Objective Morality: What’s God got to do with it?

I was prompted by this post from S. J. Graham to return to the argument from morality.

The argument goes as follows:

P1. If God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.

P2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

C. Therefore God exists.

I believe that P1 is erroneous in two respects.  Firstly, God’s non-existence would not exclude the possibility of objective moral values and duties.  Secondly, God’s existence could not of itself explain any objectivity that moral values and duties do possess.

Let’s take the question of whether it is possible that objective moral values and duties could exist without God.  William Lane Craig, who favours the argument and often uses it will usually define “objective” as “existing independent of what any human believes.”  Let me concede that most people will think that this is a good definition and will readily agree with it when it is put to them.  Its attraction is that it presents us with a very simple and easily understood example of objectivity.  But I think there’s a bait and switch going on here and that the definition should be challenged.

“Existing independently of any any human belief” is certainly a sufficient condition of objectivity.  But is it a necessary condition?  I think not and if I am right about that, then P1 is fatally undermined.  Examples which do not lie on a spectrum, where there is a clear binary between truth and falsehood, are the most obvious cases of objective truths. But it is a mistake to assume that they are the only examples of objective truths.  

Let me use a thought experiment which my friend Richard Morgan often refers to: the “pile” experiment.  You put an apple on an otherwise empty table.  Do you now have a pile of apples on the table?  No of course not.  One apple isn’t a pile.  You put a second apple on the table.  Now do you have a pile?  No, that’s just a pair of apples.  You put a third on.  Is it a pile now?  No, not really.  Add a fourth.  Still not exactly a pile, not even when you balance the fourth apple on top of the other three.  So you go on adding apples and at some point you’ve got a pile.  Hey!  How did that happen?  

It happened because we all share a language and the language includes a word which we use for our concept of a pile.  The moment when its use becomes justified is a matter of judgment but that isn’t to say that it’s purely a matter of personal  opinion.  When WLC invites us to accept that objectivity requires that something be entirely independent of any human opinion he goes too far.  The test which we apply in many areas is not so stringent and would be better expressed as “independent of an individual’s opinion.”  

If your friend Suzy were to call two or three apples on the table “a pile” you would most likely think that she  did not know the correct meaning of the word.   Ditto if there were a quantity of apples on the table lying on top of each other like a small mountain and she insisted that it did not constitute “a pile.” In neither case would you say to yourself “That is Suzy’s world-view and it is as valid as mine, so I have no basis for questioning it.”  Suzy is just objectively wrong because she has departed from the agreed criteria which govern the use of that particular word.

It doesn’t matter that the word was coined to meet human needs and reflect human priorities.  That alone doesn’t make “pilehood” subjective.  

Nor does it matter that you cannot identify the exact moment at which the apples became a pile.  Many concepts are like this because language is like this, with a built-in fuzziness providing it with flexibility which makes it useful where precision would render it inoperable.   For many concepts (“C”) you go from “definitely not C” at one extreme to “undeniably C” at the other, with some grey areas in between.  But that’s no bar to some statements about “C” being objectively true where the agreed criteria are clearly met.  

Now let me turn to the question of how  the existence of God might relate to the existence of objective moral values and duties.  The problem for the apologist is what is known as “The Euthyphro Dilemma.”  In brief, does God command us to do good actions because they are good?  Or are the actions good because God commands them?   If the former, then God is judging them against a standard which is external to him and so their goodness is independent of God. If the latter, then goodness is arbitrary, simply the result of God’s fiat and ultimately not recognisably objective.

Theists have responded to this by claiming that God does not assign “good” and “bad” arbitrarily. The good is a reflection of God’s holy nature, which is inherently good.

But there are problems with this.  Firstly, if “goodness” is defined by God’s nature then the statement “God is good” becomes a tautology, true but trivial.  Only if God is evaluated against some other referent does the statement amount to a claim with some substance.

Secondly, the morality of an act is still reduced to a sort of brute fact and seems as bafflingly arbitrary as it would be if it were merely God’s fiat.

To illustrate this, let’s imagine that our friend Suzy has died and, as a good Christian, is now in heaven.  She has spent her life trying to promote goodness and fight evil.  With this in mind she has done all that she could to persuade the rest of the world that (say) the death penalty should be abolished.  Suppose that that when she gets to heaven God looks at her quizzically.  “The death penalty campaign, Suzy,” he says.  “What was all that about?  There’s nothing wrong with the death penalty!  I’m all in favour!”  Suzy might reasonably expect the next statement from God to start “Because…..”  Isn’t it reasonable to expect an explanation of why she’s wrong?  And isn’t also reasonable to expect that explanation to consist in something more than “Because that’s the way my holy nature rolls.”   

But if there is any explanation in addition to what accords with God’s holy nature, then we are back to Euthyphro, because it’s the reasons by which God explains his position which are key to its moral rightness  or wrongness, not the fact that it accords with God’s nature.  

Whether you believe in God or not, moral statements are surely more like judgements about when a number of apples becomes a pile than they are like mathematical equations or scientific claims.  There are other types of facts than mathematical scientific ones and maths and science should not be held up as a template which all other facts must meet to achieve the accolade of objectivity.  Could God, if he existed, provide us with the definitive answer to the conundrums posed by trolleyology

Nuanced, complex, multi-faceted, moral issues are not easy to resolve.  But whatever the difficulties,  I cannot see that God is provides a better answer than our own human understanding of what morality essentially is and the criteria by which we decide what is right or wrong.

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33 thoughts on “Objective Morality: What’s God got to do with it?

  1. The argument from morality is a philosophical failure like all the other arguments proposed by Christian apologists. You do an excellent job of demolishing it.
    The very notions of moral values and duties are only useful within specific contexts – ùaking laws, that kind of thing. The trolleyology conundrum has kept philosophers busy for over fifty years, but it would only become relevant to me if I were the fat man in question. In that case, I doubt I would ever argue that my being thrown in front of the trolley was the morally correct thing to do. (Maybe if I were a very selfless person, I would choose to throw myself in front of the trolley. But I’m watching my weight all the same…)
    Discussing moral values is, of course, a fascinating intellectual activity since morality is a commentary on a very wide range of human behaviour. Using it as an argument for God’s existence may be reassuring for some believers. It might send some people scuttling to sign up for Weight-Watchers. But philosophically it is yet another complete failure.
    Objectively.
    Whether you believe it or not.

  2. Hi Frances,

    I recently happened to listen to you talk with Richard and Justin on Unbelievable, which prompted me to visit your blog to see how well you’re faring with picking apart arguments in the philosophy of religion. So far, I’ve only read your ‘Objective Morality: What’s God got to do with it?’, posted on 9 July this year. I hope that you appreciate my response to it.

    Your target in the represented moral argument is (P1), which you’ve suggested “is erroneous in two respects.” These two contentions, as you’ve phrased them, are:

    Contention 1: “God’s non-existence would not exclude the possibility of objective moral values and duties.”

    Contention 2: “God’s existence could not of itself explain any objectivity that moral values and duties do possess.”

    Now, it seems to me that your proposed warrant for Contention 1 is merely a disagreement about what may count as an acceptable meaning of the word ‘objective’. So, what you seem to me to say is summarisable as follows: The meaning of the word ‘objective’, as has been used by (P1) and (P2) of the represented moral argument, need not be defined as “‘existing independent[ly] of what any human believes’”, but need only be defined as “‘independent of an individual’s opinion’”, such that anyone could be “objectively wrong” by departing from some “agreed criteria”.

    I think that you encounter difficulties with your pile example and your definition of the meaning of the word ‘objective’, but I’m willing to set those difficulties aside for the sake of addressing your main argument, to which I hope my above summary is faithful. I.e., let’s say that your pile example and your definition of the meaning of the word ‘objective’ are both fine.

    The problem that you still encounter is this: What you mean by the word ‘objective’ does not match the meaning of the word ‘objective’ in (P1) and (P2) of the argument. You should, I think, be aware that whether you don’t think this is the best or even the only use of the word ‘objective’ is of no consequence for the argument. Since the meaning that is assigned to the word ‘objective’ for the sake of the argument is “‘existing independent[ly] of what any human believes’”, that is all you have to worry about. Indeed, we could just replace the word ‘objective’ in (P1) and (P2) of the argument for any another word, e.g., ‘absolute’ or ‘schmobjective’, so long as its meaning is “‘existing independent[ly] of what any human believes’”. Alternatively, we could just further explicate what is meant in situ, i.e., obligations, permissions and prohibitions “‘existing independent[ly] of what any human believes’”. This is important, because this is the point on which the argument turns. As such, if you ignore this point, then you don’t meet the argument.

    Moving to Contention 2, it seems to me that your proposed warrant is the Euthyphro Dilemma and the assumption that morality is reducible to a brute fact. With respect to the Euthyphro Dilemma, you seem to assume that it encounters no difficulties. You have summarised the standard theistic response to the Euthyphro Dilemma as follows: “God does not assign ‘good’ and ‘bad’ arbitrarily. The good is a reflection of God’s holy nature, which is inherently good.” Indeed, this is, in nuce, a fair representation. But, then you claim that there are two problems with this response, which cause us to fall back into the Euthyphro Dilemma. The two problems that you have noted are:

    1. “[I]f ‘goodness’ is defined by God’s nature then the statement ‘God is good’ becomes a tautology, true but trivial. Only if God is evaluated against some other referent does the statement amount to a claim with some substance.”

    2. “[T]he morality of an act is still reduced to a sort of brute fact and seems as bafflingly arbitrary as it would be if it were merely God’s fiat.”

    First, let’s deal with (1). The first sentence in your claim is quite fine. I cannot see any problem with tautology per se. Indeed, there are philosophers, such as those who adhere to divine simplicity, who would be fine with the tautologicality of the proposition ‘God is good’. However, the second sentence in your claim is problematic, since such a tautology does not imply ‘insubstantiality’ in any sense. Quite to the contrary, those who adhere to divine simplicity, such as Thomists, refer to divinity as ipsum esse subsistens, i.e., the subsistence of being itself. So, I think it is safe to conclude, at least tentatively, that (1) is innocuous.

    Second, let’s deal with (2). I don’t think that we can so easily call goodness, merely because it is one with God, a brute fact. The reasoning for this is to do with the definition of the meaning of the term ‘brute fact’. As I’m sure you know, the term ‘brute fact’ is used in propositions to suggest that such and such is, or exists, albeit without explanation. Some strict uses apply only to that which is, or exists, contingently and without explanation. With this said, if goodness is because it belongs to the very character of God, who is the very fullness of being, then there is an explanation for goodness as such. Thus, we have not yet found reason to warrant the claim that goodness is a brute fact. However, there is another line of thought that may seem open to us. I.e., goodness is, on divine simplicity, said to be one with God. So, can we say that God is a brute fact? That would seem to allow us warrant for the claim that goodness, because it is one with God, is a brute fact. But the trouble with this line of thought is that, unlike of the universe, we don’t think that God is a brute fact. To the contrary, we think that God is a se. I.e., we think that God is his own raison d’être. And, that whatsoever has a raison d’être cannot classify as a brute fact, since a brute fact, by definition, has no explanation. Furthermore, that we think God is a se means that we think he is not contingent, which further illegitimises the thought that God is a brute fact. Now, there are elaborations for what I have said here, but they would require a deeper discussion. We can move into that, if you like, but otherwise I trust that this will suffice to show that (2) is innocuous.

