I’ve had time to think over the original topic, and develop it further but rather than revamp the original post, it seems more fitting to add an addendum, addressing some of the objections that weren’t covered in that post and which we might not get to cover on Sunday Night.
Objection #1 Are you saying that atheists can’t be moral?
No, I’m not saying that. And hardly anyone I know is seriously suggesting that. Atheists can know moral truths, understand moral facts, discern moral motivations, moral consequences, act on moral principles and so forth.
I am however saying that nature is a terrible place for sourcing and grounding moral truth, even when we include human beings as more of “nature.”
In philosophical ethics there are a lot of sub-fields, such as moral motivation, moral psychology, moral epistemology, normative ethics, and practical ethics. What I’m focusing on in Nature is a Jerk (part 1) is a particular aspect of metaethics which can be called the grounding problem. This is a question about what is the grounding for moral values? Atheists can do a fine job organizing an ethical system (i.e., normative ethics) and practically implementing their ethical values (i.e., practical ethics). But none of that makes those moral values “true,” as in, correctly corresponding to any real reference point in the world. So, it’s not clear, nor has it been shown possible, that objective moral values can arise from nature alone. We can even question whether even relative moral values can arise from nature alone, but I’m content to surrender the latter so I can focus attention on the former. Objective moral values seem to require things that nature isn’t giving. In that sense, objective moral values (including moral facts) pose a big problem for atheists, and that’s a metaethical problem. Metaethics deals in those “prior matters” undergirding normative and practical ethics.
It’s entirely possible, however to “skip” some of these problems in metaethics and go straight to normative and practical ethics. I suspect many atheists and naturalists do this, since most everyone else does this too. We can stipulate or assume some core principle like “Do no harm,” “Maximize pleasure for the most people,” “Do only what could reasonably be universalized,” or “Honor each other’s liberty, fraternity, and equality”—and then we can proceed to unpack whatever guiding principles and laws that might result from that. For Christian theists, the core principles are often some combination of “Love God, and Love others,” or “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” or the Golden Rule,” and their metaethics often goes no deeper than, “God said it, and that settles it.” That’s metaethics, but it’s kind of shallow and it’s subject to some brutal critiques at a metaethical level which might be avoided with a more thoughtful, and philosophically sound investigation.
Objection #2 Couldn’t morality exist but in a radically different way than Christians, Theists, and other supernaturalists think?
Yes, of course morality could be radically different from how it seems to be (to me) or it could be entirely illusory, just another meddlesome Cartesian demon or Matrix program messing with our minds. Those are logically possible. But that doesn’t prove much. Logical possibility is about the weakest metaphysical evidence there is. Meanwhile, we can only really deal with apparent facts and reality as they seem to operate, and some sort of moral realism seems to be happening. We might be able to imagine a hyper-skeptical theory where all the world cultures across history are radically deluded about morality, but I see no reason to treat that theory as anything more than a logical possibility. I don’t know that that’s metaphysical remotely possible, nor plausible, nor probable, much less actual. I lean on Richard Swinburne’s “Credulity Thesis” here (see, Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil , 20; and Epistemic Justification , 141-9). Before I abandon what seems to be forthrightly clear, even at an unreflective intuitive level, I will need sufficient reason for surrendering things like “Human rights,” the dignity and equality of mankind, respect for women, and similar moral fixtures. I’m not moving out of that house until the skeptic can show that it’s burning down or that they’ve got a better mansion elsewhere.
Put another way, regarding the “moral delusion thesis” I’d need a lot of evidence and argument before I’d consider that theory credible. As a rule of thought, I don’t grant Cartesian skepticism (or Matrix-ism for that matter). I’m skeptical of skepticism like that. If you start with universal skepticism, then not even Descartes can unlock that door of doubt. He thought he picked the lock with his famous cogito (ergo sum), “I think therefore I am,” but its logically possible that an ultimately impersonal (i.e., not a “self”) entity is hosting a deterministic, deluded, and vacuous sense of “self” all within it’s greater intelligent singularity, such as a borg-like machine or a monistic panpsychism. Descartes then isn’t thinking at all, and Descartes doesn’t exist. Indeed whole theological systems assert something similar to this: namely pantheism and panentheism found in many Eastern Religions. Now this critique of Cartesian skepticism hinges on a merely logical possibility, and I don’t find that very convincing, but that’s enough to ruin Descartes cogito and wreck his epic thought experiment. Live by methodological skepticism, die by metodological skepticism. Since his method forbids all dubitable propositions, then he is bound to forbid his own cogito, the one and only escape hatch from that small small room.
