Do moral facts not require an explanation?

Ethics Philosophy Philosophy of Religion

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Perhaps the central bone of contention in the moral argument for the existence of God is the claim that philosophical naturalism cannot provide a basis for moral facts, while theism can. To say that one outlook cannot give an account of moral facts while another can is to assume that moral facts need an “account” if they are to exist at all. It is to suppose that they require some sort of basis: states of affairs need to exist that give rise to moral facts. Moral facts can then be explained in terms of these states of affairs.

One way of rejecting the moral argument is to reject this claim in the moral argument, not by claiming that naturalism or atheism can provide a basis for moral facts, but instead to reject the idea that moral facts need any basis or explanation at all. They just exist, that is that, and you’d better get used to it! Erik Wielenberg claims that “objective morality does not require an external foundation of any kind.”1 Moral facts are not explained by other facts, they obtain as a matter of brute fact.

Some facts obtain because of the obtaining of other states of affairs. Consider, for example, the fact that the bottle of water in my office is suspended about four feet from the surface of the earth. This state of affairs obtains because another state of affairs obtains—namely, that the bottle is sitting on the surface of the desk in my office. Some states of affairs that obtain are what we may call brute facts; their obtaining is not explained by the obtaining of other states of affairs.2

Moral facts, Wielenberg maintains, are facts of the latter sort. For ease of reference let us refer to the type of fact in question in this chapter as a UMF, an unexplained (and in principle inexplicable) moral fact.

Wielenberg offers what can be called a parity argument. There is parity, he claims, between belief in God and belief in UMFs. He argues that saying that UMFs “just exist” is no more problematic than saying that God just exists, and any theistic objection to the existence of a UMF would count as an objection to a God whose existence is a brute fact, and so no theist can afford to offer the objections to UMFs that have in fact been offered.3

Wielenberg, in my view, is mistaken. In research that I’m working on at the moment I’ll be discussing this in much more depth, but here let me very briefly touch on three indications of the errors involved (stressing that what follows really is brief and summary in nature, and no critic should presume that they are responding to anything more).

The problem of impersonality

Firstly, an objection that some theists have raised is that the idea of free floating, non natural, uncaused moral facts or even just non natural entities that make stipulations about behaviour (like justice) is problematic. Craig and Moreland, in a section that Wielenberg quotes, explain:

It is difficult, however, even to comprehend this view. What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value justice just exists? It is hard to know what to make of this. It is clear what is meant when it is said that a person is just; but it is bewildering when it is said that in the absence of any people, justice itself exists. Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as mere abstractions—or at any rate, it is hard to know what it is for a moral value to exist as a mere abstraction. Atheistic moral realists seem to lack any adequate foundation in reality for moral values but just leave them floating in an unintelligible way.4

By quoting only overtly evangelical attempts at what can only be called Christian apologetics, Wielenberg gives the impression (probably unintentionally) that arguments like this are the domain of the evangelistic efforts of people trying to convince others to join their religion. But this is certainly not so, and Craig and Moreland can claim plenty of respectable philosophical company in arguing this way, both among believers and non-believers in God. The argument from metaphysical “queerness” is made by J L Mackie, a vocal opponent of theistic belief. His claim is that distinctly moral facts in an uncreated existence is “queer,” at odds with a properly non-religious outlook. John Rist in his magnificent work Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality tackles the idea of there being not merely concepts of goodness, but the actually existing entity of moral goodness, free floating and uncaused. Such entities “would exist as essentially intelligible ideas even if there were no mind, human or divine, to recognize them: as objects of thought, not mere constructs or concepts.”5 We have all, doubtless, heard the supposedly mysterious question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” But to posit such things as these forms is akin to something more bizarre still, the actual existence of clapping in the absence of the existence of any hands! These are thoughts without thinkers. Rist observes that “the notion of an eternal object of thought… without a ceaseless thinking subject is unintelligible. Intelligible forms… cannot be proposed as Plato originally proposed them, as free-floating metaphysical items.”6

Perhaps Wielenberg would not throw his lot in with Plato and speak about eternal objects of thought. But this is not even the heart of his problem here. In replying to to Craig and Moreland, Wielenberg indicates that the only kinds of things that he needs to maintain belief in here are states of affairs, which is surely not a confusing feat:

On my view, among the entities that “just exist” are states of affairs and properties, as they are understood by a number of contemporary philosophers, including Alvin Plantinga. With respect to justice, my view is that there are various obtaining states of affairs concerning justice, and that when individual people have the property of being just, it is (in part) in virtue of the obtaining of some of these states of affairs. For instance, I hold that it is just to give people what they deserve; thus, anyone who gives others what they deserve thereby instantiates the property of justice. The state of affairs that it is just to give people what they deserve obtains whether or not any people actually exist, just as various states of affairs about dinosaurs obtain even though there are no longer any dinosaurs. In this way, my approach cashes out the idea of justice “just existing” in terms of facts about justice. This approach is perfectly intelligible and coherent and no more posits mysterious, floating entities than does any view committed to the existence of properties and states of affairs.7

This, however, is not the kind of defence that is required here. What Wielenberg refers to here is the fact that in any state of affairs there are true propositions about how justice is achieved, even if those propositions refer to other states of affairs (e.g. states of affairs in which there are people). But this is somewhat vacuous in the sense that what he ends up talking about is states of affairs in which there are truths about justice, and not about the non-natural thing called justice that he believes in. States of affairs in the universe are natural states of affairs, and Wielenberg does not believe that moral facts are natural, hence he is talking about natural states of affairs in which there are true statements about non-natural facts. But what Craig and Moreland are puzzling over is what the free floating non natural thing called justice is. They are not puzzled over the nature of the states of affairs in which there are truths about justice.

