Thursday, November 29, 2012

Bad Objections to the Moral Argument (p. 3)

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Bad Objections to the Moral Argument
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Bad Objection #5: The Euthyphro dilemma shows that God doesn’t ground morality

Objection:

The Euthyphro dilemma goes something like this: for any X that is good, “Does God will it because X is good, or is X good because God wills it?” On the first horn of the dilemma (God wills X because it is good), what goodness is becomes external to God, and therefore isn’t grounded in God. God simply recognizes what is good and then wills it. On the second horn of the dilemma (X is good because God wills it) God arbitrarily creates what goodness is in the sense that it could have been anything; God could have created goodness in such a way that it is good to torture infants just for fun, for example. So no matter which horn of the dilemma the theist picks, things look dire for the claim that God is the foundation of morality. The Euthyphro dilemma therefore gives us excellent grounds for thinking that God does not ground morality. Thus the moral argument should not be accepted as sound.

Rebuttal:

There are a number of problems with this objection (see my article on the Euthyphro dilemma), but in this case the problem is that even if the Euthyphro objection is right about God not grounding morality, that is irrelevant to the deductive moral argument. No part of the moral argument says that God is the foundation of morality. Premise (1) simply states that objective morality doesn’t exist if atheism is true, and this doesn’t imply that God grounds morality. One could even be an atheist and accept premise (1). Premise (2) also doesn’t imply that God is the foundation of morality, since all premise (2) says is that objective morality exists.

Do the two premises together entail that God grounds morality? No. Both premises being true entails that God exists along with objective morality, but that doesn’t imply that God grounds objective morality. Neither the premises individually nor their combination entails that God grounds morality, and the argument’s conclusion (which is simply “God exists”) doesn’t say that God grounds morality either. The upshot is that the Euthyphro dilemma just isn’t relevant at all. The fact, if it were so, that God isn’t the foundation of morality doesn’t attack any premise of the argument, and if the premises are true the conclusion follows whether one likes it or not.

Does God not being able to ground morality undermine the justification for any premise? It doesn’t do so for premise (2), but does it do so for premise (1)? No. One can justify premise (1) by arguing that objective morality is unlikely on atheism, and this doesn’t at all rely on God grounding objective morality. To illustrate, consider the atheist who accepts the justification that objective morality probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true. The objection “God doesn’t ground morality” won’t do anything to convince her that the justification for the first premise fails.

This objection’s use of the Euthyphro dilemma against the soundness of the moral argument commits the red herring fallacy; the objection does nothing to show that there is a false or unjustified premise, and indeed it doesn’t even address that issue. And if there is no false or unjustified premise, the premises are justifiably true and one should accept the deductively valid moral argument as sound.


Conclusion

The moral argument being discussed was this:

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


The problem with the bad objections mentioned here fall into two groups: If premises (1) and (2) are justifiably true, then the conclusion follows whether one likes it or not, and it’s just doesn’t matter whether morality can exist without God, whether the Euthyphro dilemma shows that God doesn’t ground morality, or whether God can’t be used to explain something. None of those things would show that a premise is false.

When facing an objection to some deductively valid argument, ask yourself these questions: “Does this objection show that a premise is false? Does the objection attack the justification for a premise?” If the objection attacks neither a premise nor the justification for a premise, you might have a red herring.

Not all objections to the moral argument make the mistakes I mentioned (straw men etc.). For example, one objection is that evolution undercuts our justification for believing in objective morality (I discuss the evolution objection here). I don’t think that objection works, but at least it has the decency of not erecting straw men or throwing red herrings, and it doesn’t rely on an uncharitable interpretation of the moral argument.

Advice for Theists

It’s also worth mentioning that one needn’t believe the premises to be true with absolute certainty. If each premise is more plausible than its denial, that’s enough for the moral argument to have at least some evidential merit for theism (notice how odd it would be to concede that each premise is more plausible than its denial yet reject the conclusion). If you dialogue with an atheist about this argument (or any other deductively valid argument for theism), I recommend asking something like, “Do you agree that the premises are more plausible than their denials? If not, which premise do you think isn’t and why?” It might not hurt to remind the atheist that a false premise is the only way for the conclusion to be false.

