August 28, 2006

Plutonian Morality

Ever since its discovery in 1930 astronomers have debated over whether or not Pluto deserves to be classified as a planet. With the recent discovery of Xena, and other large Kuiper Belt objects, this question has taken on a new perspective. Well, in the news this week are stories that tell us that the International Astronomical Union, in a less than unanimous vote, has just stripped Pluto of its designation as a planet. It would seem that "planet" is in the eye of the beholder; it all depends on your criteria and astronomical perspective. It's not as cut-and-dried a thing as a star or black hole.

I seem to have the habit of making abstract connections, and this topic suggests the issue of moral relativism to me. You see, many persons in our modern culture have the view that morality — right and wrong, good and evil — is simply a matter of personal or cultural definition. For this reason, claiming that something is "good" merely implies that it conforms to some humanly constructed definition of what passes for good versus bad. And the criteria can change over time. So, just as the new definition of a planet no longer includes Pluto, so can moral standards change to include or exclude certain behaviors. Slavery can be acceptable in certain times and cultures, but repulsive in others. Homosexuality can once be considered deviant behavior, but then come to be celebrated.

This view of morality would seem to be the necessary one in a purely material world, i.e., one without God or any metaphysical structure that pervades our minds. Without the ability to appeal to the supernatural, moral sensibilities must simply emerge from the will, emotion, and reason of human creatures. And since humans are individuals and change over time (even "evolve" according to present naturalistic theory), then morality may be expected to change as well.

To theists, this seems a fairly obvious truth. To have an objective, unchanging standard you have to have a mind external to your own which can impose it upon you. And it is a meaningless imposition unless there is reason and consequence for compliance with that standard. However, it is common for atheists to object to this conclusion. They often do so in one of two ways.

1) They misunderstand us to be implying that they are immoral people. But this is not at all what we are saying. Since we believe that the moral law is incumbent upon every human, and is woven into the very fabric of our souls, we are not at all surprised to find even atheists dancing to its tune (to mix my metaphors). The fact that atheists very much want to be thought of as good people is only a tacit admission that they understand that there is such a thing as "good" and that it is good to be good. But if morality is merely a human convention, then the most that an atheist can be claiming is that they are morally fashionable.

2) They are quick to point out their own moral concerns and offer their own ethical systems, but these are simply not a response to the point. There is a difference between having moral sensibilities and grounding them as objective. If your moral ideas originate from your own mind or the consensus of your community, then you have not grounded them upon any fixed standard. And if there is no objective standard upon which to base morality, then you can never say that your system is closer to that standard than some other or that you have improved it from one generation to the next. All that you can say is that one ethical system is "different" from another, and that you happen to like your own. To say that your system is "better" than another is a tautology; you are simply saying that your moral expressions conform more closely to your own system than does theirs.

Not everyone in the International Astronomical Union was agreed to remove Pluto's planetary status. Are planets just celestial objects as defined in a particular way and these dissenting astronomers took issue with that particular definition, or are planets particular things and the astronomers were simply divided over the facts that would go into placing Pluto in one category or another? It is a question that mirrors our modern moral debate. But there is at least one way in which this analogy fails: These astronomers were involved in a debate over an understanding of real objects, which they all believed in and that do not go in or out of existence depending upon the results of a vote. The moral realist may not always order his steps well, but at least he is dancing with real angels and demons. The relativist, on the other hand, is simply dancing with his own shadow.

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21 Comments:

At 8/28/2006 3:26 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
And I thought you were going to address this moral relativism question at my place. I had the kettle on and everything, Geez.
I know you are knowledgable about these things, so where do you stand on the Pluto question?

 
At 8/28/2006 5:33 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sorry 'bout that, but this one just kind of fell out of me. I needed a post too.

About Pluto, I am fine with ruling it out as a "natural" planet. Its highly oblong and inclined orbit speaks of some unusual event in its past. And its rather small size makes it something of a disappointment as a "planet." It was most likely either nudged in from the Kuiper Belt or was thrown outward by the gas giants. Probably most of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn have similar origins, but were just not so unlucky as to be captured.

The interesting question relates to just what the Kuiper Belt represents (and the Oort Cloud, for that matter). Is it the outer edge of the planet-forming disk, which was too sparse to build large bodies, or is it a debris field of discarded (gravitationally catapulted) materials? Its roughly disk shape would suggest the former. I'd want to know the composition of the objects, though. I wouldn't expect them to be highly metallic and rocky. The Oort Cloud, from which the long-period comets apparently come, seems to be made of water and gases, which is not surprising.

Why there is so much water out there and so much in close (on the earth) as well is another interesting question. Some have suggested that the water was actually brought to earth by way of steady cometary bombardment in its earliest history. This makes gas giant existence and placement a further essential in making the world habitable. The theory goes: To begin with, the gas giants were farther out, which allowed more interaction with the Kuiper and Oort objects. After they migrated inward they were less influential in drawing fire inward and more useful collecting whatever happened to come in for other reasons. They have been very good to us, even though if their size, placement, and migration patterns were not just right, we would have either been destroyed or thrown into a strange position like Pluto.

 
At 8/28/2006 5:55 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

"Morally fashionable." I'm going to have to remember that.

I read an article a week or two ago about this planet issue. I think it said the reason this whole controversy has come up is because until now, "planet" didn't have a very precise definition. That imprecision lead to ambiguity about some new objects out there like Charon and Xena. One suggestion would've made Pluto and Charon a binary planet system.

