound like a very special thing, and if the mystic’s claim of experiencing God in ways that are more real than the experience of the universe is true then it may be so sometimes. But directly experiencing God’s moral character is also a very mundane thing which we do every day of our lives. How? By considering our own moral character and realizing the image in which it is built, in other words realizing where it points at, the direction in which it is meant to evolve. Or by considering how our actions have transformed our moral character. That’s where the theist and atheist alike ground their moral reasoning and just know that, say, to use others as a means, or to return evil, or, it goes without saying, to torture children for fun, are objectively wrong [2]. (So, by really knowing oneself one can then come to know God; that’s why I think that humanism is not only compatible with theism but is implied by it.)

    The point to keep in mind is that in theistic meta-ethics ethical propositions refer to properties of God’s moral character, and only indirectly and in a relative manner to a property of a particular action. So, in the context of the action of a particular person in a particular state of affairs, the truth value of an ethical proposition about that action depends on the relationship between the current state of this particular person’s moral character and God’s. Or, to put it in other words, the truth value of an ethical proposition about a person’s action depends on where this person stands in relation to God, and that dependence consists in how this action will impact this person’s moral character: the action is good iff it makes this person’s moral character more similar to God’s [3]. That’s how, for example, to use some expensive stuff to wash Jesus’s feet may be a good action if done by Mary Magdalene but an evil action if done by Judas Iscariot. In conclusion: Even though there exists an interdependence between moral character an action, for both affect each other, value resides in the state of moral character and hence moral propositions refer to properties of moral character, and only indirectly to properties of actions.

    For space reasons notes [1]-[3] are in the next post.

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

    [1] You mention the extreme case when the other person suffers from mental illness, but other much more mundane factors play a role, such as to know how the other person feels about something. So, for example, the other person’s sense of patriotism is a relevant factor when considering what his actions in war tell us about his character. I tend to think that to deduce truths about another person’s moral character just by observing his actions is a risky proposition. Even riskier it is to try to deduce another person’s moral beliefs just by observing his actions, for it is typically the case that we contrary to our moral beliefs. So to “judge others” is not only morally questionable, but also epistemically.

    [2] What I am saying then is that atheists too perceive God’s moral character, without being aware of it. Such is very common by the way. So, for example, somebody who perceives the colors shimmering in a soap bubble, perceives the wave nature of light without often realizing it.

    [3] The moral value of an action then does not reside in the action itself understood as an impact to its physical environment, but in the way it transforms the actor’s character. I think the right sense to understand the often misleading theistic dictum “one is not saved by one’s actions” is that one’s salvation is measured by the state of one’s moral character and not by what one’s actions have been. Example: If one has helped the poor in order to impress others, or in order to win any kind of reward including heavenly reward, then such nominally or externally good actions do not perfect one’s moral character and thus do not bring one closer to God (which is what “salvation” means).

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

    Dianelos said:

    …the truth value of an ethical proposition about a person’s action depends on where this person stands in relation to God, and that dependence consists in how this action will impact this person’s moral character: the action is good iff it makes this person’s moral character more similar to God’s…
    ==================
    Response:

    This looks like a theory of ethics, a general analysis of what makes an action a morally good action.

    So this would be the unexpressed normative premise of your moral reasoning that is at (or near) the ultimate starting point of moral reasoning, in your view of ethics.

    Here is an example of moral reasoning that fits your theory:

    1. God is kind and loving (directly perceived truth about God's moral character)
    2. An action is morally good if and only if it makes the moral character of the person performing the action more like God's character (fundamental normative assumption).
    3. Giving generously to the poor and hungry people of the world would make my moral character more kind and loving.
    Thus,
    4. Giving generously to the poor and hungry people of the world would make my moral character more like God's (inference from 1 and 3).
    Thus,
    5. Giving generously to the poor and hungry people of the world would be a morally good action for me to perform. (inference from 2 and 4).

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

    Note: I have been reading Richard Swinburne's book The Coherence of Theism, and just finished the chapter where he defends Objectivism in ethics. So, I have some basic distinctions and arguments fresh in mind that might help advance this discussion.

    By the way, this book could also serve as a good introduction to modern analytic philosophy, because Swinburne covers several key issues: analytic vs. synthetic, logical positivism, scientific explanation vs. personal explanation, theories of meaning of religious claims, personal identity, wittgensteinian fideism, objectivism in ethics, and more.

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

    My example of moral reasoning as suggested by Dianelos view of God-based morality involved three premises:

    1. God is kind and loving (directly perceived truth about God's moral character)
    2. An action is morally good if and only if it makes the moral character of the person performing the action more like God's character (fundamental normative assumption).
    3. Giving generously to the poor and hungry people of the world would make my moral character more kind and loving.

    QUESTION: How is premise (2) known? It seems implausible to me that a theory of ethics would be known to be true by direct perception (although, as Dianelos pointed out previously, confirming and disconfirming examples might be grounded in some sort of moral intuition or "direct perception").

    COMMENT: Premise (2) is problematic as it stands, because it includes the word "moral". This is important because humans are not supposed to try to be like God in all respects, only in terms of moral character. But then there seems to be some circularity or question begging, since "morally good" is being defined in terms of "moral character". Good definitions should avoid re-iteration of key terms that are being defined.

    COMMENT: If this is a good example of moral reasoning on Dianelos view of ethics, then the role of premise (2) seems to confirm my point that Dianelos would not be able to avoid assuming a normative premise in moral reasoning, even if some premise about God's actions or character could be known by means of direct perception.

    COMMENT: Premise (3) appears to be an empirical causal claim, and one that could not be known on the basis of direct perception. So, the conclusion of this bit of moral reasoning would have the uncertainty that any such empirical causal claims involves, not to mention that this is a claim in the area of developmental psychology, not exactly the firmest scientific area of knowledge.

    COMMENT: This ethical theory appears to be a consequentialist theory, and thus to suffer from all the issues associated with such theories. One case to consider: Suppose that by taking a certain course of action A, I would cause my moral character to become less like God's, but also cause the moral character of my wife and daughters to become much more like God's moral character? If maximizing closeness of human moral character to God's moral character is the goal, shouldn't I then choose to sacrifice development of one person's moral character (my own) for the sake of the development of moral character for a number of people (my wife, youngest daughter, and oldest daughter)? But that would be contrary to the principle put forth by Dianelos.

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

    Bradley:

    You write: “ But then there seems to be some circularity or question begging, since "morally good" is being defined in terms of "moral character"

    In theism, as in any ontology in which moral realism fits, moral facts are ultimately seen to be ontological facts, and there is no gap between the normative “ought” and the descriptive “is”. Thus my claim that moral facts refer to God’s nature (i.e. to how God *is*), and specifically to an aspect of personal nature we call “moral character”, does not entail any circularity. Incidentally, that claim is not particular to me. In the last edition of Philo there is an essay by Matthew C. Jordan titled “Theistic Ethics: Not as Bad as You Think”. There one finds the phrase “[Fundamental moral facts] are constituted by facts about God’s own character, and God’s character is essential to him being who he is.” The claim that morality is rooted in God’s nature is a natural one, and perhaps unavoidable, within theistic metaethics.

    How is premise (2) known?”.

    Well, that premise is an axiom within the metaethical theory I suggest. How does one know the truth value of axioms in math, in science, in politics, or in marriage for that matter? By the pragmatical success of their application. So, I claim, the application of this axiom in one’s metaethics results in a conceptually robust theory, and ultimately in a successful moral life. Not to mention that it is supported by one of the most striking passages in the moral teaching of the Gospels, namely Matthew 5:48.

    Premise (3) appears to be an empirical causal claim, and one that could not be known on the basis of direct perception.

