Monday, July 19, 2010

The Moral Argument (Part 1)

Terribly sorry for the time since the last post. I took a hiatus of sorts. Without further ado...

The next argument in our series is the moral argument. It reasons from the universal, objective nature of morality (the law) to the existence of God (the lawgiver).

A simple version can be sketched like so:

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values do exist.
(3) God exists.

By 'objective moral values,' we mean moral truths that exist independently of humanity. That is, even if there were no one around to know them, they would still be true. 

The form of this argument is what philosophers call modus tollens or 'denying the consequent.' That's because it works by positing a conditional (if-then statement) and then denying its consequent (the 'then' portion of the statement). The result is the denial of the antecedent (the 'if' portion) of the conditional, and it is always valid.

So now that we're clear on the logic, what about the premises? Unfortunately, neither is without controversy. A denial of (1) leaves the atheist with two options: he can either deny that objective moral values exist, OR he must provide a better explanation for their existence than God. And this is notoriously difficult to do. But some attempts have been made, and I will turn to the best of them in the next post.

Denying (2) leaves us with some form of ethical relativism. Most of you have probably heard of the evils of relativism (it seems to be something of a favorite among apologists to pick on), so I won't spend much time on it here. I believe (hope) it is declining in popularity, but there are still enough folks out there who think it's a valid option (mostly first or second year undergrads in the softer disciplines) to make it worth mentioning.

Ethical relativism is basically the view that moral values may differ from person to person or maybe culture to culture. On this view, since they depend on human perspective for their truth, these values are not objective. This idea is often expressed in such popular catch phrases as "Well that may be true for you, but not for me..." There are many problems with this position, not least among them the fact that it is logically unaffirmable. This means that in order for the relativist to assert her position, she has to simultaneously contradict it (e.g. "It is true [objectively] that truth is not objective." or "It is immoral [objectively] to push your moral values onto others.") Not to mention the logical consequences of such a view (all those fun Hitler analogies come to mind).

Fortunately most academics, especially those in the most relevant disciplines--ethics and philosophy--realize that this view is nonsense. Consequently, and contrary to popular opinion, there are very few serious relativists in academia. In fact, it has become something of a derogatory label, along the lines of 'nihilist' or '4-dimensionalist.' * Besides, we all actually believe that objective moral values really do exist, or at least we live as though they do. If you don't believe me, try stealing something from someone (anyone you like) and then explaining to them that your set of moral values is different from theirs. Let me know how it goes.

One more thing should be made clear here. What this argument is NOT saying is that people who don't believe in God cannot be moral. That's nonsense. Of course they can. What the argument IS saying is that without God, morality is neither objective nor motivating (more on that later). Objectively moral behavior doesn't require belief in God--it requires God.

* Occupational humor. Sorry.


  1. Sam Harris is actually writing book on how science can be used to objectively determine values:

    Obviously our morals have evolved over time. What I consider moral and what a conservative would consider moral are two different things.

    For example: a conservative Christian might think it immoral for two homosexual males to engage in consensual sex. They base this off of perhaps family upbringing, or the Bible, or whatever. Usually it's something obscure, and is socially reinforced.

    I, on the other hand, do not see it as immoral. I think it's gross, but this is only because I've been reinforced to think it gross. In other countries, such as France, because culture is different, they mostly do not see homosexual consensual sex as immoral. However I do not base my conclusion of homosexual consensual sex as not immoral because other people do. I'm neutral on the subject. I see homosexual consensual sex as an act of love between two consensual partners who are legitimately attracted to each other and show love for one another. I also base my neutral conclusion on the reading I've done on homosexuality in general. Because genetics have shown that homosexuality is as naturally occurring in nature as heterosexuality (and even bisexuality), I conclude that homosexuality is an orientation. You're either born gay, straight, or somewhere in between. It's not something that can be controlled. Therefore, it is not an issue of morality anymore to me. It is an issue of genetics. Only those that haven't read up on the science of homosexuality make it out to be a moral discussion (and yes, liberals too make it out be a moral discussion). Morality in this case could not be further from the point of sexual orientation.

    So, yes, morality is subjective, and not objective.

  2. Charles: Interesting about Harris' forthcoming book. I hadn't heard about that. I might check it out, although I admit he is probably not the best source to be tackling this question.

