Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Common misconceptions about Moral Arguments

Common misconceptions about the statement “Objective morality cannot be grounded without a transcendent reality”

The idea of morality finding no 'grounding' without a transcendent reality (i.e. a reality that is more than just the natural, physical world, such as that which is postulated by theism) depends on what 'grounding' refers to. Defining it correctly changes the meaning of the statement drastically; I suggest that 'grounded' could be defined as 'made objectively true'. 'Objectively true' then refers to the idea that to say something like 'racism is wrong' is to make a statement about reality, which can be considered either 'true' or 'false' for all times and places, independent of what any contingent, physical mind believes about the matter. To say a moral maxim such as 'racism is wrong' is 'objectively true', is to say that it is true in the same way that the statement 'the moon exists' is true.

The statement above is frequently misunderstood. To clarify it, we shall explore some misconceptions about the idea; below are a few responses to these misconceptions about the meaning of the idea that truly objective morality cannot be grounded in a naturalistic worldview, which is one that denies the existence of a transcendent reality and hence any value independent of intelligent, physical minds. Looking at such misconceptions should help focus what the statement actually is referring to.

In short, this statement argues that, if morality is 'objective', this requires the existence of a reality that transcends physical reality, since physical reality itself is by nature indifferent about matters of morality. As has been observed from the time of Hume, one cannot arbitrarily move from a factual 'is' statement about an indifferent aspect of reality (such as the colour of a rock) to a prescriptive 'ought' statement pertaining to what a person 'ought' to do in a given situation. This is especially the case if we insist, as part of the definition of 'objectivity' (as has been done above), that such a statement must be independent of all human minds (or minds of any other species, for that matter). In other words, morality cannot be truly objective if this physical world is all there is.

The statement: “Objective morality cannot be grounded without a transcendent reality”

Misconception #1: “This statement is arguing that a non-theist cannot be moral.”

This is certainly not what this statement claims; non-theists certainly can, and do, perform countless highly virtuous, loving and compassionate acts. The statement is arguing philosophically about the nature of ethics itself (meta-ethics), and what this nature implies about reality itself. It is not judging the actual morality of any individual or any group of people; in fact, this is totally irrelevant to the statement.

Misconception #2: “This statement is arguing that a non-theist cannot be motivated to be moral”

Again, this is not what the statement claims. In a psychological sense, there are plenty of legitimate motivations for a non-theist individual to perform kind, compassionate and loving acts, as would be expected if the Christian conception of the creation of humankind in God's image is accurate. The statement is referring to the nature of ethics itself, not about psychology or motivation. It is not judging any person or group of people on their motivations or intentions.

Misconception #3: “This statement is arguing that a non-theist cannot know what is moral”

This misconception assumes that 'grounding' refers to 'knowledge of moral values', where, again, this is not the claim of the statement. 'Grounding' refers to the nature of moral values themselves, how they are 'grounded' in reality (how they relate to reality, and in what sense they 'exist') not how we know what these moral values are. There is no denial that a non-theist can know what is moral and immoral to a full extent. Indeed, this would be expected on the Christian worldview. It is not a question of epistemology (knowing), but of ontology (existing, being).

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A more accurate understanding

'Grounding' in this sense refers to none of these misconceptions; it is not a question of epistemology (knowledge) of moral truths, or of motivation, or of how moral non-theists are, but of ontology (the existence of moral truths). We are considering the question: in what sense do moral truths 'exist'? In fact, what 'grounding' refers to here is whether moral facts are real or an illusion, objective or subjective; is there a standard by which a perfect moral code can be attained regardless of what everyone believes, or is morality subjective, so that one moral standard cannot be judged as objectively better than another?

For example, would it still be the case that the statement 'racism is immoral' is true even if (hypothetically) every individual human alive on the planet believes that racism is, to the contrary, commendable, and that to not be racist is immoral? Moral objectivism would answer a 'Yes' to this question, since it subscribes to a moral law, which transcends human opinion, by which moral standards can be compared to one another and the objectively 'better' standard discerned. After this, hence, 'grounded' can be defined as, 'made objective'. To 'ground' a moral truth in something is to base the moral truth on an objective fact about reality.

