So why does Hector get to write on an area he is not only a non-expert on but is also in the minority of the trained experts in that field? What explains this seemingly blatant hypocrisy? Well it’s because we all know that Christians are stupid. After all, Jason Long told us in his chapter in TCD that atheists have higher I.Q.’s than Christians, and more Nobel prizes to boot. Christians can’t think for themselves, they have to sit down, shut up, and listen to the “experts.” And, if no expert is handy, then Christians must listen to the atheist. Why? Because they have higher I.Q.’s and so are probably right. So because the mere fact that Hector in an atheist, he can write on anything he wishes while I cannot. That’s because being an atheist automatically means that you’re an expert on whatever you write. Atheists are the new priests. The illiterate masses must be told what to think, and how to think. This kind of attitude has never worked for those who imposed it. Atheists like Hector Avalos are sewing the seeds of their own destruction.
I would be inconsistent if I let these facts about new atheists like Hector function as an excuse to ignore his arguments. Avalos’s tactics are frustrating for reasons similar to those pointed out by Kai Nielsen in his “On the Doing of Moral Philosophy.” Nielsen wrote, “What . . . is the use of patience and reason . . . when . . . the prevalence of phonies and yes-men in Academia-along with entrepreneurial types make blatantly evident the fake quality of much of the traditional appeal to reason and intelligence . . . (p. 77).”
Not only do I think Hector’s authoritarian attitude misplaced, his knowledge of the field he’s writing on inept, I think he gives poor arguments for his position and against mine. In this post I’ll assess Hector Avalos’s most recent response to Steve Hays and myself. Steve Hays has already responded to Hector, and so I don’t need to comment on some of Avalos’s response because it was already nicely handled by Hays (e.g., the imprecatory Psalms, teleological morality, etc.) With that, let’s look at Hector’s response and see if the bark is, in fact, bigger than the bite.
Avalos begins with this dialectical set up:
It didn’t take long for Triabloggers to deconstruct their own claim to believe in moral absolutes. In fact, it is very clear now that they are as morally relativistic as anyone else. It just took a few simple questions to help them contradict themselves.Avalos begins to offer his justification for the above claim by reminding his readers of a question he asked us, and then expanding on it. Hector writes,
Is killing children always wrong? I asked this question of Triabloggers, especially because if killing children is not absolutely wrong, then what is? Someone that believes in moral absolutes would respond with a simple YES. After all, the word “always” is pretty absolute and not ambiguous. Either X is “always” wrong, or it is not.However right from the get-go we are treated to some of Avalos’s non-expertise in the area of metaethics. Hector’s question is fatally ambiguous. As Ross taught us some time ago, questions like the one asked by Avalos, e.g.,
 Is killing children always morally wrong?
is ambiguous between
 Killing children is always prima facie wrong;
 Killing children is always actually wrong.
Ross’s notion of prima facie duty is fairly simple to understand. To say of some action A that it is a prima facie duty is to say that (i) A posses some morally relevant feature F that counts in favor of a moral agent S doing A and (ii) if F were such that it were the only morally relevant feature of S’s situation, then the A in question would be S’s duty proper. In light of this, moral wrongs receive a similar analysis. An action A is actually wrong just in case A is wrong in practice; wrong in light of all the relevant factual and moral considerations; wrong, all things considered. Prima facie wrongs are wrong-making considerations that always need to be taken into account.
So, the first problem is that Avalos’s questions hides a crucial ambiguity (which is ironic when we consider Avalos’s claim that his question is not ambiguous!), this ambiguity will prove fatal to his argument later. A second problem comes out when we consider Avalos’s claim that someone who believes in moral absolutes would respond to his question with a simple yes. There are two problems here.
The first problem is that the dialectical situation between Avalos and the authors of TID is between moral relativism and moral realism. Moral realism is a claim about the objectivity of moral prescriptions and evaluations. So, moral realism is a claim about the status of moral prescriptions and evaluations. Moral absolutism is a claim about the stringency of moral prescriptions. Moral realism is what is relevant to Avalos’s arguments for moral relativism. Why? Because both absolutism and relativism could be true. Moreover, ethical realism is neutral with respect to the existence of moral absolutes. Moral absolutes are consistent with moral realism, but they are not entailed by moral realism. As atheist Russ Shafer-Landau writes, “Thus ethical objectivism is not, after all, committed to the unbreakable, absolute moral rules. It allows for their existence (if there are any), but is also compatible with views that permit us to break moral rules if the circumstances are dire enough” (Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?, Oxford, 2004, 66). So Avalos is not interacting with the position that is contrary to his relativism, viz., realism, not absolutism.
