Notes From Babel

Archive for the ‘Morality’ Category

For Atheists, Everything Is a Matter of Opinion

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(This post originally appeared at AtheistConnect.)

In the comments to my previous post arguing that atheism cannot account for morality, Nate asks: “[w]hy must there be a transcendental reality” to account for morality? It’s a fair question, though not a novel one.  Philosophical skepticism is at the core of epistemological inquiry concerning the nature and extent of human knowledge.  In his Meditations, Rene Descartes asked this question not just about morality, but about the entire scope of what we purport to know.  In his famous thought experiment, Descartes plunged himself into universal doubt, acknowledging the possibility that our minds were being manipulated by an “evil genius” to falsely believe in the reality of an external world around us.  The first step to resolve that doubt was to realize that the very exercise itself confirmed the existence of a being engaged in the act of doubting—an argument Descartes articulated as cogito ergo sum.  Having authenticated his own existence as a thinking being, Descartes path from doubt, very crudely summarized, proceeded by presenting an a priori argument for the existence of God, and then arguing that because God is not a deceiver, those things we “clearly and distinctly perceive” must be true.  Other than the cogito, many philosophers disagree with Descartes’ arguments.  But the problem for us today is the same as it was for Descartes as he sat in his study mired in universal doubt:  Since empirical reality is subject to doubt, then in the absence of a touchstone that transcends that reality, how can we lay claim to any knowledge about the world?  If we reject Descartes’ path from universal doubt, perhaps we have to be satisfied with the possibility that our brains might actually be in a vat somewhere being manipulated by Descartes’ evil genius, or in some other equivalent of the “matrix.”  But let’s move on.

Another significant blow to empiricist epistemology was dealt by atheist philosopher David Hume.  Hume, fond of explaining philosophical principles by making reference to billiard balls, observed that while he consistently observed that certain behavior occurred when one billiard ball struck another, he never observed anything that could properly be described as “causation.”  Causation, Hume argued, is an abstract relationship that has no extension in empirical reality.  All that we can perceive, according to Hume, is a “constant conjunction” between certain events and certain effects; constant conjunction, however, is not the same thing as causation.  For example, the moon comes out when the sun goes down; yet, the moon does not come out because the sun goes down.  Thus, while he could not help that his mind believed there exists causal relationships between the billiard balls, and while his mind further drew predictions about the expected effects of those purported causal relationships, Hume acknowledged that he could not give a reasoned account of the relationship or his predictions.  That is, because we cannot perceive causation, maintaining belief in causation in a purely empirical worldview is philosophically arbitrary.

Hume came to the same conclusion with respect to induction.  We might gain information by studying information perceived in the world.  However, once we purport to make claims about the future based on that information, we are no longer making purely empirical claims.  Instead, we have inserted a transcendental premise into our argumentation, namely, that the future will resemble the past.  Because we have no empirical data about the future, such claims are unjustified and arbitrary as a matter of empiricist philosophy.

Thus, Hume demonstrated that, with respect to fundamental tools of science—causation and induction—we have not escaped the basic Cartesian dilemma presented in a purely materialistic worldview:  Without a touchstone that transcends experience that permits us to bridge the world of abstract ideas to the physical world, all our claims about the world are wholly arbitrary.

With that in mind, atheism’s problem of morality is easily demonstrated:  In a purely empirical, materialistic worldview, there is no basis upon which we make claims that acts have moral value.  In fact, the existence of “moral value” cannot be proven empirically in the first place.  We do not have any empirical data about moral claims.  Indeed, what might moral value smell like?  How much does it weigh?  Nate claims that “Human life should be precious just because it’s human life. There doesn’t have to be more reason than that.”  This claim is the definition of chutzpah:  atheists, such as those on AtheistConnect, belligerently rail against religion by alleging it offends human reason by making moral commandments by fiat.  I disagree with that claim, of course, but Nate has here offended atheism’s raison d’être:  he has asserted a moral commandment by fiat.  Worse still, by his own fiat, it would appear.

For my part, I do believe human life is precious because I believe all life is created by God, and because I believe that, having been created in God’s image, I have a moral nature that reflects His values and instills in me a proper respect for human life.  My moral worldview is held together by these sorts of transcendental claims about the very nature of humanity, and thus allows me to make intelligible claims about what sorts of obligations are universally imposed on all human beings.  In a purely materialistic worldview, however, it is impossible to make intelligible claims about morality.  In such a worldview, the only sorts of moral claims possible are “I” statements:  “I believe slaying a child is wrong.”  “I believe slavery is wrong.”  “I believe genocide is wrong.”  Like Hume’s beliefs about the relationships between billiard balls or predictions about the future, these statements are mere matters of unfounded opinion.  In the absence of some claims about the transcendental nature of humanity, purporting to hold “moral” beliefs is philosophically arbitrary.


