I had originally intended to post this in the comment thread to my first article here as a guest author, titled, Does It Matter What We Believe About Morality? In the end, however, it turned out to be sufficiently long and detailed that it seemed to warrant a new original post. If it’s preferred that this type of thing simply stay in the comments section then please let me know for future reference.
In comment #39 for that article, Popperian made some thoughtful contributions. This is a reply to that comment, with most of his original text reproduced for reference.
Popperian, you said:
Think of it this way…
Before one could actually apply any set of objective moral principles, wouldn’t this necessitate a way by which one could actually know what those objective moral principles are?
I would say that before one could intentionally apply any given objective moral principle (or truth) in a correct way, the person would first need to know what that moral principle was. But it would not be necessary for a person to perfectly grasp all objective moral truths before they could intentionally and correctly apply any of them. Of course, it is also the case that someone could happen to act in accord with an objective moral truth without necessarily knowing that it is a moral truth, and even if they are not specifically trying to act in accord with some moral truth for its own sake.
In other words, on the view that objective morality exists, people can act in accord with moral truths regardless of whether they know those truths or care to act in accord with them, because there are objective moral truths that exist to be acted in accord with (Moral Ontology) whether people know them or not (Moral Epistemology).
[HeKS: As for the truth of the existence of objective morality, I’m of the opinion that belief in objective morality is properly basic, in the same way that it’s properly basic to believe in the existence of external minds and the reality of the past.]
This appears to be a sort of foundationalism. However, one major criticism of foundationalism is that where one chooses to stop, and therefore what one choose to consider not subject to criticism, is arbitrary.
But I never said that a properly basic belief in objective morality is not subject to criticism. If I thought it was immune to any criticism as a result of thinking it is properly basic then I wouldn’t have bothered to address the common arguments / criticisms that are leveled against it, such as the one offered by Acartia_bogart.
So, rather than having basic and non-basic beliefs, a better, simpler explanation is that we adopt ideas that we do not have significant criticism of. And, I’m suggesting that moral ideas are subject to this same process of rational criticism, just like all other ideas.
Believe it or not, I think that might be going too easy on basic beliefs if we accept as basic (or what I’m calling basic) any idea for which we haven’t happened to have heard any significant criticism, though maybe I’m misunderstanding you.
First of all, I think we should try to criticize our own basic beliefs, but what I think seems like a reasonable criteria for a basic belief is one that seems to be coherent, that seems to make sense of, at a deep level, the breadth of the human experience, that seems to result from the deeply held rational intuition of humanity in general, that is not logically incompatible with other properly basic beliefs, and that does not face any logical defeaters (which would show that it necessarily fails at least one of the previous criteria), but which can, nonetheless, not be proven to be true, at least in isolation, by a purely deductive argument or through incontrovertible tangible evidence.
IOW, conjecture and criticism, in one form or another, is our best, current explanation for the universal growth of knowledge in brains, books and even genes.
This claim, at least in part or if taken as absolute, seems to assume the non-existence of God, or at least that if God exists he has not, does not or could not communicate knowledge to humans. Still, this point may be moot, because you seem to be trying to convince me that a belief in objective morality ought to be subject to criticism, which is something I’ve never denied.
In one of my comments I offered this quote from atheist Peter Cave:
“Whatever sceptical arguments may be brought against our belief that killing the innocent is morally wrong, we are more certain that the killing is morally wrong than that the argument is sound… Torturing an innocent child for the sheer fun of it is morally wrong. Full stop.“
In response, you said:
As pointed out, we cannot positively justify any moral principle, but we can criticize the idea of torturing an innocent child and discard it.
First, I think I would be more inclined to say that we cannot, in isolation, deductively prove the truth of any given moral principle. I’m not so sure we can’t “positively justify” any objective moral principle as part of a larger picture and argument that includes God’s existence.
That said, I’m not sure how you think we can criticize the idea of torturing an innocent child and discard it without assuming the existence of objective moral truths. You could discard it as something that doesn’t personally appeal to you, but you couldn’t discard it as something that is objectively wrong such that there would be any basis for compelling someone else not to do it.
Of course, you could try to argue, as many do, that torturing children for fun is not helpful to the progress and survival of society or humanity as a whole and so it shouldn’t be done, but arguments of this kind are fraught with problems.
