Wednesday, August 09, 2006

How different moral theories lead to the same conclusion about homosexuality

I went for a walk in the miserable heat to get a Dr. Pepper at the gas station, and on the way I got to thinking about something. A lot of people out there say that there's nothing wrong with homosexuality. Their claim is a statement about morality. It expresses a moral point of view. But not everybody who makes the claim makes it from within the same moral theory. As I was walking, I speculated on how people who hold to different moral theories might arrive at the same moral conclusion about homosexuality. They all arrive at the same conclusion, but they get there for different reasons.

First, there are people who believe in objective moral values. They believe certain things are either right or wrong regardless of how an individual or culture feels about it. These people say that although there are things that are objectively wrong, homosexuality isn't one of them.

I don't think it's possible for there to be any objective right or wrong unless there's a God. That's why I avoid secular arguments against homosexuality. For example, the teleological argument against homosexuality doesn't seem to work without assuming there's a God. The teleological argument basically says, "Hey, look at his body. Now look at her body. Obviously they were made for each other. They were not made for the same sex." The whole idea of being "made for" implies that somebody had a purpose in it. If there's no somebody with moral authority who has a purpose in it, then all we can say is that our body parts are more useful in some functions than in others, but we can't say that we truly ought, in the moral sense, to limit them to their more useful function. If a person agrees that God is necessary for morality, yet homosexuality is okay, then they seriously need to deal with the teleological argument against homosexuality.

Not everybody thinks God is necessary for objective moral values, though. Louis Pojman is one example. Since I don't see how it's possible to have objective moral values without a God, I'm not sure what to say to people who take this point of view and say there's nothing wrong with homosexuality. I mean if I assumed their theory for the sake argument, I could say, "Yeah, I don't see anything wrong with homosexuality either. But then again, I don't see anything wrong with anything at all." I suppose a lot of these people, instead of beginning with some foundation for morality in general, will begin instead with some generally agreed upon moral premise, such as If it harms, it's wrong, and if it doesn't harm, it's okay. (I'm not going to go into why I disagree with that premise because it's not relevent to the point I'm making.) Once they find some generally agreed upon moral principle, they could show how the principle, when taken to its logical conclusion, leads to their opinion that there's nothing wrong with homosexuality. You could respond either by taking issue with the premise they began with, or you could respond by showing some mistake in their reasoning from the premise to their conclusion.

Second, there are people who subscribe to cultural relativism. The general concensus of a culture determins what's right and wrong. These people say that morality is relative to each culture, and is valid within that culture, and they say that homosexuality is not wrong within our culture.

I think it would be very hard for a cultural relativist argue for the morality of homosexuality from within their moral theory. It's not possible for the majority of people in a culture to have one moral value while their culture as a whole has an opposing moral value. If there were ten people who made up a culture, and nine of them thought X was wrong, it's not possible for that culture as a whole (or generally) to think X is okay. The only way, then, for a cultural relativist to argue for the morality of homosexuality is to show somehow that the general concensus of our culture feels the same way. They'd have to consult polls or something. I don't think it would be enough to show that 51% are on their side either.

Third, there are individual moral subjectivists. They are like the relativists except that instead of basing morality on cultural consensus, they base it on each individual. Each individual decides for himself whether homosexuality is right or wrong.

There's no point in moral subjectivists making statements to other people about the morality of anything. If they say homosexuality is okay, all that means is that they personally approve of it. But who cares what they personally approve of or disapprove of if it has nothing whatsoever to do with me? Under their theory, I don't gain or lose moral obligations because of somebody else's moral values. There's no point in arguing morality with a subjectivist, because that would be just as silly as arguing over whether or not Cheerios taste good. It's a matter of personal preference. Some people are okay with it, and some aren't.

Fourth, there are nihilists. You could argue that anybody who rejects objective moral values is a nihilists because they are all moral non-realists. They don't believe there are any real moral obligations. There are only useful fictions, or personal feelings.

When a nihilist says there's nothing wrong with homosexuality, it can be taken with a grain of salt. After all, in their theory, there's nothing wrong with anything at all. There's nothing wrong with mother stabbing and father raping. Everything is okay in their theory. Even gay bashing is okay. It's not good, but it's not bad either.

There are other moral theories, of course, but it wasn't that long of a walk, so I didn't get into them.


