Objective Traffic

Repeatedly when discussing the posts on this blog, the last refuge of the theist is that without a God, there can be no objective morals. If all we are is bags of chemicals or, in my favorite Star Trek quote, "Ugly, ugly bags of mostly water," then what is the source of our morality? How can we be objective when we are accusing the fictive God of immorality?

Jim Holman, not to be confused with Joe Holman, asks at one point:

It seems to me that the concept of morality depends on all sorts of metaphysical concepts that would have no place in a strictly scientific worldview. These include concepts such as a "person" who has "free will" to do things both "good" and "evil." It depends on the idea that actions can be "right" or "wrong."

But in a scientific worldview, where everything is ultimately reduced to physical components, electrical and chemical interactions, and so on, how would any of these metaphysical concepts have a place?


To me the key answer is in checking what our premises are. Concepts exist in brains. They don't exist anywhere else. So any explanation of metaphysical concepts has to understand that they exist in brains and manifest themselves in the world as communication from one brain to other brains.

When I tell you I have a car, you know what I mean. This is true even though the myriad varieties of car make it very unlikely that the car you are imagining as "car" when I talk to you about my car is actually what my car is. When we walk outside to get in my car, you then change your concept of "my car" to fit the data that looking at my greenish, dusty Mazda 3 hatchback impresses on your brain. If you are blind, you don't make that transition until you get in the car.

Once we start driving I then have a plethora of driving choices I can make. The rules regarding driving are sometimes quite detailed and sometimes quite vague, but they are generally agreed upon within one locality and violations of the local rules regarding driving are frequently commented on by other drivers and occasionally result in punishment ranging from citation to jailing and sometimes to execution.

The rules regarding driving are indeed and in every way objective. They are man-made and they don't relate to anything of any cosmic significance. I drive within a lane that is painted on the road not because it is made of Plexiglas that will destroy my car if I run into it, but because that lane is objectively painted there so it can be my space on the road and other drivers agree to accept it as if it is real. However, I am a fool if I regard the lanes as always real. If one night, on an open road, I see a person stumbling across the street and fail to swerve out of his way because I was obeying the objective facts of the lanes on the road, I am not driving well. In fact I am criminally culpable.

We allow several groups of drivers and other road users to break the rules when they are following instructions or responding to other crises, and we rarely see those who enforce the laws of the road being punished for violations that they punish others for. Yet this does nothing to make the rules of the road any less objective. Just because their enforcement is subjective it does not follow that the rules are.

Therefore, cars exist, traffic rules are objective, and they are all man-made and work not because of some universal proper way they must function but because there are a limited number of ways to utilize the variables that come with driving. We obey the traffic laws and regard things like intersections and lanes as "real" because failing to do so is harmful to us and harmful to others. Intersections and lanes exist objectively, yet they are totally man-made.

In just the same way, people exist, morals are objective, and they are all man-made and work not because of some universal directive but because there are a limited number of ways to make a successful society. We obey the social customs, folkways and moral codes of our society because failing to do so is harmful to us and harmful to others. This doesn't require natural selection. It only requires a group of like beings who view each other as possibly helpful.

Now the objection I imagine that will come from a theist is that traffic laws are simply a subspecies of morality and that Yahweh not only gave us universal objective morals and instructions on what fabrics can and cannot be mixed, but he also planned out the objective rules of traffic laws before the foundations of the earth had been laid.

Yet I think this fails too, because of the variation of rules throughout the world and according to local custom. Traffic laws are in no way universal, even though they are objective, and the only ones that are somewhat universal are those that safeguard people from violence deliberately inflicted with a vehicle, and this again has obviously positive benefits for any society that chooses to enshrine it in law.

37 comments:

Reason's Whore said...

While traffic laws are objective in the sense that they exist and we can all agree on what they are in a given time/place, they are subjective in the sense that they are made up to suit our social goals. They have no reality aside from that we assign to them and agree on. Tomorrow we could reroute the traffic.

Morality is in fact subjective as much as the atheists here like to argue otherwise. See this post at Celtic Chimp for a better analysis that was the result of a discussion on the infidels board.

Evan said...

Sacred,

I completely agree with you that there are no objective moral facts that exist somewhere outside of brains.

However I believe that once someone is raised in a given culture with a given set of social, historical and ethical teachings, the internal moral facts within the brain of that person and persons like her will be objective to nearly the same degree that traffic laws are.

However they are only universal to the degree that there are a set of contingent variables that can't be set to certain values and allow either traffic or society to function.

White Goodman said...

I wonder what argument can be given for thinking that if God doesn't exist, then morality isn't objective. I also wonder what argument can be given for thinking that if God exists, then morality *is* objective.

Rich said...

I liked this post, Evan.

I wish people could get past the false notion that atheism is amoral. There are inevitable differences in morality but that is expected. Even people in the same world view see moral issues differently. While you and I may be at odds on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, alcohol consumption, for example, I doubt we are at odds on such things as murder and child abuse.

I think Christ taught about being objective. When asked about what was the greatest law, his answer to love your neighbor as yourself is pretty objective. If you are trying to peaceably coexist with your neighbor you are going to adopt a set of morals that work toward that end. So even if you have reduced things to electrical and chemical interactions, you would still arrive at similar conclusions about how to treat each other.

Unknown said...

I think the religious need to realize that atheist does not equal sociopath. We don't flush our empathy, rationality, or our entire life experience in one big social game experiment along with our superstitious beliefs.

I will hand it to them that I don't, philosophically, think anything could be considered objectively wrong. But I'm not an objectively thinking being. I don't always have to mix my ontology with my personal life.