The real problem is here: While there might be no difficulty contemplating the existence of non-natural entities like numbers (and so no objection to non natural and non-personal entities per se), this does not put all non-natural entities on a level playing field. When it comes to UMFs, we are talking about things that are not just non-natural, but which also bring about certain requirements for us. The moral fact that torture is wrong means that there is some obligation on me to not torture people. But non-natural non-personal things (again, like numbers) cannot require things of us. This is where Robert Adams’ work on moral obligation is particularly relevant. Moral obligation and especially the subsequent blameworthiness that a person has as a result of failing to meet his moral obligations is an inherently social phenomenon that can only be understood in terms of a personal entity who is responsible for the existence of the obligation. If I make an error with numbers then I have made a mistake or failed to reach the right answer. If I engage in moral wrongdoing there is an altogether different and appropriate sense of shame and blameworthiness involved. There were certain intentions or expectations that existed for to live up to, and I have failed to meet them. The most straightforward reading of this phenomenon is that I have wronged someone and let them down, and they now have a reason to find fault with me. None of these very familiar responses to moral facts makes sense if moral facts are non-natural, ungrounded and non-personal, but they make good sense if morality represents the intentions of a being who created us.

The Epistemological Worry

If atheism is true, then we human beings evolved into what we are via a process that is now standardly described in textbooks on evolutionary biology, and crucially, they did so for no divinely appointed reason and with no creator’s plan involved. We developed as we did because this development was the path of least resistance. Changes occurred over the generations due to mutation, and some of those changes had the good luck to be more conducive to survival and reproduction, so those changes were kept, and on the process went. Now consider that while this process was going on, unguided, for millennia, there existed non-natural moral facts – facts that did not depend for their existence on any natural state of affairs whatsoever. While the most complex life on earth consisted of single celled organisms in a primordial slime puddle, these facts existed, and they continued to do so, unchanged, right through to the present day.

As a species, and as philosophers who think about ethics, we take ourselves to know some of the moral truths that are there – maybe even most of them. We have epistemic access to them. But supposing that the above scenario is correct, what are the chances that we should know any of those truths, let alone some or most of them?

Of course, atheists who reject the existence of moral facts have no problems discussing the origins of morality, since they are free to speak exclusively in terms of moral beliefs which are actually all false. In our developmental history our belief forming structures changed in ways that were beneficial to our forming beliefs beliefs that were useful for survival and reproduction, and we even formed sets of beliefs that we might call a “moral code,” but this has nothing to do with the truth of those beliefs. The beliefs were useful, and that is that. Their falsehood shouldn’t make us worried about holding them, as Nietzsche explained:

The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it: it is here, perhaps, that our new language sounds most strangely. The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life- preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing, and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil [emphasis original].8

If moral facts are not explained in terms of anything in the natural world, then there is, it seems to me, no reason to suppose that we would just happen to evolve as a species in such a way that we would find ourselves knowing what those facts are. Obviously (or so it seems, again, to me) if God exists then as a personal, albeit non-natural being, he might choose to let humanity know that he is there, whether by some sort of intervening revelation, or even by causing human beings to exist in such a way that when they function properly they are aware of his existence. But non-natural impersonal things like UMFs do not have this sort of ability simply because they are not personal.

If UMFs exist then, we have no reason to believe in them, or at least no reason to think that we are likely to know what they are.9

The Argument from Parsimony

Lastly in the very brief overview, a simple yet persuasive argument can be made that God’s existence as the explanation of moral facts is considerably simpler than positing the existence of UMFs and therefore to be preferred as an explanation.

Take a universe in which God does not exist and neither do moral facts. What does the non-theistic believer in UMFs need to add to this picture of the universe so that it resembles the real world? Brute moral facts. And how many does he need to add. To be honest, I’m not sure, and belief in UMFs does not itself commit one to an answer here. A UMF proponent can maintain that some moral facts are explained by other moral facts as a matter of inference, but let’s pick a small number and say that he must propose a couple of dozen brute moral facts. That’s a couple of dozen non natural entities that make requirements of us and which we are proposing to exist only because we find ourselves believing that we have such requirements. They are an addition to the world of entities that make no other contribution than this. What, in contrast, does the theistic proponent of the moral argument need to add tot he picture? He must add one God. But God, if he exists, does more than simply explain the existence of moral facts in what I have said is a much more comprehensible and plausible way than the alternative. God explains much more than this: The existence of the universe itself being an obvious candidate for explanation, along with the fine tuning of the universe for complex life (like Alvin Plantinga I would add the existence of epistemic warrant to that list as well). UMFs are a positively ungainly addition to the world of facts by comparison, explaining little and asking much.

For these reasons and perhaps others (did I mention that this article is intended as a brief introduction?), not only do I reject the view that there is parity between belief in uncaused non-natural moral facts and belief in God, but I think there are good reasons for doubting that such moral facts exist at all.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Erik J. Wielenberg, “In Defence of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism,” Faith and Philosophy 26:1 (2009), 23. []
  2. Wielenberg, “In Defence of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism,” 25. []
  3. Wielenberg, “In Defence of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism,” 30. []
  4. Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 492. []
  5. John M. Rist, Real Ethics: Rethinking the Foundations of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 40. []
  6. Rist, Real Ethics, 40. []
  7. Wielenberg, “In Defence of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism,” 33-34. []
  8. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil chapter 1, par. 4, 10. This edition is available free on the internet from www.planetpdf.com, obtained 10th January 2005. []
  9. In a tantalisingly brief and unsatisfying reference, Wielenberg indicates that he might think it possible to know moral facts by inferring them from other facts: “that a given fact is brute does not imply that it cannot be proven or inferred from other things one knows.” Wielenberg, “In Defence of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism,”25, footnote 11. []
{ 35 comments… add one }
  • Kenny September 17, 2010, 2:58 am

    I think that the way that certain moral facts give us reasons to act does pose a problem for naturalists (although I don’t think that this concern applies to moral facts in general, but rather just to facts concerning moral obligation).

