bookmark_borderLink: “Slavery, Southern Conservatism, and Darwinian Natural Right” by Larry Arnhart

“Some of the opponents of Darwinian moral naturalism insist that morality requires a transcendent source in religious belief. But in this debate over slavery, we see that such religious belief–at least as coming from Biblical revelation–does not provide us reliable moral guidance. Cobb was able to show that the Bible–both the Old Testament and the New Testament–sanctioned slavery. (Recent books by Mark Noll and Eugene Genovese have surveyed the history of Southern proslavery arguments based on the Bible.) If the Bible cannot resolve such a moral debate, then we have to appeal to our natural moral experience that does not depend on religious belief. Darwinian science indicates how such moral experience might be founded in our evolved human nature.”
LINK

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_borderEuthyphro Dilemmas

As I explained on page 25 of my Primer in Religion and Morality I think there are multiple dilemmas floating around under the name “Euthyphro Dilemma” (hereafter, ED).

ED: The literal, original formulation of the ED is this: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it loved by the gods?”

In that formulation, it’s argubaly not really applicable to any contemporary discussions of theistic metaethics.
In order to make it applicable, people often revise it. For example, ED is most often presented in a revised version so as to be applicable to Divine Command Theories of right and wrong (DCT-D):

ED-D: “Is something morally obligatory because God commands it, or does God command it because it is obligatory?”

Theistic philosophers are well aware of ED and ED-D, and so they have formulated sophisticated responses.
First, they make a distinction between moral axiology (moral goodness and badness) and moral deontology (moral right and wrong). This allows theists (who are so inclined) to take different horns of the dilemmas posed by ED-D. For example, some theists say that moral axiology is independent of God, but moral deontology is dependent upon God.
Second, in the last fifty years theistic philosophers have formulated metaethical theories to avoid those dilemmas. Regarding moral value, some theists defend what I call the Divine Nature Theory (DNT-A): axiological properties are metaphysically grounded in God’s nature (or character).
Regarding moral obligation, some theists defend a Modified Divine Command Theory (MDCT-D): deontological properties are metaphysically grounded in the relevant commands of a loving God. MDCT-D successfully avoids ED-D, as defined above.
Of course, just as theistic metaethicists have formulated sophisticated metaethical theories in response to ED and ED-D, critics can and have formulated revised versions of their dilemmas.
In response to DNT-A, we get the version I call ED-A:

ED-A: Is God’s nature good simply because it is God’s nature, or is there some independent standard to which God’s nature conforms?

In response to MDCT-D, we get the version I call MED-D:

MED-D: Is something morally obligatory because a loving God commands it, or does God command it because it is the loving thing to do?

(See pages 20-25 of my Primer.)


As an aside, if I were a theist, I might subscribe to Adams’ Modified Divine Command Theory of right and wrong (MDCT-D), but I am certain that I would consider moral axiology (value) to be completely independent of God and His nature. Although I’ve read most of the secondary literature in the last 40-50 years on theistic metaethics, I’ve always considered it odd that some (not all) theists are not satisfied with
D: Moral obligation is somehow dependent upon God
but also want:
A: Moral value is somehow dependent upon God.
For those theists who want to affirm both D and A, I’m assuming the motivation is the desire to preserve divine aseity. I can understand that motivation, but I think it is misguided.

bookmark_borderAre Atheism and Moral Realism Logically Incompatible?

I am a regular reader of Victor Reppert’s blog, Dangerous Idea. In the combox for one of his recent posts, Steve Hays claimed that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible. I wrote a lengthy reply to Hays in the combox and have decided to republish it here.
Before I republish my comments, I will make one general observation about moral arguments for God’s existence.

  1. Theists often claim that the so-called ‘problem of evil’ (read: arguments from evil for atheism) and the ontological foundation for morality are linked: one cannot ‘consistently’ run an argument from evil without having an ontological foundation for morality; morality somehow requires a theistic ontological foundation; therefore, arguments from evil are really arguments for God’s existence.
  2. In the context of arguments from evil, it is standard to make a distinction between logical arguments from evil (i.e., arguments which claim that God’s existence is logically inconsistent with some known fact about evil) and evidential arguments from evil (i.e., arguments which claim that some known fact is either improbable on theism or less probable on theism than on naturalism). Theists will often argue that there is no good logical argument from evil, based upon Alvin Plantinga’s famous critique of J.L. Mackie’s logical argument from evil. (These same theists often seem to be unaware that philosophers J.L. Schellenberg and Quentin Smith, among others, have formulated new versions of the logical argument from evil, or they are aware but assume that Plantinga’s critique of Mackie also applies to Schellenberg and Smith. But that’s another topic for another post.)
  3. In general, there seems to be a double-standard on the part of theists (not necessarily Steve) who try to link arguments from evil for atheism with moral arguments for God’s existence: these theists do not apply the same degree of skepticism to what I will call logical arguments from moral ontology (i.e., arguments which claim that atheism is logically inconsistent with moral realism) and logical arguments from evil. Just as many atheists incorrectly assume that defending a logical argument from evil is much harder than it actually is, I believe that many theists incorrectly assume that defending a logical argument from moral ontology is much harder than it actually is.

I want to emphasize that, in our exchange, Steve Hays did not employ this double standard. I mention this double standard in this introduction because, in my experience, many theists (not Steve) who claim, “atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible,” are guilty of this double standard. This is where my my recent interaction with Steve Hays becomes relevant: I think my interaction with Steve Hays shows that it much harder to adequately defend claims of the logical incompatibility of atheism and moral realism, than it is to make such claims.
 


LOWDER
Steve Hays references atheists who reject moral realism. Putting aside the obvious rhetorical value of quoting ‘hostile witnesses,’ , what logical or evidential value could these references have?
First, the references could be an argument from authority. Contrary to what some people (not necessarily Steve) think, arguments from authority can be logically correct inductive arguments. One inductive argument form is the statistical syllogism:

(1) Z percent of F are G.
(2) x is F.
(3) [probable] x is G.

