A simple explanation of the moral argument

apologetics Philosophy Philosophy of Religion

Recently there has been some discussion here about the moral argument for theism, with a couple of correspondents announcing with great certainty (but unfortunately little else) that the argument is just terrible. I beg to differ. Today I appeared on an episode of the Unbelievable? radio show, hosted by Justin Brierley (actually we did two shows), and the other guest was atheist Arif Ahmed.

I’ll have some more things to say about the show another time (these discussions always leave one wishing that more had been said, or “I wish I had thought of this reply at the time!”, plus there are the inevitable structures of the radio show itself). For now, however, I just want to present the version of the moral argument that I used. What follows is the “prepared” version, as though I were giving a presentation on the argument – a very simple presentation, intended for a radio audience consisting of laypeople. Of course, in a discussion style radio show it wasn’t presented as one continuous explanation like this, and plenty of parts were left out – even important ones. Time is short on such occasions, so not everything gets said. But you get to read it anyway :) Here it is:

 

Moral facts have no place in a godless universe. This is sometimes used as a moral argument for the existence of God, as follows:

  1. If God did not exist, then there could not be any moral facts

  2. There are moral facts

  3. Therefore God exists

Premise 1) has its fair share of controversy, and I’ll come to that soon. But what if someone tries to avoid the force of the argument by denying 2)? I think that’s an implausible move, but it is a move that some people take. What’s more, the argument in this form, I think, is likely to seem a little too quick and easy, and therefore unpersuasive. We can actually revise the argument so that it can be accepted regardless of whether or not one believes in moral facts, and so that, I think, its steps a little better explained, like this:

  1. If there are moral facts, then their basis is either natural or supernatural (where these two are construed as mutually exclusive categories)

  2. The basis of moral facts is not natural

  3. Therefore if there are moral facts, then their basis is supernatural

  4. The most plausible way to think of a supernatural basis of moral facts is in terms of a supernatural person who brings moral facts about.

  5. Therefore, if there are moral facts, the most plausible way to think of their basis is in terms of a supernatural person who brings moral facts about.

Premise 1 is to be construed as analytically true. Premise 3 could be removed, as it is just the inference of 1-2. But they are there to make the argument easier to follow.

Now obviously a number of these premises need to be defended, but some are, I think, more or less self-evident. The first premises is pretty hard to deny: If there are moral facts, then they do have a basis. All facts have a basis, that is, they have a certain state of affairs that makes them facts rather than fictions. There are circumstances that make them both possible and actual. I’m sitting here in a chair, and this is made possible by the fact that physical objects exist and more specifically chairs exist, by the fact that chairs exist, the existence of gravity and so on. And if there are moral facts then there are indeed states of affairs that make moral fact claims true. They have some sort of basis. And since the natural and the non natural are mutually exclusive, that is, they cover all possible options, then there’s just no avoiding it: If there are any moral facts then their basis has to be either natural or supernatural. The third and fifth claims: each beginning with the word “therefore” are simply the logical entailment of the claims that came before, so it’s hard to argue with those without rejecting one or both of two crucial claims, and it’s those two claims that really form the heart of this argument. Specifically, premises two and four need to be defended: The claim that the basis of moral facts is not natural, and the claim that the most plausible way to think of a supernatural basis of moral facts is in terms of a supernatural person. If these claims can be presented as plausible then you’ve really got to grant the argument as sound.

I think that these two premises can be defended quite plausibly. Let’s start with the claim that the basis of moral facts is not natural. Obviously this is a real bone of contention, because a large number of atheists consider themselves moral and also recognise a lot of things in the world around them as either moral or immoral: Charity is morally good. Rescuing prisoners of war is morally good. The pursuit of justice, love and so on. Most atheists also believe that some things are morally wrong: Child molestation, torturing people for fun, greed etc. When people in general – atheist or otherwise – see these things, we don’t just think “well that’s not in keeping with our social norms.” We actually think that as a matter of fact those things ought not to be done. And given that atheists in general believe this, they are hesitant to believe that moral facts couldn’t be natural, because a thoroughgoing atheist worldview is, I think, best construed as entirely naturalistic. There is nothing other than what is natural, so if moral facts aren’t natural, then we’d have to doubt that they exist at all, which seems enormously counter-intuitive in light of what people tend to find themselves instinctively knowing about the world.

But could moral facts just be facts of nature? I don’t think so. I know that some atheists have tried to argue that moral facts are just natural facts with no need of a divine lawgiver, but I don’t see that they’ve been very successful. The reason is that moral facts have to do, not with the way that things just are in the world, but rather to do with the way that things should be in the world. But if the world is not here for a reason – If unintended nature is all there is – then there simply is no way that things were meant to be. Natural facts are facts about what is, not facts about the way things should be. We observe animals killing and eating each other and we don’t regard it as a moral atrocity because it is merely a fact of nature. It is that way. But if natural facts are the only kinds of facts, then the same is true of human beings, surely. People maim and torture each other, they rape, exploit and terrorise each other, and that is they way it is.

What then of the fourth premise: That the best way to to think of a supernatural basis of morality is in terms of a supernatural person? Well, if we’ve got to think of morality having as its basis something that’s not part of nature, how should we think of it? If we adopt a very platonised view of reality, where there exist non natural things like the forms, or the ideas of things like trees, steam engines, and more abstractly still, “the good,” I don’t think we get very far. You’ve heard the supposedly mysterious question, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Well the idea of platonic forms are more mysterious still – they are like conscious thoughts that exist even with nobody to think them. What’s more, the free-floating non-natural and non personal thing called goodness surely isn’t the sort of thing that could have intentions, and it is this normative or intentional aspect of morality that makes it what it is, namely a set of prescriptive duties. The only kinds of things that have intentions are personal things, namely persons.

So this leaves us with a sound argument and therefore a true conclusion: If there are moral facts, the most plausible way to think of their basis is in terms of a supernatural person who brings moral facts about.

So there’s the basic argument, but let me just make four brief observations about the argument.

Notice firstly that this more nuanced version of the moral argument doesn’t prove that God exists. What it establishes is that if there are moral facts, then they are best explained by a supernatural person who is the source of moral truth. But I think that the existence of a being like that is obviously not compatible with philosophical naturalism, the belief that the natural universe is all there is: Matter, energy and nothing else. So what we have is a contingent claim. If moral facts exist, then philosophical naturalism is false and there exists, for want of a better term, something like a God.

Notice secondly that this argument has a further logical consequence: If no supernatural person exists, then there are no moral facts. That is the real kicker here, and I think that’s why a number of atheists are, on an emotive rather than intellectual level, so strongly opposed to the moral argument for theism. The moral argument effectively says to them that they are denying that moral claims are true, and who wants to be in that position? The thought that your position results in the enormously counter-intuitive and rather shocking claim that, for example, raping and torturing young girls just for your own pleasure isn’t in fact morally wrong is a pretty bitter pill to swallow. You might think that I’m intentionally using emotive examples here. Well of course I am, and that’s the point. The example is emotive precisely because it evokes in us the involuntary reaction of moral shock. It seems screamingly obvious to atheists, as it does tot he rest of us, that such acts are utterly wicked, and the thought that an atheist is taking away our basis for saying so is therefore unbearable, hence the emotive rather than rational resistance to the moral argument.

Third, the moral argument for theism is not at all tied to any one idiosyncratic version of theism. It’s pointless to say, for example “Ah, but that doesn’t prove that Christianity is true.” No, it doesn’t and that’s why the truth of Christianity is not mentioned in the argument. It would also be pointless to reply to the argument by saying to a Jew or a Christian “Well look at what your nasty God did in the Old Testament. He required harsh and unreasonable criminal punishment and acts of war against entire civilisations. Those things are clearly morally deficient.” That’s irrelevant. If we were, for argument’s sake, all to agree that the God of the Old Testament did some pretty shady things, we’d still have to conclude that atheism is false, and that’s the point of the argument. It’s not an argument for the reliability or moral virtue of the Bible at all (although in a different context I would have some things to say about that). The further problem here of course is that if the moral argument is sound, then the atheist is in a bit of a bind if he retaliates by making moral judgements, since if atheism is true there just aren’t any moral facts to appeal to when complaining about the Old Testament.

Lastly and I think crucially, the moral argument is about the basis of moral facts. It’s about what makes moral facts facts. It is not about what makes moral facts knowable. An analogy is helpful here: Newton’s theorisation about gravity tells us about what makes gravity do the things that it does. But that doesn’t mean that unless we believe Newton, we can’t know that things fall down. Of course we can, and people knew that long before Newton came along. Similarly, the moral argument tells us that God makes moral facts what they are, but that doesn’t mean that people who don’t believe in God cannot know right from wrong, or that they can’t be moral people. Of course they can. In fact the biblical writers make it clear that they believed the moral law to be written on the human heart and revealed, albeit imperfectly, through conscience, for example. So nobody here is saying that atheists are thoroughly wicked people. They can and do perform acts of great moral value. What they cannot do however is offer a truthful explanation of what makes those actions morally praiseworthy without abandoning atheism altogether.

So bearing those four important caveats in mind, the moral argument leaves us with two options: Either we should accept that God exists, and begin the all important task of searching for him earnestly, in light of the importance that God’s existence has, or we should give up belief in moral facts, and say that we live in a world where there is no moral difference at all between the things the world calls acts of virtue, and the things that we call atrocities.

In short, whatever else might exist in a godless world – and that’s a subject for a whole other discussion – moral facts certainly could not exist.

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{ 78 comments… add one }

  • Kenny September 1, 2010, 10:41 am

    Why can’t the naturalist take basic moral facts to simply be another interesting class of necessary truths, akin to mathematical, logical and modal facts?

  • Glenn September 1, 2010, 10:45 am

    They don’t seem to be necessary to me… Examples would be needed. For example the example of causing harm for fun. It’s conceivable that this isn’t wrong, so somebody would need a very interesting argument to show that it’s a necessary truth that this is wrong.

  • Jeremy September 1, 2010, 10:55 am

    Well thought out and nicely logical. Especially in view of Sam Harris’ thoughts on the origin of moral behaviour, which really only explain a kind of utilitarian pragmatism with respect to what works in social interaction and what doesnt in a given situation.He doesnt seem to address right/wrong or how we ought to behave.

  • Kenny September 1, 2010, 10:58 am

    You don’t find it plausible that, say, it’s a necessary truth that inflicting suffering just for fun is morally wrong. I do agree that facts about obligations are a bit tricky, but what about facts about intrinsic goodness or badness? I find it plausible, for example, that necessarily, the suffering of sentient beings is intrinsically morally bad, in the same sort of way that necessarily, the number 2 is prime. In fact, as a theist who is sympathetic to a divine command view of moral obligation, I am still (in some moods) inclined regard truths about intrinsic goodness and badness as an interesting class of brute necessary truths (which in turn inform the content of God’s commands).

  • Kenny September 1, 2010, 11:04 am

    P.S. That sidebar thing is creepy. It knows where I live!

  • Matt September 1, 2010, 11:49 am

    Kenny, if God exists in all possible worlds, couldn’t he issue the same command in each world in which case his commands would ground necessary moral truths?

