Monday, September 26, 2005

The story of the moral

Divine command theory

Many people believe that things are morally good or bad, or morally obligatory, permissible, or prohibited, solely because of God’s will or commands.

Ideas of this kind are known as examples of ‘divine command theory’.

Divine command theory is attractive for various reasons, which I discuss below, But even leaving aside problems about people disagreeing about what exactly is God’s will, the many different religions in the world etc, it is conceptually flawed.

The big conceptual flaw was pointed out a long time ago, most famously by Plato, in what has become known as ‘the Euthyphro Dilemma’. The Euthyphro Dilemma is a simple, nasty little question which gets divine command theorists into all sorts of bother.


The Euthryphro Dilemma

The dilemma can be posed to the divine command theorist like this: “Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?”

Or like this:

Taking x to be any act agreed to be morally wrong (eg. child murder), then

(Horn 1) does God say that x is wrong because it is wrong; or
(Horn 2) is x wrong only because God says it is?


The divine command theorist must reject the first horn immediately, since if God only decrees that x is wrong because it is wrong, then there must be something inherently wrong about x. So we don’t need God for x to be wrong, morals don’t come solely from God, and divine command theory is incorrect.

So he must concentrate on the second horn: x is wrong because God says it is.


Problems with Horn 2

Unlike the first horn, Horn 2 is logically compatible with divine command theory, but it leads to some awkward problems. In order of increasing awkwardness, these include:

The emptiness problem: if x is good because God says x is good, then the normal moral claims that believers make about God are empty tautologies. Statements such as “God is good”, “God’s commands are good” and “God’s actions are good” are trivial, true but devoid of content.

The problem of arbitrariness: if x is wrong only because God says it is, then God must have decided this on a pure whim. It must have been a 50/50 toss up. So murdering random children could just have easily been right as wrong. This must be so because if God had any reason to favour x being wrong rather than right, there must be something about x which would lead him to favour it. So morals wouldn’t come solely from God’s will and we’re back to the first horn of the dilemma, and divine command theory is incorrect.

This problem leads us to….

The problem of abhorrent commands: If x is wrong only because God says it is, then we’re open to the possibility that literally anything, from rape to genocide, would become morally right if God willed it. Yet a simple thought experiment suggests that most of us, if told by God that child murder was now a moral imperative and we ought to do it as much as possible, would reject God’s command. We’d say: ‘God’s got it wrong this time. Child murder is just plain wrong, whatever He says.” We’d be looking elsewhere for our morals. And if we can look elsewhere for our morals, then divine command theory must be incorrect.


Attempts to answer these problems

A simple strategy for the divine command theorist is just to accept these problems. For example, William of Ockham (he of the Razor) just accepted that yes, God could change His mind tomorrow, make virtue a vice and vice a virtue and if He decreed that child murder was a moral imperative, then we’d all have to get out there and start slaughtering the kids.

But unsurprisingly, most divine command theorists would rather avoid this conclusion. They therefore attempt to find a Third Way: to show that this is a ‘false dilemma’ – offering only two alternatives, when in fact there are three.

When I’ve come across Third Way explanations, they have all been presented with so much tortuous theological subtlety and nuance that I have initially been left quite baffled, but essentially they tend to boil down to any of three variations:

Third Way v1: God’s nature. This is the Thomas Aquinas answer, and goes along the lines of: moral goodness is an essential part of God’s nature, of what it means to be God, and behaving morally brings us closer to God’s nature. Thus morality is not willed by God, but it is part of God.

The trouble with this being that once the theological debris is cleared and you understand what it is they’re getting at, you find yourself right back at the first horn. If goodness is part of God’s nature, then goodness is not something God has any control over, and divine command theory is incorrect.

Third Way v2: Levels of morality. There are ‘levels of goodness’, so that what God tells us is moral is contingent upon his decision, but there might be another level of morality above that: a ‘morality of the Gods’, which God can choose to refer to. (This was Orrin Judd’s argument). This take might conceivably eliminate the arbitrariness problem and the emptiness problem. But it also seems to have the worst of both worlds: there exists morality beyond the control of God (impaling us on the first horn). And the morality we’re interested in – human morality – is once more at the whim of God, and we’re still exposed to the problem of abhorrent commands.

Third Way v3: Necessary versus contingent morality. This has been argued by philosopher Richard Swinburne. According to his theory, God can decide to create the world in many different ways, each of which grounds a particular set of contingent values; with regard to these, then, the divine command theory is the correct explanation. Certain values, however, such as the immorality of murder or rape, are necessary, and hold in all possible worlds. So it makes no sense to say that God could have created them differently

Again, this runs into problems. First, how can we maintain a clear distinction between necessary and contingent moral values? Second, it seems to considerably weaken God’s ability to determine morality, and thus impale itself on the first horn.


The fundamental conceptual problem with Divine Command Theory

Wittgenstein is a trendy but notoriously elusive philosopher. But if people have heard anything about him, they’ve often heard of his ‘Private Language Argument’

The crux of the Private Language Argument is that linguistic utterances can only have any meaning if there are rules. And rules only make sense if there is more than one user of the rules. In other words, it takes two to tango. Suppose I were to keep a private diary of my sensations, and upon having a sensation, I call it ‘S’, and then every time afterwards that I have this sensation I say ‘That was S’. What have I achieved? I can neither be right or wrong about calling it S, because without some sort of objectively agreed rules about using ‘S’, there is no criteria for correctness. I cannot agree rules by myself.

There are parallels here with divine command theory. A single rational being cannot originate consistent moral rules, if He himself is both the originator of the rules and of the rationale by which they are to be judged. It doesn’t carry any meaning for God to say ‘Murder is wrong’ if He is both the source of the command, and of the meaning of ‘wrong’. Consistent rules only have any meaning if they are used, and used by more than one rational being.


Why divine command theory is nonetheless attractive

Divine command theorists want two perfectly understandable things. Firstly, they want some firm, objective grounding for morality that makes absolute moral relativism impossible.

Second, they want final justice. They want the bad guys who got away with it in this life to get their comeuppance in the next, and the good guys who suffered to get a reward. And with final justice comes deterrence against immoral behaviour, and incentive towards good behaviour.


Where morals really come from

Unfortunately, ‘God says it’ doesn’t do the first job. Conceptually it makes no sense, as the Euthyphro dilemma shows, and practically it is useless – throughout the world, within a religion, even within your local church nobody remotely agrees about everything that God wants.

So will anything do the job to perfection? Possibly not. Yet we all make moral judgements, and we all seem to pretty much agree about the biggies (murder, rape, theft etc), and nobody with any sense likes free-for-all relativism (ie. if p thinks x is right, then x must be right). How can this be?

‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are adjectives we apply to actions, behaviours and people, using our own moral judgements. We can apply them correctly or incorrectly, just as we can correctly or incorrectly apply adjectives like “red” or “black” to billiard balls.

These moral judgements probably come from various sources, including: an innate sense developed in evolution, manifesting itself in empathy and remorse; parental teaching; societal and religious instruction; reasoning; and above all, what works to enable us to get along together.

What makes it correct or incorrect to apply ‘good’ or ‘evil’? What is the ‘grounding’ for these judgements, if we all make them using our own moral sense? A similar thing to what makes it correct or incorrect to call that ball “red”: humans have agreed it in order to get along and understand each other.

Does this mean that morality doesn’t exist? No, it exists - but perhaps it’s not ‘floating in the breeze’ as the divine command theorist.

Does it mean that morality is purely relativistic? No. Somebody who thinks an instance of murder is ‘right’, is as incorrect as a colourblind person who calls that red ball ‘blue’, even if he sees it as blue. He just doesn’t get it: he doesn't understand the rules. There are immoral or amoral people out there. We can identify them and we call the worst ‘sociopaths’ and we lock them up.

Without God, is there anything ‘solid’ enough to stop me behaving immorally? Yes – such as my conscience and the threat of punishment by society.

So it is perfectly possible to have a solid grounding for objective morality without relying on divine command. Indeed, that is how it works.

As for final justice, sadly here we can’t help the divine command theorist. That’s just the way it is: bad guys don’t get their comeuppance in the next life. It’s a pity but there it is.

But what really bugs divine command theorists…
…is the idea that if divine command theory is wrong, then morally speaking, anything goes. We’re in a big free-for-all. To which the answer is, obviously, look around you: it is wrong and anything doesn’t go.

To which the divine command theorist will reply: but if it were widely believed that divine command theory is wrong, then anything would go.

To which the answer is: speak for yourself.

193 Comments:

Blogger Oroborous said...

Both Thomas Aquinas and Orrin Judd are correct, although if that is an accurate representation of Orrin's argument, you've stated it better than he ever has.

Moral goodness IS an essential part of God’s nature, of what it means to be God.

However, morality is BOTH willed by God, and is part of God.

There are ‘levels of goodness’, so that what God tells us is moral is contingent upon his decision, but there is also another level of morality above that: a ‘morality of the Gods’.

If goodness is part of God’s nature, then goodness is not something God has any control over, and divine command theory is incorrect.

Divine level goodness IS something that God has no control over, but She also recognizes that humans CANNOT meet that standard - we can't even meet the God-given 'human standard' for goodness.

Thus, God gives us more simple, and in some cases more restrictive, rules to follow.
Humans do not have the SAME morality as God does, although much of it overlaps.

God is the source of HUMAN morality, what She says is right is right, what She says is wrong is wrong - but essentially at the point of a sword, i.e., God's great might makes right.

CELESTIAL morality is not set by God, but rather by the Universe - Richard Swinburne's argument holds true at this level, at least.
God is the ultimate authority in this Universe, but this Universe is not all that there is, and ever was.

Just as children have a different set of rules than do adults, and adults cannot change the laws of physics, so too does God define human morality absolutely, but in turn is subject to a different-but-similar set of moral rules, which define existence.

If God behaved in a way which ran counter to those rules, it would destroy Her creation, (this Universe), which would make such behavior self-destructive and pointless.

Of course, the entire proceeding explanation relies on Wittgenstein's mutual agreement about reality.
It presupposes that people are, or should be, Christians, and further has a distinct Mormon flavor to it.

Atheists or Hindus might find it less-than-compelling.

September 26, 2005 4:56 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

...the entire preceding explanation relies..., rather.

September 26, 2005 5:02 PM  
Blogger David said...

Yes, I know that you guys wish that this was a dilemna upon which we were impaled, but frankly it gives us no pause whatsoever.

September 26, 2005 8:21 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

No pause? A bold statement, David, but not an interesting one.

It takes a confrontation with something like the Euthyphro Dilemma for religionists to clarify (actually, in practice, to muddy) what they mean when they say “morals come from God”.

There is no doubt that most of the time, most of the people who think or say something like “morals come from God”, have in mind the meaning that our moral rules are somehow given to us by a single, solipsistic, rational entity for some sort of purpose, in much the same way that schoolchildren are given commands by the Headmaster. And like the Headmaster, God can punish transgressions and reward obedience.

Challenges to this default meaning, such as the Dilemma, force the divine command theorist to come up with something far subtler and more nuanced to maintain both an objective grounding for morality and a divine source.

I’ve described some of these and their counterarguments in the main post. But their common thread – common in fact to almost all attempts to explain almost anything about God, when pressed – is that the believer has to be comfortable with using words that have extremely vague definitions. “It is an expression of part of God’s nature”. “We move closer to God” etc.

What do these things actually mean? Being able to say them does not make them intelligible. Perhaps they mean as much as “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”. The words all make sense on their own, but add them together and the meaning is elusive at best, non-existent at worst.

In other words, these refined versions of divine command theory have to be taken on faith. Nothing wrong with Faith, of course….

….Except that to my mind the burden of proof does not lie with the sceptic.

It is very easy to construct plausible naturalistic origins of moral rules. One of these might even be that morals come from religion. The divine command theorist ought to show why naturalistic origins are insufficient, before embarking on projects to construct ever more fragile and opaque definitions of “morals come from God”

September 27, 2005 1:44 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Your best case on your own terms is that you have shown that divinely-set morality cannot be deduced logically from opening general propositions about the nature of the divine. And from that you conclude:

That’s just the way it is: bad guys don’t get their comeuppance in the next life. It’s a pity but there it is.

Now that is a leap you should submit to your own methodology. From it I deduce that you do not believe truth or reality can be experienced or substantiated (or even advanced as a plausibility) except through positive logical deduction--no inferential, experiential, induced or revealed knowledge need apply. Truth resides in the lab and the seminar room, never in the street. Therefore one assumes the following statements have no meaning for you whatsoever (beyond being examples of childish fallacy):

A) Bach's music is superior to rap;
B) Ancient Greece was a higher civilization than the Visigoths;
C) Justice transcends utility;
D) Adultery is wrong whether discovered or not.

We can debate all these in good time, but let us stick with your argument for now, which ends up drowning in the near-tautological:

Without God, is there anything ‘solid’ enough to stop me behaving immorally? Yes – such as my conscience and the threat of punishment by society.

Leave the punishment aside for a moment. What possible meaning can you be giving to "conscience" here? If you buy the "useful fiction" theory of modern neuroscience, you are talking about some kind of genetically driven conditioned behaviour that in the end is just a variation of the fear/punishment motive. If you are talking about evolved instinct, same thing. Morality becomes just a synonym for collective functional control, which kind of strips your defiant conclusion of its poetic lustre.

It is certainly true that many "divine command theorists" (a.k.a. religious people)are prone to squirm and try to avoid some of the more disruptive and perplexing consequences of their beliefs. But they are clumsy pikers compared to the secularists who knowingly "prove" there is no divinely inspired morality but then assert confidently that they can defend traditional morality with the best of them. Or at least those parts they feel should apply to them on any given day.

September 27, 2005 3:19 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

Don't waste your heaviest ammunition on a decoy: my argument is even more of an antithesis to divine command theory than you think/fear.

My assertion is that objective morality does exist, and it can ONLY be shown to exist if it is grounded in human behaviour and interaction.

A statement like "Murder is wrong" is not in the same category as "the Beatles are better than the Stones", or "fishing is more enjoyable than tennis", but in a category like "the Coke logo is red and white".

It's not a matter of personal opinion that a particular instance of murder is wrong, it's a matter of collectively agreeing meanings of terms, and applying them correctly or incorrectly to objects or instances of behaviour.

The only solid objective basis for deciding whether it is correct or incorrect to apply these terms, is the one that humans have agreed.

The will of a solipsistic God doesn't do the job.

September 27, 2005 3:40 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

My assertion is that objective morality does exist, and it can ONLY be shown to exist if it is grounded in human behaviour and interaction.

In which case, it is simply a matter of consensus and can't be said to be objective.

The statement "Murder is wrong" is tautological because murder by definition is unlawful killing. The statement "Killing is wrong" cannot be defended as a tenet of objective morality if it is grounded in the ebb and flow of human behaviour and interaction. Brit, objective doesn't mean "what the majority thinks". You seem to be veering close to the proposition that morality and law are identical. If so, say so, but don't twist the meaning of morality to suit your argument. Even the law recognizes the concept of malum in se, or at least used to.

September 27, 2005 4:10 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

BTW, Brit, are you trying to suggest the colour of the Coke logo is determined by human behaviour and interaction?

September 27, 2005 4:25 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

No, I'm saying that the correct or incorrect application of the term 'red' is determined by human interaction and agreement.

If something went wrong with my eyes and I saw the coke logo as what previously I called 'blue', pointed to it and said to my friends 'that is blue', I would be objectively wrong. Even though I genuinely am subjectively seeing it as 'blue', the fact that the logo is 'red' is not a matter of my individual opinion.

Likewise, a person now who witnessed an incident of a random infant being deliberately killed by an adult, pointed to it and said to his friends 'that is morally right' would be objectively wrong, even if he genuinely believed it to be morally right.

I would be a colourblind, and he would be a sociopath. Neither of us are applying the rules correctly.

Important: note that by 'objective' here I mean 'not individually subjective'; or 'not a matter of individual opinion'. I don't mean 'written in the stars', and I don't mean 'true and meaningful even if there were no humans'.

There’s nothing absolutely objective about the colour of the coke logo that demanded that humans agreed to call it ‘red’. Frenchmen call it ‘rouge’. We might just have well picked any other sound, or a series of clicks and gestures. But once we’re all agreed that ‘red’ it is, I will only be correct if I call it ‘red’.

To see the point, contrast this with "fishing is more fun than tennis". In making this statement, one cannot be correct or incorrect, as there are no objective criteria. That IS an entirely individually subjective matter.

-------------

Let me now clarify another important point: the separation of the 'is's from the 'ought's. The separation of what I think actually is the case, from what I wish were the case.

In my original post, I made this comment:

"[Divine command theorists} want some firm, objective grounding for morality that makes absolute moral relativism impossible... Unfortunately, ‘God says it’ doesn’t do the job.

So will anything do the job to perfection? Possibly not. Yet we all make moral judgements, and we all seem to pretty much agree about the biggies (murder, rape, theft etc), and nobody with any sense likes free-for-all relativism (ie. if p thinks x is right, then x must be right)."


So I believe that morality is not individually subjective. I think that morality exists when humans agree that it exists. When this is the case, morality is not relative on the individual level, but it can vary among different groups of people.

So if rape and infanticide are considered morally right in other cultures, does that make my argument collapse? No, because I’m dealing with what is the case, not what I wish were the case.

It is patently obvious that different countries, and even the same countries at different historical periods, have different ideas about morality. Slavery was considered morally ok at one time in the US, but not any more.

I have moral thoughts and opinions that I think ought to be applied universally. I would prefer it if all cultures everywhere followed these to the letter. But that’s as far as I can go.

I wish morality was ‘written in the stars’, but instead it is only to be found in the relatively flimsy agreements of human societies.

Morality is what works for people to get along. So individual moral relativism does not exist. But nor does absolute objective morality outside of humans.

---------------------

Two quick points:

1) You are correct that the statement 'murder (in general) is wrong' can be interpreted as a tautology. So replace it with 'a particular instance of what we call murder', or 'killing random children'.

2) Morality cannot be the same as law, acknowledged. Otherwise we would not be able to debate whether certain laws were just.

September 27, 2005 5:46 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

You are confusing nomenclature with the reality behind it. It doesn't matter what we call "red", just as it doesn't matter whether we call rape "dslkhiyjmw". Brit, are you denying the whole concept of objective, scientific truth that exists outside of human consensus. If so, I'm telling the Darwinists on you.

Your reference to slavery is interesting. I don't agree with you that it was seen as "morally acceptable" in the past. However, if you are right that it was, does it not follow from your argument that it indeed was morally acceptable because that it what the majority believed?

September 27, 2005 6:23 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

"You are confusing nomenclature with the reality behind it. It doesn't matter what we call "red", just as it doesn't matter whether we call rape "dslkhiyjmw". "

My point exactly, Peter. I invite you to re-read the following passage from the previous comment:

There’s nothing absolutely objective about the colour of the coke logo that demanded that humans agreed to call it ‘red’. Frenchmen call it ‘rouge’. We might just have well picked any other sound, or a series of clicks and gestures. But once we’re all agreed that ‘red’ it is, I will only be correct if I call it ‘red’.

I have observed three categories:

1) Objective, scientific reality that exists independently of humans, eg. the particular wavelengths of light reflected or given out by a coke logo.

2) 'Objective' rules agreed by humans, but which have no meaning independent of humans. eg. we will consistently call things of that sort 'red'

3) Individually subjective opinions, eg "red is a nicer colour than blue".

One can be correct or incorrect about things in categories 1 and 2, but not those in category 3.

The divine command theorist contends that moral rules belong in category 1. He also often claims that if this is not the case, they must belong in category 3, which is undesirable.

My claim is that they belong in category 2.

September 27, 2005 6:41 AM  
Blogger David said...

The statement that there is an objective right and wrong is a statement that a god exists.

As for the rest of it, you just fundamentally misunderstand the implications of creation. Also, isn't is somewhat problematic for your argument that Americans are killing millions of children every year and defending that ability to do so as a fundamental right?

September 27, 2005 7:41 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Perhaps you could explain the implications of creation then?

Is what problematic for my argument? That immoral behaviour exists, or that people disagree over what is or isn't morally right?

Neither poses a problem in the least. It seems to me that my argument accounts for, indeed would predict, immoral behaviour and shades of morality and disagreements about morality far better than divine command theory does.

September 27, 2005 7:48 AM  
Blogger David said...

Likewise, a person now who witnessed an incident of a random infant being deliberately killed by an adult, pointed to it and said to his friends 'that is morally right' would be objectively wrong, even if he genuinely believed it to be morally right.

How can he be objectively wrong unless there is an objective truth that exists outside of our power to change it?

As for the nature of creation: You treat G-d and existence as separate factors. G-d comes across the Universe and announces that A is moral and B is not. Is it because A, given our Universe and the nature of man, is objectively moral, so who needs G-d, or is it because morality is unfixed and arbitrary? But, in fact, G-d created the Universe and created us, so his morality is necessarily part of the warp and woof of existence. Of course G-dly and ungodly morality approximate each other: G-d has designed it that way.

And just to save us some time, yes, I accept that some other god acting on his own creation could make child murder moral -- but that this still underestimates the all-pervasive nature of Creation. The very concepts of children, of nurturing, or a moral duty to the future, were created in us.

September 27, 2005 8:05 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

I have answered to your question about how he can be 'objectively wrong' in my answers to Peter. See particularly my distinction between categories 1 and 2 in the last comment.

Your answer to the Dilemma is essentially the Aquinas one, I think. It's fine as an answer, but it abandons what most people mean when they say "morals come from God."

Most people think along the lines of "10 commandments". If you think they're naive to think that, then I agree with you.

Let me be clear: the Euthyphro Dilemma is not an argument against the existence of God, nor an argument against Creation. It's specifically a problem for the proposition that morals come from God.

September 27, 2005 8:27 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Hey, Brit, while I am absolutely convinced that randomly killing children is objectively wrong, now and always, I'm not so sure about killing random children. I may well be a relativist on that one.

Nice, David.

September 27, 2005 8:29 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Brit:

I attempted to cover this territory in Ethics and God. I now wish I hadn't as your discussion makes mine amateurish by comparison.

Several things are important to note about all known societies:

-- they have been religious
-- they have possessed moral codes
-- moral codes define a "moral community"
-- the applicability of a moral code is decidedly iffy to those outside the moral community
-- some prohibitions are universal to all moral codes (murder, rape, and thievery within the moral community, for several examples)
-- some prohibitions are particular (polygamy/polygany, dietary restrictions, genital mutilation)

With these considerations in mind, any particular moral code is a combination of several taboos and many responses of a society to exigent circumstances.

