Monday, April 16, 2007

Objective morality

I was wondering if you could respond to some material critiquing objective morality and affirming moral relativism. I guess
you are a moral absolutist, so I would be interested in hearing your reply to these:



"A primary criticism of moral objectivism regards how we come to know what the 'objective' morals actually are…”



"A primary criticism of moral objectivism regards how we come to know what the
'objective' morals actually are. In science one can perform objective
empirical tests of claims, but there are no such objective tests for moral
claims. At best one can point to a widely accepted authority. But if this
authority has no objective way of obtaining moral truths itself, then our
knowledge through that authority is still corrupted by subjectivity. In
addition the authorities quoted as sources of objective morality are all
subject to human interpretation, and multiple views abound on them. If morals
are to be truly objective, they would have to have a universally unquestioned
source, interpretation and authority. Therefore, so critics say, there is no
conceivable source of such morals, and none can be called 'objective'. They
claim that even if there are objective morals, there will never be universal
agreement on just what those morals are, making them by definition unknowable."

1. Among other things, this assumes a particular epistemology which the writer needs to defend rather than take for granted. For example, a mathematician doesn't operate with an empirical criterion, for mathematical entities are abstract objects.

2. Scientific claims are also subject to human interpretation.

3. The writer is conflating ontological objectivity with epistemic objectivity. Even if moral norms or absolutes are subjectively intuited and/or acquired, this doesn't mean there are no objective moral norms at the metaphysical level.

4. Apropos (3), it hardly follows that if "If morals are to be truly objective, they would have to have a universally unquestioned
source, interpretation and authority."

i) To begin with, that would invalidate his scientific standard of comparison, for he would have to say that if scientific evidence is truly objective, then it must have a universally unquestioned source, interpretation and authority. But no such scientific consensus exists.

ii) He also confuses knowing right with doing right. But it's quite possible for someone to knowingly do wrong. Indeed, that happens all the time.

Someone may do the wrong thing simply because he wants to do it. It benefits him. Selfish, instant gratification.

5. He ignores Christian ethics. In Christian ethics, God is sovereign over our subjective life as well as our objective life.

The fact that we appropriate many things at a subjective level does not, of itself, rule out objective norms—even at the epistemic level. Not if you factor divine providence into the equation. God is responsible for our social conditioning. Our character traits. Our subconscious and conscious mental states, &c.

Conversely, it may be God's will that some men lead immoral lives. That would not invalidate objective moral norms. Such men continue to violate the law of God, but they do so because they serve as an object lesson.

"Objective denotes something which exists regardless of whether there are beings who perceive it or not."

That's fine as far as it goes.

"The word objective only makes sense when it is used for those things which affect reality...Thus an objective morality would be a morality which exists regardless of the existence of beings able to perceive it, and it would also leave its marks in reality. An objective morality, thus, would be empirically detectable."

This is highly debatable.

i) For example, there are metaphysicians who believe in abstract objects or abstract universals which subsist outside of space and time.

And some of these are unexemplified universals, like counterfactuals grounded in possible worlds.

ii) Or, let's take the relation between the past and the future. Both are objective, but the past affects the future whereas the future does not affect the past.

If I have a grandson, I have an affect on my grandson. If I didn't exist, he wouldn't exist. But it doesn't follow that if he didn't exist, I wouldn't exist.

Moreover, he could be born after I die. So he has no affect on me.

His misdefinition of objectivity will undermine much of his subsequent argumentation. So I don't need to directly comment on everything that follows from his misdefinition.

"Since it is quite impossible to know whether it is right or wrong to kill six million Jews, there is no foundation for the statement that it is true that it is right to kill Jews. We could not verify it empirically. If we could, it would be a task for science to find out what is right and wrong, but since we can't it is not a matter of fact, but of opinion."

He's assuming, without benefit of argument, that sense knowledge (empiricism) is the only form of knowledge.

What about intuition? What about revelation?

He may reject these sources of knowledge, but where's the argument?

"The obvious conclusion of this essay is that we must take personal responsibility for what we allow to be the motives of our actions."

But he calls himself a moral nihilist. He denies objective morality.

So how is a moral nihilist in any position to obviously conclude that we must take personality for our motives and actions?

Zorathruster claims to have a 20-point critique objective morality. Actually, there's a lot of redundancy in what he says. Variations on a few basic arguments.

