Sunday 26 October 2014

God and Moral Grounding

According to the common theistic view of moral ontology, facts about moral value reduce to facts about what God is like. This is an a posteriori property identity claim, that the property x is good is literally identical to the property x is like God's essential nature. As such God is not just one good thing among many, but rather he is the very standard to which all good things measure up. He is, according to this view, what Plato called the Good. Rather than explaining evil, theists typically explain it away. The common analogy is that, just as darkness is the absence of light and cold is the absence of heat, evil is merely the absence of good; the absence of any likeness to God. Just like a hole in your shirt, evil technically doesn't exist. It's not a thing in of itself. Even yet, just as a hole in your shirt will leave you cold, evil can still negatively affect you. Having an absence of God or his likeness in your life will, as it's thought, lead you to ruin.

The motivation for this view is that it explains, or best explains, the nature of morality in such a way that preserves our common ethical opinions. Since God is necessarily loving and kind and just, we get, as a result, that it's good to be loving and kind and just. But there are other essential characteristics of God that don't seem to fit into this paradigm. For example, God is necessarily prudent in that he doesn't thwart his own goals, but rather acts efficaciously to bring about his divine will. God is necessarily rational, in that he doesn't accept or hold propositional attitudes that go against the dictates of reason. And God is necessarily immutable, in that he does not behave inconsistently or arbitrarily from one day to the other. It would be rather absurd to think someone is failing to live up to the moral standard by being irrational, or acting imprudently. There might be a sense in which someone who believes contradictions is doing something objectively wrong, but this isn't a moral wrong. Believing contradictions makes one guilty of foolishness or irrationality, but not of moral wrongdoing. So, it seems, this account of moral ontology must fail.

There are further problems with the attempted explanation of evil. If evil is merely an absence of good, then good and evil must partition all things. Something must either be good, or be in the absence of good; there isn't any third option. But of course this is absurd, the vast majority of actions we perform are neither morally good nor evil. Every choice would become a moral choice, and every action would be morally significant. So again, it seems this account of moral ontology must fail.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Defending Moral Naturalism

There's a trend among religious apologists to lament the supposed moral bankruptcy of non-theistic world views, saying that in the absence of God there is no way to account for moral ontology. And yet, these apologists seem to never actually engage with the ideas within contemporary metaethics. Indeed, they often seem entirely ignorant of what philosophers actually believe about moral reality, let alone why.

I seek to defend moral naturalism, a non-theistic account of moral ontology, against all competitors. Moral naturalists believe facts about morality, that is facts about irreducibly categorical norms, are identical to or constituted by some domain of natural facts. Most often this domain is facts about the flourishing and languishing of sentient beings. That being said, not all naturalists think a full and extensive account of moral ontology can be cashed out. We can be sure that the vast bulk of moral reality is constituted of facts about flourishing and languishing, even if there might be some problems at the fringes of moral experience. As long as the naturalist is aiming at merely identifying constitutive features of morality, and not a complete identity, counter examples lose their bite as long as they are few and far between, at the fringes of our moral experience.

The Conceptual Link

When deliberating what they should do people often forgo moral predicates altogether, and simply talk about the natural features of an action or situation. That it's perfectly natural to talk about morality without ever explicitly mentioning moral terms strongly suggests an intimate connection between moral concepts and the relevant natural concepts. Likewise, people often ask of themselves or others rhetorical questions like "what could it hurt?" That these questions are in fact rhetorical and not intended to be open ended for answering further goes to shows this strong conceptual connection. It is natural for people to speak as if, in the absence of anything that could be hurt or harmed by ones actions, there is not even conceptual possibility that those actions would be wrong. Now, I wont go as far to say that moral language can be reduced to natural language, I agree with the consensus of contemporary philosophers that G.E. Moore put analytic reductions of moral language, natural and non-natural, into the grave. Nevertheless, there is still a clear and resounding conceptual link between the two, which lends a great deal of credence to moral naturalism, and away from every other view.

The Supervenience of Morality on Nature

It's not controversial that moral facts seem to supervene on natural facts. That is to say it seems impossible for there to be a change in the moral features of some action or situation without there likewise being a change in the natural features. On any other view of moral ontology this supervenience is a highly mysterious coincidence. Why would the two be so intertwined across all possibilities as they are? Moral naturalists have an answer. Moral facts supervene on natural facts because moral facts are natural facts. Suppose that after every epic battle between Superman and some invading alien race, Clark Kent came into work the next day all cut up and bruised. After a while, you would start to suspect that Clark Kent just was Superman, that the two were the same person. Similarly, that any change in the moral facts necessitates a change in the natural facts seems to strongly suggest that moral facts are identical to or constituted by natural facts.