Pick polygamy for example. According to Christianity, that is immoral. However, among some tribes in New Guinea, ignorant of the details of human reproduction, women mate freely among the tribe's men, who believe they share in the child's paternity.

Because the mortality among the men is so high, shared paternity ensures support for children.

So. Is polygany moral, or immoral?

Similarly, if some gender-specific disease was to strike down, say, 75% of the US male population, would polygamy remain immoral?

Moral goodness is an admixture of those prohibitions required for humans to exist as social animals, along with codified utilitarian responses to the environment within which the society exists.

Religion provides the imprimatur for the moral code, as well as an effective intergenerational conduit.

But, as Brit, invoking God as a sine qua non for moral goodness is to run head-on into a contradiction. Never mind the minor problem of God having apparently created moral codes by the cartload.

In contrast, noting that a lone human is as meaningless as a lone ant, for humans to exist in cohesive groups requires shared expectations. And while such is much simpler in other animals, in this respect the difference between us and our closes cousins is one of degree, not difference.

September 27, 2005 8:52 AM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: Why do you think that polygamy is immoral, rather than just a bad idea?

Brit: The speed of light through vacuum is a constant. Is it really variable, but G-d always interferes to make photons zip along at 299,792,458 m/s or is the speed of light actually inviolate, meaning that G-d is not all powerful? Oh my G-d, I'm on the horns of a dilemna. Either everything that I perceive that seems fixed and true is not, or G-d is powerless to effect the world. Oh, wait, here's another possibility. Neither: G-d created light and all of its attributes.

I have to admit I don't understand what you're saying about child-murder. Is it category 1 objectively bad, meaning that it is eternally bad without reference to the circumstances, or is it category 2 objectively bad, meaning that we've all agreed to call it bad, but we could change our minds without effecting any category 1 truths. Are there any category 1 truths of moral philosophy?

If you say that the prohibition on child-murder is a category 1 truth, then fine, we can allow for moral atheists (even if we religious will insist on seeing the hand of G-d). If that prohibition is a category 2 truth, then you guys have proven OJ's argument about the need to keep a tight rein on atheists and we will need to insist on religiously imposed morality regardless of whether G-d exists.

September 27, 2005 9:34 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

Why do I think polygamy is immoral, rather than a bad idea?

I think polygamy is viewed as immoral because it is a materially bad idea -- the societal consequences of having large number of males without mating prospects don't need elaborating in this crowd.

And those significant consequences obtain regardless of which God one is talking about. Within the Book of Mormon, polygamy is mighty fine.

Which highlights the point Brit has, to my eye, very successfully made. A God has said it is immoral. Another God has said it is not.

Which is it? How do you tell?

As for your question as to which category belongs child murder belongs to, I doubt you can find any group, regardless of which version of God used, that sanctions such.

Therefore it, and just a few other such, qualify as taboos -- universal constants of human nature. They are no more dependent upon any particular religion, or religion at all, than the universal assignment of gender roles, or innate sense of reciprocity.

As I noted above, Religion may be useful as an intergenerational conduit.

But it has no value in making moral decisions.

September 27, 2005 12:27 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

However, among some tribes in New Guinea, ignorant of the details of human reproduction, women mate freely among the tribe's men, who believe they share in the child's paternity.

Would that be the same tribe I keep running into on CBC nature specials where the announcer admonishes us solemnly that they have "forty-three words for banana---and none for war."?

That's one dumb tribe if they believe that, Skipper. Not even the chimps are that thick. Although I have heard of old Family Law judges who hit several guys up for child support for the same child when the defendant in a paternity suit thought it would be a great defence if he brought all his pals in to say that they slept with her too, so maybe we should be careful not to be too ethnocentric here.

Your points (which are as old as Thucydides) would be more persuasive if you offered them in support of a plea for tolerance ("G-d works in mysterious ways.") and against disdaining those who are different, but that isn't your point. Your point is that everyone is equally misguided and that we should all decide for ourselves as individuals, at least on matters outside the old J.S. Mill "blood and bruises" test of harm. You are the extremist here, because no one on the religion side denies cultural, environmental or even evolutionary influences on custom and moral strictures. But, as in our arguments on darwinism, you are determined to show that is all there is.

In fact, baseline morality is nearly universal except for modern secularists. You can't equate prohibitions against killing and adultery and injunctions to care for children and family with avoiding shellfish or circumcision or praying on different days. The later are largely rituals that have more to do with obedience than morality and not even the most observant person would say they are of the same order as the Commandments. But you non-religious guys seem bound and determined to insist they are.

But if you agree with Brit that morality is collectively subjective, is determined by human consensus and has no objective reality outside society's imperative to thrive and survive, can you please tell us whence cometh all your enraged fulminations against the outrageous immorality of historical oppressions against blacks, women and gays that we have all come to know and love over at Brothersjudd?

September 27, 2005 1:35 PM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: We've got to keep a distinction between morality and good ideas if we hope to get anywhere. G-d is not the god of good ideas, or free will would be out the door. Polygamy is certainly a bad idea, but I don't see why it's immoral.

Your model seems to be that people wake up every morning asking themselves, "which god shall I worship today." We no more do that than you wake up asking, "which country shall I be a citizen of today." There ain't but one G-d and all those other people with their own gods don't bother me in the least.

As for universal taboos, as we've mentioned in the United States the right to kill one's child is a fundamental right. What's that you say? Oh, I see, you didn't mean those children.

September 27, 2005 2:12 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

[A]re you trying to suggest the colour of the Coke logo is determined by human behaviour and interaction?

Yes, it is.

Humans both decide what "color" to call that wavelength, and a group of humans associated with Coke periodically decide to stick with that wavelength, based on human behavior and interaction related to their product.

-- some prohibitions are universal to all moral codes (murder, rape, and thievery within the moral community, for several examples)

Captain Cook found the Hawai'ians to be a society of thieves, both within and outside of their tribe:

"Like Cortez, [Captain James Cook] arrived at a propitious time, the Hawaiians thinking the white men in their strange ships were gods.

Cook’s party was treated well and when his ships were repaired and provisions were laid in he sailed off. But barely after leaving Cook’s ships encountered a storm and the mast of one of his ships was broken. This isn’t something that should happen to gods, so, when Cook returned to fix the mast, the Hawaiians weren’t as hospitable as they had been before. They broke out in what the British called the “Island Disease,” that is, they began taking things that didn’t belong to them."

The speed of light through vacuum is a constant.

Mostly.

However, IMO it's worth noting that outside of a vacuum, humans can slow light down, and more interestingly, speed it up.

Is [child-murder] category 1 objectively bad, meaning that it is eternally bad without reference to the circumstances, or is it category 2 objectively bad, meaning that we've all agreed to call it bad, but we could change our minds without effecting any category 1 truths.

It's category 2.

[A]s to which category child murder belongs to, I doubt you can find any group, regardless of which version of God used, that sanctions such.

In Victorian England, between 1834 and 1897, infanticide was the order of the day:

"Baby farmers, the majority of whom were women, ran ads in newspapers which catered to working class girls. On any given day a young mother could find at least a dozen ads in the Daily Telegraph, and in the Christian Times, soliciting for the weekly, monthly, or yearly care of infants. All these advertisements were aimed at the mothers of illegitimate babies who were having difficulty finding employment with the added liability of a child. A typical ad might read:

NURSE CHILD WANTED, OR TO ADOPT -- The Advertiser, a Widow with a little family of her own, and moderate allowance from her late husband's friends, would be glad to accept the charge of a young child. Age no object. If sickly would receive a parent's care. Terms, Fifteen Shillings a month; or would adopt entirely if under two months for the small sum of Twelve pounds.

This ad may have been misleading to the general public, but it read like a coded message to unwed mothers. The information about the character and financial condition of the person soliciting for nurse children appears to be acceptable at first glance, but no name and no address is given. No references are asked for and none are offered. The sum of 15s a week to keep an infant or a sickly child was inadequate, and a sickly child and an infant under two months were the least likely to survive and the cheapest to bury. Infants were taken no questions asked and it was understood that for 12 pounds no questions were expected to be asked. The transaction between the mother and the babyfarmer usually took place in a public place, on public transportation, or through a second party. No personal information was exchanged, the money was paid, and the transaction was complete. The mother knew she would never see her infant alive again."

- Bastardy and Baby Farming in Victorian England, by Dorothy L. Haller

September 27, 2005 5:28 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

I don't watch CBC, so I can't be certain as to whether it is the same one.

But nonetheless, there is at least one tribe in the New Guinea highlands that believes each man mating with a woman is partially the father of the resulting offspring.

As to whether they believe it as a matter of observable fact (see light, speed of), or as an assertion without any observable basis (see dispensational millenialism), I don't know.

But it doesn't seem to much matter, as it encourages conduct among males in the tribe that is consistent with the exigent circumstances -- high male mortality.

So what we would reflexively view as immoral -- polygany -- is quite moral in a different set of circumstances.

Which substantiates my point, and is (I think) consistent with what Brit is saying: religion acts as an imprimatur for the several taboos humans are born with, and the many responses to exigent circumstances.

In other words, religious belief is neither a necessary, nor sufficient,
precursor for moral behavior.

Your points would be more persuasive if you offered them in support of a plea for tolerance ("G-d works in mysterious ways.") and against disdaining those who are different ...

My points are precisely directed towards tolerance: The Dennis Pragers (or, for that matter, the Orrin Judd's) of the world are wholly intolerant of the notion that a supernatural being is optional when it comes to morality.

Additionally, everyone's secular bogeyman, Harry Eager, and I have stated any number of times that a mixed society (secular government, sectarian polity with many competing sects) is the healthiest organizational schema yet.


"Your point is that everyone is equally misguided and that we should all decide for ourselves as individuals ..."

Beyond what I stated above, I will readily acknowledge that asserting a non-supernatural basis for morality can lead to relativism

You must also acknowledge that one nearly universal result of religiously inspired moral codes is define who is within, and who else is without, the moral community.

And all manner of otherwise prohibited savagery is perfectly allowed on those outside the moral community, regardless of material behavior.

But what of relativism? Keeping in mind my assertion that all moral codes are a combination a a few taboos and a great many responses to exigent circumstances, individual decisions really don't much room before they run head on into reality.

Which is where religion (properly constrained against homicidal fanaticism) exercises a beneficial flywheel effect. (And is also an appeal to Catholicism, in that a central authority aspires to prevent the hoi polloi thinking for themselves too much.)

You can't equate prohibitions against killing and adultery and injunctions to care for children and family with avoiding shellfish or circumcision or praying on different days.

Yes, I can. If God mandates all of them, then, absent reason, all are equally mandatory. The equation I, and others, make, acts to highlight the inequality. There are any number of things God directs, some of which we find sensible, others we ignore completely (see Deuteronomy for many examples). Insisting on Divine Authority as the source of morality means nothing directive in the Bible is optional.

Including killing your kids should they become, say, Scientoligists (or, worse, secularists).

can you please tell us whence cometh all your enraged fulminations against the outrageous immorality of historical oppressions against blacks, women and gays that we have all come to know and love over at Brothersjudd?

Easy. I draw a much bigger circle when deciding who belongs within the moral community: anyone who confines their behavior within the few taboos and large number of responses to exigent circumstances belongs.

Women, regardless of the Adam and Eve story, or St. Paul, or St. Augustine, are full fledged human beings.

As are Blacks (never mind the line in Genesis asserting each are descended from their own kind).

As are gays. Unless one subscribes to the singularly idiotic notion that gays (by and large) choose their orientation, then the fact of homosexuality has no inherent moral component whatsoever.

Contrast that with religiously based moral codes. They have a much more restricted notion of who belongs in the moral community. The Christian treatment of Jews over nearly all the last 2,000 years speaks perfectly eloquently to that.

September 27, 2005 6:49 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

G-d is not the god of good ideas, or free will would be out the door. You lost me there. Presenting good ideas is entirely different from creating beings who are automotons in service of those ideas.

Polygamy is certainly a bad idea, but I don't see why it's immoral. It is considered immoral because, widely enough enacted, it is a bad idea for society. The moral prohibition against polygamy is a response to exigent circumstances that would obtain should polygamy become widespread ceteris paribus. But consider my hypothetical above: if some gender specific disease came down the pike and killed 90% of all men, polygamy would quickly become a good idea for society. Do you think a sudden conversion to its inclusion as moral behavior would long follow?

As for universal taboos, as we've mentioned in the United States the right to kill one's child is a fundamental right. What's that you say? Oh, I see, you didn't mean those children.

Fair point, one begging to be raised. Ignoring the wide spectrum of theologically based views on this subject, I will instead focus on somthing more prosaic: ownership.

Ownership is everywhere else at least 9/10 of the law -- in that the law falls very clearly on one particular side when it comes to who is in a position to make a decsion.

As to what the decision should be, the law has much, much less to say.

As with pregnancy. Until fairly far into gestation, the woman has complete, indivisible, ownership. Therefore, during that period, it is her decision that should be paramount.

As to what that decision should be ... well, it depends, doesn't it?

And unless you are an absolutist, a position both logically coherent and repellant, you have your particular set of "it depends."

As do I.

But should either trump ownership?

September 27, 2005 7:10 PM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: As much as you want me to, I'm not going to think that polygamy is immoral. It's just a bad idea. If things change so that it becomes a good idea, it still won't be immoral.

As for children and ownership, ownership is a very old idea. I've never heard, though, that mothers were considered the owners of their unborn children or that their ownership ends late in pregnancy. Says who?

September 27, 2005 8:34 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

September 28, 2005 1:04 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

The physical fact of the man killing the child is category 1.

That it is morally wrong is category 2.

There are no category 1 moral truths. There are no category 3 moral truths either. All moral statements are category 2.

If that prohibition is a category 2 truth, then you guys have proven OJ's argument about the need to keep a tight rein on atheists and we will need to insist on religiously imposed morality regardless of whether G-d exists.

Insist on religiously-imposed morality? I've never questioned the either validity or efficacy of religiously-imposed morality. Morals coming from religion are category 2.


The speed of light through vacuum is a constant. Is it really variable, but G-d always interferes to make photons zip along at 299,792,458 m/s or is the speed of light actually inviolate, meaning that G-d is not all powerful? Oh my G-d, I'm on the horns of a dilemna. Either everything that I perceive that seems fixed and true is not, or G-d is powerless to effect the world. Oh, wait, here's another possibility. Neither: G-d created light and all of its attributes.

Interesting, because it forces us to look at what it special about the Euthyphro Dilemma.

The sting in the tail of the Euthyphro Dilemma, which your ‘physical law’ dilemma lacks, is the problem of abhorrent commands.

Pose the question: ‘if God were to command that murder and rape were moral imperatives, should we start murdering and raping?’

There are basically three ways of answering it. The two obvious ones are:

1) Yes – murder and rape are now morally right (the William of Ockham answer), and divine command theory is correct; or
2) No – we’d start looking elsewhere for our morals (so divine command theory is incorrect)

What is interesting about the thought-experiment provoked by problem of abhorrent commands is not what it tells us about God (which is nothing much at all), but what it tells us about our own attitudes to morality. It’s easy enough for anybody to accept the notion that if God changed a physical law, that law would change and we’d have to adapt to it.

But it’s not at all easy to accept the notion that if God made matricide right tomorrow, we’d be morally obliged to kill our mothers.

Nearly everybody, if they are honest, would be drawn to the answer ‘No’. They’d be saying “God is just wrong this time, I’m going to look elsewhere for my morals.” And if we can look elsewhere, divine command theory must be incorrect.

Because of this, many people unwilling to abandon God as the source of morality, try to come up with a third answer:

3) It’s a trick/meaningless/ignorant question. God couldn’t/wouldn’t make murder right.

And this is justified with a ‘Third Way’ definition of the origins of morality, like the one you present (I have looked at three variations of Third Way answers in the main post).

I personally don’t find any of the Third Way definitions convincing, but I’ve explained why in the main post so I won’t repeat all that here. I also do think it’s the only way to go if you want to preserve God as the source of morality.

But your ‘speed of light dilemma’ is not really a parallel with the Euthyphro Dilemma, because it lacks the abhorrent commands thought-experiment.

September 28, 2005 2:03 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I've never heard, though, that mothers were considered the owners of their unborn children...

Not owners, but certainly the caretakers of children both born and unborn.

Until recently, that role included the power and authority to beat or starve the children, and also to sell them, or give them away.

September 28, 2005 3:40 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

I didn't say, nor do I think, polygamy is immoral. I said it is considered (if you were to ask a large, randomly selected, number of people whether polygamy is immoral, nearly all would say yes)immoral.

Therefore, it is "immoral" because most people think it is. Which, when you get right down to it, is the source of nearly all of what we consider morality. Meaning that, absent the biggies, The Divine and morality don't really have much to do with each other.

When I spoke of ownership, I meant it as material fact: until well into pregnancy, a woman cannot, no matter how much she might want to, give the baby away. The physical investment in the gestation is entirely hers. As is any risk the pregnancy entails.

Who else would you nominate as the owner?

But I don't want to derail the discussion, which should really be at a level above this -- whether a Divine Imprimatur is required, or even makes any particular sense, for a functioning moral code.

Brit's article -- as clearly and concisely written as anything I have had the pleasure to read in quite some time -- as well as his responses, highlight the inherent contradictions in the Divine Requirement thesis.

Which means keeping a tight rein on atheists (when you come down to it, a strawman for any group outside a particular theologically defined moral community) is not only an exercise without a point, but may ultimately be self defeating.

Because to do so, as it so often has in the past, would require violating the very morals one is attempting to defend.

September 28, 2005 4:38 AM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper -- What's the significance of what nearly all a large, randomly selected number of people think about whether polygamy is immoral?

September 28, 2005 1:05 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

Ummm ... perception is reality?

Or, that polygamy is opposite that union Jesus decreed as being God blessed, and hence immoral.

Or, that morality is really an invented construct independent of any particular notion of a supreme being.

But I am repeating myself.

What do you think?

September 28, 2005 2:05 PM  
Blogger David said...

I'm tempted to ask who is Jesus to me, or me to Jesus, but in fact I find the claim that Jesus commanded monogamy to be weak and I see no basis in the Christian scriptures for the claim that Jesus forbade polygamy. But you and Brit claim that you can derive morality from first principals, so show me.

September 28, 2005 7:16 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

I am no scriptural expert, but IIRC, Jesus did have something to say about the union between one man and one woman being sanctified in the eyes of God. That would make it a sripturally moral state. Certainly a great number of Christians take this as a matter of course. I shall defer to them.

But you and Brit claim that you can derive morality from first principals, so show me.

Uhh, no. We didn't. Brit's claim is that requiring the will of a Supreme Being as a precondition for morality is contains a fatal contradiction; God is no more essential to the existence of morality than icing is to the existence of cake.

My claim, in agreement with Brit, is that morality stems from a few seemingly universal (or close as darnnit is to swearing) in-group taboos, combined with the consensus response to shared exigent circumstances.

That is where my polygamy hypothetical comes in. If certain exigent circumstances change, the moral assessment of polygamy will change. (During the middle ages, the same thing happened with regard to charging interest on loans).

My assertion of what comprises morality carries with it some conclusions, but none of them have anything to do with arriving at morality from first principles.

But I don't feel too bad about that. No one can derive morality from Divine Command, either.

September 29, 2005 4:50 AM  
Blogger David said...

So basically you agree with OJ that atheists can't be trusted to behave morally as they don't believe that there can be any fixed morality. I, of course, disagree with OJ and think that certain atheists will adhere to a fixed morality as they are sensitive to the morality inherent in the Universe, even if they deny its source.

As for polygamy, I deny that it is immoral and you, apparently, are powerless to argue the point other than to refer to the completely meaningless opinion of the masses.

September 29, 2005 7:02 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

Where do you get your morality from?

I don't mean the ultimate source (eg. God) - I mean, what's the last direct step in the chain to you? What's your immediate input for moral rules?

September 29, 2005 7:09 AM  
Blogger David said...

I get my morality from my understanding of G-d's commandments, about which I might be wrong to my detriment, and from the constant decisions I make every day about whether to choose one path or another.

September 29, 2005 7:52 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

I completely disagree with OJ's conclusion. Religious belief or lack thereof is irrelevant to the ability to behave morally because morality is the result of evolution and local circumstances; claiming it is divinely derived is simply wrong.

In other words, on average atheists are as well behaved as religionists (and, if a recent Christianity Today article on the subject is to be believed, rather better than religionists in some respects).

Additionally, religionist claims to possess some objective morality are contradicted both by sectarian savagery (the formation of a "moral community" based upon considerations having nothing to to with material behavior renders the morality worthless), the changing of objective morality over time, and the proven ability to equally effectively employ that objective morality on whichever side of a question one chooses.

OJ's claim is self-congratulatory nonsense.

You puzzle me with your point on polygamy. Our society's consensus is that it is immoral -- that is far from meaningless. If you don't believe me, try marrying and living with more than one woman simultaneously.

I'm betting you will run into some very meaningful material consequences.

As for my opinion, I have never argued that polygamy has any intrinsic moral component. Therefore, my answer is "it depends."

September 29, 2005 10:24 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

So on a practical level it's a combination of your religious education, and your own reasoning and thinking about what you hope is 'right' (which might be described as a sort of innate moral sense).

I suspect another major element is that you generally try to treat people as you would like to be treated yourself.

I'd say that's pretty much where I get my morals from, too.

So what's wrong with any of that?

September 30, 2005 1:45 AM  
Blogger David said...

That you can change your mind. That you believe, though you will deny this, in the perfection of human reason.

September 30, 2005 7:33 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

I can change my mind, and so can you.

Our only difference is that you do think there is some content in the religious claim that morals ultimately have their origins in God, and I don't.

On a practical level, you and I are indistinguishable in terms of our moral opinions on 99% of matters.

If you had been around 500 years ago, you would still believe that there is some content in the religious claim that morals ultimately have their origins in God, but your moral opinions would be wholly different on a very large number of issues, to the ones you and I have now.

September 30, 2005 7:58 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

You need to take into account some significant problems attending Divine Command morality.

1. Divinely derived morality always clearly delineates the moral community from everyone else [heretics, heathens, etc.].

2. The nearly inevitable result is that morality, which is inherently a material thing, is applied differently based wholly on non-material considerations.

3. And possibly most important, on any non-trivial moral decision you wish to name, Divine Command morality can be found camped firmly on both sides.

4. Divine Command morality changes, based on human reason. Charging interest on loans is but one example.

You are right, Brit and I can change our minds. But, unlike God, we cannot do so with impunity. All actions have material consequences, which, as social animals, includes others' approbation, or lack thereof.