For example, perhaps the most obvious problem is that there’s not much reason to think that such actions would have any long-reaching effect on society or humanity as a whole if they were relatively rare, which means that this utilitarian standard (“it’s not good for the progress and survival of society and humanity”) would still fail to identify any given case of torturing a child, or of doing anything else, as being wrong under the guiding principles of the moral system. And hey, if the child survives he might even go on to reproduce. No harm, no foul.
To address this deficiency, people sometimes resort to the idea that we can identify something as being morally wrong in this kind of utilitarian system simply by measuring the moral value of an action against the question, “What if everyone did that?” Sure, it’s hyperbolic, but it’s an attempt at a consistent measure in a pinch. Well, when we measure child-torture against that question, I suppose we can agree that if everyone in society was committed to torturing children for fun, society would probably go downhill quite a bit, though it’s certainly possible that society and humanity as a whole might still survive, grim though it may be, provided the torture didn’t go on too long and the majority of children survived to reproduce. It’s amazing what people can get used to.
Of course, even those who propose the idea of determining what is morally right and wrong in light of such hyperbolic considerations tend to quickly shrink back from its implications. Why? Well, even though the possibility exists that society and humanity might ultimately survive in some way even if everyone was committed to the torture (but not murder) of children for fun, society and humanity would have no chance of getting off so easy if we ask this question about the practice of homosexuality and abortion. If everyone was committed to the practice of homosexuality and to aborting babies, society would crumble and humanity, without question, would die off. This puts us in the rather uncomfortable position of having to affirm that, within such a utilitarian moral system governed by the “What if everyone did that?” principle, the practice of homosexuality and abortion would be even more morally abhorrent than the torturing of children for fun. Frankly, I think you’d have difficulty finding many Christians who would agree. The conclusion certainly runs contrary to the modern zeitgeist.
Really, though, there’s a much deeper problem with this moral system, which is that it simply assumes that the continued progress, prosperity and survival of society and humanity as a whole ought to somehow be considered objectively good. But in the absence of objective moral truths there is no rational basis for thinking this is true, as the radical environmentalists calling for the extinction of 90% of the human race would be only too happy to tell you. On what basis could you compel them to agree with your opinions about the value of humanity’s survival? No such basis exists.
To illustrate, according to the Bible, God also supposedly punishes women by causing their womb to miscarriage, drowned children in the flood, threaten to kill all the first born in Egypt if the Israelites are not released, but then hardens the heart of the Pharaoh and makes good on his promise, teaches the use of a “bitter water” as a sort test/punishment to abort a fetus conceived through infidelity and commands the death of children and non-virgin women of peoples that are “enemies” of his chosen people.
However, given current day knowledge of the impact of those choices on people, would we accept this sort of behavior today from, well, anyone?
Rather than addressing each of your Biblical examples in detail to consider whether you have accurately understood and represented them and their context , I’m going to stay focused on the topic of the original article and point out that even if we allow that you are correct in your understanding and presentation of these issues, the fact remains that if objective moral truths do not exist, you would have no rational basis for not accepting this or any other sort of behavior from anyone anyway. You could dislike it. You could come up with arbitrary rules to prevent it. But you could never come up with any rational basis for claiming that someone who chooses to ignore those rules has done anything truly wrong. Nor could you come up with any rational basis for why anyone should feel compelled to agree with your arbitrary rules or the underlying philosophy on which they might be based.
The best explanation for moral progress is that we guess about which responses we could make in a given situation, guess which of those are the most moral, then criticize them. It’s an iterative, error correcting process, not a process of justification.
What you don’t seem to understand is that if objective moral values, duties and truths do not actually exist, then everything you just wrote is incoherent.
In order to make progress there needs to exist an actual destination and an objectively correct direction of travel. If objective moral truths don’t exist, then the concept of moral progress is simply incoherent. We could make moral change, but we could never make actual moral progress because there is nothing to progress towards and no correct direction or path upon which to travel.
It is also incoherent to talk about guessing which human responses are “most moral”. What does that even mean if objective moral truths don’t exist? Trying to guess at which responses are “most moral” would be like trying to guess at which lion in the zoo feels most guilty about the fat content of its lunch, or which rock in the park loves its children the most. They are merely words strung together without any coherent connection to reality. It’s simple nonsense.
And, again, it’s incoherent to talk about changes in a moral system as being “an iterative, error-correcting process” if objective moral truths don’t exist. In their absence, there can be no such thing as moral error, and so there can be no such thing as moral error-correction.
