bookmark_borderMorality does not depend on the existence of God

Some people believe (or claim to believe) that if God does not exist, then there are no objective moral truths (e.g., truths about what we are morally obligated to do or refrain from doing). This claim is false as the following argument shows:
(1) Torturing a child causes the child to experience severe suffering.
(2) Torturing a child violates the child’s consent (that is, it is not possible for the child to rationally consent to being tortured).
(3) That torturing a child causes severe suffering is a reason to not torture children.
(4) That torturing a child violates the child’s consent is a reason to not torture children.
Thus,
(5) There are reasons to not torture children
(6) Torturing a child would cause severe suffering even if God does not exist.
(7) Torturing a child would violate the child’s consent even if God does not exist.
Thus,
(8) There would be reasons to not torture children even if God does not exist.
(9) These reasons are so powerful as to be overriding (that is, they are stronger than and cancel the force of any other reasons that might exist that count in favor of torture).
(10) These reasons also concern the welfare and autonomy of persons.
Thus,
(11) There are overriding reasons, concerning the welfare and autonomy of persons, to not torture children, and that exist even if God does not exist.
(12) If there are overriding reasons, concerning the welfare and autonomy of persons, to not engage in some action, then this action is morally wrong.
Therefore,
(13) There are some actions that are morally wrong even if God does not exist.

bookmark_borderMatthew Flannagan and Jason Thibodeau Discuss the Euthyphro Dilemma

On Saturday (9/22) I was privileged to join Matthew Flannagan for a dialogue about the Euthyphro dilemma. Cameron Bertuzzi of Capturing Christianity hosted the dialogue and livestreamed it from the Capturing Christianity YouTube channel. I did my best to explain why I think that there are some compelling Euthyphro-inspired objections to divine command theory, and Matthew offered powerful and thoughtful responses to these objections. In my humble opinion the conversation was thorough, thoughtful, and friendly. It is one of the most rewarding conversations I have had about the Euthyphro problem.
Many of the regular readers out The Secular Outpost will know that Matthew is an expert in the field of theistic ethics (you can watch one of his lectures about divine command theory and the Euthyphro problem here.)  He is the co-author, with Paul Copan, of Did God Really Command Genocide? He and I have had some exchanges about Euthyphro and divine command theory here at the Secular Outpost and also at his blog (see, e.g., here and here). I have always had a great deal of respect for the intellectual rigor he brings to any discussion. I learned a great deal from Matthew during this conversation (as well as in our previous exchanges) and I want to thank him for sharing his considerable knowledge and intellectual talents.
I also want to thank Cameron for hosting this discussion and for the work he does at Capturing Christianity, which brings together theists and non-thesists in friendly dialogue. He regularly hosts very good conversations about topics in the philosophy of religion, apologetics, and counter-apologetics.
You can watch the entire discussion below.
 

bookmark_borderDo our reasons depend on our desires?