Asserting that Divine Command is an illusion has nothing to do with the perfection of human reason.

I have asserted morality is the codification of a few taboos, combined with a far more haphazard set of consensus responses to shared experience.

So either I have part of that wrong, or the "perfection of human reason" is no more relevant than Divine Command.

September 30, 2005 8:53 AM  
Blogger David said...

Speak of the devil.

September 30, 2005 10:41 AM  
Blogger David said...

Brit: Such as?

Skipper: I note that you both ignore the second thing I said, which went to the quality of human reason. You are willing to change societal (not just personal) morality just because you don't see anything wrong with the change. Even if I didn't believe in G-d, I would recognize that human reason is severely limited.

Of your four problems, the only one that seems to distinguish theistic morality from atheistic morality is the ability to distinguish between the moral and the immoral ("clearly delineates the moral community from everyone else"). As the is the fundamental purpose of morality, I see it more as a feature than a bug.

September 30, 2005 10:48 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

I note that you both ignore the second thing I said, which went to the quality of human reason.

I think I addressed it here:

I have asserted morality is the codification of a few taboos, combined with a far more haphazard set of consensus responses to shared experience.

So either I have part of that wrong, or the "perfection of human reason" is no more relevant than Divine Command.


Perhaps I could have been more clear: the non-taboo part of morality is a societal consensus response to exigent circumstances. By definition, that response is filtered through human nature, which is essentially static and imperfect. Perfectibility of reason is simply beside the point, as it is a mythical ingredient never part of the mix.

With respect to moral community, I think you failed to apprehend my point. The scare quotes I used around the term were to help convey the idea that moral communities do not distinguish moral from immoral, but rather community member from non-member.

The establishment of a moral community makes moral acts against those outside the community that would be considered immoral if perpetrated upon members within the community.

Christians, until very recently, have excluded Jews from the Christian moral community. The results speak for themselves.

History shows this to be a nearly universal concomitant of revealed religions.

I fail to see how this is a feature.

October 01, 2005 10:58 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

The establishment of a moral community makes moral acts against those outside the community that would be considered immoral if perpetrated upon members within the community.

A perfect example would be the medieval "Knight's Code of Chivalry", which allowed murder, rape, and looting under MOST circumstances, protecting only those of the right social class.

October 01, 2005 12:32 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

I appreciate that as a true Juddian you officially subscribe to a fine set of unreconstructed medieval principles, but even the most hardcore of fire-and-brimstone Bible-thumpers today take what would have been considered a very soft line on such things as child labour, cruel and unusual punishments, women’s rights and the divine right of kings to chop off heads willy-nilly.

Not only does it not matter whether it’s true or not that God is the source of morality: it doesn’t even much matter whether you believe it. Far more important to your morality is the society in which you happen to circulate.

I can change my mind on morality to exactly the same extent as you.

In practice, of course, as Skipper points out, that extent isn’t all that great. I could no more suddenly believe that child-killing was right than I could suddenly believe that black is white.

Even if God told me it was.

October 03, 2005 2:37 AM  
Blogger David said...

Well, you can ask OJ if I'm a true Juddian, but I find it interesting that I can argue, perfectly comfortably, assuming arguendo that G-d doesn't exist, but you guys cannot, under any circumstances, argue as if He does exist.

It might be useful for you, because otherwise Peter and I have shown, fairly quickly and with one hand tied behind our backs, that you guys believe that morality is relative and maleable and that no moral rule is fixed -- which is exactly what the Juddians predict. If the Dutch want to allow polyamorous group marriages, or the age of consent gets lowered, or we decide to let mothers kill their children without hindrance so long as they are not entirely born, well all of those things, if socially accepted, are every bit as moral as any other system.

So, when we say that, under our system of morality, your system is amoral, I don't really see how you can complain.

October 04, 2005 8:50 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

If the Dutch want to allow polyamorous group marriages, or the age of consent gets lowered, or we decide to let mothers kill their children without hindrance so long as they are not entirely born, well all of those things, if socially accepted, are every bit as moral as any other system.

Correct, and also true even if God exists.

After all, in past societies that were far more religious, the last two examples WERE moral.

In fact, it has at times been considered moral to kill ALREADY BORN children, and also to wed & bed girls as young as ten, and those are just fairly recent examples from Abrahamic religions.

God apparently told the ancient South Americans to make multiple blood sacrifices of humans every week, and that was completely moral and OK with God.

So, while the Juddians and their ilk certainly DO contend that some moral rules are fixed, they utterly fail to establish WHY that would be so - other than to testify about their religioius convictions.

Until someone can prove that God is Abrahamic, and not Huitzilopochtli, or Ra, those "fixed and unconditional morals" will always have a big asterisk next to them.

October 05, 2005 12:10 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

And to add to what Oroborous said:

Part of the reason for communication difficulties on issues like this is that the religious side tend to slip very easily between the is and the ought; the descriptive and prescriptive.

We're observing HOW morality appears to work in the world, whether we like it or not. You're constantly introducing into the equation what you think morality OUGHT to be, ie. universal and externally objective, because the alternative is a moral free-for-all.

But anyway, all these things aside, I don't understand the practical implications of Divine Command Theory position anyway. What does it mean to say "morals come from God"? Is that even intelligible, when we look at the world?

What is His method of delivering these moral rules to you or me? The Ten Commandments and the New Testament are ok so far as they go, but they don't deal in too many shades of grey, nor are they easily applied to practical everyday decisions without controversy. Why do we have so many moral dilemmas?

How do I know I'm doing what He wants, other than by my own judgement?

And if we have to use our own judgements, even if we're trying to use our judgements to guess what God wants, then what use is God's Will in the whole thing - other than that we might find out on Doomsday that we had it all wrong and we're up for punishment?

October 05, 2005 4:25 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

I can complain because the assertion is wrong.

First, the presumed existence of God is irrelevant to morality as it exists: no matter what Creator version one uses, there tends to be a very short list of actions prohibited within the group.

Since that short list is universal, but particular invocations of the Creator differ wildly, the simplest explanation is that humans organically possess these taboos, and no invocation of a Creator, or lack thereof, is going to change that.

As for the huge messy majority of what we consider morality, it is relative and malleable.

Which is where your assertion you and Peter have one-handedly stumped the rest of us.

Unless, of course, you can successfully maintain that Judeo-Christian morality is objective and fixed.

I suggest any complete answer should include, besides what Brit has mentioned, misceganation as a modern example of religiously derived fixed, objective, morality.

October 06, 2005 8:31 AM  
Blogger David said...

QED

October 06, 2005 2:19 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit in the original post:

Does it mean that morality is purely relativistic? No.

Skipper, fifty comments later:

As for the huge messy majority of what we consider morality, it is relative and malleable.

Good work, guys.

October 07, 2005 8:43 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

The statements don't contradict each other, of course, but it is amusing.

At most, we can infer that the statements were written with differing ratios of relative/fixed morality in mind.

October 07, 2005 11:41 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Orobrous

By which I take it you mean we are all agreed it is wrong to rob banks or knife the neigbour for a lark, but everything else is up for grabs?

October 08, 2005 6:29 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Peter Burnet:

Well, knifing the neighbor for thrills is out, but bank robbing COULD be a moral good, under the right circumstances.

When you ask if "everything else is up for grabs", the answer is yes, collectively, but no, if you mean "every individual gets to decide for herself what is, or is not, moral".

Moral sets have varied widely between cultures and over time, so I fail to see why anyone thinks that they could make a compelling argument for "fixed morals".

The only way to do that would be to prove which deity is THE deity - a very tall order, and never before accomplished.

Barring that, moral sets are only agreed-upon rules and restrictions, and they change with time and the underlying culture.

October 09, 2005 12:45 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Oroborous:

Then what is the difference between morality and regulation? What is the qualitative difference between laws against rape and laws prohibiting me from burning leaves on my front lawn? Do you think there is any distinction between malum in se (things wrong in themselves) and malum prohibitum (things prohibited)? How can you define morality as "a set of agreed-upon rules" and then try to argue that a society that, by consensus, permits rape (or honour killings) is condoning immorality?

This is important because what is clear to me is that David has squeezed Brit and Skipper into a corner that is of their own making. They aren't talking about morality at all, they are talking regulation, but they don't want to surrender the word "morality" because: A) they rightly see themselves as moral people and would be offended if anyone called them "amoral"; and B) they know full well and fear the implications of denying there is such a thing or taking it completely out of the public square. Essentially they have been reduced to arguing morality out of existence as a legitimate concept for collective coercion(because they want to decide these things for themselves) while fiercely defending the use of the word (because they want everybody to behave according to the standards they have set for themselves). Nice work, if you can get it.

October 09, 2005 3:38 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Peter:

Do you think there is any distinction between malum in se (things wrong in themselves) and malum prohibitum (things prohibited)?

Yes.

How can you define morality as "a set of agreed-upon rules" and then try to argue that a society that, by consensus, permits rape (or honour killings) is condoning immorality?

Within their own societies, the rapists and killers may be behaving morally - "may" because, even in places where such routinely occurs, there are often laws against such behavior. They just aren't much enforced.

However, the societies of the condoned rapists and killers are only a SUBSET of "the cultures of Earth", and most importantly, those societies are among the least efficient, most dysfunctional, and weakest cultures on Earth.

When speaking of morals, "might makes right", for why else does God get to set morality ?
(Yes, morality is in part set by the structure of the Universe, but God made that as well).

Also, "the majority" is another way of saying "the biggest force", which is why we sometimes refer to "the tyranny of the majority", an idea explained at length by James Madison in The Federalist, No. 51., initially published in 1787, by Alexis DeTocqueville in "Democracy in America", 1835, (especially chap. 15), and in John Stuart Mill's essay "On Liberty", 1859.
So, even if God is NOT the issuing authority for moral sets, and cultures and societies decide amongst themselves, it's still morality at the point of a sword.

Do we say that the 15th and 16th century Aztec culture was "moral" ?
No, we revile it, because of the slavery and human sacrifice - but we do that only because a Christian nation was more powerful, and conquered them.
If they had come over to Europe, and whipped up on our ancestors, we'd now be playing basketball with severed human heads.

Therefore, as a fully-paid-up member of the strongest society that the Earth has yet known, I am arguing that although the behavior that you refer to is moral within their cultures, it is my opinion that THEIR ENTIRE CULTURES ARE IMMORAL - again, ONLY by MY standards, not by theirs.
However, if my culture absorbs or displaces theirs, then my position AUTOMATICALLY becomes "correct", and what was once moral to them becomes immoral.

Additionally, this MUST be your position as well, for the Christian God doesn't (now) allow rape to be used as a means of punishment, nor does She (now) allow honor killings of women who are raped or who simply refuse to marry a man picked out by her brothers, nor does the Christian God (now) allow women to be imprisoned for being raped, or for women to be stoned to death for adultery, while the males involved whistle away.
(Muslims cultures have a strong tendency to be scared of feminine sexuality, eh ?)

Therefore, if you DO NOT agree with me that honor killings and judicially-ordered rape are symptoms of a sick and immoral society, (whilst you condemn Western societies for allowing adults to look at PICTURES of naked women), you are obliterating the entire logical foundation for divine command theory.

You can't have your cake and eat it too.
Either the cultures referred to above are evil, OR, God does NOT have a fixed moral set for humanity, and each culture decided for themselves what will be considered "moral" and "immoral".
(Or, you could argue that the Christian God is only one of many Gods, and that each God sets morality for Her followers independently of any other God. But I doubt that you want to try that one).

As for Brit and Skipper, I cannot defend their ideas, because I believe that morals do come from God.

However, I recognize that such is merely a statement of faith, and cannot be logically defended, and further that "my" God is a matter of choice - I cannot "prove" that Allah or Ra or Huitzilopochtli or Zeus or Odin are NOT the "one true God", or even that ONLY one God exists, or even that ANY God exists.

I do have some very strong circumstantial evidence for the validity of all of the above, however.

If we say that morals are NOT set by God, then "morals" DO equal "regulation", (although not "law", as you point out), and under those circumstances Brit and Skipper are correct.

October 09, 2005 8:14 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Oroborous:

Cultures aren't moral or immoral. Actions are. Chattel slavery was immoral, but I don't think 19th century America was an immoral culture, nor do I think such as assertion even makes much sense. And Judeo-Christianity condemns or blesses the actions of individuals, not collectivities (more or less). Theologically speaking, or even ethically, it makes no more sense to condemn all Muslims as living in an immoral culture because a minority believes in honour killings than it does to say Western pornmeisters aren't so bad because their culture is moral overall.

Your view of how the Divine Will is expressed through geo-political strength is not one I share.

October 10, 2005 2:22 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Brit in the original post:

Does it mean that morality is purely relativistic? No.

Skipper, fifty comments later:

As for the huge messy majority of what we consider morality, it is relative and malleable.

Good work, guys.


Chortle chortle, Peter.

There's no contradiction, just a context-free juxtaposition of two senses of the word "relative".

I'm trying to guess what your difficulty with this is...

My statement is a refutation of the notion of individual moral relativism, ie. if p thinks x is right, x is right.

This makes no more sense than "If John thinks pigs can fly, then pigs can fly", or even "If Jack thinks grass is green, then grass is green."

Because moral truths are category 2, as I've argued above.

(That doesn't that we don't have individual moral opinions.

"John thinks pigs can fly" might be a true statement. It's just the second part that doesn't follow.

Likewise, "Jim thinks matricide is good" might be a true statement. But it doesn't follow that "therefore matricide is good").

Skipper's statement is correct, because (a) moral truths are category 2, and therefore vary from society to society according to their particular rules; and (b) there are always a lot of grey areas even within groups. Both of these seem uncontroversial when you look at the world.

How do you explain moral dilemmas?

October 10, 2005 3:28 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit:

I live to amuse you.

Likewise, "Jim thinks matricide is good" might be a true statement. But it doesn't follow that "therefore matricide is good").

No, but on your terms it does follow that matricide, prohibited or not, is good for Jim. All you have to say to Jim is he can't do it because it is prohibited, like burning leaves on the lawn. Don't you just hate it when the law does that?

But, sure, I could be missing something here. Mom always told me I had a blind spot about "context-free juxtapositions of two senses of the word "relative"."

October 10, 2005 4:47 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

The point is that Jim cannot claim that matricide is good just because he thinks it is. He can only claim that he thinks it is good.

He cannot justify an action by declaring that he believes it to be right.

October 10, 2005 5:17 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

But if he gets 50% plus one to back him, it becomes right by definition, no?

October 10, 2005 5:29 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

There's not necessarily a magic number. 51%-49% on an issue sees you in the realms of moral dilemma. Abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty are good examples.

The law is not the same as the right. Laws change all the time, because gradually people come to view them as unjust.

But Jim's society has agreed that wantonly killing his mum would be wrong, so his view that it is right doesn't change that.

You want black and whites. For the most part, morality is all about shades of grey.

Again, how do you account for the existence of moral dilemmas and debates? And how do you go about resolving them, and coming down on one side or the other?

October 10, 2005 5:46 AM  
Blogger David said...

As we've long since agreed that morality is personal, why should Jim care what his society thinks of matricide, other than, as Peter suggests, to avoid the police power of the state. Which brings us to another nice thing about G-d given morality: we can have a strong church and a weak state, or a weak church and a strong state, and those are the only two choices.

October 10, 2005 5:51 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

How many Jims do you know, David?

Jims are so rare they make movies about them with a British actor playing Jim and an attractive American actress playing the brave but vulnerable detective.

What God-given morality might give you in terms of the state is moot, because God-given morality doesn't exist.

You might be able to make a case for religion-given morality.

October 10, 2005 6:03 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Incidentally, the fact that I've had to write that last paragraph suggests that you still haven't really got what we're saying here.

I'm not making an argument that there are two possible ways of deriving morality - from God or from societal agreement - and that the societal agreement route is better than the God route.

I'm saying that societal agreement is the only route.

There's not a shadow of a doubt that beliefs like "God says x is wrong" has been and still is a powerful method of maintaining moral rules, and is a persuasive factor in moral debates.

Religion is a really, really big factor in the moral equation. It's just that "God says it" doesn't happen to have any actual content. I'm not saying that is a good thing, I'm saying it is a thing.

October 10, 2005 6:15 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit:

You are the one who threw Jim into the ring. Don't get testy with us about where that leads. Your side is rather adept at choosing these sorts of extreme examples to make your point and then getting impatient at the idea that it is much of a problem anyway.

What I can't fathom is why you guys are having such a hard time just admitting this is a dilemna for you? It has been recognized for centuries that deducing morality from a godless premise is notoriously frustrating and has never been done persuasively, but you are talking as if the whole issue is blindingly obvious to any clear thinker. Religious folks would never argue that objective morality can be deduced logically without the aid of experience, revelation, reason, induction, etc., and there is no doubt it can be a confusing and controversial business when push comes to shove. Just ask the Catholic Church or any of several thousand rabbis. You wouldn't have too much difficulty is mounting a logical attack on lots of our positions and we would admit it's a daily struggle. Why can't you? What are you afraid of?

October 10, 2005 6:21 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

It would indeed be a dilemma for me if I was trying to deduct objective morality from a godless premise.

Luckily, I'm not.

October 10, 2005 6:37 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Aaarrggghhh!

October 10, 2005 6:40 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Heh heh.

Look, it's easy:

Moral rules are not absolutely objective - somehow 'written in the stars.'

But from that, contrary to religionist's accusations, it does NOT follow that "if p thinks x is right, then x is right."

So it is not absolutely individually subjective either.

In other words, moral 'truths' are like linguistic 'truths'. it is not written in the stars that grass is "green". But neither can one person decide that grass is now "yleugh" and expect that to have any meaning.

In other other words, moral truths are category 2.

I just happen to think that's the way the world is.

They're not obviously category 2 - they can be disguised at category 1 truths with things like "God says it", and it's not necessarily a bad thing if people actually think "God says it" is the source (though sometimes it might be).

October 10, 2005 6:49 AM  
Blogger David said...

I'm not sure that I know any Jims, but I would expect that the Jims among us are pretty circumspect and only speak of their matricidal impulses, if at all, hypothetically and in the third person ... using aliases ... on the internet ...

So, to bring this around full circle, there is no dilemna, there is simply faith.

Now, in Germany in the 40s it was considered moral to round up all the Jews and ship them east. Some few Germans protested. As "moral" has content only as a statement of the consensus judgment of the society, which Germans were moral and which perverse?

October 10, 2005 7:12 AM  
Blogger David said...

You say, Moral rules are not absolutely objective - somehow 'written in the stars.'

I say, "Sure they are." Now, disprove it.

October 10, 2005 7:14 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Great analogy, Brit. Scripture and history are full of examples of people being stoned or killed for making up new words for colours.

October 10, 2005 7:19 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

I'm interested in where moral rules come from. Why is it a 'rule' that x is wrong?

You can take the Nazis, or Stalin, or witch-burners, or the Romans, or British public schools in the 1850s, or people being stoned for heresy, or pygmy tribes or anything you like.

Their variation supports the fact that moral rules vary from society to society. I don't like that fact particularly, but like it or lump it, there it is.

Are you denying that moral rules vary from society to society, or agreeing that they do?

Like you, I think the Nazis actions were morally wrong. Everyone has moral opinions, and that is one of mine.

What's the problem, exactly?

Peter:

Indeed, but how is that remotely related to the point?

October 10, 2005 7:33 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I thought that this post of mine from the BrosJudd blog in response to David Cohen has some applicability here.

Another good example is that Jews, and to some extent Christians, are willing to contemplate the possibility of G-d as untustworthy narrator. For some reason, atheists always disbelieve in a somewhat simple-minded, easily comprehended god, but the actual G-d is a sophisticated Author who drives the narrative forward for his own purposes, not ours.

This kind of puts a crimp on objectivity, don't you think? If the source of objective truth can't be trusted, why pay attention to it?

You say that human sacrifice is immoral, but without G-d you have no basis for that conclusion.

Why not? God is not the only concept upon which to base a standard of morality.

It wasn't immoral in the societies surrounding the Israelites and there was no particular reason that Abraham would have thought human sacrifice to be odd.

You are practicing a form of temporal multiculturalism here, which further strengthens your similarities with post-modernism. If moral standards are objective, then human sacrifice was as wrong then as it is today.

So how can you say that it is immoral unless you believe in an absolute and unchanging standard of morality? As you know, I'm eager for you to believe in such a standard, and you're eager to deny that it exists.

I do believe in such a standard. I just don't base it upon the subjective feelings of a personal being known as God. People of all cultures and times have sought for such a standard, it didn't start with the Jews. And as people, our moral decisions are always clouded by our subjective feelings, which isn't as bad as everyone claims, but it does make agreement difficult, since we don't all share the same feelings.

But we do share a lot of feelings in common. There is an objective grounding to our feelings, as they are the result of millions of generations of successful reproduction and survival. Our feelings represent ingrained habits that have proved necessary to survival and contain much inherent wisdom, whether we understand them or not.

But we also have the shared legacy of cultural evolution upon which to build an objective standard of the good and the bad. All societies that once practiced ritual human sacrifice have either abolished the practice or have vanished from the earth. Granted, I am an inheritor of that tradition, and have the advantage of historical hindsight, but isn't that hindsight a proper tool with which to judge the validity of those past claims of revealed truth?

October 10, 2005 5:27 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Peter:

[I]t makes no more sense to condemn all Muslims as living in an immoral culture because a minority believes in honour killings than it does to say Western pornmeisters aren't so bad because their culture is moral overall.

You seem to be conceding either that there is no such thing as a fixed, divinely-given moral set, or, that Christians have the right to judge the morality of people in other cultures by contemporary Christian standards.

Which is it ?

The most logical answer is the former, but I suspect that you like that answer least.

Your view of how the Divine Will is expressed through geo-political strength is not one I share.

I don't claim that Americans are MORE MORAL than anyone else, merely that it's quite clear that the will of other Gods is that their followers submit to the Christian God for a time, or perish from the Earth.

After all, it's been nearly 800 years since any non-Christian peoples ruled the Earth. That's a long time to wander the desert.

I make no pretense of understanding celestial politics, but the above observed effects on terrestrial worshippers cannot be denied - although, if you disagree, I'd be very interested in hearing your argument.

October 10, 2005 6:47 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Skipper:

But we also have the shared legacy of cultural evolution upon which to build an objective standard of the good and the bad. [...] Granted, I [...] have the advantage of historical hindsight, but isn't that hindsight a proper tool with which to judge the validity of those past claims of revealed truth?