  • Kenny September 1, 2010, 12:03 pm

    Matt, certainly. For that reason, DCT is not incompatible with believing that certain facts about obligation are necessary truths. What I’m wondering is why the naturalist can’t simply take them to be brute necessary truths, akin to logical, mathematical and modal truths.

  • david winter September 1, 2010, 12:09 pm

    ere is nothing other than what is natural, so if moral facts aren’t natural, then we’d have to doubt that they exist at all, which seems enormously counter-intuitive in light of what people tend to find themselves instinctively knowing about the world.

    And that’s were it all breaks down for me. We can understand why we might have evolved a moral senses without having moral facts. Highly social animals need to have tricks by which social cohesion is maintained and ‘cheaters’ are penalised. We are among the most social animals, and our moral senses often act to favour social cohesion, so it is not an unreasonably hypothesis to propose that our innate moral sense is an adaptation.

    If we grant that our moral senses evolved, then proposing moral facts to describe our moral senses seems an absurd reification.

  • Jeremy September 1, 2010, 4:41 pm

    David, your concept of “moral sense” seems to come down “being aware of whatever works”.
    Successful adaptation is adaptation that helps breeding and thats fine but how does it address right and wrong and “ought”
    If we run with your “social cohesion” concept then whatever helps my social grouping survive and breed could be “moral” but that would make extermination of competing populations “moral”. Any colonisation and suppression of the natives perfectly moral for the colonising group. The Anglo expansion across the world colonising, supressing, dominating allthose other ethnic groups and everything done in the process all morally justifiable because it promoted the sucessful expansion and coninuation and dominance of a particular social group and gene pool. I suspect most people would disagree that this was “moral” behaviour.

  • david winter September 1, 2010, 5:18 pm

    Successful adaptation is adaptation that helps breeding and thats fine but how does it address right and wrong and “ought”

    It doesn’t.

    If we run with your “social cohesion” concept then whatever helps my social grouping survive and breed could be “moral” but that would make extermination of competing populations “moral”.

    No, the evolutionary exaplanation explains why we have our moral senses, not what’s moral. You’re ear bone’s evolved, originally, to open and close reptilian jaws but listening isn’t chewing. I think you moral sense evolved to maintain social cohesion, but maintaining social cohesion isn’t morality.

    I only brought this up because Glenn thinks it’s “enormously counter-intuitive” that we should have an innate sense that stealing, killing and cheating on our partners is wrong if there weren’t real moral facts. I disagree.

    And FWIW, plenty of people made moral arguments for western expansion and, in fact, we clearly have an in-group bias in our moral judgments.

  • Matt September 1, 2010, 5:57 pm

    Kenny, the naturalist could there are two issues here though. The first is wether one can give a naturalist account of necessary truths. The second is the issue is not wether the naturalist can give such account its whether the naturalist can explain morality as well as a DCT. A Platonic realm of necessary truths may explain morality but will it give as adequate explanation as theism does. That I think is Glenn’s point in 4.

    David, if we have a sense that tells us actions have the property of being wrong and in fact they are not wrong because no such property exists then morality is an illusion it may work but its still an illusion. To provide an analogue, suppose people for adaptive reasons have evolved a sense of God’s or God, we naturally believe there exist gods or a God, suppose this is adaptive and works, suppose also there are no actual theological facts, God does not in fact exist. This would falsify Theism. It would not save it.

  • david winter September 1, 2010, 6:06 pm

    Yes Matt, that’s actually what i’ve been saying.

  • Glenn September 1, 2010, 6:35 pm

    It’s always nice when discussion threads stay alive without me having to say anything. :)

  • Glenn September 1, 2010, 6:38 pm

    David – I think you’ll at least agree that even if you don’t find moral nihilism enormously counter-intuitive, a large number of atheists do (e.g. Sam Harris, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Russ Shaefer-Landau and, if I may be so bold, the man on the street). But in principle it looks like you’re someone who can accept the version of the moral argument offered her. If there are moral facts, then there is a supernatural person, but you say there are no moral facts, merely moral beliefs about facts that aint so.

  • david winter September 1, 2010, 10:31 pm

    I’ve only read Sam Harris among the athiest you list, and he seems more slick that good to me. His TED talk in particular seemed a bit odd to me.

    I should say, I didn’t really mean that moral nihilism isn’t counter intuitive. Just that our intuition isn’t a very good guide to what’s true.

    And yeah, i find it hard to see how you could simultaneously be an atheist and think a) there are moral facts and b) those facts line up with our beliefs about them.

  • Kenny September 2, 2010, 1:09 am

    Matt,

    “Kenny, the naturalist could there are two issues here though. The first is wether one can give a naturalist account of necessary truths.”

    It would be interesting to hear an argument that they couldn’t. But even more fundamental than that, I would want to hear an argument that they *need* to. One way of “accounting” for a fact is to simply take it as brute. Why can’t the naturalist maintain that basic logical and mathematical truths are simply brute?

    “The second is the issue is not wether the naturalist can give such account its whether the naturalist can explain morality as well as a DCT.”

    When it comes to *obligation*, I don’t think they can. The reason I think so is that facts about obligation are intimately related to our having reasons to act in certain ways, in ways that basic logical and mathematical truths are not. But from my perspective, none of this really turns on the issue of how moral facts are grounded. It’s just that, with an omnipotent, ominbenevolent creator in the picture, it’s plausible that the universe is ordered in such a way that our being morally obligated to perform a certain action gives us overriding practical reasons to do it. That holds even if it turns out that facts about moral obligation are independent of God’s will. It’s the theistic part of DCT, not the claim about how moral facts are grounded, that is doing most of the work here.

    Now, when it comes to basic facts about goodness and badness (irrespective of facts about obligation), I just don’t see why the naturalist who wants to take such facts as brute necessary truths has a significant disadvantage over the theist here.

  • Anon September 2, 2010, 4:02 pm

    As regards moral facts and naturalism, facts obtain in virtue of certain states of affairs being the case. So moral facts are true in virtue of certain moral states of affairs obtaining. But these states of affairs would not seem to be natural (unless we gerrymander our interpretation of the word), and so moral states of affairs are non-natural (though not necessarily supernatural). This extension of ontology is excluded by the naturalist’s conception of what exists, hence we had better start calling our subject a non-naturalist (as distinct from a supernaturalist). Naturalists, after all, are not going to want to hold to a robust Platonism about mathematical and logical truths either.

    So our non-naturalist could hold to such a Platonism (the fact that this undermines his rhetorical advantage over the supernaturalist can be bracketed in the context of the evil god problem). However, our supernaturalist has (arguably) some evidence for theism based on his arguments for God’s existence (cosmological, teleological, etc.). Hence moral facts as non-natural (where supernatural is a sub-category of the non-natural) will fit nicely into his ontology. This is not necessarily so with the non-naturalist. If he is a thorough-going Platonist, it will, but this position has problems of its own (and no theistic arguments in its favour – although it may provide a theistic argument itself, and thus collapse into supernaturalism, upon examination of the form of the Good). Furthermore, moral states of affairs and the facts answering to them are clearly quite different things from logical or modal states of affairs and facts (pointer: deontic logic cannot be captured in modal logic without extending it). But it may offend against parsimony to postulate a number of qualitatively different brute realms rather than a single simple God who grounds these disparate realms. If the non-naturalist is a Platonist about some things but not others, then we get all the problems of thorough-going Platonism with the additional one that we have to give an explanation of why some of these candidates for bruteness are brute, and why some are not (and an explanation as to how they are reducible to facts about natural states).

  • Tony Lloyd September 2, 2010, 9:39 pm

    I can find two different uses of the word “basis” in the above.

    First, basis-1, is the state of affairs to which a true statement corresponds. Quite obviously every correspondence-true statement has a basis-1.

    Then there is basis as “source”, basis-2. Is the source of the beer in my hand the pub, or my stash in the cellar? It could be either and so a basis-2 is not identical to a basis-1.

    A basis-1 is a logical necessity for any fact. A basis-2 is not. It has been argued that a basis-2 is a metaphysical necessity for any fact but as any basis-2 is, itself, a fact an infinite regress starts. If we accept that the regress is infinite then God may be a basis-2 of morals but there will be an infinite number of bases-2 further down the regress. The moral argument would depend on establishing that God is a necessary link in the basis-2 chain, something that is missing from the moral argument. If we reject the infinite regress we must either reject the necessity of every fact having a basis-2 or allow some facts to be their own basis-2. The moral argument would then depend on identifying moral facts with as their own basis-2. Again this is missing from the argument. If we, instead, reject the necessity of every fact having a basis-2 then the argument is a non-sequitur.

    The moral argument is either incomplete or fallacious.

  • Matt Su September 2, 2010, 11:47 pm

    Can a case be made that moral oughts are necessarily grounded in the commands of some personal being? It’s my own intuition, but I can’t conceive of any ought-statement that isn’t the expression of some imperative intent, and such intents can only be made by some kind of person.

  • Matt Su September 2, 2010, 11:52 pm

    heh, should’ve read the post more carefully. Seems Glenn’s already made a similar sort of argument to the above.

  • Glenn September 3, 2010, 10:35 am

    Sorry if you didn’t quite see it, Tony, but I think I explained fairly clearly what I was getting at with the word “basis.” I was talking about a truthmaker.

    All your talk of a basis-2 is therefore moot. So the question is: Do you think that every fact has a truthmaker?

    If you don’t find it helpful or clear enough to think of it this way, then translate it in terms of there being a state of affairs in virtue of which every true statement is true.

    So there’s nothing fallacious about the argument, and any incompleteness is only in detail.

  • Matt September 3, 2010, 10:32 pm

    ” That holds even if it turns out that facts about moral obligation are independent of God’s will. It’s the theistic part of DCT, not the claim about how moral facts are grounded, that is doing most of the work here.”

    I am inclined to think a view which has Gods commands and independently existing obligations is less economical than one which grounds the latter in the former. You also get problems with divine aseity here.

  • Jared September 4, 2010, 10:43 am

    Sorry, I’m way off topic here, but I hope you’re ok, Glenn. I read about the earthquake in NZ today and got kind of freaked out when your site wouldn’t come up. Glad to see at least Beretta is back Online.

  • Glenn September 4, 2010, 11:27 am

    The earthquake was about 30 kilometres from Christchurch, which is about a five hour drive from Dunedin. The quake could be felt in Dunedin, but not very strongly. I’m currently in Auckland, which is well over a thousand kilometres from Christchurch, so didn’t feel it at all. But I do have friends and family in Christchurch who are very shaken up (both literally and mentally).

  • Jared September 4, 2010, 11:59 am

    Whew! Glad to hear you’re ok! I’ll pray for your family members.

    Something I read said that you guys seem to have a lot of earthquakes down there.

  • Kenny September 5, 2010, 3:45 am

    Glad to here you are okay Glenn! God’s protection and blessing on your family members!