NOTE: This post assumes an understanding of much of the terminology that I explain in my post, “On Reasons and What They Do?” In particular, this post uses the terms ‘reason,’ ‘objective,’ and ‘subjective’ in accordance with the explanations that appear in that article. Further, there are other important matters (such what it means for a reason to be pro tanto) that my discussion in this current posts assumes a familiarity with. 
I have been writing about reasons, what they are, and what they do. This is an important topic because, as I have argued, reasons play a central role in issues of morality and the meaning of life. The reason for talking about such issues in a philosophy of religion blog is that many religious apologists have argued that, if there is no god, there are no objective moral truths and that if there is no god, life is meaningless. Both of these assertions are false but understanding why they are false requires a good understanding of the nature of reasons and the connection reasons have to morality and meaning.
In a previous post, I argued that at least some reasons are objective. One consideration that is commonly relied on to argue that reasons must be subjective is that reasons are dependent on desires. David Hume famously said, “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”[1] Exactly what Hume intended to be saying here about the nature of reasons is a matter of some controversy. He has, however, been widely interpreted as claiming that reason is only a matter of selecting the best means of satisfying our ends. On such a view, reason can recommend no ends. We have our ends on the basis of our desires and passions, but these ends are not rationally evaluable. We have reasons only once we have chosen an end, and then the reasons that we have are to do the things that effectively satisfy that end. This view, regardless of whether it is Hume’s real view, is consistent with a position that I have previously called the Desire-Based Reasons Thesis (DBR):
DBR: For a person, P, to have a reason to engage in some behavior, Φ, P must have some desire (or desire-like state) d, such that Φ-ing tends to promote the satisfaction of d.
I strongly suspect that DBR is false and I want to provide some examples that serve to undermine it. First, though, I think we should acknowledge the intuitive appeal of DBR. DBR fits in very nicely with a certain conception of rationality that is often called “means-ends-rationality.” This conception can be well illustrated via the following example:
Pizza: Sue wants to have a pizza delivered to her house. Given that calling the local pizza place, Pizza Yurt, and ordering a pizza will efficiently promote the satisfaction of Sue’s desire, Sue has a reason to call Pizza Yurt to order a pizza. Further, she only has this reason given that she has this desire. A person who does not have the desire for pizza to be delivered to their home does not have a reason to call for pizza delivery.
This seems right, at least at first glance. Despite this appearance, I will later argue that the above account of why Sue has the reasons she does is completely wrong. Now, though, I want to acknowledge the way in which the account is intuitively appealing. It seems true that anyone who does not want a pizza does not have a reason to call for pizza delivery. Thus, the natural conclusion is that Sue’s reason for calling Pizza Yurt is that she wants to have a pizza delivered. Certainly, if we assume (i) that Sue wants a pizza, (ii) that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient (or only) means of satisfying this desire, and (iii) that Sue knows that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient (or only) means of satisfying her desire, it seems clear that if Sue fails to call Pizza Yurt, she is being irrational.
It is important to note that we now have before us two different claims: One is that Sue’s reason to call Pizza Yurt is dependent on her desire; the second is that, given this desire plus her belief that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient way of satisfying that desire, if Sue fails to call Pizza Yurt, she is being irrational. I think that the second claim is true, but the first is false.
It is important to distinguish claims about what reasons an agent has from claims about the agent’s rationality. These claims are different as can be revealed by a common example:
Snake/Rope: I am walking through the desert; I look down at my feet and see a snake-like object coiled in the path immediately next to where I am walking. I immediately form the judgment that there is a snake in my path. My pulse quickens, I immediately feel fear, and quickly leap away. In reality, the object is not a snake but a coiled length of rope.
Now, let’s ask whether I had any reason to fear and whether I had any reason to jump away. The natural response to such questions is that, given that it was not a snake, I had no reason to fear. Similarly, my daughter has no reason to fear the non-existence monsters under the bed even though she firmly believes in them. Further, I had no reason to jump away in fear since there was nothing to be afraid of. However, given that I believed that there was a snake on my path, my fear-response and avoidance behavior was completely rational. The Snake/Rope example shows that we can behave rationally even when we are not responding to reasons.
In this post, I will be making claims about reasons rather than rationality. In particular, I will argue that reasons are not dependent on desires. I will not be defending any view about rationality. However, the view that I find attractive is that, as Derek Parfit has put it, our reasons are provided by the facts, what is rational for us to do depends on our beliefs.
While DBR seems to make sense of Sue’s reasons in the Pizza example, I think that this appearance is deceiving and that a proper understanding of Sue’s reasons show that they are not at all dependent on her desires. To understand why, I need to explain why I doubt DBR. Let’s look at three cases that present possible counterexamples to DBR.
(1) Gin/Petrol
This example comes from Bernard Williams who is a defender of DBR [2]. Williams’ view is that the reasons that an agent has are dependent on the agent’s motivational set. Your motivational set includes your desires, intentions, positive attitudes, etc., (henceforth, I will use ‘desire’ to refer to all of these kinds of states) which have the tendency to motivate you to act. Importantly, this entails that the existence of a reason for an agent requires the presence of an appropriate desire.
Williams presents the following example as a reason to amend his view: Suppose Jim is sitting at a table on which is a bottle of clear liquid. Jim wants to have a gin and tonic and believes that the stuff in the glass on the table is gin. Suppose, though, that the stuff in the bottle is not gin but gasoline. Does Jim have a reason to mix the stuff in the bottle with tonic and consume the concoction? Williams points out that we are pulled in two different directions. On the one hand, it seems natural to say that since the stuff in the glass will make Jim sick, he does not have a reason to drink it and has a reason to not drink it. On the other hand, if Jim does drink the gasoline, there is a natural explanation for why he did so: Jim thought that the stuff in the bottle was gin.
Williams’ conclusion is that we shouldn’t think that the fact that we would have an explanation for why Jim would drink the stuff entails that Jim would have a reason to do so. In fact, according to Williams, even though he believes that the stuff is gin, Jim does not have a reason to drink it. This requires that Williams amend his view. He does so by claiming that an element, d, of an agent’s motivational set will not provide a reason to the agent if d is based on a false belief (see Williams, 293).
Williams is right, in my view, that Jim does not have a reason to drink the stuff in the bottle despite the fact that he has a desire to drink it.  However, I think that the example poses a bigger problem for his view than he realized. The problem is that it is difficult to square the claim that desires that are based on false beliefs do not generate reasons with the view that desires generate reasons.
Williams’ view seems to be that some desires generate reasons and some do not. But, having asserted that all reasons depend, for their existence, on desires, his view provides no basis for claiming that some desires do not generate reasons. Let’s call the capacity to generate reasons, which, on Williams’ view, at least some desires have, “reason-generating power” (or “rg-power” for short). On Williams’ view desires have rg-power unless those desires that are based on false beliefs. But what is it about this class of desires that makes them impotent to generate reasons? Why would a false belief interfere with a desire’s rg-power? Why does a desire lose its reason-generating capacity just because it is based on a false belief? Williams provides no answer.
This example does not refute DBR, but despite Williams response, I think it should cast some doubt on the thesis. Unless we have some basis for thinking that desires that are based on false beliefs cannot generate reasons, the Gin/Petrol example suggests that desires do not generate reasons.
(2) Agony
This example is inspired by Parfit’s Agony Argument.[3]
Suppose Sally want to experience excruciating pain. She realizes that stabbing herself in the eye with a metal fork will satisfy this desire. Does Sally therefore have a reason to stab herself in the eye with a fork? I don’t think she does. The fact that Sally will experience horrendous and needless suffering is a reason for her to not stab herself in the eye with a fork regardless of her desires.
Suppose that Ryan does not have a desire to experience excruciating pain but also does not want to avoid it. Does Ryan have a reason to avoid stabbing himself in the eye with a metal fork? On a view according to which an agent only has reasons to engage in actions that satisfy his desires, Ryan does not have such a reason. This is implausible. Ryan has a reason to avoid stabbing himself in the eye with a fork (and to avoid any activity that will cause horrible suffering) regardless of whether he has any desire to avoid pain/agony.
(3) Radio
This example is an adaptation of one originally provided by Warren Quinn in his paper, “Putting Rationality in its Place.” [4]
Suppose you have a friend, Tom, who engages in the following behavior: When Tom enters a room with a radio that is turned off, he immediately turns the radio on. He does not tune the radio to a specific station; he seems content merely to have the radio on, even if it is playing static. Tom does this consistently. When you ask him why he does this, he says that he wants radios to be turned on. He does not cite a desire to hear music or sound of any kind. He merely says that he wants that radios are turned on.
Does the presence of such a desire make Tom’s behavior reasonable?  I think it is natural to say that Tom’s answer to the question of why he is always turning on radios makes his behavior seems even more unreasonable since the desire itself is irrational. Quinn’s point, I take it, is that the mere presence of this desire cannot give Tom a reason for turning on radios. What would rationalize Tom’s behavior, according to Quinn, is Tom’s belief that by turning on radios, he is achieving something good. If Tom was turning on the radio to listen to good music or to hear the news, this would make his behavior reasonable. But the mere presence of a desire that radios be turned on does nothing to make this action reasonable.
 
These three examples, taken together, cast a great deal of doubt on the DBR thesis. I will not claim that they effectively refute the thesis, but merely that they strongly suggest that it is false. There are many other arguments against DBR. If you are interested, I highly recommend Jonathan Dancy’s book, Practical Reality, which mounts a sustained criticism of DBR.
Let me return, briefly, to the Pizza example. If we reject DBR, how are we to account for Sue’s reasons? More importantly, if we reject DBR, how are we to account for the fact that Sue does have a reason to call Pizza Yurt, but a person who has no desire for pizza (apparently) does not have such a reason?
Here is my answer: Sue does have a reason to call Pizza Yurt, but this reason is not generated by and does not depend on her desire to have a pizza delivered to her home. What gives Sue a reason to call Pizza Yurt, I believe, is the following collection of facts: Sue is hungry, eating pizza is a good way of satisfying that hunger, Sue likes the taste of pizza, and calling Pizza Yurt is an efficient way of getting a pizza delivered to her home. What about those who lack a reason to call for delivery? For such people, it (currently) will not be good to have a pizza. Either such people are not currently hunger or do not enjoy the taste of pizza or else having a pizza delivered would in some other way be bad.
What reasons we have depends only on what is good and what is bad. It does not depend on our desires.
 


[1] Hume, D. A Treatise of Human Nature (2.3.3.6)
[2] Williams B., “Internal and External Reasons” reprinted in Shafer-Landau and Cuneo (eds.) Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).
[3] In Parfit, D. On What Matters, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). See pp. 73-82 for Parfit’s Agony Argument.
[4] Quinn, W. “Putting Rationality in its Place” in his Morality and Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
 