At 8/13/2006 6:48 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

It is interesting to reflect that there are those who would argue against and those who would argue for homosexuality being ok, from each of the moral positions you mention. Does this imply that our philosophical position has little or no influence on our applied ethics? Cases where there is a strong and specific prohibition on homosexuality within the context of an explicit link to a theological position is perhaps an exception, as for example in evangelical Christianity. On the other hand perhaps the linkage is still not absolute as one can take a broadly evangelical Christian position and yet disagree on the interpretation that condemns homosexuality. Hence the existence of the Evangelical Fellowship for Lesbian and Gay Christians.
It is tempting then to wonder what effect, if any, the underlying philosophy has on applied ethics. I wonder whether it serves as a post rationalisation of our moral intuitions. This is one of the reasons why I am sceptical about the effectiveness of God as a guarantor of objective moral truth.

At 8/14/2006 5:46 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Psiomniac, before I say anything about whether moral theories have any relevence for applied ethics, I just want to quibble with one small detail in your post. You said, "It is interesting to reflect that there are those who would argue against and those who would argue for homosexuality being ok, from each of the moral positions you mention." I don't see how a nihilist could argue that homosexuality is morally wrong from a nihilist point of view.

As far as applied ethics go, I think that in most cases you're right. Regardless of the wide range of moral theories people operate from, they still seem to generally agree on their moral conclusions. The interesting question for me is Why? You said, "I wonder whether it serves as a post rationalisation of our moral intuitions." Here, I think you're right, though I wouldn't use the word "rationalization." That word implies dishonest grounds and hidden motives. I think moral theories are usually an honest attempt at explaining human morality.

Moral theories in ethics are like models in science. In science, you come up with a model that best explains all the evidence and is able to make accurate predictions. Sometimes, you have to upgrade the models, because as more information comes in, there may be less the model is able to account for. Moral theories attempt to explain why we have our moral intuitions, why people behave the way they do, why there are differences in moral opinions, and what we ought to do, or whether there's anything we ought to do.

Have you ever noticed that we always test our moral theories by our moral intuitions? Take utilitarianism for example. Let's say the moral thing to do in any situation is whatever produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Well, in most cases, this formula results in a moral conclusion that resonates with our moral intuitions. But when people try to refute utilitarianism, they do it by coming up with counter-examples. For example, it might be in the best interest of most people to kill an innocent person. Yet it seems manifestly wrong to kill an innocent person, even if it does result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The interesting thing about this sort of approach is that it shows we put more faith in our moral intuitions than we do in our moral theories. Otherwise, how could we ever know that something is a counter-example in the first place?

Even the Divine Command Theory (DCT) is subjected to the moral intuition test. To refute the DCT, people try to come up with counter-examples. When arguing with Christians, non-Christians will show that the God of the Bible sometimes commands things like genocide, which are clearly immoral. But how do we know they're immoral apart from divine command? Our moral intuitions tell us! Another way to come up with a counter-example to the DCT is to offer hypotheticals. If morality is merely a product of God's commands, then God could've commanded anything, and it would've been moral. He could've commanded mother stabbing and father raping, and it would've been moral. Since those obviously can't be moral, then morality cannot come from God's commands. But how do we know they can't be moral? We only know it because of our moral intuitions.

I said above that in most cases I think you're right. Since moral theories generally try to produce results consistent with our moral intuitions, and our moral intuitions are fairly common, then any moral theory that's going to be at all viable should produce the same results as every other viable moral theory. But obviously, there are exceptions, and they have ramifications for applied ethics.

The best example of how moral theories are relevent for applied ethics is when it comes to cross-cultural judgments. Let's compare moral objectivists to moral relativists, and let's say there are two cultures who live in perfect isolation from each other. One thinks all humans have equal value and worth, and they think it's wrong for anybody to oppress other people just because they are of a different race, gender, social class, or whatever. The other culture, on the other hand, thinks that blue-eyed people are inferior, and that's it's okay to enslave them, beat them, and even to eat them when they are no longer able to perform manual labor.

Now let's suppose the first society is made up of moral relativists. While the first society may look with disgust at the second society, they recognize that there are no moral values that transcend both societies. There is no outside standard by which to judge the other society. So really, there's no moral reason to interfere with their way of life. Since morals are only valid within a cultural context, one culture's moral simply don't apply to the other culture. While the first culture may say it's wrong for any of their neighbors to enslave, beat, and eat each other, they see nothing wrong with people doing that in another society.

