Category Archives: Moral Argument

Why be Good?

shutterstock_38222407Following up on my earlier post on the moral argument for God’s existence, I wanted to address a tangent that I’m usually forced to let alone for the sake of sticking to the point.  That is, most of the objections to it show a marked confusion about the nature of Christian morality.

That is, if you think that threats of Hell are the basis of Biblical morals, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

One would think that the fact that Christianity is about forgiveness would be well-known enough that “You are good because you’re afraid that God will send you to Hell” would be widely recognized as a terrible argument.

But it is tragic that more people don’t know what the actual motivating force of ethical behavior is within Christianity. Far too many people, even many Christians, are missing out on the brilliance of the idea. So, what is it?

In a word, gratitude.

Christianity, though not necessarily the Christian, recognizes that reward-punishment systems tend to make us either arrogant or terrified, judgmental or guilty. This is a death-trap. Those who think they are good enough tend to be condemning to anyone not living up to their standards, and those who know we could be (and should be) better are very often plagued by self-accusation.

Terrible as it is that so many have fallen into this trap, this is a very big part of what forgiveness was meant to dispel. Forgiveness is meant to drill home to the arrogant person that he didn’t earn any right to claim to be good–and isn’t better than other people–while simultaneously showing the guilty person that she is indeed accepted.

Those who understand, and believe in, this truth will naturally begin to become a better person.

The process is simple, if difficult to live out: the one who knows she has more than she deserves is grateful, and genuinely grateful people do kind things without expecting to get something back, without hoping or demanding that she’ll be rewarded, but just because the thankfulness overflows out of her.

I, for one, believe that gratitude is the core of all human virtue. It is how we can help others without being secretly condescending or selfish. And that is the brilliance of the (actual) Biblical approach to morality.

Amoral Morality?

morality_croppedIn addition to not talking about Christianity, I’ve noticed that quite a few respondents to the arguments for God’s existence don’t actually talk about those arguments, either. Obviously, every argument is going to suffer from evasive responses to some degree, but it definitely occurs to some more than others.

My vote for the winner in this category is the moral argument for God’s existence.

Overwhelmingly, there are two basic responses to the moral argument that one is likely to encounter. (But, as a side note, I’m not sure whether the atheists who happen by would rather I made these responses sound calm and thoughtful or punchy and full of memes. I’ll  go with the typical New Atheist version I hear, but apologies in advance to the more genteel and thoughtful atheist.)

The first response usually reads a lot like this:

“I don’t need the Bible to tell me to be moral! It’s full of awful, terrible things, and only a complete sociopath would need that anyway. Are you a sociopath? I can’t believe how messed up you religious types are if you can’t be moral except because God threatens you with Hell. I do the right thing because it is right–not (like you) because I’m trying to avoid punishment.”

I don’t think there’s a book long enough to deal with all of the errors in this paragraph, but for those inclined to agree with it, let me point out the main issue.

Simply put, the argument isn’t for sociopaths. It is for people who agree that there is such a thing as moral truth. This is how reasoning to a conclusion works–we see something that is, then wonder how it could be explained. In this case, we see morality, then reason to the conclusion that God is the best explanation for it.

Of course, there are some wild claims about the Bible (and why theists are moral) here as well, but I’ll not get into that because it is beside the point. An attack on a very particular (and bad) interpretation of the Bible neither offers us a secular basis of morality, nor shows us that there isn’t such a thing.

But what of the claim that the atheist does what is right because it is right? That always struck me as a bit self-righteous, but the bigger issue is the second typical response:

“Morality is simply the result of empathy, which was put into people by evolutionary pressures. This kind of herd thinking helped our ancestors to survive, and it still helps us today. Cooperation is very powerful, and being good to others is what is best for you, in the long run.”

This is a pretty blatant contradiction of the first response, which is why I’m so often surprised to run across people who give me both responses in the same conversation–often in the same paragraph.

To say that morality is what is best for one is to deny that one does what is right because it is right. It is, specifically, to claim that one has selfish motivations for doing what is right. It is also to deny that there is any objective morality at all.

That’s fine, if one wants to do this, but this is precisely what the theist was claiming: that theism is the best explanation for objective morality. To respond with “well, as an atheist, I don’t believe in objective morality, but only that people have empathy” is to concede that point.

