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« Do We Need Religion for Morality? | Main | Does God Punish Gay People for Being Who They Are? »

February 01, 2012

Comments

Just a quick note on the arguments. I'll get to your NNRT later this evening.

The reason I went to the use of disjunctions was precisely to avoid any confusion about conditionals.

All the conditionals I used in the Ed and Frieda arguments were material conditionals. (And my first premise in the either-or arguments is only equivalent to the if-then in your (a) if that if-then is a material conditional).

I recognize that the Humeans are not denying that "is" could materially imply "ought"

But the implications that are important are not the material implications expressed in the premises or in the conclusions. The implications that are important are the the logical implications between the premises and the conclusions. The implications supported by Modus Ponens, and Weakening, and Process of Elimination, and Disjunction Introduction. Those implications are logical implications. Exactly what the Humeans are talking about.

Right, the implications between the premises and conclusion are a different beast entirely than the material implication between the antecedent and consequent of a mere material conditional. Full agreement there.

But like I said in the previous post, when Humeans say that we cannot derive an ought from an is, perhaps they don't mean that no entailment between an ought and an is exists, but rather that barring known authoritative moral testimony, we humans are not able to come to know a moral truth on the basis of deducing it from a collection of entirely non-moral truths.

Perhaps even that is not right, but I don't see that any of your examples thus far refute it. Even if it isn't, though, it is not at all clear how the arguments you gave, even if sound, could be of any help to us in coming to learn a moral truth not already known by us, for the reasons I already gave.

But I repeat myself. I await the thoughts about "grounding" moral truths in wholly non-moral truths or alternatively taking some moral truths as primitives, and hope for thoughts about an atheist taking certain value facts as objective, primitive truths. That is really what I have been interested in since my original post, and I somewhat regret that I tried to make the "grounding" point by making a point about entailments between ought-statements and is-statements, since the former point can be made without getting so deeply into the latter point, and the latter point may not even be true to begin with.

Malebranche-

Sorry to be taking this whole thing in little chunks.

I think we are fairly agreed now that this principle of division for the "Is"-"Ought" gap is not only false, but contradictory:

There is no set of one or more purely non-moral claims that logically implies a moral claim.
Now the second rendition of the principle seems to be this:
There is no set of non-moral claims that logically implies a moral claim, and serves as the ground for that moral claim.
The additional rider on this principle is a bit nebulous, but I think what we are looking for is that set of non-moral claims is somehow the truth-maker of the moral claim. Or, at least, that the truth of the moral claim supervenes on the truth of the non-moral claims in the set.

OK. Try this.

The proposition "Murder is wrong" is analytic, since "murder" just means "wrongful killing of a human being". What I mean by "human being" is simply a member of the species homo sapiens as opposed to say phaseolus vulgaris. I don't mean anything that is morally laden, like "moral person"

If you don't think "murder" means what I just said, then please note that I could, right now, coin the term "schmurder" to mean just exactly that, and then proceed talking about schmurders without any further interruption in my argument.

And because I could do that, I am going to go ahead and use "murder" as if it did mean precisely what I just said it did.

Now, consider the claim "It is always OK to murder Abel"

I think that what that means is something like this: For any possible act X, if X is a murder of Abel, then X is OK.

As such, the claim "It is not always OK to murder Abel" Just means this: There is at least one possible act, X, that is both a murder of Abel and not OK.

Now, if Abel is a human being, this last statement is true.

Why?

Well, for starters, if Abel is a human being there is always at least one possible act that is a murder of Abel. Human beings can be killed. And if they can be killed, they can be wrongfully killed. So there is at least one possible act that is a murder of Abel.

But any possible act that turns out to be a murder of Abel is, ipso facto a wrongful killing of Abel. Since it is a wrongful killing, it is not also OK.

But if Abel is not a human being, the statement is false.

Why?

Well, because it is not possible for any act to be a murder of Abel. Murder is the wrongful killing of a human being. No act fits that description in Abel's case.

So there is no possible act that is both the murder of Abel and not OK.

As such, this inference is valid:

  1. Abel is a human being.
    SO
  2. It is not always OK to murder Abel.
The premise is clearly what the Humean would call a purely factual claim. Is Abel, or is he not, a member of homo sapiens?

But the conclusion is plainly a moral claim.

It is also logically contingent.

The one thing it needs to ground its truth is the fact that Abel is a human being. That is to say that the one fact it needs is the truth of the premise of the argument.

WisdomLover,

The principle concerning grounding might be more nebulous, but you’ll recall that these grounding issues are frequently brought up by apologists themselves, especially when trying to turn the tables concerning the problem of evil. But I think good sense can be made about of the notion of grounding. Facts about bachelorhood, for instance, are grounded by facts about gender and martial status because the later both entail the former and provide that in virtue of which the former obtain in the first place.

I agree with you that the proposition “Murder is wrongful killing” trades almost if not entirely in synonyms. Because of that, I would say that this necessary truth (though not all necessary truths) is grounded in the meaning of terms or perhaps the constituents of concepts.