I agree completely.

Peter MUST say "no", or he destroys the basis for his previous posts.

October 10, 2005 6:53 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Peter MUST, must he? You don't know Peter.

Oroborous, I fear you and I would have to spend many hours arguing about what actually happened in the last eight hundred years of history and why before we could deal with the questions you posed. Your picture of Christianity Triumphant is far too simple and straight-lined for me. I am hardly one to argue against the importance of religion, but there is a lot more to it than that, and I know of no Christian doctrine that promises superpowerdom to the faithful. Are you not aware how active the Church was in trying to check many of the incidents and excesses of colonialism and conquest? Did you ever consider that maybe the sign to Constantine was a one-off.

Consider:

A)It's been a very long time since one could say Christianity was the main impetus for Western progress and expansion, if one ever could. Even the Crusades were about recovering specific territory rather than destrying other faiths or conquering the world;

B)As to your assertion that it is quite clear it was the Divine Will that others submit to Christianity, you must be privy to information I am not--perhaps you have a higher celestial security clearance. It is true that pagan or aboriginal cultures crumbled in the face of western colonialism, but equally true that the other main religions did not. Culturally speaking, the adoption of Christianity by pagans and aboriginals doesn't seem to have helped them much collectively. Whether they drank or not seems to have been more important. And shouldn't the Phillipines be Asia's powerhouse by now?

C) You seem to me to be lost in collectivities on a subject that really addresses individual behaviour. Do you think objective morality condemned just slaveowners or everyone who lived in the South (including loyal Southern abolitionists) because it was an immoral culture? When the British stamped out suttee in the 19th century, they didn't need grand theories of an immoral culture that stained all Hindus--they simply said we'll hang anyone who burns widows. Hinduism adapted and survived and seems to be doing quite well now, although I suspect there were lots of 19th century Oroborous' proclaiming it a failed and immoral culture.

Duck:

Looking to historical experience is indeed a legitimate source of morality, and I have no idea why Oroborous would imagine I would say otherwise. I've always understood that to be a baseline tenet of both Judaism and Christianity.

But again, your exclusive fixation with collectivities puts you squarely in an early Old Testament mindset. What "we" do or did is all very interesting, but "I" and my family want to know how to behave now, and what expectations we can place on others. How the race evolved to survive is very interesting but of decidedly limited help. I really am enjoying the thought of your urging this or that behaviour on your daughter on the basis that it has been selected by nature to promote collective survival.

I can't see any difference between your relying on natural evolution and survival as a source of morality and biological instinct. Great, swans are monogamous prudes and bonobos pure libertines, but neither wrestles torturously with the issue or wastes time blogging about it. Why do we even ask ourselves these questions? Do you think nature selected for consciousness, alienation and never-ending moral quandries?

I'll leave you here in the hope David will tackle your silly charge of "temporal multicultualism". You have just said that you see history as a guiding source and, again, Judeo-Christianity is premised on a Divine that reveals Itself through history. I suppose the next thing you guys are going to do is insist David and I have to condemn all those Israelites who lived before Mt. Sinai as sinners for breaking the Commandments, otherwise we are raving moral relativists. Sheesh!

October 11, 2005 2:39 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Peter:

Peter MUST, must he? You don't know Peter.

MUST only in the sense that to agree with Skipper, as you seem to have done, negates the thrust of your previous arguments.

Your picture of Christianity Triumphant is far too simple and straight-lined for me.

Not Christianity Triumphant, but Christian CULTURES triumphant.
In fact, I don't much care what religion works best with democracy and capitalism, I merely note that it seems to be Christianity.

As with our discussions about Islam, however, once again you want to look past the practical qualifiers that I make to my assertions, and pretend that I'm making some absolute religious statement.

Speaking of Islam, I also note that you have once again declined to say whether you believe in divine command theory, or whether you believe that Christians DO NOT have the right to make moral judgements about people from other cultures - although your statements make pretty clear that as a practical matter, you prefer the latter.

October 11, 2005 5:50 AM  
Blogger David said...

Temporal multiculturalism? Wow. I think I need to plead innocent, though. I was simply trying to speak the local language. I get to think that human sacrifice is always immoral and always has been, because my G-d forbids it as an abomination. What I don't see is how you guys can say that anything is in Brit's first category of objectiveness. Having something be objectively immoral in that sense requires that it be a Truth outside of human society. Any such Truth is a god.

October 11, 2005 7:21 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

That's exactly what I am saying - there are no moral truths or rules in the first category (or indeed, the third).

October 11, 2005 7:30 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Given David’s last question, let me have another go at clarification.

When I say moral rules are category 2, I mean they are category 2 – they are agreed by people – nothing more. There’s no further claim.

The mistake you make is in trying to read too much into the statement. You're being too clever. You think I mean something like “category 2 rules are temporary category 1 rules”

For example:
Suppose society A believes it morally right to burn witches. Meanwhile, society B believes it morally wrong to burn witches.

I observe that it is a moral rule for society A to burn witches, and not a moral rule for category B. In each instance, there is a category 2 attitude to burning witches.

I don’t say anything else. You seem to think I mean “in society A only, it is a category 1 rule that witches ought to be burnt”.

But that’s not what I mean, because that is meaningless: a category error (literally). It’s the same elementary error the sixth-form philosopher makes when he accidentally stumbles on the idea of solipsistic relativism: “if I believe it, then it’s true for me”. But all this statement does is render the word “true” meaningless. It really only translates as “if I believe it, then I believe it.”

When I say all moral rules are category 2, that’s what I mean. Take it on face value.

So now, does this mean that I cannot condemn society A for burning witches? Am I personally committed to accepting that any moral rule in any society is as good as another?

Of course not: I think society A has a rotten moral rule. That’s my opinion. Moral opinions are valid. But moral opinions are not moral rules.

Moral rules happen when enough moral opinions in a society coincide.

This seems so uncontroversial to me that it is almost trivial: it explains why we have shades of grey for some things, 50/50 splits for others, and near-as-dammit consensus for others.

So here it is in full:

Individual moral opinions are category 3 – and they are personal and are not moral rules.
Moral rules are the result of ‘agreement’ - they’re category 2 and are not personal.

When you lay it out like that, it is so simple as to be tautological. But it takes a surprising effort to lay it out like that.

Where individual moral opinions come from is another matter, which Skipper and Duck have addressed above. I think they come from a whole load of things, including biology, history, empathy, previous moral rules, innate prejudices, reason, teaching, religion and practical necessity. They exist because people need to get along together.

Moral rules make no sense in either category 1 or category 3. They can have no application or meaning without humans (so they can't be category 1); and you cannot make a meaningful 'rule' by yourself (so they can't be category 3).

October 11, 2005 8:13 AM  
Blogger David said...

Except that, without G-d, categories 2 and 3 collapse in on each other.

Let's say that Baal had triumphed and Baal worship spread across the world. Eventually, the whole process gets streamlined so that every tenth baby gets popped into the incinerator shoot. Wouldn't the atheists say something like, "This whole Baal thing is nonsense, but we can clearly see that while the superstition has no place in the modern world, the practice is actually a subtle evolutionary accomodation meant to reduce population pressure and increase wealth for everyone. And, by the way, this just completely gives the lie to the Baalist libel that atheists can't be moral."

October 11, 2005 9:06 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Boy, I hate having to leave the conversation for a week.

David:

What do you think about the things your G-d considered abominations that we now find far less abominable, or even unworthy of notice?

Fundamentally, this discussion follows the same path as arguments over evolution. Unfortunately for anti-evolutionists, the historical record is both recent and clear. And it goes something like this:

Whatever works is moral.

Whatever works is a function of human nature (which is stubbornly resistant to change, regardless of your particular notion of its source) and exigent circumstances.

IF incinerating Jews (or, circa 1492, expelling them) worked, then the societies legitimizing such would have thrived with respect to those that didn't. And, consequently, there would be no Jews.

But it doesn't work, if for no other reason than wiping out that much intellectual capital is a classic example of a self-inflicted wound.

(BTW: One might also note where the deadliest concentration camps were -- nearly exclusively Catholic Poland. Why was that?)

Similarly, all sorts of actions could be claimed moral by fiat, and even have significant scriptural basis. Heavily redistributive tax structures, for one instance that is not the least extreme, are very arguably consistent with Jesus' moral teachings.

Unfortunately, such tax structures don't work with respect to those less redistributive.

Similarly, by most scriptural moral standards, European society is more moral than the US. But our relatively laissez-faire, individualistic, ethos happens to work better.

Viewing morality as a wholly evolutionary construct is not likely to be particularly comforting. But several consequences follow:

1. Moral relativism is a fiction -- people do not make decisions in a vacuum.

2. The notion of some objective morality is also a fiction. I happily concede I can't use reason to establish a moral code; but any notion of G-d is just as useless.

3. All societies are religious and have attendant moral codes. All religions are resistant to change. Therefore, religiously based moral codes are more stable over time (the flywheel effect of which I spoke above.)

4. To the extent that what has worked in the past is a better guide to moral behavior than what might work in the future, this is a good thing.

5. To the extent that religiously based morality defines exclusionary moral communities, it is a very bad thing.

6. Behavior always has material consequences. Asserting that non-believers cannot ascertain moral behavior is the same as saying religion is required to determine the material consequences of one's actions.

That final item is fundamentally nonsensical.

Apologies for a disjointed post, but I had to cram a couple hours worth of thought and organization into 30 minutes of typing off the cuff.

October 11, 2005 9:06 AM  
Blogger David said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

October 11, 2005 11:23 AM  
Blogger David said...

I think that you guys really need to figure out what the house position is before Peter and I can accomplish much here.

Having said that, Skipper's statement that what works is moral is a definition, not an observation. In fact, it comes so close to, "what is, is right" and "might makes right" and "all's fair in love and war" and "morality is written by the winner" (ok, I made that one up) that I'm going to assume that it was a spur of the moment thing and will be retracted once its implications have fully sunk in.

It would be nice to think that moral societies win, or winning societies must be moral, but for any meaningful value of "moral" it just isn't so.

Finally, it sits a little odd for you to argue that expelling Jews would be moral if the expelling society thrived (which Spain did for the next two centuries), but that moral relativism is a fiction.

October 11, 2005 11:25 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

I re-read what I wrote, and fail to find anything counter-factual about it.

"What works is moral" has a pretty long track record. The objectively moral position of charging interest on loans, which has run the gamut from strictly prohibited to accepted without a second thought, is a classic example.

Just as the inverse: What doesn't work is immoral. Expelling Jews from Spain had crippling, long-term effects on Spain (See "Wealth and Poverty Among Nations" for a lengthy list of things substantiating my assertion. Becoming rich through thievery is not thriving, other than parasitically.) Had anti-Semitism done anything other than harm the societies that practiced it, it would still be rampant today. (Question for you: if anti-Semitism is so wrong, why was it so right for so long?)

Similarly, Nazi policies that had the effect of putting Germany's most gifted minds on the territory of its most powerful enemy can hardly have been beneficial to the Third Reich's prospects.

Perhaps this is clearer looked at from the other direction. Can you think of any element of your moral code that would be harmful to society if held equally by everyone? (Even excluding immaterial sect-specific requirements such as observing the Sabbath, etc)

Similarly, Brit, Duck or I could easily substantiate our moral decisons on precisely the same basis, without ever making any reference to a Supreme Being.

October 11, 2005 12:04 PM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: Can't you see that your entire edifice here depends upon your definition of moral, meaning what's acceptable to the society in the moment? As I reject that definition, your traps are springless. Morality is what G-d says it is, no matter how many Nazi's or Spaniards disagree.

October 11, 2005 2:16 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Might DOES make right.

By what other basis does God dictate our moral code ?

We could say that God is our creator, our Heavenly Father (and Mother), and so we owe Him our respect and fealty - but then God is just an honored and trusted mentor offering us moral advice.

Morality is what G-d says it is, no matter how many Nazi's or Spaniards disagree.

Which is another way of saying "might makes right".
For instance, what if God was Baal ?

Then you'd have to accept human sacrifice as moral, by fiat.

Also, again, the ENTIRE "divine command" argument rests on KNOWING, beyond doubt, which God is "The True God™" - something never before accomplished - except in the sense that we can assume that those Gods no longer worshipped, or whose worshippers' cultures were destroyed, are NOT "The True God™".

Or, maybe one of them actually WAS, and we're the cast-off and divinely-given-morality bereft remnants of some Cosmic plan.

In any case, the reason that David and Peter can't "accomplish" anything here is because neither of them have yet been willing to address the fatal flaw of "divine command theory", preferring to nibble around the edges of the "source of morality" problem.

October 11, 2005 4:25 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Can't you see that your entire edifice here depends upon your definition of moral, meaning what's acceptable to the society in the moment?

But, YOUR definition of moral is just as relative, meaning it depends on what's acceptable to YOUR religion at the moment - and that changes, as others here have pointed out.

Thus, although divine command theory aspires to more, in PRACTICE it works EXACTLY like the moral relativism and determinism that Brit, Duck, and Skipper describe - just at one level higher.

Instead of societies gradually developing a workable set of morals by consensus, and on an ad hoc basis, divine command theory depends upon a RELIGION being chosen by consensus, and everyone buying into the concept that the leaders of the religion have the authority to set moral codes.

While using religion to set moral standards does slow the rate of moral framing change, it doesn't STOP it, as Skipper points out.

Therefore, our current societies AND religious sects have different moral paradigms than did those of centuries and millenia past.
"Divine command theory" is simply moral relativism writ large.

As Brit says:

Moral rules happen when enough moral opinions in a society coincide.

Or, in other words, when enough people buy into a certain religious paradigm, and its attendant set of moral codes.

Hindus find slaughtering bovines to be reprehensible.
How does a divine command theorist reconcile that with the practice of Christian peoples, who eat beef by the truckload ?

October 11, 2005 6:13 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

What I don't see is how you guys can say that anything is in Brit's first category of objectiveness. Having something be objectively immoral in that sense requires that it be a Truth outside of human society. Any such Truth is a god.

Your last statement requires some explanation. Taken on its face, you are just defining the word "god" as the source of objective truth, which doesn't actually say anything about objective truth. It is only when you posit certain attributes about god that the equivalence provides any insight into objective truth. So which of the attributes of god are necessary attributes of objective truth?

It seems to me that the attribute of god that religionists see as most essential to objective truth is god's personal nature. In this sense truth has to be a conscious choice, or desire of a personal being in order to qualify. But I don't understand why this is such a sticking point. What this idea says about morality is that it is obedience to another's desires, and not about doing the best thing for human society, although the two can coincide.

The way that non-deistic morality can be objective is in the sense that it is directed at an outcome, namely the best overall outcome for human society, which is not a matter of personal opinion. Granted that people will make decisions on what is best for human society based on their subjective opinions, but their opinions must in the end be judged against the actual outcomes that result from those decisions. The outcomes are not a function of the person's opinion, but upon some fixed calculus of behavioral mechanics that is embedded in the nature of things.

So the "god" of which you speak, David, can be a non-personal entity. The "laws" embedded in the fabric of our material universe constrain the forms that matter can take, and the dynamic behavior that matter and energy can display.

I am in partial agreement with Brit. Morality is a function of human nature and is meaningless without humanity. But humanity itself is a function of the "stars", or the potentiality of matter/energy/space/time. Just as a block of granite contains a statue of a horse just waiting to be chipped out, the Universe contains humanity just waiting to be expressed under the right contingencies.

I hope this isn't too esoteric.

October 11, 2005 6:19 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Brit,
How do you get your avatar to appear in your posts?

October 11, 2005 6:22 PM  
Blogger David said...

You guys are perfectly willing to discuss the source of morality, so long as we start by conceding that G-d doesn't exist and that morality is relative. That's why this is so serious for you and a joke for us; it is why you think that there is some dilemma here, and we see no dilemma.

What other people believe is moral is of no interest to me in my determination of what morality is. The creed of the martyr is that his morality forces his martyrdom. To define morality as the rules that lead to a culture's survival is immoral.

Duck: Information is energy. Energy that exists outside of the physical universe is G-d.

October 11, 2005 7:29 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

David:

What other people believe is moral is of no interest to me in my determination of what morality is.

Exactly.

Which is why divine command theory is simply meta-relativistic morality.

YOU decide what your morality will be, by choosing which religion you'll follow, and how closely you'll adhere to its moral teaching - an especially sticky point for American Catholics.

How is that different from an atheist deciding that stealing is wrong, because it causes harm ?

October 11, 2005 9:52 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

So, Skipper, the test is "what works". I assume you aren't going to argue "what works" has an objective reality anymore than morality does. It, too, is defined by consensus. Those Europeans and Canadians who think their societies are more moral also think they work better. You say no, but surely we can agree we can't put that question into a lab or under a microscope. As you are a democrat (because "that works") your only position is to go with a majority consensus, no?

So, if a majority of Americans come to hold the view that abortion and divorce "aren't working" and should be banned, you would back them, right, even if you disagreed? No elitist Supreme Court weighing in with talk of individual freedoms or Bills of Rights or anything that trumps the majority perception of "what works". Sure, they say they favour those concepts because they think "they work" too, as do you, but you are in a minority and the concept has no objective meaning.

Or is your system based on the underlying assumption that you get to decide "what works"?

Guys, I don't mind arguing religion with you till the end of time, but could you please do us the honour of addressing the adult version and not the one you left behind at 11 years old when you first marched indignantly out of Sunday school and bravely proclaimed yourselves free-thinkers? Objective morality means a morality that exists outside of and independent of individual human determination and origin. It does not mean a morality that men by definition can perceive or understand perfectly or one whose application must constant throughout history. Also, you are muddling morality with the sanctions for violating it. We don't stone adulteresses anymore, but that does not mean the prohibition against adultery is relative. The Ten Commandments didn't come with sentencing guidelines.

October 12, 2005 3:53 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

I think that you guys really need to figure out what the house position is before Peter and I can accomplish much here.

I don’t think we have a definitive ‘House position' here, though we all agree on some things. For my part, I only needed the one argument to satisfy myself that moral rules simply cannot come from God by definition, and that comes from the original Euthyphro dilemma, as I laid out towards the end of the original post.

The question for me then, becomes: given that moral rules don’t come from God, but also given the self-evident fact that we do have moral rules, where do they come from? Here the four Duckians diverge, to greater or lesser extents, though I think Skipper and I are pretty closely aligned.

But anyway, the post was designed to provoke debate, not reveal the entire truth about morality.


Except that, without G-d, categories 2 and 3 collapse in on each other.

Do you mean, without the existence of objective morality decided by God, the categories collapse, or do you mean, without a widespread belief in the existence of objective morality decided by God?

Either way, I disagree.

Conceptually, a category 3 opinion cannot become a category 2 rule on its own. And practically, it’s obvious that all cultures everywhere, whatever their religious beliefs, have some sort of system of moral rules with punishments for dissenters. And if dissent is even theoretically possible, there must exist opinions distinct from the rules.



Peter:
Also, you are muddling morality with the sanctions for violating it. We don't stone adulteresses anymore, but that does not mean the prohibition against adultery is relative.

There’s no muddling. You are really just talking about two separate but related moral rules here. In the earlier society, adultery is immoral, and stoning adulterers is morally acceptable.

In the later society, adultery is still immoral, but stoning adulterers is morally unacceptable.

How did we get from the first state to the latter? That question brings us on to...


Objective morality means a morality that exists outside of and independent of individual human determination and origin. It does not mean a morality that men by definition can perceive or understand perfectly or one whose application must constant throughout history.


Ok, so if men cannot necessarily perceive God’s objective morality, in what sense do any of our moral rules come from God?

The undeniable fact that societies do have different moral rules means that, on your view, if there is an objective morality created or willed by God, then at best we see it through a glass darkly.

When we make moral judgements, the best we can do is rely on our own judgement and reasoning and hope that the resultant action aligns with what God wants.

But if this is the case, then what use is the existence of objective morality? If we’re all relying on our own judgement and reasoning, how is the Christian better off than the atheist?

I can see how some things could be useful for very broad rules, such as the Ten Commandments and the words of Jesus. But, as you say, “The Ten Commandments didn't come with sentencing guidelines.”

They didn’t come with anything much else that would be useful either, such as details of application to the myriad range of petty or large moral dilemmas and decisions we face every day. Should I lie to x to protect y? Is lying worse than stealing, and if not, is that the case all of the time? Is it ok to bomb x number of innocents to promote a long-term greater good? Etc etc.

Neither you nor David have attempted to answer the questions I posed above:

1) How do you account for the existence of moral dilemmas?
2) When you personally are faced with a moral dilemma, how do you resolve it?

October 12, 2005 5:42 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

1. Man's fallen nature as evidenced by his consciousness, free will and alienation.

2. Listen, learn, study, argue, consult, reflect, reason, mediate and pray.

Oh, you meant "What airtight, logical formula do you apply to provide you with certain, universally acknowledged answers to all moral dilemnas?" Sorry, can't help you there.

October 12, 2005 6:01 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

Your answer to 1 would account for sin or moral law-breaking, but doesn't really help account for something like: "should I save this money for my children's college fund, or give it to a charity?"

As for 2, me too, apart from the prayer bit. So whither God?

October 12, 2005 6:08 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit:

There’s no muddling. You are really just talking about two separate but related moral rules here

So your position is that everytime there is an amendment to the criminal law that is conclusive proof there is no such thing as objective morality? You do live in a simple world, don't you?

October 12, 2005 6:13 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

No, dearest.

It's not just a law that changed. It is in our society near universally accepted that stoning people to death, whatever their crime, is morally wrong, not just illegal. It is a moral rule, not just a state law.

That strikes me as conclusive proof moral rules vary from society to society, nothing more.

October 12, 2005 6:40 AM  
Blogger David said...

Gee, you guys discover free will, and we're supposed to be amazed.

Let's try this. Is "2+2=4" a category 1 fact or a category 2 fact or a category 3 fact? Is "2+2=4" true, assuming it is true, because G-d tells us that it's true or is "2+2=4" an objectively true statement regardless of what G-d says?

October 12, 2005 9:55 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Maybe the Ten Commandments didn't, but a heck of a lot of other things did.

No, I'm not arguing "what works" is a basis for objective morality. What I'm arguing is that "what works" is the basis for the morality we have, no matter how it is gussied up. Asserting that G-d (or, taking David's argument possibly too subtlely, religion) is required for objective morality is to take as true what is demonstrably false.

Objective morality does not exist. It isn't obtainable from god in general, or any G-d in particular.

