Morality

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Morality refers to the concept of human ethics which pertains to matters of good and evil — also referred to as "right or wrong". Morality is generally discussed within three contexts:

  1. matters of individual conscience;
  2. systems of principles and judgments — sometimes called moral values — shared within a cultural, religious, secular, humanist, or philosophical community; and
  3. codes of behavior or conduct.

Theistic morality is based on the assumption that there is a god who has absolute understanding of right and wrong, and orders people to obey rules as a condition for goodness, see Christian morality for an example. See also Divine Command as the Foundation of Morality

Secular morality is a complex subject and is discussed in a separate article.

Contents

Absolute and relative morality

Absolute morality postulates that what is moral and what is immoral is unchanging and can be laid down well in advance. Thus it is very popular with religions and their reliance on holy texts to determine moral and ethical guidelines and commandments. Moral relativism (which should under no circumstances be conflated with relativity) on the other hand postulates that morals can be somewhat flexible and develop as education and understanding progresses, and accepts the subjective nature of morality. This acknowledges that cultural differences across different times and different regions may mean that what people consider moral can change. This change, particularly over time, is sometimes known as the moral zeitgeist, from the German "spirit of the times". Hence once slavery was accepted in parts of the western world, it now is not - or at least it has been outsourced to poorer countries and prisons. Moral relativism isn't without criticism as it is viewed as lending justification to clearly immoral acts by effectively saying "well, they do things differently over there".

A formal moral argument put forth for divine existence goes as follows;

  • P1) If 'God' does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  • P2) Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  • C) Therefore, God exists.

According to William Lane Craig, a proponent of this argument, to say that there are objective moral values (OMVs) is to say that something's good or evil independently if anyone believes it to be so. But if moral values are independent of everyone's evaluation, this leaves you with significant problems. One is if two humans perform an action, one thinking it is evil while the other has no sense of doing evil, what they believe about their behavior is not irrelevant to our moral assessment. If someone is genuinely ignorant of what they do, we do not accept their harmful behavior and we restrain it if possible, but we do not call it "evil." Craig's idea that something is evil regardless if anyone believes so clearly doesn't reflect the way we tend to make moral judgments. The idea of evil is only relevant in proportion to an agent's understanding, which is one reason why we do not judge other animals by human standards. Craig thinks that nonbelievers who see anything special about human morality have "succumb[ed] to the temptation of speciesism." But noting that humans have greater capacity for moral reflection than other species is not 'unjustifiable bias' its a relevant difference. In fact, given Craig's own claim that no moral dimension exists for non-human animals, then the real speciesist would be God. After all, what do we make of a being that has decided only 1 species of the billions on earth are morally accountable, so that the human child killer is evil but the lion who kills other lion's cubs has done nothing wrong.

However, a more basic problem for Craig is that values are the result of evaluation process. Moral values of what we prefer to what we judge morally valuable or important. So to say that they imply "independently" of anyone's evaluation, that somethings have unevaluated value, becomes unintelligible. It also lacks any practical application. We may dismiss things right now which may, given other information, we'd value. But we can't go beyond the range of our own awareness to see how unknown information would alter our values. So to unknown values, if they existed, would only be relevant from the moment of their discovery, at which point it would be far less metaphysical extravagant to simply say then made evaluation than to say we discovered an unknown unevaluated value. It is true that given more information, justifications for certain attitudes and behaviors will be exposed as false. It is true that there could be subjective facts. If you burn your finger, the pain you feel won't be merely a matter of opinion even though it is subjective. It is also true, as John Mackie noted, that given specifically specified standards of morality, it will be an objective issue (a matter of true or falsehood) on how well any particular specimen measures up to those standards. Of course, the choice of standards still wont be objective, but nor will it be completely arbitrary because what we value isn't completely random but highly influenced by the kind of creature we are. So we can agree with Craig when he says "most people think there is an objective difference between torturing a child and caring for it...that these are not morally indifferent acts." However, just because we distinguished torture for caring and finding one bad and the other good, doesn't mean we have to agree these behaviors are good or evil independently of what anyone thinks.

Some defend objective values by claiming 'moral values' is a property we detect with a special faculty of moral perception. But notice this is no longer supporting divine existence as the moral argument is claimed to. And only proposing new phenomenon in need of their own independent support, and each has problems. For example, how can it be shown that Q is morally good, they have detected a value of goodness that is part of Q itself rather than making a subjective evaluation that Q is good. We can't appeal to consensus. Agreement of Q still doesn't tell us the goodness is part of Q rather than something we are ascribing. Besides, this particular moral argument is Premise 2 deems agreement irrelevant. Nor can we appeal to innate tendencies even if it can shown to have predisposition to find Q good. That wouldn't show Q has objective goodness, it would only indicate that we predisposed to value Q subjectively. We may value life, but from sliding from "I value to life" to "life has subjective value" makes the same mistake as sliding from "I find slugs revolting" to "slugs are intrinsically revolting." It is falsely projecting our own attitude onto the object of our attitude.

