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Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Infantile Religious Morality

September 24th, 2009 by Matt

In “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” Walter Sinnott Armstrong criticises William Lane Craig’s contention that theism, if true, provides an adequate foundation for morality. Armstrong contends that Craig’s position is “incredible”[1] and subject to a “cavalcade of devastating objections.”[2] He goes on to conclude that his criticisms do not just call into question Craig’s argument for a theistic based system of ethics, he contends that his arguments are conclusive against any theistic account of ethics that is compatible with Christianity. He states, “Other theists might try to give better arguments for a religious view of morality, I don’t see how they could avoid all the problems in Craig’s account without leaving traditional Christianity far behind.”[3]

In several posts (see the related posts below) I have criticised some of the arguments Armstrong makes in this article. In this post I want to turn to another. The claim that “divine command theory makes morality childish;” Armstrong states,

A second objection is that the divine command theory makes morality childish. Compare a small boy who thinks that what makes it morally wrong for him to hit his little sister is only that his parents  told him not to hit her and will punish him if he hits her. As a result, this little boy thinks that, if his parents leave home or die, then there is nothing wrong with hitting his little sister. Maybe some little boys think this way, but surely we adults do not think that morality is anything like this.[4]

Its worth noting that Armstrong’s sketch is something of a caricature; the picture is of a little boy who thinks hitting is wrong because his parents will punish him if he engages in hitting. This tacitly implies that divine command theorists believe that actions are wrong because God will issue punishments to us if we do them. No divine command theorist to my knowledge holds this view. What we typically hold is that an action is wrong for a person to perform if a perfectly good, omniscient being (identified as God) commands that person to refrain from the action in question. The fear of punishment does not come into it.

This point, however, is largely tangential because the heart of Armstrong’s position appears to be based on three ideas.

[1] That some children see morality as dependent on the commands of their parents.
[2] That it is inappropriate, childish or infantile for adults to view morality as being dependent on the commands of a parent.
[3] That the conception of morality proposed by a divine command theorist is analogous to basing morality on the commands of a parent.

Hence, divine command morality is infantile or childish.

In responding to this line of argument, it is worth noting Armstrong’s argument is not new. In fact, it simply summarises an early argument made by Patrick Nowell-Smith in his widely-anthologised essay Morality: Religious and Secular. In this article all three of Armstrong’s premises are defended in more detail than Armstrong provides in the short paragraph above. I think that by critically examining Smith’s argument one can see the problems with Armstrong’s.

Like Armstrong, Nowell-Smith argued, “religious morality is infantile.”[5] Similarly, like Armstrong, it is clear that Nowell-Smith’s target was a divine command theory.[6] Nowell-Smith’s thesis is that a divine command theorist possesses an ethical consciousness that is frozen or arrested at the pre-critical stage of a child. A mature adult whose cognitive faculties are functioning properly would have outgrown it.

In arguing for this thesis, Nowell-Smith draws upon the theories of moral development proposed by Piaget.[7] According to Piaget, children start out with a view of morality that Nowell-Smith labels deontological, heteronomous and realist. Children view morality as obedience to certain rules (deontology) which hold because an authority figure, usually the parent, has promulgated them (heteronomous) and wrongdoing is perceived as any external action that violates these rules (realism). This view of ethics is appropriate for small children; however, as they mature and become more rational their consciousness changes. They begin to see the point of certain rules and understand the reasons behind them and the function of such rules. This is the stage where ethics become in Nowell-Smith’s words “autonomous.” Instead of just accepting a parent’s word for it the child learns to figure these things out for him/herself.[8]

Nowell-Smith goes on to argue that these same features of heteronomy, realism and deontology are present in “religious morality” or more specifically, divine command theory. Consequently, divine command theory reflects a childish way of viewing ethics, one not worthy of a grown-up, educated adult.[9]

Nowell-Smith’s analogy between divine command theory and childish morality ignores a fundamental disanalogy between the case Piaget describes and that of the divine/human relationship. As Richard Mouw has pointed out, Piaget views the transition from heteronomy to autonomy as corresponding to the time when a child begins to be on an increasingly-equal footing with his or her parents. The infantile stage of morality is appropriate while the child is in infancy because of its limited rationality and knowledge. In this state the child is unable to make decisions as competently as the adult, hence it relies on and defers to the judgement of adults. However, as the child grows equal to the parent in these respects he or she ceases to rely on parental judgement. He or she is now just as competent to answer these questions as his or her parent is and so his or her thinking becomes autonomous.[10]

Consequently, Piaget’s model of development applies to situations where the subordinate is temporarily in a stage of inferiority to the authority but is undergoing a process of growth towards equality. It is when this equality is reached that the authority relationship is no longer appropriate. However, the relationship between adult humans and God is fundamentally different. Adults are not growing into divinity so that when mature they will equal God in rationality and knowledge. Rather, they are permanently in a state where they are inferior to God in these respects. In this context the failure to reach a moral consciousness that is equal to God’s is not a sign of arrested development and the infantile charge loses its sting. It is inappropriate for adults to behave like children but not inappropriate for them to fail to think like God.[11]

Nowell-Smith’s argument, therefore, is unsound. I think the same response can be attributed to Armstrong’s argument. Returning to Armstrong’s three premises,

[1] That some children see morality as dependent on the commands of their parents.
[2] That it is inappropriate, childish or infantile for adults to view morality as being dependent on the commands of a parent.
[3] That the conception of morality proposed by a divine command theorist is analogous to basing morality on the commands of a parent.

There is a subtle equivocation in this argument; turning to premise [2] that it is inappropriate, childish or infantile for adults to view morality as being dependent on the commands of a parent, as we saw, this is because an adult child has grown to a position where he or she is on par in terms of maturity, rationality, insight, knowledge, and so on, to the parent. The problem is once this is clarified [3] is false. The conception of morality proposed by the divine command theorist is not analogous to basing morality on par with the commands of a parent who is an equal as no divine command theorist thinks of adult human beings as being on par with God in terms of maturity, rationality, insight, knowledge, and so on.

Of course there are other respects whereby the conception of morality proposed by divine command theorists is analogous to a conception that sees morality as dependent on the commands of a parent, so in this sense [3] is true. The problem is that these respects do not include the features of the relationship between an adult child and their parent that makes the conception inappropriate and so if correct then [2] would no longer be true. Either way the argument fails.


[1] Walter Sinnott-Armstrong “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics, eds. Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008) 106.
[2]
Ibid. 108.
[3]
Ibid. 114.
[4]
Ibid. 109.
[5]
Patrick H. Nowell-Smith “Morality: Religious and Secular,” in Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy ed. Ian T. Ramsey (London: SCM Press, 1966) 95.
[6]
Ibid. 96. Nowell-Smith characterises the view he critiques as follows, “They have simply assumed that just as the legal propriety of an action is established by showing it to emanates from an authoritative source, so also the moral propriety of an action must be established in the same way; the legal rightness has the same form as moral rightness, and may therefore be used to shed light on it. … Morality, on this view, is an affair of being commanded to behave in certain ways by some person who has a right to issue such commands; and once this premise is granted, it is said with some reason that only God has such a right.”
[7]
Ibid. 100.
[8]
Ibid. 100-103.
[9]
Ibid. 103-108.
[10]
Richard Mouw The God Who Commands: A Study in Divine Command Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990) 12.
[11]
Ibid. 12-14.

RELATED POSTS:
On a Common Equivocation
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong on God, Morality and Arbitrariness
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, William Lane Craig and the Argument from Harm Part I
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, William Lane Craig and the Argument from Harm Part II
Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part I
Tooley, The Euthyphro Objection and Divine Commands: Part II

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71 responses so far ↓

  • Your claim: [i]“The fear of punishment does not come into it.”[/i] is surely utopian. We all know that fear of punishment [b]does[/b] come into it when morality is imposed on children from above. We all know of examples where such “morality’ is beaten into children.

    But, more importantly:

    [b]1: [/b]Surely this whole idea of “divine command morality” is rather childish now that we are developing a scientific understanding of morality. Its like arguing for creationism and ignoring evolutionary science.

    [b]2: [/b]And that sort of approach to morality is actually very dangerous – often leading to extreme forms of moral relativism. There is a very interesting interview of the psychologist Jill Myton by Richard Dawkins illustrating this (see my article and the included video at Psychological abuse of children). She was brought up in a religious cult with the command approach to morality. She escaped and as an adult now counsels cult victims.

    Myton makes the point that when morality is imposed by command children don’t go through the normal processes of internalising a proper morality. Every moral decision must be checked with/mapped against the commands and declarations of the religious leader(s) (who are of course claiming to communicate their god’s commands. They are the ones with the direct line to their god and their follwers must trust them).

    She found, as an adult, that she often got into situations where she just didn’t know what to do morally. She had no concept of what was morally right or wrong – because she had not been able to develop/internalise moral knowledge. And she then had no-one to check with.

    In normal development children have a chance to learn and internalise moral knowledge. They learn which moral intuitions to trust and which to question. They learn to think through moral logic. Consequently, they learn an objective way of “knowing” right from wrong. And they can look at the moral mores of society and decide their own acceptance or rejection of them. They have a firm moral basis – are not all at sea as those exposed to “divine moral commands” as Jill Myton clearly explains.

