Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Objective morality: Is there a basis for it?(Part 1)

This will be slightly deviant from what I normally post. Wherelse I like discussing science articles (those I understand) it has come to my attention, when I was chatting with a friend of mine, that he brought up the issue of morality.

I had maintained good contact with him  and he brought up a point: that humans have obviously much greater sense of morality than mere animals, and this is because we are made in the image of God.

Now, I decided to silence my objection in polite courtesy, because I believed there was no way to actually know if this was true or false.

Is the Christian basis for morality a strong one, and above all, point to an eternal God, particularly the God of the Bible? Is there any possibility of grounding morality in a purely secular basis?

Ok, maybe this has been done to death by thousands of philosophers, but I hope to provide a good summary of these arguments and in particular, voice my opinion about them.

 Christian arguments from morality for God's existence

There are actually two variants of the argument from morality. I decided not to trace their provenance to their earliest source (probably Aquinas or Augustine?), and instead name the two most famous Christian philosophers who expounded them.

Argument 1. The argument from objective morals, values and duties - Expounded by Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, he claims that there are certain objective moral truths that are independent of anyone's opinion - like you know, 2+2 =/=5. This means, lets say if an entire band of Vikings thought rape, pillage and burn was ok, it'd still be wrong irregardless. If objective moral truths exist, then God exists. There are objective moral truths. Ergo, God exists.
Read more about it here.

Argument 2. The argument from moral knowledge - I really prefer to call it "the argument from conscience" because that's what it is. Expounded by British author/philiosopher C S Lewis during his wartime podcasts called "Mere Christianity",later turned into a book. (Of course the book contains more than just that, but Im discussing this single argument). It states that the fact we all possess notions of right and wrong points to the existence of a divine, external lawgiver. On a side note, I really enjoyed the Chronicles of Narnia.

My comments

  When Dr Craig provides the moral argument for God, one would notice how he points out that if the Nazis took over the world and legislate mass murder of Jews, what they were doing would still be  wrong.

The reason why this appears so convincing is because he is appealing to the conscience of the audience to make his argument. This pillar can be boiled down to this: there are values within us, and universal across nearly every human culture: things like genocide and rape are wrong. An atheist on the other hand, has to treat morality as a social construct, and hence morality becomes arbitrary.

I have actually some major gripes with this pillar.
1. The existence of psychopaths - their very existence is  a challenge to moral argument (2). If we are imbued with this sense of right and wrong, then did God leave these people out?

2. The tenuous link between conscience and an objective standard of morality - This requires a lot of explanation.

You see, objective morality is defined as a standard of morality, regardless of what anyone thinks. Killing is wrong, just like 2+2=5. But you see, how do we know what these objective moral rules even are? 2+2 = 5 is demonstrably false. There's no need to explain why. How about morality? Its never so simple. Killing in war, is it morally wrong? Abortion, are we killing real humans?

The question is, if we dont know what these objective moral rules are, how are we to even infer its existence?

 Christian apologists have three responses to this, often used in tandem together:
a. Raise argument #2 to supplement argument #1. Conscientious desires are proof of objective morals.

b. Point out if there is no God, there is no objective morality, and all those evil things like rape and murder arent morally wrong anymore.

c. Refer to the Bible

Ok, I really dont like response b. The fallacy couldnt be less obvious when stated here. It is a pure appeal to emotion & adverse consequences. Imagine an atheist saying "look, I dont want there to be a god, because if it were so, I'd face divine retribution". Its illogical. We re trying to figure out whats true, not whats "preferable"! And that doesn't make the Christian worldview superior.

Back to response a.  But you see, therein lies the problem: some of the world's worst atrocities were committed by people of conscience.

Think about the Crusades. The Communist Purges. Look at the men who sanctioned these atrocities. There can be no denying it: their conscience played no small part in their motivations. The Christians and Muslims thought that control of the Holy Land would bring their people closer to their God. Lenin, Stalin and Mao thought that their extreme actions would liberate the mass proletariat from supposed bourgeoisie oppression.

So if the conscience of men played a part in extreme cruelty, how can we use conscience as proof of objective standards of good and evil?

response c. The Bible? Nothing much to say here. I ll just repeat what atheists say: the Bible is the claim, not the evidence. And I ll just refer to a few passages in the Bible: Numbers 31:15-18, Deuteronomy 21:18, Deuteronomy 13:1-9, Deuteronomy 22:23-24. Read them and make of them what you will. You could argue that they no longer apply today but on what volition were these rules were written in the first place?

Edit (More comments to highlight my point): Do you see the problem here? If you, were one who believes in moral absolutes, then you'd believe these draconian laws were wrong, no matter the circumstances!