    How does this impact your scenario of Suzy dying and talking with God about her campaign against the death penalty? (This is, by the way—I hope you don’t mind my saying—a very childish scenario, since I have no concept of what the beatific vision could be like, but I don’t think it would be like a dialogue between an undergrad and a philosophy professor. But let us use it nonetheless.) God would be able to say: ‘Opposing the death penalty was wrong because R (where R is an elaborate reason, to whatsoever detail would satisfy Suzy), which is not demonstrative of willing the good of the other as best possible, which is the standard of goodness, which is, by the way, grounded in me as the fullness of being, in which all that is, is.’ This seems to be a little better than your proposed “‘Because that’s the way my holy nature rolls.’”

    Hence, I think that your two contentions, viz. Contention 1 and Contention 2, have not been sufficiently supported to constitute any threat to (P1) of the moral argument, as you have represented it.

    Now, to be sure, I am Catholic. But this response is not my trying to bring you into Catholicism. I don’t even focus on the moral argument or apologetics. I have responded because, as a philosopher, I was interested in the quality of your arguments that you mentioned on Unbelievable, and upon reading this post I thought that you might appreciate some feedback that shows where you seem to encounter some problems, even fatal problems, in such arguments. I hope this gives you more to think about, because it is clear that you enjoy trying to think through problems.

    Best wishes,
    Raj

  3. Hi Raj.

    With regard to contention 1, it is indeed the crux of my argument that to define “objective” as “existing independently of of what any human believes” is too restrictive a definition because, when you think it through, adopting that definition would not only make morality subjective (leaving aside for the moment whether God, if he existed, would remedy that) but it would make subjective a whole host of other things which we normally have no difficulty in accepting as objective. Things like nationality, the exchange rate, colours, classifications of animals, the rules of chess and so on.

    I’m quite happy to concede that the argument from morality is *valid* but it is not *sound* (because the premises are not true in that they rely on misuse of the key term “morality”. I also reject P1 as being a non sequitur but that comes more under the Euthyphro part of my argument.)

    It is as if I were to argue:
    P1.i All monkeys have wings
    P2.i Charlie is a monkey
    C.i Therefore Charlie has wings
    Even if you say that for the purposes of the argument you have redefined the word “monkey” to mean “insect” the argument will still not be sound. You cannot go around redefining words in order to “make” your premises true when they wouldn’t be on any normal use of the word.

    Of course, this cuts both ways. If I’m the one misusing the words “objective” and “subjective” then my argument fails. But I don’t think I am misusing them.

    So, my criticism of the argument from morality is based only on its soundness, not its validity, which I accept hence I ignore it.

    Coming to the Euthyphro dilemma, I am familiar with the “being itself” concept used by Thomists in connection with God. I have to say that I can’t get to grips with what it is supposed to mean. I understand each word in the sentence. I accept that the sentence is constructed grammatically. But I can’t make anything out of the sentence as a whole. I concede that the fault is more likely to lie with me than Aquinas so if you feel able to spell it out for me then I’d appreciate that. For now, perhaps I can just say that I think most people do consider themselves to be making a synthetic statement if they say “God is good” and would be considerably surprised if they were informed that all they’d done was to repeat themselves.

    The phrase I used re (2) was “a *kind of* brute fact” and I used that phrase deliberately because I understand that it is not strictly speaking a “brute fact.”

    One of the characteristics of moral discussions, and one of the reasons that I consider they are properly classified as objective, is that they are reasoned. If I like vanilla and you like chocolate, what’s to discuss? But if I support a woman’s right to choose whilst you oppose abortion under any circumstances, we can talk about it giving reasons to support our views. Putting it all down to God’s decision appears to me to remove that rational basis for discussion and it is that which I consider makes it comparable to a brute fact.

    The Suzy in Heaven scenario was just me being playful. I was just trying to illustrate how morality is something for which we instinctively seek an explanation and are unsatisfied without one.

    When you say that God might say:
    ‘Opposing the death penalty was wrong because R (where R is an elaborate reason, to whatsoever detail would satisfy Suzy), which is not demonstrative of willing the good of the other as best possible, which is the standard of goodness, which is, by the way, grounded in me as the fullness of being, in which all that is, is.’
    I cannot see what is added to the explanation by anything God says after the word “goodness.” Why isn’t the explanation complete at that point? And that explanation can stand alone without God.

    • Thank you for your reply, Frances. I hope that you’re enjoying this exchange. Here are my thoughts in response. (I apologise in advance if this comes to seem prolix.)

      I recognise that you’re discussing the soundness rather than the validity of the argument. I also recognise that the problem you have with its soundness centres on the definition of the meaning of the word ‘objective’. With respect to this contention, you seem to make two important claims.

      On the one hand, you’ve said that the use of the word ‘objective’ in situ seems to make morality, inter alia, subjective, irrespective of God. My response to this is, in nuce, that this is because you want to retain use of the word ‘objective’ to describe morality even though what you believe about morality seems to properly fit the classification ‘subjective’.

      On the other hand, you’ve said that we “cannot go around redefining words”, such as ‘morality’, “in order to ‘make’” our “premises true when they wouldn’t be on any normal use of the word.” My response to this is, in nuce, that, as you have acknowledged, this charge indeed “cuts both ways”, and because I think you want to improperly use the word ‘objective’ to describe what seems properly ‘subjective’, you seem guilty of this misusing words in order to give your objection to premises illegitimate force.

      I’ll address each of these two claims of yours and elaborate on my responses to them in turn.

      Re your first claim: It seems that we have a disagreement on the definition of the meaning of the word objective. To show why I think your usage encounters difficulty, I’ll use your examples of nationality and the rules of chess in terms of the Saussurean model of the sign, which consists of a signifier and a signified. (I could use another model of the sign, but I think that this one will suffice.)

      You have said that you think ‘nationality’ is objective, or is at least usually taken to be objective. I think that thinking this through in more detail may help us, since it seems to me that ‘nationality’ consists of both subjective and supposably objective components, with the supposably objective component usually being identified to synecdochically signify the unity of both components together, which is apt to cause some confusion.

      The signifier, i.e., the word «nationality», is merely a subjective nominal. Its signified, i.e., the concept ‹nationality›, is the subjective supposition of, in the case of ‹nationality›, an objective referent that we who speak English happen to call «nationality». I.e., it is subjective, but consists of the reference to that which we suppose is objective. What justifies this ‘that-which-we-suppose’ as objective? It is, it seems to me, the fact that it is supposed to be that which is, or exists, irrespective of what any human believes. I.e., the fact that it is supposed to be in re, irrespective of whether it is in intellectu, such that we suppose it is not grounded in the human mind. Rather, we think that this ‘that-which-we-suppose-objective’ in the case of ‹nationality›, i.e., gene patterns etc., as grounded in materiality. Notice also that our talk of that-which-we-suppose-objective in nationality is descriptive, not prescriptive. I.e., it deals with supposably observable material, not immaterial imperatives. This is also important.

      Now, I don’t take morality to be much like the rules of chess, but it seems to me that you do. Still, morality and the rules of chess, if they be taken to be similar to each other, both seem quite different to nationality. Why? Because unlike the word «nationality», the words «rules of chess» and «morality» do not have, on your view, it seems to me, any concepts that consist of references to that-which-we-suppose-objective, strictly speaking. Let me explain.

      As I understand it, what the concepts ‹rules of chess› and ‹morality› mean for you are not much more than agreements between subjects. I.e., you seem to suppose that they are not at all materially in re, but immaterially in intellectu simpliciter. To put it another way, you seem to suppose that they are grounded entirely in the human mind. Indeed, this is what gives them their prescriptive rather than descriptive character. Of course, the behaviour that we observe and judge with respect to the rules of chess and morality is supposably grounded in materiality, but such behaviour constitutes neither the rules of chess nor morality per se. We may say that such behaviour abides by or breaks the rules of chess or morality, which is what we may mean when we say that ‘such behaviour abides by or breaks the rules of chess’ or ‘such behaviour is or is not moral’. But we cannot say that such behaviour constitutes either the rules of chess or morality, since that would replace all prescriptivity with mere descriptivity, which would pretty much destroy the concepts ‹rules of chess› and ‹morality›.

      We could, of course, suppose that we have minds—and hence the rules of chess and morality—only because of materiality. But that would only suppose the grounding of minds in materiality. The grounding of the rules of chess and morality would still be in minds, with the rules of chess and morality being supposably grounded in materiality only on pain of the replacement of all relevant prescriptivity with mere descriptivity, which, again, would destroy the concepts ‹rules of chess› and ‹morality›. (I.e., unless what we may be inclined to try to ground in the human mind, such as the rules of chess or morality, we instead try to ground in the very fabric of a kind of panpsychist materiality or the like. But I’m assuming that you don’t want to do that.)

      With this said, your use of the words «rules of chess» and «morality» seem have concepts which refer only to that which is ‘(inter-)subjective’, not ‘objective’. I take it that this is why you have said “that to define ‘objective’ as ‘existing independently of […] what any human believes’ is too restrictive a definition because, when you think it through, adopting that definition would not only make morality subjective” along with “a whole host of other things which we normally have no difficulty in accepting as objective.” Indeed. But my answer to this is that it is still correct to abide strictly by that definition of ‘objectivity’, because problems arise if you try to change it. What problems? I’ll note three.

      First: If you cannot distinguish between the inter-subjective and the objective, then you will not be able to understand what many people would refer to as objective events, such as the accretion of the Earth, which took place, presumably, before there were at least two subjects to inter-subjectively agree about it. If you say that the objectivity that you speak of with respect to morality is different to such objectivity of the accretion of the Earth, then I’ll remain under the impression that you are not speaking correctly about objectivity, indeed, that you are equivocating on the word ‘objectivity’ just to make your objection to the argument work.

      Second: You have claimed: “One of the characteristics of moral discussions, and one of the reasons that I consider they are properly classified as objective, is that they are reasoned.” The problem here is that reasoning is not a sine qua non for what is usually meant by objectivity. Rather, it is a sine qua non for what is meant by subjectivity. That is why we call the (human) subject a ‘res cogitans’ and an ‘animal rationale’. To show why, a rational justification for some claim is always subjective because, as the product of a subject, it differs, strictly speaking, from subject to subject, insofar as it is always within the finitudinal horizon of each subject, which in the case of humans, never completely converge with each other. Hence problems of interpretation, such as with the definition of the meaning of the word ‘objective’.