bookmark_borderThe sense in which pain is objectively bad

NOTE: This post assumes an understanding of much of the terminology that I explain in my post, “On Reasons and What They Do?” In particular, this post uses the terms ‘reason,’ ‘objective,’ and ‘subjective’ in accordance with the explanations that appear in that article. Further, there are other important matters (such what it means for a reason to be pro tanto) that my discussion in this current posts assumes a familiarity with. 
It is not uncommon for defenders of the objectivity of moral value to point to the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain. But it is also not uncommon that the claims that pleasure is objectively good and pain is objectively bad to be ambiguous and thus misunderstood (see, for example, this Twitter thread from Sam Harris and this video response to Harris’s argument). I think such ambiguity and misunderstanding can be avoided if we are careful and so I want to carefully explain the sense in which pleasure can be thought to be objectively good and pain objectively bad.
Good, Bad, and Reasons
The words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ do not have single meanings; they can be used in several distinct ways to indicate different things. For example, we might say that some object is good in the sense that it satisfies some set of criteria, as when we say of a particular bloom on a rose bush that it is a good specimen of its variety. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ can also be used to merely express one’s own approval or disapproval, as for example when we say something like “This wine isn’t very good” merely as a means of expressing our dissatisfaction with the selection. But neither of these senses has any direct relevance to morality. The morally significant sense of these terms is normative in character. The normative sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is equivalent to what Derek Parfit calls the reason-implying sense. In this sense, something is good when there are reasons to want it, pursue it, preserve it, etc.; something is bad when there are reasons to want that it not occur, to avoid it, etc. A more careful account of what Parfit means by good and bad in the reason-implying sense is as follows:
To say that something Φ (an object, event, state of affairs, state of mind, etc.) is good in the reasons-implying sense is to say that something about the nature of Φ gives us reasons to respond positively to Φ (i.e, to want that Φ occur, to try to bring Φ about, to preserve Φ, to choose Φ, etc.).  To say that something Φ is bad in the reasons-implying sense is to say that something about the nature of Φ gives us reasons to respond negatively to Φ (i.e., to want that Φ not occur, to try to prevent it from coming about, to try to eliminate it, to avoid it, etc.). [Parfit discusses this sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in volume one of On What Matters (see esp. pp 38-42).]
It is in this sense that pleasure is good and pain is bad. The nature of pleasure gives us reasons to pursue it and to want that it occur. The nature of pain gives us reasons to avoid it and want that it not occur. Importantly, this does not imply that we can never have reasons to avoid pleasure and want that it not occur or reasons to pursue pain and want that it occur. This is because something can have both intrinsic value and instrumental value. Something is intrinsically good when we have reasons to want it for its own sake. Something is instrumentally good when we have reasons to want it, not for its own sake, but because of the things it brings about. Something is instrumentally bad when we have reasons to want that it not occur because of what it brings about. When we want pleasure, at least typically, we want it for its own sake. We don’t want pleasure, again typically, because of the effects that pleasure has; we want it just because of what it is. Since the nature of pleasure gives us reasons to want it for its own sake, pleasure is intrinsically good. Money, on the other hand, is good because it is useful, i.e., the goodness of money consists in the fact that with money we can acquire other things that are good. We have reasons to pursue money because it allows us to achieve these other good things.
The Badness of Pain
Pain is intrinsically bad. It is a bit odd to say that it is for its own sake that we want that pain not occur. Perhaps more intuitively, we can say that pain is intrinsically bad because its nature gives us reason to want the cessation of pain for its own sake. Nonetheless, at least in some circumstances, pain is instrumentally good. Pain plays an important role in the motivational architecture of biological creatures; it motivates us to avoid damage to our bodies. Because pain has this effect, we have reasons to want that pain occur. This is shown via the phenomenon of congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP). People born with this condition do not feel physical pain and as a result, many of them are seriously injured, some fatally, in childhood. This example shows that it is bad if a person cannot feel pain. So, due to the role that pain plays in protecting us from bodily harm, pain is instrumentally good. Notice that the proper conclusion here is that the nature of pain gives us reasons to not want to feel pain but that we also have reasons to want that we can feel pain. This is not a contradiction.
There are other reasons that we might want pain. Pain is sometimes an indication of healthy physical developments, as in the case of the pain associated with exercise. If you go running and experience no physical discomfort, then chances are good that you will not be making much progress toward your health goals. Intense or prolonged experiences of pain can also result in the release of endorphins into the body, which can induce a state of euphoria. When we want pain because of its association with progression toward our health goals or for the euphoric effects it leads to, we want pain not for its own sake but because of its effects. So, the fact that some people sometimes have reason to want pain does not conflict with the claim that the nature of pain gives us reason to want that it not occur. Notice that when pain is instrumentally good, our reasons are not to pursue pain for its own sake, but to pursue things that bring about or are associated with pain. When a runner goes for a long run pursuing a runner’s high, she is not pursuing pain for its own sake. What she wants, for its own sake, is the euphoria that accompanies the rush of endorphins.
Though the reasons run in opposite directions, there is no contradiction in saying that, in some circumstances, there are both reasons to pursue pain and reasons to avoid it. Think, by way of analogy, about making an important decision, for example, whether you should move across the country to take a new job. When you carefully consider what you should do, you will weigh the factors that count in favor of moving (higher salary, e.g., or a more rewarding position) against the factors that point in the opposite direction (not wanting to be far from friends and family, e.g.). So, we can have reasons for some course of action (or for having some desire) and reasons that count against that same course of action (or against having that same desire). The upshot is that there is no contradiction involved in claiming both that there are reasons to avoid pain and also that there are, in some circumstances, reasons to not avoid pain (and maybe even reason to pursue it). Nonetheless, it remains true that, since pain is intrinsically bad, we always have reasons to want that it not occur and to avoid it. It is just that, in some circumstances, these reasons are overridden by other reasons that we have to pursue things that are painful.
Is the badness of pain objective?
If the badness of pain is subjective, then the badness of pain constitutively depends on the goals, interests, beliefs, desires, reactions or attitudes of a subject or subjects. And if the badness of pain is objective, then it does not constitutively depend on the goals, interests, beliefs, desires, reactions or attitudes of subjects. To say that something, F, constitutively depends on X is to say that X at least partly constitutes F. In other words, part of what it is to be F is to be X. Suppose we think, plausibly, that our taste preferences are subjective. Then part of what it is for something to taste good is for a subject or subjects to have certain kinds of reactions, desires, or attitudes toward it. [Michael Huemer, whose work introduced me to this notion, has an excellent discussion of constitutive dependence (and how it differs from other kinds of dependence) in his book, Ethical Intuitionism, which I highly recommend.]  For the remainder of this article, when I talk about dependence, I will be talking about constitutive dependence.
Since we are talking about the reason-implying sense of ‘bad,’ if the badness of pain is subjective then the reason we have to want that pain not occur depends on the goals interests, beliefs, desires, or attitudes of subjects. Is this true? Let’s begin answering this question with the following observation: It is certainly not the case that the qualitative character of pain is subjective. By ‘qualitative character’ I mean to indicate the feeling of pain, considered in isolation of its causes, effects, or value. What I am saying is that the qualitative character of pain is completely independent of any person’s beliefs, desires, attitudes, interests, or judgments about it (or anything else, for that matter). When you stub your toe, you have an experience that has a certain qualitative feel to it. That experience, which we call pain, would exist even if no person (including yourself) had any beliefs, desires, attitudes, etc. about it. No person’s beliefs, desires, judgments, etc. in any way makes up or constitutes the experience. So, the experience is completely objective.
[A subtle complication. A painful experience is always an experience of a subject (it is my pain or your pain or her pain, etc.). But this does not make the existence of pain subjective in the relevant sense. This is because the conscious experiences of a subject are still objective in the sense that they are not dependent on the goals, interests, desires, etc. of subjects. If I am in pain (or in pleasure, for that matter), my pain does not depend for its existence on the beliefs, desires, judgments, etc. of any subject. States of consciousness (which are states of subjects) are objective in the relevant sense.]
So what about the claim that pain is objectively bad in the reasons-implying sense?  If the badness of pain is subjective, this means that the reason that we have to want that pain not occur (and to avoid it, want it to cease, etc.) depends for its existence on the beliefs, desires, goals, interests, or judgments of subjects. This seems implausible. That I have a reason to avoid pain depends on the qualitative character of pain. The nature of the experience gives me a reason to want that it not occur. This seems true regardless of my (or anyone else’s) desires. Even if I wanted it to occur, for its own sake, this would not change the fact that I have reasons to want that it not occur.
Suppose you meet a person who tells you that he wants to jab a metal fork into his eyeball. When asked, he admits that he expects that doing so will cause tremendous pain and that he will intensely dislike the experience, but nonetheless he still wants to do it. Should we say about such a person that he has no reason to not stab himself in the eye with a metal fork? Should we say that he has a reason to stab himself? It seems to me that the answer to both questions is no. Since stabbing himself in the eye will cause intense pain, he has a strong reason to refrain from doing so. And he has this reason regardless of what he wants.
There are philosophers who argue that all reasons depend on desires (or desire-like mental states). Such philosophers defend a version of what I have previously referred to as the DBR (desire-based reasons) thesis. This is not the place for a full examination of the DBR thesis. In a future article, I will offer some reasons to think that the DBR thesis is false. For now, I will only note that, if DBR is true, then we only have reasons to avoid pain if we have some desire the satisfaction of which requires (or is furthered by) our avoidance of pain. If DBR is true, we have no reason to avoid pain for its own sake.
One final point: The claim that goodness and badness in the reason-implying sense (which is the morally relevant sense) are objective is just the claim that there are reasons to respond positively to pleasure (by wanting that it occur, pursuing it, etc.) and reasons to respond negatively to pain (by wanting that it not occur, avoiding it, etc.) and that these reasons do not depend on the goals, interests, desires, beliefs, or judgments of any subject. The existence of such reasons does not seem to have any bizarre metaphysical or epistemological consequences.

