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Divine Commands and Intuitions: A Response to Ken Perrott

May 5th, 2009 by Matt

Ken Perrott from Open Parachute has asked me some questions about my views on morality and divine commands. Views I have repeatedly expressed on this blog. Given that others have from time to time asked me similar questions, and given the length of my response, I have decided to turn my answers into a post. [Ken’s questions are copied and pasted from the comments section of With God Anything can be Permitted: Another Bad Argument against Theistic Morality, numbered and italicised below]

1. I think a key issue, one which should really be spelt out in detail, is the concept of “grounding moral duties in divine commands”. What does this mean?

Basically, I think the relationship between the moral properties of being wrong and the property of being contrary to God commands is analogous to the relationship between water and H2O. Just as we explain the existence and nature of water by identifying it with H2O. I would explain the existence and nature of wrongness by identifying it with the property of being contrary to Gods commands.

2. So what do you mean by “divine commands”? How do you get them? Do you hear voices?

No I don’t hear voices. God is an immaterial being and hence has no vocal chords. I think it is possible for God to create an audible voice issuing a command but I think that this would be fairly atypical. In any event, I do not think that an auditory voice is necessary for issuing a command. I can communicate a command orally but I can also do it via e-mail, text, sign language, waving a flag, etc.

In the normal and typical cases, I think divine commands are usually discerned via a person’s conscience. One intuitively sees that certain actions are right and others wrong and hence intuitively perceives certain imperatives such as “do not torture children for fun,” etc. Moreover, I think anyone whose faculties are functioning properly perceives God’s commands this way whether they believe in his existence or not.

The H2O analogy may illuminate this. We know that the property of being water is the property of being H2O. However, people can know something is water immediately via perception even if they do not have any beliefs about molecules, atoms or contemporary science. Pre-European Maori, for example, knew about the existence of water and competently used water for centuries before they knew about the existence of hydrogen and oxygen.

I think something analogous holds with divine commands. The property of being wrong is the property of being contrary to divine commands; however, people can immediately perceive via intuition what is wrong even if they do not believe in divine commands.

Hence, on my view, atheists can know what is right and wrong. The real question is whether atheism can adequately explain the existence of right and wrong or whether, given atheism, it is likely that moral properties such as right and wrong exist. These are separate questions.

A person can believe in the existence of something and yet be committed to beliefs, which if true, entail that what they believe is a fantasy. I suspect this is precisely the way Atheists view Christians.

3. And if such a command tells you commit an act which conflicts with your moral intuitions and logic – which one do you follow?

If I understand Ken correctly here, he is asking me what I would do if I believed that God had commanded an action that I intuitively considered to be wrong. This is actually a big topic, worthy of a post in and of itself, I do plan to post something more substantial on this in the future, here I can only summarise my current position.

As I noted above, I agree with Ken that people can intuitively recognise certain principles of right and wrong. I would, however, point out that these intuitions are fallible. So, in contrast to what Ken appears to think, I would not assume that every time there was a clash between what I believed God’s commands are and my intuitions that the latter are correct. At the same time I also think our interpretations about what God commands are also fallible and so I would not assume that my interpretations of what God commanded were always correct either. In fact, given that I have already argued that one knows God’s commands intuitively through one’s conscience, intuitively perceiving an action is wrong is some evidence that God forbids it and that claims to the contrary are mistaken.

My answer then to Ken’s question, what do you do if one’s interpretation of God’s commands conflicts with one’s moral intuitions? is that it depends on one’s epistemic situation. If the belief that God has commanded a particular action is something that, after critical reflection, seemed to me well established by the evidence and by contrast, the contrary intuition that the action was wrong was fairly weak, peripheral and less plausible then I would go against the intuition. If, on the other hand, the intuition was very clear and seemed extremely plausible while the rival interpretation of God’s commands was, by comparison, fairly weak and tentative then I would follow the intuition.

To turn to one example Ken mentions, the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2000, I think the intuition that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings is a very strong one. Whereas I do not believe that the case from, say, scripture or theological tradition for killing innocent people in this way is very strong at all (in fact both scripture and tradition are fairly unanimously opposed to terrorism of this sort).

On other issues my thinking is different. For example some people appear to find it self-evident that there is nothing wrong with homosexual conduct. I myself do not have this intuition, nor do most people I know, in fact, many defenders of homosexual conduct I have spoken to admit that they personally find the idea of two men having sex disgusting but defend the “liberal” view in spite of this. Moreover, for I do not think it is implausible to conclude that much of the contemporary acceptance of homosexual conduct is due to cultural conditioning rather than a sudden direct insight gained in the mid 20th century. The arguments typically given for the permissibility of homosexual sex are fairly weak and frequently consist of no more than castigating others as bigots. On the other hand, I think the theological case against homosexual conduct from scripture and tradition is fairly strong.

I have posted a bit more about my thoughts on this in my post Brink on Dialetical Equilibrium.

4. After all, I keep hearing of people who have committed murder as a result of “divine commands” and society usually locks them up.

I am not sure what Ken intends to prove with this point. Ken is correct that some people who suffer from a mental disorder believe that God has commanded them to kill. I don’t think this proves much. I know of people who suffer from dementia who have had hallucinations that there is a river running through their lounge. Does it follow then that referring to the existence of rivers is somehow dubious? In fact, mental patients can also have faulty “moral intuitions” and moral logic quite independently of any theological beliefs they have.

Despite this, Ken maintains, correctly, that people whose cognitive faculties are functioning properly can intuitively discern the presence of right and wrong. I agree with him, the difference is that I believe that what they discern is in fact the property of being in accord with or contrary to divine commands. Ken clearly does not. The question that some theistic critics of secular morality poses is not whether atheists can discern right and wrong, they can; the question is whether, if atheism is true, right and wrong actually exist.

RELATED POSTS:
With God Anything can be Permitted: Another Bad Argument against Theistic Morality
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34 responses so far ↓

  • I understand the image of God (imageo Dei) in a functional manner, that is, God created us to represent him as his “viceroys” (to have dominion, etc).
    As such, we are required to have a close intimate relationship (symbolised by Eden), through which we learn from God what is correct and incorrect both morally and ethically (moral being a code of law, and ethics being “the right way to act” – the two not necessarily always being synonymous).

