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God vs. ‘Just Because’: Two Explanations for Objective Morality

Morality

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today continues our eight-part debate on the resolution, "Does objective morality depend on the existence of God?" We'll hear from two sharp young thinkers. Joe Heschmeyer, a Catholic seminarian in Kansas City, Kansas, will argue the affirmative view. Steven Dillon, a gifted philosopher and a former Catholic seminarian, will argue the negative. The eight parts will run as follows:

Monday (11/4) - Joe's opening statement (affirmative)
Tuesday (11/5) - Steven's opening statement (negative)
Wednesday (11/6) - Joe's rebuttal (affirmative)
Thursday (11/7) - Steven's rebuttal (negative)
Friday (11/8) - Questions exchanged (three questions each)
Saturday (11/9) - Answers (Joe and Steven answer each other's questions)
Sunday (11/10) - Joe's closing statement (affirmative)
Monday (11/11) - Steven's closing statement (negative)

Both Joe and Steven have agreed to be present in the comment boxes, so if you have a specific question for them, ask away!
 


 

Introduction

 
With deep gratitude towards Steven Dillon (for an engaging and charitable debate), Strange Notions (for hosting it), and all of you (for reading and participating in the comments), here’s my response to Steven’s opening statement:

Is Agony Intrinsically Evil?

 
In my opening statement, I suggested that non-theistic moral systems cannot be the source of objective moral claims. In his opening statement, Steven proposed what he described as an “exceptionally good” candidate for a necessarily true moral proposition: that “agony is intrinsically bad.”

He defines “agony” as “an intense and extreme amount of pain.” But instead of defining what it means to call agony “intrinsically bad,” he simply gives “some paradigmatic examples of bad things.” For example: “It’s bad when parents have to live their lives in worry and stress because of inopportunity and an unfair society.”

So what does it mean to call agony “intrinsically bad,” exactly? Do we mean simply that agony is extremely unpleasant or, in some way, painful? If so, that seems tautological, like saying “extremely painful things are painful.” Besides being uninformative, that’s not even be a moral claim.

It’s possible that this tautology is all Stephen aims to prove with the proposition. His argument is that “we did not conclude that agony is intrinsically bad because some further necessary truth dictated as much. We didn’t even consider other propositions, after all. We just thought about what the proposition meant, and it seemed to us that it was true.” But if that is the case, then he hasn’t done the job of establishing a moral proposition at all. Even a torturer could readily and gleefully affirm, “agony is very painful!” That, I suspect, is the point.

So saying agony is painful doesn’t say it’s good or evil, that it should be pursued or avoided, etc. As G.E. Moore would say, these are “is” claims, not “ought” claims. Saying that agony is painful may describe reality, but it doesn’t tell us how we ought to behave (or not behave) without reference, at least implicitly, to some sort of moral code or system. And it’s that moral system that we’re looking for.

Let’s consider an alternative interpretation of the proposition “agony is intrinsically bad.” Since Steven tells us that this is a moral proposition, he may mean that agony is a moral evil, never to be intentionally committed. If so, is that true?

At first glance, it certainly seems like good advice. But is it morally evil to intentionally suffer? Put more concretely, do we consider it morally evil for a woman to intentionally get pregnant, given the pain of childbirth? Or what about the surgeon who performs an agonizing (but life-saving) operation? Are high-stress jobs immoral? If so, what makes these things evil? Again, we’re left hunting for some sort of objective and binding moral code or system.

So, understood in either sense, then, “agony is intrinsically bad” fails as an objective moral claim. It’s either a non-moral tautology, or a false (and non-objective) moral claim.

The Problem of Intuitionism

 
In the last section, we saw that under either interpretation of the proposition “agony is intrinsically bad,” we were left looking for some sort of moral code or system. Instead, Steven advocates something akin to what the utilitarian R.M. Hare described as “pluralistic intuitionism”: namely, belief in “a plurality of moral principles, each established by intuition, and not related to one another in an ordered structure, but only weighed relatively to each other (also by intuition) when they conflict.” There are several problems with this pluralistic intuitionism.

First, it’s not an objective moral code. Intuitions differ. Steven takes it as self-evident that “Racism, animal cruelty, human trafficking, all of these things are bad.” For centuries, Europeans and white Americans assumed the opposite, at least about racism. As the Supreme Court noted in the notorious Dred Scott v. Sandford case:

"They [racist colonial laws] show that a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery, and governed as subjects with absolute and despotic power, and which they then looked upon as so far below them in the scale of created beings, that intermarriages between white persons and negroes or mulattoes were regarded as unnatural and immoral, and punished as crimes, not only in the parties, but in the person who joined them in marriage. And no distinction in this respect was made between the free negro or mulatto and the slave, but this stigma, of the deepest degradation, was fixed upon the whole race."

So the ordinary American today views racial equality as self-evident and racism as a morally intuitive evil. The ordinary (white) American of yesteryear viewed racial inequality as self-evident, believing it immoral to treat black and white people as equals. Upon what basis can we say that their moral intuition and judgment was wrong? Our own intuition? Or something more substantive?

Second, pluralistic intuitionism provides no basis for rational moral decision-making. Russ Shafer-Landau, as Steven notes, says, “It seems to me self-evident that, other things equal, it is wrong to take pleasure in another’s pain,” etc. In saying that it “seems to me” self-evident, Shafer-Landau seems to be conceding the subjectivity of intuitionism. But in saying “other things equal,” Shafer-Landau is revealing a second problem: what do we do when we have a clash of values?

Moral reasoning is simple when all other things are equal. What makes it so vexing is that this is rarely the case. Often, moral reasoning involves apparently-competing values, like justice v. mercy, private property v. equitable distribution of goods, etc. If your moral code is a hodgepodge of unsorted feelings, you have no tools other than gut feeling to decide these questions. As Hare said, these values are “only weighed relatively to each other (also by intuition) when they conflict.”

Third, all forms of intuitionism point to (and rely upon) God. Mind you, I don’t doubt that moral intuitions exist. But as we’ve seen, they’re incoherent without reference to God. If these really are objective and binding laws of human behavior, where is the law-giver? Given that these laws exist, why do they exist? Steven quotes Erik Wielenberg, who treats these laws as an effect without a cause:

"Such facts are the foundation of (the rest of) objective morality and rest on no foundation themselves. To ask of such facts, “where do they come from?” or “on what foundation do they rest?” is misguided in much the way that, according to many theists, it is misguided to ask of God, “where does He come from?” or “on what foundation does He rest”? The answer is the same in both cases: They come from nowhere, and nothing external to themselves grounds their existence; rather, they are fundamental features of the universe that ground other truths."

This is not an answer. It’s a shrug of the shoulders and a “Just because.”

That's not the case in the Christian answer that God is uncaused. We argue that God must exist, since you cannot just have an infinite series of conditional and created beings. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas’ Third Way proves the existence of a Being (who we call God) who must exist necessarily, and who relies only upon Himself for His Being. Without Him, there couldn’t be a universe. We don’t assumethat God must exist: we show that He must.

Further, this conclusion makes sense. After all, God is Subsistent Being (ipsum esse subsistens). Being could no more not-be than non-being could be. Asking who caused the Uncaused Cause is contradictory, and it makes sense to say that a necessarily-existing Being necessarily exists.

That's quite different when we're dealing with moral principles: there's no apparent reason or explanation why we would assume that they're uncaused (other than the alternative requires God).

And asking who or what causes these truths isn't contradictory. On the contrary, it’s a question that anyone who insists on the existence of objective morality should be able to answer. Do these various moral truths exist apart from us? Or did we bring them into existence somehow? It doesn’t make sense to simply assert the existence of myriad uncaused and unrelated moral truths, and claim that these are each necessarily-existing, particularly when no two intuitionist philosophers seem to agree on what these principles are.

Asserting that there are random incommensurable moral rules is no basis for establishing morality as binding. The origin of these laws is “just because.” Why follow these authorless laws? Apparently, just because. Needless to say, that’s hardly a sufficient reason to justify changing one’s lifestyle or moral behavior.

When we describe something as "pointless," we mean that it doesn't have a purpose. It's only in relation to a purpose that we can say whether something succeeds or fails. The most common atheistic cosmology is that the universe is an objectively meaningless accident, and therefore, pointless. But if the entire universe is devoid of inherent meaning, how can we possibly find meaning inherent in our moral behavior (or misbehavior)?

Is Morality Contingent Upon Knowledge of God?

 
Steven suggests in his opening statement that the person affirming objective morality’s dependence upon God “must explain why these arguments—which don’t even mention God—are only sound if God exists.” And he provides a fascinating quotation by the Christian apologist Richard Swinburne:

"An argument that claims that the best explanation of the existence of morality is the action of God who created it must claim that many moral truths are (logically) contingent. For the existence of the phenomena described by (logically) necessary truths need no explanation. It does not need explaining that all bachelors are unmarried, or that, if you add two to two, you get four. These things hold inevitably and necessarily, whether or not there is a God."

With all due respect to both Steven and Swinburne, this gets things backwards. God, as Aquinas’ Third Way shows, exists necessarily. We just saw as much in the last section. So to say that objective morality depends upon His Existence is to ground morality in something necessary, rather than in something subjective, like our shifting moral intuitions about the good. (Even if you’re not personally convinced of the necessity of God’s existence, hopefully you can see why Swinburne’s argument fails: it assumes the existence of a contingent God, which both Christians and atheists would reject.)

But does that mean that we need to know of God’s existence before we can know of morality? No.

Let me illustrate with an example. A thing falling to the ground depends upon gravity. But surely, we observed that things fall before we understood why they fell. The technical explanation for this is that there’s a difference between ontology and epistemology. In the order of being, gravity is prior to the fall: it’s because gravity exists that the thing falls, not the other way around. But in the order of knowing, we know that things fall long before we know why they fall. In fact, the question “Why did that thing fall?” should point us towards the truth of gravity. It would be a mistake to respond to this question, “The thing just fell, no need to probe any deeper.”

Likewise, both Steven and I have observed that objective morality exists. Now the question now is why it exists. Steven’s explanation amounts to “Just because.” I argue that we need to do better than this, and that objective morality cries out for the existence of God.

Conclusion

 
Objective morality is observable apart from knowledge of God, which is why atheists and agnostics can know right from wrong, and why philosophers can talk about self-evident moral propositions, and why everyone reading this knows what we mean by “moral” and “immoral.” Some things are just wrong, regardless of our philosophies, and even if we desperately want them to be right.

But objective morality isn’t explicable apart from knowledge of God: every attempt, including Steven’s most recent one, fails to explain why objective morality exists.

 
 
(Image credit: Young Aus Skeptics)

Joe Heschmeyer

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Until May 2012, Joe Heschmeyer was an attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in litigation. These days, he is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, and can use all the prayers he can get. Follow Joe through his blog, Shameless Popery or contact him at joseph.heschmeyer@gmail.com.

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  • Wow, what a debate! I think the key passages in Joe's rebuttal are the following:

    So saying agony is painful doesn’t say it’s good or evil, that it should be pursued or avoided, etc. As G.E. Moore would say, these are “is” claims, not “ought” claims. Saying that agony is painful may describe reality, but it doesn’t tell us how we ought to behave (or not behave) without reference, at least implicitly, to some sort of moral code or system. And it’s that moral system that we’re looking for.

    This was my major concern in reading Steven's opening statement too. Moral truth, unlike geometric or physical truths, implicates our actions on a practical plane. Describing the badness of agony (which I agree is nearer to a tautology than anything) is not a grounding of the wrongness of inflicting agony, or an explanation of why one ought not increase agony. The connection seems strong, but getting from that "is" to "ought" is the key, and it doesn't seem like Steven has done that yet. As Joe observes, sadists certainly know and understand that agony is bad, painful, and ugly just as much as the virtuous - in fact, that's precisely why they believe they ought to make more of it. (And I'm reminded of James 2:19...)

    In the order of being, gravity is prior to the fall: it’s because gravity exists that the thing falls, not the other way around. But in the order of knowing, we know that things fall long before we know why they fall. In fact, the question “Why did that thing fall?” should point us towards the truth of gravity. It would be a mistake to respond to this question, “The thing just fell, no need to probe any deeper.” Likewise, both Steven and I have observed that objective morality exists. Now the question now is why it exists. Steven’s explanation amounts to “Just because.” I argue that we need to do better than this, and that objective morality cries out for the existence of God.

    This is a related point, and crucial, because Catholics do not tend to proffer divine command theory (which William Lane Craig leans toward). We generally do believe that you can describe the "that" of morality with the use of reason, just by examining human nature and the natural end of human acts. Catholic morality is not a mere appeal to authority but also to natural law. On the other hand, this universal content of moral truth is finally contextualized - in a word, made objective - by God's existence. If God does not exist, we can still discover moral truths, but everything becomes permissible in a broader sense - there is no end, no standard, no system, no ground. As Nietzsche put it, the death of God means we've gone "beyond good and evil."

    • Steven Dillon

      Matthew: It seems to me that I only need to get from an is to an ought in order to defeat the resolution if the only statements that are moral are ought statements. But, if a statement can be 'moral' even though it doesn't report any moral duties, then it seems I have no need to try to get from the badness of agony to the wrongness of inflicting agony.

      I think the distinction between moral values (good, bad) and moral duties (right, wrong) comes into play here. Consider that a morally good action (such as donating money to a child's hospital) can be supererogatory.

      Surely the proposition "It is good to donate money to children's hospitals" is a moral statement. Yet, it's not an ought statement. This is due to the distinction drawn above. All I intend to do is show that a moral statement is true regardless of whether God exists, and it seems 'Agony is intrinsically bad' counts as a moral statement even though it's not an ought.

      • I think the distinction is an important one. Maybe it would have been good to define "morality" in addition to "objective" at the outset to avoid talking past one another.
        I'm sure you'll address it in your rebuttal, but how would you reply to Joe's contention that, even if "agony is bad" is not a non-moral tautology, it's at least a "false (and non-objective) moral claim" (paragraphs 8 and 9)?

