Laws of logic, laws of morality

In my discussion with Arif Ahmed on the Unbelievable radio show, Dr Ahmed rejected my position that moral facts are best explained in terms of a non-natural person. Now, he doesn’t accept that there are any moral facts at all, but if there were, he indicated, they wouldn’t suggest the existence of a non-natural person.

Arif’s main argument against this view was an argument via counter-example. He used the counter example of logic. There are norms of logic (just as I think there are norms of morality), but that doesn’t imply that there’s a great, personal, non-natural logician out there. So why should the existence of moral laws imply the existence of a moral law giver?

As you’ll hear in the recording of the discussion, I attempted to offer one kind of reply at the time. That reply was (or at least was meant to be) that the idea of “law” is different in each of these cases. If we engage in a logical error then we’ve made an error of some sort, but people don’t find the same kind of fault with us as when we engage in moral wrongdoing. Stated differently (although I don’t recall using this term at the time), we aren’t blameworthy in the same way, and we don’t have reason to feel guilt in the case of logical error. Logic doesn’t make requirements of us. I wish I’d used this term at the time, because I think it clarifies things even further: There is a kind of social element in moral wrongdoing that just doesn’t seem present in logical blunders. That’s one difference between laws of logic and laws of morality.

As with my previous blog post about this discussion, there was only really time and opportunity for one brief response, but other responses are certainly possible. That response is actually related to my previous blog about this discussion: Laws of logic are analytic truths. A claim like “A = A” is true by definition. As soon as you comprehend the claim, you realise that experience has nothing to do with knowing that the claim is true. It is self evident because the very meaning of the terms involved makes it true. People don’t make analytical truths come about. They are merely matters of the meanings of terms.

Moral claims, by contrast, are not true by definition. When we ask a question like “is it wrong to torture people for fun,” the meaning of the word “wrong” is not at all bound up with the meaning of the words “torture” or “people” or “fun.” A moral claim is not an analytic claim but a synthetic claim, bringing together the idea of wrongness and the idea of torture (in this case). And synthetic claims, unlike analytical claims, are the kinds of claims that people can cause to be true. For example “my car is red” is a state of affairs brought about by the fact that somebody painted my car the colour red. Similarly, since the claim “rape is wrong” is a synthetic claim, it isn’t like a logical axiom. We can note that it is a fact claim about what we ought to do, and then (so say I) we can sensibly ask what makes the act wrong, which is where the moral argument for theism kicks in.

So the mere fact that “moral law” and “law of logic” are both phrases that contain the word “law,” this doesn’t imply that the must either both be things that require a lawmaker or else they must both be things that do not require a lawmaker. That would be a case of equivocation.

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17 thoughts on “Laws of logic, laws of morality

  1. Glenn, i must ask, surely logic norms do imply a logician.
    From a Christian point of view i have always believed we find ourselves in a rational explainable universe because it was made by a rational logical non-capricious orderly God, as Paul says “a God of order and not of chaos”. Apart from this i can see no particular reason that logic must “be”.
    I would have to guess that Hawkings M-theory and the previous discussion of “the lottery fallacy” imply that there are people out there who theorise that we exist in just one of an infinite number of possible universe variations and this further implies non-logical universes etc. As best as i can tell Multiverse theory is just away of avoiding beginnings and a Creator

  2. Jeremy, it’s true that some Christians (especially those who embrace the presuppositional apologetics of Cornelis Van Til) do maintain that laws of logic imply God’s existence.

    However, I think there’s an advantage of being able to show that there are relevant differences between laws of logic and moral facts. The advantage is that many Christians don’t accept Van Til’s stance and this way I don’t require that they accept it, and it shows that even if Van Til got it wrong, that fact doesn’t undermine the moral argument.

  3. Hi Glenn,

    Just to steal some more of your time:

    1) You say “People don’t find the same kind of fault with us as when we engage in moral wrongdoing.” Well, as with a lot of your empirical claims, that’s news to me. Personally, I often blame and get quite angry with people when they make logical blunders. Not always, but certainly in some cases. I think a lot of my athiest buddies would agree with that if you asked them about a conversation they had with a theist.

    2) You say: “[An analytic truth] is self evident because the very meaning of the terms involved makes it true.” Just to be clear about the position I was explaining a few days ago, I would (if I agreed with said position, which I’m undecided upon) say that only half that sentence is true. The meaning of the terms may very well make an analytic sentence true; but there is yet a question of whether or not we are in an epistemological position to believe that a given sentence is made true by the meaning of the words. You see, I would have said that the same thing about Euclid’s axioms: that they are self-evident because the very meaning of the terms involved make them true. Just turns out that happens to be false. The question raised by non-Euclidean geometry is whether self-evidence (even with something as patently obvious as ‘A=A’) is a good guide for belief; not whether or not claims can be made true by the meaning of the words. I understand that you disagree: I just wanted to be clear on what we disagree about, and why.

