Saturday, March 17, 2012

Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist?

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This blog entry is part 2 in a series on the moral argument. The entries in the series:
  1. The Moral Argument for God Part 1: Going from Morality’s Existence to God’s Existence
  2. The Moral Argument for God Part 2: Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist?
  3. The Moral Argument for God Part 3: Does Objective Morality Exist?
  4. The Euthyphro Dilemma
  5. Epilogue: Awakening the Sensus Divinitatis

Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist?
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Intro



A popular claim among proponents of the moral argument is “If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist” (with some variants, e.g. “If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist”). Here I’ll argue that this claim is correct.

A Brief Recap



While it’s better that one reads part 1 of the moral argument first, I’ll try to make this article a standalone entry and I’ll link some terms to the glossary for those who might be unfamiliar with them. I’ll also give a brief recap of stuff to know for this article.

To get a rough idea of the sort of morality I’m dealing with, an action is morally wrong for someone only if they ought not to do it and an action is morally right for someone only if they ought to do it, where the type of “ought” being used here is the unconditional ought. By moral properties being objective I mean that they exist independently of human belief and perception of them. Moral ontology is the discipline that studies the foundations of morality (e.g. are moral properties like moral wrongness physical or nonphysical?). Thus an ontological explanation of morality is an explanation of how morality exists and what sort of reality it constitutes.

What it means for moral properties to be non-natural varies between writers, but we can borrow philosopher Robert Adam’s description that it means moral properties “cannot be stated entirely in the language of physics, chemistry, biology, and human or animal psychology.”[1] Either morality exists solely as part of the natural world (moral naturalism) or it exists to at least some degree as part of the non-natural realm (moral non-naturalism). One of these has to be true, because if morality exists neither as part of the natural realm nor as part of the non-natural realm, then it follows that morality does not exist as part of reality at all. If morality exists, some type of ontological explanation or other must be correct.

To support moral non-naturalism I constructed a thought experiment with a moral nihilist who concedes that torturing puppies just for fun inflicts pain on the little mammals but he denies there is any moral dimension to such torture. The moral nihilist is also a brilliant scientist and has scientific equipment that he can use to detect every property within the fields of chemistry, physics, etc. If moral properties like moral wrongness were purely natural properties, then our hypothetical moral nihilist should (at least in principle) be able to empirically test for their existence, but I argued that the moral nihilist could not even in principle empirically test for the unconditional ought property of moral wrongness. One reason is this: barring the supernatural, the presence or absence of objectively existing unconditional oughtness would not affect the physical world at all. And if one cannot empirically test for the existence of objective unconditional oughtness, then a fortiori one cannot empirically test for the existence of the unconditional ought property known as objective moral wrongness. At any rate, objective moral properties like moral wrongness are at least nonphysical. Even if the morally wrong action takes place in the physical world (as a man stealing a car), the oughtness property that is moral wrongness is itself nonphysical.

In part 1 of the moral argument I noted that morality appeared to exist as part of the nonphysical realm to at least some degree (e.g. moral wrongness is a nonphysical property), and I argued that if we posited just one nonphysical thing as the foundation for objective morality and tried to find the simplest explanation for that entity grounding moral values and obligations, we end up with an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary entity that imposes moral duties upon us with supreme and universally binding authority. This observation (and the claim that it rationally supports theism to at least some degree) is what I’ve called the argument from ontological simplicity. (For the purposes of understanding this article, the details of how this works are unimportant; I summarize it here only because I mention the argument later in this article.)

A Deductive Moral Argument



In my previous blog entry (part 1 of the moral argument) I gave an argument that went from morality’s existence to God’s existence, but that isn’t the only argument out there. Here’s another one:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
The above moral argument is deductively valid; the premises (lines 1 and 2) entail the conclusion (line 3) such that it’s impossible for the argument to have true premises and a false conclusion. To quickly check the argument’s validity, notice what happens if we were to have true premises and a false conclusion:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist (true premise)
  2. Objective morality does exist (true premise)
  3. God does not exist (false conclusion)

  1. Objective morality does not exist (from 1 and 3)
  2. Objective morality does exist and objective morality does not exist (from 2 and 4)
Because true premises and a false conclusion lead to the self-contradiction present in line 5, it really is impossible for the argument to have true premises and a false conclusion. Since the premises entail the conclusion, the debate over the conclusion will be a debate over whether the premises are true.

This blog entry will largely be about justifying premise 1 (in the next blog entry I’ll try to justify premise 2). For a while the first premise was unconvincing to me. Why can’t morality be like logic and just exist as a brute fact? I wasn’t convinced that God was needed for objective morality.

The Material Conditional



A material conditional takes the form of “If P, then Q” and is equivalent to “It is not the case that P is true and Q is false.” Thus, whether the material conditional is true is determined entirely by the truth of P and Q as follows, where the truth table below exhausts all possible true/false combinations of P and Q. Note the second line of the truth table where P being true and Q being false makes “If P, then Q” false:

PQIf P, then Q
TTT
TFF
FTT
FFT

Notice that P being true and Q being false is the only time the material conditional is false; otherwise the material conditional is true. For example, “If 2 + 2 = 5, then life forms exist” is a true material conditional because “2 + 2 = 5” is false and “life forms exist” is true, thus fitting the third line of the truth table where P is false and Q is true. A material conditional may seem like a weak claim (in the sense that it doesn’t claim very much) but it’s good enough for our purposes since when P is true, then Q is true as well (recall a material conditional prohibits Q from being false when P is true, as can be confirmed by looking at the second line of the truth table).

To simplify, let’s reword “If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist” as “If atheism is true, then objective morality does not exist,” so an “If P, then Q” material conditional here goes like this:

    P = Atheism is true.
    Q = Objective morality does not exist.