    So, if we are broken and no longer able to function as God’s representatives, and are no longer in “Eden” how is it possible we can learn/know these things?

    I know what Paul writes in Rom 1-3, and he says that further more we suppress this knowledge of God, and spiral downwards in to darkness getting further and further away from God (also symbolised in the first 11 chapters of Genesis with people moving west (or is it east? I can never get the direction straight, and moving away from Eden all the way to babel).

    If this is the case, our only “right and wrong” is corrupt by our own corrupt natures. Rather than pointing to a Moral God, they point to a faulty human being. I think one of the big points Paul makes is that morality cant be legislated. It can only come with living in “Eden”. The “law” we have is based on the biblical law, not from any “rightness” within us.

    We can know what is right and wrong because we have the written remnants of God commands, but there is nothing left within us that points back to God. No ability to know right and wrong, no ability to be ethical, because the link back to the source of right and wrong is broken, and corrupt.

    So, to me this whole argument does not work.

    But then again, I have never really put any substance to my thoughts till now, and it will all probably change tomorrow 😛

    I should point out though, that through being “reborn” this all changes. We can now represent God, and we can understand right and wrong properly. Its just those who do not know God who can not.
    Way to alienate the world geoff.

    Recent blog post: USA Abandoned by God?

  • Thanks for the response – although a shorter reply to the comment would have sufficed.

    However, this does give scope for a longer elaboration of a non-theist scientific understanding of morality. I think I will post something at Open Parachute on this. It has been a frequent discussion there.

    Just a few comments at this stage. You mention moral logic only once (in reference to mental patients) yet it is surely the most basic and solid foundation of human morality. You seem to substitute institutions as a base and yet, clearly I think, our “moral” intuitions are often wrong, can lead to inhuman attitudes in society and are hijacked to justify the worst of crimes.

    It seems fundamental to me that moral logic must be considered if we are to talk of a basis for morality and conscience. And, of course, the fact of moral logic is a fundamental obstacle to your implied claim that without a god “right and wrong (can’t) exist.”

    Finally – the only (serious – I assume emails, flag waving etc were a joke) way you appear to suggest that divine commands are communicated is via intuition (surely no god is required for that and it is an unreliable guide anyway) and “scripture or theological tradition.” Of course, this is how some very vile things have been justified (moral relativism again). Yes, you will raise interpretation. And again that makes the moral decision relative. After all both supporters and opponents of racism, slavery colonialism, land grabbing by “chosen people” and genocide can refer to “scripture and theological tradition” and use their “interpretation” to arrive at, and justify, their different moral conclusions.

    I realise that you haven’t “justified” (at least here) your apparent belief that for atheists there can never be a right and wrong. You should realise that as a claim (and one made frequently by your mates in Thinking Matters) it is offensive and smacks of naive Christian chauvinism. In itself it amounts to a bit of “moral relativism” which could, no doubt, be used to justify certain social actions and policies.

    Recent blog post: The necessity of science

  • Ken, I know what logic is, and I know what morality is. But what is “moral logic”?

    Thanks

    Recent blog post: I’m heading North

  • The key point to your post which you mentioned twice, is:

    The real question is whether atheism can adequately explain the existence of right and wrong or whether, given atheism, it is likely that moral properties such as right and wrong exist.

    The question that some theistic critics of secular morality poses is not whether atheists can discern right and wrong, they can; the question is whether, if atheism is true, right and wrong actually exist.The fact we have intuition, or ideas that things are wrong is the evidence of divine command.

    If we postulate other causes for intuition, we undermine the objectiveness of morality. If this is the case then while we may think torturing children for fun is wrong, in reality it is just our sensibilities that cringe, and in fact we have no justification to condemn the man who behaves in such a manner.

    Geoff, while I agree that our relationship with the source can be corrupted, this does not undermine the argument. Even though corrupted morality may not recognise what is truly right or wrong, he does retain a sense of ought. It is not so much our agreement with him over what is right behaviour that evidences God, it is his heart that tells him that some things happen to be wrong.

    Recent blog post: Conflict of interest

  • “On other issues my thinking is different. For example some people appear to find it self-evident that there is nothing wrong with homosexual conduct. I myself do not have this intuition, nor do most people I know, in fact, many defenders of homosexual conduct I have spoken to admit that they personally find the idea of two men having sex disgusting but defend the “liberal” view in spite of this.”

    I’m not quite sure what you are saying here. I take it that you are suggesting that the “liberal” is somehow inconsistent in believing that homosexual conduct is permissible while nevertheless being disgusted by that behaviour. If that is what you are saying, then this seems false.

    I can hold fast to a moral intuition (and indeed I should) even though that intuition is not supported by my aesthetic/emotive judgements. I may be revolted by homosexual conduct, but nevertheless believe it is permissible based on a deeply held intuition that one ought be tolerant of most deviant sexual practices. This is especially plausible if I can point to societal causes that have led to this disgust (e.g. it has always been treated as something revolting on TV).

    Am I missing something here?

  • Guest

    No I was not contending that the liberal was inconsistent. I was merely pointing out that the claim “homosexual conduct is permissible” is not intuitively obvious to many people even those who accept this claim.

    As to your specific claim that you have “that one ought be tolerant of most deviant sexual practices” and your claim that homosexual conduct is permissible is based on this.This seems to me to be problematic.

    First, the claim “homosexual conduct is permissible” does not follow from the claim that one out to be “tolerant of most deviant sexual practises” all that follows from this is that you should be tolerant of homosexual conduct. But tolerating something is compatible with viewing it as wrong. In fact, the word tolerance is only applied correctly to things that are bad or evil in some sense. If I say I tolerate my wifes cooking then that means she is a bad cook. Hence if one tolerates homosexual conduct then that shows it’s bad in some sense. To suggest that one should tolerate something and that there is nothing wrong with it makes very little sense.