Objection #3 Isn’t the Is-Ought Problem manageable? I mean, aren’t you overplaying your hand a little bit?
Maybe, but I don’t think so. I’ve looked over some classic treatments of the Is-ought Problem from David Hume, G.E. Moore, J.L. Mackey, Peter Singer, David Brink, W.V.O. Quine, Peter Singer, Immanuel Kant, and even Aristotle, and underneath it all there seems to remain an abiding category difference between how things are and how things ought to be.
Nature knows nothing of what ought to be. Nature just is. It does what it’s going to do. Meanwhile “Oughtness” is a queer category for nature (see Mackey’s “Queerness” objection), it’s not a spatial relation (like, “to the right of”) nor a material relation (such as a chemical bond). It’s not a material property, like red, or round, or rubbery. It’s not a physical force like gravity or magnetism. It’s not a social relation, though that seems to be getting closer. No amount of describing human interactions, or quantifying their tendencies and norms can tell us how we humans ought to act, that can only tell us how people are and are not acting, or perhaps, how we ought to act if our norms were somehow rightful, justified or true. None of that effort can tell us that those evolutionary instincts, or social contracts are correct.
“Ought” is a hypothetical term, but natural facts are not. Ought refers to a goal of some sort, which might not even exist nor ever exist. For example, “I should eat better.” That statement is still true even if I never, in fact, eat any better. But how can something be true which doesn’t occur in reality past, present, or future? Shoulds and oughts seem to be the stuff of minds, like a special kind of imagining that’s not fictional but refers to an immaterial truth. Nature, however, is blind, deaf, and dumb on these matters. Nature is a thoughtless indifferent cosmos expanding aimlessly into the void. It shows no clear sign that it can generate the refined mental stuff like “Oughts” whereby our moral claims, like “I should eat better,” can become true. Now, there is an escape for this problem that doesn’t lead to theism but retains objective moral truth. One can adopt panpsychism allowing that nature is somehow intelligent, but that seems to be going a long way just to avoid admitting God’s existence. Compared to panpsychism, theism is the more conservative thesis.
Objection #4 It seems that the terms “Must,” “should,” “ought” and similar prescriptive terms appear all the time in math, science, logic, or in every day language. That’s not contentious, so it seems that we already have “oughts” and “prescriptions” proven by example without appeal to God. Right?
Yes, but only by equivocating on the “oughts.”
There are non-moral senses of “ought” which can be mustered without much trouble. “If you want to add these numbers, you should carry the two.” “If you want to dispose of the evidence you should flush the toilet.” “If you want to impress your lady friend, you ought not buy her a twelve-pack of Slim Fast.” These “oughts” aren’t terribly contentious because they are what Kant calls “conditional imperatives.” They deal only in the imposed values of usefulness. They are extrinsic and instrumental, not the kind of “intrinsic” value Aristotle (and others) identified with moral goodness. According to Aristotle goodness is “that which is desirable for it’s own sake,” and not for the sake of some other goal. I think Aristotle’s right, and so does Immanuel Kant. Kant set aside the conditional imperative as ill equipped for the larger problem of grounding morality. For that task, employs the categorical imperative. Kant’s “categorical imperative” is not just the centerpiece of his ethical system, it’s also an intrinsic value. It’s a moral imperative that is just plain right, regardless of what one’s goals or agenda might be. The categorical imperative isn’t an “if-statement,” its a “duty statement.” We could invent any goal whatsoever and then outline useful rules regarding that goal. That’s not really morality, game play or politics maybe, but not morality in the more robust sense of the word. At best that would get us to moral relativism, but I’ve already dealt with relativism elsewhere (and consequentialism too). Before those moral-like games could really count as robust morality as you and I encounter it, we’d need to know that those adopted goals are somehow “right.” Otherwise, there’s nothing morally “good” about the rules, laws, and principles.