bookmark_borderOn reasons and what they do

This post is something of a follow-up to my recent post about Sean Carroll’s views concerning meaning and purpose. As I indicated at the end of that post, I used some concepts and made some claims that require development and defense and I promised that I would provide that development and defense in a future post. The current post is part of the fulfillment of that promise. I hope that I can clarify some of the claims I made in that post, specifically claims concerning reasons. I also hope the remarks I make here can serve as a basis for a more robust discussion, about not only meaning but also rationality and morality, here at the Secular Outpost.
As I indicated, most of what I have to say concerns the nature of reasons and their role in justification. Let me start by providing the quote that I took from Volume 2 of On What Matters by Derek Parfit:

We cannot, however, make things good by commanding or willing that they be good. Though we can sometimes change people’s evaluative beliefs, that is not a way of creating new values. Nor can we make anything matter. When something matters to us, in the sense that we care about this thing, that is merely a psychological fact. Something matters only when, and in the sense that, we have object-given reasons to care about this thing. (Parfit Vol.2, 601)

I want to explain what Parfit means when he talks about object-given reasons. I would also like to defend the claims he makes about such reasons (and Parfit’s meta-normative view more generally), but the defense will have to wait for a future post. It is enough if I am able to make his view about meaning and reasons more clear.
A reason is a factor that counts in favor. There are factors that count in favor of beliefs (commonly called epistemic reasons) and factors that count in favor of decisions, desires, and actions (commonly called practical reasons). When we say of some factor, that it is a reason, we say that it tends to favor the belief, decision, desire, or etc. Importantly, for this discussion, we are talking about reasons pro tanto, i.e. factors that, taken by themselves, count in favor but which, when considered in the complete context of all relevant factors, might themselves be overridden. In other words, when we say that something is a reason, we say merely that it counts in favor, not that overall and all things considered, we should respond to this reason. Any conclusion about what we should do, want, believe, etc. depends on more complete consideration and weighing of all relevant factors. For the purposes of the present discussion, we are not engaged in drawing conclusions about what we should want (or do, etc.), i.e., what we have overall reason to want (or do, etc.), but only what counts in favor of wanting (or doing, etc.).
The above concerns normative reasons. Normative reasons are contrasted with motivating reasons (or motives). A motivating reason is a factor that serves as the basis for an agent’s decision (to act, desire, approve of, etc.). Importantly, not all factors that serve as the basis of an agent’s decision really do count in favor of that decision. In other words, it is possible for agents to get things wrong; an agent can believe, of some fact, that it counts in favor of her decision and yet it not be the case that the fact does count in favor of that decision. We can make the same point by saying that not all motivating reasons are normative reasons. Sometimes the factors that we believe count in favor of our decisions really do count in favor of them (in such cases, our motivating reasons are also normative). However, often the factors that we believe count in favor actually do not count in favor (and hence our motivating reasons are not normative). For the remainder of this essay (and in general), when I use the word ‘reason,’ I am talking about normative reasons. When I want to talk about motivating reasons in a context in which I do not want to assume that they are also normative, I will call them motives (or motivating reasons). I think that this linguistic practice is an important one that we all ought to adopt as a means of eliminating ambiguity. Discussing and thinking about reasons is notoriously difficult and fraught with potential intellectual dead ends. To facilitate a more robust and fruitful discussion, we need to be as clear as we can. So,

Reason means normative reason. A reason is a factor that counts in favor (of some act, desire, belief, reaction, emotion, etc.).

Motive means motivating reason. A motive is a factor that an agent believes counts in favor (and thus serves as the basis of action, desire, belief, etc.). When an agent has such a belief and this belief guides her decisions, the factor is a motive for her.