The second problem is that moral realists can hold divergent views on absolutes. One view is called hierarchicalism. According to this view, absolutes are ranked, and in cases when absolutes conflict, one choses the lesser evil (or greater good). So it would be possible for an absolutist to answer “no” to Avalos’s question. Another view, one more in line with my own, is that not all ethical rules are absolute. Some are means to higher order goods. For example, I do not think it is absolutely (actually) wrong to lie. Lying is prima facie wrong. It is something to always be taken into consideration, but it is not wrong all things considered (take the paradigmatic case of the Nazi at your door who asks if you are hiding any Jews). So Avalos is just showing his ignorance when he acts as if a moral realist or a moral absolutist must claim that all moral rules are absolute. A moral absolutist believes that at least one moral principle or rule is absolute.
So Avalos is off to a bad start. Many ethicists, like Ross, have noted that duties of nonmaleficence are prima facie duties. The fact that I may engage or approve of an action that results in killing children is a wrong-making consideration that I should always take into account. However, it is not an actual obligation (i.e., a duty that has no morally relevant considerations that could count against it). For an obvious morally relevant consideration, suppose the child has a gun and is trying to kill my family. Indeed, Avalos himself notes that this would be a morally relevant consideration. For example, Avalos says that this action is morally permissible:
 I have to kill person X because he is pointing a gun at me.
Now, substituting "a child" for "person X,"  shows that even Avalos doesn’t believe that  is always (actually) wrong! So, when Avalos writes,
And who else might answer my question (“Is killing children always wrong?") the same way? We can state now that the following group would answer the question the same way.he forgets to put his own name on the list!
William Lane Craig
Osama bin Laden
Next, I had mentioned that the real wrongness of molesting children just for fun was as obvious as the hand in front of my face. Hector responds thus,
Fine, but why is the absolute immorality of killing children not as “obvious as the hand in front of my face”? “Self-evident” is not proof of objective morality at all. All Manata is saying is that his judgment of what is self-evident to him should be privileged.Answers are easy to come by:
(i) The objective absolute immorality of anything doesn’t exist in Avalos’s worldview, so it's real wrongness isn't obvious to Hector.
(ii) I used a premise Avalos accepted to show that there are morally relevant considerations to take into account when asking about the wrongness of killing a child.
(iii) Apropos (ii), what possible morally relevant considerations could there be that would allow for molesting and torturing a child just for fun. Even Hector's tortured interpretation of the Psalms has a person "having fun while torturing a child," but this is not logically equivalent to "torturing a child for fun."
(iv) The connection between other normative considerations comes into play. That 1+1 =2 is self-evident, that ~ (A & ~A) is self-evident, and that one ought not molest and torture children for fun is self evident. In response to this Avalos says,
But what if someone else thinks that “Action X is not as obviously wrong as the hand in front of my face”? How do you adjudicate such contrasting judgments when they are both based on nothing more than “being as obvious as the hand in front of my face”?I believe that revelation is helpful in questions of adjudication. God is in an epistemically superior position to that of our own. Apart from that, what can you say to someone who doesn’t see the actual wrongness of molesting and torturing a child just for fun? Clearly, this person is depraved. He’s not properly functioning. You can offer arguments for the wrongness (which doesn’t mean that your properly basic belief in the wrongness of said action is based on those arguments). Try to teach the person. But if he won’t cry uncle, what’s that supposed to prove? Nothing. If Hector thinks it does, Hector’s argument results in massive, global relativism. What does he say to the person who says that certain truths of math and logic are not obvious to him? Hector would just say that either (a) he is malfunctioning or (b) just doesn’t understand the terms. At the very least, however, the near universal consensus of these things puts the burden of proof on those who would deny it. Even Graham Priest, who argues for some exceptions to the universality of the law of non-contradiction, recognizes this. So, Hector has the burden here (and let's note that while we answered his question, Hector tucked his tail between his legs and ran from my question). His scoffing and chest thumping and pontifications of incredulity do nothing to change this.