    Matt,

    I think we need to be careful to keep track of how the dialectic is going. Right now we are concerned with whether the *naturalist* can account of morality. My suggestion is that if the focus is solely on grounding issues, there’s no particularly good reason to think that she can’t. I suggest she can take basic moral facts as brute necessary truths. Now, you might think the naturalist, moral realist view is less parsimonious for that reason. But I’m actually pretty dubious about arguments from parsimony in contexts like these.

    One should seek parsimony when one is making theoretical posits (for the simple reason that the more one posits to exist, the greater chance one is wrong). And it’s often nice to gain parsimony in one’s system by reducing some things one believes in to other things one believes in (for the simple reason that one manages to have fewer independent posits in one’s system, making the risk of being wrong about one of those posits less). But neither of these concerns is in play for the naturalist, who already believes in moral facts, when it comes to a moral argument for theism. She already believes in moral facts; so they are not additional theoretical posits for her. And she doesn’t already believe in God; so attempting to reduce moral facts to facts about God is not going to help reduce the number of independent posits in her system.

    Now, there is a particular feature of moral obligation that I think it is hard for the naturalist to account for, namely the nature of the practical reasons moral obligations offer us for acting (they offer us reasons that are overriding, that trump all prudential concerns – how do they manage to do that in a purely naturalistic universe?). I do agree that theism does a much better job of accounting for this aspect of moral obligation, but that is because theism entails that the universe is designed and run by an omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect being, not because of anything to do with how moral obligations are grounded.

    So I think where all the action is for constructing a moral argument for theism is by focusing on the nature of moral reasons, not on grounding issues. That said, if one already is a theist, one may have good reasons for reducing some or all moral facts to certain facts about God. I think there is good reason for doing this with respect to moral obligation. (I’m not as convinced about doing it with facts about intrinsic goodness and badness, but I am not unsympathetic to doing so either). Issues of divine aseity certainly do come into play here. But the issues here get rather complicated and obscure (I’ve written on some issues closely related to this before). Still, you may be right that they give the *theist* good reason not to take moral facts as brute.

  • Kenny September 5, 2010, 3:52 am

    That’s good to “hear”, I meant, not “here”. :) In any case, Glenn, keep us posted.

  • kyle September 6, 2010, 10:15 pm

    premise 4:

    “The most plausible way to think of a supernatural basis of moral facts is in terms of a supernatural person who brings moral facts about.”

    I’m not sure this holds up, regardless of other flaws in the argument.

    in regards to your discussion of this premise:

    “…it is this normative or intentional aspect of morality that makes it what it is, namely a set of prescriptive duties…”

    this seems suspect somehow… Firstly, why is intent seen here? This could very easily be seen as a case of ascribing intent where there is none, eg. there is thunder in the sky, therefore there is a god in the sky who is angry at us. Couldn’t it be the case that a specific set of circumstances have arisen and that these circumstances have created a situation in which moral facts are created, or seem to be apparent?

    “The only kinds of things that have intentions are personal things, namely persons”

    This sentence seems short-sighted… I feel like by arguing this you are arguing against the kind of god that could put objective moral facts in place, if this god has intentions and is a ‘personal thing’ then doesn’t it follow that it is a subjective being? That’s without me attempting to argue that intentions go far beyond personal things, eg. collective unconscious; planar super-structure etc.

    Further, even if we assume your premise does hold up, then the argument is still pretty weak. The use of the word ‘plausible’ seems to set the argument up for a material failure, especially considering the content and purpose of the argument. Making such a sweeping generalisation about the supernatural, something which, almost by definition, we know little about, looks like a bad idea.

  • Glenn September 6, 2010, 11:51 pm

    Kyle, thanks for your comments. I don’t see any “sweeping generalisations” about the supernatural. I didn’t say anything along the lines of “supernatural things are all like this: ….” Instead, I said that the only things that can have intentions are like this:…. In other words, I made a generalisation about the kinds of things that can have intentions, a generalisation that looks to be true as far as I can tell.

    I found the comparison to thunder to be pretty left field. At this point int he argument I had already argued that the basis of morality was not natural, and I was now arguing that the best way to construe a non-natural basis of morality was in terms of a non-natural person, because moral facts are facts about the way things should be, which appears to invoke intent. Now, there’s no parallel here to “there’s thunder in the sky, so God is in the sky and he’s angry.” Nothing about thunder, for example, implies anger.

    I think it’s possible, too, that the idea of objectivity is being misunderstood in your comments. If God actually brings about moral facts, then they certainly can be thought of as objective. For example if a carpenter builds a house, we don’t say that since it was created in accordance with the will of a person, it doesn’t objectively exist, right? The point is that moral facts exist independent of beliefs about those facts.

  • Matt September 7, 2010, 3:03 pm

    Kenny, on the economy issue, you note the naturalist believes in moral facts. True, but if he accepts that these are brute facts then he will not explain their nature in terms of any other fact. Hence, accepting brute facts means accepting one other type of thing in the universe.

    A Divine command theory on the other hand will explain moral facts in terms of God, and hence involve one other thing being postulated. hence it seems in terms of both brute facts and God the naturalist has to add something to his ontology of natural things.

    The difference is the brute fact of moral facts while adding something to the ontology will explain nothing. Theism on the other hand will explain not just morality but a whole range of other things. So it seems to me that theism is preferable to brute moral facts here.

  • Martin Freedman September 12, 2010, 11:39 am

    There are many points I could make but I will only focus on the most problematic and I will try to be brief here and make different points to those of other critics in this thread.

    The first issue is over Glenn’s premise that “The basis of moral facts is not natural”. However he fails to substantiate this claim. There are many different moral realist arguments and he needs to show why none of them in principle could work but he fails to do so in that paragraph.

    Yes moral facts are in the category of what ought to be not what is, however there are numerous arguments – naturalism being a side effect – showing how this is possible. He does not address any argument from any naturalistic philosopher on this topic nor the broader topic of social or institutional reality. For example, of the top of my head, Brink, Searle, McDowell, Railton, Hare, Sayre-McCord, Smith, Shafer-Landau, Moore, Boyd Sturgeon, Nagel and Griffin.

    His argument appears to be predicated on the straw man of mis-identifying natural facts with only with material or physical facts (as he also equivocates between atheists, naturalist and (tacitly) materialists by fallaciously treating them as synonyms). Unfortunately this also dismisses the normativity that is intrinsic or inherent in language, money, maths, marriage, science, prime ministers and football matches. I doubt many naturalists think these do no exist but this is what Glenn is assuming in order to make his argument!

    The second set of issues is over his other deeply problematic premise, if we have to think of morality as having both a supernatural basis and as requiring intentionality, then surely a tri-omni deity is ruled out? Such a concept of a deity has done such violence to any notion of a person with intentionality as to render the notions of intentionality and persons meaningless.

    Finally Glenn needs to explain how intentionality relates to moral facts. it is insufficient to just assert intentionality is required and no moral realist I am familiar with argues so. Only moral relativists and subjectivists do.

    It appears that if a deity has a certain intentionality which is to prefer certain sates of affairs over others then there are no moral facts they are just the subjective preferences of a deity. It might be a fact that a deity has those preferences and/or has them in virtue of its eternal unchanging nature but that does not make them moral facts. So it appears that Glenn has here assuming that moral realism is false and only a form of moral relativism can be basis for moral facts. But such facts are not type of facts the argument is meant to show the basis of! This defeats the whole point of the argument in the first place!

    Indeed another moral argument could be formed.

    1. If a Glenn-type deity exists there are no moral (that is non morally relative) facts
    2. There are (objective) moral facts
    3. A Glenn-type deity does not exist.

    Now whether anyone agrees or not with premise 2, Glenn certainly asserts it but he cannot assert that a Glenn-type deity exists and that moral facts exist without contradiction.

    So all in his conclusion fails as he has yet to show the coherence of the second as well as the soundness of the first of these tow key premises.

  • Glenn September 12, 2010, 12:56 pm

    His argument appears to be predicated on the straw man of mis-identifying natural facts with only with material or physical facts (as he also equivocates between atheists, naturalist and (tacitly) materialists by fallaciously treating them as synonyms). Unfortunately this also dismisses the normativity that is intrinsic or inherent in language, money, maths, marriage, science, prime ministers and football matches. I doubt many naturalists think these do no exist but this is what Glenn is assuming in order to make his argument!

    Um, are you saying that there are natural facts that are about things that are not part of the physical universe? Do tell! There’s no straw man here.

    As for the other things in thhis quote, they are either irrelevant or you’re begging the queastion by assuming that there is some sort of duty involved in each example, a duty over and about mere subjective convention. As they say on game shows – is that your final answer?

    What’s more, you say that I never substantiate my claim that the basis of moral facts cannot be natural. I disagree. I did so, albeit briefly. If you’re going to just pretend my argument isn’t there, then what can I respond to? There’s no rebuttal to address, so I shall address nothing.

    This is to say nothing of the assertion that the requirement of intentionality rules out a “tri-omni” deity. What? Can such a deity not have intentions? Clearly it could, so no such ruling out occurs.

    This is just silly. I don’t know what kind of response you’re hoping for when you make strange claims like this, martin, but the best I will offer is: Sorry, try again.

  • Martin Freedman September 12, 2010, 8:03 pm

    “Um, are you saying that there are natural facts that are about things that are not part of the physical universe? Do tell! There’s no straw man here.”

    No I am saying that there facts about the (natural) universe such if that some claims are not true of the (natural) world then they are not facts but fictions.

    For example, the objective fact that David Cameron is the Prime Minister of the UK or that Chelsea beat West Bromwhich Albion 6-0 and that Chelsea is top of the Premier league or that I have ££100 cash in my wallet. These are all facts and they are all facts about the natural world.

    Either these are a matter of subjective convention or they are not.

    Now I cannot create an objective fact that I have £1,000,000 case in my wallet nor could you. The object of claim is not a fact, it is a fiction. It is not just a matter of subjective convention. Neither would it do for me or you to claim that Nick Clegg or Gordon Brown are currently Prime Minister, these are also not true, they are not objective facts. They are also not a matter of subjective convention. If A promises to X for B at time T, again this is a fact. A may or may not fulfil that promise, A’s action with respect to that promise one way or another being a fact too.

    Or if you want to somehow insist or argue that all of society or institutional reality is just a matter of “subjective convention” well that applies to moral obligations and prohibitions are part of institutional reality too.

    “What’s more, you say that I never substantiate my claim that the basis of moral facts cannot be natural. I disagree. I did so, albeit briefly. If you’re going to just pretend my argument isn’t there, then what can I respond to? There’s no rebuttal to address, so I shall address nothing.”

    But you have already addressed that rebuttal and the previous content of this comment is evidence of that!!! So you are being silly, are contradicting yourself or at the very least confused. Or you are trying to avoid addressing my related point that you are equivocating over the meaning of atheism, naturalism and materialism, without which your argument fails. Avoidance is not an argument and your premise 2 remains unsound.

    To keep this short, you did not respond to the worst and most precise criticism of your argument, namely that both your premises cannot both be assumed true without generating a contradiction making your argument logically incoherent. My other criticisms are just footnotes. You cannot use a subjective morality (based on a deity or other person) to ground objective morality (moral facts) your conclusion is not only not the most plausible answer, it is not plausible at all, it could not be plausible. This is what you need to address more than anything else.