I don't think it really matters what "they" decide.

 
At 8/28/2006 7:29 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Fair enough about Pluto.
Now, the moral thing. I think this is one of the fundamental things about religion. Most people assume that in order to have a functioning ethics, we have to have some unarguable universal objective set of moral truths. Since you can't derive an 'ought' from an 'is' it is assumend that something else must be the source and guarantor of these truths. Hey wait a minute, how did this whole shebang kick off in the first place? Must have been god. Hang on, that's handy, we have an all powerful being at hand, could be the answer right there! So the story goes. This is the real granddaddy of the 'just-so' stories. What do you mean there is suffering and arbitrary disaster in the world? well, yes, but since we now know that god must be good (otherwise where did these morals come from?) He must have a good purpose for that, otherwise none of this would make sense. I'm glad we have that straight. What purpose you ask? Well, that surpasseth all understanding of course, remember Job. After all, where was he when the heavens were forged? Exactly. There, now any other questions?
Hang on though, what if the premise is false? What if we can have a functioning ethics that does the job without moral value having any existence that is independant of human perception? Let us pause and consider whether this would work. Are there any other things we could look at that depend on human concepts for there function and without us would disappear without trace? How about the verb 'to drink'? Note I don't mean drinking as such. If we humans all keeled over tomorrow from some strange time bomb-like bug, gazelle would still drink. There would be no verb left though. Does this mean that verbs are written into the structure of the universe by a higher being? Well, not necessarily. Verbs do their job, they work, they exist and have objectively verifiable features, similarities and limitations. It is conceivable though, that they are a human construct and would disappear with our demise. So here is my first question: what is problematic about the notion that moral value would disappear with our demise also? (For the sake of argument, let us assume that Paul is rightly pessimistic about the odds and life is so freakishly unlikely that intelligent life has arisen only once in the universe so there are no aliens to interpret the universe in a moral way). I'm not going to give up using verbs just because there might be no 'divine guarantor' for the existence of verbs. The same is true about morals.

 
At 8/28/2006 8:41 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

The linguistic construct, "drink," is grounded upon a real, physical action. It is simply a label for that thing. It is the thing that is real and language is merely the attempt to communicate the reality. So, what is the reality that our ethical theories are seeking to describe? I submit that without a transcendent source of morality, we are simply inventing and evolving the language, and then trying to shape reality from that mold. You are certainly free to construct a colorful language for yourself, but don't imagine that you are courting any fixed and eternal truth with it or that I should be expected to understand or value what are trying to communicate.

 
At 8/28/2006 8:52 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sam,

Yeah, "morally fashionable." That one came to me in the shower. I think Satan hates water, 'cause that's where my best ideas come from ;-) Maybe because there's no paper in there and I've got a terrible memory.

 
At 8/28/2006 9:15 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
Yes, 'drink' is a label for activity. What humans can do, because they have language, is create labels for items which are more abstract. So, to 'mock' is a label for an activity. There is no objective feature of the world that is mockery that is independant of human perception though. So we have created labels for abstract concepts that are instrumental in regulating the modes of behaviour necessary for cooperation in large groups. Now, if the ethical system is to work it has to have certain features, like language has to have verbs, nouns and adjectives. To assume though, that this must be a feature of the universe that is independent of us, is like thinking that mockery would exist even if there was nobody around to mock or be mocked.

 
At 8/29/2006 1:22 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

I think you are agreeing that language is designed to describe real things, like to "drink" or "mock." But to say that drinking is "good" and mocking is "bad" is where the problem begins. Now you have to find the objective thing which these words seek to describe. You can assign definitions to them all day long, like good = "that which keeps us from killing each other," but such definitions do not reflect anything beyond your own personal or community interests or values, and your mileage may vary.

But you seem to be agreeing with my point when you say that mockery would not exist were we not here to give or receive it. If morality is dependent and derived from subjects, then it is subjective. And if morality is subjective, then it is relative. I don't think we are far from an agreement here. For morality to be objective, it has to be imposed upon us from something prior to, and outside of, our own existence. You do not believe in such an external thing as this that can ground morality, therefore, it would seem that you support moral relativism. It is not as though it is a direct defeater for atheism to admit this (and many atheistic philosophers do so); it's just a problematic worldview to be saddled with.

 
At 8/29/2006 7:01 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
Language is one of those things which is not straightforward. For example the real things it describes are not necessarily real in the same way as each other and it can also describe fictional things. So a table is not necessarily real in the same way that an intention is real. The Emperor of Canada's piano tuner is fictional.
When it comes to problematic worldviews moral absolutism is as beset with problems as any. Euthyphro dilemma anybody?
I think morality does have objective elements that are imposed on us by things that are external to us. These things are the laws of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. At least, whatever the noumenal world equivalent of these things might be. So just as it is an objective truth that driving on the right (or left) works better than a free-for-all, it is objectively true that not attempting to kill everybody else is a useful strategy to be built into our way of thinking. What is it useful for? Our interests, since without anybody around, there would be no interests as we understand them.

 
At 8/29/2006 7:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your article and the comments of others!

Your discussions have been talking about what is real or not real but there is a word that better describes what is at stake here and that is “TRUTH”.

