This is a debate between me and SeekSecularism over the truth of the first premise of the following moral argument:
- If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
- Objective morality does exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
- Opening Statements
- Maverick Christian
The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Moral Oughtness
I want to start off by thanking Maverick Christian (MaverickXtian) for hosting this discussion on his blog. I believe that ethics is, roughly, what Kant said it was- a system of rules that one follows from a sense of duty and the penalty for ethical transgression is self-contempt and inner abhorrence. If you ought to perform any particular action, then there is a more general reason why you ought to do it. Furthermore, if you accept any consideration as reason in one case, then you must also accept it as reason in other cases which are qualitatively similar. Therefore evaluative facts (i.e. moral facts) are truths of reason. Morality then, at a minimum, is about choosing particular actions for which we have the best reasons for choosing while giving equal weight to the desires of those affected by our choice. Rightness/wrongness and goodness/badness, then, are not to be understood in terms of God’s will or nature. Morality is a matter of reason and conscience. In the following discussion that follows, I will outline an ethical non-naturalist framework, specifically, ethical intuitionism.
For purposes of this discussion, I will understand ‘objective moral oughtness’ as one of several evaluative and deontic properties entailed by evaluative facts e.g. ‘Action x is wrong’ or ‘One ought not perform action x.’ Throughout the discussion I will sometimes use the terms ‘evaluative facts’ and ‘objective moral oughtness’ interchangeably based on the context, because the truth of certain evaluative statements will entail objective moral oughtness, and the non-existence of objective, evaluative facts altogether would entail the non-existence of objective moral oughtness.
What is Ethics and Objectivity?
Ethics addresses evaluative questions (e.g. what actions ought not to be performed?). An evaluative question calls for an evaluative statement as an answer (e.g. one ought not to perform action x). This raises the metaethical questions relevant to our discussion:
Are some evaluative statements objectively true?
Do objective, evaluative facts exist?
An objective property of a thing is one that does not constitutively depend on observers’ attitudes or responses towards that thing. An evaluative statement is objectively true if its truth-value does not constitutively depend on observers’ attitudes or responses towards it.a
What is Ethical Non-Naturalism?b
|P1)||Evaluative statements express propositions which are true or false.|
|i.e. Ethical Non-Cognitivism is false.|
|P2)||Evaluative statements are not always false.|
|i.e. Ethical Nihilism is false.|
|P3)||The truth of some evaluative statements do not constitutively depend on observers’ attitudes towards them.|
|i.e. Ethical Subjectivism and Moral Relativism are false.|
|P4)||Evaluative facts cannot be reduced to non-evaluative facts, nor can they be known solely by observation.|
|i.e. Ethical Naturalism is false.|
|C1)||Some evaluative statements are true. [From P1&P2]|
|C2)||Some evaluative statements are objectively true. [From P3&C1]||C3)||There are irreducible, objective, and evaluative facts which cannot be known solely by observation. [From P4&C2]|
|i.e. Ethical Non-naturalism is true.|
What is Ethical Intuitionism?c
“[By virtue of the kinds of beings we are] when our cognitive faculties are functioning properly we intuitively apprehend elementary moral truths, just as we intuit elementary truths of logic and arithmetic.”
Ethical intuitionism is a non-naturalist, meta-ethical theory where evaluative and deontic terms such as ‘good’ and ‘ought’ refer to objective, universal, and irreducible properties that we have non-inferential and a priori knowledge of via our rational intuitions.
Semantic Thesis: Evaluative predicates like ‘good’ and ‘ought’ function to attribute objective features to things regardless of whether they have those features or not.
Metaphysical Thesis: Some evaluative statements are true. If our evaluative judgments are true, then it is because our dispositions are in accord with the actual structure and weight of values in the case at hand. aaa
Epistemic Thesis: We are justified in believing some evaluative statements on the basis of rational intuition. Our knowledge of evaluative facts is not wholly derived from sense perception/observation/empirical evidence nor are all evaluative facts derived from non-evaluative facts. At least some basic evaluative statements are self-evidently true.
Should we be direct realists regarding rational intuitions?
“The only real valuable thing is intuition.”
Some self-evidently true propositions (SEPs) containing evaluative terms:
SEP1: Pain is intrinsically bad.