I always wonder when they say, if there are no objective morals and no objective judge, why would you act morally. Well, I guess for the people out there who decide to take the low road, that's why we human beings developed government and the penal system. However, we all know full well that the prisons aren't filled to the top with us immoral atheists with no divine handbook on morality.

Something else I like to laugh about is that the kind of people who would rationally consider and study the truth of morality wouldn't seem the kind of people to go out dashing children against rocks, if you know what I mean. Of course there are those exceptions!

Oh, and speaking of the link between religion and government, I was thinking I'd like to see more atheists try to defend our position on the 20th century secular atrocities by, instead of arguing belief vs. non-belief, try bad government vs. good government. Afterall, when people talk about the communist and national socialist regimes outside of a theological debate, do they really ever mention how atheist they were? No, we discuss how the very fabric of the political system is built to be tyrannical and oppressive, just like every theocracy ever has been.

The problem with religion over the past few thousand years is that it has held positions of power that it is not suited to hold when you're looking out for the freedom of the governed. And then, of course, religion has its own breed of problems that I'm not aware atheists have, which are those nutcases willing to murder anyone under the veil of righteousness and divine favor.

Jim Holman said...

Repeatedly when discussing the posts on this blog, the last refuge of the theist is that without a God, there can be no objective morals.

To be clear, my argument is not that without God there are no morals. Rather I believe that whether or not a god exists there is objective moral truth. In fact, the reality of objective moral truth is how we decide whether some proposed god is good or evil. The existence of moral truth is more certain than the existence of a god. For example, based on my understanding of objective moral truth, the god of Calvinism is in fact an evil god.

The rules regarding driving are indeed and in every way objective.

Well, they are "objective" in the sense that one can read about them in a driver's manual. Beyond that they are completely arbitrary in every way that moral principles are not.

We can drive on the left, or on the right. We can stop on the green or on the red or on the yellow. We could have square stop signs. All of these things are merely conventions, a set of rules, and it doesn't matter what set we adopt as long as we all follow the same rules.

In just the same way, people exist, morals are objective, and they are all man-made and work not because of some universal directive but because there are a limited number of ways to make a successful society.

No, there are all sorts of way to make a successful society. The early Americans made one heck of a successful society through the use of slavery. It worked quite well for many years. If moral principles are merely agreed-upon conventions, and since most people approved of slavery, and it worked well in that society, then what would be the basis for a moral criticism of slavery? There wouldn't be any.

People opposed slavery not because it was bad for the society, but because it was wrong. For example, William Garrison wrote "The abolitionism which I advocate is as absolute as the law of God, and as unyielding as his throne. It admits of no compromise. Every slave is a stolen man; every slaveholder is a man stealer. By no precedent, no example, no law, no compact, no purchase, no bequest, no inheritance, no combination of circumstances, is slaveholding right or justifiable." For Garrison, it didn't matter if slavery "worked," or if there was a societal consensus in favor of it. It was wrong, period, without exception.

Now let me be clear about my argument. I'm not arguing that morality "depends" on theism. I'm arguing that some anti-theistic arguments also destroy the traditional view of morality through a kind of "collateral damage." It's like using an insecticide that not only kills cockroaches but also your dog, your cat, and your infant child.

In arguing against theism by asserting that only scientific explanations are valid, that means that morality has to be somehow redefined to accommodate that. Things are no longer right or wrong in themselves, but only inasmuch as they are perceived as making a society successful.

(In the same way the Calvinist redefines morality so as to accommodate the Calvinist god. For both the science-based anti-theist and the Calvinist, traditional morality goes out the window.)

The problem is that that's not what most people mean when they make moral statements. Now it may be that actions help or harm society, but that's not what makes them moral or immoral. Maybe slavery makes a society successful, maybe it doesn't. But if I say that slavery is morally wrong, what I mean is that it is immoral REGARDLESS of whether it helps society. I mean that it shouldn't exist, period, because it is morally wrong. Now maybe I'm right about that and maybe I'm not. But if morality is nothing more than a societal convention, then my statement is not right or wrong; it is simply irrational. I'm saying that there is a criterion for making moral judgments that has nothing to do with what society does,approves of, or benefits by, which, in the view of the article under discussion, would make no sense.

What I have noticed in this venue is that through science-based anti-theistic arguments people effectively eliminate the traditional view of morality. But then they appeal to traditional morality to critique Christianity. They are "outraged" over the god of the Old Testament. Yahweh is a "moral monster." The religion of the ancient Jews is "evil." And so on.

The problem is that if morality is nothing more than social conventions that are seen as making for a successful society, then there is no basis for moral "outrage." Yahweh and his early followers simply had a different set of conventions. So what? If moral principles are like traffic laws -- merely conventions that could have been otherwise -- then it would make no sense to criticize the morality of some other society or even a divine being. You could no more criticize Yahweh and his early followers than you could say the British are "evil" because they drive on the "wrong" side of the road.

Thus it's not that atheism is "immoral," but that some anti-theistic arguments destroy the basis of traditional moral thinking, leaving us with moral principles that are nothing more than arbitrary conventions thought to be good for society. In that context both moral outrage and approbation make no sense at all.

David B. Ellis said...

Those who object that there cannot be "objective" morality if atheism is true (besides falling foul of the euthyphro dilemma) are making the usual mistake of assuming that "objective morality" and moral truths mean essentially the same thing---of assuming, incorrectly, that subjective means arbitrary.

But just a little reflection will show that to be false.

Being in agony is a subjective state of consciousness.

Does it therefore follow that we have no reason to disvalue agony?

Of course not. The very idea is ridiculous. But the only valid reason for disvaluing it is the very nature of the subjective content of the experience---to look for an "objective" reason for disvaluing it is to completely misunderstand the nature of the question.