So what about the claim, “It is always OK to murder Abel?” Well, am I right to take this to be saying, “It is always morally permissible to murder Able”? If so, that is a necessary falsehood, precisely because the proposition “Murder is always wrong” is an analytic, necessary truth and the proposition about Abel is inconsistent with it. In this case it is merely the semantics of terms or constituents of concepts that is doing all of the work; Abel is doing none of the work, for we could just as well replace “Abel” with “Bill, the rational extraterrestrial” and the proposition would be just as false for the same reason. Facts about Abel are just not doing any of the work in explaining why the proposition “It is always morally permissible to murder Abel” is false. Notice that you don’t have to fill in the blank to know that the following claim is necessarily false: Committing murder is sometimes permissible, so long as the murder is committed against __________. Even without the blank being filled in, you know the claim is false, because “Murder is always morally wrong” is a truth guaranteed either by the meaning of terms or the constituents of concepts.

Consider now the proposition you mention above:

Possibly, for some action A, A is a murder of Abel and A is morally wrong.
What grounds this proposition? Notice that the proposition is a statement about metaphysical possibility. As such, if it is true, it is necessarily true, since any statement of the form, “In some possible world P is true” is, if true, necessarily true. This proposition, therefore, is true in possible worlds in which there is no Abel. But in those worlds, it is false that “Abel is a human being,” since in those worlds there is no Abel to be a human being. The proposition that “Abel is a human being,” therefore, cannot ground the proposition in question in those worlds in which Abel does not exist. But if it doesn’t ground the proposition in those worlds in which Abel does not exist, whence the confidence that it grounds the proposition in the worlds in which Abel does exist?

Finally, I am not sure that the claim “It is always morally wrong to murder Abel” is a moral claim at all. What this really amounts to is something like “Any wrongful killing of Abel is wrongful,” which I would think even the moral nihilist would agree to.

In summary, I agree that from “Abel is a human being” we can infer “It is always wrong to murder Abel,” but that is just because the latter is a necessary truth and follows from anything you please. Furthermore, far from Abel’s humanity doing most of the grounding work, I think nearly all of it is being done merely by the semantics of terms or the constituents of concepts. We might as well have said, “All wrongful killings of Abel are wrongful killings,” which is hardly the sort of truth that deep value facts about Abel are necessary to ground. Furthermore, I don’t know that the claim “It is always morally wrong to murder Abel” is a moral fact in the first place.

But now to the relevance of this for the apologist’s frequent claim that atheists are in serious grounding trouble concerning morality. Suppose that you have adequately grounded the claim “It is always morally wrong to kill Abel” in the fact that Abel is a human being. What part of your explanation do you take to be unavailable to the atheist? The atheist, after all, believes that Abel is a human being. Why, then, if this fact grounds a moral fact, can the atheist not simply offer your grounding when challenged by apologists? What prevents the atheist from adequately grounding a moral fact about murder? At this point, WisdomLover, I cannot tell if you are doing a favor to the apologist or to the atheist by giving these groundings. I would think the atheists would be cheering you on at this point, while the apologists might be wondering (rightly or wrongly), “Whose team are you fighting for anyway?”

The proposition about it being OK to murder Abel is not analytically true or false. It turns on whether Abel is genetically human. The trick about it is that it is logically impossible to murder Abel if Abel is not a human being. So that is its charm.

The point of all these arguments is not to provide moral truths for us to rally around, but to show that, as a principle, the idea that you cannot, owing to a logically unbridgeable gulf between "Is" and "Ought", ground morality in the facts of the world (one inescapable example of which is the existence of God).

It serves atheistic goals for that gap to prevail, for then they can characterize all moral starting points to be basic and in some sense, arbitrary, claims. The idea of a Grand Intelligence behind it all turns out to be idle. For even He cannot bridge a logically unbridgeable gulf to provide a ground for that which is, of necessity, groundless.

It is not necessary to provide an entire system to defeat that gap. It is enough to show that the gap principle is inconsistent, or that there is at least one case where there is no gap.

In any event, thus far, I've kept a pretty narrow address. If you were to extrapolate out a general system from my remarks, I would not be surprised to find that problems arise.

Now, I can see that you are eager to see some satisfactory moral system derived from factual claims that include the the claim that God exists. And you'd like to see that no such system could be derived from any set of factual claims that do not include that existence claim.

That's a bit ambitious for a blog post. But perhaps you'd be happy to see a sketch of how such a pair of arguments might go? This evening I can't give that to you this instant, as we've got a big shindig going on at my house this evening. But I'll try to get to it tomorrow.

After the game of course!

The proposition about it being OK to murder Abel is not analytically true or false. It turns on whether Abel is genetically human. The trick about it is that it is logically impossible to murder Abel if Abel is not a human being. So that is its charm.

Well, it certainly is not logically impossible to murder a non-human being. A non-human rational agent capable of being wrongfully killed is no logical impossibility, so I don’t see what you’re getting at there. What would make you think that it is logically impossible to murder Abel if Abel turned out to be a rational agent but failed to be a human?