The closer Z is to 100, the stronger the inductive evidence.
Arguments from authority are a form of statistical syllogism:

(1′) The vast majority of statements made by x concerning subject S are true.
(2′) p is a statement made by x concerning subject S.
(3′) [probable] p is true.

As philosopher Wesley Salmon explains in his textbook, Logic, the following are “misuses of the argument from authority:”

  1. The authority may be misquoted or misinterpreted.
  2. The authority may have only glamor, prestige, or popularity.
  3. Experts may make judgments about something outside their special fields of competence.
  4. Authorities may express opinions about matters concerning which they could not possibly have any evidence.
  5. Authorities who are equally competent, so far as we can tell, may disagree.

Suppose we charitably interpret Steve’s references to atheists who reject moral realism is supposed to be an (inductive) argument from authority. Then if we let:

X=”atheists Sharon Street; Massimo Pigliucci; Michael Shermer; Owen J. Flanagan, Jr; Alex Rosenberg; Joel Marks; Daniel Dennett; Michael Ruse; and Quentin Smith.”;
S=”metaethics” (which includes whether moral anti-realism is true); and
p=”moral realism is false”

then Steve’s argument would have the following logical form.

(1′) The vast majority of statements made by x concerning subject S are true.
(2′) p is a statement made by x concerning subject S.
(3′) Therefore, p is true.

That argument is example of what Salmon called a “misuse of the argument from authority,” for at least three reasons.
First, Michael Shermer is not a philosopher and definitely not an expert on metaethics. (One could say the same about Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, names which often appear in lists like the list posted by Steve.) Likewise, when Massimo Pigliucci made the statement referenced in Steve’s post (in his debate with William Lane Craig), Pigliucci was a biologist only, not a biologist and a philosopher. Even today, Pigliucci is not an expert on metaethics. (It may also be the case that Pigliucci has changed his views since his earning his doctorate in philosophy; I don’t know.) Similarly, Michael Ruse is a philosopher of biology and Alex Rosenberg is a philosopher of social science, economics, and science; neither specialize in metaethics. Likewise, Daniel Dennett’s areas of specialization are philosophy of science, cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of biology; metaethics is not one of his areas of specialization.
Second, what about atheist philosophers who do specialize in metaethics and reject moral realism, such as Flannagan and Mackie? I’m going to put to the side the interesting question of whether Smith and Street should even be counted as moral anti-realists; both have highly nuanced views and it would take a long blog post to give the topic the attention it deserves.
But putting those two names to the side, there are still other names available who were or are without a doubt atheists, experts on metaethics, and moral anti-realists. There are plenty of competent authorities on metaethics or the philosophy of religion—both theists and naturalists—who disagree with p (“moral realism is false”). Off the top of my head, I can think of at least ##. The atheist camp of moral realists includes: David Brink; Michael Martin; G.E. Moore; John Post; William Rottschaefer; Russ Shafer-Landau; Stephen J. Sullivan; and Erik Wielenberg.
Third, the definition of X arbitrarily limits who counts as expert: if we are interested in whether atheism is logically compatible with moral realism, the proper reference class is all metaethicists, not just atheistic metaethics. But then broadening the scope of X adds even more authorities who reject statement p. The theistic camp of metaethicists who reject the claim (“atheism is incompatible with moral realism”) includes people like Robert Adams and Mark Murphy (a Catholic and a natural law theorist). Then there are metaethicists whose religious views are unknown to me, but would join Adams in rejecting the claim that atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism: Avi Sagi and Daniel Statman.
Accordingly, as an inductive argument from authority, the argument is inductively weak and logically incorrect. The premises do not confer a high probability on the conclusion. So, rather than name-dropping a selective list of atheists (or even merely summarizing the arguments made by those names), what we need is actual engagement with the arguments made by metaethicists and, in particular, the work of Robert Adams and Mark Murphy on the theistic side and Erik Wielenberg on the atheistic side. I’ve written about some of the atheistic error theorists listed above here.
We also need to distinguish between authorities who say “moral realism is false because theism is false” vs. those who say “moral realism is false or meaningless for reasons that have nothing to do with God’s existence.”


HAYS
Jeff’s comments are a lengthy exercise in misdirection:
i) I didn’t quote Shermer, Dawkins, or Coyne. So mentioning them in response to me just a diversionary tactic.
ii) I didn’t make an appeal to authority. Rather, if you bother to read the links, many of them provide arguments for their rejection of moral realism. Pity Jeff doesn’t know the difference between quoting someone as an authority figure and quoting someone for their arguments.
iii) Furthermore, even if it were, in some cases, an argument from authority, when Christians point out that atheism is incompatible with moral realism, and some atheists respond by acting as if that’s an ignorant, defamatory attack on atheists, it’s perfectly legitimate to cite counterexamples from their own side to demonstrate that this isn’t a Christian caricature of atheists, but something that many prominent atheists concede.
And in my experience, not a few internet atheists have no idea that there are real live atheist thinkers who deny moral realism. They just imagine that must be a Christian strawman.
iv) Jeff then acts as though, unless someone is an expert in metaethics, you should simply ignore their arguments. But isn’t that self-refuting? Is Jeff an expert on metaethics? I guess we can safely discount everything he said in his two lengthy comments. What makes Jeff an expert? That he’s an autodidact on metaethics?
v) I’d add that Jeff likes to artificially compartmentalize knowledge. But when, for instance, the topic at hand is evolutionary ethics/evolutionary psychology, it’s preposterous to suggest a philosopher who specializes in philosophy of mind or evolutionary biology can’t have anything worthwhile to say on the subject. These are interdisciplinary debates.
vi) Having made a dismissive comment about “the obvious rhetorical value of quoting hostile witnesses,” Jeff does the very same thing by citing Robert Adams and Mark Murphy.
Likewise, Jeff complains about “name-dropping a selective list of atheists (or even merely summarizing the arguments made by those names…” even though his second comment is nothing but name-dropping (or summarizing) a selective list of theists and atheists.
vi) Finally, I’ve often responded to the subset of atheists who struggle to defend moral realism. It’s not as if I haven’t engaged their arguments.
But I do understand Jeff’s need to throw a lifeline to his drowning cohort, Angra.