    I do agree that naturalist moral realist do face some pretty difficult epistemological problems. However, one way for them to mitigate the force of those problems would be to simply to wrap them up with certain other problems. For example, if the naturalist takes basic moral facts to be among the class of necessary truths to which we have a priori access, then she can just take the mystery of how we know moral facts to reduce to the mystery of how we have a priori knowledge of necessary truths. I agree that naturalists have difficulty accounting for the latter mystery, but if they can’t do it somehow (or at least can’t rationally live with that mystery), so much the worse for naturalism in any case. There’s nothing specific to morality that causes problems for the naturalist here.

    The concerns about the ontology of moral facts strike me as a bit of a red herring. The nominalist, qua nominalist, I take it, is not committed to, say, historical antirealism simply because she maintains that, strictly speaking, there are no historical facts. She can still maintain, for example, that strictly speaking, Napoleon was defeated at the battle of Waterloo, even though, strictly speaking, there is no such fact as the fact that Napoleon was defeated at the battle of Waterloo. Furthermore (if she’s a sensible nominalist at any rate), she’ll concede that when people, in ordinary life, say things like “It is a fact that Napolean was defeated at Waterloo” or “The professor rattled off several historical facts in class today”, they manage to speak truthfully (or at least convey truths). She’ll have her own story to tell (if she’s a sophisticated nominalist) about how this is so.

    Likewise, the nominalist qua nominalist, isn’t committed to moral anti-realism simply because she maintains that, strictly speaking, there are no such things as moral facts. She can maintain, for example, that even though there’s no fact to the effect that necessarily, anyone who tortures the innocent for fun does something wrong, nevertheless, necessarily, anyone who tortures the innocent for fun does something wrong. Furthermore, she can maintain that when an ordinary person (or even a philosopher doing metaethics) says “There are genuine moral facts” (it is more likely that a philosopher would say this than an ordinary person), that person speaks truthfully (or at least conveys a truth). She can take the metaethical debate over whether there are moral facts to be largely independent of issues about the ontology of abstracta in the same way that she can take a debate between mathematicians concerning whether there are any counterexamples to Goldbach’s conjecture to be largely independent of issues about the ontology of abstracta.

    As for parsimony concerns, I’m dubious about arguments from parsimony in philosophy in general. But I’ve rambled on enough I suppose. I guess the upshot of all I am saying is that I think the considerations you raised here are a mixed bag.

  • G. Kyle Essary September 17, 2010, 3:13 am

    The most common objection I get from typical new Atheist types is to just count it to “brute facts.”

    They say things like, “Sure there are moral facts, but they are just brute facts that need no explanation,” as they similarly do with the laws of nature, mathematical axioms and other things. It’s really frustrating, but it seems like an increasing number are willing to make this move.

  • Burt September 17, 2010, 8:56 am

    The fault with the water bottle on table example is that on an atomic level there is no table, or bottle, or even earth surface.

    The only use for any moral context, whether divine or intellectual is to stabilise the psyche and regulate behaviour. It will expand and evolve as everything else in the universe does. It becomes your god.

    “To believe is to know you believe, and to know you believe is not to believe.”

  • Matt September 17, 2010, 1:15 pm

    Glenn I’d make a couple of points on your post.First, the position of Adams and Craig ( who appropriates Adams) is that the best explanation of the nature of moral obligation is that obligations are constituted by divine commands just as water is constituted by H20. It seems to me brute facts are not applicable here, while it makes sense to say something just exists and does not rely on anything else for its existence, its not obvious one can say something has no nature and nothing constituted or is identical with it. What Wielenberg is really saying is that the nature of moral obligation is that it constituted by some non natural property which transcends space time is eternal uncreated and so on. The question then is wether an appeal to non natural objects like this provides a better explaination that God does.

    Second, you write “He argues that saying that UMFs “just exist” is no more problematic than saying that God just exists, and any theistic objection to the existence of a UMF would count as an objection to a God whose existence is a brute fact, and so no theist can afford to offer the objections to UMFs that have in fact been offered” This argument seems to me to miss the point, at best Wielenberg shows that Thiests cannot object to UMF’s, but that really is not the issue, what Craig argues in the paper Wieleberg attacks is that athiests cannot come up with a plausible account of moral obligation. Athiests reject the existence of God. It seems to me that Craig could for the sake of argument accept Wielenberg’s point and then note that athiests typically reject the existence of a eternal non natural good person, as an explanation of moral facts and yet in the next breath accept a eternal non natural thing as an explanation, how is one sensible and the other not? The parity argument would tend to show that this is arbitrary. The only difference between Welenbergs UFM and God is that one is a person, and it does seems that when one is talking about values and prescriptions this is hardly a negative.

  • Glenn September 17, 2010, 5:30 pm

    Kenny, I don’t see the reason for the reference to nominalism. If someone says that they believe in non natural brute moral facts, they are not saying anything to imply nominalism.

