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metaethics

This tag is associated with 7 posts

Book Review: “Renewing Moral Theology” by Daniel Westberg

rmt-westbergHow might we integrate the study of ethics and theology? In Renewing Moral Theology, Daniel Westberg takes this project head-on. He approaches it from the perspective of Thomism, the philosophical-theological framework of Saint Thomas Aquinas which is itself influenced by Aristotle. The book therefore provides a strong introduction to the Thomistic view of moral theology.

The book is not, like many, a handbook for discussing various moral issues. Some hot-button topics are raised, but they are not the focus. Westberg’s focus is, instead, much broader. He provides here a metaphysical basis for ethical reasoning, while addressing some of the main questions that come up regarding that framework. Thus, this is a book that encourages further reasoning and research rather than trying to answer some laundry list of moral questions (such as questions of sexuality, abortion, capital punishment, and the like). The focus is on giving an overarching metaphysical basis for using one’s reasoning in ethical situations, not handing the answers to such questions to the readers. This alone makes it valuable because many books on ethical reasoning unfortunately do not address the pressing metaphysical or metaethical questions that come up in thinking about morality.

Thomism has much to offer when it comes to moral theology. The system gives a framework for analyzing things like “being,” “right and wrong,” motivations, emotions, and more.

Westberg provides valuable insights into a number of key issues for ethics from a Christian perspective. Incorporating the holistic approach of Thomism into ethics, he notes that emotions do play a vital role in our practical reasoning and the way we approach moral questions. Emotions are often ignored or treated as frivolous in treatments of objective morality, and to have them incorporated into the study was a much-needed corrective.

He also gives excellent illustrations of and counters objections to the “double-effect” principle, which is the notion that moral actions can have two outcomes, one intended and one not, which allows for right action to be taken even if a wrong outcome will occur or is known to occur. Thus, for example, he treats the notion of a surgery which would kill an unborn child but save the mother. The intent of the surgery is to save the mother, not kill the child, but both are “effects” (hence double-effect) of the procedure. There are some key objections to using this principle to allow for certain moral actions, such as the apparent parsing down of moral choices into separate spheres of decision and intent, but Westberg counters them deftly. In doing so, he provides a strong defense of this critical ethical principle.

Examples are abundant throughout the book, and they constantly are used in ways that helpfully illustrate the point at hand. Some of the more obscure-seeming aspects of how an Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics might impact ethics are made much more clear by Westberg’s clarifying examples.

This is inherently a work of moral theology and so Westberg spends a good amount of time outlining how theology might impact one’s moral outlook. Aquinas had much to contribute here, and again the Thomistic system is incorporated into the discussion, allowing for a robust metaphysics to back up the ethical reasoning placed herein.

Renewing Moral Theology is a great read for those who want to explore the interconnectedness of theology and morality. It provides a firm foundation to explore further issues of Thomistic ethics. For those who are not inclined towards Thomism, it can serve as a springboard for discussion and interaction with the view. It comes recommended.

The Good

+Strong Thomistic look at ethics
+Good use of examples to illustrate principles
+Excellent analysis of “double-effect” principle
+Rightly emphasizes some key areas of moral decision-making

The Bad

-At times it skips too quickly to conclusions

Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of the book from the publisher. I was not asked to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

Source

Daniel Westberg, Renewing Moral Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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Book Review: “In Search of Moral Knowledge” by R. Scott Smith

ismk-smith

R. Scott Smith’s In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy is a systematic look at the possibility of moral knowledge in various metaethical systems, with an argument that a theistic, and specifically Christian, worldview is the most plausible way to ground the reality of morals.

Smith begins by providing overviews of various historical perspectives on ethics, including biblical, ancient (Plato and Aristotle), early (Augustine through Aquinas), and early modern (Reformation through the Enlightenment) systems. This survey is necessarily brief, but Smith provides enough information and background for readers to get an understanding of various ethical systems along with some difficulties related to each.

Next, the major options of naturalism, relativism, and postmodernism for ethics are examined in turn, with much critical interaction. For example, Smith argues that ethical relativism is deeply flawed in both method and content. He argues that relativism does not provide an adequate basis for moral knowledge, and it also undermines its own argument for ethical diversity and, by extension, relativism. Moreover, it fails to provide any way forward for how one is to live on such an ethical system and is thus confronted with the reality that it is unlivable. Ultimately, he concludes that “Ethical Relativism utterly fails as a moral theory and as a guide to one’s own moral life” (163).

For Naturalism, however, Smith contends the situation is even worse: “we cannot have knowledge of reality, period, based on naturalism’s ontology. Yet there are many things we do know. Therefore, naturalism is false and we should reject it not just for ethics, but in toto” (137). His argument for this thesis is, briefly, that naturalism has no basis for mental states–and therefore, for beliefs–and so we cannot have knowledge (see 147ff especially).