    Your comment illustrates an important misunderstanding that is all-too-common in discussions of the moral argument. But it gives me the opportunity to address it, so thanks for bringing it up. :)

    Nowhere in the moral argument will you find the claim that people should not differ on specific moral points (such as the moral nature of homosexual sex). Of course they will, just like they'll differ on a thousand other things. And many of these differences will even likely fall relatively neatly along cultural lines. But this misses the point. We wouldn't be able to even have disagreements about such things if there weren't some standard from which it is possible to deviate so that we might disagree. Besides, we can pick out fun exceptions all day long, but it seems relatively uncontroversial to me that there are a good many moral values that are universal and that have the overwhelming sense of objectivity. Things like torturing babies for fun or maybe imprisoning homosexuals. These things are wrong. Objectively. And everybody knows it. And if you disagree, then we all think there is something wrong with you, because deep down we all know that these kinds of values are beyond human approval. They transcend culture. If someone knocks you down in the street, your reaction will be markedly different depending on your beliefs about that person's motives. If it was intentional, you will likely be angry; if it was an honest mistake, you'll likely overlook it; if they were running for their life, you will likely be very charitable. And this will be the same no matter where in the world you go.

    You say that morality is subjective, but you don't really believe that. What you do believe is that certain expressions of moral values can differ, but that was never in dispute. All the moral argument needs to succeed is an objective moral sense, and your own comments have shown that that is clearly intact, even in you. ;)

    As tempting as it is to challenge your claims regarding the genetics of sexual orientation, I will resist because it would likely be a distraction from the argument under discussion. But for other interested readers, just know that the issues involved here are much more complex than the above comments allow.

    As always Charles, thanks for commenting!

  3. Of course I believe that morality is subjective, why wouldn't I? I see evidence of it everyday. I see the conservative as immoral (unethical would be a more desirable term; I actually use unethical when the term morality isn't brought up), the conservative sees me as immoral. Therefore, morality is subjective. One man's freedom fighter is another's terrorist. Morality, ethics, et al, in the career field are things that are reasonably agreed upon. I try to base my personal ethics around professional ethics, and only if they present a utilitarian quality to them. I personally believe that utilitarianism is the best form of ethics judgment, but that itself can be subjective on a case by case basis.

    As you said, "the issues involved here are much more complex" than they appear. Objectivity in morality is a constantly evolving framework, and can't be squared down to "God says this", or "my parents said that". And it especially can't be squared down to one answer for everything. Moral relativism appears on the surface to be the best allowance for maximum toleration for mankind.

    My thinking is not as narrow as it perhaps seems on this page. I could write a book on what I thought was a moral way to live life. But how would that be tolerant to how others live their lives? Intolerance is the foundation to unethicality.

  4. Charles: I believe I have responded to your claim of subjectivity sufficiently in my last reply. Perhaps a closer read of my points there would be beneficial. Also, the next post will deal with certain efforts to account for the objective nature of morality (ethics) apart from God. Perhaps I'll mention utilitarianism there. Perhaps. Stay tuned.

    You do bring up one other interesting aspect of the discussion of moral relativism, however. And interestingly enough, it is one that was first made plain to me in a secular philosophy course by my militant atheist professor. Moral relativism is often trumpeted (by those few brave enough to trumpet it) as being the more 'tolerant' view, when in reality it is the height of intolerance. Carried to its logical ends, it would effectively cut off our ability to judge the actions of others. Our 'tolerance' would quickly be reduced to open approval of the actions of tyrants and warlords. A truly tolerant view allows the free expression of ideas but doesn't run away from the fact that some of those ideas (including ones about moral values) are better than others. In fact, some are just plain wrong.

  5. You're talking about the toleration of the intolerant. You're conflating toleration and respect. This occurs often for people dealing with this subject. We can tolerate other's opinions about ideas, for example, but we often do not respect them. We can tolerate (and perhaps even respect) others' right to disagree, but that doesn't mean we respect the statement on which we disagree (or even the methodology of which the statement concluded with).

    For example: an Asian man holds up a sign with the N-word on it, saying they're a bunch of a liars. While I do not respect the statement that's he's making, because it provides a stereotype that is blanketly false. I can however tolerate it because he's making the statement in a non-threating way, and because he's not breaking any laws. It's his 1st Amendment right to bring the sign up, if he so chooses. Me ignoring him does two things: it provides the message that I respect his right to use the 1st Amendment to his advantage, but it also at the same time shows that I myself have enough respect for myself to not involve myself in his shenanigans. (Terrible run-on sentence, but whatever.) In effect, I am tolerating the intolerant. But not respecting his statements. If he were to behave violently, or with derogatory imagery or with arson, for example, I would then have reason to call the police and report him for public indecency.

