"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

My response to Tom Freeman's The moral of the story

This posting is in response to Tom Freeman's recent post on our continuing discussion of morality. We've been at this topic for about six months now and it would seem that we've made some progress. Much as been said (and will continue to be said) on the topic of objectivity. We both agree that such a state of affairs is desirable, however we still seem to be a ways off from agreeing that it really is he case.

First off, I'd like to offer my heart felt thanks to Tom. Over these last six months he has continued to put some serious thought into our conversations. I really admire the conviction with which he approaches our conversations. Keep it up bud!

I'd like to start by giving a quick overview of how I maintain the Christian world view allows for an 'objective' (read: "not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts") moral framework.

According to Christianity all moral assertions are either true or false as they relate to the unchanging eternal character of God. Now, it is easy for the skeptic to feel a slight bewilderment that the Christian should claim moral facts are dependent upon some being hiding far far away in some remote corner of the universe. But this only serves to illustrate how hard it is for us to conceive of a being who is not merely 'a part' of reality, but is, in-fact, the 'source of' reality.

On a micro level it would be somewhat like a three year old nudging his brother and asking: "who does Dad think he is telling us what's right or wrong?"

In many ways, the three year old is dependent upon the family system that the father is the head of. In this way, the child is subject to the moral system that the father puts in place. Likewise, switching to a macro focus, we are contingent beings who depend on God for our very existence. Because of this, we are rightly under His authority.

Having said all that, I would like to address a question I have seen Tom raise on a few separate occasions. He seems willing to accept that the Christian God would indeed provide a singular, consistent and eternal standard, but he has difficulty calling such a standard 'moral'. I'm assuming he is basically asking: "how do we know this standard is good?"

In response I'll have to ask, would it ever be possible for the absolute Fact of all reality to act in such a way that could be deemed evil?

I'm not suggesting that this is possible, I am simply asking, who's standard would God have to violate to be evil? If God's character is eternal and unchanging, is it possible for God to violate His own standard? It would seem not. Thus, as I have argued in the past, God simply "IS" and therefore, we can only speak of 'objective' morals as they relate to Him.

A second point I would like to make on the topic of "why God's character matters to us", would be to point out that "morality" is, in a very important sense, simply a descriptor used to evaluate the state of a relationship between personal beings. To say the morality is simply "rules" or a "code of conduct" negates the more fundamental reality that underneath it all morals ultimately hinge on relationships. When one of the teachers of the law brought Jesus the question:

"Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"

Jesus replied:

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."


The point is not simply to obey rules. The Pharisees strove to follow rules, even to the degree of tithing a tenth of their spices (grain by grain) in order to follow the 'rules'!

The key to morality lies in love. Love for each other and love for God. I would even venture to assert that without first loving God (or should I say accepting His love for us) we will always be incapable of loving each-other.

Tom, to the degree that you experience love and to the degree that you act in love your atheistic world-view is being contradicted. Do you realize that?

Now this concept of love (like morality) is difficult to put into words, but we sure know it when we experience it. The next time you find yourself experiencing a moment of profound love from, or, for another, pull the atheist card out of your pocket and look at it. What does it say?

"Tom, this experience is meaningless. It is simply the result of a chance happening of various material affecting each-other in a simple cause and effect sort of way. No need to get all worked up... not that you can help it"

Your friend, No one


What if you looked through life using a different lens? What if love actually had some meaning over and above a supervenient quality of "stuff"? You admit yourself that you wish to build your moral code around "compassion". Can you see a way that compassion is even available to us if there is no God? Mindless, determined matter cannot have 'compassion' on mindless, determined matter. If you agree with me here, then you must affirm that you are 'more than' mindless matter. (even really really complex mindless matter.) But now you are left with a problem. What are you?

Lastly, I'd like to just quickly address your assessment of the following comment:

Tom says: This ties in to one of the most telling throwaway comments Alex has made in our months of chewing things over. It came when he was rejecting the idea of there being real meaning and morality without god existing:

Alex says: If it [Christianity] is not true, to whom would I turn? Dualism? What's that? There's no name or face associated with a term such as that.

Tom says:He has a fair and I think widely shared view: a person, with a name and a face, can be far more inspiring than an abstract theory, however well argued. You can relate to a person; you can rally round them; you can ask yourself what they’d say. This is part of human nature (and why politics can favour personality over policy).

Role models are fine; fictional role models are fine; role models of dubious and contested reality are fine. They illustrate virtues that strike us as, well, virtuous.


One one level, this is a classic "Bulverism". But on another, perhaps more important, level you are acknowledging a fudamental truth. We need personal beings in order to even talk about "virtue". What does this do for the case of Platonic moral forms, or other such "properties"?

Would it not be reasonable to assume that since moral concepts only have weight as they relate to personal beings, that perhaps our longing for an objective moral framework is evidence that we are indeed — beyond all hope — products of a perfectly loving personal God? All I meant to illustrate, is that mindless platonic forms, or some other sort of property dualism, leave our spirits unfulfilled.

It would be much like while anxiously awaiting your spouses' return home from a long trip you find yourself in the position of slowly waking up from a mid-day nap. As your eyes adjust you see her! She's standing right there! Just inside the door you see, her arms outstretched to take you in a warm embrace! You jump up, ready to run towards her, but as your head clears and your eyes adjust, your heart sinks. You suddenly realize the object you thought was your beloved is nothing more than her old coat propped up on a broom handle. Sure you could go and give it a hug and talk to it, but it's not her. She's not there.

In the same way Tom, if we try to accept some moral foundation based off of impersonal "qualities" or "forms" we will come to a disheartening end. As I've tried to demonstrate in this post, morality is relational. It's basis is love. You can't have a love relationship with an impersonal quality. Therefore, it seems right to conclude that unless the foundation of our morality is personal and perfectly loving, then we have no foundation at all. I don't accept that, and you don't seem to want to.

I see Jesus as the visitation of this perfectly loving moral standard into His creation. The length He went to bring us back to him shows a depth of love that I can't even begin to comprehend. He didn't come to call us to a system of rules. He came to bring us into a relationship with Him. All that's left for us to do is accept the invitation.

I pray someday you see that the deepest longings of your heart really do have an answer and it's better than you could have ever hoped!


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81 Comments:

Blogger Timmo said...

Alex,

According to Christianity all moral assertions are either true or false as they relate to the unchanging eternal character of God.

I am a Christian, and I do not share your conception of the source of moral norms. Divine Command Theory, even the form of it you hold, is not a pre-requisite to being Christian.

I am having trouble making sense of your basic line of argument. It seems to be something like this:

(1) Moral norms pertain, at least in part, to what the relations between persons ought to be.

(2) Therefore, the source of moral norms is a Personal Being.

The inference here seems to be a non sequiter. One would not want to argue along the following lines:

(1*) Sociological laws pertain to the relationships between persons in society.

(2*) Therefore, the source of sociological laws is a Personal Being.

The fact that morality has to do with the way people treat each other does not mean there has to be a person backing it up. And, as I pointed out before, morality has to do with much more than just the relationship people have to one another; there are moral norms about the way we should treat ourselves, the dead, and Nature.

10:25 PM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Hi Alex
Thanks for writing again. I enjoy this every bit as much as you do! I hope the post-agency life is coming together well for you.

OK:

If God's character is eternal and unchanging, is it possible for God to violate His own standard? It would seem not.

Agreed; but all that says is that ‘if entity X has property P, then it’s impossible for X to have some property Q whose possession would preclude P’.

who's standard would God have to violate to be evil?

That assumes that a standard of morality must of necessity originate from some personal being. I agree with Timmo’s challenge on this point and would love to hear what you make of that.

As for morality going beyond behaviour and obedience to cover character and motive, I agree again. But:

to the degree that you experience love and to the degree that you act in love your atheistic world-view is being contradicted. Do you realize that?

Er, nope! Would it depend on establishing that “without first loving God (or should I say accepting His love for us) we will always be incapable of loving each-other”?

Is that what you mean, that no atheist is capable of love? That seems a bit harsh. Or is it rather that atheists fail to appreciate a key fact about where love comes from? I suspect the second – but then, if God created everything, my atheist world-view is missing a trick every time I cut my toenails or empty my spam folder.

Tom, this experience is meaningless. It is simply the result of a chance happening of various material affecting each-other in a simple cause and effect sort of way.

Well that assumes meaning could only come from God and couldn’t possibly come from humans without God being there as back-up – which is rather what’s at issue.

You admit yourself that you wish to build your moral code around "compassion". Can you see a way that compassion is even available to us if there is no God? Mindless, determined matter cannot have 'compassion' on mindless, determined matter.

I take it as read that compassion – like lust, fear, anger, memory, intelligence, rocks, trees and anacondas – does in fact exist. And I see no reason to think that certain configurations of matter (i.e. ours) would have to be mindless.

Alex, a clarificatory question: Does your view that God is necessary for the existence of morality depend on your views that (a) mind is necessary for morality and (b) mere physical matter is insufficient for mind? So if, purely for the sake of argument, you entertained that (b) might be false, would that affect your case?

As for that comment I remarked upon – I don’t think it was a Bulverism. Sure, I pondered about your motives in making it, but I didn’t then argue for the falsity of its content on those grounds. In fact, you seem to agree with my assessment that we find people easier to get to grips with than principles: relationships tend to be more fulfilling than theories.

But all that shows is that our minds work in a certain way, so I think whatever force your discussion has here, it’s to do with how people like to understand morality rather than what morality ‘really is’. (In fact, that’s only how some people like to understand it – as you know, I find the ‘God grounds morality’ idea sorely lacking.)

6:32 AM

 
Blogger Ruthie said...

I am sure you know this, but C.S. Lewis's "Mere Christianity" does a fantastic job of explaining objective morality from a Christian perspective.

11:38 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hello there my friends!
Looks like this week I'll be running myself stupid. I picked up some contract work that will slide me back into a 40hr week. It's just for one week, but combine that with increased production in my seat business and a full load of course work to keep up with and you have a very busy little Alex.

That said I will probably have to let our discussion sit for this week. I look forward to digging in once I get the chance.

On a somewhat unrelated note, Matt emailed me from Spain the other day. He just wanted to say how nice it was to simply sit back and watch us hash things out with out having to bother participating... He then went off on about a half-page long response! The poor boy just can't seem to help himself! I guess I can't say it's hard to relate. ;-)

Ruthie,
It's been quite some time since I've read Mere Christianity. Matt actually powered through it a month or two ago. If you get a sec, would you mind pointing out whereabouts Lewis makes that argument?

Hope you all have a swell week. I'll be back the second I can carve out some time.

P.S. I am really digging my classes so far. I wish you all could be taking them with me!

7:36 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Alex,

I am happy to read that you are enjoying your coursework. I pray that you will continue to grow in faith and understanding. Fides Quaerens Intellectum!

Cheers,

Timmo

9:24 PM

 
Anonymous Tom Paine said...

I am asking all the Blogpower bloggers to publicise the July 1st Blogpower Awards ceremony (1400 London time) on their blogs. I have a sidebar item on mine with a link to the venue in Second Life. Could you do something similar please, or at least put up a post this week encouraging people to go?

The SLURL (Second Life URL) which will take people directly to the event is at my blog to cut and paste

I have hosted suitable advertising pictures at my blog as follows - you can link to them or download them from there.

http://lastditch.typepad.com/BlopowerAd.jpg

http://lastditch.typepad.com/DKad.jpg

http://lastditch.typepad.com/JeremyJayad.jpg

Please help to make this novel event a success!

Cheers,

Tom Paine
www.lastditch.typepad.com

9:57 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

First up, general apologies for my not participating in the awards thing. I'm away from the computers I normally use at the moment, so I'm pretty much limited to commenting and emails. I've been following the whole thing as best I can and have been incredibly impressed by it all. Hopefully I'll be more involved next time.

