Thursday, October 03, 2013

Atheism and Morality: A Response To Dennis Prager

"If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities."
(Dennis Prager, in a recent piece in National Review Online)
The argument is wrong twice over. The existence of a god does not solve the problem of justifying right and wrong and there are solutions that do not require a god.

The existence of a god does not solve the problem because we need some reason to conclude that the god is good, that his will defines what we ought to do. The existence of a very powerful, perhaps all powerful, being who created us and the universe does not, by itself, imply anything at all about right or wrong. He could be a devil, he could, like gods in many religions, be no more morally perfect than humans, he could be a moral nihilist with no views at all on good and evil and a wicked sense of humor. To get from a god to God in something like the Christian sense, you need some further basis for moral beliefs, some way of deciding that the god is good.

If the problem is soluble, it is soluble without a god. One solution, the one that strikes me as the least unsatisfactory, is to posit the existence of moral truths analogous to physical truths, perceived by a moral sense analogous to physical sight or hearing. That describes the world as almost everyone actually perceives it—there are not many people who do not see torturing small children for fun as wicked. And that view of moral reality can be confirmed in the same way we confirm our view of physical reality, by subjecting it to consistency tests. If there is a moral universe out there, there ought to be a reasonably good correlation across people in their fundamental moral perceptions. It is arguable that there is, providing we think of moral perceptions at a sufficiently fundamental level. 

The reason the claim of moral consistency across people and cultures seems wrong is that we are used to talking about moral beliefs in terms of general moral principles, about which people quite often disagree. But people also quite often disagree about questions of physical reality viewed at that level—for instance what the sources are of global warming and what its consequences are, or whether Obama's deficit spending did or did not reduce the unemployment level over what it would otherwise have been. If we consider moral perceptions at a more fundamental level, evaluations of fully described situations with all factual disagreements resolved, they look a lot more consistent. Executing witches seemed right to King James, wrong to us—but then, he believed in witchcraft and we do not, a disagreement about facts not about morality.

For a  more thorough defense of this approach to moral philosophy, referred to as "intuitionism," I recommend Michael Huemer's book on the subject. I was first persuaded of its plausibility when, as an undergraduate, I got into an argument with Isaiah Berlin and lost it. His essential point was not that the evidence for moral reality was stronger than I thought but that the evidence for physical reality was weaker. If we applied the same standards to testing morality reality—rough consistency at the most basic level of perception—the case for it does not look that much worse. 

Prager also writes:
If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.
Every atheist philosopher I have debated has acknowledged this.
I do not acknowledge it and, although not a professional philosopher, I am an atheist. I have emailed him offering to debate him on the subject but have not yet received a response.

64 Comments:

At 10:44 AM, October 03, 2013, Blogger Richard Chappell said...

FYI, the PhilPapers Survey suggests that in fact a majority of atheist philosophers are moral realists.

 
At 11:23 AM, October 03, 2013, OpenID iamallears said...

I believe Prager would argue that in a world created by what we would call a "devil," the inhabitants would consider the torturing of small children for fun a "good." That is to say, the character of the creator shapes his moral dictates and therefore the moral intuition of his creatures. This approach sidesteps the Euthyphro Dilemma, because the creator must by definition conform to his own character, making his morality non-arbitrary in a certain sense, yet leaving him with highest authority.

Speaking to intuitionism: if the above is true, that is, the character of the creator defines moral categories, I fail to see how one could determine whether one's moral intuition is fundamentally influenced by the creator or whether it stands alone.

 
At 11:33 AM, October 03, 2013, Anonymous Bruce said...

Ironically, the Torah itself makes the best case against Prager's point.

After Adam and Eve had been expelled from the garden of Eden, there were no operative divine commands. (The one prior command -- don't eat from that tree -- was now moot.)

After Cain kills Abel, God asks him where Abel is. Cain then disingenuously asks, "Am I my brother's keeper?" God responds, "What have you done? Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground."

God's response presupposes that Cain has some knowledge of right and wrong. God did not say, "I commanded you not to murder." Instead, God vividly appeals to Cains intuitive sense of empathy, shame, and horror. And this response presupposes that Cain has -- or should have had -- such moral intuition or knowledge.

Similarly, Noah is described as "righteous in his generation". But what could "righteousness" mean here, in the absence of any instructions from God as to how to behave. This sentence makes sense only if Noah had some sort of moral knowledge, independent of a divine command, that he was acting in conformity with.

But perhaps the clearest example comes from the story of Abraham arguing with God over Sodom and Gemorrah. After God announces that he will destroy the city, Abraham asks if he will really destroy the city if there are 50 righteous people in the city. Abraham then says to God "חָלִלָה לְּךָ" / "chalilah l'cha" / "shame on you" to do this thing. Abraham then asks "Shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?"

Now if justice or righteousness were derived solely from divine commands, then Abraham's question would be completely foolish. God would of course be acting justly because anything that God does is definitionally just. Abraham's impudence -- saying "shame on you" to God -- would not only be foolish and disrespectful, but completely incoherent.

The only way this makes sense is if normative ideas of justice exists independently of divine commands or actions. Given that, Abraham can hold God responsible for apparently acting unjustly.

David is correct that Prager's argument fails as a general matter. I think it also fails in the specific context of Judaism and Christianity.

 
At 11:34 AM, October 03, 2013, Blogger Ayrton P said...

I find it interesting that a number of Christian apologists seem to use the arguments of Ethical Intutionism. C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity opens with the fact that ''natural (moral) law'' seems universal among all cultures (he even uses the same example of witch hunts being a difference of data not morality). G.K. Chesterton equates denying the evidence of your conscience with denying the evidence of your senses in Orthodoxy.

