Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Source of Morality

Darksyde writes:
Where do morals, principles, ethics, whatever term one wishes to use, originate from? Theists of course always credit their respective deity with the origin and basis of ethics. [...] I would tentatively suggest that religiously justified morality with regard to slavery, becomes relative to whose interpretation you consider the most plausible. And, unsurprisingly, those Christians who supported slavery tended to side with Davis, those who did not sided with the abolitionists. The same is true in other issues outside of slavery. QED: Relativism is the default position in all cases in which God refuses to enlighten us - which happens to be all modern cases incidentally. And morals are acquired via cultural interaction and child development, which strengthens the provisional conclusion that morality is relative.

I think DS may be guilty of conflating the foundation of moral truths with that of our moral beliefs. How we learn about something is an entirely different matter from what makes it true. After all, our beliefs about (say) astronomy are likewise picked up in a cultural context. People used to think the sun went round the Earth; we now believe differently. That surely doesn't make astronomy 'relative'. Some beliefs are just plain false. Like, say, the belief that slavery is morally okay. People used to think that, and we might be able to explain this by appealing to their cultural context (or whatever), but this doesn't make the belief any less false.

DS argues that the existence of conflicting interpretations implies that religion cannot provide an objective basis for morality. But really this only shows that religion cannot provide an objective method for resolving moral disputes. In other words, it can't guarantee that we know the objective moral truths. But this isn't a particularly damaging result; I don't think many theists claim themselves to be morally omniscient, do they?

Practical problems aside, then, the thorny theoretical issue is not how we come to have moral beliefs, but rather, what makes them true (or false). It is here - as 'truth-maker', not 'belief-maker' - that many theists appeal to God. But this then raises the famous Euthyphro dilemma, the ultimate refutation of authority-based ethics:

Is X good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? If the latter, then moral standards exist independently of God. But the former is just a variant of subjectivism - moral truths are fixed by whatever God happens to prefer. If he liked slavery, then that fact alone would make slavery 'good'. Such arbitrariness makes for a pretty unsatisfactory moral foundation. Besides, it makes a mockery of calling God "good" - for that is just to say that God does what he likes, which doesn't seem a particularly praiseworthy characteristic. More sophisticated accounts argue that morality derives from God's character rather than his commands; but I don't see how that variation fares any better. To assess God in any meaningful way, we must appeal to a standard that is independent of him.

To wrap up: I agree with DS that our moral beliefs, like all our other beliefs, are culturally acquired. However, this implies nothing about what makes them true. In particular, it does not - in itself - support moral relativism. Even once we know the source of our beliefs, we are still left wondering about the source of moral truth (and normative 'force' in general). I think religious explanations fail here, but for different reasons than those proposed by DS. The question of relativism will receive further attention in my next posts...

21 comments:

  1. I might simply mention that there is a difference between how we psychologically end up with a moral sense (i.e. conscience / superego) and what might be the best moral system should we choose to hold that moral should have a rational basis...

    -MP 

    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

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  2. Sorry, read the article again, had more to say :

    Who said that moral sentiments referred to any facts? This is not an uncontentious claim.

    What is the difference, in you, between your moral beliefs and your super-ego, if anything?

    What about false guilt?

    What about people who don't experience moral sentiments, like psychopaths?

    What is the "good" anyway - I no longer understand this term in light of my studies. Every time I learn about it, the more I learn it doesn't mean anything consistent.

    -MP 

    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

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  3. I think that you should read CS Lewis's book, mere christianty. In it does he a great job on explaning morallty.  

    Posted by Chase Whittemore

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  4. "More sophisticated accounts argue that morality derives from God's character rather than his commands; but I don't see how that variation fares any better. To assess God in any meaningful way, we must appeal to a standard that is independent of him."I'm disappointed with that reasoning Richard. It doesn't seem that there is much there. I should like to know exactly how a Divine Nature Theory poses the same problem as the Euthyphro Dilemma. I have a professor (Jan Narveson) who claims that the Euthyphro Dilemma is all that is needed to dismiss any conception of a deity at all. Unfortunatly, I think that is a rather simplistic view, I think you have more interesting things to say in your "What Purpose" entry.

    I was particularily struck by an argument in Alston's "Some Suggestions for Divine Command Theorists" in his Divine Nature and Human Language (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1989), pp. 253-73.

    In it, he argued that there essentially exists an infinite regress of an 'allegedly ultimate moral standard'. I think that there is some sort of standard by which moral beliefs are to be judged, because, as you pointed out, I think there is a fact of the matter about reality that sometimes does and sometimes does not corresspond to our beliefs about reality. Eventually, as I see it, we have to end up somewhere. And I see no problem with attributing the 'ultimate moral standard' to God's nature, like Alston suggests. It's not evading the question; it is providing an answer to the regress independant of the regress itself.  

    Posted by Peter

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  5. You say that the belief that slavery is morally ok is false - could you elaborate on how you have reached this conclusion?