Secondly, Lewis and Moral Law. As I recall (I don't have the book to hand unfortunately) Lewis advances two main lines of argument:

1) When we state that something is wrong we feel more like we're expressing a fact than an opinion.

and

2) Morality has generally been the same across the world and throughout history.

No. 1 has no real weight in my opinion, it says little more than: We want it to be true, therefore it must be. The fact that we differ on a number of moral issues - as I hope to show in a second - also severely undermines this argument. No. 2 is extremely questionable. In general terms it's probably true: and aversion to suffering and an empathy for others has likely existed throughout human history. But that's quite different from a moral law. In specific terms, it's hard to defend. You only need look at the large number of highly divisive moral issues today (let along throughout history) to see that: abortion, sexuality, pornography, eating meat, capital punishment, disciplining children, invading Iraq, the size of government, etc.

The example Lewis gives is that if witches, claiming (I think - could be wrong) that if we still truly believed in them we'd still burn them. (The problem with this is that truly believe in witches you need to buy into the concept of Satan, which means you have to believe in God - which sort of begs the question a little). However, in the city I live in we have not only a large number of pagan groups full of self-styled witches, but also various groups interested in the paranormal and which claim to have seen evidence of strange powers (ESP, telekinesis, predictions, etc) in both men and women. Yet at no point have I ever seen any torch-bearing mobs anywhere near these two - quite public - groups.

10:30 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Matt,
So nice to see your voice again! Like yourself I'm doing what I can to stay out of this debate the week, but your comment brings to mind a quick point I'd like to make, but first I'd like to see what you think of the central point you just raised. You bring up "the argument from disagreement".

Can you see why that doesn't strike me as particularly damaging to the case for an objective morality? I'd be happy to spell it out, but I'm just wondering if you already know what I'm going to say.

4:02 PM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

I may be wrong (I've not read the Lewis), but I think Matt's not arguing:
'there is moral disagreement, therefore there isn't objective morality'
but rather:
'there is moral disagreement, therefore any argument that tries to establish objective morality on the basis on moral agreement is invalid'.

3:22 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Give that man a coconut! :-)

5:24 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Well put Tom,
Just on the way out the door to my first day back at an office job, but...

what if one was not arguing from agreement, but from a basic principal that underpins even the disagreement?

For instance, the abortion debate, is not really about two categories who disagree on whether or not murder is wrong. The disagreement is about when we can consider said act murder. Both sides recognize the importance of the value of life, it's just a disagreement about who's life is to be valued — the inconvenienced party, or that of the child.

(if indeed one is willing to call the mass of tissue (including it's unique genetic code, heartbeat, etc...) a child)

gotta run!

5:40 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

But no-one here is arguing that basic principles don't exist in some form or another, just that they're too general to be considered a law in any meaningful sense of the term. Human beings have a tendency to consider acts which cause pain and suffering wrong - but that's far in any real sense from the objective moral law that Lewis claims, and certainly not something you could base a reasonable claim for any kind of God on.

5:59 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Let me try that again. I was just running out the door, so I was a bit hasty in my response.

The point I was attempting to raise was that for there even to be a passionate disagreement on any given subject there must be an assumed factual reality between the two parties to disagree about.

For instance no one is going to get into a heated debate over which favorite color really is the best favorite color. Everyone realizes tastes such as color is purely subjective. However, if there is a disagreement about a verifiable artifact of reality, people can become much more passionate when another contradicts this known reality.

Say the color of the house across the street from my place is blue. A friend of mine then makes a statement about the red house across the street from my house. I gently inform him that it's actually blue. He responds that he is "sure" that it's red. He says he can see it clear as day. A little more impatiently I assert this known fact that the house across the street from my house is indeed blue. Again he disagrees. I am then forced to drag my moron of a friend over to my house and place him in my driveway, point across the street and say, "There! It's blue. See?"

This blatant contradiction of a known fact has the potential to get both parties fairly agitated Both parties assume there is a "fact of the matter". If we all operated under the assumption that morality was in the category of subjective color preferences, we would be much less inclined to heated debates over differences of opinion. As it stands though, the level of passion manifested in moral disagreement causes one to at least consider the possibility that morality is closer to the realm of objective facts. That is to say, it is possible that there really is a fact-of-the matter when it comes to moral disagreements, unless of course we are all simply deluded.

Matt, I see your latest comment. At work now though. I'll be out for the day. See ya!

6:46 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Timmo,
in preparation for my response to your comment, could you give me a few instances of sociological laws. I just want to make sure I am hearing you correctly.

6:58 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

I believe there are standards against which individuals can judge their behaviour and opinions - but that these standards have arisen out of our shared past, genetic and social.

If when I said 'murder is wrong' all I was doing was stating a personal preference along the lines of 'blue is better than red' then it would be absurd to get into a heated argument about it or even waste much time on people who disagree.

What elevates something into the category of morality is simply its importance - whether I prefer red or blue makes no real difference to anyone except me (or those who are affected by my preferences - such as friends and loved ones), whether I respect the law or not, however, has a considerable impact on those around me and therefore generates much more passion.

When I argue against murder and suffering I'm defending things which are extremely important to me. If someone likes red more than blue I might be mildly annoyed at their taste, but if someone believes it's okay to going around killing people than those I love and care about are in considerable danger.

Also, thanks to our shared genetic past, most human beings have incredibly similar values - so most of the time when we're arguing over morality we're actually about matters of fact: is so-and-so really innocent, do animals really have feelings, was there really no other way to get rid of dictator X, etc.

So it's quite possible to have productive, heated arguments on moral matters without the existence of God-given standard. You simply replace 'what God wants' with 'what people want'. It's trickier and requires compromises, but it works.

7:33 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
You raise some good points here. I'll give it some thought.

All I can say at the moment is that I miss not coming into work every day... Ah well. It's only for a week.

6:52 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

I can’t speak for Timmo, but my reckoning is that if you want to look into examples of sociological laws (is sociology that definite?), I don’t think anything relevant will appear.

Sociological phenomena arise largely as a result of interactions among individuals. So you could say that they do originate in persons, but this of course is a multiplicity of persons and it’s typically unintentional – like for instance the tendency for mono-ethnic neighbourhoods to arise (even though most people don’t specifically want that). The analogy might point in the direction of Matt’s description of morality, which of course Alex wouldn’t accept.

(Also, sociological principles are descriptive rather than normative.)

The analogy – and they all have their limits – matters less than the logic. The point is that (1*) and (2*) is an invalid argument, and it’s exactly the same form as (1) and (2), which is also invalid.

It just doesn’t follow from ‘Principle P pertains to (the relations among) entities of type T’ that ‘Principle P arises from and/or is defined by an entity (or several) of type T’.

6:54 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Tom,
It just doesn’t follow from ‘Principle P pertains to (the relations among) entities of type T’ that ‘Principle P arises from and/or is defined by an entity (or several) of type T’.

This is very well stated, but I think it is missing my actual argument.

Principal P is not a "thing" in and of it's self. Principal P is a valanced position posited by a personal being. Therefore, any P is couched in the mind of a unique personal being.

I guess my point of distinction would be that I am not arguing from "Principal P pertains to entities of type T, therefore principal P finds it's locus in an entity similar to T." Under that logic gravity must flow from an entity of type T.

I am more arguing that: "Principal P only exists in the minds of personal entities (PE), therefore if an objective morality is desired, (which most of us do) it must must flow from the ultimate unchanging, PE."

Does that make any more sense?

11:41 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Hey guys!

I have been largely preoccuppied with work, so I have not be able to make any further comments. But, I have a moment at the moment.

Tom put my point very nicely: from 'principle P pertains to (the relations among) entities of type T', it does not follow that 'principle P is a product of an entity (or several) of type T.' So, in this case, we should say that from 'the moral law pertains to the relations between persons', it does not follow that 'the moral law is a product of some person.'

But, maybe that is not the inference Alex is trying to draw. You write, Alex, that

I am more arguing that: "Principal P only exists in the minds of personal entities (PE), therefore if an objective morality is desired, (which most of us do) it must must flow from the ultimate unchanging, PE."

However, I do not understand this clarification/revision. What does it mean for a principle to exist the in the mind of a personal entity? Moral prescriptions are just propositions (or, principles, as we have been calling them), and propositions do not *exist* is this or that mind. It is not as though, we might imagine, that I could peer into your mind (via telepathy or some such) and find right there -- housed in your mind -- a moral prescription waiting to be contemplated!

Even if we can cash out the notion of a principle existing in the mind of a personal entity in helpful terms, it is unclear that it would follow that there must be a unique and unchanging entity which is the "source" of the principle. Why must there be exactly one such "source"? And, why could that source not "change"?

Maybe another analogy might help. Some jokes are funny and other jokes are not funny. Suppose some comedian-psychologist has taken the time to compile a list of rules which, on the whole, allow us to figure out what jokes are funny. Of course, there is no fact of the matter about whether a joke is funny -- a joke is funny because that's the way it strikes us. There is no special property of 'funniness' that jokes carry around. Despite this, it is objectively the case that a certain joke j strikes people as funny. Do you want to accept the following argument as logically valid?

(P) The rules of comedy only exist in the minds of comedians.

(C) Therefore, the rules of comedy must flow from the ultimate, unchanging Comedian.

1:04 PM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Alex: "Principal P only exists in the minds of personal entities (PE), therefore if an objective morality is desired, (which most of us do) it must must flow from the ultimate unchanging, PE."

OK, I think (with a caveat about defining ‘objective’ – it’d work better as ‘an ultimate, unchanging morality’) that the logic of this is more valid than the thing I suggested. The content of it, though, raises some questions. As Timmo says:

What does it mean for a principle to exist the in the mind of a personal entity?

I think the answer to this can only be: it means that what are being described here as ‘moral principles’ simply are mental states. So, are these beliefs or desires?

If we say that they’re beliefs, then these beliefs would be in certain propositions, which would then have truth-values determined by… something else. In which case, ‘moral principles’ here has to mean desires: that people behave in certain ways, that they have certain character traits, etc.

The only way for morality to be wholly in the mind is for it to be a matter of wanting certain things to be the case. Divine emotivism?

I like the comedy analogy (a Divine Comedian? Very Dante). To get from (P) to (C), I guess we’d need to add:

(E) The rules of comedy are eternal and unchanging.
(D) Finite, mortal comedians sometimes disagree, and even change their own minds, about what is funny.

(D) is clearly true – as, to perhaps a lesser degree, would be a parallel statement about morality. (E) seems ridiculous, though, and the reason for that, as you say, is precisely that (D) is true: funniness is in the eye of the beholder, and beholders are changeable. Comedy is, as they say, a matter of timing.

A moral parallel for (E) seems less ridiculous, though. Certainly debatable, but most people do seem to think that morality is qualitatively a different kind of thing from comedy.

This discussion seems perhaps to be less a disagreement about where morality comes from than it is an investigation into what the concept of morality is. I’ve got half an idea about how to make a little progress here (hope springs eternal…) but I need to get some work done, so maybe in a day or two.

4:09 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Ooookaay Boys,
Been busy for a while now. Just now starting to get dug out. Anyway let's see what we can do here!

First to Timmo,
I admit my formulation is probably ill concieved, with respect to principals existing in minds and such. Perhaps this formulation, which I stated earlier, will be a little more helpful:

Morality is a descriptor used to evaluate the state of a relationship between personal beings as it relates to love. (Agape)

It is in this way that I am using the word "morality". Morality is inherently relational. It's personal. If moral norms do not flow from our relationship with our creator, I see no other way for us to say they even exist.

