Theistic morality is subjective

Claiming that morality is what an objectively real deity objectively commands is all very well, but without a way of knowing which deity is objectively real, it gets us no further forrarder.

Could a theist who claims that theistic morality is objective explain how we can objectively discern which theistic morality is the objective one?

180 thoughts on “Theistic morality is subjective

  1. William J. Murray:
    Because someone does something that they have not rationally justified doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It just means they haven’t rationally justified it.

    No reasoning is required to recognize a self-evident truth. No reasoning is required to act on it.

    OK.

    Reasoning IS required to reconcile the existence of that truth, and the rationale for actions taken from knowing that truth,with one’s worldview premises.

    Anyone can know (recognize) that X is wrong and know they have a right and an obligation to intervene; that doesn’t mean that such knowledge, rights and obligations are justifiable under their worldview premises.

    What is the difference between the knowledge that X is wrong and “justifying” the knowledge that X is wrong?

    (Recall that according to you we can know that X is wrong without proof or reasoning.)

  2. William,

    No reasoning is required to recognize a self-evident truth. No reasoning is required to act on it. Reasoning IS required to reconcile the existence of that truth, and the rationale for actions taken from knowing that truth, with one’s worldview premises.

    We’re still awaiting your presentation of the reasoning that leads you from these premises:

    P1. God exists.

    P2. God created us.

    P3. God has a purpose for us that he wants us to fulfill.

    …to these conclusions:

    C1. Each of us is morally obligated to fulfill his or her purpose.

    C2. God’s purposes take moral precedence over everyone else’s purposes.

    C3. “Self-evident” moral intuitions reliably tell us what God wants us to do.

    Can you justify your moral system, or do you consider yourself exempt from the demands you make of others?

  3. Kantian Naturalist:

    More precisely, a non-theist and a theist can and will agree on certain moral judgments, and regard those moral judgments as self-evident, but the non-theist is unable to fit those self-evident moral truths into his or her overarching world-view. in a wholly rationally satisfactory way, whereas the theist is able to do so.

    “Able to do so” only if the theist is deluded about xis own thought -processes, which of course is an easy delusion to fall into.

    In reality, they aren’t able to fit “self-evident moral truths” into an “overarching world view” in any more rationally satisfactory way than any decent human on our planet.

    There is an alternative: that the theist is deliberately lying about their purported morality and “overarching world view” (for reasons such as status, power, cult maintenance). In which case, it would be a shame if we were taken in by their con.

    After more decades than I want to count of watching their ungodly actions then hearing their self-serving rationales, I don’t accept whatever they say at face value.

    This is not a saying that belongs to my culture, but I do think it’s apt:

    White man speaks with forked tongue.

  4. The content fails to deliver on the title.

    “Theistic morality is subjective” in BIG LETTERS.

    No case is put forth in defense of the claim.

  5. What is the difference between the knowledge that X is wrong and “justifying” the knowledge that X is wrong?

    A rationally consistent belief system.

    Let’s say that one of those self-evident bits of knowledge is that X exists. Let’s say that logically, X cannot exist without Y. However, you have a worldview that claims Y doesn’t exist. Therefore, even though you know and admit X exists, your worldview is not rationally reconcilable with that knowledge, because your worldview claims that Y doesn’t exist, which is necessary for X.

    This is exactly the argument I’m making.

  6. Kantian Naturalist: Lizzie, I think that you and Murray are talking past one another here.You’re talking about using one’s moral principles to guide conduct; he’s talking about the consistency of those principles with the overarching structure of one’s worldview. His claim is that the non-theistic worldview cannot explain why we have the self-evident moral truths that we have. More precisely, a non-theist and a theist can and will agree on certain moral judgments, and regard those moral judgments as self-evident, but the non-theist is unable to fit those self-evident moral truths into his or her overarching world-view. in a wholly rationally satisfactory way, whereas the theist is able to do so.

     

    KN – very clearly put. I think WJM makes a second related claim.  He says that only a theist can justify their particular moral principles. I don’t think moral statements are objective statements of fact, but I have no problem identifying moral claims that pretty much everyone would accept without needing further reasons – such as “whimsical child torture is wrong”. I guess these claims would count as self-evident.

    So you could ask an atheist  and a theist:

    a) Can you make those claims consistent with your world view?

    b) Can you justify those claims to someone who has different moral principles?

    I don’t see that (a) is a problem for either party. As an atheist I hold that they reflect deeply held responses that evolved as part of being a human. A theist holds that they are God’s laws which he has given us an insight into.

    (b) is more interesting. Does the theist have an answer that that atheist does not? One way to tackle this is to imagine a conversation with someone who has very different moral principles e.g a mass murderer such as Hitler (or King Leopold of Belgium to remind us there are Christian mass murderers). If a theist claims mass murder is wrong then the murderer might respond at different levels:

    1) Accept the theist’s belief and principles and try to justify the murder by twisting those principles e.g “They don’t count as human as intended by God”. This is a debate within a moral framework and no different to an atheist who shares the same framework.

    2) Deny the belief of the theist e.g “Your God may say it is wrong but he doesn’t exist and mine says it is just fine”. The theist is clearly no better off than the atheist.