    We now understand pretty well how people develop morally, and how we derive our moral percepts and logic. We can develop an objectively based moral structure.

    “Divine command morality” leaves us at the mercy of any old cynical religious “leader” and we all know what sort of that mess that has produced.
    .-= [author]‘s last blog-post ..Depressed? Anxious? Aren’t we all? =-.

  • Surely this is why we have a legal system?

    Since god doesn’t actively direct us or punish us here on earth, we need a legal code, devised by men, to protect ‘unalienable rights’ etc etc.

    And legal protection for the ‘…little, weak and helpless’ as in Section 59. The concept of ‘justice’ may be academic but its real life application is continually evolving.

    No doubt the Jesuits will make mincemeat of this. They have had centuries of ‘the end justifying the means’, and still appear to be going strong.

    To outsiders, the label ‘christian’ covers (and covers up for) some scary people.

  • Ken said “We can develop an objectively based moral structure.”

    I ain’t got a clue what that’s supposed to mean.

  • Sinnott-Armstrong’s objection imagines a parent that goes away, hence the threat of judgement also leaves. That isn’t correspondent to the divine command ethical theory either.

  • Andrew – I thought we had discussed that. I know some people interpret this comment wrongly (I am not saying there is such a thing as objective morality – rather objectively-based morality)..Have a look at my article Human Morality II: Objective morality.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..From the keyboards of scientists… =-.

  • Ken
    Your claim: [i]“The fear of punishment does not come into it.”[/i] is surely utopian. We all know that fear of punishment [b]does[/b] come into it when morality is imposed on children from above. We all know of examples where such “morality’ is beaten into children.
    Actually this ignores the context of the citation when I said that the “fear of punishment does not come into it” I was not claiming that morality is never inculculated into people by force. What I said was that Divine Command theorists do not claim that an action is wrong because God will punish you for it. If you dispute this I would simply ask you to find an example of any leading or representative defender of a Divine Command theory who affirms this? I have read pretty much all of them and can assure you what I say is true.

    [b]1: [/b]Surely this whole idea of “divine command morality” is rather childish now that we are developing a scientific understanding of morality. Its like arguing for creationism and ignoring evolutionary science.
    No, two things, first critics of creationism argue against it because they contend that there is a mountain of empirical evidence, drawn from genetics, geology, animal and plant anatomy, which supports evolutionary theory and that the theory unites several diverse disciplines and is a central tenet of nearly all forms of modern science. The evidence it’s contended makes evolution as well confirmed as the claim that the earth is round and orbits the sun. For your analogy to work then you would have to contend that an equivalent amount of empirical evidence is available to show that the property of being wrong is not the property of being contrary to a divine command. This is simply not the case.
    [b]2: [/b]And that sort of approach to morality is actually very dangerous – often leading to extreme forms of moral relativism.
    Well that’s simply assertion, and a false one. First, a divine command theory is a form of objectivism, hence it contradicts relativism and so it’s impossible for it to entail relativism. But second, to establish rather than simply assert this point you need to show that in majority of cases adoption of a divine command theory by a person or community has lead to “extreme relativism” I am familiar enough with the history of moral thought to know this is probably false.
    I also note Ken that I addressed this argument of yours in a previous post. Please stop citing objections I have already refuted, repeating a mistaken argument does not make it sound. If it did then creationists would refute evolution simply by repeating themselves.
    There is a very interesting interview of the psychologist Jill Myton by Richard Dawkins illustrating this (see my article and the included video at Psychological abuse of children). …. Every moral decision must be checked with/mapped against the commands and declarations of the religious leader(s) (who are of course claiming to communicate their god’s commands. They are the ones with the direct line to their god and their follwers must trust them). She found, as an adult, that she often got into situations where she just didn’t know what to do morally. She had no concept of what was morally right or wrong – because she had not been able to develop/internalise moral knowledge. And she then had no-one to check with.
    I agree cults damage peoples moral development, its hard to know what this has to do with a divine command theory.
    If a divine command theory stated that we only “know” what is right and wrong from promulgations the commands of a certain cult leader that such have a direct line to God, and there rules most be followed rigidly and externally and never internalized your comments might have a point. But divine command theories do not affirm any of these things.
    All they affirm is that the property of being wrong is the property of being contrary to Gods commands. As I have noted this is an ontological claim not an epistemological one. See http://www.mandm.org.nz/2009/01/on-a-common-equivocation.html
    </inormal development children have a chance to learn and internalise moral knowledge. They learn which moral intuitions to trust and which to question. They learn to think through moral logic. Consequently, they learn an objective way of “knowing” right from wrong. And they can look at the moral mores of society and decide their own acceptance or rejection of them. They have a firm moral basis – are not all at sea as those exposed to “divine moral commands” as Jill Myton clearly explains.
    Well here you are again conflating how people know and reason about morality with what moral properties are. Divine command theories are theories about what moral properties are, what makes things right and wrong. They are not a theory about how people know or reason about right and wrong. I have pointed this distinction between epistemological and ontological questions out repeatedly to you in the past Ken. Again see http://www.mandm.org.nz/2009/01/on-a-common-equivocation.html
    now understand pretty well how people develop morally, and how we derive our moral percepts and logic. We can develop an objectively based moral structure.
    Again you again are confusing epistemological and ontological issues. In the first line you say we know how people “derive our moral precepts” that may be correct but it tells us only how people for their beliefs about what is right and wrong. Its does not tell us what right and wrong is or whether objective moral properties exist. Divine command theories address the latter question not the former, and again this has been pointed out to you and it has been pointed out in the literature ad nauesm. Again see http://www.mandm.org.nz/2009/01/on-a-common-equivocation.html
    Divine command morality” leaves us at the mercy of any old cynical religious “leader” and we all know what sort of that mess that has produced.
    Again, if a divine command theory taught that we can only know whats right and wrong through the promulgations of a particular religious leader that might be a valid point. But as I have repeatedly pointed out, a divine command theory does not affirm this. It affirms that the property of being wrong is the property of being contrary to Gods commands. Again see the distinction between epistemology and ontology which I have repeatedly pointed you to in the past.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..Auckland Bloggers Drinks Feat. Pamela Anderson and John Key – This Thursday! =-.

  • Fair enough Ken, perhaps you, Stuart, Sus, and Matt can make a start on drawing up an objectively based moral structure.
    Sue Bradford might now be available to pitch in as well

    This actually misunderstands objectivity as I define it. Its not that people “draw up” a moral structure. its more that we discover one, in fact many objectivists myself included think we already know much of what is right and wrong. We know rape is wrong for example. We know that its wrong to put people in gas chambers because they are jews, that stealing or lying without a good reason is wrong and so on.

    The question then is simply what “wrongness” is. Take a well worn analogy. People discovered water thousands of years ago, they know it exists in lakes, rivers, etc they drank it and used it. The question arose however “what is water” what makes things have the property of being wet for example and people then developed theories explaining what it is, eventually identifying water with H20.

    The same is true in ethics, atheists theists etc all recognise morality exists, thats why atheists often cite examples like the Inquisitions because they think such things were wrong even though the society of the time may have accepted them . The question then is what is this property called wrongness.

    The problem Ken faces I think is that he rejects belief in a supernatural eternal necessarily existent person God who is non-spatial or temporal on the grounds that his existence cannot be empirically proven, he does not accept the claims of people like Alston, Plantinga etc that this being can be known directly via some non empirical cognition. Ken then however adopts Platonism which affirms that an immaterial, eternal necessary object ” a form” exists, and this can be known only non empirically via some form of immediate intuition.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..Auckland Bloggers Drinks Feat. Pamela Anderson and John Key – This Thursday! =-.

  • Fair enough Ken, perhaps you, Stuart, Sus, and Matt can make a start on drawing up an objectively based moral structure.
    Sue Bradford might now be available to pitch in as well

  • Andrew, I went to some detail explaining what “objective morality” means in my post. http://www.mandm.org.nz/2008/12/cultural-confusion-and-ethical-relativism-i.html and how it differs with relativism . So I find it a little odd to read on Open Parachute that I do not define what I mean. Here I will briefly make the point again.

    To say morality is objective is to say that actions have the property ob being right or wrong independently of what human beings whether individually or collectively think.

    The analogy I used in my article is the claim that the world is round. The world has the property of being (approximately) round independently of what human beings think. If a person or culture believe its flat that does not change the shape of the world. In the same way the claim that its wrong to torture children for entertainment is objectively true. If a person thinks it Ok to torture children in this way, or a whole society consider such torture Ok that does not make it Ok. The torture is still wrong and those individuals and societies are mistaken.

    Ken in the post he links to Human Morality II: Objective morality.defends a view called Platonism which affirms that right and wrong is objective in the same way I outline above. According to Platonism there exists a property “wrongness” which exists outside of space and time, is eternal and immaterial and does not depend on human beings for its existence this property is non physical and is known as a form or abstract object. Actions are wrong if they have this property. Other forms of objectivism try and identify right and wrong with some natural property.

    Relativism on the other hand claims that what’s right and wrong depends on what humans think. So that if an individual or community believe that raping women is permissible then it actually is ok for that individual or community to rape. Moral properties then are typically identified with either a social convention of some sort or with an individuals own beliefs and desires about right and wrong or something like that.

