19 December 2011

Letters to a Doubting Thomas | A moral argument

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This is part of a series of posts in response to "Letters to a Doubting Thomas" C. Stephen Layman.

Whew. Last post in this series. I'm not going to lie, morality is probably my biggest weakness since deconverting, at least from the standpoint of intellectual defensibility. I completely get the appeals to intuition when it comes to morality. I find it extremely difficult to reject apparent moral laws with a straight face and fear the day when someone pulls the 'ol slap-you-in-the-face routine and then asks why it's wrong for them to slap you if it's all relative. Speaking of this, Layman includes such an anecdote in the book:
Many moral antirealists have held that moral judgments merely express feelings or emotions. Saying "Murder is wrong" is like saying "Murder—boo!" A friend of mine who teaches ethics received a paper defending this thesis from a student. My friend immediately placed an F on the paper and returned it. The student contacted her to protest the grade. The conversation went something like this:

Student: Why did you give me an F? I worked hard on that paper. Was it unclear? Did I leave something out? Was there an error in the logic?

Prof: You write well. You have a clear thesis. The paper is nicely organized. The grammar is fine. I didn't spot any fallacies.

Student: Well, then, the grade is unfair.

Prof: "Unfair." Hmmm. "Unfair" is a moral word, isn't it? But as you point out in your paper, there is no moral truth. People just feel differently about certain things. Well, you and I just feel differently about this paper.

The point, of course, was not to stick the student with a bad grade, but to initiate a serious discussion about the foundations of morality. Verbalizing moral antirealism is one thing, accepting its implications is another thing altogether.

Now, moral anti-realism isn't the only option out there. The beginning of this chapter lays out just what Zach says the "moral order" is, along with evaluating some non-theistic ways to support a moral order. (As is probably obvious, Zach won't buy any of them.)

I was surprised that Layman (Zach) wasn't a supporter of Divine Command Theory (DCT). He lays out two versions of DCT and them suggests why he thinks them to be on precarious ground. One has to do with the Euthyphro Dilemma, though he doesn't call it by name. In essence, though, Zach brings up the point that there could be necessary moral truths that can't be wrong under any conceivable circumstances:
First, we can offer examples of moral statements which, if true, are plausibly necessary, e.g., "It is wrong to torture people for fun" and "Unjustified killing is wrong." It's hard to see how these statements could be false under any possible circumstances; hence, it is plausible to suppose that they are necessary truths.


The inference from "God is almighty" to "God has control over what is good and evil, right and wrong" is invalid. God does not control necessary truths; they cannot be false under any circumstances whatsoever.

In other words, such a "necessary moral law" wouldn't be wrong due to god's commands; it would be wrong independent of god, and thus god couldn't be a moral lawgiver via DCT.

Zach and Thomas dabble a bit in the ontological argument and then come to the heart of Zach's argument. He lays out what he calls the "moral order:"
The Moral Order: (a) The strongest reasons always favor doing what is morally required, and (b) the correct moral code is traditional in content.

When I speak of a traditional moral code, I mean one that says killing, stealing, lying, adultery, and so on are wrong, except perhaps in certain special cases, e.g., killing in self-defense.

In our discussion of the Imperfect-Deity hypothesis, I mentioned that most moral theorists hold or presuppose that the strongest or overriding reasons always favor doing one's moral duty. I know of no way to prove that this principle is true, but I think most people believe it or at least find it plausible once they've considered it.

Next, Zach lays out some naturalistic explanations for the moral order:
-- Being moral always promotes self-interest
-- Doing one's duty is the only way to have peace of mind
-- Having virtue is it's own reward

For various reasons, Zach rejects all of these. He uses examples to illustrate when being moral might not be in one's self-interest, when peace of mind does not follow from being moral, or when being virtuous might lead to, say, unjust imprisonment and thus not be its own reward.

Thomas briefly suggests abandoning the idea that the strongest reasons always lead to the moral choice. To this, Zach lays out the humdinger:
Being moral always pays in the long run, where "the long run" includes life after death.

