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Oct 25

Christian and Atheist Round Table Discussion and Q&A: Morality – Part 2

In Part I, I discussed the idea that atheism leads to tragedies, like the Holocaust. I explained why this was absurd, but I wanted to save a discussion of metaethics for a separate post. I had originally intended for this post to be a tour de force of my thoughts on ethics and theism, but I have settled on providing an overview of the topic. Like the rest of this series, there is more to be said than what I provide here, but I think my outline of the problem will better prepare us for a real discussion of the issues than how it was presented by the Christian panelists and how they present it to their apologetics students.

In Part II, I want to establish four points:

1. Many criticisms of secular morality are not as important as they might initially seem.
2. Even if you still want to maintain that these criticisms are important, the same criticisms can be leveled against Christian morality.
3. Since the basic criticisms are not enough, Christians will try to offer ways in which their morality can still be superior. However, these are not successful differentiators.
4. Finally, there might be some ways in which secular morality is actually the superior option.

My aim here will not be to present a case for or against whether moral claims are actually facts. I merely want to show at this point that there is no advantage inherent to theism in the realm of metaethics.

What are some criticisms of secular morality?
You will often hear the idea that secular morality cannot tell you why anything is really wrong. It can at best provide you subjective theories or culturally relative theories. These might explain why, in a given context, something is viewed as wrong, but they will say there is no legitimate foundation upon which you can base that opinion or derive an obligation to anyone but yourself.

Now, I consider that initial criticism to be pretty superficial. It basically assumes that everyone who is an atheist ought to be a moral anti-realist who deny there are any moral facts. However, this is denied by most philosophers, including several prominent Christian ones. Furthermore, many atheists, especially those working in ethical theory, are realists. If atheism cannot account for moral facts, as the theist here would lead you to believe, then why should this be? Apologists would have you believe they should all be nihilists or else they are just deluded.

Anyone who has much knowledge of metaethics can bring up any one of several theories, which do provide an account of moral facts and are not necessarily subjective or culturally relative. For example, contractualist views, like that of T.M. Scanlon, tend to argue that we can derive values and duties from reasons. I personally find this proposal very appealing, and can appreciate revising some of our moral language into discussions of reasons. And there are many other secular views that proceed from some foundation and derive facts, values, duties, and the like from that base set of assumptions or foundation.

Herein lies the popular criticism that I’ve heard in every single conversation I’ve ever had with a theist on this subject that is intended to destroy all such theories. You cannot derive an ought from an is. Just because something is the case, does not mean it ought to be the case. As such, these attempts to proceed from a basic set of assumptions can only describe what is the case. It then requires committing a basic fallacy to make the leap to what ought to be the case. Once you get down to this foundation, you are forced to beg the question in order to get the desired result.

I think this criticism is absolutely true. Knowing that, you might wonder why I don’t think it defeats all hope for moral realism.

Is this criticism really important?
Let me start by discussing an issue in another area of philosophy. There is a longstanding problem in epistemology, called the Skeptical Problem. In short, you might possibly be a brain in a vat imagining your experiences or the victim of an evil genius tricking you or a programmer’s creation in a simulation. In such cases, your imagined perceptions and knowledge would really be false. Since these scenarios are possible, even something as simple as, “I know I have hands,” is really a false statement if we are being strict about what counts as knowledge. You may think you know it, but you don’t really know it. 

This problem cannot be resolved. Popular attempts, such as Keith DeRose’s contextualist response, may offer some salient points that are relevant to epistemology, but they do not actually get rid of the skeptical problem. They merely beg the question against it, so they can insert assumptions that make the problem go away or minimize it. Even though this is the case, no one really makes a stink about it because it’s all we really have. You take the lessons you can from things like the skeptical problem or Hume’s point about induction, and you move on just doing the best you can. This really isn’t a big deal because you realize that, if knowledge were represented on a number scale, just saying that you can’t really have a 0 or a 10 does not make it the case that nothing falls in between. No, you still have differing levels of justified beliefs and some are still better than others. In other words, not being able to have complete certainty doesn’t just rob everything else of value. Almost everyone accepts this.

