God is supposedly some kind of ethereal disembodied mind. Except when he’s not. What this means is that he is a mind like our minds (since we are made in the image of God), just a lot better. He is the best mind there is (apart from when Trump is speaking).
So often, theists declare that God is the objective foundation of morality, meaning and any other abstract they care to add. However, for me, this merely translates as God’s desires (as far as it can reasonably be argued that he can coherently have desires), meaning and morality or moral proclamations being subjective. It’s just that that particular mind is somewhat better than our minds, when we make subjective value judgements, appraisals and whatnot.
“Objective”, in common philosophical parlance, means “mind-independent”. Theists argue that morality is objective because it is grounded in God, or in God’s mind, if you will. In other words, objective morality is actually subjective and not mind-independent. Unless the theist is arguing that morality exists in the actual fabric of reality – perhaps in mitochondrial DNA or in the ether of the universe, then it is not objective. And even if you could argue it exists in such ethers, then it is only there because God’s mind put it there.
I cannot make much sense of anything being objective, in a theistic framework, when there is such deference to God’s mind in every abstract context.
Does this then mean that the argument comes down to one of knowledge? Because God knows more than us (everything there is to know? The future? Every move I will ever, er, “freely” make?), then by saying moral rule X is objectively true is to say that God’s mind has subjectively ruled it thus and he knows everything, so there.
Might makes right.
Where might is knowledge.
But I still need to subjectively interpret any such God-subjective-objective value judgements, anyway. And there is also the “so what” response.
Let us move, then, to the idea that to have a purpose requires a purposer (someone to import purpose onto something else). “What is the purpose of a spade?” assumes that the spade has a purpose outside of itself to another entity, for a specific end (i.e. for a gardener to dig). Thus, the question with regard to life would imply there is another entity outside of humanity that can use humanity to achieve a certain end. In this case, humans serve a purpose rather than have a purpose. This obviously prompts the question of whether there is an entity outside of humanity that can give human life a purpose. Is there a Creator who gives us purpose? Assuming, though, that there is a god, and that we do indeed have an objective purpose, where does that leave us? I would go as far as to say, however (as mentioned), that given the objective purpose is provided by a god, it simply becomes a subjective purpose to that god. If the spade was sentient, and decided that it didn’t fancy being used to dig holes in my garden at my behest (I am the purposer here, the god), but wanted to take on a nobler cause of digging gardens in the community, and helping criminals rehabilitate their ways in a gardening program, then the spade is entitled to feel that their own purpose was superior (even if it was something less morally upstanding). As a god, I could chastise and cajole the spade, through punishment and reward, towards aligning its purpose with mine. But then objectiveness simply gets transformed into a consequentialist purpose, with the spade only adopting a purpose to avoid or gain the reward from me as the god. There is an intuitive lack of objectivity here in that the real purpose is the happiness of the spade, since pleasing me gives the spade less punishment and more reward. Thus objective purpose is replaced by subjective gaining of happiness.
In this way, just because a god might have a purpose for us, and this may be seen as objective, does not make it superior (which is indeed a completely un-measurable notion) to a subjective purpose set by ourselves. Furthermore, the notion of an objective purpose is rendered pointless or meaningless by this. If there is an objective purpose, the only ‘duty’ to follow it would be in terms of a consequence of punishment for not adhering to it, or reward for doing so. A sort of ‘so what’ to an objective purpose. Duties and ‘oughts’ are, in my opinion, conditional notions (an if … then idea). What I mean by this is there is only a duty to do something if there is a consequence to not doing it, or a reward for doing it. The duty of a schoolteacher to take the register at the beginning of the day may be for the following reasons:
· To avoid being disciplined by the school management
· To ensure that all the children are present, which in turn ensures that the school has accurate records
· To allow the teacher to know who is present so that he/she may alter their planning accordingly
· To ensure a thorough process is in place to facilitate child protection etc.
However, the register being taken is not a duty in and of itself. In other words, there is no objective duty; the teacher is not bound by having to (ought) take the register on its own merit. As long as there is a ‘because’ after the ought, then it is a conditional, consequentialist notion. I ought not punch a passer-by in the face because I will get in trouble for it; he might retaliate to my disadvantage; a sound society relies on decent and reliable behaviour; a sound society is beneficial for all concerned; and so on. As soon as there is no ‘because’, then a behaviour or action is committed on its own merit – there is true objective duty. However, I can see no situation whereby this causal circumstance exists. Even with God, as mentioned, we may have moral duties, but these duties exist within a framework of consequences and repercussions, positive and negative. Obviously, this is in direct opposition to the beliefs of moral absolutists or deontologists (such as Thomas Nagel) and Divine Command Theorists. Deontology seems to be under threat from itself, as expressed by the issues within the trolley problem. Deontologists get into trouble because part of their theory says that they should save the five by killing the one, thus reducing the Principle of Permissible Harm (PPH) by five. However, the PPH clearly states that the one should not be thrown in front of the trolley. Respecting the rights of five involves respecting the rights of the one, but involves the death of the five. As Jeremy Bentham stated, deontology looks rather similar to popular morality. Especially since, as John Stuart Mill added, when the rights conflict, no one can absolutely say which ones take priority. Deontology simply cannot provide an absolute moral guide.
From this, we can extrapolate that life is not an end in itself, but possibly a means to an end, and it is that end that we need to fathom out. The ought in life, like the register, is a means towards a goal.
Returning to the central point, though, we have an issue whereby morality and meaning is claimed to be objective, but it is really subjective. This could just be a semantic “meh”. What do theists gain by claiming something is objective? It is to say it is beyond reproach or challenge. “Objective” has this aura about it as a term, and that if your moral claim isn’t objective, it is weak and not fit for purpose. Well, a theist’s moral claim is subjective on two counts: 1) in their own interpretation and evaluation of said judgement; and 2) in the source material – from God’s mind.
In other words, I’m not really sure that claiming something is “objective” really brings much to the table. This is certainly something I’d like to think about more carefully in future posts.
 The thought experiment where someone has maliciously sent a trolley hurtling towards five innocent and immobile people at the end of a track. The only way to stop the trolley and save the five is to throw one innocent bystander in front of the trolley.
 Frances Kamm set out the principle which states that one may harm in order to save more if and only if the harm is an effect or an aspect of the greater good itself. Kamm argues that we believe it would be impermissible to kill one person to harvest his organs in order to save the lives of five others which is contrary to the trolley thought experiment.
- The Meaning of Life
- 16 Problems with Divine Command Theory
- My Views on “Objective&” Morality
- More on “Objective” Morality
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