There's two key parts to Zach's argument I want to highlight. The first is his use of the term "traditional moral code" above. The second is his introduction of the afterlife. Essentially, he's suggested that the "moral order" is that which humans universally think is right. One issue with this is that these are kind of the no-brainers. Zach doesn't bring up any writings about evolutionary reasons that such beliefs/practices might be advantageous. Not killing fellow species-members and adherence to particular sexual rules would be favorable in terms of our genetic and evolutionary heritage. There are other theories concerning our pestering drive to tell the truth (which I'll group with not-stealing). So, I think this chapter would have benefited from a more fair dealing with naturalism.

Secondly, Zach essentially makes his initial definition fit by bringing in a hypothetical, unproven, speculatory meta-location, heaven, to make being moral the thing supported by the strongest reason. In other words, be moral during this life or burn forever; this now allows morality to be supported by the strongest reasons. I find this unsatisfactory. This is akin to parents inventing a new story about The Elf on the Shelf so that their kids will behave. Fear of losing out on those nice Christmas presents because of disappointing a hawk-eyed stuffed animal is now the driving factor to be good (i.e. the "strongest reason").

As I opened up with, I don't have any breathtaking alternative answers to morality. I just don't think that because we feel really, really moral and haven't figured out what it is or where that comes from that this indicates a god exists who wrote things on my heart. I actually think this argument opens the bag on a number of other fascinating questions that don't fare so well for theism. For example, we've seen a free will argument from Zach previously. If free will and morally significant action is important to god, but I have an overwhelming desire imprinted on my soul not to kill or rape, where is the line between free will and coercion? I realize that I can force myself to override these instincts, but why not create other instincts/drives like these moral ones? After a two-year agonizing journey of deconversion and study, I would love to have evidence in the form of belief in the Christian god akin to these moral drives. What if every human felt the same compulsion to love Jesus Christ as they do not to murder!? Now that would be a reason to torture someone forever if they turned away. At least we would be universally cognizant of the god we were rejecting! Anyway, that play on free will/coercion and how it relates with morality and belief has often intrigued me.

I'll close with some naturalistic work on morality I've run across.

So, there's a very small bit of naturalistic morality stuff I'm aware of, just to plant some seeds for thought. Again, I certainly don't have this figured out. Be good, do good stuff, blah blah. I haven't changed much about my moral stances, but getting a coherent argument together for why I do what I do and believe what I do is definitely on my todo list!


Mike said...

Hendy, I also have Carrier's Sense and Goodness on my to-read list. I also just got What We Owe Each Other by T.M. Scanlon, which is a modern defense of contractualism. I'm pretty interested in that approach since I like using Rawls as an approach to political philosophy.

And, in case you're interested, another view from a prominent secularist is in Derek Parfit's On What Matters vols 1 and 2. Parfit defends an intriguing view that moral truths are real, yet have no ontological status. Here is what he said in the comments of his PhilPapers survey (this is about platonism, but he mentions normative truths): "I believe that, though nothing could be truer than the truths of arithmetic, these truths have no ontological implications. I am a Non-Metaphysical Cognitivist about arithmetic, about normative truths, and several other areas of our thinking. Such truths involve entities and properties that have no ontological status. Numbers, for example, are neither real nor unreal, and neither actual nor merely possible. Even if nothing had ever existed, in the ontological sense, there would have been various truths, and abstract entities, in a non-ontological sense."

Those are some of the next things on my reading list. There really is too much to try and read, though!

Hendy said...

@Mike: Thanks for the comments. Indeed, too much to read. I plan to finish Christian Delusion and then switch gears for a bit and work on the more emotional aspects of life (marriage, friendships, etc.)... But, I'm a book fantasizer, so at least putting these on my list is absolutely up my alley. It's wonderful to have well read people stopping by to pass on suggestions and feedback on things I didn't even know about :)

AIGBusted said...

Have you read "Good and Real" by Gary Drescher yet? His chapter on morality, has, I think, hit on the true morality, or at least a good approximation of it. Drescher's book is definitely worth reading, as it is a tour-de-force that defends philosophical determinism and examines issues like free will and consciousness too.

Hendy said...

@AIGBusted: Thanks for the recommendation. Coincidentally, I just re-remembered wanting to read this in the course of finishing up Encountering Naturalism by Thomas Clark. He mentioned it a few times and I thought I had it on my list... but didn't. I'll add it!

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