Recall the truth table:

PQIf P, then Q
TTT
TFF
FTT
FFT

Notice from the above truth table that whenever P is false (and thus atheism is false), the material conditional is true. So anybody who believes God exists is committed to accepting the material conditional as true. Also notice from the truth table that whenever Q is true (and thus objective morality does not exist) the material conditional is true, and so any atheist who believes objective morality does not exist is likewise committed to accepting the material conditional as true. The only way for the first premise to be false is if atheism is true (making P true) with objective morality existing (making Q false).

For theists and those who deny moral objectivism then, the first premise is easy to justify; they just need to understand that the first premise is a material conditional and use a bit of logical thinking. Really, the only way to reasonably deny the first premise is to believe atheism is true and objective morality exists. So what about those people? For example, why couldn’t the atheist take my suggestion that objective morality’s existence is a brute fact?

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[1] Adams, Robert M. The Virtue of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 145.



Comment on this article

5 comments:

  1. I've commented on this on one of your comments on another blog, but I will address it here as well.

    "1)If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
    2)Objective morality does exist.
    3)Therefore, God exists."

    Unfortunately, this is not necessarily valid.

    Consider the following.

    1)If Vishnu does not exist, then karma does not exist.
    2) (Let us pretend) Karma exists.
    3) Therefore, Vishnu exists.

    The conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises. It could be the case that Karma exists without Vishnu's existence. It could be the case that Buddhism is correct, Vishnu does not exist, and there is still karma. It could be the case that Jainism is correct, Vishnu does not exist, and there is still karma. It could even be the case that all of the religions that believe in karma are wrong, and karma still exists.

    This does not violate point one. Point one illustrates that "If Vishnu does not exist, then karma does not exist." It does not say "If karma exists, then Vishnu exists."

    Those are two separate premises.

    The same applies here. You would first need to prove that objective morality can not exist without God.

    In order for your conclusion to be valid, it would need to be

    1) If objective morality exists, then God exists.
    2) Objective morality exists.
    3) Therefore God exists.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "1)If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
      2)Objective morality does exist.
      3)Therefore, God exists."

      Unfortunately, this is not necessarily valid.


      Responses like this are why I created my Introductory Logic Series. Not only is the moral argument valid, it is provably so; indeed, I proved its validity with symbolic logic in this introductory logic entry. But to summarize:

      (1) If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
      (2) Objective morality does exist
      ==================================
      (3) If objective morality exists, then God exists (from 1)
      (4) God exists (from 2 and 3)

      If you don't see how (3) follows from (1), please look up the logical equivalence known as transposition. I also strongly recommend learning some formal logic.

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    2. I’ve just edited this page to make the deductive validity of the moral argument clearer. I am truly surprised how often I’ve seen people attack the deductive validity of this argument. No joke; you’re at least the third person I’ve talked to who has done this; makes me wonder how many others have as well!

      Delete
    3. I see my mistake now.

      However, I still hold that it would have been much easier to structure the argument as follows...

      1) If objective morality exists, then god exists.
      2) Objective morality exists.

      3) Therefore god exists.

      Regardless, I still do not accept your first premise. Your second premise, I accept, but in a way that is necessarily contradicting to the first premise.

      Lastly, I understand formal reasoning. what happened is known as a "mistake." Your assumption that I don't understand it is pretty insulting, especially because you formed the assumption based on a single mistake.

      I don't have the time, nor the patience to argue with persons who use insults as a tactic in place of reason.

      However, I believe in second chances. Because of that I will continue to discuss our disagreement.

      "The implications of first premise being a material conditional are significant. Since the only way the first premise can be false is if “atheism is true” and “objective morality exists” are both true, two things follow: (1) if you accept theism (and thus deny “atheism is true”) logic compels you to accept the first premise, even if you think God isn’t needed for objective morality"

      I believe this is incorrect. Consider the following.

      1) If God does not exist, then Thor must exist.

      It is the case that the only way this can be proven false is if "god does not exist" is true, and "Thor exists" is false

      However, that does not imply that all theists must accept the premise. It just means that they don't agree with the antecedent.

      Theists simply bring in an extra premise. The premise, is of course "God exists." Because of this premise, they will have no opinion on the matter because they have already denied the antecedent. Logic will not even reach the consequent.

      Consider the following.

      1) My towel is red.
      2) If my towel is green, then it is from space.

      Point two does not need to be accepted by people who accept point one. It is irrelevant to people who accept point one.

      It is true that they can not disprove point 2, which is what you claim, but that does not mean that they must accept it.

      The main point: An absence of disproof is not necessarily proof.

      However, this isn't all that relevant to me, because I'm not a theist anyways. Next point!

      I believe that the second part of that argument is false for a similar reason. Consider the following.

      If 5 is an even number, then I exist.

      Even if I accept that I exist (and I do), that does not mean that the test that I proposed (5 being an even number) is a valid test for it.

      You can have a true consequent from a faulty antecedent. Me accepting a consequent only means that I accept... the consequent, not that I accept that the premise is a fair test for that idea.

      Again, I will never be able to prove that the logic is incorrect, because I will always accept the consequent (that I exist). Even if I proved that 5 is even (somehow), it still would not be disproof of the idea.

      But again, the lack of the ability to disprove something does not automatically mean that I must accept the premise as valid.

      I'll wait until you respond to my criticisms before moving on to the next part of your argument (the second is more important than the first to me, because I am not a theist.) In fact, the first is irrelevant, because theists accept your final conclusion as a premise, and do not require a proof.

      Anyways, I await your response.

      Delete
    4. Sorry for the late reply, but it’s become apparent to me that our discussion is better suited for a message board. Over the past few days I’ve been working on a forum, and I’ve replied to your comment here.

      Delete