Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Moral Argument – A Follow-Up

Courtesy of Google Analytics, I found a link to my post on the Moral Argument on Paul Wright's blog.

Paul paraphrased part of my argument as: “a God whose morality was similar to ours wouldn't allow there to be so much suffering in the world.” In response, one commenter wrote “Why not? We do...” This was probably tongue in cheek, but a valid point is raised. Our morality says we should care about a poor person in a third world country even at a small cost to us, but this small cost is sufficient to prevent us from helping them nearly as much as our morality says we should. And yet I talk about what a God who shares our morality would do. This shows there is something is wrong with at least the presentation of my argument – I will show that only the presentation is at fault.

My second rebuttal depends on the dichotomy “God's morality is/isn't similar to ours.” While these two cases cover Christianity, they do not cover all of theism. The implicit assumption in both cases is that God is living in a manner consistent with his own morality. Because this assumption is being made about God but not about people, it makes sense to say God necessarily would help if he could, despite the fact that we quite often don't help even in cases where mortals could solve the problem. I'm perfectly happy with the content of my arguments, I just need to specify that there are three cases: “God's morality isn't similar to ours,” “God's morality is similar to ours and God is moral by his own standards,” and a new case, “God's morality is similar to ours but God isn't moral by his own standards.”

This third option leads to perhaps the easiest of the rebuttals. If God is condemned by a set of standards, these standards must be above God. But now God is in a position directly analogous to the position people are in within the moral argument. So how can there be standards above God without a Higher God who wrote them? This rebuttal cannot be answered without undermining the moral argument. So the moral argument fails in all cases.

In case you are confused by how I can make this argument consistently, I'll put it in symbolic terms.

A: The moral argument is valid.
B: A God exists of the third kind, that is, God's morality is similar to ours but God isn't moral by his own standards.

I'm showing that A implies ~B. This is sufficient to refute the position A & B, and I can consistently evaluate the implications of A, even though I don't actually accept A. This doesn't specify which of A or B is false, but this is not needed to refute “I accept B because of A.”

This is perhaps a trivial point – I'm refuting a position that pretty much no one holds. But I expect my explanation of why it matters to actually be more important than the argument itself.

The outline of most cases for Christianity are: common knowledge implies God exists, given that God exists Jesus' Resurrection is plausible, given the Resurrection Christianity is plausible. But within this argument, games get played with the definition of “God.” The sort of God you get at the end is one who must resort to “who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” to “explain” how he is other than a cruel and unjust tyrant. This is very different from the sort of God imagined when the Moral Argument is being made.

So while the logical content of refuting the case for the God no one believes in is low, it blocks a common apologetic tactic – get any God you can in the door, even if its nature is directly opposite that of the Christian God, and then start turning it into the Christian God. While I object primarily to the use of the bait and switch, I will also argue against the bait itself. A God who is implicitly assumed to think about morality in much the same way that people think about morality is such common bait that it deserves a direct response.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Moral Argument for the Existence of God

One of the most common arguments in modern apologetics is the moral argument. Rather than coming up with my own summary, I'll quote a Christian site at length.

“The moral argument appeals to the existence of moral laws as evidence of God’s existence. According to this argument, there couldn’t be such a thing as morality without God; to use the words that Sartre attributed to Dostoyevsky, 'If there is no God, then everything is permissible.' That there are moral laws, then, that not everything is permissible, proves that God exists.

“Some facts are facts about the way that the world is. … For most facts, there are objects in the world that make them true. Moral facts aren’t like that. The fact that we ought to do something about the problem of famine isn’t a fact about the way that the world is, it’s a fact about the way that the world ought to be. There is nothing out there in the physical world that makes moral facts true. This is because moral facts aren’t descriptive, they’re prescriptive; moral facts have the form of commands.

“… If the moral argument can be defended against the various objections that have been raised against it, then it proves the existence of an author of morality, of a being that has authority over and that actively rules over all creation.”

I first need to unpack what the two sides mean by their terms.

What is right and wrong? Most theists will postpone the question to God: right and wrong depends on God's will and/or God's commands. What makes God's actions and commands right? God's will and/or nature are the definition of right, that is, God commands things and/or does things and that makes it right. While there are alternative Christian answers, this is probably the most common and it's the one I know the most about, so I will not address alternatives.

The atheistic answer (or rather, the answer I give) is that morality is a partially unwritten social contract. This contract involves primarily fundamental values, such as treating others the way you want to be treated, as opposed to more specific ethics. To the extent that people share these fundamental values, conversations about specific ethics are meaningful, whether or not people agree on what “morality” actually is.