Furthermore, if we are going to stipulate that by “murder” we simply mean “wrongful killing,” then it just follows that there is no way of truthfully saying, “It is morally permissible to murder such and such,” no matter what that such and such is, for on that stipulation we will have said, “It is morally permissible to wrongfully kill such and such,” and no matter what “such and such” we fill in, this statement will not come out true, merely because of the meanings of terms. So I don’t know why you think anything at all turns on whether Abel is genetically human. Whether Abel is genetically human or a piece of furniture, the proposition will never come out true because of the meaning of terms. So the failure of such claims to be true is guaranteed by the meanings of terms or the constituents of concepts, and it hardly requires any metaphysics of humanity or rational agency to explain its falsity.

I also still fail to see how the claim “It is morally wrong to murder Abel” is a genuine moral claim, since if by “murder” we mean “wrongful killing,” the proposition is a mere triviality, amounting to no more than “It is wrong to wrongfully kill Abel” or perhaps “All wrongful killings of Abel are wrong.” That seems trivially true, and so seems to be nothing a moral nihilist would deny. Even those of us who deny the existence of unicorns would countenance the truth of the proposition “All blue unicorns are blue.” Why would the moral nihilist, who denies moral truths, fail to countenance the proposition “All wrongful killings of Abel are wrong”? But if the proposition is something a moral nihilist can comfortably accommodate, then it isn’t very well a moral truth.

So I don’t see how you’ve successfully grounded a moral truth in a wholly non-moral set of facts.

Now, I can see that you are eager to see some satisfactory moral system derived from factual claims that include the the claim that God exists.

What I really want to know is why apologists in multitudes innumerable think that all atheists, merely in virtue of not believing in God, have a grounding problem with morality. My question has been this: Why can’t the atheist just think that among the primitive truths about reality, there are moral or value truths?

WisdomLover,

I’ll keep it short. Perhaps this will explain why I find the following remarks puzzling. You wrote,

The proposition about it being OK to murder Abel is not analytically true or false. It turns on whether Abel is genetically human. The trick about it is that it is logically impossible to murder Abel if Abel is not a human being. So that is its charm.

What I fail to see is how these claims have any more merit than the following clearly false claim:

The proposition about Abel being a married bachelor is not analytically true or false. It turns on whether Abel is a human male. The trick about it is that it is logically impossible for Abel to be a bachelor is Abel is not a human male. So that is its charm.

I'm going to plead not guilty of the lesser charge, but probably guilty to the more serious charge.

For the sake of clarification, let me reiterate the preparatory remarks I made before dealing with the murder of Abel

The proposition "Murder is wrong" is analytic, since "murder" just means "wrongful killing of a human being". What I mean by "human being" is simply a member of the species homo sapiens as opposed to say phaseolus vulgaris. I don't mean anything that is morally laden, like "moral person"

If you don't think "murder" means what I just said, then please note that I could, right now, coin the term "schmurder" to mean just exactly that, and then proceed talking about schmurders without any further interruption in my argument.

And because I could do that, I am going to go ahead and use "murder" as if it did mean precisely what I just said it did.

This is, of course, not the more substantive answer I promised to try for later.

I'm also not trying to answer your moral nihilist objection with the above reiteration.

As for the moral nihilist, the general point I was trying to get at was this: It is possible to have general moral claims that are analytic "Skinning an unanesthetized sentient being just for the fun of seeing it suffer is wrong" might be such a principle. If it is analytic, then its inclusion in the premise set of any argument is not necessary to make the argument valid. But notice that, for example, the pure fact that an action, A, is the skinning of an unanesthetized sentient being just for the fun of seeing it suffer logically implies the moral claim that A is wrong. Then the point of the "murder is wrong" riff was to devise a general moral claim that even a moral nihilist would agree is analytic.

On reflection, though, that probably was a bridge too far. At the very least, the moral nihilist would probably argue, ironically with some justice, that all I really did was find a roundabout way of saying that Abel is human. And that is, of course, implied by the fact that he is human. But it is no moral claim.

I suppose a similar point might be made about your omniscient rabbit. Talk about what the rabbit would say about moral-claim-X is just a roundabout way of saying that moral-claim-X is true. But it is no fact claim.

Just to dredge up the rabbit argument a bit more, I do not believe that God's pronouncements about moral-claim-X are the same as what the omniscient rabbit would say. So the argument from God's pronouncements is not subject to the charge that God's pronouncement is a roundabout moral claim. This is because God's pronouncements are constitutive of the right. (There's a bit of foreshadowing for you).

So the argument from God's pronouncements is not subject to the charge that God's pronouncement is a roundabout moral claim. This is because God's pronouncements are constitutive of the right. (There's a bit of foreshadowing for you).

If by “foreshadowing” you mean that there will be more elaboration, then perhaps I should wait for that elaboration. I’ll just say this in the meantime.

First, I would want to distinguish, within the class of moral claims, claims about moral duty (which I take to be what we have in mind when we discuss the notion of moral rightness) from claims about moral value. The claim Friendship is good is not first and foremost yet a claim about moral duty or moral rightness, but about moral value. The claim We are morally obligated to help our friends when they are in severe need and doing so comes at no cost to ourselves is a claim about moral duty. Let us call truths about duty “deontic truths” and truths about value “value truths.”