Various postmodern theses are also examined, including the highly influential views of Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas. Ultimately, Smith argues that there are several issues with these ethical positions, and primary among them is the difficulty that without any facts which are un-interpreted, there is no way to have moral knowledge, dialogue, or grounding (see 264ff, esp. 265; 277-278).

Finally, the book ends with Smith’s proposal for grounding moral knowledge: namely, Christian theism. First, he notes that there is a “crisis of moral knowledge” which is that it seems we really do have moral knowledge, but no solid basis for this knowledge. However, to solve the difficulty, we may find another ethical stance which can support this fact of moral knowledge. For supporting this thesis, he both presents arguments for Christian theism and notes the paucity of rival positions.

One major strength of Smith’s work is that he doesn’t merely outline or only critique the ethical systems with which he interacts. Instead, each system is allowed to present its theses on its own terms before Smith turns to a critical assessment. This is particularly evident in his interactions with Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas–each of whom has a dedicated chapter to their own systems and then a shared chapter of analysis and critique–but is the case in each instance of a system which he evaluates. This strength is increased when one considers the number of ethical systems Smith interacts with throughout the book. Although no work of this length (or any length, really) could be truly comprehensive, here is offered a broad enough variety of ethical theories that readers will be able to engage with those which are not mentioned.

There are tables scattered throughout the book which actually add quite a bit to the readability and argument. I commend Smith for a great use of these tools throughout the work.

I would have liked to see more development of the positive notion of exactly how Christian theism serves as the basis for moral knowledge. Smith does provide some clear insight into this, but it seems that after the significant development given to so many rival theories, the case for the Christian perspective could have gone deeper.

R. Scott Smith has accomplished an enormous achievement with In Search of Moral Knowledge both by providing an excellent survey and critique of relevant ethical systems and by coupling it with a positive case for a theistic–Christian–grounding for morality. The book can serve as an excellent text for a class on ethics, but may also be used by those interested in exposure to and critical insight into various ethical systems. Smith’s argument for Christian metaethics is compelling and strong, and his criticisms leveled against other systems–particularly naturalism and relativism–are crucial.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy by the publisher. I was not obligated by the publisher to give any specific type of feedback whatsoever.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Source

R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Abortions rates are lower in countries where it is legal- some thoughts on recent pro-choice comments

 Highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates. For example, the abortion rate is high, at 29 and 32 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and Latin America, respectively—regions where abortion is illegal under most circumstances in the majority of countries. In Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds, the abortion rate is 12 per 1,000. ( Sedgh G et al. cited below)

There it is in black and white. Countries in which abortion is illegal have higher rates of abortion in most cases. What does this mean for the pro-life argument? Some have argued that pro-life advocates should work to make abortion legal. For example, Margot Magawan writes, “It’s clear that top Republican candidates are being short-sighted and ineffective, rushing off in precisely the wrong direction if their goal truly is to reduce abortions.” The argument seems to be quite simple. After all, if the goal of the pro-life advocates is to reduce the number of abortions, then if making it legal reduces them, they should argue to legalize abortions.

There are a number of problems with this argument, however, and I’ll briefly list them before examining them in turn.

1. Those making this argument seek to compare countries unilaterally based on a situation with all kinds of factors which cannot possibly be weighed fairly.

2. The argument reduces the goal of the pro-life movement to reducing abortions only; but the movement has a broader range than that. The argument is susceptible to a reductio ad absurdum which shows that the premise on which it is based is absurd.

3. The argument begs the question against the pro-life position by assuming the position itself is false.

3. The argument assumes consequentialism as a metaethical theory without argument.

1. Comparing Countries Unilaterally

It seems strange to me to compare the situations of different countries unilaterally on an issue like this. For example, it seems to have been shown that many things cannot be compared in this way. Installing democracy into random countries does not have a stabilizing effect. Comparing the economic situation of Rwanda with that of the United States seems almost grotesque. I’m not disputing the results of the study cited above; rather, I’m disputing the application of those results to a moral sphere. Think of all the factors which must be weighed: economic status, education, career choices, etc. To then take the raw data and apply it to a moral sentiment is quite a stretch. After all, it doesn’t take into consideration all the factors that those countries in which abortion is legal may have.

I do not want to make this the focus of my rebuttal, however, because I think the next 3 points are much stronger. To those we shall now turn.

2. Is Pro-Life About Reducing Abortions?

Another problem with the argument is that it assumes the pro-life position is dedicated to reducing abortions. That sentence may seem strange on a first reading, but read it this way instead: “the pro-life position is dedicated to reducing abortions only.” That is where one of the major difficulties arises for those making this argument. The pro-life position is not only about reducing abortions. In fact, while reducing the number of abortions is a goal of the pro-life movement, that is not the only goal or even, perhaps, the highest goal.

Suppose that reducing abortions was the only goal of the pro-life candidate. In that case, one way to reduce abortions would be by eliminating all human beings. If, after all, not a single human being were alive, there would be no abortions! This is, of course, patently absurd. Why? Not just because it seems obviously wrong to murder everyone on earth (or to murder anyone) in order to reduce the number of abortions, but also because this is a gross reduction of the pro-life position.

The pro-life position isn’t just about reducing the number of abortions. It is about advocating for life. In other words, those in the movement are making a factual and a moral claim: the entities aborted are human persons and it is wrong to kill them. But those who want to make the argument that pro-life advocates should legalize abortions in order to reduce them are, on a pro-life view, essentially arguing something similar to this:

Suppose that making murder legal reduced the number of murders. If you are against murder, you should then legalize murder.

The absurdity of this argument becomes clear because no one but a psychopath wants to legalize murder. But then it becomes clear that those pro-choice people making this argument have begged the question against the pro-life person. Let’s turn to that.

3. The Argument Begs the Question

If the pro-life position is correct, then it makes a mockery of this argument. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the advocate of the pro-life position is right: the unborn are not merely embryos (and other stages of development) but are rather human persons who deserve the same rights as people outside of wombs. Now, granting these assumptions, suppose one finds that legalizing abortions reduces them. To then argue that “we should legalize abortions to reduce their number” is exactly equivalent to arguing that we should legalize murder to reduce the number of murders. Note here that I’m not saying legalizing murder does reduce the number of murders; I’m arguing that if the pro-life position is correct, these arguments are exactly analogous. One who argues we should legalize abortions would be the same as one who argues we should legalize murders, if the pro-life position is correct.

Thus, it becomes clear that those who make an argument like that of Margot Magawan have begged the question against the pro-life position. They simply assume that it is morally permissible to have an abortion, and combine that with the false position that the pro-life position is only about reducing abortions. Thus, the argument fails because it begs the question. Without argument, the pro-choice advocate has caricatured its opposition and argued against this false image.

4. It assumes consequentialism.

The last rebuttal is more technical, but I want to keep it brief. Consequentialism is, basically, the position that it is not the status of actions themselves which are judged as moral but rather the consequences. If one takes an action which has morally good consequences, that action is deemed good.

Now consider once more the argument, “If your goal is to reduce abortions, you should legalize them [because if abortion is legal, the number is reduced].”

This argument doesn’t take into consideration the moral status of an abortion [again, see above: they’ve already begged the question]. Rather, it assumes that because the consequences (fewer abortions) are considered by pro-life advocates as morally good, they should take the action (legalizing abortions) which open the door for these consequences.

Without too much strain, it becomes clear that most pro-life advocates do not hold to consequentialism as a metaethical theory. There are many alternative metaethical theories which are preferable for any number of reasons. If a pro-life advocate holds to a deontological theory of ethics, for example, he will argue that the wrongness of abortion is outweighed by the benefits of reducing the number. Such examples could be multiplied almost beyond comprehension. Thus, the pro-choice advocate has assumed, again without argument, a controversial position and then utilized that position to argue against pro-life advocates. Therefore, the argument fails.

Conclusion

The argument which has been considered here is that “if the goal of the pro-life advocates is to reduce the number of abortions, then if making it legal reduces them, they should argue to legalize abortions.” I have rebutted this argument in four ways. First, it seems to trivialize the enormous amount of factors which must go into consideration of comparing abortion rates across countries. Second, it reduces the pro-life position almost beyond recognition and is susceptible to a reductio ad absurdem. Third, it begs the question. Fourth, it utilizes a controversial metaethical theory to justify its premise. For these four reasons, I conclude that the argument is unsound.

Source

Sedgh G et al., “Induced abortion: incidence and trends worldwide from 1995 to 2008,” Lancet, 2012. (accessible: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2811%2961786-8/fulltext); summary: http://www.guttmacher.org/media/presskits/abortion-WW/statsandfacts.html.

Image Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prolife-DC.jpg

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Ontology of Morality: Some Problems for Humanists and their friends

 Louise Anthony did indeed present the case for secular metaethics. The problem is that this case is utterly vacuous. 

It will be my purpose in the following arguments to show that secular humanistic theories which try to ground moral ontology fail–and fail miserably.

Recently, I listened [again] to the debate between William Lane Craig and Louise Anthony. Some have lauded this debate as a stirring victory for secular ethics. (See, for example, the comments here–one comment even goes so far as to say “I swoon when someone evokes the Euthyphro Dilemma and frown at the impotent, goal-post-moving, ‘Divine nature’ appeal.”) In reality, I think Louise Anthony did indeed present the case for secular metaethics. The problem is that this case is utterly vacuous. 

I’ll break down why this is the case by focusing upon three areas of development in secular and theistic ethics: objective moral truths, suffering, and moral facts.

Objective Moral Truths

Louise Anthony and William Lane Craig agree that there are objective moral truths. Now, this is important because many theists take the existence of objective morality to demonstrate–or at least strongly suggest–the existence of God. Interestingly, other humanist/secular scholars have agreed with Anthony, claiming there are objective truths (another example is Sam Harris–see my analysis of his position contrasted with theism here). The question, of course, is “How?” Consider the following:

Louise Anthony seems to be just confused about the nature of objective morality. She says in response to a question from the audience, “The universe has no purpose, but I do… I have lots of purposes…. It makes a lot of difference to a lot of people and to me what I do. That gives my life significance… The only thing that would make it [sacrificing her own life] insignificant would be if my children’s lives were insignificant. And, boy you better not say that!”

Craig responded, “But Louise, on atheism, their lives are insignificant.” Anthony interjected, “Not to me!”

But then she goes on to make this confused statement, “It’s an objective fact that they [her children] are significant to me.”

Note how Anthony has confused the terms here. Yes, it is an objective fact that according to Louise Anthony, her children matter to her. We can’t question Anthony’s own beliefs–we must trust what she tells us unless we have reason to think otherwise. But that’s not enough. What Craig and other theists are trying to press is that that simple fact has nothing to do with whether her children are actually valuable. Sure, people may go around complaining that “Well, it matters to me, so it does matter!” But that doesn’t make it true. All kinds of things can matter to people, that doesn’t mean that they are ontologically objective facts.

It matters to me whether the Cubs [an American baseball team] win the World Series. That hasn’t happened in 104 years, so it looks like it doesn’t matter in the overall scheme of the universe after all. But suppose I were to, like Anthony, retort, “But the Cubs matter to me! It’s an objective fact that them winning the World Series is significant to me!” Fine! But all the Cardinals [a rival team] fans would just laugh at me and say “SO WHAT!?

Similarly, one can look at Anthony with incredulity and retort, “Who cares!?” Sure, if you can get enough people around Anthony who care about her children’s moral significance, you can develop a socially derived morality. But that’s not enough to ground objective morality. Why should we think that her values matter to the universe at large? On atheism, what reason is there for saying that her desires and purposes for her children are any better than my desires and purposes for the Cubs?

Another devastating objection can be found with a simple thought experiment. Let’s say Anthony didn’t exist. In such a world, there can be no one complaining that her children matter “to me!” Instead, her children just exist as brute facts. How then can we ground their significance? Well, it seems the answer for people like Anthony would be to point to the children’s other family say “Those children matter to them!” We could continue this process almost endlessly. As we eliminate the children’s family, friends, etc. and literally make them just exist on their own, we find Anthony’s answer about allegedly objective morality supervenes on fewer and fewer alleged moral facts. Suddenly “Those children matter to themselves!” is the answer. But then what if we eliminate them? Do humans still have value? The whole time, Anthony has grounded the significance of her children and other humans in the beliefs, goals, and purposes of humans. But without humans, suddenly there is no significance. That’s what is meant by objective morality. If those children matter even without humans, then objective morality is the case. But Anthony has done nothing to make this the case; she’s merely complained that her children matter to her.

Now, some atheists–Anthony and Sam Harris included–seem to think they have answers to these questions. They seem to think that they can ground objective morality. We’ll turn to those next.

Suffering

One of the linchpins of humanists’ claims (like Anthony and Sam Harris) is suffering. The claim is that we can know what causes suffering, and that this, in turn, can lead us to discover what is wrong. We should not cause suffering.

But why not?

Most often the response I’ve received to this question is simply that because we do not wish to suffer, we should not wish to have others suffer or cause suffering for others. But why should that be the case? Why should I care about others’ suffering, on atheism? That’s exactly the question humanism must answer in order to show that objective morality can exist in conjunction with secularism. But I have yet to see a satisfactory answer to this question.

Anthony was presented with a similar question in the Q&A segment of her debate with William Lane Craig. One person asked (paraphrased), “Why shouldn’t I base morality as ‘whatever benefits me the most’?” Anthony responded simply by simply arguing essentially that it’s not right to seek pleasure at the expense of others, because they may also want pleasure.

But of course this is exactly the point! Why in the world should we think that that isn’t right!?

The bottom line is that, other than simply asserting as a brute fact that certain things are right and wrong, atheism provides absolutely no answer to the question of moral objectivity. People like Anthony  try to smuggle it in by saying it’s objectively wrong to cause suffering [usually with some extra clauses], but then when asked why that is wrong, they either throw it back in the face of the one asking the question (i.e. “Well don’t you think it’s wrong?”) or just assert it as though it is obviously true.

And it is obviously true! But what is not so obvious is why it is obviously true, given atheism. We could have simply evolved herd morality which leads us to think it is obviously true, or perhaps we’re culturally conditioned by our close proximity to theists to think it is obviously true, etc. But there still is no reason that tells us why it is, in fact, true.

Moral Facts

Anthony (and Harris, and others with whom I’ve had personal interactions) centralize “moral facts” in their metaethical account. As a side note, what is meant by “moral fact” is a bit confusing but I don’t wish to argue against their position through semantics alone. They claim that we can figure out objective morals on the basis of moral facts. Sam Harris, for example, argues that there is a “continuum of such [moral] facts” and that “we know” we can “move along this continuum” and “We know, we know that there are right and wrong answers about how to move in this space [along the moral continuum]” (see video here).

Now it is all well and good to just talk about “facts” and make it sound all wonderful and carefully packaged, but Anthony and Harris specifically trip up when they get asked questions like, “How do we figure out what moral facts are?”

Anthony was asked “How do you determine what the objective moral facts are”, and responded by saying, “We do it by, um, testing our reactions to certain kinds of possibilities, um, thinking about the principles that those reactions might entail; testing those principles against new cases. Pretty much the way we find out about anything” (approximately 2 hours into the recorded debate).

One must just sit aghast when one hears a response like that. Really? That is the way we discover moral truths? And that is the way we “find out about anything”? Now I guess I can’t speak for Anthony herself, but when I’m trying to find out about something, I don’t test my reaction to possibilities and then try to figure out what my reaction “might entail.” That is radical subjectivism. Such a view is utterly devastating for not just morality but also science, history, and the like. If I were to try to conduct scientific inquiry in this manner, science would be some kind of hodgepodge of my “reactions” to various phenomenon. Unwittingly, perhaps, Anthony has grounded the ontology of her morality in the reactions of people. But this error isn’t restricted to Anthony. Harris also makes this confounding mistake. His basic argument in the talk linked above is simply, “Science can tell us what people think about things, so it can tell us about morality.” This is, of course patently absurd. Suppose I tried to test these humanists’ theories on groups of people by sticking them in a room and having them watch all kinds of things from murder to the rape of children to images of laughter and joy. Now suppose I randomly sifted my sample among the population of the world, but somehow, by pure chance, got a room full of child molesters. As I observe their reactions, I see they are quite joyful when they observe certain detestable images. Now, going by Anthony/Harris’ way to “find out about anything” and thinking about what these people’s reaction entails, I conclude that pedophilia is a great good. But then I get a room full of parents with young children, who react in horror at these same images. Then, as I reflect on their reactions, I discover that pedophilia is a great evil. And I repeat this process over and over. Eventually, I discover that the one group was an aberration, but it was a group nonetheless.

What does this mean?

Quite simply, it means that both Harris and Anthony haven’t made any groundbreaking theory of ethics. Rather, they’ve just made a pseudo-humanistic utilitarianism. They ground moral ontology in our “reactions” to various moral situations. The only way for them to say something is morally wrong if people have different reactions is either to go with the majority (utilitarianism) or choose one side or the other, which essentially turns into a kind of Euthyphro dilemma against atheists. Either things are wrong because enough people think they’re wrong (in which case morality is arbitrary) or things are wrong because they simply are wrong, period (in which case the humanist has yet to provide an answer for moral ontology).

Conclusion

Given the discussion herein, one can see that those atheists, humanists, and/or secularists who desire to ground objective morality still have a lot of work to do. Louise Anthony’s best attempt to ground morality boils down into radical subjectivism. Sam Harris’ account fares no better. Those who are trying to ground objective morality within an atheistic universe will just have to keep searching. The solutions Anthony and Harris have attempted to offer are vacuous.

Image Source:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SecularHumanismLogo3DGoldCropped.png

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Moral Argument: Mistakes to Avoid and Practical Advice

The moral argument has experienced a resurgence of discussion and popularity of late. Some of this may be due to the increased popularity of apologetics. Philosophical discussions about metaethics also seem to have contributed to the discussions about the moral argument. Regardless, the argument, in its many and varied forms, has regained some of the spotlight in the arena of argumentation between theism and atheism. [See Glenn Peoples’ post on the topic for more historical background.]

That said, it is an unfortunate truth that many misunderstandings of the argument are perpetuated. Before turning to these, however, I’ll lay out a basic version of the argument:

P1: If there are objective moral values, then God exists.

P2: There are objective moral values.

Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.

It is not my purpose here to offer a comprehensive defense of the argument. Instead, I seek to lay out some objections to it along with some responses. I also hope to caution my fellow theists against making certain errors as they put the argument forward.

Objections

Objection 1: Objective moral values can’t exist, because there are possible worlds in which there are no agents.

The objection has been raised by comments on my site (see the comment from “SERIOUSLY?” here), but I’ve also heard it in person. Basically, the objection goes: Imagine a world in which all that existed was a rock. There would clearly be no morality in such a universe, which means that P2 must be false. Why? Because in order for there to be objective moral values, those values must be true in all possible worlds. But the world we just imagined has no morality, therefore there are no objective moral values!

The objection as outlined in italics above is just a more nuanced form of this type of argument. What is wrong with it? At the most basic level, the theist could object to the thought experiment. According to classical theism, God is a necessary being, so in every possible world, God exists. Thus, for any possible world, God exists. Thus, to say “imagine a world in which just a rock exists” begs the question against theism from the start.

But there is a more fundamental problem with this objection. Namely, the one making this objection has confused the existence of objective morals with their obtaining in a universe. In other words, it may be true that moral truths are never “activated” or never used as a judgment in a world in which only a rock exists, but that doesn’t mean such truths do not exist in that universe.

To see how this is true, consider a parallel situation. The statement “2+2=4” is a paradigm statement for a necessary truth. Whether in this world or in any other world, it will be the case that when we add two and two, we get four. Now consider again a world in which all that exists is a rock. In fact, take it back a step further and say that all that exists is the most basic particle possible–it is indivisible and as simple as physically possible. In this universe, just one thing exists. The truth, “2+2=4” therefore never will obtain in such a world. But does that mean “2+2=4” is false or doesn’t exist in this world? Absolutely not. The truth is a necessary truth, and so regardless of whether there are enough objects in existence to allow it to obtain does not effect its truth value.

Similarly, if objective moral values exist, then it does not matter whether or not they obtain. They are true in every possible world, regardless of whether or not there are agents.

Objection 2: Euthyphro Dilemma- If things are good because God commands them, ‘morality’ is arbitrary. If God commands things because they are good, the standard of good is outside of God. This undermines the moral argument because it calls into question P1.

Here my response to the objection would be more like a deflection. This objection only serves as an attack on divine command theory mixed with a view of God which is not like that of classical theism. Thus, there are two immediate responses the theist can offer.

First, the theist can ascribe to a metaethical theory other than divine command ethics. For example, one might adhere to a modified virtue theory or perhaps something like divine motivation theory. Further, one could integrate divine command ethics into a different metaethic in order to preserve the driving force of divine commands in theistic metaethics while removing the difficulties of basing one’s whole system upon commands. In this way, one could simply defeat the dilemma head-on, by showing there is a third option the theist can consistently embrace.

Second, one could point out that the dilemma doesn’t actually challenge P1 at all. All it challenges is the grounds for objective morals. Certainly, if the theist embraced the horn of the dilemma in which that which is “good” is grounded outside of God, there would be a problem, but very few theists do this (and for them it seems unlikely the moral argument would be convincing). If the theist embraces the other horn–that what God commands is good/arbitrary–then that would not defeat objective morals anyway, because one could hold that even were God’s decisions arbitrary, they were still binding in all possible worlds. While this would be a bit unorthodox, it would undermine the concern that the Euthyphro dilemma serves to defeat P1. Combined with the first point, it seems this dilemma offers little to concern the theist.

All morality is relative

I prefer Greg Koukl’s tongue-in-cheek response to this type of argument: steal their stereo! If someone really argues that there is no such thing as right and wrong, test them on it! Don’t literally steal their things, but do point out inconsistencies. Everyone thinks there are things that are wrong in the world and should be prevented. If someone continues to press that these are merely illusory ideas–that things like rape, domestic abuse, murder, slavery, genocide are in fact amoral (without any moral status)–then one may simply point out the next time they complain about a moral situation. Such is the thrust of Koukl’s remark–everyone will object if you steal their stereo. Why? Because it is wrong, and we know it.

Advice to other Christians

The moral argument brings up some extremely complex metaethical discourse. While it is, in my opinion, one of the best tools in the apologist’s kit for talking to the average nonbeliever/believer to share reasons to believe, one should familiarize oneself with the complexities facing a fuller defense of the argument so they do not come up empty on a question or objection someone might raise. As always, do not be afraid to acknowledge a great question. For example, one might reply to something one hasn’t researched enough to feel comfortable answering by saying: “Great question! That’s one I haven’t thought about. Could I get back to you in a few days?”

As with any philosophical topic, the more one researches, the more questions will arise, the more interesting branches in the path one will approach, and the more one realizes that philosophy is an astoundingly complex topic. For those theists who wish to use the moral argument, I suggest doing so with a courteous, humble manner. The argument is an attempt to answer some of the hardest questions facing anyone: does God exist? is God good? what does it mean for something to be good? do objective morals exist?

Thus, theists using this argument should be prepared for some serious study. Be ready to answer some hard questions. Be open to great discussion. Above all, always have a reason.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Divine Motivation Theory” by Linda Zagzebski

Linda Zagzebski is rightfully becoming a well-known figure in philosophy of religion. Her book, Divine Motivation Theory (hereafter DMT) offers a metaethical theory intended to overcome some of the disadvantages of Divine Command Theory and Christian Platonism.

The thrust of Zagzebski’s work is focused around two ideas: 1) exemplarism; 2) motivation. Together, these formulate the foundation for the rest of her discussion. The book is divided into three parts. The first explores “Motivation Theory” from a perspective which could be held even by those who are not theists. The second part explores “Motivation Theory” from within a theistic perspective. The third part deals with ethical pluralism.

One of the most important concepts in DMT is that of an exemplar. An exemplar is exactly what one would expect: a figure who demonstrates a “good life” by living it. Zagzebski writes of exemplars: “The particular judgments to which a moral theory must conform include judgments about the identity of paradigmatically good persons [exemplars]” (41). The thrust of Motivation Theory is a refocusing of metaethics. Rather than examining what is good and then evaluating judgments in light of that (as in Platonism, including theistic Platonism in many ways), and rather than focusing upon virtue (as in virtue theory), motivation theory focuses upon persons who are good. These persons formulate the basis for judging what is good, based upon motivation and emotion (40-50). A good action, motivation, or emotion, argues Zagzebski, is one which an exemplar would perform, have, or entertain.

Initially I admit I was a bit put off by this because it seemed quite arbitrary. Could we not define as exemplars people who are vicious and evil. Could not an exemplarist focus on ethics lead to Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot as exemplars?

Zagzebski counters this within DMT by focusing in part 2 upon the “divine.” Rather than arbitrarily choosing whomever one wishes as the exemplar, Zagzebski endorses God as the primary exemplar. This provides an alternative to Christian Platonism and Divine Command Theory by arguing instead that “God is essential to morality, not because it comes from either his intellect or his will, but because it comes from his motives. God’s motive dispositions, like ours, are components of his virtues, and all moral value derives from God’s motives” (185). The upshot of this is that God, being a perfect being (granting traditional theism), would have perfect motivations. Whatever God does, must be perfectly motivated.

The theistic focus on motivation within DMT provides several advantages. One among them is the fact that it solves many of the “problems” related to perfect goodness. For example, regarding what makes something God does good, DMT offers the solution that “God is good in the same way that the standard meter stick is one meter long. God is the standard of goodness” (185). Regarding the problem of evil, Zagzebski points out that her theory successfully solves the issue if it is metaphysically possible (313). The reason is that DMT’s focus upon motivation can be used analogically with human parents. “If we can understand,” she writes, “how the motivation of love of a human parent for her child might not involve any considerations of good and evil and yet still be a good motive, we must conclude that promoting good and preventing (or eliminating or not permitting) evil is not necessarily part of the motivational structure of a good being… even a perfect being might love in such [a] way that he would be willing to permit any amount of evil, not for the sake of some good, but out of love for persons” (317). These are oversimplifications of what Zagzebski writes on these problems, but I encourage the interested reader to read her work for a fuller explication.

There are so many things to discuss about DMT that remain, but I feel a full explanation would drag this review on unnecessarily. I would like to note a couple other very interesting arguments Zagzebski makes. She argues that there can be truth values with emotions (75ff). She points out that motivation is extremely important in moral judgments–if someone is doing something just to be hailed as a hero, they are much less praiseworthy than if they are doing it merely out of goodness (see 100ff). Elsewhere, Zagzebski and discusses several principles for dealing with pluralism (369ff). There are important points like these throughout the book. DMT challenges readers to rethink aspects of metaethical theory which they have unreflectively ignored. Yet in doing so, Zagzebski articulates a metaethic for theists which seems to have just as much (or more) plausibility as the alternatives.

Divine Motivation Theory deserves a reading by anyone interested in theistic metaethics. Linda Zagzebski offers a theory that has advantages over both Christian Platonism and Divine Command Theory. I highly recommend this work to any philosopher of religion. I cannot emphasize how much I think readers should get their hands on this work.

Source (and link to Amazon):

Linda Zagzebski Divine Motivation Theory (New York, NY: 2004, Cambridge).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Why are Christians politically atheistic?

Of note: Atheist Austin Cline has recently linked to my post with his own. He caricatures my argument as saying “Christians should reject secular government.” In fact, I explicitly deny this in my post, as anyone who reads it could see.

I take issue with 3 parts of Cline’s critique. First, he attacks my view that the government can have authority to restrict unrepentant sin. Yet the authority for that restriction is based upon  my assumption granted for the sake of this post; that the government gets its authority from God (Romans 13:1). Cline, being an atheist, obviously will reject that basis for authority. He did not outline his own position on the authority of government, so I cannot comment upon it, but it begs the question to assume that government should be secular, and then use that to critique a theo-centric government I explicate below. Second, he caricatures my argument as being a theocracy, which I deny explicitly, see below. Finally, he frames his post in a way that is clearly meant to induce panic, by calling it “J.W. Wartick: Christians should reject secular government.” There is nowhere that I have advocated that extreme position. In fact, that is also something I deny explicitly, agreeing with the apostle Paul in Romans, who said “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Romans 13:5-7).

Recently, I was discussing the death of Osama bin Laden and the topic came up about whether he deserved to die, what role it played, and the like. Interestingly, the conversation opened up a discussion I’ve been contemplating. Namely, Why are so many Christians politically atheists?

Consider the death penalty. It was agreed upon that people can deserve the death penalty. Bin Laden, for example, was said to deserve such a penalty, along with serial killers and many murderers. But then the discussion turned to whether the government should deal out such punishment.

The friend offered following principle as normative for Christians:

1) If (some position such as the death penalty) cannot be justified by purely secular means, then it should not be forced onto others.

My immediate and somewhat snarky rejoinder to this argument was/is “Why?”

Why should I be a Christian in every aspect of my life, but when it comes to politics, be secular? Several answers are possible. For example, it could be asserted that “We (Christians) should not force our views onto others.” I think this is a fairly good response. But whence the principle?  Perhaps it comes from the idea of living a Christlike life. But I don’t see anything in the example of Christ which said we had to conform to secularism or take religion out of politics. It would take an interesting argument to say that Christ advocated secularism in the realm of politics.

Or take Paul, for example, who states clearly that the government is God’s servant and doesn’t carry the sword “for nothing” (Romans 13:4). Not only that, but the reason the government carries the sword is in case “you do wrong.”

And what, exactly, is wrong? I think it would have to be obvious that, for a Christian, that which is wrong is defined by that which goes against God’s nature and/or commands. But then it seems as though Paul is charging the government to follow that same standard, not some supposedly neutral standard. I’ve argued elsewhere against the plausibility of atheism as a neutral ground. I think it should be clear that atheism is not neutral in regards to religion; rather, it is against religion.

Therefore, it seems strange to me that secularism is chosen as the grounds for determining politics. Why should I, a theist, choose to be atheistic in my politics? I suppose the accusation could then fly that I advocate a theocracy. But what exactly is a theocracy? It’s a political system in which God rules and the laws are divine commands. I never argued that’s what I would like the United States to turn into. My view is simply that Christians should cast their votes for those positions which are favored by Biblical teaching and against those which are condemned. I don’t see any reason to divorce that which I hold most dear (Christian theism) as something from which I must be divorced when it comes to the ballot box.

Consider the following argument, which is admittedly somewhat consequentialist:

A) A life of unrepentant sin often leads to unbelief. (w=>y)

B) Unbelief is the only sin which condemns people to hell. (If y, then z)

C) Advocating some policy, x, permits or encourages lives of unrepentant sin. (x=>w)

D) Therefore, advocating x by extension opens the way for more unbelief and condemnation to hell. (1-3)

E) Therefore, Christians should not advocate x.

So I’m advocating a theo-centric view of politics, not a theocracy. On this view, one’s theism takes center stage. Sincere belief in everlasting life and death leads Christians to take steps within the law to prohibit behaviors which would lead to lives of unrepentant sin.

How would this cash out? Would we have to be prohibitionists or go around making lying illegal? I think that the answer to this second question is pretty clear. Within Scripture there is no prohibition of drinking alcohol (quite the opposite, in some cases). Rather, drunkenness is prohibited and/or discouraged. With the damage alcoholism has done to our society, I doubt that laws which took measures to prevent drunkenness would be a bad thing. I think the laws which would go into effect based upon the argument above would look mostly like what we have now. Now take the case of lying. While lying is clearly discouraged in the Bible, I don’t see any precedent therein for making it illegal in a broad sense. To be perfectly clear, lying already is illegal in some senses: take perjury, for example, or slander. I think these are derivative of a Christian worldview anyway, and laws against libel, slander, and perjury seem to fulfill the requirements of the above argument.

Reflecting on the ideas about bin Laden, above, it would appear there is another principle as well: that of honoring the image of God in man. Osama bin Laden did not honor that image, and for the blood he spilled, his blood was forfeit. Therefore, in addition to E), I would suggest:

2) The intrinsic value of humans (which only makes sense on theism anyway) is such that we should vote for issues which place honor of this value first.

To nuance it for Christians,

2′) The image of God in humans should be respected, and Christians should vote for issues which respect this image.

Finally, a note on Biblical ethics. It is extremely important for Christians to realize the distinctions between Law and Gospel and practice correct exegesis when it comes to these issues. I favor a Lutheran view with some theonomic tilt, but it is important to note that almost no Biblical scholars believe the Levitical and most of the other laws within the Old Testament are applicable today in any literal sense. But the question for this post is not which laws apply and which do not; rather it is a challenge to my fellow Christians.

So my question remains: Christians, why are you politically atheists?

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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