Everything either has a truth or is a matter of opinion. The laws of gravity or the length of an inch have a truth. Whether or not grits are good is a matter of personal preference. Communities can develop majority preferences as their standard behaviors. Eating insects may be a standard preference in one country but considered repulsive in another. Communities can also define their own morals. One community legalizes polygamy and another out-laws it. One community allows cannibalism and people proudly display their dried and shrunken heads of their prey and another is appalled by the act and will immediately send such a person to the gas chamber.

Some say morality is purely based on community standards - what the majority of the community prefers or will tolerate. Others say morality is imposed on us by an external force and it has a finite truth. Some even say that a community has no right to define morality and to each his own morality.

Which is the TRUTH?
If you could find the truth, would you submit to it?
Do you want to know the truth?
What are the consequences of being wrong?
Can the truth be found?

Let's start at the bottom first. Can the truth be found? Yes, if one is willing to seek it with no preconceived opinion. I rebuke bible studiers and other researchers who research with a preconceived opinion because they will accomplish nothing but to twist, bend, omit, or add to what they find to make it fit their already established opinion. But if you will clear your mind of any opinion and start to seek the truth where ever it may lead you then you are more likely to find the truth.

What are the consequences of being wrong? It COULD be the difference of life or death. If I see a snake that every one in my community is unfamiliar with then a truth exists whether it is harmful or harmless. I could ask a million people what they thought before reaching for it, but their knowledge or opinions will not matter. I would not know who to believe. But a truth does exist regardless of millions of opinions. I could get a majority one way or the other but it is still a 50/50 chance they are wrong. The same could be true about the source of morality. Regardless of your personal opinion or public opinion it could be true that morality has a truth of its own and is not merely an opinion or preference. If it is true that morals have a "truth" and if is true that there will be consequences for not abiding by these truths then I think it is worth seeking the truth with great urgency until the day you die. It might be true that a lack of morality does have spiritual life and death consequences. A person could be risking it all by stubbornly establishing an opinion based on what seems to be logical to them or blindly accepting an opinion of another whom they respect. If after death we discover morals were just opinions with no permanent consequences, then nothing was lost in the search for truth but earthly time. But what have we lost if we discover the other was actually the truth and returning to life to correct the error is impossible?

Do you want to know the truth? I can't imagine any sane person saying "No" to this question especially since the stakes could be so high.

If you could find the truth, would you submit to it and live it? Answer this one out loud. (Did you hear what you just said?)

Which is the truth? Regardless of ALL of our OPINIONS, a TRUTH does exist for this issue. One of the other is true. Morality is either imposed on us by a higher power or it is strictly relative to community or individual beliefs. One is harmless but was excellent debate material. The other belief has severe consequences if ignored and shunned.

(If you are still reading at this point I humbly thank you for enduring it till the end for I am no great philosopher, thinker or writer like the rest of you but I am a "Truth Seeker" because I don't want to be surprised out of ignorance or stubbornness. If I have to suffer for my own decisions then at least I want to go down knowing I sought the truth with all my heart and did the best I could with what I sought.)

 
At 8/29/2006 8:36 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Well said anon. You've touched upon what's known as "Pascal's Wager." While it is nothing like a "proof" for the existence of God, it does point out the seriousness of the question. It has emotional force, which is often what manages to win the day in the end.

 
At 8/29/2006 9:31 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

I must admit that although Pascal's Wager may serve to focus our attention, once it has done so the result is inconclusive. This is because I too am a serious seeker of truth. My honest appraisal is that the most likely scenario is the non existence of God. Now, if there is a real God perhaps it will value my sticking to my principles rather than hedging my bets.

 
At 8/30/2006 10:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Psiomniac,

No, it does not have to be inconclusive. If it is TRUE that a God does exists and that it is TRUE that he wants a relationship with those who are sincerely willing to seek him then he will interact with them to prove his existence himself. It then becomes a TRUTH and a reality and no longer just a matter of opinion.

Of course you said many things I could write for hours about but just remember that every thought has its own truth. Whether or not just having good morals is enough or whether or not there is something we must do for the immoralities we have already committed is another truth seeking subject.

Once you have discovered or have proof of the source of TRUTH then finding other truths are easier.

 
At 8/30/2006 2:13 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

It seems as though you still don't want to concede that naturalism implies moral relativism, but I'm confused because you say that moral absolutism is beset with problems as well. Not that I wish to confuse "absolutism" with moral realism, but which is it; which side are you coming down on?

I understand your point about language in relation to fictional things and abstract ideas. However, we both agree that some things are fictional linguistic constructs, like "one-ended sticks." The point of our debate is over whether or not something like "evil" is a real or fictional, though useful, idea. And even abstract ideas, like intentions, hopes, and emotions, are very real things. In fact, my love for my children is more real to me than the existence of neutrinos. You seem to be suggesting that all that is "real" is what is physical, which is the position of many naturalists. This would most certainly rule out something like ethics!

Regarding Euthyphro's Dilemma, it is not so much a challenge to the idea that morality is objective (i.e., originating outside of ourselves), but rather a challenge to the Christian claim about the source of that morality. Even so, I find it to be no dilemma at all. Sam, Jeff, and I have previously dialoged elsewhere (can't remember when/where) on this topic with Dagoods, and you can find a summary of one of the main ways to answering this here.

I see you trying to ground your morality by appeal to physical laws and mathematics. This is an interesting twist, but it would seem to suggest that what is "good" is what nature lets us get away with doing. This would mean that "evil" consists of things like falling down stairs and mismanaging our checking accounts. Unfortunately, nature allows us to do very many things that society finds reprehensible. Perhaps I'm not following your line of reasoning, though.

