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Friday, November 14, 2008

Who Needs Objective Morals?

You know, something I always hear from theists is the claim that without god, there could be no objective moral standard. Why be good if Big Brother isn't watching? The question is why not be good anyways?

Today, after returning from my morning lecture, I parked in the pay lot to go up to my lab. The lot has an honor box where each space has a slot with the corresponding parking number. As I went up to pay, I noticed, as I often do, that one of the slots has the corner of two rolled up one dollar bills sticking out. Enough so that if I wanted to, I could have pulled them out, and used them to pay for my space. I immediately recognized, as anyone would, that this is a viable option. However, I was not compelled to do so. Why not? Was I worried that I would break a commandment, even though I might want to save $2? No.

As with all morality, I simply thought to myself as I walked away after paying for my space and pushing the other person's money safely in their slot, what if I had taken the money and that person's car had been towed? What if that was my money that had slid out after I was well into my day? I did what I did because I would hope that someone else would do the same for me. I wouldn't want that person to come out to find their car gone....I've been through that hassle myself. Once we realize that other people share the same experienced, the same pain, the same pleasure we do, morality should be obvious. Be good, for goodness' sake!


  1. Yeah: empathy

    The source of and reason for humanistic morality.

    Note, too, that those who would question you as to where your objective standards come from are unable to demonstrate that their standards live up to this. I have yet to see an "ethic" in the Bible that isn't valued subjectively.

    ie. murder is bad at one moment, but justified at another. The same goes for pride, rape, humility, righteousness, stealing, pillaging, covetting, faith (etc)

  2. whateverman,

    Absolutely right! Thou shalt not murder.....thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. Which is it? Pick up sticks on the sabbath? Death to you! Fucked up! Can't people think for themselves?

  3. clos,
    not if they have never learned how. If the first thing they learn, and the primary thing until adulthood, that obeisance is virtuous to a degree so far above critical thinking that they're not even on the same page, then it will likely continue throughout their life. It's no accident that people raised that way have anxiety attacks even decades after shedding indoctrination.

  4. that should be obeisance and obedience

  5. felix,

    If you are correct, I am terribly frightened. I suppose it is true that most people need policing. I don't feel that I would. Why are atheists so reviled? The atheists I have known have turned out to be the most gentle, intelligent, well manored people I have ever known. We never ask stupid questions of people or lie about what certain texts say. I have even asked theists the question as to how they would behave if they knew god didn't exist. I was surprised to find out that several said they would behave immorally. That really disturbed me.

  6. Whenever Fundies start yammering on about "objective morality" (MrFreeThinker, I'm looking at you), there's two magic words you can use to shut them up:

    Euthyphro Dilemma.

    Yes, this ridiculous argument was addressed and dismissed over 2400 years ago.

  7. I don't think they're being really honest when they say that. They are fishing for the response that they feel they must believe in, which is 'then you're better off believing'.

    Maybe they're not doing it consciously, as the principle of moral dependence has been firmly implanted in their conscience. Brainwash really can get that deep. There was a neuroscientific study where they measured brain activity under hypnosis. The test persons were able to say things they consciously knew to be untrue (as recorded beforehand), but when they were told to recite the same untruth under hypnosis, the brain area that fires when a person is lying in a wake state didn't react significantly. I don't know what study that was or where I saw it unfortunately.

    To break free of this self-deception, a person must learn not to rely on transmitted 'truths' without checking them critically. As religion places the heaviest possible punishment on this, the emotional tie-in extremely compulsive. It often takes years of therapy, and will often be the cause of mental instability and illness. As long as they're within the group, the instability is registered as normal behavior, and pathological symptoms are regarded as a result of sin or even possession.

    Many religions, sects and cults have 'evolved' this system to practical perfection - the better it works, the more people stay within the group, the more people there are to spread it.

  8. Tripmaster,

    In other words, is goodness good for it's own sake, or due to god's fiat? If for god's fiat, then raping children could be defined as being good, and thus, all the ridiculous bullshit in the bible could be considered moral if god exists. If morality is outside god's fiat, then we need only use reason to determine morality, regardless of whether god exists.

    I choose the latter.

  9. tripmaster,
    they routinely try to weasel out of Euthyphro by claiming that God just cannot be judged by human standards, and that if we try to evaluate that on his own standards, we fail because its unfathomable, we're fallible etc. He just is Good, period.
    Pathetic, but they're certain, so that settles it. Even if they have to assert magical revelation to justify their certainty.