  • Matt said: “So I find it a little odd to read on Open Parachute that I do not define what I mean.” Did I say you don’t define what you mean? Perhaps you could point to where I said this, I don’t recall the instance.

    “an immaterial, eternal necessary object ” a form” exists, and this can be known only non empirically via some form of immediate intuition.”

    I must lack this form of ESP then as I’m unable to detect this “immaterial, eternal necessary object ”, I have to make do with the morality I gain from biological, societal, and psychological inputs.

  • Ken in the article you refered me to you affirm Platonism. Anyone can read the article and see it. http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2009/05/12/human-morality-ii-objective-morality/.

    So I am not confused Andrew simply read the article.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..Auckland Bloggers Drinks Feat. Pamela Anderson and John Key – This Thursday! =-.

  • Matt said: “This actually misunderstands objectivity as I define it. Its not that people “draw up” a moral structure. its more that we discover one”

    Well, Ken used the word “develop”, not “discover”.

  • Andrew – “Fair enough Ken, perhaps you, Stuart, Sus, and Matt can make a start on drawing up an objectively based moral structure.” - You are being cheeky, of course! Matt and Stuart see things completely different to me.

    As I pointed out the argument of divine commands as a source of “objective morality” actually leads to very extreme forms of moral relativism. We don’t have to look far to see that. Such an approach has been used to justify, as well as oppose, slavery, suppression of women, suppression of homosexuality, etc., etc.

    And Matt – you are incorrect to claim – “Ken in the post he links to Human Morality II: Objective morality.defends a view called Platonism which affirms that right and wrong is objective in the same way I outline above.”

    That is not what I said. You misrepresent me.

    Bloody hell – can’t people understand the difference between “objectively-based-morality” and objective morality?” If you don’t see that you can’t understand my article.

    Go back and read it properly, together with the other in that series.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..From the keyboards of scientists… =-.

  • No Matt – you are also wrong with this claim: “Ken then however adopts Platonism which affirms that an immaterial, eternal necessary object ” a form” exists, and this can be known only non empirically via some form of immediate intuition.:

    I am currently reading a book on the brain and consciousness and the author explains how the human mind/brain actually will filter out things that challenge its ego, or sow discord with preconceived ideas. That’s what you are doing here.

    It’s interesting to observe.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..From the keyboards of scientists… =-.

  • Matt’s feeling a little confused right now, he’s replied to us at OpenParachute

  • I think moral objectivists ignore the biological, ie instinctively based part of what governs our actions under subjective morality, they prefer to focus on the societal, and psychological aspects. I also think that when Ken talks about “objectively based moral structure” it’s this that he’s referring to. Instinct not only affects our actions as individuals but also what is society as a whole considers is acceptable behaviour, for this reason that human societies will not condone the raping of their babies, or whatever other examples that objectivists like to pretend subjectivism would allow.

  • “So I am not confused Andrew simply read the article.”
    Matt, you made an error in posting that at OP – you’ve got a link in your comment that’s to the thread you’ve actually posted in, no biggie, I apologies for finding humour at your expense.
    Perhaps you could tidy it up and repost it here.

  • Matt – why bother with your claim “Ken in the article you refered me to you affirm Platonism.”

    I don’t.

    I thought that was clear. But perhaps not – and perhaps you misunderstood, or read what you wanted into it.

    However, at least acknowledge that I know my own mind.

    So let me say specifically:

    I do not affirm Platonism.

    OK?
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..From the keyboards of scientists… =-.

  • Yes Andrew – that is what I mean. I also add that we have an objective basis for our moral logic in these intuitions and in the fact that we exist as sentient, intelligent individuals. It’s this later point that Matt gets confused about and accuses me of Platonism over.

    However, I think this objective basis for morality – rather than one dictated by religious leaders who claim to have a direct line to their gods, is why we can counter the charges of moral relativism. We can see why humanity is able to come to quite a lot of common agreement on moral rights – despite differences in religion, culture and ethnicity.

    In fact, it is the divine command ideas that are used to justify relativistic positions.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..From the keyboards of scientists… =-.

  • Ken claims (by innuendo) that Matt, and perhaps other religious people, believe in a system of ethics “dictated by religious leaders who claim to have a direct line to their gods.”

    Source?

  • Those who are claiming that Matt is confused are probably not familair with a platonic view of morality. The fact is, an explicit affirmation of Platonism by saying “I hereby affirm platonism” is not required in order to affirm a platonist’s view on morality.

    Ken certainly does the latter, but he appears to have such a high view of himself that he doesn’t think he could do something like that with realising it. It happens, Ken. Maybe if you found out a few things about Platonism – and platonic ethics in particular – before replying, you’d avoid the appearance of ignorance.

    The fact is, by saying that there is such a thing as objective morality (thereby avoiding the charge of relativism), you (again, whether you realise it or not) are affirming that there exists something called moral rightness and/or wrongness that is mind independent and not generated by any person. You could, naturally, surprise us all and say that this is a material object, or you could likewise surprise us all and say that actually you believe that there’s a God who made us with certain ends in mind or who has a will for our lives. That would be quite a shock, you’ll agree. But to just brush off the charge of platonism as somebody else’s misreading of your pearls of wisdom really isn’t a response to a fair description of your position.

    Would you care to offer a proper reply to Matt?

  • Andrew wrote:

    “I think moral objectivists ignore the biological, ie instinctively based part of what governs our actions under subjective morality, they prefer to focus on the societal, and psychological aspects. Instinct not only affects our actions as individuals but also what is society as a whole considers is acceptable behaviour,”

    OK, I am not entirely clear what this objection is supposed amount to; if you mean that human beings instinctively find certain types of conduct abhorrent then I agree and see no reason why an objectivist would deny this. The question, however, is whether the conduct is really wrong.

    Let me give an analogy to explain this; suppose, as some contend, that human beings instinctively believe in a god or gods, this does not mean that there really are gods and it does not mean that religion is rational. It could be that we instinctively believe something false for survival purposes and hence religion is false and irrational. Similarly for morality; even if we instinctively believe certain actions are wrong, if they are not objectively or really wrong, then our moral beliefs will be false and arguably irrational in the same way the atheist maintains that religious belief is.

    “Instinct not only affects our actions as individuals but also what is society as a whole considers is acceptable behaviour, for this reason that human societies will not condone the raping of their babies, or whatever other examples that objectivists like to pretend subjectivism would allow.”

    Two things. First your claim is simply false; societies have historically and today do endorse, many practices that we recognise are wrong and unjust. One can think of examples such as widow burning or slavery or the suppression of women or the suppression of heresy or total wars or genocide or racial intolerance that have been endorsed by various cultures. If morality is identified with the conventions of a culture then it does follow that these practices are morally acceptable. In fact, in the example you cite, child rape, it is actually established that some cultures accepted paedophilia as acceptable.

    Second, even if people do instinctively oppose raping babies, you miss the essential point of the objectivist argument. The objectivist notes that it’s possible that people did not have this instinct and hence, it is possible for it to be permissible for people to rape babies and it is this conclusion that is false. Pointing out that people’s instincts don’t, in reality, support this does not address this argument.

    Matt’s last blog-post ..ACORN, Planned Parenthood and the Power of One (Well Two Really) =-.

  • Ken, you’re correct that what you said was very unclear. For the sake of my readers and to challenge your claim that it was me who was confused, here is a lengthy section from your own blog:

    Recently I was dipping into Roger Penrose’s book The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. In the first chapter he argues for an objective basis for mathematics and mathematical logic. I think that the objective basis of morality can be seen in the same way (see Where did our morals come from?). So, I was pleased to read that Penrose also believes that objective “‘existence’ could also refer to things other than mathematics, such as morality or aesthetics.”

    It’s worth considering how Penrose argues for an objective basis for mathematics and mathematical logic. He talks about the Platonic mathematical world

    “Plato made it clear that the mathematical propositions – the things that could be regarded as unassailably true – referred not to actual physical objects (like approximate squares, triangles, circles, spheres, and cubes that might be constructed from marks in the sand, or from wood or stone) but to certain idealized entities. He envisaged that these ideal entities inhabited a different world, distinct from the physical world. Today we might refer to this world as the Platonic world of mathematical forms.”

    Talking about the objectivity of mathematical truth: Penrose makes clear that this isn’t existence in a mystical sense:

    “What I mean by this ‘existence’ is really just the objectivity of mathematical truth. Platonic existence, as I see it, refers to the existence of an objective external standard that is not dependent upon our individual opinions nor upon our particular culture. Such ‘existence’ could also refer to things other than mathematics, such as morality or aesthetics.”

    So, just like mathematics, we can see morality as having an objective basis.

    So here we see you noting that Penrose offers an objective basis for mathematics and you think that the objective basis for morality can be “seen in the same way”.

    You then note that the way Penrose grounds the objectivity of mathematics is Platonism; this fact is repeated several times.

    Then, after describing Penrose’s Platonic account of mathematics and noting that Penrose believes that “Platonic existence” could “also refer to things other than mathematics, such as morality or aesthetics,” you state, “so, just like mathematics, we can see morality as having an objective basis.”

