No God, no morality? Sort of


#1

PART I

I will never forget the analogy used by Alasdair MacIntyre in the opening lines of After Virtue… Suppose that there is a nuclear war and most of civilization is lost. Once we get ourselves back together in 100 years, we might try to teach things again, like science. But how? We will have to piece back together what we can find on the topic… A 5th grade biology textbook, a medieval medicine manual, a paper by Einstein… What will that curriculum look like? What would our conception of the world of natural science look like based on what we have left?

This is the world of moral thought and language today, he argues. After those fateful days at Cambridge in 1903 which led the so-called Bloomsbury group into moral havoc, the academy followed suit, with some hailing G. E. Moore as the greatest ethicist who ever lived, despite the ideas directly following his book being more a philosophical catharsis than a direct development on his aesthetic-based utilitarian intuitionism… We got “emotivism.”

Here is an example he gives of just how far moral language has come: until 1630, “immoral” LITERALLY MEANT “sexually lax.” To call someone immoral was to call him promiscuous. Another example that MacIntyre gives is of the language of “rights,” and how that idea did not exist in its current form until very recently. He uses extremely harsh language in defending this position… It’s a fun read!

His solution to the problem, by the way, is where the idea of the “Benedict Option” comes from. Anyway…

For many people, there is little to no thought in their daily lives about what is right and wrong “on the ground,” so to speak. (On CAF there is often the opposite problem!) Even fewer people examine normative ethics, which is now mostly relegated to the classrooms of liberal arts universities. And there are even fewer who bother to look at how their particular normative ethics fits into the larger picture of a holistic philosophical worldview, which is called “metaethics.”

I will here assert my position. Due to the modern situation, as described by MacIntyre, which of course involves more than I’m here presenting (read the book!), today’s Western individual is nearly doomed to misunderstand the very nature of the discussion of right and wrong as it stood for 2 milennia, up until the Enlightenment project began (and ultimately failed). It is worsened by the leftovers of the chaos caused by the Cartesian project, which Kant tried to clean up but actually made even worse, as is expressed by the clear lineage he has through Hegel, into Marx, and finding rest in some of the fiercest, most vicious dictators of all time.

It’s not so much that people are giving bad answers nowadays so much as it is that they are not asking good questions. “Is abortion wrong?” Sadly, it is a rarity that one will have even the rudimentary equipment to discuss this with any semblance of reason, since the parties are not even aware of their own vague metaphysical and epistemological commitments, let alone that they are usually simply (badly) parroting the conclusions of a distinct “SYSTEM.”

This is all lost on post-modern man. One will possibly begin appealing to religion or even to political alliances, and from there the discussion rests solely on authority and is usually beyond hope.

In any event, there is, I suggest with MacIntyre, one dominant metaethical position today (if not dominant at least “polar,” inasmuch as one measures around poles), with one dominant related normative ethical system.

Emotivism is the metaethics (which reduces the nature of moral claims in themselves to the expression of a feeling, such as “Hooray!” or “Boo…”), consequentialism the ethics (which covers a very broad range of positions that use a temporal outcome as the measure of the morality of an act).

Most people on planet Earth flirt with these two paradigms, knowingly or not (and some will go so fat as to hover over even scarier voids). No, not everybody is Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill (who were utilitarian, a specific kind of consequentialist, mind you), but most people circle around the pole of consequentialism nonetheless. Watch a presidential debate.


#2

PART II

Most people also circle around emotivism, though many will be able to explain why they feel the way they do… and, guess what, they will put it in terms of the outcomes of certain kinds of acts. They will appeal to things like game-theory, the pleasure principle, possibly the categorical imperative of Kant, and such like things, (which MacIntyre addresses wonderfully by the way, not only in this book but also, if I remember correctly, in “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?”) not always understanding that this places them squarely in a camp that denies that any particular kind of act can be evil in itself, which is a hard bullet to bite (though some do of course). The king can kill whosoever he wishes for whatever reason, as long as the outcome will be alright. So can the private citizen, again, as long as the outcome will be alright.