SEP2: Pleasure is sometimes better than excruciating pain.
SEP3: If we ought not to perform action x, then we ought not to perform any action which is qualitatively indistinguishable from action x.
SEP4: No person is blameworthy for an action they did not perform.
SEP5: It is wrong in itself to take pleasure in torturing another sentient being.
The Principle of Phenomenal Conservatismd
Other things being equal, it is reasonable to assume that things are the way that they appear. If it seems to one that p, then one has, at least, prima facie justification for believing that p. Our rational intuitions justify our believing SEP1-5 for the same reason our rational intuitions justify believing similar SEPs:
SEP6: Nothing is both red and green.
SEP7: If A is next to B, then B is next to A.
SEP8: Yellow is a color.
SEP9: Everything is identical with itself.
We are, similarly, direct realists regarding other kinds of experiences: e
P1) S has a rational intuition that p is the case.
C1) Therefore S is, at least, prima facie justified for believing that p is the case.
P2) I have a sensory experience of object x.
C2) Therefore I am, at least, prima facie justified for believing that object x exists.
P3) I have a memory experience of event e.
C3) Therefore I am, at least, prima facie justified for believing that event e happened.
My account of a priori knowledge
My account of a priori knowledge has 4 aspects: f
|Aspect1:||Universals exist necessarily. Evaluative terms like good, right, ought, better, etc. are universals. They are abstract things that two or more particular things have in common. For example, yellow is a universal. It is something that lemons, The Sun, and bananas have in common. Yellow is not a particular. You will not bump into yellowness at any particular time or in any particular place.|
|Aspect2:||By virtue of having the capacity for concepts, we can grasp universals. Having the concept of yellow is to understand what yellow is. An adequate grasp of a universal is a concept that is:
|Aspect3:||Having an adequate grasp of a universal allows us to see that it has certain properties and/or relationships to other universals that are adequately grasped. For example, if you know what pain is, then you can intuit that pain is intrinsically bad.|
|Aspect4:||All a priori knowledge is, or is derived from, knowledge of the properties and/or relations of universals that have been adequately grasped.|
Some crucial points regarding my views:
|Point1:||I take atheism to be the belief that God does not exist. This is because I believe that facts such as seemingly gratuitous suffering, non-resistant non-believers, and the improbability of a disembodied mind make God’s existence highly unlikely. These reasons are wholly independent of my intuitions of whether or not God exists.|
|Point2:||MaverickXtian and I have affirmed the truth of some evaluative statements, and we agree that we know these truths via some form of intuition. I maintain that we know some basic evaluative facts by rational intuition. We are justified in our beliefs that rational intuitions are, on the whole, veridical for the same reason that we are justified in believing that our sense and memory experiences are, on the whole, veridical.|
|Point3:||My beliefs in evaluative facts are epistemically prior to my beliefs regarding God’s existence. My beliefs in particular evaluative facts influence my belief in God’s existence, but my beliefs in God’s existence do not necessarily influence my beliefs in evaluative facts (though God’s existence would influence which particular evaluative statements would be true). My confidence in the truth of basic evaluative statements is higher than any confidence I have for the belief that God does not exist. For example, if it were discovered in perfect confidence that God does not exist, then such a discovery would have little to no impact on my beliefs in SEP1-10.|
|Point4:||There are relevant differences between the concept of God and my conception of evaluative facts. Evaluative facts are abstract, universal, logically necessary, and known a priori i.e. they are truths of reason. God, conversely, is concrete, particular, logically contingent, and known a posteriori i.e. God’s existence is a truth about the world. There is no good reason to think that any atheist’s reasons for rejecting the existence of the latter would be similar to reasons for rejecting the former.|
|Point5:||I am NOT claiming that we have a special (or ‘queer’) mental faculty dedicated solely for cognizing evaluative facts. Our rational intuitions are a function of reason. Rational intuition about evaluative facts differs from rational intuitions about mathematical facts in the same way that our perceptions of cars differ from perceptions of trees- that is, merely, in having different objects of perception. g|
|Point6:||I am NOT claiming to know the sufficient processes which account for the origins of our rational intuitions. Evolution likely contributed to shaping our rational intuitions, but that doesn’t commit me to the belief that sociobiological evolution is sufficient to explain the veridicality of such intuitions. Sociobiological evolutionary explanations no more cause me to doubt the veridicality of my basic moral intuitions then they cause me to doubt the veridicality of my basic mathematical intuitions. I think any person who believes that excruciating pain is intrinsically better than pleasure is just as mistaken as any person who believes that 7 is larger than 12. bbb|
|Point7:||I am NOT claiming that if atheism is true, then some form of reductionism or naturalism is probably true. I am a non-reductionist and a non-naturalist about reason, consciousness, intentionality, shapes, numbers, propositions, and objective value. ccc|
|Point8:||I am NOT claiming that rational intuitions are infallible or aren’t subject to revision after further reflection. I’m merely claiming that rational intuitions give us prima facie justification for our beliefs of certain evaluative facts.|
|Point9:||I am NOT claiming that I believe God doesn’t exist, because He is invisible, non-physical, or not empirically detectable. These factors have almost no influence on my belief that God does not exist.|
MaverickXtian’s Main Thesis
“If atheism is true, then objective moral oughtness probably does not exist.”