Now let's suppose the first society is made up of moral objectivists. Now the first society doesn't just think the other society is gross; rather, they think the other society is wrong. In this case, it's very conceivable that the first society might feel justified in going to war against the other society in order to protect the people who are being enslaved, beaten, and eaten. They wouldn't feel like they were imposing their own personal preferences on other people. Rather, they would feel like they were imosing moral standards on a culture who is in clear violation of them.

That's just one example of how moral theories can have ramification for applied ethics. It would be easy to come up with all kinds of examples, so I think moral theories do matter. But why don't they matter more? Above, I said it's because in general, different moral theories still produce the same moral conclusions. But I think there's another reason why different moral theories don't result in bigger difference in applied ethics. I think it's because people don't always live consistently with their moral theories.

Subjectivists are the best example. Many of them are only subjectivists when it comes to justifying their own behavior. But they are objectivists when it comes to other people's behavior. In their case, I do suspect bad motives. What motivates many subjectivists is a desire for personal autonomy and freedom from guilt and judgment.

Of course people often attribute bad motives to objectivists, too. They say the motive of objectivists is to oppress and control other people. (I don't know on what basis a subjectivist would object to such a thing.) To an extent, I suppose that's true. I'm an objectivist, and I'd like very much to impose my beliefs about the immorality of theft and murder on everybody else. I'm thankful that through the civil authorities, we can impose morals on other people. I'm glad we're able to opress and control mother stabbers and father rapers. I'm also glad that an objective moral law gives me some bases for freedom from opression, too. Not even the civil government can make something right or wrong by making it legal or illegal. There is a moral law that is above the civil law, and it determines whether the civil law is just or not. When the civil law is opressive, I have a higher law to appeal to. I have a basis for changing the law.

Well, I had more to say, but this has already gotten much too long.

At 8/15/2006 12:29 PM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...


I commend you for being one of the few Christians I have encountered who realizes that moral questions are ultimately decided by moral intuition.

However, you go on to say that you shouldn't care about the opinions of moral subjectivists. This is false. We care what people think even when we think their moral claims are philosophically flawed. The moral opinions of an objectivist are no more convincing to you than those of the subjectivist if you reject the axioms of the objectivist's system. (Osama bin Laden is an objectivist.)

Moral persuasion is an appeal to the moral values of another person. If we share the same axioms, we already agree (we're just exchanging deductive proofs). However, most of the time, we don't share the same moral axioms. In that case, we have to appeal to moral intuitions, or to values held more dearly by the other party.

For example, I might convince you that we should ban ownership of certain weapons based on the demonstrated consequences of such ownership. In that case, I appeal to your desire to avoid unnecessary suffering to overwhelm your desire to allow people ownership of any weapon they wish. If I am a bank robber, and you are bank security, you can persuade me not to rob your bank by making your security look intimidating, thereby appealing to my desire for life and freedom to overwhelm my desire for bank robbery. And so on.

So, it is false to claim that moral subjectivists have no persuasive power. If that were true, then no one who disagreed with us would ever have any persuasive power. For example, Christians would have no persuasive power over subjectivists.

So, how are moral questions resolved when our axioms disagree? By social discourse, politics, and, when we're unfortunate, war.

Finally, I again commend you for noting the authoritarian tendencies of objectivists. We all make decisions based on our moral feelings. The objectivists just have less compunction about imposing their views on consenting adults who disagree with them. I wrote about this here.

At 8/16/2006 6:35 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

You said:
I don't see how a nihilist could argue that homosexuality is morally wrong from a nihilist point of view.

I don't think your quibble is a valid one. I said arguments are made from each of the moral positions you mentioned. I suspect that the reason you don't see how a nihilist could make a case is that by definition nihilism rejects the idea of moral value. Therefore nihilism is not so much a moral position as a lack of one.

I wouldn't use the word "rationalization." That word implies dishonest grounds and hidden motives
I did not intend a pejorative use of the term. It is more like composing a chord sequence intuitively and then figuring out why it works according to the rules of harmony.

I agree with the rest of what you said about ethical theories, their likeness to scientific models and the primacy of moral intuition.