Written by Tim Kowal

March 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Atheism Cannot Account for Objective Morality

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(This post originally appeared at AtheistConnect.)

AtheistConnect published several posts recently concerning the question whether it is necessary to posit the existence of God to provide a cogent account for objective morality.  For the reasons briefly stated below, among others, I argue the affirmative:  God is necessary to provide an account of objective morality and, accordingly, atheism necessarily cannot provide such an account.

First, consider the argument made in this article referenced in Nate’s post:

Even if we accept that it’s true that there is no point in being moral if there is no God, this wouldn’t be an argument against atheism in the sense of showing that atheism isn’t true, rational, or justified. It wouldn’t provide any reason to think that theism generally or Christianity in particular is likely true. It is logically possible that there is no God and that we have no good reasons to behave morally.

The suggestion that “It is logically possible that there is no God and that we have no good reasons to behave morally” is a worthless statement.  Man is the sort of being that has both a moral intuition, and a rational faculty that demands an account be given for his beliefs—including his moral intuition.  These are non-negotiable preconditions with which all persons approach the world, and for which an epistemological and moral framework of the world must give an account.  Atheists’ response to the problem of morality, however, is either to deny man’s moral intuition (e.g., by positing “morality” is nothing more than the calculated pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain), or to deny the need for a rational account of that moral intuition (e.g., by arbitrarily replacing religious morality disfavored by atheists, and replacing it with secular humanist morality).  Thus, although atheists claim to reject transcendental reasoning, they fail to give anything resembling a cogent, rational account for man’s moral intuition in its place.

Worse, atheists often purport to take advantage of the gaps in their own reasoning by arguing that theists are clearly wrong to suggest that atheism implicitly rejects objective morality, and thus cannot establish a basis for mounting moral condemnation of, for example, the Holocaust or 9/11.  To the contrary, the argument goes, atheists do acknowledge objective morality, and even behave morally, generally speaking.  But this is misdirection.  In fact, the theist’s fallacy in making this argument is to assume that atheists comport themselves consistently with their proffered worldview when, in reality, they do not.  The theist’s unsound argument thus runs as follows:

  1. Since having rejected the existence of God, atheism has not provided a suitable alternative account for objective morality.
  2. Intellectual consistency requires rejecting that for which no suitable account has been provided.
  3. Atheists comport themselves consistently with their proffered worldview.
  4. Thus, atheists reject objective morality.

Of course, the reason this argument fails is because premise (3) is false:  atheists either are intellectually dishonest, or they simply don’t understand that their worldview cannot account for objective morality.  Again, one might say “I don’t believe in God” as a glib expression of one’s anti-authoritarianism and wide-eyed skepticism, but it actually means something very severe—particularly if it also means “I do not believe in anything that transcends empirical phenomena.”  This is a profound claim that tears down important metaphysical underpinnings of one’s view of the world, including the intellectual framework necessary to account for objective morality.  If the maker of such a statement has any interest in talking seriously about such ideas, he will have to posit an alternative theory of reality that can account for them.

But nothing like this has come forth from atheism’s ranks.  The drab statement quoted above about “logical possibilities” concerning God and morality is effectively the sum and substance of all atheism has to say about objective morality.  In discussions of moral philosophy, then, atheism is, at best, intellectually irrelevant.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 21, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Multiculturalism and the moral order

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This story reminds that there is a great potential friendship between conservatives and Muslims when it comes to instilling positive values in our children, and resisting the trend to secularism.  Here’s an excerpt, though I recommend reading the whole piece:

Then I looked across the school playground and saw a Muslim mother, the mother of my daughter’s best friend, holding her headscarf in place with her hands as the wind blew about restlessly. I caught her eye for a moment and we smiled at each other. Before this moment, I had never thought that my situation in any shape or form was similar to that of a Muslim mother. And I had never thought seriously about talking to a Muslim mother about issues of faith or raising children in our community. But now I was beginning to reconsider. Perhaps our Muslim fellow citizens, especially those who are spiritually and intellectually confident in their ways of life, can challenge and inspire us to reflect more deeply on our own faith and morality, and perhaps in the process we might discover that we share some of the same moral principles and hopes and dreams for our children.