    Moreover Ken, you go on to characterise objective morality in precisely the way I did; you write,

    “I think this concept of objective moral truths, akin to objective mathematical truths, is very useful. It helps us understand that some things are right or wrong, not dependent on culture or religion. We can see that racism, slavery, sexual discrimination, etc., are objectively wrong. They were (and are) wrong even in societies and times which condoned (or still condone) them. They are wrong even if your priest or imam claims them to be ordained by Holy Scripture or their god.”

    In other words, statements such as ‘racism is wrong’ are true, independently, of what any human individual or culture thinks about them, just as the claim 1+1=2 is objectively true regardless of what we believe about it. That’s almost exactly how I defined objectivism in the thread above.
    .-= Matt’s last blog-post ..ACORN, Planned Parenthood and the Power of One (Well Two Really) =-.

  • Wow, I retract my previous comment. I assumed that Ken was objecting to having platonism attributed to him because he did not explicitly affirm it.

    I now see that he is denying the claim even though he did explicitly affirm Platonism. I guess I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

  • Thanks, Matt, for your extensive quote from my article Human Morality: II Objective Morality.

    Unfortunately you persist in ignoring the difference between “objective morality” and “objectively-based morality”. An unbiased reading of this extract (or better still go to the full original article and the others in that series) should clarify the distinction. it is really very simple, providing you read the actual words and resist the temptation to impose a meaning that is not meant.

    Your readers can obviously make up their own mind now that they have the evidence before them.

    And unbiased reading will also clarify the difference between a mechanical/mystical interpretation of Platonism and the argument Penrose makes for the objective basis of mathematics. The figure I used in that article is from Penrose and attempts to figuratively present the concept – which obviously some people find difficult.

    You will note that Penrose’s argument for an objective basis for mathematics and his and my argument for an objective basis for morality, provides a sufficiently good explanation for both without having to resort to imaginary gods. We don’t have to propose a “divine command” theory to explain what we can all see.

    In that sense it does underline the proposition that “divine command theories” are childish. They are certainly ideologically motivated.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..From the keyboards of scientists… =-.

  • Responding to Glenn’s question:
    “Ken claims (by innuendo) that Matt, and perhaps other religious people, believe in a system of ethics “dictated by religious leaders who claim to have a direct line to their gods.”

    Source?”

    Well, of course there are all sorts of sources one could quote of such claims, for example, biblical sources (always interpreted by religious leaders). However, one closer to home:

    I asked this specific question of Matt some time ago – what the source is of his “objective morality”: He agreed with me, in part, that it is in human intuitions/feelings – but added “technological and biblical traditions.” (I could hunt out the exact quote and reference – but no need to play at scholarly referencing. I am sure Matt can present it in his own words). Specifically, I noted that he did not suggest objectively-based morality arising from our existence as sentient, intelligent and compassionate beings – as I was advancing.

    Now – I see the reference to “theological and biblical sources” means, in reality, the dictation by religious leaders who claim a direct line to their god. And this can, and has, lead to extreme forms of moral relativism.

    Perhaps you might interpret Matt’s claim otherwise. If so:

    Can you say specifically what the source of your “objective morality” is. How do you find out what these “divine commands” are? Reading your bible? Religious leaders? “Theological and biblical tradition”? Or do you accept that your objective basis for morality is the same as mine?
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..From the keyboards of scientists… =-.

  • Ken, I’ve never been one to follow the policy of ignoring what I see as an inconsistency because of its source, I get the difference between “objective morality” and what you call “objectively-based morality”, what I don’t see is a difference between your “objectively-based morality” and the definition of subjective morality that I use. Is there a difference in your eyes?

    There is the point that I think the influence of instinct is far narrower than you do – which means in my opinion your “objectively based moral structure” is a none starter, the people I suggested in my first comment on this thread would never agree on what moral principles could be included. I myself wouldn’t include virtually all of the examples that Matt gives in the comment he posted at OP (The comment he clearly meant to post here), obviously excepting raping babies, Matt seems to think that sex with 6 month olds is the same as sex with 12 year olds, and while he is correct that many cultures have not had taboo’s against sex with peripubescent youths, I think sex with infants is instinctively immoral for human societies.

  • Here’s what I think is an insightful link on that particular topic.
    http://www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/BIB/pedophilia.htm

  • Ken, I think you’ll find Glenn’s answer to some of your questions in comment 10 on this thread:
    http://talk.thinkingmatters.org.nz/2009/against-subjectivism/#comments

    The gist of it seems to be that subjective morality isn’t real morality, subjective morality is just – as other people commenting have termed it – “so-called” morality.

  • Ken, you say:

    “Now – I see the reference to “theological and biblical sources” means, in reality, the dictation by religious leaders who claim a direct line to their god.”

    And again I ask, do you have a source supporting this interpretation of yours? You used this quote from matt as your source, but now you admit that it is no such thing. You say that you think in reality it refers to what you say it does. So as the honest, scientific seeker of truth, can you provide evidence that it means this?

    Specifically, the thing about a “direct line to their god” needs support. Don’t ask me to provide anything until you’ve provided good grounds for this rather uncharitable description. Alternatively, you may admit that you pulled this out of a hat.

  • Ken: “I think human rights agreements are possible because our morality (or at least some of it) has an objective basis.”

    We (including you, Matt, and myself) agree on this. But obviously what you’re talking about is the recognisition of moral facts, rather than their basis.

    Saying that atheists can be aware that objective morality exists is, obviously, nothing like saying that they can describe a basis for said morality. (where “basis” = “truth maker” in the traditional philosophical sense of that term that we’re all, I’m sure, familiar with)

  • Andrew – I suspect there is no difference, except the label. I however, do find that “subjective” label insufficient. And it does play into the hands of those who claim we have no basis for our morality. For example the “thinking matters” claim that “atheists should not criticise Hitler.”

    The fact is that our species is capable of coming to broad agreements on some human rights – at least. The Universal Declaration proves that. (Mind you the “divine commands” inherent in the Islamic approach leads to the OIC trying to set up there on Sharia-based “human rights” in an attempt to undermine the objectively-based concepts. Who is being “subjective there?).

    I think human rights agreements are possible because our morality (or at least some of it) has an objective basis. We may not recognise that – which is very understandable. After all we see things like this as coming from our own ego, mind or consciousness and are therefor forced to see them as subjective.

    However, I think Penrose’s comparison to mathematics is very instructive. After all we don’t find any such thing as Theistic mathematics, Islamic mathematics, atheist mathematics, etc.

    Why should morality be different?

    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..The naked emporer =-.

  • Glenn – speak to Matt about the quote I attributed to him. I am not going to get into a childish circular argument on that. You can take it leave it. – no skin off my nose.

    You don’t want to provide any answer to how you find out what your “divine commands” are? Again. No problem. I have Matt’s reply – I just wondered if you could do better than “Theological and biblical tradition”.

    Interesting, thought, that you refuse. Why be so precious about it?

    I agree – objective morality is quite different to an objective basis for morality – something I have been trying to get through to Matt and others who continue to misunderstand that.

    But it is clear, surely, from what I have written that I in no way argue that this “basis’ is a “truth maker”, god, fairy, leprechaun, ghost, etc. Any more than we can attribute mathematics to such mythological creatures.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..The naked emporer =-.

  • As you wish Ken – make unsubstantiated assertions, and brush off demands for evidence as childish.

    If that’s no skin off your nose, you’ve told everyone more than you realise. But if that is the way you conduct discussion, I have no desire to share the experience with you.

  • “As you wish Ken – make unsubstantiated assertions, and brush off demands for evidence as childish.”

    Gee, that’s what I keep getting when I ask for evidence for objective morality, apparently it’s an invisible pixie at the bottom of the garden that some people think they know exists because of some form of ESP, there’s not actually any evidence that it doesn’t anything, but it has to be real because.. well just because, OK?

  • Andrew – wait a second. Are you or are you not saying that Ken is right to characterise other people’s beliefs in any way he likes? Because that’s what my post was about, and your reply confirms the worst suspicions about certain skeptics who don’t really care how they portray the beliefs of those they disagree with.

    Incidentally, since Ken ostensibly believes in objective morality, are you suggesting that he believes in pixies now?

  • Ken I asked this specific question of Matt some time ago – what the source is of his “objective morality”: He agreed with me, in part, that it is in human intuitions/feelings – but added “technological and biblical traditions.”

    Matt, can you clarify this as it does not sound like you.

    My suspicion is that Matt considers the Bible, intuitions, etc. may be sources for our ideas about what objective morality might consist of. But this is not the same as the source of the actual morality.

    Humans may discover lying is wrong thru their conscience, but that that is distinct from the idea that lying is intrinsically wrong because God says it is wrong (and tells us via our conscience).

  • Glenn, to me Ken has made his position clear, he suspects there is no difference between subjective morality (as I think everyone here defines it) and his “objectively based morality” except the label. He uses the term “objectively based morality” because he finds that the “subjective” label is insufficient.

