Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Atheist Argument from Morality

Luke of Commonsense Atheism has finally woken me up from my blogging slumber for much the same reason as he had (similar to the debate that triggered his post), Luke's post in turn gives me reason to write a post I have been wanting to write for a long time. His post was inspired by a debate between Christian apologist Sean McDowell and humanist and atheist history teacher James Corbett on the question: Is God the Best Explanation for Moral Values?


I listened to the opening argument (provided in the previous link) by Sean McDowell and am responding only to this. I have not listened to the rest of the talk and have no opinion as to how well James Corbett dealt with McDowell's argument but assume from Luke's post that Corbett failed to address the central points in McDowell's argument.

Luke has given his own response to McDowell, basing his reply on desirism, which is the same ethical framework that I have been promoting in this blog. However I am here giving a quite different response which will also indicate why I do not think his is the right approach to McDowell's challenge, although there is nothing in his reply which is incorrect. Reading the comments to Luke's post indicates the problem, it can be made diversionary and allows defenders of theistic-based morality to avoid dealing with the many failings of their own theory. This is not to say that Luke did not also highlight such failings, he did and quite correctly too, however the way his post was presented allows these issues to be side stepped and as much as it is a problem in a blog post I conjecture it would have been worse in a live debate.

Well I might be wrong about this and this can be resolved so by writing this post so that interested readers (as well as Luke) can compare and contrast our responses for the specific issues at hand.

McDowell's Argument

In McDowell's opening argument he makes two central claims:
  1. If God does not exist, we do not have a solid foundation for [objective] moral values.
  2. If God does exist, we do have a solid foundation for [objective] moral values.
In support of this McDowell provides “three criteria that any adequate moral system must be able to account for”:
  1. Any adequate moral system must have a transcendent standard beyond human nature.
  2. Any adequate moral system must account for free will.
  3. Any adequate moral system must account for what makes humans special.
This is all used to support William Lane Craig's Argument from Morality:
  1. If God does not exist then objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
Finally he asserts that the only alternative to his central claims are in terms of subjective preferences and that if anyone is to argue for a better explanation for (objective) moral values than god, then they need to provide a better alternative, as subjective preferences fails. This is what he requests of Corbett (and I do not know what Corbett's reply is but , according to Luke, he fails) and to which Luke responds with desirism.

Now behind all this he makes a number of fallacious informal rhetorical arguments, such as appeals to consequences, fear and comfort, primarily to convince his audience if they needed convincing) of the necessity of objective moral values, referring to the Nuremberg trials and a horrendous date rape amongst others. I note this only to show later there is a more implicit rhetorical device and problem with his argument (see "A Secondary Point" below).


A Valid Candidate?
There is a presumption behind his argument which is a false dichotomy, that his is the only foundation for objective moral values or there are no objective moral values. That the only alternative to a theistic-based morality is subjective preferences - which clearly denies objective moral values. He tries make the only viable response to this argument beholden on the responder to come with a third alternative for which he is presumably prepared to dissect, whatever it is. However to provide an alternative - well defended or not - is to grant too much to McDowell, as this implies that his is a viable explanation of moral values with the dispute then revolving around whom has the better explanation.

I make no such grant, I instead dispute not that god is the best explanation for objective moral values but whether such an explanation is even a candidate explanation. Until McDowell can establish this could be a type of explanation of objective moral values, there is no need and it is diversionary to propose another alternative.

We know that many great minds have considered this question thought the ages and there are quite a few theories that argue for objective moral values and are largely united in rejecting theistic-based morality, of the kind that McDowell espouses, as a viable alternative. This applies to theistic thinkers not just atheistic and proto-atheistic thinkers. For example, the utilitarian Henry Sidgwick tried to argue the god was a utilitarian, which is a radically different thesis from McDowell. Another example is the deontologist Immanuel Kant, who argued for God as a synthetic a priori whilst at the same time establishing morality, quite independently of God, on the basis of his categorical imperative. There are many others.

