Posted by: Ken Brown | April 4, 2009

The Problems of Evil

In response to my post on evil and the fairness of God, Timothy Mills offered a few friendly but probing questions from an atheistic (Humanist) perspective than I wanted to highlight and interact with here. In particular, he noted:

I wouldn’t say that evil is only a problem for theism. But it does present special problems for theistic viewpoints that it does not for non-theistic viewpoints.

There are ample hypotheses that present plausible means by which we might have acquired our moral sense through natural selection. So I would say that atheists have access to “origin of morality” explanations just as theists do. I find explanations based on a creator god to be flat and unsatisfying; many theists find evolutionary explanations of our morality to be similarly unsatisfying. As you say, neither approach is likely to provide a full and certain answer in this life. We must each decide for ourselves which uncertainties we are more comfortable with.

I actually agree with almost everything he says here, but I think he is only getting at half the problem. There are actually two types of questions when it comes to morality and evil: origins and obligations. That is, we have to explain both where evil came from, and why we are obligated to shun it even when that is not in our best interests. Bill Vallicella gets at this in a recent post, noting that logically speaking, whether a person can be “good” (by any particular definition) and whether they are obligated to conform to a particular definition of “good” are completely separate questions. When we see this, it becomes apparent that while atheists may have an easier time explaining the origins of evil and morality, theists have an easier time explaining our ongoing moral obligations.

When it comes to the origins of morality, there are unanswered questions for the atheist–for instance, how natural selection might have led us to value any particular trait that we value–but there is no good reason to think that such questions are, in principle, unanswerable. In fact, there isn’t even any reason why a theist could not accept such explanations, which are indeed less “flat” than, “God made us that way,” however true the latter may be. In short, this kind of approach is more at home in an atheistic worldview than a theistic one, even if its conclusions can be accepted by theists as well. More importantly, since evolution produces both good and evil, there is no mystery for the atheist about why our world is full of both, whereas the theist is forced to appeal to all manner of supplementary hypotheses to explain how we got from a perfect creator to a less than perfect creation. Though, obviously, I don’t think this problem is insurmountable, it is clear that theists have have the more difficult time with the origins of evil.

When it comes to moral obligations, however, the unanswered questions for the theists–i.e. how can we know God’s will–are essentially practical rather than logical, and not in principle unanswerable. That is to say, theists can be sure that there is a right answer to any particular moral question, even if we disagree on what it is (the same problem faced by any other area of human knowledge). But if the atheists are right that human beings are themselves the highest and only authority–and, obviously, humans disagree!–that leaves substantial logical problems to solve. After all, if our moral sense is merely the result of some natural process which is not itself moral, then while it may sometimes be useful to us, it is far from clear that we are under any obligation to follow its dictates when they are not. Here the fact that evolution’s gifts are a mixed bag–it has given us selfishness along with altruism, smallpox along with sentience–works against the atheist. For if we have no particular reason to accept the results of evolution in any other area, why morality?

The difficult question for atheists, then, is not how we came to believe that certain things are right or wrong in the first place, but why any individual should feel obligated to maintain those beliefs when they run counter to their own interests. Moreover, how do we justify rejecting some people’s moral viewpoints (e.g. those of racists or sociopaths), which are just as much a result of evolution as everything else? We, as individuals or societies, might choose to be “good” (and, obviously, many atheists do), but that still leaves the serious problem of explaining how we get from the “is” (evolution has trained some of us to think certain things are right and wrong) to the “ought” (every one of us must accept those views). It is one thing for an atheist to say that I choose to live according to such-and-such moral code (say, “killing infants is wrong”), but it is far more difficult for an atheist to justify the claim that they or anyone else is obligated to accept that, for where does that obligation come from, if not evolution? Of course, atheists do not think this problem is insurmountable any more than theists think the origin of evil is, but once again, the problem is not trivial, and is much more pressing for the atheist than for the theist.

Thus, while it is not really true that theists and atheists are in the same boat, evil is a problem for all of us. Theists have to explain where evil came from, and atheists have to explain why our own perceptions of what is evil amount to more than personal preference. The ironic thing, though, is that both sides quite often draw stock from the other’s viewpoint, even while arguing against it. On the one hand, theists commonly appeal to nature to justify their own moral claims (just think of the “it’s not natural” objection to gay rights), even while denying atheists the right to make the same move. On the other hand, atheists commonly treat evil as an absolute and universally recognizable thing (i.e. when they attack the religious or their views of God as perpetuating evil), while denying that good and evil are anything more than human constructs. For theists and atheists alike, then, what we unconsciously recognize and rely upon, and what we consciously believe and defend, are often at odds, which is no small part of why these debates remain endlessly controversial.


Responses

  1. Nice post Ken. I think you’ve presented the issue in a very balanced and helpful manner.

  2. Yes, thankyou again Ken.

    I agree that all we get from evolution is a description of where our moral preferences may have come from. It does not tell us which parts of our natural impulses we “ought” to follow in any particular instance.

    However, I don’t see that it is easier for a theist to justify the obligation – the “ought” – than it is for an atheist. On what do you base this?

  3. Thanks Ryan.

    Timothy,
    That could be a long debate, but the short answer is:
    If atheism is true, then every “ought” must be based on an “is,” whereas if theism is true then every “is” is already based on an “ought.” That is to say, with theism morality is ultimate and all else is derivative, whereas with atheism ultimate reality is amoral, and all morality must (somehow) be derived from it.

  4. Maybe an evolutionists can see the “is” as the “ought” because the “is” helps us survive as a species. When we care for each other, we’re not killing each other off.

  5. But if survival is your only measure of good and evil, then who is to say killing off rival groups isn’t good, so long as it helps you survive? After all, why should “the species” take precedent over the individual (or vice versa)? Says who?

  6. You are quite right in your post, Ken, saying that there are two types of questions bearing on the problem of evil: that of origins, and that of obligations. David Hume – a skeptical philosopher admired by many modern humanists – long ago demonstrated that “ought” statements cannot be logically derived from “is” statements.

    So I disagree, Ken, that an atheist must base every “ought” on an “is”. Statements of fact can inform how we apply our moral principles, but they cannot generate those principles in the first place.

    Equivalently, the (dictionary) basis of theism is equally amoral: it is simply a belief in the existence of a (personal) god. While most believers connect the existence of their god with various normative statements regarding their god’s morality and commandments, the two are logically separate.