    Second, you suggest liberals believe that one “should be tolerant of most deviant sexual practises” this strikes me as simply false. Liberals are really very ad hoc with the sexual practises they tolerate. Incest for example is illegal and no one is rushing to decriminalise it. The civil unions act opposed allowing incestous unions. Even though incest can be performed by consenting adults using contraception. Bestaility is still illegal and no one seriously pushes for its social acceptance ( accept perhaps Peter Singer) polygamous unions were prohibited under the civil unions act. Pedastry is castigated as a serious crime. So I don’t know what the most deviant sexual practises refered to are. It seems that most traditionally deviant practises are not tolerated except homosexual conduct (and perhaps Prostitution which has been tolerated for centuries for quite different reasons to the ones liberals cite)

    Third, I find your comments that I can point to societal causes that have led to this disgust (e.g. it has always been treated as something revolting on TV) a little hard to swallow. For two reasons, first the claim that homosexual conduct is grossly immoral goes back centuries, its in the Old Testament the New Testament in Plato, the Stoics etc. This was all well before TV was invented. Moreover, I am not sure what TV programs you are refering to where homosexual conduct is shown as disguisting. Do you mean Shortland Street? Greys Anatomy? The West Wing? Desperate Housewives? Nip Tuck? The Amazing Race? Survivor?

    Recent blog post: Dr Glenn Peoples on Religion in the Public Square

  • “Geoff, while I agree that our relationship with the source can be corrupted, this does not undermine the argument. Even though corrupted morality may not recognise what is truly right or wrong, he does retain a sense of ought. It is not so much our agreement with him over what is right behaviour that evidences God, it is his heart that tells him that some things happen to be wrong.”

    Bethyada,

    I dont see how, personally. I might agree if it was one or 2 generations since we were separated from God, or even 20, but its been thousands of years.

    You see, its not just that its corrupted, but the problem is that it relies on relationship with God in order to exist at all. There might be a possibility for some hint of it to carry over in human memory for a while.

    Perhaps that there are “born again believers” who do have a relationship with God means that my issues dont exist.
    John MacArthur said “You can tell whether a country follows God by its standing on sexuality” (or something close, watch the video on my blog :P). But even that doesnt follow 100%. Its possible to reject God and not be a sexual deviant.

    Ahh.. the birth pangs of a new stream of thought :s

    Recent blog post: USA Abandoned by God?

  • As I said, Glen, I will probably write an article on this at Open Parachute where I will go into this in more detail. However, I think most people have no problem in applying logic to moral issues and thereby reaching a more satisfactory conclusion than relying on their spontaneous intuitions.

    Recent blog post: Another chance to ignore our true religious diversity

  • Matt,

    I am the guest who commented above. First, a disclaimer: I am a Masters student in Philosophy at Otago and I was a student in one of your classes here a few years back. I am not here to defend any particular liberal approach. In fact, while I disagree with DC theory, I agree with you that it is a lot more defensible than most people think. In particular I have been wondering about the possibility of a Divine Command Error theory (Moral propositions are the sorts of things that in order to be true they would have to be the commands of God, but there is no God, so moral propositions must not be true). What do you think?

    Back to the topic, I don’t think you did point out that the liberal in question did not find the permissibility of homosexuality intuitively obvious – at least their disgust is no evidence against that claim.

    In regards ‘my claim’ that one ought be tolerant of most deviant sexual practices, pay careful attention to what I said. I said I “may” believe … indicating that this is just a possibility claim. I do not think this is true, nor does a liberal need to think this- I was just suggesting a way that disgust at homosexuality and belief in its permissibility are perfectly consistent.

    With that in mind, I was not suggesting that a liberal’s belief that Homosexuality is impermissible is entailed by the claim that one should be tolerant of deviant sexual practices. The liberal who thought what I suggested would need other assumptions in their argument as well. But that is all besides the point. The question is – have I told a plausible story? If so, then this undercuts your claim that disgust at some practice is evidence against the claim that you believe the practice is wrong.

    Again, I was not suggesting that I can point to societal causes of my ‘disgust’ reactions, just that this could be part of a plausible story. For example, I might be particularly influenced by one episode of Dawson’s Creek where a main character was ostracised by the community for his homosexual conduct and experienced a lot of ‘you are disgusting’ reactions.

    All in all, I was only making a small point and I accept that I may have misunderstood you. In other regards, I really liked your argument.

    Keep up a great blog!
    Andy.

  • Andy – actually one of my PhD supervisors when I was studying at Otago, Dr Charles Pigden, holds an error theory much like the one you describe. From what I can gather it was entertained by J L Mackie as well.

    I think that if atheism were true, a divine command error theory would be the correct stance to take on ethics.

    Recent blog post: I’m heading North

  • Ah, Ken, so you’re just talking about regular logic then. I’ll be interested to see your blog post.

    Recent blog post: I’m heading North

  • Glen,

    Charles is my supervisor also. Yes, error theory has become quiet popular in recent decades, especially around these parts. What I am suggesting would be an extension on the Mackie theory. Not only do we talk as if there are moral facts but we talk as if these facts should compel us to act in a certain way. What better way to explain this than the fact that an all-powerful being will be mad at us if we don’t act in accordance with the facts?

    Of course, the DC error theorist would say we have no reason to believe in such a being and are therefore entitled to say that he doesn’t exist and that there is no morality.

  • Of course, the DC error theorist would say we have no reason to believe in such a being and are therefore entitled to say that he doesn’t exist and that there is no morality.I think this is the most consistent atheist position.

    Recent blog post: Conflict of interest

  • bethyada – as an atheist I can assure you that you are completely mistaken. The claim of no morality is not a “consistent” atheist position at all. And surely just a little of contact with the empirical evidence will show that to be the case.

  • Ken,
    1. I did not mention moral logic for an obvious reason I did not need to. Logic is simply a set of rules, most of which are intuitively obvious to properly functioning cognisers, by which one can infer conclusions from premises. Note this last point, logic simply gets one proposition, the conclusion, from other propositions, the premises. It, in and of itself tells us nothing about what those premises are except that they cannot be premises from which one can infer a contradiction. In moral reasoning then something like intuition is necessary to provide us with the premises we reason from. That’s why I only need to address the issue of intuition. Premises drawn from our intuitions via logic are only as good as the premises they are drawn from. If there are times when a person is justified in rejecting an intuition then there are times when one is justified in rejecting any conclusion infered by logic from that intuition.

