An Objective Immoral Moral Law

My friend Squelchtoad has posed another useful thought example up at his interblag.  I’m excerpting below, but you should pop over and read the whole set up.  It’s targeted to people like me, who think morality exists in some objective, possibly neo-platonist way and therefore feel unsettled without a well-grounded moral philosophy.  Squelchtoad writes:

Suppose I could demonstrate to you beyond all possible doubt that one of the following two propositions was necessarily true:

  1. There does not exist a supreme being.
  2. There exists a supreme being (In the sense of an eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient creator of the universe) who commands that people rape one another, abandon any children they bear, and cause as much senseless pain as possible to humans and other animals[1].

Would you—could you—hope that (2) was the case instead of (1)? Are you prepared to hope for an “objective” Moral Law if that law will be deeply contrary to your current (ungrounded) moral beliefs, or do you simply want those beliefs validated? …Indeed, I worry that some people who abandon ethical convictions they hold in order to gain the certainty of a spelled out meta-ethical theory[2] may have fallen into a trap akin to the conjunction fallacy. People find stories with more specific information more plausible and likely, even though making a claim more specific makes it harder for it to be true! While it may feel easier to choose one meta-ethical theory than to be confident that “something-I-know-not-what” underlies your moral beliefs, that doesn’t mean you should do so, or that you need to in order to expound and act upon your moral beliefs.

I’ve had a post gestating for a while that now feels like a response to Squelchtoad’s challenge, so I’ll run it tomorrow.  Today, I’d like to know what your intuitions are.  The idea of an immoral objective morality is so bizarre to me that I instinctively flinch away when it’s proposed.   And that’s a reminder to go back to the Yudkowsky piece linked:

When you’re doubting one of your most cherished beliefs, close your eyes, empty your mind, grit your teeth, and deliberately think about whatever hurts the most. Don’t rehearse standard objections whose standard counters would make you feel better. Ask yourself what smart people who disagree would say to your first reply, and your second reply. Whenever you catch yourself flinching away from an objection you fleetingly thought of, drag it out into the forefront of your mind. Punch yourself in the solar plexus. Stick a knife in your heart, and wiggle to widen the hole. In the face of the pain, rehearse only this:

What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with. Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived. People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it. —Eugene Gendlin

So I’m screwing my courage to the sticking point and trying to see if Squelchtoad’s question actually relies on a contradiction or if he just managed to trigger a cognitive flinch by pointing me toward a reducto ad absurdum that holds one of my beliefs up to ridicule.

What tools would you bring to bear on this problem?  I did think of going back to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (an exploration of the problem of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac) and marshalling the absurd Knight of Faith be my champion in this fight.

But, to be honest, I’m still baffled by that book and its pro-paradox arguments, so I’m going with my usual technique: try and shift a philosophy problem into another abstract discipline for a new perspective (and to see which bits you have to excise to get it to fit in a new frame).

"Well, I would love to know if you now believe that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered."

Go Ahead, Tell Me What’s Wrong ..."
"Any chance of you ever addressing the evidence that led you to accept the truth ..."

Letting Go of the Goal of ..."
""Wow, an unevidenced assertion from a religious dipshite. "Your quotes are the evidence and reason ..."

This is my last post for ..."
""Congrats on leaving your brain behind!"Comments like yours are why lots of atheists leave atheism. ..."

This is my last post for ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tom

    I’m not yet sure exactly what the challenge is supposed to be, or maybe, what’s supposed to be challenging about it. (I take it by ‘objective morality’ we mean a set of moral laws that apply to you no matter what you believe and no matter who you are.)

    I don’t know whether I prefer overall that some objective morality exist. If it did, then there would be supererogatory and obligatory actions, but there would also be impermissible actions. Whether that’s a net gain probably depends upon how good humans are in general, given what we expect the objective morality to be. If humans are not very good, then we should hope that an objective morality doesn’t exist, right?

    I don’t know how one could be more sure of some applied ethics claim than one is of any metaethical theory, since I don’t know how one could understand an applied ethics claim without understanding it as within some metaethical theory. I don’t know what the content would be, without presupposing a metaethical theory. If I say I’m very sure that torture is wrong, the locution ‘torture is wrong’ doesn’t make any sense to me without some commitment to some metaethical theory.

    And I don’t know what the question of a Supreme Being has to do with metaethics. I don’t understand how any command could create an objective morality. I guess that just means it’s obvious to me that objective moral laws wouldn’t need to be “grounded” in anything, except, perhaps, the facts about the creatures (and parts of those creatures) they apply to. Why is torture wrong? Because pain is bad. I’m not really sure why that would need any other grounding.

    • Ray

      “I don’t know how one could be more sure of some applied ethics claim than one is of any metaethical theory, since I don’t know how one could understand an applied ethics claim without understanding it as within some metaethical theory.”

      Presumably the same way that mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics can agree that 2+2=4 while bitterly fighting over platonism/nominalism. Now I think the whole meta-mathematics thing is a definitional argument (Specifically regarding the definition of the word “exist” as applied to numbers. does that make me a nominalist?) and I think metaethics is a definitional debate as well. But even if this weren’t the case, there are plenty of examples where knowledge of the fundamental properties of a thing are not necessary to make predictions in practice. After all we knew salt dissolved in water long before we knew that water was H2O and salt was NaCl.