    If we are products of evolution, this fact does not oblige us to behave according to one or another pattern of survival-motivated behaviour. Similarly, if we are creations of a personal being, this does not oblige us to look to that being for our moral compass. (See, for example, the tragedy of Frankenstein’s “monster”.)

    So let me paraphrase my previous question: how is it easier for a theist to justify the obligation – the “ought” – than it is for an atheist?

    It seems to me that we both, having arrived at our different beliefs about human origins and the nature of the physical universe, face the same burden of choosing and defending moral precepts.

    And, to come back to the original point, this means that as far as the problem of evil goes, theists have more work to do, because in addition to the above, they need to justify their god’s inaction in the face of natural disasters.

    (Again, this is clearly not a terminal blow to the theistic position. Just an interesting point.)

  7. Timothy brings up a good point: What exactly about the existence of God makes goodness an ought? Is it that he’s a super-cop? Would good then be less good if he weren’t around to enforce it? That gets back to what Socrates asked: Is something good because the gods say so, or do the gods say something is good because it is good?

    To address your question, Ken, I suppose I can become concerned only about my own survival, but what would that get me? Would I be able to trust anyone? And if everyone is only out for himself, is anyone safe?

  8. Timothy and James,

    Thanks for continuing the conversation. The following is a bit long, but please take it in the same friendly spirit as the rest of what we have said:

    The difficulty in deriving an “ought” from an “is” is precisely the logical problem I was implying that atheists face. I happen to think it is impossible (and you apparently agree, though not everyone does; I’ve got a good intro to moral philosophy on my shelf that attempts to do just that, via social contract theory–it fails miserably, if you ask me). Anyway, we seem to agree that values can be informed by facts, but they can never derive from them, and that is just where theism and atheism differ, as I see it:

    It seems we are agreed that atheism must accept that ultimate reality is amoral: the “facts” are all there is, and any values (if they exist) are secondary. But if that is so, how can there be any objective obligations at all? To be sure, there might be relative or provisional “oughts.” For instance, we might want a “just” society (by some self-imposed definition of justice), and if so, the facts will dictate that certain actions tend to support such a society. Such actions thus would become “obligations” for us, not because of the bare facts but only because of the value we hold (“justice,” by our definition). But note that this has only moved the bar back one step; it has not explained where the ought comes from in the first place. There is no ultimate reason why a “just” society is itself an obligation, though there many be a great many private and personal reasons. The point is this: if ultimate reality is amoral, then the only “oughts” are the ones we choose for ourselves (as individuals and societies), and so, ultimately, relative.

    But is theism also amoral? You claim that it is by appealing to a generic definition of theism (and I suppose by my choice of terms I left myself open to that), but I am not defending theism in general, but ethical monotheism, the claim that all that exists depends on the will of the only eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent God (i.e. “that than which no greater can be conceived”). Of course, unless you accept the ontological argument (which I find interesting but suspicious), there is no way to prove that such a being actually exists, but if it does ultimate reality is not amoral at all. Since everything that exists depends entirely upon the only all-good God, that means that all “facts” are based on God’s “oughts” (or, derivatively, on the lesser, relative and self-imposed “oughts” of God’s creations like us, assuming they/we are autonomous). If that is so, then there are no value neutral facts–everything that exists is either in conformity to the values they were designed for, or they are not.

    As James noted, however, that still leaves the Euthyphro Dilemma. I’ve addressed one aspect of it in this post, and at some point I’ll try to do so more carefully (there I mostly deal with the side issue of moral absolutism vs. moral objectivity, rather than the central issue pressed by the dilemma), but I’m not convinced that the matter needs to be resolved for the present discussion. You see, if ethical monotheism is correct, then it is in the definition of God that his character is perfectly good, thus even if the Euthyphro dilemma works, it remains purely hypothetical, for there is no case where the good differs from God’s will (even if there could be). Thus, if ethical monotheism is true, ultimate reality is not amoral, so the apparent impossibility of deriving an “ought” from an “is” does not apply.

    Of course, Timothy is right that practically speaking that still leaves theists with the very same problem that atheists face: how to we recognize and work towards the good? I.e. even if “good” does, by definition, correspond to God’s character, we have no direct access to God’s character. Quite so, but the only way we can discuss morality at all is if we assume that certain values are objective, and whereas the ethical monotheist can assume just that, the atheist cannot, for there is no authority higher than human beings, and human beings certainly does not agree.

  9. if ultimate reality is amoral, then the only “oughts” are the ones we choose for ourselves (as individuals and societies), and so, ultimately, relative

    Quite right! However, this poses no problem whatsoever. That is, there is no ‘problem of evil’ that derives from the fact that particular morals depend on particular circumstances. ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ are arbitrary whims. No logical problem.

    Of course, good and evil are also matters of great existential concern, within particular contingent circumstances. That is, as arbitrary as any moral position is, when we are concerned – due to our subjective positions, our particular histories, our given communities, our contingent relationships – about these moral positions, we tend to argue strongly about them. On what basis? On the basis of our contingent and relative concerns. That’s all. And again – no problem.

    The only ‘problem’ is when a theist (or even an a-theist), in addition to this, assumes that morality must have some ‘objective’ basis in reality. But if one admits that this is factually nonsense, there is no problem.

    The only ‘problem’ about relativistic or subjective morality is in the heads of some theists, who can’t accept its reality.

  10. Ken, I feel that we have hit the centre of what we disagree on. You insist that “the only way we can discuss morality at all is if we assume that certain values are objective.” It seems to me that you would like to treat values as having an independent existence in the universe, in the same way that atoms and bloggers and galaxies have. I am far from convinced that this is so.

    As far as I have been able to make out, morals are ultimately, at their root, a matter of personal choice. We choose what is most important. Thanks to our common evolutionary background as a social species, we overwhelmingly tend to make similar choices about the obvious moral questions (such as murder and theft).

    I know that this is a troubling perspective if you’re coming from a tradition where morals are thought of as existing “out there”, independent of us. Truly, this is one of the most trying existential problems that faces the atheist (or rather, the secular humanist who sees morality the same way I do). But I have yet to see any remotely convincing argument that establishes morals as anything else.

    So this is what we’re left with (as I see it).

    You insist on objective morals, based on your belief that ultimate reality – your god – contains both “is” and “ought”. Under that view, someone like me who does not accept the existence of such an ultimate reality has to separately resolve the “is” (what is the nature of the physical universe) and the “ought” (what is the basis of morality).