And we won’t even get into the possibility that the moral agent doesn’t CARE about the outcome… Others may evaluate his act in terms of its outcome, but why should he care? The strength of the prescriptions of consequentialism depend on the moral agent believing that consequences matter.

Certainly there are cases of real, actual men not caring about consequences. There are plenty. But far rarer is the one who formally and directly doesn’t care about everlasting consequences, should he believe in them.

Here is my second claim. Without recourse to a natural law theory or virtue ethics (or even a Divine arbitration theory) dependent on God and a “mythos” of everlasting reward and punishment, one must either be consequentialist or must subscribe to some other variety of non-objective normative ethics, and he must also find a metaethics consistent with that ethics (unless he decides it’s too much thinking and would rather play videogames or go to the bar, which is the normal case). This puts “right” and “wrong” into “a place” but fails to be forceful. There is always the option to dispense with the very weak “ought” of these theories and risk personal loss for great personal gain, say in politics or business. There is a “right and wrong,” but not a very friendly one to the weakest of society. Aristotelian ethics, while not offering a “mythos,” at least allowed for one to see something of an intrinsic quality of good or evil in certain kinds of actions… This was the genius of St. Thomas, to integrate that virtue-theory into Biblical ethics and systematic theology.

No ultimate reward or punishment, no justifiable extrinsic objective morality. Here I’ve offered a introduction to the discussion. Feel free to add.


#3

Outcomes can be looked at in too ways. The worldly outcome in this short life and the post judgement outcome that results in eternal consequences.


#4

There is an interesting mantra in rationality circles that says “Reality is that which, when we stop believing in it, doesn’t go away”. I think it relates to morality in the sense that there are definitely principles that a society needs to flourish and societies that have them will eventually out compete those that don’t. Cooperation is one of them.

It’s interesting to look at the history of man’s transition from a hunter gatherer society to an agricultural one. It seems that hunter gatherer’s were healthy, lived longer, and in general had better lives than people who lived in early farmer societies. For individuals, it was better not to be a farmer.

I think this is analogous to being a selfish person. It is usually a dominant strategy, especially if you can fake it, cf. psychopathic business executives. But a society that doesn’t mostly find a way to encourage cooperation will end up out competed by one that does.

One way you could even think about this is that natural law operates on societies. Ones that don’t discover it are doomed to die and be outcompeted by those that do. Look at declining birth rates in the West. If people don’t relearn that they need to have babies, our society will go extinct and be replaced by those that do.

In this sense, I believe that even without foundational texts or a pre-existing belief in God, the societies that successful arise out of the disaster you imagine would be ones that figured out to get their citizens to follow the natural laws for a successful society. Given that it seems throughout the world this involved the creation of religions, I suspect that would be the mechanism again.

I believe scholars make a distinction between natural law which is discovered through reason alone (or I might argue sociology) and Divine positive law that comes from Revelation. Even with Revelation, natural law would be rediscovered through some mechanisms, because in places where it wasn’t, people couldn’t flourish.


#5

I wonder what is the intended topic of this thread? One way to read the title and the OP is that “secular morality” is an oxymoron… that there is no and cannot be a moral system without God.

The last line: “No ultimate reward or punishment, no justifiable extrinsic objective morality.” seems to underline my understanding.

I am also interested in your precise definition of “morality”. My understanding is: “the written and unwritten rules of socially acceptable behavior in a specific society at a specific time”. Yes, it is “relative”. Some of the behaviors are codified into the legal system, others simply might be frowned upon.

In the Vatican public nudity would be considered immoral, on many beaches it is perfectly acceptable. Generally, cannibalism is considered an “immoral” action, but no one condemned the survivors in the plane crash in the Andes, who HAD to resort to it in order to survive. In medieval Japan the samurai could chop off the head of anyone for not being respectful toward Emperor. In some societies sex was the ultimate “communication” with the gods, in a hypothetical theocracy it might be a criminal act. So, all this “morality” is a huge mess.

