• Thoughts on the Moral Argument II. More on ‘Objective Moral Values Exist’

    Firstly I want to thank everyone for their thoughtful comments on my last post. I was planning on covering the other premise in the Moral Argument, but I think it is best if we continued this discussion for a bit, i.e. about the second premise: Objective moral values exist.

    I think it is best if I restate my purpose. To rebut this premise, all the atheist has to do is show that the proofs for the premise fail. The atheist does not have to provide a sound moral theory of her own, but merely show that there is reasonable doubt as to the truth of the proposition ‘objective moral values exist’.


    Moral Relativism

    The first point I want to address is the idea that morality is relative to a culture or society. We believe that slavery is wrong, but there are cultures throughout history that treated slavery as (at least) morally acceptable. This is generally referred to as relativism. Now, whatever the strengths or weaknesses of relativism, it will suffice to either a) deny that relativism is unacceptable or b) show that subjectivism doesn’t necessarily lead to relativism. I will, for now, choose the latter.

    I provided an example (that Craig sometimes uses) in which the Nazis wipe out all those who disagree with their anti-semitism. Would that make anti-semitism morally acceptable? I say it wouldn’t. Even though it is a subjective opinion, our moral judgement  is unchanged. We may be considering a possible world, but our judgements still come from our minds in the actual world. “Aha”, the objectivist says, “but the judgements of the inhabitants of the Nazi world would all be unanimous, so for them it is moral”. That’s right of course, but the mistake here is to confuse descriptive claims with normative claims. It is the case that, the inhabitants of the Nazi world believe anti-semitism to be moral (i.e. a descriptive claim). That does not mean we are not entitled to make the normative claim that anti-semitism is wrong.

    My subjective opinion is that anti-semitism is wrong regardless of the cultural context in which it is part of. So I see no reason to suppose that subjectivism about morals necessarily leads to relativism. Perhaps it does, but we need further reasons if we are to be convinced of it.


    Defining ‘Good’ in Natural Terms

    The second point to address is the idea that we can define ‘good’ or ‘moral’ or whatever in terms of some natural properties such as ‘well-being’ or ’causes harm’. Why is this significant? Well, if ‘good’ means ‘increases our well-being’, then since ‘x increases our well-being’ is an objective claim, morals are objective. I don’t agree that we can do this, at least not on a fundamental level. I think that we can make ethical judgements based on (say) the amount of harm something causes, but those judgements will be underpinned by meta-ethical judgements, and it is these judgements that I think are subjective.

    ‘Causes harm’ and ‘increases well-being’ are (again) descriptive predicates. That tells us what something does, and what the facts of the matter are. But can we get directly from descriptive (‘is’) statements to normative (‘ought’) statements? I don’t see any way in which we can. They seem to me to be entirely distinct modes of speaking. I can say whether shooting the burglar causes him harm, but I don’t think I can get from that to ‘and so it is wrong’, without some subjective judgement about the ‘wrongness’ of harm.

    Let’s put this another way. G.E. Moore argued that defining ‘good’ in terms of natural properties cannot be done. His ‘Open Question’ objection goes something like this:

    Take the proposition “‘morally good’ means to increase well-being”. Now compare it to “‘bachelor’ means unmarried”. Both of these propositions are analytic (if the objectivist is right), i.e. their falsehood would involve a contradiction. Now consider “is well-being good?” and “is that bachelor unmarried?”. The latter is clearly silly – by simply knowing the meaning of the terms there is no point even asking. However the former seems like a substantial, meaningful question. It might have an easy answer, but, intuitively, it is possible to answer ‘no’ without contradiction. This shows that the proposition”‘morally good’ is to increase well-being” is not really analytic, and therefore ‘morally good’ cannot be defined in terms of natural, descriptive properties like well-being or harm.


    Right, that’s all for now. I’ll try to keep each post short-ish so the discussion doesn’t get too broad. Please let me know where you agree or disagree and why. Remember, we’re just discussing whether or not morality is objective. It doesn’t matter (yet) if theism follows from it. I’ll consider that premise in due course!

    Category: AtheismPhilosophyReligion

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.