    I insist that morals are a personal choice, and thus a completely different sort of thing from questions of what exists and what does not exist. Under this view, we all have the twin tasks before us of understanding the physical world and choosing a moral path; ethical monotheists simply conflate the two, without realizing that what “is” and what “ought” are two irreconcilably different kinds of entities.

    I’m sure I have oversimplified both our views in this summary, but I think it captures the key difference: what kind of thing is an ethical statement?

    I fear that this may be our impasse, but I’m happy to probe further if you think I’ve missed something.

  11. As far as I have been able to make out, morals are ultimately, at their root, a matter of personal choice. We choose what is most important. Thanks to our common evolutionary background as a social species, we overwhelmingly tend to make similar choices about the obvious moral questions (such as murder and theft).

    Good explanation, Timothy! And very fair.

    When theists, or rather ethical objectivists, contend that there is some ‘problem’ with ethical relativism or subjectivism, it does seem to be a result of them not being able to deal with the non-objectivity of morals. That is, it is a shortcoming of the ethical objectivist. The system of ethical relativism itself remains robust and unchallenged.

  12. N.T. Wrong (welcome back!) and Timothy,

    I think we are indeed approaching the crux of the issue. The difference between our views, as I see it, is not whether morals exist “out there” or not, but whether they are obligatory. What I mean is: while it is surely true that “our subjective positions, our particular histories, our given communities, our contingent relationships” etc. are what drive us to consider certain moral issues pressing (or not), we do not treat these issues as though they were merely personal taste, nor can we. When we make a moral claim (such as “racism is wrong”) we are not making a claim about ourselves alone (“I should not be a racist”) but about everyone (“no one should be a racist”). Regardless of how we come to believe this, or even whether we are correct to believe it, we are in fact claiming an objective status for our own view (which is not, after all, universally accepted).

    The key point is this: does a moral claim only say something about the one saying it, or about the one referred to? That is, if I say: “racism is wrong.” Am I saying something about myself (it violates my values to hate people of other races), or am I saying something about everyone (people of all races are, in themselves, worthy of the same respect–whether or not anyone recognizes it)? A moral objectivist can say both, whereas a relativist seems restricted to saying only the former. Yet I don’t think anyone actually makes moral claims as though they referred only to themselves.

    A side issue, which was the one addressed in the post linked in my last comment, is the circumstantial nature of morality, and here I think we actually agree. Moral objectivity does not mean claiming that there is some list of rules (“out there”) that are universally applicable, but rather that any moral question is, in principle, resolvable. I happen to think that such only makes sense if ultimate reality is itself personal and moral, but that is a debate for another day.

  13. Hi Ken,

    I disagree – the dividing issue doesn’t concern whether morals are ‘obligatory’. For, morals are by definition obligatory: if some action is described as ‘moral’ or immoral, it is by definition ‘obligatory’. Also, morals are by definition applicable to more than one person. Morals are creatures of societies, not of individuals, although individuals internalize society’s morals and make them their own. I think it’s quite possible to make non-universal ethical principles, so I disagree with you that morals must be ‘universal’ across all humanity. But a moral principle must at least be applicable to everybody categorized as having the same relevant features in a particular group.

    The difference between us, instead, concerns whether this moral obligation stems from some ‘objective’ thing, or instead only stems from a subjectively formed community morality or obligation. I say: it rests on that subjectively adopted obligation, and that’s all. There is no further basis for any morality. So when you conclude, “we are in fact claiming an objective status for our own view”, I not only disagree, but in my disagreement that I don’t claim any such thing, I am an exception to your statement which demonstrates its error. I may well want to apply some of my morals to some other people, but I do so on a quite contingent basis. My morals are better for certain purposes or aims. They have no ‘objective’ status in any proper sense of the word.

    Your question (“does a moral claim only say something about the one saying it, or about the one referred to?”) reveals your own assumption of moral objectivity, that I, as an ethical reativist, do not share. I would answer that a moral claim says nothing about the one referred to in reality. It is merely an expression of subjective opinion. It is like “merely personal taste”, although it is personal taste which is shared in some degree by other members of one’s various societies and considered to be normative for at least that group. This makes it like one’s personal taste for ice-cream insofar as it is subjective, but unlike one’s personal taste for ice-cream in that it is one which we would wish to be normative for at least some other people. In respect of ice-cream, I don’t try to make other people like raspberry ripple. But for a moral taste, I might sometimes try to convince them that having such a subjective taste provides certain societal benefits. But, the moral standard remains subjective.

    So if I say “racism is wrong”, I want to convince everybody in my society that racism is morally bad. As I said, the mere making of a moral claim, by definition, implies the application of one’s subjective opinion to others. That is, the expression of one’s subjective opinion as moral principle necessarily implies its normative application to others. What “restriction” is on me when I make this claim? None. If asked why, I can subjectively defend my position. Perhaps I’d point out that racism provides friction and trouble in society. Perhaps I’d point out that people aren’t in reality that different, so it is incorrect to treat them that way. I could probably list many more reasons to try and convince you to share my subjective opinion. In the end, though, these reasons have no further ground that common agreement in society.

    Objective morality can be posited to exist ‘out there’ as some sort of weird entity, or it can be posited as existing in an absolute and even personal being. Either way, they are ‘objective’. But morality is quite explicable and understandable without such an explanation. Moreover, the positing of ‘objective morality’ tends to result in its own problems…

    Even though morality is subjective, we are quite able to feel strongly about issues we classify as ‘moral’ issues, because of the relationships we are involved in in our communities. Morality is not only grounded in subjectivity, but it is fuelled and driven by our inter-subjective relationships. That’s what, in the end, makes us so passionate in advocating one ethical position over another. That won’t change if you realize that morals are obligated by no more than one’s subjective opinions.

  14. N.T. Wrong,
    I’m a bit confused. You say I am wrong to claim that “obligation” is what separates our views, but then go on to say that “The difference between us, instead, concerns whether this moral obligation stems from some ‘objective’ thing, or instead only stems from a subjectively formed community morality or obligation. I say: it rests on that subjectively adopted obligation, and that’s all.”

    Yet I think that was my point! Relativism insists that all morality is socially constructed (any “obligations” are self-imposed); objectivism insists that while all moral positions are socially constrained, they are always (even if only implicitly) claimed to be binding whether recognized or not. The question then, is which of these options actually corresponds to how we treat moral claims?