      • Tom


        Thanks for your comment.

        I agree that people can agree over an “applied” claim in math, such as that 2+2=4, while disagreeing over what that means. What I was trying to say in my comment is that I’m not sure how you could easily compare your credence in the proposition that 2+2=4 with your credence in the proposition that, say, mathematics is platonistic. By believing that 2+2=4, aren’t you already believing in some metaphysics of mathematics? (One way to think about this is that the “applied” beliefs are actually kind of conjunctions of beliefs (that 2+2=4 and that ‘2+2=4 means such-and-such’), and so at the very least, it seems, your credence in the applied belief should always be no higher than your credence in the metaphysical belief.

        So yes, we can make predictions without knowing the fundamental natures of things. But that’s consistent with not being able to assign a credence to some belief without that belief having some definite meaning. I guess you could remain agnostic about what your claim means, but even then, I’m not sure I could identify how confident I am in that belief. (How confident am I in the truth of a sentence, such that I don’t know what the sentence means?)

        In sum, then, I’m just suggesting that I find it hard to believe some applied claim without thereby believing some meta-claim that explains what the applied claim means.

        • Ray

          “I find it hard to believe some applied claim without thereby believing some meta-claim that explains what the applied claim means.”

          This seems problematic. Can you imagine believing the meta-claim without some meta-meta-claim that explains what the meta-claim means? Because if not, you would need to believe an infinite number of claims before you believed anything.

          • Tom


            We can solve this problem in the same way that we solve the problem of infinite regresses of definitions. Namely, we don’t need that infinite regress there, either. Let’s look at some example claims:

            Applied: Torture is wrong. (Insert ceteris paribus and pro tanto qualifications of course.)
            Metaethical: Wrongness is objective. (And we’d need a definition of ‘torture’ too.)
            Meta-meta: ‘Objective’ means ‘mind-, stance-, and identity-independent.’

            Certainly we’ll end up with further definitions, but there isn’t some general problem with not understanding what our phrases mean. We know what our phrases mean, even though we can’t have infinite beliefs, because the definitions actually do stop somewhere. (Often we can’t verbalize those definitions, but we do possess those concepts.)

            My suggestion is that at bottom, the definitions will be pretty much univocal. But ‘wrong’ certainly isn’t univocal. (At least, many ethical anti-realists, constructivists, etc. claim it isn’t.) So we do need to ask for further definitions of the terms with obscure meanings, but it doesn’t go “all the way down.” At the level of the applied claim, there’s room to question what ‘wrong’ actually means, but at the base level, there isn’t room to question, e.g., what ‘is’ means.

          • Ray

            I agree with your resolution of the infinite regress problem. However, it seems to cast doubt upon your intuition that moving from the applied to the meta always increases the stakes as far as whether a statement will be true or false.

            Which brings me to what I think is the crux of the problem as far as ethics goes:

            “‘Objective’ means ‘mind-, stance-, and identity-independent.’”

            Now there’s a tangential problem, which is that you don’t specify whose mind, stance and identity are supposed to be irrelevant, but let’s just stick with the person who uttered the moral claim. So if I say killing is wrong, I can evaluate the truth of that statement without knowing whether it would also be true if you said it. And I can evaluate whether it would be true when you repeat it, without worrying whether a hyperintelligent alien, speaking a completely different language could utter a synonymous true claim in its native language.

            The point is, the applied claim, by being uttered by a specific person in a specific language within a certain cultural context and intended audience in mind, renders metaethical considerations about whether the applied claim would remain true in various alternate realities, completely moot.

          • Tom


            I meant everyone’s minds, stances, and identities are irrelevant.

            I don’t understand why you believe your last paragraph; could you elaborate? Surely anyone from any culture could assert the objective wrongness of some action. All they would have to say is (e.g.), ‘it is objectively wrong to torture a child.’ And as far as I can tell, whenever you assert that something is wrong, you either mean that it’s objectively wrong, or non-objectively wrong, or something else. You must mean something, right?

          • Ray

            OK. Here’s a non-moral example of what I’m talking about. Suppose I say I was assaulted by a 200 pound man in the London subway. Now, I may be talking about the man’s mass or the man’s weight. However, the police officers can round up suspects without worrying about that subtle difference in meaning. The man assaulted me on Earth, where there’s a 1 to 1 conversion between the two. If I had been on mars instead, the police may be looking for either a very obese man (would weigh 600 pounds on earth), or a relatively average one depending on whether I meant pounds as a unit of force or pounds as a unit of mass. And by the way, people fairly often will talk about an 800 pound gorilla or a pound of gold, for example, without knowing whether they’re talking about gravity independent pounds or gravity dependent pounds.

            As far as morality is concerned: one of us is very confused. However you seem to be claiming that “torturing children is wrong” is a matter of less certainty than “wrongness is objective,” despite the fact that there are lots of people on this very thread defending claims along the lines of “objective morality is an incoherent concept,” while pretty much no one is arguing against the claim that “torturing children is wrong.” How on earth do you explain this phenomenon?

