A Dialogue on Morality: Response to Guy Walker (Pt 2)

A Dialogue on Morality: Response to Guy Walker (Pt 2) May 27, 2019

As regular readers will know, I am engaged in a debate concerning morality and whether, as humans, we are exceptional in comparison to the animal world or whether morality can be fully explained in the context of biological and natural evolution, without invoking some other mysterious unknown such as God or similar.

I set out that morality is an abstract object and does not exist outside of our minds, except in the properties of the actions we do. I then set out that morality is an emergent behaviour from evolution that sits on a spectrum in the animal world, one end at which we sit. Human morality could not have developed if the foundational traits and behaviours had not developed before us in our evolutionary line. Guy Walker replied to my first piece, and I rebutted that in Part 1 here. The next part follows before a  final one.

One can give various accounts of the creation of the universe and human beings and I’m not going to insist on any of them. For what it’s worth I believe in the Big Bang, Evolution and God and see no difficulty in entertaining all three ideas. I’m going to use a purely notional creator God to illustrate an idea though as a thought experiment. On the assumption that an omnipotent God created the universe does his omnipotence extend to meaning that he could fly in the face of logic by making, say, 2+2=5? My view would be not. This is because the rules of maths are embedded inexorably, in the fabric of the universe. God knew that 2+2 would always equal 4 and would consider it pointless to want it any other way. The moment of the act of creation always meant, God or no God, that 2+2 would equal 4. It can’t be any other way. This is not, in fact to limit the omnipotence of God because being able to make 2+2=5 is not what omnipotence means.

But this fails to address my first post and, indeed, in advance my second post where I discussed that abstract ideas do not exist objectively but conceptually in our individual minds. Maths is a point in case here – I would argue (as James A. Lindsay did in a book I edited, Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly) that maths is descriptive and is a map of reality but it should not be confused with the terrain. This is mathematical formalism as opposed to mathematical Platonism. There is some good philosophical debate as to whether logic is descriptive or prescriptive, and if it is in some way prescriptively objective, is it a priori or a posteriori? If objective and a priori, does it exist irrespective of God, necessarily, or did God create logic? Can he thereby act outside of logic as it is contingent upon him? These are the sorts of problems that theists must contend with. It is parallel to the Euthyphro Dilemma (as I discuss briefly in “God, Logic and the Euthyphro Dilemma”.

It’s the same with morality. Jehovah, on a bored afternoon, did not just dream up a special morality, like the rules of Monopoly, for the deontologists to slavishly follow purely in order to flex his muscles and show them who’s boss. If you set about creating (and, if you like, leave out here the idea of a creator God entirely as the point still obtains whatever led to our appearance on the planet) a conscious, self-aware creature that succeeds, as ants do, by living and co-operating socially the rules of morality will emerge inevitably and spontaneously the moment such creatures come into being. It is an attribute of their being as much a part of the fabric of humanity as maths is of the universe.

This is something I argued in the last piece and is indeed a huge problem with theistic deontology, which Guy does nothing to solve, though he does inadvertently point it out. God’s rules are arbitrary or at least might make right unless you employ moral reasoning to argue for those rules. But then moral reasoning holds primacy and you do not need God for morality, just moral reasoning. This is why theists hate consequentialism; it has no need for God. The last sentence is absolutely spot on, though not with ants (given sentient beings would need to have understanding of those moral behaviours, conceptually; and given a more richly defined version of morality).

A little aside here: the first good in human being is life and the first evil is death. As Schopenhauer demonstrated we have implanted in us a fierce ‘will to life’ that we were not consulted on that guarantees this and the further ‘will to reproduce’ (and thus perpetuate the good of life) is similarly implanted. This is why one of the first moral rules is ‘Thou shalt not kill.’

Schopenhauer: Man can do what he wills but cannot will what he wills.

Put such creatures in social proximity and morality springs up spontaneously the moment the first australopithicus steals a mammoth steak from his neighbour. The neighbour’s appetite (first) and then his innate sense of fairness is outraged and he kills his neighbour. This can’t go on as we soon degenerate into a Hobbesian state of nature and perpetual conflict. The same goes for sexual jealousy. The sense of injustice that emerged spontaneously from the situation of proximity and competition has to be codified into general social rules.

Nothing to disagree with here .

There is, therefore, necessity as in “morality is a conceptual construct that we create in order to navigate the world as a social species. Without it, society would fall apart.” But it’s not a construct but a codification of morality that has already spontaneously emerged from our situation and our moral instinct (for we were never moral tabulae rasae). Moses didn’t go up Mount Sinai to collect a set of random and unpredictable instructions. He went to get a codification of what was already there in people (Jehovah knew it would be there just as he knew 2+2 would equal 4 at the moment of creation) that functioned at the social level and in the social situation.

I don’t adhere to a tabula rasa theory of mind, and nor do any modern scientists or psychologists as far as I can tell (see Steven Pinker’s 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. There is an odd sleight of hand here where Guy seems to claim to be a deontologist but also agrees that morality emerges. confusion and/or conflation. If morality truly is an emergent property, then it is hard to argue that it is deontological, unless there is some interesting redefinition of “objective”.

The spontaneous emergence of morality (it could not not have emerged from the social situation) is really what the Adam and Eve story is about. They never existed and are an example of someone starting from human reality and then creating a retrospective myth or story to explain the present in symbolic terms of an imagined past. The point is that once you create a self-aware creature the descent into ‘knowledge’ and the political is inevitable and spontaneous. It’s built into the nature of the creature.

No it is not; Adam and Eve were prescribed moral rules dictated by God and embodied in the Tree of Knowledge. Again, Guy seems to inadvertently stumble across these huge theological problems for Christianity. As I set out in “Having a Chop at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil“:

Adam and Eve were ordered not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. An order without any gain to it is utterly arbitrary and would have no rational basis in following it without such. Are we to strip the whole event back to this: Adam and Eve are threatened with death if they don’t follow that order X; but they would have no understanding of death being bad or not following the order being morally bad. In other words, to not follow the order would be a scenario of 50/50 ambivalence. The consequence of doing it or not doing it would have equal moral or consequential value, due to not having the knowledge of good and evil (from the humans’ point of view).

If God is demanding they do not do something and threatens them with a deterrence, then they need to understand the moral value of the deterrence (as well as the action itself, one would hope), otherwise it is all rather pointless. The Adam and Eve scenario makes no sense. There is no scenario where punishing two people, and the rest of humanity forever, for breaking a rule over which they have no moral understanding is in any way acceptable.

If I punish a toddler for doing something which I understand to have moral consequences, but which I think the toddler wouldn’t understand, such as swatting their hands away from a flame, then this absolutely assumes that putting the hand in the flame is a bad thing. In other words, knowledge of morality is a bad thing, unequivocally so. Otherwise, Adam and Eve were being punished for achieving something that was a positive consequence. I can’t really make sense of this.

That should be enough for now. Rest to follow soon (only a little bit more).

 


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