    You claim that when you say “racism is wrong” you mean only that “I want to convince everybody in my society that racism is morally bad,” but what do you mean by “morally bad” (and for that matter, what do you mean by “my society”)? Not merely that you don’t like it, but that “everyone in [your] society” should not like it. You can call this subjective if you wish, but that is not how you are treating it, for you are implicitly claiming that the subjective opinions of others (the racists “in your society”) are wrong.

    And indeed, you go on to say that “the expression of one’s subjective opinion as moral principle necessarily implies its normative application to others.” But “normative” is just a synonym for “objective,” and accordingly, the “subjective” reasons you give for this position are themselves objective: “racism provides friction and trouble in society… people aren’t in reality that different, so it is incorrect to treat them that way.” These are not claims about you at all, but about how things actually are, which are true whether the person you are trying to convince accepts them or not. That is, “racism provides friction” is true (or false) whether anyone recognizes it or not; “people aren’t in reality that different” is true (or false) regardless of whether you or I or anyone else accepts it.

    And that is the whole point of objectivism, that however subjectively motivated we may be in our moral positions (and we are!), when pressed to defend them we all turn to objective facts, and we cannot do otherwise. After all, no one would be convinced if we said only: “racism is wrong because I feel that it is wrong,” or “racism is wrong because most people in my society say it is wrong.”

    There is also the problem of defining one’s “society,” but it’s late (in my time zone!) so I’ll leave that alone for now.

    Cheers!

  15. Another long response – sorry.

    Calling your morality absolute and objective has historically been a successful way of getting other people to consent to it. It’s a convenient rhetorical shortcut. But, as the shifting moral codes of history (human history, Christian history, etc) suggest, every code claimed as absolute winds up being shrugged off by later observers as culturally-specific.

    So you need to do more than assert your particular code (or even the unknowable code of your ineffable god) as an absolute, external “fact”. Before you can legitimately do that, you need to give some reason why it is reasonable to think of morals as external facts, rather than internal (though often shared) choices.

    I understand your reluctance to see morality this way. It would make things seem much less certain, much less tractable. But the history and philosophy of ethics really do seem to suggest that morality is a subjective thing. People tend to set up their own cultural biases – regarding race, gender, marriage, justice, etc – as “moral absolutes”, only for those absolutes to be shrugged off by the next generation. True, the most important rules survive, but that is as easily explained by our common evolutionary history as by some external moral force constraining our choices. Philosophically, I have not yet seen a way around Hume’s is-ought problem. What does it mean for an “ought” statement to be a “fact”?

    This all leads to the conclusion that Richard Holloway presents in his excellent book, Godless Morality: “we must do what we can to construct moral agreements that will have the authority of our reason and the discipline of our consent.”

    In other words, the only authority we can claim for a moral code is that it is reasonable – at least, it does not contradict itself or the physical evidence. And the only discipline for any morality is consent: the personal choice of every person to follow or not follow it.

    It is precarious – I cannot deny that. But look around you: human morality is a precarious thing. Whether morality is underlyingly relative (as N.T. Wrong and I suggest) or merely difficult to discover (as I think you might concede), the main goals of all moral argument are [1] to rationally discover the logical consequences of our moral codes and [2] to coax or persuade our neighbours into consenting to the same moral code we do.

  16. Ken wrote:
    I’m a bit confused. You say I am wrong to claim that “obligation” is what separates our views…

    N T Wrong:
    Yes, you are wrong in this. We obviously both agree that moral claims also claim to apply to others, to ‘bind’ others, to oblige others. Good – so there’s no difference between us concerning obligation as a necessary concomitant of a moral claim. That’s all I was saying before.

    The difference between us, I would think, lies instead in the basis for that obligation. I say that the basis is nothing other than the moral claim itself, as subjectively derived from a society. That is, I think people have a moral obligation to act in a certain way if they are members of my society to whom I think the moral standard I adhere to also applies. The obligation is completely subjective, in its derivation and application. The objectivist, by contrast, would usually say that this is not enough – that an obligation must be grounded in something further, whether some objective moral principle or an objective personal being.

    Ken wrote:
    You claim that when you say “racism is wrong” you mean only that “I want to convince everybody in my society that racism is morally bad,”

    N T Wrong:
    No, that is not what I wrote. I was not saying that the meaning of “racism is wrong” is that “I want to convince everybody in my society that racism is morally bad”. Instead, I was explaining that when I consider something to be “morally wrong”, I tend to want other people in my society to think the same thing. I was explaining a consequence of the moral belief that “racism is wrong”, not its meaning.

    Ken wrote:
    what do you mean by “morally bad”?

    N T Wrong:
    A “moral” or “ethic” is a subjective and normative opinion about actions (or inactions), opinions, or characters. “Morally bad” is an adverse opinion; “morally good” is a positive opinion.

    Ken wrote:
    (and for that matter, what do you mean by “my society”)?

    N T Wrong:
    This definition is less strictly logical, and a fine candidate for Wittgenstein’s ‘families of resemblance’. A society is any group of which a person is a part, as determined by factors such as mutual influence and interaction. We’re usually members of more than one group. For instance, a person may be a member of a fundamentalist church, and of the United States. (These don’t completely overlap. Almost, but not quite.) To some extent, one group more than the other, a person will want his subjective, normative opinion (which was determined by one or more of these groups) to be adopted by the members of those groups.

    Ken wrote:
    You can call this subjective if you wish, but that is not how you are treating it, for you are implicitly claiming that the subjective opinions of others (the racists “in your society”) are wrong.

    N T Wrong:
    But it is subjective. “Wrong” is used subjectively.

    I am not ‘implicitly’ claiming that the subjective opinions of racists are wrong – I’m quite explicit about it. They’re morally wrong!

    Only if I (incorrectly) thought that there were any objective wrongness to a racist’s (im)morality would I be failing to treat their behaviour as entirely subjective. But I don’t. I am claiming that racists are – from my subjective although passionately held viewpoint – subjectively wrong.

    So there is no problem. Ethical subjectivism is quite consistent. It is only when you start sneaking objective meanings of “right” and “wrong” into the explanation that you run into “problems”. That is, the problems are your own, not ethical subjectivism’s.