I still contend that your ultimate "grounding" for morality is the metric of survival and happiness. That is to say, if it helps us all to co-exist in peace with one another, and gives us ample freedom for the pursuit of pleasure, then it is a "good" thing. Unfortunately, this is not a grounding for morality; it is a description for a higher-level ethical theory. You still have two problems to resolve.

1. You have to explain why that model for society is the "absolute." Some may not want to share resources and power, and may derive their pleasure from treating others as objects. You have to give reason why Nazi Germany or Saddam Hussein were "evil" without appealing merely to majority vote or your own opinions on the matter. I know that being nice and all is intuitively obvious, but you have to account for those intuitions and why we are obliged to follow them.

2. Even if you could manage to get everyone to agree upon your own ethical theory, you still would face a host of personal ideas on what passes for socially acceptable coexistence and pleasure. Is voyeurism okay (it ain't "hurting" no one)? Is drug use okay? Is incest okay? Is raising kids to believe in a God okay?

This gets even beyond the grounding of morality to the issue of meaning and purpose to life. If you don't have the one then you don't have the others either. And without these you have a real hard time sorting out the specifics of law and ethics. You must, then, necessarily retreat to some vague survival-mode ethic and then wing it on the details.

 
At 8/31/2006 3:58 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Anonymous,

You said:
It then becomes a TRUTH and a reality and no longer just a matter of opinion.

In which case it is no longer a wager either, Pascal's or anybody else's. So I stand by my assertion that Pascal's Wager is inconclusive.

You also said:
If it is TRUE that a God does exists and that it is TRUE that he wants a relationship with those who are sincerely willing to seek him then he will interact with them to prove his existence himself.
Unfortunately, from what we already know about human psychology, the fact that people report experiences that prove to them that God has revealed himself is consistent with the hypothesis that they are DELUDED.

 
At 8/31/2006 6:15 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
To start with, my criticism applies to those varieties of moral realism that seek to ground themselves in an absolute external authority, such as God. One of the problems of discussing this is all the varieties of sub-species of ethical theory. This is also the problem with moral relativism, as it comes in various flavours. I will concede that naturalism implies the flavour that I was trying to give you a taste of, which is Objective Component Ripple.

we both agree that some things are fictional linguistic constructs, like "one-ended sticks"
Just an aside, this is in a different category to The Emperor of Canada's Piano Tuner, since he or she could exist without logical contradiction, its just that s/he doesn't.

The point of our debate is over whether or not something like "evil" is a real or fictional, though useful, idea. And even abstract ideas, like intentions, hopes, and emotions, are very real things.
Yes I agree that evil could be both real and abstract. In fact you have hit upon what one of the central reasons why ethics does not need God to 'ground' it.

You seem to be suggesting that all that is "real" is what is physical, which is the position of many naturalists. This would most certainly rule out something like ethics!

This is exactly what I have been trying to dispute. Obviously I haven't been doing a very good job. Verbs are real but not physical.

Now, Sam did indeed have a go at solving Euthyphro's Dilemma here and his argument mirrors the Koukl article quite closely. I do not think that this approach satisfactorily deals with Euthyphro. It reminds my of the move in the Cosmological Argument From First Cause, when it is asked: what caused God? Answer: only things that come into being need a cause but God is eternal, He is that necessary uncaused entity which set the causal chain in motion by an act of His divine will. It just does not work. For a more detailed account of why the Euthyphro defense does not work go here.

I see you trying to ground your morality by appeal to physical laws and mathematics. This is an interesting twist, but it would seem to suggest that what is "good" is what nature lets us get away with doing. This would mean that "evil" consists of things like falling down stairs and mismanaging our checking accounts. Unfortunately, nature allows us to do very many things that society finds reprehensible. Perhaps I'm not following your line of reasoning, though.

Well, it is a bit more specific than that. Part of the grounding ultimately lies in physics and the rest but there is the specific context. To make another analogy, birds must behave in certain ways in order to constitute a flock, or with insects, a swarm. In recent research, roboticists have found that fairly dumb robots programmed with simple rules can emulate this behaviour. An individual in a swarm does better than if it gets isolated and vulnerable to predation, if it gets in too close it crashes into its companions. If it starts wondering why it is right to fly just this far but no further from its companions it has asked one question too many in practical terms. No appeal to the Locust God will help either. The situation is a good deal more complicated for humans of course but not necessarily in a way than need invalidate our concerns just because they are ours and not God's.

Now to your final four paragraphs:

That is to say, if it helps us all to co-exist in peace with one another, and gives us ample freedom for the pursuit of pleasure, then it is a "good" thing. Unfortunately, this is not a grounding for morality
Actually I don't see why this is not a good start. I think 'pleasure' is a very narrow conception of the primary goal though.

You have to explain why that model for society is the "absolute."
Why? This is begging the question. If I can give a plausible explanation, within my frame of reference, of why some values are preferable to others what need have I of some kind of 'absolute'? Lets face it, the track record of those who have felt that they had access to some kind of absolute validation has not exactly been fantastic so far has it?

You have to give reason why Nazi Germany or Saddam Hussein were "evil" without appealing merely to majority vote or your own opinions on the matter. I know that being nice and all is intuitively obvious, but you have to account for those intuitions and why we are obliged to follow them.