The Scientific Advantage

Because moral facts are identical to or constituted by natural facts, we are able to study them with the natural sciences. In fact, the moral naturalist would maintain that scientists have been studying morality for a very long time within the fields of biology, health sciences, psychology, sociology, economics and so on. We study what causes humans (and other sentient animals) to languish; what causes them to become sick, to suffer, or to die. We learn about morality when we study how different economic or government systems promote human flourishing, and which ones lead to languishing. What sorts of societies promote human flourishing. Just as the ancient Greeks studied the morning star, not realizing that their hypothesis and theories were likewise about the evening star, modern day scientists study the flourishing and languishing of humans (and other sentient animals), and thereby discover moral truth whether they realize it or not.

Evolutionary Psychology and Escaping Moral Skepticism

Evolutionary psychology offers us a compelling explanation of why we make the moral judgments we do: because these judgments drove our ancestors to act in ways that were beneficial to their survival and reproductive success. In other words, we make the judgments we do largely because these judgments were adaptive for our ancestors. This explanation carries a great deal of prima facie plausibility, is incredibly parsimonious, and is to some degree amenable to empirical confirmation and falsification. In other words, it has all the markings of a proper scientific hypothesis. On these considerations alone, the adaptive account of human moral psychology is very attractive.

But this adaptive account threatens moral knowledge. As Sharon Street argues in her paper The Darwinian Dilemma, it seems there is no connection between the truth of a moral judgement and its adaptivness. This is quite unlike judgements about physical reality that, if in error, can get you eaten by a predator, or plummeted off a cliff, or dead in a multitude of ways. Moral error doesn't seem to threaten ones chances of survival or reproductive success. And so, given the adaptive account of human moral psychology, we should expect our moral judgments to be largely (if not entirely) false.

Naturalists will be quick to point out that, on moral naturalism, moral error does in fact threaten ones chances of survival. Animals who are significantly in error about what causes and constitutes their own flourishing will not be able to maintain it, and thus die at a greater frequency. So on moral naturalism we can expect our moral judgements to be more or less aimed at truth, even in light of an evolutionary origin. At the very least, we should expect our moral judgements to be more no error prone than our physical judgements.

It seems naturalists are the only ones who can embrace the adaptive account without falling into extreme moral skepticism. And so non-naturalists of all sorts are forced into rejecting the adaptive account, most without any alternative explanation in sight. Theistic views might fair a bit better than the rest, in that they can fall back on a theistic account of human origins. They might say that God is directly responsible for human moral psychology, either by forming it ex nihilio or artificially guiding human evolution. But then they are adding a great deal more to the explanation than is necessary. And this loss of parsimony comes at the cost of an explanation that isn't even amenable to empirical confirmation or falsification. Even if theists can achieve consistency, there is nothing attractive about this alternate explanation.

But even with this, the theistic account explains too much. If God guided the evolution of human moral psychology, then it's very strange that our moral judgements are, in many respects, so error prone. There is and has always been great controversy surrounding ethical topics, and in the present it manifests in topics like abortion, euthanasia, sexuality, racial equality, gender roles, and so on. And, because of this, some significantly large portion of us must be or have been in error about these very important topics. But moral error leads to wrongdoing, something God supposedly wants us to avoid. It's very odd, then, that God would get involved with human evolution but not, as it seems, finish the job. Again naturalists will point out that, just as naturalism wards off threats of skepticism, it still leaves enough room for moral error. After all, evolution by natural selection is a messy, imperfect process. It does not care about our epistemic situation, and selects only by survival. And so on the adaptive account it's not surprising that we would have a handful of controversial topics here and there, where humans are generally not well equipped for discerning moral truth.

And so moral naturalism out competes theistic accounts of moral ontology twofold, and all other non-natural non-theistic views once over. With this, moral naturalism stands as the best account of moral ontology, since it's compatible with (without falling into deep moral skepticism) our best account of moral psychology.

The Ontological Parsimony

Moral naturalism is without the spooky metaphysical baggage of non-natural and supernatural views. It looks to the natural world, rather than to the supernatural, to explain moral ontology and, in doing so, only commits us to the existence of things everyone believes in anyway: the sorts of things a scientifically informed world view would contain. One doesn't need to believe in gods, or platonic forms, or mystical forces to believe in moral reality. One need only recognize objective facts about the flourishing and languishing of sentient beings, to find a solid ontological foundation for good and evil.