Apologists often confuse the issue by suggesting that the two views are that morals are either absolute or relative. The better question is “relative to what and absolute in what context?” For instance, if God were different, then Christian morality would be different. That means Christian morality is relative to God's nature and absolute in contexts where God's nature is fixed.

Similarly, my concept of morality is relative to society and relative to human nature. But when human nature and which society I'm talking about are fixed, most of my moral ideas are absolute. Furthermore, with most of the fundamentals there is agreement between nearly all societies – so most of my moral ideas are only relative to human nature.

There is yet another way my moral ideas are objective: “What does society think” and “what fundamental values are led to by human nature” are questions which usually have objective answers. The dichotomy where morality is completely absolute or everything is permissible is a false one. Morality can be thought of as something that is dependent on humanity and still something that I can't change just because I feel like it.

Having laid out what I mean by morality, I will show that the moral argument fails on two independent lines.

First Rebuttal: Exposing the Rhetoric

“For most facts, there are objects in the world that make them true. Moral facts aren’t like that. The fact that we ought to do something about the problem of famine isn’t a fact about the way that the world is, it’s a fact about the way that the world ought to be.”

The problem with this claim is that morals are both kinds of facts within my understanding of morality. The claim “stopping famines is a moral goal” is not a simple fact about how the world is. But on the other hand, the claim “most people have the sort of morality that wishes for no famines” is a claim with physical objects showing it to be true. Similarly, “human nature is such that people are prone to thinking that stopping famines is moral” is a claim with a physical object showing it to be true. Statements about peoples' sentiments and human nature are claims with objects in the world that makes it true. So while the moral claim itself is not a claim about how reality is, the claim that a particular claim really is "moral" is a statement with physical objects in the world making it true.

The entire argument depends on a subtle rhetorical play to hide its most dubious claim. When unpacked, the argument is:

1. People have a moral concept.
2. The only moral concept is the Christian one.
3. Therefore people believe in Christian moral concepts.
4. Christian moral concepts only make sense if God exists.
5. Therefore God exists.

My primary disagreement with the argument is with 2. Notice just how strong the claim must be for the argument to work. To contradict the argument, I don't need to show my moral views to be true – only that I have a view differing greatly from the Christian view. The input data in the argument is a claim about what “everyone believes.” But I don't believe what is claimed that I believe. This alone is sufficient to rebut the moral argument.

Once the terms are defined it becomes clear that no argument exists underneath the rhetoric. With Christian definitions, I don't believe in morality. With atheistic definitions, I believe in morality, and this implies absolutely nothing. It is my intention to be rebutting the moral argument in general and not simply this one articulation of it. However, every single version I have read either depends on this rhetorical slight of hand, or explicitly makes the claim which I have rebutted.

Very little knowledge of apologetics is needed to foresee Christians' response to my position. The response is that the social contract I described isn't really a system of “morality.” What makes it wrong to violate our social contract?

All moral systems have this problem: where to start? Theism has the exact same problem. What makes what God says right? Sure Christians can define that what they mean by “right” is aligning with God's will, but isn't that still just might makes right on a cosmic scale? Christians tend to object when I claim that Yahweh is a barbaric tyrant. But they shouldn't react at all if they consistently hold to their definition of good. God could be a barbaric tyrant, and this simply implies that being a barbaric tyrant is what being good means. The reaction shows that Christians think of good as meaning something deeper than “the way God is.” How could I be accusing God of something unless there is a higher moral law over God and I'm accusing God of violating this higher law? When consistently thinking of good as “the way God is,” objections should only be raised if I say something factually wrong about God, instead of simply using different adjectives to describe the same actions. I don't pat myself on the back for spotting this problem. It's obvious, because all moral systems have this problem: where to start?

It is reasonable to reject either “good is determined by society” or “good is determined by God” as a definitional cheat that avoids the real problem. And they are cheats, unless accompanied by an acknowledgment that they haven't solved the key problem, at which point they simply become unprofound. It is also reasonable to grant that either one could work in principle. What is not reasonable is the double standard that is needed to make the moral argument work.

(On the flip side, this implies that I think the Euthyphro dilemma is an invalid reason to disbelieve in God. While it's a good clarifying question and it shows that theism doesn't answer any foundational moral questions, on the other hand, theism isn't creating new problems either.)

Second Rebuttal

To make an argument for the existence of God, one needs to first specify what is meant by “God.” Our society has a sufficiently specific idea about what this means that it's not always necessary to do so explicitly, but the ideas that different God-concepts have in common are not specific enough for my second rebuttal. The split is based on if the God being argued for has a concept of morality that is at least similar to human moral intuitions.

