Saturday, September 19, 2015

Redefining Morality

In my first live oral debate (available on YouTube) my interlocutor and I debated the truth of the first premise of this moral argument:
  1. If God doesn’t exist, then objective morality doesn’t exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
In my opening statement (1:31 to 11:57) I argue that objective morality probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true. My interlocutor got around the problem by redefining “morality,” but why would anyone do that?

The Problem



One reason a nontheist might redefine morality is that there’s a huge problem atheism has with objective morality, and in particular objective moral oughtness. Oughtness is a crucial part of morality; an action is morally wrong for someone only if they ought not to do it. So without moral oughtness nothing is morally wrong, not even torturing infants just for fun. Moral objectivism says moral truths hold independently of whether we think they do, e.g. it’s morally wrong for us to torture infants just for fun even if we believe otherwise. On a theistic worldview, it makes perfect sense that there’d be some component of reality transcending our opinion that says we shouldn’t do certain things, but let’s suppose atheism is true.

On atheism objective moral oughtness is pretty strange when you think about it; it’s invisible, nonphysical, and empirically undetectable. So why shouldn’t the consistent atheist reject the existence of this invisible nonphysical thing that cannot be empirically detected, if this atheist is to reject the existence of invisible nonphysical deities that have not been empirically detected? Given atheism, it seems more likely that people’s belief in moral oughtness is a delusion brought about by evolution to get us to behave in certain ways and help our species survive. Given atheism, moral oughtness probably doesn’t exist.

Suppose the atheist is willing to bite the bullet and say, “OK, I think moral oughtness is a delusion brought about by evolution to get us to behave in certain ways, and so nothing is actually morally wrong, not even torturing infants just for fun.” But one has to ask themselves, which is more plausible: that there’s something morally wrong with torturing an infant just for fun, or atheism? There are atheists who would sooner believe that there’s nothing wrong with torturing an infant just for fun than abandon atheism, but by my lights that level of irrationality is akin to religious fanaticism.

Some atheists don’t want to say, “I don’t see anything wrong with torturing infants just for fun,” since that makes them look like kind of crazy, and yet some of these very same atheists want to affirm atheism. One way to dodge the problem—or at least avoid thinking about the real problem—is to redefine morality so that a term like “moral wrongness” refers to something that is far more compatible with atheism than what most people mean by “morally wrongness.” It sounds crazy but there’s kind of a logic to it, starting with how one defines the word “ought.”

Redefining Morality



In the English language we use “oughts” in a couple different ways. One way is what philosophers call the hypothetical imperative, and 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant says the hypothetical imperative represents the “practical necessity of a possible action as means to something else.” For example, a statement like, “If you want to live, you ought to breathe” might mean something like, “As a matter of practical necessity, you need to breathe to live.” Here the “ought” is conditioned upon some particular goal or purpose (breathing) and thus has a purely descriptive meaning, viz. describing what you need to do as a matter of practical necessity to achieve some goal. Philosophers call these oughts “conditional oughts” or “hypothetical oughts” (since they are the oughts of hypothetical imperatives). We can define “descriptive ought” as any ought that is nothing more than some purely descriptive state of affairs (hypothetical oughts are an obvious example, but one could theoretically come up with some other purely descriptive meaning for the word “ought”).

On the other hand, there’s another type of ought as in “You ought not to torture infants just for fun” where the “ought” is not a shorthand for some purely descriptive meaning; torturing infants just for fun is something you just ought not to do, period. We can call this type of ought the prescriptive ought or the unconditional ought. This type of ought is (a) prescriptive; and (b) is not a descriptive ought (and is thus not identical to some purely descriptive state of affairs). Unless otherwise specified, when I use terms like “should” or “ought” in this article I’ll be using the prescriptive ought.