There ARE moral facts.....but not objective morality.

Until a person realizes that that statement is not internally contradictory their understanding of morality and values is always going to be doomed to error.

Kyle Szklenski said...

richdurrant said, "When asked about what was the greatest law, his answer to love your neighbor as yourself is pretty objective."

Sorry, this is not objective at all. It is subjective due to the fact that a person can be a psychopath and enjoy pain. Does that give them the right, then, to hurt other people, if that's how they like to be treated? I should think not! It is only objective in any sense because most people don't like being treated badly.

I think a better question is figuring out whether or not the term "objective" makes any sense whatsoever. We can certainly come to agreements over what things mean and such, but I think I would argue that meaning and purpose and morality only make sense within the context of conscious beings who are able to think about them and apply them to the real world.

Unknown said...

Jim,

I don't think that just because we don't have a morality litmus test that it makes ethical judgements any less important. Just because it would appear that morals are subjective doesn't mean they don't exist. They are very real to the people feeling the moral outrage you speak of.

There are, of course, other things besides this that are subjective and are also very important in all of our lives. I wonder if you can outline for me what love is and how people are supposed to feel when they are in love. Or tell me what good comedy is or isn't.

Just because we can't all agree on a perfect standard for those doesn't mean we don't love or enjoy a laugh now and then with the feeling that we are experiencing something very real to us. Every time you hear a joke you don't whip out your divinely revealed funny meter and judge it accordingly.

Lucky for us, though, just as watching someone take a football to the groin is funny for most, so is murder, slavery, rape, theft, etc.. repulsive to a good portion of us. I think morality only acts this way, on the personal level, not the societal level, and societies are there because we need them to survive. But to survive in a society, we need social contracts where our subjective morals are bundled in likeness so as we can all agree that I won't steal from you and you won't steal from me and we can both be happy.

I've never seen it work any other way. I've never seen God doing any hands-on work here either.

Jim Holman said...

damien writes: Just because it would appear that morals are subjective doesn't mean they don't exist. They are very real to the people feeling the moral outrage you speak of.

You see, I think that morality is not subjective. Obviously moral reasoning takes place in the mind, but that doesn't mean that it is purely subjective, purely a personal matter. I think there are objective moral truths in the same way that there are mathematical, scientific, and historical truths. In the same way that we can be mistaken about those truths, we can be mistaken about morality.

It is true that people "feel" moral outrage. But the question is whether morality is just a feeling, a sort of epiphenomenon that has no objective grounding.

damien: I wonder if you can outline for me what love is and how people are supposed to feel when they are in love. Or tell me what good comedy is or isn't.

I can tell you that if only scientific or materialistic explanations of human values are valid, then love, comedy, and all the rest will be reduced to atoms and energy. "Love" will be some kind of chemical interaction taking place in the brain, or some kind of survival mechanism for the species.
Likewise morality.

As I see it, people who insist that only scientific explanations are valid have a problem, if they want to criticize other people's morality. You can't appeal to traditional morality on the one hand, while undermining the basis of traditional moral thinking on the other.

Rich said...

Kyle, I agree mostly. To label morality subjective or objective can't really be done anyway since it is both.

Evan said...

First, thanks for all the insightful comments, I was curious what response this would get.

Second, Jim Holman, you seem troubled that a way of life based on observation and reason alone can't account for morality (I think). You say:

As I see it, people who insist that only scientific explanations are valid have a problem, if they want to criticize other people's morality. You can't appeal to traditional morality on the one hand, while undermining the basis of traditional moral thinking on the other.

I'm going to give you a different analogy.

The purpose of food, universally agreed upon, is to be nourishing and tasty. There are some foods that are very nourishing and some foods that are very tasty and many foods that have combinations of the above. But there is no universal standard of nourishment or tastiness that is agreed to by all.

Yet there are foods I can guarantee you would not be regarded positively by anyone. Does the lack of a universal standard of nourishment or tastiness make the entire enterprise of food criticism bankrupt? Is a food critic unable to communicate the response of his palate to a meal due to the problem?

I suspect most of us would be worse off if we wholly ignored the opinions of others when it came to tasty, nutritious food.

Again, does the lack of universal agreement about film or TV or books make judgments about their relative merit without any value at all?

Now the thing is that morals are the subject of reasoned analysis, but they also evolve over time. In the case of slavery, do you really think that Aristotle, Plato and Augustine were immoral? Do you think they were bad men?

None of them spoke out against slavery.

If you believe slavery was always wrong, at least retrospectively by our standards, that may be true, but by the standards of the time it was not wrong and nobody made reasoned arguments against it.

There may be a time in the future when an omnivorous diet is considered barbarian, or when driving a car, or owning land is considered evil. Are you willing to hold yourself culpable to those future standards now?

I'm curious to know in addition how you feel that one knows the moral facts that present themselves to the brain. Do they present themselves differently from other facts?

Murf said...

Damien wrote:

"I will hand it to them that I don't, philosophically, think anything could be considered objectively wrong."

At least you're honest philosophically, however, you cannot (and neither can any atheist) live that philosophy out in practical life (which, if I'm not mistaken you admit to in your post).

The point theists make concerning morality is not that atheists have no morality. They certainly do and oftentimes it is admirable. The point is that there is no foundation for transcendent morality and yet everyone (atheists included) live as if there is. So they feel perfectly justified to apply their system of morals to the other guy when, for instance, he steals their wallet. "That is wrong," says everyone. But why? Who says? If it is only your private morality, who are you to force it on someone else. "But society says it is wrong." It certainly does not say it is wrong in some cultures in Papua New Guinea where stealing is endemic and admired.