But, of course, the proponents of this response like to underline that empathy is “good enough”, and that nothing else needs to be explained. But I find that impossible to square with another claim these same persons make.

Namely, that we shouldn’t believe things without a rational reason to do so.

To say that we should have all kinds of moral attitudes, not because those things are really true, but simply because we feel a certain emotion (empathy), is to deny outright that one only believes based on reason and evidence.

At this point in the conversation, I’m usually treated to long, and increasingly impatient descriptions of how empathy might have arisen in the human species–as if proving that would counter anything I’ve said here.

One can reject objective morality in the name of atheism, or reject atheism in the name of morality. What one can’t rationally do, however, is claim that “are you a sociopath”, or “evolution made us empathetic” has much of anything to do with the moral argument for God’s existence.

Total Meaninglessness

quote-the-man-who-regards-his-own-life-and-that-of-his-fellow-creatures-as-meaningless-is-not-merely-albert-einstein-312313“If where you came from is meaningless, and where you’re going is meaningless, then have the guts to admit that your whole life is meaningless.”
-Timothy Keller

Materialism demands that there’s no truth outside of physical truth. And, yet the materialists I encounter also demand that their lives are meaningful. Of course, they recognize that this is a purely subjective statement. Still, it’s hard to see what it is the materialist could call a subjective truth when he insists that all truth is physical.

I’ve been told, many times, that one can have a sense of meaning without there being objective meaning and that subjective meaning is something altogether different from physical reality. Apparently, the two are simply not the same. But this leads one to wonder, is the materialist proposing something other than physical reality? Or is he simply using “subjective meaning” as a polite term for a chemical reaction inside the skull?

Presumably, the latter. Indeed, materialists, in my experience, have insisted upon this. Their only real complaint here is with my idea that we should be concerned about this fact. Apparently, there’s nothing unhappy to be found in the statement that meaning is simply a chemical reaction that induces a feeling–and that any notion of actual meaning in life is simply a lie.
The problem, they say, is with my idea that this is even remotely unhappy.

It is unhappy, of course; it is tragic. But I’m not concerned about happiness. Not here. Rather, my concern is with logical consistency. And there is something deeply inconsistent about finding meaning in a life that one announces to be meaningless. To set-aside questions of meaning, and reduce one sense of purpose in life, and all the decisions that entails, to a matter of feeling, of emotion, is not rational.

Likewise, to insist that those of us who are concerned with true meaning should simply abandon the question is bluntly anti-intellectual. It is disbelief, not on the basis of thought, but on the basis of a lack of thought.

Simply put, anything short of  nietzschean abandonment of all meaning is out of touch with pure materialism. Those who claim to have a “scientific mind” contradict themselves to speak of meaning, right, wrong, or any other value.

To say, then, that religion is evil, and that materialism is good, is to abandon materialism.

Theism vs “Because it Feels True to Me”

mom_because_i_said_so_by_tiaknight-d644lxl.pngIn discussing the moral arguments for God’s existence, Mackie takes a moral subjectivist position. That is, he doesn’t believe that morals are real things that are true regardless of what anyone thinks, but are somehow based in human opinion.

The problems with this are legion. Among (many) other things, the subjectivists have always been unable to explain why they accept their physical senses while rejecting their moral sense.

But there is one advantage to moral subjectivism; it seems to avoid the Euthyphro Dilemma that Mackie raises against the idea of objective morals. But, of course, the Euthyphro simply assumes that “a thing is moral because God commands it, or God commands it because it is moral”. It never considers the idea that it is God’s nature, and not God’s commands, that is the basis of theistic morals.

He does, however, consider the idea that God, if he can create objective reality at will, could simply create morals. I don’t take this view, myself, but Mackie really struggles to refute it. Really, all he does is suggest that morality might be intrinsic in objects.

And this rather gives the game away. Not only does the idea of morality intrinsic in objects completely abandon materialism–the very materialism that is the basis of his rejecting theism, no less–but a vague “what if” is his best response. If this kind of argument were sufficient to refute other arguments, absolutely any claim could be defeated.

And this is one more reason why one should know something of theology before presuming to refute it. I’ve actually been given good reasons, by theists, to reject this view of morality. But Mackie, unaware as he is of what sophisticated theists actually believe, lacks these better refutations and is reduced to vague assertions.

