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Optimistic about reason and progress?

Here's something I did for latest issue of The Philosopher's Magazine. I've tweaked it a bit...

I used to be more of an Enlightenment optimist than I am now. I used to think that clear, cogent argument has immense power to make people more sensitive to the truth.

Now I’m not quite so sure. People’s beliefs are shaped in two very different ways – as illustrated by the two very different ways we might answer the question “Why does Jane believe what she does?”

First, we might offer Jane’s reasons and justifications – the grounds of her belief. Why does Jane believe the Republicans will lose the next election? Because she has seen the opinion polls and knows that the causes of the current Republican slump – such as Iraq – are unlikely to disappear in the near future. So, concludes Jane on the basis of this evidence, the Republicans will probably lose.

But that’s not the only way in which we might explain a belief. Suppose Bert believes he is a teapot. Why? Because Bert attended a hypnotist’s stage-show last night. Bert was pulled out of the audience and hypnotized into believing he is a teapot. The hypnotist forgot to un-hypnotize him, and so Bert is still stuck with that belief.

Of course, Bert need not be aware of the true explanation of why he believes he is a teapot. He may not remember being hypnotized. If we ask Bert to justify his belief, he may find himself oddly unable. He may simply find himself stuck with it. He may well say, with utter conviction, that he just knows he is a teapot. In fact, because such non-inferentially-held beliefs are usually perceptual beliefs, it may seem to Bert that he can see he’s a teapot. “Look!” he may say, sticking out his arms “Here’s my handle and here’s my spout!”

So we can explain beliefs by giving a person’s reasons, grounds and justifications, and we can explain beliefs by giving purely causal explanations (I say purely causal, as reasons can be causes too). Purely causal explanations range from, say, being hypnotized or brainwashed to caving in to peer pressure or wishful thinking. These mechanisms may even include, say, being genetically predisposed to having certain sorts of belief.

Of course, both kinds of explanation may be relevant when it comes to explaining why Fred believes P. Fred may believe P in part because there is some evidence for P, though not enough to warrant belief in P, and in part because he is, say, biologically predisposed to believe P. It may be that neither factor, by itself, is sufficient to explain Fred’s belief.

We may flatter ourselves about just how rational we are. Sometimes, when we believe something, we think we’re simply responding rationally to the evidence, but the truth is we have been manipulated in a purely causal way. I might think I have decided that racism is wrong because I’ve recognized the inherent rationality of the case against it, when the truth is that I have simply caved in to peer pressure and my unconscious desire to conform.

There are, correspondingly, two ways in which we might seek to induce belief in someone. We might attempt to make a rational case, try to persuade them by means of evidence and cogent argument. Or we might take the purely causal route and try to hypnotize or brainwash them or apply peer pressure, etc. instead.

What’s interesting about these two ways of getting someone to believe something is that generally, only one is truth-sensitive. The attractive thing about appealing to someone’s power of reason is that it strongly favours beliefs that are true. Cogent argument doesn’t easily lend itself to inducing false beliefs. Try, for example, to construct a strong, well-reasoned case capable of withstanding critical scrutiny for believing that the Antarctic is populated by crab-people or that the Earth’s core is made of cheese. You’re not going to find it easy.

On the other hand, hypnotism, brainwashing, and peer pressure can just as easily be used to induce the belief that Paris is the capital is the capital of Germany as they can that Paris is the capital of France.

Sound reasoning and critical thought tend to act as a filter on false beliefs. Admittedly, this filter is not one hundred percent reliable – false beliefs will inevitably get through. But it does tend to allow into a person’s mind only those beliefs that have at least a fairly good chance of being correct.

Indeed, unlike the purely causal techniques of inducing belief, the use of reason is a double-edged sword. It cuts both ways. It doesn’t automatically favour the “teacher’s” beliefs over the “pupil’s”. It favours the truth, and so places the teacher and the pupil on a level playing field. If, as a teacher, you try to use reason to persuade, you may discover that your pupil can show that you are the one, not the pupil, who is mistaken. That is a risk some “educators” are not prepared to take.

[Some “post-moderns” insist, of course, that “reason” is just a term used to dignify what is, in reality, merely another purely causal mechanism for influencing belief, alongside brainwashing and indoctrination. Reason is no more sensitive to the “truth” than these other mechanisms, for of course there is no “truth”.]