Objection #5 Couldn’t morality be an emergent property?
I suppose it’s logically possible, but I don’t know that it’s metaphysically possible. This tactic is common in philosophy of mind in the theory of “emergent dualism.” While naturalism is still the reigning position in Philosophy of Mind, and it’s quite popular in philosophical ethics to, certain qualities of mind and morality remain a hard fit for both. David Chalmer’s “hard problem of consciousness”, for example, in philosophy of mind, and the “is-ought” problem in morality. In both fields, I suggest that “emergentism” admits that the problem appears to be intractable–material nature just doesn’t seem like the kind of stuff that can originate moral “oughts” or consciousness. Emergentism defies this state of affairs by asserting a soclution, a solution which is wholly unsatisfactory. Emergentism, in ethics, suggests that moral values (or some other moral furniture–laws, rules, authority, etc.) somehow “emerge” as a property or relation of physico-material stuff. That position sounds nice, but fails as an explanation. For an explanation to be a good explanation it needs to account for the relevant causes, but in ethical emergentism it doesn’t explain how physico-material stuff can cause moral oughts–but that’s precisely the issue that needs to be explained! Remember, I’m not granting that matter can produce morality even in theory. Many lines of evidence suggest material stuff can’t do that. So when a person says “Emergent property” I’m not impressed. If they aren’t showing me how it can happen, and I already have good reason to doubt that it’s even possible, then emergentism sounds like a synonym for “mystery.”
To illustrate the problem, emergentism is kind of like saying when you get bricks in the right combination, in the right arrangement, with enough time, and the right environment well “Viola!” it becomes a log cabin. The problem is obvious: no amount of bricks can make a log cabin. Likewise, emergentism doesn’t seem to advance the argument, for naturalists, because heir position has all the appearances of a massive category mistake.
Objection #6 I’ve heard guys like Bertrand Russell get around religious ethics by saying we have a moral “sense,” not unlike our other senses, does this give a clue to how naturalism can produce morality?
Russell held the moral sense view for a short while but was soon disavowed it by the persuasion of fellow philosophers George Santayana and others. It’s not a very strong theory these days because, ironically, it uses “sense” in the wrong sense. We have roughly 9 different empirical senses. You’ve probably heard of 5 of them: touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell. But there’s also temperature, balance, location, and physical health/integrity. These are the physical empirical senses. If we have a moral sense, such as a “conscience”–and i think we do–it does little good to equate it to physical senses because moral values aren’t physical stuff. Oughtness isn’t a material force or relation. Moral laws are prescriptive, not like the physical laws of nature which are descriptive. Pretty much all the distinctives that identify morality disqualify it from empirical-type sensation. We may still have a “moral sense,” but if it’s not close kin to the physico-empirical senses, it’s not very helpful for vindicating naturalism. If we grant a “moral sense,” that’s neutral or negative evidence for the naturalist since innate moral knowledge, and conscience, are common predictions in supernaturalism and supernaturalism readily accepts the apparently immaterial and non-physical aspects of morality.
Objection #7 There’s more to naturalism than evolution. Even if evolution isn’t the source or arbiter of morality, couldn’t morality come from something else within naturalism?
Some pop-level atheists today, and a whole lot of social evolutionsts of yesteryear love to resort to evolutionary ethics. Evolutionary ethics has lost popularity, but, to be fair, even the most refined ethical systems can often save a place for evolution as an influence, or causal contributor. Even still, evolution remains the “red-headed stepchild” in contemporary philosophical ethics. It must be accounted for, but it’s contribution to ethics–according to naturalism–is somewhat embarrassing.