I do not think a majority vote or my own opinions are the only alternatives. Actually, you and I probably agree on most of the big moral issues. Ephphatha's recent walk to the gas station provided a post that shows that different ethical theories can have convergent conclusions and ostensibly similar ones can have divergent ones. I did not work out my own ethics just by myself so it isn't just my opinion. There is no private language. Also, I am quite sure my ethics would be voted down so what am I left with? The answer is my ethics and my powers of persuasion and the effects of my actions. That is the tough truth we all should face perhaps. Within this though, there is the realisation that everybody else, whether they realise it or not, is in the same boat. And if we don't want to sink, we had better stop squabbling about the colour of the buckets and keep bailing like billyo.

you still would face a host of personal ideas on what passes for socially acceptable coexistence and pleasure. Is voyeurism okay (it ain't "hurting" no one)? Is drug use okay? Is incest okay? Is raising kids to believe in a God okay?

Yes and at least my way this debate would have a rational input rather than be based on an oriental fable. But I do love a quiz so answers:
Voyeurism is only ok with informed consent
Drug use would depend on so many variables that a case by case analysis would be too long to do here. I will have a strong coffee tomorrow morning though.
Incest is not ok. There is good objective psychological and genetic evidence to support this assertion.
As far as raising kids to believe in God is concerned perhaps a better idea is to raise them well in a loving environment with strict boundaries and mutual respect. Then we should encourage the development of their critical faculties, present them with the various truth claims of all the religions in the world and let them decide. I think the result would be better than what we have.

 
At 9/05/2006 10:10 AM, Blogger DagoodS said...

Paul: Sam, Jeff, and I have previously dialoged elsewhere (can't remember when/where) on this topic with Dagoods,…

Since I received a mention, I am inclined to respond for any lurkers out there. That article is a horrible defense of the Euthyphro Dilemma. It appears that the author cobbled together numerous assertions, in the hopes that by blathering on, the reader is subdued into thinking that surely some sort of argument is being made, without providing us any proofs whatsoever. I can point out three areas to highlight:

Character of God To avoid the concept of “it is good because God does it” the author intones that good is not grounded in God, but rather “God’s Character.” Typically, the author fails to distinguish the difference between “God” and “God’s Character.” If they are the exact same, we are left with the horn of this dilemma; I presume the author is claiming they are different.

How?

Imagine a Venn Diagram—you know the one with the circles labeled such things as “Dog” or “Animal” or “Things that start with ‘R’” and we place the circles within, or beside each other to demonstrate interaction of the concepts.

We have one circle labeled “God” and one labeled “God’s Character.” In this author’s claims, how do those circles interact? If they are the exact same, it is no defense. If “God’s Character” is within “God” that would mean there are things about God that are not in God’s character—what? Or vice versa would mean there are things in God’s Character that are not in God.

For any Christian that holds to this claim, that “goodness” is rooted in God’s Character, but not God itself, can you explain how these two circles would look? Thanks.

Moral Intuition To avoid the concept of “God does it because it is good” the author relies upon where we get the concept of “good” from—moral intuition. (Oh, the moral relativist in me wants to have a FIELD day with that one, but I will reluctantly leave it alone.)

The author fails to relate, however, how this is a response to God doing it because He is bound by a higher concept called “good.” We could equally say that God has a moral intuition, and He is bound by that moral intuition.

Worse, our human moral intuition provides us not only with “good” but “evil” as well. Our moral intuition is repulsed by genocide, or human sacrifice, or showing favoritism by punishing the wrong-doer’s family rather than the wrong-doer. For the Christian God, we would equally use our moral intuition to determine God does it because it is evil.

Of course, one could avoid this by claiming a non-moral God, but that is not the Christian depiction of God. Further, a non-moral God is not placed in the Dilemma of Euthyphro.

Lack of Verification One thing the Euthyphro Dilemma points out is that we cannot verify the “why” in God performing or mandating moral aspects. Is He bound, or is he binding?

“Moral notions are grounded in God’s immutable nature” states the article. Merely asserting a response is not a defense to the dilemma! As already pointed out, if having moral notions of good mandate a God that is Good, having moral notions of evil…

But how does the author demonstrate God is immutable (unchangeable)? Can an unchangeable creature have regret? I make the assertion that God IS changeable. What makes my assertion any more or less valid than the authors?

Frankly, the author just makes numerous statements, talking ‘round and ‘round, and never addresses the Dilemma head-on.

 
At 9/05/2006 1:17 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

Okay, it sounds as though you do indeed reject moral realism/objectivism. This is because the only alternative to something that is grounded in an "absolute external authority" (which you rejected) is that morality is grounded in the definitions of subjects. However, you seem to want to retain some form of objectivity, seeking to ground morality in the constraints of nature. But even if there is a reason to conform to nature, it is still a subjective evaluation that we ought to care about that reason and live under the yoke of nature. Why ought we think that the Canadian Goose is being "evil" to reject all concerns about aerodynamic efficiencies, and simply stay all year in the southern range to live and die on his own terms?

The bottom line for your ethic is that good health and peaceful coexistence set the tone for any ethical discussion. But, as I previously mentioned, that is not a grounding for morality; that is a sort of summation of your moral system. You still have to connect that with why we ought to care about good health and resisting offence to our fellow man. There are plenty of other non-theists out there who do not give a fig for such an ethic, and if you tell them not to smoke to avoid lung cancer, and to be polite citizens so we can all live in love and harmony, they will look at you like an alien, if not punch you outright. There is no standard but your own by which you can call them "wrong;" they are just not your kind.