    There may be some semantic difference here in the way we use words. For me an empirical causal claim can, by definition, be known by direct perception. Further you write “So, the conclusion of this bit of moral reasoning would have the uncertainty that any such empirical causal claims involves, not to mention that this is a claim in the area of developmental psychology, not exactly the firmest scientific area of knowledge.” I am not sure what uncertainty it is that any empirical causal claim involves. For example I don’t see any uncertainty in the claim “when I prick my arm with a needle it hurts”. I agree that premise (3) is a claim in developmental psychology (and it is interesting to realize that on theism all knowledge is ultimately psychological). On the other hand I doubt that psychology (outside of behaviorism) can be considered a proper field of the natural sciences, because one cannot even define consciousness in the terminology of the natural sciences, so the study of our conscious life can hardly be done with its tools. One way or the other, premise (3) can be checked in our own life in the real world.

    Finally, let us investigate the important metaethical question of why God desires us to act in morally good ways (and “commands” us to do so). This question, as per premise (2), is equivalent to the question of why God desires our character to become more like God’s. The answer is obvious: God’s perfect love only desires the best for us, and the best for us is to become similar to how God is. Why? Because how God is, as per the foundational theistic premise, instantiates the greatest value there is. Also, consider that “becoming how God is by one’s own free will” has more value and is hence better for us than “being made similar to how God is”. Why? Trivially, because the former is more meritorious than the latter.[1]. God, then, desires us to do good for our own sake. Finally, what is it that most characterizes God’s character? God’s love, which is unconditional, universal, and self-transcending, indeed self-sacrificing; the kind of love that was made visible in God’s incarnation in Christ. And that’s why the greatest “commandment” is to love as God loves.

    [1] This insight, incidentally, goes a long way resolving the problem of evil within Irenaean theodicy

    [continued in the next post]

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

    Bradley, you write:

    This ethical theory appears to be a consequentialist theory, and thus to suffer from all the issues associated with such theories. One case to consider: Suppose that by taking a certain course of action A, I would cause my moral character to become less like God's, but also cause the moral character of my wife and daughters to become much more like God's moral character?

    This is a good question. Well, in my own life experience it has never been even nearly the case that an action which improves my character would cause the character of those around me to worsen. Indeed the often mentioned dictum about the “power of personal example” appears to point to this being a general fact of reality.

    Now, to be precise, the causal link that theistic metaethics entails is a causal link between one’s own acts and the evolution of one’s own character. It is not claimed that there is a similar causal link between one’s acts and other peoples’ character. The way I think that best describes the moral dimension of our life as far as the interaction with other people goes, is as follows: One’s morally good actions tend to inspire or strengthen other peoples’ resolve to respond in a similar way. And, conversely, one’s morally evil actions tend to inspire other people to respond in kind. Whether other people will respond in a way that morally resembles one’s own is though a matter in which their freedom of will plays the defining role. To put it plainly: One’s freedom ends at one’s fingertips, so each one of us is only responsible for one’s own actions and hence for one’s own character. On the other hand, God, in His/Her wisdom, created the world in such a way that how each one of us acts will tend to affect, for good if good or for evil if evil, those around us too. It’s like God saying that in our path towards perfection we are all together.

    So far, so good. A possible objection to the above is that the description I give about the moral dimension of our life does not in fact comport with reality. Some may argue that in their experience to act humbly inspires aggression [1]. Or that unconditional love is a fool’s play. I have even heard (not only from atheists such as Hitchens, but also from a priest teaching from the pulpit in church) that a literal understanding of Christ’s commandment that we should not return evil is actually an evil precept, because it will be exploited by evil people to do even more harm.

    So perhaps, my defense above will not be convincing to everybody. Ultimately then, it is up for each of us to decide how it is, based on one’s own experience. Theism has clear implications on the structure of the moral dimension of the human experience, and in my own life I do see that kind of moral dimension realized, which in turn greatly strengthens my belief that theism is true.

    [1] This, incidentally, is not the case in the animal kingdom – I read this in some of Richard Dawkins’s good books – so it can hardly be the case in human interactions.

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

    Dianelos said:

    Thus my claim that moral facts refer to God’s nature (i.e. to how God *is*), and specifically to an aspect of personal nature we call “moral character”, does not entail any circularity.
    =======

    Response:

    I think you misunderstood my point.

    My comment about circularity was not intended as a direct objection to your view that morality is ultimately grounded in God's nature.

    My comment was about premise (2) in my proposed example of moral reasoning (an attempt to clarify your view of ethics and moral reasoning by means of a specific example of such reasoning):

    2. An action is morally good if and only if it makes the moral character of the person performing the action more like God's character.

    This looks like a definition or analysis of "morally good", and one criterion for a good definition is that it should avoid circularity, that is to say, using the word being defined (or closely related words) in the definition of that word.

    A circular definition can still be correct or true, it just might not be particularly informative, helpful, or useful.

    So, my comment about circularity, even if correct, does not show that (2) is false or questionable. At most, it shows that (2) is not very informative or useful as it stands.

    However, I suspect that if one attempted to clarify or fix (2) to avoid using the word "moral" in the definition, that the revised definitions would fail to get at what you intended. I suspect, that the word "moral" is going to be very difficult to replace without using some equally problematic synonym or closely related concept.

    There might be some epistemic circularity involved here, in trying to use the definition.

    If I have to be able to first distinguish between "moral" aspects of a person's character and other non-moral aspects of a person's character in order to determine which actions would be morally good for me to perform, it might be the case that the ability to distinguish between "moral" and "non-moral" aspects of a person's character is sufficient in itself to allow me to distinguish between morally good actions and actions that are not morally good, without having to make any direct observations of God's character.

    The worst-case scenario would be that in order to be able to distinguish "moral" from "non-moral" aspects of a person's character, I have to first be able to distinguish between actions that are "morally good" and actions that are not.

    In that case, I would be chasing my own epistemic tail.

    I suppose the analysis of "morally good" might still be correct or true, but it would presumably be useless for playing a role in cogent moral reasoning, if the distinction between "moral" and "non-moral" aspects of character was based on a logically prior distinction between "morally good" actions and actions that were not morally good.

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

    Bradley,

    I’d say that a circular definition, even though not false per se, is a useless and hence a wrong definition. Premise (2) though clearly defines what is it that makes an action morally good, and is therefore a useful and hence non-circular definition, notwithstanding the fact that the word “moral” appears both in the definiendum and in the definiens (I just looked up these long words in wikipedia).

    Before explaining why, let me suggest a similar definition: “What makes a windowpane strong is its capacity to resist strong impacts.” This definition is not circular, because the word “strong” is used in differences senses.

    Let’s now go back to premise (2): “An action is morally good if and only if it makes the moral character of the person performing the action more like God's moral character.” As you say, this premise defines what a moral action is, i.e. defines what the moral property of an action is. Now the word “moral” in the definiens does not refer to a property of an action, but is simply part of the concept “moral character”. We all know first hand what this concept refers to, because we are all persons, and we know first hand how personhood entails a characteristic disposition or propensity to value some things and not others, to wish some things and not others, and to act in some ways and not in others. It is this characteristic disposition or propensity of persons which we call “moral character”. So premise (2) gives an effective (and Id’s say also kind of surprising) definition of the moral property of actions by using only concepts we all already understand, and hence is a good definition. It goes without saying that any robust metaethical theory must define what the moral property of actions is.

    Now your observation that one can distinguish between the “moral” and “non-moral” dimensions of a person’s character (e.g. the esthetic dimension, the dimension that refers to one’s power of will, the emotive dimension which disposes one to love in a particular way, the cognitive character or one’s disposition to think in certain ways, perhaps the creative dimension too, etc) made me realize that premise (2) can be improved, for as it stands it does not express well what I meant. In the theistic metaethics I propose what makes an action morally good is not just the way it transforms the actor’s specifically moral character to resemble God’s specifically moral character, but what makes the actor’s overall character to resemble God’s overall character. So, for example, a morally good action will make the actor’s sense of beauty become closer to God’s. So I’d like to suggest the following improved version of premise (2).