LOWDER
It’s ironic that, in an exchange about the alleged superiority of theistic metaethics, Steve is rude to his dialectical opponents who are atheists. (To avoid any misunderstandings, I’m not complaining that my feelings are hurt or that I am offended.) Unlike Steve’s reply to me, there was no intent to be snarky in my last comment and there is no intent to be snarky in this comment.
Steve tries to dismiss the entire point about inductive arguments from authority, as if that were an idiosyncratic interpretation of his remarks. I don’t claim to be able to read his or anyone else’s mind, so if it was not his intent to make an argument from authority, then I will take him at his word. Steve wasn’t making an argument from authority. But I think the reader can be forgiven for getting that apparently wrong impression from the following exchange:

Angra Mainyu: “I challenge you to show the alleged inconsistency between atheism and moral realism.”

Steve Hays: “You could begin by reading atheists who take that very position. For starters: ….” (followed by a long list of links to blog posts).

Almost all of the linked blog posts quoted atheists, but not all. (More on that later.)
So instead of making a logically incorrect inductive argument from authority, it is instead the case that Steve has simply brought up a bunch of irrelevancies to support his claim that “Atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.” As evidence for that claim, let’s go through the first four of Steve’s links.
Sharon Street: Steve’s first link is about Sharon Street’s paper, “A Darwinian Dilemma about Realist Theories of Value.” Street’s paper has nothing do with an alleged contradiction between moral realism and atheism. In fact, Street’s paper has nothing whatsoever to do with moral ontology. Street’s paper is about moral epistemology: she argues that if evolutionary naturalism is true, we have an undercutting defeater for trusting our second-order ethical intuitions. In plain English, it’s as if she says:

“Many people think moral realism is true because it seems like moral realism is true. But that isn’t a good reason to think that moral realism is true if you are an evolutionary naturalist. If evolutionary naturalism is true, it would ‘seem’ that moral realism were true even if it weren’t. So the ‘argument from seeming’ [my name] isn’t a good reason for evolutionary naturalists to think that moral realism is true.”

But since that is the essence of Street’s argument, it follows that Street’s Darwinian Dilemma is irrelevant to the claim that atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism. The most charitable interpretation I could give to why Steve linked to an irrelevant paper by Street is that he was giving an inductive argument from authority, based upon the proposition, “Sharon Street is an atheist expert on metaethics who denies moral realism.” Again, Steve says his argument wasn’t an argument from authority, but the motivation to categorize his argument was my attempt to be charitable to Steve. Since it wasn’t an inductive argument from authority, the alternative is that it was just an irrelevant premise. Even if Street’s Darwinian Dilemma is correct, it still would not follow that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible. To think otherwise would be to confuse moral epistemology with moral ontology.
Massimo Pigliucci:  His next link was to a quotation of Massimo Pigliucci on moral realism. As I explain here, the logical form of Pigliucci’s argument is as follows:

(7) Human beliefs about morality have changed over time.
(8) The best explanation for these changes in human beliefs is that there are no objective truths about morality.
(9) Therefore, there are no objective truths about morality.

Even if this were a good argument — and it is not — it still would not follow that atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism. Again, in an attempt to be charitable to Steve, I took him to be making an inductive argument from authority. Again, Steve says he wasn’t doing that. And again, in that case, I say, “Fine. Then it’s an irrelevant reference to a bad argument.”
Paul Pardi: His next link was to a statement by Paul Pardi. Paul is a Christian lecturer or professor of philosophy; in fact, at least for part of the last decade, he taught at Seattle Pacific University. Paul was commenting in the combox on a blog post by J.P. Moreland about Michael Shermer. (This is why I mentioned Shermer in my previous post.) So, as interesting as Paul’s comments are, Paul Pardi’s comments do nothing to show what atheists say about atheism and morality. Furthermore, Paul Pardi’s comments actually undercut Sharon Street’s Darwinian Dilemma. As Pardi points out, “To say that on evolution, our moral beliefs and practices wouldn’t track truth assumes what it’s seems to want to prove: that moral laws are something outside of the human mind that beliefs must correspond to.”
Again, the most charitable interpretation (of Steve’s bizarre decision to reference Pardi’s comment) I could come up with was that: (1) Steve mistakenly thought Pardi shared Shermer’s views (presumably because Pardi gave objections to Moreland’s argument against Shermer); and (2) what really mattered to Hays was the support that Shermer, as an atheist, lends to an evolutionary account of morality. But, putting aside the fact that Shermer is not a philosopher, the empirical fact about moral epistemology, if it is a fact, that:

A: The correct explanation for the origin of our moral beliefs involves our evolutionary history.

provides zero support for the logical claim about moral ontology that:

B: Atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.

And so, again, instead of saying (with charitable intent) that Steve Hays was making an argument from authority, we must instead conclude that he was simply providing another link to another irrelevant statement.
Own Flannagan, Jr.: Flannagan’s sociobiological explanation for the origin of our moral beliefs is similar to Shermer’s. It is irrelevant to establishing Steve Hays’ claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible, and for the same reason.
Alex Rosenberg: Steve’s next link was to an interview about Alex Rosenberg. Here’s the entirety of what Rosenberg had to say about metaethics in that interview.

“What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad?
There is no moral difference between them.”