  • Jason September 12, 2010, 8:10 pm

    Nothing to address.

    A moral code can be completely arbitrary for the law giver, God in this case, while still being objective for those under the law.

    God need not be subject to moral duties. Human beings are subject to moral duties. Two different categories, two different responsibilities.

  • Glenn September 12, 2010, 8:15 pm

    “For example, the objective fact that David Cameron is the Prime Minister of the UK or that Chelsea beat West Bromwhich Albion 6-0 and that Chelsea is top of the Premier league or that I have ££100 cash in my wallet. These are all facts and they are all facts about the natural world.”

    In that case, Martin, it is vry clearly you, rather than I, who is attacking a straw man. Facts like these certainly are included in my definition of natural facts.

    As for your claim that moral facts generated by a deity would be subjective, this is quite clearly untrue. This is like saying that houses do not have any objective reality because they were built by a person and in accordance with the will of a person. You will have to construct an argument for why such facts cannot be objective.

    This is what you need to defend more than anything else, but as far as I can tell you have merely asserted it.

  • Martin Freedman September 13, 2010, 12:27 am

    Jason

    “A moral code can be completely arbitrary for the law giver, God in this case, while still being objective for those under the law.”
    If this is the case then this only confirm my point in the other thread that the Glenn’s use of his Moral Argument fails to refute the Evil God Hypothesis!

  • Martin Freedman September 13, 2010, 12:29 am

    Jason

    “God need not be subject to moral duties. Human beings are subject to moral duties. Two different categories, two different responsibilities.”
    Says who, God? This is the fallacy of special pleading and circular reasoning. You will have to do better.

  • Martin Freedman September 13, 2010, 12:56 am

    Glenn

    “In that case, Martin, it is vry clearly you, rather than I, who is attacking a straw man. Facts like these certainly are included in my definition of natural facts.”
    Where? Not in your original argument. There is nothing in virtue of the physical or material features of the world that makes any of these facts true. All institutional facts required normativity or deontology of some form or other. However if you do now agree that they are natural facts then without further argument to distinguish these from other institutional facts, you have given no reason why this does not apply to moral facts and so your premise 2 is unsound and your argument fails.

    “As for your claim that moral facts generated by a deity would be subjective, this is quite clearly untrue. This is like saying that houses do not have any objective reality because they were built by a person and in accordance with the will of a person. You will have to construct an argument for why such facts cannot be objective.”
    This is a bad analogy. The whole point of thinking there are moral facts is that they are not determined or constructed by a being, any being. Or you are equivocating over what moral facts are.

    Now I never said that whatever a being, including a deity, deems right or wrong are not facts. I already said they are. However this does not serve as basis for objective moral facts, as it contradicts the concept of what such facts are – not dependent upon a being’s whims, commands or nature. If you arguing for a relative morality, relative to your deity, fine, however then there are no moral facts as people understand them. Your argument remains incoherent.

    Until you can make yuur argument coherent, there is nothing for me to defend but to point out your contradictions.

  • Martin Freedman September 13, 2010, 1:14 am

    Jason

    Addressing your point now within the context of this thread:
    “A moral code can be completely arbitrary for the law giver, God in this case, while still being objective for those under the law.”
    Then there are no moral facts certainly of the kind the moral argument is purportedly appealing to. The point of the moral argument is to show that moral facts are not arbitrary but now you have admitted this is all they can be. Again the theistic moral argument fails again.

  • Glenn September 13, 2010, 6:40 am

    “Not in your original argument.”

    What? Where are such things excluded in my original argument? Or did you merely assume that they were excluded?

    As for the rest, you must provide an argument that moral obligations based on divine commands are subjective. Until then there’s nothing to discuss. You can call the house a “bad analogy” but you need to state why. Saying “The whole point of thinking there are moral facts is that they are not determined or constructed by a being, any being” is just flagrantly begging the question.

  • Jason September 13, 2010, 8:28 am

    @ Martin

    Incorrect. A moral law giver like God cannot be bound by moral duties to one greater than himself because there’s no one greater. Consequently the source of morality is derived from his will, and in that sense the laws are arbitrary.

    Human beings do have moral duties to one greater than themselves, therefore the laws are not subjective for them. The laws are not derived from their wills therefore within the box the laws are objective and absolute.

    As an analogy. God determined that gravity would be a law that governs the interaction of matter however God himself is not affected by, or bound by, gravity. We however are bound and affected by gravity. Gravity is an objective reality for us.

  • Martin Freedman September 13, 2010, 9:04 pm

    Jason

    The point of this thread is to establish if the theistic moral argument is a cogent argument, that it is both sound and valid. And of course I am disputing that it is.

    All you have done is assume it is correct when you say
    “Incorrect. A moral law giver like God cannot be bound by moral duties to one greater than himself because there’s no one greater. Consequently the source of morality is derived from his will, and in that sense the laws are arbitrary.”
    This is grossly incorrect. You are committing, at the very least, the fallacies of both question-begging and special pleading. Now I have already pointed this out to you, on what planet do you think that merely repeating or elaborating a claim without addressing the inadequacies of it or at least attempting to respond to the rebuttals, is an argument? It is not. You fail.

  • Glenn September 13, 2010, 9:39 pm

    Well martin, if merely making claims is not good enough, then you have some work to do.

    You have claimed that if morality comes from God, then this inescapably leads to moral subjectivism, but so far this is only an assertion. Given that you seem think it’s the magic point that carries all the weight here, I can only reiterate your comments back at you: “on what planet do you think that merely repeating or elaborating a claim without addressing the inadequacies of it or at least attempting to respond to the rebuttals, is an argument? It is not. You fail.”

  • Martin Freedman September 13, 2010, 10:02 pm

    Glenn

    In your original argument you excluded what ought be facts from what is facts but, as I have already repeatedly pointed out, this excludes all institutional facts from being natural facts, certainly with your (fallacious)of natural facts. If you now claim you include these institutional facts as natural facts then unless you can distinguish moral facts from all other institutional facts, which you have made zero attempt to do your premise 2 is unsound.

    As for the rest of your comment you appear quite confused. I suggest you take a course in Critical Reasoning 101 and in Ethics 101. I have given you an argument and you have given nothing in reply. I will repeat this once and only once more.

    A morality that is based the commands of an individual or a group, whether these are human, alien or supernatural persons is moral relativism. Moral relativism denies that there are moral facts – that is facts that are independent of the preferences of that individual or group. You cannot both assert that there are moral facts and that these are relative to an individual, natural or supernatural. This is a contradiction. You cannot save your argument by equivocating over what a moral fact is nor by using special pleading over morality being based on a person that is a god. These are fallacies.

    Your argument is incoherent and without merit. Now either address these rebuttals or I will conclude that you have conceded the debate but will not admit this.

  • Glenn September 13, 2010, 10:25 pm

    Martin, I have already addressed your appeal to facts about money, marriage etc. I said: “As for the other things in thhis quote, they are either irrelevant or you’re begging the queastion by assuming that there is some sort of duty involved in each example, a duty over and about mere subjective convention. As they say on game shows – is that your final answer?”

    And far from being “confused” as you mockingly infer, I have instead made the very modest request that if you want me to believe oyour claims, you should argue for them. it’s hardly unfair of me. In particular I have asked you to defend your claim that morality grounded in God must be subjective and not objective. It now looks like, at last, you have seen fit to try to defend this claim. We may be getting somewhere!

    Unfortunately, just when it looked like you had the intention of offering an argument, you have merely lapsed back into assertions!

    A morality that is based the commands of an individual or a group, whether these are human, alien or supernatural persons is moral relativism. Moral relativism denies that there are moral facts – that is facts that are independent of the preferences of that individual or group. You cannot both assert that there are moral facts and that these are relative to an individual, natural or supernatural.

    You quite obviously don’t understand the territory here, and you would be very well adbvised to exhibit less confidence.

    Relativism is the view that there are no moral facts of the matter, but what is right depends on some sort of convention. By contrast, I am claiming that the entire universe – all of it – was made by a person with a will, and as such it was made for a factual purpose. It’s possible, therefore, for people to be factually mistaken about what we were meant for and what we are supposed to do. Notice that this is all about objective facts, facts that were brought about by a person and yet are not relativistic in any way.

    Now, your point has been fully addressed. However, I must also comment on this: “Now either address these rebuttals or I will conclude that you have conceded the debate but will not admit this.”

    Don’t be so childish. You’re an adult, right? It is just babyish in the extreme to demand that I dance to your tune and donate my time to you, or else I must be wrong. Another very plausible possibility is that your arguments are just a bit silly and I don’t see the need to invest time into addressing them. You’re in no position to make demands, padawan.

  • Martin Freedman September 14, 2010, 12:07 am

    Glenn

    “Martin, I have already addressed your appeal to facts about money, marriage etc. I said: “As for the other things in thhis quote, they are either irrelevant or you’re begging the queastion by assuming that there is some sort of duty involved in each example, a duty over and about mere subjective convention. As they say on game shows – is that your final answer?””
    You clearly do not seem to understand the topic under discussion. You need to study the philosophy of society, I suggest you start with John Searle’e latest 2010 book. The underlying program to his work for many years has been to provide an explanation how institutional facts are natural facts. AFAICT his work is leading view on this topic.

    Now this is all built upon intentionality, duties, rights and obligations “deontological powers” as he calls them. And he includes an analysis of his approach to ethics, human rights, within this domain.

    The burden is on you to show either how moral facts are different and excluded from this domain or you could argue, as you tacitly imply in the above quote, that all these other institutional facts do not rely upon intentionality, duties, rights, obligations and deontologoical powers but moral facts in some sense do. (If you succeeded in the latter tack with respect to institutional facts you could make a name for yourself in that field, but, to be honest, I have seen zero evidence that you are remotely capable of this).

    And do not forget that even if you succeeded at this task you still need to provide an in principle argument – which is contrary to the argued view of the majority of philosophers, noting that even if the majority of those are atheist, some are theists too (e.g. Kant and Sidgwick both of whom reject the theistic moral argument) – as to why moral facts cannot be natural too.

    The arrogance with which you think your premise 2 is sound looks like pure hubris.

    “And far from being “confused” as you mockingly infer, I have instead made the very modest request that if you want me to believe oyour claims, you should argue for them.”
    Really, back to you, old bean.

    “it’s hardly unfair of me.”
    No it is unfair of you to continually not engage and uncharitably mis-understand my points.

    “In particular I have asked you to defend your claim that morality grounded in God must be subjective and not objective.”
    And I have, repeatedly.

    “Unfortunately, just when it looked like you had the intention of offering an argument, you have merely lapsed back into assertions!”
    Well you seem to be the expert on that, oh master. However contrary to your assertion I have, as available to any unbiased observer provided evidence and argument to all my claims that you have responded to.

    Anyway there is too much meta-debate going on which is boring. Finally you do provide an argument. Lets be having it.

    “You quite obviously don’t understand the territory here, and you would be very well adbvised to exhibit less confidence.”
    Lets see if you are justified in this claim or relying on an unfounded arrogance.