I guess he thought it would be more impressive to come up with 20 objections rather than boil them down to five, give or take.

"Necessarily any moral code or ethic that could be called objective would need to be transmitted or presented through a medium that would eliminate the influence of humans to maintain a level of objectivity."

How is that necessarily so? Where's the supporting argument?

1. He confuses ontological and epistemic levels of objectivity. Something could be ontologically objective whether or not we're aware of it.

2. If the elimination of human influence is necessary to maintain objectivity, then he must deny, not merely objective morality, but objective knowledge. All fields of knowledge would be undercut by his criterion.

Yet he seems to speak with a dogmatic degree of confidence about what is knowable or unknowable.

"All other forms of life adhere to the natural selection and survival of the fittest."

This assumes the truth of naturalistic evolution. But evolutionary theory is subject to human influence. It's a human mental construct. So, by his own criterion, it cannot count as objectively knowable.

"Therefore: Since no morality has been observed to emanate from any intelligent source other than a human mind, it is so far impossible to determine if an objective morality exists because we have no other testable examples of an intelligent mind."

i) A non-sequitur. To insist on a comparative frame of reference courts a regressive fallacy. If we can't know A unless we compare A with B, then we can't know B unless we compare B with C, &c.

ii) From a Christian standpoint, objective morality emanates from the exemplary mind of God.

"If there is no other way to determine moral behavior than that which is desired to be done by a God, he must exclusively communicate to the individual to prevent any subjective process from coming to bear on the communication."

How does that follow? God doesn't need to *prevent* subjective processing. He only needs to *control* subjective processing. Indeed, he can make use of subjective processing as a medium of communication as long has he controls the outcome.

From a Christian standpoint, God is responsible for all the variables, whether external or internal.

"Ex. David Koresh claimed to speak for God? The majority of citizens claim the opposite, David Koresh does not speak for God, yet there is really no way for them to determine the communication veracity."

Two problems:

i) There are Biblical criteria to distinguish between true and false prophets.

ii) Koresh didn't merely claim to be divinely inspired. He also appealed to various books of the Bible to substantiate his claims. So that supplies an external check on his claims.

"Therefore: Since it cannot be differentiated at what level psychotic immoral behavior and moral behavior in accordance with the directives of a God can be differentiated, all immoral behavior which is not self reported as otherwise (confession) becomes morally acceptable when judged by an observer assuming an objective morality exists."

Is this an internal critique or external critique? Since Zorathruster denies objective morality, he denies that there is such a thing as psychotic immoral behavior.

So this is, at best, an internal critique. But for reasons I've just given, it's flawed.

"The proposed existence of a universal moral law implies that an action which is immoral in one situation must be immoral in all situations?"

No, that's simplistic. There are moral priorities. When a higher obligation conflicts with a lower obligation, the higher obligation suspends the lower obligation.

It is ordinarily illicit to lie or kill, but there are circumstances in which it is licit to lie or kill. For some obligations are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves.

Telling the truth is ordinarily obligatory, but if telling the truth puts the innocent at risk, then it ceases to be obligatory since telling the truth is not a value in itself, but valuable only insofar as it facilitates other values.

"We can answer this by looking at another 'universal law', the law of gravity."

A category mistake since moral norms are disanalogous to natural laws.

"Deanna Laney of Tyler TX who killed her children is a special case of moral behavior in concert with an objective morality where God told her to kill her children. We cannot discern whether God did tell Deanna Laney to actually kill her children or not."

We can judge her actions by the revelation of the moral law. Private revelation (assuming there is such) will not contradict public revelation.

"The inability to differentiate a characteristic that distinguishes moral from immoral behavior prevents the determination of morality using the proposed objective morality criteria."

Revealed morality is a differential factor.

"To over punish an individual for a specific infraction is not morally appropriate."

According to whom? Zorathruster or his Christian opponent? Is this an internal or external critique?

"Punishment should be correct, adequate, proportional and appropriate all of which can be discerned by a proposed omnipotent being. Since humans have no idea what the real underlying moral basis for or against an action is, it is inappropriate for humans to interfere with the punishment process. If an objective criterion exists of which humans have no insight, decisions about crime and punishment are made in an arena of ignorance and therefore should not be made at all. All appropriate and adequate punishment will be administered upon arrival at divine judgment."