Mackie also claims that it is better to take a view that doesn’t require the assumption of objective morals. Apparently, he believed that the assumption of subjectivism isn’t equally an assumption, but I fail to see this. In approaching life, both are views. The difference is that one is supported by both rational argumentation and our basic experience with reality.

The other is simply privileging materialism without defending it.

Of course, there is still this idea that subjectivism can somehow avoid the the Euthyphro dilemma. But I’m not convinced. I don’t see how any subjectivist account of morality isn’t as arbitrary as subjectivists claim that theistic morality is. It tends to invoke moral statements to the effect of “you must do this, because doing so helped an ancestor survive” or “you must do this because society says so”. Subjectivists, given their openly arbitrary beliefs about morals, are not in any position to attack others for believing things without good reason.

Or, to put it succinctly, if we really believed that our morals shouldn’t be arbitrary, we’d be theists.

The Evidence is Good, the Logic is Valid, but the Conclusion is Just so Unreasonable

Calvin-Hobbes-Its-Not-Denial-posterThe third moral argument Mackie discusses is interesting in that it was put forward by a man (Sidgwick) who did not himself accept it (but just thought it was interesting). Personally, I find this singularly unfortunate in that it is a good argument, and might have been better known and better defended had it been advanced by someone who actually believed in it.

The argument could be summarized as follows:

1. What one has the most reason to do is what will best secure one’s long term happiness.

2. What one has most reason to do is what morality requires

3. If there is no moral government to the universe, what will best secure one’s happiness won’t always be what morality requires.

If one accepts all three of these statements, if follows that there is a “moral government” to the universe–which would mean that materialism is false, and that theism is likely to be true. Mackie rejects this argument, I think, far too easily. He seems to accept all three premises–at least, he never challenges any of them. And he agrees that the conclusion follows from the premises. Still, he insists that the conclusion is wrong.

First, he does this by dismissing the idea that he should accept a view on the grounds that not accepting it would be to reject rationality. He accepts that this makes his view of ethics irrational, but seems strangely unbothered by this. This leaves one wondering why one couldn’t, equally, have a  view of God that he considers irrational. He never addresses this point.

And I think it is significant, in that it has become so common. Many people who are completely open about the fact that their view of morality is irrational can be found loudly mocking, ridiculing and otherwise acting scandalized toward religious believers for “believing irrational things”.

Of course, I don’t accept that belief in God is irrational, but I really can’t see why such people should have a problem even if it were.

Second, he claims that “facts should inform our beliefs, not the other way around”. But, if the argument is sound (which he seems to concede that it is), then there are moral facts which should inform his beliefs about God. He’s simply begging the question if he wants to say that morals aren’t facts.

Third, he offers some examples that, he thinks, reduces the argument to absurdity. He claims, for instance, that one could use the idea that we shouldn’t retreat in battle, together with the idea that we shouldn’t let our army be destroyed, to mean that we will be victorious in every battle.

Clearly, this is silly, but I fail to see how this actually follows from the argument above. Is it really a moral imperative that an army not retreat under any conditions whatsoever? Or does morality simply dictate that one not retreat without sufficient reason to do so? I’d say it is the latter, but this option is simply ignored by Mackie.

And this is another common mistake. Relativists rarely seem to understand the difference between objective morals and absolute morals. They seem to think that anyone who believes in moral objectivity believes that no consideration whatsoever should be given to the situation one is in. But no moral objectivist I know has ever said such a thing. Of course moral principals will manifest differently in different situations–that was never what was in dispute.

Mackie also claims that what is moral must follow from (supervene on) what is factual. But, as Plantinga points out, this means precisely what Mackie says it does not mean: that morals can be clues to what is factual.

After all, a news report supervenes on real events. That is to say that, were it not for those events, there would be no report. But this doesn’t remotely mean that a news report is no reason to think the reported-on event didn’t happen. Rather, it is precisely because a report is based on an event that it is a useful source of information.

Thus, if morality is supervenient, then the same principle applies. Mackie can’t simply say that morals depend on the facts of the situation in order to say that they tell us nothing about the facts.

So, all this is simply beside the point. After all, Mackie is criticizing a logically valid argument, with premises that he accepts, on the grounds that it leads to a conclusion that his materialist atheism is false. If “facts should inform our beliefs, not the other way around”, then he should accept the conclusion of the argument.