      Third: By your definition of the meaning of the word ‘objective’, which seems to suggest mere ‘inter-subjectivity’, it seems to me that as long as there is an inter-subjective agreement of the definition of the meaning of the word ‘objective’ that differs from yours, then you are by your own account objectively wrong to say that such an alternate use of the word ‘objective’ is wrong. If you maintain your usage of the word ‘objective’, then you may also have to deal with this problem.

      If I am mistaken about any of this, then I request that you clarify my mistakes for me. What I think may help me is (i) distinguishing between the ‘inter-subjective’ and the ‘objective’ or (ii) justifying what seems to me to be your equivocal usage of ‘objective’.

      Re your second claim: If at least what you mean by ‘objective’, in the context of the moral argument as you have represented it, is in some sense justified, which I think remains to be shown, then I accept that you are correctly using it in at least that sense, albeit with that sense differing from the sense that is meant to be assigned to its usage in (P1) and (P2). The trouble for you, it seems to me, is that this does not cause any trouble for the moral argument as you have represented it. Why not? There are two reasons that I’ll note.

      First: You don’t seem to be at all justified in claiming that we cannot apply alternate meanings to words, even if those meanings are unconventional, and especially if those meanings have been clearly specified to ¬communicate what is meant. I don’t think that you’ve given any reasons to the contrary, so I don’t know what much more I can say about this. However, to keep my justification brief, I merely gesture to the many words that undergo redefinition and thus have polysemic denotation. They are plethoric, but among them you will find the words “thing”, “stuff”, “essence”, “existence”, “being”, “reality”, “ideality”, “world”, “person”, “people”, “subjective”, “objective”, etc.

      Second: As I suggested in my previous response, proponents of the moral argument as you have represented it, have, for the sake of clarity, specified what they mean by ‘objective’ in premises such as (P1) and (P2). You have noted this specification yourself, since your objection depends on it. However, whether you disagree about whether ‘objective’ is the best word to use for the specified meaning in premises such as (P1) and (P2), which seems to be the bulk of your objection, is irrelevant. As I suggested, we could, for the sake of even more clarity, modify the explication of the premises to read as follows:

      P1*. If God is not, then there are no obligations, permissions and prohibitions that bind us irrespective of what any human believes

      P2*. (But) There are obligations, permissions and prohibitions that bind us irrespective of what any human believes

      Personally, I think that this is better phrasing. The word ‘objective’ is, I think, often misused, even in the way that you have represented the moral argument. It is true that proponents of the argument will usually phrase the premises as you have represented them. But such phrasing requires the word ‘objective’ to mean ‘a-subjective’, which I think is silly. You seem to want to use it to mean ‘inter-subjective’, which, if you do, is still incorrect. But I prefer to use it to mean that which is beheld by a subject. (I.e., the object is always the object of a subject.) The justification for this is technical, but unnecessary at this point.

      With that aside, (P1*) and (P2*) are what, dare I say it, any proponent of the argument means by (P1) and (P2). So, now that it is clearer for you, you can deal with it appropriately. Based on what you have said, may I suggest that your difficulty would no longer be with the first premise, but rather with the second premise? If so, then this is fine, so to speak. You are just, to some degree, a moral nihilist. So, e.g., you think that murder is wrong, only if it is inter-subjectively agreed that murder is wrong. Again, please correct me if I am mistaken about this being properly representative of your position.

      With respect to ipsum esse subsistens, for the sake of brevity, I recommend this concise but informative lecture: https://youtu.be/-NMex7qk5GU

      Whether it be true or false that “most people do consider themselves to be making a synthetic statement if they say ‘God is good’”, I would say that the statement is truly analytic. This threatens to open a very technical can of worms to do with distinguishing analytic and synthetic statements, so I’ll try to hold it closed. To me, whether they are “considerably surprised” by the statement in question being analytic rather than synthetic is not a problem for me, because they are most likely neither philosophers nor theologians, and as such don’t think about the question in any profound manner.

      However, I don’t think that the statement “‘God is good’” is by any means banal. I think that this is an informative lecture that may help clarify this point: https://youtu.be/rj-7K7X7UQo

      Giving examples of what we can discuss, you’ve written this: “If I like vanilla and you like chocolate, what’s to discuss? But if I support a woman’s right to choose whilst you oppose abortion under any circumstances, we can talk about it giving reasons to support our views. Putting it all down to God’s decision appears to me to remove that rational basis for discussion”.

      In the case of your liking vanilla and my liking chocolate, this is a question of taste. This is, strictly speaking, aesthetics. But, it filters into ethics, as evident by the emotivist tradition. I take it that what we may call ‘the received view’ in this area is that in such questions of taste, there is no room for a discussion about disagreement. I.e., we either agree or we disagree, and there’s not any more to be understood. I cannot sympathise with this view. I think that there is plenty to discuss, such as reasons for why there is agreement or disagreement. E.g., when my child is ready to talk about taste, I plan to educate my child such that he or she (we don’t know whether it’s a he or a she yet) does not wallow in piggishness, but rather strives for that which is refined in music, food, conversational topics, etc. What this means is that I am quite confident that I can educate people into cultivating their tastes. Indeed, I think I have done so already on many occasions with my students. To put it another way, that you like vanilla and I like chocolate is not the end of the discussion. A fortiori, there is plenty to discuss with respect to the killing of one’s own child in the womb. I’m convinced that it is in every case wrong. I don’t think that you can change my mind about it, not because I don’t think about it, but because I do think about it. However, I think that I can convince you that it is wrong, even though you may not admit that it is so. In the case of vanilla and chocolate, just as in the case of abortion, there is much to reason about.

      Now, does “[p]utting it all down to God’s decision […] remove that rational basis for discussion”? Before I answer this question, I must say that I don’t think we are able to correctly say that it is God’s ‘decision’, as though God merely ‘decides’ that an action, such as the mother’s impaling, dismembering or otherwise killing her own child in the womb, is right or wrong. As the fullness of being, we could read God as an eternal list of categorical imperatives, which in each case demand best willing the good of the other. With that said, to answer the question, I would say, no, this does not remove the basis for rational discussion. Quite to the contrary, it gives us a basis for rational discussion about what proponents of the moral argument as you have represented it call ‘objective’ morality, i.e., a basis for rational discussion about what the ‘obligations, permissions and prohibitions that bind us irrespective of what any human believes’ are.

      To show why this is the case, it may be helpful to draw a clear distinction between moral ontology and moral epistemology. When we say that obligations, permissions and prohibitions that bind us irrespective of what any human believes are grounded in God, we are making an ontological claim about how morality is ‘objective’ or ‘absolute’. To justify this claim is an epistemological endeavour. However, when we are discerning what such obligations, permissions and prohibitions are, we are performing further epistemological investigation. In any such epistemological work, there is plenty to talk about.

      Indeed, these types of discussions are what fill journals and conferences that feature scholars who already agree that obligations, permissions and prohibitions that bind us irrespective of what any human believes are grounded in God, but disagree, or at least have not yet reached agreement about what such obligations, permissions and prohibitions are. Consider the different strands of Christianity that disagree about the morality of homosexual relations or the different strands of Islam that disagree about the morality of barbaric interpretations of jihad. Granted that all disputants involved are open to reason, there is room for discussion and persuasion about the ‘objective’ or ‘absolute’ morality of controversies, but only if we have a ground for such ‘objectivity’ or ‘absolutivity’.

      With respect to our scenario of God and Suzy and my suggestion that God might say R to Suzy, you have said: “I cannot see what is added to the explanation by anything God says after the word ‘goodness.’ Why isn’t the explanation complete at that point?” Well, I think that the only difference is detail. You’ve suggested a response to Suzy that would be unsatisfactory to Suzy because there is unsatisfactory detail. I’ve suggested a response to Suzy that would be satisfactory to Suzy because there is satisfactory detail. Let’s say that Suzy already knows that God is the ground of obligations, permissions and prohibitions that bind us irrespective of what any human believes. There is still much to discover about where Suzy went wrong, the reasons for which would add detail about why her campaign was wrong.

      Again, this comes to a difference between the analytic and the synthetic. It seems to me as though you are mistakenly assuming that synthesis is detailed while analysis is not detailed. In case you are assuming this, I would like to suggest that synthesis may provide detail by the process of amplification (i.e., adding, multiplying) while analysis may provide detail by the process of clarification (i.e., subtracting, dividing). Now, when you say that you “cannot see what is added to the explanation by anything God says”, you seem to be leaning towards the recognition that God’s explanation to Suzy is an analysis of “goodness”, which I take to be correct.

      • Thanks for your response, Raj. I appreciate the time you’ve taken.

        This is going to take me a while. Some of your points I have a rough idea of how I’m going to respond. Others I have no idea at present. I may end up agreeing with you, or at least conceding that I don’t have any adequate answer. Or I may disagree. I don’t know.

        So bear with me and I’ll get back to you.

        Best wishes,

        Frances

      • Hello Raj.

        I am making slow progress with my response to you. I thought that I would send you what I’ve managed so far so you can see that I am working on it. But please don’t respond yet. If you respond while it’s a WiP I’ll just get distracted by your response to that part so I won’t be able to concentrate on the rest of your post and then it will be like the frog in the lily pond and I’ll never finish it.

        Incidentally, my heartfelt congratulations on your impending parenthood. It is a wonderful thing to become a parent.

        Here’s part 1:
        If I am using the word “objective” improperly then absolutely my argument fails. And I will concede (as I did in the OP) that most people will think that the definition of objectivity proposed by WLC (existing irrespective of what humans think) is correct and that it excludes morality.

        But I am not a great fan of definitions. I think they are all too often the way into the fly-bottle rather than the way out. I prefer to look at how words and concepts are actually used by ordinary people (which can be significantly different from the “snapshot” which a definition tries to give of the current use). How people will define a word when they go through the self-conscious process of asking themselves “What do I mean by this word?” is not necessarily the same as how they actually use it when they are talking naturally. So skipping ahead a bit, you will not be surprised that where you are more impressed by what philosophers and theologians think about the meaning of a sentence such as “God is good” than by what ordinary people think, my view is the opposite.

        Nationality and morality are both grounded in physicality. But I am not arguing that they are alike except in the limited sense that both exist only because of humans & reflect human feelings, desires and priorities. In other words, my only aim has been to find an example of something which we regard as objective notwithstanding its dependence on humans for its existence.

        Nationality: We wish to think of ourselves as belonging to a certain group. This group wishes to protect the area in which it lives and assumes an element of “ownership” over it. As society develops and becomes more complex the areas become larger. And so the idea of “Nations” is created and from it the idea of the “nationality” of the inhabitants.