In fact, I’d suggest that the idea that we have somehow have obtained one, unchanging set of moral principles is, in of itself, immoral as It doesn’t take into account what we know, or the lack there of, and changing conditions, etc.
Without objective moral values and duties, the concept of “immoral” is incoherent. You cannot make an objectively true value judgment about any thing or action if objective moral values and duties don’t really exist. Why should we take into account what we know or don’t know? Why should we account for changing conditions? Your argument hinges on the implied validity of ought statements but you have no rational basis for insisting that any oughts whatsoever really exist.
To deny that we can make progress is bad philosophy.
Funny, and here I thought that incoherence and logical absurdity was bad philosophy.
Evil is the lack of knowledge because the laws of physics are really not that onerous to what we really want.
If objective moral truths don’t exist, nothing is evil. Things might be disliked, annoying, contrary to personal tastes, etc., but certainly not evil.
For example, as far as we know, the laws of physics do not prohibit the transfer of an unwanted fetus into a woman who wants a child or even creating an artificial womb. As such the only thing preventing us from doing so is knowing how. This is not to say this wouldn’t lead to new problems to solve, but it would render abortion unnecessary.
Why doesn’t God, being all knowing, divinely reveal the knowledge of how to do these things, avoiding the problem all together; as opposed to merely divinely revealing not to abort children, which he would have done quite poorly. If God supposedly “programmed” us to already objectively know not to abort children anyway, why repeat the same thing, rather than provide a soluiton?
I’m sorry, but this is simply absurd. You are trying to argue that abortion becomes necessary simply because a pregnancy is unwanted and that God therefore ought (there’s that word again) to reveal to humans some kind of amazing technology so that a mother’s will need never be made subject to another human’s right to life. The fact that a woman who becomes pregnant decides she doesn’t want the child does not make the abortion of that child necessary. She could carry the child to term and then make arrangements for the child to be placed in someone else’s care. But even if this whole argument weren’t absurd, there would be no grounds for saying God ought to do anything at all if objective moral values and duties didn’t really exist.
Having set out to actually solve this problem and, by the sweat of our own brows, create the knowledge of how to solve it, wouldn’t that make us more moral than God?
What is this “problem” you speak of? If objective moral truths, values and duties don’t truly exist then the state of any moral system at any point in time can never be a problem. There is nothing to solve. There’s no problem and no solution because there’s no objective reality to act as an ultimate standard. A moral system simply is what it is. Others will be different. But one will never be objectively better or worse than another. How can not solving a moral problem that doesn’t exist make us more moral than God? And how can anyone be more moral than anyone else? None of these statements make any sense if objective moral truths don’t exist.
Of course, then there’s the fact that if objective moral truths do exist, they must be grounded in God, in the very nature of what he is, and moral values and duties stem from his commands, which are necessarily consistent with his nature. If this is the case, then the very concept of being more moral than God is utterly incoherent.
And, well, if you decide that maybe you do believe in the existence of objective moral truths, values and duties but you think they can be grounded in something other than God, then you must jump on the bandwagon with Alex Rosenberg and the myriad other atheists and materialists who have been trying to find a rational way to ground objective morality in something other than God for the past 150 years.
 In spite of not addressing your individual examples in detail, I will make a few comments on this issue.
It is notable that whenever someone seeks to paint God as some kind of moral monster in order to suggest that either objective moral values don’t exist or at least cannot be grounded in God, they universally rely on the Old Testament alone. They have precious little and not very harsh criticism to offer of the moral model set forth in the New Testament. But why is this? It is, after all, the same God in both the Old and New Testament, as the NT informs us repeatedly.
Well, if we’re interested in getting anything even resembling an accurate understanding of this matter, we need to ask ourselves whether there were any underlying factors to explain the different requirements set out for God’s people in those different time periods. And, as it happens, there are at least two significant ones that should immediately come to mind.
First, in OT times, the ransom to make possible the forgiveness of sins on the part of imperfect humans had not yet been paid by Christ. As I said in my original article, part of the point of the Mosaic Law was to make the Jewish people understand just how much that ransom was needed. Why? Because, as Romans 6:23 says, “The wages sin pays is death”.