While neither of them makes the connection between shared morality and the existance of the Christian God very explicit, they do raise an interesting point: humans can not violate the physical laws that they observe with their senses but they routinely violate the moral laws they detect with their conscience.

They, of course, take this as evidence of the Biblical fall (there is a standard of morality and each of us falls short of it) but I was wondering if anyone had any ideas pertaining to a secular explanation of this. Why are we compelled to obey the laws of nature but not of Lewis' ''natural law?''

 
At 11:36 AM, October 03, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

iamallears:

In order for them to say that, they have to already know that torturing small children is bad, which requires some basis for moral beliefs prior to god.

 
At 11:49 AM, October 03, 2013, Blogger Shaddox said...

I find this argument, that our physical senses can let us intuit physical realities to the same extent that moral senses can let us intuit moral realities, to be plausible. However, this argument says nothing about what that extent actually is, or if there even are physical or moral realities. Because of that, I feel that moral intuitionism only has persuasive power if the listener already assumes (or is uncomfortable rejecting) that there are physical realities and that our physical senses can give us "true knowledge" of them. Obviously, I should read Huemer's book to find out more.

 
At 11:57 AM, October 03, 2013, Blogger Brian said...

One solution, the one that strikes me as the least unsatisfactory, is to posit the existence of moral truths analogous to physical truths, perceived by a moral sense analogous to physical sight or hearing.

I think the basis for moral truth would be the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have done to yourself; or, if you prefer the negative, don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to yourself. I'm not sure how one might falsify this statement. This truth doesn't require any faith in deity to be understood. We, as individuals, know the sorts of things we would or wouldn't want done to us. While we may disagree about the specifics and their details, we can at least use this as a boundary for our own actions.

 
At 12:04 PM, October 03, 2013, Blogger Danyzn said...

There is much more evidence for physical reality than just rough agreement among different people's perceptions. One can use instruments, perform experiments, etc. And it doesn't even need to be properly "scientific". I'm convinced that it is not possible to defy gravity and fly by flapping one's arms, not just because I can't do it, and not just because almost no one can do it, but because absolutely no one can do it. If even one person succeeds in flying like that, I would have to start questioning my knowledge of physical reality. A defective sense of physics may lead someone to try flying by flapping, but he won't actually succeed. And while very few people are so defective in moral sense as to enjoy torturing little children, sadly the number is not zero and nothing about reality stops them from doing it.

 
At 12:13 PM, October 03, 2013, OpenID iamallears said...

I'm not sure who you're referencing with "they," but if the creator's character defines moral categories, then morality needn't be prior to the creator or of higher authority.

 
At 1:23 PM, October 03, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a debate between the apologetic William Lane Craig and the atheist Sam Harris. William focused specifically on this question, and Sam attempted to "prove" that right and wrong existed using facts about reality, similar to the way natural rights libertarians work. Naturally it was shown to full of holes and he lost the debate. An example of defending a reasonable position with a bad argument.

It entertained me that a seemingly well-regarded atheist author had fallen into that trap, and I'm sure Harris was not the first or last. At least David's intuitionism seems like something which holds up, even if it doesn't reveal much.

With regards to God, an infinite being would be able to see every digit of pi at a glance, or every possible combination of an infinitely sized universe, and so on. So if good and evil did objectively exist, then God would know, as he would everything else.

Supposed he showed us everything through his perspective, would we still question what is real? Would God question what is real? All I have to answer that is a vague suspicion that God knows that he is real and the final end of everything, and that we would agree if we could see for ourselves; which would mean a nice bit of order in the universe, but I have no way to prove it true.

 
At 1:40 PM, October 03, 2013, Anonymous Max said...

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth about Morality and What to Do About it, Doctoral Dissertation of Joshua D. Greene in the Department of Philosophy, Princeton University, June 2002.

http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/GreeneWJH/Greene-Dissertation.pdf

 
At 2:12 PM, October 03, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

Dennis Prager has a beautiful voice, but the more I listen to it the less substance I can find in his words.

David: Your response, and the comments that follow it, are all of immensely higher quality. I'll respond to them below, but first I just want to say that while I'm a lifelong atheist, I've grown to very much dislike identifying as such. I don't think atheism is generally good for the world, even if a few of us may be better off with it. So, while Prager's statement both wrong and illogical, I'm glad he's encouraging people to be theists. I wish more people encouraged this, including fellow atheists.

@Bruce: somewhere I think there is a debate over whether the absence of something in the Torah indicates its absence from the story. In other words, it is possible that while the Torah makes no mention of operative divine commands given to Adam and Eve after their expulsion from Eden, such commands were indeed given. This possibility is supported by the widely agreed-upon existence of other characters who are never mentioned (for instance, daughters of the patriarchs).

@Brian: I'm not positive, but I think I remember hearing Prager himself say something along the lines of "the Golden Rule ought to be universally taught as the fundamental basis for our morality."

@Danyzn: Our trust in those instruments and experiments is based on assumptions about the way the universe works, themselves based only on our perception of repeated results. Your comment also reminds me of how when you start learning about how things work on the quantum level (e.g. particles changing their behavior according to whether they are being observed), one's prior understanding of physics (i.e. Newtonian) is profoundly shaken.

General comment: I believe that the Judeo-Christian God occupies two distinct roles: creator and judge. Some modern Jews and Christians believe in Judge God but not in Creator God. Others might believe in a Creator God but not in a Judge God. These people could conceivably both believe in God and not believe in good and evil--at least not in good and evil originating from God.

 
At 3:49 PM, October 03, 2013, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

I see that he never debated Ayn Rand.