    (2*) An action is morally good if and only if it makes the overall character of the person performing the action more like God's overall character.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    Excuse me butting in here, but I think I can help clarify matters. You are both referring to the following as a "definition":

    2. An action is morally good if and only if it makes the moral character of the person performing the action more like God's character.

    In reality this is not a definition. A definition would tell us the meaning of the term "morally good". This statement is actually a claim (proposition) about what kind of things are morally good.

    Suppose I make the alternative assertion that "an action is morally good if it maximises the total desire satisfaction of the human race". We would all understand this to be a substantive disagreement between Dianelos and me, not just a semantic difference over the meanings of words.

    Unfortunately, this is a very commonly made error. Usually people are good at spotting the difference between a definition and a claim, because they have a clear idea of what the term means. But the meanings of moral terms are not at all clear. Much of the field of metaethics is concerned with establishing their meaning.

    (I'm setting aside the circularity issue here, as I think that can probably be resolved by a careful rewording of Dianelos's claim. Just eliminating the word "moral" might do.)

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

    Richard W said:

    2. An action is morally good if and only if it makes the moral character of the person performing the action more like God's character.

    In reality this is not a definition. A definition would tell us the meaning of the term "morally good". This statement is actually a claim (proposition) about what kind of things are morally good.
    ==============

    Interesting.

    There are various kinds of definitions.

    A stipulative or technical definition spells out how a word or phrase will be used in a particular (often scholarly) context. This sort of definition does not make a claim. Rather it is a self-imposed rule or norm. The speaker or author in effect promises to use the word or phrase in a specific way.

    A reportive definition does make a claim, an empirical claim about how a word or phrase is used by a certain group of people. When a linguist investigates a new language, part of what he/she does is construct reportive definitions for the words and expressions used in the new language based on gathering examples of how those words and phrases are used by the people who speak that language.

    There are also more normative types of definitions. Words can change meaning over time, and sometimes educated users of a language see a trend in how a word is being used and object to the trend and make efforts to halt the trend. So, there are "correct usage" definitions that are neither stipulative nor reportive, but are attempts to put a stop to a trend in usage (or in some cases to do the opposite and support such a newer use of a word or phrase).

    Correct-usage definitions, because of their normative character, can be controversial in a way that stipulative and reportive definitions are not. There is a normative "claim" being made with such definitions: this is the best way to use this word (or a better way than the undesirable alternative use).

    Then there is conceptual analysis or philosophical definitions. The emphasis here is on clarification of a concept, especially in terms of the logic of a concept. What are the key parts or aspects of the concept, and how do they fit and work together? What are paradigm cases of the concept? What are contrary cases? What are borderline cases? What are related and contrasting concepts?

    Because of the focus on logic and clarity, philosophical definitions go beyond reportive definitions and correct-usage definitions, and have a stronger normative aspect. The point is to get beyond the fuzzy and confused understanding of most people about a concept, so one can easily move from description of the logic of a concept as generally understood, to prescription of a clarified and improved logic for that concept.

    Perhaps (2) should be seen as filling in a logical analysis of "morally good" with more substantive content.

    A more abstract and generic analysis of "morally good" action might be less controversial, and closer to a conceptual analysis.

    Premise (2) could be seen as based on, for example, this definition:

    (D1) To say that an action A by a person P is "morally good" means that P's performing A will tend to make P a better person.

    There may be some serious problems with this definition, but it makes no reference to God or God's character, and so it is more plausible as an analysis of the concept of "morally good" that might be shared by atheists, agnostics, pantheists, and theists.

    So, premise (2) might presuppose such a definition, but fill in the general idea of "make P a better person" based on a theory or worldview that suggests a specific and controversial way of cashing out this particular element in the more generic conceptual analysis.

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

    RichardW,

    You are very welcome to butt in; three minds think better than two.

    I think the distinction you suggest between a definition and a claim exists, but is not really relevant, because every definition can also be interpreted as a claim, if one assumes that the meaning of all the concepts is already known. So, for example, statements of the form “X has the property P if and only if a particular claim about X is true” define P. But, if one assumes that the meaning of P is already known, then the same statement can be interpreted as a claim. So, for example, the statement “A person is an Olympian if and only if this person has competed at some Olympic Games” defines what “Olympian” means, doesn’t it? Of course, if one already knows the meaning of “Olympian” then one can also interpret this statement as a claim, indeed a true one precisely because it comports with the relevant concepts. One may find definitions that cannot easily be interpreted as claims, e.g. “A computer is intelligent if and only if it passes the Turing test”, but the reason for this difficulty is only that what “intelligent” means in the case of computers is not well known.

    Now, claims (or assertions, or propositions) are true or false, whereas definitions are good or bad. Definitions of commonly used concepts are good if and only if they comport with the way the relevant concepts are used by people. Here is an example of a bad definition: “A person is wise if and only if this person has an IQ of over 110”. We recognize that this is a bad definition because we can easily find counterexamples, namely people whose IQ is over 110 but whom nobody would call “wise”.

    Coming back to the issue of ethics, you suggest the following statement: “An action is morally good if it maximizes the total desire satisfaction of the human race”. As the meaning of moral terms is not well known, I will interpret this statement as a definition of what “moral goodness” in the case of actions means. I then recognize that this is a bad definition, because there are clear counterexamples: Nobody would say that secretly torturing small animals if one enjoys the experience is a morally good action, even though it does maximize the total desire satisfaction of the human race.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    Bradley, thanks for your reply. I appreciate your careful exposition of the different types of definition. Though the content was familiar to me, I'm unfamiliar with much of the terminology used by philosophers, and it will be useful to have those terms available.

    It must be a little tiresome for a philosopher to have a discussion with someone unfamiliar with the standard terminology, and who usually fails to express himself clearly at the first attempt. So I appreciate your patience! I would welcome your correction of any terminological errors I make.

    Let me take you through my thinking on this. I often see people refer to statements like the following one as "definitions":

    (S1) An action is morally good if it increases the total desire satisfaction of the human race.

    It's clear in such cases that the speaker is mistaking a moral claim for a definition. The context generally establishes that the speaker intends the term "morally good" to have it's familiar meaning, but this definition provides nothing like the familiar meaning. On the other hand, this is just the kind of statement that typically constitutes a fundamental moral claim (or moral calulus). When people make competing claims of this sort, they take themselves to be arguing over a substantive moral question, not a terminological question.

    If we take one of the speaker's more specific moral claims and make the substitution represented by the definition, we would not arrive at a proposition that conveys the speaker's intended meaning. For example, the speaker might say:

    (P1) Giving money to a charity is morally good, because doing so increases the total desire satisfaction of the human race.

    If we substitute we get:

    (P2) Giving money to a charity increases the total desire satisfaction of the human race, because doing so increases the total desire satisfaction of the human race.

    Clearly these propositions are not equivalent, since the "because" clause is explanatory in the first but not in the second. More importantly, with or without the "because" clause, the second would not be seen as a moral claim. It lacks the normative connotations that come with the use of a moral term, namely the prescriptivity and judgementalism.

    Anyone trying to define a moral term in a substitutional way (substituting one form of cognitive statement for another) is caught on the horns of a dilemma. If the definiens doesn't contain a moral term, you make the error I've just described. By reducing moral claims to matters of non-moral fact you deprive them of the very quality that distinguishes a moral claim from a non-moral one. If the definiens does contain a moral term, the definition is ultimately circular. (You can define one moral term by reference to another one, and that one by reference to another, but ultimately you're faced with the same dilemma.) …

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    … Now, returning to your discussion with Dianelos. Having looked back at a few previous posts, I see that it was you and not Dianelos who first used the word "definition" to describe his premise (2). Dianelos introduced it as an "ethical proposition" (which seems to correspond to my term "moral claim") and you seemed to go along with that at first, even asking how this premise could be known. It was only a little later that you called it a definition and argued it was a circular one. Since Dianelos never called it a definition until you put the idea in his mind, and since it would make a lousy definition, I think the charitable thing is to drop the idea of it being a definition, and take it as a moral claim, or premise. Perhaps the word "premise" is better, as it makes clear that it remains an unjustified assumption.