        • Steven Dillon

          Well, it seems to me that the statement "agony is intrinsically bad" is only a false moral claim on the assumption that 'bad' refers to moral evil. Clearly there are many cases where there is nothing at all morally evil about agony.

          But, 'badness' does not refer (exclusively) to moral evil. It's a much broader and more fundamental category of moral disvalue. This is why, for example, non-moral evils such as the destruction of a city by a hurricane still count as 'bad'. While only 'actions' can be morally evil, sensations (like agony or loneliness) can be bad.

          The "belief-independent-attachment" that such disvalues have to sensations and the like seems to be a feature unique to moral properties.

          • David Nickol

            With apologies for dragging Adam and Eve into the discussion, quite a few commentaries I have read make the point that the Tree of Knowledge can quite plausibly be argued to be the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad rather than the Tree of Knowledge of [Moral] Good and [Moral] Evil. Good and bad here would encompass (not be limited to) moral good and bad. It would seem to me we are not using good and bad in a fundamentally different way when we use them to speak about morality than when we use them to talk about other things.

          • Geena Safire

            The Catholic Church has a different definition of the word 'evil' than used in common parlance -- or in philosophy.

            The following is from the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on 'evil.'

            Evil, in a large sense, may be described as the sum of the opposition, which experience shows to exist in the universe, to the desires and needs of individuals; whence arises, among humans beings at least, the sufferings in which life abounds. Thus evil, from the point of view of human welfare, is what ought not to exist.

            ... ...

            With regard to the nature of evil, it should be observed that evil is of three kinds — physical, moral, and metaphysical.

            Physical evil includes all that causes harm to man, whether by bodily injury, by thwarting his natural desires, or by preventing the full development of his powers, either in the order of nature directly, or through the various social conditions under which mankind naturally exists.

            Physical evils directly due to nature are sickness, accident, death, etc. Poverty, oppression, and some forms of disease are instances of evil arising from imperfect social organization. Mental suffering, such as anxiety, disappointment, and remorse, and the limitation of intelligence which prevents humans beings from attaining to the full comprehension of their environment, are congenital forms of evil each vary in character and degree according to natural disposition and social circumstances.

            By moral evil are understood the deviation of human volition from the prescriptions of the moral order and the action which results from that deviation.

            ... ...

            Metaphysical evil is the limitation by one another of various component parts of the natural world.

            Through this mutual limitation natural objects are for the most part prevented from attaining to their full or ideal perfection, whether by the constant pressure of physical condition, or by sudden catastrophes. Thus, animal and vegetable organisms are variously influenced by climate and other natural causes; predatory animals depend for their existence on the destruction of life; nature is subject to storms and convulsions, and its order depends on a system of perpetual decay and renewal due to the interaction of its constituent parts. If animals suffering is excluded, no pain of any kind is caused by the inevitable limitations of nature; and they can only be called evil by analogy, and in a sense quite different from that in which the term is applied to human experience.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Steven,

            I understand that "bad" can mean both "painful/unpleasant" and "evil," but are you using it in a third sense? That is, are you claiming anything in "agony is intrinsically bad" that isn't contained in the propositions "agony is intrinsically painful" and "agony is intrinsically evil"?

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • Steven Dillon

            Well, I think 'bad' is definitely more broad than moral evil. Otherwise, there's nothing bad about natural evils. You might take moral and natural evil to comprise 'badness', in which case the experience of agony per se would probably be a natural evil (though it could be inflicted in someone by an agent).

            Personally, I take badness to be even more fundamental than natural and moral evil because there seem to be things that are bad but not evil, naturally or morally. But, this latter point doesn't seem important for the question at hand.

      • R.P.R.

        Even if it is a moral statement, these non-ought statements reduce to the statement that such-and-such action registers positively on a utilitarian calculus (donating to a hospital, etc.). Whether something registers positively on a utilitarian calculus clearly does not directly depend on God and so if that is the debate, I think you've won. The more interesting debate, I think, though, is whether humans are under an objective moral obligation to pursue the good so defined (or however defined) and if so whether this obligation depends on God.

      • joeclark77

        How do you define "agony" then? I guess it means "extreme pain". So what does "pain" mean? It's got to be either "a sensation one dislikes" (in which case your proposition is "agony [subjectively defined] is [subjectively] bad"), or "a sensation that meets an objective standard of badness" (and your propostion is "[that] agony [which is objectively bad] is [objectively] bad").
        Basically you haven't proven that "agony is bad" in a way that doesn't beg the question. Is there a way that you can prove "agony is objectively bad" without just assuming objectivity and badness in the definition?

    • Loreen Lee

      I would like to contest your understanding of Nietzsche. Although I am in disagreement with the idea of 'The eternal return', I do believe that it points to the fact that it is possible to repeat over and over again the same mistakes. (Christianity, I feel, is (the?) one religion which emphasizes the transformational/resurrective element). But Nietzsche's 'beyond good and evil' I understood in the context of his 'superman' theory as the ability to be that conscious of one's morality that one has conquered the unconscious elements of both good and evil within oneself. Does this point to the modern rationalist absorption with reason rather than love? But then we have not even explored the issue of love within these postings.. There was a time when I was more naive and could not recognize some of the traits that I consider today to be bad, in the sense that I would want to avoid them. If I could be fully conscious of both good and evil, (even the workings of the 'devil') I believe I would then be 'beyond' them. In any case, this is what I understand to be the context of Nietzsche's thought. Thanks.

      • Loreen Lee

        I have just reminded myself that the original 'sin' of 'Adam and Evil' was the 'desire' to attain 'knowledge' of 'good and evil' and thus 'be like God'. It is no wonder then that there was need for 'Redemption'....(grin grin?)

        • Good point!

        • David Nickol

          he original 'sin' of 'Adam and Evil' was the 'desire' to attain 'knowledge' of 'good and evil' and thus 'be like God'

          This contradicts the almost universal agreement that the sin of Adam and Eve was disobedience. Let us remember that Adam and Eve didn't merely desire to attain knowledge of good and bad. They acquired the knowledge of good and bad. They succeeded. Genesis 3:22 reads:

          Then the LORD God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever" --

          Of course, if Adam and Eve truly had no knowledge of what was morally good and morally bad, they should not have been held accountable for an act of disobedience. They were so childlike that they did not know disobedience was morally wrong.

          • Loreen Lee

            I detect a 'circularity' in this 'argument'. I am just in remembrance of what I understand was the temptation of the snake/devil whatever. I have interpreted the story of Adam and Eve as the defining moment of attaining to the consciousness of 'normative thought'. I even read somewhere that this describes the attainment of the ability to communicate through language. There are so many speculations.

            But, yes, how can one disobey if one does not know what disobedience is?. The circle! I have had many different theories on the meaning here. But I ask you - are we in the same position they were in with respect to the 'tree of life'. I am always perplexed by the use of life/death in scripture, not sure whether they are referring to actual physical death/life or a spiritual meaning. Some thought to have in this scientific age of cloning, etc. But, I feel like Eve when I ask, Dear God, why would you not want me to have eternal life? Is that not what the scriptures/Jesus promises us? Maybe it's just another call for obedience, that I recognize that I cannot get this 'on my own', but that there is a 'higher calling'.

          • Matthias Wasser

            Of course, if Adam and Eve truly had no knowledge of what was morally good and morally bad, they should not have been held accountable for an act of disobedience.

            In the context of the original story it seems more accurate to say they were, per your quote, thrown out for being a security threat.

            (I mean, I guess there seems to be some additional punishments thrown in there about tilling fields and painful childbirths and not having limbs? Okay, yeah, kinda dickish.)

          • Loreen Lee

            The original 'sin' of 'Adam and Evil' was the 'desire' to attain 'knowledge' of 'good and evil' and thus 'be like God'

            I refer to the arguments that show that there can be a logical dependence of different rational statements, one to another. An order. (My study of logic has not been that comprehensive) So there are two things: disobedience and the desire to eat the apple. Couldn't one be dependent on the other, logically, morally, etc. although in 'essence' they constitute one thought. If disobedience entails placing other purposes before the purpose of obeying/honoring/worshipping God, (whatever) this would be an argument that the Theists are saying something quite extraordinary in holding to the priority of being directed to God as the basis of morality. This could, I suggest define -obedience-.and indeed what constitutes 'morality'. In studying the Kabbalah, (a priest warned me not to) and also Guy Finley I find that such states of consciousness as freedom, immortality, (won't include Kant's third term God) are states of consciousness that one aspires to and hopes to attain within this life. Just a thought. (obedience to God: i.e. placing the transcendental/purpose/value of a thought word deed before the pragmatic element)

          • Loreen Lee

            Oh! Oh! I've had a intuitive something or other, and it scares me a bit. So please, I'm just speculating here. But couldn't the 'sin' have been the eating of the fruit specifically and not the more general characteristic of having knowledge of good and evil. Now why should this possible insight scare me. After all, we're only speaking allegorically here, which means that I don't 'really' know what I'm talking about!!!!

    • David Nickol

      If God does not exist, we can still have powerful moral intuitions, but everything becomes permissible in a broader sense - there is no end, no standard, no system, no ground.

      Is the argument here that there really would be objective morality if God did not exist, but there would be no compelling reason for anyone to behave morally? Why would that be? Because there would be no one to reward those who were morally good and punish those who were morally evil?

      I think the question needs to be answer what it means for something to be morally good. If we can have moral intuitions without God, what exactly do those moral intuitions tell us? There must be something about an immoral act that makes it immoral, otherwise moral intuitions would be baseless. It would be pure coincidence if two people had the same moral intuitions unless there really is something about acts that make some immoral and others moral.

      It has always been my understanding that "God says" rape is wrong because it is wrong, not that rape is wrong because "God says" so. And God is good because he is good, not God is good because goodness is defined as "what God is." God cannot change what is good and what is evil. God cannot say, "In the Old Testament, I made it virtuous for soldiers to kill enemy children, but I have now changed the rules, and it is immoral now for soldiers to kill enemy children."

    • David Nickol

      On the other hand, this universal content of moral truth is finally contextualized - in a word, made objective - by God's existence. If God does not exist, we can still have powerful moral intuitions, but everything becomes permissible in a broader sense - there is no end, no standard, no system, no ground.

      A further thought on this, if I may.

      Wouldn't Joe Heschmeyer have to make this claim about any statement whatsoever? Would he not have to argue that, in some sense, from the theistic point of view he takes, nothing has any ultimate meaning apart from God? If "agony is bad"—even as a nonmoral statement—is a tautology, isn't everything ultimately a tautology? I can say, "The sky is blue on sunny, cloudless day," but if someone wants to know what the color blue is, I can say, "Blue is the color of the sky on a sunny, cloudless day." Without God as creator, couldn't one argue that human beings are the accidental result of evolution, they are essentially automatons, and the statement "The sky is blue" is essentially meaningless for any purpose other than to describe a sensation that the complex mechanisms of eye, nervous system, and brain produce and that human culture has called "blue"? After all, there is not really a skuas any astronaut knows who has gone far enough above the earth's surface.

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        David,

        Interesting questions. To the question of ultimate meaning, there are plenty of terms (to steal your example, "blue"), that we could fully grasp without any reference to God. If you start asking why blue (or anything else) exists, you're right that this would require reference to God. But asking why blue is, and what blue is are two separate questions.

        On the other hand, answering the question of what goodness is answered either through describing it as a transcendental property of being, or a perfective part of our natures, etc. And all of these explanations, to be complete, involve God (even if He's left in the background).

        As for the question of tautology, I think the problem with your "blue" example is that your second definition is needlessly circular. You could define blue in any number of other ways that wouldn't be circular.

        It's true, though, that we run into an irreducibly basic level of definitions: where a thing can't be defined in any more fundamental terms. That was one of the problems I was running into on the comments on the first post: definitions for basic concepts are harder than they seem (and as far as proper definitions go, they're sometimes impossible).

        I.X.,

        Joe

  • Interesting discussion, and I look forward to rebuttal and next round of responses.

    Joe, your position seems overall to be consistent, although I disagree with it. You argue it well.

    There is one inconsistency, one minor modification I think that you will have to make. You can't hold this along with the rest of your argument:

    Objective morality is observable apart from knowledge of God, which is why atheists and agnostics can know right from wrong.

    Not if knowledge is understood to be "justified true belief". You can hold that atheists can have true beliefs about right and wrong, but your view is that true beliefs about right and wrong cannot be justified without invoking God. Atheists don't have justified true beliefs about right and wrong, because they don't have justification.

    A consequence of your argument is that atheists cannot know right from wrong. They an believe that certain actions are right and certain actions are wrong, but since they can't justify the belief, the can't know it.

    That's not a very comfortable consequence, but it is a consequence, and if you want your system to cohere, you will have to bite the bullet. Or, of course, you could change your mind about whether morality is justifiable without God. ;) ;)

    • Matthias Wasser

      Not if knowledge is understood to be "justified true belief". You can hold that atheists can have true beliefs about right and wrong, but your view is that true beliefs about right and wrong cannot be justified without invoking God... A consequence of your argument is that atheists cannot know right from wrong.

      I think you're misunderstanding his view. He says that atheists don't have a good explanation for morality, but having an explanation for something is not necessary for justifiably knowing it. To go back to the gravity example, Aristotle didn't have a correct explanation for why things fall, but he knew - not just incidentally, but justifiably - that they did. Generally speaking, we have justified beliefs in phenomena before we have their explanations!

      • I can be justified in accepting something even if I have no explanation at all for its being true? Can you give me an example?

        The explanation doesn't have to be correct! It just has to exist. Aristotle had an explanation for his belief that things fall. He watched things fall! What's the atheist's explanation for his beliefs about right and wrong?

        If an atheist can tell right from wrong, and is justified in his decisions, then whence the whole argument about racism in the 19th century? Which moral intuition was justified, or were both moral intuitions justified, even though only the latter intuition turned out to be true?

        • Matthias Wasser

          I just did dude!

          Or for another fundamental force: Insane Clown Posse is underinformed about how magnets work. But they do know that they do work. They've seen magnets pick up paper clips plenty of times. They're justified in believing that magnets work based on empirical evidence alone.