    3) Accept the belief of the theist but not the principles. e.g. “Yes I believe in God and I know he says mass murder is wrong but I disagree – I think murder  is just fine – we are all going to die and go to heaven or hell anyway – I am just speeding up the process”. Again the theist does not seem to be any better off than the atheist. There is no way of proving the murderer the wrong.

    Note – in both cases it is possibly to provide reasons to support your argument: “you are being inconsistent if you are not prepared to murder your own people”, “how would you like it if it were your own family”, “have you thought about the suffering of the relatives left behind” etc But these reasons are persuasive not conclusive and are equally available to atheist and theist.

  7. William J. Murray: A rationally consistent belief system.

    Let’s say that one of those self-evident bits of knowledge is that X exists. Let’s say that logically, X cannot exist without Y. However, you have a worldview that claims Y doesn’t exist. Therefore, even though you know and admit X exists, your worldview is not rationally reconcilable with that knowledge, because your worldview claims that Y doesn’t exist, which is necessary for X.

    This is exactly the argument I’m making.

    So is it your position that the knowledge that X is wrong could not exist unless there were a god?

  8. William J. Murray:
    Any principle one comes up with that doesn’t reference an objective (absolute) standard can be waved off as the product of their own conceptual framework, in equal competition with any other principle from any other conceptual framework.

    As far as I an tell, there’s just no way to win that argument without reference to an assumed objective standard that transcends any conceptual framework. And, honestly, I don’t see how one can rationalize the use of force to intervene on the acts of others without such an assumed standard.

    and on my question if people who do’t know where our moral concepts come from are to be scorned:

    Certainly not. Most of us are just trying to do the best we can. This is an argument about the reasoning, not about what group or individual is more moral than the next.

    Well, that is nice to hear. However, I disagree that one cannot justify acting on one’s moral convictions, even with force if necessary, unless one has a consistent foundation for them. The very essence of having moral convictions is that one will try to maximise the good and minimise the bad, according to one’s convictions of what is good and bad.

    The justification required to act against what one considers to be bad IS one’s moral conviction, not some extra underlying reason such as a justification for having a moral conviction in the first place. I fail to see what this strange requirement for an extra ‘layer’ actually brings to the table in the debate on morality.

    When I oppose someone for doing something bad, I do so because my moral conviction is that what he does is bad. That’s really is all the justification I will ever need (of course I could unpack my moral conviction into the reasons why I think his act is bad, but that is not the issue here). Even if he claims to have an objective foundation for his morality in which his acts are considered good but I do not, I can still perfectly well justify acting against him on the basis that my own moral convictions compel me to. What more would I need and why?

    fG

  9. No, he’s saying that the knowledge the X is wrong can only be justified as rational if one posits a god. It could still be wrong, but “wrong” would be subjective.

  10. Robin:
    No, he’s saying that the knowledge the X is wrong can only be justified as rational if one posits a god. It could still be wrong, but “wrong” would be subjective.

    But if “X is wrong” is self-evident (i.e. evident without proof or argument) why does it need a rational justification? What’s the difference between a rational justification and proof or argument?

  11. Well, that is nice to hear. However, I disagree that one cannot justify acting on one’s moral convictions, even with force if necessary, unless one has a consistent foundation for them.

    That would be the very definition of not being able to rationally justify it.

    Without sound premises and reasoning, moral conviction can justify any behavior at all – including that of Hitler, Torquemada, etc. This is also what is wrong with empathy as a basis; IMO, much of what one feels in empathy, and towards whom, can be trained socially. People brought up as Mormons, for example, can have a very different empathy set and moral convictions than those who are raised by members of brutal gangs. If those things – empathy and moral convictions – are the basis of “what morality is”, then it is up to the individual’s personal empathy and moral convictions, whatever they may be, to decide “what is right”.

    Therefore, you would have no assumed extant, binding means of judging anyone else’s behavior except to say it is the moral equivalent of your own – they are acting on their empathy and moral conviction set; you are acting on yours. Unless your morality includes using force on others simply because they are unlike you, I don’t think there’s any way to rationally justify it.

  12. But if “X is wrong” is self-evident (i.e. evident without proof or argument) why does it need a rational justification? What’s the difference between a rational justification and proof or argument?

    It doesn’t need a rational justification to know it is wrong. It needs rational justification from your worldview premises in order for there to be rational consistency between that knowledge and what you have accepted as your worldview premises.

    That you know X exists doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with necessary logical ramifications. If I know that X exists, thre are necessary logical consequences and connections. I can make the inferences IF X, then Y is necessarily true as well, because for X to exist, Y must exist as well. But if my worldview is that Y doesn’t exist, then either my knowledge that X exists or my worldview premises must be wrong, because they are logically incompatible.

  13. So is it your position that the knowledge that X is wrong could not exist unless there were a god?

    It’s my argument that (1) if one accepts that there are moral statements that they know to be true without proof, argument or evidence (such as “it is immoral to torture children for personal pleasure), and (2) which they hold as valid, binding and true for others regardless of anyone else’s conceptual framework, social mores, culture, personal feelings, beliefs, law, decree, authority, or scripture otherwise., regardless of if other people agree or disagree with it, whether or not those others find it to be a self-evidently true moral statement or not, that if those two conditions are met, then IF one wishes to have worldview premises that are consistent with that view, their worldview premises must include a creator god of some sort.