    • leahlibresco

      Hey, Tom, can you expand on this:

      I don’t know whether I prefer overall that some objective morality exist. If it did, then there would be supererogatory and obligatory actions, but there would also be impermissible actions. Whether that’s a net gain probably depends upon how good humans are in general, given what we expect the objective morality to be. If humans are not very good, then we should hope that an objective morality doesn’t exist, right?

      I’d rather have a duty to others and fail it than be free of all obligation, but maybe I don’t understand what you’re saying here.

      • Tom


        I haven’t really thought about this kind of question before your post, but here’s what I think.

        Either there are objective moral obligations or there aren’t. If there aren’t, then nothing is “really really” wrong, but nothing is “really really” morally good either. If there are, then lots of things people actually do are morally wrong, but lots of other things people do are morally good.

        If we thought that people are generally good (given that moral reasons exist at all), then we might hope that moral reasons do exist, because then lots of goodness would exist. But if we thought humans were generally morally bad (given that moral reasons exist at all), then we might hope that moral reasons not exist, because if they did, lots of badness would exist. And badness is of course a bad thing.

        Here’s a way to think about it. We might think that moral failings are axiologically bad. We would then prefer a world with fewer moral failings in it. If there are no moral obligations, then there are no moral failings, and so one type of bad thing wouldn’t exist. So consider two worlds:
        (w1) infinitely many and all moral agents continually commit objective moral wrongs;
        (w2) infinitely many and all moral agents continually commit actions that if objective morality existed, would be morally wrong; but objective morality doesn’t exist.

        I would much prefer (w2) to exist than (w1), because (w2) is much better: it lacks a huge amount of badness. So given contingent facts about the moral character of the world’s moral agents, we might have different judgments about which kind of world we would prefer to exist.

        Therefore, I guess I wouldn’t agree with you that failing one’s duty would be better than being free of all obligation. At least ceteris paribus, I think it would be better if the world contained fewer failed obligations than more.

  • Maiki

    I would posit that if we lived in such a world where those were the *only* two sensible options, then we would live in a very different world than we do now, and it is very difficult to answer his hypothetical because the axioms of what is good and evil might be different. He also doesn’t posit that the supreme being is the supreme Good (but again, the non-supreme Good model of creation is very different from this model of creation), and thus, whether there is such a being, whether he is worth adoration or obedience.

    This hypothetical made me think of Speaker of the Dead, Xenocide, etc. books (the less good sequels to Ender’s Game). If life were drastically different than it is now, our moral goals might be different. But what is missing in his hypothetical is that to some extent, even if we believe morality to be objective, the implementation of morality does depend on our real contingent material and spiritual properties.

    Also: what is the goal? Hope looks towards something. To what end do we hope for anything? If we hope for objective morality, we hope for it for some greater Good, since objectivity is not in itself the highest good. Absent from his hypothetical is the notion of what is Good. Which I guess is a clearer restatement of the first point. But if we lived in a world where one of those scenarios were true, we would hope the one that is true to be the one which lets us attain the highest Good.

    • leahlibresco

      Hope looks towards something. To what end do we hope for anything? If we hope for objective morality, we hope for it for some greater Good, since objectivity is not in itself the highest good.

      This is something I’ve gone back and forth on a lot. It’s something I ended up discussing a lot with the Dominicans. Contemplating the Good seems pretty delightful to be going on with, but I know Aquinas rejects it as a sufficient end-in-itself. There’s enormous pleasure in coming to understand the natural and metaphysical world in which I find myself, but I guess they’re right that possessing that knowledge as a hermit or armchair philosopher isn’t enough in itself. I want to be transformed by that knowledge, and I assume understanding means I also understand new obligations to act. But then we’re back to defining/describing telos.

  • Mytheos Holt

    So I don’t usually comment on your stuff, because I’ll be honest, your grasp of stats is way above mine, but this one is fascinating. It seems that to me that there has to be at least some risk of his second scenario being the case, assuming there is a Supreme Being that is literally infinite orders of magnitude more intelligent than we are. That is, assuming that intelligence involves the capacity to recognize nuance or process information at a higher level. Without getting into the “God is Cthulhu argument,” I’ll just say that even at a purely utilitarian level, which is at least comprehensible to the human brain, it’s quite possible that a being that smart might be able to reason out the chain reaction of objectively good events that would result from one person being raped, or from one race being devastated, and would morally mandate that it happen, given those eventual results.

    Of course, if you’re looking for an a priori or Platonist system, things get more complicated, because then results don’t even factor in and you’re left with the Glaucon vs Socrates argument, which being a good Straussian, I have to say Glaucon actually wins, though you may disagree (and indeed, I think in order to refute the argument, you have to disagree). However, if objective morality really does run counter to our basic moral impulses, this raises the question of why – that is, what’s wrong with humanity. You could certainly formulate a bizarre semi-Christian answer based on original sin, or another appeal to human nature, but I think that would raise more questions than it answers. Like what the hell the original sin in question would be. Compassion? Decency? And if humans are irrevocably hardwired to do immoral things, then is there a point being concerned what objective morality is, if it will just destroy our ability to function?