[That said, I will happily concede that religion is easily the best conduit for passing the circumstantially dependent morality we do have from one generation to the next. I will also happily concede that religion provides significant inertia to morality that, generally speaking, is to society's benefit.]

It may well be that European and Canadian society works better, depending upon your criteria for "works" and "better."

The US's embrace of individualistic, laissez faire, capitalism has certainly produced a more dynamic and materially successful economy. The Europeans and Canadians, at least in theory, could simply opt out of that rat race in pursuit of societal values that are more easily reconciled with Christ's teachings.

Which path is more moral? Presuming Christ's teachings are the standard, I would have to say the Europeans and Canadians are more moral.

As to whether such quasi-socialism works better -- materially speaking this time -- it doesn't much matter what they think. The lab is experience. There is a real world experiment comparing the US and European approaches; thus far, the experiment shows quasi-socialism to be, relatively speaking, a failure.

In asking whether a majority opinion on divorce or abortion is sufficient reason for banning them, you are going beyond the scope of the discussion, whether some sense of the Divine is required for morality, and taking into the legal realm.

Depending on the cited circumstances, I'm sure that a majority of Americans hold that abortion is immoral. (As to whether it is "working," read Freakonomics. Those who believe our welcome downward trend in all manner of social ills is due to a religious/cultural resurgence are in for a rude awakening.) In that regard, abortion (depending on the cited circumstances) is immoral. That is, there is a widely, though far from exclusively, held opinion as to what the decision should be. But having some consensus on what a decision should be sheds very little light on who should make it.

Similarly for divorce. It would be difficult to find someone who found divorce admirable, a desired outcome. In that sense, the societal verdict, the moral judgment, is that divorce is a failure. But, just as with abortion, that doesn't shed much light on who should make the decision.

My underlying assumption is that none of us gets to decide what works; rather, that "what works" is a fluid, consensus reaction to exigent circumstances. All moral codes work on this basis, including those claiming Divine Imprimatur.

I understand that "Objective morality [must be] outside of and independent of individual human determination and origin." But I believe Brit has firmly established that adherence to a specific -- or any --deity is irrelevant to the capacity for making moral decisions. In this sense, Dennis Prager (to take one well known example) is simply wrong.
It also seems to me that your follow on sentence, "It does not mean a morality that men by definition can perceive or understand perfectly or one whose application must constant throughout history" resoundingly contradicts the preceding. If our understanding is imperfect and, absent direction specifically from G-d, fluid, then what can possibly be objective about religiously based morality? Once those qualifiers are in place, religiously inspired morality sounds precisely like something derived from reason; that the source of reason is ecclesiastical is no improvement, for that really does put the establishing of morality within the hands of a few, who desire to impose their moral vision by might.
As for sentending guidelines, the Ten Commandments contain none. But Leviticus and Deuteronomy more than make up for that ommission. Are the punishments therein moral?

(BTW -- apologies for appearing to duplicate what others have said. My initial attempt at posting this around 7:30 this morning didn't take ... )

October 12, 2005 10:17 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Peter:

Guys, I don't mind arguing religion with you till the end of time, but could you please do us the honour of addressing the adult version...

Actually, I'd be happy if you or David addressed religion AT ALL.

Both of you REFERENCE religion, but neither of you have so far been willing to discuss the logical conclusion to being sectarian believers in divine command theory.

For instance:

The Ten Commandments didn't come with sentencing guidelines.

Since you are a Christian, and in your view there are absolute moral guidelines set by the Christian God, that MUST MEAN that followers of the Quran MUST be behaving immorally at times, even when they are behaving morally by their own religious and social standards.

Right ?

It does not mean a morality that men by definition can perceive or understand perfectly or one whose application must constant throughout history.

What Brit and Skipper said.

No consistency, no divine command theory - unless you want to argue that God is fickle.

David:

Is "2+2=4" true, assuming it is true, because G-d tells us that it's true or is "2+2=4" an objectively true statement regardless of what G-d says?

By HUMAN standards, it's objectively true, meaning that it has always been true, across time and wildly varying cultures, and also seems to be pretty constant across the Universe that God created, which suggests that God too finds it to be true.

However, if God ever tells us that it isn't true, then we'd have to accept Her word for it, and conclude that 2+2=4 is a conditional truth, and not absolute.

October 12, 2005 2:46 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Oroborous:

And just what aspect of Muslim morality does a Christian have to condemn?

Let's have a little linguistic disciplne here. Morality is not synonomous with theological beliefs or defined by every practice and custom tolerated in a society at any given time(otherwise you would have to say slavery used to be part of Christian morality, or that secular morality includes adultery and porn, which is nonsense). I'm not sure I could come up with an airtight definition of where morality stops and starts anymore than I could so define justice, but that doesn't mean we can fling the word around willy-nilly. Also, I prefer to see morality as something that guides me in my life and that I urge be reflected and respected in my society rather than an excuse to traipse around the world in condemnation mode.

Brit:

As for 2, me too, apart from the prayer bit. So whither God?

Whither God? Sounds like the title of one of those BBC philosophical debates, like "Man, the Moral Animal." But at least David and I have made progress and got you to admit He exists. As recently as a few months ago, you were still at the "Whence God?" stage. Good man. :-)

Maybe you do all that (and we are very aware of how touchy you secularists are about any suggestion that you are less reflective, profound and even sometimes downright mystical than the religious), but from this side of the river your team seems to reach drearily predictable conclusions that haven't changed since J.S. Mill. Arguing with most secularists about morality ressembles not so much an excercise in reasoned reflection and contemplation as wrestling with the same short syllogism over and over. And being told rotely that, whatever we say, we haven't addressed the issue.

October 13, 2005 2:16 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

Let's try this. Is "2+2=4" a category 1 fact or a category 2 fact or a category 3 fact? Is "2+2=4" true, assuming it is true, because G-d tells us that it's true or is "2+2=4" an objectively true statement regardless of what G-d says?

Actually, mathematical statements aren’t the best examples to deal with, because they have their own philosophical controversy about whether they are necessary or contingent, or based on human agreement or not.

An easier example to deal with would be “the Earth revolves around the Sun”.

That is a category 1 fact, ie. it is true whether humans know about it or exist or don’t. (A related category 2 fact might be "it is called 'the Sun'". A related category 3 fact might be “I like warm weather”).

So, if you’re happy with that as an alternative, I’ll rephrase your question:

Is "the Earth revolves around the Sun" true, assuming it is true, because G-d tells us that it's true or is "the Earth revolves around the Sun" an objectively true statement regardless of what G-d says?

I take it you are suggesting that if we posed this question to a man who claims that God decided that the Earth would revolve around the Sun, then it is equivalent to the Euthyphro dilemma, as posed to a man who claims that God decides what our moral rules are.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that physical facts and moral rules are different kinds of things and have different senses of "God tells us" (the former is information, the latter is instruction), actually the Sun ‘dilemma’ has nothing of the attendant problems of the Euthyphro dilemma, as I said in a comment up there somewhere.

In fact, your question brings out the contrast nicely, and exposes the unique difficulties for the believer in divine command theory.

The "what-if" thought experiment brings out our inherent understanding of morality: If God decided now to rearrange the universe so that our lives were exactly the same except that the Sun now revolved around the Earth, then the believer can just accept it as a brute fact. The Sun now revolves around the Earth, big deal.

But if God now made killing random children a moral imperative, most would be less accepting. They would not accept it as a brute fact. And if you can even think about God being wrong about morality – if the mere notion of disagreeing with God about morals is conceivable - then there must be other possible sources of morality.

In other words, you’re favouring your own moral judgement over the the idea that morals are category 1 facts decided by God.

And this brings me back to another question you and Peter haven’t attempted to answer:

It seems, from reading your and Peter's posts, that even for the believer, when we make a moral decision or try to solve a moral dilemma, the best we can do is rely on our own judgement and reasoning and hope that the resultant action aligns with what God wants.

But if this is the case, then what use is the existence of objective morality?

In what sense do our morals ‘come from God’?

October 13, 2005 2:21 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

Yes, well, I was raised on those marvellous BBC documentaries.

That and, appropriately enough, Whither Canada?

A little harsh on us with your ‘drearily predictable’ line I think – Duck and Oberous surely offer something interestingly offbeat in their analyses.

And of course Skipper and I aren't just Mill-ian utilitarians because we're influenced by one big thing that has happened since JS Mill: the spread of what Daniel Dennett called “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”.

October 13, 2005 3:30 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit:

Nothing personal, sport. There is nothing typical about you guys.

That being said, I do note the repetition of certain themes here that we really should get beyond.

In response to the charge that we aren't addressing your original philosophical challenge, I answered many comments ago that I agreed objective morality cannot be deduced from first principles using positive logic. It's truth lies in other forms of knowledge and reason, as does its content. David gave the far superior answer that the fallacy in your argument is that it misapprehends the nature and significance of Creation. Yet still I rise every morning to see the secular tag-team has been accusing us long into the night of avoiding the issue. Just exactly what more do you think we can say? How can we help? You know we live to help.

Oroborous particularly, but you others too, seems stuck on the argument that the mere fact that Aztecs sacrificed children or some rural Muslims do some appalling things in the name of Islam is conclusive disproof of objective morality (Question to Oroborous: Would it be morally acceptable to stone Aztecs for sacrificing children?). He seems to think such don't just enable us, but actually compel us, to condemn everything about Aztec and Islamic culture. Be assured we are both grateful that you are all discrete enough to choose such dramatic illustrations and thus avoid the embarassment of suggesting the same conclusion flows from the fact that I may hold beliefs that don't totally fit with those of that heathen, David Cohen.

The problem seems to be that you are assuming the full scope and extent of morality is knowable by everyone and that no one should disagree or live any differently. With respect, that is childlike and I think a function of your default reliance on rationalism, not to mention that you think you know better than G-d how G-d would have created the world if G-d did. But it any event, let me turn that around and ask you why the vast majority of the world past and present isn't troubled by that. Because they are all stupid or don't notice different people perceive the universal and eternal differently? That's like arguing that, if G-d existed, He would have just started with the Kingdom of Heaven and skipped all the scenes before.

October 13, 2005 5:50 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

What more do we want from you?

Only that modest thing that all opponents in a debate want: for their antagonist to yield utterly, lie prostrate on the floor, cry mercy and admit they know notheeeeeng.

The problem seems to be that you are assuming the full scope and extent of morality is knowable by everyone and that no one should disagree or live any differently. With respect, that is childlike and I think a function of your default reliance on rationalism, not to mention that you think you know better than G-d how G-d would have created the world if G-d did.

(ps. when did you jump on this "G-d" bandwagon?)

Less a ‘default reliance on rationalism’, I think, than an innate dissatisfaction with “it’s just a mystery” as an explanation.

Call it childlike if you wish, but if something seems “bleedin’ obvious” at face value, I tend to favour the bleedin’ obvious, over a mysterious, subtle, elusive explanation that requires a Leap of Faith.

Some people are happy with Leaps of Faith. No problem with that, and it’s just plain rude to scoff at it. Except, as sometimes happens, when the Leaper goes on to imply that those of us who don’t share this contentment with mystery are somehow not ‘serious’ about things, are somehow not able to appreciate life in its full richness, are somehow missing a dimension, or haven’t seen the full picture.

I find this approach...impudent.

Now I do awe at Life, The Universe and Everything as well as the next man...I just don’t feel a need to dress the whole caboodle up in cassock, surplice and stole, or fog up every issue with incense.

October 13, 2005 6:58 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

And just what aspect of Muslim morality does a Christian have to condemn?

The penalty for apostasy, for just one very simple example. According to the fatwah upon Salmon Rushdie, all good Muslims are obliged to either try to kill him, or aid those who are engaged in that endeavor.

I presume you condemn that as immoral. But that fatwah is firmly grounded in Divine Authority, so upon what do you base your condemnation?

With regard to linguistic discipline, regardless of one's conclusion as to the basis, I think it is safe to say that morality is the set of societally settled criteria for deciding whether any instance of applicable behavior is right or wrong.

Based upon my reading of the Bible, slavery was an elemental part of the Judeo contribution to Judeo-Christian morality. It was directed by God as a means to disabuse non-believers of their non-belief.

That is an entirely different consideration whether adultery and porn are part of secular morality. Never mind that both long pre-date even the first glimmering of secularism. While it is a safe bet that areligionists take a more relaxed attitude towards both, it is an even safer bet they view them in the context of material consequences. Since the consequences of adultery are almost never good, people who would conclude adultery is "good" are very thin on the ground. And despite the less direct connection between pornography and negative consequences, there aren't a whole lot of people who brag about any pornographic inclinations they may have.

I believe you and David are both avoid Brit's central point. Claiming to possess objective morality does not make it so. Both as a matter of coherence, history and religion, that assertion is simply false. I have piggy-backed on Brit to further assert that claiming the possession of objective morality always results in the creation of exclusionary moral communities. The human toll those communities exact has been horrendous. Ironically, that horror has been attenuated only where claims to objective morality exist in societies where many such claims exist -- and all of those societies have secular government.

So I assert you haven't addressed the issue, which isn't about morality per se, but whether the claim that Divine Command is essential to morality has any meaning whatsoever.

Brit says it better than I could:

It seems, from reading your and Peter's posts, that even for the believer, when we make a moral decision or try to solve a moral dilemma, the best we can do is rely on our own judgement and reasoning and hope that the resultant action aligns with what God wants.

David:

I'm not sure what free-will has to do with all of this.


This has been one of the best on-line discussions I have ever read. Unfortunately (well, for me, anyway), I am going to be on the road for the next 5 days ...

October 13, 2005 8:32 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Skipper:

Have a good trip.

And just for Peter's benefit: High-5, secular tag-team mate!

October 13, 2005 8:55 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Peter:

Please tell me if I am mistaken.

Your position seems to be:

That there is an objective moral set, always true, and unalterable by humans, that God provides to us.

HOWEVER:

We cannot know what the moral set is.

Different sets have been revealed to different cultures.

The sets change over time.

We can remain moral while choosing not to condemn that which God has told us is immoral.

We can remain moral while disagreeing with God's given moral sets.

We can remain moral while not living in accordance with God's given moral sets.

We decide for ourselves what God's given moral sets permit:
Listen, learn, study, argue, consult, reflect, reason, mediate and pray.

The only difference between your concept of "objective morality" and our concept of "moral relativism" is that you like to claim that God is on your side.

Would it be morally acceptable to stone Aztecs for sacrificing children?

Of course, if they fell under my culture's control.

Are you suggesting that if your culture had responsibility for the Aztecs, the moral thing to do would be to allow them to continue sacrificing children ?

If not, then wouldn't you have to punish anyone who sacrificed children ?

October 13, 2005 10:51 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

We'll miss you and look forward to your return. But I do want you to know that I will be praying that, if you are going to be flying planes, you will ignore us theists and put all your trust in your fellow scientific rationalists.

October 13, 2005 3:02 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Duck: Information is energy. Energy that exists outside of the physical universe is G-d.

David, can you expand on this a little? For one thing, you haven't made any clarification about what attributes God possesses. What are they? How can you make the statement "Energy that exists outside of the universe is G-d"? Based on what? And if it is "mere" energy, what makes it qualify for the lofty title "God"? Does God have to be a personal being in order to be considered God? Or can any extra-universal entity or substance or causal reaction of things with other things qualify? I take my disbelief very seriously, I just don't disbelieve in anything, and I expect the same of those believers I argue with.

From my standpoint, "God" as a concept is wedded to being a personal being. If someone says he believes in an impersonal God, as far as I'm concerned he's an atheist. It's just like me saying "I have a dog, but he doesn't bark, he quacks and has feathers". And the Euthryphro dilemma pokes holes in this very same personal nature attributed to God. God can't be both the essence of all that is good on the one hand, and a personal entity on the other, because that can't be said of any person. If you're going to get around the contradictions of God's personal nature by saying that whatever extra-universal stuff is out there stirring up the pot is God, then you've abandoned your post as a theist and are just wandering in the wilderness.

October 13, 2005 5:13 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Oroborus:

The only difference between your concept of "objective morality" and our concept of "moral relativism" is that you like to claim that God is on your side.

That's about it. Man, I like those odds.

Each of the propositions you list as being part of my "position" is a complex assertion that can take a lifetime to resolve, and that is generally not enough. But they seem to add up in your mind to an adoption of relativism. This sanctimonious, all-knowing prig you keep associating with the religious is a straw man you seem to need to keep throwing at us for some reason.

Let's take just one: The "choosing" not to condemn the immoral, by which I assume you mean more than just ignoring. Surely you mean failing to condemn publically and take steps to halt or punish the immorality.

Ever hear of "Vengeance is Mine."? How about: "Judge not,lest ye yourself be judged."? Those enjoinders co-exists with lots of others in scripture about not suffering evil. Furthermore, there is lots of history (accummulated wisdom, revelation, experience)which shows that when humans set out to eradicate an evil, they can lose their way very easily and start perpetrating other, greater, unforseen evils. Someone who thinks we should try and eradicate Islam by force to stop honour killings or apostasy fatwahs would be in that category in my view. OTOH, there is also lots of history to show what happens if you just ignore evil or try to accommodate it. Someone who says the U.S. should stay out of the Middle East whatever happens there would fit that bill. So, 'tis a puzzlement that the stout-hearted and righteous must argue, consider, contemplate etc. over and over endlessly.

What has any of that got to do with whether there is such a thing as objective evil? You guys just keep arguing as if anyone who believes in objective morality must take scripture or theology as "how-to" guides that can be mastered at the age of six and that provide ready-made, complete answers to every one of life's complexities. Nonsense. You seem to have no sense of life being a journey, of truth and wisdom being acquired through experience, of trial and error, of moral laws being in apparent conflict or of human limits to reason. It's all Euclidian geometry for you. That's great for triangles, but pretty poor sustenance for life's eternal mysteries.

October 14, 2005 5:50 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Peter:

Each of the propositions you list as being part of my "position" is a complex assertion that can take a lifetime to resolve, and that is generally not enough.

Yes, to resolve the subtleties and nuances, but they also immediately rule out oppositional propositions - the kind that one might expect to be made in support of a divine command theory.

That's why I have at times written that you MUST support some position or another - because those positions logically follow from statements that you made previously, and if you don't support them, then you contradict your previous positions.

But they seem to add up in your mind to an adoption of relativism.

Only because those are exactly the sort of propositions that a secular moral-relativist would list to support her position.

This sanctimonious, all-knowing prig you keep associating with the religious is a straw man you seem to need to keep throwing at us for some reason.

Ah...

Not a "sanctimonious, all-knowing prig", but a person with moral surety, confident that they have the correct answers to moral problems - because God, the ultimate authority, has given said answers to them.

This is an issue that keeps coming up for Bush, because he has such certitude, and some people with more self-doubt get irritated about that.

In my case, I often exhibit an attitude like Bush's, but it's not because I'm sure that God agrees with me.
It's just because I've thought about what seems correct for just about any situation that commonly occurs in the world, and I'm confident that my analysis is at least in the ballpark.

Which, I guess, by your standards, makes me a very moral person.

(BTW, who's "us" ?: ...keep throwing at us... You and David ? Religionists ?)

Surely you mean failing to condemn publically and take steps to halt or punish the immorality.

Yes.

Ever hear of [...] "Judge not,lest ye yourself be judged."?

Meaning, don't attemt to judge WHO IS WORTHY OF HEAVEN, regardless of how they appear on Earth, or what they do here.
For instance, if Pol Pot was clinically insane, he may not be celestially responsible for those who died due to his actions. The corner drug dealer in the ghetto may also not be fully responsible in a moral sense, depending on the circumstances of their birth, and what happened to them subsequently.

However, as you note, humans are allowed to judge whether or not we wish to, or should, associate with any given person, and our societies have the moral authority to decide whether a person should be allowed to participate fully in society, or whether they should be imprisoned, exiled, or killed.

Someone who thinks we should try and eradicate Islam by force to stop honour killings or apostasy fatwahs would be in that category in my view.

If that's a pointed comment, I must say that such has never been my position.

What has any of that got to do with whether there is such a thing as objective evil? You guys just keep arguing as if anyone who believes in objective morality must take scripture or theology as "how-to" guides that can be mastered...

You believe in objective morality, but apparently, like dark matter, it's mysterious and unknown to humans, who must muddle through with subjective morality.

I said the same thing, in different words, in the very first comment on this thread.

If there is such a thing as divine command in morality, why WOULDN'T Holy Scripture offer guidance on how to gain a commanding knowledge of objective morality ?

How else is God going to get the message out, since humans aren't born with an instictive moral set ?

You seem to have no sense of life being a journey, of truth and wisdom being acquired through experience, of trial and error, of moral laws being in apparent conflict or of human limits to reason.

Well, yes, we do.

It's commonly called moral relativism, and it's what we've been describing for weeks now.

It's all Euclidian geometry for you.

Objective morality IS like geometry - a certain rule for any given situation.

If we have to think about what to do, isn't that subjective morality ?

October 14, 2005 2:17 PM  
Blogger David said...

Aargh. I wasn't able to get back here for a few days and now its midnight and I have to drive four hours roundtrip tomorrow to go to a birthday party. So this is going to be both incomplete and telegraphic.

Brit: You are avoiding mathematics for exactly the reason I chose it. The Earth goes around the Sun is physically true in a way that both 2+2=4 and Thou Shalt Not Murder aren't, but the rules are True in a way that mere materiality can't match. As for the latter two, it is possible to conceive of a universe in which neither is true, but that wouldn't be our universe.

When we have these discussions, there are always two constants. First, you guys always want faith to justify itself to reason using the tools of reason. I know that my G-d is G-d and that the Aztec's gods were not G-d. Therefore, that they believed something different gives me no pause whatsoever. They're wrong and I'm right. That is a statement of faith -- and faith trumps reason.

Second, and I've made this point before in this very thread, so I'll only touch on it, you guys disbelieve in a very specific god who is not my G-d. I don't believe in this simpleton god of yours either. Duck continues to say that he can't believe in a personal G-d, and I continue not to have a clue what he means by that.

You guys seem to make the same mistake that this guy makes. Morality is not justification or apologia. Morality is a set of rules that we can choose to strive for, but which we are all destined to fall short of. You guys say that the rules followed by a successful society (which apparently includes the US but not the Spanish Empire) are, by definition, moral, because moral (like fit) simply means surviving. Thus, we are all moral, and we don't need G-d or self-restraint or self-denial. How lucky for us. (And don't tell me about how, if it weren't for your morality, you'd be out stealing some poor bloke's Lamborghini, because I don't believe that's where your weaknesses lie. My guess is that your weaknesses lie in an area into which you don't allow morality to intrude.)