  • Glenn September 17, 2010, 8:03 pm

    Kenny, on another note: I think that few people would deny that if God exists then moral facts could be the kind of thing that has a theological expalantion or basis. People disagree, of course, over whether or not moral facts need such an explanation.

    In light of what you say above about the fact that there’s nothing stopping an atheist “parcelling up” moral truths with necessary truths, let me ask you: Do you think that there are any necessary truths that would admit of an explanation in terms of other (non theological) facts?

    I ask this because it seems to me that this is something setting moral truths aside from necessary truths that someone like Wielenberg would believe in. Moral facts could in fact have a basis in something else.

  • Graham Robinson September 23, 2010, 1:29 am

    It worries me that someone who takes a naturalistic perspective would argue for the existence of moral facts.
    It is equally worrying when people like Sam Harris try to base a morality on science. This is a mistake made by Newtonian-age theologians.

    Being in a society is a messy difficult business and holding out vain hopes for objective moral facts is part of the problem not part of the solution.

  • Matt September 23, 2010, 3:52 pm

    Robinson, take the claim: Its wrong to rape women for fun as often as one can get away with it. Do you consider this claim true?

  • Graham Robinson September 23, 2010, 9:01 pm

    Matt
    I was primarily trying to agree with Glenn that moral facts are not compatible with a naturalistic position.

    Carrying out an act of the type you suggest with the motives you suggest can reasonably be said to objectively result in multiple harms. Obviously there is the harm to the victim, the friends and family of the victim, the well-being of the society in general and also not forgetting the harm done to the perpetrator.

    As humans we have some capacity for evaluating the consequences of our actions. Unlike most other animals we are able to, especially with support of our fellows, able to prioritise future positive consequences over immediate rewards. (Note: sadly, self destructive behaviour can become a reward for people who have arrived in particular states of mind.)

    We have many internal languages that enable us to perceive, process and act in the world. To avoid any originality, take the idea of colour. There is no such thing as colour. There is only a power distribution of light over the visible spectrum entering the eye (BTW I am a photographer and colour is very important to me). Further there are many quite distinct spectra that evoke the same perception. In addition as a consequence of our visual system our perception of colour is radically influenced by many contextual factors. Now despite the fact that there is no such thing as a specific colour try convincing a lay-person of the fact and you will have a hard time.

    The language of colour is created during early infant development as the signal is extracted from the noise of formative visual experiences. (Of course our eyes provide a whole slew of other capacities beyond its very limited capacity for colour perception). It is hard to see beyond the notion of colour as it has developed in us.

    We live in a world where we see caring and harming going on and we feel our own urges to nurture and sometimes, under duress, our desire to harm. We are aware (be it consciously or unconsciously) of the groups we belong to and the transactional stance that leads to us taking with ‘the other’. We are complex social creatures with highly developed capacities of trust, reciprocity and sanction. These and whole lot more feed in to our development of the capacity to perceive what is good and what is bad. This becomes our internal language of right and wrong. Just as it is valid, as a human being, to state that a post box is red then it is also valid, for us, to say that something, such as raping someone for fun, is wrong.

    In both cases there are clear and objective things in the real world (harms / spectra) that map to profoundly (almost unshakeably) held internal languages.

    The biggest challenges in this world ultimately boil down to an understanding of the self in relation to the other and how that can be made to drive mutuality and compassion. I venture to suggest that calling on a moral fact is just as superficial as demanding that a leaf is green.

    Very best regards
    /Graham

  • Matt September 23, 2010, 10:34 pm

    Graham Robinson so was that a yes or no answer to my question.

  • Graham Robinson September 24, 2010, 12:53 am

    Matt

    To be fair to your original question I tried to give a reasonably considered response. I think that in that response I had already answered your follow-up question.

    If you re-read the post you will see that the question you pose only makes sense within a constructed context.

    At risk of labouring the analogy…
    If I answer your question from the position and context of being a human I would answer as follows:
    Is a leaf green? Yes, I think that a leaf is green.
    Is rape wrong? Yes, I feel that rape is wrong.

    Outside the context of being human the term ‘green’ is meaningless. Likewise, from a truly objective context-free perspective all that exists is the harm that the deed causes; the wrongness or rightness of the deed is meaningless as there is no moral standard available to test the deed and its consequences against.

    Now, I’m really sorry that is not a Yes/No answer.
    You seem to be falling prey to the human desire to resolve situations into unambiguous categories.
    It is plausible that certainty assists in creating an effective posture for action but that does not make such certainties objective.

    Very best regards
    /Graham
    (BTW I won’t consider it rude if you wish to address me on first name terms)

  • Glenn September 24, 2010, 1:24 am

    Is a leaf green? Yes, I think that a leaf is green.
    Is rape wrong? Yes, I feel that rape is wrong.

    Graham, I notice a couple of things there. You say you think that a leaf is green, but you feel that rape is wrong. Do you mean something different by the terms “think” and “feel” here?

    Your follow up comments suggest that you think that it is just as factually correct for one of us to say that rape is wrong as it is for one of us to say that a leaf is green. Is that a fair comment?

  • Graham Robinson September 24, 2010, 7:21 am

    Glenn
    Thanks for the question will post my response when I get back from the real world.
    Graham

  • Graham Robinson September 24, 2010, 8:22 pm

    Glenn

    Apologies for the inconsistency on the think / feel. I guess the choice of words is an artefact of the kind of process I must have gone through to form the frame for my opinion. Properties of physical objects are largely neutral and are possibly processed in a primarily intellectual manner leading naturally to a think-mode. Whereas I would be a badly broken person if rape (do we have to keep using this word) was a neutral concept and hence I cannot help but have my frame informed by emotional reactions.
    In this context think and feel both mean “form the opinion”.