There is no human behavior which would have been universally condemned as immoral across all the societies and all times. So what is the point of this thread?


#6

This is what I was trying to get you to admit on the other thread. Interesting how a change of thread can do that…

I once wrote a paper that addresses the underlying issue here… I hinted at its point in my original posts, though I’ll draw it out more here.

There needs to be a coherence between one’s normative ethics and metaethics in order to make sense of either - which also means that in attempting to understand someone else’s ethical worldview, one must “crawl into” that worldview and see it on its own terms. This is true in other disciplines too - especially theology… A Christian says to a Muslim, “But it doesn’t say Muhammad is a prophet in the Bible,” and a Muslim says to a Christian, “Islam says the Bible has fabrications in it.” Etc. Neither has seen the other on their own terms, and the discussion can’t move anywhere. To see a system on its own terms does not mean agreeing with it, it just means attempting to see how it is internally consistent. Then once you find the “tangent” to the “outside,” you can discuss that. In the Abrahamic religions, the tangent is more or less history. In the broader realms of ethics, the tangents are mainly metaphysics and epistemology.

The position you’ve outlined seems to be more or less a constructivist (more specifically conventionalist) consequentialism. (If I remember correctly, the champion of this view is Gilbert Harman. Maybe you could go find an article and we can discuss it here. I’d point you to one but I’m away from my library at present.)

So when we make broad claims about “morality,” we have to understand what the other means by that term - each refers to it in a different way, except in a discussion like this where it has become a placeholder for something else, which I am not sure how to describe. What’s the similarity between my reductive synthetic naturalist virtue-ethics*** and your constructivist consequentialism? Some kind of prescription, I suppose. So morality is, in the broadest sense, an evaluation of prescriptive measures? Something like that, though the prescriptions come from different places and mean different things.

***The meta-ethics I associate myself with can be understood with a look at this chart:

theholydark.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/metaethics.jpg

It’s not a perfect chart (you’ll notice there’s no constructivism, for instance, though it is a little more difficult to nail down), but it’s decent. I would, however, more generally call myself a realist, since that is the larger philosophical camp into which I plant myself. Virtue-ethics is the normative ethics I hold, which is annexed into a natural-law theory. We ought to avoid excesses and deficiencies and aim for the mean, though some things admit of no excess or no deficiency. It rests on the idea that man has purposes built into his nature, which we can discover through our intuitive sense of goodness (“synderesis”) to get hints (together with a solid philosophical anthropology), and that since they come from God they are to be respected above any other person’s desires. Thus it is reason that measures the legitimacy of an act in accord with how it will order oneself - toward human flourishing in accord with our nature and also toward God through that flourishing, or in a way that frustrates or contradicts that design. (This then plugs into my moral theology very well, as it now simply considers the pleasure or offense of God at actions rather than the accord or discord with reason… since we say that God is Reason, that works rather nicely. Also, the everlasting “motivations” of Heaven and Hell are thrown into the mix, which adds a level of severity to the prescriptions of virtue-ethics.)

Something along those lines.

The purpose of the thread is to talk about exactly what we’re talking about…?


#7

Yo…I have more than 2 cents to add here, and will do so soon as I have a sec…

DG


#8

That is a very commendable endeavor (and I am amenable to it), though it might be quite difficult to achieve. The basic difficulty is the meaning of many words.

Just as an illustration, let me start with your linked document. It uses the words “Realist” and “Anti-Realist” - as the starting points. These words probably mean something different for you and me. For me the word “realist” means the acceptance of the objective, observable physical reality, and the rejection of the mind-independent existence of so called “abstract objects”. Words, phrases have no intrinsic “meaning”, they gain meaning in a communication channel, and the meaning is a mutually understood and accepted reference to “something”.

To find a common starting point which is valid for both of us will be very difficult. Very basic concepts, like “existence”, “beauty”, “justice”, “love”, “good and evil” etc… must be hammered out without any reference to “supernatural” - and their meaning should be equally applicable in both realms. If a certain word would have totally different meaning when applied to a human being and when applied to God, then there cannot be any conversation at all, we would talk past each other.