Let A be: Atheism is true.
Let K be: The relevant background data.
Let M be: Objective moral oughtness exists.
The objective evidential relationship between A&K and M is claimed to be:
Pr(not-M|A&K) is high
MaverickXtian’s Main Argument
The Argument from The Unbiased Atheist
P1) If the Unbiased Atheist is justified in believing Pr(not-M|A&K) is high, then Pr(not-M|A&K) is high.
P2) The Unbiased Atheist is justified in believing Pr(not-M|A&K) is high.
C1) Therefore, Pr(not-M|A&K) is high.
P3) If Pr(not-M|A&K) is high, then "Given atheism, objective moral oughtness probably doesn't exist" is true.
C2) Therefore, given atheism, objective moral oughtness probably doesn't exist
The First Premise
“Let’s consider the point of view of someone I’ll call the Unbiased Atheist, a person who initially has no intuitions of [evaluative facts] existing or not existing, i.e. she isn’t biased by prior moral intuitions”
MaverickXtian needs to convince any particular atheist of the following:
|TheFirstPremise:||The vantage point of The Unbiased Atheist is a good one when assessing the objective evidential relationship between A&K and M.|
I will argue that the vantage point of The Unbiased Atheist is not a good vantage point, and I’ll give 4 reasons for thinking that any particular atheist ought NOT to adopt it.
What good reason do we have to adopt the vantage point of The Unbiased Atheist?
MaverickXtian seems to think that a good vantage point for assessing an objective evidential relationship involving an abstract entity is one whose observer has no intuitions one way or another as to that entity’s existence. For example, MaverickXtian gives an analogy to quarks and how there is evidence independent of an observers intuitions as to whether or not quarks exist. However, objective moral oughtness is an entity that is known a priori while quarks are entities known a posteriori. This is important, because quarks will require observation of the world in order to assess its existence- but MaverickXtian and I have already agreed that basic evaluative truths CANNOT be known solely on the basis of observation. Stripped of the capacity for a priori knowledge, it’s no wonder that from this vantage point MaverickXtian concludes that The Unbiased Atheist is justified in believing that objective moral oughtness probably does not exist. However, if someone grants Point4, Point7, & Point9, then it should seem rather curious as to why such a vantage point is a good one.
4 reasons NOT to adopt the vantage point of The Unbiased Atheist:
|Reason1:||The vantage point of The Unbiased Atheist is incompatible with the Epistemic Thesis|
Rational intuition is the mental faculty that I’m claiming accounts for our knowledge of basic evaluative facts. Any atheist committed to the Epistemic Thesis has good reason to be skeptical of taking a vantage point that is incompatible with it. Also see Point2.
|Reason2:||Rejecting our rational intuitions would imply a global skepticism.|
Our rational intuitions are how we come to knowledge of a priori truths i.e. mathematical truths, logical truths, and other truths of reason. Evaluative truths are no different. Any reason to be skeptical of moral intuitions would be reason to be skeptical of all rational intuitions- including the truth of SEP6-10. This would imply a global skepticism that would leave us unable to make sense of the world- including the contents of this very blog. Also see Point2 & Point5.
|Reason3:||My beliefs regarding evaluative facts are epistemically prior to my belief that God does not exist.|
The confidence in my beliefs of particular evaluative facts is not a function of whether or not God actually exists. To quote a contemporary, theologically inclined philosopher Robert Adams:
“Even if [theologically based] metaethics is the best theory of the nature of right and wrong, there are other theories which are more plausible than denying that cruelty is wrong. If God does not exist, my theory is false, but presumably the best alternative to it is true, and cruelty is still wrong.”
