Short Article (4) – Atheism & The Moral Argument

I’m just thinking out loud here………

I believe morality is objective. Further, it seems to me that theism provides a much better framework for grounding objective moral values and duties than naturalism. Some apologists use this as a springboard for formulating moral arguments for the existence of God, such as that espoused by William Lane Craig:

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values and duties do exist.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

Defenders of atheism typically attack premise 1, and attempt to provide a framework for how objective moral values and duties obtain in a godless universe. Few of these attempts are impressive. But why aren’t atheists more inclined to dispute premise 2? Is it really such a terrible bullet to bite? If I were an atheist I think I would do just that.

Let’s suppose that premise 1 is right, that God does not exist, and that therefore objective moral values and duties do not exist. What follows from that? Does it follow that we cannot justifiably condemn murder? Does it follow that rapists should be let out of prison? Does it mean we cannot reasonably critique racism or homophobia? Does it mean that it’s OK to torture babies for fun? Apologists who use some version of the moral argument often suggest that this is exactly what follows if we deny that objective moral values and duties exist. But why need that be the case at all? Of course, it is indeed correct to say that if objective morals do not exist then we cannot morally critique such things, but it is incorrect to say that we cannot therefore oppose them on other grounds? Take, for example, a murderer. Even if it is the case that he has not done anything morally bad, we still justifiably oppose his behaviour and take action against him accordingly. After all, he represents a danger to the rest of us and punishing him helps deter others from engaging in actions which threaten our safety and well-being, two things which we desire in order to live happy lives. When a lion escapes from a zoo and kills people, it isn’t engaging in immoral behaviour, but we are quite right to kill or capture it because it represents such a danger to our lives.

What of racism and homophobia? Are these to be tolerated because they aren’t morally wrong? Again, I fail to see why. Human beings desire to live and thrive and enjoy their lives. Most of us recognise that our own fate in this regard is bound up with the life of a wider social group. It is in our own interests to work towards a society that is open and tolerant of differences, in which we can all live together peacefully as far as possible. Moreover, normally functioning human beings tend to have some degree of natural compassion and empathy for others (whether due to evolution or social engineering). We therefore hate to see someone beaten up because they are black, or harassed because they are gay. But what about societies in which such things are tolerated or even admired? Can we effectively critique them if there are no objective moral values and duties? I think we can. Firstly, even if objective moral values and duties exist (and of course I think they do) it isn’t obvious that this makes our critique of such cultures any more effective, since our morals – even if correct – will obviously be rejected by the societies we seek to critique. Secondly, it seems to me that we can appeal to people on other – non-moral – grounds. We can try to persuade them that own lives will be better if they ditched some bigoted social policy. We might also appeal to a sense of humanity within them and try to make them see that a black person or a gay person is fully human human, with similar loves and desires for living, and that there is scant rational basis for discrimination or harassment. Of course our best efforts might fall on deaf ears, which leaves us no alternative but to shun those who engage in behaviour we find undesirable, which offends our sense of humanity, and which we do not wish to tolerate in the sort of world in which we wish to live. Even when our words do not fall on deaf ears, it might still take a long time and a lot of work to change mindsets and cultural norms. But I don’t see how appealing to objective moral rules is any more effective.

Responding to the moral argument by disputing premise 2 is a strategy that I think deserves to be explored further. The atheist might still insist in defending some account of objective morality in a naturalist or materialist universe, but if previous accounts are anything to go by we are rightly sceptical as to their chances of success. Is it not therefore time to try a different approach?

Stephen J. Graham

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28 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Morality

28 responses to “Short Article (4) – Atheism & The Moral Argument

  1. “Let’s suppose that premise 1 is right, that God does not exist, and that therefore objective moral values and duties do not exist. What follows from that? … Does it mean that it’s OK to torture babies for fun?”

    I’m not saying you’re doing this, but sometimes people make the mistaken inference from “it’s not wrong to torture babies” to “it’s permitted to torture babies.” An error theorist would say it’s neither good nor bad, permissible or impermissible. (The “OK” is ambiguous.)

