Atheistic Moral Realism – Part 5

I am currently considering William Craig’s second objection to Atheistic Moral Realism (AMR):

Second, the nature of moral duty or obligation seems incompatible with atheistic moral realism. (WIAC, p.76)

The following is a third piece of the paragraph where Craig presents this objection:

Who or what lays such an obligation on me?  As the ethicist Richard Taylor points out, “A duty is something that is owed. … But something can be owed only to some person or persons.  There can be no such thing as duty in isolation.” (WIAC, p.76)

First of all, note the prejudicial phrasing of Craig’s question “Who or what lays such an obligation on me?” This question presupposes or strongly implies that an obligation can exist only if some person ‘lays’ that obligation on some other person. The word ‘Who’ obviously points to the idea of a person, but Craig adds the alternative ‘or what’ to avoid obviously begging the question.

However, the verb ‘lays’ requries both a subject and two objects:

X LAYS Y on Z

For example, “My wife lays her keys on the table”. Strictly speaking, the subject of such a sentence does not have to be a person. It could be a machine or an animal:

The machine lays the record on the turntable.

The cat lays its paw on my face.

But these are derivative from and analogous with sentences about the actions of persons. They are anthropomorphic sentences, which treat machines and animals as if they were persons.

So, the way Craig phrases the question is biased towards the answer that he hopes to persuade others to accept.

Craig quotes Richard Taylor as a sort of authority here. It is important to note that Taylor represents himself as a rebel, as a philosopher who is challenging a basic and widely held view of ethics and morality in the Wester philosophical tradition.

As skeptics and atheists, we have a soft spot in our hearts for such rebels. We too are often in the role of rebels, challenging longstanding and widely held religious beliefs and superstitions. Richard Taylor is a recognized expert in the field of ethics, but we should keep in mind that his views, at least in terms of his key ideas, are at odds with most of the great thinkers in the history of ethics. What Taylor has to say about the nature of moral duties and obligations is likely to be controversial (as are most theories in ethics anyway).

Here is Taylor’s argument:

1. A duty is something that is owed.
2. Something can be owed only to some person or persons.
Therefore
3. A duty is something that is owed to some person or persons.

The first problem I see is that premise (1) is not clearly and obviously true. It is not obvious to me that a duty is always and necessarily ‘something that is owed’. Perhaps some duties are ‘something that is owed’, but in order to make a universal claim, a claim that ALL duties are ‘something that is owed’ we are owed a good reason to believe this claim.

Premise (2) seems less objectionable, more plausible on its face. However, there is an ambiguity in premise (2) and also in the conclusion. So, there is the possibility of the fallacy of equivocation here, and at least there is the likelihood of misunderstanding and unclarity.

Suppose that a friend of mine has a family emergency, and he asks me to take care of his six-year-old son for the weekend while he is out of town dealing with the emergency. I promise to take good care of his son for the weekend. Because I made this promise, I have a duty to take care of my friends son for the weekend. To whom do I have this duty?

I made the promise to my friend, so you could say that I owe it to my friend to keep the promise I made to him. On the other hand, I promised to take care of the boy, so I have a duty to take care of the boy. One could say that I have a duty towards the boy. It is the boy who will benefit from my care if I keep the promise, and it is the boy who will suffer if I fail to keep the promise, and the point of the promise was to assure my friend that the boy would be safe and cared for. So, care of the boy is my duty, and the object of my duty is the boy.

So, the expression ‘I have a duty to X’ seems ambiguous, at least in some circumstances, like when I make a promise to care for someone other than the person to whom I make the promise. There is the person to whom I have made the promise, and there is also the person to whom I have taken on the duty of caring.

The object of promised care, however, need not be a person. If my friend must go out of town for a family emergency, and he asks me to water his vegetable garden while he is away, if I promise to water it every day, then I have taken on a duty towards his garden which is obviously NOT a person. I make the promise to my friend, so there is a person to whom I have an obligation, but the object of the promise is, in this case, a garden not a person.

So, in the sense of the object of a duty, a duty need not always be ‘to a person or persons’. The object of a duty may be to a plant or to a non-human animal.

To be continued….

  • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

    Hi, Bradley.

    Good points.

    My two cents on this one:

    Normally, when someone posits a general ethical claim, theory, etc., the way to test it is to consider particular hypothetical scenarios in which we make intuitive moral assessments (after reflection, as much as possible), in order to see whether the general claim holds.