So the interview Rosenberg contains no argument proving the alleged inconsistency between atheism and moral realism; all we find is the mere assertion that moral realism is false.
The other part of Steve’s Rosenberg post includes the same basic point about natural selection tricking us into believing moral realism is true. It fails for the same reason as Shermer’s and Flannagan’s.
Again, I thought I was charitable in interpreting Steve as offering an inductive argument from authority. Again, I was mistaken. And again, the link to his blog post is irrelevant because the quoted material doesn’t even make the claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible, much less provide an argument for that claim.
Furthermore, if one goes beyond the material quoted by Steve and looks at Rosenberg’s journal article on metaethics, we do not find an article which tries to prove the alleged inconsistency between atheism and moral realism. Rather, what we find is an argument against moral realism which has nothing do do with an alleged inconsistency between atheism and moral realism. (See here).
Joel Marks: Steve’s next link was to an article in the New York Times by Joel Marks, in which Marks talks about his change from “moralism” to “amoralism,” which can be thought of as the change from being a moral realist to a moral anti-realist. His article was published by the New York Times, not the American Philosophical Quarterly, so his article was not written for philosophers. Based on what Marks wrote, it’s hard to tell if he even believes that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible. But, in order to be charitable to Steve, let’s assume that Marks believes precisely that. What support does Marks give for that claim in his article?
Marks makes only one statement (or series of statements) which could possibly be relevant to a claim of logical incompatibility between atheism and moral realism:

“The dominoes continued to fall. I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.”

And later in the same essay he writes:

“Think of this analogy: A tribe of people lives on an isolated island. They have no formal governmental institutions of any kind. In particular they have no legislature. Therefore in that society it would make no sense to say that someone had done something “illegal.” But neither would anything be “legal.” The entire set of legal categories would be inapplicable. In just this way I now view moral categories.”

This is a variation of the old “laws require a lawgiver” argument. As I explain here, that argument fails because of the following negative analogy:

(8) The laws of nature, logic, mathematics, and (objective) morality did not begin to exist.
(9) The laws of nature, logic, and mathematics also do not have lawgivers.
(10) Therefore, the laws of (objective) morality do not have a lawgiver.

John Maynard Smith: Steve’s next link was to an article by John Maynard Smith, in which Smith endorses Daniel Dennett’s view that, without something like the Bible, there is no epistemologically objective way to determine moral right from wrong.
Again, even if Smith (and Dennett) were correct about that, it wouldn’t follow that moral realism is false. The sentences “Moral realism is true” and “Moral skepticism is true” are logically consistent: it could be the case that there are objective moral values and duties, but we have no realiable way of knowing what they are.
More important, neither Smith nor Dennett claim “Atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.”
Thomas Nagel: Steve’s next link is to a blog post quoting Thomas Nagel. Quoting Daniel Dennett, Nagel endorses the view that if everything reduces to physics, then there is no naturalistic answer to a cosmic question. The cosmic question is put into square brackets. I haven’t read Nagel’s 2010 book, so I can’t tell if the words in the bracket come from Nagel or from Steve. I don’t have enough context for the quotation to make sense of the question put in the square brackets. In any case, I agree that with Nagel that naturalism is nonteleological.
I do not find, however, an argument (in Steve’s post) for the conclusion that the non-teleological nature of naturalism is logically incompatible with moral realism. To be charitable to Steve, perhaps the idea is that if physical reality is not teleological (which, according to naturalism, it isn’t), then moral realism is necessarily false. But the truth of that is far from obvious. There is no logical contradiction between “There is no cosmic teleology (i.e., the universe was not created for a purpose)” and “Moral realism is true.” First, it could be the case that God does not exist, in which case there is no cosmic teleology, but some version of Platonism is true (and so moral values exist as abstract objects). Second, it could be the case that God does not exist and a neo-Aristotelian approach to ethics like that found in Larry Arnhart’s book, Darwinian Natural Right, is correct. But Arnhart’s neo-Aristotelian (and Humean and Darwinian) approach to ethics is a realist approach to ethics.
Michael Ruse: Steve’s next link is to a post which mentions Michael Ruse and myself. Regarding Steve’s numbered points in that blog post, I will say this. I agree with Steve’s (i): it is legitimate to quote what various atheists have said about morality, in order to defend the claim that some atheists have made certain statements about morality. (ii) I agree with this also. This is why the moral anti-realist arguments of Shermer, Rosenberg, and others fail. Turning to (iii), Steve argues that I have misinterpreted Ruse. Now that would require an entire blog post of its own.
For now, I will simply point out that (1) even if Ruse’s argument were correct, it would provide no support for the claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible; and (2) Ruse’s moral anti-realist argument fails because it commits the genetic fallacy. Indeed, it contains the very confusion Steve described in his (ii): Ruse confuses moral psychology with moral ontology. So both Steve and I agree that Ruse’s argument against moral realism fails.
Quentin Smith: Steve’s final link is to a post which appears to quote from either the abstract or body of an essay by Smith. Steve’s post quotes from Smith’s own website, which is now defunct, which makes it impossible to get the paper from that website. (An Internet search for a copy of the paper on other websites was equally unsuccessful.) But it appears Smith’s website published an article of his 2003 essay, “Moral Realism and Infinite Spacetime Imply Moral Nihilism,” which was published in an anthology.
I find everything about that blog post fascinating. Smith wrote a book (“Ethical and Religious Thought…”) published in 1997 by Yale University Press in which he defends moral realism. But I did come across an essay by philosopher Michael Almeida, which aims to refute Smith’s essay. (See here.) Almeida’s essay begans with the following sentences:

“Quentin Smith has recently advanced an argument for ‘moral nihilism’. He derives moral nihilism, unexpectedly, from global moral realism and a principle of value aggregation….”