    2It seems fundamental to me that moral logic must be considered if we are to talk of a basis for morality and conscience. And, of course, the fact of moral logic is a fundamental obstacle to your implied claim that without a god “right and wrong (can’t) exist.” No, for several reasons, first your comments here confuse an epistemological basis ( the basis from we know or infer what is right and wrong) and an ontological basis (what causes something to exist). Logic , intuition and conscience are epistemological basis’s , they are the source of our knowledge of right and wrong. Divine commands however are the ontological basis for right and wrong they are what constitutes right and wrong. These are very different things and entirely compatible.

    Second,for the reasons I sketch above that logic cannot even be an epistemological basis for morality, logic simply gets us from one moral premise to another. It cannot give us the ultimate premises from which our knowledge is derived and hence cannot serve as a epistemological basis.

    3. Of course, this is how some very vile things have been justified (moral relativism again). Yes, you will raise interpretation. And again that makes the moral decision relative. After all both supporters and opponents of racism, slavery colonialism, land grabbing by “chosen people” and genocide can refer to “scripture and theological tradition” and use their “interpretation” to arrive at, and justify, their different moral conclusions.I have already addressed this argument in my post “With God anything can be Permitted”. There you I was engaging in a straw man, now you put forward the very argument I refuted. As I pointed out in that post the fact that people differ in their interpretation and application of a theological tradition no more entails that there is no truth of the matter than the fact that people have differed in their interpretation and application of Darwinism to social issues entails Darwinism is relative.

    4. your apparent belief that for atheists there can never be a right and wrong. You should realise that as a claim (and one made frequently by your mates in Thinking Matters) it is offensive and smacks of naive Christian chauvinism. Two things, first the fact that you find a claim offensive does not show its false the truth can sometimes be offensive or emotionally shocking. Second, your talk of naive Christian chauvinism apart from being an obvious ad hominem, conveniently ignores the fact that many significant atheists have actually agreed with and defended this position. Jean Paul Sartre, Frederich Nietzsche, are two obvious historical examples. More recently the late J L Mackie, probably the most brilliant atheist of the last century, argued that a naturalistic metaphysic could not ground the existence of right and wrong. Michael Ruse a leading atheist philosopher of science (and Darwinism) has also defended this claim. A J Ayer defended the claim that moral facts are incompatible with the demand for empirical verification. Hare’s prescriptivism was motivated in a large part to try and salvage moral discourse from the realisation that right and wrong cannot exist in a naturalistic metaphysic. Peter Singer’s ethics is similarly motivated. There is a significant debate amongst secular ethicists today over whether; given a commitment to naturalism moral properties can exist. Gilbert Harman and Nicholas Sturgeons exchange was directly related to this question. Similarly Sharon Streets argument that atheistic evolution makes belief in the existence of moral properties unjustified. I could go on. The fact is its not “Christian chauvinists” who propound this, people like William Lane Craig simply point to and appropriate these arguments which have already been made by atheists.
    Hence the position you dismiss is a serious position defended in contemporary meta-ethics and needs to be addressed with an actual argument.

  • Ken its you who is completely mistaken. First, the claims (a) God does not exist and (b) God does not exist, are completely consistent there is no obvious contradiction between them, you cannot infer by any valid rules of logic the negation of (a) from (b). Second, empirical evidence cannot and has not demonstrated the existence of moral properties such as right and wrong nor could it do so as it’s a fallacy to infer an ought from an is.

    In fact a case has been made by people such as Sharon Street Michael Ruse and Mark Linville that empirical theories such as evolution when conjoined with atheism make the actual existence of moral properties such as right and wrong superfluous because everything we experience can be explained by the thesis that we have evolved to mistakenly believe in the existence of right and wrong and that this mistake has persisted because it encouraged adaptive behaviour.

  • Andy, it’s great to here from former students. We were talking at cross purposes somewhat. I agree with you that you can paint possible stories whereby liberals can be consistent. I was not claiming that they were inconsistent.

    As to your comments about the error theory. Yes I think divine command theory does stand in an interesting relationship to the error theory for a few reasons.

    First the queerness argument is probably best articulated in terms of the claim that moral properties, if they exist cannot be natural properties (that is they cannot be stated “entirely in the language of physics, chemistry, biology” Nor can they be detected in the manner empirical properties are detected, by the use of the five senses and inductive reasoning from these senses. A divine command theory fits this well, God is not a natural entity nor are his commands or purposes something that one can determine by empirical investigation.

    Second, the grounds Mackie gives for suggesting that moral properties are non natural is instructive. Mackie notes that moral properties are both objective and prescriptive. This fits very well with divine command theory which sees moral properties as imperatives or prescriptions but also sees these as existing independently of human cognition or volition.

    Third, the arguments by people like Ruse or Streets that its improbable on the hypothesis of unguided (naturalistic) evolution that our basic evaluative judgements track truth is very similar to Alvin Plantinga’s argument against Naturalism and indirectly for theism.

  • Andy, you write

    Charles is my supervisor also. Yes, error theory has become quiet popular in recent decades, especially around these parts. What I am suggesting would be an extension on the Mackie theory. Not only do we talk as if there are moral facts but we talk as if these facts should compel us to act in a certain way. What better way to explain this than the fact that an all-powerful being will be mad at us if we don’t act in accordance with the facts?You might want to read Robert Adams “Divine Commands and Social Obligations” and also the chapters on Social Obligation inFinite and Infinite Goods. Adams puts forward a view similar to what you say here. Adams builds on a suggestion made by J S Mill that.

    “We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it; if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow-creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience. This seems the real turning point of the distinction between morality and simple expediency. It is a part of the notion of Duty in every one of its forms, that a person may rightfully be compelled to fulfil it. Duty is a thing which may be exacted from a person, as one exacts a debt. Unless we think that it may be exacted from him, we do not call it his duty. Reasons of prudence, or the interest of other people, may militate against actually exacting it; but the person himself, it is clearly understood, would not be entitled to complain. There are other things, on the contrary, which we wish that people should do, which we like or admire them for doing, perhaps dislike or despise them for not doing, but yet admit that they are not bound to do; it is not a case of moral obligation; we do not blame them, that is, we do not think that they are proper objects of punishment.”