    Morality is both a case by case analysis, and a person by person analysis. It becomes complicated however when authoritarianism enters the arena. I've heard that homosexuality is wrong because God says it's wrong. I see this as an authoritarian argument, and not one based on much else.

    Toleration for the intolerant should occur. Forever and always. Someone once said "it's only offensive speech that needs protection". On the subject of free speech, I'm an extremist, and proud of it. I believe that anyone should have the right to say anything they want, truth or lie, wrong or right, nice or hurtful. It's only when the intolerant make laws to protect their interests that tyranny arises (for example, the new wave of the religious right is itself incredibly tyrannical, but that's for a different discussion).

  6. Charles: What I find truly fascinating is that you probably think the scenario you've just described is an example of moral relativism. In fact, it's far from it; if you didn't think there was something objectively wrong with the man's behavior (in the second case), there would be no need to call the police.

    And really, all this is getting a bit off-topic. I've 'tolerated' it (pun intended of course) for the value of the discussion, but now it's time to re-route it. If you want to defeat the argument I have provided, your options are limited. You must either (1) show how objective moral values may exist apart from God (which is the subject of the next post) or (2) provide some reason to think that objective moral values do not exist. To be charitable, I'll credit you with attempting (2). But mere sociological/cultural differences in moral specifics is no reason to deny the second premise. In fact, as I have already pointed out, this was assumed going into the argument. You'll have to do better than that.

  7. Okay, so let me _try_ to get this straight.
    You're saying that objective morality exists, whether or not we perceive something to be morally wrong.
    Therefore, we may view some action as wrong. We'll call this action /A/.
    But that doesn't necessarily mean that action /A/ is really "morally wrong", because the placement of moral value has already been made upon /A/.
    Therefore, objective morality exists.
    Is this correct? (I think in mostly mathematical terms.)

    Since /A/ has already been decided on whether it's morally wrong, and we're to assume that God exists, then God is the ultimate source of morality. Where do we get God's rules of how to live a moral life? Is it through learning on our own? Or through the Koran, the Torah, or the Bible, or even the Book of Mormon? Or perhaps an earlier sacred book? Or maybe perhaps through personal communication with God? If we're to get our morals through any of these books, it's been pointed out countless times where contradictions exist between what's taught in these texts, and what actually occurs in real life.

    I'll wait for post two I suppose to go any further. If I didn't get where you're headed, I'll just wait for a response, since I've read this a dozen times, and still can't figure out how objective morality exists. I see morality as an ever-evolving concept. What I think is an ethical way to live life may not be so in the future.

    In closing for the day, you should welcome all discussion, whether it's on topic or not. You don't have to focus on it, just know that discussions, conversations, et al., rarely stay on topic for very long. I've debated with the best, and only the best know that creativity is something that is welcomed in intelligent discussions. Perhaps you should surround yourself with people with opposing viewpoints more often, just a tip.

  8. Charles: No, that's not quite right. The argument is already laid out straightforwardly in the current post, though, so I see no reason to try to reconstruct it. Let's just go with the way I've already given it. The logic is simple enough: If God doesn't exist, then neither do objective moral values. But collective life experience gives the overwhelming impression that objective moral values do in fact exist. I.e. some things are just wrong, some are right; this fact is independent of our feelings about it, and everybody knows it. Therefore, the logic dictates that God must exist as well. Unless of course one can successfully refute one of the premises, which I am still waiting for.

    You say, "What I think is an ethical way to live life may not be so in the future." This is really irrelevant. As I have been saying, regardless of how much the specifics may vary (from culture to culture, across time, or whatever), so long as people know there is a way in which they 'ought' to act, the argument succeeds. I will add though, that I find it extremely implausible that what we currently consider the 'ethical life' will change all that drastically in the future. Do you really think there will be a time when lying is a virtue and honesty a vice? When theft is praised and charity condemned? I doubt it. But again, it's irrelevant. Even if there were, there would still be some standard, some sense of the way things ought to be that is different from the way they often are, wouldn't there? And that is all the argument needs.

    You ask, "Where do we get God's rules of how to live a moral life?" This brings up a related but separate issue often called the 'Euthyphro Dilemma.' I was considering blogging on this in relation to the moral argument anyway, and now that you have brought it up, I'll probably do it as part 3. Also, I would not claim that we 'get our morals through the Bible,' but rather that moral values are grounded in God's nature and that they are exemplified in the Scriptures, specifically in the life and work of Jesus Christ. But of course there will be several posts on the argument(s) from revelation coming soon, so we can go into much more detail there.