Category Archives: morality

What is morality, and what are our obligations?

Subjective

Sometimes people are inclined to describe an area of inquiry, like morality, as subjective. However, it is important to separate out two senses of the word “subjective,” which I will call the metaphysical sense and the epistemological sense.

  • An area is metaphysically subjective if there actually are no objective criteria for deciding questions in that area of inquiry.
  • An area is epistemologically subjective if there are objective criteria for deciding questions in that area, but we don’t know what they are.

Every area of inquiry is epistemologically subjective prior to discovering the objectively correct criteria to employ, by definition. For example, logic was epistemologically subjective prior to Aristotle, since no one had explicit rules for how to reason properly or identify logical fallacies. People just reasoned using intuition until the objective logical standards were discovered.

Some areas of inquiry are metaphysically subjective, like astrology. There are no objective criteria for what your horoscope should say, because the field has no basis in reality. If the objective criteria for an area of inquiry are not known, then that may be used as an argument for the position that that area of inquiry is metaphysically subjective – that is, that there are in fact no such criteria. This is the basis for the philosophical position that morality is subjective.

It is critically important that we not rest content with a subjective approach to any legitimate area of inquiry, but rather work to define objective standards for everything we do. In the absence of objective standards, disagreement will proliferate, and skepticism and mysticism will run rampant.

A Bad Argument for Moral Subjectivism

I have seen moral subjectivists imply the following argument at times:

  1. Either morality is based on God or morality is subjective.
  2. Morality is not based on God.
  3. Therefore, morality is subjective.

The argument is rarely put this clearly, but I suspect it’s a pattern of reasoning many moral subjectivists follow. They start out as Christians, accept that God doesn’t exist, and conclude that there is no morality, since the only concept of morality they are familiar with is supernatural. (This premise could also be seen as suggested by much of the moral debate in certain areas of the internet, which is mostly between divine command theorists and moral subjectivists.)

This is a bad argument because the first premise is unjustified – there is no reason why objective morality would have to be based on God. This is a Christian premise that there is no reason to accept on a secular worldview.

On a secular worldview, objective morality is much more likely to be based on the desire to live a good life. Everyone reading this likely wants to be happy, and you will be happier if you develop certain character traits in yourself over time. One example of such a character trait is productivity. People who are characteristically productive are likely to be happier than people who are lazy, because they will have accomplished more, so they will have higher self esteem, and they will likely be materially better off (more so than they would have been, at any rate).

This is the approach to morality moral subjectivists need to be considering when they make their case for moral subjectivism, not the much less plausible supernaturalist approach. We don’t use the pattern of reasoning “not supernatural, therefore subjective” in scientific issues, so we shouldn’t use it in philosophical issues.

Objective Meaning

The anonymous author of the blog Believe or Doubt recently made a post about objective meaning with respect to theism and atheism. According to believeordoubt, atheists do not have objective meaning, meaning based on something other than their feelings. Therefore, atheists do not have meaning at all, i.e., they do not have true meaning.

There is a fundamental assumption that religious people make and atheists deny, without it often coming into consciousness: true meaning must be objective. That is, the feeling of meaning is not the same as real meaning.

believeordoubt, being religious, sides with the religious people on this. She gives the analogy of Nozick’s experience machine, a machine that could give you the illusion of a completely perfect life. According to believeordoubt, most people would not enter the experience machine, because it isn’t real. In the absence of objective meaning, there is no meaning.

In my view, the atheist has no problem supplying his or her life with objective meaning, as defined by believeordoubt.

A conclusion is objective, not based on feelings, if it is based on observation and logic. An atheist should have no problem gathering observations about his or her own desires and interests, the world around them, and the available productive careers. By reflecting rationally on those observations, the atheist could fashion for him or herself an objectively meaningful life (and I submit that many of them do).

Such a meaning is not properly described as based on feelings, since the atheist is not just saying “welp, I feel like being a doctor today.” One’s life would be meaningless if one went into a career by whim, without thinking about it, but the application of evidence and logic to the issue removes that possibility.

Now, believeordoubt may mean something other than this by “objective meaning,” but if she does then I don’t know what it could be. Since no definition is provided, one could reasonably assume that she is tacitly defining objective meaning as meaning provided by God, in which case her argument is viciously circular.

 

The Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma is an argument against divine command theory, the view that God’s commands are the source of morality. On this view, anything that God commands us to do is the right thing to do, by definition, and anything God commands us not to do is the wrong thing to do, by definition.