    “Relativism is the view that there are no moral facts of the matter, but what is right depends on some sort of convention.”
    No. From the refereed Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy “Most often it is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to some group of persons.” It is the latter meta-ethical thesis we are discussing here.

    “By contrast, I am claiming that the entire universe – all of it – was made by a person with a will, and as such it was made for a factual purpose. It’s possible, therefore, for people to be factually mistaken about what we were meant for and what we are supposed to do. Notice that this is all about objective facts, facts that were brought about by a person and yet are not relativistic in any way.”
    This fails in any way to resolve the issue. Granting all these premises shows that your argument fails in two ways.

    First (and note whilst it may be a fact that one does act or not act according this person’s will, I have never denied this and have always agreed) the question is it moral do so? If this person commands something that is immoral, it would be moral not act according that person’s will.

    Secondly this is moral relativism par excellence! Or to translate into your dubious notion of moral relativism, whatever those dictates of that person are just is the convention that we must follow. This person determines the convention, for ,as Jason argued, quite arbitrary reasons, so all you are asserting that there are no moral facts, no moral facts that are not relativised to the conventions of that person.

    It remains, yet again, you are either equivocating over moral facts or special pleading on behalf of that person and now further equivocating over moral relativism.

    And, of course, as Hume might say, you are deriving an “ought” from an “is” without showing your workings.

    “Now, your point has been fully addressed.”
    If by fully you mean successfully then sorry, but no.

  • Alex September 14, 2010, 1:28 am

    I’d like to raise a couple of points regarding naturalism and morality.

    First, Glenn argues that it’s difficult to see how naturalism can ground moral facts:

    “The reason is that moral facts have to do, not with the way that things just are in the world, but rather to do with the way that things should be in the world. But if there world is not here for a reason. If unintended nature is all there is, then there simply is no way that things were meant to be. ”

    This seems to imply that if the world was created intentionally, or with good reason by a supernatural person, then this would ground moral facts. But I just don’t see how this could be done. I can’t see a logical path from:

    1) God intended human beings to act in particular ways.
    to
    2) Human beings should act in accordance with God’s intentions.

    Maybe because it seems that the “is” type statements about God and the supernatural are just as distant from moral facts as natural facts are. Just as it seems difficult if not impossible to give a valid argument from a series of natural facts to a moral fact, so it seems just as difficult (To me, at least), to give a valid argument from a series of supernatural facts to a moral fact.

    What, I’d ask Glenn, would such an argument look like?

    Second, whilst it may not be possible to ground “ought” type statements in “is” type facts, what about conditionals? It doesn’t seem implausible to me that facts like “Murder is wrong” mean something like “A perfectly rational and informer agent wouldn’t murder people”. Then moral statements wouldn’t be grounded in facts about how the world actually is, but about how the world could be.

  • Jason September 14, 2010, 1:59 am

    If you had a time machine, would you go back and kill Hitler as a child?
    The hypothetical perfectly rational and informed person might decide they should not murder, or they might decide that they should. Not being such a person we couldn’t say.
    In effect it’s a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet with Jesus replaced with “hypothetical perfectly rational and informed person.” From there we’re assuming that such a person would behave in a moral manner.
    Of course there’s no reason to suppose they would.
    To suppose they would act in a moral manner you must assume a lot more, for example that they are motivated by beneficient intentions, that perhaps they are capable of great altruistic love etc.
    Before too long you’re arriving at the character of the moral God of the theist’s moral argument.
    If we’re going to that point then we may as well adopt a God who is not only has the character of a premiere moral agent, but who has the authority to command moral action and the power to punish transgression.

  • Alex September 14, 2010, 3:47 am

    “From there we’re assuming that such a person would behave in a moral manner.
    Of course there’s no reason to suppose they would.
    To suppose they would act in a moral manner you must assume a lot more, for example that they are motivated by beneficient intentions, that perhaps they are capable of great altruistic love etc.”

    I’m not sure that you do have to assume that. If we have categorical reasons (Reasons not having to do with our own particular interests) to act in ways that benefit rather than harm people, and a rational person is someone who acts on the basis of reasons, then a rational person would act in ways that would benefit people rather than harm them.

    It seems to me that that we have just as much reason to care about, and act in the interests of, other people as we do ourselves. There’s nothing more important about my wellbeing than the wellbeing of other people. The rational person, then, should give as much weight to other people’s interests as their own, and this means treating people well.

    “Before too long you’re arriving at the character of the moral God of the theist’s moral argument.
    If we’re going to that point then we may as well adopt a God who is not only has the character of a premiere moral agent, but who has the authority to command moral action and the power to punish transgression.”

    Perhaps we don’t even need to postulate that God is real. Just ask, “What would a perfectly wise God, who cares for all of us, command us to do.”

    Wouldn’t this hypothetical would give us just as much reason to act morally as if such a God really did exist? Richard Chappell, of the blog Philosophy Etc, made this point a while back: http://www.philosophyetc.net/2007/06/idea-of-god-who-needs-reality.html

    As Chappell says: “The question of how things should be does not fundamentally depend on how things in fact are. Ideal standards can be grounded in counterfactuals, e.g. facts about what an ideal spectator would recommend; whether such an ideal spectator actually exists in the here and now is, quite simply, irrelevant.”

    Of course, you might argue that a real God can doll out punishment, a point that you hint at. But is the threat of punishment really a good reason to act morally? If harming people is bad, shouldn’t I abstain from it even if I won’t get punished. We should treat people well because people deserve such treatment just as much as we do, rather than because such behaviour benefits us.

  • Glenn September 14, 2010, 6:23 am

    “There’s nothing more important about my wellbeing than the wellbeing of other people.” Well, that’s true, but of course I only think it’s true because I grant the moral claim that I ought to care about others as I do about myself. Unless I did, I wouldn’t grant this as true. There’s certainly no obvious principle of rationality that obligates me to show equal regard for others – no reason why I am blameworthy for not doing so.

  • Jason September 14, 2010, 8:01 am

    Of course, you might argue that a real God can doll out punishment, a point that you hint at. But is the threat of punishment really a good reason to act morally? If harming people is bad, shouldn’t I abstain from it even if I won’t get punished. We should treat people well because people deserve such treatment just as much as we do, rather than because such behaviour benefits us.

    Threat of punishment is a perfectly valid reason to act morally. Some biblical quote about a stick for the back of a fool springs to mind. The answer to the rest of it is, of course you should.

    However the simple fact of the world we live in is that people don’t act in that manner. People do act selfishly. People do hurt others. If there is no God, no divine judge, then we’re left with the law and the courts. The end result of that is that we end up with a multiplicity of laws governing every aspect of behaviour, and Police forces that spend most of their time trying to regulate those. Welcome to New Zealand.

    As Chesterton said, when you break the big laws you don’t get lawlessness, you get the small laws.

    Without a real divine judge we’re left with the scenario that however you behave, there really is no difference in outcome. You die. You rot. That’s it. All there is is whatever you get out of life now. If helping others makes you feel good, go for it. However if hurting others makes more sense to you, well you know, it’s all the same in the end.

    It seems to me that that we have just as much reason to care about, and act in the interests of, other people as we do ourselves. There’s nothing more important about my wellbeing than the wellbeing of other people. The rational person, then, should give as much weight to other people’s interests as their own, and this means treating people well.

    Here your justification is that by benefiting others you benefit yourself? Isn’t that just seeing others as a means to an end? Is using others to benefit yourself really a good reason to act morally? Your premise is not self-evident.

    Chappell’s argument seems, in a very broad sense, to fit Seneca’s (I think) maxim that the common man knows the gods are real, the wise know they are not, and kings know they are useful. As long as people believe that the gods watch them and judge, then they act according to those laws presented as from the divine. That was basically the argument found in Stark’s One True God. Of course it all depends on maintaining that “illusion.”

  • Alex September 14, 2010, 8:17 am

    “Well, that’s true, but of course I only think it’s true because I grant the moral claim that I ought to care about others as I do about myself. Unless I did, I wouldn’t grant this as true. There’s certainly no obvious principle of rationality that obligates me to show equal regard for others – no reason why I am blameworthy for not doing so.”

    Well, I’m not sure the concept of blame is a good one. If I am correct and moral obligations are basically a species of rational obligations, then people do bad things because they’re irrational (as we all are to a degree in different situations), but irrationality isn’t really something people can be blamed for.

    I look at it like this: do I have any good reasons for always acting in my interests rather than someone else’s? I don’t think so. You could give an argument that I should care about my interests because they’re my interests, but why should one set of interests be promoted for the sole reason that they’re mine? Unless I was special in some way that made me more important than everyone else, I don’t think such an argument would be valid.

    But suppose that my interests are more likely to be satisfied, or can be more fully satisfied than the other person’s: that would be a good reason to promote my interests over the other person’s, if the promoting of interests is reasonable at all.

    However, my interests aren’t always the most likely to be promotable to the fullest. Sometimes the interests of others outweigh mine in these respects. Indeed, the interests of everyone else often greatly outweigh mine.

    In other words, you could give this argument for acting in the interests of other people:

    1) The interests of group y outweigh my interests in all relevant ways.

    2) There is more reason to promote interests that outweigh competing interests in all relevant ways.

    3) Therefore, there is more reason to promote the interests of group y than my interests.

    I think that (2) should be accepted. The fact that an interest is mine rather than someone else’s isn’t a relevant fact in determining which interests to promote. It stands to reason that we should consider the interests of all people impartially. Being rational means being impartial.

    Of course, there is still a lot to be said. This is just a sketch of a view that I think is plausible. Most naturalistic theories of ethics don’t have that much going for them. But I think it’s coherent.

  • Jason September 14, 2010, 8:56 am

    Welcome to the state comrade. :-)

    If I am correct and moral obligations are basically a species of rational obligations, then people do bad things because they’re irrational (as we all are to a degree in different situations), but irrationality isn’t really something people can be blamed for.

    A man stabs his ex-girlfriend 216 times, mutilating her, but he’s not morally wrong, he’s just irrational.

    Of course, there is still a lot to be said. This is just a sketch of a view that I think is plausible. Most naturalistic theories of ethics don’t have that much going for them. But I think it’s coherent.

    It’s basically the statist version of Communism. You exist for the state, to serve the state. Your life is not your own. It’s been tried, it failed. I applaud your effort, but as you develop it you’ll find it resting on a pile of assumptions that others will just refuse to accept.

  • Jason September 14, 2010, 8:57 am

    Sorry, stuffed up the blockquotes.

  • Alex September 14, 2010, 8:58 am

    Jason,

    “Threat of punishment is a perfectly valid reason to act morally. Some biblical quote about a stick for the back of a fool springs to mind. The answer to the rest of it is, of course you should.”

    The threat of punishment is a prudential reason to act well. But, as you say later, isn’t the person who is motivated to help others by the threat of hell treating people as means to an end, the end being evasion of punishment?

