Thursday, March 22, 2012

Does Objective Morality Exist? (p. 3)

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Does Objective Morality Exist?
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Considering Alternatives

Another way to justify moral objectivism is to note how badly the alternatives work. One might balk at accepting “there is nothing morally wrong with knowingly torturing infants just for fun,” but to maintain that there is something morally wrong with torturing infants just for fun without accepting moral objectivism, one would have to accept some form of ethical relativism. Ethical relativism (or moral relativism) agrees with moral objectivism that morality exists but unlike moral objectivism says that moral truths are relative to human opinion. For example, a belief called cultural relativism (which goes by various other names, such as conventional ethical relativism and conventionalism) says that morality is relative to cultural opinion in such a way that the culture believing that a certain action is morally right/wrong/good/bad/etc. makes that action morally right/wrong/good/bad/etc. for that culture. If for instance a culture believed it was wrong to walk naked in the streets, it would be morally wrong for people in that culture to do that, whereas in a nudist community it wouldn’t be.

The problem with ethical relativism however is that it doesn’t seem to work. For starters, let’s take another look at cultural relativism. One might be tempted to advocate cultural relativism in the name of tolerance, but if a culture believed it was morally right to practice intolerance, then according to cultural relativism people in that culture ought to be intolerant. If for instance a culture believed violent anti-Semitism to be morally right, then it becomes morally right for that culture. Someone else might think the culture is doing something morally wrong, but on cultural relativism such a person would be mistaken because the culture thinks it is morally right and that is enough to make it morally right for that culture. Cultural relativism is clearly implausible.

A version of moral relativism called ethical subjectivism (which also goes by various names, e.g. subjective ethical relativism) says that the individual believing an action to be morally right/wrong/good/bad/etc. makes that action morally right/wrong/good/bad/etc. for that person. So if Adolph thinks that torturing infants just for fun is morally obligatory and not morally wrong, then it is morally right for Adolph to do it. If Oskar believes torturing infants just for fun is morally wrong, then it is wrong for Oskar to do it. Under ethical subjectivism, Oskar can believe it is wrong for Adolph to torture infants just for fun, but that belief would be mistaken because Adolph thinks otherwise, and so on ethical subjectivism Adolph has a moral duty to torture infants just for fun. Ethical subjectivism is likewise implausible.

Examples of this sort could be multiplied, and we can symbolize the structure of the sort of argument used thus far to refute alternatives to moral objectivism. First, some quick symbolic logic stuff (I promise it’s painless):

EnglishSymbolic Logic
 
If p is true, then q is truep → q
If p were true, then q would be truep □→ q
Not-p (p is false)¬p


That there is a difference between “If p is true, then q is true” and “If p were true, then q would true” can be revealed by observing that one can believe “If Oswald didn’t shoot Kennedy, someone else did” without believing “If Oswald didn’t shoot Kennedy, someone else would have.” A useful rule of logic called modus tollens goes like this:

modus tollens
 
In English In Symbolic Logic
If p then q
Not-q

Therefore, not-p
p → q
¬q

∴ ¬p


The above arguments against the alternatives to moral objectivism take the following form, where P is some challenged proposition (e.g. “ethical subjectivism is true”), T denotes a thought experiment (e.g. a man torturing infants just for fun and never believing there’s anything wrong with it), and R denotes the questionable result of the thought experiment (e.g. the man torturing infants just for fun isn’t doing anything morally wrong):
  1. P → (T □→ R)
  2. ¬(T □→ R)

  1. ¬P 1, 2, modus tollens
The conclusion (line 3) follows logically and necessarily from the premises (lines 1 and 2) by the rules of logic, and thus for the conclusion to be false a premise must be false. Putting the argument in symbolic logic also helps see why certain objections don’t work. One could object saying that the state of affairs described in T (e.g. the man torturing infants just for fun believing it to be morally right) has never happened and will never happen. That may be true, but such an objection doesn’t attack either premise of the argument, and if both premises are true the conclusion follows whether one likes it or not. One could also criticize the argument by noting that the state of affairs described in T is an extreme and contrived example. Maybe that’s true, but again that doesn’t attack any premise of the argument.