    I've also noticed that just before I suggested deleting the problematic word "moral" from this premise, Dianelos had already done so!

    (2*) An action is morally good if and only if it makes the overall character of the person performing the action more like God's overall character.

    Of course all this still leaves Dianelos with the problem of defining the term "morally good", as well as justifying his moral premise.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    Hi Dianelos,

    My reply to Bradley crossed with your last post. Though it was addressed to Bradley, I hope you'll read it too, as it addresses the question of distinguishing between moral claims and definitions of moral terms.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    In case my previous posts didn't succeed in clarifying the difference between moral claims and definitions, I've been thinking about how to explain it more clearly. I think this should help. Please read it carefully.

    First, a few definitions of terms I'll be using.
    (D1) A definition is a declaration of, or claim about, the meaning of a term.
    (D2) A substantive claim is a claim about something other than meaning.
    (D3) A moral claim is a substantive claim attributing (and/or denying) a moral property to an action or set of actions. (Moral properties can be attributed to things other than actions, but here I'll limit myself to actions.)

    Given the above, moral claims and definitions are disjoint. Nothing can be both a moral claim and a definition.

    Now consider some sentences:

    (S1) Giving money to charity is a morally good action.

    This is a moral claim. It attributes a moral property (the property of being morally good) to a set of actions.

    (S2) Taking money from a charity is not a morally good action.

    This is also a moral claim. It denies a moral property to a set of actions.

    (S3) An action is morally good if and only if it helps other people.

    This is the sort of sentence that people have been calling a definition. But, like (S1) and (S2), it just attributes and denies a moral property to sets of actions. By my definitions above this makes it a moral claim, not a definition. And I think if you consider carefully, you'll see this isn't because of anything tricky about my definitions. (S3) really is just doing the same sort of thing as (S1) and (S2), so is a sentence of the same general kind.

    The one thing that distinguishes (S3) from (S1) and (S2) is that it's exhaustive. (S1) and (S2) attribute or deny a moral property to a limited set of actions. (S3) exhaustively partitions the entire set of possible actions into those with the moral property and those without. But that's no reason to call it a definition. (S3) only tells us which actions are morally good and which aren't. It doesn't tell us what it means for an action to be morally good. It doesn't tell us why we're partitioning the set in this way.

    To clarify further, consider an analogous non-moral example.

    (S4) "Bouyant" means "floats in water".
    (S5) An object is bouyant if and only if it is less dense than water.

    You can see that (S5) takes the same grammatical form as (S3) but is very clearly a substantive claim and not a definition. The definition of bouyant was given in (S4). (S5) doesn't tell us the meaning of "bouyant"; it tells us the conditions under which an object is bouyant. An object is bouyant because it is less dense than water. (S5) is analogous to (S3): it exhaustively attributes or denies a property (bouyancy) to each object in the set of all objects. (S3) is not a definition for the same reasons (S5) is not a definition.

    (S6) An object is bouyant if and only if it floats in water.

    (S6) is an alternative way of writing the definition (S4), giving it the same grammatical form as (S3) and (S5). Note how alike (S5) and (S6) are. If you didn't already know the meaning of the word "bouyant" you wouldn't be able to tell which was the substantive claim and which was the definition. And that's why people often mistake moral claims for definitions of moral terms. In the case of moral terms, people don't have a clear understanding of what they mean, and so have difficulty making the type of discrimination that we just made between (S5) and (S6).

    What then, you may ask, do moral terms mean? That's a fundamental question in meta-ethics, and can't be separated from the question of moral realism vs moral anti-realism. It's a question for another time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    P.S. I've just been reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on "Moral Naturalism" which is very relevant to what I've been saying.
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/naturalism-moral/

    I have a feeling that the argument I've just made is equivalent to Moore's "Open Question Argument", but I'm not sure. The following passage makes one of the same points that I have:

    Consider the biconditional:
    x is good iff x is N.
    Moore, as we saw, notes that this may express a claim about what goodness is or a claim about what things are good.

    I'll have another look at this when I have more time.

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

    RichardW,

    You write: “Nothing can be both a moral claim and a definition.

    Sure. Once a particular statement (e.g. a sequence of words on the computer screen) has been interpreted as a definition it cannot be also interpreted as a proposition, and vice versa. But whether one interprets my premise (2) as a proposition, as I originally intended, or as definition, as Bradley took it, has no relevance for the issue at hand, which is whether moral realism can fit well with a theistic worldview or not. I have been arguing that it can. In theism one can get an “ought” from an “is”, for one can justify the truth of moral statements based on ontological facts.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    Hi again, Dianelos.

    But whether one interprets my premise (2) as a proposition, as I originally intended, or as definition, as Bradley took it, has no relevance for the issue at hand, which is whether moral realism can fit well with a theistic worldview or not.

    Well, if you had been taking premise (2) as a definition, that would have radically changed the nature of the argument. That's why I brought the question up. I'm glad you've confirmed that you're not doing so.

    The issue also casts some light on why it's impossible to derive an "ought" from an "is". First you would need to define "ought" in terms of "is". And I've argued that that's not possible. Doing so robs moral claims of just the properties that distinguish them from non-moral claims, their prescriptivity and judgementalism.

    In theism one can get an “ought” from an “is”, for one can justify the truth of moral statements based on ontological facts.

    Obviously, I don't agree.

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

    The meaning of the expression "a morally good act" is ambiguous, and part of the ambiguity is in the basic logic of the concept.

    Off the top of my head, I can think of at least six different possible meanings of this expression, meanings that represent alternative basic logics for the concept:

    (A) an act that is morally permissible

    (B) an act that is morally obligatory

    (C) an act that is morally permissible and NOT morally obligatory

    (D) an act that is morally permissible and NOT morally obligatory, and that has some other positive moral quality (e.g. it furthers some moral end, such as human happiness or well-being, or it is morally praiseworthy)

    (E) an act that is morally better than a morally neutral act

    (F) an act that is morally better than a morally neutral act, but not good enough to be a morally excellent act

    I'm sure that these six alternatives do not exhaust all of the relevant basic logics for this concept. But to be clear, one must identify some such logic, otherwise the ambiguity will remain.

    An abstract definition of this sort will suffer from the circularity that I was pointing out in premise (2) of the example of moral reasoning that I put forward as representative of Dianelos' view of ethics.

    But the circularity does not prevent such definitions from providing at least some helpful clarification, by eliminating the ambiguity of the basic logic of the concept.

    This could be viewed as a stipulative definition, as a way of simply clarifying how the term will be used by the writer/speaker in a discussion of ethics.

    But even stipulative definitions can be criticized for departing from ordinary use of an expression, so one possible objection to such a definition would be that some alternative logic does a better job of capturing the ordinary use of this expression.

    The ordinary use of an expression is not beyond critique, so one could argue that although a stipulated definition of the logic of this expression departed from ordinary usage, it was still preferable because of some unclarity or ambiguity or inconsistency or implausability contained in the ordinary use of the expression.

    Philosophical definitions are, in particular, aimed at clarification and at avoiding logical inconsistency, so one might advocate a departure from ordinary use of "morally good act" in order to better acheive such an intellectual aim.

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

    Having stipulated a definition of the basic logic of the concept of a "morally good act", a reasonable next step would be to eliminate the circularity involved in such a definition by clarifying a key concept in the definition (such as "morally permissible" or "morally obligatory" or "furthers a moral end") and this would usually be done in terms of some general theory or view of morality (e.g. Virtue ethics, Kantian ethics, Utilitarianism, Social Contract theory of ethics, Humean empathy-based ethics, etc).