    You don’t have to be able to get from “worldview premises” to X to know that X is true; you do have to be able get from “worldview premises” to X for X to be rationally justifiable from those premises, or in other words for your worldview premises to be logically consistent with X.

  14. William J. Murray: That would be the very definition of not being able to rationally justify it.

    Without sound premises and reasoning, moral conviction can justify any behavior at all – including that of Hitler, Torquemada, etc.

    I’m sure that they thought they did the morally right thing – for Germany, for the Church, etc.

    This is also what is wrong with empathy as a basis; IMO, much of what one feels in empathy, and towards whom, can be trained socially.People brought up as Mormons, for example, can have a very different empathy set and moral convictions than those who are raised by members of brutal gangs.If those things – empathy and moral convictions – are the basis of “what morality is”, then it is up to the individual’s personal empathy and moral convictions, whatever they may be, to decide “what is right”.

    You are here describing the actual state of reality, with the exception that there is probably also a personality factor at work in addition to the social and educational influences you mention. Mormons and other theists are in exactly the same position as non-theists here. As the title says, theistic morality is subjective because the choice of being a Mormon, Christian or any other form of theist is a subjective choice, not an objective one.

    Therefore, you would have no assumed extant, binding means of judging anyone else’s behavior except to say it is the moral equivalent of your own – they are acting on their empathy and moral conviction set; you are acting on yours. Unless your morality includes using force on others simply because they are unlike you, I don’t think there’s any way to rationally justify it.

    You are making this too complicated. I don’t judge someone’s behaviour on the basis if it flows from a rationally justified moral concept or not (I couldn’t care less), I judge their behaviour within the framework of my own moral concepts. And so does everybody else, you included. Indeed we couldn’t possibly do otherwise because that is what morality is – the differentiation of right from wrong, which is something every person does for themselves with the capabilities they have. In your case, you use self-proclaimed ‘self-evident moral truths’ when making these judgements. You haven’t actually rationally justified those ‘self-evident truths’ either, indeed you say that isn’t even possible. So where does that leave you?

    The simple reason I am justified in opposing someone’s behaviours when it clashes with my moral concepts is that is clashes with my moral concepts. Simples. The alternative is nonsense – how could I possibly be justifed in NOT opposing someone whose behaviour goes against my moral concepts? Which by the way doesn’t include allowing the use of force on someone only because they are different from me. In fact, such behaviour is considered immoral in my book. So I would need very different reasons for using force against someone than just that.

    See how your overcomplication leads to diametrically wrong conclusions?

    fG

  15. I’m not here to argue against those that admit their morality is entirely subjective and relative, and who are comfortable coercing their admittedly subjective moralities on others. My argument is only of interest to those that are uncomfortable with such a position.

  16. William J. Murray:
    I’m not here to argue against those that admit their morality is entirely subjective and relative, and who are comfortable coercing their admittedly subjective moralities on others.My argument is only of interest to those that are uncomfortable with such a position.

    You misunderstand. I do not coerce my morality on anyone and I wouldn’t be comfortable doing so. I will, however, aim for a world in which people’s behaviours are steered towards what I consider moral and away from what I consider immoral. Whether or not I get them to agree with me on which behaviours are good/bad doesn’t actually matter to me and I would certainly not force them to change their views (if such a thing is even possible, which I doubt).

    This is what every sane person does, you included.

    fG

  17. I didn’t say anything about forcing them to change their views.

    In my world, every sane person would, if happening upon a person torturing a child, forces them to stop if it was in their power because they would innately know that act to be morally wrong, and they would innately know they have the right and obligation to act. I suspect you would feel the same, and do the same.

    JHowever, under your “subjective morality” paradigm, you have no more moral right (since moral rights are subjective in your view) to force your morals judgement on the torturer (by making him stop) than he has to force his moral judgements on the girl he is torturing. Your behavior, rationally speaking, is not in principle any different than his.

    Thus, you are either being a hypocrite, self-deceptive, or you believe that might makes right; that you have the moral right to stop him, if you can, simply because you have the might; just as he has the moral right, if he can, to torture children if he can.

    For the theist, both he and the torturer are assumed to be bound to the same fundamental morality, whether the torturer agrees or not, morality that is objectively valid and binding for everyone. This gives the theist the rationally justified position of acting without any hypocrisy, self-deception or necessary reference to “might makes right” as arbiting principle.

  18. William J. Murray: It’s my argument that (1) if one accepts that there are moral statements that they know to be true without proof, argument or evidence (such as “it is immoral to torture children for personal pleasure), and (2) which they hold as valid, binding and true for others regardless of anyone else’s conceptual framework, social mores, culture, personal feelings, beliefs, law, decree, authority, or scripture otherwise., regardless of if other people agree or disagree with it, whether or not those others find it to be a self-evidently true moral statement or not, that if those two conditions are met, then IF one wishes to have worldview premises that are consistent with that view, their worldview premises must include a creator god of some sort.

    You don’t have to be able to get from “worldview premises” to X to know that X is true; you do have to be able get from “worldview premises” to X for X to be rationally justifiable from those premises, or in other words for your worldview premises to be logically consistent with X.

    OK.

    So you think that “it is immoral to torture children for personal pleasure” is “self-evidently true” for everyone regardless off their “conceptual, social mores, culture, personal feelings, beliefs, law, decree, authority, or scripture otherwise” ?

