dangerous idea

This is a blog to discuss philosophy, chess, politics, C. S. Lewis, or whatever it is that I'm in the mood to discuss.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The future of godless ethics

Is atheism demoralizing? Does it undermine morality? Of course, there are plenty of atheists with robust ethical codes who try their best to live up to them. But is this enough? Layman at Christian Cadre thinks not.

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A quote from Gary DeMar's essay "Why Atheists are Theocrats"

Quoted in Christopher's Price's post on CADRE

If atheists get their way, they will be running the world in terms of some ultimate principle. At the moment, atheists have the benefit of a vibrant Christian worldview where they can borrow moral plugs like compassion and kindness to keep their hole-filled materialist boat afloat. Given time, future generations of atheists will logically throw off these moral precepts that at one time had been mined from "ancient literature." Consistency will lead these newly empowered atheists to conclude that "kindness" is a superstitious remnant of an ancient book-led religion that once proposed that immaterial entities exist. Science will show that there is no way to account for these religion-defined virtues given naturalistic assumptions.... When atheists no longer have Christianity to borrow from, from what bank will they draw their moral capital?

Are moral atheists borrowing their moral capital from Christianity?

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Ethics with and without God II

I'm redating this post.

I think there are two cases of atheistic morality that would have to be considered. Some world-views are not theistic per se but believe that there is a given purpose for human existence. If you accept something like Aristotle's inherent purposes (Aristotle had the unmoved mover but the UMM is not a personal God), then what is right fulfils that purpose and what is wrong fails to do so. I'm not sure that the idea of inherent purpose makes sense without the idea of intended purpose, but if you bought that it looks like you can get an objective moral standard out of it.

A theistic account of morality would, I think, combine the idea that as creatures of God we are created in such a way that our intended purposes and our inherent purposes are identical: we fulfill our purpose as human beings by doing what we were made to do. (How that solves particular problems like abortion, for example, may be more difficult, but right now I'm just working on the general idea of a moral life).

If you're going without God and without inherent purpose, then I think Hume is about the best source. He pointed out that a lot of ethical behavior can be justified by enlightened self-interest or social utility, and that we have feeling of sympathy for one another. But with his system, I have trouble seeing why we should do the right thing when it isn't in our enlightened self-interest and when we are feeling a lot of other feelings a lot more strongly than we feel sympathy. Why should sympathy trump other, stronger, feelings?

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Lewis's essay "Bulverism" is online

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Ed Babinski on morality: Interesting stuff, but what follows?

Moral Objectivity, Victor Reppert, Edward T. Babinski
Dear Vic (Victor Reppert for the sake of blog search engines *smile*),

I enjoyed reading your discussion at your blog on moral objectivity, along with comments left by others.

Is it me, or are you asking more philosophical questions concerning moral objectivity than you have in the past? Asking questions and analyzing the answers (interminably so, especially when such questions are large overarching ones) appears to be what philosophy does best.

VR: I have never stopped or slowed down in asking philosophical questions. It’s what I do. Though, if we have no prospect of getting an satisfactory answers, at least satisfactory enough to help us in making choices that guide our conduct, I’m not sure what the questions do for us. There are some things that I think are true philosophically; this does not mean that I ask any fewer questions than those who don't hold to any philosophical truths.

EB: On the question of "moral objectivity," I think that the most objective thing any of us can say with anything near certainty as fellow philosophical debaters is that we each like being liked and hate being hated.

We certainly like having our particular thoughts appreciated by others. And we are a bit perturbed when others don't "get" what we're saying, so we continue trying to communicate our views in ways we hope others might understand.

I also assume each of us generally prefers not having lives nor property taken from them, and generally prefer not being abused either psychologically nor physically.

I also assume that when one person has something in common with another, be it a love of a game (chess, golf, soccer), a song, the sight of a sunset/sunrise, a philosophical point of view concerning the big questions, or a religion, that liking the same thing tends to bring people together and increase their joys.