    I don’t think our position on metaethics has a significant impact on how we live our lives. Similarly, realists and antirealists about math do math pretty much the same way.

    I’d suspect most atheist metaethicists who reject (2) would reject (2) even if God existed.

    • Yes, though he was a little inconsistent, Jesus himself basically espoused an error theory.
      I’d also point out that the stance laid out in the above post, differs significantly from the realist position.
      A realist about color, for instance, would be happy if we simply accept colors as functional properties of our world, whether or not colors are divinely ordained. Most moral realists are likewise perfectly happy going about their business without burdensome teleological trappings.
      They would not want to make it so easy for us anti-realists, at the very least.

  2. Hi Stephen,
    Yes, a very sensible article, though, as I see it, lots of atheists *do* argue against objective morality. One slight quibble:

    Of course, it is indeed correct to say that if objective morals do not exist then we cannot morally critique such things, …

    We could not make an objective-morality critique of such things, but we could still make a subjective-morality critique. Under subjective morality, morals derive from human feelings and emotions, and we are entirely free to critique something from that standpoint, as you indeed argue.

    If I may, my arguments about this are summarised at: Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense and There is nothing wrong with morality being subjective!.

  3. Pingback: Objective Morality: What’s God got to do with it? | counterapologistblog

  4. Hello Stephen,
    I have been a moral objectivist for around 40 years now and it had nothing to do with the argument from morality. Whether morality was objective or subjective was the subject of an essay I was given as an undergraduate. I began reading up on the arguments convinced that morality was subjective and finished up convinced that it was objective. Nothing I have read or heard since has persuaded me to change me mind back.
    Although you are dismissive of the arguments for moral objectivity without God and imply that they are driven by confirmation bias, it is worth bearing in mind that the Christian Philosopher Richard Swinburne supports these arguments. It would be an invalid appeal to authority to say that if a philosopher of Swinburne’s stature supports them, then they must be right. But I think it is a perfectly valid appeal to authority to say that if a philosopher of Swinburne’s stature supports these arguments then they are worthy of serious consideration and should not be brushed aside as mere chaff.
    Why do you think that theism provides a better framework for objective moral values than naturalism? For my part, I simply can’t see what it is that God is supposed to “bring to the party.”
    I’ve blogged a fuller response here: Objective Morality: What’s God got to do with it? | counterapologistblog
    https://counterapologistblog.wordpress.com/2016/07/09/objective-morality-whats-god-got-to-do-with-it/

    • Hi, I agree with you that Euthyphro torpedoes the idea that invoking God gets you objective morality, but, out of interest, what do you think are the good arguments for morality being objective?

      • I was trying to argue it in the blogpost I linked to…..But I guess I must not have made it clear enough.
        In essence there’s only one argument and the pile thought experiment was supposed to be an analogy.
        The crux of the argument is that concepts which are created by humans because we find them useful are not subjective simply because of this origin. This applies to the concepts of morality and right and wrong as much as it does to such other human-made concepts as nations, currency, professional qualifications etc.
        It’s true to say that if there were no humans there would be no lawyers, but it doesn’t follow from that that whether someone is a lawyer is not an objective question.
        My favourite article on the subject (which I found relatively recently) is this:
        http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/subjective_objective.html

        Can you link me to something which you think gives the best argument against objective morality?
        Thanks.

      • It may be that we’re merely disagreeing over that “objective” means, but I don’t agree that your pile analogy enables objective morality.

        If one person likes chocolate then their liking for chocolate is subjective (it is their preference). If a million people like chocolate then their liking for chocolate is still subjective. If 95% of the world’s people liked chocolate then their liking for chocolate would still be subjective, and if 100% of people liked chocolate then their liking would *still* be subjective. No amount of consensus changes the fact that liking chocolate is a human feeling and preference.

        Thus I don’t see why the number of people or the fraction of people agreeing makes any difference. Nearly all of us abhor murder, but near-universal agreement doesn’t change the fact that that moral sentiment is a human feeling, and thus is subjective.