Maybe we need to start there. Leaving G-d aside, what moral rules do you accept, but fall short of?

October 14, 2005 9:22 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Oroborous:

After reading your last comment over several times, I can't shake the conclusion that you are using the word "relative" to describe anything about which two people disagree or understand imperfectly. That changes the charge against you from blasphemy, for which we no longer stone people, to an offence against the English language, for which we do.

If there is such a thing as divine command in morality, why WOULDN'T Holy Scripture offer guidance on how to gain a commanding knowledge of objective morality ?

Shouldn't you be taking that question up with Someone Else? I, Peter Burnet, hereby declare that, as of this day forward, I will no longer respond to any questions from Daily Duck regulars as to why the Infinite blew it when He created the world or exhortations to me to agree that anyone with half a brain could have done a much better job. 'Ya dance with the one what brung 'ya.

Brit:

I missed your jab at mystery above but noticed you repeated it elsewhere, so I assume you get very cranky at dinner parties when anyone mentions it. I know you like your reality measurable and quantifiable in the bright light of day, but don't make the mistake of thinking that people who argue it mean that life is one big Harry Potter novel. It is simply shorthand for describing the limits of the knowable or comprehensible. Like table manners, how it is expressed will vary according to upbringing and education. Secularism has its rough equivalent, seen most frequently in the quasi-mystical rantings of environmentalists.

October 15, 2005 1:58 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

David:

I have to drive four hours roundtrip tomorrow to go to a birthday party.

Gee, I hope you get home in time to weigh in again over at Brothersjudd on why the automobile is an unqualified blessing because it widens the scope of our freedom and choices.

October 15, 2005 2:11 AM  
Blogger David said...

Actually, the party's at 7:00 pm, so I'll be leaving here about 5 and returning in the middle of the night. But, yes, it is one of the great blessings of the internal combustion engine that a trip that would have taken a week or more can be done in a day.

October 15, 2005 7:00 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

David:

First, you guys always want faith to justify itself to reason using the tools of reason.

Because that's how the discussion is framed.

We could have a different discussion, where faith justifies itself to reason using the tools of faith, but that isn't nearly as interesting, since it goes something like this:

David: "I know that my G-d is G-d, and He established objective moral rules."

Oroborous: "I know that MY God is God, and She gave us the faculties to figure things out, and furthermore, figuring things out IS EXACTLY WHY WE'RE HERE."

Peter: "I know that my God is G-d, and He established objective moral rules, BUT, they're a secret. Furthermore, Michael is a doctrinaire Libertarian who wants to kill all the Muslims, and I'm not down with that."

End of discussion, because who can argue with faith ?
Ya either believes, or ya don't.

(OK, plenty of people argue about and over faith, but not in any rational way - it's usually on the same level as whose sports team is better).

I know that my G-d is G-d and that the Aztec's gods were not G-d. Therefore, that they believed something different gives me no pause whatsoever. They're wrong and I'm right.

Which is EXACTLY why divine command theory cannot be shown to be true - it's a God-specific theory.

Later on, you deride the idea that we can outline a workable moral code by seeing what successful societies do, but if in fact the Aztecs had been powerful and capable enough to invade and conquer Europe, then human sacrifice would still be considered moral in half of the world.

Further, how do you know which sect of Judaism has the right moral code ?

All that can be said in the end is that divine command theory is true within a given religious community only - not even between religions, or different sects of the same religion.

That falls FAR short of "being true for all humans".

I don't believe in this simpleton god of yours...

What was postulated that makes the example God a simpleton ?

Morality is a set of rules that we can choose to strive for, but which we are all destined to fall short of.

But surely we should be aware of which rules we should strive to follow, no ?

As it is right now, we have some general guidelines, and the rest is up to us to decide.

Are the Hassidic Jews right ?
Perhaps the Amish ?
Buddhists ?

Thus, we are all moral, and we don't need G-d or self-restraint or self-denial.

Um...

Several of the posts have SPECIFICALLY said that self-restraint is necessary.
If we start from the supposition that a successful society has a successful moral set, and that America is just such a successful society, how could anyone claim that America's success had nothing to do with self-denial ?

America is all about work and striving, anti-hedonism, if you will.

If the only experience one had of Americans is watching American television, such a mistake could be excused, but American television is about fantasy and escape.
In a sense, we participate vicariously in hedonism for four hours a night, before going to bed so we're on-time at the salt mines the following day.

Leaving G-d aside, what moral rules do you accept, but fall short of?

Not many.

I don't think that there's much point in accepting something as a moral rule, but then NOT living in accordance with it.
Those who do so are likely crazy, or addicts.

Or lazy, possibly, I guess...
But that's pretty lazy, and with such HUGE consequences...

For me, the biggest thing is that what I'm doing now is not of the highest morality.

As has been postulated elsewhere about President Bush, I believe that the entire human race is of my tribe, and that I have some responsibility for their wellbeing.
(It also means that I believe that I have some authority to dictate how they should live and behave, which some find quite objectionable. However, it seems to me that the argument "Let them continue with their failing ways and suffering, because it's THEIR way", is not only patronizing, it's literally anti-Christian. It's like the anti-war folks - absent a convincing plan to remove Saddam peacefully, you have to be either pro-war, or by default pro-Saddam. Pro-war isn't good, but pro-Saddam is Satanic).

While my years of participating in the blogosphere have been very educational, and extremely entertaining, the bottom line is that if I'd spent the same 2,000+ hours volunteering for some cause, it would have made more of a difference, and would been a better choice.

Or, if I'd taken a part-time job, and given all of that money to an international charity, it could have saved hundreds of lives.
One full-time minimum-wage American job would support ten Chinese people, or twenty Africans, in their native lands.

I justify it because I still believe that I will make a difference in the lives of a few down-trodden folk at some point in the future, and what I've learned over the past three years will, at a minimum, triple my future wealth, which will certainly help me do good.

After all, Bill Gates does more through his foundation than any thousand other average activists and volunteers.
(Not that I think that I'll ever attain more than Gatesian pocket change).

However, there are two limits that I must act before: My lifespan, and the the threshold of the maximally-efficient extent of knowledge. There comes a time when further knowledge and information affects outcomes very little.

While learning is good, at some point one has to translate knowledge to practical action, or it's all been pointless.

It's fun to argue about what the ultimate source of morality is, but the Sudanese being slaughtered by the Janjaweed might prefer a volunteer battalion of American light infantry.

Peter:

That changes the charge against you from blasphemy, for which we no longer stone people, to an offence against the English language, for which we do.

Your sense of humor is truly your saving grace.

I will no longer respond to any questions from Daily Duck regulars as to why the Infinite blew it when He created the world...

He didn't.

As you note, just because we don't understand something, doesn't mean that it's wrong.

What I find half-brained is the suggestion that an objective morality exists, but that God won't tell us what it is.
(Although I'm receptive to the thought that God CAN'T tell us what it is, yet, 'cause we can't handle the truth).

Gee, I hope you get home in time to weigh in again over at Brothersjudd on why the automobile is an unqualified blessing because it widens the scope of our freedom and choices.

Driving for four hours is a choice, not a requirement.
Perhaps David is basically happy that it's possible for him to attend at all, even if it means a long trip.
(Long for regular people, I mean. As a former long-haul truck driver, for me a four hour trip is like going down to the corner grocery).

Further, are you under the impression that before automobiles, people did NOT feel socially obligated at times to travel for hours or even DAYS by buggy, stagecoach, or rail ?

October 15, 2005 7:48 AM  
Blogger David said...

By the way, I wasn't complaining about the four hour drive, only explaining why I couldn't stay up all night pontificating. This is basically the drive to Boston and back, which I make all the time and am willing to make at the drop of a hat. It's actually a nice easy drive -- highways all the way -- and gives me a chance to relax and, this trip, spend time with family.

October 15, 2005 8:01 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

David, here are a few discussions of what the term "personal god" means:

http://www.ditext.com/broad/vbpg.html
http://www.ldolphin.org/personalgod.html
http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/einstein.html

I'd be interested in your comments

In my own philosophical shorthand, you believe in a personal God if you think of God as a person, if you worry about offending God, if you think that God knows you as a person in the same way that one person knows another person, if you talk to God and believe that He talks back to you in some way.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

Here's a question I struggled with as a Catholic that speaks to whether you consider morality to be a matter of obeying a personal God or following a set of rules that promote some higher good. During the Sacrament of Confession, Catholics recite the Act of Contrition that goes as follows:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You. I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because they offend You, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.

Now, say that I punched a guy named Joe in the nose for no reason, and I went to Confession to get absolution. The Act of Contrition does not ask me to have empathy for Joe, to consider how my sin against Joe affected him, or seek forgiveness from Joe. I ask forgiveness from God, whom I did not punch in the nose, because it offends Him, and he is all good and deserving of all my love. Joe isn't all good, and not deserving of my love. I hate the guy, even though he has never done anything to deserve that hate. I just hate the way he looks. But that doesn't matter, because this isn't about Joe, it's about me and God. As long as I make up with God, I can continue to hate Joe and I won't have to worry about going to Hell. Which, if a penitent were honest, is really the most important reason for confessing his sins. So is this moral, or is it just acting in my own self interests?

Surprisingly, if you read Scriptures, you will find that Jesus himself agrees with my position:

Matthew 25:

34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

44"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

46"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Jesus was speaking against the very same tendency of believers to base their morality on their relationship to God rather than their relationship to their fellow man. But that is the kind of morality you get from the Command theory, the morality of appeasing the powerful rather than the morality of loving your neighbor as yourself.

October 15, 2005 8:16 AM  
Blogger David said...

Duck: Render unto Joe those things that are Joe's, and unto G-d those things that are G-ds. You apologize to G-d for the offense given to Him, and to Joe for the offense to him. Confession doesn't bring Joe's forgiveness.

As for a personal god, I haven't yet looked at your links. On your description, I believe some of those things, but not others. But by "simpleton god" I meant, among other things, the idea that G-d is, more or less, a person like the rest of us only more so.

October 15, 2005 8:57 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck:

Unless loving your neighbour as yourself is one of the commands.

Oroborous:

Do you believe there is such a thing as justice? If you do, define it please. Tell us logically where it stops and starts and how it could possibly exist objectively when so many people interpret it in different ways. Oh, you say it is just a subjective creation of the human mind, relative to time and circumstance? I guess that means justice as interpreted by the Hell's Angels is an equally legitimate justice to your justice in a community composed mainly of Hell's Angels.

Some Muslim countries think it is just to cut off a thief's hand. Others think it is just to give him five years of hard time. Still others say probation and restitution will answer the scream for justice. It's all relative, isn't it? Except none of them say it's ok to steal or ignore the thief. And no society sees theft as just a matter of preserving order and regulation or even common survival. The victims of theft feel the same sense of outrage and violation that goes far beyond the practical loss they have suffered.

Now, I invite you go back through all your arguments above about objective morality and replace that term with justice and you will see objective justice doesn't exist. You could probably do the same thing with love and freedom. Funny, though, that although the world couldn't begin to agree on definitions of justice, love and freedom, they certainly seem to share a lot of common perceptions about what injustice, hate and slavery are.

October 15, 2005 9:08 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

David, what if you render unto God what is His but don't render unto Joe what is Joe's? If all that matters is our duty to God, then why waste any time worrying about Joe? Command theory means never having to say "Sorry, Joe".

Peter, it isn't, at least not one of the Ten. But Jesus's point was that if you look after your fellow man, you're looking after God. There is no need to discern what the Big Guy wants, just do what you think is right by your neighbor. Trying to discern some separate set of rules to please God is just going to lead you astray.

That is the one thing that I've taken away from Christianity as a principle of morality: a focus on my fellow humans, and not God. But Christianity as preached, either through the Act of Contrition, or in the incessant exhortation to turn your thoughts to God, seems to contradict this very principle. The Act of Contrition is fashioned by the same mentality that got the latter group in Matthew 25 in trouble.

October 15, 2005 9:28 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck

That is the one thing that I've taken away from Christianity as a principle of morality

So you, an atheist and rigorous materialist, base your personal morality on the teachings of a penniless eccentric and mendicant who wandered shoeless around the desert preaching that he had a direct pipeline to the Divine and perhaps much more? Duck, we have to talk.

October 15, 2005 10:12 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Yes, Peter, it is a sad state of affairs, I'm afraid that I could lose my DarwinFish over this.

Even crazy people can speak wisdom sometimes. Jesus's message (or should I say messages) were very radical, and in many ways anti-religious, in ways that most Christians don't acknowledge. Of course his messages were all over the map. That is why Christian theologians will never be unemployed, as long as there are contradictions to be smoothed over or explained away.

October 15, 2005 10:40 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Funny, though, that although the world couldn't begin to agree on definitions of justice, love and freedom, they certainly seem to share a lot of common perceptions about what injustice, hate and slavery are.

Not really.

In some Muslim cultures, the penalty for dating the wrong guy is being gang-raped by court order.

They perceive that as being "justice", so how could they agree with us that it's "injustice" ?

When Captain Cook got to the Hawai'ian Islands, (or the Sandwich Islands, as they were then known), he found a culture that didn't regard stealing as an "injustice", although Cook himself got killed in a fight over some stolen property while there.
He certainly perceived what he was attempting to do as "justice".

Slavery has varied from being like indentured servitude, including release conditions, and opportunities to join the enslaving culture, to being abused and worked worse and harder than livestock, with a miserable and agonizing lifespan measured in months, never longer than a few short years.
American slavery fell between those extremes, and although we might be appalled at the behavior of the first culture, they in turn would be appalled by the behavior of the harsh culture, so where's the agreement there ?

References on request.

I guess that means justice as interpreted by the Hell's Angels is an equally legitimate justice to your justice in a community composed mainly of Hell's Angels.

Well, yeah.

There were a lot of places like that in the American Old West, where justice was rough and unevenly applied.

If there were a community made up of roughnecks and outlaws, why would they use my effete, reasoned "justice" ?

Not only would they not respect it, it wouldn't be effective.

Maybe I'm missing your point.

In any case, how does any of this support the contention that divine command theory is correct ?

I'm quite prepared to stipulate that an objective moral code exists - in fact, I did so in the very first post.

I just don't see how its existence matters if humanity doesn't know what it is.

If you want to claim that it DOES matter, you have to show HOW it matters.

Now that we've established that you believe that no culture, religion, or individual has a complete grasp of this objective moral code, and that we should all do what we think is best, I don't think that you're going to be able to do so, and I'm also baffled by your apparent insistence that our positions are at all dissimilar.

October 15, 2005 11:27 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Sigh. Let's try it this way:

Imagine a man bored to tears with his frumpy, cranky wife and the mindless tedium of domestic drudgery. He becomes completely smitten with a co-worker and the feeling is mutual. He is pulled by near irrestible forces to begin an affair and leave his wife. As people in that situation tend to be, he is overwhelmed by his dream and can't see it as anything other than a triumph of right and beauty.

Now, I suggest he has three ways to go (more or less) as he ponders his future. He can say:

a) whether I should do this is entirely a subjective matter involving me and me alone. There is no moral reality outside of what is going on inside my head. I will cause pain, and I don't like that, but I will also create bliss and there is no reason I can't justly conclude my bliss outweighs my family's pain. In the end, we all make moral choices based upon what is good for us. Provided I accept whatever legal consequences flow, there are no other consequences.

b)there is only the natural world and all morality is subjective and evolved in response to natural forces. However, I believe our common survival imposes duties upon me to consider how my actions will affect the collective good (although don't press me too hard to explain why). Therefore, I must consider what would happen if everyone did that, and so I've made an appointment with Prof. Dawkins to seek his advice. I've gotta be frank, though. I just feel my new love is so pure and special that I know within me (because that is the only way to know) it is sui generis, so I'm not promising to pay much attention to what the old coot says.

c)there is an eternal Divine that exists outside of me and nature. It has a Will and human existence has a purpose. It is part of the purpose of my existence to seek to know that Will, however imperfectly, and I do this in a variety of ways. I believe that if I act against it, it may bring consequences to me or others I cannot forsee, but I fear nonetheless.

I say (c). What's the problem?

October 16, 2005 2:53 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

For me, no problem, since you've more or less accurately described my worldview.

For believers in divine command theory, however, there are some problems.

First, both b) and c) are the same answer, just from the perspective of differing worldviews.
In either case, the person with the moral dilemma must make up her own mind about what is right.

Secondly: I believe that if I act against it, it may bring consequences to me or others I cannot forsee...

How will you know when you act against it, since the eternal Divine doesn't publish lists of what's wrong and what's right ?

Again, it stuffs "objective morality" into the tiny box of being whatever the truest sect of the truest religion says that it is...
But nobody knows who is the truest of the true.

I believe our common survival imposes duties upon me to consider how my actions will affect the collective good...

It's not a BELIEF, like deciding to worship Allah, it's an instinct, like suckling.
Fish don't have to believe in water.

October 16, 2005 5:21 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Also, although it's far less common than adulterers would like to believe, sometimes the "moral" answer IS to run off with Ms Exciting, and leave your spouse.

A successful marriage requires commitment from BOTH parties, (or ALL parties, as we'll say in the future), and there are both active and passive ways to betray your partner.

But I don't have to tell you that.

October 16, 2005 5:30 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

...the eternal Divine doesn't publish lists of what's wrong and what's right

No, but He has left lots of clues and seems to have created us with a thirst to seek.

...sometimes the "moral" answer IS to run off with Ms Exciting, and leave your spouse.

No, that is wrong. Acceptable, understandable, even forgivable arguably, but to describe it as moral is to denude the word of its meaning. The prohibition against adultery doesn't have a "provided your marriage is successful" caveat.

BTW, as a practical matter, you would be amazed at how many people come to realize their marriages are intolerable and unsuccessful, even abusive, at precisely the same time they start an affair.

October 16, 2005 5:46 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

First, both b) and c) are the same answer, just from the perspective of differing worldviews.

Oroborous hit the nail on the head. Peter, you are confusing the question of what is moral with the question of where morality comes from. Whether you believe in God given moral rules or evolution tested and approved moral behaviors, it is only a matter of how people explain a given fact: that people act according to an internal moral guide we call a conscience. We don't have to ask Dawkins and you don't have to consult the Bible, because we both know what is right. Or to use David's explanation, we both have faith that what we believe is rignt, is right in an objective sense. The only question is if we have the strength of character to follow through on our beliefs.

October 16, 2005 6:35 AM  
Blogger David said...

Duck says: Whether you believe in God given moral rules or evolution tested and approved moral behaviors, it is only a matter of how people explain a given fact: that people act according to an internal moral guide we call a conscience.

But we deny that evolution tests or approves moral behaviors. We think that saying so is just an excuse for doing what you want to do anyway.

October 16, 2005 8:13 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck:

...because we both know what is right. Or to use David's explanation, we both have faith that what we believe is rignt, is right in an objective sense.

That might work if we were talking about an objective, scientific fact that is hiding within is and we were just arguing about different methodologies for finding it. But we aren't, and here is the crux of our difference, not about religion, but about what the word relative means. You define it as including any uncertainty, ambiguity or variation in the application of moral rules in different circumstances. Essentially you are saying that if objective morality existed, there should be no need or use for priests and rabbis. I define it as meaning the moral rules themselves emanate entirely from within ourselves in response to particular circumstances, i.e. we make them up ourselves. But I'd have to be a complete clod not to recognize that moral goods can be in conflict or that both motivations and repercussions of actions don't vary widely.

As a practical matter, while there are both stoic secularists and religious libertines, can we not agree that, generally speaking in modern American society, those who adhere to (b) tend to equivocate at best, at least at a philosophical level, in real life when faced with the adultery challenge above and have a very hard time seeing that anything at all to do with (consensual) sex should be included within the concept of morality (i.e. intrinsic right and wrong), while the mainstream of those who believe (c)consider it obvious and natural? Obviously they can't both be saying the same thing.

October 16, 2005 1:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Sorry, that should read "repercussions of actions vary widely.

October 16, 2005 1:02 PM  
Blogger David said...

Peter: And, of course, everything they've said is completely inconsistent with gay marriage, which I'm sure they will be quick to condemn.

October 16, 2005 9:03 PM  
Blogger David said...

... Any moment now ...

October 17, 2005 11:28 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

David:

Please forgive my lack of perception, but could you expand upon the idea that objective morality is necessary to approve of gay marriage ?

My support for gay marriage has little to do with morality, other than a sense of fair play.

If our societies were marriage-neutral, and conferred no official benefits on married couples, or only on children, then I wouldn't much care if gays couldn't get hitched.

In addition, I have no patience for those who insist that only "marriage" is acceptable - "civil unions" that confer the same benefits suffice for a certain percentage of straight couples, (everyone married by a justice of the peace (or a ship's captain at sea), and they're certainly good enough for those Godless buggerers.

October 17, 2005 12:02 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Peter:

Essentially you are saying that if objective morality existed, there should be no need or use for priests and rabbis.

What happens when you present a moral problem to imams from four different Islamic sects, a priest from both the Roman and Greek Orthodox traditions, a Church of England bishop, rabbis of four different Jewish sects, a minister, a lay minister, a Buddhist monk, a Hindu priest, an Aztec priest, a Mayan priest, a Nazcan priest, Native American shamens from ten different tribes, an Egyptian priest, a priest of Odin, Greek priests and priestesses representing every god in the Greek pantheon, a similar Roman contingent, a Wiccan, and for good measure why not throw in a Zen expert, a Scientologist, a voodoo practitioner, and someone who fancies himself a Priest of Satan ?

You'd also want to consult a bishop from the One True Church, of course.

Your "objective morality" definition confines itself to Judeo-Christian religious believers, and even there you wouldn't be able to get an agreement on what exactly it consists of.

You could probably get everyone to sign off on eight of the Ten Commandments...

Christians chucked the Second Commandment soon after Christ died, although most continue to believe that they honor it.

And in any case, only two of the Ten Commandments are absolute - all of the others are either conditional, or have exceptions.

October 17, 2005 12:45 PM  
Blogger David said...

O: That's not what I'm saying at all. I'm saying that, as you fellows have described your definition of "moral", gay marriage can't possibly qualify.

Let's see now. Here's what we've learned about morality:

The only solid objective basis for deciding whether it is correct or incorrect to apply these terms, is the one that humans have agreed.

[M]orality is not individually subjective. I think that morality exists when humans agree that it exists.

[M]orality ... is only to be found in the relatively flimsy agreements of human societies.

[A]ny particular moral code is a combination of several taboos and many responses of a society to exigent circumstances.