    3) You say: “Synthetic claims, unlike analytical claims, are the kinds of claims that people can cause to be true.” True; but not all synthetic claims are claims that people can cause to be true (eg, ‘the universe started with a big bang’). So it’s not clear that all sythetic truths need a “great, personal, non-natural [entity];” thus an amended-Arif’s point (that the existence of synthetic truth A doesn’t require the existence of a “great, personal, non-natural [entity]”) would still go through.

    4) Formulating #3 was a little difficult for me, because I’m not quite clear on what your argument is. Your conclusion in the second-to-last paragraph is: “We can note that it is a fact claim about what we ought to do, and then (so say I) we can sensibly ask what makes the act wrong.” Don’t you mean “we can sensibly ask WHO makes the act wrong?”? Because if you mean “we can sensibly ask WHAT makes the act wrong?” then couldn’t this thing be non-sentient; and isn’t this precisely Arif’s point? Arif’s point is that “if there were [moral facts] … they wouldn’t suggest the existence of a non-natural person.”

    If you don’t respond to these points, I won’t presume that you think I’m right, and no reader should think that either: we should just presume you’ve given enough of your time to one guy. And that’s absolutely fair.

  4. [By the way, I’m a different Matt to the Matt with a photo. I’ve only responded to the two Arif blog entries, to date.]

  5. 1) Yes we do find fault with people when they make logical errors. I didn’t deny this. I guess the key was in the phrase “in the same way.” I’m surprised at you saying that you get angry when people do this. My anecdotal experience is that people do not treat people who make such errors as being worthy of the kind of blame that moral villains are guilty of. We are more likely to be sympathetic because the error is just because of a lack of knowledge, for example.

    I don’t think it’s appropriate to get angry with people for just making logical errors. I do think it’s appropriate to get angry about immoral conduct.

    2) You seem to be saying that analytic claims might not be self-evident. Actually that’s fair enough. Many analystic claims are self-evident, but some might be pretty complicated (like mathematical truths). Even if we grant this, I don’t think this changes anything here.

    3) I would never have said that all “all synthetic truths need a “great, personal, non-natural [entity];” But the issue was normativity – and although I didn’t use that word in the blog entry, the word “laws” was used. So Arif’s statement, even amended, certainly does not “go through.”

    4) I think “we can sensibly ask what makes it wrong” is fine – it just turns out that my answer is that the best answer is that a person makes it wrong.

    Arif’s point is that laws don’t imply a similar explanation when it comes to logic (namely – a what that turns out to be a who). As indicated, I think the laws of logic are sufficiently different that they don’t serve as a useful counter example.

  6. Hi Glenn (and on a workday too!),

    1) Whether you think it’s appropriate or not is another matter. People, particularly my atheist buddies, do find it blameworthy.

    2) Well, it seemed that you were saying the fact the laws of logic are true by definition is one of the things that distinguishes them from moral laws; I’m saying we don’t know that the laws of logic are true by definition (though, of course, we know they are true), and if that’s right then we don’t know that moral laws and logical laws are different in this particular respect.

    3) Ah, so it’s that “All true synthetic LAWS need a great, personal, non-natural entity”? Right; well then, not all true synthetic LAWS need people to cause them to be true, either (eg, ‘The speed of light is always a constant’). So synthetic laws (rape is wrong/speed of light is constant) don’t necessarily need sentient entities to cause them to be true, and in this sense may yet be like logical axioms. If you counter that I’m not quite understanding your argument, I’m not sure I’d object: it’s harder in this blog entry of yours to see where the premisses are and how the conclusions are being drawn. The premiss/conclusion thing might have helped, in this instance; at least for dullard atheists like me.

    4) So Arif’s point is not just that, “If there were [moral facts] … they wouldn’t suggest the existence of a non-natural person;” it’s that, ‘If there were moral facts, they wouldn’t require the existence of a non-natural person or anything else for that matter’? [This conclusion being drawn from an analogy with logic]. Okay. But you’d agree that, then, that supposing your blog post has successfully driven a wedge between the laws of logic and laws of morality, you haven’t shown this to be false: “If there were [moral facts] … they wouldn’t suggest the existence of a non-natural person”?

    Thanks again,

    Matthew.

