Tag Archives: Relativism

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.

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.

Moral Truth and Rationality

450px-the_thinker_closeWhy does one believe in anything?

Unless one is a cartesian skeptic, one accepts some things that haven’t been proven absolutely. Presumably, the basis of our core beliefs is perception of things. One accepts that the physical world is real, after all, because we perceive it. While it is true that one may be wrong to do so, it seems far more reasonable than to believe that reality is all simply a delusion.

Many who are deeply committed to the reality of the physical world, however, are hostile to this same reasoning process when applied to other areas.

In this case, I’m speaking of moral truth.

Many insist upon “evidence” for objective morality, by which they seem to mean something that can be shared via the senses. Apparently, we need no evidence that the senses are reporting (however imperfectly) a real world, but we need evidence that the moral sense is (again, imperfectly) a touchstone of the real.

This seems completely inconsistent, and the only response I’ve ever been given is descriptions of moral beliefs in terms of the physical (i.e. sociobiological evolution). Surely, one can do this. But one can equally explain the physical in terms of the mental (or even the moral). This disproves the reality of neither. Nor does it establish that one simply reduces to the other.

All this seems to show is that the truth is difficult for humans to understand. But this seems a reason to be more, not less, open to seriously considering multiple facets of reality. Walling one’s mind off from anything which doesn’t fit into a particular category which is easy for us to investigate is not seeking truth.

I suspect that, were it not for the current zeitgeist, it would be next to impossible to believe that having a physical explanation of a thing precludes the validity of any other kind of explanation. That is rather tidy, but isn’t any more defensible than a similar argument against the physical.

That being the case, I’m inclined to think that (while I may misperceive it, as I do the physical) moral truth is as real as the physical universe.

Embracing the Irrational?

Life_of_Pi-1I finally got around to watching “Life of Pi” this week.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with the statement that it was beautifully filmed. It is clearly a great picture, and deserves to be praised on those grounds.

But I completely reject the central message.

Just to get it out of the way, this isn’t because the lead character “practices” several contradictory religions. Yes, that is impossible, and promotes a certain relativism about religion that is far too popular, but I wasn’t too surprised by that.

In fact, the story really got to the core of that position.

That is, it promoted the idea that it is belief itself, not the truth of our beliefs, that matters.

This is a certain kind of fideism. That is, faith as many atheists like to define it (“belief without evidence”). While such belief can give us hope and a sense of purpose (neither of which should be underestimated), it divides our minds further into the distinct compartments of intellect and emotion.

Those that take this view of spirituality are double minded. On the one side, he believes, but on the other, he knows he has no rational reason for that belief. On this schema, which side is dominant is the only difference between the passionate believer and the passionate atheist. Both are deeply committed to half of themselves, and one is suspicious that the impatience each has with any who disagree is something more than impatience.

Rather, this type seems always to be arguing with the half of himself that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

Any philosophy worth living needs to be more holistic than that. It needs to to be both grounded in reason and speak to the real issues of life. It needs to reunite the warring factions of the mind.

And that brings me to my definition of “faith”: the coming to personally accept and live out the logical consequences of what one claims intellectually.

Whether one calls this practice “faith” or not, this is the approach we need. Neither bold fideism nor demanding evidence while living relativism is a path to what Jung called individuation. It is a path from, rather than toward, enlightenment.

Taking a Stand for Relativism

Batman-vs.-Relativism-Part-4“Good and bad are simply concepts in your mind.”

I’ve long since lost count of the number of times I’ve encountered this sentiment. Obviously, I disagree with it. I’ll explain why in a later post. For now, I’m more interested in a particular fact about the people who make the claim.

No, it is not that these people are committing themselves either to open nihilism or a large amount of irrationality in their daily actions. True as that is, there’s something else that is pointed out far less often:

This statement, in the context of debates on religion, almost always comes from people who insist that they are not claiming that God does not exist.

Many atheists have put a lot of energy into defining their position as “a lack of belief in God”, rather than a belief that there is no God. Such people tend to be very insistent that they need not make a case against God’s existence. Since they aren’t claiming God doesn’t exist, so the argument goes, they needn’t support their position–that is for the theist to do.

I’m not one to argue definitions, so I’ll not comment on the validity of this one. But, under any definition, there are severe problems with this tact. Most pertinently, the claim that morality is subjective presumes that God does not exist. Such a statement should, therefore, be supported by reasons to believe that God does not exist.

Of course, the atheist in question could simply avoid making such claims. She could simply introduce moral relativism as a possibility, rather than state it outright. This would be a perfect solution, so long as she is solely interested in winning debates without regard for behaving in a logically consistent manner.

This is to say that, unless one is abdicating all right to make any statement in a moral discussion or hold any position about morals at all (even in daily life), one is going to have to take a position on God’s existence. One simply has no room to say that this or that religious moral is wrong, even in a subjective sense, until one has shown the religion in question to be false.

One’s position may be tentative, of course, but simply “not believing” isn’t enough.