          • The argument for morality, from this clarification, can then be easily simplified:

            1. Humans must exist in order to have moral beliefs.
            2. God created all humans.
            3. Therefore God is necessary for humans to have moral beliefs.

            If that's really the core of Joe's argument, he could have saved a great deal of time!

          • Matthias Wasser

            I agree he could have saved everyone a lot of time by going with his actual argument, but as best I can tell it's actually:

            1) Morality requires a summum bonum.
            2) Any summum bonum is also going to be omnimax God because divine simplicity or convertibility of being or whatever.
            3) Morality requires omnimax God.

            Joe, if this is accurate/inaccurate/sort of accurate but subtly misleading, do feel free to let us know!

            (To be fair, I think the premise and format of the debate is somewhat constraining him from being entirely straightforward - that the way the resolution is phrased directs things in the vicinity of Craig-style moral arguments.)

          • R.P.R.

            Isn't it that an objective moral law that obligates us requires a law giver with the authority to obligate us--and that could only be God?

          • Matthias Wasser

            That seems like a very Protestant conception that would be rejected by Thomistic metaethics, but again I'll express my hope that Joe can clarify these questions in the comments.

          • R.P.R.

            Well perhaps. So your point is that--given its unselfish content--morality requires a supernatural summum bonom? Morality would not be an enlightened egoism, but a very flawed egoism if God did not exist?

          • Matthias Wasser

            So your point is that--given its unselfish content--morality requires a supernatural summum bonom? Morality would not be an enlightened egoism, but a very misguided egoism if God did not exist?

            No, that's my interpretation of Joe's argument. I'm just a humble expressivist.

          • R.P.R.

            Right. That's what I meant. I guess that's not technically a law-giver, so fair enough.

          • Geena Safire

            This is an equivocation fallacy. This involves mixing different meanings of a word which leads to an erroneous conclusion.

            Laws can be either descriptive -- e.g., Near Earth objects fall at 9.8 meters per second squared -- or prescriptive (normative) -- e.g., No left turn at this corner.

            The former do not need a law-giver while the latter do.

            The question is in which category do moral values lie. If, as I believe, moral values are a biological fact as a result of evolution -- and thus increasingly demonstrably objective -- then they are in the former category.

            Each society may have somewhat different moral rules, implemented based on these moral values plus local history/customs/environment.

            It seems Heschmeyer believes that the values must fall in the latter category. My question would be 'Why?'

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Geena,

            Laws can be either descriptive -- e.g., Near Earth objects fall at 9.8 meters per second squared -- or prescriptive (normative) -- e.g., No left turn at this corner.

            The former do not need a law-giver while the latter do.

            Could you provide an example of a lawgiver-less descriptive law that doesn't assume atheism is true?

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • Geena Safire

            Could you provide an example of a lawgiver-less descriptive law that doesn't assume atheism is true?

            Atheism is not a claim. Therefore it cannot be true or false. It is the position of not being persuaded by one or more god claims.

            Further, what you wrote seemed to be an effort to shift the
            burden of proof. "When debating any issue, there is an implicit burden of proof on the person asserting a claim. If this responsibility or burden of proof is shifted to a critic, the fallacy of appealing to ignorance is committed."

            You have made a god claim, and you present your case, as have others before you. I am not convinced. Therefore, I proceed from the null or default position, not believing the claim in the absence of sufficient (convincing) evidence. I am not claiming that god does not exist; you are claiming it does.

            It is either objectively true or objectively false that a posited deity exists; that is, that deity either does exist or does not exist.

            But atheism is the absence or lack of a belief. (Some
            atheists also think that no supernatural deities exist; but that is not the position of atheism per se. Some atheists are theological non-cognitivists; they hold that religious language, and specifically words like God, are not cognitively meaningful and, again, not atheism per se.)

            Here's an analogy that may be helpful:

            Let's say you tell me, "That lawn has an even number of blades of grass." I might reply, "I don't believe you." That doesn't mean I am claiming that the lawn has an odd number of blades of grass. It just means that I am not convinced of your claim; the default position. You could say I'm an a-evenist. But I'm also, equally, an a-oddist.

            In this example, it is either objectively true or objectively false that the lawn has an even number of blades of grass.

            It is also true that I don't believe the number is even that and it is false that I do believe that. But there is no way that my position of not knowing can be said to be true or false.

            In the same way, given the phrase 'atheism is true,' the only thing it can mean is 'people who say they don't believe in a deity actually don't believe in a deity.'

            I'm going to conclude that by saying 'that doesn't assume atheism is true' you meant to say 'that assumes that the Judeo-Christian God exists.'

            But that doesn't make sense either, since that would be an example from your position. It's hard for me to imagine that you would want me to give examples from your position. Therefore, I again amend your request to what I think you meant: "that does not assume that the Judeo-Christian God exists."

            So, en fin, "an example of a lawgiver-less descriptive law that does not assume that the Judeo-Christian God exists."

            "Agony is bad" sounds like a good candidate to me.

             

            (ps. I'm glad you edited your request. I found it confusing to consider a 'lawless descriptive law,' but I was going to interpret that you had meant 'lawgiver-less.')

          • Steven Dillon

            The law of non-contradiction states that no proposition is both true and false. It's descriptive, lawgiver-less and does not assume atheism.

          • What's a summum bonum?

            My point, in the sort-of-syllogism I put above, is that ultimate explanations are not required for justification (we agree there), but also that that's not what Joe's really after. I hope that he's not arguing that atheists don't have an ultimate explanation for their morality (if he is, then his argument is as silly as my syllogism). He seems to be arguing for something stronger, that atheists cannot offer any proximate explanation for objective morality. Any attempted proximate explanation fails his litmus test. Alternatively, as Joe says in this article, the proximate explanation Steven offers:

            ... is not an answer. It’s a shrug of the shoulders and a “Just because.”

            If Joe's argument is that atheists don't have an ultimate explanation for objective morality, then either he failed to address the topic of the debate, or I failed to understand the topic of the debate, and the topic itself is not very interesting.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Matthias,

            That's a very fair reading. Another approach that I've been pursuing is teleological. Stripped to its most basic, the argument goes something like:

            1. Every moral action is done for the sake of some end,
            2. These ends are either (a) the most-final end or (b) for the sake of some further end,
            3. These ends, and therefore all moral actions, converge upon a single most-final end.

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Paul,

            I don't see that as my argument. Did my clarifications help, or do you still see that as what I'm saying?

            I.X.,

            Joe

          • Geena Safire

            Physicist Sean Carroll on Insane Clown Posse and their song 'Miracles.'

            "So rather than pointing out Fermi or Democritus, my touchstone in the intellectual tradition for dealing with the real world is the Insane Clown Posse. ... " Three minutes of hilarity ensue.

        • Joseph Heschmeyer

          Paul,

          My point was just that moral intuition (and even moral reasoning) isn't infallible. If it were, we wouldn't disagree about morals, right?

          More specifically, there are certain foundational truths that we can't not know, but also some second- and third-tier moral truths that are less obvious. And of course, there's disagreement about which truths fall into which categories.

          Aquinas argues that this is one of the reasons for revelation, in the very first question of the Summa:

          Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man's whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.

          So, the fact that precepts of the natural law are knowable apart from revelation (or even knowledge of God) doesn't mean that everyone will know the equally well.

          I.X.,

          Joe

          • My point was just that moral intuition (and even moral reasoning) isn't infallible. If it were, we wouldn't disagree about morals, right?

            But moral intuition isn't the same as moral knowledge, right? How can atheists have moral knowledge? Or, in other words, how do you think atheists can justify their moral beliefs?

            So, the fact that precepts of the natural law are knowable apart from revelation (or even knowledge of God) doesn't mean that everyone will know the equally well.

            Even revelation doesn't solve all the problems. Good Christians, even good Catholics, disagree about basic moral principles, such as the question of whether it is ever morally justifiable to lie. The Lila Rose controversy provides a perfect example of this.

    • Loreen Lee

      I agree that this is a very interesting topic. My research yesterday resulted in finding that even Plato did not have an explanation/definition/understanding of what entailed the 'Good'. I shall attempt to do without Kant in this remark, but it is important that there are many kinds of intuition/beauty/orderings, what have you. Is pleasure/pain intrinsically good, as in a tautological statement? Is the predicate 'contained' within the subject in the statement Pain is bad. This I insist is not a tautology. There is a dynamic, and pain is not always pain, and pleasure is not always pleasure. At least not in my life. Pain has for me often served a purpose: indeed I can learn from my agony: the title of the last post. And I can 'learn' that what I considered to be a pleasure need no longer be regarded as one. But then, perhaps I can/am 'growing' morally too.

      Life is not a 'system'. I am faced with the particular experiences of day to day experience. My 'system?' of values, or my consciousness awareness hopefully grows, I know not how, which is why I think that I can ascribe 'truth' to the idea that such development comes more as a gift, than as an intended consequence of my intentional efforts to acquire 'knowledge'. I also looked up sapient in the dictionary and found that I was correct in identifying it with judgment (the choices I make, psychologically even and unconsciously) within my lived experience, rather than a set or formulae or set rules, or even logic.

      I am a feeling person. I have instincts and yes intuitions. I cannot be 'knowledgeable' of my 'effect' on others, or what the consequences of my intuitive responses to events will be. And I suggest that these compose the majority of my interactions and I still maintain they are the basis/foundation for those individual/particular choices, moral and intellectual, that I make. I struggle always for more 'objectivity' in my relationships. I like the comment which responded to the first post with a comparison to St. Augustine saying "I thought I knew what time was until I tried to define it" or something. So with morality. At least on the individual personal level.

      I'm not saying there is not an objective foundation to morality, but I think we can fool ourselves into believing that within particular instances, at least, we can 'know the will of God', or that our law governed codes of 'natural law' have consistently been held over long periods of time. We are very good at making excuses (Searle) and finding rational justification. But even the law covering the necessity to protect life has allowed for 'just wars' and justified killing. (Killing is I understand considered to be different from 'intentional' murder). We know not yet how to draw the line, between what is moral, what is pleasure, what is necessary, etc. etc.

      Justification by faith! An interesting concept. Maybe a theologian will augment my the limited understanding I have attained in attempting to understand this. Justification - excuse. As Nietzsche said: human all too human......

      Would like to think about and study more the relationship of feeling/intuition to the concept of 'morality'. Thank you.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Paul,

      Thanks for yet another good, thought-provoking comment. I agree with Matthias, though: atheists can see that objective morality exists, and act accordingly. It's an observable phenomenon, which explains why there are so many competing non-theistic explanations for objective morality.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      P.S. Are you the same Paul Rimmer who used to comment on Shameless Popery? And if so, do I owe you a phone call from, like, 18 months ago?

      • But your point, or at least much of the strength in your argument, is also that there are not just different non-theistic explanations for morality, but non-theistic versions of morality. A major component of your argument seems to be that it is not possible to explain why one version is objectively right and the other is objectively wrong. In other words, there's no way for someone to justify his or her beliefs, as opposed to alternative beliefs about right and wrong, without at least implicitly invoking God.

        This means that non-theists have beliefs about what is right and wrong, and they may even have some arguments; the beliefs may even be true. But they are not justified true beliefs. They are not knowledge, and so atheists don't know right from wrong. They just have beliefs.

        Or maybe I misunderstand your argument?

    • kuroisekai

      "A consequence of your argument is that atheists cannot know right from wrong. They can believe that certain actions are right and certain actions are wrong, but since they can't justify the belief, the can't know it."

      Why, exactly? Christians believe that God is the source of all morality. Atheists beg to differ. Regardless of whether or not the person looking at morality is a theist, morality still exists. Atheism is just rejecting the Christian answer. It's like saying the Nile flows Northward, so its source must be from the South. The theist and the atheist do not agree what the source is, but they do agree that the flow rate and depth at such and such is so and so.

      • In that case, atheists and theists can both explain morality. It is just that atheists don't have a known ultimate explanation or source. In this case, I think that Steven easily and obviously wins the debate, because he shows you can justify morality without resorting to God.

        Joe's argument isn't that weak, though (if I understand it). It just has some uncomfortable implications.

        If Joe's argument really is that weak, then it would effectively reduce to the syllogism I gave before:

        Human morality requires humans.
        God created humans.
        So human morality requires God.

        Discussing arguments like this, or any other arguments about the ultimate source of morality, is not very interesting to me.

  • R.P.R.

    It seems to me that Steven has argued that God exists--but that he is only his goodness. If so, the critical question it seems to me is how does this kind of God relate to us in such a way that we are bound to follow its moral code?

    The prohibition against adultery or even causing agony does not apply to, say, bears or apes. Why does it apply to us? Under the Catholic understanding, we are defined and constituted as beings under this moral order. But the human's relationship to Steven's God seems utterly arbitrary.

    And even if we posit that Steven's God's goodness imposes a somewhat Aristotelian imperative that we are not to act contrary to our human nature, this begs the question. For what is "human nature"? If, as in Aquinas's system, it is designed and defined by God, then this imperative makes sense. But under a non-theistic system, how can there even be a consistent human nature? Are we not all on a continuum from apes to supermen?

    Couldn't one say that he is below or above human nature in so much as it imposes an obligation not to commit adultery or to cause agony? Would there by any objective standard for saying that such an assertion is incorrect?

  • Matthias Wasser

    A few (probably) noncentral points:

    The ordinary (white) American of yesteryear viewed racial inequality as self-evident, believing it immoral to treat black and white people as equals. Upon what basis can we say that their moral intuition and judgment was wrong? Our own intuition? Or something more substantive?

    Surely I shouldn't have to point out that the whites of yesteryear (like many today) were just factually wrong in the biological essentialist claims that grounded their racism? I mean, they didn't just have an indivisible intuition that racism was a moral good. They thought blacks were animalistically agressive, incapable of self-government, stupid, &c. And they were also just incorrect about these beliefs, no matter what the truth about morality might be. (If it turned out that racism "just is" good, or is willed by God or proceeds from His nature or whatever, they still wouldn't have known that it was good, because their grounds for believing it was so was causally disconnected from its being so.)