Next up is Hector’s weird argument that since (according to him) all ethical statements are tautologies, this proves prove relativism. Avalos ripped this argument off of Kai Nielsen. But Hector overstates Nielsen’s case. Nielsen claims that there are no non-tautologous, synthetic, absolute moral rules which are also definite and clear-cut action-guiding rules (pp. On The Doing of Moral Philosophy, 84, 87-88). But this is tautologous (cf. Kording, “On the Problems of Moral Philosophy,” Reason Papers no. 1, 104)!
Avalos says that,
Part of the evidence that there are no such thing as objective moral absolutes is the fact that one can dissolve any moral statement into a tautology---a completely circular statement.But not even Nielsen holds this view, as pointed out above. For example, there may be moral rules that may be violated when all things are taken into consideration, so this gets around the claim of Avalos’s that since absolute moral rules are tautologous, then all are. So, since prima facie wrongs are not tautologous, and they can have exceptions, then Avalos is wrong.
Next, consider what tautologies are. Here is an example of a tautology: P v ~P. A tautology is true under any possible valuation. But then how is this an argument for anti-realism? Moreover, take this claim:
 One ought not murder an innocent person.
If  were a tautology it’s negation would itself be a contradiction. So,
 One ought to murder an innocent person.
 is not a logical contradiction, it can be understood, it is not logically incoherent.
Now look at this tautologous statement:
 ~ (A & ~A)
and compare it’s negation:
 ~ ~ (A & ~A),
It is clear that  itself is incoherent. Logic tells us that if a proposition is not a contradiction, then neither is its negation. Since  is not a contradiction, then  is not a tautology, and, therefore, not all ethical statements are tautologous.
Avalos then makes this cocky, yet embarrassing, claim:
And for all their pretense of philosophical sophistication, Triabloggers repeatedly show that they cannot evaluate the philosophical writings to which they refer. Note, for example, that Terence Cuneo’s The Normative Web (2007) does not really address the tautological problem of moral reasoning. Manata shows no “interaction” with Gilbert Harman's “Moral Relativism Defended,” Philosophical Review 84 (1975):3-22.Of course, Avalos has never even read Cuneo’s book and so he has no idea of what Cuneo addresses (did he just look at the index at Amazon?). Second, why did I invoke Cuneo’s book? It was to show that Avalos’s moral relativism leads to epistemic relativism. Cuneo shows that the parity is so tight that arguments for moral relativism are arguments for epistemic relativism. I then applied Cuneo’s argument to Avalos’s argument for relativism via tautologies. Quite embarrassingly, for all his bravado, Hector cannot evaluate the arguments of his interlocutors. Here is what I wrote:
“Anyway, if this is an argument for moral relativism and against objective moral standards, then it is also an argument for epistemic relativism and against objective epistemic standards. This is because ethical facts or utterances are a species of normative facts or utterances. The parity between the two—ethical and epistemic facts, judgments, evaluations–is tight, as Terrence Cuneo has shown in The Normative Web (Oxford 2007). Cuneo draws attention to a structural isomorphism that obtains between moral and epistemic facts, he also draws attention to several other relevant and necessary features both share. The parity is so tight, at so many relevant areas, that arguments against moral realism would have to be arguments against epistemic realism.
For example, I could respond to Avalos by claiming that objective standards of rationality do not exist and there are only two kinds of people, people who admit to being epistemic relativists, and people who do not. I could use this argument, which is relevantly similar to Avalos’s, to claim that I have “shown” the above: “X is objectively irrational because X is objectively irrational. You cannot rationally differentiate this from its opposite: X is not objectively irrational because X is not objectively irrational.” To the extent Avalos tries to defend realism about objective epistemic norms, he provides answers to his questions against moral realism.”
Perhaps Avalos was confused about my ability to evaluate philosophical works because all he can do is regurgitate what he reads rather than learning the material so well that you can apply it to species of things the material addressed non-specifically. Furthermore, the arguments Harman makes are affected by the argument those like Cuneo and Gowans and Shafer-Landau make.