        How we settle what parts of the land belong to which nation is a very complex matter and people have gone to war to settle it. Then there is the further complication of deciding how we attribute nationality to people who are connected with that area of land. That is another human construct and is not resolved by genetics. But because there can be disagreement at the margins (physical as well as intellectual) it does not follow that it cannot be a matter of objective fact that Paris is in France and that Francois Hollande is French.

        I’m not sure if I follow your argument on morality/rules of chess and behaviour. I wouldn’t say that the behaviour either of a chess player or of a moral agent in themselves constitute respectively the rules of chess or morality. The rules of chess and morality are both non-material. They are concepts. Both are, I suppose, dependent on materiality, less so perhaps in the case of chess than morality (because morality is concerned with actions which require a material being, whereas I suppose chess could be a purely mental exercise.). But maybe I haven’t quite got your point here. If so, please run it past me again.

  4. That was lovely, Raj. All is forgiven.
    I live in Toulouse, France. When you come here to visit the relics of Thomas Aquinas, you must let me take you out for a coffee.
    Oh – and please forgive me for being what I am, alas. A grouchy old Welshman.

  5. Hi Raj.

    Here comes part 2.

    Dealing with the three problems you say arise from my use of the word “objectivity” in turn.

    First – I agree we use words to make distinctions. A word that could mean virtually anything means virtually nothing. In fact it is exactly this consideration which drives my argument against classifying morality as “subjective” simply because it arises from human needs/wishes/desires as I think it makes so many things subjective that it no longer provides any useful distinction.

    The distinction which I consider to be significant and which people are actually thinking about in my view when they consider P2 is the distinction between matters of personal opinion and taste and matters which are not simply down to individual opinion. When people readily agree that objective moral values and obligations do exist then I believe they are only concerned with rejecting the idea that morality is simply whatever the speaker wants it to be.

    Those who use the argument from morality will usually fall back on this to justify their argument. “If morality is not founded on God, then literally anything can be claimed to be moral. The holocaust. Eating new born infants. Nobody could gainsay the claim of a rapist that to him rape is good and moral!” I think that people rightly reject the notion that morality could be so entirely anarchic. But they do not think through the question of whether the only alternative to this catastrophic slide into total relativism is that morality must be like the accretion of the Earth. I agree that there is a distinction to be made between the statements “murder is wrong” and any statement about the accretion of the Earth. But that distinction is not so great nor so useful as the distinction to be made between either of those statements and “Broccoli tastes horrid.” That is the useful distinction which in my view you are losing when you use complete independence from any human views at any stage as the test for objectivity.

    So in my view it is not me who is equivocating but those who use the argument from morality.

    It has occurred to me whilst I have been composing this response to you that if the argument were phrased as follows:
    P1 If God does not exist then there is no objective basis for moral values and duties.
    P2 There is an objective basis for moral values and duties.
    C Therefore God exists.
    Then my objections to it would change. I would still say that P1 is a non sequitur but I would reject P2 for the same reasons that I would reject the claim that there is an objective basis for nationhood and nationality whilst accepting that statements about nations and nationality can be objective. (Again, I am not saying that morality is like nationality any more than I imagine that you are saying that it is like the accretion of the Earth. There are parallels with how they can be objective is all.)

  6. Hello Raj. Now at part 3.

    Second- I don’t think that I would go so far as to claim that reasoning is a sine qua non of objectivity. I would say more that what is objective is what can be true or false. The fact we use reason to discuss morality is an indicator that we understand the question to be one which will admit of a right or wrong answer so can be true or false. Perhaps it amounts to the same thing, but “sine qua non” is not how I’d express it.
    Is it your position that a proposition can be subjective and yet at the same time [objectively] true or false?
    When you say that reasoning is actually the sine qua non of subjectivity, I don’t understand (is this too meta?) your reasoning. If we take a proposition which I think both of us would agree to be subjective: “Broccoli tastes horrid” then if I’ve understood you right this ought to be something where we would in principle use reason to resolve disagreement. But I can’t see how reasoning could conceivably come into it.
    If I’ve misunderstood your point here, please put me right.

    Third – you have to some extent anticipated one of my points, which is, we are both discussing what is meant by “objectivity.” You say that I am using the wrong meaning. But is there an objectively true or false meaning to the word? If so, where did it come from?
    My view is that there is an objectively correct meaning to the word. You may remember from the UB broadcast that I am a Wittgensteinian so it won’t surprise you when I say that the meaning is its use. If there were a substantial change of use so that it meant something different, then my argument would no longer work. But because that would represent a shift in meaning, the argument from morality would also have shifted and would no longer be the same argument that it is now even if it used the exact same words in the exact same order.

    Where you say “inter subjective” and “objective” I would adopt the (non-binary) distinction between metaphysical and epistemological subjectivity and metaphysical and epistemological objectivity. This is a distinction made by Sandy LaFave in this article http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/subjective_objective.html
    She is obviously drawing on John Searle’s distinction between ontological and epistemological objectivity.
    I hope that makes my position a bit clearer.

  7. Raj – gosh, sorry this is such slow-going. Part 4 below:

    //The trouble for you, it seems to me, is that this does not cause any trouble for the moral argument as you have represented it. Why not? There are two reasons that I’ll note.//

    Your two reasons:
    //1.
    You don’t seem to be at all justified in claiming that we cannot apply alternate meanings to words, even if those meanings are unconventional, and especially if those meanings have been clearly specified to ¬communicate what is meant. //

    In one sense we can apply alternate meanings to words. This would be on the Humpty Dumpty theory of language (in which a word means whatever the speaker wants it to mean.) Humpty Dumpty used the word “glory” to mean “a nice knock-down argument.” It’s a free country and of course nobody can stop anybody else from using words to mean something other than what they are generally supposed to mean. But the motivation for having any discussion at all about “morality” or “objectivity” comes from the importance we attach to the concepts that the common usage of those words denotes.
    In fact, my understanding of your criticism of my argument is that it (my argument) fails precisely because I am using “objective” to mean something it just doesn’t mean in ordinary language. And as I have already said, if you are right about that then I am wrong in my argument.
    Of course, I agree that language evolves. But that doesn’t mean that any word can be used at any time in any way by anyone. Language depends a on there being accepted (and acceptable) uses and any use outside that, unless one is speaking in some sort of agreed code is a misuse.
    So in brief, if I am misusing “objectivity” then I fail. If WLC et al are misusing it, then they fail because nobody cares whether morality is objective or not, if by “not objective” you mean something that everyone else considers to mean “objective.”

    //P1*. If God is not, then there are no obligations, permissions and prohibitions that bind us irrespective of what any human believes

    P2*. (But) There are obligations, permissions and prohibitions that bind us irrespective of what any human believes//

    I suppose I was sub-consciously remembering this when I wrote earlier that if the argument were phrased in terms of moral duties and values having an objective basis, then I would reject P2. So, yes, I think my argument here would be with P2*.
    I think when you say
    //So, e.g., you think that murder is wrong, only if it is inter-subjectively agreed that murder is wrong.//

    That isn’t quite an accurate representation of my position. It is central to my position that any moral statement forms a part of a system and that that that system is undergirded with a general recognition that pain and suffering are bad whilst pleasure and flourishing are good. So the relevant agreement is not as to the specific examples of morality but as to the underpinning system. The statement “Murder is wrong” can only make sense in the context of there being a wider system of morality of which murder can be considered a part. In much the same way that “Francois Hollande is French can only make sense in the context of what a nation is and how we attribute nationality to people. To adopt your phraseology, the inter-subjective agreement is not as to the individual person but as to the criteria we use for determining the nationality of any individual person.

    Thanks for the link. I’m going to put the issue esse subsistans question on the back burner for now to give me time to read (and inwardly digest) the link then I’ll post a follow-up if I have any response. But I want to deal with the other (more accessible) aspects of your post first.

    Part 5 to follow.

  8. Raj – the end is in sight!

    I agree that you can educate a person’s tastes. I believe aesthetics to be objective in much the same way as morality is. It is objectively true that William Shakespeare is a better poet than William McGonagall. I say that because there are established criteria by which we judge such things. But that is very different from my preference for vanilla versus yours for chocolate, because there are no agreed criteria for determining which of those is better. That’s just a matter of individual taste. If you think it can be reasoned about, how would you reason me out of preferring vanilla and into preferring chocolate?

    Re abortion, I would never imagine that you had not thought about it. I would be very surprised if your view on the subject were anything other than a well thought out one – as is mine. My view on vanilla is not well thought out, or thought out at all. It just is what it is.

    But – please put me right if I’ve misunderstood you – doesn’t the fact that you believe you can reason and educate people out of their tastes and their moral views,mean that both must be subjective? You said:
    “….reasoning is not a sine qua non for what is usually meant by objectivity. Rather, it is a sine qua non for what is meant by subjectivity.”

    When believers discuss the morality of homosexual behaviour or ways of conducting jihad, their discussions will often focus on their scriptures and it will be scriptural interpretation on which their argument is based. Obviously, that’s never going to form any part of my reasoning process. It has its place in a religious context because (I surmise) the believers proceed on the basis that as a matter of fact God knows what is best for human welfare and if he has said that something is wrong then he must know that it will ultimately be contrary to human welfare to do that act. An adherent of classical DCT might disagree but very few people do adhere to classical DCT these days (as far as I can tell).

    So what is left when you take out the religious texts? And of what is left, why is it not every bit as coherent and compelling if you disregard God? If God is not specifically appealed to in your arguments, then he is like a handle that can be turned although no other part of the machine moves with it.

    I would make the same response to your comments on God’s explanation to Suzy. The explanation is complete without God. If God’s explanation to Suzy is an analysis of goodness – if it is necessarily true – then what role is left for God to play? Why can’t an analytical truth exist independent of God?

    Apart from anything I may want to add once I’ve had the chance to try to get to grips with your link on ipsum esse subsistans, that I think is it for now, so I hope you’ll come back to me on what I’ve said. Just to try and flag up my core points:
    – The criterion for “objectivity” used by proponents of the moral argument (independent of human thoughts and opinions) is excessively restrictive.
    – The criterion I propose (epistemological objectivity) more correctly reflects the way people in fact use the notion of what is or isn’t objective.
    – When morality is discussed with a view to arriving at a reasoned agreement, we do not need to invoke God. Since God is not part of the reason for justifying (or opposing) the action, the justification must be independent of him and cannot derive from him.

    • Hi Frances,

      Just letting you know that I am reading your responses and I have begun to write a response of my own. I may be delayed due to some urgent work, but I promise a response.

      Thank you for the time you’ve taken in what you’ve written, despite your other commitments,
      Raj

    • Hi Frances,

      My apologies for this delay; I’ve been very busy lately. I’ll try to organise my response with subheadings, which I hope is an improvement on my previous response.