    “However the simple fact of the world we live in is that people don’t act in that manner. People do act selfishly. People do hurt others. If there is no God, no divine judge, then we’re left with the law and the courts. The end result of that is that we end up with a multiplicity of laws governing every aspect of behaviour, and Police forces that spend most of their time trying to regulate those. Welcome to New Zealand.”

    As a moral realist, I’d of course deny that we’re just left with the courts. We shouldn’t just act well because we’ll be better off, but because we have obligations to other people. But you seem to think that I’m saying it’s prudent to act morally:

    “Here your justification is that by benefiting others you benefit yourself? Isn’t that just seeing others as a means to an end? Is using others to benefit yourself really a good reason to act morally? Your premise is not self-evident.”

    I didn’t say that we should treat people well because it’s prudent to do so. Nor do I think that I implied it. When I say that it’s rational to take other people’s interests into account as we do our own, I don’t mean to suggest that “rational” means “prudent”. I mean that we have just as much reason to care about other people’s interests as we do or own. What reasons are there to only take into account my own interests, and not the interests of everyone else? None. My interests aren’t any more important, or special, than other people’s. So to be consistent we should take into account everyone’s interests, and act in the interests of everyone, because it just so happens that I have as much reason to promote their interests as I do my own.

    I don’t think Chappell was implying that we should believe in God so that we can act morally, but that the counterfactual facts about the actions God would condone or condemn if God did exist are just as good as guides to morality as they would be if God really condoned or condemned them.

  • Alex September 14, 2010, 9:02 am

    Jason

    “A man stabs his ex-girlfriend 216 times, mutilating her, but he’s not morally wrong, he’s just irrational.”

    I said that moral obligations are a species of rational obligations. The man who stabs his girlfriend, mutilating her, is both morally wrong and irrational.

    “It’s basically the statist version of Communism. You exist for the state, to serve the state. Your life is not your own. It’s been tried, it failed. I applaud your effort, but as you develop it you’ll find it resting on a pile of assumptions that others will just refuse to accept.”

    I’m not sure that communism is generally in the best interests of everyone, so my moral theory need not imply it. I applaud your effort, though. Care to say what those unacceptable assumptions are?

  • Jason September 14, 2010, 10:10 am

    The threat of punishment is a prudential reason to act well. But, as you say later, isn’t the person who is motivated to help others by the threat of hell treating people as means to an end, the end being evasion of punishment?

    I don’t know of any Christian who does. They would say, if they thought about it, that they have transcendent obligations to God, and by extension his creation. Thoughts of hell would motivate us to evangelise people, because we don’t want them going there. Christian morality, as I see it, is deontological. Christians do not exist in fear of hell, we’re not going there. That’s the whole salvation through faith/trust/loyalty to Christ thing.

    As a moral realist, I’d of course deny that we’re just left with the courts. We shouldn’t just act well because we’ll be better off, but because we have obligations to other people. But you seem to think that I’m saying it’s prudent to act morally:

    As a moral realist you’re saying that moral statements exist in some absolute sense. That if I say “rape is wrong” then I say it because “rape” has this property of moral wrongness. However that implies that moral laws are the same as natural laws, that they govern the interaction of people in the same way as gravity describes the interaction of masses. The problem I see is that this isn’t self evidently true. People from different cultures may have entirely different moral positions on a topic, wife burning or gladiatorial combat for example. Now it might be argued that their difference is not moral, but factual. The former between one who believes that due to reincarnation the wife will be with her deceased husband and one who does not, the latter, from one that believes that the entertainment of the people is worth more than the lives of a few slaves against one who does not. However if we cannot reconcile the factuals, you’re left with appeal to moral authority. This is what Christians did in regards to gladiators and wife burning. They protested them, and when they had the power they outlawed them.

    Remember, Christians are moral realists but they root morality in God. People who try to justify morality without God end up with either a fideistic attitude to morality, it’s just there, or they reject it completely, it just isn’t.

    Those raised in the West, with a Christian moral perspective tend to assume everyone else thinks as they do. That is simply incorrect.

    My interests aren’t any more important, or special, than other people’s. So to be consistent we should take into account everyone’s interests, and act in the interests of everyone, because it just so happens that I have as much reason to promote their interests as I do my own.

    This is an example of the type of assumption I mentioned. You assume that other’s interests take precedent over your own. You can’t prove it and you can’t produce an argument that would convince someone who favoured their interests over others.

    I don’t think Chappell was implying that we should believe in God so that we can act morally, but that the counterfactual facts about the actions God would condone or condemn if God did exist are just as good as guides to morality as they would be if God really condoned or condemned them.

    However there we run into a problem. What actions would God condone or condemn? Those which a rational, impartial, morally perfect being would condone or condemn? We can find such a being, or even imagine what such a being would condone or condemn how… ah, that’s the rub. :)

    Belief in God justifies the belief that some actions have the property of moral wrongness. They are literally those things that God has forbidden, or can reasonably be inferred from such prohibitions, or can be derived from theological understandings (slavery was not specifically prohibited, but an understanding of humanities’ common origin in Adam plus a few other things led to the position that slavery was morally incorrect).

    Your argument is based on a series of “oughts” that I would say are correct, but I don’t see how they can be justified without reference to something higher. If I can use an analogy, the Declaration of Independence makes the statement, we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… Now these men based that statement on the notion of a transcendent creator. Because they used that higher reference point they could go on to say that this creator had endowed his creatures with “inalienable rights”. They claimed that the government recognised those rights, the government did not create them, the government could not take them away.

    To use a paraphrase, we hold this truth to be self-evident, moral facts exist, and they just are.

    Thank you for the conversation Alex, you’re far more pleasant than the last fellow who came through here.

  • Martin Freedman September 14, 2010, 4:55 pm

    Alex has some good points. Starting off, I think from my throwaway Hume comment, with another and different criticism of Premise 2 – if natural facts (as Glenn has defined them) cannot do the job, then neither can supernatural facts.

    He has also raised some other points some of which I agree with and others which I do not. However no end of discussions, criticism and defences of Alex’s moral realism or any other particular version will help shore up Glenn’s premise 2. As interesting as it might be to you Alex, you are providing a convenient way for Glenn and Jason to avoid dealing the the numerous problems behind their own theory and argument here.

    1. This is because Glenn has a different requirement, which is to show that in principle no objective moral realist theory can work.

    2. Further, if he were ever to succeed at that challenge, he still needs to show that his theory is an objective moral realism, a challenge which I have pointed out is fatally flawed and he appears incapable of resuscitating. It fails to qualify even as a candidate objective moral realism, unlike Alex’s, which at least does.

    That is whatever flaws Glenn and Jason might find in Alex’s theory does not help one iota in supporting their theistic moral argument, if their own solution is a non-starter. Given that this means that if Glenn were to succeeded in establishing the soundness his premise 2 (which I severely doubt), all he will have shown, regardless of the strength of, say, fallacious appeals to intuition and consequences, is that there are no moral facts, period.

  • Alex September 14, 2010, 6:18 pm

    “I don’t know of any Christian who does. They would say, if they thought about it, that they have transcendent obligations to God, and by extension his creation. Thoughts of hell would motivate us to evangelise people, because we don’t want them going there. Christian morality, as I see it, is deontological. Christians do not exist in fear of hell, we’re not going there. That’s the whole salvation through faith/trust/loyalty to Christ thing.”

    You originally said that fear of Hell was a valid reason for being moral. But that would mean using people as a means to an end. Do you deny that using people as a means to an end isn’t a good reason to be moral? Whether or not it motivates Christians to be good would seem to be a different point.

    “That if I say “rape is wrong” then I say it because “rape” has this property of moral wrongness. However that implies that moral laws are the same as natural laws, that they govern the interaction of people in the same way as gravity describes the interaction of masses”

    I don’t think that a moral realist needs to say that moral laws are like natural laws. As you said earlier, people do bad things. So moral laws aren’t like natural laws in that people aren’t always motivated by them. I would say, however, that perfectly rational people would be motivated to do the best they could.

    “he former between one who believes that due to reincarnation the wife will be with her deceased husband and one who does not, the latter, from one that believes that the entertainment of the people is worth more than the lives of a few slaves against one who does not. However if we cannot reconcile the factuals, you’re left with appeal to moral authority. This is what Christians did in regards to gladiators and wife burning. They protested them, and when they had the power they outlawed them.”

    I don’t have any problem with taking the moral high ground. Wife burning is wrong because there are categorical reasons for not doing it. Someone could either deny the fact that those reasons are there, or deny the force of them, but they’d be wrong.

    “Remember, Christians are moral realists but they root morality in God. People who try to justify morality without God end up with either a fideistic attitude to morality, it’s just there, or they reject it completely, it just isn’t.”

    Well, I feel as though I’ve done a lot of work in order to find a deep, satisfying account of moral facts. At no point have I said that something like murder is wrong because it just is. I’m not a “moral non-foundationalist” who says that ultimately, there’s no good reason why it’s wrong to murder.

    “This is an example of the type of assumption I mentioned. You assume that other’s interests take precedent over your own. You can’t prove it and you can’t produce an argument that would convince someone who favoured their interests over others.”

    I don’t think I assumed that other people’s interests take precedent over one’s own. I just didn’t make the assumption that my interests are absolutely more important than other people’s. So an interest’s being mine isn’t a reason to favour that interest. But there are good reasons to favour some interests over others if that interest is stronger and easier to satisfy. If one of my interests is stronger and easier to satisfy than one of my other interests, then that gives me a reason to promote the former over the latter.

    But, given that my interests don’t have any special status over other people’s interests, it seems that I should judge all interests by this criteria: what are the strongest, most satisfiable interests of everyone? It follows that if it doesn’t matter who’s interest it is, but only the strength and satisfiability of that interest, then I should promote the best interests of all people.

    “However there we run into a problem. What actions would God condone or condemn? Those which a rational, impartial, morally perfect being would condone or condemn? We can find such a being, or even imagine what such a being would condone or condemn how… ah, that’s the rub. ”

    Well, I don’t think many theists would disagree that God would be perfectly, or maximally rational. Otherwise, why think that His commands were good?

    “Belief in God justifies the belief that some actions have the property of moral wrongness. They are literally those things that God has forbidden, or can reasonably be inferred from such prohibitions, or can be derived from theological understandings (slavery was not specifically prohibited, but an understanding of humanities’ common origin in Adam plus a few other things led to the position that slavery was morally incorrect).”

    It seems to me that the argument:

    1) God forbids x, or we can infer from theological understandings that God would prohibit x.

    2) Therefore, we shouldn’t do x.

    Is invalid. You have to add other premises in order to make it valid, though I don’t see what premises could be added.

    “Your argument is based on a series of “oughts” that I would say are correct, but I don’t see how they can be justified without reference to something higher.”

    The term “ought”, I think, refers to reasons. So, that we ought to do something means we have reasons to do it. This makes sense of non-moral “ought” type sentences. For example, we aren’t morally obliged to believe that Elvis is dead, but we should believe that he is, because we have good reasons to believe.

    It seems to me that the facts about rationality are self evident: I can’t provide you with a convincing argument for being rational, because only a rational person is responsive to arguments. Nonetheless, morality concerns our intentional behaviours, and I don’t think irrational people can behave intentionally.