Now, let’s turn back to secular foundations of morality. I don’t see why we shouldn’t treat it roughly the same way. So what if we have to admit that at some point we reach a foundation and we have to beg the question at that point? If you are willing to accept that you know you have hands, despite the skeptical problem, then you are just committing a double standard by saying we can accept no such thing in metaethics. It turns out to be pretty common to use foundational assumptions as a starting point to get us off the ground, even in areas that are popularly considered beyond reproach, like mathematics.

Christianity must also beg the question.
Here is the real kicker, I think, for all those touting the is-ought distinction. Every single attempt to provide a moral foundation must beg the question and commit this problem, including Christianity. You see, Christianity also reaches a foundation once you get to God’s nature or desires or commands, etc. We can then rightly ask the question, “Why are these good?” And there is no possible answer that does not beg the question in favor of the Christian.

At this point, the Christian is forced to accept that they also beg the question, so the discussion then turns to whether one foundation is better than another. Here are two reasons I have heard given for why God is a better foundation than what is offered by secular morality: Objectivity and a non-human source.

Does Christianity effectively differentiate its foundation from secular options?
Theists, like William Lane Craig, will say that objectivity means an action is still right or wrong regardless of whether anyone (really meaning any human) believes it is right or wrong. This definition of objective is a bit narrow, in my opinion, probably because theistic morality is inherently subjective. It is based on the opinions or attitudes of God. But we can still work within that framework just fine.

Objectivity, as defined by them, could be provided very easily by the contractualist theory I mentioned earlier because it is based on reason. If we all got brainwashed tomorrow into thinking that various logical truths were actually false, that wouldn’t really change what was truly reasonable to believe. The truth value of propositions is independent of what we believe. We just either correctly discover them or we do not. Everyone in the world believing that 2+2=5 doesn’t make it actually true. For the same reasons, I would also say its source is non-human. We are not really deciding what is or is not reasonable.

Or, if you don’t like that option, consider secular non-naturalist theories, such as those defended by Erik Wielenberg or Derek Parfit. These assert that there are brute moral facts and, as such, its defense will be remarkably similar to a theist’s defense of God-based morality. This makes it quite difficult for the theist to attack. For the purpose of this discussion, it should suffice to just say that these theories are unquestionably objective and non-human, as the terms are meant by theist critics.

Does that mean Christian and secular theories are on equal footing?
I think what I’ve said so far shows that secular theories are inherently no worse than Christian theories. But we might even be able to make a stronger statement than that. While I don’t see any clear advantages for Christian moral theories, I do see some very clear disadvantages.

Divine Command Theory, for example, faces at least the following roadblocks:

It depends on the existence of God and all the difficulties entailed by that.
– In the PhilPapers survey, only 14.6% of philosophers said they accept or lean toward theism.

It generally also coincides with a belief in Libertarian Free Will.
– In the same PhilPapers survey, only 13.7% of philosophers said they accept or lean toward this.

Most philosophers, as far as I know, don’t think Divine Command Theory is a viable option because of some very serious criticisms. These go beyond Plato, even though I don’t think Adams or any modern philosophers have actually escaped the underlying criticism of the Euthyphro Dilemma.
– For example, consider the following critiques from Stephen Maitzen and Jeremy Koons.

It faces serious difficulties in the area of moral epistemology. While this doesn’t make it false, it means that even if it were true, we’d have a hell of a time discovering what moral truths were the correct ones. It is difficult to decide what God is really commanding or desiring. Consider the following two problems:
– What can a theist say to someone who sincerely believes that God has told them to harm someone else? You might call this the Abraham problem.
– It is hard to explain why you should intervene if you happen upon tragedies that would not otherwise be stopped. In some sense, you are interfering with what God was either doing or allowing to happen.

It is difficult to reconcile with our deepest moral intuitions.
– Here is another excellent article on this subject from Maitzen.