    The colour thing was to try to illustrate that we use internal concepts (that have no objective reality) in a symbolic way that serves our ability to be effective in the world. I suspect our moral computations are more complex than our colour cognition. Many other animals can process colour effectively without being troubled by right and wrong.

    I’ve quickly scanned my previous remarks and I don’t think made any statements about facts except to reject the idea of moral facts. I’ve alluded to facts where these can be arguably objectively established for example the harm arising from violence or the wavelength and intensity of light.

    The idea that a leaf is green would pass for a fact in informal conversation; however, being pedantic it is more a convention than a fact (the associated facts would be the physically measurable characteristics of the light being experienced).

    The idea that a violent act is wrong is a human assessment. I suspect the assessment is more than cold utilitarian calculus. It is doubtless coloured, knowingly or unknowingly, by emotions and personal or indirect experience. Being a judgement it falls prey to any and all of our human cognitive failings.

    So to answer your question. . .
    “ . . . it is just as factually correct for one of us to say that rape is wrong as it is for one of us to say that a leaf is green.”
    Despite it being the case that ‘green’ and ‘wrong’ are both opinions formed, the short answer it would seem is no.
    The two questions exist in different domains.
    Completely different processes are used to arrive at each conclusion.
    One question is stable and depends primarily on our vision hardware and infant developmental experience; the same ‘conclusion’ could be reached by any creature with colour vision.
    The other question is complex, values-based and highly context dependant.

    I’m sorry for the wordy response I do not have tidy textbook answers for you.

    Very best regards
    /Graham

  • Glenn September 24, 2010, 11:24 pm

    Ok thanks Graham. That does lead to an interesting further question though.

    If moral facts – well, not facts, but judgements – are only assessments that we form and nothing else, is it possible for anybody’s moral judgement to be wrong?

  • Graham Robinson September 25, 2010, 1:04 am

    Glenn
    I think the word ‘wrong’ can be used in a casual sense within a context of shared values. The word is pretty un-helpful outside simple cases. The words right and wrong make an implicit appeal to an absolute standard (or in the more restricted case a shared standard). Since absolute moral facts do not exist we have a problem with absolute right and wrong.

    “. . .is it possible for anybody’s moral judgement to be wrong?”
    From an absolute or ultimate perspective the question is meaningless because in such a context-free case the word wrong is meaningless.

    There are far too many (often very bloody) examples of people coming to differing views on right and wrong. Even if we cannot say someone’s judgement is right or wrong then all is not lost. I think it fair to say that some views may be better informed than others. I think it is possible to request that people share and explain the presuppositions that underlie their values and how that feeds into the conclusion drawn. I am sure there are many more aspects of a difficult dialogue that could be un-packed.

    That there are no absolute moral facts to adjudicate in human disagreements is not a cause for total despair. Rather I would ague that it suggests that we adopt strategies that generate mutual understanding and compassion.

    Very best regards
    /Graham

  • Glenn September 25, 2010, 1:48 am

    What I mean is, from a moral standpoint – since you reject moral facts and believe that morality can only ever be convention – you’d have to say that the moral judgements people act on are no better or worse than any other. They can’t be better or worse because there’s no yardstick, right?

  • Graham Robinson September 25, 2010, 12:02 pm

    Glenn

    “I reject absolute moral facts”
    Yes.

    “Moral judgements … no better … no worse… no yardstick”
    This is irrelevant and misses the point. I am not interested in whether or not or to what extent a judgement measures up to an absolute moral code. I think I already made this point fairly clearly in my last posting. Yet you seem to insist that I address this question from some sort of abstract absolute perspective of a moral standpoint which, as you point out, I do not accept.

    Are some attitudes and values ‘better’ than others?
    Yes; because some lead to loving, committed and affirming relationships whereas others cause violent and abusive relationships that create real and sometimes perpetual harms here and now in the physical world.

    Are some behaviours ‘worse’ than others?
    Yes; because some create people obscenely damaged by foetal alcohol syndrome or others rendered utterly dysfunctional members of society by chronic emotional and physical neglect whereas other behaviours create happy, mature, well-balanced and fulfilled people who are able to use their human capital to make the world a better place.

    I have no need of absolute moral yardsticks to distinguish between these cases as the costs and benefits are clear present and tangible here in a difficult and complex reality; they are not abstract or philosophical. What I need to do is live my life as an aware open and compassionate human creature that is entirely, intimately and inextricably part of a 100% natural world.

    Very best regards
    /Graham

  • Glenn September 25, 2010, 12:21 pm

    Graham, my question about a yardstick doesn’t miss the point of your previous comments. It is my own point that I want to introduce in the form of a question. You might think the question just isn’t important. Well maybe not to you, but it is important to me, and therefore it is very relevant to what I am trying to explore, even if it is not what you want to explore.

    There may be non-moral senses in which some choices are better than others. However, that really does miss the point. My question was, “from a moral standpoint” are any choices or judgements better than others?

    I ask this because it seems to me that you have committed yourself to saying that there’s no choice or judgement that is morally better than any other, for you have rejected the very existence of a moral yardstick in rejecting the existence of moral facts.

    Stated very differently, you might strongly prefer some outcomes (like non-violent relationships, as you have given as an example), but it’s not a fact that some choices and judgements are morally better (or worse) than others (if you are correct). If someone is happy for weaker people to suffer at the hands of stronger people, for example, then your appeal to them about choices being “better” will not be relevant.

