In this post I will examine three more populuar arguments against ethical objectivism from Russ Landau’s textbook The Fundamentals of Ethics (hereafter: FOE). I will present Landau’s criticisms of these arguments, and I will also present a few of my own criticisms.
Objection 4: Moral Objectivity Supports Dogmatism
1. If there are objective moral standards, then this makes dogmatism acceptable.
2. Dogmatism is unacceptable.
3. Therefore, there are no objective moral standards. (FOE, p.309)
Russ Landau agrees with premise (2), because “Dogmatism is a vice…”. So, he focuses his attention on premise (1), and argues that premise (1) is false:
By itself, the claim that there are objective moral standards is perfectly neutral about how broad-minded we should be. Ethical objectivism is a view about the status of moral claims. It does not tell us what is and is not morally acceptable. All it says is that the correct moral code, whatever it happens to be, is objectively true.
…If moral truth is not of our own making, then it will not always be easy to discover. And that fact should encourage us to be humble, rather than arrogant and closed-minded. The proper outlook of astronomers and geologists and chemists is that of wonder, a recognition of one’s intellectual limitations, and an appreciation that no matter how smart you are, you’ll never know the entire truth about your subject matter. These are appropriate attitudes precisely because there are objective truths in these subjects. …
If ethics, too, is a subject whose truths are objective, then we should also be open-minded about moral matters. It is perfectly consistent to say that the answers to some questions are objectively true, even though you’re not sure what those answers are. … (FOE, p.309-310)
The objectivity of morality provides a reason to be open-minded about moral issues, not a reason to be dogmatic about moral issues.
Landau fails to mention a serious problem with premise (2) of the argument, but his comment on premise (2) clearly indicates the problem. He agrees with premise (2) because he believes that “Dogmatism is a vice…” (FOE, p.309). A vice is a habit that is morally bad or wrong. So, Landau appears to be interpreting the argument this way:
1a. If there are objective moral standards, then this makes dogmatism morally acceptable.
2a. Dogmatism is morally unacceptable.
3. Therefore, there are no objective moral standards.
But if premise (2) means that “Dogmatism is morally unacceptable.”, then premise (2) implies that dogmatism is morally wrong. If it is true that dogmatism is morally wrong, then there is at least one thing that is morally wrong, and thus there would be at least one objective moral truth. If there is at least one objective moral truth, then ethical objectivism is true. Therefore, if premise (2) means that “Dogmatism is morally unacceptable.” , then premise (2) implies that ethical objectivism is true, and this argument would thus be another sefl-defeating argument against ethical objectivism.
A moral skeptic might reply that dogmatism is unacceptable in epistemic terms, so premise (2) need not be understood as making a moral claim. Dogmatism prevents a person from noticing and rejecting false or inaccurate beliefs, and thus hinders a person from developing a system or collection of beliefs that is more accurate and that contains more truth. So, dogmatism is epistemically unacceptable.
But if we interpret premise (2) as claiming that dogmatism is epistemically unacceptable, then we must also interpret premise (1) in a similar fashion, so that the logic of the argument is maintained:
1b. If there are objective moral standards, then this makes dogmatism epistemically acceptable.
2b. Dogmatism is epistemically unacceptable.
3. Therefore, there are no objective moral standards.
But on this interpretation, it is clear that premise (1) is false. If there are objective truths in morality, then dogmatism is NOT epistemically acceptable in relation to moral claims and moral issues. Landau has persuasively argued this point already. (He seems to have interpreted premise (1) to be about epistemic acceptablity and premise (2) to be about moral acceptability. In that case, the logic of the argument would be invalid because it would commit the fallacy of equivocation.). His objection to the truth of premise (1) is more obviously correct, if we interpret the argument to be talking about whether dogmatism is epistemically acceptable.
So, if premise (2) is talking about dogmatism being morally unacceptable, then premise (2) implies that ethical objectivism is true, thus making this argument a self-defeating argument against ethical objectivism. On the other hand, if premise (2) is talking about dogmatism being epistemically unacceptable, then premise (1) must be talking about the epistemic acceptability of dogmatism, in which case, premise (1) is clearly false, and the argument is unsound.
Objection 5: Moral Objectivity Supports Intolerance
In stating the argument for this objection, Landau fails to make explicit the final steps of the reasoning, so I have added those final steps, in order for the argument to arrive at the intended conclusion (the added claims are in blue font):
1. Tolerance is valuable only if the moral views of different people are equally plausible.
2. If ethical objectivism is true, then the moral views of different people are not equally plausible.
3. Therefore, if ethical objectivism is true, then tolerance is not valuable. (FOE, p.311)
4. But tolerance is valuable.
5. Therefore, ethical objectivism is not true.
Landau accepts premise (2) as correct, but he argues that premise (1) is false:
In fact, ethical objectivism is much better than moral skepticism at supporting tolerance. the basic reason is this: If all moral views are equivalent, then a tolerant outlook is no better than an intolerant one. The outlook of a committed bigot would be as plausible as yours or mine. (FOE, p.311)
…if individuals have the final word on what is morally right, then those who are fundamentally intolerant–intolerant at their core, in their deepest beliefs–are making no mistake. The same goes for societies. If social codes, rather than individuals, are the measure of morality, then deeply intolerant societies are no worse than freer ones. (FOE, p.311)
The assumption of equal plausibility of all moral views supports intolerance, not tolerance, and the assumption of the unequal plausiblity of moral views supports tolerance, not intolerance. So, premise (1) is false.