A long ways back you stated that you believed that moral facts are necessary. On this I think we agree. I would even extend that to say that God's goodness and perfect love is also necessary. Since all reality flows from this being, it is no surprise to me that morality is a necessairy aspect of reality. In aguing that morality is contingent on God's character, it seems I am at the same time proclaiming its necessity, for God's character is the most necessairy aspect of all reality. I'm not so sure I know what we are even disagreeing about any more — you and I.

I can certainlly see what you are getting at with your analogy, but it doesn't translate well into morality. Again we are looking at the is/ought problem. The rules are descriptive, but they are by no means normative. Morality is fundamentally different then these comedic "principals". I'm not arguing that there are particular ways you can act towards people to make relationships better, or cause people to feel good towards you. My argument deals with whether or not we are under any moral obligation or not. Is it right to treat a person in a certain way. Why?

This is where I see our relationship to our eternal creator as fundimentally important. For any atheists in the room, if we don't have God, we don't have morality. Matt realizes this and seems to accept it. I'm not so sure about Tom.

Tom,
Running short on time here. Need to get back to the books, you know. But let me just toss this out. You say: "it means that what are being described here as ‘moral principles’ simply are mental states. So, are these beliefs or desires?"

I would say that what I was calling "moral principals" are specific points of interaction between ourselves and the Divine. I am referring to the ability to call something "right or wrong" (in an ultimate sense). The only way we can salvage this is if there really is an overarching divine relationship we are a part of. In this way, speaking of a moral principal is not so much saying soemthing about our mental state, as it is saying something about God.

7:36 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

if we don't have God, we don't have morality. Matt realizes this and seems to accept it

Wuh?

I believe that morality exists - I just see it as something which has sprung up between people as a way of regulating our behaviour for the "greater good", however that's being defined at the time. All I'm objecting to is the idea that moral laws are absolute and independent of human beings - that kind of objective morality, in my humble and ill informed opinion, doesn't exist.

9:34 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
You have always seemed okay with a cheap version of moraliy, but the probem is your morality is impotent. There's nothing holding it together. A slight breeze of disagreement leaves the whole thing in shambles. For an emotionally charged example, consider the "greater good" of the Nazis. By the relativistic system you are advocting, their "greater good" is just as valid as Matt Murrell's current moral formulation, as well as Tom's compassion based system. Truth then becomes that which proceeds form the barrel of a gun.

That's doesn't seem right to me. Because of that I am willing to go along with the only proposition that gives us a chance to actually mean something when we talk of moraliy, that being: God is.

Still in Spain? I'm hoping to get to your email early next week. At the moment I still have a TON of reading to catch up on. Have a good one man!

11:10 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"For an emotionally charged example, consider the "greater good" of the Nazis. By the relativistic system you are advocting, their "greater good" is just as valid as Matt Murrell's current moral formulation, as well as Tom's compassion based system."

If the Nazi party had indeed succeeded in eliminating every non-Nazi party member in the world, such that the only people left were those who considered it morally decent to murder non-Aryans, their morality (exclusive as it would be to their species and social group) would become the new "standard", until time and circumstance intervened to change it again. Historically, that's a pretty well tested hypothesis. It might sound distasteful, but appealing to divine authority seems like wishful thinking. No evidence of a purely objective morality has yet been supplied other than, 'Well, it just seems better that way".

If anything, the evolution of theism itself demonstrates beautifully how malleable our collective morality is and how it is almost always dictated by social expedience, whilst also demonstrating the potent human need to believe that each and every moral fashion of the day is objective, true and unchangeable; no matter that it changes constantly. The Ingsoc factor applied to ethics, I suppose, and essentially a favourable trait in terms of evolution. Much easier for social hierarchies to remain cohesive when there is a clear authority to appeal to on otherwise complex issues.

The common use of the Nazis as an example of where moral relativism can potentially go awry is interesting in itself. Why choose this as an example? Would it be used so often if they had won the war? Why not the use of animals in clinical trials? US western expansion? The British concentration camps of the Boer War? Why is it that everybody in the world, when asked to provide an example of moral indiscretions invariably points at somebody else?

Moral norms do fluctuate. They certainly seem to be loosely tied to a small set of basic ethical principles - conveniently associated with favourable genetic traits in terms of natural selection - but they do nevertheless adapt. One has to completely throw out thousands of years of human history to conclude otherwise. Or else accept that everyone is going to hell because everyone has, at some time or other, been guilty of transgressing a moral code that, at some point or other, was deemed "objective and true".

The way I see it, the evolutionary underpinning of morality acts like a weak magnet; pulling our behaviours towards a certain set of moral values that are ultimately the most beneficial for survival. On occasion, when a certain group might feel threatened by another, they might stray away from those core principles for a short period, doubtless committing various misdeeds that will be conveniently justified on the basis of faith or economics or else allowed to disappear from the national conscience, but they will inevitably be pulled back towards those core principles.

As it is, if the Nazis had won the war, as Robert Harris alluded to in Fatherland, it is unlikely that it would have had a prolonged effect on the core principles of human morality. Eventually, the collective morality would have returned to the core principles, either leading to the denial of the holocaust, the belief that the Russians must have done it, or that the Jews really were Satan's little helpers and hence must have deserved it.

1:26 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Yep, still in sunny Espana. Well, it's not so sunny at the moment, which is my excuse for being on the Net.

By the relativistic system you are advocting, their "greater good" is just as valid as Matt Murrell's current moral formulation

Incitatus has provided a pretty comprehensive responce to your post, to which I don't have that much to add. I will just say that in the ultimate sense, Nazi morality is just as valid as humanitarian morality - however, even in the relativistic sense, the latter, as it's more dominant in some form (both geographically and historically), would seem to be the more valid in terms of human nature (as nebulous as that may be). Aggression and the desire for power may well be firm aspects of humanity, but the fact that we're able to conduct this conversation in two relatively humane societies, shows that compassion and respect are just as present - if not more so.

1:37 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Alex,

If moral norms do not flow from our relationship with our creator, I see no other way for us to say they even exist.

As I said way back when, there are other metaethical positions available to us which allow us to maintain that morality is objective, such as G.E. Moore's non-naturalism or Kant's constructivism. For Moore, goodness is a non-natural property that some things possess and other things lack. It is this characteristic or feature of things that gives them their moral significance. According to Kant, moral norms spring from the activity of our practical reason: through their exercise of their will, rational agents confer value on natural things. So, there are definitely other options on the table.

God's character is the most necessairy [sic] aspect of all reality.

Is it? If it is necessary that God acts in morally good ways, then it is not possible for God not to act in morally good ways. If it is not possible for God not to act in morally good ways, then God is not free, and it makes no sense to apply moral norms to Him. Therefore, if God really is good, and He has to be free to be genuinely morally good, then it is not the case that He is necessarily morally good.

I can certainlly [sic] see what you are getting at with your analogy, but it doesn't translate well into morality. Again we are looking at the is/ought problem. The rules are descriptive, but they are by no means normative.

It is important to note that the rules of comedy, like other aesthetic rules, are normative. The rules of comedy tell us how we ought to make jokes if they are going to be funny to our audience, just as artistic rules ("always fade out at the end of a montage") tell us how we ought to produce art if it is going to be beautiful. Of course, there may be times where such-and-such a rule does not apply, but that does not undermine their prescriptive character.

The chief difference between moral norms and other kinds of norms is that moral norms are unconditional and categorical: they always apply, and they have overriding force over all other norms.

So, I wish to lay further stress on the comedian analogy. Just as the fact that there are comedic norms does not imply that there exists a perfect, unchanging comedian, the fact that there are moral norms does not imply there exists a perfect, unchanging moral agent. Thus, while I share both your commitment to objective morality and your belief in God, I do not think we can successfully argue from the existence of objective moral norms to the existence of God.

1:50 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Rev. Dr. Incitatus,

No evidence of a purely objective morality has yet been supplied other than, 'Well, it just seems better that way"...Much easier for social hierarchies to remain cohesive when there is a clear authority to appeal to on otherwise complex issues.

I think it is clearly untrue that "no evidence of a purely objective morality has been supplied...". Work to refute the "relativist" challenge in moral philosophy stretches all the way back to Book I of Plato's Republic, where Thraysmachus claims that justice is nothing more than the advantage of the strong, and recommends disregarding moral norms whenever it is expedient. The project of Plato's Republic is to answer Thrasymachus' challenge and show that justice is something over and above our collective practices.

Why is it that everybody in the world, when asked to provide an example of moral indiscretions invariably points at somebody else?

I think the Nazi holocaust is typically chosen as an example because it is simply more obviously wrong, and easier on the ego to admit as wrong, than other examples. Ultimately, however, the value of objective morality largely consists in the power it gives us to offer rational criticism of our own behavior and the mores adopted by our society. Indeed, the fact that philosophical ethics can be used to criticize societal mores deflates the objection that any purported objective morality is merely a provincial, prudential code lifted a timeless status.

2:13 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Timmo,
I se itz kwite awvius wen mi ato cpel chec gits turnd awf. Mst finde owt hawe twoo tern it bak awn...

;-)

8:20 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Incitatus!
I was beginning to think you had given up on us. ;-) I see you have returned with a new pic. I'm saddened to see the old one disappear. The new one is so... well, serious. It would be an interesting experiment to see if we could affect the tone of our discussion by putting up pics of ourselves looking all ornery!

Anyway,
What I am basically hearing from your response is: Yes Alex, I agree with your assessment that without God there is no objective morality, but it's okay because we can explain it through the complex interactions of material.

I readily assent to the notion that much of what we call sociological norms can be traced back to good survival tactics. I also agree that it is certainly possible that natural selection would then select according to these characteristics.

That is all well and good. I'm honestly glad that you continue to take the time to explain this position as you do. I have come to see much merit in the points you raise. Even so, the case you are making is not an argument against objective morality.

You are simply focusing on one level of explanation. The teapot example illustrates the point I'm trying to make:

Say you walk into a room and you find a whistling teapot on the stove. If I was to ask why is this teapot whistling? One might respond: 1) Because the water is boiling, 2) because electricity is heating the element beneath the teapot causing the h2o molecules to speed up thus, etc... or 3) Because I wanted some tea.

This is what I see happening here. You are correct in your assessment of the survival benefits of moral codes of behavior, but I feel you have stopped at one (arguably inadequate) level of explanation. You may disagree with my conviction that an objective morality exists, but you have by no means refuted it by continuing to flesh out only one level of explanation.

The nearest thing to an argument against objective morality you offer is the "argument from disagreement":

1) If an objective morality existed we would all agree upon it and it would never fluctuate.

2) Moral norms vary quite a bit across the spectrum of time and culture.

3) Therefore, objective morality does not exist.

I think we can all safely agree on 2, though one would do well to examine the extent of the variation, but that's another story. The main point that unravels this argument is that the major premise 1 is unsustainable. Who says that we should all be able to reach a perfect consensus regarding moral norms if there really is an objective morality? In fact the Christian perspective has always taught that we are a fallen bunch. We have chosen the route of defining our own morality (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). It seems to me that disagreement is the only thing we should expect in light of that truth.

So again, this argument does not refute objective morality. We are again left with me insisting that there really are things that are wrong for all people at all times: (torturing innocents, killing animals just for fun, etc...) while you are left with your hands tied by an atheistic starting point. If you feel compelled to affirm atheism, you lose your ability to call evil by it's name. You can only speak of your feelings which hold only as much truth as any other chemical reaction.

Think about it brother. You don't have to go down that road.

5:58 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Timmo,
thanks again for the thoughtful comments. I'll kick it around for a while before I reengage. I get the feeling that somewhere in the definitions of the words we are using in our premises we are missing each-other...

Okay, I can't help myself. Just one quick point!

I'd like to explore the necessary goodness of God for a moment. To do this we will first need to define evil. The definition of evil I find the most precise is: Any act or posture of the mind that violates who God is. How do you define evil?