We always hear so much about the things that separate Muslims from Christians (and no doubt there are things that do separate us), and often these differences are expressed in negative and prejudiced ways. I wonder if our misunderstandings and misconceptions prevent some of us from trusting and forming spiritual bonds and friendships with those who are confronting some of the very same challenges that we confront. I live in a community where many of my moral views about sexuality, marriage, and the family are in the minority. Sometimes they are challenged (respectfully and disrespectfully), and every now and again someone agrees with them, but often they are simply dismissed. Like my daughter, I’m comforted to know that there is someone else with whom I share similar experiences (and perhaps a moral view or two).

There is, perhaps, a different brand of multiculturalism that underscores rather than undermines the moral order.  It’s a shame that many conservatives have written off American Muslims because of disagreements on certain narrow political or foreign policy views, when we really have so much to agree on.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 18, 2011 at 12:58 am

The Place of Values in Politics

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FLG shared this interesting piece today by Stanley Fish at the NY Times, lamenting the widespread practice of parrying political criticism with tu quoque defenses:

I want to say that this is a bad move (and a cheap trick) because it deflects attention from the substantive claims being made and puts the spotlight instead on propositional consistency. The better move (by either party) would have been to insist that Obama or Bush was in fact those things and to back up the assertion with the marshaling of evidence. The better move, in short, would have been to take a stand on truth rather than shifting the focus to a calculation of reciprocal fairness. What gives someone the high moral ground is that he or she is right, not that he or she is fair.

I think I agree, though I hesitate to downplay the value of consistency.  That’s a noble moral quality, too, is it not?  But Fish is right that we oughtn’t engage in “cheap tricks” and technicalities to skirt real, substantive objections against our guy, even if they did it when we lodged real, substantive objections against their guy.

Fish goes on with some deeper insights about the modern political soul:

The solution? Remove beliefs from the political agenda — we’re not going to vote on them or distribute goods on their basis — and come up with a formula for keeping them at bay while respecting the rights of citizens to have them. . . . And how do you do that? By making it a requirement that laws neither reflect the ideological view point of one party nor marginalize and/or stigmatize the ideological viewpoint of some other party. Only pass laws to which persons of any viewpoint could assent: “No one can put anyone else under a legal obligation without submitting simultaneously to a law which requires that he can himself be put under the same kind of obligation by the other person.” This seems admirable, but what it means is that moral judgment is forever deferred and made subordinate to the supposedly greater good of allowing all viewpoints to flourish. (Why that is the greater good I have never been able to understand.)

What was perhaps merely a political expedient—i.e., emptying the moral content of certain topics to make them less politically unwieldy—has disrupted the integrity of our underlying political makeup.  We are, first and foremost, a virtuous people that recognizes certain universal moral precepts; that recognizes this is a world of values, and that laws are designed to assist that people navigate that world of values as that people embarks on its political enterprise together.  At one point in American political history, we led bifurcated lives in which, concerning matters of law, we were obligated to pretend at moral agnosticism; in other matters, conversely, we were obligated to ascertain good and evil, and to praise the former and denounce the latter.  But the triumph of secularism has been to take that narrow realm of legalistic agnosticism and turn it into the rule that governs all aspects of modern life.  The expression of moral values is resigned solely to the narrow domain of home life—and even there it’s not safe.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 15, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Morality without God?

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Kyle Cupp rejects the idea that God is a necessary precondition for morality, offering three arguments:

[W]hile people disagree about moral norms and principles, most people have some moral presuppositions in which their deliberations are grounded. These presuppositions may be religious, but they don’t have to be. A belief in Jesus may motivate one volunteer at a soup kitchen, while the very presence of someone who is hungry may motivate another. A theist may avoid murder because it violates God’s commandment, while an atheist may avoid murder because of the loss and misery it delivers. The consequences of human action alone provide reason for not permitting everything.

Cupp’s second argument is related to the first:

[E]ven if God exists and has written the moral law, the believer still acts based on the presupposition that the consequences of obeying the moral law are better than and preferable to the consequences of violating it. In doing so, the believer and the unbeliever share basically the same presupposition.

These arguments are really just different ways of suggesting that bad acts lead to bad consequences, and thus we don’t need a separate concept of “morality” to tell us not to do bad things (or, conversely to tell us to do good things).  Whatever the merits of Cupp’s argument, it is not an argument about whether we can have an objective, universal morality without God.  Focusing on consequences only helps us avoid things we happen to find personally unpleasant.  It does not tell us anything about the relationship between unpleasantness and badness as a moral concept.

