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← Moral Clarity and Richard Dawkins

Chomolungma's Avatar Jump to comment 138 by Chomolungma

Jos Gibbons:

(i) the situation is the same whether or not a god exists;

I'm not sure what you mean here by "the situation".

(ii) the actual theist charge to which we object is something stronger (that there are no moral truths in this scenario; absolutism just means exceptionless rules);

Sorry if my language was imprecise there, I was speaking colloquially. By "no absolute moral standards" I meant the stronger charge that there are no moral truths, i.e. moral objectivism/realism/universalism is incompatible with atheism.

(iii) said stronger claim isn't necessarily one a given atheist concedes

Then they should come up with a criteria by which moral statements can be true or false that doesn't beg the question by assuming utilitarianism or some other ethical theory.

(iv) an appeal-to-the-consequences fallacy is used to defend theism and in some "objections" to what is said that is what is being objected to

Yes it's definitely a fallacy but surely the correct response is to point out that it's a fallacy rather than denying that these consequences exist?

(v) the preference of divine command theory over other approaches to ethics which theists adopt on the basis of these "arguments" is either devastating in its consequences or demonstrably not how an individual theist really thinks about ethics, depending on whether or not their behaviour demonstrates textual cherry-picking;

This is an appeal-to-consequences-fallacy in itself! If theists can't handle the fact of moral relativism, and react against its mere suggestion with damaging and wrong-headed ethical theories, that's no reason to say it isn't true.

(vi) because this is the basis on which atheists are vilified.

And so is this.

This is a common fallacy; to assume we can never know whether our axioms are sensible because we can't deduce them. But ask yourself why scientific theories have some sets of axioms but not others, when mathematics can be done with just about any set. Couldn't a set of moral axioms be falsifiable?

Give a specific, concrete example of a moral axiom being falsified. Scientific theories have a basis for falsification: empirical observation. We can't apply this method to moral statements because the moral content is a value judgment applied to material reality, not an empirically testable claim about material reality itself.

This makes more sense when you look at how ethical systems are derived and evolve in practise, for example in the work of Peter Singer. At each point in the process, a novel situation can be encountered (or hypothesized in a thought experiment), and existing axioms within the system are applied to yield a prescription for correct moral behaviour in that situation. If the prescription is wildly contrary to moral intuition (and often they are deliberately contrived so that they are) then the theorist has a choice of either a) expanding the set of axioms to accommodate the novel situation to yield a more palatable result, or b) just accepting the conclusion as counter-intuitive but moral. This is superficially similar to the scientific method but there is a fundamental difference: the standard being applied is just "are the implications of our theory grossly incompatible with our moral intuitions?" and NOT "did our theory predict observed reality?" Ultimately it is subjective.

We can eliminate sets of axioms that are self-contradictory but that can still leave multiple mutually hostile but internally self-consistent systems of moral axioms. There is really no way we can say that one ethical system that (for example) values individual autonomy over minimizing suffering is better or worse than the reverse, and that's the kind of difference of opinion that rests at the bottom of real-life ethical disagreements (and not cartoon strawmen about whether it's ok to be a serial killer).

Tue, 29 May 2012 07:58:52 UTC | #944169