Now I hope that we BOTH accept the existence of the physical reality (unless you are a solipsist). So to find a common platform to build upon is not impossible.

As they say it is not easy, but if it would be easy, everyone would do it.


#9

Solipsists aren’t the only ones out there who don’t believe in a physical world. The whole Idealist camp gets mixed up in that - especially with its sticky end in Berkley…

I don’t know what to tell you regarding language, I think you just need to read the cornerstone works in the ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary eras, and you get the sense of what means what to whom.

The chart is easy, at least the first move on it is - “Is there moral truth?” The folks to the left say “yes,” the folks to the right say “no.” Granted, some of the other moves are more complex.

Still waiting for DaddyGirl’s >2c…


#10

I’d like to edit Part II of my original post, to say that I withdraw my claim that the categorical imperative would be used in the way I said… for two reasons, first, the layman doesn’t know what that is, and second, it is not really consequentialist (and actually seems antithetical to it).

Anyway…


#11

If someone denies the objective existence of the physical reality, I would be delighted to see them to “walk the walk”. Let them disregard the physical reality to their own peril. They would die very quickly, and then I would be happy to give them an “honorary mention” on DarwinAwards.com. (darwinawards.com/)

But this is not the point. I stand on the ground of accepting the objective reality of the physical world. If you also accept it, we can have a common starting point. If you don’t then we would just waste our time to try to talk about anything. So the explicit question to you is: “Do we have a common ground?”

That is insufficient. The language (any language) is a fully artificial construct. It can only be evaluated in a communication channel, which is established between to entities who are able to conceptualize and share at least some common concepts along with a common language that both parties understand. If we (you and I) decided that from now on the word “one” means “two” and the word “two” means “one”, we could conduct a normal conversation, which would be impossible to parse for outsiders.

By the way, that is one of the reasons, why I am not interested in reading ancient arguments. I cannot ask for clarification, since the other party is simply not “there” any more.

As they say, even the question is “wrong”. The third part of philosophy (ethics) does not deal with “IS” statements, which can be either “true” or “false” or “incoherent” or “undecidable”. It deals with “OUGHT” statements, and they cannot be evaluated in a sterile, abstract environment.

Just because a question (or proposition) follows the syntactical rules of a language, it does not mean that the question (or proposition) is meaningful. The question: “Is there moral truth?” is semantically void. What the heck is a “moral truth”? In my first post in this thread I gave my understanding of “moral”. I asked for yours. So far, I received no answer. Or, at least I did not understand it.


#12

If someone denies the objective existence of the physical reality, I would be delighted to see them to “walk the walk”. Let them disregard the physical reality to their own peril. They would die very quickly, and then I would be happy to give them an “honorary mention” on DarwinAwards.com. (darwinawards.com/)

Start with Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, and spend a some time considering how poor the argument he makes to regain the external world is. Then move on to the Empiricist responses (Hume, Locke, etc.), the Rationalist continuations (Spinoza and Leibniz), and contrast it with response of Berkely (who was the “radical” of the Idealists). You will feel differently.

But this is not the point. I stand on the ground of accepting the objective reality of the physical world. If you also accept it, we can have a common starting point. If you don’t then we would just waste our time to try to talk about anything. So the explicit question to you is: “Do we have a common ground?”

Sure, I believe in an external world. But I’m not that interested in going back and forth with you. Happy to converse, but not intensely anymore. I’d rather have others chime in and have a conversouption.

By the way, that is one of the reasons, why I am not interested in reading ancient arguments. I cannot ask for clarification, since the other party is simply not “there” any more.

That’s one reason why. It’s silly.

As they say, even the question is “wrong”. The third part of philosophy (ethics) does not deal with “IS” statements, which can be either “true” or “false” or “incoherent” or “undecidable”. It deals with “OUGHT” statements, and they cannot be evaluated in a sterile, abstract environment.