    Ken wrote:
    “normative” is just a synonym for “objective,”

    N T Wrong:
    Not in my thesaurus, it isn’t! (You keep sneaking objectivity into ethical subjectivism – go on, really try to imagine if ethics were merely subjective – give it a try!)

    Normative: “Of, relating to, or prescribing a norm or standard”

    Obviously, as an ethical subjectivist, I think norms and standards are subjective. You think they’re objective, not me. You’ve got to remember which side of the argument I’m on!

    Ken wrote:
    “racism provides friction and trouble in society… people aren’t in reality that different, so it is incorrect to treat them that way.” These are not claims about you at all, but about how things actually are, which are true whether the person you are trying to convince accepts them or not.

    N T Wrong:
    Yes – that’s right. These are claims about reality. I was explaining how I might try to convince other people to accept my subjective opinion. The thing with subjective opinions is that they’re not simply transferable from one mind to another. Unless I was a person of great charisma, I couldn’t simply say, “I think this, so you should too!” The common tactic, which I gave examples of, was to show that my opinion results in a better society. Alternatively, I could have used some other rhetorical strategy, perhaps associating racists with rednecks. But, as I said, these reasons are ultimately grounded on my subjective opinion about what is morally right, not on their effect on reality. There is no “ought” able to be derived from an “is” in logical terms, even though everybody uses such tactics as rhetorical ploys – not matter whether objectivist or subjectivist or whatever. That is, although everybody uses arguments about the effect of moral positions on society (on reality), this is not a defence of the moral positions themselves as “real” or “objective”. You have confused the reality or objectivity of arguments about the effects of moral positions with the reality or objectivity of the moral positions themselves. But these must be clearly distinguished. Everybody, whether moral objectivist or subjectivist, is going to argue that their moral vision for the world makes the world a better place. But this hardly makes everybody moral objectivists! As I said, the bottom line in matters of morality is subjective opinion:

    “In the end, though, these reasons have no further ground that common agreement in society.”

    I strongly suspect – and I have seen examples of it in your posts here – that the barrier to understanding moral subjectivism is that moral objectivists keep suspecting that some objectivity must be involved somewhere. Moral subjectivism is so utterly different from the normal way in which a moral objectivist considers morality, that it can easily appear inconceivable. But moral subjectivism is subjective through and through. And it is only when it is appreciated in its thoroughgoing subjectivism that it can be understood as the better and most economic explanation of the way in which morality ‘works’.

  17. I still think the Eury. dilemma is relevant. Sure, God is good, and God makes the universe according to his goodness. But what makes goodness good? Is it God’s decree, or something independent of God? Those are important questions in this discussion! If goodness is good apart from God, then it is an “ought” without God, right?

  18. Oi, way too much here to respond in detail! In any case, I think we’ve probably just about reached the point at which we must agree to disagree, so I’ll just make a few overarching comments:

    Timothy,
    I’m not saying my views are “absolute,” nor am I even claiming that any of us have the right to claim such a thing. Like any other area of human knowledge, our moral perspectives are always limited and provisional and often overturned by later generations, but like any other area of human knowledge that doesn’t prove that moral claims are without objective basis. The difference between our views, as far as I can see, is that if relativism is true, it can never be correct to say that one society is better than another, merely different. Racism was just fine in the ancient near east and it is not in contemporary western society; that was their perspective and this is ours; neither is right and neither is wrong (except of course that we think we’re right, but our subjective opinion has no objective basis). On the other hand, if objectivism is true, then even if we can only imperfectly perceive it, societies themselves can indeed be better or worse, which (it seems to me–though obviously you disagree!) is precisely what we are saying when we say something like “racism is wrong;” not merely that we don’t like it, but that society would, in reality, be better without it.

    N.T. Wrong,
    I think you have indeed hit the crux of it: whether the apparently “objective” aspects of moral claims are indeed being illegitimately read in by objectivists, or illegitimately ignored by subjectivists. You are right that I continue to think that relativists implicitly import objective notions in even while claiming to defend subjectivism, whereas you think I am the one reading objective notions into what are, in reality, merely subjective opinions. We could try to hash out each case where we see the other doing this, but I’m not sure I have the patience for that on a Monday morning! ;)

    James,
    Indeed, I do not deny that the Euthyphro dilemma is important; the reason I don’t think it needs to be sorted out here is because Timothy (and N.T. Wrong) deny the premise: they claim goodness is not, in any objective sense, “good”–whether God decrees it or not.

  19. Ken wrote:
    precisely what we are saying when we say something like “racism is wrong;” not merely that we don’t like it, but that society would, in reality, be better without it.

    NT Wrong
    Whereas, as an ethical subjectivist, I do not believe that the statement “racism is wrong” connotes any statement about reality. Statements about “wrongness” are mere opinions, and can either be supported by statements about reality or not. That is, if I say “racism is wrong”, it is quite legitimate to support your moral stance by saying, “I just have a bad feeling about it, whatever you say about it.” Conversely, it is quite possible to point out a dozen effects of racism which are adverse to various people or groups in society, without ever invoking the notions of morality or “wrongness”.

    The only thing that is necessary for “wrongness” is opinion.

    Thanks for your discussion, Ken.

  20. Thanks for taking the time to discuss things, N.T., and Timothy and James as well!

  21. There are still many threads hanging here, but time and other commitments press.

    Thanks, Ken, for opening such an engaging discussion. I look forward to our next discussion.

  22. Timothy,
    There certainly are a lot of unresolved issues here, but thanks for the friendly and civil conversation on a difficult topic.

    If it is not impolite, though, I do want to point out that none of this important discussion really changes the conclusion of my post, which was that while atheism may have an easier time explaining why we have “good” and “evil” in the first place, it has a harder time explaining how those notions could have any objective status or warrant any objective obligations. In fact, it seems to me that by defending subjectivism, you and N.T. have confirmed that point.

    Of course, if it turns out that you all are right and morality is purely subjective, then it’s a moot point! ;)

  23. Ken, I can’t help trying to beat a bit more life into this horse of ours. Feel free to ignore me if I’m becoming tediously repetitious. Or just too long-winded. :)

    The Euthyphro dilemma seems to form something of the barrier between our viewpoints.