Really, that's one of the oldest questions in philosophy, discussed for example in one of Plato's dialogues: "Do the gods love holy things because they are holy, or are they holy because the gods love them?" If holy things are holy because the gods love them, then it makes no sense to praise the gods for loving them; anything the gods happened to love would be holy, even if they loved torturing children or eating dog turds. And in accepting those things as holy we would merely be submitting to superior power. Conversely, if we say that it is not a foregone conclusion that the gods love holy things, and praise the gods for doing so, then we are saying that we know for ourselves that those things are holy, and can judge them as holy, and by implication can judge the gods. And then we, as human beings, must be able to judge what is holy or unholy, or as Genesis puts it, to "know good and evil." We don't need gods for that.

I've seen the ability to grasp that difference called one of the best signs of a philosophical mind.

Actually, it has an exact parallel in political theory. Is law purely the command of the state, so that whatever the state commands is legal and whatever it forbids is illegal? Or is there some standard of legality that applies to the state itself? Twentieth century legal philosophy has quite uniformly held that the state is the source of law and rights, and that thinking otherwise is absurd; the consequences of that theory haven't been appealing.

 
At 4:26 PM, October 03, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

I have not read Huemer (but might, thanks for the tip), but my view of morality is (although in practice perhaps the same) still a bit different.

I think morality is very much linked to evolution. It is most likely hard-wired in most of us (there are, of course, sociopats...they could be seen as something like two recessive genes coming together) as a set of basic rules that usually work well to achieve most utility for the genes. Torturing babies is not something that would help my genes very much (killing babies of others might or may not, that depends on many things but in the human society...unlike e.g. lion society...it usually does not seem to), you waste energy, if the children are not yours, you will face retaliation of the parents (and that can, for other selfish gene reasons, be expected to be very fierce) and the "gene for torturing children" will go extinct.

A society of highly intelligent collective insects, ants for example, might have a strikingly different morality.

So basically, I see morality as some set of more sofisticated hard-wired instincts.

What may be more interesting is to ask whether the two definitions are really different. It might as well be so that any species of the reasonable intelligence to even talk about something as abstract as morality would develops the same morals humans have...since it is simply the best way to utilize brains capable of such abstract thinking (and therefore of cooperation on a higher level). It is also interesting because it would suggest that morals are by and large utilitarian - utilitarian from the standpoint of our genes that is. There are real world limitations of how well these hard-wired instructions can be written and so they are not perfect for the genes - the rules have to be general and therefore sometimes "backfire" so that in special situations what we consider as moral might not mean the most utility for our genes, but by and large it should...at least if applied to a world 20k or so years ago.

 
At 5:00 PM, October 03, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

Slightly off topic, but since you mention evolutionary reasons for eating babies...

 
At 5:16 PM, October 03, 2013, Blogger Walter Morawa said...

I'm not going to defend that if God exists then there is morality; however, I do find it implausible that morality exists without God. It seems strange to me that morality would actually exist, given we have come here by a natural process. There was the big bang and then there was evolution. Evolution is merely survival of the fittest, so any action I do is consistent with survival of the fittest. If I kill someone, that is consistent with survival of the fittest. But I think more fundamentally, even if it is wrong for me to say that there is no morality, I still believe without God there is no reason to behave morally, except maximizing your utility. If I kill someone, and it gives me pleasure, and no one will find out about it, then why shouldn't I do it? The answer cannot be because it is immoral, because I would simply respond that it doesn't matter because no one will catch me and punish me. Notice that you cannot turn around and say but if God exists the same is still true, because I am not defending God's existence providing a satisfactory answer either.

 
At 7:16 PM, October 03, 2013, Blogger Benjamin. said...

As a Christian; Of course it could never be "proven" that God is good. It is an assumption of the nature of God; a definition. Saying we don't know if God is good is like saying we don't know if God is omnipotent. As atheist Epicurus said: "If he isn't omnipotent, why call him God." The definitions are assumed, if you don't believe a perfect being exists, I would call that atheism.
"Let's drink water from the pond"
"What if the pond doesn't have water in it?"
"Then it isn't a pond."
Definitions are necessary.


I suppose you could call anything good or evil. I could say; "Well, anything relating to the color green is good, and anything not is evil." But then we clearly aren't talking about morality. You could call anything morality.
The idea likely being suggested is without God, morals seem incredibly vein and very hopeless. It would be a definition change if nothing else.

 
At 7:49 PM, October 03, 2013, Blogger Benjamin. said...

Of course, morality doesn't really seem vain at all.
I think the reason for this is God.

 
At 8:49 PM, October 03, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

"I'm convinced that it is not possible to defy gravity and fly by flapping one's arms, not just because I can't do it, and not just because almost no one can do it, but because absolutely no one can do it. If even one person succeeds in flying like that, I would have to start questioning my knowledge of physical reality.
... And while very few people are so defective in moral sense as to enjoy torturing little children, sadly the number is not zero and nothing about reality stops them from doing it."

The fact that you don't observe people flying by flapping their arms corresponds to the fact that you don't observe torturing little children to be right.

The fact that there are people who believe that there is nothing wrong with torturing little children corresponds to the fact that there are people who *believe* it is possible to fly by flapping one's arms.

You are offering evidence that your positive observations are consistent with themselves, and comparing it to evidence that other people's normative observations are inconsistent with yours.

 
At 8:52 PM, October 03, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

"There is much more evidence for physical reality than just rough agreement among different people's perceptions. One can use instruments, perform experiments, etc. "

If you don't already know that physical reality is real, what reason to you have to believe that the results of your experiments are evidence of anything more than the consistency of your imagination?