        Note that it is possible and common to make objective statements about something that is subjective. Thus the statement “people like chocolate” is objective while people’s liking for chocolate is subjective. That is, a capable alien observer, but with no moral or aesthetic feelings, could deduce “people like chocolate” but could not themselves declare “chocolate tastes nice”.

        In the same way, that alien observer, from watching human society, could deduce “John is acting as a lawyer” or “those tokens are being used as currency”. That alien observer could also deduce that “humans abhor murder” or “people regard murder as morally wrong” but could not themselves declare and opine “murder is abhorrent” nor arrive at the conclusion “murder is morally wrong”.

        In order for morality to be objective, it would need to be the case that the alien observer (again, lacking all feelings) could arrive at “murder is morally wrong” in some sense that is beyond and independent of “people regard murder as morally wrong”.

        My main problem with that is that I have no idea what that statement, a moral-realist “murder is morally wrong”, is even supposed to mean. Finally, on links, I put a couple of mine in my first comment up thread. The first of those gives what I think are the best arguments against objective morality.

      • Hi Coel,

        I think it does come down to a disagreement about what “objective” means and of course, I maintain that it means what I say it means and not what you say it means. I fully concede that if you use as your definition something existing entirely independent of humans then morality can’t be objective. But why should we use that definition for morality when we don’t use it for other abstract concepts?

        Most people do find murder abhorrent. And that feeling of abhorrence certainly plays a part in placing murder where it is on the moral spectrum. But that isn’t what makes it morally wrong. Most people find eating excrement abhorrent but I don’t think you would find many people prepared to agree that eating excrement is immoral. So there is more to morality than feelings. What is it that causes us to classify certain actions as falling on the moral/immoral spectrum and other actions not to belong on the spectrum at all (e.g. Whether when making a cup of tea you put the milk in first or add it after)?

        If the alien you describe had no feelings, then morality would be a foreign concept for them. But that wouldn’t stop them being able to understand what morality is and how it works. They might learn how the concept was applied though and this be able to predict of any given action whether or not it would fall within the human concept of morality. Then if they were trying to to explain morality to their fellow aliens, if one of them were to say:”So putting milk in tea first would be regarded as immoral by humans?” Then our alien could reply: “No, Zeon, it wouldn’t. You have obviously not listened to a word I’ve been saying. Let me go through it again. Here is how it works….”

        Our alien can do this because they have grasped the concept of morality and can apply it correctly. They do not have to share any feelings about it in order to do this. So the question of whether or not murder is morally wrong does have an objective answer once you enter into the “language game” of morality. Just as whether or not John is a lawyer has an objective answer once you have entered into the “language game” of professional accreditation.

        Did you read the link I sent to Sandy LaFave’s article? Because I think her categorisation of some truths as metaphysically subjective but epistemologically objective meets a lot of the issues you raise.

      • Hi

        Did you read the link I sent to Sandy LaFave’s article? Because I think her categorisation of some truths as metaphysically subjective but epistemologically objective meets a lot of the issues you raise.

        Yes I did read it, but I think that it is basically a fudge. It amounts to saying that if 5% of people prefer X over Y then their preference is subjective but if 95% of people do so then their preference is objective. I think that such a usage muddies the water and obscures the basic point that morality is a matter of what humans like and dislike.

        I would reply to that usage by asking why does morality matter, whence the normativity of a moral imperative? My answer is that the normativity comes from people’s desires and feelings; violating a moral code is wrong because people dislike it. To me, that is best expressed by regarding morality as subjective and anti-realist.

        The idea of moral realism and objective morality has always been the claim that there is more to morality than that, and that there are moral truths that are independent of human values, and thus that there are things that humans “ought to do” regardless of whether humans agree.

        The LaFave approach effectively takes a subjective morality, then notes that people have a lot in common and so come to similar subjective judgements, and then slaps the label “objective” on that consensus. But it doesn’t point to any source of normativity other than human desires, and thus does not give moral-realist objective morality as that has usually been conceived.