    This does not mean that every "ought" needs such a grounding in an "is"

    Moral reasoning is simple when all other things are equal. What makes it so vexing is that this is rarely the case... If your moral code is a hodgepodge of unsorted feelings, you have no tools other than gut feeling to decide these questions.

    In your original post, I believe you said that your goal was to show that there are some objective moral truths - which, after all, would be a sufficient ground for morality - not that there are no genuinely undecidable moral dilemmas. But of course our intuitions clashing on whether a serial killer should get the chair doesn't mean our intuitions clash on the actions that got him there.

    Moreover - isn't it the case that there are (at the very least, quite plausibly) genuine dilemmas in other areas of value? What would most be in my self-interest, what would be most beautiful, &c.?

    I said above that this is a noncentral point, and it still is with respect to the structure of your argument here (you could drop this second objection) but it actually does seem to me - although you would know better - that it is somewhat crucial that there be no genuine moral dilemmas, since you're arguing for (although this is much clearer in the comments than the main posts!) the existence of a summum bonum that seamlessly incorporates everything we like without contradiction.

    But if the entire universe is devoid of inherent meaning, how can we possibly find meaning inherent in our moral behavior (or misbehavior)?

    But this is just obviously a compositional fallacy (albeit usually in a different direction than is usually used to bludgeon materialism.) If a war (say WWI for a paradigmatic example) is pointless, how can there be any purpose to actions in war? But of course a great many action in war have clear purposes: deceiving the enemy, maintaining supply lines, whipping up public support, making the other bastard die for his, &c. It's absolutely resplendent with local teleology! But local teloi are not global teloi and visa-versa.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Matthew,

      Another worthy contribution.

      Surely I shouldn't have to point out that the whites of yesteryear (like many today) were just factually wrong in the biological essentialist claims that grounded their racism.

      Regarding racists of old, it's true that the were factually wrong in their biological views. But I think it would be a mistake to suggest that they were just factually wrong. I think that would be a reductionist read of the history, and one that risks reducing slavery to a mere scientific mistake, rather than a moral evil.

      As for the idea that racism is just wrong because it treats equals as unequals, this makes sense if (a) the races are biologically and morally equal [which I suspect would be a premise denied by the racists]; and (b) it's morally wrong to treat equal things unequally.

      The broader point, of course, is simply that moral intuitions differ - which is an insight that I suspect is observable.

      I said above that this is a noncentral point, and it still is with respect to the structure of your argument here (you could drop this second objection) but it actually does seem to me - although you would know better - that it is somewhat crucial that there be no genuine moral dilemmas, since you're arguing for (although this is much clearer in the comments than the main posts!) the existence of a summum bonum that seamlessly incorporates everything we like without contradiction.

      There are genuine moral dilemmas, since moral reasoning involves prudence. Negative precepts (don't do X) are absolute, while positive precepts (do X) are prudential. So, for example, it's good to give to the poor, and it's good to take care of your children. But that doesn't necessarily answer what you should do with the money in your wallet here and now.

      So there may be a case where two actions appear, and even are, equally good; or two actions are unequally good, but appear equally good; or two actions appear equally good, and people disagree about which to take. All of these are reasons that moral living requires prudence, not simply the application of some formula.

      [There's a very small category of cases where there occurs what's called a perplexus secundum quid, in which every option open to you is morally evil. But these can only occur as a result of my prior bad action. An unforced moral perplexus, called a perplexus simpliciter, is impossible. Perplexus cases are cases of moral dilemmas in the truest sense of the word, but I doubt that's the sense you meant. We can probably set that aside for now.]

      But this is just obviously a compositional fallacy (albeit usually in a different direction than is usually used to bludgeon materialism.) If a war (say WWI for a paradigmatic example) is pointless, how can there be any purpose to actions in war? But of course a great many action in war have clear purposes: deceiving the enemy, maintaining supply lines, whipping up public support, making the other bastard die for his, &c. It's absolutely resplendent with local teleology! But local teloi are not global teloi and visa-versa.

      It definitely seems that way at first. But teloi are ordered, and as you go further, they begin to converge.

      Let's use baseball as an example. The first batter swings at the pitch. The second batter doesn't swing at the pitch. Their actions are ordered towards different local teloi; the first batter is trying to get a hit, and the second one trying to get a walk (or at least a ball). But both of these actions are ordered towards a further teleos: scoring runs or (further yet) winning the game.

      So all of the actions of a war might be ordered towards a local teleos, but if that chain terminates in incoherence (we're doing this to do X, we're doing X to advance the war, and we're advancing the war because... no reason), then the whole chain of actions is pointless.

      If we're behaving morally for the same reason that we fought in World War I, it's completely reasonable to ask, "why bother?"

      I.X.,

      Joe

      P.S. I've got two examples to illustrate this, but I think I'm going to post them separate as a main-level comment.

      • Matthias Wasser

        Regarding racists of old, it's true that the were factually wrong in their biological views. But I think it would be a mistake to suggest that they were just factually wrong. I think that would be a reductionist read of the history, and one that risks reducing slavery to a mere scientific mistake, rather than a moral evil.

        To be clear, I agree - racist ideology wasn't just an honest mistake, but a set of lies that people told and in great part allowed themselves to believe because it fed their pride and material interests. Nor is racist behavior just a matter of conscious racist beliefs.

        And as to your central subpoint I agree here, too - there are differences in values. However, (1) by the way you and Steve have both drawn the lines of the debate, we're not debating on whether we can atheistically ground objective answers to all possible moral questions, but to any of them, and (2) I think it is important to note that the areas of genuine value disagreement may be smaller than it appears initially - that it may instead rest upon factual disagreement.

        (When I say above that racists were in a sense employing racism to do what they wanted to do anyway, am I showing that it all goes down to value disagreement regardless? No, because I think it's still plausible that they have basically identical (fundamental) values as antiracists. Taking one hit of heroin can lead to a whole cavalcade of self-reinforcing bad outcomes, and so can telling yourself one lie (and we lie to ourselves a little all the time.) And coming to beliefs is a social process such that many individuals, I'm sure, did endorse racist beliefs as "honest mistake" (received just the same way that we accept most of the things we believe.))

        Where I think this is important is that I think many of the intuitive objections to ethical subjectivism/expressivism/&c. (not, again, that this is Steve's position, although it is mine and a significant majority of atheists and philosophers) rest on the idea that its acceptance would entail the end of our ability to engage in public reason, political critique, logical argument, and so on, and that we'd just (to caricature only mildly) have to punch each other until we go with the preferences of whoever wins. But in fact even if we are living in an expressivist world, as I think we are, there is a great deal of room for inquiry, persuasion, facts, logical argument, common ground.

  • Geena Safire

    This debate would be much more productive – and less frustrating to follow – if the debaters had agreed in advance on a common meaning for some fundamental terms. Or at least explicitly in a parallel set of definitions, such as Heschmeyer defines 'objective' as X and Dillon defines it as Y.

    In this rebuttal, Heschmeyer talks past what Dillon explicitly wrote. This seems bizarre since the stated purpose of the debate is for Dillon to propose an alternative to the resolution.

    Dillon included the words of philosopher Erik Wielenberg, "Such [moral truths] are the foundation of (the rest of) objective morality and rest on no foundation themselves. ... They come from nowhere, and nothing external to themselves grounds their existence; rather, they are fundamental features of the universe that ground other truths." Dillon then proposed a candidate for such a moral truth: "Agony is intrinsically bad."

    Heschmeyer replies with two 'interpretations.'

    In the first, Heschmeyer twists "agony is bad" to "agony is painful" and then complains "[T]hat seems tautological. ... [T]hat's not even a moral claim."

    In the second, Heschmeyer interprets Dillion's posited fundamental moral truth as a mere moral proposition and asks, "[W]hat makes these things evil? ...[W]e're left hunting for some sort of objective and binding moral code or system. ... [W]hat makes these things evil? ... '[A]gony is intrinsically bad' ... is either a non-moral tautology, or a false (and non-objective) moral claim."

    That is, Heschmeyer sideswipes Dillon's proposition of the statement as a fundamental moral truth, as part of a fundamental system and wonders what fundamental moral system the statement is based on.

    Then Heschmeyer kind of admits that he was just playing in that preamble because, as he says, "[A]ll forms of intuitionism point to (and rely upon) God" as the ultimate uncaused cause.

    That is, Heschmeyer's rebuttal is that 'objective morality' depends on God because everything depends on God and the entire universe is pointless without God because God must exist because Being could not not-be, etc. This is presupposition at its worst: 'You're wrong because God.'

    What is 'pointless' is a debate about the dependence of 'objective morality' on God, on a forum for dialogue between Catholics and atheists, if Heschmeyer's constant refrain will be (as in his previous SN article) 'It's all about God because everything must necessarily be about God therefore God. (And I'm with God so I win.)'

    I understand that this is a debate, but I thought it was intended as a useful debate. If Heschmeyer had rebutted, "I cannot conceive of 'agony is bad' as being a fundamental or objective moral truth because A, B and C," that would move the debate along. Instead, Heschmeyer is wasting all of our time by trying to score debate points with semantics and then arguing from presupposition.

  • Andre Boillot

    "Put more concretely, do we consider it morally evil for a woman to intentionally get pregnant, given the pain of childbirth? Or what about the surgeon who performs an agonizing (but life-saving) operation? Are high-stress jobs immoral? If so, what makes these things evil? Again, we’re left hunting for some sort of objective and binding moral code or system."

    I think the point is that agony, all things being equal, should be avoided. Things like child birth and rehab are (at least currently) very painful things, but things that one must endure in order to reach certain more desirable outcomes. If we get to a point where we could avoid such pain, still reach desirable outcomes, and still choose to experience or inflict pain - I think that is when it starts to become wrong.

    • R.P.R.

      That seems to reduce to an instance of the utilitarian principle, right? All things equal, the opposite of happiness should not be inflicted?

      But how does that play out when I get some pleasure out of inflicting agony? Who says I can't weight that pleasure more heavily that the agony I inflict? Surely the answer is not self evident, right?

      • Andre Boillot

        I'm not trying to reduce Dillon's position to mere utilitarian, just pointing out that the examples Joe gave are activities that need not necessarily involve pain, and that pain is not the goal of any of those.

        Also, I personally wouldn't reduce things to "All things equal, the opposite of happiness should not be inflicted?"

        We can very easily be mislead when happiness is the goal, I prefer the more holistic "well-being".

        • R.P.R.

          Well fair enough, but where does the obligation to pursue the activity that causes the greatest well-being come from?

          • Andre Boillot

            "Well fair enough, but where does the obligation to pursue the activity that causes the greatest well-being come from?"

            I would think this takes on -- at minimum -- a sort of 'first, do no harm' type of obligation.

            "How do we objectively measure well-being?"

            That's a great question. I hope we'll start approaching this issue much in the same way we approach nutrition or - more broadly - health.

            "Do I get to weigh mine higher than everyone else combined?"

            I'm not sure what situation you're thinking of here. In general, if improving your well-being doesn't negatively impact others', then yes.

            "Where do the answer to these questions come from?"

            I would think, that it would come from our hard work over long periods of time; identifying scientific / objective ways that our well-being can be improved, and refining moral frame-works accordingly.

  • DannyGetchell

    Given two hypothetical worlds -

    (1) A world in which only conditional morality exists, but for evolutionary (or whatever other) reasons, it is shared by ninety-nine percent of mankind.

    (2) A world where God-given objective morality exists, but due to God-given free will, that morality is utterly rejected by one percent of mankind.

    - how would we know in which we are living??

    • Andre Boillot

      Did you take the red or blue pill? :)

      • DannyGetchell

        Hmmmm.

        Skeptics may someday be shocked to find out that they have been living in a universe designed by the Christian God to be a perfect simulacrum of a universe in which He does not exist.

        • Geena Safire

          I am fond of Occam's razor, a principle of parsimony, economy, or succinctness.

          Which is more likely, given a universe that seems not to require the existence of a deity?

          * A deity does not exist

          * A deity that is understood by some to have expressed that it wants each of us to come to communion with it and yet places us in a universe which seems not to require the existence of a deity and remains supernaturally hidden.

          • DannyGetchell

            Those among us whose experience includes personal communication with said deity will of course select your second option as possessing more parsimony.

            Those whose doesn't, won't.

            I've pretty much come to terms with that.

          • Matthias Wasser

            If you actually mean to refer to said deity, then actually it's not parsimonious at all, because ex hypothesi said deity wishes to remain hidden! You'd have to gin up an ad hoc explanation like: "I appear irrational and obnoxious to others, so my talking about it discredits theism, thus furthering God's plans of remaining hidden."

            Of course if you mean to speak of another kind of deity, then sure.

          • robtish

            But a universe in which you have communication with said deity would not be a perfect simulacrum of a universe in which He does not exist.

          • Geena Safire

            OTOH, a universe in which certain neurons firing in the insula (insular cortex) of certain human brains generates a feeling/experience of significant presence which many interpret as communication with a deity would be a universe in which a deity may not actually exist.

        • Andre Boillot

          Entirely possible!

        • robtish

          And, given the alleged consequences of disbelief what an evil God that would be.

    • josh

      God giving morality wouldn't make it objective, nor could God give free will to created creatures, so we can rule out (2).

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        Josh,

        I think that your articulation is still treating goodness as some attribute independent of God: as if you have God in one corner, and Goodness somewhere else. But that's the notion that I'm specifically rejecting, because it would reduce Goodness to something non-transcendental.

        I.X.,

        Joe

        • josh

          You have rejected it without refuting it. Making Goodness dependent on God in any way makes it non-transcendental. (Please note that I'm not arguing that there is some other way to make Good objective or transcendental, just that God can't solve that problem for you. (And if he could then he wouldn't be necessary to solve it).)