I distinguish these different moral claims because it seems that one could be a reductionist about moral duty without being a reductionist about moral value. In other words, one could affirm both of the following:

Deontic Reductionism: All denotic truths can be fully reduced to non-deontic truths.

Value Anti-Reductionism: Some value truths cannot be reduced to non-value truths; some value truths must be taken as primitives.

What might such a view look like? Well, suppose someone wanted to reduce all deontic truths to truths about the commands of a perfectly good God, but insisted that at least some of the truths about God’s goodness (e.g., that God being perfectly loving is a good-making feature of his character) must be taken as irreducible, primitive facts. On this view, it is false that all moral truths can be reduced to wholly non-moral truths, since at least some moral truths (e.g., that God being perfectly loving is a good-making feature of his character) are not reducible at all, but are primitive.

I bring this up only to make this point. Even if a theist successfully defended the view that God’s commands are constitutive of deontic facts, that would not suffice to show all moral truths are reducible to wholly non-moral truths, since it is compatible with this divine command view about duty that value facts about God’s goodness are irreducible, primitive truths.

Secondly, it is one thing to say, “A theory according to which God’s commands are constitutive of moral rightness has a lot going for it,” and another thing entirely to say, “All non-theistic accounts of moral rightness, merely in virtue of not being theistic, are doomed to failure.” Why couldn’t there be competing, plausible philosophical accounts of some feature of reality? The presence of competing, plausible theories outside of philosophy is certainly far from rare. Perhaps folks like Robert Adams and William Lane Craig can develop plausible divine command theories of moral rightness; but this hardly shows that all non-theistic accounts of moral rightness, merely in virtue of being non-theistic, are doomed to failure. But the latter is what it seems that many apologists claim. They seem to think that merely in virtue of not being a theist, a person can make no good sense of moral facts of any kind, be they value facts or deontic facts. That is quite a strong claim, and I’ve never understood why folks are so confident that this is true.


Malebranche-

The following sketch deals only with my view of things. I have no idea whether other folks who speak of the foundation of moral claims would buy a word of it.

For starters, I think that there is a sound formulation of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God. And that the God that it proves to exist is Omnipotent, Omniscient and Perfectly Rational (and is, ipso facto a person in that He acts and has beliefs and ends).

What this means is that Theists (Christians in particular) are not compelled to take certain facts about God as primitive. It means that there is no coherent way of thinking about the God Who Must Exist that does not involve the facts I just mentioned.

I also think that, given that God has the qualities just mentioned, He will

a) Never command or Himself perform an act that, by its very description, involves rational incoherency.

b) Never command or perform an act that does not tend to maximize happiness (all things considered).

God's Rationality is the basis for item A. But notice that item-A is the Categorical Imperative. The general description of an act, that makes no special reference to an individual, is incoherent if it cannot be applied to any and all individuals coherently.

God's Omniscience plus His Rationality are the basis for item B. God, as Omniscient, knows all the joys and sufferings of all beings in the universe. As rational He chooses to enjoy as many joys as possible and suffer as few sufferings as possible. This is the Principle of Utility applied to the only agent who would ever actually be able to follow it (because only God sees all ends).

Note that the mere facts of God's Omnipotence, Omniscience and Rationality give rise to the two most dominant ethical systems men have yet discovered. The foundations of these systems are not taken as simply brute moral facts of the universe. Instead, they are natural outflows of the God Who Must Exist.

Needless to say, they would have to be taken as brute moral facts were they not outflows of that God.

WisdomLover,

The first thing that struck me about your comments is that they do not explain why an atheist cannot just take certain moral truths as primitives. Presumably there are primitive truths, that is, truths that do not obtain in virtue of the obtaining of some other collection of truths. Perhaps the truth of the proposition One is a number is a primitive truth. What I am still left wondering, after reading your remarks, is why an atheist couldn’t think that among the primitive truths are moral truths. You have sketched some kind of theistic ethical framework, and perhaps you could argue that the framework is plausible. But that does nothing to show that it is uniquely plausible, or that all non-theistic accounts of morality are doomed to failure merely in virtue of being non-theistic. Perhaps you don’t believe this, but many apologists do, for reasons that seem to perpetually escape me.

What about the account you propose? It seems to me that it is first and foremost an account of moral duty, not moral value broadly construed. Presumably you think our moral duties are analyzable into divine commands. Even if that is so, however, that does nothing to show that all value facts are reducible to non-value facts. Nothing in your remarks, for instance, reduces the goodness of joy to a collection of wholly non-value laden facts. Moreover, nothing in your remarks shows that the goodness of joy even can be reduced in that fashion. And if the goodness of joy cannot be reduced to non-value laden facts, then perhaps the goodness of joy is just a primitive, basic feature of the world that, as a primitive, requires no further grounding.

