Stan on Materialism and Morality

A reader named Stan recently posted many comments on another page on this blog about materialism and morality. I’m going to copy and paste several of his comments together to provide a convenient summary of his argument.

Stan’s Definitions

Here is a summary of Stan’s definitions.

Materialism: functional materialism is the set of constraints on science; Philosophical Materialism claims that there is no possible existence which is not physical or derived straight from physical existence.

Naturalism, as I understand it, does not restrict natural existence to physical entities (mass/energy within space/time); but this is open ended as to determining what is “natural” – e.g. is God natural? Your definition might be different and if you provided it we can use that.

Subjective as is commonly used means derived internally by the individual, is not physical and is not available directly to the public for examination.

Objective as is commonly used means derived externally from any individual and is available for examination and replication experimentally because it is physical existence.

Moral theories are sets of constraints on behaviors, either positive “shoulds” or negative “should nots”.

Stan’s Claims

1. In his initial comment, Stan seems to make an argument about moral ontology. In his words, materialists “can have only personally made-up subjective moral theories.” When asked for clarification, he wrote this.

That comment does not refer to any objective moral theories at all. What the statement says, without repeating it I hope, is that there is only one possible source for materialist’s moral theories, and that is human creation, either by themselves or by other humans, and subsequently adopted by themselves. That is done, then, with no moral authority and is therefore not really morality; rather it is a volatile and temporary moral opinion which is subject to possible and actual abuse, based on situational usage. The reason for this is the rejection of all “objective” possibilities for anything whatsoever, when the Atheist accepts the Atheist, materialist rejectionist void of denying absolutes. This leaves the Atheist with only his own mind for reference.

2. In a later comment, Stan claims that Philosophical Materialism is “(a) internally non-coherent, and (b) incapable of generating grounded moral principles based on material analysis of any type of material grounding.” In his words:

First, my position is that Materialism cannot produce moral systems without there being an originating source for moral knowledge; what I press for here is this: if Philosophical Materialism is a valid view, then what is the material source for moral knowledge?

If there exists a material source for moral knowledge, then it must be capable of being examined as a material entity, if Materialism is true. If there is no material entity for me to examine, independently of the claimant, then either there is no material moral source (no moral source at all under PM), or there is a non-material moral source, and PM is not valid.

Therefore, if there is no material source for moral knowledge, AND if Philosophical Materialism is, in fact, true, THEN whatever moral claims Materialists make are not derived from any valid source. That being the case, then all moral claims by Materialists are not based on any moral grounding and are therefore ungrounded moral opinion, only, and nothing more.

This has no need from any input from theism; it is a logical necessity of the nature of Philosophical Materialism that it is (a) internally non-coherent, and (b) incapable of generating grounded moral principles based on material analysis of any type of material grounding.

My Reaction

In no particular order of importance, here is my reaction.

1. My overall reaction is that several key concepts in his argument are vaguely defined. When combined with his usage of non-standard terminology, this makes it difficult to evaluate his argument.  (For what it’s worth, I have the same complaint about a number of writers–both theists and nontheists–when they write about morality.)

2. The claim that “Philosophical Materialism” is incoherent is a pretty major claim. I do not find any arguments or reasons in support anywhere in his comments. In my opinion, materialism is coherent. I just see no reason to think that it’s true.

3. It’s unclear what Stan takes to be the problem with “Philosophical Materialism” and morality. Let’s start with moral ontology. Perhaps he wants to argue that materialism is logically incompatible with some thesis about the ontological status of moral properties. But that seems much too strong a claim. Materialism entails that if moral properties exist, then some version of ethical naturalism is true. Ethical naturalism is the hypothesis that moral properties are either identical with (or constituted by) material properties. In reply, Stan could claim that ethical naturalism is false and that either ethical non-naturalism or ethical supernaturalism is true. But he would then need to produce an argument for that claim.

4. Let’s turn to moral epistemology. Perhaps he wants to argue that there is some sort of tension between materialism and moral epistemology. But, again, it’s unclear what his argument is. Materialism as such tells us nothing about moral epistemology.