        What is it that causes us to classify certain actions as falling on the moral/immoral spectrum and other actions not to belong on the spectrum at all (e.g. Whether when making a cup of tea you put the milk in first or add it after)?

        As I see it, moral judgements are a subset of our aesthetic judgements. We call our aesthetic judgements “moral judgements” when they are about how people treat each other. Thus making a cup of tea doesn’t count because the action is not about how someone treats someone else.

        That distinction doesn’t fully hold, of course. Some religions have extended the concept and tried to declare things “immoral” when they hurt no-one (e.g. using birth control) whereas other people dismiss that as just silly.

        But, since I am arguing for moral anti-realism, such that moral claims do not have truth values, I don’t actually need a clear distinction between moral judgements and other sorts of aesthetic judgement, such as your making-tea example. I am arguing that, at root, they are the same thing.

        It would be someone arguing for moral realism, and for objective truth values to moral claims, who would need a clear distinction between moral judgements and aesthetic judgements (especially if they went for a subjective account of the latter).

        But that isn’t what makes it morally wrong. Most people find eating excrement abhorrent but I don’t think you would find many people prepared to agree that eating excrement is immoral. So there is more to morality than feelings.

        I don’t think your argument follows. The reason we don’t label that act as immoral is simply because it affects yourself rather than someone else. (Tricking someone else into eating it, by putting it in a sandwich for example, *would* be regarded as immoral.)

      • // It amounts to saying that if 5% of people prefer X over Y then their preference is subjective but if 95% of people do so then their preference is objective. I think that such a usage muddies the water and obscures the basic point that morality is a matter of what humans like and dislike.//

        Coel, this is a straw man. The claim is not that what 95% of people prefer is objective.
        The claim is that a consensus arises which establishes criteria for what morality is. That consensus does come from a majority agreement and that agreement is driven by human likes and dislikes. Wherever it comes from, once the criteria are established, thereafter statements about what does or does not meet the criteria can be objective.

        When you say that
        //The idea of moral realism and objective morality has always been the claim that there is more to morality than that, and that there are moral truths that are independent of human values, and thus that there are things that humans “ought to do” regardless of whether humans agree. //

        I think that is another straw man. There are no moral truths to that are independent of human values and I do not know of any atheist moral realist who claims otherwise. All the atheist moral realists that I know of state unequivocally that the start point for morality is human values. Humans create systems. That is what we do. The creation of the system can and does generate truths about the system. But the truth or falsity of truths within the system is not decided on ad hoc basis, by putting each one up for a popular vote. The truth or falsity is decided by measuring each example against the criteria on which the system is founded.

        If I were to follow your logic, it would apply equally to many human systems/constructs which most people would have no difficulty in agreeing give rise to objective truth statements. For example the game of chess. If there were no humans there would be no chess and hence no rules of chess. The game and the rules are both driven by human desires and choices (a wish be entertained, a wish to be challenged, a wish to ensure as far as possible that both players have equal chances to win etc etc). There is no Platonic form of chess which we can measure the rules against. But that doesn’t mean that the statement “a player may not make a move which puts his own King in check” is subjective. It would make no sense to ask whether we have got the “right” rules for chess or to say that we need to justify them by some standard external to humans. But to be consistent, it seems to me that that is exactly what you should be arguing which is why I say that you are using over-stringent criteria which then distort the argument.

      • Hi,

        I think we are largely in agreement, other than about the nomenclature. If you’re agreeing that morals derive from human values, and that the only normativity about morals derives from human desires, then we’re effectively in agreement.

        The claim is that a consensus arises which establishes criteria for what morality is […] once the criteria are established, thereafter statements about what does or does not meet the criteria can be objective.

        I agree, that’s how morality works. But, to me, that is not objective morality, that is making objective statements about a subjective morality.