Therefore, I'm not sure that "objectivity" is necessarily what I am primarily after, nor what most people are primarily after.

VR: You were doing fine until you said therefore, and committed a huge non sequitur. We have a good deal to gain from appearing to me moral, appearing to be concerned about the welfare of others, etc. We are also “after” other things besides moral objectivity. The question I am posing has to do with whether moral values can be objectively true. If a society practices, say, female genital mutilation, can we say, not just that we don’t like the practice, but that it is really wrong, if in their society it’s thought to be a good thing. Is there some standpoint overarching us and those who approve of this practice that we can appeal to so that we can say that what they are doing is really wrong.

EB: But I will say that there is a marvelous article in this week's Discover about animals with feelings. One anecdote from the article involved a magpie (freshly deceased from an accident with a car) that lay by the side of the road surruonded by four live magpies that went up and pecked gently at it, then two flew off and came back with some tufts of grass in their beaks and laid it beside the dead magpie. Then they stood beside it for a while until one by one the four magpies flew off.

VR: None of my philosophical projects requires maintaining that humans are uniquely rational. As I said when I was interviewed on Infidelguy, for all I know there may be a whole colony of dolphins off the coast of Miami that make rational inferences, or make moral judgments. (The true Miami Dolphins!) There is nothing especially Christian about the Cartesian idea that animals are just machines. Bill Hasker, for example, is not a materialist about animals either. You simply are not going to get an argument going against any of the positions I have been defending over the years by telling me all the things Koko the gorilla can do.

EB: This anecdote sparked my own memory of another one that I read in a turn of the century book titled Mutual Aid by the Russian evolutionist, Kropotkin (his theory of evolution emphasized the benefits of mutual aid & cooperation). Kropotkin cited Australian naturalists and farmers who observed the way parrots cooperated to denude a farmer's field of crops. The parrots sent out scouts, then rallied the other birds, and they would swoop down quickly and devour the crops, but sometimes some of them got shot, and rather than simply fly off altogether the birds "comrades" (remember, this is a russian biologist speaking) would squawk in a fashion of bereavement, trying to remain as long as possible fluttering near the fallen friend and group member.

I also have read stories about the intelligence of crows, even their sense of humor. One naturalist mentioned seeing three crows on a wire, and one of them slipped, seemingly intentionally, and held himself upside down by one claw, which apparently amused the others. (I'd also read about experiments and anedcotes involving birds with amazing memories and vocabularies, even speaking and acting in ways one would consider appropriate for brief human-to-human exchanges.)

Elephants and llamas were some of the other animals mentioned in the Discover piece that reacted strongly to the death of members of their own species. Elephants have come back a year later to the spot where another elephant has died (as seen on Animal Planet) and they react strongly to the bones. I also recall reading in a Jan Goodall book about a young chimp (fully grown, not a baby) reacting so strongly to the death of his mother, that he simply climbed a tree and wouldn't come down and eat until he himself had died, apparently of grief.

The works of Frans de Waal (a famed primatologist), contain some touching stories about the compassionate behaviors of primates, notably of the most peace loving chimp species, the bonobo. When Frans took his own baby son (who was sitting in a forward facing harness strapped round Frans's chest) to visit some chimps at a zoo where Frans had gotten to know the chimps well, a mother chimp with her own young one saw Frans holding his baby up to the viewing glass, and the mother took her own baby's arms and twisted her baby around in a single movement so it was facing outward, and held her baby up to the glass so that the two babys could eye each other. Frans and the mother chimp also exchanged glances. Frans mentioned a case of a female photographing chimps on their little chimp island that had a moat around it. They were bonobos, a female dominated society, and food had just been given them, and they were portioning it out amongst themselves. The photographer wanted to get a shot but the chimps had their backs to the camera and were facing the food that had been delivered instead of facing the moat with the photographer on the other side, so the photographer started to wave her hands and scream and jump up and down to get the attention of the chimps. The other chimps looked round, except one who was suspicious and didn't turn around. So the female photographer continued waving her hands and shouting until finally that last female chimp turned around, and tossed the photographer a handful of food! The chimp apparently thought she was being asked to share her food! And well, she did.
In another case I've read about, Washoe the chimp was on a chimp island with other chimps, one of which climbed the fence and started wadding out into the moat surrounding the island (chimps can't swim, they sink, their bodies are denser than human beings since they have far less body fat). This chimp started to flail around in the water, drowning. Washoe saw this, clambored over the fence, and held onto some tall grass with one hand while extending the other to the drowning chimp, who was saved.