    • I don’t think, when we’re talking about moral impulses, we’re talking about an irrevocable hardwiring to do immoral things. We’re instead talking about a difficult-to-revoke hardwiring to /prefer/ to do things that are in some cases immoral, and quite likely some difficult-to-revoke software (culture) to prefer to do things that are in some cases immoral, as well. This is a big difference–it does not make objective morality pointless, because objective morality would not destroy our ability to function in that case.

      And what’s wrong with humanity could be as simple as the fact that our successful evoution has not made us more moral (or, if ethics proceeds from epistemology/metaphysics, you could add “more rational”). It has merely made us better at propigating our genetic material. That, after all, is what evolution does.

      Your first paragraph brings up another thought experiment that I’ve often wanted to try on consequentialists who find deontology (or divine command theory) unpalatable: if of a finite and knowable set of possible courses of action, the one that causes the least pain and the most pleasure required that you engage in a campaign of rape and genocide, would you be willing to do it? Could you still say that, despite this leads to the best of all currently possible results, a purely consequentialist ethics is tolerable? (This is one of the brilliant elements of The Watchmen that people sometimes miss; it hits hard at consequentialism, or at least asks you to participate in the above thought experiment.)

      • Patrick

        Imagine this hypothetical: You find out that your child is special. Specifically, if you hack him into little pieces with an ax and then eat the pieces, he will feel no pain, suffer not the slightest bit of fear, reappear completely healthy a few moments later, and his college fund will magically fill with enough money to send him to Harvard. Would it be morally wrong to hack your child to pieces with an ax and then eat them?

        Chances are you have moral intuitions against doing such a thing. BUT! Your moral intuitions are calibrated for a world in which murder and cannibalism hurt people. The fact that you feel revulsion at the idea of doing such a thing is NOT a sign that the thing is somehow wrong even under the assumptions of the hypothetical. Its a sign that you haven’t internalized the hypothetical. And that’s ok! Its ok not to emotionally internalize outlandish hypotheticals! But you should be very careful about conclusions you draw from that inability.

        You can have that insight for free. It cost me about twenty grand in law school debt. For the first year or so, about half of what you do is learn to suppress your intuitive rejection of the plausibility of the premises in hypothetical cases in order to engage your critical faculties upon their actual text. Once you recognize the game, the game gets easy.

        • leahlibresco

          I think you’ve put your finger on why this question is so hard/bizarre to contemplate.

        • OK… I’m not sure what you’re responding to, since I’m completely with you on this, and didn’t say otherwise.
          In my thought experiment (which is different from the one Leah gives, and is instead related to Mytheos Holt’s question of a supreme being who knows that OT-style massacre is actually the best possible route), the rape and genocide do produce huge amounts of pain and suffering on the victims, but still turns out nonetheless produce the world with the least possible suffering in total. This is no magic baby that feels no pain; it is people who feel lots of pain, and they get it because it means that there will be less pain overall. Can we stomach that? Or, if that’s too close to moral intuitions that may be wrong, can we intellectually condone that? Because this kind of consequentialism is one answer to the question about why God ordered Joshua to take Jericho: in the long run, the answer goes, this action would produce /less/ suffering, and God knows this. This answer sounds inpalatable…but it is a problem with consequentialism (or some sort of naive or brute consequentialism, anyway; there could be more sophisticated versions), not with divine command/deontology. So I’m taking what Mytheos Holt said, but taking out the Supreme Being to see if the weaknesses and strengths are still the same. (To me, it seems they are.)

          • Patrick

            No, you don’t agree with me.

            There’s no problem for consequentialism here. If you actually posit that genocide makes the world better, than per hypothesis genocide is a good idea. Whatever abhorrence you have at the pile of corpses from the genocide should be assuaged by the greater amount of lives saved and brutality prevented, per hypothesis. But… its a silly hypothesis, so your emotions don’t acknowledge its premises.

            The reason that offends our intuition is because genocide doesn’t actually make the world better, and our intuitions are crafted using that background knowledge.

            A genocide that makes the world a better place is as believable as a child who comes back to life without suffering harm (and gains a million dollars!) if you chop him up and eat him. Intuitions operate by aggregating a great deal of information about the world, and synthesizing it quickly. If you ask people to make intuitional judgments about things that contradict large amounts of the background knowledge that informs their intuitions, their mental gears clash and they get weird outcomes, or just plain fail to do what you asked of them.

            If you dial down the hypothetical to something plausible, you’ll actually get meaningful data about our intuitions. If a fighter jet had managed to get into position to shoot down one of the flights that hit the twin towers, would it be wrong to take the shot if the pilot waited until the last second and the only possible outcomes remaining were the finite set of him shooting and the plane hitting the tower? Heck, if your enemy builds his military factories in civilian cities, is it wrong to bomb them if you know some bombs will miss and kill civilians, but doing so is the only way to end the war swiftly and stop greater suffering and death?

            These are just your genocide scenarios, except adjusted to match things that happen in real life. Instead of a magical future good that is completely undefined and therefore unevaluatable by our subconscious intuitions, we have actual concrete goods. And instead of this future good coming about under an implausible scenario (genocide leads to YAY! somehow!), we have scenarios which actually happen. Well, a fair number of people find the examples I gave to be morally acceptable, and in accord with their moral intuitions. There’s your data.

