Dianelos on the Moral Argument

Dianelos Georgoudis, in reply to my post “Atheism Debunked! Again!,” has conveniently and succinctly offered both “conceptual” and a “practical” moral arguments for theism. I take the liberty of putting the first of these in premise/conclusion format and try to express it a bit more rigorously. I do hope I have not distorted his meaning. For his original wording, please see the comments section of the earlier post.
The Conceptual Argument:
1) For naturalists, that is, those who believe that the natural world is the only world and that there are no supernatural agents, there is no objective right or wrong. (premise)
2) It follows that for naturalists, the concepts of “right” and “wrong” can only be social conventions or names for convenient means of achieving practical ends. (from 1)
3) However, some actions, such as torturing a child for fun, are intrinsically and objectively wrong, whatever our social conventions might say. (premise)
4)Theism, unlike naturalism, accommodates the fact that some actions, like torturing a child for fun, are intrinsically and objectively wrong. (premise)
Therefore: Theism is compatible with the existence of objective right and wrong, but naturalism is not.
Again, I sincerely hope I have not distorted Dianelos’ meaning.
My objection, of course, is to premise (1). To say that values are objective means that they their worth is intrinsic, not a matter of convention or convenience. Objective values are not made; they are discovered. We do not decide that they are valuable; we find that they are so. Naturalism has no conceptual problem whatsoever with the existence of intrinsic worth or value in that sense. For instance, learning is intrinsically satisfying, even when it has no practical end (in fact, I would say especially when it has no practical end). Simply satisfying your natural curiosity by learning about the world is intrinsically satisfying to creatures such as human beings. It is how we are put together biologically, as Aristotle observed long ago. All humans, by nature, desire to know. Nature has made curiosity as natural for us as bipedalism, so just as we value being able to walk upright, so we value being able to satisfy our curiosity. The objective value of knowledge for human beings is therefore no more mysterious and no more incompatible for naturalism than is the objective value of walking upright.
Furthermore, just as we find value in knowledge, so we find value in each other. We are social creatures. Like other primates, we form strong personal bonds with each other, and social interactions matter a great deal to us. Why? Again, that is just the kind of organism Homo sapiens is. The value we find in friends and family is not a convention; we do not simply ascribe such value or impute it. It is there. Valuing companionship when I am lonely is just as natural and unmysterious as valuing good food when I am hungry. There is nothing here naturalism has the least problem accommodating.

Right and wrong, of course, are conceptually connected with value. The objectivity of right and wrong therefore comes down to two considerations: (1) Are there objective values that our actions might promote or impede? (2) Can it be objectively the case that our actions do promote or impede the realization of certain values or the prevention of certain disvalues? There is no reason whatsoever that a naturalist cannot answer “yes” to both questions, and so no reason that right and wrong cannot be objective for naturalists. So, the claimed advantage of theism over naturalism is spurious.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03932419322314950738 Jeffrey A. Myers

    Number 2 can also be challenged on the basis that may concepts of 'right' and 'wrong' are not merely social norms or conventions and means of achieving practical ends, but intrinsic and necessary biological adaptations.

    As an example, many species regularly abandon their young, humans consider such a practice abhorrent and wrong. The difference, obviously, is one of intrinsic biology. It is not a matter of social convention that abandoning our young is wrong. It is a matter of intrinsic biological necessity. We do not abandon our young because, unlike tortoises, crocodiles, etc., our young are utterly helpless and to do so would doom our species.

    This is obviously, just one example, but one can list countless other 'wrongs,' that are grounded NOT in social conventions and are not PRACTICAL ends, but intrinsic and biologically necessary ones.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02573690515499960584 Eric Burton

    I would wonder if semantics is playing a role here, as it often does in these discussions. When I considered myself a christian apologist, the idea of an objective moral value brought with it, by definition, a transcendent nature that had to be defined by something outside of the biological "system."

    Since we who are naturalists don't accept the idea of a transcendent source of these values, we must reject that meaning. So what do we mean if we use the word objective? Doesn't the source of the values, whatever it is, have to be "within" the natural world, and therefore not transcendent in the sense that the theist usually means it?

    I may be really missing the mark here, but I think it is an interesting discussion.

    Another thing I have noticed is that a lot of the argumentation against atheistic morals are boiled down to appeals to fear or uncomfortable feelings. "If atheism is right, then we have no transcendent foundation for morality, so we really can't have a black and white system for judging what is right and wrong! That's scary!" It of course completely misses the point. But what I find interesting is that the objection does not really argue against whether it is true or not. If the reality is unsettling, it does not mean it is false.

    I have the beginnings of a civil email discussion with a christian apologist in my inbox, and when it gets to a respectable and interesting level, I plan to make it available on my site, http://doubtingeric.blogspot.com if anyone would be interested in that sort of thing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03932419322314950738 Jeffrey A. Myers

    I also find it interesting that those fears are not realized in any way shape or form in practice in the real world.