The wide agreement in philosophical circles is that evolution runs counter to ethics. Nature is a Jerk, Part 1 elaborates why. With that backdrop, this objection is a good one. Naturalists have a lot more to their worldview than just evolution. Perhaps that most strategically savvy option for naturalism is to adopt a non-materialist form, perhaps even a religious/spiritual brand such as pantheism or pan-psychism. Technically, a naturalist can admit immaterial and material things as real/extant. Materialist naturalism is just more commonly espoused. Once immaterial entities are admitted into one’s worldview, especially when they have ontological substance–they are “real things” not just ideas, opinions, or feelings. I typically don’t target this worldview in my apologetics and argumentation, but it bares mentioning that this non-materialist naturalism has some advantages over materialism. I won’t go into that here. I can however list a few problems with this option.
First, evolution is still a universal biological filter–according to naturalism–and that means that any other causal forces at work in our psychology can still be overridden or ruined by evolution. It could be that we had a fine set of moral values at some point in the past, but evolution pressed it out of us over time, and replaced it with a pseudo-ethic, with only glancing bits of altruism, a lot of violence and perversion, and a whole lot of selfishness. We’d have no way of knowing if our morality is correct because we have no way of suspending evolution, turning it off for a moment, and stepping outside of it to see objectively if our current ethics are correct.
Second, to the extent that one’s non-materialism or non-evolutionary features leave nature as an “open” system, it’s no longer naturalism. This seems kinda of basic, not even worth mentioning, but I’ve actually had atheists argue with me that naturalism allows for the universe to be an “open system,” allowing causal influence from the outside. This could be multiverse theory, or it could suggest that there’s at least one thing outside of this universe, but which is still part of nature. At that point, however, I think the naturalist has stretched too far, tearing his naturalism at the seams. Multiverse theory, to my knowledge is the only candidate here that sometimes arises. And frankly, it’s kind of laughable. Once we begin to talk about things beyond known nature, beyond the cosmos, but we don’t want to call that “supernature” we have begun the proverbially fruitless battle of trying to “have our cake and eat it too.” For one thing that theorizing sounds suspiciously like theology (Welcome to the fold Brother!). But, it’s also suspect logically. This is a “win” by redefinition. Naturalism is, by definition, a closed system, or else it would be supernaturalism. If nature is all that exists, there is nothing outside of nature. If you expand the term “nature” to include whole worlds beyond the reach of our empirical science, perhaps an infinite (or near infinite) number of universes out there, then you might have improved your probabilities for a godless origin of the universe or for life on earth but you’ve also made pretty much everything logically possible entity into a metaphysical reality. Stated another way, you have just affirmed the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Thor, Mithra, Horus, and Unicorns. On some planet somewhere, you can find all of these beings playing church-league softball. Since all of those are logically possible–silly as they may be–then any vast expansion of the metaphysical probabilities (such as multiverse theory) makes these improbable creatures downright inevitable.
Third, naturalism–even in it’s non-materialist forms–still has it’s own burden of proof and might not stand under the testing of classical and evidential apologetics.
Fourth, granting non-materialism is a huge concession to supernaturalism, since it leaves perhaps the most successful ideological “vote-winners” in naturalism (like reductive materialism) out to dry while cracking the door to some of the most important ideas in supernaturalism. I’d be interested to see if naturalists themselves will tolerate non-materialism very well among their ranks. Also, if God is immaterial–as theists say he is–then non-materialism is big step closer than materialism. Also, granting the substantial reality of immaterial objects opens the door for souls, free will, and perhaps even angels and demons. A lot of possibilities lurk here. I’d be interested to hear how this view is unpacked by it’s proponents.
I do think that this objection is strongest yet, but it’s also very open. Rather than flail around trying to address anything and everything (besides evolution, and materialism) that might arise form naturalist, I’ll wait to hear what conceptual candidates might be offered from naturalists themselves.
Objection #8 I hear you throw around the word “objective” but there are other senses of the word that fit perfectly with naturalistic morality. Can’t we have objective morality without all the stuff you are suggesting?
Yes and no, but mostly no. As I’ve suggested elsewhere ethics is very messy. And part of the messiness is that ethicists oftentimes use words inconsistently, introducing whole new categories of thought under old terms which have radically different meanings. “Objective” is one of those words. The sense in which I’m using “Objectivism”, is also the sense commonly contrasted with “relativism.” But in case my usage veers away from how you’ve heard it, I’ll clarify my meaning here.