Because Landau fails to make premise (4) of this argument explicit, he also fails to point out a very serious problem with this argument: Premise (4) implies that ethical objectivism is true, and thus this argument is another self-defeating argument against ethical objectivism.
Premise (4) asserts that tolerance is valuable. Clearly, this is intended to mean that tolerance is morally valuable, that tolerance is a moral virtue, that is is morally good to be tolerant. But that means that premise (4) is asserting a moral judgment. So, if premise (4) is true, then there is at least one moral judgment that is objectively true, and thus that ethical objectivism is true. Therefore, premise (4) implies that ethical objectivism is true, and this argument is a self-defeating argument against ethical objectivism.
[NOTE: I’m skipping over Objection 6 for now, because I view it as one of the better objections. I will cover that objection in another post in this series.]
Objection 7: Atheism Undermines Moral Objectivity
1. Morality can be objective only if God exists.
2. God does not exist.
3. Therefore, morality cannot be objective. (FOE, p.313)
Landau argues that this is a self-undermining argument, in that believing premise (2), as atheists do, provides a strong reason for rejecting the main (or most common) argument for accepting premise (1), thus casting the truth of premise (1) into serious doubt. The main (or most common) argument in support of premise (1) goes like this:
Moral laws, like other laws, must have an author. But if the laws are objective, then (by definition) no human being can be their author. …
…human beings cannot play this role, since objective truths are true independently of human opinion. That leaves only God to do the work. (FOE, p.314)
This reasoning involves a questionable assumption: “Laws require lawmakers.” But no reasonable atheist should accept this assumption:
But if atheism is true, then the crucial assumption is false. Laws would not require lawmakers. Atheists believe that there are objective laws–of logic, physics, genetics, statistics, etc. And yet if God does not exist, these laws have no author. (FOE, p. 314)
In other words, if we accept premise (2) of the skeptical argument, then we ought to reject the main (or most common) argument that is given to support premise (1), and thus we ought to doubt the truth of premise (1). The atheism asserted in premise (2) undermines the main reason usually given to support premise (1), thus this argument is self-undermining.
There is a second very serious problem with this argument against ethical objectivism that Landau fails to mention. This argument is a question-begging argument, and it begs the question in the worst sense: it involves circular reasoning.
Although children (and perhaps teenagers) may be rationally justified in accepting atheism simply because they are unaware of arguments for the existence of God, a higher standard applies to educated adults. To reasonably hold the position of atheism, an educated adult ought to have some understanding and awareness of arguments for the existence of God, at least some of the standard or common arguments for the existence of God.
Thus, in order for an educated adult to reasonably believe premise (2) of the argument against objectivism that we are considering, that person should have some understanding and awareness of at least some of the standard or common arguments for the existence of God.
One of the standard and most common arguments for the existence of God is the moral argument. Here is a simple version of the moral argument for the existence of God:
1. Morality can be objective only if God exists.
4. Morality is objective.
5. Therefore, God exists.
Note that the first premise of this moral argument for the existence of God is the very same claim as the first premise of the skeptical argument we are considering. Thus, an atheist who is putting forward the skeptical argument must, in order to be logically consistent, accept the first premise of this argument for the existence of God. The moral argument for God presented above is logically valid, so the only way that such an atheist can reject this argument is by rejecting or doubting the truth of premise (4).
This means that in order for an educated adult to reasonably hold and accept premise (2) of the skeptical argument (i.e. to reasonably hold the view of atheism) and to also accept premise (1) of the skeptical argument, that person must FIRST reject the moral argument for God, and must do so by rejecting or doubting premise (4) of the moral argument for God. In other words, an educated adult who puts forward the skeptical argument that we are now considering, must FIRST reject ethical objectivism in order to reasonably believe premise (2) of his/her skeptical argument, before accepting the conclusion of that skeptical argument, namely that ethical objectivism is false. But this is reasoning in a circle:
Ethical Objectivism is false–>God does not exist.–>Ethical Objectivism is false.
Therefore, this skeptical argument against ethical objectivism should be rejected because it begs the question in the worst sort of way: it involves circular reasoning (in addition to the problem of being self-undermining, which Landau has pointed out).
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