 
At 9:00 PM, October 03, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

" Of course it could never be "proven" that God is good. It is an assumption of the nature of God"

And why is that assumption any more justified than the assumption that our moral intuition is a perception of something real?

To put my point a little differently, there are two things "I assume God is good" might mean. One is "I assume that there is an all powerful creator and that he is good"--which requires some pre-existing concept of good.

The other is "I assume there is an all powerful creator and define "good" as whatever he wills."

In which case you have not answered the question "why ought I to be good?" You might as well define "plurgle" to be whatever God wills.

 
At 9:39 PM, October 03, 2013, Blogger Ryan said...

"The existence of a god does not solve the problem because we need some reason to conclude that the god is good."

This is a proof for god, not a proof for morality. the Premise is is that moral right and wrong exist. From that premise, we reason to the existence of (a moral) god.

"One solution, the one that strikes me as the least unsatisfactory, is to posit the existence of moral truths analogous to physical truths, perceived by a moral sense analogous to physical sight or hearing. That describes the world as almost everyone actually perceives it—there are not many people who do not see torturing small children for fun as wicked. And that view of moral reality can be confirmed in the same way we confirm our view of physical reality, by subjecting it to consistency tests."

How do you square that position with, what seems to me anyway, to be huge amount of evidence against it.

I am assuming you believe racism is immoral, slavery is immoral, and homosexuality is moral, or at least morally neutral. And I'm also pretty sure (please tell me if you disagree) that for most of human history the vast majority of people believed the opposite.

If your theory is correct, why did the majority of humanity fail to perceive these moral truths until recently?

 
At 9:44 PM, October 03, 2013, Anonymous William Friedman said...

@Walter Morawa: Except that, in a tribal society - which we're evolved for - there's a very good chance that (a) the person is a relative of yours, sharing several genes, and those genes are best served by you not killing him, (b) that actions he takes might help you and your relatives in the future, and (c) that he might kill you in self-defense, or his kinsmen might kill you for revenge.

Evolution has therefore lead us to be uncomfortable about murdering people, solely out of the efficiency of our gene pool.

You could say that, yes, this is normally true, but there are situations in which killing him is right - but those are normally situations in which your emotions will tell you he has Thoroughly Wronged You and you are justified in killing him (he's trying to stick a knife in you, he just stole your girlfriend) and so all your genes need to do to maximize their survival is to ensure that that your morality is weaker than your thirst for vengeance - not destroy your morality.

Bill

 
At 9:50 PM, October 03, 2013, Anonymous William Friedman said...

@Ryan: Given that the term 'race' only started being applied to humans around the 17th-18th century (for the difference between nobles and commoners, actually) I don't think we can say that it's "natural."

As for your second point, there's bits of the Illiad talking about how terrible it is to be made a slave and how horrible it is to happen to people you care about, I think the answer to that one is is 'People do feel bad about feeling that way, but they did it anyway because slaves were good loot.'

Bill

 
At 10:36 PM, October 03, 2013, Blogger Ryan said...

"One solution, the one that strikes me as the least unsatisfactory, is to posit the existence of moral truths analogous to physical truths, perceived by a moral sense analogous to physical sight or hearing."

This anology illustrates another problem I have with your position. In what sense are moral truths "true" if there is no god to enforcement them. Yes government, culture or other private mechanism can play a role in enforcing standards. But in what sense does a moral "truth" exist if these mechanisms fail to enforce it.

An example to make this more concrete. Let's agree for a second that theft is immoral. Suppose a thief steals throughout his life, is never caught, and feels no remorse.

What consequence flowed to the thief for violating a this "moral truth"? I'm getting out of my depth here, but as I under physics, for example, the laws apply consistently and universally. Setting quantum mechanics aside, if Wylie Coyote goes over the cliff, he doesn't occasionally float in the air; he invariably falls to the ground (probably not strictly true in quantum mechanics, but true enough for our purposes).

Doesn't moral truth, like a physical truth, suggest some sort of natural consequence that flows from running afoul of the principle the truth espouses? What would that be in the hypothetical I pose? And if there is no consequence, in what way was it wrong for the thief to behave the way he behaved? He maximized his utility, even if you and I believe his utility function is defective.

(I would love for you to debate Peter Kreeft.)

 
At 12:44 AM, October 04, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Ryan:

I think I answered your question in the part of the original post that begins:

"The reason the claim of moral consistency across people and cultures seems wrong is that we are used to talking about moral beliefs in terms of general moral principles, about which people quite often disagree."

 
At 12:47 AM, October 04, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

"If I kill someone, and it gives me pleasure, and no one will find out about it, then why shouldn't I do it?"

Why should you? Why do you believe that what you should do is what gives you pleasure?

" The answer cannot be because it is immoral, because I would simply respond that it doesn't matter because no one will catch me and punish me."

What does "immoral" have to do with being caught and punished? Are you saying that if someone who helped a Jew escape from the Nazis got caught and punished for doing so, that would mean that what he had done was immoral?

The reason not to do something that you believe is immoral is that it is immoral--that's what immoral/moral, good/bad, ought/ought not mean.

 
At 12:48 AM, October 04, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

"This is a proof for god, not a proof for morality. the Premise is is that moral right and wrong exist. From that premise, we reason to the existence of (a moral) god."

How?

 
At 12:51 AM, October 04, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

"Doesn't moral truth, like a physical truth, suggest some sort of natural consequence that flows from running afoul of the principle the truth espouses?"

Only a moral consequence--you will have done bad things.

It seems to me that everyone, or almost everyone, already understands the meaning of moral propositions--they are statements about what one should or should not do, not about what will or will not be punished.

 
At 3:11 AM, October 04, 2013, Anonymous Berna said...