    If you Stuart, Matt etc want to believe in objective morality (or invisible pixies at the bottom of the garden, for that matter) I’m happy to leave you alone to enjoy that belief, when you (or others sharing your belief) say your belief is in conflict with my belief, and that the case for your belief is better, and that logic “proves” your belief, I want to see the evidence. After examining all the evidence offered, I find your evidence as solid as the evidence of the pixies. I find your comment that Ken “is making unsubstantiated assertions, and brushing off demands for evidence as childish” as about as hypocritical a charge as I’ve ever heard.

  • Andrew W

    Andrew, Actually in the comments above I gave several arguments against subjectivism. I also offered several arguments against it in my post on relativism. Ignoring the various criticisms I have made and instead caricaturing my position as “pixies in the garden” and ESP actually does not respond to it.

    Moreover refusing to answer the question “what evidence is there for the existence of objective morality is not necessarily an evasion. Suppose I asked you, when did you stop beating your wife? Your refusal to give a yes or no answer would not be an evasion, because the question makes assumptions (that you beat your wife) which are false. Similarly the question, where is the evidence for the existence of objective morality, seems to me to make the false assumption that if objective moral prescriptions exist we would know them via empirical evidence. I think that’s false, there are many things we do not believe this way, for example the basic axioms of logic such as If A then B, are therefore B, or “All things are identical to themselves” or “two contradictory statements cannot both be true” are not known by empirical investigation, in fact we could not mount an any argument for the truth of these rules without presupposing them because, any logical argument for the truth of logic would obviously be circular

    Yet we clearly know these things are true, they are intuitively obvious to us.

    Whats true with the laws of logic I think is true with the laws of morality. If you disagree with this your welcome to give an argument against it. Ignoring it and making reference to pixies and ESP is not an argument. Unless of course you want to dismiss belief in the laws of logic as ESP and belief in fairy’s.

  • Bethyada regarding your questions about Ken

    I asked this specific question of Matt some time ago – what the source is of his “objective morality”: He agreed with me, in part, that it is in human intuitions/feelings – but added “technological and biblical traditions.” (I could hunt out the exact quote and reference – but no need to play at scholarly referencing

    Let me clear this up now. By objective morality I mean that moral statements such as “rape is wrong” are true independently of wether any person or people believe they are true. So that if a community or person thinks rape is OK he is mistaken just as he would be if he claimed that geo centricism is true.

    Now once one grants that morality is objective two different questions can be asked . One question is the epistemological question, it asks how do we know which actions are objectively right and wrong. A second question is the ontological question, this asks what the property of wrongness consists in, what exactly are these properties of wrongness and rightness are. What properties or facts in the world are they identified with.

    If one asks how do we know what actions are right and wrong, then my answer is we know by “intuition”. I also grant that one can know this by theological tradition. If you ask me the ontological question what right and wrong is , I say conformity with and being contrary to Gods commands.

    They are separate questions. The divine command theory answers the latter question not the former it claims wrongness is (is identical with) the property of being contrary to Gods commands, it is not the claim that we need to believe in Gods commands to know what is right and wrong. Hence, Ken and Andrew can talk all they want about how non theists can know, or come to an agreement on, or instinctive discern right and wrong till the cows come home but none of that refutes a divine command theory. The divine command theory is an ontological claim, I don’t know why this needs to be repeated ad nauesum.

    . I am sure Matt can present it in his own words). Specifically, i noted that he did not suggest objectively based morality arising form our existence as sentient, intelligent and compassionate beings – as I was advancing.

    Here again it depends on what you mean, if you are asking the ontological question, what right and wrong are, then I do not think rightness and wrongness are the property of existing as a sentient intelligent being. This is because wrongness is a property of actions, but clearly being an intelligent person is not a property of actions, people can perform actions but they are not a property of their actions.

    If on the other hand you claim is that we know what is right and wrong in virtue of being intelligent beings then I think there is something correct about this, I think creatures like us do, in virtue of our nature have an instinctive awareness of certain moral truths. The problem is, as I stated, nothing about this refutes the divine command theory. Any more than the fact that water is H20 is refuted by the fact that people who do not believe in atomic theory can instinctively recognise the taste of water.

    Now – I see the reference to “theological and Biblical sources” meaning in reality the dictation by religious leaders who claim a direct line to their god. And this can, and has, lead to extreme forms of moral relativism.

    OK this is both a misrepresentation and a non sequitur.

    First, this is an claim that we can know something is right and wrong in virtue theological tradition (the words I actually used) does not mean that right and wrong is in reality a dictation by religious leaders who claim a direct line to God. For two reasons,

    First theological tradition does not consist merely of claims by people to direct lines from God. Many great theologians rejected they had such a line Ken here seems to caricature the history of theological thought. Moreover even if they did, Ken’s argument again conflates the epistemological question with the ontological one. Even if our knowledge of right and wrong depends on dictation by religious leaders, it does not follow that right and wrong itself is “in reality” identified with the dictation of religious leaders. Our knowledge the natural world depends on the tradition handed down to us by an elite group of people ( scientists) it does not follow that the physical world is identified with the views of scientists or that its existence depends on scientists, the world existed a long time before they came on the scene

    Second, Ken is quite mistaken to infer relativism from this fact. Relativism is the claim that a moral statements truth or falsity depends on what a community or individual thinks of it. The fact that differing religious people claim there position is true does not mean it actually is true, all that can really be shown is that differing theological traditions disagree about what right and wrong is, something true of differing secular systems of ethics as well.

    In short Ken’s responses to date consist in conflating ontological and epistemological questions. Given I have repeatedly made this distinction and pointed it out to him its hard to know why he keeps making these mistakes. I by and large agree with him that humans can and do naturally know whats right and wrong. That however is not the question, the question is whether one can say that objective morality can exist given his views and this is a question he has dodged. He did appear to endorse Platonism ( which does attempt to answer the metaphysical ontological questions) but know he has fallen back from this, until he does he will continue to miss his target with his criticisms.

  • Matt – you are burying a simple thing in a pile of words. Obscurantism!

    You do endorse biblical and theological tradition as a source of your “divine commands”, your knowledge if something is right or wrong. (Forget about your “ontological” diversion).

    However you dance around this, the fact is that this “biblical and theological tradition” has been used to justify slavery, suppression of women, segregation, apartheid, murder of apostates, homosexuals and members of other religions, etc., etc. For things I consider bad. It has also been used for the exact opposite, for what I consider to be good.

    Clearly it leads to an extreme form of moral relativism.

    It’s when morality is justified on grounds of “biblical and theological traditions” – and the dictates of religious leaders, prophets, etc., then anything can be justified. And who best to endorse one’s moral claims than the “divine commands” of the particular god (as revealed to the specific leader).

    A recent study from Baylor University reveals how the “word of god” has been used by clergy in their sexual predation of members of their congregation. Clear moral relativism! Aimed at swaying the gullible!

    I think the lesson that comes out of the interview with Jill Myton (Psychological abuse of children) is that “divine commands” and “biblical and theological tradition” is not a good way of instilling morality in children. It prevents an internalisation of moral intuitions and feelings, or the development of good moral logic necessary in adult life.

    Hence I think the charge of childishness is quite valid to describing a “divine command’ logic of morality.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..NZ blogs sitemeter ranking – September ‘09 =-.

  • Matt – I don’t know how many times I have to say this for it to get through.

    I do not think there is such a thing as objective morality (no one seems to be able to describe that). But much of human morality is objectively based. Got that!!

    It was all explained in my series of articles on Human Morality. And much of it repeated here in my contribution to discussion on this post.

    So why the hell do you keep saying things like: “the question is whether one can say that objective morality can exist given his views and this is a question he has dodged.”

    Surely there is no excuse?
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..NZ blogs sitemeter ranking – September ‘09 =-.

  • Matt, I’ve had a look though your comments on this thread, and I’ve looked at your post Cultural Confusion and Ethical Relativism I, I find nothing you’ve written that I consider to be arguments against subjectivism. I note you appear to acknowledge that you have no empirical evidence supporting your belief in objective morality.
    So as far as I can see my analogy with the pixies, while not flattering, is not inaccurate. I’ve never claimed to be able to disprove objective morality, nor do I claim to be able to disprove the pixies. Certainly more people believe in objective morality than pixies, but as has been pointed out several times by moral objectivists, the numbers believing this or that is no argument in favour of this or that.
    I’ve suggested extra-sensory perception as the source of your intuition on moral issues, you appear to reject this, I don’t know why. On the other hand you seem willing to accept biological, societal and psychological factors as influencing human morality, but these factors aren’t enough for you, even though you can’t say why.
    I think you’re driven by intuition alright, but I think the sources of that intuition are biological, societal and psychological factors.
    So as far as I can tell the only thing we disagree on is your claim that you’ve provided arguments of merit (I assume you think your arguments have merit) against subjective morality.

  • Ken you are burying a simple thing in a pile of words. Obscurantism!

    You do endorse biblical and theological tradition as a source of your “divine commands”, your knowledge if something is right or wrong. (Forget about your “ontological” diversion).

    The 2 are fundamentally different. We may know law as it is written in the books, thus it is our source for finding law, but the publishers are not the cause, origin or source of the laws in an enacting sense. Matt’s focus on the intrinsic difference is to bring clarity, not obscurity. Conversely, equivocation is not helpful.

    Andrew So as far as I can see my analogy with the pixies, while not flattering, is not inaccurate.