As much as I respect Mackie, he seems to be in the grip of an ideology here–claiming that true premises and valid logic can lead to a false conclusion is a fairly blatant rejection of rationality.

As to the argument itself, I’d love to see some more development of this idea. There is definitely more that could be said, but, at the end of the day, it is clear that atheism and morality are logically incompatible with one another.

If Theism Were Completely Different, It would be Unsupported

6a00e398244402883300e553e54ff88833-800wiIn discussing the moral arguments for God’s existence, J.L. Mackie takes what I find to be a reasonable approach. Still, I’ve had many criticisms of him–not the least of which is the fact that (like many atheists) he doesn’t seem to understand what theistic morality is.

That is, he repeats the long-discredited view that a theistic moral system is based on a reward-punishment system, then makes the obvious objections to that view.

But, while I’m sure that such people must exist somewhere, I can’t seem to find any real-live theist who has this as a moral system. Atheists who claim that this is what we believe, however, abound. This has always struck me as odd, and, whatever the reason for it, it remains a straw-man fallacy.

At least, I try not to draw the conclusion that people are remaining willfully ignorant of this point in order to make for better anti-theist memes. I hope this isn’t the case.

Either way, it bears repeating that theists view God as the paradigm of goodness–not unlike Plato’s form of the good. It is also the reason why the Euthyphro dilemma (which Mackie also sites against the moral arguments for God) is off-base (more on that later).

I suspect that this is an honest mistake on Mackie’s part. Still, it is a mistake, and I’d expect a better understanding than this from anyone offering a refutation of theism.

At least, it will take a stronger understanding to have any hope of a successful refutation. Since Mackie understands theistic morality this incorrectly, he is completely unable to construct a case against it. All the theist need do is say “that misses the point” to counter everything he’s said.

Mackie and Morality

Marley-Me-marley-and-me-2008-6104819-684-1024There are actually a few moral arguments that Mackie discusses in “Miracle of Theism”, but he begins with Kant’s:

Kant points out that “ought implies can”. That is, to say that we ought to seek the highest good is to say that there is a highest good to be sought. If this is true, then one is left fleshing out what the “highest good” is, and will end up with something very much like (if not exactly like) God.

I’ll not get into the details as to why the highest good is probably God. Mackie doesn’t object to this, and I’ve never heard anyone else do so, either. Still, he does pick an odd spot. He agrees that we ought to seek the highest good, but claims that this only implies that we can seek it, not that it is actually there to be found.

I think Mackie has essentially missed the point here. Whether or not “we ought to seek” means that we “can find”, it clearly means that there is a good to be found. Else, there is simply no basis of “ought” to begin with.

Of course, more popular objections to these kinds of arguments simply affirm relativism and claim that is the end of the argument. One doesn’t see this out of Mackie, I suspect, because relativism is far less popular among the philosophically sophisticated than it is in popular culture. As well-loved as relativism is in dorm rooms and among pot-smokers, apparently it is much less so in the professors’ lounge.

Still, if one wants to deny moral realism, one can do so. The real problem with this isn’t what professors think. It is that 1) the view is unlivable and 2) it rests on philosophical presuppositions which are themselves highly questionable.

As I’ve already discussed the second issue, I’ll not repeat my thoughts on it here. But, regarding the first, I think this is a bigger point than most non-theists seem to think. At the very least, it deserves more than a shrug and a “that doesn’t prove that it is false”.

This is because, if the atheist is going to say that no one can actually live in a rational way, then he has abandoned the main line of attack leveled at theists–that theism is an irrational approach to life. Thus, to behave as if morality exists while embracing relativism or nihilism is to agree that one has no rational advantage over the theist.

And this is on the committed atheist’s own view–if one happens to see any value in any of the arguments for theism, rationality is that much in favor of the theist.

Plug: “Why There is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist”

I ran across this today, which, in spite of the implication of the title, is clear that atheists can be morally good.

Rather, it may well be the most direct and clear summary of the moral argument I’ve ever seen. If you have five minutes, it’s more than worth a look.

I’m Offended by Your Taking Offense

child-portrait-offended-15638509For the overwhelming majority of human history, and in the overwhelming majority of cultures today, people have understood that we should all do what is right and avoid doing what is wrong. That is, we should be moral, rather than immoral.