  7. 1) Again, I didn’t say we don’t find it blameworthy. I said we don’t find it blameworthy in the same way. And as far as I’m concerned it matters what I think. It strikes me as dysfunctional or innappriopriate to judge blame or disapprove of a logical error in the same way that I disapprove of moral wickedness. As long as this strikes me as being the case, I (and I suspect many people) will have a reason to reject the comparison,

    2) Oh OK I didn’t realise that you were saying quite that. Maybe you’re not certain that there’s an analytic/synthetic distinction, taking a leaf from Quine’s book. I throw my lot in with those who recognise such a distinction.

    3) Many (or most) theists might take issue with the idea that natural laws or laws of physics are not evidence of a personal origin (the work of John Lennox comes to mind). However, over and above this, the idea of moral normativity involves a requirement that is social in nature. We are violating a duty and uncurring guilt if we break such requirements. This is connected to point 1). The aspect of moral duty that incurs guilt, the aspect that means people can find fault with us, all of this sets moral law apart from other laws. So there are two replies here: First the laws of physics might not be a persuasive counter example without taking for granted some things that many theists will not accept, and it’s also not a good counterexample because of the social aspect of moral law that sets it apart from laws of physics.

    4) No I wouldn’t grant that. I’ve accepted for argument’s sake that laws of logic might not require the existence of a non-natural person, but I have driven the wedge in to show that the fact that laws of logic have no such requirement doesn’t suggest that very different laws like moral laws don’t have this requirement.

    Cheers Matthew – I shall now take the rest of the evening off 🙂

  8. 1) Yeah, that’s what I mean: we find it blameworthy in the same way. And you might find it dysfunctional (I find believing in God in today’s society dysfunctional, but I doubt you put much stock in that), but you said “People don’t find the same kind of fault with us as when we engage in moral wrongdoing.” You didn’t say “People SHOULDN’T find the same kind of fault with us as when we engage in moral wrongdoing.”

    2) That’s the position, yeah. All I was pointing out is that someone could (and I think people do) agree that sentences like ‘A=A’ are made true by the meanings of the terms involved, and yet deny that this makes them self-evident. Your sentence seemed to assume that if one agrees with the former they must agree to the latter; I’m just saying that’s not a given.

    3) Oh, sure, absolutely theists could (and often do) take issue with the idea that natural laws are not evidence of a personal origin — but again, I wasn’t entirely sure what your goal was with this part of the blog entry. Were you trying to convince theists that the existence of moral laws implies a lawmaker, or were you trying to get an Arif-type-person over a barrel? The fact that you argued from a premiss that ‘Arifians’ could accept led me to believe you had the former goal in mind; but as I say, I found it difficult in this particular instance to determine what work each premiss was meant to be doing.

    [As for the second part of your response, as you say, I think that’s covered in 1)].

    4) Oh yeah, look, you might be right that Arif’s analogy doesn’t show that moral laws don’t require the existence of a non-natural entity, but that’s not what the conclusions of your arguments were. The arguments in your blog concluded with “We can sensibly ask what makes the act wrong,” and (as the ‘what’ may be non-sentient) that is not a claim that is inconsistent with “If there were [moral facts] … they wouldn’t suggest the existence of a non-natural person.”

    Now, if the debate was actually about this claim ‘If there were moral facts, they wouldn’t require the existence of a non-natural person — or anything else for that matter,’ then your conclusion (if right) WOULD show that claim to be wrong. But surely if your blog is meant to be arguing against “If there were [moral facts] … they wouldn’t suggest the existence of a non-natural person,” then your conclusion shouldn’t be completely neutral on whether or not the thing that makes moral facts true is a non-natural person!

    Hope you enjoyed your night
    4) Oh yeah, look, you might be right that an analogy with logical laws doesn’t show that moral laws do not require the existence of a non-natural person, but that’s not what you claimed you’d shown. You claimed, from the fact that “We can note that [rape is wrong is a claim] about what we ought to do,” that “we can sensibly ask what makes the act wrong.” That’s where you stop your argument. You say that the moral argument for God kicks in at this point, and maybe it does, but you weren’t giving that argument. The arguments in your blog concluded with “We can sensibly ask what makes the act wrong,” and that is not a claim that is inconsistent with “If there were [moral facts] … they wouldn’t suggest the existence of a non-natural person.” So, someone who agreed with you on all of the arguments in your blog could still agree with Arif on the point that of contention. I know you don’t, and you’ve got (good) reasons for it, but this blog was meant to be an argument that Arif’s claim is wrong, and all you concluded was something that is consistent with Arif’s claim. That’s why I think you meant ‘who,’ because at least then it would be a denial of the point in contention.