As I've said before, William Provine to my way of thinking is the only logically consistent atheist. He said, "Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent."    "Evolution: Free will and punishment and meaning in life”  1998  Darwin Day Keynote Address.

If you are an atheist, where does free will come from boys?

Evan said...

John Murphy you're an interesting fellow.

First you say:

The point is that there is no foundation for transcendent morality and yet everyone (atheists included) live as if there is.

So the onus is on you to explain what the transcendent morality is. If it is universal and transcendent, it must therefore be available to all moral beings. So I eagerly await your definition. It would make life on the planet so much easier if we did have a transcendent, universally agreed-to set of morals.

If, as I worry you may, you say that there is no agreed-upon universal moral set, then in what way do you personally discover your morals? Because my guess is you do so in a way that is subjective, rendering the possible existence of a transcendental moral set moot, as it is unavailable to the moral being.

For example, any two observers interacting with the same moral dilemma can have varying opinions. What is the universal solution, for example, to Sophie's choice? (For those who don't know the story, Sophie is a French woman with two sons and a German officer in WWII tells her to pick which one to kill or he will kill both of them.)

Then you say:

So they feel perfectly justified to apply their system of morals to the other guy when, for instance, he steals their wallet. "That is wrong," says everyone. But why?

Really? If someone steals your wallet you don't know why it's wrong?

Here's why its wrong. You worked for the things you carry in your wallet and they belong to you. The person who stole it didn't work for it and the things in it don't belong to him. If your wallet were not valuable to you, its theft would be meaningless. But it is valuable to you, so you are upset when it is stolen. Is that hard for you to figure out?

Who says?

The victims of theft say so. Even in Sparta, where children were encouraged to steal, they were still punished if they were caught.

If it is only your private morality, who are you to force it on someone else. "But society says it is wrong." It certainly does not say it is wrong in some cultures in Papua New Guinea where stealing is endemic and admired.

Yet here again, we have the first problem.

If you say there are universal moral codes that can be objectively assessed in the brains of human beings, how is it possible that these Papua New Guineans have it so wrong? By what basis are you sure that your understanding of the universal moral code is correct and theirs is incorrect?

Scott said...

"Love" will be some kind of chemical interaction taking place in the brain, or some kind of survival mechanism for the species.
Likewise morality.


Will be?

If love really is electro-chemical reactions occurring in our brains, love has always been electro-chemical occurring in our brains.

Would this fact somehow change the feelings of love you felt in the past? Would they be less real? Of course not. They why should they change what you feel today and tomorrow and the day after that?

Instead, you seem to think that if love really is rooted in biology, we should bury our heads in the sand and pretend it's not.

Is this really what you think?

David B. Ellis said...

Why in the heck would I want or need the reasons for acting with love (for is that not what we mean, for the most part, by acting morally) to be "transcendent"?

Love is intrinsically valuable in and of itself. For the nature of the experience of love itself. For the nature of what it is to be a loving person. For the nature of what it is to be part of a community of loving individuals.

Adding a gods command or approval to that makes it neither more nor less worthwhile to be loving---its simply irrelevent.

Scott said...

No, there are all sorts of way to make a successful society. The early Americans made one heck of a successful society through the use of slavery. It worked quite well for many years.

This depends on what you mean by a society that is successful.

For a society with slaves to be successful, you must conceder slaves as involuntary members of this society which are to be exploited. I don't see this as being "successful."

Evan said...

Scott,

So the Roman Empire, the Han Dynasty, the Macedonian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Egyptian Empire, the Assyrian Empire, the Hittite Empire, the Aztec Empire, the Inca Empire, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and many others weren't successful?

What societies meet your cut?

Stan, the Half-Truth Teller said...

Heh.

It occurs to me that those theists and their erstwhile defenders who claim that only god can be the source of "objective truth", "objective morality", or any other sticking point with "objective" stamped in front of it, are all missing a pretty basic truth.

Subjective, per Merriam-Webster online, is defined as follows (given the context under discussion):

Characteristic of or belonging to reality as perceived rather than as independent of mind

(emphasis added)

If god were the source of morality, truth, etc., then by definition these things would ultimately be subjective.

It seems to me that the only way to account for objectivity in morality is to allow for the evolution of morality through natural selection as a benefit to the species.

Again using Merriam-Webster online, the complementary definition of objective is as follows:

Of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers

(again, emphasis added)

So again, so far as I can tell, the only way to achieve truly objective morality is through an effectively Darwinian process in a given civilization. The only problem I have with this realization is that it seems to endorse the immoral acts of persons past -- e.g. slavery, sacrifice, witch hunting, cannibalism, etc. -- but I equally well recognize that future civilizations will look back on various aspects of our own cultures as being clearly immoral.

I suppose that this is no different than the argument that absolute morals necessarily transcend god, but I feel like the whole idea gets conveniently ignored much too often in these discussions of morality.

DrClaw said...

Just looking at the masthead for this blog, if you guys truly are free thinkers (at least as Parmenides, Socrates, Plato, etc. would have it) shouldn't you "With the diversity of our combined strengths" seek to find the truth about Christianity, instead of debunking it?

If you "seek to debunk Christianity" it seems like you've got a prejudiced opinion on how the whole thing will work out, which isn't free thinking in any way.

Larry Hamelin said...

As sacred slut notes in the first post, the word "objective" is — like most words in any natural language — ambiguous. It has three different meanings relative to this context: (1) pertaining to the world outside mind or minds (as opposed to subjective) (2) consistently determinable and (3) unchanging. The conflation occurs because the truth of ideas about the world outside our minds is consistently determinable (consistent determination is necessary, but not sufficient, to establish objective truth), and many truths about ideas outside our minds are universal, i.e. unchanging.