    In this case, Dianelos' view of ethics appears to be a cross between Divine Command theory and Virtue ethics (from Aristotle). We might call his view the "Divine Virtue" theory.

    For Dianelos, the basic logic of the concept of a "morally good act" is that it is an act that tends to make the person who is performing the act a better person.
    This logic is somewhat controversial, as any proposed analysis of the logic of this concept would be.

    But the most controversial part comes in when he fills in the general concept of "better person" with reference to God's character, and to alleged direct perceptions of God's character.

    So, there are at least two levels of controversy here. First there is likely to be some disagreement about the basic logic of this concept, and about the implied analysis of that logic assumed in premise (2) of the moral reasoning example.

    Second, there will definitely be controversy and disagreement over the filling out of the concept of a "better person" in terms of Dianelos' Divine Virtue theory of ethics.

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

    RichardW said:

    It must be a little tiresome for a philosopher to have a discussion with someone unfamiliar with the standard terminology, and who usually fails to express himself clearly at the first attempt. So I appreciate your patience! I would welcome your correction of any terminological errors I make.
    ==============
    Response:
    I have had a number of courses in logic and critical thinking, so I probably should be an expert on criteria for definitions and types of definitions, but honestly I'm not.

    Judging from the quality of the writing and thinking in your comments, I have little or no advantage over you from any technical expertise I might have picked up in philosophy courses.

    The dilemma that you have posed is clearly stated and seems to get at the heart of the matter, or at least an important and relevant issue.

    I don't have an immediate response, but I suspect there is an error or misunderstanding burried in the dilemma you have posed. I will enjoy trying to determine what makes the dilemma tick, and see if I can figure out a way to escape the dilemma.

    Nice bit of philosophical reasoning! Worth the price of admission. Thank you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    >>Off the top of my head, I can think of at least six different possible meanings of this expression, meanings that represent alternative basic logics for the concept:<<

    That's an interesting topic in itself, but I won't pursue it here, as I don't think it's relevant to my point. I've just picked "morally good" as an example of a moral term. As far as my argument is concerned you can interpret it any of your six ways, or substitute some other moral term.

    >>An abstract definition of this sort will suffer from the circularity that I was pointing out in premise (2) of the example of moral reasoning that I put forward as representative of Dianelos' view of ethics.<<

    I'm not sure what you're referring to here. I don't think any of my definitions were circular. If you still think so, please show me.

    Dianelos has now confirmed that his premise (2) was not intended as a definition. He's also given a revised version–premise (2*) which eliminates the potential circularity.

    >>Philosophical definitions are, in particular, aimed at clarification and at avoiding logical inconsistency, so one might advocate a departure from ordinary use of "morally good act" in order to better acheive such an intellectual aim.<<

    I'm only interested here in definitions that respect the meaning of moral terms as established by existing usages. Since actual usages can be complex and variable, a certain amount of approximation is inevitable. We may even stretch the meaning a little beyond it's usual range for the sake of simplicity and consistency. But if a definition strays too far outside the established range of usage it will become a new meaning of the word. In that case we would no longer be talking about morality as it's generally understood, and would have departed from our original subject.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    P.S. Bradley wote:

    >>An abstract definition of this sort will suffer from the circularity that I was pointing out in premise (2) of the example of moral reasoning that I put forward as representative of Dianelos' view of ethics.<<

    Please ignore my previous response to this statement. I now realise I misinterpreted you.

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

    Bradley,

    You write: “For Dianelos, the basic logic of the concept of a "morally good act" is that it is an act that tends to make the person who is performing the act a better person.

    Right. And please observe that far from this being controversial, is actually a fact about the human condition: Doing what is good does tend to make us better persons, and doing evil does tend to make us worse.

    But the most controversial part comes in when he fills in the general concept of "better person" with reference to God's character, and to alleged direct perceptions of God's character.

    Well, the concept of becoming “better persons” logically requires some objective standard, which, on theism, can’t be anything else but some standard related to God. So far, there is nothing controversial. Now many theists ground morality on God’s commands, but this idea is not particularly successful for well-known reasons, including Euthyphro’s dilemma, which proposes that the whole thing is arbitrary. My suggestion that the standard is God’s own character works much better, because: 1) There is nothing arbitrary about God’s character, indeed as God is the foundation of all reality, God’s character forms part of the very fabric of reality. And 2) consider that “to become a better person” is equivalent to “improving one’s character”. So it is very natural to use as the standard something of the same kind. This saves the need of having to specify bridge concepts.

    So, far from being controversial, both steps described above strike me as being the most natural on theism, and our discussion is about how *theism* deals with ethics. Perhaps by “controversial” you mean how surprising from a naturalist’s point of view the above ideas are, or perhaps how far from theism’s orthodoxy. Well, if the former, then, obviously, it’s no surprise that theistic ideas would strike a naturalist as surprising. And if the latter then, if I may say so, the above ideas are nothing more than an elucidation of a key phrase (Matthew 5:48) in what is considered to be the bedrock of Christian ethical understanding, namely the Sermon on the Mount. They also fit well with the key Christian appeal for us to become like Jesus was (who is understood to be the incarnation of God). So the above ideas can’t really be said to wade far from orthodoxy.

    But an idea may strike one as quite natural on some background knowledge, and nevertheless be a wrong one. The standard for evaluating an idea is to check how well it works. I think the metaethics expounded here works pretty well: First, conceptually, as it accounts for what are perhaps the three key criteria for a successful ethical theory, namely it accounts for the objectivity of ethical knowledge, for our freedom of will, and for the special value of persons. Secondly it works well experientially, as it comports with our intuitions about ethics, with our sense of confidence that ethical knowledge is objective as well as significant and close to the meaning and purpose of our life, with the dynamic and interactive relationship between how we act and our character, with our sense of being meant to be good, and with our sense of knowing some ethical facts by directly perceiving their truth, looking inside as it were. Finally it explains some external facts related to ethics, such as why ethical knowledge is not easy to come by, why people easily disagree about some ethical questions, why ethical knowledge resists being fit into formulas (formulas are mechanistic, but personal facts are not), and indeed why what is ethically good often appears to be a relative and subjective thing (for it explains that whether an action is morally good or not depends not only on the external/visible state of affairs, but also on the internal state of a person’s character vis-a-vis God’s).

    So, from what I can see, the above metaethical theory works well. If you disagree, then I would be interested to understand where specifically you find the theory fails and why.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    Dianelos wrote: "My suggestion that the standard is God’s own character works much better, because: 1) There is nothing arbitrary about God’s character, indeed as God is the foundation of all reality, God’s character forms part of the very fabric of reality. And 2) consider that “to become a better person” is equivalent to “improving one’s character”. So it is very natural to use as the standard something of the same kind. This saves the need of having to specify bridge concepts."

    Let's say God really is the foundation of all reality. It doesn't follow that his character is the standard for goodness of character. That's a non sequitur.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    P.S. My bad. I should have said:

    Let's say God's character forms part of the very fabric of reality. It doesn't follow that it is the standard for goodness of character. That's a non sequitur.

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

    RichardW has proposed a dilemma for anyone who attempts to define a moral term. I have put the dilemma into standard argument format:

    1. If someone proposes a definition for a moral term, then definiens will either contain a moral term or it will not contain a moral term.

    2. If the definiens of a definition of a moral term contains a moral term, then the definition will be circular.

    3. If the definiens of a definition of a moral term does NOT contain a moral term, then the definition will fail to capture the very quality that distinguishes a moral claim from a non-moral claim (i.e. prescriptivity and judgementalism).

    4. If a definition of a moral term is circular, then the definition is unsuccessful.

    5. If a definition of a moral term fails to capture what distinguishes a moral claim from a non-moral claim, then the definition is unsuccessful.