Enlightenment liberals like myself tend to feel uncomfortable about heavy reliance on purely causal mechanisms. Here’s one reason why. When you use reason to persuade, you respect the other’s freedom to make (or fail to make) a rational decision. When you apply purely causal mechanisms, you take that freedom from them. Your subject may think they’ve made an entirely free and rational decision, of course, but the truth is that they’re your puppet – you’re pulling their strings. In effect, by ditching reason and relying on purely causal mechanisms, you are now treating them as just one more bit of the causally-manipulatable natural order - as mere things.

Now to a shift in my philosophical view. When I look around the world, I find it increasingly difficult to remain optimistic about the power of reason to steer people towards the truth.

Take, for example, the rise of young earth creationism in the U.S. Sixty years ago, the belief that the universe is six thousand years old was the view of a tiny band of religious crackpots. Now it is accepted by almost half of all Americans – over 100 million people. Many are college-educated. Many are at least as smart as you and I. Yet not only do they accept this cranky belief, they think it’s consistent with the scientific evidence. They think they are being rational and reasonable. But they are deluding themselves. The real explanation for why they believe what they do is, for the most part, a purely causal explanation (quite what that explanation is, is an interesting question: part of the answer may be that we have a genetic predisposition towards religiosity that makes us particularly vulnerable to religiously-draped cranky beliefs).

Also depressing is the highly successful psychological manipulation engaged in by rightwing media moguls. Many Americans embrace rightwing belief systems that have almost been injected into their heads by a certain news network. Of course, these people think their views are rational and reasonable, but many have, to a large extent, simply had their strings pulled. Listen carefully to some shock jocks and you can almost hear the cogs and levers of manipulation whirring in the background.

How confident can we be that reason and truth will triumph over such extraordinarily powerful belief-inducing mechanisms? If the answer is “not very”, and if there is a great deal at stake (and there often is), then this raises two uncomfortable thoughts for a left-leaning liberal philosopher like me.

First of all, if the mechanisms that primarily shape belief are mechanisms that philosophical reflection and cogent argument are able to do comparatively little about, doesn’t that make encouraging the public to think and question a largely pointless exercise?

That’s not to say that philosophy is powerless to change the world – big philosophical belief systems such as Marxism or Platonism may indeed have huge impact. But their impact won’t be because they’re inherently more reasonable than their competitors, but simply because they are in the right place at the right time, causally speaking.

It also raises temptation. The temptation, when it comes to shifting public opinion, is to worry less about being rational and reasonable, and more about pressing the right causal buttons. If you really want to change the world, put rational persuasion on the back burner and apply more effort instead to applying those very forms of psychological manipulation that liberals like me have, to date, felt so squeamish about using.

But of course there’s a big “if” driving these thoughts. On my less pessimistic days, I incline more to the idea that the huge global surge in wacky religious and other dodgy belief systems is perhaps not a sign that those who wield reason are losing, but that they are winning. Yes, religious nuttiness is on the rise. But perhaps that’s an entrenchment – a reaction of the remaining faithful to the continuing erosion of faith.

So, at the moment, I still remain cautiously optimistic about the beneficial effects of reason. But I have my worries.


Alex said…
Hey Stephen,
If reason is to be king and you wish to maintain the stance of atheism, then where do you find your moral standard by which to say that manipulating others is wrong?

Do you place your hope in some yet to be discovered mindless "quality", or "property" of the universe? You speak a conviction that honoring others right to choose is a good thing and that manipulating others is wrong. How do you substanciate those claims in the absence of God?
Anonymous said…

And how do you substantiate those claims in the *presence* of god? Is his presumed existence a sufficient reason to also make it obvious that you should follow his moral commands?

I think you need to make this initial judgment (namely that it's a morally good thing to follow god's commands)independently of his commands, otherwise you're just going in a circle. So, what is that initial moral choice based on?
Anonymous said…
To this I suppose another liberal might quote Hobbes: "And the most part of men, though they have the use of reasoning a little way, as in numbering to some degree; yet it serves them to little use in common life... For as for science, or certain rules of their actions, they are so far from it that they know not what it is."

Most beliefs that we are actually likely to want to induce in others (to get them to go on a date, let alone to vote, for example) are not reached in anything like a logical way. Not only don't most people have a clue about how, for example, a modern economy is managed, but most know that even the experts disagree and, worse, are trivially capable of deceiving us.

When we consider how our substantive beliefs are induced, especially political ones or momentous personal ones, like getting married, rather than silly ones about teapots, generally we find a hodge-podge of bad reasoning, propaganda, romantic superstition, custom, and sheer rhetoric. All the way down.

I think this explains why people don't find analytic philosophy personally "relevant," even when it deals with the most relevant topics (as Rawls does, for example). It may also be why Continental philosophy, with its greater attention to "causal" mechanisms like culture, custom, history, religion, and literature, has appealed to many Anglophone liberals, from the nineteenth century on. (Martin Luther King, Jr.--religious "nut" but personal hero--studied a little Hegel.) Sure, we should all be as clear and rational as possible, but a philosophy of science won't make global-warming skeptics change their minds, or a Kantian ethics convince violent activists to be peaceful. A little rhetoric might go a long way toward inducing "reasonable" beliefs, and ultimately toward preserving liberalism itself.

To my mind, our increasing dependence (and mistrust) of experts is partly responsible for the rebirth of religious fanaticism in the United States. As an American, I think of a case like Vietnam, in which many of the brightest people in the country, Harvard educated, with sophisticated, often good-faith reasoning, made a series of catastrophic blunders. They were sometimes dishonest, but they were more often just wrong. At the end of the day, informed people with no hope of becoming experts themselves (and feeling, often rightly, that these smarties are not always wholly disinterested) throw up their hands and take up a Bible. It's been that way, I think, for a very long time, and the increasingly rapid and chaotic progress of science ain't gonna make the problem easier for Enlightened liberals to deal with, until (as it seems we inevitably will) we develop mind-control devices. Good luck!
Alex said…
Hey Tea,
You are now jumping from the existence of moral 'goods' and 'evil's to the knowability of these qualities and whether or not one needs to submit to them.

All I am asserting is that if there is not a transcendent mind from which all reality flows, then any judgments about good and evil is nonsense. If we are purely material beings, then our moral choices can only be as 'right or 'wrong' as the mindless material that we are made of.

you are talking about making an initial moral judgment. If you want to affirm that your moral stance has any meaning it must be in relation to a standard that is outside your own personal preferences.

So to try and answer your question: "So, what is that initial moral choice based on?"

In my view all reality is saturated with the character of God. We are made in His image. We are able to apprehend what we call moral 'goods' and 'evils' because we sense them in the very fiber of our being.
Steelman said…
Alex said to SL(who I'm sure will be along shortly, but I'll take a crack at it) "If reason is to be king and you wish to maintain the stance of atheism, then where do you find your moral standard by which to say that manipulating others is wrong?"

I suppose there are a number of factors that can influence someone's standards of morality: culture, peer pressure, personal desires, interpretation of history and its relation to narratives about the present and future (religious and/or political), etc. Bringing reason into the mix gives us a chance to deemphasize the influence of those factors in a decision making process, in order to put them in perspective alongside matters of fact.

Because of the above, it seems to me that people make up their own moral standards, even those who claim they don't. That's how the leaders of so many different religious sects can preach the morality of different, and even contradictory, actions predicated on the exact same set of holy scriptures. Whatever one defines as "God's morals" is open to all the factors I stated above that can affect interpretation, with the additional negative factor of members of a religious group submitting to the authority of their leader's interpretation rather than their own reason. The same goes for moral standards based on non-religious political authority.

My reluctance to underhandedly manipulate others on matters of truth, along with my other ethical convictions, stems from a combination of desire, empathy, and reason. I think about what kind of world I want to live in, and have my children grow up in, and the best way of making that world a reality. I consider what ethical standards I should hold for myself and others to achieve that end. If I would like to live among honest neighbors, for example, I must promote honesty by being an honest neighbor myself. Ignorance, short sightedness, a lack of empathy, and poor reasoning can hinder my efforts. I work to be constantly aware of those obstacles and overcome them. It's no guarantee of success, but I think it's the best anyone can do.

So, I think atheists (and the religious, too!) have a sound basis for believing they can achieve good moral ends by making reason king, as long as empathy and knowledge are the king's advisors.
Tea Logar said…

I don't think I'm jumping anywhere. It's possible, though, that I didn't articulate my questions well enough. Let me try again:

You're asking where atheists can find their moral standards, and you're later asserting that it's nonsensical to make moral judgments about good and evil in absence of any deity. What you're saying, then, is that you're in a better position to make sense of your moral judgments than I am, because you can base them on some higher authority, while I can't. What I'm trying to dispute here is your claim that you're in a better position - I am not trying to answer your question of what my morality is based on.

All I'm asking you, then, is what your judgment to accept divine commands as sensible and reliable is based on? Making this judgment is a matter of morality, and not "mere rationality", in my opinion.

So, you're making a moral judgment about whether or not to accept religious morality. You judged that it's a good idea to accept it. What was your judgment based on? You had to base it on something that is not god's word, otherwise you're just begging the question. Again: what did you base that moral judgment on?

If you can base your judgments of good and evil on your view of reality as being saturated with the character of god, then my basing them on the humans' natural propensity towards empathy and disapproval of injustice and suffering is at least as well-substantiated as yours.
Anonymous said…
Oh, I almost forgot the question I'd really like to hear your answer to: what, in your opinion, are *god's* moral judgments based on?
Anonymous said…
As a left leaning liberal you require the concrete of commonplace observation injected into your foundations lest you topple into the dust. Consider the elaborate fantasies of Marx and Freud. What of the one million Americans who believe themselves to have been abducted by aliens.?

And the Philosophers who make the varpourings of Freud and Fleiss on nasal spots a harmless whimsy. Try Nick Bostrum: The world might be a computer program -
That this world exists is merely a nostrum
Said a scholar of Oxford Nick Bostrum
The truth of our senses
Is but a concensus
And a fiction like the cheque in the post.

To the holodeck! Make it so.

No, we can all believe three impossible things before breakfast. Would you accept at all the interposition of the nonrational between the irrational and the rational?

In any case I think that you are too impressed by the religious folly of the Americans, it seems to me to be a highly polarised society which is in part the product of a stupid majoritarian electoral system, like that Britain and France, which is unable to register the complexity of a modern society. You will get these lurches from left to right, siege mentality etc. Outside of India! no other advanced democracy uses this system.
Alex said…
Hey Steeelman,
To be honest I kind of set that up for you since I knew you were itching to discuss this topic with me. Glad you found it!

To be honest, I agree with almost everything you said. But as you may have expected I will need to diverge just to keep things interesting ;-)

I would agree that we can use our own well reasoned personal experiences, purposes and feelings as a baseline to determine what is 'right' and 'wrong'. However, you need to be willing to bite the bullet that says: in the absence of a moral law giver the only true morality is our own personal feelings filtered through our reasoning. The shrill echo of "that may be your truth, but it's not mine" can then be heard just around the corner.

If the goal is simply to live in the sort of world you would like to live in, then the
'reasonable' thing to do act in ways that will help bring about this sort of world. Keeping in mind that you only have so much time in this place and your concern for future generations will be shackled only to your children and grandchildren insofar as it is pleasing to you to feel concern for them.

I can understand the pragmatic appeal of operating in such a way strictly to bring about the type of environment you wish to live in. It sounds quite nice actually; especially the way you say it. However, what that boils down to is not operating in a framework of moral 'rights' and 'wrongs', but a more calculating paradigm of manipulating people to get your way.

I know that sounds offensive, but please know I don't mean it that way. I am not accusing you of being a manipulative jerk. What I am saying is that if there is no transcendent standard by which we measure right from wrong, then the 'reasonable' thing to do is use the knowledge you have about human psychology to manipulate others towards your own personal ends.

The question then still hangs: Is it right for you to manipulate people as you see fit? What's to say that your life isn't infringing on the way another would like to see the world? What's to be said of the teenage boy who's whole world revolves around trying to get in the sack with your 13yr old daughter? (for example only) Is he 'wrong' to try and bring that world into reality?

We want to say that is wrong. We want to say that love is good. We want to believe that telling the truth is the right thing to do. We want to say that helping someone with absolutely no expectation of payment is a truly good thing. And when I say good I mean good in a way that transcends our personal feelings towards the situation.

Any iteration of atheism I have yet seen has been wholly unconvincing in it's attempts to deal with the general human belief that there is a such thing as right and wrong. Even Stephen seems to want to leave the door open on an objective moral standard. In one of his comments to me in The God of Eth 2 he said: You can reject belief in god or gods while still allowing that there is, or may be, more than the merely natural/material/scientifically explicable. ...Many atheist philosophers are property dualists (some are even substance dualists). Yet property dualists deny all properties are material properties and that the material ultimately explains everything.

The best the atheist can seem to do is resort to some kind of property dualism to retain any sort of objective moral standard. Seems like an unreasonable stretch to me.

I do not find it unreasonable at all to infer from my personal experience as well as that of all humanity that our strong natural desire for and ultimate 'right' and 'wrong' is evidence that we are indeed living in a reality that flows from the character of a just, loving and merciful God.

Good talking to you.
Alex said…
Hey Tea,
It's possible, though, that I didn't articulate my questions well enough.

More likely that I'm to dense to catch what you are saying! ;-)

You say:
What you're saying, then, is that you're in a better position to make sense of your moral judgments than I am.

Well ya, if there is no ultimate standard of right and wrong, then you really can't make 'moral judgments' at all. You can express your desires and feelings, but you can only use words such as 'good' and 'bad' insofar as they relate to how you personally feel about any given topic.

Having said that I must say this:
I am often embarrassed by the compassion and selflessness shown by some of the "non-believing" folk I run with. If that is the case, how can I know that their acts of compassion are better than my own calculating self-interest? By what standard am I measuring if not my own? You may very well live out your life with a selflessness, and compassion that far exceeds my own selfish little existence. Point is I'd wager you and I both want to say that acting selflessly for the benefit of others (in general) is a 'good' thing. If there is no God, then I can see no way we could honor that desire.

You then ask:
All I'm asking you, then, is what your judgment to accept divine commands as sensible and reliable is based on?

To which I answer: faith. I cannot know for certain that the God I believe in is true, but of the research I've done in philosophy, cosmology, theology and history combined with my own personal experience of Him has lead me to the place where I believe faith in Him is my only real option. I know too much about the logical out-workings of atheism to even consider it as a live option.

My faith in Christ is in many ways faith by process of elimination.

You say:
my basing them on the humans' natural propensity towards empathy and disapproval of injustice and suffering is at least as well-substantiated as yours.

You talk of our 'natural' leanings. A debatable point btw. But at any rate, do you have any basis to say that our so called 'natural' leanings are morally 'good'? I have a natural leaning to ogle attractive women, is that then also a moral virtue?

And finally you ask:
what, in your opinion, are *god's* moral judgments based on?

His eternal character. Love is good, because God is. Truth is good, because God is. Justice is good, because God is.

Good talking to you Tea! Gotta run!
Anonymous said…
Oh c'mon Alex! You just can't go around telling people that they have no rational basis for their beliefs while basing your own on faith!

I have no idea what you mean by "god's moral judgments are based on his eternal character". Do you mean that good things are good simply because god says so? Socrates dealt with this very successfully a very long time ago. (Was that in Euthyphro? Help me out here, philosophers :)

I don't base my moral views on our natural leanings - I'm sorry my comment misled you into believing this. (I only used that as an example of a possible basis that I don't think is in any way inferior to yours.) Justifying moral judgments is a complex and demanding task, and I am very far from completing it :)

I think we both agree that's it's very, very hard for us to explain where morality comes from, and why it's binding. However, we completely part our ways on this inquiry when you assert that you've found the answer in "faith". You could have as well answered that your morality is based in deep personal emotional experience. Why you feel the need to invoke a mysterious, supernatural being is very unclear - it seems quite redundant.

What sorts of tools have you been using on your path towards the truth? I cannot imagine a tool that would eliminate everything else and yet leave out faith - unless that tool was already faith itself.
Alex said…
Hey Tea,
Let me work it out this way:
If atheism posits that all of existence flows from a mindless collection of matter and energy I see no reason to suppose that at some point this matter will reach a point where it perceives it's self, let alone develops a quality such as morality.

The 'rational' conclusion for the atheist would be to assume that there is no such thing as morality. The other thing to consider that one can only maintain an atheistic stance with a healthy dose of faith. Faith in their own reasoning and faith in the information they are basing that decision on.

However, if you are willing to accept that there is such a thing as correct and incorrect moral reasoning (and you seem to want to take that position) then the 'rational' thing to assume is that there is an ultimate mind with a specific character who made us to live in right relationship to Him.

You use the word 'faith' like it's a dirty word. My faith is a reasoned faith, but in the end it is still faith. So is your position.

Geoff said…
Quoth Alex: "The 'rational' conclusion for the atheist would be to assume that there is no such thing as morality."

No, the rational thing for anyone to do is to observe the behaviours of humans and other primates, note that "moral" patterns (punishing transgressors, rewarding cooperation and kindness, altruism of different kinds) are common, and assume that our brains are to some extent (details TBD) "pre-wired" for morality. Despite the objections of philosophers who dislike the idea of science muscling in on their territory, evolutionary ethics seems pretty solid. Ignore the siren songs of "naturalistic fallacy" and read up on Axelrod and game theory.
Tom Freeman said…
Tea, yes – this is Euthyphro. The dilemma’s 400 years pre-Christian, and as far as I know nobody’s yet found a way of wriggling off one or other of the horns.

Alex, “If you want to affirm that your moral stance has any meaning it must be in relation to a standard that is outside your own personal preferences.”

Two things seem to follow from your position. First, that god’s moral stance itself doesn’t have any meaning, because he has no external standard. Second, and from this, that you don’t ultimately believe in morality – you believe in love, which isn’t (in the absence of an argument to that effect) the same thing. If so, the standards that we think of as being moral ones are in fact wholly to do with similarities and differences between our personalities and god’s.

Why is love the ‘morally’ relevant aspect of god for us to conform to? If he exists, then he’s supremely intelligent as well. So people with higher IQs are more in conformity with god’s nature in that respect – are they thereby ‘morally’ better? I think we’d all say no to that. But why? Without a conception of morality distinct from divine character, how do you answer that?

In fact, back in the God of Eth 2 comments, you argue:

“If God could be in His very nature… hateful, lying, murderous, destructive, without mercy, etc… then the standard by which good and evil is judged would be shifted as well.

If cruel god was the source of all existence and according to his character cruelty would be a 'good' thing to him. Not only that, but cruelty would be a 'good' thing to all of reality, since all reality was rooted in him.”

So morality is subjective? It’s based on the personal feelings of whomever happens to be top dog in the universe? It sounds as though your view of morality has much the same failings as those you charge the atheist view with.
Tom Freeman said…
I realise we’ve strayed some way from Stephen’s original topic. Sorry. It’s a good article!

“if the mechanisms that primarily shape belief are mechanisms that philosophical reflection and cogent argument are able to do comparatively little about, doesn’t that make encouraging the public to think and question a largely pointless exercise?”

It often feels that way. But I think there is scope for shifting the balance of factors that shape an individual’s beliefs – best to start young, though. Practical philosophy should be taught as a method in schools. We already have faith schools – what about doubt classes or logic lessons?
Larry Hamelin said…

Your argument is circular, unsound, and... philosophically naive.

You argue that a non-transcendental ethic is deficient because it is not transcendental; a non-objective ethic is deficient because it is not objective. Your enthymemes are obvious and completely unjustified:

1) It is wrong to act without an objective ethical reason to rationally justify that action
2) Objective ethical reasons must be justified transcendentally

The problem is that the only way to actually employ these enthymemes is by preposterously priviliging the disgusting, violent and bizarre cultural prejudices of primitive iron-age goat... herders as the perfect ethical expression of a transcendental omnipotent God. This position is so obviously irrational and stupid that it is a wonder that any literate 21st century person could possibly hold such a belief.
Alex said…
Hey Tom,
Good to see you again and nice to see some thought provoking comments, as always!

You say:
. "First, that god’s moral stance itself doesn’t have any meaning"

God does not have a "moral stance" He has an eternal character. He cannot be right or wrong. He just is. Outside of Him there is no other.

You then say:
"from this, that you don’t ultimately believe in morality"

Let's define our terms here. By morality all I mean is actions can be only be right or wrong only insofar as they relate to the character of God. Allow me to illustrate:

