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

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Questions, questions

One commenter on the previous post wanted me to say a bit more about why I don't think religion can deliver objective prescriptivity any more than secular ethics can. That's a large question, so I'm not going to say a lot today. It would require a long post to nail it down. Also, there are many religious theories of morality. However, to give an idea, consider the sort of crude divine command theory that says something like, "Actions (and inactions) are morally obligatory if they are commanded by God."

This notoriously leads to the question of whether they are obligatory because they are commanded by God or whether God commands them because they are morally obligatory (on some other ground).

The former is a problem because somebody can ask why she should simply do whatever God tells her to do. After all, at this stage of the argument she can imagine God telling her to torture puppies, kill people, or whatever other horrible action you care to imagine. Surely our ordinary concept of morality cannot make these actions morally right or obligatory simply because they are commanded by a very powerful being. If a god commanded such actions, we'd be more inclined to think this was an evil god than that the actions were now morally obligatory. I concede, of course, that a powerful being might be able to offer us rewards for obeying its will or threaten us with punishments for disobeying, and that can give us a reason to obey. But this reason appeals to our desires (for rewards and for the avoidance of punishment). So acting in these ways is not objectively required - i.e. it's not required in a way that transcends our desires.

What if we say that God would not command such things because God only commands things that are already morally obligatory on some other ground? God isn't, on this approach, originating what is morally right and wrong, etc., but enforcing it. Again, the fact that God may be able to reward or punish us gives us an extra reason for acting morally, but (as above) it's not one that transcends our desires.

The question is then whether whatever else it is that makes acting in these ways morally obligatory can give us desire-transcendent reasons. But that "whatever else" is going to be something that's also available to an atheistic moral theorist. So the divine command theorist has no more resources available than atheistic theorists to find reasons that transcend our desires.

There's a lot more to say, not least because I've only discussed a crude theory of religious morality. So in the space of a blog post I'll just have to assert that more sophisticated theories will run into similar problems. Sooner or later, the theorist will have to be asked what reasons are available, and will be no better equipped than someone coming at the issue from a secular viewpoint to find reasons that transcend our desires.

I was also asked to recommend some books that define and discuss such concepts as objective prescriptivity, motivational internalism, etc. - i.e., the sort of language I was tossing around in the previous post. The ideal book here would be a well-written undergraduate-level metaethics textbook. Unfortunately, I don't know what I'd recommend. I suspect that a lot of courses in this area would depend on a collection of readings more than a text. Can anyone help out with this question?

A commonly used undergraduate text that goes beyond metaethics into wider areas of foundational moral theory is James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy. This is very clear and accessible and covers a lot of ground, but it's maybe not advanced/specialised enough for the particular purpose. Also, I have misgivings about relying on it, because Rachels pushed his own views pretty hard and tended at times to deal with simplified versions of views that he didn't like (doubtless in good faith - see above where I myself deal with a rather simple version of religious morality). All in all, the Rachels book is a good starting point, and I do recommend it, but it should be taken with at least a small grain of salt. Its criticisms of subjectivist moral linguistics and of social contract theory, for example, appear to me not to meet these approaches at their strongest and/or to make controversial assumptions.

More specialised metaethics texts that I've encountered tend to be aimed at a level that's too advanced. I'm still trying to think of a book that falls nicely in the middle.

If you've got a solid background already, a good approach would be to plunge straight into The Moral Problem by Michael Smith and then The Myth of Morality by Richard Joyce. These disagree with each other, since one author is a moral realist of a kind and the other is an error theorist. Although my views are closer to Joyce's, all three of us actually agree on a lot of things, especially about how the issues should be framed. However, be warned: both books are densely written. They require concentration and a fair bit of prior familiarity with moral philosophy.


March Hare said...

I'm not happy with the self-satisfied simplification of God's morality. There are various way's that you can frame it such that our morality and God's morality fall into line with God being the ultimate arbiter of morality without relying on reward/punishment.

e.g. God wouldn't order us to do something that was egregiously immoral to us because we are made in God's image and therefore our moral sensibilities are similar to God's but severely limited in comparison. So, yes, if God ordered us to torture puppies it would be morally good to do it but there would be an outstandingly good reason behind it (one of the puppies would grow up to be Hitler?).

Not that I believe in God or morality, but the Euthyphro dilemma is just too simplistic for my tastes.

Jean Kazez said...

Russ Shafer Laudau is a very well regarded metaethicist who also writes and edits books geared to students/the public. He's a super-clear writer and very fair-minded. His book "Fundamentals of Ethics" (Oxford) has a very useful couple of chapters on metaethics, covering all the major theories and issues. There are sections on motivational internalism and all the other major "isms". There's a companion book of readings ("The Ethical Life") that includes a section on metaethics.

He also has a book called "Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?" (Oxford)--a defense of moral realism written very accessibly. Even though the book takes a position, it would be an excellent introduction to the whole topic of metaethics.

Havok said...

Thanks for the response Russell!

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks for those suggestions, Jean.

MH - yes, there are more complicated religious theories. But if the theist is going to avoid playing the mystery card, she will still have to give the reason why doing this thing is wrong prior to God ordering us not to do it. And even if she plays the mystery card she still owes us some explanation of how the wrongness can involve objective prescriptivity.