    We can’t simply decide what is rational for us to do, we can only discover it.

    “Thank you for the conversation Alex, you’re far more pleasant than the last fellow who came through here.”

    Thank you. I’ve found this conversation productive.

  • Alex September 14, 2010, 6:29 pm

    “However no end of discussions, criticism and defences of Alex’s moral realism or any other particular version will help shore up Glenn’s premise 2. As interesting as it might be to you Alex, you are providing a convenient way for Glenn and Jason to avoid dealing the the numerous problems behind their own theory and argument here.”

    Well, I raised a couple of issues that I had with premise two. But people seemed to want to run with the second. If Glenn’s procrastinating, he’s only hurting himself.

  • Jason September 14, 2010, 7:04 pm

    Hi again Alex
    You’re right, I did say that fear of hell would be a valid reason to act in a moral fashion.
    Let me ask, do you obey the speed limit because you ought to, in order to minimise harm to others? Or do you do it out of fear of the consequences of getting caught?
    I said it would be a valid reason, but I wouldn’t identify it as a Christian motivation except to evangelize. In that case they’re not using people to benefit themselves, but hoping to benefit others.
    Sorry, typing this on the E70 is rather awkward. No copy/paste function and I have to keep flicking back between screens.
    Yes, theists would agree that God was maximally rational. :-)
    I think I actually agree with most of what you said, with the qualification that I’d see it derived from a theistic origin which I see as a better basis for believing in rationality and moral facts.
    Yes, theological inferences are far less evident than direct revelation. That’s why we have 2000 years of arguments. :-)
    Back to work.

  • Jason September 14, 2010, 8:20 pm

    Just a thought Alex, are we arguing about two different things?
    Thing one, why are there moral facts?
    Thing two, how do we identify moral facts.
    I would agree with every point you made about how we can identify moral facts.
    I think the theistic perspective provides a better explanation of why there are moral facts.
    I really must try to keep those things straight in my head. This philosophy thing is quite fascinating.

  • Glenn September 14, 2010, 9:46 pm

    If I am correct and moral obligations are basically a species of rational obligations, then people do bad things because they’re irrational (as we all are to a degree in different situations), but irrationality isn’t really something people can be blamed for.

    Well it’s going to take rather a lot of effort to make the case that morality is just a species of rationality.

    Herbert Simon was right, I think to say “Reason is wholly instrumental. It cannot tell us where to go; at best it can tell us how to get there. It is a gun for hire that can be employed in the service of any goals we have, good or bad.”

    I look at it like this: do I have any good reasons for always acting in my interests rather than someone else’s? I don’t think so. You could give an argument that I should care about my interests because they’re my interests, but why should one set of interests be promoted for the sole reason that they’re mine? Unless I was special in some way that made me more important than everyone else, I don’t think such an argument would be valid.

    But you’re helping yourself here to moral concepts that are not rational ones. It is not rationality that tells you that you’re qual with others and no more worthy of concern. In purely rational terms, what reason do you have to assume some sort of doctrine of basic equality of moral worth?

  • Alex September 15, 2010, 2:08 am

    Jason,

    “Let me ask, do you obey the speed limit because you ought to, in order to minimise harm to others? Or do you do it out of fear of the consequences of getting caught?”

    I obey the speed limit because I ought to. Even if the speed limit wasn’t enforced, I’d try not to put other people’s lives in danger.

    “I said it would be a valid reason, but I wouldn’t identify it as a Christian motivation except to evangelize. ”

    If it is a valid reason, why aren’t Christians motivated by it?

    “Yes, theological inferences are far less evident than direct revelation. That’s why we have 2000 years of arguments.”

    I’m still not clear how you think theism grounds moral facts. How does theism make moral facts true?

    “Just a thought Alex, are we arguing about two different things?
    Thing one, why are there moral facts?
    Thing two, how do we identify moral facts.”

    Well, I’ve tried to give an explanation of why there are moral facts. However, it helps to identify moral facts first so that we can understand what we want to explain. I’ve identified moral facts as facts about how we should treat each other, and tried to show why it’s rational to treat other people in the same way we would want to treat ourselves: well.

    “This philosophy thing is quite fascinating.”

    Indeed it is :)

  • Alex September 15, 2010, 2:25 am

    Glenn

    “Well it’s going to take rather a lot of effort to make the case that morality is just a species of rationality.

    Herbert Simon was right, I think to say “Reason is wholly instrumental. It cannot tell us where to go; at best it can tell us how to get there. It is a gun for hire that can be employed in the service of any goals we have, good or bad.”

    Rationality, along with the relevant facts, can show us how it would be rational to act, if indeed some actions are more rational than others. Just as reason and facts can show us which beliefs are more reasonable, if indeed some beliefs are more reasonable than others.

    “But you’re helping yourself here to moral concepts that are not rational ones. It is not rationality that tells you that you’re qual with others and no more worthy of concern. In purely rational terms, what reason do you have to assume some sort of doctrine of basic equality of moral worth?”

    Well, I think that the basic equality of moral worth of people is factually accurate. Just as solipsism, the belief that I’m the only person that exists, seems false, so the belief that only my interests provide me with a reason to act, seems false, for the reason that every fact about my interests that make it reasonable for me to promote them is also similarly a fact about other people’s interests.

  • Jason September 15, 2010, 8:33 am

    If it is a valid reason, why aren’t Christians motivated by it?

    Some may be, but the higher motivation is their moral duty to God. You remember the perceived hierarchy of moral motivations. The lowest being self interest (the hell avoidance) and a higher motivation being that of duty and obligation. When raising children (not that I’ve done that) “because I say so” and “or else” are valid means of instructing them in right behaviour to start with, but I’d be very frustrated if I still had to use such techniques when they turned 20.

    I’m still not clear how you think theism grounds moral facts. How does theism make moral facts true?

    I think Christian theism grounds moral facts in the nature of God. It’s like your discussion of a perfectly rational, morally perfect hypothetical agent as a model of morality. The difference is that the hypothetical agent is hypothetical, while the Christian believes God is real.

    The difference goes back to my earlier post, where I stated that God has the power to reward and punish. The hypothetical agent does not. While we would all like people to behave according to the moral rationality you describe, we know that it isn’t a realistic expectation.

    For the Christian there is a system of rewards. Those who return a good investment on their talents get greater rewards than those who do not. The ancients did not regard that as mercenary, they regarded that as natural karma.

    In terms of punishments, do we agree that natural justice cries out for a balancing of the scales? We look through history and see many people who have lived, acted infamously, and yet died without any reckoning. The hypothetical agent does not have the power to return justice for their actions. The Christian God does.

    ’ve identified moral facts as facts about how we should treat each other, and tried to show why it’s rational to treat other people in the same way we would want to treat ourselves: well.

    I would agree with all your moral facts. Can I ask though, were you raised in a Christian culture? Are the rational moral principles you espouse (admirable as they are) derived basically from first principles, or are they “rationalising” something you already believed?

    Going back to Glenn’s premises.

    #

    If there are moral facts, then their basis is either natural or supernatural (where these two are construed as mutually exclusive categories)
    #

    The basis of moral facts is not natural

    Are there moral facts? You and I would agree that there are. Those facts are either natural or supernatural, that is they either reside in nature, or in something higher than nature.

    Do they reside in nature? They don’t appear to be like the laws of physics. You agreed with me that they aren’t. Is there morality in the beasts of the field? I don’t see any evidence that there is, going out on a limb I’d say you don’t either.

    I think we agree that whatever morality is, it is non-natural. I would suggest it could be seen as something like pure mathematics, concepts that we can intuit and rationalise, but not directly tied to the universe we live in. Transcendent, if you like. :)

  • Martin Freedman September 15, 2010, 9:22 pm

    Hi Jason and Alex

    Been busy but pleased to see a conversation still continuing however here is a comment from the peanut gallery so to speak.

    Jason says:
    “Are there moral facts? You and I would agree that there are. Those facts are either natural or supernatural, that is they either reside in nature, or in something higher than nature.”
    This is the wrong question and another factor that may be leading the conversation astray.

    The proper question is as to whether moral beliefs, claims or judgements refer to states of affairs that exist or not. If they do, one can determine whether a particular claim is true or false and so on. If they do not, then these claims refer to fictions. If we agree that there are moral facts, this must imply that we all agree that such claims can refer to states of affairs that exist, that there are facts to which these claims refer, they are not fictions.

    However it is a different question as to whether there are such things as supernatural facts, that is whether any such claims refer to states of affairs that exist or not. When looked at this way it appears that such claims refer to fictions not facts. If you disagree, you need to make an argument that effect and so far I have seen none. Until such an argument is presented and shown to be successful, then to say that moral facts are supernatural facts, is to say that there are no moral facts, only moral fictions! (And this is long before there is any requirement to bring a deity in the equation).

    “Then question is as to whether Do they reside in nature? They don’t appear to be like the laws of physics.”You agreed with me that they aren’t.”
    Whilst there may be a few philosophers who try to make such a claim, it only natural law theists who usually try to assert something like this. I know of no sensible person who does. This is a red herring.

    “Is there morality in the beasts of the field? I don’t see any evidence that there is, going out on a limb I’d say you don’t either.”
    I disagree. Look at anthropological studies, especially on primates there is a wide range of proto-moral behaviours that anthropologists have discovered. But it could only be proto-moral as without the social institution of language it is not possible to have promises, duties and obligations of course.

    “I think we agree that whatever morality is, it is non-natural.”
    I do not know if Alex agrees but I have seen nothing in your discussions that leads to such a conclusion.

    “I would suggest it could be seen as something like pure mathematics, concepts that we can intuit and rationalise, but not directly tied to the universe we live in. Transcendent, if you like”
    As a suggestion it appears to be very wide of the mark, morality looks nothing like mathematics. You need to make an argument that is somehow akin to mathematics. None yet.

    It seems you are asserting a false dichotomy in assuming it is either (like) physics or (like) mathematics but I have seen zero argument to show that yours is not a fallacious presumption.

    And this shows the underlying problem with the the theistic moral argument. It relies on a huge amount of hidden presumptions that are often equally as dubious as the theistic moral argument itself (Or sometimes not, since the theistic moral argument is incoherent and these other presumptions, however dubious, may not be). Usually in making an rational argument one assumes as much common ground as possible outside the argument, whereas here, it appears, Jason and Glenn are doing the opposite.

  • Glenn September 15, 2010, 9:56 pm

    Alex,

    From the more general question of morality, we’re honing in on the issue of equality as an example. I don’t mind this – I like it, because specific examples are good for illustrating the wider point.

    You say:

    Well, I think that the basic equality of moral worth of people is factually accurate. Just as solipsism, the belief that I’m the only person that exists, seems false, so the belief that only my interests provide me with a reason to act, seems false, for the reason that every fact about my interests that make it reasonable for me to promote them is also similarly a fact about other people’s interests.

    These are not the deliverances of reason or rationality. True, you’re not the only person who exists, but there is absolutely nothing that rationally requires you to infer from this that other people’s interests count as much as yours.