Just because a question (or proposition) follows the syntactical rules of a language, it does not mean that the question (or proposition) is meaningful. The question: “Is there moral truth?” is semantically void. What the heck is a “moral truth”?

You should make up your mind. You had a big hurrah for “game theory” and “principles” in the other thread, you seemed to accept some kind of “reality” to others calling actions “moral” and “immoral,” but now all of a sudden it’s different. Sooooo…? Maybe actually read an article on Mackie’s error-theory, or a paper on emotivism. Did you research Harman at all?

This is another reason…

In my first post in this thread I gave my understanding of “moral”. I asked for yours. So far, I received no answer. Or, at least I did not understand it.

And that’s another. Did you miss this huge section:

What’s the similarity between my reductive synthetic naturalist virtue-ethics*** and your constructivist consequentialism? Some kind of prescription, I suppose. So morality is, in the broadest sense, an evaluation of prescriptive measures? Something like that, though the prescriptions come from different places and mean different things.

***The meta-ethics I associate myself with can be understood with a look at this chart:

theholydark.files.wordpress…metaethics.jpg

It’s not a perfect chart (you’ll notice there’s no constructivism, for instance, though it is a little more difficult to nail down), but it’s decent. I would, however, more generally call myself a realist, since that is the larger philosophical camp into which I plant myself. Virtue-ethics is the normative ethics I hold, which is annexed into a natural-law theory. We ought to avoid excesses and deficiencies and aim for the mean, though some things admit of no excess or no deficiency. It rests on the idea that man has purposes built into his nature, which we can discover through our intuitive sense of goodness (“synderesis”) to get hints (together with a solid philosophical anthropology), and that since they come from God they are to be respected above any other person’s desires. Thus it is reason that measures the legitimacy of an act in accord with how it will order oneself - toward human flourishing in accord with our nature and also toward God through that flourishing, or in a way that frustrates or contradicts that design. (This then plugs into my moral theology very well, as it now simply considers the pleasure or offense of God at actions rather than the accord or discord with reason… since we say that God is Reason, that works rather nicely. Also, the everlasting “motivations” of Heaven and Hell are thrown into the mix, which adds a level of severity to the prescriptions of virtue-ethics.)

I made sure to distinguish that from:

So when we make broad claims about “morality,” we have to understand what the other means by that term - each refers to it in a different way, except in a discussion like this where it has become a placeholder for something else, which I am not sure how to describe.

Please at least look at some of the authors I mentioned. Real discussions in the world of philosophy take place over these texts and authors. You don’t have them over threads on CAF… If you are unwilling, then I’m unwilling to continue to address your posts in at least this thread.


#13

It’s quite obscure to me, as well. I take it to read: Is there moral Truth out there that has its own existence or are moral truths (lower case and plural) dependent on something?

Perhaps put another way: Are there laws we should follow or rules we should interpret? If there are laws, then we have all heard the argument that there must have been a law maker. But rules…different matter. They can be self administered.

My position, for what it’s worth, is that there are rules, not laws, self determined by such a priori statements such as ‘cause no harm’, self administered and which must be interpreted dependent upon the situation, but are culturally and temporarily independent.


#14

It is? I am certainly capable to discerning my world-view, especially after having read other people’s input. No need to revisit them.

Certainly, and they all stand. There is morally acceptable behavior - and its opposite. I gave a short summary of “how” to get there. Let’s make it even simpler: “the principle of reciprocity”.