How about killing an innocent child of a man to punish him for his crime? 

But this is exactly what God did to David's child, to punish him for sleeping with Bethsheba and sending her husband Uriah to die on the battlefield.
After that child died, David stopped mourning, then proceeded to sleep with Bethsheba again to produce another child. How freaking wonderful. (this is the abridged version of what basically happened).

So God kills an innocent child to emotionally punish David for a short time (for a crime that probably deserves more). Yup. Is God absolutely justified in doing this? You tell me.

Once again the horns of Euthyphro's dilemma rear themselves. If God told you to commit genocide of the Arab world to punish them for their perverse morality, would you do it?

What if God told you to massacre them, like Moses slaughtered the Ammonites in Numbers 31:18?
Would you do it?

Another subtler problem springs up. When Jesus said he came to "fulfill, not abolish the Law", which laws did he come to fulfill? Why do Christians nowadays say that the Old Covenant (the 600+ commandments) has been fulfilled (so no need to follow Deuteronomy and Leviticus), but then fall back to the first 10 commandments in Exodus as an example of moral laws? Did Jesus ignore those first 10 commandments in the Old Testament?

My idea

Its a bit long, but I ll gloss over it.

Objective, but not absolute version of morality.

No, we don't need a "supernatural point of reference" because it implies that any person who had a "supernatural revelation" could given codifying laws that are absolute.

Because the ISIS murderers clearly believe what they are doing is morally absolute, you know. Who are you to condemn them, believers in absolute morality? In the end, its their absolute morals against yours right?

Our morality should be based on a mixture of empiricism and rationalism. When a moral law is put into place, it should produce a demonstrable positive net effect on the happiness and well-being. These are, by definition, objective. The same way pleasure and pain are objective, and not subjective, feelings. Really. What about masochists? Well, there's clearly a difference between physical pleasure and mental pleasure you know.....

This operates on the assumption we share similar sensory and cognitive faculties, and hence possess a conscience. Of course, as I have explained above, this may not result in proper morality, hence we need a rational mind to critically evaluate what is and isnt moral. A healthy society requires proper functioning of both our rational and emotional faculties.

For example: a murderer kills a young woman, he is caught and sentenced to death. Produces a sense of closure for the family members of the victim, prevents more pain and suffering that could follow were he free to kil another.

How about the pleasure the murderer gains? Nothing compared to smiting out the existence of another human being, and cursing the woman's family members to pain and suffering.

Objective moral rule: murder is wrong and punishable by death.

Abortion: Right or wrong? Depends on whether a fetus can be considered a human being.
I m not sure, so wont comment.

Why should I be moral and follow these stupid rules?

Sorry buddy, but our society works by the principle of the social contract. It bonds you and me. Dont like it?

Go find another society that accepts you.

If our society was full of sociopaths, it would have collapsed long ago.

Anyway, a point I 'd make in the future is that the social contract is an obligation, not something we sign freely. As long as we have rational and empathic faculties, it is paramount that we be bound in it. (Will explain in another post).


P1: Certain acts result in increase of suffering and/or decrease in happiness of sentient beings

P2:   This increase in suffering and/or decrease in happiness occurs independently of what people think, and is therefore an objective description of reality

P3:  Increasing suffering is bad, just like 2+2 = 4 (objective description of reality)

P4: Acts that are bad are immoral (2+2=4)

 C: Acts that increase suffering are immoral. Not subjective, just like reason is not subjective.

(Yes, this argument pre-supposes a rejection of Hume's fact-value dichotomy).

Hence the utilitarian basis for objective morals. No need an external, transcendent Law-Giver. What for? Any law the Law-Giver gives would be externally, not internally forced. How can that be considered "moral"?

My point is: Laws don't make morals, but morals make laws.  (Even bad morals).

A note though: goodness cant be quantified like mathematics. But it can be deduced through force of reason and judgement. In other words, it is a posteriori rather than a priori.

What is the grounding for this morality? 

Its root lies within:(1)  the near universal acknowledgement of the empathy circuits in our brain and (2); the ability to apply objective reasoning to assuage this empathy as well as desire for self-interest and inform us of values that may maximise general well-being and minimize suffering. Hence, it is grounded within the innate structure of the mind and objective descriptions of the nature of happiness and suffering.

In principle, it still obeys Hume's fact-value (or is-ought distinction). This does not take into account the existence of a supernatural deity granting us a conscience, or the idea that we are mere biological machines (or some other explanation) because the fact does not change the values we derive from them.