    Indeed, the MOST secular and atheistic countries in the World, those whose citizens have eschewed the Divine Path do a far better job of actually acting out the allegedly theist moral code than any other countries. Indeed the MOST religious countries are actually the WORST when it comes to actually practicing theist morality.

    It really makes one wonder why we're so worried about a lack of transcendent moral values when in practice Atheists seem to do just fine.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04982524614308121228 Mark Jones

    The whole thing looks full of holes to me, but I know from old that DG thinks it's wonderfully compelling.

    Why would a theist worship a God who created a universe where supposedly intrinsically wrong things, like torturing children for fun, occur? To achieve some greater good, possibly? In that case, it could hardly be called intrinsically wrong. For reasons that are inscrutable to us? If a theist really believed that, he is hardly in a position to judge the morality of *any* action, God's moral judgement being unobtainable. Because the world couldn't be any other way? How so heaven, then?

    No, it's a big fail all round, afaics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02487990587362445908 Ash

    Theism posits an objective, absolute moral system, but of course there is no evidence that such a system exists, regardless of any argument of origin. This is obvious when we look at the breadth of religious moral systems offered throughout history, or even the slipperiness of any moral system within a single religious structure. The most one can reasonably say is that theism offers the illusion that an absolute moral system exists.

    On the other hand, I agree with Sam Harris that of all possible moral systems, some can be understood to be objectively better than others in terms of promoting or preventing human well-being. That doesn't mean there will always be a single, black and white answer to every moral dilemma, of course, and I know that's what a lot of people want. But a desire for something, even with an unshakable faith in it, does not make it true.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04993951266598209546 Atheist Wars




    the ungrateful bastards full of hubris…


    a bullet for your head, traitor

    And finally, the *only* man in Minnesota who says there is no God has suddenly become an arbiter on mental health…



  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16947798364523082547 Rich Griese

    You see this kind of thing from both people that over think about metaphysical things, and supernaturalists that are trying to sell a god idea. These terms like "objective morality", etc… Almost everyone on the planet you as know the important ethical rules. Nobody is very unclear about killing or stealing or treating others well. And people don't need gods for this.

    What you will often see is supernaturalists that want to sell you a god idea, to start to twist things, and try to say "you can't actually know anything, so let's talk about it". Then they will go through some crazy metaphysical speculative BS and end up with, "so you really should believe in my god idea.".

    It's very sad.

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com / RichGriese.NET

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

    Keith, I feel you're conflating different concepts. You wrote:

    "The objective value of knowledge for human beings is therefore no more mysterious and no more incompatible for naturalism than is the objective value of walking upright."

    It seems to me that you're not using "objective value" in the sense it's usually meant. In fact the word "objective" seems to play no meaningful role in this sentence. In addition, the original subject was _moral_ value, and your switch to other sorts of value has further muddied the water. You're merely talking about what things are useful for humans. That is certainly not what most people have in mind when they make moral claims or talk about objective moral values.

    There are two distinct concepts to be considered, and I'm going to call them "moral values" and "moral facts".

    1. By "moral values" I mean the attitudes people are said to have when they express moral approval or disaproval of something, or say that something is morally right or wrong.

    2. By "moral facts", I mean facts that would be true if a proposition like "X is morally wrong" is true.

    These two concepts are often referred to instead as "subjective moral values" and "objective moral values" respectively. The two different sets of names leads to confusion.

    Dianelos's claim is that without God there can be no moral facts, i.e. without God it is impossible to correctly say that anything is morally wrong.

    My response is that God has nothing to do with it. As a moral anti-realist I say there can be no moral facts with or without God, because moral propositions like "X is morally wrong" are, by virtue of their meaning, inherently incapable of being true. Even if I've misconstrued the meaning, I see no reason why the existence of God would have any relevance to whether such propositions are true.

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

    Thanks to everyone for the intelligent and thoughtful comments. I am preparing for a conference at the U. of Colorado this weekend, and that is occupying my scholarly time. I should be able to respond next week at some point. Thanks again.

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


    I agree with the idea that objective values are not made but are discovered. Under that definition is the value of learning objective? Learning has such a survival value that I suppose we are biologically programmed to have a positive experience of learning (at least until the educational system messes things up) and thus to value it. This is indeed something we discover and not make. What what is it that we discover? I think it is that *we* value learning (as indeed we do) not that learning *itself* is valuable. I happen to believe that learning is valuable in itself, and that we are therefore right in valuing it. But in a naturalistic world what does it mean to say that “learning in itself is valuable”? Indeed, in a naturalistic world does it make any sense to say “we are right in valuing X”?

    Shifting the discussion to moral values, what do you mean when you say “torturing a child for fun is wrong”? By that truth are you describing a property of the action itself, or something else?

  • Pingback: tiffany and co outlet

  • Pingback: Coach Factory

  • Pingback: true religion sale