Second, the Jewish people were in a very unique position. They were a people selected out of the nations for a special purpose, to participate in a covenant arrangement with God in order to receive a lofty gift and privilege. Consider the passage in Exodus 19:3-8:
Then Moses went up to the true God, and Jehovah called to him from the mountain, saying: “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and to tell the Israelites, ‘You have seen for yourselves what I did to the Egyptians, in order to carry you on wings of eagles and bring you to myself. Now if you will strictly obey my voice and keep my covenant, you will certainly become my special property out of all peoples, for the whole earth belongs to me. You will become to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you are to say to the Israelites.”
So Moses went and summoned the elders of the people and declared to them all these words that Jehovah had commanded him. After that all the people answered unanimously: “All that Jehovah has spoken, we are willing to do.” Moses immediately took the people’s response to Jehovah.
The Jewish people willingly and unanimously entered into a contract with God, fully informed of its strict moral guidelines and the payment for gross sin. This was not some covenant that was foisted upon them or that they agreed to blindly. They knew what was required of them but also knew of the reward that was promised to them. If they remained faithful and lived in accord with the terms of the contract they would become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” to God. In order to become that kingdom of priests, however, it was vitally important that they remain morally and spiritually pure, which is why the punishment for immorality, whether of a sexual or spiritual nature, was both severe and swift.
When it came to the action that God had Israel take against other nations, however, it was not because they contravened the strict requirements of the Law Covenant, but because they grossly and continuously violated the “law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:14, 15), having become utterly morally repugnant and corrupted beyond repair. The Canaanites, for example, routinely burned babies alive as sacrifices to their gods.
God didn’t take any pleasure in the destruction of these people, though. Consider Ezekiel 33:11.
“Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways!’
Many of these nations simply refused to turn from their wicked ways, and when they reached their fullest potential for moral destitution, God sent Israel against them, though, as we see with the Canaanites, the primary purpose of the military action was to drive them out the land and away from any close contact with Israel. Plenty of warning was provided to these nations and the Israelites didn’t hunt down and kill those who chose to flee. Rather, they killed only those that chose to stay and fight. Furthermore, when peoples of these nations agreed to change their ways and asked for mercy, that mercy was granted to them. The militaristic language of ‘killing everyone that breathed, man, woman and child’ was often hyperbolic, as was common for that time and place, and we often see that there were, in fact, plenty of survivors.
Trying to second guess God’s moral decisions and commands is inherently problematic, if not completely incoherent. Even if we were to assume that the often hyperbolic language used in this context was actually literally fulfilled, we can only look at the situation from our modern and limited perspective. Whenever humans make the choice to kill large numbers of people, there is inevitably collateral damage, if there’s even any specific target at all rather than just an attempt to wipe out everyone alive. Such choices are always made for the benefit of the person making the choice, in line with their own selfish desires or skewed ideologies. But even if their motives were somehow just, humans simply don’t have the capacity to read the hearts of people, foresee future outcomes, and identify precisely the correct point in time when moving against a large group will result in an outcome that is just and without collateral damage.
God does not have the aforementioned limitations. God acts to wipe out what is objectively evil and he does so at a time that is appropriate, when the moral degradation of a society has reached its zenith, which sometimes only comes hundreds of years after the warning is initially issued to them. When it came time for God to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he told Abraham that if there were even just 10 righteous people among all the wicked ones, he would spare the cities. Why should we think, then, that he would have Israel move decisively against wicked nations at a time and in a way that would have them “sweep away the righteous with the wicked”? (Gen. 18:23) Scripturally, we have every reason for thinking that he would not do that. When a human attempts to look back across thousands of years to a time and place utterly foreign to our modern circumstances in order to second-guess the morality and actions of the very Being who grounds moral values and duties, the result is bound to be hopelessly arrogant and ill-informed. Such judgments can only hold any weight if we operate under the assumption that God’s insight into a matter and power to control its outcome are as limited as our own and if we assume that because the moral judgments of modern society are different than the ones at work back then, the modern ones must be better simply as a result of being newer. This is a fallacy often referred to as “Chronological Snobbery” or “The Appeal to Novelty”. I tend to just call it “The Modernism Fallacy”. It essentially holds that change itself is identical with progress. In the current context it leads to the belief that modern moral opinions and value judgments are inherently better than older ones specifically because they are modern, and so moral change is to be considered identical with moral progress. The reality of the matter, however, is that when it comes to morality, modernity can offer something different, but it can offer no rational basis for claiming that what it offers is objectively better. It can offer no objective moral value for any person or thing, nor can it rationally compel any person to do what is good or to avoid what is bad.