    Except that there is agreement that there is such a thing as morality. The disagreement is subjective versus objective.

    Your analogy would be better if you claimed to believe in elves but still dismissed pixies; or pink pixies but not blue ones.

  • Fair point Bethyada, perhaps even better as an analogy would be trying to explain the movement of dead leaves at the bottom of the garden, subjectivists attribute it to the wind,the movement is entirely the product of natural forces, objectivists accept the wind sometimes moves the leaves about, but argue that they believe there’s a deeper meaning to the movement, that it’s not just a product of the natural forces we can measure empirically, but also of some other unobserved force is at work, they think they know of this force intuitively, and they’ve been educated to believe in this force, Pixies!!

  • Except that there is agreement that there is such a thing as morality. The disagreement is subjective versus objective.

    Your analogy would be better if you claimed to believe in elves but still dismissed pixies.

    Great point Bethyada, as Andrew notes most people instinctively believe that things like rape is wrong.

    Though I think the analogy is slightly different. It would be a case where everyone who looks in the garden sees Pixies. But the debate is whether there is anything that corresponds to this perception or not. The objectivist thinks that because you see it its there. The subjectivist says you should not trust your perception until you independently prove it.

    Once this is seen I think one can see whats wrong with Andrew’s argument. He seems to think that we should not trust our natural instinctive beliefs unless we can empirically prove that they are reliable. The problem is that this leads to a thorough going scepticism, after all there are many things we instinctively believe which cannot be empirically proven. We instinctively believe for example that other people exist and are not figments of our imagination. We believe our senses are reliable so that when see tables there really are tables. We instinctively believe that the past actually occurred and the world did not pop into existence a millisecond ago with all signs of apparent age. None of these things can be empirically proven, so if Andrew was consistent he would deny these things as well.

  • Matt – I don’t know how many times I have to say this for it to get through.

    I do not think there is such a thing as objective morality (no one seems to be able to describe that).

    Ken, I have twice in the comments given a definition of what I mean by objective morality and I have pointed you to a post where I went to lengths to describe what I mean Moreover nothing I say is terribly novel almost any ethics text has a similar definition, so So this claim is plain false, many people can and have described what they mean.

    But much of human morality is objectively based. Got that!!So why the hell do you keep saying things like: “the question is whether one can say that objective morality can exist given his views and this is a question he has dodged.”Surely there is no excuse

    Fine, you have not dodged the question, as you say objective morality does not exist on your views. So Thinking matters were correct that you cannot condemn the holocaust. Nor can you appeal to past atrocities which were supported by religious traditions as an argument against those traditions.

    The Nazis after all believed it was justified to kill jews and the religious traditions you refer to believed it was OK to do what they did. Seeing moral statements are not true or false independently of what a community believes ( which is what denying objectivism means) it follows its not true that the Nazis were wrong nor is it true that these religious traditions are wrong.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..Sunday Study: The Bible and Rape – A Response to Michael Martin =-.

  • “He seems to think that we should not trust our natural instinctive beliefs unless we can empirically prove that they are reliable.”

    As I accept evolutionary pressures, I trust human and animal instincts to work to enhance gene survival, that doesn’t make us instinctively rational, rather it makes us (usually) instinctively self-serving. (and please can we not get into how we can be altruistic instead of selfish, altruism is usually self-serving in social animals).

    “None of these things can be empirically proven, so if Andrew was consistent he would deny these things as well.”

    You seem to be using the terms “instincts” and “senses” interchangeably, When I see tables I can touch them, I can communicate with other people, and these experiences have been consistent my whole life, as you point out, I can use my senses to confirm the existence of objects around me. Can you use your senses to confirm objective morality, or are you forced to rely on your extra-sensory perception?

    Matt, could you point out your arguments providing evidence against subjective morality? Call me thick but I’ve looked and looked and I just don’t see them.

  • However you dance around this, the fact is that this “biblical and theological tradition” has been used to justify slavery, suppression of women, segregation, apartheid, murder of apostates, homosexuals and members of other religions, etc., etc.. It has also been used for the exact opposite.

    I agree, I would point out the same is true of almost any secular ethical system. One can find secular ethicist s defending and opposing all many of different positions in the literature and justifying atrocities etc

    Similarly science has been used to justify all sorts of atrocities and positions. I don’t think anything follows from this except that human beings will use things to purport to use almost anything the can to justify atrocities. Why single out religion on this?

    Clearly it leads to an extreme form of moral relativism.It’s when morality is justified on grounds of “biblical and theological traditions” – and the dicates of relgious leaders, prophets, etc., then anything can be justified. And who best to endorse onoes moral claims than the “divine commands” of the particular god (as revealed to the specific leader).

    I disagree, all the above examples show is that people will attempt to justify different positions with Scripture ( or with science or with secular ethics). The fact that people have appealed to a tradition to try to defend all sorts of different things does not mean they actually justified it with the tradition.

    I think we have been through this argument before. To get relativism it is not enough to show people disagree on interpretation or application of norms you have to show that both parties are actually correct in their interpretation, mere pointing out of disagreement does not show this.

    A recent study from Baylor University reveals how the “word of god” has been used by clergy in their sexual predation of members of their congregation. Clear moral relativism. Aimed at swaying the gullible.

    Well its clearly terrible that some people have done this, just as its terrible that some people appeal to the alleged falsehood of Christianity to justify removing mores against child sex.

    But the mere fact that some people appeal to something to try and defend sexual predation does not mean that what they appeal to actually does entail that action in question, nor does it follow that relativism is true. I know of a man who used his legal knowledge to seduce children, does it follow the law actually permits child abuse and is relativistic about it? Not at all

  • You claim I cannot condemn the holocaust. Yet the empirical fact is that I do. You must therefore modify that belief – or retain it as a “mantra”, a prejudice quite out of touch with reality. That is extremely poor epistemology.

    You are being circular with all this “objective morality”. It may be a natural way of avoiding the issue. But perhaps you could take the bull by the horns and get specific.

    How do you receive your “divine commands?

    If this include “biblical and theological tradition” – how can you ensure you have “received” these commands any more correctly than other who appeal to “biblical and theological” tradition in their support of slavery, racism, suppression of women, etc., etc.?

    Unless you can be specific and convincing about this I will have to assume you are in the same boat (meaning all at sea) as that later group.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..NZ blogs sitemeter ranking – September ‘09 =-.

  • A copy of what I said at Thinking Matters:
    “There is no solid boundary to who I (and everyone else) instinctively see as being within my societal group, there’s a saying in the news media that goes something like 1 Kiwi = 10 Aussies = 100 Americans = 1000 Indians = 10,000 Chinamen = 1000,000 Africans. Does something like these ratio’s apply to you? Of course it does, and a close family member has a value greater than any number of strangers, even Kiwi’s. So perhaps you can tell me, did you literally cry over the brutal death of millions of Rwandans? did you find their deaths as devastating to you as you would the deaths of a similar number of Kiwi’s?

    Subjectivism does not mean a solid boundary to empathy, empathy still exists with subjective morality and strength of empathy still fades with cultural distance and time.”

    Matt, do you acknowledge that your belief in objective morality is based on Faith rather than any testable evidence? If so we are in agreement, if it can’t be tested, I can’t disprove it – though I can still doubt it.

  • “On the other hand you seem willing to accept biological, societal and psychological factors as influencing human morality, but these factors aren’t enough for you, even though you can’t say why.”

    I doubt the sincerity of this comment, made to Matt. As is simply obvious to objectivists and subjectivists alike, there are biological and social etc factors that influence human moral beliefs. It’s short of honest to say that this “isn’t enough” for Matt, since Matt jas never taken issue with this. The person who made this faux-challenge cannot possibly have thought otherwise given the clarity of the situation.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..Thank God Sue Bradford is Leaving =-.

  • Ken You claim I cannot condemn the holocaust. Yet the empirical fact is that I do. You must therefore modify that belief – or retain it as a “mantra”, a prejudice quite out of touch with reality. That is extremely poor epistemology.

    I fully acknowledge that you condemn the holocaust, that was not my point my point was you cannot consistently condemn it and also deny that objective morality exists.

    The mere fact that you hold to things does not mean its consistent for you do so.

    You are being circular with all this “objective morality”. It may be a natural way of avoiding the issue. But perhaps you could take the bull by the horns and get specific.

    Sorry simply bandying about allegations of circularity and accusing me of avoidance and evasion does not actually address my arguments. Please provide an actual argument for once Ken.

    How do you receive your “divine commands?

    Already answered.

    If this include “biblical and theological tradition” – how can you ensure you have “received” these commands any more correctly than other who appeal to “biblical and theological” tradition in their support of slavery, racism, suppression of women, etc., etc.?

    Well as I pointed out if this objection holds against religious morality it holds against secular morality. Throughout history people have appealed to secular ideals to justify atrocities and have defended mutually incompatible views. So if your argument is sound we should assume that all these differing secular accounts are in the same boat.

    Again why do you single religion out here?

    Simply repeating a claim after I have already shown the problems with it is not an answer.

    And also I note again you seem to be holding that certain practices such as slavery and the oppression of women are wrong even if certain cultures or traditions support them. Yet you at the same time you deny morality is objective.