Furthermore the largest ever survey of professional philosophers has shown that the majority of them believe in moral realism and the majority of those are atheists. Note that just because one is a philosopher does not give one special authority to espouse on moral matters and many of them do not specialise in ethics. However we do know that most, if not all philosophers, are better equipped, due to training, to be familiar with the key concepts and issues involved with the tips, tricks and traps of reasoning in this domain and still this is the majority position. How could this be possible if McDowell's above noted dichotomy were true?

Indeed in ethics, which can happily grant the existence of a god, the question as to whether god could be basis for an objective morality is generally regarded as a long failed project being labelled as a species of ethical subjectivism. The fact that the popular conception of these issues is widely divergent to the view within ethics and without such a divergence the subject of this topic would have been unlikely to be debated by McDowell and Corbett is incidental and of no real substance. What is of substance is as to whether McDowell does have a viable argument to explain objective moral values and we cannot just presume and allow that this is so. This needs to be answered first and only if McDowell can show that this is a viable candidate can we then contemplate comparing his argument with others as to which is the "best".

A Side Issue?
Now we have another issue to deal with before we get to the substance of the matter. Although McDowell has presented an argument for his god - "the moral argument" - this is not the primary question in this debate. That is what is the best explanation for moral value.

Now as a moral realist, I can happily grant, along with the majority of professional and atheist philosophers, amongst others, McDowell's second premise in this argument that objective moral values exist. (And I did not need any rhetorical devices such as the date rape example to reach this conclusion).

We only need discuss why anyone does hold objective moral values once we have resolved in McDowell's first premise claims in his favour, which I dispute can be done. So even though this argument is a secondary issue here, it does revolve around the acceptance or not of his first premise, which pertains to the central theme of this debate.

It is beholden on everyone, regardless of their view on his moral argument for god, who wishes to come to an honest unbiased conclusion over the central topic, to suspend judgement as to whether such a god exists (me included with a negative view). If one cannot then one disqualifies oneself from being a fair and impartial judge in this debate.

McDowell's presentation of this argument is a somewhat dubious rhetorical device. Debates in ethics are not usually about arguments for the existence of god. Whether intentional or not, McDowell, by introducing this argument, is "loading the dice". Given this I have no choice but to "unload the dice" and so will respond to this argument in particular even though you may not like or be uncomfortable with my conclusion, such discomfort, for the believers of McDowell's God amongst my readers, are unsound grounds to decide the primary argument.

McDowell's First Criterion
This is:
Any adequate moral system must have a transcendent standard beyond human nature.
Really why is this qualified with "human nature"? What is this mysterious "transcendent standard"? Since we are talking about objective moral values what do ethicists consider the underlying issue? Well I take a stricter criterion for objective moral values, namely moral realism (anyone who argues for moral realism has to to be endorsing some form of objective moral values). This states that ethical propositions are true independent of subjective opinion. I cannot see McDowell disputing this he has said almost as much himself in criticising subjective preferences.

Further McDowell needs to make an argument that this is only beyond human "nature" rather than any sentient being's nature. This appears to be a double standard. If McDowell is arguing for a morality which is conditional on what type of sentient being is under question, this is no different from the Nazis operating under different laws to the allies that he discussed. This is not the basis for objective moral values. Whether we are talking about aliens or god we are still talking about sentient beings, it appears quite arbitrary to include one and exclude the others. The fact that there may or may not be aliens is as moot as whether there may or may not be gods or God. If either exist they cannot be excluded from the consideration of their subjective opinions as denying objective moral values. Calling this "nature" makes no difference. If it is ones nature to have certain opinion unalterable by any circumstance it is still an opinion, whoever one is.

As for a mysterious "transcendent standard" I can only read this as transcending any individual or group that there is a standard beyond them and this is usually called "nature" (intended clearly quite differently to McDowell's use of the term in his criterion). It is the same standard as that of any other empirical discipline, nature is the way it is regardless of however much we want it otherwise, regardless of the strength or certainty of our opinions. (I note that this is not an argument for evolutionary based morality in this context "it is gene's nature" is just as problematic as "it is in god's nature").