Meanwhile Robert Hauser (Harvard prof and author of Moral Minds) has asked a lot of people a lot of tough moral questions and found out how similar their responses were across the board regardless of whether the person was religious or not.

VR: This sounds really interesting. Gosh, science magazines can be a fun read. However, you seem to think I have defended some kind of human uniqueness doctrine, when I haven’t done any such thing. Where, in anything I have written, have I said anything that is precluded by any of these observations. Is there anything in Christianity that requires that animals just be machines.

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Why be Moral?

Most people like it when other people are moral, but do we have good reasons for being moral ourselves. an ancient Greek philosopher once said that we work best to our own advantage when we act as though we regarded morality in high esteem when people are watching, but when people are not watching, we should follow nature rather than the code of society. Is he right? And if he is, do we nonetheless have a good reason to be a moral person, as opposed to just appearing to be moral.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

moral objectivity

Again, I am redating the moral objectivity post because we are covering it in my Philosophy 101 class.

Are Moral Values Objective?

I. Facts and Opinions: Before I start to answer this question, let me rant and rave a little bit about the “fact and opinion” exercises that are given to school children. (Here, I am operating in the tradition of C. S. Lewis, who in the Abolition of Man complained about the implied positivist philosophy that he thought to be smuggled into students’ English textbooks). This “fact and opinion” dichotomy strikes me as being intellectual rat poison. According to the school exercise, A fact is what can be proven true or false and can be true for everyone, an opinion is a personal feeling and is not necessarily true for everyone.

This seems, pretty clearly, to commit the fallacy of the false dilemma. There can be a fact of the matter as to whether something is true or false, without our being able to prove it true or false. There can be a “fact of the matter” about something, and at the same time there can be more or less reasonable opinions about it. In fact, the most reasonable opinion about something may turn out to be false, nevertheless it is the most reasonable opinion. Consider Jack the Ripper. There are a lot of opinions about what Jack the Ripper was, but there is also a fact as to who committed those murders. Is opinion a) something purely subjective, or b) something about which there is a truth, but uncertainty amongst human beings as to what the truth is? I frequently use that term of b, but very often people mean a. This gets really difficult when I ask students to write papers and want me to give me their reflective opinions, supported by argument. If he fact-opinion dichotomy is exhaustive, then I am asking for an impossibility.

II. What is it for something to be an objective matter? An objective matter is about which it is possible to be mistaken. Let’s take
1) 2 + 2 + 4 or
2) The earth is round.

If someone says something that contradicts these claims, we quite straightforwardly say that they are wrong. There is, for example a Flat Earth society, headquartered in Illinois. (If you’ve ever been to Illinois, you might understand why people who live here are tempted to think the earth is flat). These people sincerely believe that the earth is flat, but there is little temptation to say that they the earth is really flat for them, even though it is round for the rest of us. Contrast this with

3) McDonald’s burgers are better tasting than Burger King’s
4) Belching after dinner is rude

In the first instance, we are inclined to suppose that the statement in incomplete; in order to assess its truth or falsity we have to ask “better tasting to whom?” It’s a matter of individual preference, and no further debate or discussion is necessary. In the second case, most of us are inclined to suppose that while it may have been true in our home, there are cultures elsewhere in the world where it is manifestly false, where an after-dinner belch is required by good manners to indicate that one is satisfied with the meal that has been prepared. In neither case are most of us inclined to think that the people who differ with us about 3 or 4 have false beliefs.

