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 “moral 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.


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?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

BuzzFeed’s “I’m Christian” Video

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There’s been some buzz lately over a recent BuzzFeed video of “I’m Christian, but I’m not…” which can be seen here:

This video is evidently about breaking stereotypes of Christians, and I resonated quite a bit with this video. I’m a Christian but I’m not a homophobe, I’m not a conservative (though I sympathize with some conservative views), I go to church on Sundays, I listen to Christian music (including T-mac), and I’m a feminist (when using Merriam-Webster dictionary definition 1 of “feminism”). Overall I liked this video because it fights stereotypes and religious prejudice against us Christians, and Christians everywhere are smiling at how refreshing it is to see a mainstream outlet doing the opposite of promoting Christian stereotypes, right?


Well, not quite. A number of sources managed to find the BuzzFeed video offensive to Christians somehow, and in a way this shouldn’t be surprising. We live in a culture where being offended is in vogue, and the more we find stuff to be angry at, the better we feel (apparently). But we shouldn’t fall into this world’s groupthink mentality of finding stuff to be offended at based on flimsy evidence. Of all people, Christians should know that we are not to be part of the world[1], and yet we’re evidently not immune to tumbling into the community of unreasonable outrage.

Bring On the Outrage!

To give a specific example, consider an article in The Blaze that says, “There’s nothing more self-righteous than making a big show about your supposed lack of self-righteousness.” Seriously? How about claiming that you’re more righteous than others? Isn’t that more self-righteous than e.g. saying you’re not more righteous than others? And making a “big show” of not being self-righteous is…taking part in a video to help break Christian stereotypes (e.g. of self-righteousness) where you tell people that you don’t think you’re more righteous than others? This is an act of self-righteousness? What kind of logic is that? Suppose a celebrity who is a Christian, Denzel Washington perhaps, said in an interview that he didn’t think of himself as more righteous than others. If an atheist celebrity were to broadcast this “I’m not more righteous than others” claim as proof that Denzel Washington is self-righteous, we Christians would immediately denounce this as irrational idiocy.

Consider the Federalist’s claim in the “Wow, was it bigoted” section:
As the better half noted, imagine that BuzzFeed did a video like this for Muslims. “I’m Muslim but I’m not a terrorist!” The outrage would be immediate.
Why would people really be outraged about a video trying to break Muslim stereotypes with e.g. bona fide Muslims who aren’t terrorists? When I first read this (I initially skimmed the article) I was confused, until a friend at work informed me that some people would interpret a statement like “I’m a Christian, but I’m not this stereotype” as meaning (or implying) “Most Christians are actually this stereotype.” But this is kind of ridiculous; latter statement doesn’t follow from the former, and to think otherwise would be making a remarkably uncharitable interpretation (yet another illustration why people should be taught the principle of charity) and people, Christians included, should not be so quick to interpret people’s statements in the worst possible way. Yes, I know it’s in vogue to be offended, but we shouldn’t try so hard that we’re finding offensive claims in the mouths of people who aren’t actually making them.

Some complaints are so silly you’d almost think the people making them would even find the first verse of “Amazing Grace” offensive to Christians. One of the Federalist’s “cringeworthy” objections to “I’m Christian, but I’m not…” video is “No mention of Jesus,” as if being a Christian and going to church on Sundays had nothing to do with Jesus. Or maybe the objection is that “Jesus” wasn’t mentioned by name, but considering the nature of the video (breaking stereotypes, noting what some Christians are not) the fact that the name “Jesus” wasn’t specifically mentioned doesn’t seem enough to be worth cringing over. After all, the first verse of “Amazing Grace” doesn’t contain the word “Jesus” either; should we find that “cringeworthy” and ignore all the stuff this verse has to do with Christianity? Or is the “Jesus must be mentioned by name” criterion to be applied only to those things we want to find offensive?

The Federalist claims, “BuzzFeed’s viral video is the cry of the Pharisee. Thank God I’m not like those other men!” The viral video is the cry of Christians saying, “We don’t fit these stereotypes.” Do we really have to interpret, “We don’t fit these stereotypes” in the worst possible way? And of course when making the “cry of the Pharisee” objection, we’ll have to ignore all those claims in the video suggesting that these Christians aren’t self-righteous—which ironically was the cause for a criticism I mentioned earlier! The Christians in this video are putting themselves on a pedestal and that’s offensive—except that they’re not putting themselves on a pedestal, but that’s OK since that’s offensive too. I’m getting the impression that certain people are trying too hard to be offended.


I’m not going to say that there aren’t any flaws with the video, but I also don’t think Christians should be finding this video as offensive or cringe-worthy as some people are apparently taking it to be. A non-Christian mainstream media outlet fighting Christian stereotypes and religious prejudice is something we should be grateful for, even if it doesn’t have everything we’d like it to have. The video isn’t perfect, but it’s far from horrible; indeed I suspect it’s roughly as good as we could reasonably expect it to be given the circumstances. For all its flaws, BuzzFeed made what I think was a sincere effort to help us Christians. Think it feels good to be outraged? Try being grateful and appreciative; it’s actually kind of nice.

[1] See John 15:19, John 18:36, and one of my favorite verses, Romans 12:2