  • Loreen Lee

    Had to come back. I've just remembered reading about a distinction between good and bad and good and evil. (Maybe it was in reference to Kant's Critique of Judgment, not sure). But I think it is important.not to confuse them. The 'evil' I would hesitantly attribute to a capacity within 'Personhood' and I think of the self-love that is attributed to the devil within the 'tradition'. Indeed, and I consider the difference between animals and humans here, I have often thought, although like a definition of time, I can't 'explain' it, that what I consider evil is not 'what' is done but 'how' something is done. Perhaps this implies intentionality, intelligence, character, a myriad of factors, but the point is that this 'how' is often 'evident' to me in the act, thought, word, or deed.
    Thinking about agony and ecstasy, these are often the characteristics of conscience that comes with an awareness that 'something is "wrong", or in the latter case a characteristic, within the tradition, often attributed to being 'close to God'. But I'm no 'saint'. So, a distinction is needed between pain that is related to events, facts, etc. but are not the 'product' of such a 'moral' conscience and those that are. This on the 'understanding' that Kant makes a distinction between the moral and amoral (not immoral). Some remarks are directed to this distinction, but I am repeating it here, as I think it is relevant to the distinction between good regarded pragmatically, in Kant's sense, and the existence of an 'objective' morality. The object within this context, (for me?) would thus be the 'imperative' to develop a consciousness of the love that is defined in relation to a Divine Person within the context of the Golden Rule. Thanks again, guys.

  • James Hartic

    "everyone reading this knows what we mean by “moral” and “immoral.” Some things are just wrong, regardless of our philosophies, and even if we desperately want them to be right."

    I make no pretense as to being steeped in the subject of philosophy, but from a layman's point of view...on the surface of things....and as an agnostic...this statement makes no sense to me.....the fact is that everyone does not KNOW what is "moral and what is immoral"....except within the parameters of their particular upbringing, indoctrination or culture.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      James,

      I argued briefly in the first post that we can't explain morality solely by ascribing it to social conditioning. Or else, how would we explain Martin Luther King, Gandhi, etc., who challenged their social systems?

      I.X.,

      Joe

      • James Hartic

        Their "social conditioning" included being among the intellectual elites, and they were well steeped in most philosophical arguments. Theirs was not the normal experience of the general population....and hence being more aware, and more educated than most in their cultural milieu....they could see more clearly and and because they had the altruistic trait that evolved in humans they felt thedesire change to the system. It had more to do with education and awareness than it did with any god. Altruism takes numerous forms.....giving a cup or water...the sharing of food or shelter....on an individual level....and in the case of the well educated the trait often expresses itself in a more intellectual fashion, such as trying to make change in the system for all of the poor and downtrodden.

  • robtish

    Joe is missing the point when he says, "Put more concretely, do we consider it morally evil for a woman to intentionally get pregnant, given the pain of childbirth?"

    But that's not a necessary implication of "Agony is bad" (which is different from saying "Agony is evil.") Given that everything of value has its cost, you're free to intentionally suffer if it's in the service of some greater good, but whether you're free to inflict that suffering on others is a different issue.

    For instance, suppose we supplement "Agony is bad" with "Joy is good." These are not moral imperatives, but they can be objective moral values which GUIDE our imperatives.

    As an example, suppose you have to choose between two methods for educating your child. Both methods will have exactly the same outcome, but one requires great agony with no joy, while the other does just the opposite. Our objective moral valuation of agony and joy will give us objective moral guidance on which method to choose.

    Two points: first I've simplified this example, obviously, but as a thought experiment it shows how to deal with with Joe's pregnancy example. It's not wrong for women to get pregnant and suffer childbirth if that's how they attain the greater value of the joy of a child.

    HOWEVER, it would be evil for a doctor to REQUIRE that woman to endure agony against her will if she could gain all the benefits with a less agonizing method of childbirth.

    In fact, we'd consider such a doctor to be a moral monster.

    • James Hartic

      Is this an argument for pro Cesarian section rather than "natural childbirth"....If it is...I have no objection. More convenient for doctors and mothers...and less painful I may add.

      • robtish

        It could be, James. Some women, of course, value the conscious experience of giving birth even it means enduring the agony. Never having been pregnant, never having given birth, I can't evaluate such a position. But I can say that if we accept "Agony is bad," then it would be evil for a doctor to require that agony if there were no benefit to offset it.

        • James Hartic

          No argument there....logically speaking.

    • Geena Safire

      You seem to be distinguishing between "necessary suffering" and "unnecessary suffering." That is, morality is a constraint-satisfaction process, working through the various 'goods' and 'bads' involved in a decision.

      • robtish

        That's an aspect of morality, but I don't mean to suggest morality can be reduced to that and nothing but that.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      But that's not a necessary implication of "Agony is bad" (which is different from saying "Agony is evil.")

      This gets to the heart of the matter. What does "Agony is bad" mean: painful? evil? or something else?

  • robtish

    It's utterly wrong to say to "everyone reading this knows what we mean by 'moral' and 'immoral.'" As far as I can tell, the atheists and theists on this board have completely different notions of the idea.

    For theists (and God help me, please correct me if I'm wrong), morality ultimately comes down to being right with God. That's it, the sole criterion. Everything God commands is good, because the nature of God precludes any other conclusion. Whether it's giving to the poor or committing genocide against the Canaanites, obeying God is moral and disobeying him is immoral.

    And this is true, even if we find the commands repugnant -- or, to borrow Joe's phrasing, "regardless of our philosophies."

    The atheists here, on the other hand, mostly view morality in terms of the impact of our actions on ourselves and on others. The question, of course, is whether such views can be objective in the absence of an imperative from God, and that's what we're discussing.

    But to pretend that we all mean the same thing by "moral" and "immoral" is to ignore the entire history of this site, including this series.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Robtish, I don't agree with the way you separate theists and atheists, so I'll try to correct you (!).

      In the Catholic view, moral actions are good not simply because God says they are good. God says they are good because they really are good.

      I think what you mean by "viewing the impact of our actions on ourselves and others" can be consistent with Catholic morality; just as the idea that 'if God commanded you to do evil the evil would then become good' is *not* consistent with Catholic morality.

      • robtish

        Kevin, the only way you can say this: "God says they are good because they really are good"...

        ...is to maintain that there is some standard of goodness independent of God to which God adheres. Without that, the statement is meaningless. The way theists on this board have gotten out of that is to assert Aquinas demonstrated that the Good is simply identified with God, which is why I say: Everything God commands is good, because the nature of God precludes any other conclusion.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Rob, what I am arguing against is the hellish notion that what God commands is arbitrary, that if he wanted to declare murder or lying or stealing to be good then they would be.

          What God commands human being to do is good because it fulfills human nature, which is what is good for us.

          • David Nickol

            What God commands human being to do is good because it fulfills human nature, which is what is good for us.

            If that is the case, then if there were no God, wouldn't morality be a matter of acting in ways that best fulfill human nature? This sounds a lot like Sam Harris's idea to me. It sounds like God is a utilitarian!

          • Kevin Aldrich

            As I said earlier, the full answer can be found in this essay "Nature and God in Ethics": http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2013/11/11150/

            Robert Miller accounts for theists and atheists each finding natural law independent of their belief in God and what belief in God adds to the moral law and moral obligations. I think it's brilliant.

          • Hey Kevin - I've read that article a few times, and I agree that it's a brilliant (and important) contribution to this discussion. I'm still untangling the debate, but I think Miller's assessment is closest to my view.

            However, I disagree with some of your other comments which characterize Joe's argument as outside of the boundaries of Catholic teaching. I think he's well within the parameters set by the Church on this issue, and is only placing greater emphasis on this section in Miller's essay:

            If we go beyond merely taking human nature as given and show that God exists...this step leaves the content of morality unchanged but transforms the nature of moral obligation...The assumption that God exists thus changes the meaning of should or ought, transforming it from a hypothetical imperative (“If you would reach your final end, do thus-and-so”) into something akin to a categorical imperative (“Thou shalt do thus-and-so”).

            To my mind (and I think Joe's as well), "objective morality" means nothing if it's not inclusive of moral imperatives and duties, practical action (as opposed to theoretical action), and the theological virtues, all of which hinge on God for their full import. Thus, the "objective morality" we have sans God strikes us, as Miller puts it, as rather "thin."

            In fact, I would argue that it's not only "thin," but not even really "objective." Hypothetically, a moral philosopher might catalogue the gamut of human goodness, but eschew it all because...well, we've only "blundered" (as Miller puts it) if we don't, and there may be other conflicting commitments and desires in that person's life which re-order his or her sense of what is really binding. This tilts what objectivity was there back in favor of a subjective rubric - the individual plugs up the space in nature that was an anticipation of God with his or her own light.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I fully agree with everything you have said, Matthew, but isn't there still a lacuna in your assessment?

            Every person really is responsible for his behavior, whether he believes in God or objective reality or not, so there must be a real grasp of morality, otherwise there could not be the blame or even commendation St. Paul speaks of (Rom 2: 14-16).

          • Vasco Gama

            Even if you ignore (or disbelief) God, what is good for us is what fulfills human nature.

          • Geena Safire

            Sam Harris notes that his proposal is not strict utilitarianism. Example: The ends do not always justify the means.

          • David Nickol

            Example: The ends do not always justify the means.

            I remember reading this comment once: "If the ends do not justify the means, what does?" It seems to me the ends must justify the means. But the ends do not justify any means. And some means may never be justifiable.

          • robtish

            Kevin, that's begging the question. I can push back on it two different ways:

            1. Why is "what fulfills us" the standard for "what is good for us"? Because God says so?

            2. What is "what fulfills us"? Whatever God says?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I'm pretty sure I'm not begging the question, Rob.

            Here is an example of human nature, the good, and the fulfillment of that nature by acquiring the good.

            In our human nature we have a desire to know things. Knowing is good for us [right?]. Our desire to know is fulfilled when we acquire knowledge.

          • robtish

            First problem: you still haven't answered why "what fulfills us" is the standard for "what is good for us."

            Second, it also seems part of human nature to lie and kill. Does that mean lying and killing fulfill our nature and are thus good? Which brings me back the second question: What is "what fulfills us"?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I'm just repeating, lamely, what Aristotle articulated well.

            Forget about people and think in terms of dogs or horses. What kind of natures do they have? What makes them happy? How do they actualize their potentialities?

          • robtish

            Kevin, I actually have great sympathy for this view (and I gave you a thumbs up when you expressed in more detail earlier).

            But this is our perspective from inside the system, where we have to take our natures as given and seem to have a natural tendency to wish for our own happiness/contentment/satisfaction/fulfillment.

            But God isn't outside the system, doesn't have to take our nature as a given, isn't required to accept our own sense of personal fulfillment as a good thing. So that takes us back to my original two questions above.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            So, what do you think is the "end" of human life? Is what we want actually fundamentally good? Is it good no matter what anyone says, even if we should image God says otherwise?

          • robtish

            Kevin, that's what we're asking we're asking of the theists on this board, who (the article authors, at least) claim that only theists can answer such question. So... what are the theist answers?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            No. I really want to know what you think. I'm not trying to set an argumentative trap.

          • robtish

            So, what do you think is the "end" of human life?

            >>I can't say I know.

            Is what we want actually fundamentally good?

            >>It depends on what you want.

            Is it good no matter what anyone says, even if we should image God says otherwise?

            >>Yes.

          • robtish

            "Knowing is good for us [right?]."

            I think so. But God explicitly forbade Adam and Eve from pursuing certain kinds of knowledge, and if God said their actions were bad, then they were bad, right?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Accounting for what the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil represents and why God tells Adam and Eve not to eat of its fruit would be a very big discussion.

          • DannyGetchell

            What I think you are saying, Kevin, is that if there were no God-given commands, if God was utterly silent about whether murder is wrong, that murder would still be wrong.

            And as a deist I can accept that without blinking an eye.

            Where Christians and Jews get into trouble, and the reason that massive volumes of Talmudic and "Catechismic" commentary gets written, is that God's explicit commands and conduct sometimes appear contradictory to what most of us "feel" to be right or wrong.

            Take away the specific descriptions of God's actions and commands, and just go with what you believe to be what is best for human nature, and the need for exegesis vanishes.

            Of course we are then left with a world which is indistinguishable from a world of personal situational morality, which is what I have postulated here several times.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            YOU WROTE
            If there were no God-given commands, if God was utterly silent about whether murder is wrong, murder would still be wrong.

            KA
            The Catholic understanding of the reason for the revelation of the Ten Commandments was to confirm what could be known by reason but which in actual practice is hard to know.

            What the Catholic faith adds is an adequate anthropology which entails a much wider understanding of human nature, the truth that God is the author of that nature, and that each person is called to a transcendent final end. These greatly deepen the significance of obeying what right reason commands.

          • Geena Safire

            Hey y'all! A little meta bit on formatting. If you want to do that quoting thing with the blue bar beside it, put this before the text you want to quote: <blockquote>
                And put this after the text you want to quote: </blockquote>

          • DannyGetchell

            More than once on this site I have encountered responses which remind me a lot of what I read when I was researching Judaism (for a couple of years I considered converting, ultimately deciding against).

            We start with a simple phrase like "you shall not kindle a fire on the Sabbath", then after 387 pages of point-counterpoint, arrive at the conclusion that elevators must automatically stop at every floor.

            I find this sort of thing just not consistent with what I would expect a personal God to be.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Danny, what would you expect a personal God to be like when it comes to what he wants of us?

          • Andre Boillot

            Scrupulous enough in choosing his prophets so as to ensure proper interpretation of his message from the get-go?

          • DannyGetchell

            "Not requiring that I select from dozens of different interpretive traditions, knowing that my soul is in jeopardy if I pick the wrong one" would probably be the most important characteristic.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            So you would expect God to take you at your best, and consider what you know and don't know, and never pounces on you for making mistakes?

    • English Catholic

      "For theists (and God help me, please correct me if I'm wrong), morality
      ultimately comes down to being right with God. That's it, the sole
      criterion. Everything God commands is good, because the nature of God
      precludes any other conclusion. Whether it's giving to the poor or
      committing genocide against the Canaanites, obeying God is moral and
      disobeying him is immoral."

      I'm afraid this is wrong as far as Catholicism is concerned, although regrettably the OP seems to give that impression. Catholicism follows Aristotle in teaching that the good of any thing, including a human, is immanent to that thing. I reply in (a little) more detail to Joe below. Happy to go into greater depth.