However, Cupp presents a third argument that is a bit more complicated to explain and thus to refute:

Third, while the absence of a divine lawmaker would leave humanity without a divine moral law, humanity would still have ground on which to build an objective morality. Unless it is held that God composed the moral law arbitrarily, then the moral law is something that makes sense given the way of the world. There’s a difference between killing a flea and killing a person not merely because God says so, but because there are significant differences, physical and metaphysical, between an insect and a person. Therefore, even if it were left to men and women to write moral laws, they are not thereby doomed to write arbitrarily, without rhyme or reason. Moral reflection can look to insights about the physical and metaphysical as a sailor would look to a guiding star.

In other words, the argument suggests that because God, even if he does exist, is not arbitrary, then his handing down a moral code is not the same thing as saying we depend on God for the existence of morality in the first place.  While God did us a favor distilling the moral law in the Ten Commandments, the moral law exists whether or not God does.  Thus, the trick in a godless universe is not deciding whether there is a moral law at all, but discerning what it is.

This is a sophisticated argument, but I think it ultimately unravels into arbitrariness.  If we assume, as Cupp does, that there is a transcendental reality, man’s inquisitive nature demands there be some account of its nature other than arbitrarily picking out certain of its characteristics.  Beyond the empirically observable world, what truths can we purport to know?  Certainly, we depend on such truths to make sense of our observable reality.  For example, to make any predictions about the world, we have to assume, as a transcendental fact about the world, that the future will resemble the past. Without this profoundly non-empirical claim, science cannot do any work.  Similarly, causation, induction, grammar, numbers, categories, political obligations, and so on, are all non-empirical claims that are nonetheless necessary for a meaningful understanding about the world.

But it is dismally unsatisfying to simply posit them without explanation.  Thus, while I applaud Cupp for acknowledging the existence of an objective morality, I reject his invitation to proceed with intellectual inquiry without demanding any rigor in accounting for these important transcendental truths. To suggest, for example, that we do not need any explanation for why there is a morality in the first place, or why we are the sort of creatures that recognize it and are impelled to follow it, is no answer to the argument that we do.  The existence of God, and more specifically the Christian account of God, man, morality, sin, and salvation, begin to provide such a construct for these transcendental realities.  Regardless of whether that construct is persuasive, it cannot be seriously doubted that it is a more rigorous account than the shopping cart account, which is all atheism can offer.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 13, 2011 at 12:02 pm

A quiz for conservatives on San Francisco’s proposed ban on infant circumcision

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The San Francisco Examiner reports:

[C]ome November, it sounds like voters will have the opportunity to jump on the ban wagon by deciding whether to ban male circumcision.

San Francisco resident Lloyd Schofield said Thursday he is “on track” to have enough  signatures to place his proposed measure on the November ballot that would make it illegal to “circumcise, excise, cut or mutilate the foreskin, testicle or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18.”

This presents a good exercise for social conservatives:  If you support morals legislation (e.g., suicide, euthanasia, drug use, animal cruelty, bestiality, prostitution, sodomy, homosexuality, polygamy, adult incest, public nudity, profanity, stem cell research, human cloning, and so on), what sorts of arguments might you employ to oppose the forthcoming San Francisco initiative to outlaw infant circumcision?  Arguments based on personal privacy might not work if you support prohibitions on prostitution and incest.  Arguments based on religious freedom might not work if you support prohibitions on polygamy and drug use (e.g., peyote).  Arguments based on parental rights might not work if you support bans on stem cell research and human cloning. 

So, how do you oppose the ballot initiative on infant circumcision? 

Written by Tim Kowal

February 25, 2011 at 2:13 am

The Constitution presupposes Natural Law, which in turn presupposes God

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Apologies for reposting this John Adams quote from American Creation, but I’m tucking it away as part of my research on constitutional presuppositionalism:

"To him to believes in the Existence and Attributes physical and moral of a God, there can be no obscurity or perplexity in defining the Law of Nature to be his wise benign and all power Will, discovered by Reason.  A Man who disbelieves the Being of a God, will have no perplexity in defining Morality or the Law of Nature, natural law, natural Right or any such Things to be mere Maxims of Convenience, to be Swifts pair of Breeches to be put on upon occasion for Decency or Conveniency and to be put off at pleasure for either."

Letter to Thomas Boylston Adams, March 19, 1794, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, edited by James H. Hutson (Princeton:  2005), pg. 132.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 12, 2011 at 6:38 pm