Home > Ethics > Some fun discussion on morality…

Some fun discussion on morality…

I put up a post on FB a few weeks ago:

Why aren’t objective moral values similar to logical absolutes or mathematics? Accessible to theists and non theists like, and more importantly, not dependent on God, for their basis.

Now, if we can ignore the fact that some theists do argue that logical absolutes and mathematics come from God (TAG), and focus on morality for a moment, I’d like to put up a discussion I had with a client. It’s not Shakespeare as we’re both not philosophers and we both have a limited understanding of these subjects, but I thought it was an interesting conversation nonetheless.

Mandy

“PS re: your comment on FB, I think Allan means “subjective” but in any case is morality ever really objective, with, or without God?  I dunno, I have just exhausted my knowledge on the topic.”

Me

“Dude, you shoulda chimed in 🙂 I think Allan is discussing subjective morality, which is fine, I’m just saying, that was not my original post, I’m not commenting on the rightness of objective moral theory, just wondering why, if a person accepted objective moral theory, we would need to rationalise it with a God, as we don’t have to do with logic and numbers (which are objective and absolute).

To address your last question, do you believe numbers or logical absolutes are standards separate from human involvement (at least in their creation, not in their usage)? If you do, you can see how objective morality (such as “it’s always wrong to gratuitously torture a child“) can exist. If not I would ask why you don’t think numbers or logical absolutes exist objectively (after all 2+2=4 will always be so, regardless of humans involvement).

I would personally say it is possible that “gratuitously torturing a child” is always wrong, independent of culture, experience or perspective, which would make it objective (absolute), and not subjective. But I do admit a great amount of ignorance on this topic…”

Mandy

“Before I get to the “God” question….Can there right or wrong in objectivity? For instance if it was objective then it wouldn’t be a matter of whether torture was right or wrong, but whether it “is” or it “isn’t” or whether it “can” or “cant be”.  If it “isn’t” then it does not happen, it does not exist.  But the fact that it does occur, that it can exist, to me means that it can never be truly objective.  We can attempt to make it objective in the sense that pretty much everyone agrees that it “shouldn’t” happen, it shouldn’t exist because it is abhorrent, but that does not make it not exist.

Numbers are truly absolutes, truly objective.  2+2 will always equal 4. Regardless of whether you allocate the “human” definitions of “2”  and “4” or whether you express it as **+**=****, etc. If you combine II and II together it will always result in IIII.

But with the moral element, yes the majority may all agree that torture is wrong.  But there will always be some psychopath out there who just doesn’t get it.  There are people who recognize that it is wrong but they do it anyway, there are also psychos who just don’t comprehend the difference or do they? I don’t know. Perhaps if they do, then what I’m about to say isn’t correct and you are right but: if they don’t recognize that it’s morally wrong then if the above mathematical equation represents the moral question, then 2+2 does not always equal 4 and therefore it cannot be deemed an absolute, or objective, even if 99.9% of the population come to the same conclusion.

But then what I’ve concluded here is not the same as the argument I was making in the first paragraph above so who the hell knows?! Im all over the place.

But in any case, if morality can be objective then I don’t think we do need to rationalize it with a God, I think historically we perhaps bring in the God element as a means to try and ensure conformity from the wider population, out of fear of a punishment from a greater being who was taught as having ultimate power over us (we may get to make choices to live “bad” lives but in the end we are taught we cannot escape judgement by “God”).  In that vein, we get to justify the law.  After all, humans being humans, if another human- who we might consider at best “an equal”, attempts to enforce a rule upon us that we don’t like our instant reaction is to challenge it by saying, you have no power over me, or right to enforce this upon me.  Not knowing anything about objective morality Im assuming that your question arises from perhaps the fact that whenever objective morality is discussed, it is discussed in the context of God? If so, then perhaps you can look at it from the perspective that God is not a “being” that dictates to us about what we should or shouldn’t do, but a representation of a rule or law that provides the best outcome or benefit for the majority of the population. A rule or law that promotes the continuation and growth of the species.  Survival of the fittest.