So, according to one of Smith’s critics (Almeida), even in Smith’s 2003 essay, Smith still accepted moral realism. Furthermore, notice how Almeida summarizes Smith’s argument for nihilism: because “global moral realism” and “value aggregation theory” are true, then nihilism is true. That shows that Smith was not defending the claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.
Moving onto point (iv) in Steve’s comment, he writes, “Jeff then acts as though, unless someone is an expert in metaethics, you should simply ignore their arguments.” No. Steve is tearing down a straw man of his own creation. Steve’s objection forgets the fact that I was (mistakenly) responding to his references to other atheists as if they were inductive arguments from authority. In THAT context, it is appropriate to point out that some of Steve’s atheists do not have the relevant expertise.
I agree with Steve that if we are told that we should believe X on the basis of some argument Y (and Y is not an argument from authority), then it is of course legitimate to consider argument Y, regardless of whether the person making it has the relevant expertise or not.
Regarding (v), Steve saddles me with a view I do not hold and, again, tears down a straw man of his own creation. The issue is not whether this person or that person has something worthwhile to say on the subject of evolutionary ethics or evolutionary psychology. The issue is whether this person or that person is an expert on metaethics. Expertise in evolutionary ethics or evolutionary psychology does not constitute expertise in metaethics.
As for (vi), I look forward to reading Steve’s critiques of especially G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica and Erik Wielenberg’s Robust Ethics.
 


HAYS
Jeff says Robert Adams would reject the claim that atheism is incompatible with moral realism. Perhaps Jeff can quote where Adams has said that.
In Finite and Infinite Goods, Adams details a position in which the standard of goodness is defined by the divine nature. Finite things are only good insofar as they exemplify divine goodness. Given that framework, it’s hard to see how Adams could also say atheism is consistent with moral realism, absent the necessary source and standard of goodness. So is Jeff saying Adams has elsewhere taken a position that’s logically at odds with what he said in Finite and Infinite Goods?

“Steve tries to dismiss the entire point about inductive arguments from authority, as if that were an idiosyncratic interpretation of his remarks. I don’t claim to be able to read his or anyone else’s mind, so if it was not his intent to make an argument from authority, then I will take him at his word. Steve wasn’t making an argument from authority…So instead of making a logically incorrect inductive argument from authority, it is instead the case that Steve has simply brought up a bunch of irrelevancies to support his claim that ‘Atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.'”

i) So Jeff is telling us that he doesn’t know the difference between testimonial evidence and an argument from authority. When an atheist reacts to the statement that consistent atheism denies moral realism as if that’s a Christian strawman, it’s both relevant and legitimate to quote prominent atheists who concede that very claim.
That’s testimonial evidence to the contrary. A witness needn’t be an authority figure to be a reliable witness.
ii) Over and above that, there are atheists who give reasons for their rejection of moral realism. So that’s hardly an argument from authority, as if you should accept their position on their say-so alone. Rather, they explain why they reject moral realism, given their commitment to atheism, and the attendant implications thereof.
Jeff’s characterization is muddle-headed.


LOWDER
Jeff says Robert Adams would reject the claim that atheism is incompatible with moral realism. Perhaps Jeff can quote where Adams has said that.
This is one of those times where a person reads something they wrote the day before, shake their head, and ask, “What was I thinking when I wrote that?”
Steve is right and I was wrong. I got my theists mixed up. I meant to write Louis Pojman, not Robert Adams.
But Adams did write something very interesting in his book, Finite and Infinite Goods. I’ll have to find the passage when I get home, but the gist of it was something like this:

“Because I define excellence in a way that relates moral obligation to the commands of a loving God, excellence in that sense could not exist in a world without God. But a naturalist or an atheist could define excellence in an objective, realistic way that would be very similar [I think he uses the word “indistinguishable”] to what I call excellence, and so there would be little practical difference between the two.”

Or something to that effect. Given my mixup on Adams vs. Pojman, I won’t blame anyone if they want to wait until I produce the exact quotation.
[A short time later, I (Lowder) posted the following:]
Found it, courtesy of Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature:

“What is true about goodness if God does not exist, or is not in fact a suitable candidate for the role of the Good? This is a conditional question about the actual world, not about other possible worlds; and I am confident of my answer to it. If there is no God, or if God is in fact not a suitable candidate for the role of the Good, then my theory is false, but there may be some other salient, suitable candidate, and so some other theory of the nature of the good may be true.
“Against the background I offer the less ambitious approach to the corresponding question about other possible worlds, which I asked on the assumption that God does exist, and is a suitable candidate, in the actual world. A deity would have to satisfy certain conditions (for instance, not being sadistic, and not loving cowardice) in order to be the salient candidate for filling the role indicated by our concept of the Good, thought it is part of the point of my theory that such requirements do not completely determine what the deity would be like. If there is a God that satisfies these conditions imposed by our concepts, we might say, then excellence is the property of faithfully imaging such a God, or of resembling such a God in such a way as to give God a reason for loving. In worlds where no such God exists, nothing would have that property, and therefore nothing would be excellent. But beings like us in such a world might have a concept subjectively indistinguishable from our concept of excellence, and there might be an objective property that corresponded to it well enough, and in a sufficiently salient way, to be the property signified by it, though it would not be the property that we in fact signify by ‘excellent’.
— Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, p. 46.
(All italics are from the original; boldface is mine)

I’ve always respected Adams’ work on theistic metaethics and this highly nuanced passage is an example of why.
I could be wrong, but I interpret Adams to be saying:

(1) Atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism, IF realist/objective moral obligations are determined according to Adams’ theory of excellence and his modified divine command theory are true.

He does NOT seem to be saying:

(2) Atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism about moral obligations.

In fact, depending upon how you interpret it, the end of the quotation I just provided seems to be either (a) Adams, saying in his own words, that atheism is compatible with moral obligation, if his theory of moral obligation is wrong; or (b) the difference between what counts as morally right/wrong/permitted on his theory vs. some secular alternative makes no practical difference.
And I think that Adams rejects:

(3) Atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism about moral value.