    Adams suggests that moral obligations are importantly social, they function a lot like social requirements, whereby some person, requires and demands us to act a certain way and that if we do not so act we will breech this relationship, alienate the person, they will be offended, angry hold us accountable etc. He then suggests divine commands are the most plausible candidate to accommodate this role as any human person or society would lead us into the problems of cultural relativism. I think your account of moral obligation fits quite well with what he says here.

    Of course, the DC error theorist would say we have no reason to believe in such a being and are therefore entitled to say that he doesn’t exist and that there is no moralityI see a couple of potential problems here, first if Gods commands provide the best account of the existence of moral properties then this fact itself provides evidence for Gods existence. Adams notes this “One of the most generally accepted reasons for believing in the existence of anything is that its existence is implied by the
    theory that seems to account most adequately for some subject matter”

    Second, this seems to rely on a certain epistemological stance, that one should not believe in religious beliefs unless there is good arguments for them, that has been challenged by Plantinga etc who argue that belief in God is properly basic.

    Third, I am inclined to think that if successful an error theory poses a choice to people either (a) accept that morality is illusory or (b) reject naturalism. Now what I am not clear on is why a person must accept option (a) the assumption seems to be that naturalism is a given certainty that can never be questioned . But is this really the case. I think for many people claims such as “its wrong to torture little children for entertainment” are fairly certain much more certain than claims that God does not exist or that naturalism is true.

  • “homosexual conduct is permissible” is not intuitively obvious to many people…

    Yeah but nor is “shooting blacks is not permissible”…

    Good luck with getting morality from what is intuitively obvious to many people!

  • Matt – your claim “empirical evidence cannot and has not demonstrated the existence of moral properties such as right and wrong nor could it do so as it’s a fallacy to infer an ought from an is. “ is just wrong. No matter how much you wish that it were true.

    On the other hand – where the hell is the empirical evidence to support the claim that “without a god there is no morality?”Oh, I forgot. Such theological claims do not require empirical evidence.

    I start a series on human morality (at Open Parachute) on Monday which will deal with aspects such as objective morality, moral intuitions, religious confusion on morality, the role of religion and moral science. These aspects are going to be discussed and I welcome your contribution there.

    Recent blog post: Whether we like it or not

  • Ken – your claim, “your claim “empirical evidence cannot and has not demonstrated the existence of moral properties such as right and wrong nor could it do so as it’s a fallacy to infer an ought from an is. ” is just wrong. No matter how much you wish that it were true” is just wrong no matter how much you wish it were true.

    Haven’t you ever stopped to wonder why the empiricist David Hume argued precisely that it is wrong to infer an ought from an is?

    Of course you’ve never wondered that, because in order to wonder that you’d need to know the first thing about the subject, which you frankly do not.

    Why not actually make use of things like libraries and journals? Actually study the literature on meta-ethics before making confident (but embarrassingly naive) claims about what is or is not obvious? Ken, this may read as offensive, but the fact is this is for your good.

    Moral facts are not empirically testable. Instead judgements that we make ABOUT scenarios that are empirically testable. We can test that certain things cause pain or fear, and then after the empirical work is over, we pass a new kind of judgement, a moral judgement, about the physical state of affairs.

    That you think morality is the kind of thing that science makes judgements on not only destroys any hope that you understand ethics, it also hurts any credibility you might have on matters of science. Either stay out of the subject or arm yourself with knowledge before venturing into it.

    Recent blog post: John Loftus on the Ten Commandments

  • Ken

    Matt – your claim “empirical evidence cannot and has not demonstrated the existence of moral properties such as right and wrong nor could it do so as it’s a fallacy to infer an ought from an is. ” is just wrong. No matter how much you wish that it were true.You misconstrue my position. I did not say that the empirical evidence cannot infer the existence of objective moral properties because I wish this to be the case. I said doing so commits a fallacy, inferring an ought from an is, something empiricist philosophers have noted since the time of David Hume. Simply asserting that you can commit a fallacy is not a response.

    On the other hand – where the hell is the empirical evidence to support the claim that “without a god there is no morality?”Oh, I forgot. Such theological claims do not require empirical evidence.Actually you could look at the arguments I mentioned, some of which argue that given naturalism given the empirical evidence about the evolutionary origins of human beings, the most plausible theory is that we mistakenly believe in objective moral properties because doing so is adaptive.

    But I note that you demand here empirical evidence for the claim that something not exist. That seems quite contrary to the standard way athiests approach belief in God.

    Recent blog post: Christian Blog Ranking Report for April 09 – HalfDone

  • Matt – you are the one who raised the requirement of “empirical” evidence and then continue denying a knowledge of right or wrong without a god.

    All I am asking from you is your evidence for the claim.

    I am sure you cannot produce any. You may argue that such a claim is “plausible” – but that is wishful thinking. As is you attempt to characterise atheism by referring to individuals, or at least your biased interpretation of those individuals.

    The fact is that I believe, and so do many others, there is an objective basis for moral judgements. That belief doesn’t require a god. I present my arguments for this in my upcoming series. If you wish to engage with them there you are welcome.

    Glen – I thought you were Bnonn for a minute. You seem to have adopted his angry debating style. You should calm down and try to read what I actually say.

    I do not “think morality is the kind of thing that science makes judgements on.” That is the sort of srtrawmannery that is often used by religious detractors when scientists discuss this issue.

    No one claims science will tell us what is right or wrong. But science is certainly capable of investigating the processes involved in moral considerations. How our species developed a moral sense, the nature and origins of our moral intuitions, our ability for articulation of an objective morality, and application of logical consideration to our intuitions and assessment of objective moral values?

    So calm down, Glen. Realise that my motives in discussing this issue are honest. It might offend you when I point out where I think theologians go wrong on this but surely the appropriate response is to engage calmly with my arguments. And, I also invite you to contribute to discussing these ideas on Open Parachute.

    The fact is that many Christians and theologians just do not understand the non-theist positions on these issues. Probably because they find it difficult to listen, or calmly consider them. It’s in every ones interests that they make an effort to understand. Because the current demonisation involved in characterisations such as “without god morality is not possible” only fuels a dangerous them vs us situation. One of the negative human intuitions.