@Tibor Mach: Yes, exactly. I wanted to write that, but then I saw you already had.

 
At 3:48 AM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Power Child: :D Is that webpage something like Onion news? Or is it serious? I have never had a slightest urge to eat a baby :) Maybe I'm weird :)

 
At 8:29 AM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Jacob Oveson said...

David, your point regarding the possibility of a devil-god is a straw man. It seems clear that the author's intent was a sort like the Christian God - omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient. The point of the argument is that without *this* sort of God, morals become unclear, and I think that's correct.

Moral intuition is what everyone abides by, but that doesn't make them truths in any scientific sense. That intuition is valid if and only if it comes from God - the right kind of God.

 
At 9:19 AM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Jacob: And how do you differentiate between two gods? How do you decide which one is good and which one is evil? I mean, the christian mythology basically has two gods anyway - the three-in-one (which is kind of weird but never mind...) good god and a former servant of his turned evil god (aka Devil). You have to have some way to decide which one is actually good...a way indepentent on both of them. So you have to have some morality before god. Otherwise you might as well be following the bad guy while the really good guy is the one you call devil.

 
At 9:39 AM, October 04, 2013, Blogger VangelV said...

I think that you are over-thinking the issue David. The foundation of morality is property rights and a wrongful act is one in which a boundary is crossed without asking permission. I believe that this is what your research into legal systems different from ours has shown and do not see how anyone can make a sound logical argument against the position.

 
At 10:37 AM, October 04, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An alternative way I like to think about the God/morality problem is to swap good/evil for facts which seem more obviously true. Is 1 + 1 = 2 only because God defined it that way? Can God create a rock he cannot lift? If a red cube existed under the condition that no change could ever happen to it, ever, then would it still remain a red cube?

I can't envision any possible way (at least in my human brain) that God, however omnipotent, could break these sort of rules. So I conclude that there is some sort of logic underlying everything.

That limits existence to a particular structure, though nothing stops someone from believing that God exists as part of the same principles which define what exists and what cannot.

 
At 10:54 AM, October 04, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

> "You might as well define 'plurgle' to be whatever God wills."

Very true. If God said, "Thou shalt not help those who are drowning," then that would be "plurgle," also called "good."

> "One solution... is to posit the existence of moral truths analogous to physical truths, perceived by a moral sense analogous to physical sight or hearing."

In this statement, it seems that you're defining 'plurgle' to be whatever humans generally tend to view as good (or bad). That is an equally arbitrary definition of morality, is it not? Let's say we find this consistency: "On average, humans want to punish those who do X, and those humans will assign the name 'wrong' to 'X.'" Given that information, we could say that the tendency of people to punish action, X, is due to a moral law in the same family as the law of gravity. But what is the force behind that tendency? What is "good" about that tendency? What if the tendency acted in the opposite direction? If you define this law-driven tendency as "good," then that is no different from arbitrarily defining God's edicts as "good."

As far as I can tell, those actions we call "wrong" are those actions that are evolutionarily disadvantageous. That is, torture of small children makes the species worse off, and natural selection has largely removed those who are indifferent to such actions. It seems to me that that is the more obvious explanation, and far less ambiguous than the existence of some mysterious tendency towards the "good," which as I have said might just as well be the "bad."

(I should note that if God exists, one could say that he created this tendency in humans, either apart from or in conjunction with evolution. That would still be arbitrary; he could have created the opposite tendency as well.)

 
At 11:22 AM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

It's serious. There is an evolutionary basis for the desire people feel to eat newborn babies (and other cute things).

Drifting back to the topic here...

Do other animals have morality? Animals are ostensibly incapable of knowing or worshiping god, but to a theist those animals are just much part of God's creation and perhaps also subject to some kind of judgment from on high.

Also, I repeat my main point, which is that even though Prager is a disappointment, I think it is good that he is encouraging people to believe in God and to practice a morality founded in that belief.

 
At 12:06 PM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Power Child: I'm not sure you can talk about morality in other animals. I think you can, to a limited extent, consinder morality in chimpanzees and other highly intelligent animals. Definitely not in ants, which is why I mentioned some hypothetical highly intelligent ant society in my example, not just your ordinary ant mould. But since their only chance to spread their genes is through the so called queen (which however can also be seen as sort of a production plant the other ants exploit to make more of themselves), their morals could be very different.

They might not be - and that was my second point - since it may also be so that in a society where its members are of a sutiable intelligence, morals similar to those of humans are going to be the most efficient from the gene perspective no matter the animal species.

The baby munchies are really strange to me. I have really never thought of eating anything because I though it was cute...quite the contrary if anything. I eat meat, but when I see a calf with the big eyes and baby-like looks, I usually lose the craving.

Anyway, I don't think morality is much based on God...I'd say it is the other way around if anything. The idea of God is based on morality...of course a theist would probably disagree. But still - my country (Czech republic) is one of the, or perhaps the most "atheist" in the world (I use the hyphenation since even though most people here are not members of any particular religion, a lot of them have a vague sense of belief in something supernatural), almost 80% of the people here are not worshippers of any widely recognized religion (however, according to wikipedia 44% of them believe in some sort of supernatural thing...whether it is the christian God, some other religion or just something vague). Still, I don't think their morals are in any way worse (or even different) than that of people living in Poland...which is a neighbouring country and one of the most catholic ones in the world (almost 90% of Poles belong to the catholic church).

 
At 12:12 PM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Curt- said...

I wonder if this is a good time to introduce Stephan Molyneux's "Universally Preferable Behavior", in that any moral framework that doesn't start with NOT harming other people, assumes that the person proposing it WANTS to be harmed, or at least believes that it's ok for other people to harm himself. That being illogical.