    Therefore:

    6. If someone proposes a definition for a moral term, then the definition will be unsuccessful.

    Each horn of the dilemma seems interesting to me, and so I plan to give some thought to, and make comments on, both horns.

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

    Comment 1 on the Circularity Horn

    I have already mentioned some thoughts that relate to one of the premises of RichardW's dilemma:

    4. If a definition of a moral term is circular, then the definition is unsuccessful.

    I'm initially inclined to agree with this premise, if "unsuccessful" is qualified or clarified.

    The six alternative analyses of the logic of the expression "morally good act" (in my recent comments) each make use of a moral term to clarify the target expression.

    I'm inclined to agree that if identifying one of those alternatives (or some other alternative that I missed) as the best analysis of the logic of the expression "morally good act" does not, by itself, mean that we have successfully defined the target expression.

    However, it seems to me that this would not be a pointless or worthless acheivement. An article or book that made a strong case for one such analysis over various alternatives would be an article or book that made significant intellectual progress in the field of ethics.

    This would be so, even if there was some uncrossable logical barrier to producing a full or completely successful definition of the expression "morally good act".

    So, I take it that "unsuccessful" means something like "less than completely successful". If RichardW means something stronger than that, then I would have a problem with premise (4).

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

    RichardW,

    You write: “Let's say God's character forms part of the very fabric of reality. It doesn't follow that it is the standard for goodness of character. That's a non sequitur.

    Actually it does, because God’s character is perfectly good, and one must therefore compare the goodness of any other person’s character against that perfect standard.

    In any case, my argument here has not been that theism (i.e. the premise that all reality is based on the existence of a personal being who is perfect in all respects) implies the metaethical theory I suggest. Rather, my argument has been that the metaethical theory I suggest 1) fits naturally with theism, and 2) works well both conceptually and experientially, and moreover explains various external facts that pertain to our ethical discourse, even those that are sometimes considered to speak against a theistic understanding of ethics. And one important reason it works well conceptually, is that on theism a part of the fabric of reality is of the right kind for objective ethical propositions to refer to. (Conversely, according to naturalism reality is at bottom blindly mechanical, and hence its fabric is not of the kind needed for an objective understanding of ethics. That’s the famous “you can’t get an ought from and is” dictum of Hume, which is a gap that naturalists will sooner or later encounter when they try to make sense of obvious objective ethical truths, such as that to torture a child for fun is wrong.)

    Now, come to think of it, it may well be the case that theism does imply the suggested metaethical theory, and therefore that this theory is not only true but necessarily true. To show this though I’d first have to show that theism implies the so-called Irenaean theodicy – which is a tall order, and in any case beyond the bounds of our discussion.

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

    Wikipedia has a nice and brief article on "Definition", and it includes links to other relevant articles:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definition

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

    Bradley,

    You write: “2. If the definiens of a definition of a moral term contains a moral term, then the definition will be circular.

    I disagree. Consider, for example, the following definition where the definiendum “athlete” also appears in the definiens:

    An athlete is a person who takes part in events where athletes compete against each other.

    This appears to be an obviously circular definition, but in fact is not. After all if one understands the other terms found in the definition (namely “person”, “takes part”, “event”, “compete against”) then one will understand what “athlete” means. We see then that circularity is a semantic problem and cannot be reduced to a syntactic analysis.

    Now consider the following example, which I have already mentioned previously:

    A windowpane is strong if and only if it has the capacity to resist strong impacts.

    Here one defines the property “strong” of windowpanes using the property “strong” of impacts. There is no circularity here either. If one understands the meaning of the property “strong” of impacts, then one will learn the meaning of the property “strong” of windowpanes.

    Now let’s reconsider our contentious definition, designed to appear as circular as possible:

    An action has moral goodness if and only if it increases the moral goodness of the character of the person performing the action.

    This too is a non-circular definition, and for the same reason as previously: If one understands the meaning of the property “moral goodness” of a person’s character then one will understand the meaning of the property “moral goodness” of an action. This definition would only become circular if the meaning of "moral goodness" of character depended on the meaning of "moral goodness" of actions, but this is clearly not the case in the context of the metaethics suggested.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    Dianelos,

    You wrote: "Actually it does, because God’s character is perfectly good, and one must therefore compare the goodness of any other person’s character against that perfect standard."

    Now you've introduced a new premise, that God’s character is perfectly good. (Perhaps you mentioned this earlier, but it wasn't in the post I responded to.) How do you justify that premise?

    If God's character is the standard against which you are measuring goodness of character, then it's meaningless (circular) to say that God's character is good. You need some other standard of goodness against which to measure God's character in order to say that God's character is good.

    You wrote: "In any case, my argument here has not been that theism (i.e. the premise that all reality is based on the existence of a personal being who is perfect in all respects) implies the metaethical theory I suggest."

    But earlier you wrote: "In theism one can get an “ought” from an “is”, for one can justify the truth of moral statements based on ontological facts."

    Are you now retracting that claim?

    You wrote: "And one important reason it works well conceptually, is that on theism a part of the fabric of reality is of the right kind for objective ethical propositions to refer to."

    You haven't yet justified that claim.

    Let me quote David Hume from over two centuries ago:

    "In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it."

    Plus ca change.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    Dianelos,

    You wrote: "Actually it does, because God’s character is perfectly good, and one must therefore compare the goodness of any other person’s character against that perfect standard."

    Now you've introduced a new premise, that God’s character is perfectly good. (Perhaps you mentioned this earlier, but it wasn't in the post I responded to.) How do you justify that premise?

    If God's character is the standard against which you are measuring goodness of character, then it's meaningless (circular) to say that God's character is good. You need some other standard of goodness against which to measure God's character before you can say that God's character is good.

    You wrote: "In any case, my argument here has not been that theism (i.e. the premise that all reality is based on the existence of a personal being who is perfect in all respects) implies the metaethical theory I suggest."

    But earlier you wrote: "In theism one can get an “ought” from an “is”, for one can justify the truth of moral statements based on ontological facts."

    Are you now retracting that claim?

    You wrote: "And one important reason it works well conceptually, is that on theism a part of the fabric of reality is of the right kind for objective ethical propositions to refer to."

    You haven't shown that theism can support objective ethical propositions, so you haven't shown that on theism a part of the fabric of reality is of the right kind for objective ethical propositions to refer to.

    Let me quote David Hume from over two centuries ago:

    "In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it."

    Plus ca change.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    [Sorry for the double post. The first one was slow to go through, so I thought I'd failed to post it properly. I then edited a bit before posting again.]

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

    Comment 2 on Circularity Horn.

    Premises from the dilemma:

    2. If the definiens of a definition of a moral term contains a moral term, then the definition will be circular.

    4. If a definition of a moral term is circular, then the definition is unsuccessful.

    A definition uses words to clarify the meaning of a word or set of words (phrase). This creates the possibility of an infinite regress. Just as there is a possible infinite regress in moral reasoning and in theoretical reasoning, there is a possible infinite regress of defintions. Word1 is defined in by using Word2, Word3, and Word4. But then Word2 is then defined in terms of Word5, Word6, and Word7, and so on.

    If the regress is to stop at some point, then the meanings of some words will need to be understood without needing to be defined, or without being defined by use of other words.

    So, if we clarify the logic of the concept of "morally good act" and use other moral terms in the definiens (such as "moral obligation") and we then define the moral terms in the definiens by using still other moral terms, we might soon come to a point where we hit rock bottom and end up with a basic moral term that puts a stop to the potential regress of definitions – a moral term that has a meaning that is grasped without needing to be defined, or without needing to be defined by the use of other words.

    The Wikipedia article points to some words that are thought to be undefinable: "being" and "unity" (scholastic philosophers), individuals, such as "Alice" (Locke and Mill), family resemblance words "family" "game" and "number" (Wittgenstein).