Consequently, it’s difficult to convincingly attack “If a man believed it was morally right to torture infants just for fun…” type arguments. One wants to avoid promoting an alternative with unacceptable consequences. One also wants to avoid the apparently unacceptable consequences of denying moral objectivism. For example, a quick case for moral objectivism could go like this:
Consider this hypothetical scenario. The only humans who ever existed are a community of men and infants, both of which are grown in a lab (we might additionally posit that an improbable convergence of undirected natural processes created the first human-growing lab, or else that the process of growing humans in a lab has been going on eternally). To replace the men who die, the community creates fully grown men in the lab. Throughout all time, every human who has ever lived has agreed that torturing infants just fun and killing them are morally right. The community of men grow infants in the lab and then torture them to death just for fun. As these men sadistically torture infants for the sheer fun of it, would this action be morally wrong in spite of their opinion to the contrary? Would that action be morally wrong independently of their opinion?
If the answer to both questions is “Yes” that would seem to suggest that there is at least one objective moral truth. To see why, first we can ask ourselves this question: would moral objectivism be true in that scenario? If the scenario were actualized, every existing human’s opinion would be that the act of torturing infants just for fun is morally right, and so for that action to be morally wrong regardless of their opinion, it would have to be morally wrong regardless of any human opinion that exists (bear in mind we are talking about human opinions that exist in this scenario). But if in that scenario the action’s moral wrongness would hold independently of any existing human opinion, the only way to prevent the action’s moral wrongness from holding independently of all human opinion in that scenario is if the action’s moral wrongness were somehow dependent on nonexistent human opinion, which doesn’t seem very plausible. Since in that scenario the action’s moral wrongness would hold independently of human opinion, moral objectivism (a moral property existing independently of human opinion) would be true in that scenario. Yet if in this scenario the moral wrongness of torturing infants just for fun would exist independently of human opinion, it seems that the moral wrongness of such torture would hold independently of human opinion in the real world also.

In spite of the above argument, one might still be tempted to say that if this community actually existed alongside dissenting opinion like ours, the action would be morally wrong relative to our opinion, but it would be morally right relative to the hypothetical community of baby torturers. But that sort of relativism runs the risk of incoherency, and we must distinguish between coherent and incoherent forms of ethical relativism. As mentioned in part 1 on the moral argument, an action is morally wrong for subject S only if S ought not to do it, and an action is morally right for S only if S ought do it. Ethical subjectivism says that if Adolph thinks that torturing infants just for fun is morally right, then it is morally right for Adolph to do it. If Oskar believes torturing infants just for fun is morally wrong, then it is wrong for Oskar to do it. Whether ethical subjectivism is correct, it at least produces a non-contradictory answer to the question “Should Adolph torture infants just for fun?” In this way ethical subjectivism is a coherent form of ethical relativism. But what is not coherent is the belief (which I’ll call “pseudo-relativism”) that right and wrong do exist, where Adolph thinks its morally right for him torture infants just for fun and Oskar thinks it is morally wrong for Adolph to torture infants just for fun and have them both be right. Pseudo-relativism cannot give a coherent answer to question “Should Adolph torture infants just for fun?” It might be able to reiterate the beliefs of people about whether Adolph should torture infants just for fun but it cannot answer the question. Pseudo-relativism is not a coherent ethical system, so it would not be a good way to reject moral objectivism while maintaining the moral wrongness of torturing infants just for fun.

To drive the point home further, imagine that Oskar is a pseudo-relativist who is incapable of lying. Adolph comes to believe that pseudo-relativism is true but isn’t quite sure he understands it, so Adolph asks Oskar, “I believe I am morally obligated to torture infants just for fun, but should I do it?” What can Oskar as an honest pseudo-relativist say? Oskar can’t say “Yes” because he believes Adolph shouldn’t do it, but Oskar can’t say “No” because Adolph believes Adolph should do it. On pseudo-relativism, there doesn’t appear to be any coherent answer to Adolph’s question and thus no coherent fact of the matter as to what Adolph should do here. When it comes to moral obligations, pseudo-relativism is an incoherent mess. In contrast, both cultural relativism and ethical subjectivism handle the “moral obligation is relative to a given framework” notion in a coherent manner.

For the atheist, a better move than accepting pseudo-relativism would be to reject moral oughtness altogether, but then this would lead to moral nihilism (a view that denies the existence of moral properties like rightness and wrongness), since an action is morally wrong for subject S only if S ought not to do it. Indeed, moral nihilism is the best atheist position I can think of. Accepting moral nihilism allows the atheist to reject moral objectivism, avoid the incoherency of pseudo-relativism, and escape the absurdity of possible worlds where people are morally obligated to knowingly torture infants just for fun. Moral nihilists can still disapprove of things like torturing infants just for fun, but if moral nihilists are to be consistent, they would have to believe that their loathing for sadistically torturing infants is akin to me disliking sauerkraut in that it’s just a matter of personal taste and nothing’s really wrong with it. So although moral nihilism may be the best atheist position with respect to the moral argument, the intellectual price is high: the consistent moral nihilist would also have to believe that nothing at all is morally wrong, not even torturing infants just for fun!

Closing Thoughts

If a religion taught that there is nothing morally wrong with torturing infidels to death, we would rightfully label that religion as an irrational blind faith. If an atheistic worldview entails that there is nothing morally wrong with torturing theists to death, shouldn’t we conclude that this worldview is, if not irrational, at least probably false?

Still, many atheists are willing to bite the bullet and accept what I think atheism most reasonably implies: moral nihilism. For such atheists, their faith in atheism is greater than their conviction that something is morally wrong with torturing infants just for fun. If that’s what takes for me to embrace atheism, then I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.

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