    Why is a particular action (say, an act of mercy) good? Why is another (say, a theft) bad? These questions are not answered by saying “a creator god exists who commands a certain moral order”. They may seem to be answered by saying “what is good is identical with God’s basic nature”, but such a statement is a separate move from asserting that god’s existence. I could, in principle, accept the existence of the god you say exists while rejecting the claim that its moral law ought to apply to me. You need to do two things: (1) demonstrate the existence of the god, and (2) demonstrate why that god’s ethical commands ought to be followed.

    The factual output of science (neuroscience, evolution, even my own field of linguistics) can inform and inspire my moral position, but it cannot provide an ultimate objective grounding for it; similarly, claims about a god’s existence and nature may inform and inspire the morals of theists, but they cannot ultimately ground them.

    I guess I just feel that the weight of philosophical evidence seems to suggest that you can’t simply derive an “ought” from an “is”. The bulk of moral philosophy, from Socrates (Euthyphro dilemma) through Hume (is-ought problem), demonstrates that questions of moral obligation are strictly and irretrievably separate from questions of existence – even supernatural, “divine” existence.

    But I’m not a (professional) philosopher, nor any kind of theologian, so there may be arguments countering Hume and Socrates that I haven’t seen. Also, you might accept John Searle’s alleged solution to the is-ought problem (his example of a promise). I don’t – it seems to suffer from the same unacknowledged blending of separate “is” and “ought” claims as your theism example. But you might find it sound.

    So, I continue to reject your conclusion. I feel that you have not adequately recognized the fundamental separateness of claims of existence from claims of obligation. And if such claims are separate, then your conclusion – that theists have an easier time justifying claims of what is “good” and what is “evil” than atheists have – is unfounded.

    (I have this slight suspicion that I don’t quite understand the basic claim about god that you are basing your conclusion on. If my above paraphrases are too simplistic, please elaborate.)

    On a slightly tangential note, I’m interested in what you would think about the arguments put forth by the then-bishop of Edinburgh (in the Scottish Episcopal church), Richard Holloway, in his book Godless Morality. Not exactly on the topic we’re debating here (his main theme seems to be the construction of a shared picture of morality between the members of an open society), but closely related. I enjoy reading your thoughtful reactions to ideas that sit at the intersection of the religious and the non-religious.

  24. Hey Timothy,
    Thanks for returning to the conversation. Sorry I kind of bailed on it–life was busy (still is!) and responding in detail to three different lines of argument was just too much. Anyway, here’s a partial response to your comment and your post:

    1. I’m not sure I would say that moral codes (theft is bad, murder is wrong) are themselves facts, merely that (if they are legitimate) they are based on objective values. Thus, murder is wrong not because that is itself a “fact” that exists somewhere out in the ether (a tangent: do facts exist out in the ether, or are they instead true descriptions of what exists in the world around us?), rather murder is wrong because it is a legitimate inference from the “fact” that life is (objectively) good, while death is (objectively) bad. Or more concretely, a dead human is worse than a living human, and this is true even if the dead human in question is the last of its kind (leaving none of us around to agree or disagree about its value), so murder is bad because it leads to a worse state of affairs. But of course, that only begs the question of objective values, so:

    2. I think we already agree that one cannot derive an ought from a morally neutral is. But do you disagree that one can derive an ought from a value–don’t we do it all the time? The only question, it seems to me, is whether the value in question is itself is objective. If human life is valuable, then we have an obligation to protect it, but is human life objectively valuable, or is it only valuable to those of us who happen to value it? That is, is the obligation to protect life contingent upon the individual’s, or society’s, imposition of the value, or do individuals and societies themselves have an obligation to accept certain values?

    That is where I see the difference between ethical monotheism and atheism: if ethical monotheism is true, then values have always existed, and indeed any “facts” that there may be are themselves derived from those values, so there never has been any need to derive an ought from a (morally neutral) is, all we need to do is seek to recognize the proper values, and (since those values are what guided the creation of all else that exists) we have good grounds to expect that through–how did Holloway put it: “the authority of our reason and the discipline of our consent”–we ought to be able to approximate those values to one degree or another. That is, we may disagree on a host of issues–since we are finite and temperamental and socially situated, etc.–but our discussion and dialogue at least has an objective goal, even if none of us can see it clearly, because values really are basic and not merely imposed (at will) onto some set of morally neutral facts.

    Whereas if atheism (or, for that matter, any lesser form of theism) is true, then values are not eternal, which means that at some point along the line someone, either a god or us, had to derive them from the facts at hand–and we both agree that such cannot be done legitimately. Thus, it seems to me that the atheist, naturalist, animist, polytheist, what-have-you, has no choice but to embrace relativism, because there is no where else to ground those values except in the perspectives of finite beings.

    3. A side note: It seems to me that “the problem of evil” (as traditionally leveled against theism) only makes sense if evil is objective, but that point cuts both ways. On the one side, evil is only a problem for the theist who truly believes that what violates God’s character or will should not be. But on the other hand, those who dismiss the possibility of such an objective standard of good and evil really have no grounds to judge God for failing to live up to their subjective notions of good and evil. After all, if evil is merely subjective, God’s perspective is no more nor less valid than yours or mine!

    4. It seems to me that relativism simply does not take evil seriously enough, nor even as seriously as relativists themselves take it. When a man gets pleasure from raping and torturing and murdering a child, it is emphatically not the case that his perspective on the matter is just as valid as that of the rest of us. He is, utterly and abhorrently, wrong to take pleasure in such a thing, and we are right to see such a thing as horrible. I think almost everyone, unconsciously, agrees with that. But if relativism is true, then we must somehow convince ourselves that our revulsion at such an act is, after all, merely our taste. It may be strongly held, to be sure, but ultimately it is no more objectively defensible than the murderer’s pleasure. Forgive me, but I for one am thankful that–practically speaking–even relativists do not actually approach such acts in that way.

    There’s more I’d like to say, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

  25. Ken,

    Like you, I feel torn between this riveting and (subjectively) valuable conversation ;) and all the other things I ought to be doing.

    So let me force myself to brevity in responding to your points:

    1. Thanks for the clarification. I don’t think it materially alters my point, but it’s good to have a clearer idea of exactly what you’re saying.

    2. I agree that obligations can be derived from values – in a sense, that’s the only thing they can be derived from. But I would say that values belong in the same category as “ought” statements for the purposes of Hume’s is-ought problem, not in the same category as “is” statements.

    3. I would use the problem of evil as an example of why I do not accept a theistic worldview. That is, if I accepted it – including its claims to objective morality – then the problem of evil rears its head. It is on those terms that the problem of evil is presented by folks like me.