But now consider
5) There is life on other planets equivalent or superior in intelligence to our own or
6) God exists

In the case of 5, the matter seems clearly to be an objective one, although I at least, have no clue as to whether it is true or false. I’m very sure that it’s either true or false, whether it is true or false strikes me as something I am not in a position to know.

But 6 seems equally and obviously to be an objective matter. “But not everyone believes that there is a God.” Yes, not everyone believes that the earth is round. If no one can be mistaken about whether or not God exists, then it would have to be that case that God exists for everyone who sincerely believes that God exists, but God does not exist for the people who believe that God does not exist. On this account, God is like Tinkerbell, the fairy who continues to exist so long as people believe in fairies.

Now in order for the objectivity to be made clear, we have to have a clear definition of God in mind. The standard definition of God in philosophy is a being that is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good. If might be that one person might believe some being (say, the Force of Star Wars) to be describable as God, while another might not. That’s why we need a definition of the conception of God to make the claim objective.

But what about moral statements like

7) Abortion is always wrong unless carrying the pregnancy to term will endanger the life of the mother.

This is a profoundly debatable question, one that I can’t settle easily. Some people accept it, others do not. But the same can be said for 5 and 6. There are arguments that can be given both for and against 7. Sometimes the profundity of the disagreement about abortion is take to be evidence that moral differences cannot even be argued about, and that therefore they are subjective. However, let’s notice two things about the abortion controversy.
Both sides seem to agree that

A) Human life has value and
B) The quality of life has value

We don’t hear pro-life people denying the importance of the quality of life. We don’t hear pro-choice people denying the value of human life. Rather, we find pro-choice people arguing that human life in its fetal stage is doesn’t possess personhood in the sense required to give it a right to life, or perhaps it dependent status on the mother makes it acceptable for the mother to relieve her burden even though the fetal life is lost. (Sort of a justifiable homicide argument). But they normally don’t say life just isn’t valuable. (The closest I came to that came from an office-mate of mine in grad school. He claimed that pleasure was the only value and pain was the only disvalue. To the question “Why shouldn't I just kill you now.” my office-mate replied, “Only if you can do it painlessly.” But most defenders of a woman’s right to choose would not take such an extreme position. They think that human life is valuable; they just think either fetal life isn’t human life in the required sense, or that the value of life can be “trumped” in favor of quality-of-life considerations.

It seems, therefore, that the “deep” disagreements involved in the abortion controversy conceal deep agreements as to what our fundamental values are. But consider

8) It is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement.

If you are a moral subjectivist, you have to believe that 8 is subjective, that it is just a matter of custom that you accept it, and someone like, say, Jeffrey
Dahmer who rejected it, isn’t really engaging in wrong behavior, just distasteful conduct. And whether apply moral relativism to a case like this is the real test as to whether you are an ethical subjectivist or not. To do that, I suggest that you have to swallow very hard.

As you have no doubt been able to ascertain, I believe ethical judgments are objective. It may be difficult to determine if they are true or false, but I am confident that they are either true or false. Bertrand Russell thought otherwise. He wrote:

The theory which I have been advocating is a form of the doctrine which is called the "subjectivity" of values. This doctrine consists in maintaining that that, if two men differ about values, there is not a disagreement as to any kind of truth, but a difference of taste. If one man says "oysters are good" and another says "I think they are bad," we recognize that there is nothing to argue about. The theory in question holds that all differences as to values are of this sort, although we do not naturally think them so when we are dealing with matters that seem to us more exalted than oysters. The chief ground for adopting this view is the complete impossibility of finding any arguments to prove that this or that has intrinsic value. If we all agreed, we might hold that we know values by intuition. We cannot prove, to a colour-blind man, that grass is green and not red. But there are various ways of proving to him that he lacks a power of discrimination which most men possess, whereas in the case of values there are no such ways, and disagreements are much more frequent than in the case of colours. Since no way can be even imagined for deciding a difference as to values, the conclusion is forced upon us that the difference is one of tastes, not one as to any objective truth. (From the essay “Science and Ethics”

C. S. Lewis, on the other and, wrote:

The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike...Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish.
--C. S. Lewis

So debate on this question of moral objectivity rages on today.