So perhaps objective morality doesn’t really require the notion of God as a “being” but for the majority, having the God element ensures the best level of conformity (statistically speaking), and therefore we are more justified in claiming these morals as being “objective”.”

Me

“”Can there right or wrong in objectivity? For instance if it was objective then it wouldn’t be a matter of whether torture was right or wrong, but whether it “is” or it “isn’t” or whether it “can” or “cant be”.  If it “isn’t” then it does not happen, it does not exist.  But the fact that it does occur, that it can exist, to me means that it can never be truly objective.  We can attempt to make it objective in the sense that pretty much everyone agrees that it “shouldn’t” happen, it shouldn’t exist because it is abhorrent, but that does not make it not exist.”

Firstly, thanks so much for the thoughtful response, I might post this on my religion blog 🙂

Sorry if there’s any confusion here, I’m trying to understand these concepts myself. Let me see if I can respond, sorry if I miss the point!

If there is objective moral ontology (existence),  that would mean that there would be an objective standard to assess moral duties by, in the sense that, if I gratuitously tortured a child, it would be objectively wrong to do so, I could still torture the child (as I have free will), but by that standard it is inherently, perhaps intrinsically wrong, and no-one could say (accurately)  there is a right circumstance that would permit it (hence it would not be a moral duty). It wouldn’t require everyone (or anyone) to agree with it, it would simply be so, like 2+2=4.

Numbers are truly absolutes, truly objective.  2+2 will always equal 4. Regardless of whether you allocate the “human” definitions of “2”  and “4” or whether you express it as **+**=****, etc. If you combine II and II together it will always result in IIII.

But with the moral element, yes the majority may all agree that torture is wrong.  But there will always be some psychopath out there who just doesn’t get it.  There are people who recognize that it is wrong but they do it anyway, there are also psychos who just don’t comprehend the difference- or do they? I don’t know. Perhaps if they do, then what I’m about to say isn’t correct and you are right but: if they don’t recognize that it’s morally wrong then if the above mathematical equation represents the moral question, then 2+2 does not always equal 4 and therefore it cannot be deemed an absolute, or objective, even if 99.9% of the population come to the same conclusion.”

I agree with your number analogy and objective moral theorists would say the same of morality (some would say that there are moral absolutes). I wasn’t saying that objectivity meant, majority. On objective moral theory gratuitous torture of children is wrong irrespective of what you or I have to say about it, it doesn’t matter if we have laws that say we can’t do it, it doesn’t matter if some cultures are gratuitously torturing children because they think it’s right. It would simply be wrong across all standards, like you just demonstrated (rather elegantly I might add) with numbers. As a sidenote- The reason I use the gratuitous torture of children as an example is because this is a perfect example that under any theory of free will or morality the word gratuitous means there is no justification (as in “you’re torturing the child to save the lives of a city”, as would be the case under utilitarian free will theory) for the torture of children.

Your analogy with the serial killer fits with objective morality (as far as I understand it).  A serial killer may kill, she may have a particular psychological issue that prevents her from seeing the error in her ways (and let’s say for the sake of argument, assume she tortures children, gratuitously). But that doesn’t affect absolute/objective moral ontology, it is wrong by the subsequent moral duties of such a moral philosophy (an example of a moral duty under such a philosophy would be “gratuitous torture= wrong= it’s wrong to do it“). It would not be considered a moral duty, or perhaps more specifically a moral imperative to gratuitously torture a child, so regardless of legal or otherwise consequences the act of gratuitous torture would be objectively wrong.

But then what I’ve concluded here is not the same as the argument I was making in the first paragraph above so who the hell knows?! Im all over the place.

Are you kidding? I’m struggling to keep up with you here!!!