    Recent blog post: Whether we like it or not

  • Ken, I think you should actually have a read through your own claims before you later make false claims about people attacking straw men. You said that Matt’s claim that “empirical evidence cannot and has not demonstrated the existence of moral properties such as right and wrong nor could it do so as it’s a fallacy to infer an ought from an is” was a false claim.

    You didn’t have to use that wording, but you did. Now, if you think this is false, then it follows that you think that You CAN infer an ought from an is, and it means that you think you CAN use empirical science to to demonstrate the existence of certain moral properties.

    So however rhetorically useful it might be for you to chose to not respond and instead label arguments as “strawmannery,” it’s just intellectually lazy of you. In fact you made the claims attributed to you, however much you might now regret it. In light of your last post I will assume that you wish to retract your view that morality can be empirically demonstrated.

    Retracted accepted.

    You can assert until the cows come home that theists are unwilling to accept or fairly understand atheists’ views about morality, but you’re missing something here, Ken. (And while you’re at it, see through the haze to spell my name correctly please. I think it’s another sign of your haste.)

    I say that because the claim that theists make is NOT that all atheists lack belief in moral facts. The claim, rather, is that if atheism is true then there could not be any moral facts.

    It does not good to complain that theists are not calm, or that they are angry or unwilling to listen. The reality is that I substantial amount of my PhD research, supervised by atheists, involved a painstaking explanation of the meta-ethical issues at stake here. Reading your comments, by contrast, suggests that you have not invested the time or effort to exploring such issues at all.

    I’m not interested in whether you suffer from emotional reactions (as evidenced in your comment about “demonisation”) when people make meta-ethical claims about the consequences of atheism. Surely you are aware that the link between atheism and moral nihilism is not a Christian fabrications, but is held and defended by atheist thinkers who are actually engaged with the field.

    So again, in spite of any upsetting feelings it might provoke, it is for your own good that I tell you that you really need to get familiar with the field before you make confident assertions about who doesn’t really understand what.

    If by some chance you’re willing to invest the time to begin understanding the arguments you are dismissing, here’s a two part series on the moral argument for theism where the link between atheism and moral nihilism is substantiated. It’s audio, so you won’t even have to take the trouble to read.

    Recent blog post: John Loftus on the Ten Commandments

  • Thanks for the link Glenn. I’ll have a listen to it. I am looking for something outlining Craig’s arguments on this question for some posts I am planning and this might help.

    No, Glenn I don’t think, and have never said, “that You CAN infer an ought from an is” – so I hope that clears that up and you can forget about it.

    As far as empirical evidence is concerned (and let’s face it Matt raised that issue) I am still waiting to hear the evidence that without a god there can be no morality. Now, we have evidence for morality, we don’t have any evidence for a god – let alone that this is a source of morality. So there are problems with that claim. And your repeat that claim – “if atheism is true then there could not be any moral facts.” So where is the evidence to support that claim? Nowhere – it’s just wishful thinking and argument by slander.

    On the other hand, as someone who does not believe in a god (and that’s all that atheism means in my book) I have no trouble at all accepting morality, an objective basis for morality and moral reasoning. I can’t see any reason for inventing a god to justify morality. You might not be happy with that – but it’s an empirical fact. You should accept it.

    (And as an aside, isn’t it rather arrogant to deny someone else the right to consider questions of morality, and the basis for it, just because their Ph.D. isn’t in theology? Surely that right belongs to all of us.)

    Recent blog post: Whether we like it or not

  • Ken: “No, Glenn I don’t think, and have never said, “that You CAN infer an ought from an is” – so I hope that clears that up and you can forget about it. “

    OK, as you wish. From now on I will not suppose that you think we can empirically determine morality (i.e. infer an ought from an is).

    “I am still waiting to hear the evidence that without a god there can be no morality. Now, we have evidence for morality, we don’t have any evidence for a god – let alone that this is a source of morality. So there are problems with that claim. And your repeat that claim – “if atheism is true then there could not be any moral facts.” So where is the evidence to support that claim? Nowhere – it’s just wishful thinking and argument by slander. “

    Wait – you have evidence for morality? What kind? Empirical evidence? Surely not, because you are denying that you’ve ever said that we can infer an ought from an is. So please let me know what non-empirical evidence you have for morality.

    As for your complaint about slander, this is merely a mistaken belief on your part. Perhaps once you’ve had a listen to the episode on the moral argument you might see what I mean. For if morality cannot be derived from the empirical facts about the world (i.e. you cannot infer an ought from an is), it must be derived from something other than the empirical facts.

    If God exists then it is plausible to belief that there is a way that humans were meant to conduct themselves, because there is a mind behind human existence. Consequently, theism is capable of giving an account of moral facts.

    You can continue to be frustrated with these claims being repeated or you can invest the time in the literature understanding meta-ethics and offer a rebuttal other than simple denial.

    “And as an aside, isn’t it rather arrogant to deny someone else the right to consider questions of morality, and the basis for it, just because their Ph.D. isn’t in theology? Surely that right belongs to all of us.”

    Ken, I do not have a PhD in theology. I have a PhD in philosophy. And my comments have nothing to do with your lack of a PhD. My comments were to express how clear it is that you lacked understanding of meta-ethics. I said nothing about your lack of degrees. I think that this is a fair complaint, especially given the clear confidence with which you have been making your claims.

    Recent blog post: John Loftus on the Ten Commandments

  • Strange Glenn – you are restricting an acceptance of objective morality to claiming one can derive an “ought from an is.” I have never seen it that way.

    OK, Glenn. Your Ph.D is in philosophy. Sorry I got that wrong. It’s just that your philosophy sounds very much like theology to me. I can appreciate that these two fields do sometimes get confounded. (I often hear people advancing theological positions but claiming they are philosophical. I guess there is philosophy and “philosophy”).

    Now, please give me the respect of not making assumptions about my own educational level or area (your are bound to find out you are mistaken) – or countering my propositions by claiming I lack understanding. Put downs like that only raise the suspicion that you may be covering up for your own misunderstandings.

    Much simpler (and respectful) to engage with the propositions themselves.

    Recent blog post: Whether we like it or not

  • Thanks for your reply, Matt.

    I will certainly read Adams. I think I would disagree with his on a key point though. He seems to think that punishment is build into the concept of morality – this would offend my externalist sensibilities. My Master’s thesis is a defence of moral motivation externalism- I believe that motivation is not internal/necessary to moral judgements/beliefs/properties.