Conclusion
I think it’s pretty clear the brunt of common Christian criticisms of secular morality relies on atheism entailing moral anti realism. However, this has not been established and most philosophers would disagree with that characterization. Furthermore, secular forms of moral realism (theories that do say there are such things as moral facts) are not subject to any weaknesses that do not also affect theistic forms. Likewise, the strengths Christian theories attribute to themselves are by no means unique. Finally, there still remain some serious difficulties with theistic theories, like Divine Command Theory.

I recognize I moved through each point fairly quickly, but this should give you an idea of why I’m not overly concerned with the points brought up from the apologists on the panel or by commenters associated with that group since then. Their claims are either easily overcome or are just as much a problem for their own theories.

A Way Forward
It should be noted that to ground an ethical claim is merely to provide some standard by which it can be judged true or false. For example, there are foundational rules of mathematics that provide a framework we can use to determine whether “12*12 = 144″ is a true or false statement. Those foundational rules ground mathematical claims. Similarly, there are rules of language, definitions of color, etc. that allow us to judge whether statements like, “I am wearing a red shirt today,” are true or false. To evaluate that statement we have to know what the words mean, understand how sentences are composed, etc.

One of the discussions in metaethics is whether there is any such framework by which ethical claims can be judged. If an ethical claim can be grounded, then it can be called a moral fact because it can be judged true or false against some standard. This is important to determine because, if morality is just a matter of opinion, like whether something tastes good, then it cannot be true or false. A matter of taste is grounded in a subjective opinion. Instead, we want to look for an objective grounding.

I have discussed some options for foundations by which we might judge moral statements true or false. The important point to remember for any discussion moving on from here is that these metaethical theories will succeed or fail based on their individual merits, not based on some inherent flaw that will exist in virtue of not mentioning God anywhere.

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2 comments

  1. Neill Shenton

    This is only a discussionbbetween two sides because one has a belief, without evidence that their foundation has supernatural origin. The perspective is rather different when it is recognised that the foundation of both moralities have human origins; people invented gods.

  2. Ryan

    There is another sort of question begging at work here. Consider:

    Premise 1: Moral system A leads to tragedy X (e.g. atheism leads to the Holocaust)
    Premise 2: Moral system B does not lead to tragedy X (e.g. Christianity does not lead to the Holocaust)
    Conclusion 1: Therefore, moral system B is superior (e.g. Therefore, Christianity is superior to atheism)

    This is a pretty common form of ethical argument, but it fails to account for the process by which we evaluate the tragedy. One cannot say that moral system B is superior unless one can explain why the tragedy is bad.

    Theists tend to resort to just-so arguments, like “It’s just wrong” and “God says it’s wrong,” which are part of the dogma of their moral systems. This effectively reduces their argument to something like:

    Premise 1: Moral system B says that X is wrong
    Premise 2: X does not take place in a world that follows moral system B
    Conclusion 1: Therefore, moral system B is good

    In short: the system is good because the system says that it is good.

    Unfortunately, atheists are often guilty of this sort of reasoning as well.

    The first trouble is that, by the time that we really begin to engage with ethical and meta-ethical questions, most of us have already formed a moral system and an attachment to it. The second trouble is that we generally want to be able to apply our moral system to everyone. Thus, once we engage with those questions, we tend to look for the quickest path to the dual goal of confirming our own beliefs and imposing them upon others, which is the theist’s: ground the claims in absolute certainty. Instead of gods, however, atheists might try to invoke “natural law,” as if nature had written commandments upon a stone slab for all to see.

    In any case, the hypothesis that some action or some action in some context is “just wrong,” independent of human judgment, is not testable, necessarily true like the laws of logic or math, or necessary to conduct our lives. Therefore, there is no reason to believe it except for our desperation for it to be true, which is not a good reason.

    But this does not mean that we must beg the question to proceed with ethics. We just need to look to desires and restrain ourselves from making morality out to be more than what it is. And that’s where people like Alonzo Fyfe take off with desirism.

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