    • Vasco Gama

      Fortunately God doesn't command anyone (to the best of my knowledge) to commit genocide against the against the Canaanites.

      • robtish

        Deuteronomy 20:16–18

        • Vasco Gama

          That is very thoughtful of you (however I said doesn't, not didn't).

          • robtish

            If your point is simply that He doesn't appear to be doing so now, fine -- my own point remains.

          • Geena Safire

            Al Qaeda is firmly convinced that God is commanding them to commit genocide against the West.

          • David Nickol

            Al Qaeda is firmly convinced that God is commanding them to commit genocide against the West.

            Reprehensible as I think terrorism is, I don't think the intentions of Al Qaeda are truly genocidal. In any case, I think it almost goes without saying that if someone is truly and sincerely convinced that killing under particular circumstances is the right and moral thing to do, then they are acting according to their consciences, and are subjectively innocent of charges of murder.

            It is for this reason, among others, that I think it is terribly dangerous for anyone to claim that God may have authorized the Israelites to slaughter innocent people. If God could authorize the Israelites to kill children, then God can authorized anyone to kill children.

            As I argued before, if God really did authorize the killing of women and children, how was the average Israelite soldier to know that for a fact? If we are to hold Israelite soldiers blameless for killing women and children because they were "only following orders," then we must hold terrorists to be blameless for, say, suicide bombings. What more proof could one ask for to make it clear that a terrorist is firmly convince that he or she is doing the right thing than the fact that they willingly sacrifice their lives to do it?

            So I think it is very important to be absolutely firm in maintaining that God did not, will not, and cannot order human beings to kill innocent people in the name of any cause.

          • Geena Safire

            My point exactly. The Bible is a recipe book for genocide and many other atrocities.The only thing worse than a person or group with a terrible idea is a person or group with a terrible idea that the believe is commanded by their deity.

            Hitler, as another example, based his Final Solution on the Bible: "Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."

          • David Nickol

            The Bible is a recipe book for genocide and many other atrocities.

            I would add, "if interpreted improperly." But I would say that anyone who interprets the Bible to say that God actually commanded slaughtering innocents, or anyone who claims an all-good God can order human beings to kill other innocent human beings is interpreting the Bible improperly.

          • DannyGetchell

            It's not often that I disagree with you, Geena, but in this case....Al Qaeda would be perfectly content to kill no one, provided that every Westerner converts to Islam and submits himself/herself to the caliphate.

            That's a very nasty prospect indeed, but it's not really genocide.

          • Geena Safire

            If the Caananites had just converted to Judaism and submitted themselves to the Law, they wouldn't have gotten massacred either.

            The fundamental issue is believing one has a God-given right to enforce either alternative: convert or die.

            (Not often that I disagree with you either, Danny. And I kinda think we're actually in violent agreement here, too.)

  • BrianKillian

    I agree that God is the best explanation for objective moral value. But isn't it true that moral platonism is another possibility? It seems like that's what an atheist would have to believe if they hold to both objective moral values and no God.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Joe concludes

    But objective morality isn’t explicable apart from knowledge of God: every attempt, including Steven’s most recent one, fails to explain why objective morality exists.

    I see Joe's position as in contradiction to the Church's.

    1956 The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties:

    For there is a true law: right reason. It is in conformity with nature, is diffused among all men, and is immutable and eternal; its orders summon to duty; its prohibitions turn away from offense.... To replace it with a contrary law is a sacrilege; failure to apply even one of its provisions is forbidden; no one can abrogate it entirely.

    This is a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The first paragraph is Church doctrine. The second paragraph which is there to support the first was written by the pagan statesman Cicero.

    Thus, objective morality *is* explicable apart from knowledge of God. Objective morality exists because human nature and its power of reason exist.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      All of us can know that objective morality exists. That's what I mean when I say that objective morality is observable apart from knowledge of God. But any attempt to account for it ends up being teleological in a way that points to a single, transcendent final cause. If you deny the existence of God, that teleology falls apart.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        Why can we do this with dogs but not with people?

        • Joseph Heschmeyer

          Kevin,

          I'm not sure that I understand your question. Could you elaborate?

          I.X.,

          Joe

          • Kevin Aldrich

            So, Joe, we are distinguishing levels of awareness.

            Every human being, to be responsible for his or her behavior, must possess a basic knowledge of the moral law for human beings, regardless of one's understanding of God's role in creating human nature. So STEVEN is right, right?

            The highest level would be (to use Leopoldo Polo's term) "theandric anthropology," since human nature is never simply natural, like a horse, or artificial, like a tool. So JOE is right, right?

  • English Catholic

    "But objective morality isn’t explicable apart from knowledge of God: every attempt, including Steven’s most recent one, fails to explain why objective morality exists."

    Joe, with great respect and as a fan of your blog, I find this statement and your position quite troubling. This is not the teaching of the Catholic Church, and certainly not that of St Thomas, who followed Aristotle in arguing that the good of any object (including a human being) is understood in terms of its final and formal causes. The good of any object, in other words, is immanent to that object.

    This is true for dumb objects like tables, and intelligent 'objects' like humans. A good table is one that fulfils its end of being eaten off. A good human is one who fulfils his end of living well: of being kind, good, just, self-controlled, etc etc. The sole difference, and that which distinguishes good in general from moral good, is that humans have a choice about whether to fulfil their final causes.

    This is Catholic teaching. Divine commandment (as far as basic morality is concerned) is merely to reinforce this. The Church has always taught that morality can be known by humans independently of God. That something is good because God commands it is a Protestant idea. It's illogical and easily rebutted, because it fails to overcome the is-ought conundrum.

    • josh

      Don't let me distract you from a fight with a coreligionist, but the Catholic position you are describing also fails to overcome the is-ought problem.

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        Josh,

        Snark aside, one of the reasons that I liked this resolution was that it offered the possibility of a break from the norms "teams" of atheists v. Christians. So, for example, Neitzche would likely affirm the resolution, while somelike like Germain Grisez would likely negate it. If you pay close attention to the comments from the first post, you'll find the atheists there advancing several mutually-exclusive and incompatible understanding of objective morality and its possibility.

        I.X.,

        Joe

        • josh

          I don't disagree that one could in principle have an atheist who affirms that objective morality would require God. Nor am I unaware that some atheists subscribe to various theories of objective morality. If you pay close attention to my comments you'll find that I've already mentioned this fact. Why wouldn't some have incompatible views on morality? This observation only works against the idea that only theism can objectify morality.

      • English Catholic

        No. The Aristotelian system of ethics makes the is-ought problem redundant.

        Just so I understand your position, it is that:

        - You agree (or are happy to agree for the sake of argument) that final causes exist immanently in objects, including humans, as a real facet of their existence;

        - You agree that they provide an objective standard of the good;

        - But you don't agree that we have any reason to follow this objective standard?

        • josh

          You can't make the is-ought problem redundant I'm afraid. As for my position:

          I don't agree that final causes exist. It's not even clear what you think the term means. But, for the sake of argument, I could allow that some such thing exists, whatever it is.

          This would not provide an objective standard of good.

    • R.P.R.

      But the final causes of humans are not explicable apart from God. You can interpret Joe to be making that point, which is not only consistent with Thomism, but essentially a reworking of the 5th Way.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      English Catholic,

      I agree that the good of all is to be understood in terms of its final and formal causes. But the final cause of all, ultimately, is God. And contra the "new natural law" crowd, this is the classical Thomistic position. And the position that Aristotle reasons to in Chapter 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics.

      Having said that, it's true that you can know things - a whole lot of things - before you know the existence of God.

      We can know that all of us are seeking happiness, for example - this is a reality that, to some extent, both theistic and (many) atheistic philosophies acknowledge. But as Aristotle explains, the ultimate happiness - that which we are ultimately seeking, and towards which we are striving - involves Divine contemplation:

      But that perfect happiness is a contemplative activity will appear from the following consideration as well. We assume the gods to be above all other beings blessed and happy; but what sort of actions must we assign to them? Acts of justice? Will not the gods seem absurd if they make contracts and return deposits, and so on? Acts of a brave man, then, confronting dangers and running risks because it is noble to do so? Or liberal acts? To whom will they give? It will be strange if they are really to have money or anything of the kind. And what would their temperate acts be? Is not such praise tasteless, since they have no bad appetites? If we were to run through them all, the circumstances of action would be found trivial and unworthy of gods. Still, every one supposes that they live and therefore that they are active; we cannot suppose them to sleep like Endymion. Now if you take away from a living being action, and still more production, what is left but contemplation? Therefore the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness.

      This is indicated, too, by the fact that the other animals have no share in happiness, being completely deprived of such activity. For while the whole life of the gods is blessed, and that of men too in so far as some likeness of such activity belongs to them, none of the other animals is happy, since they in no way share in contemplation. Happiness extends, then, just so far as contemplation does, and those to whom contemplation more fully belongs are more truly happy, not as a mere concomitant but in virtue of the contemplation; for this is in itself precious. Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation.

      This is his conclusion apart from revelation. If someone were to deny the existence of God, and the possibility of such contemplation, the result would be a teleology radically different from what Thomas or Aristotle describe.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      P.S. My position isn't that something is good because God commands it. I'm arguing that the Good is a transcendental property of being that God possesses perfectly as His Nature.

      • English Catholic

        Thanks for your reply. I can see I may have given the impression of accusing you of holding the Protestant position, which wasn’t my intention.

        I would still suggest that one can rationally know many aspects of morality without reference to God, explaining them purely in terms of ‘the good’ of the human – the good that observation and sound philosophy reveal to us. So in that sense, an atheist can believe in objective morality in a way that does not contradict his philosophy (though a materialist, ‘science explains everything’ atheist obviously cannot). Obviously his belief will be flawed to the extent that it is not religious.

        So I would approach the whole question in a slightly different way, beginning with final causes and from there discussing God’s existence. But I do agree that the whole Aristotelian metaphysical system (including final causes and ethics) logically implies the existence of God.

  • josh

    "It’s a shrug of the shoulders and a “Just because.”

    That's not the case in the Christian answer that God is uncaused. We argue that God must exist, since you cannot just have an infinite series of conditional and created beings. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas’ Third Way proves the existence of a Being (who we call God) who must exist necessarily, and who relies only upon Himself for His Being. Without Him, there couldn’t be a universe. We don’t assume that God must exist: we show that He must."

    The general form of these arguments is 'I feel that object/explanation/etc. N points to the existence of object N-1, which points to N-2, etc. This is obviously an infinite chain but I don't like that. However, stopping at a given known object, N-m let's say, there is no obvious reason to stop the chain and I can clearly still ask the questions of N-m that I asked about N. I want the chain to stop and the condition under which I could do so is that I have some N-x of which I couldn't ask those questions. Therefore, there must in fact be some such N-x.'

    First lets note that the desire to stop an infinite chain doesn't in fact entail that such a stopping point exists. But putting that aside, N-x has only been defined as the stopping point. Any proposal for an actual N-x can't be identified with it unless one can demonstrate that this candidate is a suitable stopping point. You can't demonstrate this by appealing to the definition of what would constitute N-x. That is, you can't prove that God is the terminus of an otherwise infinite chain by appealing to the definition of a terminus. If you want to speak in terms of the posited terminus, then you can only say that it is a terminus 'just because'. The only reason you have to assert that it has that property is because you have defined it as something with that property in order to avoid an infinite chain. But this is the exact same position as someone who wants to say that moral facts are objective by themselves 'just because' they want a terminus to the series of 'but what makes this thing morally compelling'.

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      Josh,

      What would say are the necessary conditions or attributes of N-x? That might be a good place to start.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      • josh

        At the moment there are none. I've been trying to keep the form of the argument general. Any attempt to establish necessary conditions will depend on the argument that you think takes you from N to N-1. Let's take Aquinas Third Way as an example. You posit that there are 'contingent' beings, whose existence points to the existence of another being. But what is a contingent being? Basically it is a being you can imagine not existing. So to stop the chain you would need a being that you can't imagine not existing (even this is weak, since your imagination might be insufficient), but this is just a restatement of the termination condition. No one has ever come up with an example of such a being.

        As the argument above shows, you can't define such a thing into existence. I can imagine God not existing. If you say, 'then you're not imagining God', then you are just appealing to the definition of the terminating condition, not showing that anything actually satisfies that condition. If you say, 'to avoid an infinite chain I know that something must satisfy the terminating condition', then you know absolutely nothing about that alleged thing. It satisfies the condition just because and has no necessary attributes.

        • Ben Posin

          This is very well put. I have been railing against the attempts that have gone on in this argument series to define God into existence, but haven't manage to explain the problem nearly as neatly.

          • josh

            Thanks Ben. When debating theists I am always reminded of the H L Mencken quote "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."

  • Steven Dillon

    By the way, for those interested in whether intuitionists can resolve moral disagreements, and if so, how, I'd highly recommend chapter 6 in Michael Huemer's Ethical Intuitionism: it's a real gem. Unfortunately, I didn't have the space to summarize his many points.

  • Joseph Heschmeyer

    Envision in your mind an enormous tree containing many limbs, which branch off into smaller branches, which branch off into twigs, which sprout leaves. The branches and foliage are so thick that you can't see the trunk of the tree at all.

    Although you can't see the trunk, you can see the leaves. And you can see that they depend (for their existence and for their sustenance) upon the twigs, and that the twigs depend in turn upon the branches, which depend upon the limbs. From this, it seems to me that there are three basic conclusions you could draw: (a) the limbs are ultimately dependent upon something self-sustaining to sustain them; (b) the limbs are suspended in midair, relying upon nothing else; or (c) the limbs are dependent upon an infinite regress of other limbs, branches, etc., and that there's no bottom to this series.

    Of these three, (b) seems to just wave away the phenomena, treating levitating branches as a brute fact, and (c) violates the rules of logic.So it seems to me that the best explanation would be to conclude to the existence of a trunk, or something like it. And this is so even though the trunk isn't directly observed. You can demonstrate its existence from its effects.