One of the most important things that reasons do is justify; i.e., a reason tends to provide justification for actions, beliefs, desires, etc. I am going to talk about justification in the context of practical reasons, but most of things that I say about the practical sphere transfer to the epistemic sphere. An important aspect of justification involves universalizability. When one of my actions is justified, then it is based on some reason(s). Further, if my action is justified, then if some other person acted in the same manner in appropriately similar circumstances, this person would also be equally justified (i.e., justified to the same extent that I am justified) in acting in this way. And the factor that counts in favor of my action would also count in favor of this other person’s action. This point generalizes to all persons. So, the reason(s) that justifies my behavior is universalizable in this sense: it counts in favor not just of my action but of any similar action performed by any other person who is in circumstances similar to mine. [Important: the fact that some reason justifies my action does not mean that I am obligated to engage in that action, nor does it mean that I ought to do it. Just as with the case of reasons, I am here talking about pro tanto justification rather than overall justification.]
Let’s look at a simple example to see how these concepts work in context. Suppose that I am walking down a city street and encounter a homeless person who asks for my assistance. Suppose further that I decide to give him $20 and that I do this because I believe that he needs help. My motive for giving him the money is that he needs help. Let’s grant, at least for the sake of this discussion, that he really does need help and that the fact that he needs help counts in favor of giving him $20. If so, then my motive is also a normative reason. This entails that my action is justified (at least to some extent) and that any other person who was in similar circumstances (that is, with this man or any similarly situated homeless person) would be equally justified in giving a person in need of help $20. And the factor that counts in favor of my act of giving $20 would also count in favor of any other person’s similar act.
When Parfit talks about object-given reasons, he is talking about facts about objects that count in favor. [Importantly, ‘object’ here is given a wide meaning such that states, such as the state of being in pain, or of experiencing pleasure, count as objects.] A good example is suffering. Suffering has features that provide us with reasons to want to avoid it and to engage in avoidance behavior. These features are intrinsic to the object in question, e.g., suffering in this case. Thus, the nature of suffering gives us object-given reasons to want to avoid it and to engage in actions that enable us to avoid it. [Again, this is not the same as claiming that, overall, we always should avoid suffering; only that, in all cases, there are factors that count in favor of avoiding suffering.]
Some moral philosophers believe that there are no practical object-given reasons. According to subjectivism, all practical reasons for a person are dependent on features of that person’s motivational set. Subjectivists typically hold a desire-based view of reasons (DBR). On this view (famously attributed to David Hume and defended in the twentieth century by Bernard Williams, among others), our reasons are generated by our desires. I have reason to do what is necessary for (or at least the most effective way of) satisfying my desires. More carefully, we can articulate this view as follows:
DBR: For a person, P, to have a reason to engage in some behavior, F, P must have some desire (or desire-like state) d, such that F-ing tends to promote the satisfaction of d.
If DBR is true, then there can be no (practical) object-given reasons to care about (or do, or want) anything since all (practical) reasons would be subjective. ‘Subjective’ means ‘dependent on the subject.’ To say that some feature, f, is subjective is to say that f constitutively depends on the desires, interests, attitudes, or reactions of a subject or subjects. To say that some feature, f, is objective is to say that f does NOT constitutively depend on the desires, interests, attitudes, or reactions of any subject or subjects. A subject, in this context, is a being that is a bearer of conscious states, such as beliefs, desires, emotions, and attitudes. So, if DBR is true, then all (practical) reasons are subjective since whether I have a reason constitutively depends on my desires.
I mention DBR here only to contrast it with Parfit’s view so that the most significant aspect of Parfit’s view comes to the foreground. Importantly, on Parfit’s view, all normative reasons are object-given. In addition, his view implies that desire-based reasons are not normative. Saying that a reason is object-given is another way of saying that it is not desire-based. Thus, to say that there are object-given reasons to care about something is to say that there are factors, intrinsic to the object, that count in favor of our caring about this thing and that in no way depend on our (or any other person’s) desires. If there are such object-given reasons, then they are objective and thus apply to all rational agents, regardless of our goals, interests, desires, or attitudes.

bookmark_borderDoes anything really matter?

Does anything really matter?
Some people say no. Such people are proponents of nihilism, the view according to which nothing matters. According to nihilists, there is no reason to care about anything whatsoever. Nihilists do not deny that people care about things, they claim only that there is no reason to care about anything.
Other people say yes. Among the people who say yes, some claim that the only things that matter are the things that we care about and, by caring about them, we make them matter. These people are subjectivists. On the subjectivist view, something’s mattering is always a matter of it mattering to some person or other, or to some group of people or other. Something might matter to me (or to my group), but if you don’t care about it, then it doesn’t matter to you. Something can matter to me or to you (or to us or to them), but it doesn’t make sense to say that something can just matter, full stop.
Such a view is not a view according to which anything matters. Those who say that nothing can matter unless we care about it would express their view more clearly if they said that nothing really matters.
Other people who say yes reject this kind of subjectivism. Of these opponents to subjectivism, there are some who say that things matter only because God exists. If there was no God, these people insist, then nothing would matter. Such people hold,

(G) God’s existence guarantees that things matter. If God did not exist, then nothing would matter.

What would make (G) true? (G) might be true because something only matters because God cares about it. If so, then those who accept (G), despite their opposition to subjectivism, actually accept a version of it. According to subjectivists, something matters only when it matters to someone (or group) or other. Those who accept (G) think that something matters only when it matters to God. Their view is a version of what we might call individual subjectivism. On such a view something matters only when it matters to a particular individual. Those who hold (G) think that the only individual who can make things matter is God.
In order to find out whether such people are right, we should think about some of the things that matter and ask whether God has anything to do with their mattering.
Consider, for example, the agony of a small child who is suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Such agony matters. And it matters whether there are people who try to alleviate this suffering. And it matters whether they are successful.
Suppose now that God does not exist. Would this child’s agony matter any less? Suppose caring individuals successfully treat this child’s malnutrition and nurse her back to health. Would the fact that God does not exist make this successful intervention fail to matter? It is difficult to see how.
Theists who defend the view according to which nothing matters if God does not exist would express their view more clearly if they claimed that nothing really matters. If things matter only because God exists, then nothing really matters.
Let’s return to the more general subjectivist claim that something’s mattering is always a matter of it mattering to some person(s) or other. On this general subjectivist view, things matter to me only if I care about them.
This view is implausible. To see why, consider that I can ask, “Why does what I care about matter? Why should I care about that stuff? I know that I do care about it, the question is why I should.”
A subjectivist would say that the person who asks such questions has misunderstood what it means for things to matter. On this kind of subjectivism, something matters to a person precisely when that person cares about it. But suppose that someone now asks, “But do the things that I care about actually matter?” How should a subjectivist respond?
He could say, “Well, they matter to you” and hope that this ends the conversation. But this will not satisfy, as is revealed by the following reasonable reply: “Yes, I understand that they matter to me, but I want to know if they should matter to me? Telling me that they do matter to me does not answer my question.”
‘Should the things that matter to me actually matter to me?’ Might seem like a strange or even nonsensical question, but it is neither. The person who asks it is saying this: 
Yes, I understand that these things matter to me. But maybe I am wrong about them, maybe they don’t really matter and I should not care about them. I want to know if they really matter.
When we say such things and ask such questions, we are asking for reasons to care about the things we care about. We want to know whether the things we care about are worth caring about. To say that something matters is to say that there are features of the thing that give us reasons to care about it. So, to say that suffering matters is to say that suffering has features in virtue of which we ought to care about whether it occurs. What the person who asks the question above wants to know is whether there is anything that gives him reasons to care about it.
I think that the answer to this question is yes. For example, we ought to care about whether and how much suffering occurs; indeed, we ought to want that as little suffering occurs as is possible. The nature of suffering gives us reasons to want it to not occur and to do what we can to avoid it, to the extent that this is possible.
When the subjectivist says that only the things that we care about matter and that, by caring about them, we make them matter, he is saying that nothing has any intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care about it. It follows that agony has no intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care whether it occurs. It follows from this that there is nothing about the fact that if a nuclear weapon were exploded over Seoul, millions of people would experience severe agony that gives us a reason to care whether this event occurs. This is why I said that subjectivists would express their view better if they claimed that nothing really matters.
When a theist claims that if God does not exist, then nothing matters, she is saying that nothing has any intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care about it. It follows that agony has no intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care whether it occurs. It follows from this that there is nothing about the fact that if a famine struck a large swath of Africa, hundreds of thousands of people would suffer and die from malnutrition that gives a reason to care about whether such an event occurs. This is why I said that such theists would express their view better if they claimed that nothing really matters.

bookmark_borderWhat could God’s commands do for morality?