 
At 12:20 PM, October 04, 2013, Anonymous Kevin S. Van Horn said...

David:

I read about halfway through Huemer's book, after you mentioned it in an earlier blog post. I was very disappointed. The book is full of hand-waving arguments; given the careful reasoning I'm used to seeing in your writing, I am baffled as to why you think so highly of this book. Huemer repeatedly conflates "human minds treat X as if it were a feature of reality" with "X is a feature of reality."

 
At 12:49 PM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

Earlier you said morality is linked to evolution. Ants evolved, so why can't we talk about morality in ants?

If we reject that morality is based God's will, then morality must be based on notions about our personal and group's well-being, or revulsion at disturbing this well-being. Ants make choices related to their and their group's well-being also.

I can't speak for Czech Republic, but I agree with Charles Murray that a lot of America's serious problems today can be traced in part to the spread and legitimization of atheism.

I believe people should be free to be atheists if they choose, but I'd prefer if we were quieter and maybe even a little ashamed about it, sort of the way people who drink too much coffee are a little ashamed about it. It's a healthy, moderate kind of shame.

I have been an atheist as long as I can remember, and I've had to really struggle with questions about my life's purpose and how to live well. I'm lucky enough to be naturally inquisitive, brave, and of above-average intelligence, so I am (at least relatively) fit to the task of struggling with these questions, but the law of large numbers says that most atheists do not possess these uncommon traits. (My personal experience, at least, verifies this.) The proportion of atheists who are therefore unequipped to deal with the implications will grow as atheism becomes increasingly popular.

I believe in evolution, and I believe in social evolution as a result. I don't think it's an accident that just about all cultures in human history (with most of the exceptions being recent) are deeply spiritual in some way. Widespread belief in a higher power appears to be a helpful adaptation for humans living in large groups.

 
At 12:55 PM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

PS. Thinking about it more, being an atheist is a lot like going to college:

The experience can be very intellectually liberating and eye-opening, even beneficial, over one's lifetime--but it's not for everyone. If everyone is told they should experience it, you will have a lot of people who really have no business being there, and it [atheism/college] will itself be dumbed down and contaminated into either meaninglessness, or worse, a system of outright indoctrination with falsehoods.

 
At 1:03 PM, October 04, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

"If we reject that morality is based God's will, then morality must be based on notions about our personal and group's well-being, or revulsion at disturbing this well-being."

I don't see why. How do you find out that the well being of yourself or your group defines what you ought to do, which I think is what morality is ultimately about?

I stand by my original point. Believing in god doesn't solve the problem, unless you are including in the belief the assumption that whatever God commands is good--in which case you could as easily make a similar assumption with some other criterion, such as the ones you suggest. And interpreting our moral intuitions as perceptions of a non-physical truth does provide a coherent solution, although there's no way of proving it is correct.

 
At 1:56 PM, October 04, 2013, Anonymous Kid said...

http://lesswrong.com/lw/bk/the_trouble_with_good/

Link to a potentially interesting article that makes two points:

1) Our moral intuitions do in fact behave very much like "I like it" and "I don't like it"

2) That's OK. We can still use our moral intuitions as reasonable approximations and approach decisions with utilitarianism if we want to be more precise.

I found the article very convincing. I don't think debating 'moral truth' is productive.

You can easily find people agreeing on the truth of religious text but interpreting that text in different ways. Across history and across cultures, people's backgrounds differ and so do their interpretations.

In practice even God gives you no absolute truths, only guidance. And so it is with our moral intuitions.

 
At 2:19 PM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

Believing in god doesn't solve the problem, unless you are including in the belief the assumption that whatever God commands is good--

Yes, I am including that assumption--Abraham's rebuke of God notwithstanding.

--in which case you could as easily make a similar assumption with some other criterion, such as the ones you suggest.

Indeed. And my criterion has an evolutionary basis, which is coherent since I believe in evolution.

And interpreting our moral intuitions as perceptions of a non-physical truth does provide a coherent solution, although there's no way of proving it is correct.

Agreed. So, backtracking:

How do you find out that the well being of yourself or your group defines what you ought to do, which I think is what morality is ultimately about?

When just about all people consider going against their own well-being or that of their group it fills them with a kind of revulsion. It's not the same as the feeling just about all people get when they consider flapping their arms in order to fly, but the feeling is analogous.

 
At 3:04 PM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

David: Why do you consider morality to be more likely something parallel to the physical reality rather than a manifestation of some things in physical reality itself (which is essentially my point)? I'm not saying you're necessarily wrong, I'm not that much sure about my explanation either, but it just seems more likely to me than to expect there is some strange objective moral reality out there...of course, as I was trying to sketch out, for practicle purposes it might as well work that way, but it needn't to.

Power Child:

Do you watch South Park? This is essentially the point of Parker and Stone in a double episode Go God Go. They are both atheists but the point of the episode is that basically that for some people it is better to believe in a story, even if it is false, if it helps them with moral choices. They make a similar statement (perhaps better argumented) in their musical "The book of Mormon" (which is just marvellous and hillarious by the way). It it best captured by this part of the dialogue in the last act (the story is that two LDS missionaries are sent to Africa where they are confronted with the harsh reality and locals are uninterested...then one of them makes up his own version of mormonism that contains things the locals can relate to...all of them convert and then the LDS president comes there from the US to congratulate them only to discover that they are not really mormons. And then Nabulungi, who is one of the villagers learns about that from the LDS president...also, Sal Tlay Ka Siti is of course Salt Lake City...only to the villagers it is basically an idea of paradise):
"
Nabulungi:But it isn't true. We aren't going to Sal Tlay Ka Siti.

