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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Uthman Badar on religion (4): Moral objectivity

It's close to time to round off this series. This will be my penultimate post on Badar's article.

So far, the main point I've made is that Badar is incorrect in his claims that atheists rely upon, or need to rely on, any overly narrow conception of rationality. Philosophical atheists are well aware of traditional arguments for the existence of God and of how they are supposed to work - but we are also aware that these have proved inconclusive over the centuries. Far from being ignorant of them, most of us support continuing critique of them. However, it's not surprising if some prominent atheists reach the point of ranking this as a relatively low priority.

Towards the end, Badar makes a couple of points that are more interesting and perhaps scarier. One relates to the objectivity of morality. The other, which I'll get to in the final post in this series, relates to secularism - which he rejects. First, let's look at the question of moral objectivity.

Badar seems to be claiming that atheists can find no objective basis for morality, whereas theists can. The obvious problem here is that the concept of moral objectivity is itself very murky. As I'm currently re-re-reading The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, I'm painfully conscious of this. Notoriously, Harris thinks that morality is objective. A bit less notoriously, I don't think morality is objective and I think he misunderstands what is actually at stake here. But then again, I find that many people want to side with Harris ... and, whether or not it is just my inarticulacy on the point, I often find it difficult even conveying what I think is at stake. When people are forced to think hard about the concept, some immediately think it's obvious that morality can't be objective in the way I'm describing. Others just seem to find the whole concept baffling. Some seem to get very uncomfortable, even aggressive. It's all a messy business.

One thing that can be noted in favour of people like Harris is that we don't need to believe in any deities to find lots of objectively-true claims that at least seem to be relevant to morality. That seems correct on any plausible understanding of what morality is all about - what its point might be - and I'll come back to this.

There's a strong conception of objectivity in morality - and it may be the conception of the folk, and perhaps even the conception built into moral language - but it's surprisingly difficult to pin it down. However, Richard Joyce's analysis seems about right to me: it involves "non-institutional desire-transcendent reasons and non-institutional categorical imperatives". It's hard to see how such reasons and imperatives exist or even make sense, whether God exists or not. God may, of course, issue a command. But whether or not I have a reason to follow it will depend on my desires. Perhaps God can back up his command with a threat to torture me if I disobey. Fine. But my reason for obeying will relate to my desire not to be tortured.

I may, of course, have other reasons to obey. Perhaps God commands me to do something I want to do anyway - perhaps to be kind to a little old lady who is having difficulty crossing the street. But here my reason for obeying will depend on my desire to help this person, or simply my desire that things go better for her. But what if God commands me to murder, torture, and rape? Well, I may have a strong reason to obey - my fear of being tortured, myself, if I don't - but again that reason does not transcend my desires. My fear of torture can be rephrased as a kind of desire not to be tortured.

The mere fact that the command comes from God does not make it somehow "objectively" correct. Indeed, if God gives commands to murder, torture, and rape, although we may have desire-based reasons to obey we will not say that murder, torture, and rape are now the "morally right" things to do. Nor will we say that the commands are binding on us in some way that transcends our fear of being tortured ourselves (such that, if we could somehow get away with disobedience we would still be bound to obey). Rather, we will conclude that we are confronted by an evil God, a being that should be opposed if at all possible (unfortunately, opposition may be futile if this evil being is omnipotent and omniscient).

Even an omnipotent being can't turn our reasons for just any action at all into desire-transcendent and institution-transcendent reasons, though it can certainly provide us with desire-related reasons that are so strong as to be psychologically irresistible.

The point is that secular thinkers can't deliver objectivity in this strong sense that Joyce is talking about, but neither can religious thinkers! Insofar as the folk crave this kind of objectivity, they are doomed to be disappointed. Insofar as our moral discourse presupposes this kind of objectivity and/or continually makes assertions that certain actions are objectively right or wrong in this sense of "objectively" ... well, our moral discourse is pervaded by error.

Of course, there can be interesting questions as to whether the folk really crave objectivity in such a strong sense. Perhaps some weaker idea of objectivity will satisfy them. And perhaps, when pressed, they are confused about what they want. Even if weaker ideas of objectivity are not enough to be completely satisfying, psychologically, they may be perfectly adequate for building and assessing moral systems. As I said earlier, there are plenty of objectively true statements that at least seem relevant. But of course, secular thinkers have just as much access to weaker forms of objectivity as the religious do.

To be honest, there's a qualification to be made here. If the religious really did have access to the knowledge and wisdom of an omniscient (or at least cognitively superior) being, they would have an advantage over the rest of us. Whereas we might need to struggle to find out facts about what leads to human happiness (or fulfilment or satisfaction, or whatever), or what kinds of societies are most stable, or whatever other facts appear to be relevant, the religious, or a sub-set of them, might have easy access to these facts. It's not, then, that religious morality would be more objective than a secular morality, but merely that it would be vastly better informed. That, however, would be no small thing.