Monday 13 October 2014

Skeptical Theism and Divine Deception

Update: I have revised my views somewhat

Skeptical theists maintain that, for whatever reason, we are in no position to conclude from the failure of theodicy that God doesn't (or probably doesn't) have morally sufficient reason to permit the many evils populating our world. But this inference would be valid, as long as our grasp of the moral reasons available to God was a representative sample. And so skeptical theists are committed saying that our grasp of the moral reasons available to God is not representative of all the reasons he actually has. And with this, they are committed to a realm of beyond our ken moral reasons; greater goods and evils that factor into God's decision to permit all this suffering and injustice and horror. Much of moral reality, then, must be hidden from our sight. So the skeptical theist is committed to a sort of moral skepticism: he must think that our ability to grasp moral truth is severely limited. But skepticism is often infectious and difficult to contain.

Justification is commonly understood to be closed on known entailment. By taking the contrapositive, we are left with a premise common to many skeptical arguments; a premise showing how skepticism (or lack of justification) is likewise closed on known entailment:
  1. If someone is not justified in believing Q but knows that P entails Q, then they are likewise not justified in believing P.
Now consider a known entailment:
  1. If God has told me that P and P is actually true, then God isn't lying to me about P.
This is simply true by definition: to tell a lie is just to say something one knows is not true. And God, being omniscient, knows everything. But with these two premises, and a soon to be explored third, skeptical theists are forced into a dilemma:
  1. Skeptical theists are not justified in believing that God isn't lying to them about P
  2. Therefore, skeptical theists are not justified in believing both that God has revealed to them P, and that P is true
God, being morally perfect, is primarily motivated by moral reasons. So any substantial skepticism of moral reasons leads to skepticism of God's motives. This is the intended result of skeptical theism; to undermine our judgements of what sorts of actions God would or wouldn't be motivated to do. But, in doing so, the skeptical theist gives up our ability to judge how God would act in all respects, including, for example, whether or not he would lie.

Just as God has pro tanto reasons to not permit evil, he has pro tanto reasons to not lie. But, according to skeptical theism, these pro tanto reasons might be defeated by beyond our ken morally sufficient reasons to permit the evil, or to lie. Some argue that there can never be a morally sufficient reason to lie, but this is incredibly difficult to defend. It seems very good, for example, for a parent to tell fictitious and fanciful stories to encourage their child's imagination. And every good parent would console their young child, saying everything will be fine when they can't actually be sure of it. A good parent would lie so his child could sleep, and not be haunted all night by worries. Likewise, sometimes doctors mislead their patients into believing the diagnosis is less grim than it really is. They do this out of concern for the patient, so that the patient doesn't lose hope and make his situation even worse. Often times the right attitude can greatly benefit ones chances of recovery, but many are unable to stay positive while fully aware of the harsh reality they face. God might be lying to us, not in spite of his love for us, but precisely because he loves us; because it is in our best interests to be lied to. Unlike the many evils that populate our world, we can easily imagine greater goods that might justify and motivate divine lies.

Even with this said, there are many linguistic acts God could perform that, whether or not they count as lying, still generate the same worries for skeptical theists. For example, in Genesis 2:17 God told Adam and Eve that they would die the very day they ate his prohibited fruit. And, as the story goes, the two lived long and full lives after they ate the fruit. Did God lie? For the sake of my argument, it doesn't really matter. God spoke to Adam and Eve knowing they would take his statement literally, and thus acquire false belief. And throughout history people have been interpreting scripture in many different (and often inconsistent) ways. Someone has to be interpreting scripture incorrectly, and yet God knew this would happen when he first gave the revelation.

Skeptical theists are then left with a severe problem. As long as they're forced into this dilemma, they cannot be justified in believing something by divine revelation. This is a problem for those skeptical theists of a religious leaning, who hold to theological views that can only be justified by appealing to the divine authority of some religious text or other revelation. This would include the bulk of religious doctrine, and as such strip their theistic belief down to its bare bones. They might still be justified in believing in the existence of God by natural theology alone, but the justification for their particular brand of theism, their religion, is wholly dependent upon accepting particular texts or traditions as being handed down directly from God.

Some might think there must be something wrong with my argument. According to the traditional externalist view of justification, all that is required to have justification is that ones belief is formed by some mechanism that tracks truth, or is reliable, or is properly functioning, or something of that sort. As a result, the individual needn't be aware of why or how his belief is justified. But it would be incredibly arbitrary for the skeptical theist to endorse externalism about justification to salvage divine revelation but, with the same breath, turn around and embrace a deep skepticism of moral reasons. After all, he has no more reason to think his religious beliefs are externally justified as he does to think his judgements about moral reasons are. Given that arbitrariness seems sufficient to frustrate justification, it's hard to see how externalist considerations could be of any use for them here.