Furthermore, unless we already know that God exists, your account of morality will depend on a being existing that we don’t know exists. Maybe you know that God exists, but the atheist clearly doesn’t know that. The atheist, therefore, will rightly complain, “Your account of morality presupposes the existence of the very being that the moral argument for God’s existence is supposed to prove, namely God. But I don’t believe in God, so why should I buy into your account?” Perhaps this is where you bring in the ontological argument. But that argument is, in my view and the view of many, about as convincing as the following argument:

(a) Either God exists or some dogs can recite poetry in five different languages.
(b) It is not the case that some dogs can recite poetry in five different languages.
(c) Therefore, God exists.

Presumably you think this is sound, since it is valid and you believe both premises. But clearly the only way we would be convinced of both premises is if we already believed in God. Similarly, I think the only folks that will find the premises of the ontological argument plausible are those that already believe in God. The ontological argument has historically been rather unconvincing to atheists, and even many Christians, and I think rightly so.

But that does nothing to show that it is uniquely plausible, or that all non-theistic accounts of morality are doomed to failure merely in virtue of being non-theistic. Perhaps you don’t believe this, but many apologists do, for reasons that seem to perpetually escape me.

Sure it does. For starters, please note that I am not saying that theists have a privileged position just because they happen to believe in God for whatever reason.

My point was that if you can argue that a Necessary Being exists, and your conception of that Being compels you to affirm that He is omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly rational, then you are thereby committed to powerful moral principles. But those preliminary claims about the Necessary Being are neither Deontic claims, nor Value claims.

Such a theist does not simply take his moral truths as primitives in the way you are suggesting that an atheist could do just the same. He is forced to those truths. For the atheist, this taking of moral primitives is inevitably arbitrary. For the theist I've been discussing, it is just plain inevitable.

As for the goodness of joy, that's analytic, at least when it comes to what a rational agent would choose to come with his actions. Someone who says, "It's is not so good for righteous people to be happy" is talking nonsense as surely as if they were speaking of married bachelors drawing round squares.

I'm not going to defend the ontological argument here. I will say that I've heard a lot of attacks on the argument. The idea that it is straightforwardly circular could only come from a very bad initial presentation of the argument.

It seems to me that guys like Plantinga have rediscovered the truth that Liebniz already had pretty well in hand. To wit, that the argument definitely shows that there is no middle ground for theism. Either there is a God who exists necessarily, or the very idea of such a being is logically inconsistent. What that means is that the mere possibility of God implies the necessary existence of God.

As to whether the argument is convincing or not convincing to the broad majority of people, I'll let that one go. I have seen unbelievers convinced by the argument. But some one who is not interested in being convinced probably won't be. In this way the Ontological Argument is boringly similar to a whole host of Logical and Mathematical proofs that are about as certain as you are likely to get, but which are often rejected by the uninitiated.

Well I’ve enjoyed the exchange but wonder if we’re getting to the point where both have stated their views and neither has fully convinced the other. Here are some thoughts on the exchange.

First, I think you are right that it is possible to have a sound argument all of whose premises are non-moral claims and whose conclusion is a moral claim. I do not, however, think that this settles the question of whether morality can be grounded in non-moral facts. If there are any necessary moral truths, they can be inferred from any fact you please, but that hardly means that they are grounded in any fact you please.

Second, I remain at the end of this exchange just as puzzled as I was at the beginning on why an atheist cannot just take certain moral truths as primitive truths in need of no further grounding. You say that once a necessarily existent omniscient, rational, and omnipotent being is granted, then one must grant moral premises. I’m not as confident about that as you are, but even if it were true, it wouldn’t follow from this that if a person does not believe in such a being, then the person cannot propose plausible accounts of morality, accounts which might be reductionistic or might take certain moral truths as primitive. From the fact that we are rationally compelled by theism to posit moral values it in no way follows that we are rationally compelled by atheism to deny moral values. So again, I remain puzzled as to why anyone would think that atheists are in serious grounding trouble with morality.

You suggest that there may be something objectionably arbitrary about an atheist taking some moral truths as primitives. I guess I don’t yet see what this worry amounts to. Usually “arbitrariness” indicates that something was done for no reason. But the atheist certainly can give reasons for taking some moral truths as primitives. He might, for instance, give reasons to think reductionism about moral value cannot be true, and infer from this, together with the fact that there are moral truths and the belief that all non-primitive truths must be reducible to primitive truths, that there are primitive moral truths.

Third, your account depends not only on the cogency of the ontological argument but also on very controversial Kantian assumptions. The categorical imperative, for instance, is difficult to even properly formulate, much less prove. Suppose we formulate it as follows:

Categorical Imperative: Acting on a maxim is morally permissible if and only if it is possible to rationally will the maxim to be a universal law.

Ok, well what about the following maxim (I think I read this on a book by Allen Wood on Kant’s ethics, but I can’t really remember):

In order to avoid crowded tennis courts, I will only play tennis on Sundays.

Can I rationally will this to be a universal law? Many have thought not, since it would be practically self-defeating. If I willed that everyone act on this maxim, then the tennis courts would be crowded, and the very end at which the maxim aims (avoiding crowded tennis courts) would be undermined. But are we really to suppose that it is immoral of me to act on this maxim? I think that is ridiculous.