        Suppose a group of humans established criteria for “tastes good”, and by consensus they agreed that “tastes good” is defined as “what chocolate does”. Then, given that system chocolate *objectively* tastes good. In other words, given the *subjective* aesthetic system that has been agreed by consensus, one can then make objective statements about that system.

        That’s no different from the point that “Peter likes chocolate” is an objectively true statement, yet Peter’s liking for chocolate is still subjective (that is, it is his preference, a value judgement in his brain).

        In the same way “the consensus among humans is that murder is immoral” is an objectively true statement. Yet, their disapproval of murder is still subjective (that is, it is those humans’ preference, a value judgement in their brains).

        The point is that none of these systems have any status or existence independently of human subjective opinion, and thus they are not objective or moral-realist, as those terms have been traditionally construed:

        Internet Enyclopedia of Philosophy: “Moral Realism (or Moral Objectivism) is the meta-ethical view … that there exist such things as moral facts and moral values, and that these are objective and independent of our perception of them or our beliefs, feelings or other attitudes towards them.”

        Another point: you want your moral system to be established by consensus. But, a small minority might have a very different moral system. According to your account, both of these would be “objective morality”, since you could say about either that given that system certain propositions are true.

        Yet, having different and contradictory “objective morality” systems is not “objective morality”, in the sense that it is not applying truth values to moral claims, since the claim might have the opposite truth value in the two different systems.

      • Hi Coel,

        I don’t think that the “contradictory moral systems” is a real problem. Can you imagine a moral system under which its adherents would claim “rape is good” as being a general rule? How would it work? I think it would be like trying to imagine a health system in which its adherents claimed “cancer is good for you” or ” amputating a limb is better than saving it.”

        Because morality is a complex system it can create dilemmas and difficult choices. So can health: is it better to take this medicine when it has known side-effects or not take it and suffer the condition that the medicine would cure? It’s a judgment call, like a moral decision is often a judgment call. But because, even where the facts are agreed, there can be different answers to health questions, we do not conclude that all health systems are subjective and that there could be a radically different health system which used some alternative measure for health than the physical and mental well-being of an individual.

      • Hi Frances,

        I don’t think that the “contradictory moral systems” is a real problem.

        But if you allow contradictory moral systems then you don’t have objective moral truth values, objective right and wrong. If you are tensioning different “goods” against each other then your only option is a subjective assessment of which you prefer.

      • But I don’t allow contradictory moral systems. That was my point. When it comes to health you have to tension different “goods” against each other but that doesn’t stop most people regarding the concept of “health” as being at its core an objective one.

  5. I can see why you thought I was saying that I did accept that there could be contradictory moral systems but what I was trying to say was that I don’t believe there could be a moral system which was so fundamentally different to another moral system as to be in overall conflict with it.

    • Hi Frances, read Mein Kampf for a good example of a moral system fundamentally in conflict with other moral systems.

      • Hi Coel,

        I’ve never read Mein Kampf (and I’m going to guess you haven’t either) but from what I know of it, I understand it to be a political rather than a moral treatise. Sure, political theories will touch on morality but I don’t believe that Hitler ever advanced moral ideas which were not recognisably part of the same moral system as everyone else’s.

        What was fundamentally different about Hitler’s world view (and that of his followers) was not so much the morality as the facts. As CS Lewis said of the practice of burning witches – people didn’t do it because they had a different morality. They had the same basic morality but they thought that witches were going round destroying the health and security of their neighbours. Given that factual belief it is understandable that they would do whatever they felt was necessary to stamp out these traitors in their midst.

        If you watch any German film of the Nazi period you might be surprised to find how much its moral basis coincides with ours. Kindness, honesty, decency, are all presented as admirable qualities. That Nazis failed in practice to display these qualities is not evidence that they adhered to a different moral theory. I’ve written more about this here:
        The Argument from Morality: Nazi Morality | counterapologistblog
        https://counterapologistblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/the-argument-from-morality-nazi-morality/

        Returning to nomenclature, I suppose what bothers me about your categorisation of morality as “subjective” is that it seems to me that there is a danger of closing down any conversation about morality and I think your comparison with liking chocolate is particularly prone to lead to that result. If I say “I don’t like chocolate ice cream” and another person says “I do” that’s about as far as the conversation can go.