    With respect, what I think is actually happening here is that you are talking about things being morally better, but you are not using moral language because that would concede too much. It is morally bad to make people suffer, and that is why choices that result in people suffering are bad choices. It doesn’t seem (in my view) to change anything by choosing not to call this badness moral badness. Morality by any other name is still morality.

  • Graham Robinson September 25, 2010, 4:14 pm

    Glenn
    I’ll answer your post paragraph by paragraph.

    I am very happy to accept that you consider a moral yardstick to be important and that you wish to raise the question. I don’t think it is the case that I do not _want_ to explore moral standpoints. I think it is more the case that given my worldview and the concomitant assumptions I do not have access to absolute moral facts and the related apparatus. If I were to become persuaded that AMFs might exist (be they grounded in a theistic or naturalistic view) then I would have to give serious consideration as to how that would affect my life stance.

    The only way that I could answer the question <> would be to take the question hypothetically. OK so let me for this paragraph accept there is an authoritative list of AMFs (such as Thou shalt not kill) that is called AMFs1. From a moral standpoint a judgement will be better or worse depending on the extent that conforms to AMFs1. This is problematic in many ways. (1) Given the nature of the world a complex situation will lead to conflict between AMFs in AMFs1. Leading to dispute in the interpretation and applicability of the various AMFs. This dispute is irreconcilable by reference to AMFs1. (2) The extent to which AMFs1 is a measure the good is simply an appeal to the authority of the author of AMFs1. (3) The nature of the world is such that there will be multiple equally sincere and deeply held claims to authority leading to AMFs2, AMFs3 and so on. There will be mutual incompatibilities between the various AMFsN and hence conflicts in the claims to the good. Since claims to the good can only be resolved by reference to a given AMFsN we have a recipe for reconcilable conflict. (4) There is no guarantee that the conformance of a judgement with AMFs1 necessarily maps to the least harm especially in a complex situation where there is ambiguity or conflict between AMFs – – – I accept that is a very superficial response. I may think the whole AMF thing is a can of worms but it is important to note that I do not dismiss AMFs because of this analysis. I reject them because a naturalistic worldview consistently held cannot support such a concept.

    Yes I have rejected AMFs and as a consequence I am compelled forgo the use of yardsticks.

    You are right to point out that I have preferences for some outcomes over others; such is my nature and inclination. I agree that (from my perspective) it is not a fact that some judgements are objectively morally better than others. It is the case that many people are prepared to use power to exploit or harm others for what they perceive as a personal gain. I do not agree that appealing to such people would be irrelevant or pointless. An appeal would only be pointless if they were somehow beyond cause and effect or seriously broken (perhaps they are a brain-injured sociopath). It would not be a case of presenting my “better” as some sort of local AMF that trumps their values. Whatever the approach (be it educative, restorative, rehabilitative, containment, sanction or mitigation) it would be based on the observation that they are, like it or not, part of the physical world and as consequence cannot escape some influence. Sadly, history shows that this approach does not always work but the attempt is not pointless.

    With respect, I do not think I am talking about things being morally better. I am talking about being a wholly natural creature with all the complications and contradictions that that implies. I have no rose-coloured view of our species. Nevertheless, within the context of being a human there are dispositions and attitudes (that are not external absolute moral values) that are broadly shared and stable across many individuals. Our urge to give care and prevent harm is a gift of our primate ancestry that needs nurturing by our culture. Reciprocity and trust are innate traits that, in a healthy society, can blossom into fairness and justice. Our instinctive deference to authority, our feelings of kinship and our sense of correctness are dangerously double edged and we need to reflect carefully on our choices. If there is something that we feel inclined to call morality it will be grounded in these natural traits not in a laundry-list of external AMFs. If indeed we are natural creatures we would expect to find a world that was complex, messy, dangerous and yet at times also touching and beautiful. It seems to me that this is the kind of world we do find ourselves in. Thankfully we have the capacity to reflect on our behaviour and that leads us to cultivate some aspects of our nature rather than others; wherever that should take us. (Sorry that is a long paragraph but I wanted to keep the match with your paragraph breaks)

    VBR /Graham

  • Graham Robinson September 25, 2010, 4:18 pm

    Damn.
    The angle brackets in the second para should be
    “from a moral standpoint” are any choices or judgements better than others?

    Note to self: do not quote using darts.
    /Graham

  • Glenn September 25, 2010, 5:26 pm

    An appeal would only be pointless if they were somehow beyond cause and effect or seriously broken (perhaps they are a brain-injured sociopath). It would not be a case of presenting my “better” as some sort of local AMF that trumps their values. Whatever the approach (be it educative, restorative, rehabilitative, containment, sanction or mitigation) it would be based on the observation that they are, like it or not, part of the physical world and as consequence cannot escape some influence.

    And this is the weakest part of what I think you’re saying. It says that the only appeal you can make tot he vicious oppressor is a kind of argument that says “it’ll come back to haunt you in the end.”

    In other words, it concedes the point that as long as they will, in fact, really get away with it, we have nothing to offer the Hitlers of this world. What they are doing isn’t really wrong, we simply don’t happen to like it, and unless they are actually going to suffer as a result of what they are doing, they have no reason to refrain.

  • Graham Robinson September 25, 2010, 11:24 pm

    Glenn
    I don’t quite get why you say that this is the _weakest_ part of what I am saying. I could understand why you might say this is the _most_undesirable_ part of what I am saying.