      Wittgensteinianism: word usage and language games
      As a Wittgensteinian, I suspect that you are familiar with Wittgenstein’s talk of language games. More important than the tenet that the meaning of a word is determined by its use is the tenet that any such use is bound within the structure of a language game. This means that you can have a word, say, “objective”, and use that word in Frances’ language game or the language game of the moral argument, etc., but its meaning is legitimately different in each case, only because of its use in each case. Now, as I said, the use of the word “objective” in the language game of the moral argument is even explicated for you. Thus, you should not have any trouble accepting it. For you to continually try to argue that the meaning of the word “objective” inside the language game of the moral argument is not correct because it differs from the meaning of the word “objective” in another language game, e.g., Frances’ language game or some other language game, does not seem to make sense especially on a Wittgensteinian view. It is not at all a strong objection, especially on a Wittgensteinian view. It seems to me that if you want to have success in your attack on the moral argument, then you must meet it on its own terms and show that it is incoherent. I.e., you must play within its own language game. So again, this comes back to the main point, which is that you must deal with the meaning that is given to (P1) and (P2) by proponents of the argument, which we can further explicate as (P1*) and (P2*).

      Your apparent concession
      As you have said: “If I am using the word ‘objective’ improperly then absolutely my argument fails.” But, on Wittgensteinianism, it seems as though you are using the word “objective” improperly, even if only due to your disregard of the properly respective language game in question. You have said: “my understanding of your criticism of my argument is that it (my argument) fails precisely because I am using ‘objective’ to mean something it just doesn’t mean in ordinary language.” But I do not mean to suggest this, at least insofar as what you seem to mean by “ordinary language” is one harmonious language, which is none other than what the concept of Wittgensteinian language games elides. You have said that “[l]anguage depends […] on there being accepted (and acceptable) uses [of words] and any use outside that, unless one is speaking in some sort of agreed code is a misuse.” Unlike Wittgenstein, I tend to think that we can have private languages, but that aside, I will accept this claim. The problem for you here, it seems to me, is that on the language game of the moral argument, and, although it is beside the point, in other quite conventional moral language games, the word “objective” as it is used in (P1) and (P2) is acceptable and accepted as constitutive of an agreed code.

      Furthermore, I have already explicated what proponents of the argument implicitly mean by (P1) and (P2), which use the word “objective”, viz. (P1*) and (P2*), which omit usage of the word “objective”, and, on this more explicit rendition, we seem to have an accord. I.e., in order to avoid (C), you want to deny (P2*). That is the typical atheistic response, as exemplified by Nietzsche, Sartre, et al. To be clear, in response to my saying that “you think that murder is wrong, only if it is inter-subjectively agreed that murder is wrong”, you seem to have suggested “[t]hat isn’t quite an accurate representation of” your “position”, merely because “[t]he statement ‘[… m]urder is wrong’ can only make sense in the context of there being a wider system of morality of which murder can be considered a part”, such that “the inter-subjective agreement is” about “the criteria we use for determining” this wider system of morality. In your case, you have assumed “that pain and suffering are bad whilst pleasure and flourishing are good.” However, it seems quite clear that these criteria are none other than, on your own view, at best inter-subjectively agreed upon by at least some percentage of humanity. So, they are not “objective” in the sense that other language games, e.g., that of the moral argument, would consider “objective”, viz. it is not a question of “obligations, permissions and prohibitions that bind us irrespective of what any human [subject] believes”.

      By contrast, the proponent of the moral argument believes that there are “obligations, permissions and prohibitions that bind us irrespective of what any human [subject] believes”, which is intuitively knowable for all of us. Thus, that proponent will grant (P2*), which is what is meant by (P2), and progress to (C).

      On the motivation for the discussion
      You have said: “the motivation for having any discussion at all about ‘morality’ or ‘objectivity’ comes from the importance we attach to the concepts that the common usage of those words denotes.” Furthermore, you have said: “nobody cares whether morality is objective or not, if by ‘not objective’ you mean something that everyone else considers to mean ‘objective.’” However, I disagree with this, insofar as what some one group of subjects means by some word may entirely miss the point of what some other group of subjects means by that same word, such that the motivation could be merely in the attempt to understand what significance each group in question gives that word, whether the significance each group in question holds for that word is adequate, with respect to common usage and conceptual exploration and investigation, etc. This, I think, is the case with our dispute.

      On the example of nationality and use of the word “objective” in many non-moral language games
      I have made a mistake here. I was reading “nationality” as “race”, and the two are certainly quite different. Insofar as this is the case, I better understand your use of the example of nationality. With this said, I would now say that nationality is considered “objective” by people, but only granted some subjective assumptions, however complex they may be, that such people would share. In the case of nationality, this is very complex indeed. But let me try to relate this to the question of morality, which can be treated with more simplicity. I assume that some people may think that, if you and I were to agree, (inter-)subjectively, that you and I should commit some one type of act X and should not commit some other type of act Y, yet, unlike you, I do not commit X or do commit Y, then I would be “objectively” in the wrong by the very fact of our (inter-)subjective agreement.

      I can accept that people may use the word “objective” in this way. In fact, I am happy to use the word “objective” in this way, granted what I have previously stated about what I think the strictly correct use of the word “objective” is: “the object is always the object of a subject.” Alas, the difficulty that I have with this is that it seems to be founded entirely on (layers of) subjectivity, viz., inter-subjective agreements, among which is the inter-subjective agreement that inter-subjective agreements should bind us, which entirely misses the point of what is meant by “objective” in the moral argument. To put it another way, despite the way that people may otherwise use the word “objective”, “objectivity” in the way that the moral argument uses it is not at all strengthened by any amount of inter-subjectivity.

      On the examples of the rules of chess and morality
      In these examples, I was trying to draw a parallel between the rules of chess and morality, trying to show that, on your view, both are merely inter-subjective. I was saying that, on a materialistic view, the rules of chess and morality indeed require material, e.g., for human bodies to demonstrate them and for human minds to hold them. But the rules of chess and morality, on your view, must be grounded in minds and not only in bodies, because unlike grounding in minds, grounding in bodies would make the rules of chess and morality principally descriptive like the physical laws of nature rather than principally prescriptive like the civil laws of culture, and this would destroy the very concepts of the rules of chess and morality. (All of this, assuming that you do not want to ground the rules of chess and morality in panpsychism…) But, this limits the rules of chess and morality, insofar as they are prescriptive and not merely descriptive, to mere inter-subjectivity amongst humans.

      The LaFave Essay
      Consideration about the idealism/realism debate and related concepts such as subjectivism and objectivism are very much in my area. E.g., I recently wrote a highly condensed treatise on Meillassoux’s concept of correlationism, which I am now in the process of expanding into a book. Quentin Meillassoux is arguably the leading philosopher in the contemporary idealism/realism debate; my paper “expertly” delivers, as reviewers have said, a “powerful” critique of his position. I say this only to make clear that this is my area. Now, I take issue with many, although also agree with some, of the claims that LaFave has made. In nuce, I am a correlationist, which is to say that I am a realist who is sympathetic towards idealism or an idealist who is sympathetic towards realism. For me, the line is blurred; I am neither an idealist nor a realist simpliciter. Like Meillassoux, I would say that LaFave holds a profoundly naïve, even dogmatic, position, which critique would lay bare. Claiming that this is a Christian response, as she would seem inclined to do, has no force, because Meillassoux is an atheist. Her argument seems to be this: “For example, if you really believed that tables and chairs didn’t exist, you wouldn’t walk around them. You do walk around them. So you’re not really skeptical about their existence.” This is a very poor argument; indeed, it is reminiscent of Samuel Johnson’s naïve attempt to ‘refute’ Georges Berkeley. From the little that LaFave has said here, I think that she would find getting around Berkeley quite difficult, not to say much at all of Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Martin Heidegger, et al., whose works I deal with in view of this question. Yet she has said that the debate about subjective and objective ethics is parallel. This does not give me much confidence.

      The most important point LaFave makes, as I think that you rightly indicate, is her Searlean distinction between metaphysical and epistemological subjectivity and objectivity.
      Insofar as I understand her claim, she says that: “metaphysical subjectivity” is that which is dependent on at least one subject (i.e., an experiencer); “metaphysical objectivity” is that which is independent of any subject (i.e., an experiencer); “epistemological subjectivity” signifies any matter of opinion insofar as its primary relevant evidence in question is metaphysically subjective (e.g. someone’s experience of qualia); and, “epistemological objectivity” signifies any matter of fact insofar as its primary relevant evidence in question is metaphysically objective (e.g., even some other that appears to be an experiencer of qualia).

      Working with these definitions, she asks “are ethical statements mere matters of opinion?” Her immediate answer is that “[m]ost philosophers would say ethical statements are NOT mere matters of opinion, because there is wide interpersonal and intercultural agreement about what sort of person is a good person, and what sort of behavior is morally problematic.” This answer in the negative is consistent with her claim that the response to the statement “‘Vanilla ice cream tastes better than Drano’” would not be “‘Well, that’s YOUR opinion’.” The problem here is that it is indeed a matter of opinion, even on her own definition, since the mere fact that everyone questioned about a preference for the taste of vanilla vis-à-vis Drano, even if they all say that they prefer vanilla over Drano, are giving their opinion on taste. Of course, granting her otherwise highly questionable assumption about metaphysical objectivity, we could say that it is a matter of fact that everyone questioned prefers the taste of vanilla over Drano. But, this is merely a matter of fact (if that) that everyone questioned has a similar matter of opinion, since, by her own definition, a quale is metaphysically subjective, and a taste is a quale, which constitutes epistemological subjectivity.

      Aside from other confusions, she says this: “If an event is metaphysically subjective, claims about it can still be epistemologically objective! For example, consider pain again. If you had severe and unexplained pain, you would probably go to a doctor who would treat the pain as well as the underlying physical cause. There are even doctors who specialize in relief of pain. There are well-recognized physical drugs and therapies for pain relief. In other words, there’s [sic] all kinds of epistemologically objective knowledge about what is metaphysically a subjective occurrence.” This is merely that which I have tried to clarify above: that, granting questionable assumptions in her view, matters of fact can be about matters of opinion.

      However, this does not at all seem to help us out of ethical subjectivism, as she hopes. At best, it merely shows that we can have intersubjective agreements and call any transgression thereof an objective transgression (of those intersubjective agreements). Notice, however, that the very foundation upon which those intersubjective agreements are based is merely a matter of opinion, about which any use of “math or logic” is only an overlay.