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The case for moral objectivity

I. The argument from Implied Practice

1. If ethics is subjective, then we should expect people to recognize that actions which they are inclined to think of as "wrong" are only wrong from their point of view.
2. But invariably, people view wrongs against themselves as actions that are really wrong.
3. Therefore moral values are objective and not subjective.

II. The argument from Underlying Moral Consensus:
1. If morality were a subjective matter, we would expect to find sizable differences of fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
2. But there is, in general, agreement concerning fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
3. Therefore, morality is objective rather than subjective.

III. The argument from reformers:
1. If moral values are subjective, then moral codes cannot improve, since there is no objective standard by which to judge one code better than another.
2. But the work of people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks shows that moral codes can be made more just.
3. Therefore, moral values are objective rather than subjective.

IV. The argument from clear cases
1. If moral values are subjective, then even in clear cases of wrongness, we have to say that it is neither true nor false that an action was wrong.
2. But consider the case of someone inviting another person over for dinner, shoving that person into the oven, and then eating them as dinner. (Or the Holocaust, etc.)
3. Therefore, moral values are objective rather than subjective.

V. The argument from human rights.
1. If moral values are subjective, then there are no inalienable human rights. (A right in a moral obligation on the part of someone not to do something to you. If I have the right to free speech, that means someone has the obligation not to forcibly shut me up).
2. There are inalienable human rights.
3. Therefore, moral values are objective and not subjective.

Any missing argument here?

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Hasker's critique of Johnson's Darwin on Trial

Is God Bipolar?

From The Onion. HT: Jim Truscott
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Monday, May 28, 2007

Kant's moral argument for God

Suppose you have been trying to decide whether to believe in God or not and you can't figure it out. The philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that we are all in that situation. Kant argued that we must then choose the beliefs that will best facilitate our efforts to be moral persons, and he argued that a world-view with an infinite future ahead of us, a world-view where our choices are really up to us, and a world-view that sees the world governed by a moral God is preferable from that standpoint that a world-view where we die and rot, where the scales of justice are not balanced in the end. So if our goal is to be moral, then given a choice, we should believe in God.

Is Kant right about this?

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

An series on arguments for atheism: The Argument from Intellectual Progress

I found a page I had written on some arguments for atheism which I am not sure I have ever written spelled out as such, but seem to be implicit in a lot of people's thinking. Here's one, the Argument from Intellectual Progress:

1) Human thought has progressed from the earliest days of humanity until now.
2) In the infancy of the human race, humans believe that everything was divine: rocks, trees, etc.
3) Then humans believed in many gods but rejected the divinity of rocks and trees.
4) Then humans went from polytheism to monotheism with the rise of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, reducing the number of deities to one (or three-in-one, as the case might be.
5) At first these religions were accepted with a full-blown supernaturalism. More recently, even adherents of these religions have seen fit to modify their commitment to the supernatural. They acknowledge that the supernatural exists but are more reticent than their ancestors in attibuting things to the supernatural.
6) In the Eighteenth Century belief in God was reduced by the deists to a being who would up the universe like a watch. In the nineteenth century, after Darwin, atheism became a serious possiblity for many intelligent poeple. No in many educated groups, atheism is virtually taken for granted.
7) If we trace the logical conclusion of human thought, we will find that it is leading in the direction of the rejection of gods entirely. Perhpas in the 24th Century most people will be atheists, with a few theists hanging on in the outlying counties.

Of course I don't buy this argument, as I think it falls victim to Lewis's critique of chronological snobbery. But I would like to get some discussion on this.

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