As Mackie notes, wants and demands give rise to the notion of something being objectively good or having intrinsic value by reversing the direction of dependence. So instead of saying our evaluation of a things goodness depend on our desire, our desire for a thing seem to depend on the thing's goodness.

Saying "intuition lets us KNOW what's morally good or bad" also needs to be challenged. The weaker claim that moral intuition is a kind of instinctive judgment can be granted. It is true that instinctive feelings can lead us judge actions immoral without conscious reasoning. For example, empathy leads us quickly to apprehend that the distress of a child being attacked, a moral judgment may arrive in our awareness almost instantly. Our brains process information rapidly, and its easy to see how having protective instincts came to give us an advantage while trying to survive together on a hostile planet. But having useful advantageous instincts isn't evidence that we are accessing objective moral knowledge. We do well to treat our intuition with more caution, they frequently mislead us.

Contrary to appearance, these squares are not moving [1], but we seem hardwired to make a false interpretation. Much of what we discover about ourselves and about the world is counter-intuitive. For example, we tend to care and donate more when charities show us cases of a single rater than a mass suffering. A fascinating article looking into this 'identifiable victim' effect (Slovic, P. 2007. Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 2, no. 2), Paul Slovic notes how we are generally less effected as the number of victims presented to us increases and discusses the unsettling implications it stands on our moral tendencies. Sometimes what one intuitive thinks X to be self-evidently morally bad, another intuitive states X is self-evidently morally neutral. If they both appeal to intuition, this only tells us that they they each 'know' they're right. To make a valid case, they need to do more. This subjective experience of believing a thing to be so obvious is to require no explanation, no self-guaranteeing. This is especially true with morality when people are prone to mistaken feelings for moral knowledge. While intuition may be a source of useful questions, our brains are too error-prone to regard in as a reliable source of objective answers.

Moving to "moral duties," when Craig says that we have "objective moral duties" is to say we have certain moral obligations regardless whether or not we think we do. This is a concept with similar empirical in-conceptual problems. If absolutely no one is aware of a duty to do X, the idea of having such a duty gets us no purchase. Again, there is no problem in saying given better information, justifications based on falsehoods get to be eliminated while new justifications emerge. If the members of society X are genuinely protective of others from a state of mental disorder for demon possession they see as a threat, they may feel a moral duty consistent with these attitudes, may be a duty to destroy their perceived threat. If they outgrow their belief in possession and learn about brain dis-function, they may feel a new duty to care for those with mental disorders. It is not that they discovered a hither or two unknown objective duty to help than rather harm these people, it is given their initially protective attitude, their sense of duty changes in response to change in information. As before, much of the sense of what we ought to do may come initially from instinct rather than conscious reasoning. Again, empathic instincts influence much of our behavior, and it is easy to see how much this instinct would evolve, how natural selection would favor groups of humans whose instinct was to protect each other over individuals who were trying to survive on a hostile planet with no one to protect them. But as before, having advantageous instincts that motivate us to behave or stop behaving in a certain way, isn't evidence of objective duties.

Is or ought

In the 18th century, David Hume objected to the authors of morality should shifted from statements like "is" or "is not" to other connected by "ought " or "ought not" which he said "expressed a new relation." To Hume, it seemed "altogether inconceivable" that all relationships were deducible from "is" ones as "entirely different." This is commonly interpreted to mean: we cannot infer what we morally ought to do from purely factual premises. We can't derive an "ought" from an "is." Further reading gives a different emphasis. Here is what Hume says about willful murder, "The vice entirely escapes you as long as you consider the object. You will never find it until you turn your reflection into your own breast and find a sentiment of disapprobation that derives from you towards this action." Here is a matter of fact: but 'tis the object of feeling, it lies in yourself not in the object. In other words, evil isn't a feature of willful murder but in a judgment arising in sentiment.

When Hume objects from the shift from "is" to "ought" he is criticizing those who mistake their own feelings about things like murder for intrinsic qualities like murder, echoing the for mentioned of error for projecting ones own attitude onto the object of that attitude. Of course, whatever Hume's original meaning, the idea that we can't derive moral "oughts" from factual "is" statements has spawned a great deal of debate in our own time.

Is the so-called "is or ought" problem really a problem? All it is saying is that moral obligations aren't deducible purely from nonmoral facts. And this seems quite true if moral obligations involve emotional elements. I don't like pain, but my dislike of pain isn't arbitrary. I am biologically biased to dislike pain. Indeed, the inverse quality of disliking pain protects us by prompting our retreat from harmful stimuli. Knowing also that I have no valid basis for thinking my comfort is not uniquely important. If I don't want other people to hurt me, then to avoid hypocrisy, this obliges me not to hurt others. This obligation isn't unconditional, it arises largely from biologically influenced preferences.

Some say preferences has no role in our morality. After all, rapists like raping, but we don't say they ought to rape. But of course that is misleading. Morality has never meant doing whatever you prefer no matter who it hurts. Part of morality's essence is considering our impacts upon others. And asking "why rapists shouldn't do what they prefer" completely ignores the preference of the victim. No one is saying ALL preferences are morally relevant, but some are. We have numerous moral prohibitions about inflicting pain, but our dislike of pain ultimately reduces to preference doesn't diminish its relevance. When we dissect any moral obligation, we always find some element of preference, even if it is a preference largely determined by biology.