            As for Jericho… philosopher please. An omnipotent entity couldn’t come up with a solution that involved less murder? Really? That’s not even a serious argument. I know it gets made, but… its just phoning it in.

  • Quinn White

    Kierkegaard seems like one very fruitful approach. The dude is a baller. But the value of paradox presumes a religious orientation, and so might be less useful.

    I would, though, perhaps consider some different philosophical approaches, although judging from your Facebook post about this article, at least one of them may not be one with which you are very content. His challenge rests on a few assumptions. First is that in the contrafactual universe with perverse would be one in which we have the same moral intuitions as before. This is far from obvious, if not rather unlikely. I would argue that our intuitions are informed by our conscience, which is itself either informed by some conduit with the divine merely or by education, social conditioning, and/or our natural tendencies & desires. If we are conceding that some divinity exists, it would be at least as, if not more, plausible to think that this God would make his will known to us through in some manner like a conscience. Thus, humans in such a world would have corresponding intuitions. Clearly this doesn’t fix the ugliness of this potential world, but it at least, I think, shows a flaw in Squelchtoad’s argument. And while not a knock-down counter, it is at least, I think, worth considering.

    The second presumption, which I understand you may actually accept, is that morality lies outside of us in some way. I think, in line with both Aristotelian and Kantian traditions, that this is a wholly unsuitable account of morality. Morality, I argue, is constituted by us, as humans. One can take this as Aristotle did: to be moral is to be an excellent human being, i.e., to be what human beings are meant to be, to fulfill the end of human kind, be it conformity with God’s will, virtue, or some such universal telos of humans as such; or as Kant did: to be moral is to participate in the faculty of reason and in so doing act autonomously, not heteronomously. While a reconstruction of either the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics or the Groundwork would not be the best here, I trust the thrust of the objection can still be clear: Squelchtoad is positing a world in which one has to conform oneself to a heteronomous and twisted will that sets the terms of morality. I don’t think that’s what morality is; it’s not an external set of dicta. Rather it is internally constituted. (Even an Aristotelian who says excellence is conformity with God’s will is still taking a position that what one ought to do is grounded on the self first, and only God by virtue of the self.) So in such a world, if humans were the same, then morality would be the same. It is also worth pointing out that this view isn’t, at least prima facie, contrary to Abrahamic religions. Such a religious and yet Kantian person would say something like: God’s commands are vocalizations of the self-constitued law, a law which he has made in virtue of the fact that he shaped us.

    • keddaw

      1. Morality is objective and doesn’t need a god to give it to humans. Indeed, a claimed omnibenevolent, or good, god would be limited by having to follow that objective morality (somewhat reducing its claimed omnipotence and/or free will).
      2. Morality objective and handed down from god. This means whatever god says is good and is therefore completely arbitrary based on what god thinks. It also means good has no meaning other than being in accordance with god’s wishes. Any act or commandment of god that appears immoral is merely a problem in our perception. The concept of an omnibenevolent god makes no sense here as what is good is what god wants therefore god is omnibenevolent by definition.
      3. Morality is not objective.

      Those are our choices. Squelchtoad has made number 2 less familiar and less appealing. God orders things that we consider immoral and so we are forced into seeing that we require/want an external being to give us objective morality but that that morality might not be what we currently think we want it to be. It pushes ‘god as an arbitrary but objective source of morality’ vs. ‘no need for god due to objective morality’. This is useful for those people who think they wouldn’t want to live in a world where morality didn’t come from god as it suggests a world where god’s morality and their own didn’t match up (cough) and asks would they really rather live in that world than one where god isn’t an external law giver?

      • keddaw

        Sorry Quinn, this wasn’t supposed to be a reply to you but a comment on its own.

      • Ted Seeber

        How can objectivity exist without the concept of a God?

      • DeoDuce

        “Good” is God’s will because He is Good. He is the epitome of Goodness, and the things we know to be good are good because they match up with Him. His perfect goodness doesn’t encroach on his free will, rather, it defines Him. A thing without definition cannot will anything, there are bounding lines that define us. Besides, why would a perfect God want to do something evil anyway? It would completely go against His nature.

      • keddaw

        @Ted Seeber,
        Not that objective morality does (the concept of morality is muddled), but objective things can exist without the concept of a God: a subset is always smaller, or at lest never bigger, than a superset of that thing (mathematicians/logicians, please correct me if I’m wrong on that!); 7 is always bigger than 3; and a few other concepts, esp. logic.

        Good has lost all meaning. Once we state that good is what god wills then obviously god is the epitome of Goodness because we have defined it circularly!

  • deiseach

    There’s two different questions here: which universe would we prefer to be true, and which universe is true.

    Obviously, if Squelchtoad or anyone else could prove the second to be objectively true, then it wouldn’t matter what we might like to be true, we would have to deal with the reality that the universe was set up in a certain way. Then we come to the question which I think he is asking: would we change our moral beliefs in that case?