Also see Point2, Point3, Point4, & Point9.
|Reason4:||My a priori knowledge of evaluative facts is not influenced by my a posteriori reasons for rejecting God’s existence.|
This reason is sufficiently explained in Point1, Point2, Point3, Point4, & Point9.
The Second Premise
With reasons for rejecting The Unbiased Atheist in place, the best MaverickXtian will be able to argue for is the following:
|TheSecondPremise:||Any particular atheist would be justified in believing that rational intuitions are probably not veridical.|
I will argue that none of the 6 evidences that MaverickXtian presents is cause for concern regarding our beliefs that our rational intuitions are veridical given atheism.
(1) If atheism is true, then there is zero empirical evidence for objective moral oughtness.
So what? I maintain that evaluative facts are known a priori. An atheist should not expect empirical evidence for the existence of objective moral oughtness on this view.
(2) If atheism is true, then which rational intuitions we’d get from sociobiological evolution are probably unguided and random.
See Point5, Point6, and Point7.
(3) If atheism is true, then objective moral oughtness is suspiciously queer.
If it were supposed that some basic evaluative facts (known a priori) can only exist if they are like other kinds of facts (those known a posteriori) then it is clear that there probably aren’t any. But I see no reason why an atheist should be committed to believing this- as discussed in Point4, Point5, & Point6. In fact, it seems like question-begging against ethical non-naturalism to suggest otherwise. Modal properties, propositions, numbers, shapes, and intentionality are all metaphysically queer in this sense as well, and I see no good reason to reject any of these properties given atheism.
(4) If atheism is true, then we know evolution occasionally gives false beliefs.
This isn’t a major concern. See Point6, Point7, & Point8.
(5) Belief in moral oughtness has evolutionary value whether true or not.
This isn’t a major concern. See Point6 & Point7.
(6) If atheism is true, then our best theory for why we believe in morality doesn’t require morality’s existence.
MaverickXtian merely asserts that sociobiological evolution is the BEST theory for why we believe in objective moral facts given atheism. I see this as merely an unjustified presupposition about atheism. See Point6 & Point7.
In the course of this discussion I’ve laid out a plausible (and atheist friendly) ethical non-naturalist moral framework, specifically, ethical intuitionism. In doing so, I affirmed the existence of evaluative facts (which entailed objective moral oughtness) without reference to any theologically-based premises. MaverickXtian’s burden was to defend the main thesis:
“If atheism is true, then objective moral oughtness probably does not exist.”
MaverickXtian attempted to convince us that The Unbiased Atheist is a good vantage point for assessing the objective evidential relationship of A&K and M. Then from this vantage point he tried to convince us that objective moral oughtness probably does not exist. Has he succeeded in this task? I don’t think that he has. We’ve seen 4 reasons NOT to adopt the vantage point of The Unbiased Atheist. Without this vantage point, the 6 evidences presented by MaverickXtian don’t seem to carry much force for convincing any particular atheist that their rational intuitions are probably not veridical. I often found it difficult to see how some of the evidences presented were even relevant to an atheist’s moral framework. This leaves the moral framework I laid out with no major concerns. Therefore I see no good reasons for any particular atheist to accept MaverickXtian’s main thesis.
(a, b, c, d, e, f, g) “Ethical Intuitionism” by Michael Huemer
 “Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief” by Robert Adams
 “The Elements of Moral Philosophy” 6th Edition, by James Rachels & Stuart Rachels
(a, b, c) “Mind and Cosmos” by Thomas Nagel
(a, b, c) “The View from Nowhere” by Thomas Nagel
(a, b, c) “The Last Word” by Thomas Nagel
 “Moral Realism: A Defense” by Russ Shafer-Landau