Kimbay: Habulungi! Sal Tlay Ka Siti isn't an actual place. It's an idea. A metaphor.

Mafala: All the stories the prophet has told us... are just metaphors.

Woman: Yeah. You don't think a man actually fucked a frog, do you? That's fucking stupid.

Nabulungi:And you all believe this?

Ugandans:Yes.
"

But when you then think about it, these villagers were not really theist. They recognized the stories as just metaphors that tell what is good and what is not. And you don't need the God figure for that. I'm not saying that it would do harm (although it can be abused by someone who wants to do harm...yet you can do that with atheism as well as it was demonstrated by the soviet union).

 
At 3:21 PM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Power Child:

Also, I think that even rather simple-minded people don't need God (or belief in God) to reach simple moral conclusions such as "thou shall not steal" or "thou shall not kill".

I forgot to answer your question - ants. Why don't I consider morality in ants? Because I'm not really sure you can even talk about consciousness when considering lifeforms as simple as ants.

And why is the idea of god so widespread? Dawkins has an interesting theory which does not require the idea to be useful in the evolutionary sense. He introduces the term meme (as an idea parallel of a gene) which simply spreads in the same manner...a meme can be a simple melody or a particular belief. If people like it, it spreads. It does not have to be very useful for any genes. But the idea of god is usually comforting. People are afraid of the unknown after death, also they want some greater justice above them and so on...so they accept the idea of God fast and it spreads...also it explains why some religions - those that give you particularly good hopes such as christianity - spread much faster than others (which don't, such as all original European religions that are basically extinct now save for a few modern Pagans that worship Gaul or Norse gods...but I'm not sure how devout they actually are, I suspect that for a lot of them it is much more a pasttime than an actual religion).


Also (and this is quite off topic) I am reminded of a great book by Terry Pratchet - Small Gods. It takes place in his Discworld universe, but most importantly it works out the idea of gods who actually exist, but come into existence from belief and their power actually depends on belief of its followers. But of course, they don't want their worshippers to know that, as then they would stop seing them as dieties and they would lose power or cease to exist at all.

 
At 3:30 PM, October 04, 2013, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

The treatment of morality as akin to physical law strikes me as a mistake. Ethics is not a theoretical science; it's an applied science—akin to engineering, not to physics. Natural laws constrain what designs are good, or possible, but not in such a direct way as saying, "You can't build this bridge, natural law prohibits it." Natural law clearly does not prohibit building bridges that fall down!

 
At 4:02 PM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

It's been a while, but I remember finding Parker & Stone's take on atheism sufficiently tolerable, though I don't think their material would suffer if they had simply avoided the topic.

Consciousness seems beside the point: since morality is about what decisions one ought to make, anything capable of making decisions may be subject to moral principles. Whether or not they have consciousness, ants appear able to make decisions.

Dawkins's theory of memes is shaky but coherent, but it still does not disprove the theory of social evolution either. I'm consistently baffled at how many prolific advocates of evolutionary theory applied to our biological origins don't seem to even consider social evolution before blithely arguing against the legitimacy of religion.

 
At 4:23 PM, October 04, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm dying to know what you think of the objectivist moral system? Not it's detailed tenants but its meta-ethical position.
It's detailed most clearly in Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality by Tara Smith.

 
At 5:34 PM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Benjamin. said...

It is like a man saying,
"Even if I know there is water in the pond, how do I know that that means there is necessarily water in the pond, or that the water is water."
Clearly he is speaking of two different kinds of water, (at least in his mind.)

What if you don't just happen to love your neighbor because you decided to, and then God came along and just so happened to command the same thing. What if you having a conscience to love your neighbor came from God? That is my suggestion.

 
At 5:37 PM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Power Child: Well, I'm not saying that it is not possible for social evolution to have a role in the introduction of religion, just that there is an explanation (which could be wrong as well, as you said, memes are kind of shaky, but still an interesting approach that is at least worth considering) which does not require religion to be useful or good to spread out.

Back to ants - I don't think ants are capable of making decisions anymore than computers are. The most sofisticated AI today is capable of limited learning and I think it surpasses ants in intelligence. But I think it would be funny to ask whether computers (or programs) are moral or not. There is no clear line, but I think that to consider morality there has to be some sort of consciousness involved. There has to be a realization of choice, not just a decision...but I am no moral philosopher and these things are a bit hazy.

 
At 5:58 PM, October 04, 2013, Blogger Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

I'm definitely in the same boat as you: these things are a bit hazy and I'm no moral philosopher.

I had a feeling that our exchange was headed for the topic of AI. I think of things like Asimov's laws of robotics, which seem to suggest that to Asimov at least, the matter of whether AI is moral was worth looking into. The outcome being, if we are going to create machines that can make decisions, we need to endow them with some moral code to go by.

Whether ants are endowed with a moral code by a creator or by evolution, it seems reasonable to consider the possibility that they have one.

 
At 10:25 PM, October 04, 2013, Anonymous Mark Bahner said...

"Prager also writes: If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions."

Even if there is a God, the labels "good" and "evil" are merely opinions, unless the God speaks in a way that can be understood clearly and unequivocally.

Given that no God has yet done so, we're left with opinions, even if She does exist.

 
At 10:31 PM, October 04, 2013, Anonymous Mark Bahner said...

David wrote, "I stand by my original point. Believing in god doesn't solve the problem, unless you are including in the belief the assumption that whatever God commands is good..."

And even then, you'd be stuck with the problem of figuring out what God commands.