I don’t offer this as a refutation of Kantianism, but as one example among many of problems that folks have pointed out that keep me from being a Kantian myself. It seems to me that if you would like to hang an ethical framework on the cogency of the ontological argument and the success of the categorical imperative at capturing morality, then you are hanging your ethical framework on a very slender reed indeed, and at this point I have no confidence that it could be rendered more plausible than a variety of other ethical theories available to atheists.

As a sidenote related to the "arbitrariness" worry, some atheists have been attracted to Kantianism precisely because they see in it the potential for grounding morality without presupposing theism. Kant, of course, thought that the existence of God is a postulate of practical reason, but these atheists I have in mind find that portion of his thought unconvincing. Many of these atheist Kantians think that merely in virtue of being rational beings, we are committed to things like the categorical imperative, and thereby committed to morality. Perhaps they are right, though for some of the reasons given I don’t yet see that they are. If they are, then I don't see how their stance toward morality is anything like "arbitrary," since according to them it is precisely reason itself that compels them to adopt morality.

If there are any necessary moral truths, they can be inferred from any fact you please, but that hardly means that they are grounded in any fact you please.

Nor does it imply that they are ungrounded or not in need of grounding. The proposition "Either Richard prevailed at Arsuf or he did not" is logically true, but it is grounded by the fact that he did there prevail. Necessary moral truths may well be grounded. But there is no reason, a priori to think that they are grounded by moral facts. I think they are grounded by the commands of the one being in all the universe who acts according to the Categorical Imperative because it is his nature to do so. The one being who really does maximize happiness in His actions because He is the one being who can see all ends.

I remain at the end of this exchange just as puzzled as I was at the beginning on why an atheist cannot just take certain moral truths as primitive truths in need of no further grounding.

Of course he can do exactly that. After doing so, however, it does not remain on the table for him to say that he hasn't grounded morality on an arbitrary choice.

You say that once a necessarily existent omniscient, rational, and omnipotent being is granted, then one must grant moral premises.

No, I said that once the existence of such a being is proven, and it can be, then those moral claims follow.

even if it were true, it wouldn’t follow from this that if a person does not believe in such a being, then the person cannot propose plausible accounts of morality, accounts which might be reductionistic or might take certain moral truths as primitive.

Of course it would. If the existence of God is proven as a necessary truth, and there are moral consequences to it, then grounding morality anywhere else is like arguing for the truth of "2+2=4" by survey.

More to come.

Ok, so I've been following along, more like struggling along looking up terms and rereading. I think that one thing that seems to have actually come front and center is that in the one instance WL is doing philosophy, ala doing logic with theology as the prior disclipline[even if only prior logically], and Mal doing philosophy, ala doing logic as if it [can] stands alone. It seems that this is the case from the latest posts anyway.

Now, if I'm understanding WL in some of his argumentation, i.e. ["murder is wrong is analytic]", where he says

" If it is analytic, then its inclusion in the premise set of any argument is not necessary to make the argument valid"
it seems that to use the word logic, make use of logic, or to even utter one word intelligently must be considered equally analytic in the same way, since without presupposing God, the atheist could not do any of these. He surely cannot justify logic within his system. Malebranche appears to want to do the impossible, make sense out of the world without God so that those who deny Him can have some footing to support things that only Yahweh does. Blurring this with terms like primitive that assumes to disassociate the necessary unity that primitive reasoning has with The Pure Reason Who created everything[John 1], including mankind seems to be one [futile] tactic.

Nevermind that the scriptures seem at odds with this position when it says:

"Rom 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
Rom 1:19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.
Rom 1:20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
Rom 1:21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
Rom 1:22 Professing to be wise, they became fools,"

There aren't really atheists in the first place, so any argument that purports to justify an atheistic worldview is inchoherent...in the first place. All of the ink used to build that case is wasted ink.

BTW Malebranche, your effort to use valid logic to build a case, albeit a case that has no foundation, is nonetheless impressive. In my appraisal, you like so many others do, have cut the branch you sit on when you give up the word of God--and unnecessarily at that.

He might, for instance, give reasons to think reductionism about moral value cannot be true, and infer from this, together with the fact that there are moral truths and the belief that all non-primitive truths must be reducible to primitive truths, that there are primitive moral truths.

Well, most atheists who take this route will probably base the non-reductionism on the logically false truism that you cannot validly infer "ought" from "is".

But even if they do not, the chain of inferences you describe above does nothing to lead them to even a shadow of a hint of the ghost of an inkling of what those primitive truths are. So like the good Nietzcheans that most of them are, they will arbitrarily commit themselves to some moral primitives because that's what you do when God is dead.

So you end up with buffoons like Ricky Gervais not getting married in the eyes of God because there is no God, but treating bullfighting as if it were the equivalent of child-exploitation. Or Bill Maher, board member of PETA, famous for their 'holocaust of chickens' charge against KFC. Or, well, Alain De Botton, wanting to build the Barad-dûr of Atheism.

Chesterton was, as usual, right when he said "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing — they believe in anything."

In order to avoid crowded tennis courts, I will only play tennis on Sundays.