    In The Coherence of Theism, Swinburne gives the example of the word "green". We cannot give this word meaning by a verbal equivalent, but the meaning can be communicated via paradigm examples of things that are green.

    If some moral terms express concepts that are at the "starting point" of meaning, that are not definable in terms of other words, then this may be no different that how words have meanings in other non-moral areas.

    So, I'm not sure I agree with premise (2). If the chain of definitions of a moral term comes to a stop with a definition that includes a moral term in the definiens, this might not be circular, or might not be circular in a problematic way, if the moral term in the definiens of the final definition is one of the words that gets its meaning independent from the process of definition (or at least independent from definition by equivalent words/phrases).

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

    Comment 1 on Failure-to-Capture- Distinguishing-Quality Horn

    Here are the premises of the dilemma that relate to this horn:

    3. If the definiens of a definition of a moral term does NOT contain a moral term, then the definition will fail to capture the very quality that distinguishes a moral claim from a non-moral claim (i.e. prescriptivity and judgementalism).

    5. If a definition of a moral term fails to capture what distinguishes a moral claim from a non-moral claim, then the definition is unsuccessful.

    Premise (3) appears to be based on some questionable assumptions:

    (A) A sentence or phrase will involve prescriptivity only if it contains a moral term.

    (B) A sentence or phrase will involve judgementalism only if it contains a moral term.

    In The Language of Morals, RM Hare gives a categorization of "prescriptive language". The two major sub-categories of prescriptive language are imperatives and value-judgements. Value-judgements are in turn sub-divided into moral and non-moral. Imperatives divide into singular and universal.

    One example of an imperative is this: "Shut the door." This is also an example of prescriptive language. But notice that there is no moral term in this sentence. Therefore, this appears to be a counterexample to assumption (A), since it is a sentence that involves prescriptivity, but that contains no moral terms.

    So, if premise (3) is based on assumption (A), then premise (3) is based on a false assumption.

    If, on the other hand, premise (3) is not based on (A), then it is unclear to me what reason there is to accept (3). It appears to me to be possible for a definition to capture prescriptivity (at least) without using moral terms in the definiens.

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

    RichardW,

    You write: “Now you've introduced a new premise, that God’s character is perfectly good.

    The theistic premise is that all reality is based on the existence of a personal being who is perfect in all respects (and who in English is called “God”, in Greek is called “Theos”, in Arabic is called “Allah”, etc). The premise of theism then entails that God’s character is perfect. Incidentally, there is very broad agreement that this is the premise of theism, for virtually no theist will ever say that there is something in reality which is not ultimately based on God, nor that God suffers from some imperfection or other.

    How do you justify that premise?"

    By showing that the strongest worldview based on theism’s premise works better when compared one to one with the strongest worldviews based on other metaphysical premises about reality (e.g. naturalism) under each reasonable criterion I can think of, including internal conceptual coherence, explanatory power (including the power to explain the existence of evil), compatibility with our experience of life, compatibility with the project and the data of the natural sciences, compatibility with incorrigible beliefs most of us hold (e.g. freedom of will, objectivity of ethics), prima-facie plausibility (especially when considering how prima-facie implausible naturalistic worldviews are), elegance and simplicity, tendency towards agreement, etc. Of course there are many different theistic worldviews based on the same premise; what I defend is not the God of the Bible, or the God of X particular dogma, but the in my judgment strongest theistic understanding implied by or compatible with the premise of theism (what is sometimes called “the God of the philosophers”).

    You wrote: "In any case, my argument here has not been that theism (i.e. the premise that all reality is based on the existence of a personal being who is perfect in all respects) implies the metaethical theory I suggest."

    But earlier you wrote: "In theism one can get an “ought” from an “is”, for one can justify the truth of moral statements based on ontological facts."

    Are you now retracting that claim?

    I don’t see any contradiction. A belief X can be compatible with premise Y but not implied by it. So, on theism one can suggest a robust metaethical theory which is compatible with the premise of theism, but not necessarily implied by it. Similarly, some naturalists suggest the multiverse theory (i.e. that there are many parallel universes to ours) which is compatible with the premise of naturalism, but almost certainly not implied by it. There is a lot of knowledge which is not the result of deductive reasoning. Coming back to the issue of metaethics, the difference at hand is that no naturalist has been able to suggest any robust metaethical theory compatible with the premise of naturalism, never mind implied by it. Indeed some (e.g. Mackie) have argued that such is impossible.

    You haven't shown that theism can support objective ethical propositions

    I think I have.

    Let me quote David Hume from over two centuries ago:

    I’d rather have you explain to me why you think the metaethical theory I suggested does not support the objectivity of ethical propositions, for Hume’s explanation you quote does not address it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 RichardW

    Hi Dianelos,

    I'm afraid you've made the common mistake among apologists of trying to establish the truth of a claim by building it into a definition, instead of actually arguing for it. In this case, you've made the goodness of God's character a defining property of God (via his "perfection").

    The original question was whether objective moral values could exist given the existence of God. You're now saying that God's character is good by definition. But God's character can only be good if objective moral values exist. So you're now saying that the existence of God entails the existence of objective moral values by definition. That's begging the original question.

    We were previously able to take God's existence as a hypothesis; I could grant it for the sake of argument. But now you've made your argument dependent on the existence of God. That's put you in the position of having to argue for his existence, a question we were previously able to avoid.

    Moreover, having made the goodness of God's character a defining feature of God, you can only demonstrate the existence of God by demonstrating his goodness of character. You might show that a being has all the attributes you normally associate with God, but, if you haven't shown that his character is good, then you haven't shown that this being is God. And none of the arguments that you've mentioned are arguments for the celestial being having a good character. There can be no successful arguments for a good character until you've explained what you mean by moral goodness.

    In short, you have just taken the vital premise (the goodness of God's character) for granted, so your claim remains unjustified.

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

    RichardW,

    You write: “ I'm afraid you've made the common mistake among apologists of trying to establish the truth of a claim by building it into a definition, instead of actually arguing for it. In this case, you've made the goodness of God's character a defining property of God (via his "perfection").

    I agree that it’s not reasonable and indeed reveals a weakness in one’s position when one tries to make a point by redefining the meaning of common words. I also agree that some apologists resort to this shameful practice; the case that comes to mind is how some apologists try to redefine “hell” as a place of free choice rather than of punishment. On the other hand some naturalists too use this practice. See, for example, how Daniel Dennett tried to redefine “consciousness”, or how Hume tried to redefine “free will”, or how some atheists have tried to redefine “atheism” as “lack of belief ”. I say, if the meaning of a common word does not fit your purpose then, by all means, coin a new word. Incidentally, another way to play fast and loose with the meaning of a word without actually redefining it, is to consistently use it as if it meant something else. So, for example, some people conflate naturalism with science, faith with irrationality, secularism with atheism, etc. I don’t think that anyone wins anything by using such tactics, for people end up confusing both others and themselves.

    As for myself in this thread, I have only used the classical definition of God first suggested by St Anselm back in the 11th century, and which is virtually universally agreed upon by theists in general and by philosophers of religion in particular including atheist philosophers of religion. Namely the definition that God is "that than which nothing greater can be conceived". This definition entails that God has a perfectly good character, so it’s not like I am building anything new into it. Surely you agree that a person with a bad character does not comport with this definition, because, obviously, one can conceive a person with a good character instead, and the latter is greater than the former. So I don’t think that I am playing tricks with redefinitions.

    The original question was whether objective moral values could exist given the existence of God.

    Actually the original question was whether, given theism, objective moral truths exist. And specifically whether objectively true moral propositions exist.

    We were previously able to take God's existence as a hypothesis; I could grant it for the sake of argument. But now you've made your argument *dependent* on the existence of God. That's put you in the position of having to argue for his existence, a question we were previously able to avoid.