Advice for Atheists

Please remember that a false premise is the only way for the conclusion to be false. If you think the deductive moral argument is unsound, attack a premise. Show that a premise is false or show that the justification given for a premise fails (if the theist hasn’t offered any justification, you have my permission to point this out). Throwing red herrings and attacking straw men just wastes everybody’s time, and we all know atheists can be better than that.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bad Objections to the Moral Argument (p. 2)

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Bad Objections to the Moral Argument
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Bad Objection #3: Objective morality can exist without God

Objection:

The first premise of the moral argument says, “If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.” Yet objective morality can exist without God. It’s very conceivable that without God, objective morality just exists as a brute fact. Thus the first premise is false or at least unjustified.

Rebuttal:

This objection is irrelevant because nowhere does the deductive moral argument claim that morality can’t exist without God. One might think that the first premise claims that, but it doesn’t. Looking at the first premise again:

    (1) If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.


Notice that the first premise isn’t saying that objective morality can’t exist if atheism is true, it’s saying objective morality doesn’t exist if atheism is true. That’s important because it means the first premise isn’t making an impossibility claim like, “It’s impossible for objective morality to exist without God” but rather, “It isn’t the case that objective morality exists without God.” A theist could grant it’s possible for objective morality to exist without God while also believing it probably isn’t the case that objective morality exists without God. Consider the following argument that makes the “It isn’t the case that objective morality exists without God” meaning of the first premise more explicit:

    (1*) It isn’t the case that objective morality exists without God
(It’s false that moral objectivism and atheism are both true)
    (2) Objective morality exists
(Moral objectivism is true)
    (3) Therefore, God exists
(Therefore, atheism is false)


Notice that (1*) and (2) together entail (3). So the theist doesn’t need to show that it’s impossible for objective morality to exist without God. It’s enough for the theist to show that if we were to grant atheism as true, it is unlikely that objective morality exists. So given that objective morality probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true, we would then have good grounds for accepting (1) and (1*). Indeed, arguing that objective morality probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true was the approach I took to justify premise (1) in Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist?

It bears repeating: to justify premise (1), the theist need not show that objective morality can’t exist without God; it’s enough to show that objective morality probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true. The claim that God isn’t needed for objective morality isn’t relevant to the issue at hand; the objection doesn’t do anything to show that the first premise is false or unjustified. The objection thus commits the red herring fallacy.


Bad Objection #4: The moral argument uses “God-of-the-gaps” reasoning

Objection:

In the God-of-the-gaps fallacy, one appeals to God as an explanation to plug some gap in our knowledge. With the moral argument, the claim is “I don’t know how objective morality could exist, therefore God is the explanation for objective morality.” This is an argument from ignorance and is thus fallacious.

Rebuttal:

Lots of objections could be raised against the so-called “God-of-the-gaps fallacy,” at least those which categorically reject appealing to God as an explanation (descriptions of the fallacy come in various forms). If there aren’t any non-divine gaps in our explanatory knowledge (i.e. if God isn’t a correct explanation for anything), appealing to God as an explanation will get us off track. But if there are such gaps, enforcing a principle to categorically restrict such explanations will also get us off track. It may be true that theists rely on us not knowing of a better explanation than theism when theists appeal to God as an explanation, but that sort of thing is hardly a unique practice (e.g. if we could think of a better explanation than the big bang theory, we wouldn’t accept the big bang theory).

But let’s ignore that and assume it’s true that appealing to God as an explanation for something is inherently fallacious. There’s a wee bit of a problem: the deductive moral argument never appeals to God to explain anything. Premise (1) for example simply states that objective morality doesn’t exist if atheism is true. While one could appeal to God as an explanation in an attempt to support premise (1), it’s not at all necessary. One can justify this premise by arguing it’s unlikely that objective morality exists if atheism is true. Even if God can’t be legitimately used as an explanation for whatever reason, this does nothing to show that any premise of the argument is false. Nor does it address the justification for believing in a premise.

So even if appealing to God as an explanation is illegitimate for some reason, that is irrelevant to the deductive moral argument, which doesn’t use God to explain anything. By claiming that the moral argument uses “God-of-the-gaps” reasoning when it doesn’t, the objection commits the straw man fallacy.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bad Objections to the Moral Argument

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Bad Objections to the Moral Argument
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The Moral Argument

There have been some bad objections against the moral argument, but before I get to that I’ll describe what sort of moral argument I’ll be talking about:

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


I’ll call the above argument the deductive moral argument, because the above argument is deductively valid, i.e. the premises entail the conclusion such that it’s impossible for the argument to have true premises and a false conclusion. The only way for the argument’s conclusion to be false is for a premise to be false.

Premise (1) has its variants, e.g. “If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.” By morality being “objective” I mean that it exists independently of human belief and perception of it, e.g. torturing infants just for fun is morally wrong independently of human opinion. I’ll also call this idea moral objectivism.