    4. Overwhelmingly, people’s subjective moral codes line up on the most important issues. From an objective standpoint, we can say that we do this because our common evolutionary history imposes certain constraints on what we are inclined to value. This objective fact does not justify or “prove” those values to be true; but it does mean that the relativism I am describing is not the catastrophically slippery slope that its detractors often fear it to be.

    I know that this is not satisfying to you. If you are used to thinking of values as somehow basic to the nature of the universe, then even the very safe and non-slippery relativism I espouse will seem dizzily precarious by comparison.

    But let me point out something that (I think) we both agree on.

    Whether values are ultimately objective or subjective, in a pluralistic society we need to discuss and try to come to some sort of consensus on which values we are willing to cooperatively defend, and which we are not. I am repeatedly heartened in this regard by our discussions: respectful dialogue, rather than dogmatic assertions, has been a theme from the beginning. Remember our first exchange on abortion?

    I said it then, and I’ll say it again. You make me think. Thankyou.

  26. The video on this page contains an interesting and (to me) clear articulation of morality from a humanist perspective, by one of my favorite humanist authors and bloggers, Dale McGowan. The morality bit starts at about 4:00, if you don’t fancy watching the whole thing. But I recommend the whole thing.

  27. Timothy,
    I’ll be brief as well:

    1. Whether my clarification matters depends on whether you are right about 2.

    2. I’ll have to think more about this, because I think it’s a key point. From my perspective, if values are ultimate and eternal, then they have every bit as much right to be regarded as “facts” as any physical aspect of the world, whereas if they are not, then they do not.

    3. I think that is the only way a subjectivist (and non-theist) can legitimately view the problem of evil, but it seems to me that the way most tend to approach the issue is much more strident. Evil, in the arguments of most, is not presented as a hypothetical acknowledged for the sake of argument, but as a blindingly obvious reality that only a fool would try to dismiss. I think they are right to treat evil in that way, but it seems to me that in doing so they are, so to speak, “drawing stock” from the very objectivist position they dismiss (see Ryan Dueck’s article here for more on that). After all, you can’t very well frame an argument in which both halves are hypothetical. It is one thing to evaluate the (hypothetical) existence of God on the basis of the undeniable fact of evil, it is another thing entirely to evaluate the (hypothetical) existence of God on the basis of hypothetical evil!

    4. It’s a fair point, and I certainly do not accept the claims of some that accepting relativism inevitably leads to moral anarchy. It could lead there, but that is no greater danger than the fear that moral objectivism could lead to jihad, etc. But even if the matter is only theoretical (and I think it is more than that) the relativist is still left with no ultimate foundations for his moral claims, and that is, if nothing else, a very curious place to be, considering the vehemence with which we all defend them.

    From my perspective, the reason most of us do tend to agree on the most important moral issues is because when you get right down to it, life really does work better when we are seeking each others’ good rather than harm. That is to say, however subjective morality may be on the fringes, good and evil are asymetrical: it would be possible for a society to function in which no one ever lied, but it would not be possible for a society to function in which no one ever told the truth. Now we both agree that that fact alone does not “prove” that good is objective, but it certainly points to an underlying moral order that, we both agree, neither evolution nor our subjective impressions can provide, though they can approximate. I think ultimately moral objectivity cannot be proven or disproven any more than God’s existence (or our free will, or even the reality of a world outside our minds) can be, but it seems to me that it makes better sense to assume that it is true than to not. It makes better sensethat is, of our universal feeling that moral obligations are binding; it makes worse sense (I’ve admitted) of the fact that the world includes so much that we all do recognize as evil.

    5. Yes, we definitely agree that whatever the ultimate basis of morality, our best means of seeking “the good” (whether subjectively or objectively defined) is through cooperation and civil dialogue. So thank you as well for helping to advance that cause, even if only in this tiny little corner of the world. ;)

    6. I can’t seem to find the video on that page. All I found was a brief 30 second press release about the crime.

  28. Hmm, ok I should have said “I’ll try to be brief! ;)

  29. Oh, bugger. This is what I meant to link to! (Sorry, the other was from some side research I was doing on this topic. I must have been lazy when I was copying and pasting URLs around.)

    On the rest of it, I’m glad you aren’t too brief. You paint a very clear picture. And, compared to some of the philosophy texts I’ve tried to wade through, you are exceptionally succinct.

    I have a thought or two to add. As always, I will try to keep as brief as possible ;).

    First, I’d say that evolution makes good sense of our shared feeling that moral obligations are binding. A community of social apes that feels bound by a sociable moral code is more likely to thrive than one where morals are less sociable or where there isn’t a sense that they apply to everyone. This feeling is so useful that we are instinctively inclined to see morals as basic parts of the universe, rather than preferences contingent on our biological nature.

    The feeling (that there is an underlying moral compass to the universe) is useful (from the perspective of natural selection), whether or not there really is an underlying moral compass to the universe.

    Conversely, therefore, we cannot use the gut feeling that morals are universal and objective (a gut feeling I share) as evidence that they are in fact universal and objective.

    I don’t know whether relativists do “draw stock” by treating their moral propositions as objective facts. I would say, for myself, that I am comfortable taking certain basic moral propositions as given in my discussions, because they are effectively universal across humanity. In the words of Chesterton that you just posted here, “If a man says that extinction is better than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking.” I’d take an empirical leap and say that, barring pathology or extreme emotional distress, no one would actually claim that “extinction is better than existence”.

    Not quite facts, not just preferences. That’s my current sound bite on the nature of moral claims.

    Naturally, I have more to say. But you’ve given me more than just ideas to bounce around.

    You caught my attention with your comment that “the relativist is still left with no ultimate foundations for his moral claims, and that is, if nothing else, a very curious place to be, considering the vehemence with which we all defend them.”

    My analytic self has all sorts of reactions to this, but it’s not an entirely analytic claim. I think I need to set aside analysis for a bit and try to ‘feel’ the implications of all this. Sorry if that sounds a bit … nebulous.

    I’ll let you know what turns up.

  30. That is a good video, thanks for pointing it out to me! I think a lot of what he says is right, including the importance of teaching our children to think critically without hiding our beliefs from them, and the fact that one does not need a religion to tell us what is moral (though at its best, religion can certainly help us to recognize moral truths that we are prone to forget). I even think his point about how religious texts and institutions sometimes legitimately, other times not) tend to “set in amber” moral positions that grew up naturally is true, though not the whole story.

