An argument against morality from determinism, part 1
There is an interesting argument against objective moral values that I heard from a guy I know. He said that whenever people act, their acts are the inevitable outcome of their motivations, and a person’s motivations are themselves the effects of things not under the control of the will, such as their neurological makeup, and social and environmental factors which contribute to our entire noetic structure. He argues that since this is the inescapable human condition, then we cannot have any moral obligations.
His argument seems to depend on the notion that “ought” implies “can.” In other words, the only way a person can have a moral obligation to do something is if they are able to do it. If they are not able to do it, then they can have no obligation to do it. Since our choices are determined by our motives, desires, and inclinations, then our choices aren’t free. We are not able to choose contrary to our motivations; therefore, we cannot be morally accountable for our actions.
This argument against morality strikes me as being self-refuting, because on the one hand, the conclusion is that there is no objective morality, but on the other hand, one of the premises in the argument is a moral principle. If there is no objective morality, then the premise is not true, and if the premise is not true, then the argument fails to show that there is no objective morality.
The intuition that “ought” implies “can” is a moral principle, because it defines fairness. It’s not fair to hold somebody accountable for something they could not help. Also, it tells us when we should require moral justification. We only require moral justification from people who are able to obey or disobey moral imperatives.
How do we know that the ought-implies-can principle is true? It can’t be proved. There is no empirical evidence for it. There are no premises which logically entail it. The principle can only be known by intuition. It is part of our moral intuition, because it informs us of when a person is blameworthy or praiseworthy. It informs us of when it is fair to hold somebody accountable for their actions.
Suppose, for example, that a man is thrown from a rooftop and lands on a woman and kills her. Our moral intuition tells us that the man has done nothing wrong, because though he resisted, he was not able to overcome the one who threw him off the rooftop, and having been thrown, he was not able to resist the force of gravity. Suppose, on the other hand, that the man was standing on the rooftop and freely chose to kill the woman by jumping off and landing on her. Since the man acted willfully, our moral intuitions tell us that he is blamable.
We would not be able to make this distinction if not for our moral intuitions, because it is a moral distinction. It is self-refuting, then, to rely on this distinction in order to argue against the existence of moral distinctions.