    I am not sure I understand your point. I have proposed a robust metaethical theory which is compatible (indeed sits naturally) with theism, and which theory entails that the truth of ethical propositions is objective because it refers to facts about reality and is independent of what peoples’ beliefs or tastes happen to be – exactly as most peoples’ incorrigible intuition has it. In short my argument then is that the objectivity of ethical truths is compatible with theism. Please observe that the success of this argument does not depend on whether theism is actually true. Here is an example to elucidate what I mean: Suppose I had argued that the street being wet is compatible with the hypothesis that it is raining. I would be right even if in fact this hypothesis is false, and the street is wet for some other reason.

    Coming back to the issue of metaethics, please observe that in comparison it has proven very hard to find a way to make the objectivity of moral truths compatible with naturalism. Which leaves three possibilities: That there is a way but nobody has yet found it, that notwithstanding our intuitions no moral truth is objective, or that naturalism is false.

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

    Dianelos said:

    As for myself in this thread, I have only used the classical definition of God first suggested by St Anselm back in the 11th century, and which is virtually universally agreed upon by theists in general and by philosophers of religion in particular including atheist philosophers of religion. Namely the definition that God is "that than which nothing greater can be conceived". This definition entails that God has a perfectly good character, so it’s not like I am building anything new into it.

    ========
    Comment:

    If moral judgements are not propositions, that is to say, if sentences like "It is morally wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being." are neither true nor false, then it is doubtful that "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" logically implies or entails having "a perfectly good character".

    So, I'm inclined to side with RichardW on this point. If God is defined as being perfectly good, and if this implies that God has a perfectly good moral character, then it would seem that proving the existence of God would require first proving the objectivity of moral judgements.

    I suppose that one could claim that God was morally good in some subjective sense, but then it would need to be pointed out that this is not an objective feature of God, per se, but a subjective judgement about God from a particular moral point of view, and that the judgement was based on some objective non-moral characteristics of God.

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

    If RichardW's dilemma is based on a false assumption or two, perhaps it could be revised to avoid some objections. Let me see if I can fix it.

    1. If one attempts to define the phrase "a morally good act", then either the definiens expresses prescriptivity or it does not.

    2. If the definiens of a definition of "a morally good act" does not express prescriptivity, then the definition fails to capture a key element of moral claims.

    3. If the definiens of a definition of "a morally good act" does express prescriptivity, then it fails to show that the application of this concept can be objectively correct or true.

    Therefore,

    4. If one attempts to define the phrase "a morally good act", then the definition will either (a) fail to capture a key element of moral claims, or (b) fail to show that the application of this concept can be objectively correct or true.

    I think this revised version of the dilemma avoids some, perhaps all, of my objections, and it still might be strong enough for RichardW's purposes.

    The turning point is whether the definiens involves/expresses prescriptivity. To be a good definition (at least one that meets the substitution test proposed by RichardW) the definiens must have prescriptivity.

    But a definiens with prescriptivity seems to beg a key question. That is to say, it fails to accomplish a reduction of value to fact, or to show that moral judgements can be objectively true or false.

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

    Bradley,

    You said: “ If moral judgements are not propositions, that is to say, if sentences like "It is morally wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being." are neither true nor false, then it is doubtful that "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" logically implies or entails having "a perfectly good character".

    If moral statements are nonsensical then, I agree, statements about “good moral character” are nonsensical too. But here I am only defending the coherence of my ontological worldview. In my worldview God, as defined by St Anselm, exists, and also objective moral truths, as my intuition tells me, also exist. So in my theistic worldview one can derive an ought from an is, thus proving that Hume’s dictum is not generally true, but only, apparently, true in all naturalistic worldviews. Now in other worldviews it is the case that moral statements are neither true nor false, and hence are meaningless, but these worldviews do not interest me, for they strike me as being as absurd as absurd gets. Actually let me qualify that:

    For me ethical knowledge is the most important kind of knowledge there is. After all, what good is there in having any other kind of knowledge if one doesn’t know how one should use it? Similarly, what good is there to have power, or intelligence, or creativity, or any other perfection, if one doesn’t know how one should use them? Now I find that a particular theistic worldview naturally fits with a robust metaethical system, i.e. with a system in which ethical knowledge refers to objective facts of reality, and which implies methodologies about how to discover such truths. Moreover I find that the same theistic worldview is ethically empowering, so that it is not only intellectually satisfying but also pragmatically useful. On the other hand I am aware that there are other worldviews which fail to make sense of ethics, be it because they imply that the truth of ethical propositions only reflects personal opinion, or, even worse, that ethical statements are meaningless. Given how important ethics is for me, and given how well my theistic worldview works in relation to ethics, a huge amount of evidence will be needed in favor of an in this context failed worldview in order for me to seriously consider it as a viable alternative to the one I hold.

    If God is defined as being perfectly good, and if this implies that God has a perfectly good moral character, then it would seem that proving the existence of God would require first proving the objectivity of moral judgements.

    It seems you are using the following principle: “If the existence of X implies the existence of Y, then in order to prove that X exists one must first prove that Y exists”. This can’t be a good principle. After all it is impossible to know all the possible Y’s that the existence of X implies, so if one would have to first prove the existence of all Y’s before proving the existence of X, then it would be impossible to prove the existence of any X. Or perhaps I have misunderstood you.

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

    Dianelos said:

    As for myself in this thread, I have only used the classical definition of God first suggested by St Anselm back in the 11th century, and which is virtually universally agreed upon by theists in general and by philosophers of religion in particular including atheist philosophers of religion. Namely the definition that God is "that than which nothing greater can be conceived". This definition entails that God has a perfectly good character, so it’s not like I am building anything new into it. Surely you agree that a person with a bad character does not comport with this definition, because, obviously, one can conceive a person with a good character instead, and the latter is greater than the former.
    =========
    Comments:

    I'm skeptical about the claim that Anselm's definition of "God" entails that God has a perfectly good character.

    First, claims of the form "X is greater than Y" outside of the context of mathematics, are unclear on their face. Study of Anselm may reveal the intended meaning, but until that meaning is spelled out, such claims are too unclear for one to determine what is logically entailed by such claims.

    Second, claims of the form "X is greater than Y" outside of the context of mathematics, and inside the context of Anselm's discussions about the existence of God, are clearly normative claims, not purely descriptive claims.

    This normative aspect of such claims leads to an ambiguity. Are such claims (i.e. "X is greater than Y") subjective or relative to a particular point of view, or are such claims objectively true or false?

    If these claims are subjective or relative to a particular point of view, then the claims do not have a specific meaning unless and until the subject or point of view is also specified (e.g. "from Dianelos point of view" or "from a modern Western European humanist point of view").

    If, as is presumably the case, you intend such normative judgments to be taken as being objectively true or false, then this conception of God presupposes the objectivity of at least some normative judgments.

    However, it is conceivable that some normative judgments could be objectively true or false while all moral judgments were subjective or relative to a point of view (i.e. not objectively true or false). This is perhaps an odd and unpopular combination of ideas, but it is not clear to me that there is a logical contradiction between holding an objectivist position about some normative judgments and a relativist position about all moral judgments.

    If there is no such contradiction, then Anselm's definition of "God" does not entail that God is morally perfect, even if it does imply that his character is perfect on some non-moral evaluative criteria.

    There are three key aspects of normative judgments: (1) selection of the criteria used to make the evaluation, (2) prioritization (weighting) of the criteria (when there is more than one criterion), and (3) application of the criteria to specific cases.

    Subjectivity or relativity could "infect" any one of these three aspects of evaluation, or some combination of these aspects. So, for normative judgments to be fully objective, there must be objectivity in all three aspects. The criteria used must be objectively correct, the prioritization or weighting of the criteria must be objectively correct, and the application of the criteria to specific examples must be objectively correct.

  • Pingback: NFL jerseys

  • Pingback: Dallas Cowboys Football Jerseys


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X