Any moral system established by a personal God is necessarily subjective (in opposition to the first sense of "objective"): It pertains to a property of a mind, God's mind, which is by definition a subjective entity.

Furthermore, it's logically possible that knowledge about God's mind could in theory be consistently determinable, but in practice people's statements about God's mind are strongly inconsistent.

The claim that some scripture provides a consistently determinable morality is a different claim than that God provides a consistently determinable morality. A scriptural claim, though, is no stronger than the related claim that a body of law, such as United States federal law, or the laws of the state of California provide a consistently determinable morality.

Again, while a scriptural basis is in theory an easier case to make, we find that it's does not happen in practice that morality can be consistently determined on the basis of most scriptures, the Christian Bible in particular. The sheer number of Christian sects — Catholics to Quakers — with an incredible diversity of moral beliefs testifies to this conclusion.

In sort, Jim Holman's criticism founders on the simple basis that theistic moral theories do not supply what he finds lacking in nontheistic morality.

The idea of God gives us only a theoretical ontological basis for morality.

If it were the case that we saw a consistently determinable, universal, unchanging moral beliefs; if it were the case that we saw that moral beliefs were shared across time and space in ways that could not be explained by biological similarities and social construction; if it were the case that some consistency in the world stood in need of an explanation for which local physical causality could not stand; if all these factors were the case, then God and/or scripture might serve as an explanation worthy of study.

However, the preconditions do not obtain. Theistic morality is not only an explanation in search of something to be explained, its simplest form actually contradicts our experience. We can add all sorts of ad hoc and rococo epicycles to a theistic theory morality, but then we really do have to conclude that either God is a comedian with a very sadistic sense of humor, or is just a complete bastard.

Larry Hamelin said...

Jim Holman:

Your assertion that you "believe that whether or not a god exists there is objective moral truth," stands in need of both definition as well as argument or evidence, at least if you want it to have more force than a statement of your arbitrary opinion. The question is not what you believe (you can believe anything you want), but what's actually true regardless of what you or I or anyone else believes.

It might be true that moral truth exists, but the issue is so contentious that the assertion of certainty, "The existence of moral truth is more certain than the existence of a god," is completely ridiculous.

It should be noted that strongly asserting — instead of arguing — controversial premises, as well as qualifying a superlative — "more certain" is a grammatical absurdity — and setting a very low bar (more than the existence of a god) for confidence, are some of the reasons that atheists consider even articulate theists to be deficient at logical thought.

Your employment of the opposition to slavery is deficient. You state that, "People opposed slavery not because it was bad for the society, but because it was wrong." But this assertion is not proven. First of all, all of your substantiation proves only that opponents of slavery believed slavery to be wrong. Likewise, you fail to prove that slavery is not "bad for the society"; you prove only that slavery is not catastrophic. You do not prove, however, that the abolition of slavery is not better than its permission.

To take a view that what's good or bad for society is different than what's good or bad for individuals is a fallacy of reification. Society is an abstraction, not a "thing-in-itself".

Slavery started to make individual people feel bad, and "society" as an abstraction is just a term for statistical properties of collections of individuals. What makes people feel bad is, by definition, bad for society.

I'm arguing that some anti-theistic arguments also destroy the traditional view of morality through a kind of "collateral damage."

First of all, so what? Who cares that anti-theist arguments destroy the traditional view of morality?

More importantly, it would probably help your case if you didn't argue persuasively against your position. Specifically, your observation that traffic laws are socially constructed without even a pretense of objective realism completely undermines your case, because traffic laws work really well. Traffic laws are a perfect example that the traditional objectively realistic view of morality is not necessary to maintain "good" behavior.

I'll stop here. You've so fatally undermined your case, procedurally and substantively that there's really no point in examining your comments further.

Larry Hamelin said...

Chris: Hume figured out in the 18th century that all theistic religions were bunk; we don't need to "seek to find the truth about Christianity;" it's already been proven false. The rest is just explanation.

Jim Holman said...

evan writes: Jim Holman, you seem troubled that a way of life based on observation and reason alone can't account for morality (I think).

First, thanks for the article. It has provoked some good discussion. Let me try to be clear about my position.

Traditional morality depends on metaphysical concepts such as "right" and "wrong" -- that things are right or wrong regardless of what a majority of people believe, regardless of what I believe, regardless of what some god believes. The metaphysical view holds that there are objective moral truths in the same way that there are other kinds of truth, and that we can be mistaken about morality in the same way that we can be mistaken about anything else.

The metaphysical view of morality provides the basis for moral praise and blame, moral approbation and outrage.

When morality is reduced or reinterpreted to "something else" the entire meaning of moral statements and the dynamic of moral reasoning is utterly changed. There are many ways to reduce morality into something else. For example, the statement "X is good" might be reduced to

1) I personally approve of X
2) Some society commonly practices X
3) A majority of people in a society approves of X
4) God approves of X
5) X helps a society to survive or thrive
6) X provides an evolutionary advantage

Any argument -- psychological, theological, or scientific -- that changes the meaning of moral statements into "something else" effectively changes, and typically eliminates, the whole concept of moral outrage or approbation. Thus, if morality depends on what a particular society does or approves of, then it is irrational to express "outrage" over what the society does, be it slavery, human sacrifice, genocide, or whatever. In addition, it eliminates the concept of moral improvement or decay. Instead, any change in morality would be just that -- a change.

Evan: In the case of slavery, do you really think that Aristotle, Plato and Augustine were immoral? Do you think they were bad men?

I don't think they were immoral, but to the extent they approved of slavery they were wrong. (Granted, slavery back then was different from the American version.)