  • “The person who made this. . . ”

    I cannot tell a lie, it was me.

    This is all getting a bit messy with people losing track of what others have said and too many attempts to interpret and reinterpret what others have said.
    Well, I’ve got one little question which I’ll repeat, it’s open to any and all moral objectivists:
    Is your belief in objective morality based on Faith rather than testable evidence?
    Simple question, if you won’t answer it I can only conclude that you recognise that your belief is based on Faith but that you are ashamed or afraid to admit it. And if that’s the case I find it sad.

  • Andrew, Sorry I have been busy and your comments require a fuller response.

    The short answer is no, by belief in objective morality is not based on faith.

    The problem is that you seem to think that the only alternative to believing on faith is believing on the basis of empirical evidence and that all things we know are either known via the five senses or scientifically demonstrated. Its this latter claim that I dispute, I have already provided some counter examples in previous comments but will offer a fuller critique soon

  • Andrew: If understand your objection correctly it goes something like this: [1] We can rationally believe P if and only if we either directly see P through the five senses or P can be empirically proven true. [2] the existence of objective moral principles cannot be seen or demonstrated empirically, therefore [3] we cannot rationally believe in P.

    I agree with [2] I think one can’t know the existence of moral principles via empirical demonstration nor can one perceive them through the five senses.

    What I reject is [1], let me make two criticisms.

    1. I think there are many things which we know immediately and directly which cannot be empirically proven and which we don’t perceive with the five senses. I gave some examples in a previous comment I noted we believe our senses are reliable so that when see tables there really are tables. We believe that that other people exist and are not figments of our imagination. the past actually occurred and the world did not pop into existence a millisecond ago with all signs of apparent age. Yet none of these things can be empirically proven,

    You responded to this as follows:

    When I see tables I can touch them, I can communicate with other people, and these experiences have been consistent my whole life, as you point out, I can use my senses to confirm the existence of objects around me. Can you use your senses to confirm objective morality, or are you forced to rely on your extra-sensory perception?

    Here you address two of my examples, that of tables and that of other people. I think this response has two problems. First, even if its correct it only deals with two examples, you still face the other examples I provide which both cannot be directly perceived by the senses and cannot be empirically proven, yet clearly are rationally believed.

    Second, I don’t think your response works. You note that we see other people and communicate with them, the problem is this does not address the issue. I am talking about other people that is beings with thoughts feelings etc. Now we never actually see other peoples thoughts feelings nor do we perceive directly their mental life. What we perceive are there actions. In terms of what we actually see everything is compatible with the actions of a robot with no mental life at all. Of course we don’t seriously believe this but that’s the point, we instinctively perceive that what we see is a person even though this is never perceived via the five senses nor is it empirically provable.

    Your response to the table example fears no better. Note first what I said, I said we believe our senses are reliable so that when see tables there really are tables your response is to note that we can see and touch tables, the problem here is that you are appealing to our five senses, to provide evidence that the five senses are reliable that is clearly circular.

    Moreover, when we believe tables exist we typically believe they are real and exist independent of when we or anyone else are perceiving them, this however cannot be empirically proven or observed ( how could you observe a table existing unobserved) in addition, everything we perceive is actually quite compatible with “matrix” scenarios where everything we perceive is a consistent fantasy. Of course no one you or I takes the matrix scenarios seriously, but that’s the point, we instinctively rationally and sensibly rationally believe things that we cannot directly perceive and which cannot be empirically proven.

    2. I think your premise [1] is actually self refuting take the claim that: We can rationally believe P if and only if we either directly see P through the five senses or P can be empirically proven true. This claim itself is not something we can see hear touch taste or smell, so you can only accept it if it can be empirically proven, now I doubt very much epistemological claims like this could be empirically demonstrated. But even if they can you certainly have not provided any such proof. It seems to me then your position here is incoherent. You reject belief in objective morality because it can’t be empirically proved the problem is the premise on which this rejection is based cannot be proved empirically either so it is in the same boat as objective morality is. If you reject objective morality consistency requires you to reject your argument.

    So my longer response is that I think the standard of evidence you apply to objective morality is both implausible and self contradictory. If there is a contradiction between this standard and belief in objective morality it seems sensible to reject the former and not the latter.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..Liston College: More Bullying! =-.

  • Andrew W.

    I will admit to your charge. I take moral objectivity upon faith – in the sense that I can never prove it using logic. In the same way I can never prove that the universe exists to a fanatical skeptic – or that other minds exist to a fanatical solipsist.

    I would call it intuition rather than faith. The same intuition that tells me you have a mind- despite the fact I will never have direct access to this knowledge.

  • Max, I like your comparison of morality with the mind, I think both exist and are products of the natural world, while obviously you attribute both to the supernatural.
    These days we can measure brain activity as a whole, and we can also measure various types of brain activity, we can administer psychological drugs, and with these things we can see a correlation with behaviour that is considered evidence that the mind is a product of the brain.

  • I may have made an incorrect assumption, you may accept that the mind is a product of the brain but that it is the soul (something different again) that can be independent of the brain.

  • Matt – You assert:
    “Throughout history people have appealed to secular ideals to justify atrocities and have defended mutually incompatible views. So if your argument is sound we should assume that all these differing secular accounts are in the same boat.”

    Sure – often to King and Country, as well as gods.

    However. the “divine commandeers” go that step further – they claim support from their god. A god you just can’t question and have to accept on faith. This can often be more effective at enforcing horrible morality on the “faithful.”

    The priest/minister who tells a young member of his or her congregation that god supports their sexual liaison, that it is spiritual and divine, is – to my mind- a bigger bastard than someone who uses non-religious persuasion. At least that can be considered rationally.

    Regarding the holocaust – to say I “cannot consistently condemn it and also deny that objective morality exists” is arrogant and unwarranted. How do you derive your belief that the holocaust was wrong? In any different manner to me?

    I believe that you draw your conclusions the same way as me and that there is an objective basis for them. The fact that we exist as members of a sentient, intelligent, social species.

    Now – it’s simple for you to back up the claim you made. Tell me how you have come to your conclusions about the holocaust – specifically underlining the different sources of your moral decision in this case. Keep in mind that many of those carrying out the holocaust used “theological and biblical tradition” and a “source of their moral justification.

    Max – your attribution of “objective morality” to intuition is really repeating part of what I have said as the basis for morality. However, intuitions, by themselves, are not adequate in our modern society. We can get by intuitively on many issues but we also have to sometimes apply our moral logic, out intellgience.

    I think your calling intuitions “objective morality” is just misleading. However, it does underscore my claim because intuitions are part of the objective basis for our morality. There is an objective basis even though we must see them as subjective because they come from us.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..NZ’s largest science blog network goes live =-.

  • Matt, when we address theories like the “Matrix” scenario, or the universe popping into existence at 12:05 this morning with all the memories and apparent history created at 12:05, or the question of objective morality, we are having to weigh the probability of these theories being correct vs other theories; the “reality is as we see it” theory, the theory that the universe is far, far older than one day, and the theory of subjective morality. That being the case we’re back to deciding which are the more likely theories. Occam’s razor anyone?

  • Matt, another way of looking at it is that many ethical theorists have suggested that this kind of Darwinian account of ethics actually support some form of Nihilism: The claim that all moral claims are false.

    Suppose its true that belief in a moral code enhances survival and hence reproductive fitness. Suppose its also true that human moral awareness evolved by darwinian evolution unguided by God. Then it seems to follow that people believe in moral principles because doing so enhances survival, not primarily because they are true.

    In fact if the moral beliefs were all false and fact there were no objective moral properties, one on this account would still believe in them because belief in such properties enhances survival.

    An appeal to Ockhams razor then would suggest that the existence of morality is superfluous. One can account for humans morality without postulating the existence of objective moral properties, one can make sense of morality in terms of it being an illusion that enhances survival.

    And I’m sure to can recognise your own words as well as the next man.

  • I suggest, Andrew, before you can compare “theories” (using razors or not) you need to actually have detailed, structured theories. Otherwise there is nothing to compare.

    “Objective morality” is not really a theory – more a name for a god, I guess. No one can say where this object is – or how they use this “theory’ to determine moral positions.

    When it comes down to it and people start talking about intuitions, bibles, etc., then they are actually talking about objectively-based moral decisions. We can then put the bases used for this morality under the microscope.

    I assert that our moral intuitions and feelings and the fact that we belong to a social, sentient and intelligent species are objective facts which form a basis for our morality. Bibles and theological traditions don’t – although they may codify our moral which are secular in origin. Secular whether we believe so or not.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..Humanity’s most important image =-.

  • Max, I like your comparison of morality with the mind, I think both exist and are products of the natural world, while obviously you attribute both to the supernatural.
    These days we can measure brain activity as a whole, and we can also measure various types of brain activity, we can administer psychological drugs, and with these things we can see a correlation with behaviour that is considered evidence that the mind is a product of the brain.

    This misses the point of Max’s analogy, his point was that we know that other people have minds that is that other people have thoughts and feelings, yet we cannot perceive this directly, we can’t think others thoughts or feel their pain etc all we observe is their behavior, and and the history of Philosophy from Hume onwards has shown its extremely difficult near impossible to argue to the existence of other minds from behavior alone. This is another example of us rationally believing in something which cannot be empirically proven.
    .-= ‘s last blog-post ..Top 10 NZ Christian Blogs – August 09 =-.