I would say that the majority of people are at least partially objectivist in this sense in relation to morality, and can thus judge the morality that we see prevalent in the past because of a subscription to the idea that some moral standards are objectively preferable to others. For example, the modern standard of definite shunning of racism can be objectively judged as superior to the racist attitudes of the past, based on the objective moral truth that 'racism is wrong'.

The implication is that there is the potential for morals to be objectively grounded in (based upon) God's nature, which is objective in that it is independent of all human minds (or any mind that is part of physical reality), and is not arbitrary in that God's nature of desiring compassionate love is unchanging, independent of time or place. To the contrary, on a naturalistic view, there is little way in which objective moral truths can exist. If they are grounded in human opinion or human consensus, then they are subjective rather then objective (since they are mind-dependent), and vary based on time and culture. If they are grounded on human intuition or on just 'what seems right', this can vary and is arbitrary, coming from the result of unpredictable influences and social bias. If they are grounded in emotion, this is again too variable. If one attempts to ground them in an indifferent aspect of the physical world (such as the colour of a rock), this is arbitrary and unjustified, moving improperly from an 'is' to an 'ought', and again more based on the human minds deciding to ground moral facts in such a way than on any aspect of objective reality. These views do not effectively allow one standard held by one group of people to be judged effectively against another standard held by another group of people, and so do not allow objectivism.

Therefore, the statement is not about motivation, or knowledge of morality, but about whether moral values are 'real' and 'objective', with the implication that such objectivism is difficult to ground (i.e. 'make objective') without some form of transcendent reality. This means that arbitrary standards independent of God cannot be legitimately used to judge God, since such standards are subjective, not being based in a transcendent, human mind-independent reality. In addition, if objective morality is acknowledged to exist, this provides a powerful argument for the necessity of God as a human mind-independent intelligent Being in whose nature this objective morality can be grounded.

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting article and I agree with the vast majority of it. You certainly illuminate what objective morality actually means and some of the ways it has been misinterpreted by atheists and theists alike.

    If objective morals exist, that would seem to present a rather substantial challenge to naturalism. To do so, however, you have to posit that a claim like, "racism is wrong" would be equally true on Earth as it is in the centre of the sun; a black hole; or even before the Universe itself was created.

    I’m curious what it would be to ask a question like, “is racism wrong,” before life had even existed. That’s not really a challenge to the claim, just a curious feature.

    What I would follow up with is, what evidence do you have that objective morality exists? To say that “racism is wrong” is a true statement at all times and in all places (from time to time, people just get it wrong). Moreover, what predictions would such a theory make?

    For example, and correct me if I’m wrong, but if I was working from the hypothesis that objective morality exists, I would expect that people should, at all times, know right from wrong. They should have, throughout history, known that slavery was amoral.

    Now, accordingly with free will, they might decide to keep slaves anyway, but the point is they should know that doing so is not moral, and they should never truly think that keeping slaves is moral. This even more true if that is a God that exists that wants us to be moral. In order for humans to honour God, they should at the very least have an implicit understanding of right and wrong, and only from that basis decide whether to be moral or be not moral.

    Personally, if I were an alien with no other familiarity with the human race, and I was asked to make a prediction about human behaviour based on your hypothesis, that’s the kind of prediction that I would make.

    I would also be painfully wrong.

    If there is no such thing as objective morality, then that leaves us – as you accurately note – with subjective morality. From this hypothesis, I would predict that people would largely try to make sense of the world according to their own contexts. They would frequently disagree about moral questions and even change their mind from time to time.

    Now, accordingly with evolutionary adaptations towards greater altruism than selfishness, we should see slight trends towards more empathetic behaviour. As language and symbolic thinking evolves, we should also expect to see these behaviours become codified and regulated, still subjective to change, but reflecting a shared understanding of the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

    The golden rule, in this context, is not a moral absolute, but a rational understanding that if I do not want others to do harm by me, then I should not do harm by them.

    So, my final question to you is, which prediction better fits the reality that we see around us today?

    -The Hungry Atheist


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