    If we feel that an objective moral standard is necessary to underpin and give substance to our moral intuitions, what would we do if the objective reality was a moral standard in opposition to the one we felt was the truth? We seem to be left with the choice between adopting what we feel to be evil or wrong or false morals, or to deny objective reality.

    IUnfortunately, denial of objective reality will not get us far. I mean, I’d like to be able to float in the air at will, but I have to deal with the inconvenient reality of gravity; very inconvenient, if I fall downstairs or out a window or off a cliff. Same way if I would like a universe where the Supreme Being favoured mercy, love and justice, but instead I get murder, seize the advantage whereever possible, and only survival counts.

    Hm – that reminds me of something; aren’t we supposed to be living in that existential universe already, where our moral intuitions are objectively meaningless, the universe is red in tooth and claw, and whatever rights and responsibilities we may adopt are purely subjective methods of us giving meaning to the meaningless and inevitable victory of entropy? So how does Squelchtoad manage with living in a universe where the law of nature is ‘do whatever it takes to get the advantage’ and fighting against his or her natural instincts in order to be kind, fair and just?

    • anodognosic

      Can we just make one thing clear and pass it on? A universe with no objective morality is not one in which the law of the jungle rules. It’s just a universe with no objective morality. Which is to say, if there is no objective morality, it’s not the law of the jungle that rules. It’s no law. There’s this idea that in the absence of objective morality, everything defaults to self-preservation and self-interest. This is patently untrue. So please, everyone, take note and pass it on.

  • Tim

    Tom, I think you’re missing a step or two. Hume pointed out that one can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, and I’m not sure pain’s intrinsic discomfort is a sufficient grounding for your moral conclusion – that ‘is’ can’t support your ‘ought.’ Torture is wrong, because pain is bad – and it’s wrong to inflict pain on others. Now we have an ought, a moral element. Why is it wrong to inflict pain on others? There are several possible answers, some of which work together: human dignity, equal rights, in everyone’s interest, and so on. But you can’t jump to the moral fact that pain is wrong from the physical fact that pain feels bad, without something in between to make the transition.

    As for Squelchtoad – what a great name – I share the discomfort with the idea of an arbitrary divine command theory, and with conflating divine command theory with a transcendent grounding for morality and meaning. Those seem very different concepts to me; a divine grounding for morality and meaning couldn’t be arbitrary, because the metaphysics is supposed to be grounded in the nature of God. Which just, you know, is.

  • Patrick

    “The idea of an immoral objective morality is so bizarre to me that I instinctively flinch away when it’s proposed.”

    He didn’t ask about an immoral objective morality. He asked about an objective morality that doesn’t match your moral beliefs. Imagining that isn’t hard- there are real world groups who believe that morality is objective, and that its tenets are things I find repulsive. You probably feel the same way about at least some. If you have trouble going all the way to intentionally causing maximal suffering, just go with something simple and presently existent- the beliefs of just about every conservative religious group out there about the proper role of women.

    In any case, objective morality is probably incoherent. So, yeah.

  • Writes Chesterton:

    The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it—because it is a fact. Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey.

    Translation: We already believe this universe is run by terrors, either the terrors of demons or the terror of a metaphysical void.

    Which is the greater terror? That there is no order and all our efforts are chaff, which will only crush us, or that there is a terrible order under which all our efforts are chaff, which will only crush us? Between the fires of Hell and a hellish cold, I deny preference. Neither is worth preference.

    Notably, Chesterton continues —

    What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

  • Squelchtoad is relying on a divine-command conception of ethics, not ethical rationalism. From the Thomistic perspective, the bad god in option 2 should actually be disobeyed because it is not commanding human flourishing. Human nature cannot flourish under such conditions as those commanded. The commands are therefore irrational, those who accepted the commands would suffer and go extinct, while the rejecters would most likely do better (assuming they could fend off the believers until they extincted themselves, which is always a problem).

    The question, however, is much more interesting for another species, say sand tiger sharks.
    For sand tiger sharks, cannibalism of siblings is a mandatory part of flourishing (somewhat reminiscent of the BabyEaters in Yudkowsky’s “Three Worlds Collide”). Were sand tiger sharks intelligent, then a good god’s command to them would be for their intrauterine offspring to eat each other. A bad god would command them not to eat each other. Such cannibalism is mandatory for sand tiger shark flourishing.

    Humans are not sand tiger sharks. We flourish in the ways that we do, ways which other species might find quite disturbing (“technology! eww!”). Which is why natural law ethics is specific to the natures of individual species, and is not generalizable across them.

  • 1. Morality is objective and doesn’t need a god to give it to humans. Indeed, a claimed omnibenevolent, or good, god would be limited by having to follow that objective morality (somewhat reducing its claimed omnipotence and/or free will).
    2. Morality objective and handed down from god. This means whatever god says is good and is therefore completely arbitrary based on what god thinks. It also means good has no meaning other than being in accordance with god’s wishes. Any act or commandment of god that appears immoral is merely a problem in our perception. The concept of an omnibenevolent god makes no sense here as what is good is what god wants therefore god is omnibenevolent by definition.
    3. Morality is not objective.