I also agree with most of the rest of your post but wonder whether people with a moral intuition to intervene will choose an objectivist ethical theory and the intuitively 'live and let live' types find themselves to be moral relativists. In other words, although I agree with the correlations that you have set out, I am not sure that you have really nailed the direction of the causality.
I also agree with Dr Logic's point about moral relativists. Suppose we see our ethical theories as like the design and crewing method of ships. This is heavily influenced by our culture but it does not follow that all the different designs and crewing methods are equally good at getting about on the seas. Now, if we meet a ship from another culture and we say ours is a human invention but they say theirs is divinely inspired, what are we to say? Oh no, ours has no objective basis so even though it is faster and more efficient than theirs, we had better abandon it or accept that ours was divinely inspired after all? No of course not.
Oh, one last thing:
...mother stabbing and father raping...
Is this morally worse than father stabbing and mother raping?
Only kidding!

At 8/20/2006 12:09 AM , Blogger Glenda, saved by grace said...

I go to church in Tyler at grace baptist church, I was just wondering where do you go?

At 8/20/2006 12:20 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Hi Glenda. I go to Grace Community Church in Tyler.

psiomniac & Dr. Logic, sorry I haven't responded yet. I haven't really had time. I'll say something eventually, though.

At 8/21/2006 10:22 AM , Blogger Glenda, saved by grace said...

Grace community , and your a calvinist??? I have some friends that go there and they are must be starving! LOL
In His grace!

At 8/21/2006 7:57 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Dr. Logic, I know of a few other Christians who think our knowledge of morality comes primarily through intuition. C.S. Lewis argues from moral intuition in Mere Christianity. Greg Koukl and Frank Beckwith argue that morals are known by intuition in Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-air. J. Budziszewski argues that morals are known by intuition in Written on the Heart, What We Can't Not Know, and The Revenge of Conscience. The point I made about the fact that we always test our moral theories by our moral intuitions comes from J. Budziszewski's article, "The Revenge of Conscience."

You're right that I would care about the opinions of a moral subjectivist. I would care for practical reasons since I would still have to live with the subjectivist. What I meant in my argument was that assuming the subjectivist point of view, there's no objective truth about morals, so there's nothing to argue about concerning morals. It would be factually incorrect to say my moral point of view is right and his is wrong, since morals would be a matter of personal preference.

Now of course I agree that we may still have motive to change the other person's mind since we have to live with them. We may want them to adopt our point of view. And since we have motive, we also have tactics. One tactic, as you pointed out, would be to appeal to some moral value the other person already holds to and try to show them that the logical conclusion of their own moral principle demands that they change their mind on the issue we want to pursuade them about. Another method might just be to argue pragmatically that it would be in their interest to behave some other way or to hold to some other point of view.

At 8/21/2006 8:43 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

psiomniac, concerning whether nihilism is a moral point of view or not, I don't think we disagree on anything except our characterization, so I'll leave it at that.

Concerning your comments about Dr. Logic, I get the impression you're arguing pragmatism. If so, then I agree. Even if we all agreed that there are no objective moral values, or even cultural values we're obligated to follow, and morality is merely a matter of personal preference, there are still practical considerations. Some moral viewpoints serve our interests better than others.

I got the "mother stabbing and father raping" thing from "Alice's Restaurant" by Arlo Guthrie. :-)

At 8/21/2006 8:44 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Glenda, I'm not the only Calvinist at Grace. I've met a couple of others. We're definitely in the minority, though!

At 8/21/2006 8:49 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

Well, it is nice to agree once in a while.

At 8/21/2006 10:57 PM , Blogger Glenda, saved by grace said...

You should drive on out old J'ville about 1 1/2 miles to Grace baptist on the left, next to horaneys... or go here to listen to a sermon:
In His grip!

At 8/21/2006 11:26 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

I may have to check that out. It has an interesting doctrinal statement. It has four of the points of Calvinism, but it says they are not reformed.

At 8/22/2006 12:33 AM , Blogger Glenda, saved by grace said...

We are 5 pointers!!!! My pastor can explain the not reformed thing. We're not reformed because the reformers came out of the catholic church... But we totally believe in the doctrines of grace. When you hear my pastor preach, you'll know what youve been missing!

At 8/27/2006 9:34 PM , Blogger checkitontheinside said...

This has nothing to do with this but I just wanted to tell you I had a blog on blogger too. Btw, This is scott from the A-team blog. I have updated it with all the info on my reasearch. the only thing I need to do is to post a link for an mp3 of the show I was on.

At 8/27/2006 10:45 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Howdy Scott. Thanks for stopping by.

At 8/28/2006 6:01 PM , Blogger Paul said...

To all: I heartily recommend the books (and article) that Sam mentions above. They are all not only philosophically strong, but happen to be easy and enjoyable reads.


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