Not if God has commanded us to exact justice on the basis of a revealed law code.

"Andrea Yates killed her children to save them from eternal damnation. This appears to be a compassionate act from a theistic perspective...We should not punish Ms Yates because we do not know whether she was acting compassionately in accordance with an objective morality, criminally or psychotically. That determination will be made by God who supposedly knows the objective moral criteria."

Not from a Christian perspective. Her action was in flagrant violation of the Biblical duty of parents to children. God has revealed the objective moral criteria.

Motives alone are an insufficient condition for moral justification.


(1) Any act that God commits, causes, commands, or condones is morally permissible.
(2) The Bible reveals to us many of the acts that God commits, causes, commands, and condones.
(3) It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit, cause, command, or condone, acts that violate our moral principles.
(4) The Bible tells us that God does in fact commit, cause, command, or condone, acts that violate our moral principles.


This is simplistic:

i) Even at a human level, everyone does not have the same rights and responsibility. Obligations vary depending on whether the relationship involves subordinates, superiors, or peers, viz. parents, children, and friends.

ii) It can be morally permissible to permit what is morally impermissible to facilitate a higher end.

If two rival terrorist organizations (e.g., Sunni v. Shia jihadis) get into a mutual blood bath, it is permissible for me to stand by and let them kill each other—even if I could stop it.

iii) What does he mean by our moral principles? Conventional social mores?

"To deny (3) would be to assert that it is morally permissible to violate our five moral principles. It would be to ally oneself with moral monsters like Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot."

Why does Zorathruster classify these men as moral monsters? As a moral nihilist, he forfeits the right to render these value-judgments.

"If a universal or objective morality applies then, as with other universal laws, such as gravity, it applies to all animals, substances and elements, then an objective morality should likewise apply to all creatures. Many creatures exhibit behaviors which contrast to proposed objective morality as understood by humans who proclaim such a thing exists."

This is a silly comparison. A valid code of conduct is adapted to the specific nature of the agent. Animals are amoral.

"Moral values change. It is true that moral values prominent 500 years ago have changed. If it is true that there is an objective morality this would not be the case. A universal or objective morality should be consistent over time. "

A non-sequitur. He seems to assume that to know right is to do right.

Morality can be universally binding whether or not it is universally observed. And the fact that public opinion may change doesn't evidence a change in moral absolutes.

"The Bible affirms slavery as valid. "

This is simplistic:

i) Certain forms of slavery are regulated in the Mosaic code. This doesn't mean that all forms of slavery are sanctioned.

ii) One has to take the ANE socioeconomic conditions into account. What were the viable options back then?

iii) Biblical law does not necessarily represent an ethical ideal. More often, it establishes an ethical floor rather than an ethical ceiling. A minimal, practical code of conduct—adapted to life in a fallen world. It's primary purpose is to proscribe the grosser forms of vice rather than prescribe the ultimate forms of virtue.

Cf. G. Wenham, Story as Torah (Baker 2004), chapter 5.

"Since humans collectively agree today that slavery is immoral, there must have occurred a change in the objective moral criteria."

This equivocates over "slavery." It's also a non-sequitur.

"If objective morality exists in order to be transmitted must avoid mechanisms that might impart subjective influence on those moral truths it cannot follow normal transmission mechanisms of speech, writing or sight. Since there exists no known mechanism for the transference of an objective morality even if it did exist, humans have no way to perceive it outside subjective mechanisms."

He simply overlooks the role of divine providence in Christian ethics. God is the author of means. God can and does orchestrate our external circumstances.

"Since the actual objective criteria cannot be observed those objective moral criteria could either exist or not exist but either way indiscernible."

Consciousness is also indiscernible. We cannot see our own thoughts.

"Since modern moral positions are held on more solid moral basis than Biblical moral positions..."

How is a critic of objective morality in any position to posit this invidious comparison?

"For information to be valid basis for truth, observation of the combined actual object is necessary. Objective morality cannot be observed directly. Therefore: From the perspective of humans, information constituting objective morality is inaccessible. If it exists, it cannot fulfill information requirements and therefore is irrelevant to humans."

i) Does he apply this same criterion to his own private mental states? Moral intuitions are on a par with the privileged access of consciousness generally. They're a special case of the latter.

ii) Public revelation (i.e., Scripture) is observable.