    I guess I'm a moral relativist. My claim is just that I believe that slavery is wrong, and that I further find the thought of slavery so wrong that I would take steps to fight it. So it is subjectively wrong for me. Furthermore it is objectively wrong in the society I live in, which can be seen by reading the law of the land.

    I cannot claim that it is absolutely wrong, since I do not know of how a moral judgement could be an absolute truth.

    Cheers

    Soren 

    Posted by Soren K

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  6. "DS argues that the existence of conflicting interpretations implies that religion cannot provide an objective basis for morality."

    This is only part of the argument as it's usually stated, and I believe this partial formation is incorrect. Much better would be to say that the existence of conflicting interpretations--both of which are arrived at in the same manner, through faith--implies that faith (and thus revealed religion) cannot provide an objective basis for morality.

    You also write, "I don't think many theists claim themselves to be morally omniscient, do they?" But I think they do. It is a popular slogan in the United States that "the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." This might not be omniscience, but it's certainly infallibility, and there's just a short hop between them. 

    Posted by Jason Kuznicki

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  7. Some moral beliefs may be culturally acquired but not necessarily all. And the capacity to have moral beliefs certainly is not a cultural acquirement.

    I'm not sure how you can say that moral beliefs can be true or false in the sense that scientific statements can are. That is the essential difference between the world of morals and the world of facts. 

    Posted by sock thief

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  8. I have a bit of a problem with the acuistion in cultural context argument for morals How does the culture acquire morals,as it would beets in the supermarket? Presumably it then passes the morals and the beets on to individuals . The position indicatd by Richard and ds assume a blank slate human and would leave out all types of biological/genetic reasonings. Chomsky,who I haven't read,seems to be talking of hard wiring for speech. Would such hard wiring not leave the door open for moral concepts of a broad nature? Left to cultural explanations alone we would have to do some mighty "regressing" to find early or first causes. As to astronomy,perhaps it had something to do with the telescope,or absence therof. As to timing Heracleides and Aristarchus commented on heliocentric theories so they at least must have escaped the cultural juggernaut. 

    Posted by john t

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  14. Richard, my apologies for the multi-post,it wasn't intentional. 

    Posted by john t

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  15. I wrote a comment, but Blogger ate it. It's doing some particularly evil things today.

    Richard said: "DS argues that the existence of conflicting interpretations implies that religion cannot provide an objective basis for morality. But really this only shows that religion cannot provide an objective method for resolving moral disputes. In other words, it can't guarantee that we know the objective moral truths."

    Surely this isn't quite right? Conflict-of-interpretation objections have been around a long time, for all sorts of fields; and they don't really do much more than show that the issue at hand isn't perfectly self-evident. They are at most indirect measures of the difficulty of the issue, and don't really say anything about our knowledge or how we can guarantee our knowledge.

    Actually, I think DarkSyde's argument is quite right, at least to the extent that he is arguing that one cannot build morality entirely out of "God says so" unless you are divinely inspired in all your moral judgments; if you try to do so without such inspiration, you mire the whole thing in moral relativism. I don't think the argument is accurately characterizing what most people mean in making religion foundational for morals; but I certainly know a few people who would at least be in the ballpark.

    Now let's see if I can smuggle this post past Blogger's watchful comment-eating dragons. 

    Posted by Brandon

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  16. A quick clarification: a few people seem to be interpreting my statements about 'cultural context' in terms of the silly nature/nurture dichotomy. My remarks were not meant in any such way. Of course we have biological dispositions towards certain patterns of thought and belief. (Nobody believes in the 'blank slate' anymore, so please unstuff that old straw man.) My point was simply that our beliefs are greatly influenced by our experiences in life. That should be utterly uncontroversial.

    "the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it."

    *shudder*
    Okay, I may have underestimated the idiocy of many theists. I'm so glad to live in New Zealand... 

    Posted by Richard

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  17. 'What is the "good" anyway - I no longer understand this term in light of my studies. Every time I learn about it, the more I learn it doesn't mean anything consistent.'

    Yeah. We should just rape and pillage whenever we feel like it. Such is the value of study. 

    Posted by Jason Kuznicki

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  18. "Yeah. We should just rape and pillage whenever we feel like it. Such is the value of study. "

    Thus demonstrating your complete lack of understanding... Just because you have a concept of right and wrong doesn't mean that other people share your conceptions. Studying allows you to tell the difference between dogma and reasoning, bad argument and good, as well as see the various conceptions of good over time - and trust me they've changed.

    Take those words you put there out of my mouth.  

    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

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  19. Well, Tennessee, you were the one claiming that the good doesn't have any consistent meaning. Clearly you don't agree with that any longer, and I am pleased that you have recanted.

    I am certainly aware that others disagree with me about some points of right and wrong, and I certainly value study. But to claim that study will show us that "[the good] doesn't mean anything consistent" is frankly pernicious nonsense.
     

    Posted by Jason Kuznicki

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  20. Ascetain the validity that culture is the source of all morals.

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  21. Euthyphro overlooked Anselm's corollary, which defines God as "that than which no philosopher is actually outsmarting, even when that's what it looks like is happening." QED

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