You said: I would, however, more generally call myself a realist, since that is the larger philosophical camp into which I plant myself. Virtue-ethics is the normative ethics I hold, which is annexed into a natural-law theory. We ought to avoid excesses and deficiencies and aim for the mean, though some things admit of no excess or no deficiency. It rests on the idea that man has purposes built into his nature, which we can discover through our intuitive sense of goodness (“synderesis”) to get hints (together with a solid philosophical anthropology), and that since they come from God they are to be respected above any other person’s desires. Thus it is reason that measures the legitimacy of an act in accord with how it will order oneself - toward human flourishing in accord with our nature and also toward God through that flourishing, or in a way that frustrates or contradicts that design. (This then plugs into my moral theology very well, as it now simply considers the pleasure or offense of God at actions rather than the accord or discord with reason… since we say that God is Reason, that works rather nicely. Also, the everlasting “motivations” of Heaven and Hell are thrown into the mix, which adds a level of severity to the prescriptions of virtue-ethics.)
Since you mention “natural law theory” - what I reject, and bring in God - whose existence I don’t believe in, we have a hard time of finding any common ground. Of course I accept that your overall picture has no internal contradiction, but it has no rational foundation either, and it is in direct contradiction with the observable reality.

The point is that I am only interested in YOUR point of view, not those other authors. You called my attitude “silly”. That is your prerogative. If you wish to bow out, that is fine.


#15

Don’t overthink it. Is there moral truth? Can someone call some particular action that a person does morally “wrong” or “right,” and be correct about it, in any sense whatsoever?

I had to be careful about my wording there - Mackie, for instance, thinks there’s no moral truth, but that moral claims really do involve beliefs… making all of those beliefs wrong. He says that moral thought involves a “radical error” of the mind.

That first move establishes the existence or non-existence of moral facts… then the task is to describe their existence or to explain how their non-existence fits into our behavior and language.

Does that help?

The point is that I am only interested in YOUR point of view, not those other authors. You called my attitude “silly”. That is your prerogative. If you wish to bow out, that is fine.

You obsess about language and “common ground,” but you are unwilling to get there through what that actually requires: work. And throwing out zingers like this one:

but it has no rational foundation either, and it is in direct contradiction with the observable reality.

make it hard to take you seriously.

Here. I’ll get a link for Descartes, at least.

wright.edu/~charles.taylor/descartes/mede.html


#16

You are observing the way the world works, which is great.
You are observing on a superficial level, not so great.

You observe that people and societies make rules, they are implemented, administered, interpreted subjectively. Yes that is the way it is.

What you fail to observe (or admit more likely) is what all people and societies have in common:
the attempt to subject rules, or laws, to an objective good.

It is good that traffic flows in a safe and efficient pattern.
There are different rules that can be applied by people with different points of view.
All of these rulemakers have the common good of people and society, as they see it.

(you may object that people make rules in a selfish vacuum and are not really motivated by the good of others, and you would be right. But still, they impose rules on people, for what they believe to be good. Observe even yourself, as you make this objection, appealing to an objective good, by noting their selfishness)

I think what people find silly, is the idea that no pursuit of an objective good exists. It’s simply absurd.


#17

And yet why ought a non-believer bother with other people’s good unless it temporally redounds to his own?


#18

What people describe as moral facts seems to vary. Could you give an example of what you consider one to be?

An objective good. Hmmm. That has religious overtones to me. As opposed to the common good (don’t jump red lights), which doesn’t. If you believe that we are here for an objective purpose, then we will be talking past each other at all times.


#19

If you don’t want your belongings stolen then it is a good idea to have a rule that says that stealing will be punished. You expect everyone else to support that rule and everyone else will expect you to do so as well. So if you show willing to protect someone else’s property then others will do the same for yours.

Failing that type of system (with which we ALL comply, by the way), then the only reason not to steal is…because God told me. But then God can tell you to do lots of things (or rather, you can say that God tells you to do lots of things). Are you then saying you need no other reason than that?


#20

Two problems:

  1. These rules still appeal to some mysterious “good” or “order” that have something to do with, in this case, possessions. Why is it “good” for people not to steal? Why would someone want to own property? What is that “goodness,” where does it come from, why is it there, etc.

  2. Granted the first problem is solved, it leaves the problem of intrinsic motivation: what if I am confident I can get away with it or don’t care about the legal penalty, social penalty, etc.?

A moral fact would be the corresponding reality to a statement like, “Stealing is wrong,” viz. “that stealing is wrong.”


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