But in any case, if morality can be objective then I don’t think we do need to rationalize it with a God, I think historically we perhaps bring in the God element as a means to try and ensure conformity from the wider population, out of fear of a punishment from a greater being who was taught as having ultimate power over us (we may get to make choices to live “bad” lives but in the end we are taught we cannot escape judgement by “God”).  In that vein, we get to justify the law.  After all, humans being humans, if another human- who we might consider at best “an equal”, attempts to enforce a rule upon us that we don’t like our instant reaction is to challenge it by saying, you have no power over me, or right to enforce this upon me.  Not knowing anything about objective morality I’m assuming that your question arises from perhaps the fact that whenever objective morality is discussed, it is discussed in the context of God? If so, then perhaps you can look at it from the perspective that God is not a “being” that dictates to us about what we should or shouldn’t do, but a representation of a rule or law that provides the best outcome or benefit for the majority of the population. A rule or law that promotes the continuation and growth of the species.  Survival of the fittest. 

So perhaps objective morality doesn’t really require the notion of God as a “being” but for the majority, having the God element ensures the best level of conformity (statistically speaking), and therefore we are more justified in claiming these morals as being “objective”.”

I would agree with your first point, and atheist/agnostic moral philosophers would agree too, it’s just that this is a huge theist argument, hence why they feel the need to have a response to it. I like your theory about God’s use in morality and it’s an interesting one, but many theist arguments constitute God as the basis for morality, that it stems from His nature (or His will, depending on which moral theory you read), and that objective morality is simply his standard, and that he does dictate that standard to us (through various means, actualized in different theories). As an atheist I don’t agree with this (theists would say I can’t), but to combat it, I have to have (a) an alternative theory to their objective morality (and the subsequent explanation of moral duties), (b) I have to reject objective moral values and duties or (c) I have to deconstruct their theory (that objective moral values and duties come from God). I’m not sure which I’d like to do, or which I can, but I’d love to beat em on their own turf ( showing them that there is an atheistic basis for objective moral ontology and duties).

Your last point implies almost the notion of God as a mythic element that keeps people in line? If my interpretation is accurate I might agree, I just don’t think the theists would agree, and they are, after all, the ones who keep the concept of God going. Or are you arguing that theists need the God concept to keep them in line? There might be reason to think that this is so, even if they don’t admit it, and it may just stem from having a purpose in their lives (to worship and praise God).

??

 

Far out, now my head hurts.

 

I gotta get back to my absolutes…its much less frustrating!

Haha you kicked ass, like I said, I had trouble keeping up with you, I’m sure I missed the point more often than I got it, and I actually read up on this stuff!!! How sad am I :)”

Mandy

““I had trouble keeping up with you”

That’s because my reasoning was inconsistent!

I’m sure I missed the point more often than I got it”

I’m sure not! (Re: above)

I think it depends how you define “objective” and “absolute”.  Perhaps I have been interchanging them when I shouldn’t, because “absolute” to me means there cant be an alternate result. 2+2 must equal 4 at all times, no interpretations, no exceptions.  It just is. An alternate result cannot exist.

Perhaps with moral objectivity, your reasoning is more appropriate, that the rule exists (as opposed to a subjective enforcement) but simultaneously there can also still exist an outcome which is inherently in conflict with the rule/accepted result.

And I suppose you could also say that whether or not God is a being or an overarching rule/law which is exists to insure the continuance of the species, objective morals are the rules by which we ensure survival, long term.  Thus objective “morality” does exist to start with (or perhaps alternatively we could call these “objective rules of survival”)

I’m in over my head now, but I don’t see how theists have any more proof that God is the basis for morality, than atheists do in arguing that He/It isn’t. For example, atheists may argue that “God” is just a means by which we justify imposing rules that are for the benefit of the species as a whole.  I don’t think that to reject the theist theory you have to reject the moral code or values, you just need to find another basis for them (which I think you may have already stated but I can’t be bothered scrolling down to check).  Surely survival of the species, constitutes that alternative.  We will live by a set of rules which ensure our survival for as long as possible. That is, until such time that another, more dominant species comes into existence and wipes us out (but then theists are just going to argue that this is the work of God anyway before they are silenced by their extinction of course, and then really, who’s gonna care?).