 
At 2:25 AM, October 05, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Power Child: Well, they definitely have some hard-wired commands (ants). Such as "don't kill the queen" (even though it does not always work). The question is whether we can see it as a simple instruction or as a moral rule that would make the ant feel it is bad and immoral to do it ("killing queen is bad"). I doubt ants are capable of such thinking, so it feels more like a simple instruction to me. The ant does not kill the queen (mostly), but does not think about it in terms of right and wrong. Chimpanzees on the other hand, seem to exhibit some level of morality and some notion of justice. If there are two of them of an equal status in the group and one is fed (in a zoo) more or better food than the other, the first one sometimes gets angry at the person who feeds them. And keeps the feelings for a time after the experiment is finished. Their life in the wild is probably even more complex than that - even from the moral standpoint.

 
At 7:41 AM, October 05, 2013, Blogger Chris said...

@iamallears,

I'm trying to understand how claiming that morality is part of God's character side steps the Euthyphro Dilemma. You seem to be presenting the same non-solution as other believers do in reference to logic and God. Logic is part of God's nature, therefore he must act according to his nature. Both of these "solutions" do not side step the Euthphyro Dilemma. If he MUST act in accordance with his character, and his nature, then he is not the "highest authority." You're hung right back up on the horns of the dilemma.

 
At 10:01 AM, October 05, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous asks about my view of Objectivist meta-ethics.

I've never read Tara Smith. Based on reading Rand, I long ago concluded that her claim to have derived oughts from the facts of reality was false. For a sketch of my reasons, see:

http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Libertarian/My_Posts/Ought_From_Is.html

 
At 7:50 PM, October 05, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

God can be described as something outside of time and space. Something which could see the beginning to the end of the universe as a single image. There is no reason to know that something outside the universe follows the same rules of cause and effect, being that there is no chronological sequence of events. If God can create itself, there is no reason to assume that objective morality or God (or certain logical statements) have to precede the other, they could be created at the same time and both define eachother.

 
At 11:16 PM, October 05, 2013, OpenID whswhs said...

It's also worth noting that if there is a God, then the words "good" and "evil" are equally subjective: They mean "God likes it" and "God doesn't like it." God's subjectivity is no less subjective than mine.

 
At 7:50 AM, October 06, 2013, Anonymous Dick White said...

Perhaps the Prager comment is informed by the Genesis account of creation, i.e., (a) that the elements of creation were declared "good" and (b) that the Creator created man in the Creator's image. Of course, the subsequent fall of man, though tainting humankind, didn't alter the Imagio Dei thereby providing us with inherent institutionism, as it were.

 
At 2:57 PM, October 06, 2013, Anonymous RKN said...

If the problem is soluble, it is soluble without a god. One solution, the one that strikes me as the least unsatisfactory, is to posit the existence of moral truths analogous to physical truths, perceived by a moral sense analogous to physical sight or hearing.

It may be the least unsatisfactory explanation, but until the phenotype of "moral sensing" can be repeatedly confirmed by experiment, as we readily do with the physical senses, e.g. sight & hearing, then it really isn't anymore persuasive than a just-so story.

 
At 11:05 AM, October 08, 2013, Blogger Eli Eby said...

I don't agree with one. I don't agree with two.

You're switching between two definitions of god; one greek and the one of historic theism. The God of historic theism is the eternal creator, preceding all else and all else being a manifestation of that God. "Else" includes morality. If there is a God, an eternal creator, morality is a creation of him or is him.

If there isn't a God, I agree that atheists can find a version of morality. I argued about this with a Christian friend of mine who believes in the argument from morality for God's existence. I told him that morality can simply start being like everything else.

I believe that he agrees with every argument for Gods existence he has heard, and therefore isn't worth much time.

 
At 5:32 PM, October 23, 2013, Anonymous Meelhama said...

David, I think you made a jump here: "The existence of a god does not solve the problem because we need some reason to conclude that the god is good, that his will defines what we ought to do."

Supposing that there is a God, is He subject to any of the following:

1. Our conclusions about his goodness?
2. A real morality outside of said God?

I think you believe the affirmative for both questions. Well, naturally, with these affirmations you quite reasonably object to Dennis' statement. But try this on for size and reconsider Dennis. Suppose 1 and 2 are answered in the negative. Suppose that God owns and orders the whole ball of wax, including good/evil. If so, then man doesn't judge God's goodness; quite the opposite.

I think, and perhaps upon further consideration you can also see, that this creates an internal coherence. First, God operating under not-God rules (subject to external real morality) is not very God-like (From whence does this yardstick come? Why don't we worship it rather than this powerful-yet-subjected-to-it being?). Second, does the speck judge God? Certainly not! What about those who are moral but not believing; how can this be if said God is the fount of morality? I think this is coherent because it is reasonable that the wax reflect the one who made the whole ball.

Admittedly, much of what I wrote involves assumptions about God and I think you addressed this in others' posts. But that is kind of the point. You make assumptions about God to write things like 'we must conclude that God is good.' I assume, you assume, he/she/it assume (lol)! The real question is this: are the assumptions coherent to the system they undergird? Assuming that 'morality is outside and separate from God such that He must be judged by it' creates sort of an impotent God and hangs morality upon counting noses or less (i.e. Most people think abusing a child is wicked). The alternative assumption (that I offered) provides a God that it is unmatched in power and sovereignty (befitting of God) and hangs morality upon a being while simultaneously working it into the fabric of existence such that morality is evident though not pervasive (some people still are wicked).

Isn’t this more coherent? I mean the framing of God and morality. I understand that you, as an atheist, may find the notion of God and morality being determined by God highly incoherent with just about everything else. But, again, at this point, only considering morality and God, isn’t this more internally coherent?

 

Post a Comment

<< Home