        If someone says “I support the death penalty” and I say “I don’t” then we can (and many people do) have a rational conversation about our reasons for taking different stances. If “I oppose the death penalty” is no more than “I don’t like the death penalty” then why would we, indeed how could we, have any conversation about it? That we (humans) debate moral questions at all is evidence of our understanding that moral decisions are rational and not simply emotional. This is what makes them, in my view, ultimately objective not subjective.

        Would you agree that moral decisions (whether you actually call them objective or subjective) are open to rational discussion?

      • Hi frances,

        I disagree with you on Mein Kampf. From your blog post:

        So how did the Nazis justify the murder of innocent Jews? They didn’t.

        As I read Mein Kampf, yes they did. Here’s a quick summary with some quotes:

        Hitler was a creationist who believed that the Aryan’s and the Jews were distinct and separate creations, and that the Aryans had been created in primordial perfection as “God’s highest handiwork”. He then believed that the Aryan race was being undermined by interbreeding with what were, quite literally to him, inferior, separately created races. Allowing this was, he believed, a huge sin:

        “Everybody who has the right kind of feeling for his country is solemnly bound, each within his own denomination, to see to it that he is not constantly talking about the Will of God merely from the lips but that in actual fact he fulfils the Will of God and does not allow God’s handiwork to be debased.”

        “For it was by the Will of God that men were made of a certain bodily shape, were given their natures and their faculties. Whoever destroys His work wages war against God’s Creation and God’s Will.”

        “To undermine the existence of human culture by exterminating its founders and custodians [i.e. Aryans] would be an execrable crime in the eyes of those who believe that the folk-idea lies at the basis of human existence.”

        “Whoever would dare to raise a profane hand against that highest image of God among His creatures [i.e. Aryans] would sin against the bountiful Creator of this marvel and would collaborate in the expulsion from Paradise.”.

        “Thus for the first time a high inner purpose is accredited to the State. In face of the ridiculous phrase that the State should do no more than act as the guardian of public order and tranquillity, so that everybody can peacefully dupe everybody else, it is given a very high mission indeed to preserve and encourage the highest type of humanity which a beneficent Creator has bestowed on this earth.”

        The desire to remove Jews from society then follows. You are right that this is bound up with mistaken facts, but moralising always is bound up with facts. (And yes, I have read MK. Much more analysis on this here.)

      • Hi frances,

        If “I oppose the death penalty” is no more than “I don’t like the death penalty” then why would we, indeed how could we, have any conversation about it?

        We have the conversation for two reasons: first, to try to persuade someone else to adopt our attitude, and secondly because we do need to reach collective agreement in a nation on whether to have a death penalty or not.

        Would you agree that moral decisions (whether you actually call them objective or subjective) are open to rational discussion?

        Yes I would. That’s because our subjective feelings and opinions are heavily influenced by facts and by rational argument. Saying that moral judgements are, at root, human feelings, doesn’t in anyway deny the range of complex factors that can influence our feelings.

        You are entirely right that people tend to shy away from the idea that morality is subjective, fearing that that would either devalue morality or mean we cannot discuss it, but neither is the case. We can and indeed do influence other people to think and feel differently about things.

        Would you agree that, as a whole, people in society nowadays *feel* differently about things like gay marriage or Jim Crow laws or equal opportunities for women than they would have done 100 years ago? No objectivity is required for this process.

      • Hi Coel,

        As you say: “moralising is always bound up with facts.” You see the feelings underpinning our invention of such a concept as morality as carrying far more weight than the facts that we necessarily invoke when we decide on what meets the criteria. I think you have got things back to front there.