Also I'm assuming you believe God to be subject to a standard derived outside of Himself? Is that true?

5:58 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
I will just say that in the ultimate sense, Nazi morality is just as valid as humanitarian morality

Do you not feel the slightest revulsion within you as you affirm that position? I commend you for following the logic, but my friend, I hope you can yet see the trash strewn road you are following is the result of taking a wrong turn many miles back.

This good logic following a faulty starting point will lead you to the doorstep of Hell itself.

6:03 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Alex,

I'll kick it around for a while before I reengage.

Cool. Let me know what you come up with! :-)
The definition of evil I find the most precise is: Any act or posture of the mind that violates who God is.

I do not understand this definition. What does it mean to "violate who God is"? What would it mean to violate who George Bush is, or violate who Paris Hilton is, or violate who Miss Piggy is?

How do you define evil?

Here's how I would do it: if an act token A is performed by some rational agent P, then A is evil if and only if it is morally forbidden for P to perform A. We can say that a rational agent P is wicked just in case P is not committed to performing no evil act tokens. This is a more "theory-neutral" way of defining evil and wickedness than the definition you suggested.

I'd like to explore the necessary goodness of God for a moment. To do this we will first need to define evil.

Sure. Though, it is unclear to me that we need a definition of evil here. The usual motivation given for free will is that, without the possession of free will, moral responsibility -- along with our notions of moral praise, blame, and the rest -- is inapplicable. If God's acts are necessary in the very same way that moral laws are necessary or the laws of mathematics are necessary, then it is unclear in what sense God could be said to be free, and thus moral notions would simply not apply to Him. Even compatibilists about free will and determinism do not think that human action is determined in this strong way.

Also I'm assuming you believe God to be subject to a standard derived outside of Himself? Is that true?

I'm on board with Kant: the moral law is autonomously legislated, or self-given, by each rational agent. Reason is the Author of the moral law.

8:38 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

Do you not feel the slightest revulsion within you as you affirm that position?

Obviously, like most sane people, I feel a revulsion at Nazi morality, but - like any system of right and wrong, however you define those terms - it's still a morality, though thankfully one which sits uneasily with most of the human race.

I hope you can yet see the trash strewn road you are following is the result of taking a wrong turn many miles back.

That would be the not believing in your God thing, right?

If - at any point - He wants to reveal the fact of His existence to me, I'm right here.

1:43 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

If you'll all indulge me a little longer, I just want to make sure I'm making my position clear...

I see morality as a sort of informal social contract: If you want to be in our gang, you have to follow the rules - no murder, rape, theft, etc. These rules aren't arbitrary, but arise from the need to keep society functioning and as such are at the centre of modern life. At the lower range of this "contract" you have relatively insignificant matters, such as not wearing tasteless clothes and generally being polite, etc., then we head into more serious matters such as not committing adultery, lying, etc., and finally we have those matters which represent a direct threat to society, such as murder, etc. The more an act threatens to undermine society the greater the punishment for it - in general, human beings are complex things and the above is only a rough sketch.

Consequently, not only does morality need to reflect the human situation in order to be taken up, but it also adapts to changing situations - physical and mental. Practices such as slavery were - basically - swept away by increased knowledge of the slaves and their conditions. The idea that they were sub-human brutes who benefited from being exposed to "civilisation" was ultimately untenable and the dissonance this produced led to its extinction in most parts of the world. (Again, this is just a rough sketch).

The Nazi morality was based on a similarly flawed conception of the world, and the idea of "The Jews" being subhuman creatures seeking to hold back those destined to rule the Earth needed considerable authoritarianism to make it fit the facts - an authoritarianism that was ultimately unsustainable.

So relativist morality is a lot sturdier than you seem to give it credit for.

5:14 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Matt m,

It sounds like your view is this: there is nothing to morality over and above the societal mores we adopt and the prudentially motivated conventions we make regarding our behavior. If that is the case, then it can be shown, as Thrasymachus argues, that it is not our interests to be just. Indeed, we should disregard the precepts of morality whenever it is convenient for us.

Thrasymachus observes that the strong rule in any city, and thereby control the education and socialization of their subjects. However, these strong rulers, act in a self-interested way, and seek to shape the socialization of their subjects in order to further their own ends. Thus, the actions citizens consider just and virtuous are really actions which benefit their strong and powerful rulers. Reeve, a prominent commentator on Plato, puts it this way: "This compelling story about the role of power in shaping our ethical beliefs obviously poses a challenge to any defender of justice, since it entails it is not in everyone's best interest to be just"

Glaucon illustrates Thrasymachus' point with Gyges' ring, a magical ring which makes the wearer invisible. (Sound familiar?) Glaucon imagines, "Let's suppose, then, that there were two such rings, one worn by a just and the other by an unjust person. Now, no one, would be so incorruptible that he would stay on the path of justice... when he could take whatever he wanted from the marketplace with impunity, go into people's houses and have sex with anyone he wished, kill or release from prison anyone he wished, and do all the other things that would make him like a god among humans... No one believes justice to be a good when it is kept private, since, wherever either person thinks he can do injustice with impunity, he does it." (Republic 360b-d). Glaucon is not arguing that everyone always acts immorally when they can, but that, we can acquire goods acting immorally when we can get away with it. So, we have a reason to act immorally when we can get away with it, and no reason to act morally -- if morality is nothing more than a convention, then it has no independent force beyond the potential repercussions of our unjust actions. Rationally, what we ought to do, thinks Glaucon, is appear just, while secretly accruing the things we desire unjustly.

If we accept your account of morality Matt M, then we have no reason to really be just. Maybe you accept this conclusion, but it does show that "relativism" can not emulate everything objective morality can do. It is not all that "sturdy".

12:57 PM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

What happens, I wonder, if we see how the debate looks without talking about ‘morality’ at all?

I think we all agree that there are social norms of behaviour, generally ones that are beneficial for group flourishing, and that these vary across history and culture to some degree. Matt (and Incitatus, if I read him right) seem content to stop with this, give or take the details.

Alex, Timmo and I prefer to go further, looking for something that transcends human preferences, beliefs, feelings and character.

Now, if there were a God, with an unchanging eternal character such that he was maximally loving, then certain things would follow. He’d have certain standards for how we should be, and these standards would be in keeping with his character: they’d be unchanging, as well as prior to and independent of us and what we might think or feel (except insofar as he makes us to be a certain way); and his standards would be for our behaviour, thoughts, feelings and personalities to be loving. Given God’s omniscience and lovingness, adhering to these standards would be a smart idea for our own wellbeing – irrespective of whether there are any specific punishments or rewards at the end.

I’m OK with the logic of this, and Alex would go with it too (dropping the ‘if’ at the start). Now, this says nothing about whether we should call such divine standards ‘morality’ or not. Alex, does your view lose anything other than a bit of terminology if it forsakes that?

Timmo and I would hold off using that word here. We might accept the purely descriptive statements about character and standards, but we’d note that divine standards have something in common with human social norms: both are based on how certain beings want things to be (and via that, on what those beings are like). So these standards aren’t objective. Alex might accept that, in this sense of ‘objective’.

But he’d also point out – and we might all accept – that there are differences: the God scenario gives eternal consistency and unity. And if it were accepted that both the existence and nature of god are necessary (in the strongest metaphysical sense – i.e. God couldn’t possibly not exist/not have existed or been different in character) then that gives a necessity to these standards as well as an absoluteness. (I think that’s a very big if even on the assumption that God does in fact exist.)

But they’re still dependent – the ‘necessity’ these standards have on this view is borrowed. And that leaves me unconvinced that we can bring in the M-word.

I’m not quite sure whether Timmo would agree here (my Kant is a bit flaky), but for me, the concept of morality (setting aside whether such exists) is of something beyond preferences, beliefs, feelings and character. It’s the idea of something sui generis – it’s independent of all else, which is why it makes sense to discuss its application in any context (social customs, divine character, evolved tendencies).

Now, while Alex disagrees with Matt and Incitatus on the type of being that morality comes from, the three of you do seem to agree that to talk of it being independent of any such being is pretty spurious hand-waving. Well, maybe. But I hold that the idea of morality is of completely transcendent standards (although you might think that a myth that nothing could possibly live up to).

A normative principle may pertain exclusively to intelligent beings and their interactions, but it doesn’t follow from this that the principle is created or defined by such being(s).

So: how much is it that we’re thinking about different things when we use words like ‘morality’ (and then differing on whether such things exist and/or deserve the name), and how much is it that we have the same sort of thing in mind but differ on how it would relate to individuals, society and God?

I think it’s mostly the former.

8:32 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Alex,
I'm ill equipped for heavy philosophical discussions because I'm not familiar enough with the terminology and references. As a result, I'm wary of coming across ambiguous as a result of poorly wording my position or misunderstanding the direction of the debate in the first place.

With respect to that,

"If that is the case, then it can be shown, as Thrasymachus argues, that it is not our interests to be just."

I need to read Book I of the Republic properly. On the face of it, I certainly agree with some of Thrasymachus's assertions (although Plato's characterisation is a little inflammable). However, as to the argument that it is sometimes in one's interests to be unjust it really depends on how far one is willing to take that route. Theft, rape &c might be in the individual's interests in the short term, but by disrupting the fabric of the community he is part of, these actions have the potential to be deleterious in the long run. In which case you're in the territory of game theory; the needs of the few &c. However, I don't think reason is all that is at play with moral decisions such as these. Few animals are consciously aware of the need to cooperate; they just do so because evolution has already rendered them naturally inclined to do such.

"So, we have a reason to act immorally when we can get away with it, and no reason to act morally -- if morality is nothing more than a convention, then it has no independent force beyond the potential repercussions of our unjust actions."

I'll confess right now, I never got more than halfway through Crime and Punishment because my videogame generation attention span just couldn't handle it. However, I think Dostoyevsky describes well the presence of that powerful intrinsic force that the Gyges' Ring story doesn't consider. We might reason that by being unjust we can get a short term reward, but it is not so easy to override what I think are powerful innate moral predispositions that are sufficient to act as an independent (i.e. involuntary) force. I don't think morality is 'just a convention', but is simply something that can be molded, within reason, by convention.

I think that many moral allegories presuppose that our morality is completely subject to free will. I guess I'm not ready to accept that fully. I see a morality anchored in genetic predispositions and their subsequent social programming as being natural selection's alternative to objective morality. I appreciate that that poses a challenge to free will.

"I think it is clearly untrue that "no evidence of a purely objective morality has been supplied...".

I'll have to do some more reading before I respond to this. In the mean time, can you summarise what you consider to be the most persuasive pieces of evidence?

11:54 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Tom,

I think it is a great idea to put the central topic of our discussion, morality, in better focus. I just linked to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the definition of morality, and the article opens with a helpful distinction:

The term “morality” can be used either

1. descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or,
a. some other group, such as a religion, or
b. accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.


'Morality' in the descriptive sense refers to the code of conduct which is, in fact, adopted by an individual or a group. On the other hand, 'morality' in the normative sense refers to a set of rules or prescriptions which transcend the de facto practices of individuals and groups, and applies to all rational beings, or agents. With some reservations (it does not classify Hume well, I think), this is a good "rough-and-ready" distinction which we can apply to our discussion. The article, written by Bernard Gert, goes on to explain what it means to hold that there exist a morality in the normative sense:

Those people who claim that there is a universal morality claim that it is a code of conduct that all [fully] rational persons would put forward for governing the behavior of all moral agents.... They also claim that morality applies to all of these persons, not only those now living, but also those who lived in the past. These are not empirical claims about morality [in the descriptive sense], they are claims about what is essential to morality, or about what is meant by “morality” when it is used normatively.