Consider the following version of divine command metaethics (DCM):

Our moral obligations are constituted by divine commands. In particular,
F is morally obligatory = God has commanded that we F
F is morally wrong = God has commanded that we not F
F is morally permissible = God has neither commanded that we F nor commanded that we not F.

On this theory, God’s commands constitute moral obligations and thus, in the absence of divine commands, there are no moral obligations.
Suppose that God exists in the actual world and has issued many commands. Among the commands that he has issued is the following:
Thou shalt not torture innocent children.
Now consider a possible world that consists of all of the same natural facts as the actual world and in which God exists but has not given any commands. Call this the no-divine-command-world or world-NDC.
Importantly, in world-NDC God has all of the same characteristics that he does in the actual world. This implies that, in world-NDC, God approves of all of the same actions that he approves of in the actual world and that God disapproves of all of the same actions that he disapproves of in the actual world.
Now suppose that an inhabitant of world-NDC, let’s call him Bill, is trying to decide whether it would be wrong for him to torture a child. Suppose he says the following:
“Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering and God strongly disapproves of it, but God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage in child torture.”
This piece of reasoning should strike us as very odd. In knowing that the act causes unnecessary suffering and that God disapproves of the act, doesn’t Bill know enough to conclude that it would be wrong for him to torture the child? What could the fact that God commands that we not torture add to the relevant list of facts Bill already knows? However, on the version of DCM that we are considering, Bill’s reasoning is impeccable.
But Bill’s reasoning is not impeccable. It is seriously flawed. If you are not convinced that it is flawed, consider the following bit of reasoning that Bill might produce instead:
“Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering, God strongly disapproves of it, and if God had issued any commands, then he would have commanded that we not engage in it, but God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage in child torture.”
We might respond to Bill’s reasoning as follows:
We know that, if God had commanded anything, he would have commanded that we not torture children. And that is enough to tell us that the action is wrong. What could the fact that God has not actually issued a command to not torture have to do with whether torture is wrong? If you are worried about whether God actually issued the command, then you are focused on the wrong thing. That God has or has not issued a command about torture is not a morally relevant fact about torture because it is not even an intrinsic feature of torture. That is, it is a fact about some particular agent, not about acts of torture. In this sense, then, the fact that God commands that we not torture would be like the fact that torture is sometimes depicted in fictional narratives. That fiction writers have depicted torture is not an intrinsic fact about torture, it is a relational fact. That fiction writers sometimes depict torture tells us much more about fiction writers than about torture. Such relational facts cannot be what make an action morally wrong. In the same way, that God commands that we not torture tells us more about God than about torture. Given what we know about torture, worrying about whether God has actually commanded that we not torture is misplaced. To focus on whether God actually commands something is to focus on the wrong thing; it is to focus on something that cannot make an action morally wrong. To the extent that God matters here, what matters is what his disapproval tells us about the act of torture. A perfectly loving being strongly disapproves of torture. If this is relevant, it is relevant only because it means that the action has features that give God reasons for disapproving of it. That is enough to tell us that the act has features that give us moral reasons to not engage in it. And that implies that, even in the absence of a divine command, the action has features that make it wrong.
Now consider another possible world—a world that consists of all of the same natural facts as the actual world and in which God does not exist. Call this world the no-God-world or world-NG. [I think that world-NG is the actual world, but we are here assuming, for the sake of ease of expression, that God exists in the actual world. Nothing depends on our making this assumption.]
Now suppose that an inhabitant of world-NG, call him Paul, is trying to decide whether it is morally wrong to torture a child. Suppose he says the following:
“Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering, but since there is no God, God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage in child torture.”
According to DCM, this reasoning is impeccable. But this is wrong. Just as with Bill’s reasoning, Paul’s reasoning is seriously flawed. Given what Paul knows about torture, namely that it causes severe needless suffering, he knows enough to know that it would be wrong to torture a child. If you are not convinced that it is flawed, consider the following bit of reasoning that Paul might produce instead:
“Well, torturing a child causes severe unnecessary suffering, and, if God existed, he would disapprove of it, and if God had issued any commands, then he would have commanded that we not engage in it, but since there is no God, God has not commanded that we not engage in the action, so it must not be wrong to engage child torture.”
We might respond to Paul as follows:
We know that, if God did exist, he would strongly disapprove of the act of torturing children and that if God had commanded anything, he would have commanded that we not torture children. And that is enough to tell us that the action is wrong. What could the fact that God has not actually issued a command have to do with whether the action is wrong? If you are worried about whether God actually issued the command or whether God actually disapproves of the act, then you are focused on the wrong thing. That God does or does not approve of and has or has not issued a command about torture are not morally relevant facts about torture because they are not even intrinsic features of torture. That is, they are facts about some particular agent, not about acts of torture. In this sense, then, the fact that God disapproves of torture or the fact that God commands that we not torture would be like the fact that torture is sometimes depicted in fictional narratives. That fiction writers have depicted torture is not an intrinsic fact about torture, it is a relational fact. That fiction writers sometimes depict torture tells us much more about fiction writers than about torture. Such relational facts cannot be what make an action morally wrong. In the same way, that God disapproves of torture and commands that we not torture tells us more about God than about torture. Given what we know about torture, worrying about whether God actually disapproves of torture or has actually commanded that we not do it is misplaced. To focus on whether God actually disapproves of something or commands something is to focus on the wrong thing; it is to focus on something that cannot make an action morally wrong. To the extent that God matters here, what matters is what his responses would reveal about the act of torture. What matters is that the object has features that would lead to God’s disapproving of the act and commanding that we not engage in the act. When we know that a perfect God would disapprove of torturing children and would command that we not torture children, we know enough to know that torture is wrong. And this is because what we know is that torture has features in virtue of which a perfect God would disapprove of it and command that we not do it. And these features are what make it wrong, not God’s commands.