Objective: (when applied to ethical categories) refers to moral facts (including values, laws, principles, or other morally weighted truths) whose truthmakers are independent of human minds, individually or collectively. If even one moral fact, in an ethical system is objective, then that system is “objectivist.” If, for example, a moral truth-maker has a scientifically discernable brain-state, such as a particular neural pathway, then that could qualify as “objective” since even if human minds are experientally subjective for the individual (and thus relativistic), one’s brain is a physico-material object that is potentially accessible as an object between people, hence it’s not a private subjective experience for the individual but a public object for others to access (through neural imaging).
Relative: (when applied to ethical categories) refers to moral facts (including values, laws, principles, or other morally weighted truths) whose truthmakers are entirely accounted for within human minds, individually or collectively. If there is even one objective moral fact, in an otherwise relativistic system, then that system is objectivist.
Now, this sort of definitional work can get real messy really quick, but I have to mention some related ideas that are sometimes imported into the discussion
Universality: (when applied to ethical categories) refers to something of moral weight which is true for any person anywhere (and every person everywhere). An ethical system manifests universality if it’s moral principles (values, laws, truths, facts, etc.) apply universally to everyone everywhere. Not to be confused with “universalism” which is a religious doctrine which teaches that everyone goes to heaven/nirvana/bliss/etc.
Absolutism: (when applied to ethical categories) refers to unchanging moral objects (values, principles, facts, truth, laws, etc.). An ethical system is absolutist if it appeals to at least one unchanging absolute
Objectivism may or may not overlap with universality and absolutism, but my focus has been on moral facts. If it is true that we should not torture babies for sheer amusement, then that moral principle requires a truth-maker. A truth-maker would be a reference point to which that moral principle correctly corresponds. I have argued in Nature is a Jerk Part 1 that nature in itself is wholly unequipped to generate an objective truthmaker for that kind of moral principle. We people might be able to generate relative truth-makers for that moral truth. It is my opinion or this society’s agreed decision, or some culture’s collective desire, or someone’s intuition that we should not torture babies for sheer amusement. But that’s only relativism, and there are many problems with relativism. Individuals and groups change their minds on things like child protection laws, the status of women, the rights of preborn children, or social classes, race relations, slavery and warfare, and so on.
Now “objective” can be used in other ways to refer to mind-independent facts like the wording of an article of the constitution, the name of the instrument used to torture the child, the sworn testimony in a court record from 1953, or the family name for the people who were hurting the child. All of those facts are objective, and they all inform the moral event wherein that child was tortured. The whole scene could be described by a forensic pathologist with the cold objectivity of a lab scientists; lots of objectivity there. But none of those features make the apparent wrongness of child-torture “true” or “false.” Every moral event has non-moral contextual features informing that event; these can be objective. Yet those aren’t enough to make a moral system “objective.” The key distinguishing feature for objective ethics is whether the moral truth-makers are independent of human minds, collectively or individually.
Objection #9 But Nihilism/absurdism/amoralism is still really attractive to me, can you say anything to that?
God help us all. I’ll pray for you.
The only folks I know of who affirm moral nihilism/absurdism or amoralism are usually young embittered men, mixed up in the occult or in the heavy metal music scene (nihilism is popular, for example, within the Norwegian Death Metal movement). At least a couple nihilists have been known to get university posts, like Alex Rosenberg or (formerly) Jay Buziszewski, but Rosenberg got spanked for that misbehavior in a debate with Bill Craig. And Budziszewski recanted that position, admitting that he was in active rebellion from God. A few more self-proclaimed nihilists seem to be college sophomores doing their backpacking trip across philosophical Europe. They may make their home in several places along the way before they are through, typically favoring the most weird, wild, and exciting theories like Solipsism or Gnosticism before settling into something just rebellious enough but just fashionable enough to be cool, like Taoism or Tantric Hinduism.
Now, honestly, I don’t want to be too dismissive here. There is a kind of cold logic to nihilism, such that it’s absolutely serious, philosophically compelling (for self-aware atheists), and it’s utterly terrifying. Nihilism is a live option given naturalism. If the conventional reductive materialistic landscape of many modern atheists were true, then its seems quite likely that all linguistic meaning, all moral meaning, all universals, and many of the operations of our minds are wholly unreliable. Perhaps if you peal back all the presumptions of folk psychology, religious upbringing, combustible conventions and constitutions, and look underneath all those deceptive layers, perhaps there is nothing underneath.
I myself am not so pessimistic. I’m not a radical skeptic like Nieztsche was. And frankly, hardly anyone is that skeptical. Fortunately, nihilism and absurdism are self-refuting. If everything is meaningless (according to nihilism) and absurd (according to absurdism), then even that sentence is meaningless and absurd. As such, it’s disqualified as a “true” claim. It can’t be true, it can’t even be false. If it’s incapable of truth, then there’s not much sense in talking about it.
As for amoralism, depending on how you define it, that can still be dealt with legally. No matter whether the amoralist is motivated to do good, believe in any morality, or respect any of our laws; he can be arrested, tried, and jailed just like anyone else. But his system of ethics can’t commend itself to any of us to the extent that it leans on nihilism or absurdism, since those are incapable of truth.
Objection #10 It looks like you’ve still left the door open for man-based ethical systems such as desirism, emotivism, conventionalism, subjectivism, or social contract theory. Don’t these suffice?
It depends on what you are trying to account for. If you are trying to describe how we generate practical laws and rules to achieve our respective goals for ourselves or our society, then a number of different man-based ethical systems will work. But if you are trying to account for a foundational truthmaker whereby even one of the more claims in those systems can be made true objectively I argued that that can’t happen with nature alone. The best we can get is a kind of relativistic ethics, that is, conditional imperatives. However, we have no way of showing that our respective goals are correct. If I have that goal not to hurt anyone, then I can formulate rules and practices consistent with that goal, but there’s nothing in nature that can make that goal true. If that goal is going to be correct in the sense that it corresponds truthfully to its referent, I’d need a reference point that suits it, I’d need a natural “ought.” But nature doesn’t have such things since nature isn’t goal-directed, it’s not mental/intelligent, it can’t deal in hypotheticals, and it’s value-neutral. Nature just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that could make any of our moral claims true. With naturalism, we are dealing in a truthless morality, hence a toothless morality. Don’t get me wrong, naturalism has a lot of teeth, bloody red teeth, but they aren’t particularly moral in their manners.
My wife suggested a helpful illustration that I’ve used ever since. Suppose you were to ask a 13-year-old teenager where money comes from. After the snarky comment, “On trees,” you might hear a more serious answer: “From the bank.” Now in a sense he’s correct, you can withdraw money from the bank that you’ve deposited there, you can get a loan from the bank. Money comes from banks. So far we have a working analogy for naturalistic ethics. Where does value come from, it comes from the bank. Where do values comes from? They come from the bank of nature. But this analogy, pressed further, reveals a problem. Where did the bank get it’s money? The teenager sheepishly says, “I don’t know,” or perhaps, “You just get the money from the bank, that’s it.” Now the bank is a repository for all sorts of valuable objects, but the neighborhood bank cannot originate those valuable objects any more than mother nature can originate moral values.
Follow the money, they say. Behind the bank is a very complex system of valuation, economic exchanges, fiat currency, credit and debit accounts, stocks, bonds, futures, annuities, credit reports, interest rates, market fluctuations, and a vast network of interdependent parties as well as a reigning government instilling fiat value into that fiat currency.
When naturalists want to withdraw moral currency from the bank of nature, they can do so. They can use that moral currency, correctly, in their various transactions and dealings. They would be “good” people. But nowhere in those actions has that moral currency acquired its starting value. It may have instrumental value “to make you feel good about yourself,” or to “impress your friends,” but these are secondary uses besides it’s more basic “built-in” value: it’s fiat currency. It has acquired its value from a higher authority before the bank ever touched it. Just as teenagers might not care how the money got in the bank in the first place, so naturalist might not care how morals values entered nature in the first place. For both parties, it seems a sufficient explanation to say that, “You get money from the bank, duh.” Finding moral values in nature is no great proof that nature originated those values. After studying over these values and what they entail, I suggest we have great reason to think that that sort of “money” came from way beyond this bank.