        The passage you quote from MK does not seek to defend killing Jews. With the benefit of hindsight you read it and are able to see how the views expressed ultimately led to the Holocaust, but that is a very different thing from establishing that Hitler or any Nazi went so far as to argue that it would be a virtuous thing to put to death a Jewish child for no other reason than that it was Jewish. They didn’t ever actually say that because they knew it was simply incompatible with morality. It would have been, as I have suggested earlier, like trying to persuade the public that cancer was healthy. You would need a Humpty Dumpty theory of language to accommodate such a claim.

        No amount of talking can persuade me to like chocolate ice cream if I don’t. Even if liking or not liking chocolate ice cream were the most important thing in the world ever, it would be pointless to have a conversation about it because you can’t change the way I feel about it by reasoning or facts. The reason we don’t have any follow-up conversation to my observation that I don’t like chocolate ice cream and your observation that you do is not because it’s not important. It’s because there is simply nothing more to say. My feelings about chocolate ice cream are not heavily, not even lightly, influenced by facts and rational arguments. In that respect surely you must see that your ice cream analogy just doesn’t make any kind of fit with morality? It’s not that morality is somewhat like a taste for ice cream, only a bit more complicated, or that morality is like a taste for ice cream writ large or a taste for ice cream on stilts. Morality is nothing like a taste for ice cream. The two things are just utterly unalike.

        We do feel differently about Jim Crow laws and about gay marriage compared to 100 years ago. But so what? If we feel differently about things when we find out the facts that doesn’t mean that the object of our feelings must be subjective. Rather the opposite if facts are the key to the change. We now know that race is a social construct and that gay people fall in love just like we do and are not a collection of loathsome perverts. We feel differently about smoking now than we did in the 17th century when schoolboys were apparently beaten for not smoking (it was thought to ward off the plague). That doesn’t mean that whether smoking is harmful or helpful depends on our feelings.

      • Hi Frances,

        but that is a very different thing from establishing that Hitler or any Nazi went so far as to argue that it would be a virtuous thing to put to death a Jewish child for no other reason than that it was Jewish.

        You’re right, MK doesn’t — yet — advocate murder of Jews, but it does advocate that they should be celibate. So, not death of a Jewish child, but still the non-existence of Jewish children. Indeed, it even suggests that Jews might accept “this sacrifice” through their “bounden duty”:

        “Why should it not be possible to induce people to make this sacrifice if … they were simply told that they ought to put an end to this truly original sin of racial corruption which is steadily being passed on from one generation to another. And, further, they ought to be brought to realise that it is their bounden duty to give to the Almighty Creator beings such as He himself made to His own image.”

        They didn’t ever actually say that because they knew it was simply incompatible with morality.

        Not so, they simply trump that idea of morality with a “higher ethical ideal” that the `truly original sin of racial corruption” matters more.

        “`But, on the other hand, [the Volkish principle] denies that an ethical ideal has the right to prevail if it endangers the existence of a race that is the standard-bearer of a higher ethical ideal.”

        No amount of talking can persuade me to like chocolate ice cream if I don’t.

        Maybe not, but it is entirely possible that talking to a gay person might lead to someone thinking and feeling very different about gay marriage.

        You are entirely right that facts do also heavily influence how we feel. But, still, moral judgements are, at root, feelings that we have. In that sense they are subjective.

      • Coel,

        If Jews were everything Hitler made them out to be then I think many of us would be inclined to the view that they should not procreate. You don’t need a whole new moral system to take that view – just entirely the wrong facts. After all, even someone with relatively liberal views for his time, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr supported the compulsory sterilisation of “imbeciles” in Buck v. Bell. Did he really have a whole new moral system of his own that he was working to? Most people regard him as operating well within the confines of a conventional moral system even if they disagree with his decision in that case.

        You’re right: talking with a gay person is precisely the sort of thing that can lead to a re-evaluation of someone’s stance on gay marriage. It does that because it can confront people with their own misconceptions about gay people. When they find out the real facts about gay people they can no longer support their previous stance in the light of the facts. That is exactly why a view about the morality of gay marriage is so very different from a view about whether or not chocolate tastes good, where no amount of facts can alter anyone’s view.