I hope this puts into focus the topic of our disagreement: you, alex, and I contend that morality in the normative sense exists, while rev. dr. incitatus and matt contend that it does not. So, I do not think your diagnosis of our disagreement as verbal is correct. The substantive disagreement is whether there exists morality in the normative sense!

Rev. Dr. Incitatus,

In the mean time, can you summarise [sic] what you consider to be the most persuasive pieces of evidence?

My point was that the history of Western philosophy is littered with efforts to justify purportedly correct, objective moralities.

There is a really good paper by Allen Wood, available online here, defending the objectivity of value, a related question. Naturally, if one holds there are objective values, then one would also hold there is a morality in the normative sense, since there will be appropriate and inappropriate ways of dealing with those things which are objectively valuable. Wood defends realism about values by pointing to certain presuppositions made by taking seriously justifications for our beliefs and actions. He notes that when anything is offered as a reason for believe or acting, we can always ask ourselves whether the reason offered is a good one or a poor one. He continues,

What we cannot do, however, is to deliberate without taking for granted that there are some genuine reasons for doing either what we are deciding to do, or for some other alternative (which, if the better reasons are on its side, we should have resolved on in place of what we are in fact deciding to do). To be an inquirer or an agent at all is to presuppose that there are some reasons for believing and for acting -- whether or not we have found them, or ever will find them. In this way, to be an inquirer or an agent at all is to presuppose that some values are real.

The point is just this: something can only count as a reason for a belief or an action if it is valuable. So, whenever we begin to take seriously rational justification for our beliefs and actions, we presuppose there are values which weigh in on our justification. This does not, just yet, show there are moral values, but, by defending realism about values in general, the way is clear.

I suppose this piles on the reading a bit, but it is a good paper and, like any bit of good philosophy, rewarding to read.

10:07 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Thanks, Timmo, I'll check that out.


BTW, I'd like to clarify my position regarding "moral relativism". I'd be interested to hear Matt's view, as well. On a cosmic level, I'm certainly a proponent of moral relativism because I don't believe there are a universal set of moral laws. However, on a the more microscopic and species-specific level I'm inclined to believe that there are moral principles that transcend consciousness. I think this position is almost inevitable if we believe that the genetic building blocks of morality probably predate self-awareness by tens of billions of years.

So being a moral relativist in terms of objecting to the idea that there are universal moral values does not necessarily mean that one must accept, for example, the act associated with Sati.

12:30 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Just a quick comment:

While I don't believe actions can be ruled inherently wrong, I do believe that all of us have to make choices based upon the kind of world we want to live in.

Even relativists value somethings more than others - I value individual freedom extremely highly, and it's therefore in my best interest to encourage it wherever I can. If someone truly wanted to immolate themselves for some reason I'd do my best to talk them out of it (as I don't agree that taking your own life is a good cause of action, except in some extreme cases), but I'd ultimately regard it as their choice to make. If I believed that they were being forced to act against their will (through social pressure, for example), I'd do my best to help them escape from the situation - not because it's objectively wrong, but simply because I strongly disagree with it.

So I don't see relativism as leading to an acceptance of any action, merely as an acceptance that different people can value different things.

7:25 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Tom,
That was a quality little summary you put together there. You really seem to be on the right track with your language about how you want morality to be a completely transcendent standard. Now granting my outstanding disagreement with Timmo, I still fail to see why the introduction of a completely transcendent, personal God from whom we all find our source and whom we are all related to (be it for better or worse), does not fit this bill. As I have argued before morality is the state of a relationship. Does it not seem possible that this personal God who completely transcends the universe could serve as the personal relationship on which all moral questions are judged?

8:26 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Incitatus,
"I'm ill equipped for heavy philosophical discussions because I'm not familiar enough with the terminology and references. As a result, I'm wary of coming across ambiguous as a result of poorly wording my position or misunderstanding the direction of the debate in the first place."

What are you referring to here? I'd be happy to clarify.

So being a moral relativist in terms of objecting to the idea that there are universal moral values does not necessarily mean that one must accept, for example, the act associated with Sati.

But in your view it apparently does mean that you cannot help your objection and that the practicers of Sati cannot help their widow burning convictions. After all they are different people who evolved in a different context. Once again, your attempt to offer a moral statement within your relativistic frame work ends up de-fanging your objection. Why is your unconsciously derived objection any more valid than the unconsciously affirmed position of the Sati practitioners? If relativism holds, It's not. You seem a little uncomfortable with this. Please continue to explore why that is.

8:28 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
I think it would be helpful for me to clarify that actions are nothing more than an outward expression of an inner conviction. In my view, ultimately morality is not about actions it's about the orientation of our spirit. To the degree that we give of ourselves out of love for the well-being of each-other we are acting in a moral fashion. The proper question to ask is then: What do we mean by love? and what constitutes well-being? The further you press these questions the more apparent it becomes that God is essential to the equation.

You say that you don't "see relativism as leading to an acceptance of any action, merely as an acceptance that different people can value different things."

I agree with you that relativism does not necessitate the acceptance of any action. The truth you hold about moral matters is right to you. You accept what you want to accept and so does everyone else. The disheartening conclusion of this methodology is that by adopting relativism you must acknowledge that by your convictions being correct only insofar as you feel they are correct, they ultimately hold no truth. If this is unacceptable and we want to maintain that our moral convictions do at least point to truth, then they must conform to something objective. If they conform to something objective, they are not relative anymore.

8:29 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"Once again, your attempt to offer a moral statement within your relativistic frame work ends up de-fanging your objection."

I don't see how. My objection of Sati rests on one and only one fact (and it is a well researched fact); many widows are burned against their will on the basis of a flawed religious belief. The removal of that religious belief would highlight the act for what it is; senseless brutality, which does not work wonders for social cohesion. It provokes mistrust, fear and vengeance and is never tolerated within a social group for very long before it is prohibited, because a group in that state cannot successfully compete against other groups who have attained higher degrees of social cohesion and cooperativity. Unless, of course, a powerful belief system can override the natural revulsion to such acts there by rendering them acceptible to the group and less likely to cause instability; i.e. a belief in reincarnation (the video game effect).

Although I don't quite take Dawkins' extreme view on the subject, I do feel that the very notion of a hereafter in the spiritual sense is has the effect of devaluing the importance of the here and now.

As it is, the religious trappings underpinning the caste system in India, and the position of women, is already becoming considerably unstable even with the presence of theism, demonstrating that a society's movement away from basic moral precepts simply cannot be tolerated for a prolonged period of time (and a few hundred thousands years of theism is but a blink of an aye as far as evolution is concerned).

Of course, if the ceremony of Sati was reformed such that the participants were fully consenting - sans coercion - the issue would no longer provoke my concern. My curiosity perhaps, but not my concern.

"The disheartening conclusion of this methodology is that by adopting relativism you must acknowledge that by your convictions being correct only insofar as you feel they are correct, they ultimately hold no truth."

But for someone who takes this position, there is nothing disheartening about not being privy to The Truth. I don't believe there are any universal 'truths' as such (except that one), only likelihoods as described by arbitrary statistical values (which are still subject to the limits of perception). I think moral relativism is a natural progression from this. Or this is a natural progression from moral relativism. One or the other, or maybe both.

9:51 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Incitatus,
I don't believe there are any universal 'truths' as such (except that one)

Ha ha! You are killing me brother! With that kind of logic you will be able argue any way you please. Nothing you say hinges on any sort of objective reality. You can sit around talking nonsense until you are blue in the face. Okay before I get to bent out of shape I have to assume you are talking past me in some respect. Can you flesh this comment out a bit for me?

"...only likelihoods as described by arbitrary statistical values (which are still subject to the limits of perception)."

You say:
"My objection of Sati rests on..."

Then you go on to describe how the practice is not good for the social group's long term survival. But, that's not a moral objection. That's not saying it's wrong. That's not even saying "I think it's wrong". You are simply saying the practice is Sati probably won't last very long because the system will force change within them or they will be over run.

You could make a similar comment about the practice of a tribes vegetarian tendencies:

"I refuse to accept this cultures practice of vegetarianism. Given their geographic location they will not be able to get the proper nutrients from their herbivoric practices. Thus, the competing meat eating tribes will soon best them in battle, casing either the forced change to consuming animals, or the extinction of their social group."

These are not moral propositions. A moral proposition would assert that it is wrong (not merely impractical) to burn women alive. Of course you are then left with the leg work of justifying that claim. I believe Christianity does a fine job of that end of it. We are image bearers of God. Our lives our not our own. We owe our existence to one who is in a place of rightful authority over us. He loves us beyond our comprehension. Our highest calling is to Love him and love each other.

I do feel that the very notion of a hereafter in the spiritual sense is has the effect of devaluing the importance of the here and now.

you are not the only one here. Many Christians also hold this view. It's a natural progression of thought, but in one major way I think it is utterly flawed. If God saw it in His plan to include this temporal life as part of our story, it is certainly not merely a waiting room. There must be a profound reason for it and I would argue we would do well to attend to that thought.

"if the ceremony of Sati was reformed such that the participants were fully consenting - sans coercion - the issue would no longer provoke my concern. My curiosity perhaps, but not my concern."

The fact that it provokes your concern is saying something much more profound than the explanation you put fourth above. Concern is an emotion that ties to realities much deeper than mere impracticality. It's pointing somewhere. Do your best not to be afraid of following where it leads.

10:57 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

I believe Christianity does a fine job of that end of it.

What reason does Christianity give for following moral laws? I mean, this God bloke sounds great and all that, but - in bottom line terms - why should I go along with his plan?

12:41 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Alex,
I think you're still stuck on the idea that morals values are based on pure reason alone; something we determine consciously and in real time. Something we are entirely able to choose. I don't hold to that view. As I've said, I consider a substantial component of our moral code to be based on genetic predispositions that are fine-tuned by social conditioning.

With that in mind,

"But, that's not a moral objection. That's not saying it's wrong. That's not even saying "I think it's wrong"

It certainly is! That's all morality comes down to; the balance of individual preference and community preferences. Those interaction have become so ingrained that certain situations produce instinctual reactions (that are ultmately nothing more than highly sophisticated forms of the withdrawal reflex). If one witnesses a child being murdered in the street, one does not need to rationalise one's outrage. One does not need to consult a religious text or a legal document to convince oneself that this is indeed a wrong. Why is that? The sense that it is unacceptable is deep and not easily overridden.

It seems our essential difference is this;
You contend that people have always derived morality from their religious beliefs, whereas I contend that those religious beliefs have always derived their morality from people.


"You could make a similar comment about the practice of a tribes vegetarian tendencies: "I refuse to accept this cultures practice of vegetarianism. Given their geographic location they will not be able to get the proper nutrients from their herbivoric practices. Thus, the competing meat eating tribes will soon best them in battle, casing either the forced change to consuming animals, or the extinction of their social group.""

This is really nothing like the example I provided. It could only pass as such if these vegetarians were maliciously force feeding their carnivorous brethren with Brussels sprouts against their will and in a manner that was physically and/or psychologically distressing. Is that what you mean? Moreover, your equating the social effects of the act of homicide with the social effects of choosing not to eat meat. Vegetarianism is rampant throughout the ecosystem and to no obvious detriment to the natural selection of those vegetarians. Murder of the same species is considerably more rare and almost entirely due to the interplay between competing groups within environments of limited resources. Therefore, our instincts have not required us to be revolted by vegetarians as we are revolted by murderers (by which I mean killers whom we perceive to have killed without sufficient cause).

1:43 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
Good question. There's a few levels to it.

First off, I must reiterate that Christian morality is not a code of conduct. Christian morality is summarized in Christ's affirmation of the greatest commandment:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
Matthew 22:36-4

Christian morality finds it's basis in a love relationship with God first and a love relationship with those around us second. The next step is assessing what it means to love God and love each other, but that's a new topic all together.