The type of “ought” morality has in mind is the “prescriptive ought.” For some atheists unwilling to bite the bullet of moral nihilism (the view that says there is no moral ought and nothing is morally wrong) this can produce cognitive dissonance. They want to believe atheism, yet on atheism, the prescriptive ought probably doesn’t exist, and you’d look pretty crazy if you said nothing is morally wrong, not even torturing infants just for fun. For these atheists who want to affirm atheism but also want to affirm that torturing infants just for fun is morally wrong, what’s an atheist to do?

Proposal: redefine the word “morality” to not have that troublesome “ought” component. That way one say “torturing infants just for fun is morally wrong” while affirming atheism.

Problem: part of what we mean when we say an action is morally wrong for someone is that they ought not to do it. Moral wrongness without the “ought” isn’t real moral wrongness.

Solution: redefine “ought”! Redefine the moral ought so that “ought” is a shorthand for some purely descriptive meaning. That way it’s empirically detectable and not quite so metaphysical.

Problem: most people have the prescriptive ought in mind when they think of moral wrongness. So what’s an atheist to do?

Solution: don’t accept that most people have the prescriptive ought in mind when they think of moral oughtness (as by remaining agnostic about it or by thinking that most people probably don’t have the prescriptive ought in mind when thinking of moral wrongness).

Through such mental gymnastics, an atheist can happily affirm morality’s existence without that troublesome prescriptive ought. Such rationalization might seem incredible, but it happened in my first live oral debate! My interlocutor redefined morality so that it doesn’t have the unconditional ought, and he actually denied that most people have the prescriptive ought in mind with respect to moral prohibitions.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen an atheist engage in this sort of rationalization, and I think a lot of other atheists do it also—not in the sense that they use terms like “conditional ought” and “unconditional ought,” but in the sense of recognizing (on some level) that the prescriptive sort of ought probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true and so they redefine morality to use the descriptive ought instead. These atheists are potentially oblivious to the fact that most use the prescriptive ought when thinking of moral wrongness.

For the most part, I don’t think that atheists who do this are doing this consciously; I think it’s more like a psychological defense mechanism. Atheists don’t want to appear horrendously irrational so they convince themselves, “Yes, I can say on atheism torturing infants just for fun is morally wrong,” and they tell other people they believe it’s morally wrong even though they really don’t. These atheists are what I call “stealth moral nihilists” in that they claim to believe in moral wrongness but they really don’t since they reject the prescriptive ought and redefine terms like “moral wrongness” so that they have a purely descriptive meaning, e.g. an atheist could redefine “moral wrongness” to mean something like, “an action that negatively affects the well-being of a conscious creature unnecessarily.”[1] Such redefinitions often have a grain of truth; “harming the well-being of conscious creatures unnecessarily” is often morally wrong, but without the “we ought not to do that” element, it isn’t real moral wrongness.

Conclusion



I want to reiterate that for the most part, I don’t think that atheists who do this are doing this consciously; I think it’s more like a psychological defense mechanism. It needn’t be the case that a stealth moral nihilist is consciously and deliberately lying when they say they believe in moral wrongness. They are quite potentially oblivious to the fact that most people use the prescriptive ought vis-à-vis moral wrongness. The nontheist I debated in my first live oral debate was neither the first nor the last stealth moral nihilist I encountered when talking about the moral argument. If you discuss the moral argument with a nontheist and the nontheist claims to accept objective morality, it might behoove you to define the sort of “ought” you have in mind and make sure dealing with a stealth moral nihilist.




[1] There’s a problem of vagueness for defining “moral wrongness” as “an action that negatively affects the well-being of a conscious creature unnecessarily.” What makes an action necessary or unnecessary? Necessary for what purpose?

2 comments:

  1. I am an atheist and I remain to be convinced that I have as much problem with justifying my morality as a Christian or Jew has in justifying the morality of the Old Testament or of a Muslim the Koran.

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    Replies
    1. By "morality" are you using the same definition I am? What I defined as the "prescriptive ought"?

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