But, yeah, some theories don't get caught out so neatly by the Euthyphro dilemma. In theory God could be not the originating source of morality so much as a super-advisor. He is able to tell us, from an infinitely cognitively superior vantage, what we should do by the light of our own desires or sensibilities. That's not objective prescriptivity, because our agreement to do what God says is still based on the assurance that it will be the right thing in accordance with our own desires, etc. But it's the next best thing. Mackie touched on this and IIRC talked about how a more complex religious theory might deliver a kind of objectivity. That might not have been the best way for him to put it, but you can see his point.

I think that should be accepted. Religious theories can't deliver objective prescriptivity but in principle they might be able to deliver something else that's attractive and might be regarded as a reasonable replacement. Religious people could frame the debate in this way, and some do (more in the Catholic tradition than the Protestant one). The question then is the down-to-earth one of whether holy books, etc., really provide this much, given the evidence that we have.

More generally, most moral realists these days seem to have abandoned objective prescriptivity. That seems surprising to me, in a way, but it's the strong impression that I get when I survey the field in a rough and ready manner. In that sense, you might defend Sam Harris - as I think Jean has done. Although he doesn't discuss it explicitly, and seems, frankly, not to have a clear idea of what's at stake on this point, he's in the mainstream of contemporary moral realism that would rather abandon objective prescriptivity than real moral properties.

So maybe Sam and others are right and I'm wrong on this. But I do think it's the bump in the carpet thing ... that there's something unsatisfactory if it turns out that morality doesn't have this kind of authority over our actions. Indeed, I'd go further - I think it's a radically deflated conception of morality, compared to the folk one, if moral arguments can be construed as being about what actions have certain naturalistic properties that an amoralist, or even an ordinary "good" person with a mix of selfish, eroscentric, and altruistic desires, could rationally not care about, or not care about in an overriding way, rather than being about what actions are objectively prescribed, or what actions are the ones to take all things considered. Therefore a lot of contemporary moral realism looks to me like a kind of disguised moral scepticism.

March Hare said...

Why can't we just come out and say morality is simply a mental heuristic that is mainly a CBA but also incorporates our base prejudices and very often leads to the wrong conclusion, but nonetheless causes us to post-hoc justify and defend that knee-jerk reaction.

While Jean may disagree, I think this truth would ease the way for error theory to be placed in front of the public. The concept is accessible to everyone before you come out and say "there are no such things as morals".

Russell Blackford said...

I'm sure I should know what a CBA is, but if so I must be stupid today. Can you spell it out? To me, it means "Commonwealth Bank of Australia".

March Hare said...

Apologies Russell, Cost Benefit Analysis.

That's the economist in me...

David M said...

If I can speak on behalf of some laymen here, I'd just like to touch on the whole "what can be said in the public square" debate, with relation to this post and others on Russell's blog.

If this is the sort of dangerous idea that can't be spoken of, due to complexity, largely, then the debate is a bit of a storm in a teacup. If the only risk is that someone might distort what is being said in regards to moral error theory so that it is implied it actively condones kicking puppies, babies, kittens and other soft and cute things, then the only actual bit of danger in it being aired is the distortion. And if the distortion is dangerous in any way, I think Jean would have to show how, and also show that the layman is incapable of understanding distortions of complex ideas for various nefarious means.

Certainly it's true that public relations and the media and politics do outstanding work in the field of distortion, mischaracterisation and misinformation, and that sometimes that misinformation can "stick" as it were, but it's also true that the layman is able to, with just a little bit of digging, critical thinking and plain old reading, get a closer approximation of the truth reasonably easily.

The layman, in this case me, is also able to distinguish between ideas that are, on the face of it, ridiculous, and ideas that are complex, but deserve more thought.

I read Russell's blog quite regularly. He does a good job of explaining some things that are quite complex in relatively simple terms, other stuff sails over my head, but I am, however imperfectly, aware that it's sailing over my head!

I don't, therefore, run off and think that Russell condones kicking babies, or that he's completely amoral. I note a few of terms, and I put in my mental rolodex the names of a the few books mentioned here to hunt down at a later date.

I also, it has to be said, have just enrolled in an Open Uni philosophy subject, to bone up on this stuff, as they say. (For which I should thank Russell, TPP, Ophelia and Eric Mac, tbh)

I wonder if Jean sees the danger in the distortion, and the distortion only, or if she thinks the distortion may actually be used to justify immoral behavior? Because, apart from very broad strokes, I don't know that anyone reading stuff about metaethics, who doesn't have a real philosophical bent, is going to take any of the ideas and run with them in that fashion, I suspect their eyes may just glaze over as they read the acedemic-speak and they'll leave in boredom.

Marshall said...

Euthyphro "dilema" -
Why would you have to make a choice? You have here the two ends of one stick.

I think there's a hidden assumption that we have (or could have) perfect knowledge of God, which we don't. The thing is, we don't know the "will of God" just as we don't know what spacetime and matter are "in themselves". So whenever we make a statement about God, it is an "error" in the same sense that scientific theory is constantly in error. It is a question of successive approximations and/or adaptation to newly generated demands.