Now on to what reasons Christianity gives to fall in line.

First off and I think most importantly, if the God I believe in is true, then the most compelling reason I can think of to go along with His plan is that God's plan it's the reason we exist. It's the ultimate meaning of our life. If Christianity is true then we are created to be free spirits that ultimately come to know and love God forever. I know that a mental picture of loving God forever can naturally come up looking pretty dull (since we associate loving God so often with sitting in a church pew and acting proper) But when we step back for a moment and realize that God was not the creator of "church", so much as He is the creator of everything we can begin to see this in a different light. I don't know about you Matt, but I've always had this passion for the mountains (you may have noticed). The immensity! The adventure! The epic nature of being in such a place! It's all His. He made it all! His beauty and wisdom stretches from the quantum world to the outer reaches of the universe, all the way back to the reflection of Himself that we can see in our very nature. Our deepest moments of profound joy and love are but faint glimmers of the fullness of live we are made to experience.

He made us to have life! Not simply biological life, but the fullness of life! We can sense it in our experiences of love. Love is not simply biological. It transcends us and points towards our true calling.

If God is true, then outside of Him there is no life. By rejecting Him we remain in our sinful state right on into eternity. The question here is what does it mean to "reject God"? Surely you must be able to understand Him at least on a spiritual level in order to do this. I'm convinced no one is going to get a theology quiz at the pearly gates. Our spirit will speak for itself.

To sum up, the reason we should go along with His plan is that His plan is THE plan. To imagine that we can pull this thing off on our own is the height of arrogance. When we realize no one's getting out of here alive it becomes quite apparent we need a savior. I believe we have one. He's standing right here — hands outstretched.

You said earlier:
"If - at any point - He wants to reveal the fact of His existence to me, I'm right here."

It's a valid request. One I know He will honor. In fact, He promises He will honor it.

"But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul."
Deuteronomy 4:29

For those empirical types, it seems like a valid route to take. If you think there's at least a possibility that He might be true, there's nothing to loose. Just keep in mind the enemy wants to keep us blind folded. When you say that He's free to show Himself to you, you are correct, but you must be willing to lift the blindfold that has been so artfully woven over your eyes and really look.

2:06 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Some quick remarks.

rev. dr. incitatus,

I do feel that the very notion of a hereafter in the spiritual sense is has the effect of devaluing the importance of the here and now.

Why would that be? The fact that I am going to be alive ten years from now (I hope!) does not devalue my life now. Similarly, the fact, if it is indeed a fact, that I will be alive later, resurrected from the grave, does not devalue my life now.

Alex,

the most compelling reason I can think of to go along with His plan is that God's plan it's the reason we exist. It's the ultimate meaning of our life.

Imagine that we were bred by aliens for the purpose of becoming human cutlery. Would you then be willing to argue "the most compelling reason I can think of to go along with the aliens' plan is that the aliens' plan is the reason we exist. It's the ultimate meaning of our life"? The fact that someone creates me with some intentions in mind does not mean I should particularly care for those intentions.

9:34 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

the most compelling reason I can think of to go along with His plan is that God's plan it's the reason we exist. It's the ultimate meaning of our life.

I'm uncompelled.

5:10 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Timmo,
Not sure what you are getting at here. You pull that quote out of context then make up some ridiculous scenario that in no way parallels the rest of my comment:

"He made us to have life! Not simply biological life, but the fullness of life! We can sense it in our experiences of love. Love is not simply biological. It transcends us and points towards our true calling. If God is true, then outside of Him there is no life. By rejecting Him we remain in our sinful state right on into eternity."

Matt,
You asked for the reasons Christianity gives for going along with God's morality. I gave them to you. I guess I should have added "to me" before the compelling bit.

Incitatus,
You and I are completely talking past one another. To do any justice to our conversation I would need to go through every point you made in that last comment and untangle all the misconceptions you have of my position. I'm not sure I'll have time for a while though.

6:33 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
Curious to know what caused the reasons I offered to be so "uncompelling"?

6:56 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

Curious to know what caused the reasons I offered to be so "uncompelling"?

Okay, let's say that you could prove that God exists in some form. Even if He did have a set plan for us all, I think that his nature is too ill-defined for us to make any confident pronouncements about it - therefore, I see no reason why I should simply accept his judgements when they go against my own. In the case of ethical decisions I'd always go with my own judgement, rather than relying on what others have to say about that of the divine being.

8:16 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Woah, loads of comments! A few rushed remarks:

Timmo,
Yes, the notion of ‘morality’ that I work with in these sorts of discussions is of something inherently normative (and universal and wholly transcendent). I’ll try to get round to the Wood paper but from the quote you give, my reaction is: arguments like this do suggest that we generally believe in realism about values when talking of right and wrong, but this doesn’t establish that we’re correct to do so. Although maybe that latter’s not the point of the argument.

Alex,
you want morality to be a completely transcendent standard. … I still fail to see why the introduction of a completely transcendent, personal God…does not fit this bill. … Does it not seem possible that this personal God who completely transcends the universe could serve as the personal relationship on which all moral questions are judged?

The difference between us seems to be that I think morality would have to transcend one more thing than you think it does. For me, the nature of a relationship between a human and God would be something that could be meaningfully morally evaluated in both directions – which necessitates a standard outside of that relationship and outside of both parties to it.

On the Timmo/Alex thing about being created to fulfil a plan – of course Timmo’s scenario is ridiculous and, frankly, repellent whereas Alex’s is glorious. But our grounds for distinguishing them in that way can’t possibly be ‘we should fulfil our creator’s ultimate purpose’.

Alex, you’ve consistently stressed God’s lovingness in commending your view, and that factor does indeed transform the equation. Which takes me back to my opinion that what’s appealing in this view isn’t the hypothesis of an ultimate creator but the concepts of lovingness and kindness, compassion, etc.

8:24 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
Ah, that makes more sense. Well let's assume here for the moment that we believe "some kind" of God exists. Certainly there are many different philosophical exercises that can be done to discern what this God is like. Still by reason alone, philosophical reflection can only take you so far. At the moment I would agree with you that the point it takes us to is not far enough for us to bring about a specific morality.

It is at this point we turn to revelation. Keeping in mind that we are assuming the existence of God, are there any claims made by man that God has in some way shown Himself to us? As it turns out there are many claims of divine revelation. Yet of the four major world religions only one claims that God showed up. Only one claims that He walked among us. Now to me that's pretty outlandish stuff! Could it be true? It will take some serious work to find out. The heart cannot believe what the head cannot accept. Therefore it's in our best interest to take a good hard look at other claims of revelation and see out of these claims if any hold up against scrutiny.

Thus far, I find Christianity holding strong against the innumerable attacks on it's legitimacy. Again, assuming we believe a God exists, it seems quite probable that this Jesus fellow is who He claimed to be.

If that is indeed the case, It is right to view my moral judgement only in light of His own life.

Of course there's a lot of leg work involved between assuming the existence of God and concluding that Jesus was in-fact God, but in my view, it's well worth the work. There is no greater privilege than knowing your creator. There is no greater honor than being invited into the family of the King.

Another way to look at it is that either your moral intuitions are true (i.e. they align with who God is) or they are not. If they are not, then they are leading you nowhere. This all depends on who's version of God we chose to believe in. So before we can go on seeking to conform our life to God (the Truth) we must be convinced that the God we are choosing to follow is indeed Truth.

This part of the journey will involve reconciling what you know with what you feel. It can be a painful journey. In the end though, what we know must always win out over what we feel. Feelings can be fickle things, but knowledge is much more stable.

Because of this I will always trust Jesus because of what I have come to know. His truth often challenges the way I feel about things. But I don't find this to be surprising. If Jesus looked exactly like I wanted Him to, I would have little reason to suspect He was anything other than simply another human invention. The fact that Jesus challenges me beyond what my personal ethic would have me do is simply one more reason to believe that He is indeed my Lord.

9:02 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Alex,

I detected at least two strands of argument in your response to Matt.

(A1) God created us with a plan in mind. Because that plan is the reason we exist, we should conform to God's plan.

(A2) A fully human life is only possible through a relationship with God and the transforming power of God's love. This is why should conform to God's plan.

So, I am not pulling the comment out of context: I am narrowing in on a strand of argumentation which is weak. Matt highlights the point when he writes,

On the Timmo/Alex thing about being created to fulfil [sic] a plan – of course Timmo’s scenario is ridiculous and, frankly, repellent whereas Alex’s is glorious. But our grounds for distinguishing them in that way can’t possibly be ‘we should fulfil [sic] our creator’s ultimate purpose’.

The difference between (A1) and (A2) is just this. (A1) argues from the fact that God has a plan, whereas (A2) argues from part of what that plan is. (A1) is not very persuasive; (A2) goes considerably further. I largely agree with you here. As I wrote at Thalesian Fools here (in the comments),

...if Jesus was resurrected, then it was the most important event in human history. It has profound implications for who we are and what is our relationship to the divine. St. Augustine wrote, "The supreme good is that which is possessed of supreme existence whom we are to seek after with supreme affection." Jesus' resurrection implies that we can share in a loving relationship with God, a relationship which can elevate the soul toward the infinite, its highest good.

9:47 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Whoops! Sorry Matt, I attributed Tom's remark to you. Sorry Tom, I attributed your remark to Matt.

10:18 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Timmo & Tom,
In my own defense with regard to this whole "reasons for adherence" debacle, I understood Matt's question as:

"What reason does Christianity give for following moral laws?... why should I go along with his plan?"

I then produced what I understand to be a few Christian reasons for following Gods lead. You, Tom and Matt are now asserting that my "reasons" are not strong arguments. I agree with all of you on this, but the point of what I wrote was never intended to be an argument for their validity. It was intended to be Christian "reasons", not arguments for the validity of Christianity.

Tom rightly says:
But our grounds for distinguishing them in that way can’t possibly be ‘we should fulfil our creator’s ultimate purpose’.

This is exactly what I was trying to get at in my latest post to Matt when I said:
Only one claims that He walked among us... Could it be true? It will take some serious work to find out. The heart cannot believe what the head cannot accept. Therefore it's in our best interest to take a good hard look at other claims of revelation and see out of these claims if any hold up against scrutiny.

The foundation of my morality rests on the person of Christ. Discerning whether or not He was who He said He was will then be the line of argument one must pursue if we want to argue for which morality we accept. If it can be shown that Christ was little more than a charlatan, madman, or myth I will then be in the exact position Matt is in at the moment—simply trusting my gut.

Does that clear this up at all?

10:43 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Timmo said, "
rev. dr. incitatus,

I do feel that the very notion of a hereafter in the spiritual sense is has the effect of devaluing the importance of the here and now.

Why would that be? The fact that I am going to be alive ten years from now (I hope!) does not devalue my life now. Similarly, the fact, if it is indeed a fact, that I will be alive later, resurrected from the grave, does not devalue my life now."


This is what I mean by not always representing my position clearly ;)

I was intending it more as an observation. It is of course fallacious to state that 'people who believe in the afterlife must undervalue their present material existence more than those who do not believe in the afterlife'. They don't have to do so at all...

Nevertheless, many people do just that. Whether it be the concept of original sin, or something more extreme like Sati, the idea that his life must be sacrificed (whether through death or voluntary punitive hardship) for salvation in the next is a common theme in religion. Pervasive to the point that a group, such as the Epicureans, should be attacked and denigrated for refusing to subscribe to such a world view.


Alex said,
"Can you flesh this comment out a bit for me?

"...only likelihoods as described by arbitrary statistical values (which are still subject to the limits of perception).""