There no need for a "higher law" as McDowell implied in his rhetoric over the judicial resolution to the Nazis claims to be only following order according to their legal framework. Ethics and law are related but not the same and one can consider the ethics of any law in any jurisdiction. Law alone cannot make morality - unless one is arguing for a relativism which McDowell is opposed to.

Connecting these themes together, of course law in the natural world is descriptive not prescriptive and it would be equivocation to argue otherwise.

McDowell's Second Criterion
This is
Any adequate moral system must account for free will.
Well this criterion bundles in a whole set of issues that would require a separate debate, so I can only be brief here. There are two issues here. The first is as to whether God is necessary for us to have free will of the kind McDowell endorses more explicitly this is libertarian, contra-causal or supernatural free will. Secondly the issue is not free will but moral responsibility and there relations. That is what any adequate moral system must account for.

With respect to the first issue this is an un-argued for assertion by McDowell.Plenty of religious people deny such a god as McDowell's yet assert there is such a free will as McDowell believes in. Consider many variants of Buddhism, Taoism, Adviata Vedanta and other religions. However it would be diversionary to pursue McDowell's error further as the second point is far more fatal to McDowell's implications here.

What McDowell is, presumably, concerned about is that without his type of free will there can be no moral responsibility. Now note the danger of an appeal to consequences, it may have in fact been the case that there is no moral responsibility, merely wanting that this not be the case is not a justification or argument for McDowell's type of free will.

As it happens we do not need to worry, moral responsibility more than adequately works under determinism (and a compatibilist concept of free will, if you like). Indeed when one considers the issue in detail a McDowell type of free will appears incompatible with moral responsibility. With such a free will, no amount moral praise or blame, reward or punishment can affect such a will, it will do what it do quite regardless of the affects of these social forces and anything else. If it were always affected by these social forces then it would not be the type of free will McDowell assumes. By contrast numerous empirical studies in cognitive, moral and social psychology support a natural basis of responsibility. Indeed one could take something similar McDowell's moral argument and present it with the opposite conclusion
P1. If moral responsibility exists, then McDowell's (god-given) free will does not exist
P2. Moral Responsibility exists
C1. McDowell free will does not exist.
Whatever else might be said this is an incredibly weak criterion that looks more like trying to deflect a significant weakness in McDowell's case by assuming the opposite of where the evidence and philosophy goes and invoking a fear of consequences to hide this move.

McDowell's Third Criterion
This is:
Any adequate moral system must account for what makes humans special.
What does special mean and why just human? I have already dealt with the second point in McDowell''s first criterion. It is difficult to know what McDowell means by "special" here the most charitable one I can come up with is that humans (and other higher sentient agents) are special in that they are capable of responding to verbal social forces - commendation and condemnation and so on - and that they are capable of reasoning about these issue. Animals (on this planet at least) are mostly not capable of either, especially the second. This is does not seem to be a hugely significant criterion as the issues are fairly obvious to anyone as far as I can see.

The status of McDowell's three criteria
The first criterion seems to be a semantic manipulation what is meant by objective to permit what is otherwise the subjective opinion of an deity to appear to be objective. This is denied

The second makes an assertion of the importance of god for free will hence responsibility, yet the slightest consideration reveals deep problems in this un-argued for assertion and it was sufficient to expose it for the rhetorical device that it was, even if there is not enough time to investigate it properly - which would be outsider the topic of this debate anyway. It certainly fails to establish any necessity for god through the back- door of free will.

The third criterion does not seem to be saying much of anything being in support of his first criterion irrational separation of human nature from other sentient beings.

The Status of his Central Claims
So where does this leave his central claims? First we need to introduce an idea that was tacitly indicated at the beginning of my response. Why do most ethicists and other philosophers not consider McDowell's god a contender for an explanation of objective moral values? (Note this also applies to many ethicists and philosophers who do deny objective moral values, the following argument works regardless of their independent reasons to support or deny objective moral values)

Well there are two reasons. The first is based on Plato dialogue concerning Socrates' dilemma to Euthyphro. I have written about this exhaustively elsewhere and so will not repeat myself here. To summarise, assuming since McDowell uses Craig's argument from morality that he also agrees with Craig's definition of theistic moral value, with the failed Thomist solution, the dilemma is "is it moral good because it is in God's eternal nature or is it in god's eternal nature because it is good"? If one takes the first horn, as everything in McDowell's argument indicates that he does, then he has chosen the subjective horn.

The second reason goes to point that McDowell raises at the beginning of his argument and only half correctly notes that it is not substantive to the central topic, namely that "believers can do bad things, and do them in the name of God." Now merely to provide a list of examples that agree with this is, as McDowell notes, not a substantive point in this debate. However he is only half correct since the issue is not that this has occurred, which he grants, but that there is no objective basis to determine who is correct. Whatever reasons and evidences McDowell proposes to support his view, equivalent are and have been proposed to claims at best contradictory and at worst contrary to his. There are no objective means to distinguish such claims., only subjective and relative ones, which McDowell implies elsewhere are no basis at to determining objective moral values.

The Euthyphro point is over ontological subjectivity whereas this second point is over epistemological subjectivity, a question of how or anyone can know what objective moral values are. As much as he would like to know what is really right and wrong his conception of theistic-based morality can provide neither ontological grounds nor epistemological knowledge, so far from god providing the best grounds for (objective) moral value, it provides no grounds nor knowledge of such values.

To update McDowells' two central claims:

  1. If a McDowell type God does not exist, we could have a solid foundation for [objective] moral values.
  2. If a McDowell type God does exist, there cannot be a solid foundation for [objective] moral values.

Here claim 1 is straightforward we must look elsewhere for such a foundation. Claim 2 is far stronger and I might have made too strong, however it does seem to follow logically from everything discussed so far. So I will finish by expanding on my revision of McDowell's second claim.

An Atheist Argument from Morality
I think this is sufficient to establish this McDowell's explanation is a failed candidate, but I would like to go further and show that it is not even wrong as an explanation. Given that he has already utilised Craig's purported Argument from Morality we can revisit this and re-examine the above stated problematic first premise.

P1. If a McDowell type God does not exist then objective moral values do not exist.
P2. Objective moral values do exist.
C1.Therefore, a McDowell type God exists.

As stated far above I grant Premise 2 but my response shows many problems with P1 and would replace it with P3.
P3. If objective moral values exist then a McDowell type God does not exist

This leads, with P2, to a new conclusion
C2. Therefore, a McDowell type God does not exist.

Note that I qualified this notion of god, this is a specific argument at a very specific conception of god, many theists do not have such a conception of god, and for them such an argument holds no merit but then they would also agree that god is not the best basis for objective moral values! This argument is not aimed at such theists.

A final point is that you non-theistic non-moral realist readers do not have to agree with P2 , you can deny it if you wish. The issue is that McDowell (and Craig etc.) do not, and their position leads to a performative contradiction. If they insist that objective moral values exist they cannot also assert that moral values are based upon god's eternal nature, they are, as far as I can see, logically incompatible, indeed to maintain such a position is actually incoherent.

As for wishing to consider who has the best explanation of moral values, their candidate is a complete non-starter since it is not even wrong and no amount of debate, dispute and dissection of any other moral theory that, however poor or well, does endeavour to explain objective moral values can ever make it a candidate let alone the best explanation.

Indeed all the argument indicates that the only honest and true conclusion to make it that if one does believe there are objective moral values, then this is a good reason to dis-believe in the existence of such a god.


Winstanley said...

But there is not the slightest trace of evidence that there are "objective moral values" in the world --or for that matter free will. What kind of thing would they be anyway? How would they look like? Are they floating around us? Can we detect them somehow?...

Moral realism is your enemies' troyan horse. Now, you seem to make this unwarranted assumption.

1. IF objective moral values do not exist, THEN we cannot make judgements that are "independent of subjective opinion".

faithlessgod said...

Hi Winstanley

First note that I have not discussed in this post how I think there can be objective moral value. I certainly agree that the type of objective moral you imply and think does not exist I too think does not exist and for much the same reasons.