I think that Adams rejects (3) because he defends a Modified Divine Command Theory of moral obligation (what is morally permitted, prohibited, or obligatory), but he subscribes to a Divine Independence Theory (my name) of moral value (what is morally good or bad).
In fact, now that I think about it, the statement:

(4) Atheism is logically incompatible with moral realism.

Entails both (2) and (3). Even if it were the case that atheism were logically incompatible with realism about moral obligation, it could still be the case that that atheism is logically consistent with realism about moral value. Because (4) doesn’t make a distinction between moral obligation and moral value, showing that atheism is logically compatible with moral value is, all by itself, sufficient to refute (4).
So maybe I was correct to list Robert Adams after all.


HAYS
‪Jeffery Jay Lowder‬ 

”It’s ironic that, in an exchange about the alleged superiority of theistic metaethics, Steve is rude to his dialectical opponents who are atheists.”
i) Suppose for the sake of argument that Jeff’s allegation is true. Keith Parsons, who’s a regular contributor to the Secular Outpost, routinely makes rude comments about Christians.
Likewise, the historical library and modern library at the Secular Web contains articles by atheists that make rude comments about Christians. So it’s instructive to see Jeff’s double standard on display (even assuming that his allegation is true).
ii) But this brings us to a substantive point: Jeff thinks that he is important. That his dignity is important.
This is one of Jeff’s intellectual problems. He’s never allowed himself to appreciate the reductionistic consequences of atheism for human significance.
If atheism is true, then Jeff is worthless. Everything is worthless.
Jeff is a temporary entity that came into existence for no good reason, that will soon pass out of existence. Jeff is interchangeable with billions of other human biological units. He will be replaced.
If atheism is true, Jeff’s existence has no intrinsic value. At best, it’s only subjectively valuable–the way some Nazis (alleged) valued Jews as as raw material for lamp shades.


LOWDER

‪i) Suppose for the sake of argument that Jeff’s allegation is true. Keith Parsons, who’s a regular contributor to the Secular Outpost, routinely makes rude comments about Christians.

You can’t be serious. You’re using the same excuse my children use, “But he did it, too!”, as if that makes it okay. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
I don’t remember off the top of my head Keith Parsons making sweeping generalizations about all Christians. But if I’m wrong about that and/or if he has been rude in some other way, then he was wrong to do so and I will condemn it.

Likewise, the historical library and modern library at the Secular Web contains articles by atheists that make rude comments about Christians. So it’s instructive to see Jeff’s double standard on display (even assuming that his allegation is true).

I tried very hard to prevent this from happening in the modern library at the Secular Web while I held a leadership position and I doubt very much that this happened while I was the editor. If it has happened, that is regrettable. I am even willing to try to bring any items in this category to the attention of Keith Augustine, who is the current editor, to try to get them fixed. But, again, this is mere deflection by Steve. This doesn’t excuse Steve’s rudeness.

ii) But this brings us to a substantive point: Jeff thinks that he is important. That his dignity is important.

This is just more deflection on Steve’s part. In effect, he’s saying, “I’m justified in being rude to atheists because atheists can’t justify condemning me for my rudeness.” Even if it were the case that an atheist could not justifying a complaint about being treated rudely, it would still be the case that, as a theist, Steve is a moral realist. But as we’ve seen, Steve has been unable to demonstrate a logical inconsistency between atheism and moral realism.

This is one of Jeff’s intellectual problems. He’s never allowed himself to appreciate the reductionistic consequences of atheism for human significance.

This is one of Steve’s intellectual problems. (See how easy it is to mirror Steve’s condescension right back at him?) He’s never been able to grasp the significance of the distinction between ‘cosmic’ or ‘ultimate’ significance and non-cosmic, non-ultimate significance, or the fact that “life has no ultimate significance” allows for “life has significance.” It’s a bit like complaining that winning one million dollars or even just one hundred dollars from the lottery has no value because the money won’t last as long as you would like.

If atheism is true, then Jeff is worthless. Everything is worthless.

If everything is worthless, then the fact that “everything is worthless” is itself worthless and we should pay no attention to it.

Jeff is a temporary entity that came into existence for no good reason, that will soon pass out of existence. Jeff is interchangeable with billions of other human biological units. He will be replaced.

Analogy:
If I win a finite amount of money from the lottery, that money will not last forever.
Therefore, it has no value.
That argument fails for the same reason Steve’s argument fails. A thing does not need to have an infinite amount of value–or value for an infinite duration–in order to have value.

If atheism is true, Jeff’s existence has no intrinsic value. At best, it’s only subjectively valuable–the way some Nazis (alleged) valued Jews as as raw material for lamp shades.

Although this statement begs the question, it doesn’t work. Steve, like many theists and atheists, has confused “intrinsic value” with “objective value.” But these are separate concepts. There are four possibilities:
(1) Objectively intrinsically valuable
(2) Objectively extrinsically valuable
(3) Subjectively intrinsically valuable
(4) Subjectively extrinsically valuable
(These four possibilities become eight if you add in the possibility of having disvalue.)
A better name for “intrinsic value” might be “non-derivative value” and a better name for “extrinsic value” might be “derivative value.” If I ask you, “Why do you like to go rowing?” and you answer, “Because I love the feeling of the scull breaking through the water when the boat is at a full sprint,” your answer reveals that, for you, rowing is extrinsically or derivatively valuable: it is valuable because it is a means to an end. If you then ask, “Why do you like the feeling of the scull breaking through the water when the boat is at a full sprint?” and you answer, “I just do,” then that feeling is intrinsically (non-derivatively) valuable to you: it is an end, not a means to an end.
The point is that, as soon as you make the distinction between intrinsic vs. extrinsic or derivative vs. non-derivative types of value, it is trivial to show that, even on the most reductionistic, materialistic versions of atheism, there can still be intrinsic (aka non-derivative) value.


In fairness to Steve, I’ll mention that, as of the time I wrote this blog post, he had written a couple of other replies to me I have not quoted here. I have not quoted them because I think they are either redundant or irrelevant, but interested parties can judge for themselves. See here and here.