bookmark_borderWhy the moral argument fails

Of all the arguments for the existence of God, there is one argument (or one style of argument) that I have never had any sympathy with and never understood why anyone has any sympathy with, and that is the moral argument. It seems to me and has pretty much always seemed to me (at least as long as I have reflected on the issue) that the claim that moral phenomena depend for their existence on God is pretty clearly false. I want to emphasize that this is not just an intuitive reaction, it is a considered judgement. The idea that God is somehow the foundation of moral reality strikes me as one of the strangest, not to mention most unfortunate, ideas that humans have ever come up with.
By “moral argument” I mean to include any argument that involves any claim that some aspect of moral phenomena depends on God, or any inductive argument to the effect that some aspect of moral phenomena makes it more likely that God exists. Of course, there are many types of moral argument, and, limited as I am, I cannot hope to have exhaustive knowledge of every version of every argument that falls under the umbrella of “the moral argument.” What I can say is that I have never come across anything that falls under that umbrella that has seemed remotely convincing. But lest this become merely an exercise in Jason expressing uninteresting biographical facts about himself, I will try to explain what is so unconvincing about the moral argument.
None of what I am saying here should be taken to imply that I don’t think that moral arguments can’t be interesting, sophisticated, or important. I have learned quite a bit about morality by considering moral arguments for the existence of God. And there is no doubt that very skilled and insightful philosophers have produced interesting versions of the moral argument. What I want to say has nothing to do with the intellectual sophistication or significance of moral arguments. Furthermore, I cannot hope to address what is wrong with every instance of a moral argument. But what I can do is point to a fundamental problem that, I believe, lies at the heart of any suggestion that moral phenomena are evidence that God exists.
Let me start by removing one potential misunderstanding. One might claim that every concrete individual thing that exists depends for its existence on God. Thus, if God does not exist, then the states of affairs, actions, experiences, etc. that are the bearers of moral properties would not exist and so there would be no moral properties. I doubt that such a claim can be substantiated, but, regardless, it misses the point. This kind of dependence is irrelevant to the moral argument. The moral argument identifies a type of property, moral properties, and claims that these would not exist if God did not exist and that therefore their existence indicates that God exists. If this argument depends on the claim that no concrete thing exists and no properties exist if God does not exist, then this is no longer a moral argument. The moral argument claims that there is something special about the moral realm that indicates the existence of God, not that everything indicates God’s existence. If the existence of every individual thing and every property is evidence or proof that God exists, then first, we don’t need a moral argument, and second, there is nothing special about moral phenomena, as opposed to other phenomena, that indicate that God must exist. Furthermore, the kind of dependence currently under discussion is not the right kind of dependence. It is one thing for the things that bear moral properties to depend for their existence on God, another thing for moral properties themselves to depend on God. It is the latter claim that underlies the moral argument.
One reason that the moral argument is a failure is the Euthyphro problem, which, in my considered judgement, decisively shows that God does not have the power to create moral properties. (If you are interested, you can read this paper, which explains, in part, why I think this.) But, in addition to this, there is something that I think of as a more basic and fairly obvious point, which I want to make here.
Here is the point: that particular actions, states of affairs, experiences, etc. have the moral properties that they do have does not depend on God because God’s existence is irrelevant to those features that plausibly give actions, experiences, and etc. their moral properties. It is easier to see this with an example of an act for which there is almost universal agreement about its moral status. So, consider the moral status of child torture. That the torture of small children is morally wrong depends on the fact that torturing a child causes severe undue suffering. It does not depend in any way on the existence of God and it is very unclear how God’s existence, or anything God could do, could make a difference to the moral status of child torture. Such facts as that children exist and that some people are capable of torturing children might depend on God. But that torturing children is wrong is not a fact that could depend on God. And by this I mean that so long as there are children, it is wrong to cause them unnecessary suffering. God could do nothing to change, and his existence could have no implications for, the moral status of child torture.
I realize that pointing out that something is obvious to me is hardly an argument. But two points: First, I doubt that I am the only one who has this reaction, the only one for whom it is obvious that God’s existence is irrelevant to morality. Second, because of this, it is incumbent on those who wield the moral argument to explain precisely how morality does depend upon God. It is not enough, for example, when employing the moral argument, to just claim, as William Lane Craig has done, that if God does not exist, there is not a sound foundation for morality. If you are going to defend the moral argument, you need to explain both how the lack of God would eliminate moral phenomena and how the presence of God guarantees their existence. Any defense of the moral argument should explain, for example, how it can be that something like child torture would, in the absence of God, be morally unproblematic.
I have read many professional papers that attempt to articulate and defend some version of the moral argument. But I have never encountered so much as an attempt to explain how God’s non-existence would imply that child torture is morally unproblematic. Nor have I encountered concerted efforts to explain why the moral status of any action, person, or state of affairs would be affected by God’s non-existence. All too frequently defenders of the argument say things like the following, from William Lane Craig:

on the atheistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental by-products of nature that have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth*

But for an attempt to prove that without God, moral properties do not exist, such claims are utterly useless. It is merely an assertion of the conclusion. Given that we are talking about human beings, the bearers of mental states such as pleasure and pain, beings that are capable of making decisions and who value making their own decisions, who conceive of themselves as beings that persist through time and make plans accordingly, the, as Derek Parfit puts it, “animals that can understand and respond to reasons”, there is every reason to think that, even if God does not exist, human beings are morally significant. If all the above features of human beings are not sufficient to make us morally significant, it is very unclear how God could change that. So why should we think that, in an atheistic universe, there is nothing special about humans? What would account for that? Craig does not tell us.
God could change some things. An all-powerful being could make it so that children do not suffer when they are subjected to torture. Indeed, an all-powerful being could completely eliminate suffering. But this would not change the fact that it would be wrong to cause a child to suffer needlessly. The fact that torturing a person causes intense suffering is already, all by itself, enough to make it prima facie wrong to torture a person. It is not at all clear what role there is for God to play with respect to the deontological status of inflicting torture on small children.
If we think otherwise, that is, if we think that only God could make child torture wrong, then we must make the case that God’s existence makes a difference. We must therefore answer the following questions: What could the existence of God have to do with the wrongness of torture? What does the existence of God add to the situation that would account for its wrongness? If the fact that torture causes severe physical and emotional suffering is not sufficient to make it wrong to torture innocent children, then what could God do to make it wrong?
Let’s take a look at one (admittedly not very sophisticated) example of an apologist employing a a moral argument (Why talk about it if it is not very sophisticated? Mainly because I find it very annoying that people can so confidently assert things for which there is no ground whatsoever. In addition, I think that in its failure to even attempt to address the points that must be addressed by any moral argument, it is indicative of a larger trend.)
In this article, Frank Turek says the following,

In an atheistic universe there is nothing objectively wrong with anything at any time.

Why does Mr. Turek believe this?
First, let’s consider what an odd claim this is. To say that some act is objectively wrong is to say that there are overriding reasons to not engage in that act and that these reasons are objective. To say that they are objective is to say that the existence of these reasons does not depend on the reactions, beliefs, or judgements of any subject (individual or collective). So, if we believe that some things are objectively wrong, we believe that there are reasons for action and that some of these reasons are overriding in the sense that they are stronger than other reasons with which they may compete. So, if we believe that nothing is objectively wrong, we believe that there are no objective reasons for action that are overriding in the sense describe above.
At first glance, there does not appear to be any reason to think that in a world without God there could not be such reasons. Consider, for example, the act of rape. If God does not exist, rape is still wrong. Consider the facts that rape is a violation of a person’s autonomy and causes severe emotional and physical suffering. Even if God does not exist, these facts about rape would still be true. On the assumption that these provide us with overriding reasons not to rape, even if God does not exist, rape is still wrong. And if we thought that these do not provide us with overriding reasons not to rape, what difference would God’s existence make?
If you think that in an atheistic universe nothing is objectively wrong, then you think that these facts about rape (that it violates autonomy and causes severe emotional and physical suffering) do not provide us with overriding reasons to not engage in rape. That is a very odd thing to believe. In addition, you must believe that God can do something that somehow makes it the case that rape is wrong (or maybe that his mere existence can make it the case that rape is wrong). This is also a very odd thing to think. On this view, an act of rape, considered in isolation from God (i.e., considered merely as an action in a context in which God and his capacities are not present) is not wrong. So, on this view, God has the capacity to take an action that is not wrong (considered in and of itself and in isolation from God) and make it wrong. How does God do it? What kind of power is that? Turek does not answer these questions and has nothing to say about how God is able to accomplish this amazing feat. Turek’s is a very strange view.
So, there are two reasons that the view that Turek expresses, namely that in a universe without God there is nothing objectively wrong, is so odd: (1) It implies that facts such as that an act causes severe undue and uncompensated suffering are not sufficient to make an act morally wrong, and (2) It implies that God has the special and unexplained ability to take an action that would otherwise have no moral properties, and make it have moral properties.
Given the strangeness of the view, someone who want to defend it should provide something by way of argument in its favor. So, what does Turek offer? Not much. Here, as far as I can tell, is the sum total of the considerations that Turek offers in favor of the thesis that without God there would be no morality:

If material nature is all that exists, which is what most atheist’s claim, then there is no such thing as an immaterial moral law.  Therefore, atheists must smuggle a moral standard into their materialistic system to get it to work, whether it’s “human flourishing,” the Golden Rule, doing what’s “best” for the most, etc. Such standards don’t exist in a materialistic universe where creatures just “dance” to the music of their DNA.