I don't want to get into an extended discussion of Kantian ethics. But I will note that maxims like this, to be universalized, probably need not only be generalized on "I", but also on "Sunday" and "tennis". Once you do that, you will probably not have quite the problem you suppose.

But my point was to see that the two most significant moral doctrines that human beings have yet discovered, the CI and the Principle of Utility, both seem to be implied, in some form, by the 'purely factual' claims that God is Omnipotent, Omniscient and Perfectly Rational. This blog post is not the proper place to spell out all the details of that implication. I think that's the subject for a book. Maybe one day I'll write such a book. The point was to provide a thumbnail sketch that might give you some idea of how the argument might go.

As a sidenote related to the "arbitrariness" worry, some atheists have been attracted to Kantianism precisely because they see in it the potential for grounding morality without presupposing theism. Kant, of course, thought that the existence of God is a postulate of practical reason, but these atheists I have in mind find that portion of his thought unconvincing.

Again, I'm not going to go into great detail about Kantian ethics, but it seems to me that if you think the Categorical Imperative is the supreme principle of morality, then the argument of the Critique of Practical Reason is inescapable.

As a rational being, you, of course, will your own happiness. But you are not self-sufficient, and so your willing your own happiness does not guarantee your own happiness. As such, your acts always have the dual aim of the demands of morality made by the CI and your own happiness. And insofar as you are rational the later is not required to determine how you will in fact act. It is always placed in obedience to the willing of the moral end. (Here we see how short we always fall.)

But your happiness is manifestly not, in this life, connected to following the commands of morality. You are therefore assuming, whether you know it or not, that your happiness and your virtue will be brought together in some future time: after death and by a being capable of making them meet.

Well I’ll make this my final remark. If you wish to have the last word, I won’t object.

You write,

But even if they do not, the chain of inferences you describe above does nothing to lead them to even a shadow of a hint of the ghost of an inkling of what those primitive truths are. So like the good Nietzcheans that most of them are, they will arbitrarily commit themselves to some moral primitives because that's what you do when God is dead.

Why you think most atheists are Nietzscheans I do not know. Most of the atheists I know (and I know many) are not Nietzscheans despite the fact that they have read and understood Nietzsche.

Concerning whether the atheist can successfully identify primitive moral truths, that is entirely beside the point. Even without being able to identify a primitive moral truth, he may still have reasons to believe that there are such truths. The atheist might, for instance, find all of the premises of the following argument plausible:

(a) For any truth T, either T is a primitive truth or else it is reducible (in the sense of capable of being adequately grounded in) to primitive truths.
(b) For any moral truth M, if M is reducible to some set of truths, then that set of truths includes at least one moral truth.
(c) There are some moral truths. Call one such truth m.
(d) Therefore, either m is a primitive truth or m is reducible to primitive truths. [from a, c]
(e) Therefore, if m is reducible to primitive truths, then those primitive truths include a moral truth. [from b together with the fact that m is a reducible moral truth]
(f) If those primitive truths include a moral truth, then some moral truths are primitive and therefore in need of no further grounding.
(g) Therefore, if m is reducible to primitive truths, then some moral truths are primitive and therefore in need of no further grounding. [from e, f]
(h) If m is a primitive truth, then some moral truths are primitive and therefore in need of no further grounding.
(i) Therefore, some moral truths are primitive and therefore in need of no further grounding. [from d, g, h)

Notice that the atheist can find this argument plausible even if he cannot give an example of a primitive moral truth.

It should be emphasized, furthermore, that there is nothing atheistic about endorsing this argument. The most controversial premise is probably premise (b), and as far as I can tell Koukl thinks that premise (b) is true. I’m really at a loss, therefore, to understand his view on these matters. On the one hand he talks like all moral truths must be reduced to non-moral truths, since otherwise any justification for morality will implicitly take morality for granted. On the other hand, it seems that he denies that morality can be adequately grounded in wholly non-moral facts. I suspect he’s just confused about all of this, but the clarity of his mind on these issues is hardly what we are here to discuss. I mentioned him only to motivate the view that both theists and atheists alike can find the above argument persuasive.

You write,

If the existence of God is proven as a necessary truth, and there are moral consequences to it, then grounding morality anywhere else is like arguing for the truth of "2+2=4" by survey.

But I see no reason to think that if some being B is shown to be necessarily existent, and from B’s existence some truth follows, then it follows that the truth is grounded in some feature of B. Perhaps the number two is a necessary being. From the fact that the number two exists, it follows that all bachelors are unmarried men (since the fact about bachelors is a necessary truth and therefore follows from anything). But the fact that all bachelors are unmarried men has not been shown to be grounded in some feature of the number two. I see no reason, therefore, to endorse the following principle:

If there exists some necessary being B, and from B’s existence it follows that p is true, then p’s truth is grounded in B’s existence.

As far as I can tell, at best what you have shown is that given God’s necessary existence, omniscience, and rationality, certain moral truths follow. But why think that those truths are therefore grounded in some feature of God?