    But intuitively, we may consider the following scenario:

    Joe pours gasoline on a cat, and then sets her on fire. For fun. There are no other people around, the cat has no owner, and in fact Joe lives in a social group where people are okay with setting cats on fire for fun.

    Clearly, Joe behaved immorally, which entails (by the meaning of moral terms) that Joe had a moral duty not to set the cat on fire for fun.

    But that is not something owed to a person. Either it’s something owed to a cat, or it’s not something owed at all. In any case, it’s not owed to a person, and there is no need for there to be another person in order for there to be a moral duty.

    Granted, the theist might say that there is a duty to God. But a problem is that, when one assess intuitively in the proposed scenario that Joe acted immorally, one does not even need to factor in whether God exists, so there is no reason to suspect that God has anything to do with whether Joe’s actions are immoral.

    But it gets worse:

    In fact, the assessment remains even under the hypothesis that all people but Joe are dead, and that God does not exist. So, our intuitive moral assessment that Joe acted immorally even in a scenario in which God does not exist, and no person other than Joe exists, contradicts the general claims made by Craig (and by Taylor)-

    In other words, to the extent to which our moral intuitions tell us that Joe’s actions were immoral, our intuitions actually go against the general theory posited by Craig.

    Now, a theist might claim that the scenario that I’m considering is counterpossible, since [allegedly] God necessarily exists. However, that answer is untenable in the context of this metaethical argument for the existence of God, since:

    a. It assumes that God exists. That’s what the theist is trying to show in the first place.

    b. Moreover, the theist himself (Craig, for instance), also argues from scenarios that he deems counterpossible, when he assesses matters under the hypothesis that God does not exist, in order to attempt to justify premise 2 of the argument.

    Also, a theist might say that there is nothing immoral with the actions of Joe in the scenario under the assumption that God does not exist, and that my sense of right and wrong is mistaken.

    However, a decisive problem here (among many others) is that Craig’s metaethical argument for the existence of God appeals to the sense of right and wrong of those evaluating the argument in order to persuade. But precisely that sense of right and wrong tells me that Joe’s actions were immoral, so I ought to reject the argument based on that, and so do (at least) those others who also intuitively assess that Joe’s actions were immoral, even under the assumption that God does not exist.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Angra Mainyu said:

      But intuitively, we may consider the following scenario:

      Joe pours gasoline on a cat, and then sets her on fire. For fun. There are no other people around, the cat has no owner, and in fact Joe lives in a social group where people are okay with setting cats on fire for fun.

      Clearly, Joe behaved immorally, which entails (by the meaning of moral terms) that Joe had a moral duty not to set the cat on fire for fun.

      But that is not something owed to a person. Either it’s something owed to a cat, or it’s not something owed at all. In any case, it’s not owed to a person, and there is no need for there to be another person in order for there to be a moral duty.

      [...]

      In fact, the assessment remains even under the hypothesis that all people but Joe are dead, and that God does not exist. So, our intuitive moral assessment that Joe acted immorally even in a scenario in which God does not exist, and no person other than Joe exists, contradicts the general claims made by Craig (and by Taylor)-

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

      Response:

      Thank you for the excellent counterexamples to the conclusion of Richard Taylor’s argument.

      Taylor thinks that duties and obligations arise out of agreements and negotiations between persons. So ‘owing’ something to another person or being in debt to another person is a paradigm of obligation or duty, and such a duty or obligation to pay back a debt arises from an agreement between persons.

      If we have a duty to not torture cats, and if one has that duty even if one is the last person alive, living on a desert island with the last living cat, then this duty or obligation does not appear to be based upon an agreement between oneself and some other person.

      So, your counterexample not only works against Taylor’s specific conclusion, but it also works as an objection to his basic conception of the nature of duties and obligations as arising ONLY from agreements between persons.

      • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

        Thanks, and good points again.

        A question: Does Taylor go as far as to claim that duties require previous negotiations and/or agreements between people?

        That would seem to imply that say, the member of a tribe of humans wouldn’t be acting immorally if they attacked another tribe with which they have no agreement/negotiation, and engaged in acts of killing, theft, rape, and so on, which also is against our sense of right and wrong.

        In any case, for the reasons I gave earlier, I would say the cat argument (or similar ones, assuming that God does not exist if required) work against Craig’s metaethical argument more generally (i.e., even if we leave aside Taylor’s views on the matter).

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