As Mackie notes, for any argument that supports an evaluated conclusion, whether this conclusion has some action guiding force that is non-contingent of our desires or chosen ends, someway into the input of this argument there will be something that cannot be objectively validated, some premise which is not capable of being simply true, or some form of argument not valid by any logic whose authority or cogency is not objective.

Objective grounding

Craig claims that if God does not exist, there is no ground for objective moral duties because there is no moral lawgiver. The implication being that a lawgiver could provide that ground. But this is false, lawgivers are still subjective beings and their presence doesn't guarantee moral objectivity. Even if a divine lawgiver required certain duties of us, all that would be necessarily true is that it required certain duties of us. It would not follow that the certain duties were therefore objectively good or objectively grounded.

Craig thinks he can achieve objective grounding by making use of Anslem's notion of a "greatest conceivable being.' According to Anslem's ontological argument: one can understand what's meant by 'a greatest conceivable being' such a being can exist at least in thought, but if it existed only in thought one can think of a greater being existing in thought and reality. Therefore, Anslem insists, if one claims to be able to conceive of the greatest being without ascribing to its real existence, one is contradicting oneself, and states the "greatest conceivable being" is one whose NON-existence is inconceivable. Of the well known flaws in this argument, perhaps the most basic, is that even if person A has in her mind a concept of the greatest conceivable being, no logic requires her concept to correspond with reality. As Kant pointed out, "whatever and however much our concept of an object may contain, we must go outside the concept of we're to attribute the object with existence." No ontological argument has establishes that there must be a god, that this god must have an essential nature, or that essential nature must be good. This leaves Craig's claim to objective grounding no more than the unsupported assertion of a god and qualities Craig wants it to have to make his moral case.

We value generosity, compassion and fairness because we experience and appreciate their positive effects. When these are proclaimed "divine qualities", this isn't because anyone has observed these qualities from a god, no god has been established to exist, let alone one whose nature we can study. All what is happening is the qualities already judged independently to have value are being ascribed to an entity declared to exist and be good by definition. If we want to imagine an "idealized being" as a way of developing some basic principles of conduct, the most appropriate model we can relate to is something with human biology.

Rooting morality into a being "beyond our comprehension" only pushes morality beyond our comprehension. It is even worse when what we choose as a model is a god of ancient scripture depicting moral principles we hold being most basic (such as Ez. 9:5-6, God commands "slay the little children without pity.") When we tell ourselves there is an all-powerful entity that can do this, and still be "morally perfect," we create the very conditions that far from leading us to moral truths guarantee a moral confusion. Even if a god created our universe, nothing about the act or power of grand creation requires moral perfection. And even if the universe was created by a god somehow 'intrinsically good' no logic would require the being still to exist. Imagine if such a god existed yesterday but destroyed itself today, would torture suddenly stop being a moral issue? If so, then this god can't have embodied values of enduring relevance. Severing any connection with any objective moral values. If not, we admitting that this god does not need to exist, destroying this moral argument's conclusion for the existence of god. There would be equally overwhelming problems with claiming that "moral values and duties are transcendental in nature, and therefore require a supernatural creator." As soon as we require things to be viewed supernaturally with "goodness" "badness" or "oughtness," as soon as we allow the supernatural feature in any of our explanations, the idea of a single supreme deity becomes just one of countless unknowable untestable concepts, all with their unhooked justifications.

In this case of transcendental values and duties could just as easily be the creation of a group of supernatural experimenters, arbitrarily making things "good" and "bad" as to study the effect on animal behavior. If moral values and duties had to have been created supernaturally, this alone would count against their objective validity. For that matter, any argument for the existence of god (even if they were valid), wouldn't provide a logical pathway to a god of any particular religion or scripture.

In summary

Reviewing the moral argument;

  • P1) If 'God' does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
    • The implication of Premise 1 that the existence and only the existence of one god could grant moral objectivity is not established.
  • P2) Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  • C) Therefore, God exists.
    • Not only do objective values and duties lack necessary support, we have good reason to reject those concepts as incoherent, leaving Premise 2 and therefore the Conclusion undemonstrated. This moral argument does not establish the existence of any god.

The motive for objectifying moral values and duties is understandable, as Mackie notes, we need morality to regulate inter-personal relations. Often against people whose natural inclination, we therefore want our moral judgments to be authoritative, and many think that only objectivity can achieve this authority. In the words of Thomas Nagel, "There is a tendency to seek an objective account for everything before admitting its reality. But often, what appears to be a more subjective point of view cannot be accounted for this way." The common misconception that if morality isn't entirely objective, it is therefore subjective and therefore "only opinion" or "arbitrary" is obscured and hijacked much on this discourse subject. These arguments ("only opinion" and "arbitrary") should ultimately be discarded.

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