The Premises

The moral argument is deductively valid, but is it sound (deductively valid + true premises)? That’s where justifying the premises comes in. In Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist? I justified the first premise, arguing that objective morality probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true. In Does Objective Morality Exist? I justified the second premise, appealing to examples of things that are objective morally wrong and considering alternatives to moral objectivism.

Once the theist has offered justification for both premises of the deductive moral argument, an objection against the argument should aim for showing that there’s a premise that is false or at least unjustified, since if both premises are justifiably true that will be troubling for those who wish to deny the argument’s soundness. Yet the bad objections I’ll talk about here not only fail to show that there’s a false or unjustified premise, they also commit outright fallacies.


Bad Objection #1: The moral argument’s definition of “objective” is wrong

Objection:

The correct definition of “objective” is “independent of the mind.” However, the moral argument as explained here uses the term “objective” to mean something like “independent of human opinion,” and that’s an incorrect definition of “objective.” Therefore, not only is the moral argument unsound, but objective morality is independent of God by definition.

Rebuttal:

Like many words in the English language, the word “objective” means different things in different contexts. In the context of the moral argument, “objective” often does mean something like “independent of human opinion.” Writing in the context of the moral argument, philosopher of religion William Lane Craig wrote that to “say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is good or evil independently of whether any human being believes it to be so.”[1] Also writing in the context of the moral argument is Robert Adams, a philosopher who taught at Yale, who speaks of a fact being “objective in the sense that whether it obtains or not does not depend on whether any human being thinks it does.”[2] Last but not least is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on the moral argument which speaks of moral properties being “objective in the sense that they hold or not regardless of human opinion.”

Let’s suppose though that these professionals don’t know what the word “objective” means within the context of their own profession. The principle of charity would then suggest we interpret their definitions of “objective” as stipulative definitions, in which case there’s still no problem.

Another reason this objection is a bad one is that all it does is complain about the words used to express the premises (using the word “objective” to express the concept of “existing independently of human belief and perception of it”). It really doesn’t do anything to attack the truth of the premises. If one uses the objection to try to show that the moral argument shouldn’t be accepted as sound, the objection commits the red herring fallacy (supposing a claim is refuted by arguing for an irrelevant conclusion), since even if the wrong word was used to express the meaning of the premises, that isn’t at all relevant to whether the premises are justifiably true.


Bad Objection #2: Evolution explains our moral behavior; God isn’t needed

Objection:

We don’t need theism to explain why we don’t eat babies and rape our neighbors. Evolutionary pressures force humans to behave in certain ways to help our species survive. If morality is defined as certain patterns of behavior that include e.g. refraining from raping and stealing, we see that God isn’t needed for such morals and we have no reason to believe premise (1).

Rebuttal:

The problem with this objection is that it misconstrues what type of morality the argument is talking about. Consider for example objective moral duties, which have to do with right and wrong behavior. An action is morally wrong for someone only if they ought not to do it, and an action is morally obligatory for someone only if they ought to do it. So if moral duties exist there is an oughtness property associated with them, and on moral objectivism that oughtness exists objectively. But the existence of this sort of thing (properties of objectively existing oughtness) is well outside the scope of evolution.

At best, evolution explains why we believe in objective moral duties (such beliefs helping to bring about survival conducive behavior); it doesn’t explain the existence of objective moral duties. The same sort of thing goes for objective moral values. Evolution might help explain why we believe in objective moral values (e.g. believing that helping others is objectively good helps encourage such actions), but it doesn’t explain the existence of objective moral values.

In sum, the “evolution explains our nicenesss” objection uses the term “morality” as referring to certain patterns of behavior, which is just not how the moral argument is using the term, and so by misconstruing the first premise this objection commits the straw man fallacy (distorting an opponent’s position before attacking it). If atheism is true, we might indeed act in the same way we do in fact behave thanks to evolution etc., but premise (1) claims that this behavior does not have any objective moral dimension (wrongness, etc.) if atheism is true.

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[1] Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith, Third Edition (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), p. 173.

[2] Adams, Robert M. The Virtue of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 105.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Abortion and the Famous Violinist

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Intro

The abortion controversy often centers around where personhood begins as a good indication of whether to outlaw abortion. The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson boldly claims that even if abortion entails killing innocent human life, abortion remains morally permissible. She does this with her famous violinist thought experiment.