So we have to (... your mission, should you choose to accept it... ) labor to align our private notion of good with what God wants us to do. Which we do by observing and projecting the teleological arc that runs from a nearly-undifferentiated ball of plasma up to the present human-type self-consciousness. Exact same thing science does, actually, try to figure out the world.

Forestalling a common objection, all this is true because I said so. As a Gardnerian Ammoralist, I am entitled to use language in this way.

.... Consensus-Based Assessment? Can't Be Arsed?

Havok said...

Russel, I was wondering if you'd read Erik Wielenberg's take on Divine Command ehics "God and Morality, found in "Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe" (Chapter 2, but reprinted elsewhere), and if so, what you though of it?

Russell Blackford said...

Sorry, but no I haven't.

Havok said...

RB: Sorry, but no I haven't.
As a brief summary:
Wielenberg stakes out 2 thesis which he claims are important for a DCT:

Control Thesis (CT): Every logically consistent ethical claim, E, is such that God could make E true.
Dependency Thesis (DT): Every true ethical claim is true in virtue of some act of will on the part of God.

Accepting CT&DT he calls the "strong position", while DT alone he calls the "weak position" (CT implies or entails DT, as I understand it).
The strong position is shown to be ridiculous and/or false by arguing that God could make anything good (torturing babies). Wielenberg also shows that the strong position has the consequence of undermining various theodicies (The FWD can succeed only if FW is a great good, and on the strong position, God could ensure that it isn't - there seems no reason for God to allow any evil).
Wielenberg, when dealing with the weak position (DT) makes an analogy to Chisolms problem of the criterium, and claims that some things just are wrong/evil, and any morality where falling is love is not intrinsically good should be rejected (Wielenberg argues for a non-natural, non-theistic moral realism elsewhere).

He then goes on to argue that even if a theist were to reject CT&DT, and simply claim that God is a duly authorised divine commander - that God is able to impose moral obligations - not all moral obligations can be claimed to derive from God, and when imposing a moral obligation, God, just like other persons, needs to ensure that the person who the obligation is being imposed upon, understand and accept that the command comes from an agent who has the authority to impose such obligations. Wielenberg points out that naturalists do not recognise any such commands as coming from God, and therefore God has not successfully imposed a moral obligation on such people.

His claim that some things just are good, whether or not God exists, seems to be a little weakly argued as it stands though, I imagine he fleshes it out further in the rest of the book. I also imagine that an argument against objective morality would function in a similar fashion to refute the DT.

Edward T. Babinski said...

I think debating the ontology of morality with supernaturalists is about as much fun as watching a debate b/w Kant and Kouldn't. Supernaturalists are authoritarians, and Black/White-ians. Either a law is divine or it holds little value to them. Either an action is eternally meaningful or it is meaningless. They are not willing to consider that things might be meaningful for limited lengths of time. Neither are they willing to consider that just because somebody says something or reads it in a book they happen to adore, doesn't make that saying or teaching automatically more true than something written by someone else in some other book. They are authoritarians and eternalians. And if you take away their ontological security blanket even hypothetically, they will cry that everything's lost, everything's meaningless, and they imagine everyone is left with simply a desire to rape and murder. They won't sit still long enough to discuss the complex social behaviors of large-brained mammals from porpoises to elephants and apes. No actual observations of nature appeal to them, not even their own nature, so they won't even look inside themselves and see how much they would naturally not like to have their lives taken from them simply at some other person's whim, or have other things taken from them at some other person's whim. They don't feel that connected with humanity, they want to only feel connected to a higher authority, especially one that can make eternal promises. Aside from that they repeat Dostoevsky's line about everything being permitted in a godless world. This terrifies them, even after you remind them that everything is permitted even in THIS world. Child molesters in the clergy to earthquakes and asteroids. Homosex-experimenting and drug-experimenting Presidents of the National Society of Evangelicals to Popes like the Borgias and the Inquisition, and Calvin seeking to get heretics executed. It's all permitted. From Job's wife and kids being slaughtered so God can win a bet with Satan, to God's own son being slaughtered so God can finally forgive people their sins. It's all permitted in this world. So quoting Dostoevsky is not an argument, since everything is permitted in this world anyway.

Above, when I mentioned not liking having your life or other things taken away from you at some other person's whim, I was referring to one of the commonsense bases behind the creation of human laws.

How can you hope to snap someone out of the authoritarian mindset? How do you convince them that words on paper are words on paper that have no intrinsic authority, but that the human mind invented culture and language and books and ethical notions and opinions and laws, and therefore the human mind should be studied within the milieu of human cultural history and natural history as well? Moreover, if you are debating an authoritarian ("God said it, it must be true") who does not doubt that it is "God" who "said" such things, and who does not doubt that he knows the meaning of each command, and who does not doubt that page after page of the book that this person adores for its moral perfection also depicts God as a mass murderer, even an eternally wrathful punisher, then that person has taken things to the max. Perhaps challenge them to speak about why others might not want to defend such a book's description of God. The book is their authority, so ask them why they think others might not find it to be so "authoritative." See what they say.