Another problem is that your ethic seems to fall prey to the is/ought fallacy. That is to say, even if nature suggests we will get along best by behaving in a certain way, it still doesn't mean that we must behave in that way. At least the theistic framework connects natural design with purpose and incumbency.

However, I think you are, in fact, perfectly willing to sanction violations of such an ethic wherever it is inconvenient to certain personal desires. For example, remember back in our discussion on Sam's blog on the issue of homosexuality, where we bantered over what the natural sexual design suggests relating to gender relationships? You seemed to be willing to agree that there is a certain design (at least a primary design) and purpose to sex, and that there were intrinsic health risks to abusing and stepping outside of that design, but you thought it permissible for these concerns to be trumped. It would seem that the desire to trump nature would be an extenuating factor in your ethic, which again signals that it is a subjective system in the end, and opens the floodgates in that one person's taboo is another person's rationalized compulsion.

Yet another problem for this system is that you would permit the suppression of the natural consequences of some behaviors. For your system to be objective it needs some fixed anchor. If you wish to bind it to nature, then you must take your cue from it. If nature tells you that same-sex relations or promiscuous sex are unhealthy, then what does it mean for us to make protective devices and medical treatments to remediate the problems intrinsic to such behavior? Your moral prohibitions are as dynamic as the progress of preventative science.

I think your ethic actually rests upon your moral intuitions, which you are right to say that we share. I freely admit that it is just obvious that we ought to, minimally, treat each other in a certain way, though being more specific may hinge upon the answer to certain questions that we dispute. However, even though our moral intuitions may drive us in the end, they are not a grounding for morality. They are only descriptive, not prescriptive. You still have to explain why we ought to follow them (and why to care about your answer, etc.), and further, what the basis is for those intuitions.

If intuitions were in some way the grounding, then you would have no higher standard with which to pick or choose from them what you will hear and what you will ignore. For example, most atheists who affirm common moral intuitions (many do not) tend to attribute them to evolution. But if that's where morality comes from, then it is an inexplicable thing for us to be able to turn our attention to our moral instincts and judge any of them as negative things to be suppressed (and I've heard just about every kind of behavior — good and bad — attributed to evolution). You could only "judge" such things by way of a moral standard that transcends our biology.

And pointing out where theists have gone morally wrong is not a defeater to the idea of objectivity. This is because a) you can only judge that they've gone wrong by way of an objective standard, and b) admitting that morality only makes sense in an objective context does not imply that perfect conformance automatically follows. It may be true that we're both playing the same game, but you believe it is there by chance, has few and foggy rules that may be adapted as needed, and only warrants playing because it profits you sometimes; I believe it is there by design, has complex though fixed rules that are the product of the designer, and is a game of eternal life and death.

Regarding Euthyphro's Dilemma again, I didn't mean to open this can of worms here. Perhaps I should blog on it separately. Personally, I don't even see how this is relevant to grounding morality for humans. No matter how morality proceeds from God, it would still be the case that He has created humans invested with such moral intuitions and is providing the backing for our moral currency. Even if it were merely what He does and commands, it is still transcendent to, and incumbent upon, us. But in any case, it seems more than reasonable to think that the creation and any expectations upon that creation would naturally be in line with the nature of the creator. Would you expect Him to do and command what He does not like? So, when Scripture says things like God IS love and Jesus IS truth, it means such things in an ontological sense. God grounds, authors, has, and is certain things that you would either deny, ascribe to nature, or define by human reason. It occurs to me that if you find Euthyphro's Dilemma problematic for the idea of an author for morality, then it applies just the same to any alternative source which you would propose.

I'm afraid we might be exhausting this particular dialog, since I believe I've repeated some of what has already been said. For this reason, among others, I may have to let you have the last word on this. I see that Dagoods has jumped in, and I need to turn my attention to that now. Perhaps some of that would be of interest to you, though I think that you two differ in your characterizations of morality and the existence of supposed common intuitions.

 
At 9/06/2006 7:28 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Dag,

Even if Euthyphro's Dilemma were unanswerable, it would not defeat the possibility of moral realism, nor does it do any work toward Psio's desire to ground morality in something other than persons or nature. Having said that, I will answer some of your points, entertaining the idea that we could successfully cash out such ideas as character, essence, and time as it relates to a transcendent being.

[T]he author intones that good is not grounded in God, but rather “God’s Character.”

You've conflated two different points, and in doing so you have completely overlooked the most meaningful portion of the answer to the "dilemma."

Greg doesn't oppose grounding good in "God" vs. "God's character"; he opposes the two horns of the dilemma (God's arbitrary decrees / some higher standard than God) vs. grounding goodness in God's character. In fact, it is not at all clear to me why anyone would suggest that God would create and decree things that were not according to His own character in the first place. The "God" vs. "God's character" statement was in the context of defining what one means by "good," not where it comes from. This would seem to deflate your first objection, but I will attempt to answer it nonetheless:

If “God’s Character” is within “God” that would mean there are things about God that are not in God’s character—what? Or vice versa would mean there are things in God’s Character that are not in God....can you explain how these two circles would look?