    Those are our choices. Squelchtoad has made number 2 less familiar and less appealing. … This is useful for those people who think they wouldn’t want to live in a world where morality didn’t come from god as it suggests a world where god’s morality and their own didn’t match up (cough) and asks would they really rather live in that world than one where god isn’t an external law giver?

    keddaw has grasped exactly what I wanted to show in my post. If you think you’d confidently be able to say that the Creator Being was wrong in the universe I described, then you don’t actually believe that a satisfying meta-ethical account necessarily requires the existence of God.

    The only thing I’d add to keddaw’s analysis is that some people believe that keddaw’s case (1) still requires God to exist, but in some role that differentiates case (1) from case (2). Some natural law theorists on this blog , for instance, believe that (they can correct me if I’m wrong) case (1) is only possible with God. I wonder whether they’re not actually positing case (2).

    I want to know why in my proposed universe the following wouldn’t be the case. The Creator Being created humans in order for them to suffer and commit acts of violence, and then commanded that humans make this so. Isn’t suffering and causing suffering then humans’ Creator-given telos? Doesn’t this make commanding that suffering “right” in an ethical system which claims that human telos, and hence the possibility of natural law morality, must derive from the will of a sentient Creator?

    Similarly, I don’t see how “God’s nature defines the Good” is functionally different from Divine Command Theory. “God’s nature defines the Good” and “What God commands is right” seem to me to describe the same reality, since God does not command except in accordance with His nature (unless you posit a Being capable of “immoral” action according to its own standard, but I think very few if any theistic ethical Platonists believe that is even possible).

    • Patrick

      Well, I don’t actually believe this, but in answer to your question in your final paragraph…

      Apologists generally attempt to draw this line: they claim that God is a necessary being, and that every aspect of God’s nature is necessary, so yes, God’s nature defines the Good, and yes, what God commands is right, and yes, God does not command except in accordance with his nature, but still, in spite of this, it isn’t possible for a being to be a God and to command evil because such a being would, necessarily, have a Good nature. Your proposed example of a God who commands evil is by that logic impossible, so deciding what would follow morally from the existence of such a God is a waste of time. It would be like trying to figure out the mathematical implications of 2+2=5 on every Tuesday.

      Their actual reasoning in support of this is terrible, of course. The concept of a necessary being is incoherent, and the idea of a necessary being’s traits being necessary doesn’t follow from it.

      • Even if you buy that into reasoning, I think that what it really implies is that a human in my hypothetical universe has to assume that causing and feeling suffering = the Good. In other words, it’s not obvious that “God necessarily is Good” can be made into “God necessarily is what we tend to think of as Good.”

    • I’ll just note that a bit less than two months ago a good deal of that discussion was already had on this here blog.

  • Daniel A. Duran

    What does God *commanding* something have to do with the existence of objective moral values? If God commanded us to rape and strangle babies it would not follow that we’re doing something morally right.
    Putting that aside, the article is not giving any reasons as to why it is possible for God to command us do what is morally wrong. Can God command us to hate him, for example? well, if God is the Good, perfect, an object worthy of worship, etc. then God commanding us to hate him would be an impossibility. It is not self-evident or obvious that God can command us to do evil, much less that God commanding us to do moral evil makes it good.

    • the article is not giving any reasons as to why it is possible for God to command us do what is morally wrong.

      Please see footnote [1] in the original post.

      • Daniel A. Duran

        “Please see footnote [1] in the original post.”

        I did, so what’s the problem?

  • It seems to me (and apparently also to people like Mytheos Holt, above) that it is potentially tricky to attempt to reason about what the nature of an eternal creator being must necessarily entail regarding “the Good.” I have not yet been convinced that “causing ‘senseless’ suffering is wrong” necessarily follows from the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and eternal creator being, even one that defines “the Good.” Conversely, I can’t prove to you that there does not exist such a proof. I concede that such a proof may well exist.

    If you are certain that the existence of an eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient creator being (or, as in the footnote, a Platonic Moral Law) implies commonsense morality, then my specific example need not trouble you. What I hoped to do by proposing the (somewhat extreme) thought experiment, though, was to raise the question of what we do when our moral beliefs and the purported meta-ethical grounds upon which we hold those beliefs lead us to conflicting conclusions. Which do we (and which should we) privilege, and when, and why?

  • Jack

    I highly recommend this essay by Steven Pinker. It makes a good case that there is such a thing as an innate moral intuition in humans, that it is the product of evolution through natural selection, and that the selective pressure was largely our great dependence on one another as members of a highly social species. This is not to say that all of morality is innate, only that its essential core is innate. We are highly flexible organisms, and we have greatly elaborated on our innate morality through cultural evolution. Also, there is genetic variation among us, and some of us have more or less of that innate moral sense than others.

    So, Leah, I suggest you drop the idea of seeking objective or external morality in anything godlike. There is a hint of such an objective morality, but it has arisen in our species through natural selection. Psychology and neuroscience are the most promising ways to understand it.

    As for how we can or should improve on it through cultural evolution, it seems to me we should stick to the general principle of trying to increase human flourishing, reduce suffering, and live sustainably and in harmony with the rest of the ecosystem. Which set of moral rules best achieves that, I don’t know, but we can always take an empirical approach: tweak the rules we have and see if the change gets us closer to those ideals.