I am in favour of this as it breeds a sort of universal morality that can be obeyed by whole, making use of reason and conscience (no matter where these two mental processes come from).

You could argue, for example, that a rapist could gain pleasure from his vile, immoral actions. But this pleasure doesn't hold a candle to the amount of psychological suffering his victim would go through, for years onward. A huge net decrease in the level of overall happiness.

For sociopaths that dont possess this capability to empathize, the corollary is that they don't have this objective standard of morality. I think its an astute description of reality.

Why should we increase net happiness in society?


You see my point: happiness and suffering, good and evil, they are intrinsic and unique to the human experience. They are irreducible, like 2 + 2  = 4.

What makes happiness-increasing acts moral, and suffering-increasing acts immoral? 

This post argues that morality is objective, means it must provide an objective description of reality.  In this case morality is based on the description of acts committed with intention and the consequences thereof.

What apologists are often mistaken in doing is that they claim there is objective standards and values, but often treat all those evil things as factually wrong. There is no such thing! Values  change with cultures and societies, even cultures which believe in objective moral facts. Compare Christianity in the Middle Ages and Christianity in the modern day just to have a sense of this. One had witch trials and burnings, the other has hymn singing.

That does not mean that these values are completely arbitrary, of course. Values can still be universal. Our morality need not be arbitrary, any more than our judgements need to be.  

And what is the justification for that, without an External Goodness?

I'm getting tired of this.....

A Caveat

There are of course, problems with this view. (If slavery was found to have net positive effects on society, would it be permissible?)

A solution could be: this utilitarian view must be tempered with Kantian versions of the categorical imperative, as well as Locke's rights ethics. The premise is that each individual has inalienable rights and duties that have to be obeyed by both the state and the self. And accordingly, these rights and duty ethics are First Principles and irreducible (so do not need grounding, any more than pleasure and pain need grounding in the great external Pleasure and Pain Giver).

The reasoning goes like this:

P1: Humans are very similar, biologically and physiologically (99% DNA similarity)

P2: Most of humanity has near universal desires to maximise happiness and minimise suffering, for themselves, and to a lesser extent, others.

P3: (Most) of us have similar (not same) sensory experiences and/or cognitive capacities,  therefore can be considered equal.

( For blind, deaf, mentally challenged, this applies as well. They merely lack one or more aspects of this, and suffer much more pain for it and deserve more rights to make up for it.)

P3/C1:  People are different, but share many similar basic needs (happiness, survival). Similarities outweigh differences, therefore we deserve equal protection under any law we write  (affirm John Locke's right ethics)

P4: this law (the social contract) also entails that we respect the rights of others, endows us with inviolable rights.

P5: however, this contract also bestows upon us duties. Enter Kant's categorical imperative.

C: Deontological ethics affirmed.

In this case, goodness, or rightness, or wrongness, are values intrinsic to themselves, and are the First Principles, and need no justification. (Rather than utilitarian appeal to consequences).

But its better than relying on the Bible (which part?).

(A point I would go on in another post is that Jesus and Paul did not establish moral rules, but guidelines. Very important).


I dont mean to be excessively harsh, and for the record, I dont have anything against the Christian religion. But Im not sure if objective morals exist, would they point to the Christian god, any more than any god at all. Above all, I find it a little arrogant when adherents of the Abrahamic faiths act like they have some sort of monopoly on morality, then accuse atheists of having "no basis for morality".

  Pain and suffering are genuine phenomena that occur independently of whether people think its good or bad. I guess my point would be that the foundation for secular morality is reason and experience. If a sociopath uses reason to attempt to disagree with this tenet, means that he lacks something others have (the conscience). How about self-centredness? Refer to my arguments on deontology.

This doesn't mean arguments for a theistic God are void, however. I really like certain arguments, like the Cosmological Argument for example. But those who tout the Moral Argument constantly force non-believers to say their morals are entirely subjective, which I find to be an underhand tactic.
Does that mean that things are only morally wrong when some God says they are?

A final point: laws dont necessary require a Law-Giver. Do the laws of thermodynamics require a Law-Giver? Does the Philosophical Law of Non-Contradiction require a Law-Giver?

Moreover this brings up even more problems with the Muslim view of morality...

In the next part I ll put a critical eye to the secular basis of morality. (including critiquing my own argument lol).

Addendum:I just noticed that my blog address sounds very similar to a Christian apologetics site, reclaiming the mind. I must insist that this similarity is entirely co-incidental. I started this blog to rebut creationist's misunderstandings (of which members of my extended family happen to be contributing to) of mainstream scientific views on evolution, global warming and the age of the earth.