Relativists ask us to think about how we resolve normal disagreements. For example, Gilbert Harman claims that in resolving moral disagreements it seems like we would want to “locate value, justice, right, wrong and so forth in the world the way that tables, colors, genes, temperatures, and so on can be located in the world” (Harman, “Is There a Single True Morality,” in Moral Relativism: A Reader, Oxford, 170). Harman just can’t see how moral facts “might figure in explanations without having some sense of their ‘location’ in the world” (Harman, Single Morality, 170). Thus, since there are no moral facts “out there,” moral beliefs depend upon the “inner world” of a social group’s beliefs.
In response, we should ask how we would go about resolving this metaethical disagreement. Certainly not like going to the kitchen and looking at the color of the table. So, “By parity of reasoning, [the relativist] should grant that there is no objective truth concerning” relativism (Gowans, “Moral Relativism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Expanding on this point, Russ Shafer-Landau points out that moral facts are normative facts—prescribing how we ought to behave—and they are “similar to another kind of normative fact—epistemic facts” which “concern what we ought to believe, provided that our beliefs are aimed at truth.” (Shafer-Landau, “Ethics as Philosophy,” in Foundations of Ethics, Blackwell, 218).
The relativist is attempting to provide us with good reasons to accept relativism and thinks we ought to accept relativism given these good reasons. This expresses an epistemic principle: you ought to believe what you have good reason to believe. Shafer-Landau rightly notes that this “epistemic principle is problematic because it invokes an entity—a good reason—whose existence is not itself scientifically confirmable,” like the existence of the table is (Shafer-Landau, Ethics, 220). Recall that Harman said we should be able to “locate value, justice, right, wrong and so forth in the world.” Given that epistemological facts are similar to moral facts, Harman should demand that we be able to locate “Epistemic values such as being rational, being justified, and being warranted” in the world too (Cuneo, Normative Web, Oxford, 2). If one cannot find ‘justice’ on the table, why think one can find a ‘justification’ on the table? Therefore, this relativist argument appears to lead to the conclusion that there is no (non-relative) good reason for supposing that relativism is the case. Thus, relativism sows the seeds for its own rationality defeater.
Lastly, Avalos makes an argument that if children go to heaven when they are killed, this means we ought to abort them. I responded, “Really? Derive this conclusion: “It is morally permissible to murder children,” from this premise: “all babies who die go to heaven when they die.” Show the derivation, Hector, justifying each step by rules of logic.” In response to this, Avalos writes:
First, it flies right over Avalos’s swollen head. Christians, like me, believe that abortion is murder. And, granting our premises, Avalos should too. That’s the fatal flaw in Avalos’s argument. Even if it were true that all children who die go straight to heaven, that would not be a morally permissible reason to murder them. We are not morally or legally authorized by the proper higher moral authority to do so.
First, note that Manata changes “kill” to “murder.” Both are not necessarily the same. Killing describes the simple act of taking a life. “Murder” is a moral and legal judgment that a killing is unjustified.
Second, my starting premise does not have to be what Manata demands. I also could use this rationale:
A. It is morally permissible to use any action that achieves the highest proportion of saved souls.
B. Abortion, with its 100% salvation rate, is an action that achieves the highest proportion of saved souls.
C. Therefore, it is morally permissible to use abortion as an action to achieve the highest proportion of saved souls.
Second, Avalos is in no position to know (B). How could he know such a thing?
Third, I deny (A). Where does Avalos get that premise from and why should I believe it. Avalos is trying to take one proposition from my worldview (granted arguendo for the moment) and then tries to draw a conclusion about what I ought to do from that. But his premises are pulled from outside my worldview, so Avalos isn’t showing that my worldview leads to an argument for abortion. He says that a premise of my worldview, when conjoined with premises from outside my worldview, lead to the conclusion that I ought to abort children. But, this is dialectically faulty. Why in the world with Avalos think that I should be rationally or morally persuaded by an argument that conjoins propositions I accept (arguendo) with propositions I do not accept?
Fourth, as Avalos notes, murder can never be justified, and so Avalos’s argument takes us from (if we grant it) true premises to a false conclusion, and so is invalid.
So, Avalos fails. If he has an argument that moves from the premise that children go to heaven when they die to the conclusion that I can murder them, let’s hear it.
Avalos ends with this summary:
I think my mission is accomplished, at least for now. I have shown that Triabloggers pretend to be moral absolutists and objectivists but really are moral relativists, just like everyone else.Yes, given the above, I think we can safely conclude that this little doggy’s bark is far bigger than his bite.