My daily grind as a scientist is to determine "likely" explanations for observable phenomena. "Likely" is as good as it gets, and is usually determined by statistical analysis (nothing clever in my line of work, a two-way analysis of variance is about as sophisticated as it goes). We then rather crudely (because there no better way to do it) choose an arbitrary probability value at which point we say, "Yes, the hypothesis is correct" or "No, it isn't."

Of the two central limitations to establishing absolute facts one is methodological and in theory surmountable: we're restricted to using samples rather than populations; and the other is more philosophical and insurmountable: we take it on good faith that what we perceive is, as you put it, objective reality.

Basically, I reject the idea that we can really know an objective reality (even if we manage to completely map the shadow it casts through knowledge of physics). Personally, I subscribe to the opinion that the idea of an objective reality was delivered a death blow by General Relativity. Many disagree, but one wonders how anything can be truly transcendent and objective if so much rests on the situation of the observer and their sensory faculties.

As it is, I think the consensus subjective reality suits our purposes well enough to make up for this lack of an objectively tangible universe.

1:57 PM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

fulfil [sic]

Anglo-American differences, methinks... ;-)

(Sorry. I have a hangover and this is the only point I can manage to respond to.)

3:39 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Tom,

Silly English spelling! :-P

Get some rest, man.

7:43 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Guys,

I just took a neat little philosophical quiz.

http://philosophy.hku.hk/think/value/rel-quiz.php

Enjoy!

7:48 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Woohoo! I'm consistent! Though I thought for sure it was going to peg me as a relativist. Interesting explanations.

Well friends I'm off to my first set of two week long intensives. I highly doubt I'll have any time to get back to this while I'm away. I'll be sure to check in though to see what (if anything) you fellers are up to. Incitaus I owe you a response. I know I've also glossed over several other comments I'd like to explore a little more in depth. But on the other hand I'm sure a little break wouldn't be bad for any of us.

You boys be good while I'm gone. Make sure you keep the house picked up. And NO PARTIES!!!

12:50 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Yay! Party!

(Anyone know any hot agnostic chicks they can bring?)

8:56 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Predictably, I came out as inconsistent on Timmo's quiz. Although the quiz's assessment that I'm trying to have it both ways is more a demonstration of the quiz's limitations than mine.

So how can I disagree with the idea of a universal moral code and yet maintain that it is wrong to torture a baby?

Robin Allott perhaps describes my position better than I ever could right here.

One can argue if he is really using the same meaning of "objective morality" to a theist when he is describing something that is derived from, rather than transcendental to, the group ultimately subscribing to it. He's really talking about a preprogrammed morality, which of course dispenses with the need for an objective morality. Arguably, when people talk passionately about the existence of an objective transcendental morality, they really just appealing to their own preprogrammed ethical values.

1:13 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Rev. Dr. Incitatus,

Why think that because our moral cognition has genetic roots that our belief in objective morality is unjustified? Many of our belief-producing cognitive faculties are the product of millions of years of evolution, and are encoded in our DNA. Modern linguistics' discovery of our natural language faculty and inquiry into the universal grammar underlying all human languages portrays this very vividly.

From what I've read, babies have a fairly sophisticated understanding of their physical world, a "naive" physics, as it were. They understand that objects are solid, continue to exist when they are not being perceived, fall when unsupported, persist over time, and many other facts. Infant minds are not tabula rasa. Similar things go for psychology (babies recognize that other humans experience sensations, etc). So, we come to the world with an intuitive grasp of the way physical objects behave and the way other organisms think and feel. We have that knowledge because it is coded in our genes for human minds to develop in this way. However, this does not mean we should be skeptical about facts like: objects continue to exist when they are not being perceived.

Similarly, if it is true that the human conscience is a result of human genetics, that does not show that our moral beliefs are uniformly false, or merely the expression of feelings we are pre-programmed to have.

As I mentioned in connection with Plato's Republic, "relativism" can't emulate the most important, salient features of objective morality, its unconditional and categorical character.

12:40 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Matt m,

I'll see what I can scrounge up. ;-)

1:23 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Timmo,
I could certainly be satisfied with a definition of objective morality that was inclusive of preprogrammed morality. However, I think that might confuse the issue, because in these discussions it seems that objective morality is usually considered something that exists separately from us (whether attributed to God's Will or some other external force). I'm not sure others would accept the genetic argument as representative of a truly objective morality, because it is still dependent upon our consciousness rather than external. As a result, the door is still open to a relative aspect of this argument in so much that the resultant morality only applies to the creature that evolved it.

7:30 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Rev. Dr. Incitatus,

I do not understand your response. Maybe you can clear it up for me.

I took you to disbelieve that there is a morality in the normative sense on the grounds that morality in the descriptive sense can, in principle, be explained in biological terms (a contentious, speculative claim in itself!).

Some time ago, I characterized your view this way, and you concurred that it was accurate:

It sounds like you are a naturalist in this sense: the best explanation for our having moral intuitions, beliefs, and practices is not that there exist objective moral facts to which our moral beliefs may conform well or poorly, but that we are constituted in such-and-such ways due to such-and-such natural processes. There is nothing to morality over and above biological facts about us. In Daybreak, Nietzsche writes, "it is always necessary to draw forth... the physiological phenomenon behind the moral predispositions and prejudices."

On this view, the best explanation for our having moral intuitions, beliefs, and practices is that we are genetically pre-programmed to have these things. The point I was trying to make is just this: even if our moral intuitions, beliefs, and practices can be explained in "naturalistic" terms, this does not show that there is no morality in the normative sense for those intuitions and beliefs to be about, and for those practices to be based on. Our other belief-producing cognitive faculties find their source in the human genome, but this does not mean that that their results are uniformly false or "relative". For instance, we employ certain concepts (e.g. the notion of a solid objects) because of our evolutionary heritage, but this does not, of course, show that there are no solid objects!

My contention is that possible naturalistic explanations for our conscience are irrelevant to determining whether we should believe there exists a morality in the normative sense, at least for a broad class of such explanations.

2:04 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"I see you have returned with a new pic. I'm saddened to see the old one disappear. The new one is so... well, serious."

What about this one? ; )


Timmo,

"a contentious, speculative claim in itself!"

Why?

I was a bit confused by your 5th para in the last response. However,

"My contention is that possible naturalistic explanations for our conscience are irrelevant to determining whether we should believe there exists a morality in the normative sense, at least for a broad class of such explanations."

I agree that a naturalist could still hold that a normative sense of morality exists, and that the process of evolution underlies the manner in which it manifests itself physiologically (if that's what you're getting at, here). I suppose I must hold an agnostic view on that idea because it simply isn't easy (possible?) to falsify. All I can say is that I don't think there needs to be an objective morality. I think that's the sticking point here; not so much whether there is or isn't an objective morality, but whether the presence of such is really required to explain how things are. I don't think it is.


"Our other belief-producing cognitive faculties find their source in the human genome, but this does not mean that that their results are uniformly false or "relative". For instance, we employ certain concepts (e.g. the notion of a solid objects) because of our evolutionary heritage, but this does not, of course, show that there are no solid objects!"

Is something that is relative necessarily false? I'm not sure I understand. With regard to psychology and/or theoretical physics, I think there's a strong case to be made that the existence of solid objects is very much a relative thing, too.

8:35 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

What about this one?

that's better!

I'm sitting in class at the moment. Wish you guys were here! Would make for some lively discussion!

10:10 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

rev. dr. incitatus,

Why?

The claim that that morality in the descriptive sense can, in principle, be explained in biological terms is not, to my knowledge, known to be true as a result of empirical investigation. That could simply be my ignorance: I am in physics, not sociobiology.

All I can say is that I don't think there needs to be an objective morality. I think that's the sticking point here; not so much whether there is or isn't an objective morality, but whether the presence of such is really required to explain how things are. I don't think it is.

Terminology seems to be getting in the way here. I have been putting 'relative' in scare quotes because I have not taken any one here to be a bona fide subjectivist. Call a someone an objectivist if she holds that 'is true', when applied to moral propositions, is a monadic predicate. In contrast, a subjectivist thinks of moral truth as a two-place relation between a proposition and an agent that proposition is true for, leaving open the possibility that a moral proposition might be true for one agent but not for another. I find the latter notion of moral truth wholly unintelligible. How could any proposition -- let alone a moral one -- be true for one agent but not for another?

Your remarks suggest to me that you are an objectivist about morality in the normative sense. It just so happens that there are no moral facts for morality in the normative sense to be about. I have been taking you to be an error theorist about ethics. Our evolutionary history simply is not relevant to the semantics of moral discourse, and, as a result, whether we should be objectivists or subjectivists about moral truth. However, naturalism might be taken to be relevant here. If our intuitive belief in the existence of moral facts can be wholly explained in naturalistic terms (such as our evolutionary history), then it might be thought that we need not posit such facts: they are orthogonal to the way things are.

However, if you think that naturalism is consistent with the existence of morality in the normative sense, why do you appeal to our evolutionary ancestry to argue against moral realists like Tom and I (and maybe Alex, too). Indeed, why does it motivate you to be an agnostic?

As I have argued, the possible evolutionary origin of our moral conscience is orthogonal to the existence of morality in the normative sense, so it neither gives us a reason to reject the existence of morality in the normative sense, nor does it give us a reason to be agnostic about the existence of morality in the normative sense. (Wordy!)

With regard to psychology and/or theoretical physics, I think there's a strong case to be made that the existence of solid objects is very much a relative thing, too.

In what way does psychology or physics debunk our "naive" belief that other people have minds and various mental states, or that there exist physical objects independent of us that endure through time, have rigid structures, and the like?

1:37 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Incitatus,
Finally finished a response for ya.

I think you're still stuck on the idea that morals values are based on pure reason alone; something we determine consciously and in real time. Something we are entirely able to choose. I don't hold to that view.

As well you shouldn't. Neither do I hold that view.

I consider a substantial component of our moral code to be based on genetic predispositions that are fine-tuned by social conditioning.

Here you rightly point out that much of what I'll call our "impulses" are biological in nature and often beyond our control. Societal pressures also play a powerful role in shaping how we form our own codes of conduct. I readily agree with both these points. Though I accept these realities, I don't see them as being sufficient.

In your next paragraph you seek to maintain that a highly sophisticated withdrawal reflex is capable of substantiating a moral wrong:

Those interaction have become so ingrained that certain situations produce instinctual reactions (that are ultmately nothing more than highly sophisticated forms of the withdrawal reflex). If one witnesses a child being murdered in the street, one does not need to rationalise one's outrage. One does not need to consult a religious text or a legal document to convince oneself that this is indeed a wrong. Why is that? The sense that it is unacceptable is deep and not easily overridden.

I think there is some confusion in our terms here. What you describe is an impulse of revulsion. It's automatic and uncontrollable. This is the "is" part of the situation. If you are to maintain a purely naturalistic point of view on this, the "is" is where you must stop. But you don't seem to want to stop here. You want to call the above act "wrong". But now you have introduced something different. You are now talking about an "ought". No matter how hard you try you cannot transform an impulse (is) into a moral statement (ought).

The purely naturalistic commentary on this event only focuses on one's self. It would look a little something like this: "A child being murdered makes me feel bad. I don't want to feel bad. Please stop murdering children so I don't feel so bad." Now most people would look at that statement and realize that it is insufficient to describe how we really feel about this sort of situation. We want to say that murdering children is morally wrong for all times for all people. If you reject that sort of language you are only left with an explanation of feelings that says nothing about moral obligation.

It seems our essential difference is this;
You contend that people have always derived morality from their religious beliefs, whereas I contend that those religious beliefs have always derived their morality from people.


In response to this comment I think we need to establish the difference between "codes of conduct" and whether or not these codes have a binding nature on us. I do not argue that without religion we would not know that murdering children is wrong. My argument is that without God there is nothing ultimately wrong with murdering children.

