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.

Science and Philosophy

In an earlier post, I argued that neuroscience was relevant to philosophy of mind, because neuroscience provided support for the claim that the brain is not unified in the sense that consciousness is, which is an important claim in philosophy of mind (see the post for elaboration).

I have reconsidered this, because it occurred to me after a discussion with one of my professors that we don’t need neuroscience to know that the brain is not unified like consciousness is. Anyone can see, from the most elementary, pre-scientific knowledge of what the brain is, that the brain is not indivisible. You can’t have half of a mind, but you can have half of a brain.

This is part of a consistent pattern I have observed. Scientific experiments which claim to contribute to philosophical debates always, in my experience, end up falling into one of two traps:

  1. Triviality: The philosophical point the scientific experiment attempts to prove could be argued for equally well from pre-scientific knowledge.
  2. Ambiguity: The scientific experiment can be re-interpreted by opponents of the philosophical claim it attempts to prove.

I’ve yet to see a scientific experiment that didn’t fall into one of these two traps. However good it may be as science, when it is interpreted as an argument for or against a philosophical position it always turns out to be trivial or ambiguous.

This is not to say that you can’t make it easier or harder to hold a philosophical position using science. I would say that scientific discoveries like the theory of evolution have made it harder – not impossible, but harder – to believe in God. I do not mean to say that there is a deductive argument for atheism here, but familiarity with the theory of evolution could give a person the sense that the world is entirely explicable naturalistically, or knock out primitive forms of the teleological argument that formerly served as a basis for faith.

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.

 

Prayer

I think prayer is, in part, a way of attempting to control complex systems that we do not understand. To illustrate, here are some examples of prayers people might say:

  • “God, please let my candidate win the election.”
  • “God, please don’t let the hurricane tearing through town hit my house.”
  • “God, please don’t let Bob die of cancer.”

Each of these prayers have surely been said many times, in various forms, and each of them attempts to exert control over a complex system that we do not understand – the election, hurricane, or cancer. The prayer is a way of allaying our fear about an uncertain outcome.

We are much less likely to pray about things that we know will happen, because in those cases we understand all of the variables, so we don’t feel any need to appeal to a mysterious force to influence the outcome.

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.

Reading Philosophy

I’ll explain how I approach a philosophical text, then list some books you can read to refine your approach further.

Reading Philosophy

The main thing when reading a philosophical text is to read actively – take notes, write in the margins, anything so that you’re not just letting the words pass over you. In addition, you need to read any philosophical text that you want to understand and remember a minimum of two times.

The first time you read a philosophical text, you need to put aside your personal views and just try to understand what the text is saying. Don’t evaluate the argument at this point, or your evaluation will distort your understanding of the content of the argument. Be able to prove that the philosopher is actually asserting each component of the argument you think he is making with specific passages in the text.

Once you understand the argument of the text, you can read it again to evaluate the argument. It helps many people to make an “argument map” or lay out the argument of the text in front of them as a syllogism so that the premises and inferences are clearly displayed.

If you read a philosophical text carefully, take notes, evaluate it thoughtfully, and write an essay explaining your point of view, there is a good chance you will remember it for the rest of your life.

Book Recommendations

One book that was recommended to me by a very good professor when I was a college freshman is The Practice of Philosophy by Jay F. Rosenberg. Rosenberg focuses on how philosophical worldviews get articulated and defended in the dialectical process of formulating and criticizing arguments, and he presents some common ways in which philosophical arguments are criticized.

Lewis Vaughn’s book Writing Philosophy is good, as well. It has two chapters that cover how to properly read a philosophical text, and it covers how to formulate and criticize a philosophical argument.

If you want a text that covers some basic issues along with readings, you might try Core Questions in Philosophy by Elliot Sober. Sober presents classic philosophical arguments clearly and explains how a philosopher could go about criticizing them. There is also a section near the beginning that explains inductive and deductive arguments.