God's character is a part of God, but is not the whole of Him. His knowledge, essence, being, and power could also be said to be aspects of God, and these are not the same as His character. So if you insist on putting circles within God, you must put all these in as well, though they are different things. Unfortunately, the idea of making attributes and subsets in regards to God for certain things is not necessarily warranted. Even with persons this will fail in certain areas. For instance, if you draw a circle representing me, how will you represent the part of me that is a "man," "father," "husband," and "human?" The whole circle is each of these things; they are not merely areas within me, or parts, like an "arm." In the same way, you could say that God is "love," "justice," or "all-knowing," but you wouldn't say that "love" IS God, or "all-knowing" IS God.

To avoid the concept of “God does it because it is good” the author relies upon where we get the concept of “good” from—moral intuition.

Again, you conflate two points. Greg has previously addressed the dilemma, but here he is simply discussing how it is that we could know this "good," which proceeds from God. This is an issue (in my estimation) because it is not necessarily the case that the creature would know the character of the Creator, and thus goodness. However, given that the good has been grounded in the nature of the Creator, it is then a warranted assumption that self-conscious creatures would find themselves constructed in some way consistent with that nature. Intuitions help us to subjectively see morality. Greg could have gone the route of Revelation, but that is not necessarily required in the scope of his discussion.

[O]ur human moral intuition provides us not only with “good” but “evil” as well. Our moral intuition is repulsed by genocide, or human sacrifice, or showing favoritism by punishing the wrong-doer’s family rather than the wrong-doer.

And it would seem that you affirm the fact that we do indeed have moral intuitions. Or are you merely patronizing my worldview in order to call genocide "evil?" (The moral realist in me wants to have a FIELD day with this one, but I will reluctantly leave it alone.)

For the Christian God, we would equally use our moral intuition to determine God does it because it is evil.

My uninformed moral intuitions tell me that putting a person into a 6 x 6 box for life is evil and that taking a drill to a child's mouth is abominable, but having the additional understanding that one is a serial killer and the other a cavity-riddled, sugar junkie helps to correct my initial impression. This is at least a logical reply to your running theme of the unjust God, though you may find no subjective satisfaction in it.

“Moral notions are grounded in God’s immutable nature” states the article. Merely asserting a response is not a defense to the dilemma!

I believe that Greg's premise that morality proceeds from God's character is a viable tertium quid. That is not just an "assertion"; it is the summation of a reasonable response to Euthyphro's Dilemma.

But how does the author demonstrate God is immutable (unchangeable)? Can an unchangeable creature have regret?

I'm not sure that a response to this "dilemma" has to demonstrate anything about God; it is a logical challenge and need only be answered with a logically plausible reply. You are now stepping into another issue regarding immutability and what Scripture seems to say against God in this area. That is another discussion, which transcends Plato's immediate concern given that he had no knowledge of our Bible.

 
At 9/07/2006 9:37 AM, Blogger DagoodS said...

Paul,

Thanks for the response. Two steps back. I would not have posted a comment in the first place, but you DID mention me, so I thought that may have opened a small door in which to reply. Bet you don’t do that again! *wink*

One step back. You are quite correct that the Euthyphro Dilemma does not eliminate the possibility of moral realism. However, it does bring into sharp focus the problems associated with it. The same problems, not coincidentally, as moral relativism.

If God does it because it is good, there is some higher standard above God, by which good is determined. Is that standard relative or absolute? As we have no possible way to even verify why God does it, any claim as to that standard is pure speculation. We don’t know God, let alone a step further beyond God!

If it is good because God does it, we again have no possible way to verify whether God changes or not. Whether God imposes morality relative to the beings he interacts with. In fact, if good is determinate by God’s whim*, it invites the possibility that such a whim could change, and make the standard of morality (God) relative. If discussing the God of the Bible and his interactions with humanity, this possibility becomes probability. A creature that cannot change cannot have regrets.

(* sidenote on “whim.” Sometimes I get the impression that people define “whim” or “arbitrary” as if God just willy-nilly makes determinations one way today, and a completely different way tomorrow. That is not what I mean by “whim” or “arbitrary.”

The fact that the numeral “7” consists of two straight lines, one longer than the other, connected by approximately a 45 degree angle is “whim.” There is no reason that the concept of “seven” could be represented by a circle with a line through it, seven slashes, or any other representation. But we all recognize “7” and use this as a standard in utilizing mathematics.

When I say “whim” with God, it is possible that God could make a moral mandate and it is the same for all time. It is still not absolute, because there is no reason God could not have chosen some other moral mandate, even the opposite. What God chose was based merely on his particular choice. He was not limited by any fashion.)

Either horn leaves the moral realist searching for what is moral, just like the moral relativist.

Now, in response to your comment.

To some extent, I have never liked the Euthyphro Dilemma because it has all the flavor of a dichotomy. And you know how much I love those. “Either…or…” only asks for trouble. I would love to see someone come up with a third (or more) solution that eliminates the dichotomy.

I am still not seeing it. What I see is parsing out the two horns, answering each one individually, and then claiming that the Dilemma has been responded to. Yes….but with the other horn! The Dilemma is easy to refute if one takes it only one question at a time. It is the two questions together that cause the problem.

The author has invented a new characteristic—“God’s character” (continuing to leave it undefined) and uses it as a tool to defend the dilemma. But since God’s character IS God, it falls on “It is good because God does it.”

Look at the two horns, and the response posed in the article:

Does God do it because it is good?
No, God does it because his Character demands it.