"In order for a communication to occur a message must be formulated, transmitted, received, and understood. The proposed objective morality fails not just 1 but 3 of the necessary qualities to be communicated. Transmission, Reception, and Clarity. Therefore: An objective morality cannot be adequately communicated to human observers."

This is self-refuting when you consider that Zorathruster cites certain Biblical injunctions for purposes of criticism. But he couldn't illustrate his claims by reference to Scripture unless it met his three conditions.

"What are the criteria in accordance with Popper’s falsification criteria which if shown to be true would invalidate the proposed objective morality?"

He gives no reason for why we should apply Popper's metascientific falsification criteria to moral norms.

"Objective morality does not exist except as circular arguments, which have no basis for truth."

Circularity isn't inherently vicious. If, say, there is no alternative to certain truth-conditions, then it isn't viciously circular to invoke these truth-conditions. The fact that we can't do without them is indirect confirmation of their necessity.

"It is possible that an omnipotent being could ensure all persons know the objective moral criteria."

He does.

"Not all humans understand the proposed objective moral criteria."

They suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18; cf. Jn 3:19-21).

Indeed, the denial of moral absolutes is a paradigm-case in point.

"What would be the basis of a proposed objective morality? Is it proper because God says it is proper? Which would mean God could arbitrarily assign moral or immoral status to any particular act. To discern the actual moral code would be impossible using ambiguous criteria therefore unusable. Or could it be that God recognizes particular acts as moral and abiding by a higher moral truth, the proposed objective morality. If morality exists separate from God then he like us are searchers trying to discern the appropriate moral choices. God is not necessary for moral behavior. A theist is hard pressed to form an argument that allows an objective morality."

The Euthyphro dilemma. But it's an artificial dilemma. Among other things, it disregards the relation between creation and command.

The moral law is adapted to our natural constitution. To the way in which God has designed us. So there is nothing arbitrary, here.

To take one example, that's why Scripture condemns sodomy. For it defies the very purpose of sexual differentiation and complementarity.

"Is incest immoral because God dislikes or disapproves of incest, or is incest immoral in and of it’s self? Biblical points occasionally condone incest as appropriate. Does that mean it is arbitrary and 'subjective'?"

This is simplistic.

i) We need to distinguish between parental incest and sibling incest. The former is intrinsically evil, the latter is not.

ii) Some things can be right in some situations, and wrong in others. Remember my examples about lying and killing.

But that isn't the same thing as moral relativism. For it doesn't mean the same thing can be licit or illicit in the very same situation.

iii) Also remember what I said about the limitations of Biblical law: it establishes an ethical floor, not an ethical ceiling.

"One might assume killing innocents is contrary to an objective morality. However, I read about the city of Ai in the book of Joshua. Every man woman and child were killed and the city as well as the surrounding farm lands were utterly destroyed. Someone who thinks God disapproves of killing innocents would find it difficult to harmonize the story of Ai or the Midionites with an objective moral criteria that opposes killing innocents."

This is simplistic:

i) There are degrees of innocence. Due to actual and/or original sin, no human being is completely innocent.

ii) God ordinarily withholds immediate retribution—otherwise, the human race would be extinct. But God reserves the right to punish sinners.

iii) Not every divine historical judgment is a judgment on the personal sin of the causality. Actual and/or original sin renders one generally liable to suffering, illness, and death, without there having to be a one-to-one correspondence between sin and judgment.

iv) There are situations in which it is morally licit to kill the innocent. This isn't punitive.

For example, when the Titanic hit the iceberg, there were not enough lifeboats for all the passengers. In the tradition of Christian chivalry, priority was given to the women and children.

This meant killing the male passengers. And, in a sense, they didn't deserve to die. Yet it was the right thing to do under the circumstances.

"Because morals are relative, they depend on circumstance. If you are unwilling to believe that the circumstance changes morals, then you will be unprepared to do what's right under changing condition."

This is confused thinking. Circumstances don't change morals. Rather, certain actions are appropriate to certain circumstances. They are always appropriate under those circumstances, and inappropriate under contrary circumstances.

Same situation, same duty. Different situation, different duty—if the situation is sufficiently disanalogous.

1 comment:

  1. I see nobody commenting. I hope you will continue to post on topics which may not attract comments. I find this post very helpful.