Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Does Objective Morality Exist?

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This blog entry is part 3 in a series on the moral argument. The blog entries:
  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?
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Although this is part of a series on the moral argument, for the most part this article works as a standalone entry on arguing for objective morality. In part 2 of my series on the moral argument I mentioned the following deductively valid moral argument for God’s existence:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
This blog entry will largely be about justifying premise 2 (in the previous blog entry, I argued for premise 1). But sometimes one person’s modus tollens is another’s modus ponens; an atheist could accept the first premise but conclude that, since God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist either, and thus such an atheist would reject the second premise. So what about the second premise? Why not accept moral nihilism in light of everything mentioned in part 2 of the moral argument? At least, why not leave it as a live option?

The Argument from Example

Do we really know that objective moral properties exist? I think the answer is clearly yes. When it comes to flagrantly morally wrong behavior like impaling babies with bayonets just for fun, most of us intuitively recognize that there is something in reality, transcending our opinion, that says people shouldn’t behave that way. It seems that raping children and committing genocide would remain morally atrocious regardless of what we believed. Even for many who don’t believe that God is the source of moral obligation (as I didn’t at one time), there just seems to be some component of reality beyond us, even if we can’t identify what it is, that says we should not do such things. So there appear to be clear examples of at least some things that are morally wrong independently of human opinion.  If we know examples of things that are objectively morally wrong, then we have grounds for believing that moral objectivism is true.

Beliefs like there being something morally wrong with torturing innocent sentient life (as infants) just for fun arise from moral intuition, but here I’m using “intuition” in the philosophical sense, as opposed to e.g. a guess based on a hunch. In philosophy, intuition refers to what the consciousness immediately apprehends and what is directly present one’s consciousness. Examples of intuition include sensory experiences and various intuitive perceptions like a person mentally “seeing” that 2 + 1 = 3. Another example is the intuition that the external world is real, as opposed to (for example) being merely a lifelong dream. It is logically possible (in the sense of not being self-contradictory) that our intuitions about morality existing are wrong, but it’s also logically possible that the external world you perceive is a computer-generated illusion and that you are really just a brain in a vat of chemicals hooked up to a supercomputer. At the end of the day we have no more reason to doubt the reality of objective moral properties than we do to doubt our intuition of the external world existing.

I’ve seen some criticize the appeal to examples like “There is something morally wrong with torturing infants just for fun” as emotional appeals, but I find that objection to be off the mark. It’s not as if the appeal to example is saying, “Torture makes one feel sad, therefore it is morally wrong.” It’s true that emotions are often tied up with moral beliefs, but if we were somehow rendered emotionless, it seems we could still rationally believe that there is something morally wrong with torturing infants just for fun. If certain atheists believe otherwise, the onus is on them to provide some sort of argument.

One could point out that not all moral beliefs are agreed upon, and argue that if moral objectivism were true moral disagreements would not be so widespread. But it’s unclear why anybody should believe that. At one point there was disagreement about whether the earth was flat, but clearly there’s an objective truth of the matter; the earth wasn’t flat millennia ago simply by people believing it to be so. A fact being objectively true does not (unfortunately) entail that it will be agreed upon by most people; indeed it is the very nature of an objective fact to be true independently of human disagreement. And while the truth of some moral issues may not be clear (just as some truths about the physical world may not be clear) that isn’t enough for us to reject what seem to be clear moral truths. For example, the existence of disagreement on some moral issues doesn’t provide adequate grounds for rejecting the idea that the morally wrongness of impaling infants with bayonets just for fun holds independently of human opinion.

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  1. The flat earth analogy is inappropriate in that it's truth has no 'moral' implications. If God bestowed moral properties, and intends for us to discern them, the fact we discern differently argues against the proposition. If abortion is inherently immoral, and people disagree as to it's moral status,-well, that would be a better analogy.

    1. The flat earth analogy is inappropriate in that it's truth has no 'moral' implications.

      Which is irrelevant. My point is that a proposition being objectively true does not imply that it will be agreed upon by everyone. To that end, the flat earth case was a perfectly valid example.

      If God bestowed moral properties, and intends for us to discern them, the fact we discern differently argues against the proposition.

      It doesn't argue against moral objectivism at all. To see this, ask yourself this question: why should an atheist accept this as a good argument against moral objectivism? Remember, in this post I'm only arguing for the existence of moral objectivism, not theism in general, and one need not be a theist to accept moral objectivism.

      Or perhaps the proposition you are speaking of in arguing against is "God bestowed moral properties and intends for us to discern them" rather than moral objectivism. There are a number of problems with this: (1) this isn't relevant to this particular post since I am not making that claim here; (2) you still are not attacking any premise of the deductive moral argument; (3) God may want us to discern them but may also want to permit things that might interfere with this (so it would not quite follow that if God wants us to discern them that we would discern them). But for the topic of this post, problems (1) and (2) are more relevant.