    What if someone told you that they didn’t find it “self-evidently true”? Would that not falsify your position?

  19. William J. Murray: You don’t have to be able to get from “worldview premises” to X to know that X is true; you do have to be able get from “worldview premises” to X for X to be rationally justifiable from those premises, or in other words for your worldview premises to be logically consistent with X.

    World view premises? What worldview premises?

  20. William J. Murray:

    However, under your “subjective morality” paradigm, you have no more moral right (since moral rights are subjective in your view) to force your morals judgement on the torturer (by making him stop) than he has to force his moral judgements on the girl he is torturing. Your behavior, rationally speaking, is not in principle any different than his.

    My behaviour in forcing him to stop is no different than his behaviour of torturing a girl? Have you completely lost your mind?

    Thus, you are either being a hypocrite, self-deceptive, or you believe that might makes right; that you have the moral right to stop him, if you can, simply because you have the might; just as he has the moral right, if he can, to torture children if he can.

    No William, you are still making this way too complicated. I have the right to stop him, not because I have the might (I may not actually be strong enough to stop him but I can at least try) but because I consider what he does to be a moral outrage. And no, he does not have the moral right to torture children – not according to my moral concepts he doesn’t. That is of course why I will try to stop him!

    Now, if you are looking for a objective arbiter in this conflict, don’t bother. All you will find are lots of people who will support me, and one or two lunatics who might support him. What certainly isn’t going to happen is for God or The Designer to miraculously appear to intervene in the struggle between me and the torturer and impose his objective morality on both of us. We all know this won’t happen, and therefore it behooves all of us, people, to define our moral systems ourselves and act upon them as best as we can. Regardless if we are mighty or weak.

    For the theist, both he and the torturer are assumed to be bound to the same fundamental morality, whether the torturer agrees or not, morality that is objectively valid and binding for everyone.This gives the theist the rationally justified position of acting without any hypocrisy, self-deception or necessary reference to “might makes right” as arbiting principle.

    How does that work if the torturer is a theist too, say a devout believer in the Aztec God who demands child sacrifice?

    No William, the theist morals are just as subjective as the non-theist ones, as long as one has to make subjective choices and decisions in what to believe regarding God and his supposed likes and dislikes. You can’t just sweep this inconvenient fact under the table. A subjective belief in a claimed objective truth doesn’t make the belief any less subjective.

    fG

  21. What if someone told you that they didn’t find it “self-evidently true”? Would that not falsify your position?

    If I hold it as self-evidently true regardless of what they think, believe or feel, how would it falsify my position? The “self” in “self-evidently true” doesn’t refer to a person; it refers to the thing. People can deny anything.

  22. No William, the theist morals are just as subjective as the non-theist ones, as long as one has to make subjective choices and decisions in what to believe regarding God and his supposed likes and dislikes. You can’t just sweep this inconvenient fact under the table. A subjective belief in a claimed objective truth doesn’t make the belief any less subjective.

    I didn’t say it makes the belief less subjective. I said that the premise that what one is referring to is objective in nature is what allows for a logically reconcilable belief system in regards to the moral aspects of the argument.

    My behaviour in forcing him to stop is no different than his behaviour of torturing a girl? Have you completely lost your mind?

    In principle, where morality is subjective, it’s exactly the same.

  23. How does that work if the torturer is a theist too, say a devout believer in the Aztec God who demands child sacrifice?

    It works the same way as when the torturer is not a theist. In order to rationally be able to judge their morality wrong, I still have to – ultimately – refer to a theistic premise and hold that their particular theistic views are wrong. Being a theist doesn’t automatically make your moral views correct, but being a theist is necessary for a rationally coherent moral system.

  24. William J. Murray: It works the same way as when the torturer is not a theist. In order to rationally be able to judge their morality wrong, I still have to – ultimately – refer to a theistic premise and hold that their particular theistic views are wrong. Being a theist doesn’t automatically make your moral views correct, but being a theist is necessary for a rationally coherent moral system.

    You still haven’t supported that last claim.

    And you are still contradictory. If a proposition is “self-evidently” true, then it how can it be possible to believe that its false, absent serious mental incapacity?

    And if it isn’t possible to think it false, why would anyone have to justify thinking that it is true?

  25. That is of course why I will try to stop him!

    And the child has the right to not be tortured! I would feel a moral obligation to step in and prevent such torture if it were within my power. Rights have to be subject to the limit that the rights of one person cannot be oppressive to another person.

  26. So you think that “it is immoral to torture children for personal pleasure” is “self-evidently true” for everyone regardless off their “conceptual, social mores, culture, personal feelings, beliefs, law, decree, authority, or scripture otherwise” ?

    Yes, however according to William, he’s the only one (well, there might be one or two other folks out there like him…who knows) rationally justified in doing anything to stop those who torture children and he is the only one (at least of the atheists here) who can rationally judge and condemn others who behave against that which is self-evidently moral.

    What if someone told you that they didn’t find it “self-evidently true”? Would that not falsify your position?

    No, because William’s position has little to do with whether morals are actually self-evident or not, but rather whether holding certain moral positions is rationally justifiable.

  27. William J. Murray: I didn’t say it makes the belief less subjective. I said that the premise that what one is referring to is objective in nature is what allows for a logically reconcilable belief system in regards to the moral aspects of the argument.

    In principle, where morality is subjective, it’s exactly the same.