But it was inevitable that, at some point, the word “immoral” would be abused.

What is much more interesting is the fact that so many, seeing this abuse, seemed to think that it was the whole concept of morality that was the problem (rather than the fact that abusing any concept will result in negative outcomes). Thus, the phrase “that’s immoral” has fallen out of fashion in our culture as oppressive language.

Of course, people still need a way of insisting that others not do certain things for the sake of a prosperous society.

Enter the phrase “I find that offensive”.

It serves essentially the same function as “that is immoral”, but presumably without the pretense of telling a person that she is wrong. Rather, it only has the pretense that she is somehow obligated to change her behavior on the grounds that someone doesn’t like it.

This seems like a return to “that is immoral” in all but name–and, worse, while insisting that we’ve somehow avoided the negative side of that phrase. It really is just a matter of time before “I’m offended” is abused often enough that people begin rebelling against it as well.

For a third generation phrase, I recommend “I’m right to be offended”. This recognizes that moral seriousness appeals not just to the emotion of feeling offense, but to an real, intellectually recognizable standard that another rational person can see, if she will take the time to reason it out. This is a much better ground for morality than the purely emotion-based method of offense.

Of course, there is a catch.

Moral relativism is the main reason why people don’t feel that God has much to do with their lives. Many committed atheists are, of course, dedicated to the idea that secular morals exist. But I’ve seen no good reason to think this, and interest in religion would almost certainly increase among neutral parties if morality came to be seen as a fact, rather than a matter of opinion.

As such, I think theists should be quick to suggest that offense, just by being offense, does not morally oblige us to do anything. Someone may be offended at one’s beliefs, one’s accent, or one’s skin color–but this doesn’t mean that one should change them (or even keep them hidden from that person).

The long-term result, it seems to me, would be a clearing of the relativistic fog that keeps so many from understanding (let alone seriously considering) the connection between their own moral decisions and the spiritual questions which underlie the great world religions.

The Wilde Theory of Morals?

Portrait of Oscar Wilde with CaneIn “Miracle of Theism” Mackie discusses a few moral arguments for God’s existence, but opens with what is (to me, at least) an interesting statement. He acknowledges that such arguments may reinforce belief in God, but suggests that very few people believe due to such arguments.

This strikes me as odd because a form of the moral argument was instrumental in my own coming to believe in Christianity.

I think it is a very powerful argument, and it is interesting to see the difference between my own line of thought and Mackie’s.

And this begins almost right away. Mackie insists that, if one takes the conscience as a reliable source of information, one must deny that it points to anything beyond itself (to some kind of non-physical reality). Presumably, this is because a trustworthy conscience would be self-justifying, but this strikes me as completely wrong thinking. Really, it seems more like one of Oscar Wilde’s jokes than a serious point.

I can see it now: “Don’t worry about what your conscience tells you. If your conscience is right, it’ll still be right after you’ve changed it.”

I take it as self-evidently true that sensory experience is basically trustworthy (we’re not living in a dream-world), but this does not preclude the idea that such experience points to a real world beyond our sensations. Rather, it is precisely because we consider our senses to be valid sources of information that we accept the idea that there is an external world.

To say that the validity of the conscience somehow undermines the idea that there is an external reality to which it points, therefore, is to get things precisely backward. I don’t know how Mackie can conclude this, and he doesn’t tell us. Rather, he simply asserts this.

But he does close with a brief mention of the much more popular idea that morality can be described in terms of human social and biological history. But he fails to address the nearly as common reply that this completely misses the point.

Rather, this is simply a rejection of the idea that the conscience is a valid source of information. It explains how humans might have come to believe in morality, but denies, rather than explains, that the conscience is a trustworthy source of information. It is to deny objective morality altogether.

But what if that is simply the way things are? What if morality is subjective?

I have a long list of objections to this, but the first is the simple fact that this is based in an arbitrary approach to human experience. There is no less reason to trust that the conscience is reporting an external reality than to trust one’s senses. If one really believes what one experiences is evidence, one will accept them both.

But, if one wants to insist that the one is illusory while the other is giving us sober truth, then one needs to offer a reason for that.

And neither Mackie, nor the other philosophers I’ve read have ever been able to do this.