    I don’t understand why you think this is inconsistent with my naturalistic position. I don’t expect the universe to owe me anything let alone guaranteed justice for the violent and the oppressive. That is why I think that if any goodness is to be found on this earth we need to work together to elicit those innate positive attitudes and behaviours that do undeniably reside with our natures.

    You make my point for me when you say “What they are doing isn’t really wrong”. I agree and have said all along that there are no absolute moral facts here. However, the issue of absolute right or absolute wrong is completely beside the point. What matters here is the clearly manifest harm that is being done on all sides as a consequence of the violence and oppression. It is here that we must practice summoning the best of our natures in response to our fellow’s worst predilections.

    You make a final remark that “they have no reason to refrain”. This is a particularly distressing part of your thesis. It seems you feel that the only way we can be a force (not in absolute terms but by our own limited lights) for good is the assurance of certain divine retribution for transgressions. Not even my naturalistic position posits such a damning character assessment of our species.

    Very best regards
    /Graham

  • Glenn September 25, 2010, 11:39 pm

    “I don’t understand why you think this is inconsistent with my naturalistic position.”

    I don’t think this and I never said that I did. To say that a position is so counterintuitive that it weakens your position (i.e. makes it less believable) is not to say that your position is inconsistent. I didn’t refer to consistency.

    It seems you feel that the only way we can be a force (not in absolute terms but by our own limited lights) for good is the assurance of certain divine retribution for transgressions. Not even my naturalistic position posits such a damning character assessment of our species.

    I didn’t say this at all. Obviously what I meant is “they have no moral reason, nor any other kind of reason that you can give them.” Basically, your stance amounts to the view that if people can get away with it then we don’t have any grounds for telling someone to refrain from anything whatsoever.

  • Graham Robinson September 27, 2010, 12:05 am

    Glenn
    OK, apologies I have obviously misunderstood your last posting.

    We have a lot of shared ground, however, we have some very clear differences around how and why the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have any basis, meaning, force or authority.

    I understand your position to be:
    When someone with a naturalistic worldview uses the terms right and wrong in a moral context they are either misappropriating the Christian foundation or simply using them witout foundation.

    I think I’d like to ask some clarifying questions.
    But must go just now.

    Very regards
    /Graham

  • Ilíon September 28, 2010, 6:23 am

    Wielenberg offers what can be called a parity argument. There is parity, he claims, between belief in God and belief in UMFs. He argues that saying that UMFs “just exist” is no more problematic than saying that God just exists, and any theistic objection to the existence of a UMF would count as an objection to a God whose existence is a brute fact, and so no theist can afford to offer the objections to UMFs that have in fact been offered.

    He’s partly right (though surely for the wrong reasons).

    The correct reason is that God *is* morality, just as God *is* love.

  • Ilíon September 28, 2010, 6:49 am

    G.Peoples:Now consider that while this process was going on, unguided, for millennia, there existed non-natural moral facts – facts that did not depend for their existence on any natural state of affairs whatsoever. While the most complex life on earth consisted of single celled organisms in a primordial slime puddle, these facts existed, and they continued to do so, unchanged, right through to the present day.

    But non-natural impersonal things like UMFs do not have this sort of ability [to let us know themselves] simply because they are not personal.

    As I said in a different thread, moral obligations are interpersonal and relational. On the ‘interpersonal’ side, there are no moral obligations where there are no persons … there is no such thing as ‘morality’ if there are no persons.

    The only way I can see to make sense of Wielenberg’ position is that he believes/asserts that “objective morality,” or “unexplained (because they “just are”) moral facts,” exist even when or despite that there are no persons.

    But, a moral fact imposes an obligation on one or more persons, else it is no moral fact. If there are no persons, then these hypothetical/asserted “unexplained moral facts” obviously impose no obligations upon anyone. But (repeating), a hypothetical/asserted moral fact which imposes no obligation upon any person is no moral fact at all.

    So, trying to make sense of Wielenberg’ position, it seems that it must reduce to: “there exist unexplained (because they “just are”) moral facts … which are not really moral facts.

  • Graham Robinson September 28, 2010, 8:53 am

    Glenn: I am rewinding our exchange to point 22.

    My problem with a violent oppressor is not that he might be breaking some absolute moral law; my concern is that he is causing clear and manifest harms.

    We seem to be not having a meeting of minds on the distinction between harmful behaviour and wrong behaviour. It seems that you think I have no grounds for trying to prevent someone from causing harm unless I can prove it is a moral wrong. I, however, feel quite justified to make representations and interventions in this regard. I take these steps because I am human and it is part of human nature to feel the suffering of others and to naturally want to prevent such abuses.

    You make the point that the oppressor may turn around and say “You can’t prove that what I’m doing is wrong so I’m going to continue.” That is a completely fair point and it would be then up to me to decide how I respond to that. However, if the oppressor was confronted by someone making claims to absolute moral truths and that his behaviour was a moral wrong I doubt very much that that would cut any more ice.

    There are other points over which we are at cross purposes but I will stop there.

  • Glenn September 28, 2010, 5:59 pm

    “It seems that you think I have no grounds for trying to prevent someone from causing harm unless I can prove it is a moral wrong.”

    What I have said is that according to you, you have no reason to offer that person for why he should stop if it is likely that he will get away with it.

    In doing this, I hoped to get you to say “Wait – that just can’t be right.” I think that it jars with normal human intuitions, perhaps with yours.

    Your latest comment suggests that the issue is whether or not either of us will actually convince the oppressor. I agree that persuavive force is worth having, but it wasn’t quite the point. If I have understood you, then even if the oppressor believes what you say about moral value, he has no reason to do what you say if he will not be caught. However, if he believes what I say about moral value, then he does have a reason to do as I say.