The Atheistic naturalism attempt
Q: Why is it wrong to flog a homeless man in the alley?
A: Because he's a person.
Q: Why does that matter?
A: Because he has feelings.
Q: Can you prove that? Even so, why does that make it wrong?
A: Because you wouldn't want that done to you. You have empathy don't you?
Q: True, but why should that stop me when I want to flog this guy more than I feel sorry for him? In fact I'd say he deserves it for being such a lazy bum! Wouldn't that make me right to flog him?
A: No! It's wrong! You can't just go around flogging folks because you think they deserve it!
Q: Wrong? What do you mean wrong? I think it would be the right thing to do. It would teach him a lesson. Maybe he'd get a job after that. I'd bet in the long run it would help him.
A: But he wouldn't like it!
Q: Perhaps not, but I sure would! [Bum beater guy switches to professorial tone and clears throat] *Ahem* You see no matter how hard you may try you cannot convince me that it is 'wrong' for me to ferule this destitute citizen. You may use many words to voice your personal displeasure over my voiced intentions, but I hope by now you realize there is noting for the sky hooks to catch on. You have your feelings on the matter and I have mine. The best you can hope for in labeling my actions as wrong is appealing to a majority opinion, to which I would simply ask: Who says they are right? You have your feelings and majority opinion, but you do not have and objective 'right' or 'wrong'.

The Christian attempt
Q: Why is it wrong to flog a homeless man in the alley?
A: Because he's a person.
Q: Why does that matter?
A: Because you do not own his life, therefore it is 'wrong' for you to abuse him.
Q: If I do not own his life then who does?
A: The one who created him.
Q: Ah! I see, you are talking about God. Well in that case I believe God would want me to abuse him! He's a maximally cruel God after all, you know.
A: You sir, have been listening to too much Stephen Law! You know full well that God is good. Not because I said so, but because He simply is.
Q: Yes, yes I know. I was just messing with ya. ;-) So at any rate why does God's goodness give us grounds to say that beating bums is wrong?
A: If God is good and he gave us life then we must learn to see each other as God sees us, that being with love. Is it the loving thing to do to beat bums?
Q: No, I suppose not. But does that make it wrong?
A: Yes, because that action would be in violation of the character of the one who made us. Therefore it doesn't matter if you think the action is right or wrong. The action is wrong in relation the the foundation of all existence.
Q: Good point, but what if I was to say that God is a floating tea pot floating 3 trillion light years away etc...

Point is, the Christian is able to have an objective moral standard because God's eternal character is the unchanging standard by which all things are measured. Now the interpretations and knowability of what that standard actually is begins a new topic all together, but I digress.

Furthermore Tom asks:
"Why is love the ‘morally’ relevant aspect of god for us to conform to? If he exists, then he’s supremely intelligent as well. So people with higher IQs are more in conformity with god’s nature in that respect – are they thereby ‘morally’ better? I think we’d all say no to that. But why? Without a conception of morality distinct from divine character, how do you answer that?"

Moral accountability involves a choice. One cannot choose ones IQ therefore it's absurd to think our intelligence is a reflection of our moral fiber.

In conclusion Tom asks:
"So morality is subjective? It’s based on the personal feelings of whomever happens to be top dog in the universe?"

In my view morality is objective as it relates to the eternal unchanging character of the source of all existence. God's character is an intrinsic property of who He is. His character does not shift or change as ours does. He is constant.

When you say: "It’s based on the personal feelings of whomever happens to be top dog in the universe?" I would disagree that it's based on His 'feelings'. It's based on who He is. However, yes I would agree that the ultimate standard of 'right' and 'wrong' must be rooted in the character of the creator and sustainer of all reality.

Good questions Tom. It's been a pleasure.

And with that I'm going to move this party over to my blog. Tom is right I did rather hijack this post. Because of that, I'm going to stop responding to comments in this thread, but I'd be more than happy to continue this over at my blog. Feel free to stop in and say hey, argue or engage in various forms of verbal abuse. ;-)
Anonymous said…
You're not arguing, Alex, you're just asserting. You've defined morality in godly terms, so everything you say presumably follows from that definition. You've done NOTHING, though, to convince us to accept your definition of morality.

Sorry, but it hasn't really been much of a pleasure.
Steelman said…
Stephen Law said: "Now to a shift in my philosophical view. When I look around the world, I find it increasingly difficult to remain optimistic about the power of reason to steer people towards the truth."
"The temptation, when it comes to shifting public opinion, is to worry less about being rational and reasonable, and more about pressing the right causal buttons."

First you lamented the general public's lack of core critical thinking skills; a situation which I agree could use improvement. Then you talked about how the other side plays dirty, and how you'd have to compromise your own liberal values to use their underhanded, yet effective, techniques to further your preferred social agenda. Such is politics, no?