This is echoed in the basic “survival of the fittest” which we see every day in nature.  Animals have a natural hierarchy, do they have a moral code? Oooh, toughy. Maybe not, but then who knows for sure? We don’t speak their language.  What we do know is that there is a hierarchy, a set of rules which is established that determines whether an animal survives or doesn’t.  Their rule is basic- the strongest wins the fight and gets to live another day and if their lucky, procreate and continue the species.

Do humans need a moral code? Or can we simply convert the moral code by which we live to a set of rules which basically ensure the survival of our species and a dominance of the strongest of our species for the future? I don’t know, not having sat down to think about all of the various morals by which we live, but for the few that spring to mind immediately, then yes, I think we can easily interchange “morals” (i.e. rules of “right” or “wrong”) with “rules of long term survival”.

This is why philosophy is fun I suppose, it’s difficult for either side to get an upper hand on the argument, because no one actually knows for “certain”. Theists argue that they do know.  Atheists are always trying to prove a negative, which is possibly more difficult because they are up against some compelling human elements.  1) Fear of the unknown.  Fear of the “but what if God does exist and I live my life ignoring him and then have to spend an eternity in Hell as a result?”.  2) The need to justify/understand “why”. Why do bad things happen? The need to feel there is a greater good, that there is someone in control, someone or something with a plan that is for our ultimate benefit.  The need to believe that if the cards we are dealt in life are duds, we can still have a crack at contentment in “heaven” or if we are not quite so lucky as others- a second stab at life here on earth.  All in all, whether God exists or not, this “belief” provides relief for those who are less fortunate, and hopefully if they believe strongly enough, prevents them from committing suicide as a result of thoughts of futility, and thus, continue their life for as long as possible, and possibly even procreate and continue the species…yep there is definitely a theme here!

But the bottom line is that theists don’t actually have any more proof than atheists, at least, I haven’t seen any to date- not that I’ve ever asked for it.

I can see why you are often up all night studying this stuff…

BTW as to the question of whether I believe theists need a “God” element to keep them in line? Absolutely! Theists are still human after all, which means they are flawed.  How many priests have abused children (and anyone else weaker than them) over the centuries, behind closed doors?  Some of them used their connection with “God” as a justification, others condemn it and hope that a fear of God will prevent this from happening.

God has also been used as a means by which theists assert they were a law unto themselves, it was and remains to be, a source of power financially and politically.

I don’t know if I’m an atheist.  I don’t know if I believe in God or not.  I guess at the moment I’m leaning towards “not”.  But there are still times when I want to believe there is a purpose, that hardships lead to growth and that we suffer those hardships for a “reason”.

But maybe that’s because I’m emotional, and a hopeless romantic, and I sometimes still believe in fairytales! :-P”

Me

“Not at all, I think you’re incredible literate on these topics for someone who doesn’t study it! These are tricky issues that have plagued thinkers before Aristotle!

I think it depends how you define “objective” and “absolute”.  Perhaps I have been interchanging them when I shouldn’t, because “absolute” to me means there can’t be an alternate result. 2+2 must equal 4 at all times, no interpretations, no exceptions.  It just is. An alternate result cannot exist. 

Perhaps with moral objectivity, your reasoning is more appropriate, that the rule exists (as opposed to a subjective enforcement) but simultaneously there can also still exist an outcome which is inherently in conflict with the rule/accepted result.

I agree, and I think I dropped the ball a little on that, I was talking about objectivity then I start throwing around absolutism. I guess I meant there are absolute moral values (“happiness is preferable to pain“, simplistic as that is you get the point), and they are objective in the sense that they are so regardless of human interaction, perception and opinion. I think I threw you off a little there, sorry!