    So what you are saying is that by starting with the subjective premise that there is an objective morality, one has more justification to intervene when someone is torturing a girl than by starting with the subjective premise that there is only subjective morality.

    I’m sorry but I find this wholly unconvincing.

    fG

  28. You still haven’t supported that last claim.

    Sure I have – several times. That you are not convinced of it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve supported it.

    And you are still contradictory. If a proposition is “self-evidently” true, then it how can it be possible to believe that its false, absent serious mental incapacity?

    Your inability to understand doesn’t represent self-contradiction on my part. Free will – the capacity to deny anything – gives everyone the capacity to reject even what is self-evidently true, but this matters not at all to our argument. You are hypothesizing someone who disagrees about the self-evident nature of our moral statement X; my argument doesn’t apply to those who disagree with X. You have already stated that you agree with X; therefore my argument applies to you.

    And if it isn’t possible to think it false, why would anyone have to justify thinking that it is true?

    Because if they think it is true, and they want things they believe to be true to be rationally consistent with their worldview premises, then they need to be able to rationally justify (reconcile) that belief in accordance with those worldview premises. You are, of course, free to believe any sort of thing whether it can be rationally reconciled with your worldview premises or not; my argument is just for those that require rational consistency between worldview premise and things believed to be true.

    So, if Liz believes X to be true, and X necessarily requires Y to be true, and Liz holds as a worldview premise that Y is not true, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks about any of it; if Liz wants to have a rationally consistent belief system, either X is not true, or her worldview premises are wrong.

    I have never seen anyone work so hard to not understand what is a relatively simple argument.

  29. William J. Murray: It works the same way as when the torturer is not a theist. In order to rationally be able to judge their morality wrong, I still have to – ultimately – refer to a theistic premise and hold that their particular theistic views are wrong. Being a theist doesn’t automatically make your moral views correct, but being a theist is necessary for a rationally coherent moral system.

    Right, but the Aztec torturer will likewise hold that your (theist) intervention is unjustified, and he will base that on his (in his mind) justified theistic premises. So he has a rationally justified moral system too, and he is justified in judging your intervention wrong!

    How does this differ from the situation where both me and the torturer think that morality is subjective? Who is the arbiter between the two theists? They can’t both be really justified in their opposing moral concepts, no? Or if you claim they are, what on Earth does it matter since the practicalities of the situation will be exactly the same as if they were both subjective moralists?

    Apart from, I guess, one more thing to fight over (whose God is the real one?).

    fG

  30. So what you are saying is that by starting with the subjective premise that there is an objective morality, one has more justification to intervene when someone is torturing a girl than by starting with the subjective premise that there is only subjective morality.

    I’m saying that only the premise of an objective (as described, transcendent of conceptual framework) morality can rationally justify (rationally!, not “emotionally justify” or “rhetorically justify”) that intervention, unless one’s morality is “might makes right”.

    That you don’t find the argument “convincing” is irrelevant to the necessary logical conclusion.

  31. However, under your “subjective morality” paradigm, you have no more moral right (since moral rights are subjective in your view) to force your morals judgement on the torturer (by making him stop) than he has to force his moral judgements on the girl he is torturing. Your behavior, rationally speaking, is not in principle any different than his.

    My behaviour in forcing him to stop is no different than his behaviour of torturing a girl? Have you completely lost your mind?

    I think you folk are still missing William’s point. I finally get it, though I personally think it’s weak and kind of silly. But here it is:

    Forget the “morally objective” and “self-evident” nonsense. That’s rather an aside to WJM’s point. The point he keeps trying to hammer home is NOT that non-theists can’t hold moral positions and feel really strong about them. Rather it is that no non-theist position has any more measurable moral standing than any other. Why? Because there can be NO specific external standard for morality. In other words, non-theistic morals are all subjectively relative in terms of their validity.

    Thus the only way to enforce a non-theistic morality is to accept that “might makes right”. Why? Because there can be no absolute, objective standard for what is or is not moral in a non-theistic paradigm. Why? Because what is or is not moral has to come from…wait for it…non-theist’s opinions.

    So here’s the issue with William’s argument, at least as I see it: why should anyone care? The fact is, no theist can really, honestly, claim that their moral code is more rationally justifiable unless and until he or she can produce a deity that EVERYONE can interview and thus gain access to the true and proper moral code. Simply stating that having a deity is required for such a rationally justifiable moral code doesn’t do the theist a lot of good in the long run since there’s no way for the theist to actually know, let alone prove, that the deity he or she subscribes to a) exists or b) is the right one.

  32. William J. Murray: Because if they think it is true, and they want things they believe to be true to be rationally consistent with their worldview premises, then they need to be able to rationally justify (reconcile) that belief in accordance with those worldview premises.

    But that’s yourself you are describing!

  33. How does this differ from the situation where both me and the torturer think that morality is subjective?

    It differs in that theism offers rational justification.

    Who is the arbiter between the two theists?

    Hopefully, reason (logic) is the arbiter.

    They can’t both be really justified in their opposing moral concepts, no?

    No, which is why I would hope that reason would win out. However, the only way reason – based on logic – can win out is if one has a rationally consistent moral system to argue from, and the other is amenable to logical argument.