  2. "It seems that raping children and committing genocide would remain morally atrocious regardless of what we believed."

    Well... No.

    Child rapists might not think that what they are doing is wrong. Some of them might think that they are wrong, and not care. While others might think that they are doing something that is morally neutral, or even morally good. In fact, that used to be the social norm, and there is no evidence that it was seen as immoral. Child wives were more than common, and if a child wife resisted sex, it was considered perfectly moral to rape her.

    Your taking today's moral norms and applying them to all of humanity, and then calling it an intuition.

    Genocidal leaders probably do not think that what they are doing is wrong. Nor do the people who are the soldiers who commit genocide think that they are being immoral. Hitler, for example, believed he was more than justified in genocide. So did Stalin, so did Mao, and so did Pol Pot.

    In earlier times, genocide was almost always considered a moral good. One group decided another group was a bad group, and that it was morally good to get rid of them, so they started killing them off. This even happened in the Bible. Both towards the Israelites, and by the Israelites.

    Slavery happened in ALL previous successful societies, and it wasn't considered immoral.

    So no, there is nothing that we could all consider morally wrong.

    Even if we did, that really wouldn't mean anything. It could be the case that there is no objective morality, and that our human minds evolved (both biologically, and socially) a shared repulsion against things like raping children, and killing people.

    This is culturally determined. Throw a little boy in the woods and have him raise himself (assuming he lived), and I guarantee you that he will have no moral intuition. He wasn't raised in a society that taught him any type of morality.

    That is why "moral" in Chinese society is different that what is considered "moral" here. That is why moral in a South American tribe is going to be different than an African tribe.

    Are they going to have some similarities? Of course. They will share things that allow them to survive. If a tribe thought that rampant murder was moral, then they wouldn't have survived, and would not be alive today, and therefore would not be a part of the comparison.

    The moral universals that exist today are the things that have helped the societies to survive. Pointing out that they exist does not point to an objective morality.

    To prove me wrong, point out one moral universal that would work against a society's survival.

    I'm NOT saying that morality is directly tied to the evolution of societies. I am saying that the things that a vast majority of people VIEW as moral also seem to help the society survive.

    As you put it.... "People have beliefs in morality that are fitness-enhancing."

    If objective morality did not exist, we would still expect a vast majority of people to view some similar behaviors as moral.

    This implies nothing nothing about whether objective morality exists. It only shows that the proof by example is faulty.

    1. "To prove me wrong, point out one moral universal that would work against a society's survival." Medical care to the elderly. Special education programs for mentally and physically challenged individuals. Both which are grounded in the reality of loving thy neighbor as they self. Without a strong theistic moral framework such work becomes monotonous and wasteful. Which is why all atheistic regimes throughout history have taken a stance of liquidating such people groups.

      "If objective morality did not exist, we would still expect a vast majority of people to view some similar behaviors as moral." Why do people "view" some behaviors as "moral"? Define your terms.

    2. Noah's Flood: The Most Immoral Story Ever Told

      Dear Christian,

      I challenge you to watch this short but very provocative video clip regarding the morality of your God's act of killing millions of little children in the Great Flood. After watching this film, if you can still claim that your God and your belief system are moral and good I will strongly and sincerely encourage you to seek help from a mental health professional.


    3. Dear Gary, I challenge you to get my religious views right before you attack them. I don't hold to the idea that God killed millions of little children in the Great Flood.

  3. Anonymous. Upon what basis do we all have a moral obligation to seek survival. The is/ought fallacy. Because most seek survival does not mean one should seek survival. Why is society a unified whole you are speaking of? In the concept of the one and the many, i.e. categories and particulars existing equally ultimate, society as primary destroys particularism.

  4. Gary,

    It is irrational for an atheist to have morality. For if we are nothing more than 'matter in motion' controlled by the mechanistic laws of chemistry, mutations, physics, and electrical impulses at randomness, how can one determine an objective moral obligation for matter? It is incoherent and irrational to say that matter is moral or immoral; whether matter in motion or non-organic matter. Is it objectively wrong for a rock to fall off a cliff? Is it immoral for a leaf to be blown by the wind? Similarly, it is about the same as calling human actions as moral or immoral in an atheistic universe.

    1. Forget the word "morality". Let's use the word "rules of conduct". We are mammals. Most mammals live in herds or packs. All herds and packs have rules of behavior. Why? It appears that these rules have developed as a means to increase the chances of the herd's survival and well-being. Therefore it is very rational that our "herd" has rules of conduct.