      In her conclusion, she says: “I’ve tried to show here that the subjectivist is wrong. Pain is felt, but it is more than ‘just feelings’: there’s a lot more we can say about pain than ‘I feel it’ or ‘Ouch!’ In the same way, morality is more than ‘just feelings’ and there’s a lot more we can say about it than ‘I feel it’ or ‘Yuck!’ or ‘Yay!’. What we’ve just shown is that although moral feelings exist in a metaphysically subjective way, there can still be epistemological objectivity about them.” Respondeo: Yes, on her view, we can say more about both taste and morality than the notifications of our subjective experiences of them, but, still on her own view, all objective discussion is merely about whether we agree on the subjective experiences of taste or morality. Hence, she is still very much a subjectivist, even if kicking and screaming.

      On the Suzy case and the distinction between the synthetic and the analytic
      You have, supposing that “[t]he explanation is complete without God”, said: “If God’s explanation to Suzy is an analysis of goodness – if it is necessarily true – then what role is left for God to play? Why can’t an analytical truth exist independent of God?” First, I would say that I cannot find any truth that has utter independence from God, not even with respect to mathematical objects or any other aspect of the so called Platonic host. Second, I would say this: “Analysis” means “the conceptual separation into parts of a whole (i.e. clarification)”. (By contrast, “synthesis” means “the conceptual combination of parts into a whole (i.e. amplification)”.) God is supposed to be the very whole of goodness, viz. “the Good”, the moral imperatives of whom, which are necessary only insofar as we can say that he is necessary, may be analytically pondered only insofar as he is analytically pondered. Likewise, when we do “good” acts, we do them only insofar as we participate in “the Good”. (This is the famous theory of participationism, which requires far more background to sufficiently discuss. Alas, basically, we, ens creatum are only insofar as we are ens participateonem, “for [only] in him do we live and move and have our being”, as says Acts 17: 28, a premise at which even a mere philosopher of being such as myself can arrive.)

      I hasten to stress that when I talk about God as a list of moral imperatives, this is very much only analogical language. I in no way think that a list of moral imperatives exhausts or even properly addresses God, since I am very much an apophaticist. Alas, we must make do with our language… Furthermore, morality is of principle theological concern, as is evident by enquiry into the allegory of the Fall. It is not a mere tree of knowledge simpliciter from which Adam and Eve eat. God, insofar as it cultivates the eudaimonia of his people, wants knowledge for us. Conversely, Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; by eating of its fruit, they take it upon themselves to decide for themselves what is good and what is evil, as if it were utterly up to them. So, what we know from this is, at least, that people of the Book recognise that morality is not grounded in them, but rather in God, from whom moral imperatives issue, which are merely discerned by us, not at all decided by us as if they were utterly up to us. This is the same truth at which the moral argument points, albeit from natural instead of revealed theology.

      Conclusion
      This, I think, addresses your central points. I have omitted responses to what I have considered to be peripheral points, just in an attempt to make my response concise, which I hope that you’ll forgive.

      Best wishes,
      Raj

  9. Raj, I enjoyed your response when I finally understood it after much Googling. However I must confess that I still do not know if you consider that the Moral Argument for the existence of God actually works or not. As a “counterapologist”, this is clearly Frances’s main concern.
    So, pray tell us, in words of no more than four syllables and avoiding Latin expressions and the word “merely”, what you think about the effectiveness of the Moral Argument.

    Oh – and I thought you would enjoy this comment about LeFave that I found on the site Rate My Professors:

    “I find LaFave arrogant, and she refuses to admit when she’s wrong. She’s too narrow-minded to teach philosophy, her reliance upon Star Trek and sexual analogies to make her points gets weird after a while, and I like her dog but it’s disruptive in class.”

    • I’ve missed speaking with you, Richard.

      I will say that I think that the moral argument works, but that it is only as strong as its second premise.

      Yes, I did very much enjoy that review of LaFave. (However, I shudder to wonder what some of my students say of me…)

      • How can we distinguish the difference between moral imperatives which are discerned by us and those that are decided by us? This question becomes important in the context of the current theist/atheist debates. Apologetic arguments are generally encountered when Christians, encouraged (erroneously) by 1 Peter 3:15 try to convince atheists of the wrongfulness of their world-view. The atheist would be justified in calling “Foul!” after the the second word in P1, or even P1*.
        Certainly P2, and even P2* can provide us with ample matter for discussion, but since you will already have lost the atheist at P1, as an argument, it doesn’t even get off the ground.
        In my opinion.

      • The distinction between discernment and decision, terms which I have employed ad hoc, is a distinction in terms of disposition. Just to be clear, I have used “decision” to signify the disposition of thinking that moral norms are made by us while I have used “discernment” to signify the disposition of thinking that we merely try to discover moral norms that are not made by us. Now to what I think your main question truly means. We are able to tell whether moral norms are made by us or not made by us through what I have suggested is our moral intuition, which is what is teased in (P2) and (P2*).

        Will an atheist cry foul on reading the word “God” in (P1) or (P1*)? Maybe. But, if so, then that atheist is merely begging the question (a logical fallacy), since the argument is meant to lead a reasonable atheist to the acceptance of God.

      • I’m afraid that your reply only muddies the issue – from an atheist’s point of view. You talk about the disposition adopted when choosing moral imperatives (“I made them up myself” versus “I discerned what God has predetermined”) but that is of no help in enabling an outsider to distinguish between the two.
        The Mormon, the Muslim and the Maronite (for the sake of alliteration) are unlikely to discern the same moral imperatives, but they will all claim to be acting from a disposition of discernment. The reasonable atheist could only deduce that each believer discerns that which he has been programmed to discern, confirming the aphorism, “We see what we believe”.
        The atheist crying “Foul” on hearing the word God is actually pointing out the circular reasoning fallacy already present in P1 / P1*.
        TBH, I even have concerns with the wording of P1 in Frances’s OP. Whenever I have explained the Moral Argument to someone who was previously unfamiliar with it, (about 99.99% of the population in France!) then asked them to recite it back to me, they do not say “If God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.” Without exception, they say, “If God did not exist then objective moral values and duties would not exist.” This instinctive reformulation is very telling, don’t you think?
        As I have pointed out elsewhere, Thomas Aquinas’s Five Ways,or Proofs were addressed to those who already believed in God. His readership was in a totally different language game than modern atheists.

        PS Everybody is familiar with Schrödinger’s Cat. Isn’t it time we made a place for LaFave’s Dog?

      • Richard, I’m afraid I do not agree with you. The reasons are as follows:

        First, that moral norms are discerned rather than decided is intuitable, as per (P2) and (P2*), irrespective of (P1), (P1*) or (C).

        Second, that moral norms are discerned rather than decided does not clearly suggest that they are grounded in God unless and until whatsoever other candidates for their grounding are accepted or shown to be untenable via further reasoning.

        Third, that (P1) and (P1*) use the word “God” does not mean that (P1) and (P1*) beg the question, simply because (P1) and (P1*) are conditional (i.e. if-then) propositions; they don’t say that “God is (not)” but “if God is (not)”.

        Fourth, that different discerners discern different morals is a problem, but beside the point for this question, because mistakes can be made in discernment even though the disposition of the discerner is that of discovery rather than invention.

        Fifth, the “reasonable” atheist, to suppose “that each believer discerns that which he has been programmed to discern” would ipso facto be doing away with reason, since discerners have reasons for what they discern that cannot be completely explained by “programming”.

        Sixth, I do not find the French people’s reformulation of the moral argument to be telling about much other than their façon de parler.

        Finally, yes, let us make room for LaFave’s dog.

  10. Hello Raj,

    Thanks for your response. I particularly appreciate it because I am sure you must have a lot on your plate at present.

    This time, rather than going through the whole of your argument I’d like to start by focussing on your first heading: Wittgensteinianism: word usage and language games
    I think we are in danger of simply talking past each other until we can get some agreement on this aspect. I particularly want to get to grips with the question of whether or not it is appropriate for me to base my attempted refutation of the argument on the fact that I do not accept the definition used for the word “objective.” If we can get to some agreement on that then we can move on to other aspects of the argument but I think there is no point in trying to do so unless we can resolve this fundamental issue.

    Previously you said:
    ” I recognise that you’re discussing the soundness rather than the validity of the argument. I also recognise that the problem you have with its soundness centres on the definition of the meaning of the word ‘objective’. ”
    But when you say:
    “if you want to have success in your attack on the moral argument, then you must meet it on its own terms and show that it is incoherent. I.e., you must play within its own language game”
    I cannot understand how this does any more than go back to the validity of the argument – which of course I have already conceded.

    Whether or not an argument is sound requires us to look at the premises of the argument and to judge them by standards which are external to the argument itself. One of the ways in which the argument can be flawed is by key terms in the argument being used in ways which do not comply with normal usage so that what the argument only appears to prove some point of general interest when what it is in fact doing is proving some less contentious or less interesting point, by re-defining words to mean something less important/interesting/contentious than they usually do.

    An example: A wants to prove that women should not be allowed to vote. He (I hope I’m not being sexist in assuming this is an attitude more likely to be found in men than women!) has an argument to establish this which he calls “the Argument from Inferiority” which runs like this:
    P1A – A society should not allow any of its inferior citizens to vote
    P2A – Women are inferior to men
    CA – therefore women should not be allowed to vote.
    For the purposes of this argument “inferior” is defined as “Being on average shorter than the comparison group.”

    That argument is valid. But it is not sound. Of course one respect in which we might both say it was unsound would be P1A, which I imagine we would both reject. But It would not be at all inappropriate to attack the argument on the basis that P2A is wrong because that is not what “inferiority” means. It would in no way be an adequate response to such an attack to say “If you want to attack the Argument from Inferiority you must meet it on its own terms and show that it is incoherent.”

    Have I misrepresented you in some way by this analogy? If so, please explain where I have gone wrong.

    Can we agree that there is nothing wrong with attacking an argument on the basis that it misuses certain terms and if it is misusing terms then it is no defence to say “But I have explicated that term”?

    • Hi Frances.

      Yes, I think focusing on the most central point of your criticism is the best course.

      I do not think that showing the argument to be incoherent must mean showing that it is invalid. There could be coherence problems within premises, which are questions of soundness. So, I still accept that you are trying to attack the soundness of the argument via an attack on the meaning of the word “objective”. I just don’t think that this is a strong attack, for the reasons that I’ve already given.

      You’ve said: “Whether or not an argument is sound requires us to look at the premises of the argument and to judge them by standards which are external to the argument itself.” Agreed. This is what I mean by saying that you should “meet it on its own terms”: the relevant standard in question with respect to the terms of the moral argument is not a language game that is quite divorced from the language games of moral discourse, specifically, the language games in which the moral argument fits.

