Sunday, March 18, 2012

Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist? (p. 2)

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Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist?
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The Best Atheistic Alternative for Grounding Objective Morality

As I promised in my previous blog entry, I’ll address what I think is the best atheist ontological explanation for objective morality. While I had thought the atheist could accept a “brute fact” position, I later realized that “morality just exists” is inadequate because as I explained earlier either moral naturalism or moral non-naturalism is true (if you have trouble wrapping your mind about moral properties being natural or non-natural, moral properties being physical or nonphysical will be close enough for our purposes) and an atheist ontological explanation for objective morality ought to tell us at least whether moral properties are natural or non-natural. Given the nature of the prescriptive ought (recall that any ought that has no properties besides purely descriptive ones is a descriptive ought and not a prescriptive ought, and natural properties are purely descriptive in nature) and the dog kicker scenario, it seems clear that if objective moral properties like moral wrongness exist they are non-natural (if you found that argument unconvincing or unclear, thinking of moral properties as nonphysical will again be close enough for present purposes). So here’s the best atheist ontological explanation I can think of: objective moral properties “just exist” as non-natural properties that are attached to certain states of affairs, e.g. the nonphysical property of moral wrongness attaches itself to murder, and the nonphysical property of moral rightness attaches itself to a parent loving her child; no deity or any other entity is responsible for why these moral properties exist. Human beings and their actions are sufficient for moral properties to exist. If I were an atheist moral objectivist, this is the ontological view I would subscribe to. For the purposes of having a handy label, let’s call this view simple moral non-naturalism.

Is this ontological view simpler than the view I discussed in the argument from ontological simplicity? Perhaps it depends on the details of how instances of objective moral properties like moral wrongness exist. Personally, when I think of “nonphysical moral properties like moral wrongness just exist independently of our belief and perception of them” I think of nonphysical moral wrongness as an ectoplasmic gooey cloud attached to some morally wrong action, like stealing a television. If the innumerable instances of the objective moral wrongness property exist as a massive multitude of these invisibly gooey clouds (or whatever) that are somehow attached to certain actions, it seems simpler to me for objective moral properties to be grounded in a single entity, e.g. moral wrongness being that which God forbids. Even so however, I don’t think simplicity is the biggest problem here.

Even though simple moral non-naturalism is the best atheist ontological explanation I can think of, this view is deeply problematic to the point where I doubt I would accept it even if I were an atheist. To see why let’s first note some epistemological problems atheism has with morality.

The Warrant Problem

On theism, it makes perfect sense that there’d be some component of reality transcending our opinion that says people shouldn’t do certain things, but on atheism objective moral oughtness is rather strange when you think about it; it’s invisible, nonphysical, causally inert, and empirically undetectable. A theistic worldview allows for a God using superintended evolution to design our cognitive faculties such that when they function properly we intuitively apprehend basic moral truths, but what about atheism? Since objective moral properties are invisible and empirically undetectable, how is it on atheism we know objective morality exists?

The problem of how on atheism we can know that objective moral properties exist is what I’ll call the warrant problem. In philosophy, warrant is that quality (or quantity) such that enough of it added to true belief yields knowledge; so in some cases the warrant for a belief might be some type of justification or evidence for that belief. There are two issues that spell trouble for how on atheism we could be warranted in accepting objective moral oughtness.

The first is that if atheism is true it would be a remarkable coincidence if moral intuitions happened to line up with what these nonphysical moral oughtness properties are really like. Moral oughtness is causally inert; it’s presence or absence would have no effect on what intuitions our brains would give us, nor would it have any effect on the evolutionary and environmental processes that gave us our brains. On atheism, which moral intuitions we’d get from sociobiological evolution is unguided and random—random in the sense that it could have been otherwise, there’s no external intelligence like God directing which intuitions we’d get, and the processes that give us our intuitions are completely blind and indifferent to what moral properties are really like, such that even the very existence of moral properties has no effect on which moral intuitions we’d get. On atheism we could have had very different moral codes, even more different from the variations we’ve seen in human history, because moral intuitions would likely track adaptive behavior (behavior conducive for survival and reproductive fitness) rather than truth. Evolution could even have evolved a species where adaptive behavior would be to kill one’s own sibling, and we know this because it’s already happened (the Nazca booby bird). So all things considered, it would be a remarkable coincidence that the moral intuitions we’ve received happen to coincide with what these invisible and causally inert moral properties are really like.