    This is roughly analogous to the situation with the moral law. We see certain things that are morally true because of other, more fundamental truths; these truths are grounded in yet more fundamental truths, etc. Either this chain terminates in maximal truth (which we call God), or it arbitrarily stops, or it regresses infinitely.

    This also works as an analogy to teleology: all moral actions are for the sake of some purpose (and "end"), or our action is pointless. But we can drive down deeper: we pursue this end for the sake of some further purpose, or it's a pointless end to pursue. And this goes on, until we either (a) arrive at a single final end; (b) arbitrarily stop [in which case, the whole chain is pointless], or (c) infinitely regress [which is logically impossible].

    If (a) is true, we're grounding morality in a single final end, which we call God. If (b) is true, then morality is ultimately pointless.

    I.X.,

    Joe

    • Matthias Wasser

      The charitable interpretation of (a) is that the many unconnected branches are the trunks of different trees. (Or alternatively that (b) involves a trunk suspended in midair.)

      Could you expand on how (c) "violates the rules of logic?" I mean, if it involved an infinite regress of branches and also didn't involve an infinite regress of branches, the violation would be clear, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        Matthias,

        Could you expand on how (c) "violates the rules of logic?" I mean, if it involved an infinite regress of branches and also didn't involve an infinite regress of branches, the violation would be clear, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

        There are a few reasons.

        First, in a per se series of causes, the first cause serves as the principle cause of the effect, and exists simultaneously with it. The effect of leaf C being suspended in the air is due to the cause of twig B suspending it in the air: it's a single action, considered in two ways. And of course, twig B relies upon the existence of branch A, etc.

        A, B, and C aren't a sufficient causal account for the suspension of C. They're dependent upon the trunk which must be simultaneously existent: if it were cut down, A, B, and C would cease to be suspended.

        So a per se series needs a first cause, and one that possesses its causal power inherently. This is called the "principal cause." Edward Feser has more on this (in the paragraph beginning "What is key").

        Second, because the causes and effects exist simultaneously, you'd need an actually existing infinite, which isn't possible.

        Third, this would require the twig's suspension of the leaf to be the "infinitieth" step in the chain, a mathematical and logical impossibility.

        I.X.,

        Joe

        • Matthias Wasser

          Sorry for my obtuseness, but could you more explicitly draw out the formal contradictions in actual infinites, ordinal infinites, et cetera? I'm just not seeing it.

    • Geena Safire

      If it is a tree you are describing, then I agree that it is reasonable to posit that it needs a trunk.

      But if the tree is being proposed as an analogy, that doesn't, by itself, guarantee that the analogy is valid. That is, a tree analogy may not be a valid analogy for the existence of an invisible something under the visible stuff that, in the analogy, is represented by the leaves, twigs, branches and limbs.

      Aquinas' 'prime mover' argument for the existence of God had to be abandoned because 17th century physics showed that inertia is a intrinsic property of matter.

      It may be that his 'first cause' argument is similarly falling, that the Big Bang and a prior eternal hot, dense state (or a 'nothing' that is inherently unstable) until expansion is sufficient to explain the existence of the universe without the need for a deity. It seems an enormous presumption, from our limited experience of cause & effect on this speck of a planet, that cause & effect must similarly apply to the origin of our massive (perhaps infinite) universe. That is likely a "fallacy of composition, which arises when one infers that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole (or even of every proper part)."

      This is roughly analogous to the situation with the moral law. We see certain things that are morally true because of other, more fundamental truths; these truths are grounded in yet more fundamental truths, etc.

      Why? Just because you propose three options doesn't mean that there are only three options. Option (d) could be that there is no chain. Some things may be morally true simply because they are fundamental moral truths.

      They may be fundamental in the wiring of our brains which resulted from a long evolutionary process of common descent with natural selection.

      Just because you like the tree analogy because it gets you to your desired conclusion doesn't mean that the analogy is actually valid.

    • Ben Posin

      I think I've mentioned this before, but I'm hoping to recruit someone smarter than me (like Geena) to bolster this point. Anyway:
      Joe writes:
      "If (a) is true, we're grounding morality in a single final end, which we call God"

      Am I alone in seeing huge flashing red warning lights when an argument ends with the phrase "which we call God"? It is a pretty blatant attempt to define God into existence; rather than starting from a positive, meaningful definition of what God is, and showing that such a thing actually exists (or could exist, or even makes sense as a concept), Joe and other theists are saying hey, whatever the most fundamental bit of machinery there happens to be behind anything reality, we're going to draw a circle around it and call it God. You see this a lot with Kalam arguments and the like. But to me it's a bankrupt approach, as any such fundamental thing (should such a thing exist) may share none of the other attributes that are attributed to God, and not be a God in any normal sense of the word, or be dependent on any existing Godlike being in any way. Even were the tree analogy valid, and there were some sort of fundamental trunk to the supposed branches of morality, by what right do you declare that trunk God? It's not like you've even provided reasons to think that God has some abilityt o serve as such a "trunk."

      I'm not too clever this morning, I'm trying to draw analogies but all I'm coming up with is the sharpshooter's fallacy, where one fires a spray of bullets into a wall and then draws a target around them; it's not really on point, but there's a resemblance here.

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        Ben,

        The whole point of natural (or philosophical) theology is to figure out what can be said, if anything, about the Creator without appealing to revelation.

        Am I alone in seeing huge flashing red warning lights when an argument ends with the phrase "which we call God"? It is a pretty blatant attempt to define God into existence; rather than starting from a positive, meaningful definition of what God is, and showing that such a thing actually exists (or could exist, or even makes sense as a concept), Joe and other theists are saying hey, whatever the most fundamental bit of machinery there happens to be behind anything reality, we're going to draw a circle around it and call it God. No, it's moving from what we observe (the effects) and concluding to the Cause.

        We move from what we observe (the effects) and concluding to the Cause. How could we possibly start with a "positive, meaningful definition of what God is"? What would that definition be based off of?

        Remember that we're talking about the God who created our intellect. If we, by our natural lights, could come to an adequate understanding of this God, we'd be above Him in some way. We can't even understand our own neurology adequately, but we can positively define the essence of God? Such a "God" couldn't serve as the cause of the universe and the mind: the effect would be greater than the cause.

        So any proofs for God that start with some positive definition of God (like Descartes' and Locke's) end up reducing God to something huge-but-finite. And that's an infinite reduction, and thus, an infinite distortion of the God we're trying to describe.

        The best descriptions of God, operate by negation, eminence, and analogy. Hence, Anselm defines God as "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." That doesn't mean the greatest thing conceivable, but something infinitely higher yet.

        The confusion, I think, is that what classical theists mean by "God" typically isn't what atheists mean by "God." And it looks like we're playing games. But we just believe in a different God than the imaginary one that you reject.

        You see this a lot with Kalam arguments and the like. But to me it's a bankrupt approach, as any such fundamental thing (should such a thing exist) may share none of the other attributes that are attributed to God, and not be a God in any normal sense of the word, or be dependent on any existing Godlike being in any way.

        The way that we can know attributes of God - the only way short of God revealing Himself - is by studying His effects.

        This shouldn't be surprising from a scientific perspective: it's how we come to know things like the Big Bang. We don't witness it directly, but we witness its effects, like background radiation.

        If I demanded that, before examining the evidence, you begin with some positive definition of the singularity, I'd be demanding something irrational. Obviously, how we understand the singularity is going to be based upon the evidence.

        Even were the tree analogy valid, and there were some sort of fundamental trunk to the supposed branches of morality, by what right do you declare that trunk God? It's not like you've even provided reasons to think that God has some abilityt o serve as such a "trunk."

        Again, this assumes that I'm starting with some second, positive definition of "God." If you understand God in the sense that I'm arguing - Ipsum Esse Subsistens - I fail to see how He wouldn't serve as the "trunk." Can you elaborate?

        I.X.,

        Joe

        • Ben Posin

          You're not getting me, or I'm not being clear. I'm not sure how much better I can do, but I"ll give it a go.

          When we ask the question "does God exist?" we need to have some sort of meaningful definition of what a God would be if we are to answer it. You're doing the opposite: you're saying that whatever machinery or cause or what not is at the back of everything, that's God. It's like being presented with a closed box, hearing something moving inside, and saying that whatever animal is in the box we'll call a tiger--that's fine, I guess, but it's sure not the normal way of figuring out if there's a tiger in the box. You have to drop all the other pre-existing definitions and associations of tiger, and turn it into a new word meaning "whatever thing's in the box." If it turns out there's a little hopping animal with big ears in there, well, now you can insist it be called a tiger, but you don't get to tell other people that it's a dangerous predator with stripes.

          You're declaring that the first cause or foundation Ipsum Esse Subsistens or whatever phrase you like is the thing we call God. Will you stick to that when we one day determine empirically, beyond any possible doubt, that the first cause of the universe was an eternal space turtle that lives outside of time, which accidentally vomited out the universe when it had a bellyache? Or forget the specific turtle: if there's some first cause for the universe, some uncaused cause, and it turns out it has no mind, no intelligence, no regard or awareness of human beings, would you still call it God? If I'm to take your "and this we call God" reasoning at face value, yes, you would. But that sure sounds ridiculous, because it obliterates the normal meaning for the word God, surely the more honest response is to say "well, we found that a first cause exists, but not God." You couldn't expect us to care about worshiping or obeying such a God, or caring about it, anymore than you could expect us to treat a rabbit like a tiger.

    • joeclark77

      This is an excellent, succinct little write-up of this argument. I also like the "train" analogy which I'm sure you're familiar with. (Briefly: you observe a caboose moving on the tracks, it's immediate cause is the second-to-last car, then the third-to-last car. You can't explain the motion based on an infinite regress of train cars - logically there has to be an engine.) I'd be grateful if you'd post what you've written here on your blog or somewhere, so that it would be linkable.

      • Geena Safire

        But the apparent movement of the train cars could be instead a consequence of you moving (or being moved) instead of the train. Or the train may be powered electrically or magnetically from the track and thus not need an engine. The simplest answer is the presumption of an engine, but despite the principle of Occam's razor, the simplest answer is not necessarily correct.

        Along these lines, as I note in a separate comment, Joe's analogy might have other options. Option (d) could be that there is no chain.

        For example, these leaves and twigs and branches could be part of a bushy plant that gets its moisture from the air and exists on a planet like Pandora with an anti-gravity mineral so it floats, trunkless. This would be analogous to something being foundational in itself or being an emergent property of the thing.

        • joeclark77

          Those are creative, but in no case invalidate the logical argument. If it's a floating bush, supported by an anti-gravity mineral, fed by the air, which is supported by Pandora, which comes from somewhere, you're still just offering one of the illogical options: (c) there's an infinite chain of causes/supports, or (b) there's a point at which you'll stop and say "just because". No matter how creative your stories, the only logical conclusion is that (a) there's an ultimate cause.

          • Geena Safire

            We're talking about Joe's analogy. Joe said that there must be a trunk because of the leaves and branches, etc. My alternative shows that there does not have to be a trunk.

            It may be that my option (d) is similar to Joe's option (b), which he dismisses by saying "[it] seems to just wave away the phenomena, treating levitating branches as a brute fact." What's the problem with being a brute fact, in certain cases?

            (There are many other alternatives with no trunk required. For example, it could be a bush, which doesn't have a trunk. Or they could be artificial leaves and branches, etc.)

            The main point is that Joe's analogy is faulty; no trunk is required. And his application of this analogy to morality is also faulty, for other reasons. Morality isn't analogous to visible leaves and branches.

            With regard to existence itself, if you want to move everything back to that point, there doesn't have to be a cause for existence. And there certainly doesn't have to be a purposeful, intentional cause. Perhaps our universe existed eternally in a hot, dense state before expansion. Or perhaps there was nothing, which turns out to be unstable, leading to the Big Bang. (We can't know, because we have no examples of 'nothing' to evaluate.)

            There may also be no ultimate cause for morality except an emergent property of being social animals.

          • joeclark77

            You are mistaking the role that the "trunk" plays in Joe's analogy. He's not saying that the leaves alone tell us the nature of their root cause, he's saying that their existence as effects of a cause tells us that they necessarily *have* an ultimate cause somewhere back down the chain of cause and effect.
            Anyway, I think you're right that the option you prefer is (b): that cause and effect only goes back so far and then there's a "just because". I can't picture it being logical, myself.

          • Joseph Heschmeyer

            Geena,

            We're talking about Joe's analogy. Joe said that there must be a trunk because of the leaves and branches, etc. My alternative shows that there does not have to be a trunk.

            Actually, I didn't say that. I said that "the limbs are ultimately dependent upon something self-sustaining to sustain them," which I later shorthanded to "a trunk, or something like it."

            Ultimately, you have some very creative examples of what "something like it" might look like, but I don't see how any of those refute what the analogy is showing.

            Recourse to treating morality and teleology as "brute facts" would certainly seem to fall into (b). It sounds like waving away inconvenient facts by saying (in short), 'these things just exist because they exist, and we shouldn't ask too many questions. ' But that's not really an answer at all, is it? It seems more like a refusal to answer.*

            Particularly in the case of teleology, having the ultimate final cause being an irrational brute fact would render all human existence and action pointless, in the final analysis. That, in turn, would certainly seem to render morality meaningless. If life, and all human action, is pointless, how can there be any sort of "ought"?

            I.X.,

            Joe

            *I suspect that this is the frustration that atheists have with Christian arguments that seem to argue "because God." I think that caricature (typically) misunderstands the argument and/or meaning of God, but I can see why it would be frustrating. Only here, it's not even "because God" but "because brute fact," with the brute fact being a senseless yet uncaused cause.

          • Geena Safire

            Recourse to treating morality and teleology as "brute facts" would certainly seem to fall into (b). It sounds like waving away inconvenient facts by saying (in short), 'these things just exist because they exist, and we shouldn't ask too many questions. ' But that's not really an answer at all, is it? It seems more like a refusal to answer.*

            First: When did anybody ever say anyone ought not ask questions about anything?!

            Second: I, at least, didn't say morality 'exists because it exists.' (However, you do seem to be saying that about God.)