So, here’s the Euthyphro dilemma, based on one of Plato’s earlier dialogues:

  1. If morality is based on God’s commands, then either God commands us to do things because they are good, or it is good to do things because God commands us to do them.
  2. If God commands us to do things because they are good, then morality is independent of God, since things are good prior to God’s commands.
  3. If it is good to do things because God commands us to do them, then morality is unacceptably arbitrary. For example, God could command us to boil babies alive, and that would make it good to boil babies alive.
  4. Therefore, morality is not based on God’s commands.

This is usually taken to be a very strong argument against divine command theory.

Interestingly, this sort of argument is not usually taken to be a strong objection to other moral theories that base morality on the will of a specific person or group. For example, moral subjectivists don’t think it is a very strong objection to their view that it is consistent with boiling babies alive if my subjective desires incline me to. Moral relativists don’t think it is a very strong objection to their position that it is consistent with boiling babies alive if the group decides to boil babies alive. And so on.

Where Plato Meets Hobbes

In many ways, Plato and Hobbes couldn’t be more different. Plato was an idealist, and Hobbes was a materialist. Plato advocated free will, and Hobbes was a determinist. And, famously, Plato believed in the Forms, whereas Hobbes was a staunch nominalist. But despite their differences elsewhere, the political philosophies of Plato and Hobbes are strikingly similar.

Plato advocated a dictatorship ruled by philosophers, on the grounds that philosophers alone have cognitive access to the Form of the Good. If a philosopher is given intensive training and education over the course of decades, he will be able to pierce the veil of perception and see what is really good. And once he has mystic insight into what is good, there is no reason why he shouldn’t use force to get any misguided citizens of the Republic who disagree to obey him.

Hobbes’ dictatorship was not ruled by mystics, like Plato’s. Instead, Hobbes, claiming to be an advocate of science, advocated a dictatorship run by arbitrary whim. Words like “good” and “justice” are controversial, and there is no objective way to settle disputes about these ideas, since they are subjective. So, according to Hobbes, everyone should submit to an all powerful Leviathan out of fear of anarchy, and just agree to treat the ruler as right by definition.

Why did Plato and Hobbes both end up advocating tyranny, even though they disagreed on so many points? The answer is that, although they might superficially look like opposites, mysticism and subjectivism can both lead to tyranny in practice. Mysticism can lead to a dictatorship ruled by mystics, whereas subjectivism can lead to a dictatorship ruled by the feelings of the dictator.

How do atheists define good and evil?

Below is a post I wrote in response to the following question.

How do atheists define good and evil?

Atheists define good and evil differently, just like theists do. You’re probably familiar with Christians who have different beliefs about what good and evil are than you do. There are Christians who don’t think morality is based on God’s will, and even among Christians who do think morality is based on God’s will there isn’t complete agreement about what God’s will is, specifically. The situation with atheists is a lot like this – lots of different worldviews with no single set of principles between them.

Personally, I think Ayn Rand correctly defined good and evil in her essay “The Objectivist Ethics.” Ayn Rand thought that the purpose of morality was to have the best life for yourself and the people you love. This doesn’t mean exploiting other people, like Nietzsche thought it did, because the only way to become happy is to live a principled, productive life, neither sacrificing yourself to other people nor other people to yourself.

If you’re interested in looking into Ayn Rand’s own summary of her philosophy of Objectivism, you can read it at the link below:

http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/objectivism.html

Let me know if you have any questions.

My Objections to Hume

I posted the following in response to a request for my thoughts on Hume:

My main two objections to Hume are his view of induction and his view of morality.

I don’t agree that inductive inferences are merely a matter of habit – we do perceive causality, although we perceive it originally in specific instances and then abstract the concept of causality from those instances. Causality isn’t immediately perceivable like the color red is, but we can learn of its existence by inference from things like pushing a ball and watching it roll, and scientific theories are broader generalizations induced from numerous directly perceivable causal connections like this.

I also don’t agree that morality is a matter of the sentiments rather than of relationships between things. We do originally become aware of moral distinctions by means of the sentiments – I don’t like being hurt, so I conclude that that’s bad, and I like having friends, so I conclude that that’s good. However, there is an objective moral standard that we can infer from these primitive moral beliefs, based on a specific kind of life that it is best for a human being to have, one centered on our own self interest.

So basically, I think Aristotle has better positions on these issues than Hume does. I might do a longer post on Hume later.