  • Andrew you write when we address theories like the “Matrix” scenario, or the universe popping into existence at 12:05 this morning with all the memories and apparent history created at 12:05, or the question of objective morality, we are having to weigh the probability of these theories being correct vs other theories; the “reality is as we see it” theory, the theory that the universe is far, far older than one day, and the theory of subjective morality. That being the case we’re back to deciding which are the more likely theories. Occam’s razor anyone?

    Let me make two things,

    1. this response only addresses my first objection it does not address the second point I made about your position being self refuting.

    2. I think this response is circular, for three reasons. First you state we should state which theory is more likely, to do this we need to assess the evidence for and against them, what do you mean by evidence here? presumably empirical evidence, the problem is appeals to empirical evidence involve assuming your sensory perception is reliable in the first place.

    Second, to weigh up evidence takes time one can’t do it all at once, but then you’ll have to presuppose the existence of a past to prove it.

    Third and more importantly you appeal to Ockham’s razor: here’s my question on what basis is the principle of Ockham’s razor accepted? Obviously one does not just see here or touch or taste the truth of this principle. It seems you will either (a) believe it intuitively or (b) believe it on the basis of empirical evidence: something its track record in being reliable in the past. If you adopt (a) you have to admit there are things we can know intuitively independently of sensory perception. If you adopt (b) then the argument is again circular: you have to assume there was a past track record and you have to rely on what you and others have observed in the past regarding the use of Ockham’s razor and hence are implicitly presupposing that your senses are reliable to prove that they are.

    The point is that there are numerous rational beliefs which we accept which cannot be empirically proven. The standard skeptical theories which castigate belief in God or morality as “fairies in the garden” because they can’t be empirically proven are problematic theories. Max made the same point.

  • Matt, there are many things we accept that cannot be empirically proven, and I’ve already acknowledged that this applies to the subjective vs objective morality debate.

    “are implicitly presupposing that your senses are reliable to prove that they are.”

    That’s what humans do Matt, if our senses are assumed to be unreliable, and we cannot detect that unreliability, everything becomes meaningless, everything, as the logical conclusion is that we cannot have confidence in any observations we make of the world around us.
    Given that that is your reasoning, I think you’ve reached the point where I’m left doubting that rational discussion can be held with you. You seem to be trying to cast doubt on the foundations of all of philosophy and science, simply so that you can use the same reasoning to cast doubt on subjective morality.

    “This misses the point of Max’s analogy” actually the main point Max was trying to make was that to him my reasoning was equivalent to that of a fanatical skeptic – or a fanatical solipsist. But as fanaticism is a mind-set that allows no doubt, it seems to me that you and Max are more likely the fanatics.

    “the history of Philosophy from Hume onwards has shown its extremely difficult near impossible to argue to the existence of other minds from behaviour alone.”

    To argue to the existence is easy, (I have a mind, in a brain in a body, I exhibit certain behaviour because of it, other people have the same set up as can be measured, and similar behaviour, as can be measured, the logical conclusion is they also have minds) to prove is not. Again, I’m not claiming there’s certainty, are you?

  • Matt, there are many things we accept that cannot be empirically proven, and I’ve already acknowledged that this applies to the subjective vs objective morality debate.

    Great, so your objection that belief in objective morality is on par with belief in fairies because you cannot empirically improve the existence of objective moral principles is mistaken.

    The mere fact that we cannot empirically prove something by itself does not show that belief in that thing is an irrational belief on par with fairies pixies, spaghetti monsters, ESP etc.

    That’s what humans do Matt, if our senses are assumed to be unreliable, and we cannot detect that unreliability, everything becomes meaningless, everything, as the logical conclusion is that we cannot have confidence in any observations we make of the world around us.

    Agreed, you have to assume that the belief dispositions we naturally have are reliable and what we perceive actually exists independently of us (i.e objectively) and you can’t prove they are empirically.

    The same I think applies to our natural disposition to make moral judgments we have to assume that they reliability track moral principles that exist independently of us.

    Given that that is your reasoning, I think you’ve reached the point where I’m left doubting that rational discussion can be held with you. You seem to be trying to cast doubt on the foundations of all of philosophy and science, simply so that you can use the same reasoning to cast doubt on subjective morality.

    I think you misunderstand me here, I am not arguing that our senses are unreliable. I think they are. What I am pointing out is that “if” you insist on claiming everything needs to be empirically proven before you believe it you end up in a crazy position. That’s why I would not accept the claim that every true belief needs to be empirically prove before we can accept it.

    If you accept that not everything needs to be empirically proven, then you can’t automatically assert that belief in objective morality is irrational because it cannot be empirically proven.

  • Ken wrote Sure – often to King and Country, as well as gods. However. the “divine commandeers” go that step further – they claim support from their god. A god you just can’t question and have to accept on faith. This can often be more effective at enforcing horrible morality on the “faithful.”

    Perhaps we can return then to Glenn’s question? Can you provide an actual example where any leading defender of a divine command theory states or asserts that one should simply take on faith without question the claims made by a religious leader?

    That seems simply a caricature of the divine command theory.

    The Divine Command theory states that wrongness consists in what is contrary to Gods commands. It does not state that wrongness consists in whatever a human beings says is in accord with Gods commands, nor does it contend that any human who makes such claims should be uncritically believed.

    The priest/minister who tells a young member of his or her congregation that god supports their sexual liaison, that it is spiritual and divine, is – to my mind- a bigger bastard than someone who uses non-religious persuasion. At least that can be considered rationally.

    I agree such people are bastards, but here your objection seems to be based on the assumption that religious discussions are irrational and secular ones are not.

    I don’t take that as given absent; some actual argument for this conclusion your objection is simply the assertion that religious discussions are irrational.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith =-.

  • “Great, so your objection that belief in objective morality is on par with belief in fairies because you cannot empirically improve the existence of objective moral principles is mistaken.”

    Great to see we’re making progress – not.

    No, because while things like other people having minds have at least our personal experiences to support them, objective morality relies on faith and, as you’ve said, “one can make sense of morality in terms of it being an illusion that enhances survival.”

    Matt, could you point out your arguments providing evidence against subjective morality?

    At this point we’re still left with subjective morality fitting observation, with no observed evidence (outside religious texts) supporting objective morality.

    “The same I think applies to our natural disposition to make moral judgments we have to assume that they reliability track moral principles that exist independently of us.”

    But the moral principles that are accepted today are unique to today, they’re very different from those that have been accepted throughout history, they’re different even to those that were accepted 50 years ago! Excepting, of course, those that are logically attributable to instinct as such instincts enhance gene survival.
    I’ve never claimed that belief in objective morality was “irrational”. Certainly not in colloquial terms.

    Also I used the example of Pixies, not fairies, everyone knows that belief in fairies is irrational.
    But since we’re on the subject of mythical friends, do you believe in Angels?

  • “At this point we’re still left with subjective morality fitting observation…”

    Beg the question much? You’re just assuming that the variety of moral beliefs implies that morality is subjective. You have yet to produce an argument that the evidence supports your contention.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Hume on Induction and Miracles: Having a bob each way? =-.

  • Andrew,
    No, because while things like other people having minds have at least our personal experiences to support them, objective morality relies on faith

    Ok here you are simply asserting the position I was contesting that objective morality is based on faith.

    Moreover, you state that our belief in other minds is based on “experience”. This depends on what you mean, if you mean “observation” such as seeing hearing touching then this claim is false we do not observe other peoples mental states such as thoughts and feelings.

    If you are using experience in a broader sense, such as that it feels obvious or evident to us that other people have minds, then I agree that we have experience to back this belief up. The problem is we also have experience in this sense for the existence of objective moral principles. It seems obvious to most people for example that “torturing children for fun” is wrong and would be so even if the torturer and his culture agreed with it.

    Matt, could you point out your arguments providing evidence against subjective morality?
    Sure in http://www.mandm.org.nz/2008/12/cultural-confusion-and-ethical-relativism-iii.html I offer several arguments against subjectivism. I note for example that it entails that cultural mores are never unjust ( which seems fairly clearly false) . It suggests that moral reformers are always wrong and it suggests moral progress does not occur. The full arguments are there.

    and, as you’ve said, “one can make sense of morality in terms of it being an illusion that enhances survival.”

    Yes, I noted on Open Parachute that if one relies on empirical scientific reasoning alone and bracket any other sources of knowledge nihilism is the best view. But that hardly supports your position, for two reasons, first you are defending subjectivism not nihilism ( and I do not think subjectivism would be a plausible view under these parameters) second, I do not think one should rely on empirical scientific reasoning alone when addressing these questions. Conclusions like this show why.

    At this point we’re still left with subjective morality fitting observation, with no observed evidence (outside religious texts) supporting objective morality.

    Well no, first I think that if one relies on empirical observation alone nihilism probably better fits the evidence. But second I argued in previous comments that there are plenty of things one is rational in believing despite not having “observed evidence” for them and I noted also the contention that one needs to have “observed evidence” to believe something is self refuting. So these lines of arguments have already been dealt with above.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Snowed =-.