But I’ve merely been supposing for the sake of discussion that you could even prove God’s existence, and I hardly think you can. I do not believe there are any good arguments for God’s existence, and I certainly don’t think the ontological argument is at all persuasive. That opinion, furthermore, is hardly unique to the “uninitiated.” Even Plantinga says it fails as a persuasive proof for God’s existence. He writes,

But here we must be careful; we must ask whether this argument is a successful piece of natural theology, whether it proves the existence of God. And the answer must be, I think, that it does not. An argument for God's existence may be sound, after all, without in any useful sense proving God's existence. Since I believe in God, I think the following argument is sound:

Either God exists or 7 + 5 = 14

It is false that 7 + 5 = 14

Therefore God exists.

But obviously this isn't a proof; no one who didn't already accept the conclusion, would accept the first premise. The ontological argument we've been examining isn't just like this one, of course, but it must be conceded that not everyone who understands and reflects on its central premise -- that the existence of a maximally great being is possible -- will accept it.

If in order to show that the atheist is in grounding trouble with morality, both the ontological argument must be rendered cogent and the categorical imperative must be properly formulated and vindicated over its rivals, then I’d say the atheist is in no serious danger of being shown that he is in grounding trouble with morality. I think you might be far more impressed with Kantianism and the ontological argument than any atheist (or theist for that matter!) is rationally compelled to be.

I wouldn't concede (a).

"The atheist might, for instance, find all of the premises of the following argument plausible:

(a) For any truth T, either T is a primitive truth or else it is reducible (in the sense of capable of being adequately grounded in) to primitive truths.

(a) is an insurmountable wall for any supposed "atheist" to justify objectively. If they are willing to assume (a), then fine proceed, but dont say you are grounded on/in anything but opinion as foundational or ultimate.

Premise (b) is a contradiction.

Again, if you hold that there are two sets of propositions, M and -M, that are mutually exclusive and exhaustive. If you hold that M and -M are closed under conjunction and denial, and you then say that one of the sets is closed under logical equivalence, you have contradicted yourself.

If M is closed under the much weaker relationship you mention in (b), it will obviously be closed under logical equivalence. So (b) is pretty straightforwardly contradictory.

So the argument for the existence of moral primitives is, once again, in ruins. But even if, contrary to fact, it were successful. The result is that the atheist knows that there are moral primitives, but has no idea what they are.

From the standpoint of moralizing, the moral primitive one does not know is a good and useful as the one that does not exist. There will be no basis for a moral system from unknown moral primitives.

As for the ontological argument, if you re-read Plantinga's quote, then you'll see that his point was that people could still disagree about whether the existence of God is logically possible. As philosophers are wont to do, he is understating the significance of his rediscovery.

Very few people in doubt on the subject are going to say that the very idea of God is contradictory. If they thought that, they would not be in doubt.

Indeed, only atheists at level 7 on the Dawkins Scale (and even Dawkins only rates himself as a 6.9) can say that the very idea of God is contradictory.

Everyone else is actually intellectually required to cede the ground to theism. If the atheist wants to say that there is a contradiction in the idea of God, it's kind of up to him to put up or shut up. By his own oft-repeated mantra, it is up to the one who says that a thing exists to prove that it exists. The atheist is declaring that a contradiction exists. It's up to him to prove it.

If you like, I'm just like the atheist except that I believe in one less contradiction than he does.

Etc.

But it might also be that you can prove that God is possible. I've actually got a proof that I won't get into here. Instead, I want to call your attention to this: even if I were to produce an unquestionably sound argument for the possibility of God, the ontological argument would remain unconvincing.

Why?

Is it because it would not be intellectually devastating to atheism?

No.

From an intellectual point of view, a proof of the mere possibility of God renders atheism dead as a doornail.

But there are a whole host of proofs that are intellectually devastating that very few people accept. Try the Cantor Diagonalization Proof or the Godel Incompleteness Theorem on for size. Heck, even something as simple as the exact equality of 1.0 and 0.999... will not be very convincing even to someone who is willing to be convinced.

Finally, and for the third time, my argument does not depend on the truth of the Kantian principle. Especially not the truth of any old straw interpretation of that principle.

It does depend on the recognition that the CI is one of the great answers to the question "What is Right?", And it's is pretty clear that something of that sort follows in a strongly relevant way from the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly rational God.

As does the Principle of Utility...another one of those great answers.

Why is act X wrong? Because it violates the CI. Or it violates the POU. But why are those stadards or rightness and wrongness? Are they just primitives? No, they are derived from the power, knowledge and rationality of the God Who Must Be.

Another comment from the peanut gallery:

Mal says this earlier:

"From the fact that we are rationally compelled by theism to posit moral values it in no way follows that we are rationally compelled by atheism to deny moral values. So again, I remain puzzled as to why anyone would think that atheists are in serious grounding trouble with morality." [bold mine]

Why are we rationally compelled by theism to posit moral values? What is it about theism that compels? Is it that the moral values are given or derived by an authority?

Contrarily, what is is about atheism that allows a professed atheist to claim an appeal to authority to ground his morality?

If grounding isn't derived from a legitimate authority, theists dont have it either, so I ask again what is it about the fact of theism that compels men to posit moral values?

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