      Also, use of the word “objective” in the moral argument may very well not be a case of redefining a word. That is an assumption that you are making, which I am just granting because I don’t think it is important. We already know that words such as “objective” and “subjective” are highly contentious; I do not know of any point in history at which their meanings were fixed or even respectively monosemic. But, even if relevant moral discourse does redefine the word “objective”, which I am happy to leave uncontested, because, as I said, to me it does not seem like an important point, that alone does not render the argument unsound, since it makes what is meant by that word in that context very clear and we must use some word in order to express what we mean. Many people, especially in moral discourses, but also in other discourses, have chosen to use “objective” as that word. But, if you take issue with it, then you should try to understand what they mean by the word and then avoid usage of that word by instead finding either a better word or a better string of words to use in order to communicate what is meant. Otherwise, you are not even engaging with what the argument means. Indeed, you are trying to impose your own alternate meaning on it, via a superficial reading of one of its phrasings, which is the source of the triviality that you sense.

      So, as I suggest, try to find what the argument is supposed to mean, and then, if you think that the word “objective” is inappropriate for that meaning, which is a very minor objection, just phrase the argument differently in order to say accurately what it is supposed to mean. That is what I did for you in (P1*) and (P2*), but this did not solve the problem for you. That is fine, but only if you take issue with those rephrasings, in which case you should propose alternate rephrasings; all of this before you try to attack what the argument is supposed prove. This is what is often referred to as demonstrating the principle of charity: i.e., make an argument as strong as you can, in order to try to best do justice to it, before you try to knock it down, since to do otherwise is akin to trying to knock down only a straw man. But, so far, you seem to be doing the converse, i.e., making an argument seem as weak as you can, as such doing injustice to it, which is akin to attacking a straw man. This is why proponents of the moral argument will not feel threatened by your current criticism.

      Quickly, to your inferiority example. This is not a parallel case, since I don’t know of any such accepted usage of the word “inferior”. By contrast, there is widespread usage of the word of “objective” with which you take issue. Yet, even still, I would be happy to grant your phrasing of the argument from inferiority as it stands, and just work with it on its own terms. I would note that I don’t think “inferiority” is used conventionally in this case, and I would suggest rephrasing the argument to use words conventionally, but that would not stop me from dealing with the argument on its own terms or at least dealing with what is meant by the argument. By contrast: use of the word “objective” in the moral argument is consistent with conventional usage of that word in at least some moral and non-moral discourses; even though you take issue with usage of the word “objective” in the moral argument, you have not tried to reformulate or yet seem to accept any reformulation of the argument in a way that avoids use of the word “objective”; and, this has been enough to stop you from engaging with the argument on its own terms and even with what is meant by the argument.

      Your final question, with further nuances for the sake of accuracy: “Can we agree that there is nothing wrong with attacking an argument on the basis that it [assumedly] misuses certain terms and if it is [seemingly] misusing terms then it is no defence to say ‘But I have explicated [what is meant by and in the process also avoided using] that term’?” My response: Certainly not, for the reasons that I have given.

  11. Raj, For the avoidance of doubt I am perfectly happy to accept that moral values and duties do not exist independently of humans. I am just not happy to allow the use of the word “objective” to describe that situation because I believe it to be misleading. I do fully understand how the argument works for those who propose it but I am more concerned with the way it works on a popular level. Those who propose the argument will generally develop it by claiming that without God all moral statements are merely a fancy way of expressing dislike or describing what is fashionable. They do not (charitably) ever explain “Of course, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. There are many things, such as the rules of chess, or grammar, or monetary value or what constitutes a nation, which are equally the result of human concordance and without humans to impose them on the world would simply not exist. And you may think that there is more to deciding whether or not some person is a citizen of the U.K. than simply taste or fashion. So a moral statement can be ‘objectioive’ in that sense – but just not in the sense I am using it for this argument.” If they would do that then I doubt that I would have much to say on the moral argument.

    When in relation to my last question you say “Certainly not” can you clarify – certainly not what? Certainly not, we can’t agree? Certainly not, it is no defence?

    • Hi, Frances.

      Great; I think we are approaching some sort of an accord.

      I accept that you are in opposition to usage of the word “objective” in the moral argument because of how it sounds “on a popular level”, rather than how it is used in its scholarly context. That is fine; I take no issue with that. As you suggest, there is a nuanced discussion to be had about what moral norms are thought to be if they are not thought to be proper reflections of God qua the Good. Indeed, there is much discussion about this on the scholarly level. However, on any such atheistic view, at bottom, it is difficult to see just how morality would not be merely relative to what any human or association of humans thinks in a given place at a given time.

      Of course, such species of atheistic moral theory might not rely merely on types of emotivism, which is what would limit moral norms to questions of taste. However, how would such seeming relativism defend itself against charges of being a type of fashion? Certainly, we can bring into such a discussion questions of legality, etiquette, etc., which would add nuance. Alas, legality, etiquette, etc., are properly recapitulations of morality. Laws are instituted and enforced principally because they are motivated by moral persuasion or perversion. Etiquette is observed principally because it is motivated by moral (and legal) persuasion or perversion. Making this point salient is the entire purpose of the famous argument of Antigone against King Creon; viz., concerns of morality, and slips thereof, are how concerns of legality, etiquette, etc., arise. So, they don’t seem to help us in an attempt to explain the profundity of intuitable moral norms any more than the cart pulls the horse. In other words, such nuances do not seem to permit species of atheistic moral theory to escape charges of relativistic fashion. , we may think that we can ground species of atheistic moral theory on reason alone. But in such attempts, when we encounter those who seem to be terribly reasonable (more so than or even equal to us) yet entirely disagree with what we may consider an undeniable moral norm for any reasonable person, case in point, Nick Land—just see his The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism (An Essay in Atheistic Religion)—we are usually forced into having recourse to that which is more or less akin to taste. How else would you say to a reasonable person that human flourishing is not, as that reasonable person may quite successfully argue, a bad to be avoided? Or how would you say to a reasonable person that profligate wastage and gratuitous violence is not, as that reasonable person may quite successfully argue, a good to be pursued? Other than that which is, at bottom, more or less akin to taste, we could plausibly appeal to God qua the Good, but this is that which the atheist in principle cannot do.

      That, although admittedly pithy, does not seem to be an uncharitable rendering of the problem that faces anyone who denies the theistic position, I think. Do you agree? Veritably, many philosophers will go into quite detailed discussions about why they think this to be the case, exploring alternatives ad nauseam. This is the purpose of a plethora of books and journal articles, contrary to your claim that proponents of the moral argument do not render their opposition charitably. So, this is a point on which I disagree with you.

      To be sure, we agree that “there is more to deciding whether or not some person is a citizen of the U.K. than simply taste or fashion”, as we have discussed, but, for the atheist at least, that is where morality and nationality become disanalogous, it seems to me. (I do not think that nationality and morality are anywhere near coextensive, but that the latter runs much deeper than the former—beyond what you mean by “objective”, to that which is, for the atheist at least, “simply taste or fashion”.) Yet, if this is not the case, then you may be able to provide a sufficient response to the problem that I think you face, which I have indicated above.

      To your question: “When in relation to my last question you say ‘Certainly not’ can you clarify – certainly not what? Certainly not, we can’t agree? Certainly not, it is no defence?” Your question, with nuances that I added for the sake of accuracy, was this: “Can we agree that there is nothing wrong with attacking an argument on the basis that it [assumedly] misuses certain terms and if it is [seemingly] misusing terms then it is no defence to say ‘But I have explicated [what is meant by and in the process also avoided using] that term’?” The response that I gave was this: “Certainly not, for the reasons that I have given.” By this, I mean both that we cannot agree “that there is nothing wrong with attacking an argument on the basis that it [assumedly] misuses certain terms” and that we cannot agree that “it is no defence to say ‘But I have explicated [what is meant by and in the process also avoided using] that term’”. Reasons: on the one hand, there are some cases in which merely “attacking an argument on the basis that it [assumedly] misuses certain terms” is all but nocuous for that argument, as is in the case of your attack on the moral argument; and, on the other hand, explicating what is meant by any disputed term, and in the process also avoiding any use of any disputed term, makes this quite clear.

      I cannot see how you would reasonably disagree with this, since you have said: “I do fully understand how the argument works for those who propose it but I am more concerned with the way it works on a popular level”; and, “I am just not happy to allow the use of the word ‘objective’ to describe that situation because I believe it to be misleading.” As I suggested, I am happy to grant all of that. However, this leaves the meaning of the argument entirely untouched. All you seem to want to do is suggest how moral norms are complex enough to be reasonably classified as “objective” in at least some sense. But, since what you mean by “objective” is not “that which binds us irrespective of what any human believes”, which is what is meant by “objective” in the moral argument, and, since, even if the proponent of the moral argument accepts your exclusive reclamation of the word “objective”, the moral argument can be appropriately rephrased without using the word “objective” at all, as per (P1*) and (P2*), the moral argument stands unscathed.

      But, there is more. You have said: “I am perfectly happy to accept that moral values and duties do not exist independently of humans.” That is, you deny (P2*), which, as I said, is a typically atheistic move, reminiscent of Nietzsche, Sartre, et al. Yet, the moral argument does not let the atheist slide into moral nihilism so easily. Rather, consideration of the moral argument pushes the atheist to accept (P2*) with other questions—such as whether it could be wrong to torture a beautifully innocent young child (who neither understands nor consents to the torture), through much pain and tears, to death, for no other reason than the satisfaction of the torturer, even if every living person was convinced by, say, a Landian, that such torture is right—to pump the atheist’s intuitions. The anhypothetical principle that no atheist can honestly think that such torture is not a gross violation of what is truly right is why we say that moral norms which “bind us irrespective of what any human believes” are intuitable, even if intuitable by a human.

      • Thanks Raj. I am about to leave the UK to drive to Poland & will be out of the country for a couple of weeks. This shouldn’t unduly affect my ability to post a response but if there is some delay, you will understand.

        Sent from my iPhone

        >

      • You posit the question as to “whether it could be wrong to torture a beautifully innocent young child through much pain and tears, to death,”?

        How do the words beautifully, innocent, young and child affect the moral issue here. Would there be a different moral issue if we spoke of torturing an ugly old Welshman to death?
        If so – what is the difference that needs to be taken into account?
        If not – what was your purpose in using a beautifully innocent young child in your example?
        In your mind, is it obviously more morally wrong to torture to death beautifully innocent young children than horrid old Welshmen? You wouldn’t be making appeals to cheap emotion in a supposedly philosophical argument, would you?
        Oh, and Raj, you need to answer this question if you wish the rest of your argumentation to be taken seriously. ( I also need to knw if I should avoid you the next time you are in France…)

  12. Raj – oops, I accidentally hit Send too soon. I also wanted to ask you about the morality of torturing to death an innocent, thirty-three year-old, Jewish carpenter. Is that always morally wrong? Or do we need a bit of special pleading here?

    • Hi Richard.