"This is really nothing like the example I provided. It could only pass as such if these vegetarians were maliciously force feeding their carnivorous brethren with Brussels sprouts against their will and in a manner that was physically and/or psychologically distressing."

So let me see if I understand you here. Are you advocating the position that it is morally wrong to institute the programme you explained above? It seems to me you are. Incitatus, it doesn't seem like you truly hold the the relativist mantra. If you were a relativist you would need to hold that the distressing brussels sprout incident is just as morally acceptable as a well mannered conversation over biscuits and tea.

To be a relativist you need to maintain that ALL moral propositions are "true" to the one who makes it. It really makes no difference how you personally feel about the proposition in question. It certainly doesn't look like you want to go down that road. If not, you are back into the world of the objectivist and all the implications that follow.

9:09 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Thanks for the responses. Will reply later. Currently in hiding after telling some people that Harry wakes up and realises it was all a dream. It seems that some people are terribly gullible AND sensitive.

We can discuss my actions in the context of an objective or relative morality later on if you like.

2:47 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Alex said,
"The purely naturalistic commentary on this event only focuses on one's self. It would look a little something like this: "A child being murdered makes me feel bad. I don't want to feel bad. Please stop murdering children so I don't feel so bad.Now most people would look at that statement and realize that it is insufficient to describe how we really feel about this sort of situation. We want to say that murdering children is morally wrong for all times for all people."

I'm not sure we would want to, would we? For to to do so would be to condemn many of the people who have defended our nations. At the end of the day, it realkly does come down to how we feel. How we feel about a child's murder is very much determined by the circumstances; the necessity of the evil &c. There is not, and never has been, a firm moral absolute with regard to murder. If you witness the senseless murder of a child, you will feel very differently than if you witnessed a child murdered who was in the act of murdering another child. Your inbuilt moral code would reject the one and yet condone the other; with no appeal to objective laws, but merely societal ones. And by society, I don't mean the whole of human society, but simply a subsection of it (it's still a hypothesis, but I think group selection will explain a lot about the evolutionary psychology of humans).

"My argument is that without God there is nothing ultimately wrong with murdering children."

Well, let me respond to this by thinking in personal terms. I meet a moral relativist and I challenge him by saying, "You don't think anything is wrong, so you object to me wanting to kill you?"

He could answer, "Because I enjoy living and the pleasure I derive from other living people, I would object to you killing me. Because the presence of a person who has the want to kill would alarm the other living people in my group, including myself, and thus fill us with unease and reduce our pleasure, I would also object to you simply wanting to kill me. Given that my views here are not simply my own, but held by all my compatriots other than you, the would-be killer, I can take this a step further and enforce these relative moral standards upon you and and enofrce a set of deleterious consequences that will be visited upon you should you attempt to kill anyone. Whether these consequences are objectively sound morally is neither here nor there; it's us, the community, versus you the individual."

There's no need for God here. Just a basic sense of community preservation, from which for humans at least, self-preservation is the most easily secured.

So what happens if the community wants to kill the members of an innocent minority? What about those Nazis again? Surely that's alright because might makes right? Not in group selection it doesn't. Whereas above the community is working to reduce the threat of conflict, a community implementing tyranny by majority would actually be provoking conflict (the basis of armed revolution). The society would be destabilized rather than stabilised and the same old breakdown of trust and cooperation would ensue. Such societies can survive for a short time (Sparta lasting longer than others), but retribution has always come eventually, and the society has crumbled and been surpassed by more internally peaceful societies. Inflicting suffering destabilises social groups, rendering them less efficient than internally peaceful social groups. Of course, conflicts between social groups complicate matters, because there are competing elements of natural selection at work; competing for resources on the one hand, and the benefits of cooperation to get those resources on the other. When the resources are not sufficient for all groups, the groups no longer have an incentive to all cooperate; somebody has to get voted off the island and lo and behold, the moral outlook of the other groups will change accordingly. It's why pinning moral absolutes on the parties involved in conflicts such as the Israel/Palestine conflict are not very easy.

"Incitatus, it doesn't seem like you truly hold the the relativist mantra."

To be honest, after thinking about Timmo's comments and reading a bit more, I'm inclined to think I'm basically a moral realist who's too indecisive to finally sign the card and carry it.

Part of this is illustrated by the following;

"If you were a relativist you would need to hold that the distressing brussels sprout incident is just as morally acceptable as a well mannered conversation over biscuits and tea."

My interpretation of moral relativism is not that nothing is wrong, but that nothing is universally wrong; i.e. wrong to all people (except maybe this). Whether something is wrong depends on the circumstances and the relationship of the act to the observer. Whether the observer considered it wrong would depend on his genetic and social programming. A person of the same species could potentially deem it wrong because of the suffering it caused. On the other hand, as far as a puffin sunning itself on a cliff near Swanage, there would be absolutely nothing wrong with some strange advanced primate stuffing a fellow full of Brussel's sprouts. Each species to its own and all that.

Originally, I was thinking that morality is relative in the that there is no universal moral compass , but that evolution has provided us with a group-dependent objective-ish morality. Timmo, whether he intended to or not, has got me thinking about whether evolution is running on a set of even more fundamental physical laws. I think Dennett has taken this line in his emphasis on evolution as more than simply a biological phenomenon, but a fundamental physical phenomenon that is as likely to shape stars, galaxies and universes as it is replicating DNA. If that's the case, then one could argue that morality is traceable to a fundamantally objective source; it just wouldn't necessarily have to be God (unless you altered the criteria for a God, of course).

I apologise for the rambling nature of all this.

10:37 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

No need for apologies good sir. It's nice for me to have a little company in the rambling writers club!

You make some good observations here that I think we can all agree with. There's a couple points I'd like to make, but that will have to wait for another time. For the moment I am shocked and delighted to see that we may be close to agreeing on something fairly substantial. *gasp!*

I guess this means you'll be coming to church with me on Sunday then hu?

No need for an animated push back. It's only a joke.

;-)

6:59 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Actually, maybe I was getting Dennett confused with Pinker.

Pinker said the following (at some point, and may well have changed his mind since; he's like that),


"...Perhaps morality comes from the inherent logic of behavior that has consequences for other agents that have goals. If one of the goals is to increase total well-being, then certain consequences may follow in the same way that the Pythagorean theorem follows from the construction of a triangle. Moral truths may exist in the same sense that mathematical truths exist, as consequences of certain axioms..."

FromThe Edge

Like I say, I'm not quite there yet, but it's an idea I want to explore.

"I guess this means you'll be coming to church with me on Sunday then huh?"

There are only two churches I ever really felt comfortable in as an agnostic: this one and this one. Well, and maybe the National Cathedral in DC, too, but only because one of the gargoyles is a bust of Darth Vader.

10:52 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Dennett talks about "forced moves" in Darwin's Dangerous Idea - if you want behaviour X you need Y. If you have a species which develops locomotion, for example, it's going to need to develop a way of "seeing" its environment in order to be successful, otherwise locomotion is pretty redundant and even dangerous.

So if we discovered complex life on another planet which had developed a civilisation, it'd an extremely good bet that they've developed some form of morality to regulate their behaviour, and that "no murder" is probably high up on the list - as any society without it would be incredibly unstable and unable to deal with strong outside challenges.

6:42 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

I'm not sure we would want to, would we? For to to do so would be to condemn many of the people who have defended our nations.

Let's differentiate between murdering in cold blood and the unintended sort of killing that might take place on a battle field. The unintended battle field sorts of deaths we would say are tragic, but we would not necessarily feel compelled to affix the label "moral evil" to the said act. Context is everything. Our prior example was about a murder, which is a very different animal than simply "killing" (being at least a partial cause to the ending of life.) So in light of all that, I would say YES we do want to affirm that murdering innocent children is wrong for all times for all peoples. The fact that we even have such a word as "murder" (rather than just the more dispassionate word "kill") is evidence to that.

For everything you said in between: Well, let me respond to this by... and ...Israel/Palestine conflict are not very easy. I must say that yes, I think I can agree with you on most everything you said here. I can see how most all things we would call moral virtues (ex. compassion, cooperation, commitment, generosity, etc...) would probably be far more likely to lend survivability to a group than say, jealousy, vengeance, and spontaneous murder.

Still, as coherent as everything you said here is, it dodges the main point I'm driving at. The point is that we believe that there is a way for us to step outside all these various struggles to build and maintain codes of conduct, and ask the question: "Who is doing that which is right and who is not, or is anybody doing that which is right?" If we take a relativist stance that question is meaningless. If the relativist chooses to make any sort of value judgment on anothers way of doing things the only thing he has to compare the situation to is his own personal feelings. A relativist making moral assertions is the height of arrogance by the very system they claim to hold. Thus, they must sit back and shrug their shoulders while exclaiming: "if it works for them...", or else be dishonest in the holding of their own system.

Now let me clarify that I am not hereby advocating a position where a certain "action" is absolutely wrong in all places for all peoples. I am firmly a cultural relativist, in that I readily accept that different actions can mean very different things in different cultures. For instance if I say the word "crap" in the US, I am only uttering a mild slang term. But in South Africa the word "crap" is analogous to he F-bomb here in the States. Do I then assert that the South Africans are wrong since I believe in an objective morality? We can't BOTH be right, one might say. However, such talk is confusing morality with a code of conduct. There is fundamental principal that underlies this illustration and it deals with the act of causing offense to another. Regardless of the "action" in question, I would assert that it is immoral to intentionally offend another. Note that the word "intentionally" must be there for my assertion to hold. Morality has to do with a posture of the heart not necessarily the movements of ones body. And ultimately the basis of this claim is the duality between love and self. Love gives while self takes. Surly acting in love would be more "selective" in evolutionary terms, still I see that as selling short what we really mean by uttering moral statements.

Lemme know what you think of this.

7:24 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

The fact that we even have such a word as "murder" (rather than just the more dispassionate word "kill") is evidence to that.

Murder simply means the unlawful taking of life, as opposed to killing which covers all of it.

I don't think you can use this as the basis for an absolute statement, as what counts as murder will depend on the laws of that society. If, for example, a country decided to make the killing of children under 5 legal, it wouldn't be murder, yet you'd still count it as wrong. Or, if foetuses had the same legal rights as those who'd been born, it'd be murder to abort it - even to save the life of the mother. So you'd have to state that it's an absolute rule that the life of the foetus takes precedence over the mother in ALL cases.

A relativist making moral assertions is the height of arrogance by the very system they claim to hold.

Not sure where you get this from. Relativism and nihilism are too quite separate things.

If, as a relativist, I state that something is wrong in an absolute sense, then you're right - but few relativists do so. If, on the other hand, I suggest one course of action over another - providing reasons why I think it's best, then there's no contradiction. Relativists can use hypothetical imperatives - it's only the categorical kind that's denied.

Thus, they must sit back and shrug their shoulders while exclaiming: "if it works for them...", or else be dishonest in the holding of their own system.

I don't believe that taste can be thought of as existing in an absolute sense - whether apples are good or bad is down to the individual, but I can still recommend foods or meals that others may have rejected or failed to consider.

Most moral issues involve conflicts between individuals: X wants to kill, while Y wants to live. Refusing to choose sides is apathetic or nihilistic - the relativist can choose, and act on that choice, but in the awareness that he or she is fallible and acting on individual choice.

Regardless of the "action" in question, I would assert that it is immoral to intentionally offend another.

I'm in a pub with friends. While at the bar, one of my friends - a weak, little guy - is, through no fault of his own, confronted by a large drunk who wants to start a fight - if, believing that the only way to stop my friend being pummeled is to draw the drunk away, I intentionally offend the drunk (insulting his taste in shoes, or whatever), am I committing an immoral act?

8:14 AM

 
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11:56 PM

 

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