In summary, Hays has been unable to justify his assertion that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible. As support for that claim, he referenced the statements and/or arguments of 10 alleged atheists. But, as summarized below, none of these alleged atheists, in the statements quoted by Steve, provide any support whatsoever for his claim.

  • 1 of the alleged atheists (Pardi) is a Christian philosopher. Furthermore, nothing Pardi wrote supports Hays’ claim of a logical incompatibility between atheism and moral realism.
  • Of the 9 actual atheists:
    • 7 of the 9 atheists made statements and/or presented arguments which were utterly irrelevant to the alleged logical incompatibility of atheism and moral realism:
      • 1 atheist (Sharon Street) argues that evolutionary naturalism provides a defeater for the belief that moral realism is true. (In other words, she is making a point about moral epistemology, not moral ontology. But Hays’ argument is ontological.)
      • 3 atheists (Owen Flannagan, Michael Ruse, and Alex Rosenberg) presented an evolutionary explanation for the origin of our belief in moral realism, but, unlike Street, did not claim it was a defeater for moral realism (for naturalists).
      • 1 atheist (Massimo Pigliucci ) presented an argument against moral realism that had nothing whatsoever to do with the alleged logical incompatibility of atheism and moral realism.
      • 1 atheist (John Maynard Smith) presented a pragmatic, epistemological argument against moral realism. Smith’s argument provided no support for Hays’ ontological claim.
      • 1 atheist (Quentin Smith) is a moral realist. The paper referenced by Steve provided no support whatsoever for the claim that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.
    • 2 of the 9 atheists which might be charitably interpreted as making an argument relevant to the alleged logical incompatibility of atheism and moral realism.
      • 1 atheist (Joel Marks) presented the discredited, “Laws Require a Lawgiver Argument.”
      • 1 atheist (Thomas Nagel) made the observation that naturalism is non-teleological. It was difficult to understand Nagel’s point without having additional context about the passage from which Hays quoted. But Hays’ quotation of Nagel did not contain an argument for the conclusion that the non-teleological nature of naturalism is logically incompatible with moral realism.

bookmark_borderMoral Arguments for God and Coining a Name for a Common but Fallacious Objection

In response to Wintery Knight’s recent blog post on the plausibility of objective morality on atheism, I posted a comment in the combox on his site. The comment consisted solely of a link to my YouTube video, “Naturalism, Theism, and Moral Ontology: A Reply to William Lane Craig.” In response to that link, WK wrote a response, which you can read on his blog. (I cannot figure out how to link to an individual comment on his blog or I would provide a direct link. In any case, I recommend you do read his comment and then come back to this post.) What follows is my follow-up reply to WK.
(Note: WK moderates the combox on his site and I just submitted my comment, so if you are unable to find this comment on his site when you look for it, that could just mean that WK hasn’t gone through the moderation queue for his blog. It doesn’t mean he has censored or blocked my comment.)
—–
Holy fallacious objection, Batman!
Let’s review the exchange so far:
1. WK claims that atheists cannot help themselves to objective morality. In support, he links to a YouTube video by WLC and then summarizes WLC’s three objections to what WLC calls ‘atheistic moral Platonism’:
(i) ‘The Unintelligibility of Atheistic Moral Platonism’
(ii) ‘Lack of Moral Obligation on Atheistic Moral Platonism’
(iii) ‘Improbability of Atheistic Moral Platonism’
2. JJL posts a link to his own YouTube video refuting WLC’s moral argument, including these three objections.
3. WK responds, not by directly engaging anything JJL actually said in his video, but by quoting something JJL wrote about same-sex marriage (SSM). I realize that the topic may be red meat on a Christian website with a primarily Christian audience — indeed, this may be an instance of the ‘poisoning the well’ fallacy — but it’s a logically fallacious response. And so, as interesting as the topic of SSM may be, I’m not going to take the bait. Instead, I’m going to focus on the plausibility of objective morality on atheism.
Indeed, JJL’s views on same-sex marriage are as irrelevant to the plausibility of ‘objective morality on atheism’ as atheistic objections to Biblical morality are irrelevant to WLC’s moral argument for theism. Both WK’s same-sex marriage objection (to JJL’s defense of objective morality on atheism) and the atheistic objection from alleged instances of Biblical immorality (to WLC’s moral argument) are instances of a type of objection which, to my knowledge, has never been given a formal name. I propose we call such objections this: “objections from undesirable normative ethical consequences.”
The problem with both theistic and atheistic objections from undesirable normative ethical consequences is that they confuse metaethics with normative ethics. As I explain in my Primer on Religion and Morality, (see here — skip down to page 7), metaethics is the study of the nature of status of normative ethical claims, beliefs, and theories. In contrast, normative ethics is the study of what is morally good or bad, what is morally right or wrong, what morally ought or ought not to be done, and so forth.
The upshot is this. Even if, for the sake of argument, the Bible did or does contain immoral divine commands, that would simply tell us that the Bible had or has the wrong normative ethics. That wouldn’t tell us anything about whether morality is objective or, if it is, whether it is a supernatural foundation.
Similarly, even if, for the sake of argument, JJL has the wrong views on same-sex marriage, that would simply tell us that JJL had or has the wrong normative ethics. That wouldn’t tell us anything about whether JJL’s objections to WLC’s argument are successful or, more broadly, whether objective morality is plausible on atheism.

bookmark_borderNaturalism, Theism, and Moral Ontology: A Reply to William Lane Craig

(Reposting since this seems to be so popular. So far as I am aware, neither WLC nor anyone else has responded to this.)
Abstract: This paper considers William Lane Craig’s metaethical argument for God’s existence. Roughly, the argument is that the existence of objective moral values provides strong evidence for God’s existence. I consider one by one Craig’s various reasons in support of the argument’s major premise, namely, that objective moral values and the nonexistence of God are at odds with each other. I show that Craig’s supporting arguments play fast and loose with the meaning of objectivity, and that they have no force whatsoever. I conclude that Craig’s argument does not succeed in showing that the existence of objective moral values, by itself, makes God’s existence more probable than not.

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bookmark_borderPreliminary Remarks Concerning Euthyphro-style Ojections to the Divine Command Theory

This post is meant to set the stage for a follow-up post in which I will argue that the Euthyphro Dilemma provides a definitive (or as close to definitive as we can reasonably expect to get) objection to divine command metaethics (even the modern so-called modified divine command theories associated with Robert Adams, Edward Wierenga, C. Stephen Evans and others). In this post I want to talk not about divine commands or love or metaethics, but rather supreme executive power, reasons, motives, and arbitrariness. We’ll start with this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvKIWjnEPNY

Upon learning how Arthur became King of the Britons, Dennis the constitutional peasant says, “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”
Dennis is here presenting a democratic theory of the basis of government. Presumably, he would be unmoved even if he were assured that the Lady of the Lake had perfect knowledge of any presumed candidate’s qualifications and only tossed swords to candidates that were well-qualified. After all, defenders of democracy recognize that their preferred system does not always result in the most qualified leadership. Their claim is, rather, that legitimate government is only that which is elected via popular referendum. So, from Dennis’ perspective, the Lady of the Lake’s choice is completely arbitrary with respect to the issue at hand. But notice that his concern is not that it is arbitrary because it is ungrounded in reasons; Dennis does not care whether she had reasons or what those reasons might be (more on this, including an important ambiguity involved in ‘reason’ below). The problem, from Dennis’ perspective, is that the feature of Authur Pendragon, in virtue of which he is King, namely that the Lady of the Lake threw Excalibur to him, is totally unrelated to the task he was chosen for, that is, being King. In that sense, the fact that he was the recipient of Excalibur is just an arbitrary reason to think that he deserves to be King.
A basis or ground of something can be arbitrary when the purported ground is completely unrelated to the thing for which it is supposed to be serving as the ground. Here is another example: Suppose that passengers on a damaged aircraft, which is running low on fuel, have determined that the plane stands a good chance of making it to a safe landing spot only if its weight is significantly reduced; and the only way to do that is for one of the passengers to jump from the plane. Since there are no volunteers, the passengers decide to draw straws to see who will have to jump. Bob draws the short straw. Given that Bob agreed to the procedure, he is now obligated to jump. But here’s the thing: Bob does not deserve to be sacrificed just in virtue of having drawn the short straw. Drawing the short straw is not the kind of thing that could make someone deserve to be sacrificed. It is an arbitrary reason to think that Bob deserves to die.
It is important to note that there may be a non-arbitrary method for deciding who deserves to die. But time is running out and given the difficulties involved in discovering a mutually agreed upon method, the passengers are better off just going with the arbitrary method of drawing straws. But that the method is expedient does not make it less arbitrary. In this case the ground–drawing the short straw–is not the kind of thing that could serve as the basis for the relevant feature; that is it cannot make it the case that a person should die. This is what makes the method arbitrary.
One more point: even if it is true that the Lady of the Lake (LoL) had reasons for her decision to throw the sword to Arthur, that does not mean that her decision was non-arbitrary. To see this we need only remind ourselves that ‘reason’ is ambiguous between ‘motive’ and ‘justifying reason.’ If, when we say that the LoL has reasons for choosing Arthur, what we mean is merely that she has motives for choosing him, then we are not saying that she has a justifying reason for her decision. She can have a motive that would render her decision arbitrary. Suppose, for example, that she is acting on a threat, the ghosts of Arthur’s deceased ancestors have threatened to reveal scandalous information about the LoL’s proclivities for hippo-love; or suppose she is personally smitten with Arthur’s considerable charms.  In such a case, while LoL has a motive to choose Arthur as King, she lacks a justifying reason. And (and this is very important) her decision is therefore arbitrary.
We will miss this point so long as we neglect the very significant distinction between motives and reasons. We use the word ‘reason’ to talk about both, but this obscures the following important difference: motives explain while reasons justify. One can therefore have a motive without having a reason (in the justifying sense). Therefore the fact that a decision was based on a motive does not make the decision non-arbitrary.
Stay tuned for my follow-up post in which I apply some of these lessons to the Euthyphro based objections to DCT.

bookmark_borderBiological vs. Philosophical Perspectives on Morality

(Redated post originally published on 18 October 2011)
(This is from my archives and is undated; I’m guessing I wrote this about a decade ago. I think it is still relevant, as evidenced by Jerry Coyne’s article about explaining morality.)
I recently updated one of the official FAQs for the *.atheism newsgroups. (For interested parties, I updated the “Atheist Media FAQ” at http://www.infidels.org/news/atheism/media.html.) In private email, I received the following suggestion relative to the “morality and religion” section of my bibliography:

“Good Natured”, by Frans de Waal. He extensively documents morals in non-human primates.

As someone who is focused on metaethics and normative ethics (as opposed to descriptive ethics), this suggestion seemed like an odd one to me. This suggestion reminded me how differently the word “moral” can be used in the philosophical community vs. the biological community. Without having read de Waal’s book, I suspect that what de Waal documents is that non-human primates exhibit certain social behaviors and perhaps even “customs” that promote the flourishing of the respective species. But what is the philosophical significance of “morals in non-human primates” in that sense? At the risk of sounding like some of theists I criticize, “Yes, non-human primates exhibit certain social behaviors that promote the flourishing of their species, but is it morally good?” It seems to me that the behavior exhibited by non-human primates is not even relevant to metaethical questions unless one has good prior reason to believe that ethical naturalism is true. Or, to be more precise, instead of saying “not even relevant to metaethical questions,” I should say, “not even relevant to moral ontology,” without implying anything about the other branches of metaethic