    So, punishment would enter into my story as a good external reason to be moral. It is not the fact that anyone has commanded you that could give you reason to do the right thing. It is the fact that God can punish you if you don’t do the right thing that motivates you to act morally. This is an advantage that DC has over any other command theory of morality. For example, if you were a Hobbesian and took the right thing to be the commands of the sovereign, it is conceivable that you could be powerful enough to ignore the sovereign’s commands without punishment (e.g. you have a private mercenary army that is more powerful than the sovereign’s). But, by definition, there is no one powerful enough to escape God’s punishments.

    Matt said:

    “I see a couple of potential problems here, first if Gods commands provide the best account of the existence of moral properties then this fact itself provides evidence for Gods existence. Adams notes this “One of the most generally accepted reasons for believing in the existence of anything is that its existence is implied by the
    theory that seems to account most adequately for some subject matter”

    My claim would be that DC theory would not provide the best account of the existence of moral properties per se, but rather that it provides the best account of moral discourse. Talking about morality seems to presuppose that we have a good reason to do the right thing and what better reason than to avoid God’ s wrath. As I see it, the best account of moral discourse does not have any direct ontological commitments. An analogy: the best account of why the enterprise D is a faster ship than the enterprise A is that enterprise D has a more sophisticated warp drive. This does not provide reason to think that warp drives exist.

    Matt said:

    “Second, this seems to rely on a certain epistemological stance, that one should not believe in religious beliefs unless there is good arguments for them, that has been challenged by Plantinga etc who argue that belief in God is properly basic.”

    Absolutely. I think most ontological and ethical debates are motivated by a particular epistemology. I’m ashamed to admit that I know little of Plantinga and this is something I should remedy. I probably accept, rather uncritically, the critical rationalism and methodological naturalism that floats about down here. That said, I suspect that I would find Platinga’s epistemology too loose – it would allow one to rationally believe in far too many things for my liking. Like Quine, I have a ‘taste for desert landscapes’.

    Matt said,

    “Third, I am inclined to think that if successful an error theory poses a choice to people either (a) accept that morality is illusory or (b) reject naturalism. Now what I am not clear on is why a person must accept option (a) the assumption seems to be that naturalism is a given certainty that can never be questioned . But is this really the case. I think for many people claims such as “its wrong to torture little children for entertainment” are fairly certain much more certain than claims that God does not exist or that naturalism is true.”

    I pretty much agree with you there. Metaphysical/scientific naturalism should not be treated as dogma. Although, I’m meta-ethically promiscuous I lean towards ethical naturalism and reject the ‘queerness’ premise of Mackie’s arg for error theory. I believe that scientific/metaphysical naturalism is true and that moral facts are reducible to rather ordinary physical facts. So I don’t need the trade-off between moral facts and metaphysical naturalism (I’m aware that you and Glenn are probably going to find the is/ought inference problematic, but a response to that would take me too far afield:)

  • Andy D, I think Adam’s is focused more on things like guilt and censure, he thinks that these are conceptually tied up with moral obligation so that obligation necessarily involves a social relationship. I think something like this is at the heart of critiques of realism. The idea that there can not be mind independent moral facts or truths.

    Your idea sounds a bit like the queerness argument suggested by Mavrodes. Mavrodes suggest that moral obligations morality sometimes requires you to sacrifice temporal goods for no temporal gain. He finds this queer. Stephen Layman and John Hare have developed this idea further. Layman argues that if something is obligatory then one has a decisive reason to do it. This is for him a contingent fact about obligation, but a fact none the less. He then argues that if Naturalism is true: there is no God and no afterlife there exist instances where you can benefit greatly from wrongdoing and will not get caught and it will not be the case that you have have a decisive reason to do what is obligatory. Hence in these instances you end up in incoherence. Hare has a slightly different view, he argues that if we are to be commit ed to morality we have to implicitly believe that doing the right thing is compatible with ones overall happiness, he then suggests that naturalism makes this presupposition difficult to rationally defend whereas its defensible if theism is true. I can give you the requisite references if you are interested. They sound like they pursue a line similar to you.

    As to the” is ought” thing. I am skeptical that one can prove the existence of moral facts empirically. It seems to me, on the face of it, that the error theory will always explain empirical phenomena just as well but more economically and hence be a better theory. The only way it seems to me one could justify the existence of moral facts on naturalism is if accepts that moral facts can be known non-empirically and non-inferentially. The problem is this seems to sit uncomfortably with naturalism, after all, Plantinga has argued that God is known non-inferentially and non-empirically and I don’t see how one could reject his thesis and accept the analogous thesis viz a viz moral facts.

    I also wonder if, given naturalism, one could mount an argument alla Sharon Street ( also Plantinga) to the effect that because our basic cognitive sources of knowledge were shaped by unguided evolution and hence selected for survival and not true, we have reasons for rejecting the reliability of our moral intuitions.

    Recent blog post: Trevor Mander on the Moral Cosmological Argument

  • This all sounds very interesting and I will pursue those leads.

    Re: Is/ought

    The advantage of naturalism over error theory, as I see it, is that one can preserve the morality as a Moorean fact. As you’ve said – the fact that it is wrong to torture small babies for fun is more plausible than (most) facts that would contradict this. So an Error theory is at an explanatory disadvantage.

    I agree completely that ethical naturalism should be squared with scientific and metaphysical naturalism. However, I think they could be known empirically and/or inferentially. You see, I don’t think ‘No ought from is’ (NOFI) is a fallacy (largely for reasons pushed by my supervisor).

    -a) If the claim is that it is a fallacy to deduce an ought from an is, then this is false.
    Prior’s counter-example: 1) All Brits are tea drinkers. Therefore, all Brits are tea-drinkers or all NZers ought to be shot.

    -b) If the claim is non-deductive, then this is false. There is no fallacy in inducing an ought from an is.

    -c) If NOFI means something looser like a fact/value distinction, then I think this is false. If I say “If you want to build a house, then you ought to build a roof’, the fact that a house ‘ought to have a roof’ is nothing at all spooky. Moral facts are like those oughts. Not hypothetical oughts, but something a bit similar. This may have relativistic consequences, but not ones I am unhappy about. I tend to view objections to relativism like you would view objections to DC theory – straw man arguments.