    Now, if the debate was actually about this claim, ‘If there were moral facts, they wouldn’t require the existence of a non-natural person or anything else for that matter,’ then your conclusion (if right) would show that claim to be wrong. But the conclusion that you are standing behind — the one with the word ‘what’ instead of ‘who’ — doesn’t show this to be false:you haven’t shown this to be false: “If there were [moral facts] … they wouldn’t suggest the existence of a non-natural person.”

  9. Oh truckin’ ‘ell,

    I did it again. I didn’t delete alternate phrasings. I don’t know, as you can see, I was trying to cut back to the bare-bones of the argument; trim the fat. I’d suggest ignoring the last two paragraphs, but maybe the more detailed versions help get the argument across. I don’t know, I’d ignore them just to save time.

    See ya

  10. 1) Well I think people in general don’t find fault with both in the same way. I think the fact that you do is unusual.

    2) Not sure that this is important (or even that you think it is)

    3) My more important claim is what came after my “however.”

    4) It’s true that I have not here shown that the rejection of the moral argument is wrong. That wasn’t the intention. I do think it’s wrong, but I haven’t argued for that claim here. What I did here was much more modest: I argued that the counter example of laws of logic (the counter example Arif used) doesn’t work. That counter example does not commit me to the existence of a great non-natural logician on the basis of my moral argument, because laws of logic and moral laws are relevantly different. That’s all I set out to show. Boring, I know.

  11. 1) I disagree — but with this point, unless one of us points to a study, it’s just going to be table-thumping. But your point wasn’t that it’s strange or abnormal for people to find errors in logic blameworthy (‘in the same way’), but that people don’t do it.

    2) Yeah, I’m not sure it’s relevant; but it could have been that you were saying self-evidence was something that separated logical laws from moral laws. As I say, it was harder to see what premisses were doing what work in this blog entry.

    3) And is dealt with in 1). The stuff before ‘however’ is the only stuff that warrants its own response. You know my response to the stuff after ‘however’ because you know my stance on 1).

    4) But you say won’t grant me that — supposing the arguments in your blog post worked — you still haven’t shown this to be false: “If there were [moral facts] … they wouldn’t suggest the existence of a non-natural person.” But surely you should grant me this point, if all you’ve argued in your blog entry is “We can sensibly ask what makes the act wrong” (given that the ‘what’ may not be a ‘who’). Right?

    Anyway, I’m off here for a few days, so get some beauty sleep. May hear from ya again later.

    See ya.

  12. For point 4? Oklay, the point is simply this:

    The sentence ‘Moral facts don’t suggest the existence of a non-natural person’ could be true even if ‘We can sensibly ask what makes the act of rape wrong’ is true as well. As you’ve only argued for the latter, you shouldn’t claim that you’ve shown the former to be false. That’s all.

  13. Re: 2) For what it’s worth, most people who agree that ‘A=A’ is self-evident would admit that self-evidence is something that distinguishes logical laws from moral laws.* So point number two could be irrelevant for most people; all I’m saying is, “I disagree with you here, here and here.”

    * Not sure that someone like Plantinga, whom I’d (baselessly) guess is a bit of a hero of yours, would agree though; would you know his position on this?

  14. I’ll also, just to find common ground, reaffirm that I’m not sure 3) is relevant either. My point is that I see no reason to think that Arif (or ‘Arifians’) should think ‘Rape is wrong’ is more like true synthetic claim ‘My car is red’ than true synthetic claim ‘The speed of light is a constant.’ But it may be that all you were arguing is that ‘Rape is wrong’ COULD BE like ‘My car is red,’ and that that sufficed for your purposes. I just wasn’t sure which premiss you were using, because the work the premiss was meant to be doing wasn’t clear (to me). So maybe my 3) was irrelevant; it depends on what you were saying.

  15. And while I’m here, I might as well make a comment on 1), to see if we can, as they say, ‘Agree to disagree.’ Maybe it suffices for your purposes that some people don’t find logical errors blameworthy in the same way that they find moral errors blameworthy. I won’t argue with the worth of that premiss, as that premiss wasn’t in your blog entry. So if that’s all you meant, we can dispatch 1) here and now as well.

  16. Okay, you’ve moved on; no time to battle out everything on every thread. I understand you are probably still unconvinced by anything I’ve said — all I’m saying is, I disagree with you, and I disagree with you for non-Ken-like reasons. As you haven’t reacted with as much anger towards me as you have towards Ken, I hope you agree that at least I’m engaging you and not being ‘Ken-like.’ That’s enough, for an atheist-theist debate. It’s a better conclusion than most. Thanks,

    Matt.

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