The second issue, related to the first, is that because moral oughtness is causally inert, the best atheistic explanation for why we believe morality exists does not require morality’s existence. Ultimately, we believe morality exists because our brains deliver the intuition that it exists; e.g. it just seems true to us that there’s something morally wrong with torturing innocent sentient life (like infants) just for fun. Barring the supernatural however (like God-guided evolution or supernatural clairvoyance), moral oughtness is causally inert such that even the presence or absence of moral oughtness would have no effect on which intuitions our brains give us, nor would it have any effect on the evolutionary and environmental processes that gave us our brains. To illustrate why this is a problem, suppose a cyborg knows she has a metal-detecting implant installed in her brain that’s designed so that when a widget is in her hand, the implant delivers a strong intuition that the widget contains metal if it contains metal. Suppose however the metal-detecting implant isn’t working as designed and it would deliver the intuition that the widget contains metal even if the widget did not contain metal. Then even if the widget in her hand did contain metal and she believed it contained metal on the basis of her intuition, her belief wouldn’t count as knowledge. Moreover, if she learned the metal-detecting implant would give her the intuition that the widget contains metal even if the widget contained no metal, she would no longer have adequate grounds to believe the widget contains metal. Similarly, if atheism is true we would have the intuition of morality’s existence even if morality did not exist, and this this would seem to undercut our moral intuition as a source of warrant for morality’s existence.

Theoretically, the atheist could avoid this problem by saying we have supernatural clairvoyance of these nonphysical moral properties, such that if morality did not exist our supernatural clairvoyant powers would not deliver the intuition of morality’s existence—but an idea like this seems awfully far-fetched. If atheism is true, it seems very likely that we don’t have warrant for believing that objective moral oughtness is real.

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Comment on this article


  1. New points for us.

    Objective moral properties are queer, e.g. the property of objective moral wrongness (invisible, nonphysical, physically undetectable, an unconditional oughtness that somehow exists independently of anybody’s belief and perception of it, yet such nonphysical properties are allegedly attached to physical actions, e.g. men stealing televisions having the nonphysical property of moral wrongness) is radically different from any other property we know of; its queerness is arguably akin to an undetectable flying spaghetti monster, or at least an invisible and nonphysical deity."

    Agreed-ish. The stealing of the television does not have any direct physical effect. However, it does have an effect.

    The person who had their television stolen has a change in brainstate. In this case, expressed as anger, or sadness, or whichever other emotion they experienced when their television was stolen.

    If they did not care that their television was stolen, then it might not be considered immoral any longer. In other words, the stealing of the television need not give off an unconcontional ought-to-do-ness, or outhgt-not-to-do-ness. Instead, morality may lie within the state of the brain, which, as far as we know, is all physical.

    And yes, that is quite an odd thing, but so is the brain. I struggle to think of something that is as odd as the brain (perhaps particle physics).

    "The warrant problem: we have no warrant for and no reason to believe that objective moral properties exist."

    If you are speaking of moral properties in the same way as in "1," the same objections apply.

    "We would have the same beliefs about morality regardless of whether morality existed."

    This claim relies on an assumption that may not be true.

    If it is the case that morality is based on brainstates, then to posit what reality would be like if it does not exist would be to posit a reality where there are no developed brains.

    If that is the case, then there would be no "we" to speak of. At that point, it could indeed be the case that there is no morality.

    "It’s expected that evolution would occasionally give us false beliefs (e.g. religion) especially if they facilitate survival; and moral beliefs (e.g. regarding limitations on thievery and killing) help society survive."

    Indeed it would.

    However, very few people claim that "whatever evolution would have us do" is the best moral system.

    Furthermore, a truly objective moral system would be completely independent of the beliefs of the agents.

    So yes, false moral beliefs would (and do) absolutely come about. I'm not sure how that is relevant, but we agree nonetheless.