So it is good because God does it
No, good is only part of what God is.

Do you see how neither response provides us with a third possibility? I did conflate two points—because I am responding to an author that is conflating the same points! So what if “good” is only part of God—it is the part we are talking about!

Paul: In fact, it is not at all clear to me why anyone would suggest that God would create and decree things that were not according to His own character in the first place. Not clear to me, either. I would agree that they are one and the same. But that means that God is bound to do it by God. Which places us squarely on the horn that “it is good because God does it.”

If we are to provide a third horn—“God’s character” as the standard by which God is bound, we should define it. Your description did not help in the least.

You say it is “part” of God, but not the whole of him. Using a Venn diagram, I would assume that the large circle is God, and within that large circle, we have a smaller circle that is “God’s Character.” This would necessarily mean that there are things that are not part of “God’s Character” but are still “God.” (Interestingly, His moral compass would have to be outside his Character in order to make the determination to follow His Character, otherwise we have “It is good because God’s Character does it.” But this means God would have the ability (choosing to not do so, of course) to create and decree things that were not according to his character. As this is unclear to you and me, we are left with a mess.)

You say “knowledge, essence, being and power” are also part of God, but not “the same” as his Character. That is a side-step. You are quite correct, they are not “the same” as character, as “character” encompasses all of those things, but are not complete descriptions.

Can you describe for me, what parts of God’s character do NOT include “Knowledge, essence, being and power”? Of course not! They are all included in God, and included in God’s character as well. What part of God’s character does not include justice, love, mercy, grace?

Can you name a single attribute that is NOT in God’s character, but IN God? That is the key question!

By placing a smaller circle of “God’s character” within a “God” circle, we need to determine what is in that larger circle, but not in the smaller circle. (Why I like the Venn Diagram.) All you have done is provide even smaller circles within the “God’s Character” such as “knowledge, essence, being and power” and said, “See—these are not ‘the same’ as God’s character.” True, but that is not what we are looking for.

If we cannot find an attribute of God, in the larger circle, that is NOT in the smaller circle of “God’s Character”, then the two circles are the exact same.

Which demonstrates why the new term “God’s character” provides us with no new information. It is the same as “God.”

Using Venn diagrams, we can see how your example of yourself is incomplete. We draw a circle of “Paul.” We would draw a LARGER circle of “Father” around you. You are either a father (have child(ren)) or do not. There is nothing in you that is “not father” whereas other parts are. You may assume different roles, but even when talking with a customer on the phone, you still fit the descriptive term “father.”

The circle of “father” is larger, because there are fathers that are not you.

Same with you other circles. The term “male” would encompass you, and intersect with “father.” Again, you there are no parts of you that are not male, so you are fully enclosed in that circle. There are males that are not you, so that circle must be larger. There are males that are not fathers, so that circle must intersect (not encompass).

“Human” would encompass. What parts of you are not human?

Your example went the wrong way with circles.

Of course we have moral intuitions. They come from biologic, social, environmental influences.

Paul: My uninformed moral intuitions tell me …(ephasis added)

Not sure how this helps you argument. Any. Are you saying that moral intuitions could be wrong? (Just like I say.) And that we must gauge those moral intuitions “correctness” by obtaining more knowledge? (Just like I say.) And upon learning more knowledge, use that knowledge to “trump” what our moral intuitions initially determine? (Just like I say.)

Remember, the article has claimed that we know what is “good” by “moral intuition.” You seem to be implying that “moral intuition” is not a proper barometer to use, but rather moral intuition coupled with knowledge. I agree.

Unfortunately, we fall back squarely on the problem I already raised—verification. We cannot obtain the knowledge!

If moral intuition is not enough, and we need knowledge too, and God has not provided that knowledge (according to your concept) then we cannot determine what is good! This is my point on genocide. What knowledge has God provided that means your moral intuition has gone from “uninformed” to “informed” other than your presumption that God must have a moral reason for committing genocide?

You have no new information. Any other theistic belief that claims promulgation of its people through the use of genocide is “moral” you would deplore. But because it is your God, it becomes “good” because you suppose your God is good.

Uninformed moral intuition says putting a person in a 6 x 6 box is immoral (with no other information) equally uninformed moral intuition says committing genocide, keeping the virgin females for oneself, and counting up the gold and silver is immoral. The vast difference being we can obtain more information about the person in a 6 x 6 box, we cannot about God’s genocide. You remain at “uninformed moral intuition” status.

Thus rendering the articles way to determine what is “good” as useless.

Of course immutability is a key ingredient. If you want to claim moral realism in an absolute, you must first demonstrate it is an absolute! If it is changing, by definition, it can no longer be absolute. A “changing” absolute is not a logically plausible answer.

If God’s [character] can change, it is no longer absolute. It becomes “good because God does it.”

Scripture says God has regrets. Can a sentient being that is unchangeable have regrets?

Honestly, paul. If the article’s round-robin response is satisfying to you, that is fine. It is not even remotely persuasive to me. If you want to respond, go ahead. If not, that’s fine, too.

I really, REALLY do not mean to make your life miserable answering long comment sections from skeptics. Go play with your children, instead.

Thanks.

 
At 9/07/2006 4:49 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

For this reason, among others, I may have to let you have the last word on this. I see that Dagoods has jumped in, and I need to turn my attention to that now.

I see what you mean.

 

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