One half of my rebuttal could work well against some concepts of God while looking like a straw man to people who are arguing for a different concept of God. While either half is easily avoidable, one of the prongs must be faced directly. For this reason, it is important that they be viewed together. For quite while, I bounced between near-Calvinism and C. S. Lewis' explicit non-Calvinism. This wasn't just indecision, but largely due to a disorganized attempt to avoid two different problems that cannot both be avoided. Clarity of thought is sufficient to shut the door on that option.

(By Lewis' position, what I really mean is “what I understood of Lewis' position in 2007-early 2008,” that is, the C. S. Lewis of Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain. As John Beversluis painstakingly documents in C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, Lewis himself went through similar indecision later in life, although his indecision went all the way back to his answer to the Euthyphro dilemma. He never articulated a clear reconciliation.)

If God's morality is not similar to ours:

Suppose the moral argument makes it as far as “people believe in moral ideas which imply God's existence.” There is a difference between establishing factual claims that imply God's existence, and establishing that people believe things implying God's existence. If everyone's moral ideas imply God exists, one possibility remaining is that everyone's moral ideas are flawed. Moral dilemmas are inherent in all moral views because they all imply absurdities and/or they are simply not livable. The idea that everyone's moral ideas are incorrect is extremely plausible. Perhaps what's really true is the social contract idea of morality, despite the fact that I and all other freethinking people don't “really” believe it.

Normally, I would be on my last legs if I was reduced to making argument like “sure everyone including me believes X, but we still might all be wrong.” In most cases, this would mean I'm stuck defending the possible, yet highly implausible. But here, there is a key difference: the concept of God that I'm rebutting implies that everyone's moral views are wrong. So it's a very small leap for me to suggest that yes, perhaps everyone's moral views are wrong, but simply in a very different way than the one suggested by Total Depravity.

If God's morality is at least similar to ours:

(*Update* This should be split into "
God's morality is at least similar to ours but God isn't moral by his own standards" and "God's morality is at least similar to ours and God is moral by his own standards." What follows is my answer to the second. My next post deals with the first.)

But God's morality is almost diametrically opposite to our own morality as evidenced by the problem of pain. There are a number of ways to set up this argument, and in my opinion, by far the best way is as an empirical problem. I'm not suggesting that pain proves this kind of God does not exist – what I am claiming is that pain is very strong evidence against his existence, although this is the sort of evidence that could potentially be outweighed by contrary evidence. As an empirical argument, the real issue isn't that pain and evil exist at all – the problem is that there is so much.

Similarly, if you are making the case that the police in a particular city are failing, the existence of a robbery is a poor argument – the level of surveillance needed to achieve perfection wouldn't be worth it even if it were possible. But millions and millions of robberies is good evidence for the failure of law enforcement. An explanation of how, in a free society, some level of abuse of freedom is to be expected completely and utterly fails to explain why there is so much crime. With God, I'm not saying that a good plan couldn't involve any discomfort. I'm saying that based on the extreme level of pain in the world, it sure looks like his plan is either not loving or very poorly thought out.

Suppose a person discovered a cure to every single disease in the world. Suppose they had the resources to deliver these cures to the people who need it, and they knew about the need. Suppose this could be done with very little effort. And yet they then did absolutely nothing about it. They just watched while people died from diseases because doing so helped them seek their own glory. If we rely on human intuitions about morality to tell us what morality is, we would call this person the most extreme kind of evil. This person is God.

Christianity's problem of pain is far more severe than that of general theism. Not only is there the overhead of the inaction of God to deal with, there is also all the genocide and killing that God either did himself or delegated to his minions, not to mention hell.

But I bring up diseases in particular because it's something about which we have experiential knowledge and it cannot be avoided with a weaker view of biblical inspiration. We cannot reasonably speculate that diseases are needed to bring about some other greater good – some diseases have been cured in the past and that turned out quite well. Even while knowing about the lack of negative consequences, God still didn't cure these diseases sooner. Furthermore, whenever a person claims to have a new cure, one question that is not asked is “but is curing diseases a good idea?” We don't look back with skepticism at the morally questionable activities of the World Health Organization and others in eradicating polio. We don't do this because while it is a remote possibility that curing diseases is damaging, it is not a reasonable possibility.

Without a justification for God's inaction, the evidence suggests that if God exists, he does not follow a system of morality similar to ours. And if we are so wrong about morality to have so badly misjudged the morality of cosmic inaction to pain, then an argument cannot be grounded in the trusting of our moral intuitions.