    For example, if one of the theists insists that morality is defined by what is in some set of scriptures, their argument breaks down because there are other sets of scriptures that say otherwise. That’s no better than subjective, “because I say so” morality. The only rationally-supportable (consistent) theistic morality that I know of is, as KN says, based on the idea of Natural Law, and not Divine Command. Divine command is anti-reason; things are not moral just because God happens to say so, and then might change his/her mind about it the next day. That’s no better than might makes right.

    A sound morality must be based on the idea that what is “good”, or moral, is an intrinsic aspect of the creator’s being which even god cannot change.

    Or if you claim they are, what on Earth does it matter since the practicalities of the situation will be exactly the same as if they were both subjective moralists?

    The “practicalities” are really another discussion. The only argument I’m making here is about the rational consistency between certain beliefs about morality and the worldview premise of atheism.

  34. Robin,

    First, for what it’s worth, you have understood that part of my argument correctly.

    Now to your objection:

    So here’s the issue with William’s argument, at least as I see it: why should anyone care? The fact is, no theist can really, honestly, claim that their moral code is more rationally justifiable unless and until he or she can produce a deity that EVERYONE can interview and thus gain access to the true and proper moral code. Simply stating that having a deity is required for such a rationally justifiable moral code doesn’t do the theist a lot of good in the long run since there’s no way for the theist to actually know, let alone prove, that the deity he or she subscribes to a) exists or b) is the right one.

    I agree that there is no reasonable way to choose between proposed deities and their respective scriptures and commands, but that doesn’t mean that there is no rational path through the theistic woods. It just means that the scripture and command theory of theistic morality is not sufficiently discerning, not a good place to look to find a rationally consistent and justifiable moral perspective.

    IF “might makes right” is accepted as an improper moral principle, then the command concept of theistic morality cannot be true, because the only thing that would make god’s commands “right” would be his might. This is where the natural law, or innate nature argument for theistic morality comes in; it provides both the objective (absolute) framework by which competing moral claims and systems can be judged, and it removes morality from the “command” or “scripture” system, which is problematic.

    Since supposed divine commands and scripture cannot be trusted, or are logically insufficient to the task, one is left with being able to recognize self-evident moral truths, like the one we’ve been using, and others, and from those self-evident truths logically find necessary truths, conditionally true moral statements, and generally true moral statements.

    If one agrees that the only rationally justifiable morality (outside of might makes right) is one that is based on the concept of an objective morality, then one needs theism; but theism does you no good here unless the theism one uses as the basis for their morality is itself rationally sound. Command and scripture theism doesn’t help; it just moves the “might makes right” problem back a notch. Natural Law (innate quality) theism solves the problem.

  35. William J. Murray:
    fG: “How does this differ from the situation where both me and the torturer think that morality is subjective?”

    It differs in that theism offers rational justification.

    fG:”Who is the arbiter between the two theists?”

    Hopefully, reason (logic) is the arbiter.

    fG:”They can’t both be really justified in their opposing moral concepts, no?”

    No, which is why I would hope that reason would win out.However, the only way reason – based on logic – can win out is if one has a rationally consistent moral system to argue from, and the other is amenable to logical argument.

    For example, if one of the theists insists that morality is defined by what is in some set of scriptures, their argument breaks down because there are other sets of scriptures that say otherwise.That’s no better than subjective, “because I say so” morality.

    Ok, you are saying some reasonable things here (leaving aside that I remain convinced that choosing a particular theist belief is subjective, and therefore that founding one’s morals in the tenets of that particular belief is equally subjective, making one’s moral concepts just as subjective as those not founded on any religious beliefs), although I had to chuckle at your hope that reason should be the arbiter between opposing theistic viewpoints. A cursory look at several thousands of years of human history would put quite a damper on that hope.

    The only rationally-supportable (consistent) theistic morality that I know of is, as KN says, based on the idea of Natural Law, and not Divine Command. Divine command is anti-reason; things are not moral just because God happens to say so, and then might change his/her mind about it the next day. That’s no better than might makes right.

    A sound morality must be based on the idea that what is “good”, or moral, is an intrinsic aspect of the creator’s being which even god cannot change.

    Ok, so how does God come into this? According to this he is subservient to the Natural Law himself, so could there be a Natural Law without there being a God? How about the Tao? How about something hard wired in the Universe at the same time as hard wired into the human psyche? There are so many things we don’t know in this arena that choosing a God as the answer, especially one that can’t even define the difference betwen Good and Bad himself, seems an unjustified leap.

    The “practicalities” are really another discussion. The only argument I’m making here is about the rational consistency between certain beliefs about morality and the worldview premise of atheism.

    I guess what I was driving at is this. In one scenario we have two atheist fighting over an issue of morality. Neither know where their own sense of morality comes from, both have one and they are different. If you want to picture this, imagine a Nazi and a Communist soldier in WW2 battling it out.

    In the other scenario we have two theists fighting over another issue of morality. Both claim that their morality flows from God, both have one and they are different. Picture a catholic and a protestant soldier in the European Wars of Religion battling it out.

    Without going into the practicalities of what exactly they are fighting about, are you seriously suggesting that the guys in the latter scenario are somehow more justified in their fighting than the guys in the first scenario?