Evan: If you believe slavery was always wrong, at least retrospectively by our standards, that may be true, but by the standards of the time it was not wrong and nobody made reasoned arguments against it.

Correct. Not even the apostle Paul could muster up an argument against it. But that just means that moral thinking can improve -- or devolve -- over time. I think you would agree that a society in which slavery doesn't exist is better than one in which in does exist, at least with respect to that issue. Because of the fact that slavery was widely accepted in that culture, our outrage over the existence of slavery at that time would certainly be minimal. But imagine, for example, if Canada today announced that they were going to implement slavery. We would be outraged, and rightly so, because our moral knowledge has developed to the point that we recognize that slavery is a great evil.

As with morality, so with other kinds of knowledge. For example, throughout most of Western history, people believed that the earth was very young, based on what they read in the Bible. Were they stupid? Of course not. They simply didn't have the information we now have. But today we criticize people who believe in a young earth, because they do have the information but choose to ignore it.

Evan: I'm curious to know in addition how you feel that one knows the moral facts that present themselves to the brain. Do they present themselves differently from other facts?

Good question. On that issue I guess I would call myself an intuitionist -- that in virtue of being persons (another metaphysical concept) we have the ability to comprehend moral truths. Some are better at that than others, and it's an ability that can be improved through study and reflection on moral issues. It is also an ability that can be damaged (as described, for example, in Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Col. Dave Grossman's On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

john murphy writes: The point theists make concerning morality is not that atheists have no morality. They certainly do and oftentimes it is admirable. The point is that there is no foundation for transcendent morality and yet everyone (atheists included) live as if there is.

Yes, exactly. But it depends on the anti-theistic argument the atheist employs. For example, we could imagine an atheist who didn't think that only scientific explanations were valid, but who nonetheless simply didn't believe that a god existed. Such a person could easily believe in the existence of objective moral truth. (In fact, that was pretty much the position of one of my college philosophy professors.)

I would say that theism is not a necessary condition for belief in traditional (or what I call metaphysical) morality, but some anti-theistic arguments effectively eliminate the whole concept of traditional morality -- even as, as you note, they continue to employ traditional morality in their own lives (and critiques of other people's religion.)

Jim Holman said...

the barefoot bum writes: It might be true that moral truth exists, but the issue is so contentious that the assertion of certainty, "The existence of moral truth is more certain than the existence of a god," is completely ridiculous.

Let me put it this way: I am more certain that the statement 'it is always wrong to torture an infant for one's own sadistic pleasure' is true, than I am of the statements 'God exists,' or 'God doesn't exist.' I can think of arguments that might make be believe or not believe in God, but I can't think of an argument that would convince me that torturing an infant for my own sadistic pleasure is morally acceptable. I think most people would agree with me.

I haven't really argued in favor of traditional morality, because the people to whom my comments have been largely addressed are appealing to traditional morality in their critique of religion, even as their anti-theistic argument eliminates the basis for traditional moral reasoning. In other words, I don't need to convince anti-theists that genocide is morally reprehensible; they're already there. I just need to convince them that their science-based anti-theistic argument also destroys the basis of that moral determination, and thus the anti-theistic argument needs to be reconsidered.

the barefoot bum: Slavery started to make individual people feel bad, and "society" as an abstraction is just a term for statistical properties of collections of individuals. What makes people feel bad is, by definition, bad for society.

Two questions: Why did they feel bad? I would suggest they "felt bad" because they came to realize that slavery is immoral, and that feeling bad was an appropriate response. Also, would it have mattered if they didn't feel bad, and thus allowed slavery to continue?

the barefoot bum: Who cares that anti-theist arguments destroy the traditional view of morality?

Oh, well sure, that's fine with me. No problem. But then I'm surprised when the anti-theist employs traditional morality in a critique of religion. If someone wants to ditch traditional morality, more power to him. But then he shouldn't go around saying that Yahewh is a "moral monster," that the Old Testament is "evil," that Christianity is "evil," and so on. If someone uses an anti-theistic argument that also destroys traditional morality, that's fine, but then he needs to own the consequences of that and ditch the moral outrage -- or, come up with a different argument. One way or the other.

the barefoot bum: Specifically, your observation that traffic laws are socially constructed without even a pretense of objective realism completely undermines your case, because traffic laws work really well. Traffic laws are a perfect example that the traditional objectively realistic view of morality is not necessary to maintain "good" behavior.

My point was that traffic laws are merely conventions that we adopt to avoid accidents and maintain the flow of traffic. It doesn't matter what those conventions are as long as they are consistently followed and work in a practical sense. We could stop at the green light and go on the red, and it wouldn't matter as long as everyone follows the rule. We drive on the right; the Brits drive on the left, and it doesn't matter.

Comparing that to moral issues would be like saying it doesn't matter whether a society has slavery or not, as long as everyone follows the convention. In that sense I think most people would agree that moral principles are very different from traffic laws.

Unknown said...

Jim,

I don't think intuition is going to give anyone a crystal clear picture of objective moral truths that are as solid as, say, our knowledge of the strong nuclear force. Afterall, it was our intuition that lead us to believe the Earth was a disk, demons caused disease, and God exists.

Also, I wonder if you can explain the mechanism by which being human supplies you with a bigger and better tap into the universal moral vein and also an explanation of where these objective morals could possibly come from if not from a deity. If you want to argue that they exist whether God exists or not, I wonder how you'd defend a position that there are laws that govern human feelings in the Universe, especially without any evidence apart from intuition.

Comparing that to moral issues would be like saying it doesn't matter whether a society has slavery or not, as long as everyone follows the convention. In that sense I think most people would agree that moral principles are very different from traffic laws.