One thing that I will briefly mention and then set aside is that it is a mistake to claim that atheism is committed to the claim that material nature is all that exists. Turek seems to recognize this, hence his use of the word ‘most.’ I don’t know if most atheists think this (I don’t), but even if it is true that most atheists think it, this is irrelevant to the issue of whether moral phenomena depend on God.
Another quick point: It is not clear what an immaterial moral law is. For that matter, it is not clear what a moral law is or what it would have to do with the existence of moral properties. It is telling that Turek does not believe that it is necessary to clarify in any way what ‘immaterial moral law’ is supposed to mean.
The main problem with Turek’s attempt here is that he does not in any way address the two points I made above. He does not explain why the intrinsic natural features of an action such as rape (e.g., that it causes severe suffering) are not sufficient to make the action morally wrong. More generally, he does not explain why the features that an action has independently of God are insufficient to ground the action’s moral properties. And he does not explain how the existence of God can make an action, e.g., morally wrong when, in the absence of God, the action would have no moral properties whatsoever. I don’t think that any moral argument can do either of these things. Again, I have not seen every version of the moral argument that does so. If you know of an argument that is more successful, please let me know.
It is unfortunate that apologists such as Turek believe that they need hardly defend their bold claims about the dependence of morality on God. I hope that those who, like me, are very skeptical of the moral argument can do more to push back against the unjustified presumption that God is intimately connected to morality.


 
*This quote comes from a debate that Craig had with Paul Kurtz, published in Is Goodness Without God Good Enough? I offered more extensive criticism of Craig’s use of the moral argument here.

bookmark_borderGod’s nature does not make his commands non-arbitrary

Many modern defenders of the divine command theory frequently claim that God’s commands are not arbitrary because they flow from his essential nature. Their argument is bad. That a commander issues consistent commands based on his/her own character does not mean that those commands are not arbitrary. Whether a command is arbitrary depends on whether there are reasons for the command. That commands are based on the commander’s nature tells us nothing about whether there are reasons for the commands.
Consider an imaginary supernatural being who we’ll call Zupater. Zupater is an omnipotent and omniscient creator. He is like the God of theism except that whereas the God of theism is essentially loving, Zupater is essentially hateful. Zupater hates everyone and everything (except for himself). He creates mortal beings and issues commands that flow from his essential nature. One of his commands is as follows: “Thou shalt torture small infants.”
Are Zupater’s commands arbitrary? If we believe that the fact that God’s commands are grounded in his essential nature entails that his commands are non-arbitrary, then we must say something similar about Zupater’s commands. Zupater’s commands flow from his essential nature just as much as God’s commands flow from his. So, if God has reasons for his commands, then Zupater has reasons for his.
However, it is false that Zupater has reasons to command that we torture infants. Indeed, the opposite is the case; Zupater has overriding reasons to not command that we torture infants. The fact that torture causes severe undue and unnecessary suffering provides Zupater with overriding reasons to not command that we torture infants. So, what we should say about Zupater is that it does not matter that his commands flow necessarily from his nature; his commands are ungrounded in reasons and thus they are arbitrary.
But if the fact that Zupater’s commands flow from his nature is not sufficient to make his commands non-arbitrary, then the fact that God’s commands flow from God’s nature are not sufficient to make God’s commands non-arbitrary. Here is the argument in premise-conclusion form:

  1. If God’s essential loving nature provides that his commands are non-arbitrary, then Zupater’s essential hateful nature provides that his commands are non-arbitrary.
  2. Zupater’s essential hateful nature does not provide him with reasons for his commands.
  3. Zupater has no reasons for (at least some of) his commands (e.g., he has no reasons to command the torture of infants).
  4. Thus, despite the fact that his commands necessarily flow from his essential nature, Zupater’s commands are arbitrary.
  5. Thus, it is not the case that Zupater’s essential hating nature provides that his commands are non-arbitrary.
  6. Therefore, it is not the case that God’s essential loving nature provides that his commands are non-arbitrary.

This argument shows, quite conclusively, that whether a command is non-arbitrary is not a function of the nature of the one who issues the command. And this makes sense since, as I indicated above, whether a command is arbitrary depends only on whether there are reasons for the command. Whether there are reasons for a given command is independent of the character traits of the commander. I think that the reason that this frequently goes unnoticed is that we often fail to take notice of the distinction between reasons and motives, so I will say a few things about this distinction.
A reason (or ground) of a belief or decision is a factor that counts in favor of that belief or decision. As Derek Parfit has pointed out, this definition is not very helpful since, when we try to explain the notion of counting in favor of we cannot do so without talking about reasons. But this is not a problem. Reason is probably a primitive concept in the sense that it cannot be helpfully defined in terms of other concepts. As Parfit points out, “We must explain such concepts in a different way, by getting people to think thoughts that use these concepts. One example is the thought that we always have a reason to want to avoid being in agony.” (On What Matters, Volume 1, p.31). A motive, on the other hand, is something that explains a decision or belief. Reasons justify; motives explain.
Reasons justify decisions and beliefs in virtue of counting in favor of those decisions or beliefs; motives explain actions, decisions, and beliefs, in virtue of being psychological states of the agent who performs the action, makes the decision, or has the belief. It is possible for one’s motive to be a reason, but that does not entail that motives and reasons are the same. It is equally possible for one’s motive to fail to be a reason. That I have a motive does not entail that this motive is a reason because that I have some psychological state that explains my decision does not entail that there is anything that counts in favor of my decision. Zupater might command that we never brush our teeth or use mouthwash because he loves the smell of bad breath. But while this shows that Zupater has a motive for this command, it does not follow that he has a reason. The mere fact that he enjoys the smell of bad breath does not count in favor of his commanding that sentient and autonomous beings undermine their own health and well-being. Indeed, it seems that such a command would be unreasonable in the sense that there is no ground for it, nothing that counts in its favor (and much that counts against it).
That God is essentially loving gives us information concerning the kind of motives he will act on. But that he has loving motives does not entail that he has reasons any more than the fact that Zupater has motives entails that he has reasons. If we do not acknowledge the distinction between reasons and motives, then the responses of DCT’s defenders to the arbitrariness problem will appear compelling. Once our attention is drawn to it, however, we can see the weakness of their position.

bookmark_borderObjections to Objectivism – Part 2: More Popular Objections

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).