  36. I agree with you up to the “Natural Law (innate quality) theism solves the problem.” Clearly there are those who hold that their theistic morality is objective and based on Natural Law that is in contradiction with other folks’ claims of the same. Take the philosophies of John Austin vs Thomas Aquinas for instance. How can the two groups rectify the differences using objective reason? They can’t, unless the “absolute true deity” plays mediator. I don’t see that happening in this particular world. Reason doesn’t get one there; if one tries that route, one is merely begging the question.

    I, quite frankly, don’t see how it can be done.

  37. Robin,

    In the first place, there cannot be any practical, final, solution to the issue that everyone will agree with upon hearing the argument. This is not an argument that there is some string of words anyone can put together that will turn a switch in someone’s head forcing them to agree. With free will, humans can deny anything – even that which is necessary, self-evident, and blatantly obvious. Just because humans will disagree with something doesn’t mean it’s wrong, and doesn’t mean we don’t have an obligation to figure it out as best we can.

    Secondly, this argument is only about whether or not atheism of any sort can provide the fundamental premise necessary for a rationally coherent morality beyond “might makes right”, and whether or not theism – of some sort – is necessary.

    My case here is that whether or not there is a final or practical solution to “what kind of theism” or “which god”, theism is still necessary to avoid subjective, “might makes right” morality, and natural law theism is required to avoid “might makes right” divine command morality.

    If you agree that “might makes right” morality of any sort is wrong, and you require that your beliefs be rationally reconcilable with your worldview premises, then you have basically committed yourself to a natural law, theistic worldview that precludes “might makes right” command or authority theology. The only question is if you will accept what your beliefs necessarily indicate.

    By “you”, I mean the general you.

  38. Without going into the practicalities of what exactly they are fighting about, are you seriously suggesting that the guys in the latter scenario are somehow more justified in their fighting than the guys in the first scenario?

    I’m certainly not saying that all theistic worldviews are rationally coherent; I’m saying that the only kind of worldview that can offer a rationally coherent morality (besides might makes right) is theism. Not all theisms are the same, or even close.

    Ok, so how does God come into this? According to this he is subservient to the Natural Law himself, so could there be a Natural Law without there being a God?

    God is not “subservient” to natural law; natural law is an innate characteristic of god manifest in what it creates. God doesn’t choose “what is good”; god “is” what is good, and that “what is good” is made manifest in what it creates. The reason that there exists more than “what is good” is because god has other innate qualities (such as free will, logic, etc.) that generates other necessary ramifications in whatever it creates.

    leaving aside that I remain convinced that choosing a particular theist belief is subjective, and therefore that founding one’s morals in the tenets of that particular belief is equally subjective, making one’s moral concepts just as subjective as those not founded on any religious beliefs

    Read my response to Robin above. Rational morality cannot be founded on scripture, divine command, formal tenets, etc; although some of what is “written down” might reflect true morality, true morality doesn’t come from those things. You don’t “pick a god” with a set of tenets – you can rationally figure it out for yourself. There are obviously wrong things in the Bible. There are obviously wrong things in the Koran. There is something obviously wrong with cults that commit mass suicide or practice human sacrifice.

    But there’s no rational justification for making such judgements without necessarily referring to some sort of objective morality by which such judgements can be soundly made, and you can only get objective (transcendent of conceptual worldviews) morality from theism.

    Many western atheists are rightly morally outraged by a lot of theistic moral claims, laws, stories, etc.; but they have no rational justification for that outrage without a theistic, objective morality to draw from. They have thrown the baby out with the dirty bathwater.

  39. So what you seem to be saying is that only imaginary universes can be rationally coherent.

    That doesn’t surprise me. This is a Bayesian existence, not a formal system.

  40. We’re still waiting, William. Can you back up your claims?

    William,

    No reasoning is required to recognize a self-evident truth. No reasoning is required to act on it. Reasoning IS required to reconcile the existence of that truth, and the rationale for actions taken from knowing that truth, with one’s worldview premises.

    We’re still awaiting your presentation of the reasoning that leads you from these premises:

    P1. God exists.

    P2. God created us.

    P3. God has a purpose for us that he wants us to fulfill.

    …to these conclusions:

    C1. Each of us is morally obligated to fulfill his or her purpose.

    C2. God’s purposes take moral precedence over everyone else’s purposes.

    C3. “Self-evident” moral intuitions reliably tell us what God wants us to do.

    Can you justify your moral system, or do you consider yourself exempt from the demands you make of others?

  41. William,

    Besides the above, you face some additional problems.

    1. Your argument relies on the goodness of God. How do you know that God is good?

    2. You claim that objective morality can only come from theism, but you don’t justify this. Why, for example, couldn’t objective morality be a brute fact of nature, independent of anyone’s desires, including God’s?

  42. I think William is arguing that a theistic morally can be rationally coherent. That is to say it can be squared with propositional logic.

    He doesn’t seem to be arguing that there is any practical advantage to this.

  43. Secondly, this argument is only about whether or not atheism of any sort can provide the fundamental premise necessary for a rationally coherent morality beyond “might makes right”, and whether or not theism – of some sort – is necessary.

    My case here is that whether or not there is a final or practical solution to “what kind of theism” or “which god”, theism is still necessary to avoid subjective, “might makes right” morality, and natural law theism is required to avoid “might makes right” divine command morality.