People are social animals; there will always be leaders and followers, and people can be followers of a liberal, reasonable leader without being particularly reasonable themselves. So, even in the best case scenario of a society where reason and critical thinking are actively taught and promoted there will still be those (many or few, I don't know) who are actually dogmatic in the midst of their professed well reasoned thinking. Apparently, humans can't stop being so...well, human.

I think the idea of a liberal education put forth in The War for Children's Minds is a good one. Also, I think there's no compromise of values in using propaganda in the furtherance of social agendas, as long as it's honest in its presentation of the issues. Such "honest propaganda" may not be as gut level effective as the heavily slanted, emotional button pushing, the heck with reason stuff, but it's made to work in conjunction with the push for getting people to think for themselves (and do it well).

So, up with critical thinking, up with reason, down with obfuscation. The best we can do, I think, is to do things that promote the above: write books and blogs, promote liberal education and politics, and teach and encourage critical thinking among children and adults alike.

BTW, your post relates to an article I read on Butterflies and Wheels.
Timmo said…

You seem to hold a form of Divine Command Theory: whatever is good or right is what is commanded or dictated by God.

In Plato's dialog Euthyphro, Socrates meets Euthyphro. who is going to court to prosecute his father for murder. Socrates asks why Euthyphro would do this to his own father, and Euthyphro responds that it is the pious thing to do. It is what the gods command. Euthyphro advances his idea that the divine commands of the gods are source of moral norms and obligations.

Socrates challenges Euthyphro's position with this dilemma:

(1) Is it right to prosecute your father because the gods says so?
(2) Do the gods say it is right to prosecute your father because it is right?

Either way, we are in trouble.

If (1), then moral facts seem completely arbitrary. The gods could have dictated that it be wrong to prosecute your father. Moral facts seem to reduce to the whims of the gods.

If (2), then the gods are not the source of moral norms.

Likewise, supposing that God's will is the source of moral norms makes those moral norms arbitrary. Even if God's will is eternal and unchanging, so that murder is wrong now and always will be wrong, that does not change the fact that there are other possible worlds in which God might have dictated that murder was a moral obligation. In that possible world, murder would have been morally right and necessary. But, surely that's not right! Moral norms are inherently necessary, so they cannot be made contingent on God's whims. Divine Command Theory seems untenable.

Even if Divine Command Theory were correct, there remains what we might call the normative problem. Sure, what is morally good is what is commanded by God. But, why should I be good? This is the challenge that Thrasymachus poses to Socrates in Book I of Plato's Republic. The main task of the Republic is to solve the normative problem and show that moral norms really are binding on us.

So, you are glossing over some deep and puzzling philosophical questions. For what it's worth, I think that Christine Korsgaard did a good job at tackling this problem in her book The Sources of Normativity. Korsgaard endorses Kant's Enlightenment view that we know moral truths through Reason and that moral norms are binding because they are self-imposed principles from our own Reason. The are deep questions, so I don't think your challenge on Law's blog is all that worrying.

Lastly, you seem to equate "materialism" with atheism. But, actually, that's not right. The Christian philosopher Lynne Rudder Baker has articulated her view that Christians should be materialists about the human person insofar as she believes that human persons are constituted by human organisms. She has a lot of papers available online at her website.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks for all the comments - bit snowed under at the moment with book so won't comment much myself.

Obviously Alex's comment is a bit tangential - and we have already been discussing the same point he raises elsewhere (Gof of Eth), so I'm not going to get into that here (so far, I can't find any non-circular argument for morality depending on God in what Alex says - but maybe there's one lurking in their somewhere) except maybe to make a distinction between the epistemological question and the metaphysical question about moral value. If the question is, how do we establish what's right and wrong, then Tea makes a good point - appealing to religious books and prophets etc. merely postpones the issue of justification, it doesn't solve it, for then we need to know which book/prophet ought we to follow? This is itself a moral question. The moral responsibility to make moral judgements cannot be shifted onto religious or other moral experts in the manner many religious people suppose. I'll post more on this shortly.

The euthyphro dilemma on the other hand relates the the metaphysical question of what makes our moral judgements true (if they are true) - some us-dependent fact? Some God-dependent fact (e.g. divine command theory)? Some god-and-us-independent fact?

By the way, I wish Alex would stop assuming atheists must either deny morality or else reduce it to some natural property. He can argue that if he likes. But he cannot just assume it (as he does in his blog).

I'll get round to Alex's stuff in more detail later, when I've time....

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