    It’s false that from the standpoint of pure reason, everything that makes one person’s interests important also make another person’s interests valuable, because whether they are so or not depends on a doctrine of basic equality.

    Take Friederich Nietzsche, who noticed the very obvious fact that when it comes to natural features, we are obviously unequal. SOme are smarter than others. Some are bigger, some faster, some stronger, better lovers, more inventive, better at dominating others, and so on. When it comes to the natural facts about persons, the fact that we are not equal is one of the most obvious facts of our existence. Why, precisely, do the interests of an uncreative, less intelligent, fairly weak man count as much as those of a strong, very intelligent, inventive and productive man?

    This is anything but religious propaganda. Nietzsche was an atheist who proclaimed the death of God.

    Not that I want to presume to be your teacher, but you might enjoy a podcast episode that I did on this very isssue. It’s called Secularism and Equality. I had a cold when i recorded this one.

  • Alex September 15, 2010, 10:05 pm

    Jason

    “Some may be, but the higher motivation is their moral duty to God.”

    Okay. So I would agree with you more or less. Fear of punishment and desire for reward are prudential reasons for behaving morally, but sometimes punishment and reward aren’t great enough to motivate moral behaviour. However, I don’t think that people should act morally just because there are prudential reasons to do so, because this is to treat people as means to ends, and not respect them, which is a kind of harm. So the moral person acts morally out of a concern for others, rather than out of fear of punishment.

    “I think Christian theism grounds moral facts in the nature of God. It’s like your discussion of a perfectly rational, morally perfect hypothetical agent as a model of morality. The difference is that the hypothetical agent is hypothetical, while the Christian believes God is real.”

    So what specifically about God’s nature grounds morality? Is it something like God’s love for us, along with His perfect rationality? If so, then I think our views on morality will tend to converge. As you say, the theist might have the advantage of an ultimate judge, but that gives immoral people a reason for acting morally. But as I think that immoral people are irrational, everyone has good reason to act morally.

    “I would agree with all your moral facts. Can I ask though, were you raised in a Christian culture? Are the rational moral principles you espouse (admirable as they are) derived basically from first principles, or are they “rationalising” something you already believed?”

    Well, I was raised in the UK. I wasn’t raised Christian, but the UK is ostensibly a Christian country. I don’t think I’m rationalising, but I might be wrong about that. I think the principles from which I’m arguing are plausible, and lead to the conclusions I’m arguing for, though I’m open to being shown otherwise.

    “Are there moral facts? You and I would agree that there are. Those facts are either natural or supernatural, that is they either reside in nature, or in something higher than nature.”

    Yes. I’m not sure what the natural/supernatural distinction is. Are counterfactuals like “A rational person would do x” natural facts? If not, then I guess my moral theory is non-natural, or supernatural, although I think that my moral theory is compatible with naturalism, since it doesn’t suppose the existence of supernatural beings. Arguably abstract entities like concepts and propositions are supernatural beings, but then I don’t think supernaturalism of that kind is so implausible.

    I think transcendent is a better word to use than supernatural.

  • Jason September 16, 2010, 8:57 am

    I would prefer to use transcendent too. The ancient Jews didn’t have the natural/supernatural distinction that we use today. God lifting a box was no more “supernatural” than a man lifting a box.

    I think it’s reasonable to say that the UK is a Christian culture, even Dawkins describes himself as a cultural Christian. I guess the only way to know whether you’re rationalizing would be if I could totally strip away my own preconceptions and start from scratch trying to construct your moral philosophy. I don’t think I can.

    You explained the “grounding morality in God” better than I did. Yes, God possessing what we regard as admirable moral characteristics allows him to be the basis for moral truths. His status as supreme ruler gives him the authority to declare how we should act. His concern for us gives him motivation to punish wrongdoing.

  • Graham Robinson October 7, 2010, 1:06 am

    To point #61
    I hope this is not seen as a shallow respose to the speedlimit question.

    On the outskirts of town there were two primary schools a few miles apart on a fairly busy stretch of road. The speed limit along the whole stretch had been 40mph; which was considered by most to be, in general, a fair and safe speed. Recently the parents at one of the schools had managed to get the council to implement a permanent 20mph limit in the immediate vicinity of their school.
    Col. Mustard felt his time was money and would always drive the length of the road at 60mph.
    Rev. Green, committed to his vocation, goes around as quickly as possible; but, being an upstanding member of the community always obeys speed limits.
    Miss Scarlet would usually travel the road at 40mph often disregarding the 20mph signs. However at school times she would drive past both schools at 20mph.
    Col. Mustard is always wrong and always bad.
    Rev. Green is always right but sometimes bad (by doing 40mph near the children at the second school).
    Miss Scarlet is sometimes wrong but always good.

    The question of whether the ‘right’, howsoever that is established, delivers the ‘good’ is the perenial challenge.

    Moral realists make their best efforts to find the ‘right’ and live their lives accordingly in the belief that is the best that they can do to acheive the ‘good’.

    Those who find no basis for absolute moral facts might seek the ‘good’ and live their lives accordingly.

    I suspect that Glenn’s God would arrange to have electronic variable speed limits based the current potential risk to all road users. If the drivers were able to correctly read the signs then the ‘right’ and the ‘good’ would converge.

    Humble creatures such as Miss Scarlet and I would struggle to figure this out by ourselves and make errors in the process.

    (Glenn I’m quite happy not to pursue a frustrating discussion and to have this be an incidental remark)

  • Graham Robinson October 7, 2010, 1:28 am

    Glenn my posting seems to have screwed this thread. There must be some bug in the Wordpress posting mechanism. I am using XPpro2002sp3 and IE8.

  • Nathan October 7, 2010, 3:22 am

    Don’t worry Graham, it’s not ‘screwed’. Once a thread hits 70 comments, the 71st an on are considered new, the rest old, hence the link to Older comments.

  • Graham Robinson October 7, 2010, 4:01 am

    Nathan, thank-you. My mistake.

  • Andrew Gray August 12, 2011, 6:47 pm

    I Glenn,

    I posted this article in a facebook group recently (see https://www.facebook.com/groups/165203386878102/?id=193062684092172&notif_t=group_activity), and several people had some problems with it (both theist and atheist).
    1. we cannot show there are moral facts, so the argument is “screwed”
    2. “some people think that normative explanations can all be reduced to descriptive explanations. For example, on this view, the question, “Why is it wrong to be selfish?”, is really a question about why it was advantageous for our anscestors to share, and whether it is still advantageous for us now. Once you have an answer to these second questions, then you also have an answer to the first. …Or so the argument goes.”

    and so the discussion goes on.

    Firstly, these guys are pretty smart. They use terms like “normative” and “inductive” a lot :-) It does tend to go over my head a bit.

    Anyway, I was wondering if it is possible to show that moral facts exist? Can you help with that? Perhaps in a future blog entry (I tried looking to see if you already had one but if you have, I couldn’t find it). And secondly, for the other objection raised by my theist friend (who is himself a PHD in philosophy) where he mentions how he thinks “morality could be explained in terms of fitness” (see https://www.facebook.com/groups/165203386878102/?view=permalink&id=176784212386686). For that could you help me understand why morality can’t be explained in terms of fitness. I tried giving some examples, such as rape, to show that what is morally objectionable, should be fine in a naturalistic view of morality, but since we don’t percieve it that way, then it doesn’t fit. But he gave a response that I can’t even repeat coz it’s so over my head.

    I’m really confused and need a bit of help understanding some of these issues. If you or anyone else can help me better understand the moral argument, that would be much appreciated.

    Thanks all.

  • Glenn August 12, 2011, 8:07 pm

    Andrew, in order for the argument to be “screwed” on account of a lack of moral facts, it would need to be an argument claiming that there are moral facts. My argument is 1-5, and quite plainly none of those premises claim that there are moral facts. So no fair assessment of the argument can deem it “screwed” just if there are no moral facts.

    For what it’s worth, I think that those who dig their toes in, bite the bullet hard and just deny that anything is actually morally wrong are in no position to think that their stance is the obvious one, and that anyone who holds a view dependant on there being moral facts is thereby “screwed.” I’m reminded of Mackie’s argument from queerness, where he said that moral facts are things so queer as to be unacceptable to a naturalist. They may well be, but the view that it’s not morally wrong to burn down my house, kill my children and rape my wife is queerer still!

    Secondly, as is unfortunately common online, even if I had offered a different argument, one that did claim that moral facts exist, calling the argument “screwed” because the critic personally believes that there are none is a clear rhetorical overstatement to make something sound like a devastating objection when it is no such thing. The moral argument is constructed to be pitched to those who do think that there are moral facts, and for good reason: The clear majority of human beings take moral facts to exist – easily including most philosophers. Saying that the argument is “screwed” because there certainly are no moral facts is overblown, and at very least this must be shrunk down to something like: “The argument gets off the ground only if there are moral facts, which a small number of people deny.” But this doesn’t make an argument screwed unless it’s really true that there are no moral facts, and most people are wrong.

    As for the second point, yes it’s true that some people think that all moral claims can be reduced to non-moral descriptions of states of affairs. But so what? Some people think this can’t be done too. I think Sam Harris is a good example of people who are pretty confident that this can be done, and I think he fails terribly, as I explain in Sam Harris, Science and Morality.

  • Andrew Gray August 12, 2011, 10:03 pm

    Hi Glenn, Thanks for that lightning quick response :-) It was really helpful to just acknowledge that even though some might think moral claims can be reduced to non-moral descriptions of states of affaris… but so what?!?

    By the way I’ve already read most of your other material on the moral argument and have found that enormously helpful too.

    Good Job, Glenn, Thank you.

  • Andy Gray November 9, 2012, 10:11 pm

    I’ve adapted your argument and turned it into a sort of flow-diagram or question-answer style. What do you think? (some of the formatting is lost when posting here, eg the indentation which helps understand the flow of logic. But you’ll get the idea.)

    -> Do moral facts exist?
    * No
    >> Untrue. You speak of morality all the time, you make moral judgements
    as though they were true, and you don’t believe you are merely
    expressing your opinion or preference. EG “goodness is moral” is a true
    moral fact and not merely your personal taste.
    * Yes
    >> True. In fact this is almost a self-evident intuition we all have.
    -> Is the basis of moral facts more plausibly natural or supernatural
    * Natural
    >> Untrue. Natural facts are facts about what is, not facts about the
    way things should be. There is no intentionality with natural
    facts. Moral facts have to do with the way that things should be.
    If unintended nature is all there is, then there simply is no
    state of affairs that was meant to be. So it is impossible that
    moral facts are natural.
    * Supernatural
    >> True. If it’s not Natural, then it must be Supernatural.
    -> Is the most plausible way to think of a supernatural basis of moral
    facts in terms of a supernatural person who brings moral facts
    about?
    * No
    >> Unlikely. Platonism is widely disregarded. The free-floating
    non-natural and non personal thing called “goodness” surely
    isn’t the sort of thing that could have intentions
    * Yes
    >> Likely. Moral facts are about personal beings, and personal in
    nature. Moral obligations arise when there is an authority
    who can issue binding commands.

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