I think you shot yourself in the foot there, because that describes the situation with slavery pretty well. To everyone who "mattered", slavery was justifiable, and so with everyone following the convention, slavery wasn't wrong to them. When you say "it wouldn't matter" I wonder "to whom?" Because in the universal scheme of things, whatever happens on our dustball planet doesn't matter to anyone but us. And if it didn't matter to all of us, how could it be morally wrong? I would argue that it mattered to the slaves, but they weren't exactly on the list of who's who at the time.

The only difference between traffic laws and our ethics on slavery, I'd think, is that we have a lot more emotional investment on the treatment of human beings than we do on which side of the road we drive on. You can be sure that if by some ridiculousness driving on the left caused an explosion of depression to befall you, it would matter to us which side of the road to drive on.

The only reason we don't have slavery today is because someone, or enough people, changed the conventional outlook, like a 2/3rds vote to make green mean stop and red mean go.

And if your problem really is that atheists call Christianity evil by appealing to traditional morality, I think you're hung up on a pretty insignificant thing. Would it help you if they said "it is evil to me?" Maybe you can satisfactorally put that mental note on the end of the sentence. Then recognize that we all use language as a tool to get a point across, and calling Christianity evil in the English language summarizes it pretty well for those who speak it. I'm sure you, with your fine-tuned intuition deadlocked on the moral truths of the universe, will at least agree that much of the Bible is morally bankrupt and can, because you believe in traditional morality, give us atheists some credibility by arguing along side us.

Scott said...

What societies meet your cut?

I'll agree that, in many ways, these societies were successful. But one could also say the same thing about major crime families. It depends on your definition of "success."

What I think is important here is that success benefits everyone, not just specific groups. Nor does success in one area necessarily outweigh lack of success in another area.

While studying human behavior for over 35 years, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term Flow to describe the mental state of a person who is fully immersed in what he or she is doing. This state is characterized by a feeling of focus, sufficient but not overwhelming challenge, complete involvement and successful feedback.

However, one could just as easily find Flow in being a successful assassin as you could being a successful painter or rescue worker. As such, Csíkszentmihályi indicates we should strive to choose flow actives that are not only successful and personally rewarding, but do not come at the expense of others. In addition, Flow activities which have more than just short term benefits and have positive effects on a large number of people are to be preferred.

Csíkszentmihályi looks at the application of Flow in his book, . In one chapter, The Veils of Maya, he specifically talks about the various veils of "illusion" that we must peel back to gain a more accurate picture of how our Flow experiences effect ourselves and everyone around us.

If we define success thorough the eyes of our egos, geocentricism, nationalism, culture, tradition and religion, at what cost does this success come? Is our success just an illusion?

Scott said...

But then he shouldn't go around saying that Yahewh is a "moral monster," that the Old Testament is "evil," that Christianity is "evil," and so on. If someone uses an anti-theistic argument that also destroys traditional morality, that's fine, but then he needs to own the consequences of that and ditch the moral outrage -- or, come up with a different argument. One way or the other.

The argument is that all morality, traditional or not, does not come from a supernatural being. Instead, It's part of the human condition. Therefore, as humans, we have the right to discuss it and make observations on it.

Yes, human beings can be egotistical, biased and superstitious, but superstition is exactly what theism is based on and attempts to perpetuate. We're simply trying to show how superstition is a poor foundation for making moral decisions.

M. Tully said...

Chris said...

"Just looking at the masthead for this blog, if you guys truly are free thinkers (at least as Parmenides, Socrates, Plato, etc. would have it) shouldn't you "With the diversity of our combined strengths" seek to find the truth about Christianity, instead of debunking it?"

Ah, but Chris, I'm a freethinker in the way Spinoza, D'Holbach, Democritis, Epicurius, Russell, etc. were.

Should I change? Why?

Evan said...

Scott I asked you a really easy question and you didn't really answer it, so let's have another go.

Name one "successful" society that is successful by your standards.

Larry Hamelin said...

Jim Holman:

I am more certain that the statement 'it is always wrong to torture an infant for one's own sadistic pleasure' is true than...

You're already off the rails. Let me repeat myself: Your certainty is irrelevant. The degree of your confidence or fact of your certainty is not by itself a reason to believe a proposition is objectively true. A person can be just as confident of a false proposition as of a true proposition.

Indeed, the mention of certainty is a dead giveaway that you're confusing the subjective with the objective; confusing the evidence with the conclusion. It's trivially the case that you're certain about the content of your own beliefs; you can be certain that you violently disapprove of torturing babies (hopefully for any reason).

[T]he people to whom my comments have been largely addressed are appealing to traditional morality in their critique of religion even as their anti-theistic argument eliminates the basis for traditional moral reasoning.

You are conflating "traditional" with "objective". It is not a contradiction to affirm a moral belief that has been long affirmed while still believing that statements about the basis or justification of that belief are mistaken. Similarly, one does not have to deny that things fall when you drop them to deny the theoretical foundation of Newton's theory gravity in favor of the very different theoretical foundation of Einstein's theory.

Furthermore, because you obviously did not carefully read my earlier post, let me repeat myself: theism is not an objectivist moral theory; it is explicitly and necessarily subjectivist.

Why did they feel bad? I would suggest they "felt bad" because they came to realize that slavery is immoral

You can suggest anything you please. What can you argue?

What was it that actually caused people to feel bad about slavery? Why did the "objective" wrongness of slavery wait many thousands of years to have any sort of causal effect?

You might as well say that apples didn't fall until Newton invented his theory of gravity.

My point was that traffic laws are merely conventions that we adopt to avoid accidents and maintain the flow of traffic.