Moral goodness is an admixture of those prohibitions required for humans to exist as social animals, along with codified utilitarian responses to the environment within which the society exists.

Therefore, it is "immoral" because most people think it is. Which, when you get right down to it, is the source of nearly all of what we consider morality.

[M]orality stems from a few seemingly universal (or close as darnnit is to swearing) in-group taboos, combined with the consensus response to shared exigent circumstances.

When I say moral rules are category 2, I mean they are category 2 – they are agreed by people – nothing more. There’s no further claim.

Whatever works is moral. Whatever works is a function of human nature (which is stubbornly resistant to change, regardless of your particular notion of its source) and exigent circumstances.

Moral rules happen when enough moral opinions in a society coincide.

There is an objective grounding to our feelings, as they are the result of millions of generations of successful reproduction and survival. Our feelings represent ingrained habits that have proved necessary to survival and contain much inherent wisdom, whether we understand them or not.

Gay marriage has never been adopted by any society, let alone any successful society. It is opposed as immoral by all but a small percentage of the nation. It is contrary to the evolution-honed feelings common to most of us.

Clearly, it is immoral as you have described morality.

October 17, 2005 1:38 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Gay marriage has never been adopted by any society, let alone any successful society.

That may be because, historically, marriage hasn't conferred many benefits on men, except for the opportunity to have progeny, and to share the domestic chores - a considerable benefit in the days before furnaces, appliences, and grocery stores.

Therefore, why agitate for marriage ?

Two lifelong bachelors sharing living quarters raises no eyebrows, and before central heating, everyone slept in the same bed anyhow.

It is opposed as immoral by all but a small percentage of the nation.

Except that, depending on the poll, a small majority of Americans support the concept of gay civil unions.

It is contrary to the evolution-honed feelings common to most of us.

Homosexuality among men is certainly abnormal, and does not further the survival of the human race - but neither does it hinder group survival, and so therefore it isn't "immoral" from an evolutionary standpoint.
Lesbianism is more contra-survival, but also much less practiced.

In the end, I agree that gay marriage could be immoral.
It just depends on the society.

October 17, 2005 11:28 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

I'm not sure what you think the example of gay marriage shows, or counters.

From the claim that 'what works' is the basis of the existence of general moral rules, it does not follow that anything that does not positively contribute to 'working' is therefore immoral. Nor does it follow that we must personally approve of anything that 'works', and condemn anything else.

We just observe that the moral rules (note: rules, not each individual moral opinion) that succeed and prove long-lasting and effective in societies tend to be those which help the people in those societies to function and get along.

At one time the idea of gay marriage would have been greeted with almost universal moral condemnation. These days it's a good example of moral debate and dilemma. Some condemn, some take a liberal attitude, some might even approve of the commitment factor of gay marriage over casual gay relationships.

Personally, I don't have much in the way of moral feelings towards it one way or the other.

October 18, 2005 6:28 AM  
Blogger David said...

Now look who's fighting "is" with "ought." If you believe anything you've said about the "objectiveness" of your mere description of the way in which morality arises in a godless world, then you have to concede that gay marriage is immoral.

If you aren't willing to concede that gay marriage is immoral -- using immoral as you've defined it -- then there would appear to be a problem with your definition. In fact, you understand the word to mean something other than a simple decriptor for what a society considers normative behavior.

October 18, 2005 11:04 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Boy, do I ever hate being out of the conversation for a week.

David:

With regard to homosexual marriage, I completely agree with your conclusion that, based upon how those of us opposed to Divine Command theory view the sources of morality, homosexual marriage is immoral.

And I'm glad you brought that up. Not only does it clearly demonstrate how morality evolves in response to exigent circumstances, it also starkly highlights how deficient Divine Command theory is.

Where you stated [homosexual marriage] is opposed as immoral by all but a small percentage of the nation you are arguably correct globally, but less so in the details. That moral judgment is highly age dependent. No matter where you go in the US, those under roughly 40 are far more favorably disposed to the idea than those over 40.

While it is possible opinion is completely age dependent, I think it is far more likely opinion is environmentally dependent.

Those under 40 grew up in the presence of acknowledged homosexuals, and failed to find two things: any more inherently evil than the rest of us, and the virtually complete absence of people who had any choice in their orientation.

There are two results. First, it is difficult to uphold the immorality of an action in the absence of any perceived harm. In this case, familiarity has eliminated contempt.

The second effect takes aim at heart of Divine Command theory. In the case of homosexuality, Divine Command makes a very material assertion. That is, homosexuality is abominable in the eyes of G-d.

In order for this to be so, however, homosexuality must represent a choice, an active decision to violate accepted morality.

Is homosexuality a choice? If it isn't, and I submit that it takes astonishing contortions to conclude that it is, then the fact of homosexuality has no moral component whatsoever, and the supposed abomination in the eyes of God, as objective a thing as one is likely to get from the Bible, is a complete mistake.

I bet you (dinner and a bottle of single-malt Scotch) that within 20 years homosexual marriage (or a direct facsimile with a different name) will be the norm across the US, and the controversy will be a matter only of historical interest.

I have another post in my head asserting that Divine Command morality is intrinsically immoral, but that will have to wait until tonight or tomorrow.

October 18, 2005 1:52 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

In fact, you understand the word [moral] to mean something other than a simple decriptor for what a society considers normative behavior.

That's correct.

"Moral" does NOT equal "normal behavior", it's that "immoral" equals "harmful behavior".

Homosexual activity qua gay sex, among men, just isn't that harmful to societies.

After all, if two-thirds of all men died, but no women, the human race wouldn't be threatened in the least, nor most nations.

Also, "evolutionary morals" don't have to be normal behavior on the positive side, either.
If some behavior, such as sharing resources, is abnormal, but helps groups survive, then groups that have a greater number of people who behave abnormally will prosper to a greater degree, and that behavior will be seen as "moral", even if it never becomes common.

Even in pervasively Judeo-Christian America, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa (the myth, not the reality), Bill & Melinda Gates, George Soros, and their ilk are the exception, not the rule.

Thus, although Jesus told us to help each other out, the average person doesn't do much of that - although she finds time to watch four hours of television a day, on average.

Is American society "immoral", because "the norm" is NOT to behave in a moral manner, as revealed by the Divine ?

Do the occasional outpourings of charity, such as after 9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and Katrina mitigate our everyday (relative) apathy ?

October 18, 2005 1:59 PM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: I'll take your bet, although I'll gladly buy you dinner and a stiff belt of MacCallans any time you'd like.

You say: [H]omosexuality is abominable in the eyes of G-d....
In order for this to be so, however, homosexuality must represent a choice, an active decision to violate accepted morality.


I have no idea why you think this. As I've said, the god you don't believe it is a very specific god. My G-d is fully capable of giving men homoerotic impulses and then damning them for giving in just as He has given all of us impulses towards sin. Of course, forgiveness, too, is always available.

But homosexuality and homosexual marriage are two different things and we can tolerate the first without accepting the second. My point was that your claim that you are merely defining morality as those rules that work isn't even true for you.

O: You say that homosexuality is not that harmful because we can lose a bunch of men without suffering great harm. Name a society that has allowed homosexual marriage and survived longer than, say, the Spanish Empire profited from its South American possessions (which, we've learned, was not long enough to make it successful or the pillaging of colonies moral).

All: I'm afraid that you're all going to have to live with the knowledge that you each have an innate moral sense that cannot be justified by reason alone. I hope you can live with the shame of knowing yourselves to be the moral creatures you were Created to be.

October 18, 2005 3:34 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

Who said reason had anything to do with morality?

RE: Homosexuality. I am guilty of sacrificing clarity at the altar of brevity. The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of God. Humans, generally, have viewed homosexuality as immoral. In the particular case of Judeo-Christianity, there is some pretty direct scriptural text to urge things along.

But for some course of action to have some moral component, there must be an element of choice. Until recently, it was a matter of course that gays were just like you and I, except for their consciously choosing to pursue perversion.

However, grant for the moment what is likely far more than a hypothetical: homosexuals have no choice.

The G-d you believe in is perfectly capable of such a thing. However, the god most Christians believe in is far closer to Cosmic Muffin than Harry Thunderer. As such, this god has a moral intuition not only recognizable to humans, but superior to that attainable by your garden-variety 10-year old boy.

Continuing to grant that hypothetical, how does one square the Cosmic Muffin version of God with the discovery that the homosexuals god created are abominable in its eyes?

Here is where reason comes in. It is entirely reasonable to note the parallel between homosexuality and, say, left handedness. What was the attitude of our somewhat distant forefathers for that particular minority? (hint: see the etymology of the word "sinister"). It is similarly reasonable to note the parallel with homosexuality in Christianity and cleft palate in the Hinduism; although, the parallel with left-handedness is more apt.

Applying reason in this way yields this result: visibly distinct subsets of a population are excluded from the "moral" community.

Jews have been visibly distinct minority subsets of any society within which their diaspora has resided. And, despite materially contributing far more than mere numbers would indicate, have been nearly relentlessly hounded nonetheless.

Reason has nothing to do with morality. But using reason to analyze morality builds a non-trivial case for this conclusion: adding Divine Command to human nature is not an improvement.

October 18, 2005 6:14 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Oroborous:

Very interesting take on what we do, and what is "moral."

And it validates an assertion I have made elsewhere: the true driving force of the universe is irony.

How so?

Well, working hard and spending every dime you earn on mere material satisfaction might very well help people far more than living frugally and giving all your money to charity.

What is transparently true on the surface is likely completely false underneath.

In fact, should we all pursue the apparently "moral" course of action, we would be supplying by the barge-load an incentive for dependency.

After all, if no handouts are available, but there is plenty of demand for gainful employment, what is a person to do?

October 18, 2005 6:26 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Surprise, I completely agree with you that people (read, in most cases, men) take marriage far too lightly.

However, don't start your end zone dance just yet.

That particular part of human nastiness far predates secularism. And as a recent Christianity Today article attests, afflicts fundamentalists just as thoroughly as moral incompetents.

In other words, Divine Command objective morality is not only of no value, but may actually abet what you seek to prevent. Not only does Christianity offer the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card, it is also palpably misogynistic.

And while I defer to your experience with the pure misery adultery provokes (which, I believe, is due as much to humanity's famously faulty capacity for objective risk assessment as anything), what do you say to the woman -- and her children -- who is subject to a reign of tyranny verging on physical abuse, never mind the real thing?

Perhaps Oroborous is on to something when he suggests adultery is not necessarily the worst option from a group of ugly alternatives.

October 18, 2005 6:39 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I hope you can live with the shame of knowing yourselves to be the moral creatures you were Created to be.

In my case, no problem, since my greatest moral failing is overweening pride, which tends to cancel out shame.

Skipper:

Yes, if we simply set up soup kitchens.

However, some helping hands, such as Habitat for Humanity, are wiser than that.

Also, there are many places on Earth where there isn't plenty of demand for gainful employment. We could provide demand for whatever they can produce, (as Overstock.com has done in Afghanistan and many other third-world nations), or better yet, set up the infrastructure for them to produce something that we really want.

Additionally, in many places where they can acquire the rude basics of life easily enough, they still can't afford some of the advanced basics, such as clean water, children's educations, vaccinations, or antibiotics.

We could give them all of that, without making them "dependent" - I think not, anyway...

The best thing that we could do for the teeming billions who live in places that have few opportunities for escaping poverty is simply to take over the third world.
Use our trillions and our tech to make right what our ancestors put wrong.
("Our" in the sense of all humanity).

Yes, it's sure to lead to mistakes and scandals and new forms of exploitation, but if the end result is something like America, warts and all, it'd be a 10,000% improvement.

October 18, 2005 6:54 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper agrees that homosexual marriage is immoral even according to evovled morality based upon common survival, but somehow throws individual choice into the ring to make it all ok. Oroborous says mariage isn't all that useful anyway and there is lots of room for exceptions without affecting the common good measurably. Brit has no moral feelings about it, which I can only conclude means he thinks it is outside the whole realm of morality.

So, guys, how can you possibly have anything to say about the adulterer who leaves his wife? Why can't he see himself as an exception within acceptable norms (which is almost certainly the way he will see himself)? If marriage is not all that hot to begin with, what possible basis would there be for urging him out of it or even caring? Why is gay choice any more valid than hetero? I mean, equal rights and all that.

May I suggest an answer? You know full well something is very wrong with giving moral carte blanche to adulterers and what would likely happen if everyone actually internalized such a laissez faire attitude, so you want to find some way to bind married people, even if not absolutely. Enter common survival. But you've bought into the whole human rights bumpf about gays and so it's all choice, choice, choice with them. Not only no divine commands, no common survival imperatives either. With them it's all individual subjectivity.

Which is why I have suspected all along that you don't really belive in (b) in my example above. You are (a) men through and through. You just like to have (b) around as a handy crutch to lean on when faced with something that makes you squirm.

October 19, 2005 12:57 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

Now look who's fighting "is" with "ought." If you believe anything you've said about the "objectiveness" of your mere description of the way in which morality arises in a godless world, then you have to concede that gay marriage is immoral.

If you aren't willing to concede that gay marriage is immoral -- using immoral as you've defined it -- then there would appear to be a problem with your definition. In fact, you understand the word to mean something other than a simple decriptor for what a society considers normative behavior.



You could justifiably accuse me of many sins, but confusing my ises and oughts isn’t one of them. For some reason, I’m constantly and tediously aware of that sort of thing.

Note my distinction between moral opinions and moral rules. Moral rules could roughly be described as, as you put it: “a simple decriptor for what a society considers normative behavior.”

Moral opinions are unique to each individual and can conflict with the moral rules of that individual’s society. But a moral opinion is not a moral rule. One person cannot make a moral rule on his own (which is why the divine command theorist’s claim that only his theory can prevent absolute moral relativism - if p thinks x is wrong, then x is wrong - is inaccurate).

Confusingly however, moral opinions and moral laws have a two-way influence on each other. That is, moral rules come about when enough moral opinions in a society coincide. We have further observed that the moral rules that do ‘take hold’ tend to be those that help people to get along, that ‘work’ for the society. But that analysis is at a different level, a ‘meta-moral’ level, and hindsight is a big help when coming up with it.

Individual moral opinions, as I’ve said above, probably come from a variety of influences (biology, religion, family, teachers, personal inclination, etc), and among these influences are the moral rules of the society. If everyone around you thinks x is wrong, and your religious teachers tell you x is wrong, then you’re more likely to believe that x is wrong. But it’s not guaranteed, which is why moral opinions shift and change as societies develop, and where many moral opinions go in the same direction, so moral rules inevitably follow.

Gay marriage is a good example of the flux between opinions and rules. It would certainly have been a moral rule that gay marriage was wrong only a short time ago. As would homosexuality per se, only a short time before that. Most moral opinions of homoexuality were that it was wrong.

But now that there is a widespread tolerance of homosexuality – more and more people with a general liberal moral opinion of ‘live and let live’ – it is not at all clear that ‘gay marriage is wrong’ is now a moral rule. Instead, it’s currently in a halfway state. Opinions are divided pretty evenly between those for and those agin.

So to the ‘meta-moral’ level, as I’ve described it: the “does it help society work” question. Our theory would predict that gay marriage will become morally acceptable if it being so helps our society to get along. Will this be the case? I can only speculate here, and it’s difficult to say because we don’t yet have the benefit of hindsight, but I’ll take Skipper’s side of the wager. In a few decades time, possibly only a few years time, homosexual marriage will almost certainly be considered normal and perfectly morally acceptable by the majority.

There are good reasons to think this. We have gradually started to stop ‘blaming’ minorities for their differences, and begun sympathising rather than shunning. We increasingly don’t think it’s a homosexual’s ‘fault’ that he’s gay any more. In addition, minorities are increasingly organised, noisy and aggressive about equality and rights in our society. Our society has found it harder and harder to keep a lid on that, and we’ve generally found it the best course to gradually yield them those ‘rights’. Not everyone likes it, of course, but greater equality and less discrimination has turned out to be ‘what works’ for us.

(ps. To clarify: all that is what I think is the case. Not what I necessarily think ought to be the case, though actually most of it, whether it is or isn't the case, is also what what I think ought to be the case, innit)

October 19, 2005 1:49 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Ummm ... how about this for a rebuttal: What Brit said.

At the risk of being repetitive, the moral Rule regarding homosexual marriage is that it is immoral. That is so because enough people have moral opinions agreeing with the rule.

My moral opinion is that the Rule itself is immoral, because its foundations are baseless, it violates equality before the law, and it materially deprives people for a condition that is no fault of their own.

How can I have anything to say about an adulterer? Easy. First, I take it as axiomatic that no one is exceptional -- all are equally entitled to any given course of action. Second, I imagine a society in which all men act the way the adulterer [or fill in whatever conduct you wish] does.

Is that society one in which I would care to live?

No, for all sorts of material reasons, all of them arguing against moral carte blanche, and none relying on Divine Command.

Contrast that with homosexual marriage. If every person that would choose same sex marriage did so, is that a society in which I would want to live?

Perhaps due to a failure of imagination, I can't see why not.

Try that two step test against any form of conduct you wish. I think you will be surprised how often that purely material test yields results consistent with both your moral opinions and societies moral Rules. All without resorting to Divine Command and its universal tendency to create exclusionary moral communities.

October 19, 2005 4:56 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Oroborous:

My focus was more parochial, and more inclined to pointing out irony. In terms of charity, often what appears to be selfish and, hence, immoral, produces better results than what is apparently selfless and, hence, moral.

The most moral thing to do, regarding poverty in other parts of the world, is to completely drop our trade barriers, and stop subsidizing agriculture.

Then spend like drunken sailors.

Barriers to trade, championed by those who see themselves as advocates for the poor, do more than anything else to ensure there are a great number of poor around for whom to advocate.

October 19, 2005 5:02 AM  
Blogger David said...

I have no idea why you guys think that public opinion about gay marriage is close to evenly divided. Where ever people have voted on it, the vote has been lopsided -- even in California. The Massachusetts legislature won't even let it get to the ballot, because everyone assumes that it would be voted down decisively.

The answer is quite clearly that you (or two of you) really really really don't want it to be immoral. (Skipper: how you so clearly delineate between the drive that makes someone homosexual and the drive that makes someone an adulterer is a mystery to me.)

The conclusion towards which Peter and I are driving you is one that you are reluctant to embrace: that the alternative to a G-d given morality is no morality worthy of the name. Whatever arrangement society arrives at -- majority rules -- is moral. Ironically, you're being driven there by your own innate moral sense, because you don't want to have to concede that certain behaviors -- historically condemned, popularly condemned and pretty clearly unhealthy -- are immoral. You don't even accept your own quasi-evolutionary test.

Even if I didn't believe, I would fight mightily against the idea that morality is whatever the majority says it is. In any society, morality is fragile. There are always people will take any excuse to act as they know they should not.

October 19, 2005 5:24 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

I don't understand why you still have this misunderstanding of my position.

I agree that the moral rule in our society is currently that gay marriage is morally wrong (although 'Gay marriage is wrong' is nowhere near as clear-cut a moral rule as say, 'random killing is wrong').

But I have the personal moral opinion that gay marriage is not immoral.

My moral opinion is just that: no more. I cannot make a moral rule by myself.

October 19, 2005 6:13 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

I don't particularly think, nor much care, where public opinion about gay marriage is. (Although, as I mentioned above, when breaking down opinion by age group, younger respondents are far, far more favorably disposed than older. I suspect that points the direction the moral Rule will go.)

But it is an interesting illustration in how little reason has to do with moral Rules, and how Divine Command can be used as an excuse for a Rule that otherwise appears completely pointless.

If I appeared to have delineated between what drives homosexuals vs. adulterers, then I typed badly. My intent was to distinguish between the effects of the two kinds of conduct. Further, comparing them as you seem to do is to make a category mistake. Adultery is contextual instance of a sex act; homosexuality is a gender preference. Until supplying context to a homosexual act, unless you condemn homosexuality prima facie (here's to hoping I didn't make a fool of myself tossing in that bit of Latin), then homosexuality in and of itself has no more moral component than heterosexuality.

What's more, same-sex marriage would provide the context that, by Divine Command definition, makes otherwise immoral instances of heterosexuality moral. I think there is some irony buried in there, and not very deeply.

As for conceding that certain behaviors are immoral, I already have. Homosexuality is still, although far less so than before, immoral by definition. As for the reasons undergirding that rule, the first two frequently worthless guides to morality. Miscegnation was, until very recently, historically and popularly condemned. Is it immoral?

As for health effects, they, in and of themselves, do not have any moral component. That they are a material consequence of homosexual behavior is undeniable. But all sorts of behaviors we don't even think of carry health consequences. Shaking hands is just one of them. Immoral or not?

I understand the conclusion at which you and Peter are driving. It is entirely possible to separate the first order correctness of Divine Command from third order statements about Divine command. Is and Ought need not necessarily agree. Clearly you take the position we need to believe in G-d given morality, regardless, because any alternative is worse.

The position I haven't yet had the chance to develop, and probably deserves a separate article, is that Divine Command morality is inherently immoral, and while it was tolerable -- if grotesquely expensive -- in centuries past, Divine Command morality now represents a profound threat to civilization.

Hint: Those that flew the airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not cowards, nor insane. They were perfectly rational, absolutely True Believers acting completely consistently with Divine Command.

October 19, 2005 9:12 AM  
Blogger David said...

Brit: I don't misunderstand it, I reject it. It is trying to eat your cake, and have it, too.

Skipper: The immoral act of both homosexuals and adulterers is the same: sex outside of marriage.

I don't understand this passage at all:

As for conceding that certain behaviors are immoral, I already have. Homosexuality is still, although far less so than before, immoral by definition. As for the reasons undergirding that rule, the first two frequently worthless guides to morality. Miscegnation was, until very recently, historically and popularly condemned. Is it immoral?

As for health effects, they, in and of themselves, do not have any moral component. That they are a material consequence of homosexual behavior is undeniable. But all sorts of behaviors we don't even think of carry health consequences. Shaking hands is just one of them. Immoral or not?


You guys are arguing that morality is simply an artifact of history/evolution/majority opinion. I'm arguing that morality is a set of commands that we are free to follow or not follow. I disagree with your implicit assumption that we can look behind the commands to G-d's motivation. Kashrut, or the rules against adultery or whatever are not a divine health code. They are commands. When you were in the business of giving commands, did you used to welcome discussion among the ranks as to the purpose of the command and whether it really was the best way of advancing the supposed end?

October 19, 2005 9:22 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Peter:

Oroborous says marriage isn't all that useful anyway and there is lots of room for exceptions without affecting the common good measurably.