Extremes

Abortion is a controversial topic, and I confess I find it intellectually interesting, albeit a bit puzzling. That is, I’m not sure what the best solution is as to where to legalize and outlaw abortions. I find the extreme pro-choice position (making it legal for all pregnancies at all stages of pregnancy) unpalatable, but I’m also skeptical of the extreme pro-life position (outlaw it at conception).

Consider the extreme position that human personhood begins at conception, when the human being starts off in a single-celled stage of development called a zygote. A single-celled zygote is no more plausibly sentient than an amoeba, and there are understandable difficulties with thinking that any single-celled organism or any human body is a bona fide person when there is no kind of brain (to illustrate, if an adult human’s brain were annihilated, we would think that human person qua person ceased to live).

The other extreme—personhood begins at birth—doesn’t seem much better. Consider a woman eight months pregnant with her fetus and gives birth, thereby making what was a fetus into a person, but then kills it after it is born. Even on this extreme view, she has killed a person. Now suppose instead of giving birth, she kills the fetus inside her when it is as the same stage of development. On the “personhood begins at birth” view, she has not killed a person. But this hardly makes sense; does the location of the human being at eight months really decide whether it is a person?

It seems implausible to me that the location of a human being determines its personhood. If the mad scientist Professor Evil shrunk me and put me inside his body, would I cease to be a person? Could Professor Evil then kill me without having committed murder? It seems not.

The Famous Violinist Thought Experiment

Maverick atheism brought this up in his Joe Biden and Abortion article. Judith Jarvis Thomson tries to short circuit the issue in her famous article A Defense of Abortion. An excerpt from it:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.”
I’m not quite convinced that it would be morally permissible for me to kill the famous violinist, but let’s set that aside. Two things that are missing here in the case of pregnancy are (a) that the victim is the son or daughter (there do appear to be at least some parental duties to children); and (b) a bodily inconvenience more akin to pregnancy. To illustrate why this might matter, consider the following scenario. A mad scientist infects a mother with something that causes bodily inconveniences identical to pregnancy for nine months (including the small medical risks associated with pregnancy), after which she will return to normal. The mother knows that the mad scientist has a serum capable of curing her immediately, but the scientist won’t give it to her unless she kills her newborn son. Is it morally permissible for the mother to kill her son to get the cure? I think most people, pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike, would answer in the negative.

So what relevant difference would there be between this analogy and abortion? Perhaps because her newborn son is someone she’s already committed to supporting, whereas she wouldn’t have any commitment to supporting the fetus she wants to abort (the same could be said for the famous violinist). I do not think this is a relevant difference, but we can modify the scenario accordingly. Suppose while being pregnant with her first son she decides to abort it, but on her way to the abortion clinic she gets in a car accident and the doctors, not knowing she wants to abort the preborn child, deliver the child prematurely to save his life. While regaining consciousness she abdicates all legal responsibility for the child, giving it up for adoption while the newborn is in intensive care. The next day the mother begins working at the same hospital her newborn son is in, and she is in a position to kill her newborn son to get the cure. It still does not seem morally permissible for the mother to kill her newborn son.

One might object saying that in the case of pregnancy and the famous violinist, physiological support is being given to the victim, and this makes it morally permissible to end the life of the victim for bodily convenience. I do not think such a factor is relevant, but let’s add that to our scenario anyway. Suppose the mad scientist implants a small micro-wormhole device that teleports some nourishment from the mother’s body to her infant, and that the providing of nourishment to the newborn harms the mother no more and no less than when she was pregnant. Is it in this case morally permissible for the mother to kill her son for the cure? The answer still appears to be no.

But if it’s not morally permissible for the pseudo-pregnant mother to kill her son even when her body is providing the person nourishment etc., about the only relevant difference there might be to justify a Thomsonian abortion defense is the location of the person. But when all other relevant factors (e.g. bodily inconvenience) are held constant, it would seem rather arbitrary to think that it’s the location of a person that determines whether it’s morally permissible to kill them, just as it seems arbitrary that the location of a human being determines its personhood.

Conclusion

Thomson’s argument from her famous violinist thought experiment is unsuccessful. Two factors missing in Thomson’s scenario play a part in the failure: (a) that the victim is the son or daughter (there do appear to be at least some parental duties to children); and (b) a bodily inconvenience more akin to pregnancy. When a better analogy is given (asking whether it is morally permissible for a mother to kill her newborn son to immediately cease her pregnancy-like inconveniences), the failure of her argument becomes apparent. By my lights, we’re left with the difficult and thorny issue of where human personhood begins regarding the ethical and legal controversy of abortion.