I’m in over my head now, but I don’t see how theists have any more proof that God is the basis for morality, than atheists do in arguing that He/It isn’t. For example, atheists may argue that “God” is just a means by which we justify imposing rules that are for the benefit of the species as a whole.  I don’t think that to reject the theist theory you have to reject the moral code or values, you just need to find another basis for them (which I think you may have already stated but I cant be bothered scrolling down to check).  Surely survival of the species, constitutes that alternative.  We will live by a set of rules which ensure our survival for as long as possible. That is, until such time that another, more dominant species comes into existence and wipes us out (but then theists are just going to argue that this is the work of God anyway- before they are silenced by their extinction of course, and then really, who’s gonna care?).

A theist might argue that objective morals and duties have a grounding in God, whereas they don’t in atheism (I define atheism in the negative as “the lack of a belief in God“, not the positive ‘I believe there is no God“), they would say they’re not attempting to show Gods existence, only to demonstrate that under their definition of their God, objective morals make the most sense.  An atheist might argue they have separate grounds for either morality or objective morality that don’t require a God, they might also attempt to demonstrate why morals can’t come from God or that the particular God in question (say the Christian God) (a) can’t exist due to an internal contradiction or (b) or is not moral. The “New atheists” (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) might argue that God is a device used to keep people in line, theists have rebuttals for that though (and they think it’s insulting). I would say that an objective, atheistic basis for morality might come from the same place logical or mathematical absolutes do, as in they exist necessarily, as a function of this universe or a result of it rather. Theists have the Transcendental argument to cover that though, which I don’t think succeeds.

Using “survival of the fittest“could leave the atheist open to what’s known as the “naturalistic fallacy“, plus that leaves the theist open to argue that if we’re going to base our morality on some kind of natural law, that we would have no basis for example to say that rape was wrong as it is natural, within the realm of procreation, to spread your seed and it occurs in nature all the time (does the lion ask to have sex with the lioness?).

This is echoed in the basic “survival of the fittest” which we see every day in nature.  Animals have a natural hierarchy, do they have a moral code? Oooh, toughy. Maybe not, but then who knows for sure? We don’t speak their language.  What we do know is that there is a hierarchy, a set of rules which is established that determines whether an animal survives or doesn’t.  Their rule is basic- the strongest wins the fight and gets to live another day and if their lucky, procreate and continue the species.

 

Do humans need a moral code? Or can we simply convert the moral code by which we live to a set of rules which basically ensure the survival of our species and a dominance of the strongest of our species for the future? I don’t know, not having sat down to think about all of the various morals by which we live, but for the few that spring to mind immediately, then yes, I think we can easily interchange “morals” (i.e. rules of “right” or “wrong”) with “rules of long term survival”.

There seems to be plenty of evidence animals do have morality (they experience altruism, self-sacrifice etc), but we as humans don’t want a “survival of the fittest” mentality (re: Nazi’s), as that would not cater to the weak, the sick or the unfortunate (in my humble opinion), we would a morality based on evidence, reason, rationality etc. That way we can determine what works the best for everyone (see: secular humanism, naturalism etc), based on evidence.

This is why philosophy is fun I suppose, it’s difficult for either side to get an upper hand on the argument, because no one actually knows for “certain”. Theists argue that they do know.  Atheists are always trying to prove a negative, which is possibly more difficult because they are up against some compelling human elements.  1) Fear of the unknown.  Fear of the “but what if God does exist and I live my life ignoring him and then have to spend an eternity in Hell as a result?”.  2) The need to justify/understand “why”. Why do bad things happen? The need to feel there is a greater good, that there is someone in control, someone or something with a plan that is for our ultimate benefit.  The need to believe that if the cards we are dealt in life are duds, we can still have a crack at contentment in “heaven” or if we are not quite so lucky as others- a second stab at life here on earth.  All in all, whether God exists or not, this “belief” provides relief for those who are less fortunate, and hopefully if they believe strongly enough, prevents them from committing suicide as a result of thoughts of futility, and thus, continue their life for as long as possible, and possibly even procreate and continue the species…yep there is definitely a theme here!

