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← Moral Clarity and Richard Dawkins

Chomolungma's Avatar Jump to comment 177 by Chomolungma

Jos Gibbons:

What exactly would it mean for thoughts not to be subjective? Maybe you should define subjective so I can understand how that’s not a contradiction in terms. Indeed, maybe my thoughts aren’t subjective either. But then, you probably contend they are.

Thoughts would not be subjective in the case where there is no boundary between what is inside the mind and what is outside of it, such that there cannot be a subject-object distinction. If God is defined as an omnipresent and omniscient being, there would be nothing outside of his mind, hence his thoughts would not be subjective. Though, perhaps it would be more precise to say the distinction between subjective and objective doesn't apply to God, rather than to say none of his thoughts are subjective, because in a sense you could say they all are.

So essentially moral truths are assumed in the version of theism at hand, which means it’s not just a conjecture of the existence of a deity, but some other claims to boot. How does merely the existence of a god change the moral situation? Well, it doesn’t. This isn’t a matter of religious scenarios having different implications; this is a matter of religious people saying, “On our view X is the case because we say so”.

You can't assert the existence of a god (or anything else) without first defining it to have certain properties, or else what are you asserting? Once it has been defined, to assume its mere existence entails the implications that follow from its defined properties.

It needn’t reject them, though.

The original question was whether moral truths can exist "more readily" in a theistic worldview. They are built-in to such a theistic worldview, but not a naturalist one, and adding them to a naturalistic worldview entails making problematic assumptions (assuming utilitarianism or something similar, solving the is-ought problem etc). Of course, theism itself is a problematic assumption, but I'm comparing how to get to moral truth from theism versus how to get to moral truth from naturalistic atheism, not how to get to moral truths starting from scratch via theism vs atheism. That's what I took "more readily in a theistic worldview" to mean i.e. starting from theism.

I never said it all has to exist purely because it was so decreed. My point is some things can be decreed into existence.

And yet earlier you were quarreling with the notion that morality originates from man. Any moral claim predicated on something that has been decreed into existence e.g. "violating software patents is theft and is morally wrong" is only true or false by a human-created standard.

So you’re claiming you were particular about which things couldn’t be assumed because they are moral bases, whereas many Xs wouldn’t be. Doesn’t such a distinction mean you already acknowledge what’s of ethical significance & what isn’t? How this argues for moral non-realism is beyond me.

The ability to reliably tell when a statement makes a moral claim doesn't imply anything about whether moral truths exist. I can acknowledge what's of religious significance and what isn't too. Or what is unicorn-related and what isn't.

This is the kind of complaint that demonstrates there aren’t really arguments for non-realism, only for non-cognitivism.

Non-cognitivism is a form of non-realism.

So you concede such assumptions can be achieved with utilitarianism, and hence without theism, and therefore that a theism vs atheism distinction on this matter is misleading.

Strictly speaking that was already acknowledged by my earlier reference to Platonism, since that doesn't entail a belief in a deity. A distinction is not misleading because assuming the truth of utilitarianism and holding its prescriptions to be objective moral truths is a move that creates more problems for the naturalist, who has a commitment to reasoning from evidence, than the theist who is prepared to just take the existence of God (and therefore moral truths) on faith. The theist is at least owning up to it! Frankly I think it's a more significant concession from you that assuming Platonism or a deity to get moral truths is "just like atheists being utilitarians!".

“Why do moral truths exist?” “Because otherwise it wouldn’t make sense to say God is omnibenevolent.” “Then how is He?” “Never mind how He is. He is, so that means…” “Your causality is backwards! You’re not explaining moral truths’ existence; you’re postulating them.” “So?” “So that’s just like atheists being utilitarians!”

That's not an accurate characterization of my arguments at all, since I don't claim moral truths exist, in fact I deny it, along with the existence of God. I was defining God's properties for the sake of showing what follows from assuming his existence, not asserting that he exists, so of course it is a postulation and not an explanation and I never represented otherwise. You've really shot yourself in the foot here, because if the postulation of theism is insufficient to explain the existence of moral truths, and that's "just like" the atheist postulation of utilitarianism, where does that leave your atheist moral realism? Just another let's-assume what-if wouldn't-that-be-nice...

Is that the only example you’ve got? Consequentialism vs. deontology? I was hoping for an “is X OK?” debate. I was right in expecting you couldn’t produce that.

I did give you a concrete "is X OK?" which was "is it OK to remove the organs from a dead person without their prior consent to perform a life-saving organ transplant?"

Deontology is by far the less scientifically respectable because it doesn’t allow hypotheses to be falsifiable in the way consequentialism does, and is by far the less plausible because it renders moral truths brute facts rather than explicable ones.

One problem for consequentialists is that they have to verify their theories using deontological criteria to get them off the ground, for example the earlier example I gave of naive utilitarianism leading to the conclusion that it was Ok to kill someone painlessly in their sleep and requiring some tinkering to fix that. Utilitarians adjust their axioms and criteria until their theories yield results vaguely resembling deonotological ones, at which point we're supposed to just drop deontological ethics and trust utilitarian prescriptions. My, how scientific!

Even if you could demonstrate a quantitative difference in the degree of underdetermination, it wouldn’t imply a qualitative difference, as exists between matters of fact and that which isn’t matters of fact. And underdetermination of data is in a similar degree with theories of quantum gravity. That doesn’t remove objectivity from that area.

This is true in theory but rather meaningless in practice. Ethical theories have to acknowledge certain empirical constraints: human beings have 2 biological sexes, are born rather than hatched from eggs, mature at a certain rate, require food and oxygen to survive and so on. All the major contenders for ethical systems are going to acknowledge these things and are objective in that sense, it doesn't narrow the field much.

Maybe in terms of the number of weeks (though that’s only a legal question because we try to do it by number of weeks rather than what developments the individual foetus has managed), but not in terms of whether abortion is ever OK.

So in other words the debate cannot be settled. Even the Catholic Church allows killing the foetus under some circumstances e.g. an operation to save the mother's life that has the side effect of killing the foetus. Almost the entire spectrum of views on abortion fits into the "undetermined" zone.

That doesn’t answer my question. I wasn’t asking why one premise was more plausible than the other. If we were convinced the conclusion drawn from them was wrong, rejecting which one was least plausible would make sense, so which was least plausible would be important. But I asked you why you said the conclusion entirely “flows from” one premise rather than the other. It doesn’t.

No I said the moral content flows from only one premise, not that the conclusion flows from only one, and I wasn't even necessarily doubting the conclusion either, just the claim that it represents empirical discovery of moral knowledge.

Fri, 01 Jun 2012 07:22:41 UTC | #944911