What I actually said is that "marriage hasn't conferred many benefits on men, except for the opportunity to have progeny, and to share the domestic chores - a considerable benefit..."

Since most men DO want to have children, adultery is frowned upon, because it damages families, on it's on THAT basis that we condemn it - not because it's inherently wrong, but because it causes harm.
Also, adultery is frequently accompanied by betrayal, which is another wrong, under any set of moral rules, regardless of how derived.

There is clearly room for exceptions to the standard Western concept of marriage, since the basic concept of what marriage is composed of, and what benefits and responsibilities it confers, and what boundaries it establishes, has varied WIDELY among cultures, and has changed considerably within our own European, Judeo-Christian heritage.

"Homosexual activity qua gay sex, among men, just isn't that harmful to societies."

If you disagree, then how is such behavior MORE harmful than that of a lifelong bachelor ?

Skipper:

The most moral thing to do, regarding poverty in other parts of the world, is to completely drop our trade barriers, and stop subsidizing agriculture.

Then spend like drunken sailors.

Agreed.

And, that's EXACTLY what my sweet, precious Bush admin has proposed doing.

Gotta love it.

David:

I have no idea why you guys think that public opinion about gay marriage is close to evenly divided. Where ever people have voted on it, the vote has been lopsided -- even in California.

Mainly because it is.

People have been voting on the WORD "marriage", which a majority of Americans don't want to allow gays to use, by about 2 - 1.

California, BTW, passed legislation establishing domestic partnerships with the same legal rights as marriage, and so far there haven't been any repercussions from the voting public.

Gay civil unions, which are marriage by another name, ARE narrowly approved of nationally.

MSNBC reports on two polls done 18 months ago:

A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 51 percent of respondents favor allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions with the same basic legal rights as married couples.

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that 54 percent of respondents favor civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, with 42 percent opposing them.

A Pew Research Center/Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey, conducted on July 13-17, 2005, found that:

53% support gay civil unions
40% oppose gay civil unions
07% are undecided, or don't care

So, if we call marriage a "civil union", then roughly 50% of Americans are willing to allow it, and about 40% would oppose it - a significantly higher number of people with an opinion support it.

Even if I didn't believe, I would fight mightily against the idea that morality is whatever the majority says it is. In any society, morality is fragile. There are always people will take any excuse to act as they know they should not.

I agree.

Like the Nazi/Jew question from earlier in the thread, or the accepted practices of other cultures, simply being "allowed" doesn't make anything "right".
(The Nazi thing ironically supports "cultural success = morality", because the Jews forced to flee the Germans, and their descendants, have been some of the most successful people on Earth, and Germany could have directly benefitted - Einstein and the Israelis spring directly to mind, and there have to be 10,000 American Jews that have made extraordinary contributions).

However, as a practical matter, morality IS subject to super-majority opinon, whether it's decided directly, by societal behavior, or indirectly, by which religion people choose to support.

The immoral act of both homosexuals and adulterers is the same: sex outside of marriage.

Which gay marriage will solve, no ?

I'm arguing that morality is a set of commands that we are free to follow or not follow.

Yes, that's EXACTLY where divine command theory breaks down:

WHICH commands should we be choosing to follow, or not ?

The only true statement that you can make about divine command theory is that it applies to those of YOUR religion, and even then, only those of YOUR sect - there is considerable variation between sects within each of the Abrahamic religions, to say nothing of between religions.

When you were in the business of giving commands, did you used to welcome discussion among the ranks as to the purpose of the command and whether it really was the best way of advancing the supposed end?

In the U.S. Army, at least, it's common procedure to explain the purpose of commands, for two reasons:

People have a higher morale, and thus are more effective soldiers, when they know WHY they're doing something, even if they disagree; and, the U.S. Army expects EVERYONE in a given organization, down to the new privates, to pick up the pieces and carry out the assigned mission, regardless of who gets killed, which is also a force multiplier. To do that, everyone needs to know what's going on.
While it's not common, there have been situations in past wars where all of the officers and NCOs were killed or incapacitated, and the lower enlisted soldiers were able to achieve the objective anyhow.
Americans are a bear to fight, because we don't give up when the unit is decapitated. See any of the classic zombie movies to get the viewpoint of those unlucky enough to be going up against the U.S.A.

Also, Mormons are encouraged by the Church leadership to think about what God has told us to do, and why, and see if it makes sense to us.
If not, then we're encouraged to begin a dialogue, to clear up any sticking points.

If morality is objective and fixed, then how can a divine command theorist explain why homosexuality was considered immoral by past American generations, and considered moral by the new American generations ?
As Skipper points out, by 2040, when most of the (sexist, racist, self-centered) Boomers have gone to their eternal reward, homosexuality will be an uncommon but normal behavior in American society.

October 19, 2005 3:51 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

is that a society in which I would want to live?

Perhaps due to a failure of imagination, I can't see why not.


Skipper, do you believe in democracy? Me too. It's one of my most fundamental beliefs. I consider it way more important than me and definitely worth fighting and dying for.

The darn thing, though, is that it is so hard to define and there are so many different views on how it should work exactly. Some countries go for proportional representation, while others go for first-past-the-post. Some have politically active heads of state while others believe strongly in symbolic appointed or inherited ones. Some have bills of rights while others swear by parliamentary supremacy. There are almost as many views and theories about democracy as there are democrats.

So as everyone has different views, does that mean it doesn't exist? Or maybe it's all subjective and just determined by what people say it is. So if a country has a system of government that it says is democratic, that's how they define it and who is anyone else to say otherwise? Like, for example, the German Democratic Republic.

Hmm, that doesn't seem right. Maybe we should look at "what works" as a test, cause we know from experience that democratic societies work better. Look, for example, how well Jamaica works compared to Kuwait.

Uh oh, that's not quite right either. I guess democracy doesn't really exist at all, except as I define it for me. Which I do. I define it as the kind of society Peter Burnet would want to live in.

October 19, 2005 4:04 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

I don't misunderstand it, I reject it. It is trying to eat your cake, and have it, too.


No, I’m pretty sure that you reject it and misunderstand it. Your accusation above shows that.

You think I’m being inconsistent – or ‘having my cake and eating it’ – if I hold both these positions simultaneously:

a) I acknowledge that the moral rule in my society is that gay marriage is immoral
b) I personally think that gay marriage is not immoral, and that the moral rule is therefore 'wrong'.

So, your challenge will be: but if moral rules only come from societal agreement, how can your personal claim that a societally-agreed rule is wrong or immoral have any meaning, since you’ve got nothing else to ‘judge’ a rule against?

But you would only make this challenge if, yet again, you confuse my is and my ought.

The first statement (a) is a descriptive observation of what the moral rule in my society is. The second (b) is my personal prescriptive opinion of how gay marriage ought to be treated - of what I think the moral rule should be.

I claim that moral rules in society come from societal agreement. That is a purely descriptive claim – an is, not an ought. I do not claim that therefore whatever is the moral rule in society is the only thing I can personally assent to; or the only thing I can judge against.

A category 2 moral rule is a category 2 moral rule is a category 2 moral rule. It is not a ‘temporary category 1 rule’ – a temporary ‘given truth’ which I must accept as the only source of my moral opinion, as you seem to think I think it is.

I’ve already claimed that moral rules happen when enough moral opinions coincide. You’re always thinking in terms of ‘top-down morality’ – that we can only make intelligible prescriptive moral statements by referring to some higher moral ‘plane’.

Because of this, you think I just replace ‘God's command’ with ‘societal agreement’. If that were the case, you would have a point. But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of my position. I think moral rules work ‘bottom-up’ – the combined mass of moral opinions form the basis of the moral rules that we have.

So on what do I base my prescriptive claim that gay marriage ought to be morally acceptable? I base it on my moral opinion. Where do my moral opinions come from? As I’ve said above, moral opinions can come from a whole variety of sources (biology, upbringing, where I live, natural preferences and aesthetics, religious beliefs, what my Daddy told me, previous moral rules etc).

In this instance (gay marriage) my personal opinion comes from my applying a certain liberal ‘live and let live’-type principle to a certain set of people. On all issues, there is a dissenting minority. In this instance, I’m in it.

If you were correct, and if by distinguishing my moral opinions (ought) from my obervations of moral rules (is), I was being logically inconsistent, then ‘having my cake and eating it’ would be the least of my worries. I would be unable to account for moral debate, for differing opinions, for changes in moral rules etc.

But luckily, I don’t have any of these worries, because I clearly know my descriptions from my prescriptions, and I can consistently justify my prescriptions without reference to the descriptions.

It’s amazing how often both the is-ought confusion and the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ are to blame for misunderstandings of other people’s positions. It's got to be a good topic for a new post.

October 20, 2005 3:38 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

When last seen, Brit was being unceremoniously led away to an eternally fiery place screaming: "It's not my fault. I just confused my is' with my oughts!"

October 20, 2005 4:05 AM  
Blogger David said...

Brit: You fundamentally misunderstand my position. I think that you have replaced G-d with yourself. Thus, to bring this full circle, there is no Euthryphro Dilemma. If it weren't for G-d's command, everything that is desired would be allowed.

October 20, 2005 7:58 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

No, because my moral opinion is not a moral rule, so not everything is allowed.

I know that's true because we do have moral rules, and we do have moral opinions, and they aren't always the same.

I can think Ken Clarke ought to be the next Tory leader. I can even vote for Ken Clarke as next Tory leader. But neither of these things will make it true that Ken Clarke is the next Tory leader.

I can think "green" ought to be called "yellow". I can even refer to green things as "yellow". But neither of these things will make it true that "green" is "yellow".

I can think it ought to be a moral rule that killing is right. I can even beleive that when I kill someone I'm doing right. But neither of these things will make it a moral rule that killing is right.

October 20, 2005 8:21 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Skipper:

Re: Charity and good works - although spending like a drunken sailor on random consumer goods and services does stimulate the economy, and provide export earnings for some impoverished countries, it is perhaps not the BEST way to direct aid to need.

In thinking about it further, it occurred to me that it's analogous to taxation and transfer payments.

Tax dollars eventually get spend, and so taxation does not permanently remove any of the economic stimulus potential of one's gross income, but it's generally (if narrowly) agreed that the spending decisions of millions of individuals tend to have a more efficient impact than spending by the gov't.

Similarly, simply opening the money spigots and directing a fire-hose-force blast of consumer demand at undeveloped peoples and nations will help, but more targeted spending would be more likely to help all (more) equally.

Take China, for example.
They liberalized their rules regarding economic transactions, which has led to a gold-rush boom, but almost exclusively for the coastal regions.

If they'd had the foresight to build some facilities much further inland, transportation costs would be higher, but they wouldn't have tens of millions of transient and technically illegal workers moving from the hinterland to the coast, trying to make a few bucks.

I don't suggest that gov'ts should pick industrial or technological winners and losers, just that some consequences are foreseeable, and thus avoidable, and that simply letting loose a tsunami of American dollars in any given backwards nation will ultimately do more good than harm, but that it will do harm.

October 20, 2005 10:57 AM  
Blogger David said...

Brit: So where does the moral rule come from.

October 20, 2005 1:38 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

David:

From a supermajority of moral opinions.

If two out of three people find nothing objectionable about a certain behavior, then the culture will allow or tolerate the behavior.

For instance, in the U.S., declaring bankruptcy used to be intensely shameful.

Now, it's merely regrettable, and sometimes not even that.

October 20, 2005 2:17 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Oroborous;

For instance, in the U.S., declaring bankruptcy used to be intensely shameful.

Now, it's merely regrettable, and sometimes not even that.


No, that is wrong. It has little to do with morality. There are lots of things that cause us shame that have nothing to do with moral laws, which by definition must be within our exclusive control--they are about choices we make, not misfortunes that befall us. I might feel intense shame if my daughter becomes pregnant, my son is charged with armed robbery, my wife leaves me or my recycling box doesn't match the neighbour's, but those don't relate to my adherence to moral codes. In fact, a proper understanding of morality can be quite liberating when faced with such problems.

My late grandfather, a factory worker, was out of work during the Depression, but went to extraordinary lengths (undoubtedly more than I would have) to stay off welfare. Do you think that must have meant he thought charity was immoral?

October 20, 2005 4:38 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Peter:

No, most likely he felt that accepting charity was an admission of personal failure - like declaring bankruptcy was, during his day.

The point wasn't so much that bankruptcy used to be immoral, just an example of how opinions change, and THAT pertains because the core assertion that I'm making is that cultural moral codes (ultimately) follow opinion.

Let's go back to fags.

Your grandfather's generation would have reacted strongly and in some parts of the U.S., violently, to the proposal that we should allow gays to marry - yet their great-grandkids won't give it a second thought.

How did the immoral become moral ?

Or, pace David, was homosexuality ALWAYS moral ?

As it happens, I know God's opinion on the subject, so I'm curious about what a divine command moralist would say.

October 20, 2005 11:50 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

Societal agreement.

Moral rules happen when enough moral opinions coincide.

Therefore, sometimes there is obviously a moral rule (random killing, rape, theft), sometimes it is not at all obvious(euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage).

October 21, 2005 1:01 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

Regarding this passage you didn't understand: As for conceding that certain behaviors are immoral ..."

Well, I'm not entirely sure I do, either.

So I will reiterate, with the odd correction. I have already conceded certain behaviors are immoral, simply because the moral Rule says they are. Until relatively recently, miscegenation was immoral, to the point where it was prohibited in some states' constitutions. Now it isn't.

Until even more recently, homosexuality was immoral. I don't have any cites, but I will bet that any reasonably well constructed poll would find few any more consider homosexuality immoral, despite the as yet operative Divine Command otherwise.

Brit very effectively argues, and I clearly agree, that Divine Command is self contradictory, ephemeral, and widely variable. The only thing Divine Command does consistently is to reinforce whatever ad hoc set of moral codes a particular society holds.

If that is as far as this discussion needs to go, then one could claim that is at least a societally useful fiction. However, claiming Divine Command carries with it consequences that have been horrific, and could yet be catastrophic.

Divine Command based morality is immoral.

As far as your parallel between God and command goes, once I made a decision and issued a command, no, I wasn't much interested in further discussion covering the same ground leading to the decision in the first place. But I, and all the effective commanders I emulated, assiduously consulted my subordinates as to what, and why, they thought the best decision was.

Then, in issuing the order, I made darn sure I could justify it materially, with the hope that, even in the event of an unpleasant decision, everyone in the command, if they had found themselves in my position, would have done the same.

Why? Because everyone in my command, at least theoretically, could find themselves a commander one day ...

October 21, 2005 1:08 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Your analogy with democracy highlights the problem with Divine Command.

The very definition of "objective" morality -- in order for the term to have anything like the meaning its proponents require -- is very restrictive. Ironically, this is one particular religious claim that is subject to material analysis, and it fares miserably as a consequence. The objective basis doesn't exist, and the the Euthyphro Dilemma means the claim runs head on into itself.

In contrast, the meaning of the term "democracy" includes any arrangement whereby government is subject to periodic renewal decisions by the governed.

Both are material terms which allow specifying whether instances of moral codes, or government, can be members of their respective sets.

Regardless of how one believes moral codes come to be, there is a universe of all moral codes. Do any of them meet the definition for Divine Command objective morality subset?

Similarly for the universe of governments. Is it possible to discern which belong to the subset of democratic government?

The answer to both is yes. However, if its definition has any meaning, the objective morality subset is empty.

These considerations are independent of how well any particular instance works, or even how successful it is.

Oh, and my guess is that a democratic government is the one you and I want to live in because it works better than all the known alternatives.

October 21, 2005 1:29 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Oroborous:

You wrote: Also, adultery is frequently accompanied by betrayal, which is another wrong, under any set of moral rules, regardless of how derived.

That is an excellent example of how, with respect to sex, context makes all the difference.

October 21, 2005 1:37 PM  
Blogger David said...

So, are you guys all agreed that morality is what society says it is?

Also, if you read back down from my last comment, isn't it obvious that your arguments depend upon your conclusion: That you are assuming that morality is what society says it is in order to prove that morality is what society says it is.

October 24, 2005 4:51 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

The word 'morality' is not specific enough. Do you mean moral opinions ("I think random killing is morally acceptable") or do you mean moral rules ("random killing is morally unacceptable")?

Moral rules are what societies say they are.

That's more an observation than a deduction. The argument is that therefore moral rules don't come from divine command.

Moral opinions are up to the individual.

October 24, 2005 5:58 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

Ummm, no. I don't think so.

Beyond what Brit has already said, invoking Divine Command as the basis for morality carries with it a requirement otherwise absent from religious belief: material substantiation. That is, in order for Divine Command as a basis for objective morality to have any meaning, there must be at least one moral code whose source is both Divine, and independent of human opinion.

It doesn't take much research to track down the supposed sources of objective morality. But it is much harder to find any sources that question the entering argument. That is, any discussion about the source of objective morality takes as true the very existence of objective morality.

My argument, therefore, isn't the basis for objective morality, or that reason can replace the Divine, but that objective morality does not exist.

Moral Rules clearly exist, but nearly all of them are clearly amenable to a society's collective reaction to exigent circumstances. As to the remaining few universal, or nearly so, prohibitions (incest, in-group murder, and deceit), they are the minimum requirement to exist as social animals. One need not invoke Divine Command to come to that conclusion.

In this sense, then, my argument is less about what morality is, then what it isn't. And the reason I care enough to so seriously deplete the world's supply of pixels on the subject has everything to do with irony: claiming objective morality exists begs the question as to its basis. Regardless of the basis chosen, whether Divine Command, reason, or self interest, the very claim leads to grotesquely immoral results.

Because of the ineffability of Divine Command, your claims are simultaneously mutually exclusive with anyone else's, and no more justifiable than theirs.

In other words, it is impossible to use Divine Command to morally condemn, say, the 9/11 hijackers, but it is all too possible to use Divine Command to justify their actions.

October 25, 2005 2:40 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Because of the ineffability of Divine Command, your claims are simultaneously mutually exclusive with anyone else's, and no more justifiable than theirs.

In other words, it is impossible to use Divine Command to morally condemn, say, the 9/11 hijackers, but it is all too possible to use Divine Command to justify their actions.

Exactly so.
Exactly.

And that is the most important point that the divine command supporters in this thread have declined to address, despite at least a half-dozen invitations to do so - not that I blame them, because that's the point over which divine command theory founders.

October 26, 2005 2:51 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Oroborous:

Specifically, that's where the notion that we need a belief in Divine Command (whether it's true or not) to have morality founders.

The validity of the theory itself founders long before we get to that stage.

November 08, 2005 7:56 AM  
Blogger David said...

And that is the most important point that the divine command supporters in this thread have declined to address, despite at least a half-dozen invitations to do so - not that I blame them, because that's the point over which divine command theory founders.

As we've said countless times before, this isn't hard, it's trivially easy. I'm right and they're wrong. My revelation is True; their's isn't even really a revelation. That you don't find it satisfying doesn't make it not an answer; go out and get your own revelation and then you'll understand.

What else can my morality be based upon, other than my own personal conviction that it is True?

November 30, 2005 7:54 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

David: That's the most relativistic thing anybody has said so far.

December 02, 2005 3:50 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

David:

What Brit said.

If Divine Command Theory is correct, then we need to settle on a God.

What you've said is exactly what I said up-thread, which is that people choose their morality through choosing which religion to belong to - they "shop" for a moral set that they can live with.

December 02, 2005 4:03 AM  
Blogger David said...

Brit: No, it's not relative at all.

Oroborous: Why do you think I care what religion anyone else is?

December 03, 2005 8:22 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

David:

I don't know if you care about what religion anyone else is in.

However, if you believe in Divine Command morality, and are postulating that ANY god will do, then you must accept that any of a thousand differing moral sets are valid.

How does that differ one iota from "relative morality" ?

Alternatively, you might just be saying that you are right, and everyone else is wrong.

However, as we've demonstrated conclusively during this thread, moral sets have NOT been the same throughout history, not even if we limit history to the written existence of the Jews, or to Christian history.

Therefore, you are either saying that everyone before you was also wrong, and morality began with your birth, or else that God changes what is to be considered moral - but doesn't tell anyone.

I'm quite willing to believe that God tells you what YOU should consider to be moral, but that affects what is moral in any given society not at all.

December 05, 2005 5:20 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

My collective-agreement theory provides an objective justification for condemning immoral actions.

Your prescription sanctions an individualistic moral free-for-all.

December 07, 2005 1:36 AM  
Blogger David said...

How can morality possibly be anything other than what the individual thinks about the nature of his own acts?

December 09, 2005 2:56 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

That's partially true, which is why morality is relative, and not completely Divinely Commanded.

However, as Brit points out, morality is both an expression of self, AND is imposed by society or culture.

If there is an act which one individual believes is moral, but which is considered immoral by society, then the individual would have to convince enough other people of the morality of the action for it to be accepted as moral, regardless of whether the individual is correct or not.

Your previous "I'm right, everyone else is wrong" stance is the definition of anarchy, and not a good environment for morality - EVEN IF IT WERE TRUE.

Any confident person believes in the rightness of their beliefs, but clearly we aren't ALL right.

December 09, 2005 11:32 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Oh, snap !

Apparently, EVERYONE on this thread believes in relative morality - "Divine Command Theory" turns out to be window dressing.

"...morality is individual..." - Peter Burnet, December 8, 2005 05:40 AM (At the top of the linked comment).

December 11, 2005 12:56 AM  
Blogger David said...

Sure. That's what morality is. It is our intensely personal understanding of right and wrong. It therefore cannot be relative. Only the insane could have a relative intensely personal understanding of right and wrong.

Necessarily, then, what you think is moral in a given situation must be irrelevant to understanding of what is moral in that same situation.

December 11, 2005 10:53 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

David:

That's what morality is. It is our intensely personal understanding of right and wrong.

What if we don't understand why God has said that a thing is "wrong" ?
Does that mean that we're immoral, or that God is mistaken ?

Necessarily, then, what you think is moral in a given situation must be irrelevant to understanding of what is moral in that same situation.

Are there some words missing ?

December 12, 2005 12:50 AM  
Blogger David said...

... to my understanding ...

Sorry.

December 12, 2005 2:50 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

The problem disappears once you acknowledge that 'morality' is an ambiguous term.

There is a difference between what I have called 'moral opinions' (David's intensely personal feeling about his own acts); and 'moral rules', which are the agreements which societies make in order to get along.

Moral opinions are subjective. Moral rules are objective, despite being founded many in subjective opinions.

December 14, 2005 5:55 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

'in many' subjective opinions.

Sorry.

December 14, 2005 5:56 AM  

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