            I said that morality seems to exist as a product of evolution, a series of changes that turned out to be successful for at least some of the species that came after. Social species that were too nice (may have) died out. Social species that were too aggressive (may have) died out. And, just like Goldilocks, human morality seemed to be 'just right.'

            Of the vast number of completely random DNA mutations, very few affect the gametes and are thus heritable. Of many DNA mutations that affect the gametes, most are irrelevant because they happen at an inactive location or they cause an active change that does not alter reproductive fitness. The vast majority of the rest that cause changes are unmitigated disasters. But a very few changes confer a reproductive advantage. In mammals and, separately, in birds, changes that caused maternal care and then mate bonding and then adult family group attachment turned out, at least for our ancestral species, to be successful.

            Third: It's not an answer that is satisfying to you. No answer would be satisfying to you, Joe, because you play the game Jeopardy style. You start with God as the answer and then search for all the questions to which God is or must be the answer. Any answer other than God would seem to you like 'not really an answer at all', like a 'refusal to answer.'

            But it is a proposed, plausible answer which is derived from a broad base of real life facts. If there are any significant real-world facts I am 'waving away [as] inconvenient facts,' please let me know. Seriously.

            Particularly in the case of teleology, having the ultimate final cause being an irrational brute fact would render all human existence and action pointless, in the final analysis. That, in turn, would certainly seem to render morality meaningless. If life, and all human action, is pointless, how can there be any sort of "ought"?

            Even if morality emerged from a large number of chance events plus natural selection, that doesn't mean that morality doesn't exist. That just means it exists physically, naturally, not supernaturally. But it still exists.

            We are built to care for attached others as we care for ourselves, even if we weren't built by a cosmic builder. Even if morality didn't happen because of a plan or for a particular purpose, that doesn't mean it didn't happen or that it is any less real or true.

            We are each of us alive and we can love and we can feel pain and we can help or hurt each other, so morality does matter. Our wants and needs are real and they are deeply affected by the choices we and others make, so morality does matter.

            Going further back, to human existence itself, I do believe that this also happened naturally and without a plan or goal except survival and reproductive fitness. But just because we may exist without an ultimate purpose, that doesn't mean our lives must by purposeless. We still yearn, as humans always have, for meaning and purpose. We are also capable of imbuing our lives with meaning and purpose. We can live out our lives in pursuit of that meaning and purpose.

          • joeclark77

            Isn't this just another "just-so" story, like the one about Pandora? It doesn't matter how creative or even plausible your story is: you're still positing that the present state results from a chain of cause-and-effect. And if effects have causes, then there must be an uncaused-cause at the beginning of that chain. But if the chain ends with a "just because", then it is still purposeless and arbitrary. More realistically, though, people who hear this theory will simply reject it and say, well YOU may not want to know how the story started, but it certainly did start, and WE want to know -- no matter how many times you assert that we'll all be happier making up our own comfortable "truth" than asking too many questions about the actual Truth.

          • Susan

            having the ultimate final cause being an irrational brute fact would render all human existence and action pointless,

            Why don't theists feel the need to justify their terms in any way other than using more unjustified terms?

            What on earth is an "irrational" fact? What do you mean by "brute" fact?

            These are more editorial terms blended into an argument from consequence.

            What do you mean by "pointless"?

          • joeclark77

            These terms all have meanings. Thousands of years of philosophy can't be replicated in a blog post. I think it's clear from the context what an irrational brute fact is. To say that an objective morality (or a tree branch, or the Big Bang) exists "just because", and its causes either don't exist or don't matter, is irrational. It's not useful as an axiom, and it attempts to block the exercise of reason rather than fulfill it. If the answer to the question "why?" is "don't ask that question!", then you are promoting unreason. Moreover, it's not very believable. Most rational people are going to assume that there IS a cause, and if you tell them not to ask, or it doesn't matter, they're going to see you as being opposed to reason, opposed to thought, and unhelpful to rational pursuit of the truth.
            Joe defines "pointless" in the main article, in a bolded phrase. It means "doesn't have a purpose". If you're claiming that objective morality "just exists" for no reason, stop asking why, then you should agree.

          • Susan

            These terms all have meanings.

            Not so far. Not in this discussion.
            Thousands of years of philosophy can't be replicated in a blog post

      • josh

        Well, physically the train analogy is wrong, which should tell you that the metaphysical argument you are trying to make by analogy is almost certainly wrong. We've known since Newton (actually, Galileo) that an object in motion stays in motion by itself. The caboose moves of its own momentum, independent of the car ahead of it.

        Maybe you want to argue that the change in motion from relative rest to relative motion depends on the car ahead of it. This is true but it completely destroys the analogy sought for morality. Motion is relative and the force that the engine exerts on the cars is equal to the force exerted by the cars on the engine. There is no one-way causation. Moreover, physically there is no reason the cars have to start at rest in one frame and then be accelerated. It is equally natural to say that the cars have always been moving with respect to that frame. Furthermore, there is nothing illogical about an infinite train of cars from a physics perspective.

        • Joseph Heschmeyer

          Josh,

          The objection regarding inertia is a strong one (at least facially so: it's the subject of much debate amongst philosophers, and I don't imagine we'll solve that debate here) You could tweak the analogy slightly, and imagine that you saw the train at rest, and then watched it lurch into motion.

          Your other point, though, isn't valid. The reason that an infinite regress of train cars doesn't work in this example doesn't just have to do with the impossibility of traversing of an actual infinite.

          Set theory might be helpful here: create a set of "caused causes" (the train cars in this analogy), and "uncaused causes" (the engine car in this analogy).

          The train cars are "caused causes" because, while they might proximately cause the motion in the subsequent cars, they're not the origin of their own motion. The engine car is an uncaused cause because it both causes motion in the subsequent cars, and contains within itself a sufficient explanation for its own motion

          The objection isn't that it's impossible to have an infinite number of caused causes, although that might be true. The objection is that, even if you had an infinite number of caused causes, that fails to account for the motion. You would still need an engine car: and in fact, one capable of pulling an infinite number of train cars.

          I.X.,

          Joe

          • josh

            Joe, you're not using set theory, just repeating yourself. As I said, if one doesn't understand physics, you really shouldn't presume to be demonstrating metaphysics.

            Physically, the cars don't need an origin of motion, they were always moving.

            Motion is relative.

            An engine does not explain it's own motion.

            Until you understand this you don't understand the issues at hand. You need to move beyond a folk understanding of physics and causality before you are qualified to discuss 'deeper' issues. Now you want to move the goalposts from 'one car pointing to another' to 'why are there cars moving'. But that's just another version of the same argument. The reality of physics demonstrates that this type of argument isn't sound. You will keep having to make up a set of ad hoc metarules and metaquestions trying to get to the answer you want, but they will all be as arbitrary as the first.

        • joeclark77

          I suppose your objection works, if there's such a thing as a frictionless train track (and atmosphere). Change the word "moving" to "accelerating" and my example works. Well you also have to assume that the ground is flat, the wind is negligible, and Wile E. Coyote isn't playing with a giant horseshoe magnet nearby, and so on...

          • josh

            I anticipated the accelerating example in the comment you are replying to. It only makes the analogy worse.

    • josh

      You do know that trunks have roots, right? And that the living material in the trunk is sustained by the leaves in turn? And that infinite series absolutely do not violate the rules of logic?

      • Joseph Heschmeyer

        Josh,

        You do know that trunks have roots, right? And that the living material in the trunk is sustained by the leaves in turn?

        That's pedantic. This is the equivalent of trying to pick apart the grammar of an argument that you can't refute.

        Obviously, I realize that trees have roots, and that leaves nourish the tree (although this point strikes me as irrelevant, since it isn't the cause of the leaf's suspension, and this analogy would hold for a dead tree or any similarly-structured inanimate object). And obviously, you realize that this point is irrelevant for what the analogy is demonstrating.

        I'll concede now that, inasmuch as any analogy is an analogy, it'll limp. If it wasn't somehow distinguishable from the matter at hand, it wouldn't be an analogy.

        And that infinite series absolutely do not violate the rules of logic?

        Short answer: you're mistaken, and not even making an argument. Just another over-confident assertion.

        Longer answer: As I explained to Matthias, this objection conflates per se and per accidens series of causes, and assumes the impossible, that you can traverse an actual infinite ordered series.

        First, in a per se series of causes, the first cause serves as the principle cause of the effect, and exists simultaneously with it. The effect of leaf C being suspended in the air is due to the cause of twig B suspending it in the air: it's a single action, considered in two ways. And of course, twig B relies upon the existence of branch A, etc.

        A, B, and C aren't a sufficient causal account for the suspension of C. They're dependent upon the trunk which must be simultaneously existent: if it were cut down, A, B, and C would cease to be suspended.

        So a per se series needs a first cause, and one that possesses its causal power inherently. This is called the "principal cause."Edward Feser has more on this (in the paragraph beginning "What is key").

        Second, because the causes and effects exist simultaneously, you'd need an actually existing infinite, which isn't possible.

        Third, this would require the twig's suspension of the leaf to be the "infinitieth" step in the chain, a mathematical and logical impossibility.

        You're not actually responding to any of these arguments: just re-asserting that you're right, and that we really can move through an infinite series of steps to arrive at a terminus.

        I.X.,

        Joe

        • Geena Safire

          That's pedantic.

          Tsk-tsk!

          [Y]ou realize that this point is irrelevant for what the analogy is demonstrating

          It may be irrelevant to the point you want your analogy to demonstrate. But it is relevant to dismantling your analogy -- using your own infinite thingy.

          You're not actually responding to any of these arguments.

          Trust me, we 'get' the First Cause argument. We just are not as impressed by it. It's often used as a case of Special Pleading on steroids.

          The universe is not a philosophy class. No matter how coherent, consistent, and compatible an argument is, and no matter how many hundreds of years it has been argued, that doesn't mean it applies in all cases to the real world.

          The universe doesn't care how you think it is or ought to be or must be. The universe seems to only 'care' about a surprisingly few physical laws -- and even these break down in places (e.g., black holes). If you ever feel an interest in getting shaken free of your obsession with strong interest in cause & effect, study quantum mechanics. Especially virtual particles. Uncaused. Really! Or neuroscience. It'll blow your mind (so to speak).

        • josh

          Joe, I thank you for sticking around to respond to comments. Back to the substance:

          The form is snarky but the content is a deathblow to your case. The reasoning in your analogy fails, the reasoning in your 'argument' fails for the same reason. You illustrated with the analogy that you don't actually have a good argument.

          "Short answer: you're mistaken, and not even making an argument. Just another over-confident assertion."

          Since I occasionally work with infinite series, whose behavior is dictated by the rules of logic, I can say with some confidence that they aren't logically impossible.

          The per se , per accidens distinction isn't clear and doesn't get you anywhere.

          "The effect of leaf C being suspended in the air is due to the cause of twig B suspending it in the air: it's a single action, considered in two ways. And of course, twig B relies upon the existence of branch A, etc.

          A, B, and C aren't a sufficient causal account for the suspension of C. They're dependent upon the trunk which must be simultaneously existent: if it were cut down, A, B, and C would cease to be suspended."

          Again, you don't understand physics. Keep going: the trunk sits on the crust, the crust sits on the mantle, the mantle sits on the core, the core sits on... Oh wait, the core, the earth as a whole doesn't sit on anything. The very notion of opposing downward gravity with some base has gone away and you missed it because you don't understand the limitations of your reasoning. In reality, the leaf, the twig and the earth are in equilibrium. One does not ultimately support the other, but the forces between them are balanced. If you chop out the trunk, you disturb the equilibrium and a new balance will be reached. This doesn't happen instantaneously. Take away the trunk and the leaf moves relative to the earth. Take away the leaf and the trunk moves (albeit imperceptibly). Your entire notion of things 'that possess[es] causal power inherently', is unphysical and illogical. The 'causes' are the rules of physics that describe how the 'things' relate to one another. Causality does not reside in beings, only in the whole.

          "Second, because the causes and effects exist simultaneously, you'd need an actually existing infinite, which isn't possible."

          This is a bald assertion which all our experience points against. Space appears infinite. Reality appears infinitely divisible. Mathematics regularly deals with and categorizes infinities. How do you propose to prove that an infinite thing can't exist? Also, God is allegedly infinite so you're not even being consistent.

          "Third, this would require the twig's suspension of the leaf to be the "infinitieth" step in the chain, a mathematical and logical impossibility."

          Well, as I showed, the leaf's position isn't the result of an infinite chain, nor is it resting on some sort of absolute base, because the assumptions you started down the chain with were no longer applicable. But there is nothing illogical about a specific point in an infinite series existing, nor is there anything wrong about an infinite series with a definite terminus at one end. Pi is an infinite series when written in decimal form, but its first member is definitely 3. Heck, an infinite series can terminate at both ends, just look at the real numbers between 0 and 1. You are like someone who doesn't know that Zeno's paradox was resolved.

  • I wonder what pokemon will use Steve next!

    This debate is amazing so far!!

    • Joseph Heschmeyer

      I've really enjoyed it, too -- and am very thankful to Steven, and the commenters, for that experience!

      I.X.,

      Joe

  • Jack Picknell

    Objective morality does not depend on the existence of God. Objective morality is an abstract theoretical construct that supposes a logical extension of observable "goodness". It does not exist in our reality.

    Using light as an example, we being finite, only experience shades of grey, never actually experiencing pure light, nor pure dark. We extrapolate from our observations that black and white exist, and use the darkest and lightest we can to create a scale, but the actualities of black and white are unattainable.

    True objectivism requires observation and demonstrability, not theoretical extension.

    Due to our finite existence we are incapable of knowing all relevant factors leading to, occurring, and following a situation involving morality. We can make relative moral judgments but in the final analysis, all morality is subjective.

    • joeclark77

      So, you're a materialist. Nothing non-material exists? Here's a test question: does the number 7 exist?

  • Christopher Wojdak

    I went into this rooting for Steven and thought Joe set himself up for failure in the first post by quoting W.L.C, whose morality argument is weak... but wow. Joe rocked it in this second post. Really nice, cogent explanation for why intuitionism fails.