Right. And they work well to modify human behavior with the effect of preventing harm, injury and death. But what are our ethical systems other than systems to modify human behavior with beneficial effect? If an explicitly socially constructed system can work well at the task of ethics, then why is the denial of the objective, realistic basis of other ethical systems a problem?

Comparing that to moral issues would be like saying it doesn't matter whether a society has slavery or not, as long as everyone follows the convention.

Wrong. That's like saying that the content of traffic laws doesn't matter so long as everyone follows them. The content of traffic laws is not uniquely determined, but neither is the content entirely irrelevant. For instance, if we said that cars should drive on the left and buses should drive on the right, this law would not have a beneficial effect even with universal compliance.

Jim Holman said...

the barefoot bum writes: It is not a contradiction to affirm a moral belief that has been long affirmed while still believing that statements about the basis or justification of that belief are mistaken.

The question then is what IS the justification of the belief?

Let me back up a little bit. I'm not arguing for or against theism. I'm really not trying to argue in favor of traditional morality. What I'm trying to do -- perhaps not very well -- is to argue that traditional morality provides the basis for moral outrage. And outside of traditional morality, there typically isn't any basis for moral outrage.

So to your point -- the justification of the belief is important, because it provides the basis -- or not -- for moral outrage.

For example, if moral statements are purely personal and subjective, then why would I care if someone were "outraged" over something or other? His outrage would be equivalent to his being outraged over someone who failed to put croutons on a salad. His outrage would be nothing more than a matter of personal taste.

If moral statements are only about what is perceived as being good for society, why should I care about that? So what if a society survives, or doesn't?

The response would be that it is good for society to survive. But appealing to the "good" is in effect appealing to traditional morality. It is an appeal to an irreducible, self-evident principle that has no basis in science.

A scientific understanding might be able to tell us that something is good for society, but it can't tell us that the survival of a society is itself good. To get the whole moral enterprise "off the ground" requires, at some point, an appeal to an irreducible, self-evident moral principle.

the barefoot bum: What was it that actually caused people to feel bad about slavery? Why did the "objective" wrongness of slavery wait many thousands of years to have any sort of causal effect?

You might as well say that apples didn't fall until Newton invented his theory of gravity.


To say that moral truths are objective does not entail that they are always easy to comprehend. To continue with your Newton example, calculus is certainly objective, but it wasn't developed as a system until Newton (and Leibniz) came along.

Thus it is possible to have moral progress over time, in the same way that we have progress in any other field. For all I know, people a hundred years from now will all be vegetarians, and they will recoil in horror at stories of their ancestors killing and eating animals.

If morality is all about what benefits society, then on what basis can one criticize religion? Almost all societies have been religious in some way. Under these societies human beings flourished. All things considered, religion "worked." It modified human behavior to beneficial effect, to borrow your phrase.

You can point to some negative effects of religion, but it's hard to say whether they were really negative. For example, the Bible says that the Jews exterminated the Caananites. Bad for the Caananites, good for the Jews. The Jews survived and prospered; the genocide was good for their society. So what's not to like?

Larry Hamelin said...

The question then is what IS the justification of the belief?

It's a good question, a question you have not yet actually argued. You have only made assertions, and you have asserted only that people believe that the traditional moral framework justifies particular moral beliefs.

My argument is threefold.

1) The obvious observation that what people believe about justification is not itself a justification.

2) If moral belief were to require objective justification, theism fails to provide an objective justification.

3) As traffic laws demonstrate, an effective set of moral beliefs can function well without an objective basis.

[I]f moral statements are purely personal and subjective, then why would I care if someone were "outraged" over something or other?

There are several reasons. We evolved from social animals, it is an intrinsic part of our minds to care what other people think. Maintaining the good opinion of others allows for cooperation for mutual benefit. And outraged people have a tendency to use coercion, especially when the outrage is widely shared.

If moral statements are only about what is perceived as being good for society, why should I care about that? So what if a society survives, or doesn't?

I've already explained that this sort of view employs the fallacy of reification.

A scientific understanding might be able to tell us that something is good for society, but it can't tell us that the survival of a society is itself good. To get the whole moral enterprise "off the ground" requires, at some point, an appeal to an irreducible, self-evident moral principle.

No, it's not necessary. "[A]n appeal to an irreducible, self-evident moral principle," is necessary only to appease your personal prejudices.

All that is necessary to get a moral enterprise off the ground is people socially constructing behavior. All the better if the social construction is to their mutual benefit, but there's plenty of evidence of socially constructed moral systems — notably Christianity — that promote exploitation and oppression.

To say that moral truths are objective does not entail that they are always easy to comprehend.

You can say anything you like. But if you're going to convince me, you have to do whatever work is necessary to allow me to comprehend. Otherwise, you're just making a fallacious argument from ignorance.

Larry Hamelin said...

Also, Jim, please understand that the idea that moral beliefs are socially constructed (i.e. the are agreements between individuals in a society) is substantively different from the idea that the good of "society" is even a coherent idea, much less the foundation of socially constructed morality.

The "good of society" — except as shorthand for "the good of most or of some arbitrarily defined collection of individuals" — is facially meaningless. There is no such thing as a "society" separate and distinct from its individual members.

Scott said...

Evan: Name one "successful" society that is successful by your standards.

Without doing significant research, I'd point to countries such as Sweden, which, last time I checked, was one of the most societally healthy societies on earth.

I'd conceder countries with the lowest homicide rates, infant mortality rates, poverty rates, and illiteracy rates and among the highest levels of wealth, life expectancy, educational attainment, and gender equality more successful.

Evan said...

Scott,

I think Sweden is pretty healthy too.

Larry Hamelin said...

Since comments have petered out, I'm going to stop following this thread. If anyone wants to discuss the topic with me further, they are welcome to comment on the related post on my blog.