    Fair enough. I still say that although I fully agree with your point now that one must have a deity in order to get objective justification for a rational moral code and avoid “might makes right”, unless said deity comes down and actually provides a Q&A session with all mankind, it’s kind of moot in the long run. But I’ll grant you the soundness of what you are arguing nonetheless.

  44. petrushka,

    I think William is arguing that a theistic morally can be rationally coherent.

    He goes well beyond that. He claims that the only rational morality is objective morality, and that objective morality depends on theism:

    But there’s no rational justification for making such judgements without necessarily referring to some sort of objective morality by which such judgements can be soundly made, and you can only get objective (transcendent of conceptual worldviews) morality from theism.

    Both claims are false. Subjective morality can be perfectly rational, and objective morality doesn’t require God’s existence.

  45. To add to the long list of problems with William’s argument, he claims that the only alternative to objective morality is “might makes right”.

    This is clearly false. Suppose person A and person B disagree on the morality of X. A thinks that X is moral, while B thinks it is immoral. If A is powerful and B is weak,a then A may be able to coerce B into doing X. This will not make X a moral act in B’s eyes, however. Might does not make right even in the absence of an objective morality.

  46. William J. Murray: Many western atheists are rightly morally outraged by a lot of theistic moral claims, laws, stories, etc.; but they have no rational justification for that outrage without a theistic, objective morality to draw from. They have thrown the baby out with the dirty bathwater.

    There are many atheists, if not most atheists, who have perfectly adequate moral codes without the need for a deity to “keep them in line.” Many fundamentalist sectarians demonize atheists because these sectarians don’t believe that people outside their sects are intelligent enough to figure out how to behave toward others.

    In fact, if one looks at the historical bloodbaths among sectarians, one can develop a pretty good moral code by simply avoiding what sectarians do to each other. Secular laws, in the West at least, have managed to curb the revenge and punishment of unrestrained sectarian zealotry.

    Perhaps some people need to have the “fear of a deity” and the terror of an eternal hell hanging over them in order to keep them from committing atrocities toward others. If that works, then freedom of religion in our secular society performs a useful function.

    But that is not for everyone; and atheists are not bad just because they don’t subscribe to deities or particular sectarian dogmas.

  47. Most people behave better thsn the law– because they want to.

    The motive is positive rather than negative. What can I do to help, rather than what can I get away with.

    Those whose internal workings don’t support this motivation quickly learn to fake it.

  48. petrushka:

    Most people behave better thsn the law– because they want to.

    The motive is positive rather than negative. What can I do to help, rather than what can I get away with.

    Those whose internal workings don’t support this motivation quickly learn to fake it.

    I suspect a lot of it has to do with a person’s ability to sense the feelings of others as well as having the intelligence and imagination to understand that one’s own feelings about the behavior of others towards oneself should be reflected in how one behaves toward others.

    I think the word that applies here is “empathy.”

    It is a fact that there are people who have no ability to sense the feelings and pain of others; some to the point of being sociopaths who exploit and hurt others just because they get what they want out of treating others as “things.”

    For such people, the threat of severe punishment is not enough to constrain their behavior; but if they can be made to believe in a deity who sees all and will punish bad behavior for eternity, then perhaps their behavior can be constrained. It doesn’t always work, however.

    From what we can learn from history, this is part of the reason religions were invented; namely, to bring the behaviors of growing populations, now living in cities, under some kind of control and uniformity. Sometimes it involved inventing deities that scared the hell out of people.

    Some people cannot function without a “recipe” for behavior and a scary incentive to stick to the recipe in the belief that “someone” is always watching and will be keeping score.

    Others can figure out proper behavior just from their experiences with their fellow humans.

    In large, heterogeneous societies, there apparently needs to be a mix of moral incentives and communities that attempt to keep individuals from tearing society apart with selfish and uncaring behaviors. Humans are born with a mix of abilities and inabilities; and this means that some will need “instruction” and “incentives” on how to behave toward others.

  49. William you keep saying that unless we accept the premise of an objective morality we have no way to rationally justify our moral concepts except by Might makes Right.

    I find this totally silly. Subjective moralists don’t justify their discrimination of good and bad by making the case that whatever is in their power to do, is therefore right. People who have given thought to why they consider certain things good and other things bad will present rational justifications of their positions, for instance by appealing to the Golden Rule, minimise suffering, maximise the greater good, and other such arguments. Those can be rationally defended against opposite views even if there is no appeal to a higher standard.

    Of course a two year old can always continue by asking why does the golden rule matter, why does it matter to minimise suffering etc. But that same two year old will also ask why is it self-evidently true that torturing babies is bad – and you won’t have a rational answer to that either except to say ‘to me it is self evident’. Which is not any better nor any more objective than when a subjective moralist says ‘to me it is self evident that minimising suffering is a good thing’.

    Drop the two-year old questions, they lead nowhere. There simply are certain foundational things that we as human beings need to agree on or there wouldn’t be a way of existing together on this planet. It doesn’t mean that everybody will always agree on the same things, but a large segment of the population will, most of the time, agree on much the same. This doesn’t make these positions objective, even though they appear self-evident to many people (but not necessarily to all – the Aztec would beg to differ), but they are nevertheless still a rational basis to develop a moral system from. Importantly, you won’t find Might makes Right among them, neither with theists nor with atheists. In fact I don’t think I have ever seen anyone try to justify their actions with Might makes Right so where does this silly idea even come from?

    fG

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