  • I think there are two sub-questions here.
    #1 is if we are more confident of some of our moral intuitions than of our theory of morality.

    On that one I’ll say the answer is yes. If tomorrow the pope thought ex cathedra that God “commands that people rape one another, abandon any children they bear, and cause as much senseless pain as possible to humans and other animals”, I’d take that as a falsification of Catholicism. (Then I’d probably end up Orthodox rather than atheist, but that’s a different question.) But I’m quite sure that won’t happen, so it’s not particularly interesting except maybe as a rejoinder to the inalsifiability accusations of the dumber half of the atheist spectrum. Similarly if someone shows me a working perpetual motion machine tomorrow I’ll have to give up on the conservation of energy but I’m not loosing any sleep over this possibility.

    But I don’t think it makes sense to promote all our moral intuitions to that level of certainty. There’s no a priori reason to think my moral sense more reliable than my physical senses, so I should expect my moral intuitions to be wrong occasionally just as my physical perceptions are occasionally wrong. For example, there are some sins I am more tempted to than average and others I don’t find appealing even outside of moral considerations. Often my intuitions tell me the first kind is all very understandable and mild while the second kind is the really depraved stuff. So I’m basically a good person, it’s just those other folks who are monsters. And quite obviously my intuitions are lying and I need to beat them down continuously. So even if some of my moral intuitions are sure enough to override the theory there also is room for the theory to override some of my less sure intuitions. It’s really not that different from the relation between theories and sensual impressions of the material world.

    So I think the question of giving precedence either to the intuitions or to the theory is basically a false dichotomy.

    Given that some of my moral intuitions could theoretically falsify my moral theories question #2 is how I would react to a demonstration that all theistic accounts of morality were so falsified. That one is more of a debating trick trick than an argument. Technically the answer is that I would have to give up on objective morality because I’m already reasonably sure non-theistic accounts of it can’t work. But that’s like some relativist asking me if I wouldn’t have to accept some para-consistent logic if they provided me with ironclad proof of a logical contradiction in reality. Technically I would have to answer yes, but that doesn’t mean para-consistent logics provide a satisfactory account of reality. If you propose fictional evidence leading to a logical contradiction in reality you can derive absolutely anything from that. But that doesn’t mean absolutely anything is a life option, it simply means you don’t get to (validly) argue from that fictional evidence.

  • Timothy

    What do you think of the possibility of the source of an absolute, evil being, in light of Aristotle’s Metaphysics IX? Do you find his account convincing?

  • Daniel A. Duran

    Whether Aristotle toyed with the idea of an evil God, I do not know. But I know that he asserted that God knew nothing about the universe.

  • Ted Seeber

    The fallacy is that without a rational God, without the concept of a soul, the universe becomes either:
    a) so indeterministic that no science is possible
    b) so deterministic that free will is impossible.

    The concept of free will is not compatible with objective morality under science. ONLY if God exists *AND* one that created us in his image (Imageo Dei, the Spiritual Soul) can we have a universe where we are both morally free AND still have objective determinism on the macro scale (the micro, quantum scale I leave up to the idea of an omnipresent creator who is far enough in advance of us to defeat Hisenberg probability- not something we mere humans are likely to do in the near future).

    And if free will exists in a deterministic universe- mere cause and effect means that evil will exist, if not from OUR intention, then from OUR mistakes. No need to drag God into it at all.

  • Mark O’Neil

    First, classical Christianity and Judaism have always maintained that God is morally good because God is good by nature (i.e. objective moral goodness is inherent to God’s being and not a contingent and extrinisic attribute).
    Second, objective moral laws need to be foundationally identified (i.e. what is the root metaphysical law being expressed). An example of this would be identifying the foundational metaphysical laws for truth/being such as the law of noncontradiction and the law of excluded middle (and the opposites being the law of contradiction (i.e. falsehood and intentional contradiction the law of lying) and the law of added middle (which is also a law of falsehood and intentional added middle another law of lying) , or identifying the foundational laws of justice which is the law of equality and the law of complimentaries. Treat equal things equally and unequal things unequally. Treat complimentary things complimentarily and uncomplimentary things uncomplimentarily.

    Once the foundational laws of morality are identified and along their corresponding opposites (i.e. objective laws of immorality), one then clearly sees that both morality and immorality necessarily follow either one or the other set of laws. Furthermore, one will logically see that a good being is the natural order of being or metabeing since the existence of an utterly evil being is itself a contradiction of the law of noncontradiction (i.e. To “be” or exist itself assumes the law of noncontradiction is the natural order of being rather than not being or existing). In other words, existence itself assumes that not being or the contradiction to being is itself not the natural metaphysical law by which life or being operates.

    Furthermore, an evil being cannot be a creator since to create is itself assumes the law of noncontradiction in order to create and thus an evil being must do good in order to then corrupt the good or being that the evil being created. THEREFORE, evil cannot be a creator but only a destroyer.

    So if one carefully examines all the identified foundational objective laws of morality they all follow the same logical pattern. Evil can only corrupt the good and come into existence from a contingent good, but the good or more specifically a necessary good must always precede the contingently existing evil.

    Feel free to contact me to talk or discuss this more.

    Mark O.