I definitely agree, it’s why these debates can be so infuriating, and it’s why so many rely on science, as it gives us hard answers, backed by evidence, it’s hard to philosophize your way out of empirical evidence. I understand what you’re saying about people’s fears, but there are so much better philosophies out there that are based on reason, than theology based on authority, it’s just harder to gain access to them.  This point here: “but what if God does exist and I live my life ignoring him and then have to spend an eternity in Hell as a result?”.” is what’s known as Pascal’s wager, there has been much written on it, but for our purposes I’ll simply say, this problem faces everyone, religious or not, because different religious doctrines say specific things about God, and what to believe about Him and more importantly what happens to you if you don’t agree with the specific doctrine of that religion. If you believe in Islam, and the Protestant God is the real one, you’re done. If you’re a Catholic, but the Mormon God is the real one, you’re done. There are thousands of religions and more Gods, the chances you’ve picked the right one is close to zero.

But the bottom line is that theists don’t actually have any more proof than atheists, at least, I haven’t seen any to date- not that I’ve ever asked for it. 

I can see why you are often up all night studying this stuff…

It’s this exact line, this is the reason I’m an atheist. Theists are making a claim, that God exists, they have a burden of proof, I don’t think they’ve met that burden of proof, so I’m within my epistemic bounds to say I don’t believe in their claim (especially as it goes against everything we do know with any reliability), I don’t go so far as to say I know or believe a God doesn’t exist, only that I don’t accept the claim one does.

“I don’t know if I’m an atheist.  I don’t know if I believe in God or not.  I guess at the moment I’m leaning towards “not”.  But there are still times when I want to believe there is a purpose, that hardships lead to growth and that we suffer those hardships for a “reason”.But maybe that’s because I’m emotional, and a hopeless romantic, and I sometimes still believe in fairytales! :-P”
You’re life has plenty of purpose, it’s simply subjective purpose, and as far as subjective purposes go, you have thousands of purposes, for example: you wanted to buy a house, purpose, you want to do well at work, purpose, you want to treat you loved ones well, purpose, you want to treat your pets well, purpose etc etc. And this is purpose that comes from you, your goodness is due to your quality as a human.

Hardships do lead to growth with or without God, there are reasons we suffer, they’re just not transcendental, they’re due to the failure of us as a species to create a perfect society, to create perfect technology to be perfect animals. the only thing it means to have no God is that everything you are, everything you’ve done, every effort you’ve achieved, every good thing about your life, is due to you, due to your hard work, and because you went after what you wanted, not because some intangible, sky daddy coddled you. I think it’s far more reasonable, adult and rewarding to base your life on reality, on dealing with reality on it’s terms, that’s how you thrive, that’s how you achieve greatness. *Steps off soapbox*”

Mandy

“Haha oh dear I don’t know where to start! I think I need a drink! 🙂
Great debate though, I did feel I was starting to get a bit simplistic with the survival of the fittest thing, I’m sure that has a place in whatever ‘complete’ theory I  may one day come up with! (most likely the instant before I kick the bucket)!
I like your view on purpose.
Maybe the reason the theory of God is created and so hard for some to let go of is because as humans we simply can’t achieve perfection but in some way we all strive for it. Having a God that is perfect, provides some kind of comfort that perhaps in some way if not in this life, then in some other form, we can retain hope that we will achieve perfection and understand the greater ‘purpose’ (for those who just cannot accept that our purpose is, as you say, what we choose and what we set out to do in THIS life). Problem is, we all have different views as to what ‘perfection’ is. So it will never be achievable not under the umbrella of only one ‘God’.
Thankfully I’m going to stop there because typing this out on my phone is too much hard work!
Thanks for the insight though and given the conversation I just had with my girlfriend your emailed cheered me up substantially!!
I have to go and kill some brain cells now by watching the last 20 mins of Grey’s Anatomy! :-)”
Advertisements
Categories: Ethics
  1. No comments yet.
  1. May 19, 2011 at 4:50 am
  2. June 24, 2011 at 3:47 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: