Friday, July 30, 2010

The Moral Argument (Part 3) - Euthyphro's Dilemma

One issue commonly raised in discussions of the moral argument is what is known in philosophy as Euthyphro's Dilemma (see comments on Part 1).

The name (and the argument) originated, as so many do, with Plato. In his Euthyphro dialogue, the characters Socrates and Euthyphro have the following exchange:

Euthyphro: Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious. 

Socrates: Ought we to enquire into the truth of this, Euthyphro, or simply to accept the mere statement on our own authority and that of others? What do you say?

Euthyphro: We should enquire; and I believe that the statement will stand the test of enquiry. 

Socrates: We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

This problem has been leveled against proponents of theistic moral theories ever since.

"Are actions moral because God commands them," they ask, "or does God command them because they are moral?"

This is a dilemma because if the theist takes the first option (known roughly as 'Divine Command Theory'), then it seems like what we consider 'moral' is rather arbitrary. God could have, on this view, just as easily chosen to make lying good and truth-telling bad. And then that would be the moral standard. But surely that can't be right.

But if we take the second option, then it seems like what is 'good' and 'moral' is somehow external to God, so that to say that God is good is simply to say that He conforms to some higher standard of goodness, not much different from the way humanity does.

The problem here is obvious. Neither option accords well with traditional Christian belief. If we go with the first horn, morality is arbitrary; if the second, it's supreme and God is subject.*

Either way, God is no longer the standard of moral perfection as Christians have taught. And yet, this is a dilemma, which means these are the only two options. Aren't they?

In short, no.

There is a third, and it is in fact the one that best fits what Christianity has traditionally believed. Morality is neither arbitrary nor external to God, but rather it is grounded in God's nature. That is, moral perfection is not something He chooses (arbitrarily or not); it is essential to His very being.

When God issues commands, they are necessarily in agreement with His nature and therefore good. And when we say that something is either morally praiseworthy or objectionable, what we mean (whether we realize it or not) is just that it either corresponds with God's nature or it doesn't, respectively.

So it turns out that for the Christian, Socrates' dilemma is a false one. It doesn't affect the traditional view of God or morality, and so the Christian need not be bothered by it.

Next time, teleology!

* Options in dilemmas are often called 'horns.'

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Moral Argument (Part 2)

So what can the atheist do with premise (1): "If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist"?

Last time I mentioned that in order to refute (1), the atheist must either deny that objective moral values exist (which we discussed), or else admit their existence but attempt to explain them apart from God. This is in fact the line taken by most non-theistic philosophers at this point (which is testimony itself of the inadequacy of relativism).

So how can objective moral values exist if God doesn't? I said that we'd examine the best of their attempts to answer this question. Well here it is. Are you ready?

They just do.


I'm not kidding.

Once they've admitted that moral values are objective (i.e. independent of human perception)--which most will readily do at this point--if you push them to explain the existence of these values, the best atheist philosophers in the world will literally just assert them with no justification.

Now, to be fair, they'll likely spice it up a bit. They'll use fancy words like 'necessary supervenience of moral properties on natural states' or some such language. But at the end of the day, it boils down to positing objective moral truths as brute fact, without explanation.

One attempt even asserts that maybe objective moral values literally exist as necessary metaphysical entities. If you know Plato, this should sound familiar because it's basically a handy modern version of his Theory of Forms. The problem is, nobody buys that. What does it even mean? How would the value 'Compassion' just exist? And even if it did, how could we relate to it? Further still, how could we get moral obligation from such a concept?

Is it just me or is it painfully obvious what's going on here? Some of the best ethicists in the world are willing to suspend otherwise sound judgment and assent to the explanation "That's just the way it is." And this from some of the same people who would criticize Christians for responding to problems this way.

Why do this? Could it be to avoid a conclusion with consequences?

I'll let you decide.

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.