Category Archives: Morality

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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Filed under Atheism, Morality

God’s Permission of Suffering: A Response to Eleonore Stump

Christian philosopher Eleonore Stump objects to Peter van Inwagen’s proposed theodicy because under the terms of that theodicy God would inflict or permit some person, S, to undergo some instance of suffering, without their permission, and purely for the benefit of some other person or group of people, Y (call this “involuntary altruistic suffering”). This is an objection I’ve heard from the lips of a few philosophical atheists also.

What are we to make of it? Better still, how do we turn such an observation into an actual objection? Precisely what is wrong with God inflicting or permitting S to undergo involuntary altruistic suffering? (I am assuming here that it is possible for some person to suffer purely for the benefit of someone else. This might be disputed by some who hold that suffering always brings about – or at least has the potential for – benefit to the sufferer, either directly or indirectly. I’m also ignoring the suggestion that S is better off in a world where S undergoes involuntary altruistic suffering than in some other possible world).

Stump’s objection is that God would be in breach of a moral principle like:

“It is wrong to allow something bad to happen to X – without X’s permission – In order to secure some benefit for others (and no benefit for X).”

As much as I respect Stump as a philosopher, this principle strikes me as clearly wrong, at least if we hold it as a universal principle. It is all too easy to think of counter-examples. Van Inwagen himself lists a few general types of case where such a moral principle wouldn’t hold, for example:

1. When the agent is in a position of lawful authority over X and the others in the question. For instance, if a citizen returns to his home country from a region where a killer disease has been rampant, aren’t the authorities perfectly entitled to keep him or her in quarantine before being free to mingle with fellow citizens?

2. When the good to be gained by the others is considerably greater than the evil suffered by X.

3. When there is no way to achieve the good for the others except by X suffering (or someone else equal to X).

Imagine I’m a train driver and I’ve just been informed that a man has been tied to the tracks by a psychopathic serial killer. There isn’t time to pull the breaks. I can either run over the man or I could re-direct the train onto an abandoned line that leads off a cliff, killing all the passengers on board. I choose to inflict pain and suffering on the man (and his friends and relatives), without their permission, and purely for the benefit of others. Have I acted wrongly? Clearly not, I should think.

Perhaps, you might protest, although this is a case where there is no explicit permission given, permission could be rationally implied or inferred. How so? Well, arguably whilst the man does not consent to die, he would almost certainly agree with the decision to end his life if he was making the decision as a neutral observer.

This raises a very interesting point. We might say that if the man could objectively weigh the big picture he would consent to the infliction of the suffering. In other words, if the man was to make the decision from behind a “veil of ignorance” – not knowing that the person tied to the tracks is himself – he would almost certainly choose the action the train driver chooses. But if this is so it seems to me that the objection to God acting in a way such that S undergoes involuntary altruistic suffering is fatally undermined. It seems that there is little objection to God permitting or causing suffering to S for the good of Y if the suffering is taken on voluntarily, as in the case of Jesus Christ. Moreover, even if S is not in a position to choose to accept the suffering, God – being omniscient – knows that if S were in a position to make such a decision S would accept the suffering that comes his way. In this case too there doesn’t seem to be much that’s objectionable in causing or permitting S to suffer for the benefit of Y. But, what if S is able to make such a decision and would not choose to suffer? Well, again, God knows that such unwillingness is due to ignorance. If S knew all the facts of the situation – and perhaps if S had all the right affections – then S would accept the suffering. Again, I’m not sure there is an objection here. The point is that God sees the big picture, and weighs it perfectly objectively. So, arguably in inflicting suffering on S (or permitting such suffering) He is acting in a way S would agree with if S had the big picture God has.

So, if there is to be an objection that God violates some moral principle or other we require a coherent statement of the principle and a decent argument that it passes the “counter-example” test. I don’t think Stump has achieved that.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under God, Morality, Problem of Evil

Twitter Exchange with Michael Shermer

I had a brief Twitter exchange with leading skeptic Michael Shermer in September 2013. Michael Shermer founded the Skeptic Society and is Editor-in-chief of its magazine “Skeptic.” He also writes a column for Scientific American. He’s a leading name amongst modern skeptics and secularists.

A few days ago on Twitter he wrote:

“Can science determine moral values? Determine right and wrong? Take the Sam Harris Challenge.”

Now, I’ll explain what the Sam Harris challenge is. Sam Harris is a famous New Atheist writer who wrote a book called The Moral Landscape which attempts to ground objective morality in a naturalistic science outlook. He’s been panned by theists and atheists alike and so issued a challenge: write a 1000 word essay refuting the thesis of his book, and there’s a prize of $2000 for the best one and a prize of $20,000 if anyone actually convinces him.

My response to Shermer’s tweet was:

“1000 words? I can do it in two: ‘naturalistic fallacy.'”

Let me explain what this is. The naturalistic fallacy is understood in different ways, but the most common is the problem of deriving moral “oughts” – moral imperatives and moral prohibitions – from mere statements of biological fact. This is a well known problem that dates back centuries, classically stated by the Scottish skeptic David Hume. Simply put the problem is how we derive a moral OUGHT statement from a natural IS statement; just because something IS the case does not mean it OUGHT to be the case. My point was that this is the fallacy Sam Harris’ book makes. He tries to derive moral commands and prohibitions [oughts] from nature [things that are the case].

Shermer’s response to my tweet was this:

“Animals must eat to survive [is]. Ergo animals ought to eat. From is to ought. Naturalistic falalcy busted. QED.”

Now, to those who understand the naturalistic fallacy and a few basic tenets of moral theory it should be pretty obvious where Shermer has gone wrong here. The “ought” he uses is NOT in fact a MORAL ought. True, an animal should eat if it wants to survive. But it doesn’t follow that an animal has a moral obligation to eat or that it is doing something morally wrong by not eating! About 7 seconds of reflection should show how absurd Shermer’s rebuttal is: when a dog refuses to eat its breakfast is it breaking a moral imperative, or is it just being a bit picky? Is the dog breaking some moral command? Are dogs the type of beings that can break moral commands, or even understand the concept? Of course not.

And so my response to Shermer was:

“Hardly since the word ought in your example is not a moral ought! An animal isn’t MORALLY wrong for not eating! Just dead!”

As of now Shermer has not responded to my reply.

I happened to send the conversation to Christian philosopher William Lane Craig whose response was simply: “Geez.”

I know what he means. This kind of superficial skepticism is so popular these days, and yet so very philosophically illiterate.

Stephen.

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Filed under Michael Shermer, Morality, Naturalistic Fallacy