Sunday, February 25, 2007

Moral authority...

So recently I've been trying to figure out a certain line of reasoning of (some/most?) secular humanists. Professor BH tried to explain to me how you can be an atheist and still believe in non-relative (and not just a product of evolution) morality. I'm still not sure I understand, and this is why...

So let's assume that there is no higher power or divine justice. I won't limit this to physicalism, because I'm fairly certain not all secular humanists are physicalists (and certainly not strict ones if they are). And physicalism entails all sorts of problems with moral responsibility. So let's say that I believe that there are moral absolutes (that there is a fact of the matter as to what is right and wrong). I don't think this necessarily rules out value pluralism, so I'll ignore that for now because I don't know enough about it. Morality, then, exists separately from the physical world (like abstract objects). "Murder is wrong" (prima facie...sp?) would be on the same level as the number 2 is even. It just is, and it is not dependant on the world as such. You could also say that some parts of morality are easily accessible, but others require a substantial amount of thought and discussion to discern.

So far so good. My question lies in the binding power of these moral laws. Unlike the natural laws (gravity and such), they can (and frequently are) broken. They are more similar in nature to the logic laws. We can "break" the laws of logic only in the sense that we make mistakes in arguments, putting the laws into practice, and such (in the process of describing or appealing to these laws). You may make an argument where you include a contradiction, for example, but you by no means made a real contradiction (in other words, you never made A and not A come to be). That's like when a student writes down that 2 + 2 =3. They broke the rule, but they didn't actually make 2 + 2=3.

The same type of situation occurs with moral laws. We may mistakenly believe that murder is good, but that doesn't make it good. But here is my dilemma: if the moral laws of the universe are some abstract concept (like logic), on what basis can we appeal to them? When we try to justify an action on the basis that it promotes justice, for example, what are we really appealing to? Do we want to get the moral laws right (like those of logic), just for the sake of our own edification (because it would seem irrational to continue to violate them)? What actual powers do they have, if any? They certainly aren't like the natural laws (which we have no choice but to obey). So what is the incentive to follow them (other than the aforementioned appeal to rational improvement)? If there is no source of justice, what is the point?

I suppose one could argue that, like the rules of logic, recognizing and using them is good for other reasons....(mathematics is certainly helpful for practical reasons, and morality likewise brings social benefits). But I'm unconvinced that the social benefits (or even individual self improvement claims) are in anyway binding. I'm unclear on my own definition of binding, but I see it as something that eventually brings the end of affairs into agreement with the rules. For example, a student may make a mistake on a math quiz, but the teacher exercises authority over the student and corrects that mistake. So in the end, the right answer prevails (though it was not achieved by the student beforehand). For some reason, I need a mechanism to ensure that the rules are obeyed (at least when all is said and done). Without which, I feel the rules are useless. Yes they may be socially convenient, but you can't appeal to them in anyway to hold me morally responsible. So then what? Anarchy? That's not attractive. If you believe in moral absolutes (which can include value pluralism if you're so inclined), please explain on what basis these rules can be appealed to (in order to mandate my behavior, and if need be coerce it). What authority do they really have?

Now you may turn that right around and ask by what authority do I appeal to when justifying why moral rules are binding. I believe in a just God. Now Prof BH pointed out that my appealing to God is not very dissimilar to his appeal to abstract concepts. In fact, if there is a God, he said that God would be bound by those very rules himself (for God to be good there must be some concept of good by which He meets the standard). So it seems that I'm just adding a middle man, and Occam (I have no idea how to spell his name, ever) wouldn't like that too much. If God is bound by morality (he could never make it the case that torturing babies,p.f., is morally praiseworthy) then the same thing that binds him is what binds us even if He wasn't there. In which case, my question is still unanswered with or without God.

But I'm not quick to make a linear ranking of morality/logic/etc and God. This is why (and this is where I depart from philosophy and try my hand at something I am admittedly unqualified for...theology) I don't want to say that. In many Biblical descriptions (interpretations) of God, He does not merely possess certain qualities, but rather is that thing. "God is love", for example (1 John 4:16), not just God is loving. Now, I do realize that perhaps this is just a product of translation. However, it does make me wonder... Is it possible for God to not be a just God but to be justice itself? He would sort of be the pinnacle goodness that Plato thought philosophers tapped into. He would be goodness, love, justice... If that's the case, then God is both the benchmark and the evaluator. He is the standard, and the judge. In which case, He would be bound by moral laws in virtue of those laws being an essential part of his nature, part of what it is to be God. It's a thought, anyways. Does that seem plausible or am I way off base??

So let's say that God is both the ruler we are measured against and the mechanism for setting things back to good (in the end). We would be obliged to follow the moral laws because...? Divine retribution? I think it's more than that. So let's say we really were created (don't get bogged down in the how), and let's also say that we were endowed with both the ability to discern these laws and the ability to choose whether to follow them. Are the laws only knowable by reading sacred texts? I'll wager a no on that (not from the Christian God). Here's why:
"I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart" Psalm 40:8
"Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts" Isaiah 51:7
"I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts." Jer 31:33

So lets say God endowed everyone with the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis throwback if you will). Why bother? Why allow us to know evil and still choose it? I believe He wanted to create beings who were able to freely love Him (if they so desired). Those who don't want to, well they don't have to. With that comes the ability to choose lots of things, including evil (even if you love're going to mess up a bit). So what? Why have any consequences?

I think that if God really is goodness (like God = the good/best/whatever), then He can't tolerate (by nature) the presence of evil (which is essentially corrupted good). So, eventually He'll have to serve justice, make everything right. And like I said before, He could do it now, but He's giving us the chance to make some important decisions. So morality is binding to me, because it is part of my choosing God. I choose God, and so I want to be more like in turn I want to follow His commands. You get the point. Those who don't choose God, well in the end they won't get to chill with Him (which they didn't want to do anyways). On a side note, you may wonder about my views on hell. I believe hell is the absence of God, which to those who love God could very well be comprable to a lake of fire...if you want to imagine a sucky way to end up). But, if you don't choose God, then the presence of God would be hell. So I think it's really about choosing whether or not to experience His presence from here on out (and I honestly don't know what His absence would be like, but I know for me it would suck more than anything). So there's my random two cents on that.

I have my answer, and I really wish I understood the secular response...but unfortunately I don't. I don't see the authority there in the same way it is with God (or at least something like God). That's not a frivolous question either, because if there really is no authority without God and God doesn't exist...well then why hold people morally responsible for anything? That's all for now. Sorry it was so long...and I promise that one day I will learn to write cleary without using a ton of parenthetical qualifiers. Sorry.


bencrouse said...

I think the problem comes from your concept of "binding."
Look again at your comparison of morality and logic. The math teachers of the world are not really the binding authority on math, the natural laws are. Imagine an architect who uses bad math to design a bridge. If the math is bad enough, gravity will pull the bridge apart and bring "the end of affairs into agreement with the rules." You could, of course, argue that the laws of logic are merely "gravitationally convenient," to architecture, but I would argue that gravity serves as a mechanism for enforcing a math.
Similarly, philosophy professors are not the binding authority on Kant's Categorical Imperative, social sciences are. Imagine a student who downloads a song from the internet, stealing the song. If everyone did that, there would be no economic incentive to any record songs. You could argue that it is merely "socially convenient" to not steal music, but I think that economics, here, serve as an enforcement mechanism.

Bill Waller said...

I am as you know a metaethical subjectivist, but let me give this a shot. I would argue, on behalf of the secular humanist, that any problems about the law-like status of morality (such as in what way morality is binding) are equally applicable regardless of whether one is a theist or not. If God is the source of moral prescription, and he prohibits some actions which human beings are willing and able to do (and indeed on the Christian account do early and often), then God's morality is just as non-binding as the humanist's. On either account there is no prohibitive agency apart from a human individual considering the moral law and choosing to adhere to it.

In fact, for every possible response the theist has to the above argument there is a parallel which the humanist can adopt.

Response 1: God serves justice in the end by metting out punishment to transgressors of moral laws and reward to those who abide by them. Well, if post-hoc correction is how morality is binding, then the justice of society is just as forceful (even more so in that it alone human beings can be universally certain of). Police, prisons, the guillotine, petty fines, even the distrust and scorn of a neighbor--these are very real considerations which restrain our actions and prevent future transgressions.

Response 2: People have an intuitive sense of right and wrong that must be fought against or ignored for one to commit evil acts. The existence of this is an empirical question which, if it is affirmed, will work equally well for the theist or humanist. To drive this home, consider the extensive work done in evolutionary psychology about the adaptation of morality. Is the theistic soul as a seat of conscience nearly so well-formed as a hypothesis or nearly so well-evidenced?

Response 3: A well-informed, rational human being will realize that abiding by morality in a social contract creates a state of personal utility significantly superior to that of ignoring moral rules. Once again, this is an empirical question, one which I believe social contract theory argues persuasively in favor of. But again, it matters not whether one is theist or humanist if this is true. It's also worth noting that anarchy in such a situation is not so undesirable a thing.

It also seems unclear just how defining God as justice (or more correctly, justice as God) solves more problems than it creates. In the first place, it appears to be entirely arbitrary; I might as well define justice as my dog, for neither fit with any intuitions humans possess about justice (though my dog is cute and virtually blameless, while God did ostensibly knowingly create evil). In the second place, justice is an abstract concept--and unless you're a pantheist of some persuasion, God for you is a very concrete entity, with entity-properties like intellect, will, and agency predicated of it which are anathema to abstractions.

Lindsey said...

Thank you guys for the comments! As you could probably tell, the more I thought about this one, the less I knew where I stood. Ben, you're right in saying that my teacher comparison doesn't do the job. The teacher is not the source of whether or not 2+2=3, he/she just conveys that to the student. So my example of binding kinda sucked.

Bill, I sort of see what you're saying. So regardless of the nature of moral laws (which I think you believe are contingent on how we evolved, though I think they're independant of that), the humanist is in the same boat as the theist. What I wonder is how morality is something over and above social convience? Or would you say that's all it is? Could there then be a society where it was socially convient to torture babies? I doubt it, but maybe. Would that make it okay? My hesitation comes in what purpose these laws serve. Are they merely for the sake of rational beings to get along better, are they merely descriptive, normative, or are they more important than that.

And an imperfect government handing out justice hardly seems enough. If in the end the laws aren't lived up to, or things made right, what's the point? I think that's where I'm struggling. But again, I don't have a good answer.