  10. @Trip
    [Euthyphro Dilemma.

    Yes, this ridiculous argument was addressed and dismissed over 2400 years ago.]
    2 words for you- Thomas Aquinas.
    (You can check out J.P. Moreland or W.L. Craig if you don't care to read that classic stuff)

  11. Aquinas is good, but his arguments are not flawless. Another good one is Plantinga, whose ideas are a real challenge even to advanced philosophy students. But both haven't brought up insurmountable barriers of flawless logical thought. The teleological, ontological and design arguments brought up by Aquinas are meant as an internally consistent explanation of faith, presupposing God's existence, respectively proving God from a faithful position. They were aimed at believers as a compelling framework of confirmation, not as arguments to convince unbelievers.

    I'm not more than marginally familiar with Plantinga, but an extremely intelligent advanced philosophy student who has gone through everything from ancient Greece to Kant, Heidegger and current philosophy tells me, if there's a 'best' argumentation, his is one of the first to look for. As a counterpoint to Plantinga, read the highly recommended 'Miracle of Theism' by H.L. Mackie. Basically, these two represent the highest standard of current philosophy of religion.

  12. I was talking specifically of Aquinas' answer to the Euthrypo dilemma. I haven't really read much of him. I'm vaguely familiar with Plantiga and some of his stuff on epistemology and warrant and the EAN(against naturalism).I've never heard of Mackie though. I might check it.

  13. mrfreethinker,
    thanks, I wasn't aware of that. I found a site that explains the positions well, but also comes to the intermediate conclusion that Aquinas basically argued God away from Biblical God. The author continues the argumentation from there and attempts to resolve the problems. I'm not convinced, for lack of faith if you will, but it is an intriguing thought excercise. I think most of us here should have a look and examine the logic.

  14. While having only a limited understanding of philosophy, I cannot shake this feeling I get when arguing with the likes of MFT, Vera, Ray,et al.

    An analogy would be arguing about the nature of fairies with some faireist. Go on for hours and hours disussing their morality, their love for us, the method and chronology how they created the universe, when it suddenly occurs to the the arguer that wait a darn minute! Fairies don't actually exist, do they?

    Of course the argument deteriorates into flabblegab, rhetorical shenanigans and hyperbple on the part of the Fairiest at that point.

  15. froggie,
    I'm not interested in discussing things when the premise is wrong either. It's an excercise to examine consistency, detail and coherency, playing around and seeing where it goes. It can train to spot errors in a real discussion. In live discussions and debates, we all know how quickly a logical mistake or a category error can lead to completely false assertions - and how often people do it intentionally.

    Of course you can't do research or test reality based on a false premise.
    For instance, here's what a philosophy pro says about the design argument and what that means for omniscience and foreknowledge:

    "You can only realise a design-plan for a complex system, i.e. shape something so that it will - through time - behave in ways you intended it to from the start... if you actually predicted how it would turn out given certain initial conditions and laws of operation. This necessitates that it is epistemically possible to predict the future states of this system. But we positively know that systems of a certain complexity are genuinely unpredictable from any given state - the uncertainty for every part of the system increases rapidly the further ahead in time the predicted state lies. After some steps in the system's progress, the uncertainty becomes so great that the system is approaching complete unpredictability. The only way to actually pre-determine how the system would develop would be "running" a complete functional facsimile in the completely same environment.

    Do you know what this means for theism? It means that a god would have had to trial-run a universe for every possible value for ALL the initial variables in the system itself and its environment - ie absolutely everything... without knowing how they would turn out. Only then could even an omniscient being know what would happen in any of them, and then re-run the one he likes best in order to be able to say he intended things to happen that way."

  16. Alex,

    But with God, anything is possible.
    Right? :>

  17. We never use philosophy as a basis for determining the empirical truth of whether something exists or not.

    Why is God the only exception?

  18. ["We never use philosophy as a basis for determining the empirical truth of whether something exists or not."]
    Yes we do Kaitlyn. At least I do.
    What other method do you suggest we use?

  19. Kaitlyn,

    I can't believe he asked you that question. He is sure to stump you on that one! /sarcasm off

    I can't wait to see your response!

    I think this guy is an attention seeker only.

  20. Here is the fundamental problem I see with the presupposition argument:

    It presupposes that we presupposes "God doesn't exist."

    I can only speak for myself, but I don't presuppose that, just as I don't presuppose "Bifurgleeb doesn't exist."

    That's the key: when it comes down to it, we atheists don't really understand what any individual theist means by "god".

    Now, it's my opinion that they don't fully understand what they mean by it either.

    For the past few years, I've really lost interest in the "existence of God" arguments; my interest has now been in asking these three questions:

    1. Why are you making shit up?

    2. Why do you not give a shit to craft your argument to be persuasive to its audience?

    3. Why wouldn't you do any amount of research inform yourself on any counter-arguments, whether or not you agree with them, to your argument? (To be clear, here I'm talking about the kind of people who throw out Pascal's Wager as if they're the first in history to think of it. You don't have to agree with the counter-arguments to the Wager, but you should at least know what they are!)

  21. One of my favorite discussions about absolute vs. relative morals (aka Objective vs. Subjective Morality) went kinda like this:

    Muslim: So what if there was a society where murder was considered a good thing?

    Me: Then I guess they'd consider murder to be good.

    Muslim: But doesn't that offend your God-given conscience?

    Me: Considering that such a society might last a week, at most a month, no, it doesn't offend me. I'd probably never even know about it.

    Muslim: Ok, imagine a society where murder was considered a good thing, and the society doesn't die.

    Me: How exactly does that work? If murder is good, then they will murder, and that includes murdering each other simply due to the resources involved in this. A society that kills each other is a society that dies out quickly, and therefore it doesn't work, and that's why I view it as "not good" or "bad".

    Muslim: Sure sure sure. But what if there was a society where murder was considered a good thing, and the people didn't die out from murder.

    Me. [sigh.]

  22. I apologize for the triple post, but I wanted to make one more point about the whole "Objective vs. Subjective" argument.

    They claim that we are unable to justify saying that something is "good" or "bad" without an objective source for that.

    Their argument is akin to a mathematical paradox, such as the one about: to get from A to B, you have to travel half of that distance first. You then have to travel half of the remaining distance... and so on. You will never reach point B.

    Now, I remember reading this as a kid, really into math, and it seriously tripped me out for a while. :-) But here's the thing: every time in my life that I've needed to get from point A to point B, I've been able to. The same goes for every else I know. So, while the paradox is an interesting thought experiment, it simply doesn't match our experiences.

    And to me, that's the key point. We don't say things are "bad" or "good" based on an objective standard; we say those things subjectively based on our experiences... what has worked in the past for us and people we know, and what has not worked.

    Talking about my experiences, it certainly seems to me that theists absolutely do this also.

    Granted, it's a part of many religions not to acknowledge this, so I try not to push the issue with them.

    In closing, the presuppositional and objective morality arguments are traps for people who enjoy the details in formal logic. That's why they're doing it. Add in the fact that it's like a game where each competitor is supposed to notify when they are scored upon, and these guys will never touch that buzzer.

    All of the above is my opinion based on my experiences.

  23. We never use philosophy as a basis for determining the empirical truth of whether something exists or not.

    Instinctually, I disagree with this. Insofar as philosophy encompasses metaphysics, epistemologly and ontology, it has an awful lot to say in regards to how much we can know.

    The "rules" of logic were distilled from philosophy.

    To be sure, I wont claim that reality can only ascertained (sp?) via philosophical tools, but it's certainly part of the process. A very significant part.


    I'm curious to hear how you, Kaitlyn, think humanity asseses factual reality.

  24. "I'm curious to hear how you, Kaitlyn, think humanity asseses factual reality."

    I wasn't talking about factual reality.

    I'm talking specifically about the empirical truth of whether something exists or not.

    I suppose induction, deduction, and direct observation are the only ways to know if an object exists.

    As far as truth as a whole is concerned, philosophy is very important.

  25. But, for example, as far as knowing whether or not life exists on other planets, philosophy is kind of useless.

  26. Also, remember that every discipline from English to Math and Biology in some way can be traced back to philosophy.

    As much as it's important to make note of this, it's a little dishonest to credit philosophy for things like logic even though it branched out from philosophy as a way to verify their arguments.

    Logic and mathematics are separate disciplines that have applications to philosophy.

  27. @ kaitlyn

    You wrote "Logic and mathematics are separate disciplines that have applications to philosophy."

    Um no. Incorrect. logic is a branch of philosophy in the same way as ethics, metaphysics or epistemology are branches of philosophy.

    Logic is not a seperate discipline. Or at least not according to any logician I have ever heard.

  28. Chris, thank you.

    I stand corrected. But my original assertion that philosophy is not a proper means to ascertain the existence of an empirical object still stands.


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