        You say that moral judgements are “feelings that we have.” I say “We have created the concept of Morality because we have feelings but moral judgements are not simply a matter of how we feel.” In the same way we invented chess because we wanted to be entertained and challenged. But chess rules are not simply a matter of what seems to us at any one time to be entertaining and challenging. I can’t put my king into check just because “at this particular point in the game it suits my wish to be entertained and challenged.”

      • Hi Frances,
        Yes, there are differences between, say, disliking the taste of olives and disliking gay marriage, in that one may be more open to change via persuasion than the other.

        But, in the end, that doesn’t change the central point, which is that moral judgements are our feelings, and that the only normativity about morals comes from our desires. In that sense morality is as subjective as what foods we like.

        But that doesn’t in any way deny that our moral feelings are heavily influenced by facts and by other people. Further, by talking to each other we reach conventions and agreements about how to get along with each other. In that sense a society-level agreement that gay marriage is ok is a bit like agreeing the rules of chess.

      • Hello Coel,

        I can’t agree that the only normativity about morals comes from our desires. At least, not unless you construe the term “comes from our desires” so widely that it would swallow just about every abstract concept that exists and quite possibly every concrete one too. It is hard to think of anything the normativity which I couldn’t tar with that brush of “coming from our desires” if the concept is made elastic enough.

        Moral judgments are not identical to our feelings. It is possible to have strong feelings of antipathy towards a practice and yet judge it morally neutral. For instance, I am repelled by the idea of sex with animals but I see nothing *morally* wrong with it in itself (provided the animal does not suffer). According to your theory, this should be simply impossible. Conversely, if a prison guard had murdered Ted Bundy in his cell before he could be executed then I would consider that to be morally wrong. But I wouldn’t experience any negative feelings. In fact I might experience some feelings of pleasure at such an outcome.

        My feelings no more enter into it than they would into, say, an assessment of whether a particular chess move was good or bad. I assess the facts and I come to my conclusion. Of course, in order to do that I need to understand the rules of chess, which are a convention handed down from society, which came to an agreement on what the rules should be driven by their preferences for the type of game they wanted it to be. And chess moves being “good” or “bad” is a concept which arises only because we desire to win the game. But that doesn’t mean that whether the move is a good one or not is subjective. There will be some circumstances where my move will be unarguably objectively bad, for instance if it allows my opponent to check mate me in one move. In other circumstances the move will be unarguably good, for instance if it results in check mate for my opponent. In between there will be room for argument about whether a particular move was good or not in the circumstances. All of this depends entirely on the fact that when we play a game we *want* to win it, but that’s not enough to make the “good” and “bad” of chess subjective.

      • Hi Frances,

        At least, not unless you construe the term “comes from our desires” so widely …

        “Comes from *our* desires”, as opposed to coming from God’s desires (the usual theological stance about morality) or from some other standard that is independent of what humans think about it (the usual objective-morals conception).

        Moral judgments are not identical to our feelings. […] For instance, I am repelled by the idea of sex with animals but I see nothing *morally* wrong with it in itself …

        This is fully in accord with my stance that moral feelings are a *subset* of our aesthetic feelings (being a subset mostly related to how humans treat each other).

        As for your Bundy example, would you really experience no negative feelings about the general principle of a prison guard killing a prisoner without legal procedure?

        … but that’s not enough to make the “good” and “bad” of chess subjective.

        It is entirely possible to make an objective statement about a subjectively-established system. “Tom likes chocolate” is objectively true, but Tom’s liking for chocolate is still subjective. Similarly, once you have set up a system of chess it is possible to make objectively true statements about it, such as what is good or bad chess within the system of chess.

  6. Edit “Hitler’s world view” should be “Hitler’s *expressed* world view”

  7. You assume an awful lot in this piece about rationality and the human impulse toward utility. There’s mountains of data to suggest humans are irrational creatures, therefore, using a framework that is dogmatic in nature (outward to inward, rather than the reverse) if rife with problems. The proof of said difficulties? — see: human interaction since the dawn of religion.

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