I'll leave it to you to make up your own mind, given the actual content of various holy books, given how they are actually interpreted and applied, given the content of esoteric moral systems such as that of the Catholic Church, and given other facts available from the record of history, whether any religious morality really is informed by the knowledge and wisdom of an omniscient (or cognitively superior) being. I think you can guess where I stand on that one.

10 comments:

josef johann said...

As I'm currently re-re-reading The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, I'm painfully conscious of this. Notoriously, Harris thinks that morality is objective. A bit less notoriously, I don't think morality is objective and I think he misunderstands what is actually at stake here

And then there are the 72.8% of analytic philosophers who count themselves as atheists, a pool of people that also goes for moral realism by 56.3%.

And however many more they represent.

josef johann said...

I'm going to bet that my last comment, which had a link, got stuck in the spam filter.

Russell Blackford said...

And I bet you're wrong.

Russell Blackford said...

But yes, theism generally seems easier to shake off than moral realism.

Bear in mind, though, that there are all sorts of "moral realist" positions.

Anonymous said...

"Notoriously, Harris thinks that morality is objective. A bit less notoriously, I don't think morality is objective and I think he misunderstands what is actually at stake here. But then again, I find that many people want to side with Harris ..."

I am currently reading The Moral Landscape for the first time. After seeing his equaly notorious TED talk, I have been very very keen to dig in. And I think you've hit the nail on the head saying that people want to side with Harris.

I want to side with Harris, on a number of levels. There's a lot to like, but I am held back by a certain caution. I recall saying to a friend of mine when I watched the TED talk, this is interesting, and I'm finding myself trying to work out why I am all-but-onside with it. He raised a lot of objections which you have articulated previously. Still, I think I'll be re-re-re-reading it a few times also.

David M

That Guy Montag said...

As expected a brilliant response Russell. It's always a pleasure reading someone engaging in a clear discussion of philosophical issues. The Moral Objectivity post is a personal highlight.

Just to develop on one of your comments a bit you say:

Of course, there can be interesting questions as to whether the folk really crave objectivity in such a strong sense. Perhaps some weaker idea of objectivity will satisfy them. And perhaps, when pressed, they are confused about what they want. Even if weaker ideas of objectivity are not enough to be completely satisfying, psychologically, they may be perfectly adequate for building and assessing moral systems. As I said earlier, there are plenty of objectively true statements that at least seem relevant. But of course, secular thinkers have just as much access to weaker forms of objectivity as the religious do.


I haven't had a chance to read The Moral Landscape yet as it's not out in the UK till February I think and I'm pacing my reading a little bit so I don't know if this is accurate, but I felt this was roughly Sam Harris' strongest point in his arguments with Sean Carrol. He seemed to be suggesting that we can have moral objectivity in a weaker sense. I have to be careful about what how I say this, but it's probably a combination of Science has developed many ways to make weaker forms of objectivity very robust and that because of that moral reasoning doesn't need to be seen as any weaker than science more generally, maybe somewhere on a scale of robustness?

Joseph:
The issue is an important one. Whether you look at morals as a special area of language or whether you look at language more generally, there is a very strong intuition more generally that words commit you in a very strong way to the world being a particular way. Obviously there are various wrinkles with some kinds of things we say not being meaningfully truth evaluable like "go fish" or "go team", but then again there are other statements like "it's going to rain" that nakedly commit me to the world being a certain way. I think at the very least this intuition needs to be respected and acknowledged but it certainly means that moral realism is going to be a tricky thing to get rid of.

Russell Blackford said...

TGM, I'll be very interested in your response to the Harris book when you can get to it.

Richard Wein said...

I would argue that, given an error theorist account of moral language, objective moral truth is a logical impossibility, like a square circle. Even an omnipotent being can't make a circle square or make true an objective moral claim.

Dimitri said...

So, with all due respect (in all seriousness), what was the ultimate point of the 4 part series? You'll have to pardon my 16 year old mind, I've read Nietzsche, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and the likes of them, but I had a difficult time following your dissertations here. I apologize.

March Hare said...

Harris is using conscious well being like an economist uses money.

What I believe Harris is doing is blazing a trail (in the public consciousness at least) that will allow various discussions and general rules to form and be tested.

However, just as in economics, knowing the expected outcomes of policies or actions on conscious well being (or money) only involves an ought when there is a Pareto improvement (which there virtually never is). This implies you can get an ought from an is, which many people will disagree with but, like Harris, I have to ask what the point of morality (or economics) is if not to aid our goals of creating more conscious well being (money).