      Your questions, with my responses:

      Q1. “How do the words beautifully, innocent, young and child affect the moral issue here. Would there be a different moral issue if we spoke of torturing an ugly old Welshman to death?”

      Respondeo: Assuming that all else pertinent to the question between the child and the Welshman is equal, such as innocence, consent, etc., there would be no difference in the moral wrongness of the torture. However, use of the child rather than the Welshman gives the intuition a stronger pump by which to recognise the moral wrongness of the torture, even though that moral wrongness would be the same in both cases. This may be prima facie seen as an appeal to cheap emotion, but in some sense that is the purpose of a strong intuition pump. Emotion may be cheap, but it is not always to be entirely discarded. Often, emotion can be a manifestation of the moral voice of conscience, which would be the case in this scenario and which becomes evident once we seriously contemplate on the rich cause of that cheap emotion.

      Q2. “I also wanted to ask you about the morality of torturing to death an innocent, thirty-three year-old, Jewish carpenter. Is that always morally wrong? Or do we need a bit of special pleading here?”

      Respondeo: Was it wrong for us to crucify Christ? Yes. Hence Christ’s words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23: 34). We don’t need forgiveness if we have committed no wrong. As he said: “It is not the healthy who need a healer, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2: 17). Was it wrong for the Father to give the Son for the purpose of such a sacrifice? No. A simple reason is the consent involved by Christ, who is wisdom itself. The Father did not force the Son into the torture. On the contrary, the Son’s “state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and become as men are, and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross” (Philippians 2: 6-8). Insofar as the Son did not cling but instead accepted and assumed this act of passion, he freely chose it. This is only a simple reason of why there is no special pleading here.

      I hope that this means we can still meet in France!

      • However, use of the child rather than the Welshman gives the intuition a stronger pump by which to recognise the moral wrongness of the torture,….
        Raj – I’m begging you. Please don’t do this! Saying that torturing a child is easier to recognise as morally wrong than torturing an old Welsh guy is making the case for the subjective nature of moral values, not objectivity!!! Just as your frequent appeals to intuition place moral judgement firmly in the emotional reactions of an individual, thus confirming its subjective nature. “It feels wrong, therefore it is wrong.”
        As Ravi Zacharias once said, “In some cultures you love you neighbour; in others, you eat them.” Which intuition should you trust? Your Christian up-bringing or the rumblings in your tummy?

        ***

        “The Father did not force the Son into the torture.”
        Sure, but God was relying on Christ’s consent. If Christ had said, “Actually, Father, this is all a bit much for me. Can’t you find someone else?” then the plan of salvation would have been a little compromised, don’t you think? So to an outsider, it looks as if Christ didn’t have much choice. Which removes one of your justifications for the moral rightness of torturing to death a thirty-three year-old Jewish carpenter.
        I’m just saying….

      • My pithy responses, only because I’m writing with my phone just before I nod off to sleep:

        On the one hand, with respect to your contention of (Q1), you seem to be confusing, or at least trying to confuse, moral ontology with moral epistemology–the former can be “objective” while the latter can be “subjective” (in the language game of the moral argument, which I suspect that you’re here using). I refuse to accept their confusion. Please also note that I do not consider emotion conclusive, but suggest that emotion is at least in this case a manifestation of the moral voice of conscience, the moral norms of which are only thus intuitable. I don’t think that overly simple appeals to complex differences of customs between sociocultural groups is commendable, since no one is saying the moral disagreements never arise, even amongst non-cannibals. The point that I am making is that via intuition, we could even homogenise the heterogeneous differences that arise between sociocultural groups. This would be in line with the serious reflection that is involved, which can be quite easily carried out by devoted discourse. Does this not already occur? Think of many moral debates, e.g., in bioethics, which I teach.

        On the other hand, with respect to your contention of (Q2), I don’t think that you have much of an argument here… If you want to claim that it is legitimate to interpret the very words in Scripture that quite clearly indicate Christ’s act was a free choice instead mean that he did not have a free choice, then you are welcome to do so. But I will not take you seriously.

      • Richard, I apologise for the abruptness of my last response. I was tired and, in all honesty, somewhat irritated. I can provide you with a more comprehensive response if you would like one, but I cannot provide it now. I am becoming quite busy again; I must prioritise some work. But, if you would like a more comprehensive response, I will provide you with one as time permits.

  13. Hello Raj.
    There are still some misunderstandings to be ironed out, I think. I notice from you recent reply to Richard that you are busy, so I am not expecting a quick reply by any means.

    Words acquire baggage and you cannot strip them of their baggage by the simple expedient of saying; “I am not using this word here with that baggage.” Hence Wittgenstein’s challenge: “Say ‘It’s hot in here’ and mean ‘It’s cold in here.’ Can you do it? If you can do it, how is it done?”
    So I think where you perceive key terms being misused in an argument you are wrong not to challenge this robustly.

    I think there are other problems with your response to my question.

    Firstly, when you say: “your question with nuances that I added for the sake of accuracy”. A question is not accurate or inaccurate. A question may be pertinent (or not) and by re-phrasing it you may make it more or less so, but inevitably as a result it will be a different question. So I have asked you a question and you have not answered it but you have answered a different question. I would like it if you would answer my actual question or give me reasons why you consider it inappropriate to do so.

    Is your question, the one with added nuances, more pertinent than mine? I think it is less so. Let me explain why. Your question is a secondary and derivative question which we can only answer once we know the answer to my (original) question, which was the primary and foundational question. What I mean by that is that we cannot answer any question about what we may do if x *appears* to be the case unless we already have a clear idea about what we may do when x is *actually* the case. You have burdened your version of the question with complications about assumptions and what seems to be the case which are of no relevance to the underlying principle. All your re-phrasing does is to confuse two issues which should be kept separate, i.e. the legitimacy of a particular method in general as opposed to its applicability in specific case.

    Secondly, when you say:
    //Reasons: on the one hand, there are some cases in which merely “attacking an argument on the basis that it [assumedly] misuses certain terms” is all but nocuous for that argument, as is in the case of your attack on the moral argument//
    what do you mean by the phrase”all but nocuous for that argument” ? Was it a typo? Did you mean to say “all but INnocuous”? Or possibly “far from/anything but nocuous”? Any of those would make sense within the context of this discussion and your stated position, but if you intended to say what you actually wrote, then you are going to have to explain it to me, because it seems to run contrary to what you are arguing.
    Anyway, assuming for now that you intended to say was that in some cases attacking an argument for misusing certain terms might fail to damage it, that is true but that has nothing to do with whether such an attack is *in principle* a legitimate move. It has more to do with the fact that some counter-arguments simply fail. But as above, their failure need not be because they are illegitimate.
    And since you have said that this reason will only apply “in some cases” what do you say about the remaining cases?

    You say that I should deal with the Argument from Morality “on its own terms” and prove it to be incoherent. But I do not think the Argument from Morality is incoherent. I think it is wrong, which is a very different thing.

    If the two premises in the Argument from Morality are rephrased to say:
    P1* If God does not exist then there are no moral norms which bind us irrespective of what any human believes.
    P2* There are moral norms which bind us irrespective of what any human believes.
    Then I reject P2*, but that does not lead to moral nihilism.

    How can I deal with the Argument from Morality any more on its own terms than by saying this?

    Like Richard Swinburne, I regard moral truths as necessary truths. Also like him, I reject the notion that this requires God. Of course, some people (probably you are one of them) will say that God is needed for there to be any truths, necessary or otherwise. But this is a different argument and if the Argument from Morality depends on it, then it it is disingenuous to present it as a simple stand-alone argument when it really depends on a foundational argument, one which would win few adherents on a popular level (which is where the Argument from Morality finds great – and in my view undeserved – success.). I do not think William Lane Craig is going to net many fish with an argument that runs:
    P1.i If God does not exist, then objective truth does not exist.
    P2.i Objective truth does exist
    C.i Therefore God exists.

    Morality requires two things in order to exist:
    1. It requires sentient beings. In a world where nothing could suffer, nothing immoral could take place.
    2. It requires beings who are capable of forming and understanding complex abstract concepts.
    As far as we know only humans meet this criterion, which is why morality cannot exist without humans to recognise the “family resemblance” between all those behaviours which we identify as having something in common and which we conceptualise as “morality.” This recognition is indeed intuited. So is the family resemblance between the plants we categorise as “trees.” Being intuitive does not mean that there is a Platonic “tree” which exists independently of us and which we are intuitively measuring individual plants against in order to determine whether or not they are objectively “trees.”

    Perhaps you would try this thought experiment as an illustration of what I mean.
    Imagine that you are a linguist who has been sent to make contact with a tribe so remote that it has no contact with the outside world for thousands of years. Suppose you are tasked with compiling a dictionary for translating their language into English. You observe the tribe carry out a practice of torturing a child to death. They tell you that they do it because the action is “muspilli.” You must work out what meaning this word has so that you can include it in your dictionary. What observations might you carry out or what questions might you ask which could lead you to determine that the correct translation “muspilli” is “[morally] good”?

    When you say
    //no atheist can honestly think that …torture [of a child to death] is not a gross violation of what is truly right is why we say that moral norms which “bind us irrespective of what any human believes” are intuitable, even if intuitable by a human.//
    That is true. No human can believe this because to try to argue it would do violence to our shared language, of which moral concepts are a part, just as no human could honestly think that a daisy is a tree (unless they do not understand one or both of those words.) The reason why neither of those claims is genuinely arguable is a linguistic, not a theistic, reason.

    I am not familiar with the work of either Nick Land or Georges Bataille. I started to read “The Thirst for Annihilationism” and was duly horrified, not by the philosophy that Land espouses but by the pretentious verbosity he uses to express it. I had a few tries at reading it but on each occasion was in almost physical pain after only a couple of paragraphs.
    You say that a follower of Land’s could argue for the moral goodness of torturing a child to death, but you do not say *how* it could be done. If it can be done, I should like to see how. So I will soldier on and read whatever he has to say as to why torturing a child to death would be morally good but please could you direct me as closely as possible to the place where I will find this argument (or a comparable argument).

    When you say that we agree that there is more to deciding whether or not someone is a citizen of the U.K. than taste or fashion but that it seems to you that that is where morality and nationality become disanalogous for the atheist, you do not explain why you think this. Again, the “why” is the crux of the argument. (And incidentally – why only for the atheist? The qualification implies that they are analogous for the theist and that for the theist this analogy remains good at all levels. Is that what you mean?)
    I do not think that the law is co-extensive with morality. I have never made that claim.

    So, in summary:
    – moral truths are necessary truths. If all necessary truths require God, then this needs to be specifically argued, not left as an unspoken underlying assumption.
    – morality is a concept which acknowledges a similarity between some voluntary behaviours.
    – the necessity of moral truths derives from the rules that we are obliged to adhere to in the human activity of using a shared language.

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