    As I say, I am meta-ethically promiscuous and haven’t thought too deeply about this (it is fairly orthogonal to my thesis). I just tend to think that naturalism is on the right track.

  • Andy, Sure, I am aware of A N priors counter example, I am not convinced however it really establishes much, because I doubt any substantive moral claim can be demonstrated in a non circular fashion using the addition rule in this way. I agree with you that one can validly use adductive arguments, the potential problem I see is that the error theory will always be more economical and hence all else being equal be a better theory. The challenge then is to find some substantive empirical phenomena which is explained much better by appealing to the actual existence of facts as opposed to merely belief in such facts.

    It seems to me there is an analogy here with theism, people committed to scientific naturalism or contemporary forms of atheism, typically argue that seeing God is not directly verified via the senses, (he is not seen, heard, touched, or tasted for example) then its rational to believe in God only if there is a good adductive, inductive, or deductive argument from phenomena we observe to his existence. It’s usually then contended that everything the theist appeals to in such arguments (the origin of the universe, fine tuning, and apparent design) can be explained naturalistically and hence more economically. Best I can tell the same argument applies to objective moral obligations. They are not directly verified and hence if the atheist is to be consistent here we need some arguments that are more powerful and better defended than the best forms of say the cosmological, teleological, ontological arguments, for the existence of moral obligations.

    You write

    The advantage of naturalism over error theory, as I see it, is that one can preserve the morality as a Moorean fact. As you’ve said – the fact that it is wrong to torture small babies for fun is more plausible than (most) facts that would contradict this. So an Error theory is at an explanatory disadvantage.Not sure this follows, I agree that the claim right “its wrong to torture small babies” is extremely implausible but I don’t see how this is entails it has more explanatory power given scientific/metaphysical naturalist assumptions. Couldn’t it simply be that scientific naturalism applied in the area of ethics has implausible implications? Implications which it’s more plausible to denyn to affirm scientific naturalism in the first place?

  • “homosexual conduct is permissible” is not intuitively obvious to many people…

    Yeah but nor is “shooting blacks is not permissible”… Guest, the reason you cite the example of “shooting blacks is not permissible” is because you think that anyone who reads your post will take this claim to be absurd and hence a counter example to my argument. If that’s true, however then the claim that its wrong to kill blacks is intuitively obvious to most people.

    I find it intriguing that some people continually try and conflate believing that a particular sexual practise is wrong and believing that genocide is permissible. Its really hard to take seriously the kind of logical ( and rather hysterical) leap involved in such an argument.

    Good luck with getting morality from what is intuitively obvious to many people!If I had said that you can ‘get’ morality from what is intuitively obvious to many people this argument would have a point but I didn’t so it doesn’t.

  • Matt, I don’t think Prior tells us much either. But it does demonstrate that we have to be careful about what we mean by ‘no ought from is’. Those who bandy it about often aren’t clear about what they mean. Prior shows that if they mean it literally (it is always deductively invalid to get an ought from an is), then this is false. The onus is not on the naturalist to show what the problem is supposed to be.

    If the scientific naturalists in question claim that its only rational to believe in that which is directly empirically observable, then all the worse for their theory. That is an incredibly naive philosophy of science that a sci naturalist should not endorse. This would seem to rule out all sorts of scientifically respectable entities. To deny the existence of God on those grounds, indeed sounds barmy.

    It could be that scientific naturalism does have implausible implications when applied to ethics. I just don’t think it does. And its not that I want to play burden tennis here, but I don’t think that the naturalist has much to get around. I will admit that the belief/fact issue needs to be dealt with. If beliefs can do the trick, then the facts can be rejected. I know the naturalists have made several replies to Harman on this point, and I should now go and read whether I think that they work…

  • Agreed on being careful of what you mean.

    I think you misunderstand my point re scientific naturalism and theism. It is not that one can only believe what is directly empirically verifiable. Your quite correct that such things as quarks or atoms would be ruled out by this criterion. The claim is rather that because belief in God cannot be empirically verfied directly, then one cannot accept theism unless they offer a cogent argument ( presumably from directly verfiable premises) for the existence of God. Mackie’s comments in The Miracle of Theism are a good example, Mackie writes

    “ If it is agreed that the central assertions of theism are literally meaningful, it must also be admitted that they are not directly verified or directly verifiable. It follows that any rational consideration of whether they are true or not will involve arguments . . . it [whether or not God exists] must be examined either by deductive or inductive reasoning or, if that yields no decision, by arguments to the best explanation; for in such a context nothing else can have any coherent bearing on the issue” I think this method ( and Mackie would agree) on the face of it seems to yield a parallel skepticism about moral obligations. Claims such as “its wrong to rape children for entertainment” are not directly verifiable, hence it would follow that any rational consideration of whether or not moral obligations exists must be examined either by deductive or inductive reasoning or, if that yields no decision, by arguments to the best explanation; for in such a context nothing else can have any coherent bearing on the issue.

    Mackie is not eccentric here by the way in an early critique of Plantinga’s claim that one can believe in God rationally in the absence of rational proof. Kai Neilson stated

    All of us can agree, at least for a large range of cases, whether somebody is in pain, whether he’s thinking, feeling anxious or the like. We do in general agree about these things. Only a madman would claim that no one is ever in pain or that no one ever knows that another person is in pain. The same is true for thinking, feeling anxious or sad and the like… Now the situation is very different in religion.

    The position here seems to be that any proposition that some one can deny and still be sane is one that needs to be proven by argument. Given that Nihilisms exist and are sane, it would follow by this method that those who believe in moral obligations would have to provide arguments from premises from non moral premises all sane people accept for the conclusion that moral obligations exist. Just as it is contended that the onus of proof is on the theist so it would be on the non nihilist to prove that morality exists. The irony of this I think is that ethical naturalists like Sturgeon have not offered anything like say the arguments defended by Alexander Pruss or William Lane Craig, or Timothy O Connor or the Richard Swinburne in defense of the claim that moral obligations exist, so its hard to see how a person who accepts the standard evidentialist/rationalist objections to theism can consistently affirm the existence of real moral obligations.