    But I do think he skates over a pretty important issue: whether evolution and social development create morality, or only uncover it. After all, he notes that at least some moral claims (like “you shouldn’t kill people”) are pretty much necessary, and not simply accidental byproducts of evolution. And since we have already noted that the mere fact that evolution selects for them does not itself make them obligatory (as evolution has also selected for some pretty nasty traits), that suggests to me that evolution is merely revealing–imperfectly!–a moral order that already exists.

  31. [...] McGowen on Secular Humanism Timothy Mills pointed this video out in the comments. I’m no Secular Humanist, but I actually agree with quite a bit of what McGowen says [...]

  32. I don’t really have anything further to add on the philosophical side of things.

    As for evolution, you need to be careful with terms like “accidental”. The fact that we breathe oxygen is, in one sense, accidental: there are other means available for organisms to use the energy in their environments.

    But, given that we evolved in an atmosphere abundant in oxygen, and given that oxygen is a really good chemical for helping extract energy from our environment, it is predictable that we would evolve to use oxygen – so in that sense it is not simply accidental.

    Similarly, the evolutionary explanations that are emerging for our moral sense do not simply chalk it up as accidental. Given that we are social animals, much of our moral sense is adaptive: it gives us a selective advantage over populations that lack the moral sense.

    So, in terms of how we obtained our moral sense, the science of evolution promises to yield an adequate explanation, without the need to posit an underlying moral order that somehow guides us to where we are.

    But, as you say, there are further philosophical and practical questions that the evolutionary story cannot answer on its own.

  33. Hey Timothy,
    I was being careful! ;) By “accidental byproduct” I meant “spandral”. That is, I was saying that morality is not merely a spandral; it’s selection reflects a deeper moral reality that evolution merely uncovers/exploits (just like lungs reflect the deeper reality of our oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere). So again, though the mere fact of selection does not make a trait obligatory, evolution does tend to (imperfectly) approximate that underlying moral order.

  34. You may be right that I misread your meaning. If so, I apologize. What I understand you to have said – and what I responded to, was a claim that the existence of our moral sense is evidence for an underlying moral order beyond the physical selection pressures we can observe acting on social animals. I have some further explanation below of why I think this is wrong.

    However, if you meant something more along the lines of the “god acting through evolution” hypothesis – that a god set up the conditions such that natural evolutionary pressures would lead to creatures that possessed a particular moral sense – then that’s fine. (There are other reasons why I don’t buy that argument, but they are more along the lines of personal taste than valid interpretation of physical evidence.)

    A spandrel is a trait that is not directly selected-for, but is a side-effect of selection pressures. I’m saying, as are people who actually study this stuff in detail, that our moral sense is a directly-selected-for trait whose existence is specifically adaptive for social species such as humans. Thus, we would expect it to look much as it does whether or not there were some underlying moral order.

    The existence of an underlying moral order (ie, beyond the physical selection pressures on our ancestral genes) therefore does not help to explain the existence of our moral sense. It adds no explanatory power above the alternate hypothesis, that there is no underlying moral order.

  35. Tim,
    Though I certainly would not deny the whole “God acting through evolution” aspect of this, that’s not quite what I meant either. Rather, my point was that, if moral evolution is constrained–i.e. it is not a spandrel; it is selected for but it could not have been radically different than it is (though it could certainly be somewhat different, which is a key point)–that points to an underlying moral order that evolution merely imperfectly uncovers, rather than creates. It doesn’t prove that such a moral order exists, but I think it points to it.

    As far as I can see, the claim that “we would expect it to look much as it does whether or not there were some underlying moral order” has it backwards: we would expect social evolution to proceed as it does because there is an underlying moral order.

    As for your point about “explanatory power;” I think this is comparing apples to oranges. How we got a moral sense is a separate question from whether our moral sense is true. Evolution may well explain how we came to believe that certain things are wrong and others right (both in general and particular), but it says nothing either way about whether those beliefs are correct. I think that any sensible moral discourse must assume that such moral objectivity is correct to get off the ground, but there is no way to prove that we are right to assume this. Like I said before, however, if it is an illusion it is at least curious how seriously we all take it.

    The matter is, to my mind, parallel to that regarding free will: There is no way to prove that our experience of free will is anything more than an adaptive illusion, but you can’t live five minutes without assuming that you really do have a choice in what you do. You also cannot deliberate without assuming free will implicitly.

    Similarly, there is no way to prove that our moral sense is anything more than an adaptive illusion, but you can’t live five minutes without assuming that some choices really are better than others. You also cannot discuss moral questions with anyone without assuming that there really is a right answer, even if none of us knows what it is.

  36. Ken,

    I think we may have come once again to a simple difference of basic assumptions. Our difference, it seems, turns on the question of whether moral judgments can in any way be “true” like judgments about physical reality can be true. You insist that, to be meaningful, moral statements necessarily imply some objective moral reality external to any individual moral agent. I disagree.

    Humans, for the most part, all agree to commit to a generally similar idea of right and wrong. This is because we have a similar moral sense (human nature). Discussion of morality need only rely on our common commitment to basic ideas of right and wrong; it need not rely on unprovable and unnecessary ideas of some objective moral reality.

    I really have no further arguments to offer in support of my position. I am confident that it is as defensible as yours, and my reading of humanist philosophers tends to bolster this position. If you’re interested, I’d recommend Richard Norman’s book, On Humanism, which was my first introduction to humanism as an identity and philosophical outlook on life. But, as this seems to be a difference of basic assumptions, I think you’d find his approach much the same as mine, and thus unpersuasive.

    For what it’s worth, I agree with you that this question is parallel to that of free will. But perhaps you would find my take on free will to be as unsatisfying as you find my take on morality.

    At any rate, thankyou for a challenging discussion. I think I have a much clearer idea now of what morality means to me; and perhaps next time someone asks me about it, I’ll be better able to articulate it.

  37. I agree: ultimately these questions come down to assumptions, and the best we can ever do is say: I think the world makes more sense as a whole if you assume this. There is no final proof either way, but the value of these kinds of discussions is that they force us to clarify our assumptions and get a better idea of their implications, and you have certainly helped me to do both!

    BTW, it may surprise you but I actually agree almost entirely with your take on free will.

  38. [...] The Problems of Evil [...]


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