    I think we are having a meeting of minds on the harm/wrong distinction. But harm is no more than a description of the way things happen to be. As such it doesn’t tell us what action to take. An act’s being morally wrong, on the other hand, has precisely this importance.

  • Glenn September 28, 2010, 6:00 pm

    Ilion: I think God is a person, so I do not think that God is morality. Morality, on my view, is the result of the will of God.

  • Graham Robinson September 28, 2010, 11:50 pm

    Glenn: In dealing with harms against persons we need to engage with the perpetrator as a person. Part of this may be, as you suggest, an appeal to reason. A far more significant part of dealing with it needs to be an appeal to humanity and particularly an appeal to compassion. For if the perpetrator is not able to respond with compassion they become a very dangerous member of society. If they cannot be educated and rehabilitated then society will have no choice but to protect itself from this sociopath.

    You seem to put much emphasis on whether the violator is ‘likely to get away with it’; which, I confess, confuses me because appeals to compassion and reason (unlike an appeal to authority or sanction) do carry force whether or not the offender ‘is likely to get away with it’.

    I think, also, that in a very real sense the violator never ‘gets away with it’. In that the harms have been done not only to the victims and society but also to themselves. They pay a high price by being damaged as a person, for example, by becoming inured to harmful behaviour patterns.

    You repeat the statement that ‘he has no reason to do what you say if he will not be caught’. He cannot avoid being ‘caught’ by himself even if he avoids being ‘caught’ by others. If reason or compassion has force then it has force even if the offender is the only one aware of the offence. Of course, if there is some kind of rationalisation or denial going on then this may undermine the force of reason and compassion. This is where society, and the groups and individuals within it, have a key role to play in challenging such rationalisations and denials. I agree that convincing a society of the existence of absolute norms, backed up by certain detection of transgression and inescapable accountability might be one approach to social control.

    I don’t agree that (in this context) ‘harm is no more than a description’; the act of harming is a discount of the victim’s person. As such a human naturally relates to and feels that harm and is, thereby, moved to take action to prevent it. This seems to me adequate motivation and direction.
    (I can see how this may not work for someone with serious cognitive deficits and that training in situation assessment and selection of appropriate behaviours would be helpful.)

    It is not clear to me what you mean by ‘morally wrong’.
    If by it you mean the nature and character of harmful acts then I’m happy to use the term ‘morally wrong’ as a shorthand description; though I’d probably simply say ‘wrong’. For example, I would be happy to say that it is wrong to smack someone in the face for a laugh.
    If, however, you mean contrary to an absolute moral fact then we would part company again. Though, you are welcome to use such a calculus to run your life.

    Have I given you the stick you were hoping to beat me with?

  • Glenn September 29, 2010, 12:15 am

    Graham, I’m not looking for a stick. I think your position is wrong and have said so, that’s all.

    The reason I was talking about “getting away with it” is that this is an idea that you introduced back in comment 20:

    I do not agree that appealing to such people would be irrelevant or pointless. An appeal would only be pointless if they were somehow beyond cause and effect or seriously broken (perhaps they are a brain-injured sociopath). It would not be a case of presenting my “better” as some sort of local AMF that trumps their values. Whatever the approach (be it educative, restorative, rehabilitative, containment, sanction or mitigation) it would be based on the observation that they are, like it or not, part of the physical world and as consequence cannot escape some influence. [emphasis added]

    The idea, if I understood this at all, is that whether oppressors like it or not, they live in the real world and cause and effect will bite them in the butt if they act in certain ways.

    But of course, if they can somehow be assured (or if they think it’s likely) that nothing will bite them in the butt and they will, in fact, escape any ill effect, then this particular appeal to reason is not available.

    So my reference to getting away with it should not confuse you at all – it was your idea!

    I think we will just have to part ways. You’re describing the fact that we (most of us) do feel compassion and are inclined to act on it, and (apparently) thinking that this gives everyone a reason to act in a certain way. But if they do not feel so inclined, then compassion is no issue, and if they will not suffer consequences, then reason is not an issue. Yet still, you say, reason and compassion will be the thing that catches them.

    You disagree that harm is just a description because “the act of harming is a discount of the victim’s person.” But obviously discount is a reference to value, and sans objective moral facts, “value” is just a matter of how much somebody values something. If the oppressor does not value the life of those he oppresses, then he has no reason, as far as the value of his victims is concerned, to stop.

    So I’m afraid every step we take is a frustrating one for me here, and I have no objection to taking no further steps.

  • Graham Robinson September 29, 2010, 1:24 am

    OK I’ll drop it. It is the compassionate thing to do 🙂

  • Ilíon September 30, 2010, 2:56 am

    G.Peoples:Ilion: I think God is a person, so I do not think that God is morality. Morality, on my view, is the result of the will of God.

    You didn’t attend to what I wrote, did you?

    When the NT says, “God is love,” is it claiming that God is not a person? When the NT says, “God is light,” is it claiming that God is not a person?

    When Christ says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” is he claiming that he is not a person?

  • Scott Terry December 21, 2013, 5:06 am

    This is all well and good for someone who believes moral facts exist, but how would you deal with a moral anti-realist?

    Is there some way we can show that moral facts must exist necessarily, or that they are required as preconditions of our every day experience?

    I’m not a philosopher … just a regular Christian who works on a farm – how am I supposed to counter a sniveling atheist who claims to be a moral anti-realist?

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