However that does not exhaust the category of objective moral value but I have discussed this issue in numerous posts. Search for "desire utilitarianism" or the ethics tag if you are interested.

As for moral realism per se it is now becoming the dominant view in 21st century ethics whether desire- or value-based or based on reason to act as brute facts. This is where the action is in ethics, I take one particular position in the area.

As for moral realism being "your [my] enemies trojan horse" the point of this post is that it rather my (our?) trojan horse. Divine Command theories are irrealist and subjective and they cannot argue for any kind of genuine moral realism without contradicting themselves into incoherence, hence McDowell's position being not even wrong.

The underlying motive of this post is not to pussy foot about this fundamental and irredeemable flaw in such theories, one that can be made regardless of whether one thinks that objective moral exist or not.

Your final conditional statement is not relevant to this post.

faithlessgod said...

Maybe I misunderstood your last point.

Are you saying it is an unwarranted assumption that if objective moral value does not exist then we cannot make moral judgements independent of subjective opinion?

I fail to see how this is unwarranted. Please show me a counter-argument if you disagree.

Luke said...

I don't see the distance between us, but I'm certainly glad you wrote this.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Luke

There is no distance between us, certainly on this topic. My main point here was what is or should be relevant to raise in such a debate tactically.

Winstanley said...

My point was that before conceding the objectivity of values (which, at least for the theist would imply some ontology, some god-given spiritual realm) it'd be appropiate to address the skeptical challenge:

- If there were no objective moral values, that would make no difference, we would still be able to explain moral behaviour.

- Together with law of parsimony, that we should get rid of unnecesarry assumptions.

I'm not saying that your line of argument isn't valid. Indeed you show that even if values are objectives, that doesn't make theist right. I'm not suggesting either that moral skepticism has no problems of its own (being the slippery slope of nihilism and so on), but it has in my view less problems, in particular it makes no ontological claim and it's more congenial to a naturalistic (i.e. atheist) outlook of the world.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Winstanley

I was a reluctant endorser of objective moral values because of the history of theistic claims in this regard. Worried that that endorsing objective moral values gives unfounded credence to theistic claims to explain them.

However this is an illegitimate argument for me to reject objective moral values on such as basis - an argument from consequences - and I think this illegitimately biases too many non-theists against this position too. That it is simpler to deny objective moral values and have done with it.

Of course any positive argument for objective moral values has to survive scrutiny and the most familiar ones all fail, they have no merit. However this does not exhaust the category of objective moral values and there are quite a few theories, especially in 21st century ethics, that support moral realism both reductive and non-reductive naturalism and many different reductive naturalisms to boot, indeed this is where pretty much all the action is nowadays.

You are of course entitled to your moral skepticism and that is not the topic of this thread. My argument may turn out wrong and those of professional ethicists too but nothing, as I hope my post makes clear, can re-habilitate theistic-based morality. If modern ethics fails then there are no objective moral values.

Very usefully however, as an additional point, my position enables me to reclaim objective moral values for the rest of us and that is I think of benefit to all of us, even if it finally turns there are no such entities.

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Jon said...

You said, "To summarise, assuming since McDowell uses Craig's argument from morality that he also agrees with Craig's definition of theistic moral value, with the failed Thomist solution, the dilemma is 'is it moral good because it is in God's eternal nature or is it in god's eternal nature because it is good'? If one takes the first horn, as everything in McDowell's argument indicates that he does, then he has chosen the subjective horn."

This same argument undermines support for any sort of Atheistic Moral Realism. Consider this:

"Is 'the non-theistic standard of good' good because to be good is just what the 'non-theistic standard of good is,' or is 'the non-theistic standard of good' good because it has all the properties of goodness?"

If option one is chosen,then goodness is merely arbitrary. If option two is chosen, then any 'non-theistic standard of good' is not the standard of good.
Just sayin'! Your argument cuts both ways.

And finally, the theist could definitely argue that God's nature (just like God's existence) is necessarily the way it is, and is not subjective at all.