Saturday, December 15, 2007

Does widespread disagreement on morality mean that there are no objective morals or that nobody knows what they are?

In my last post, I quoted what a friend wrote to me recently. I'm about to post the bulk of my response, but lemme quote him again to remind you of what he said:
I think part of my skepticism on objective morality comes from seeing all the different variations and disagreement that people have on what constitutes it, and observing no real methodology for verifying whose claims are right and whose are wrong; it seems all people can do is just insist more strongly that their morality is the correct one.
Now this is what I said:

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I can certainly sympathize with nihilists or moral relativists, especially having toyed with the ideas myself when younger. I used to ask myself, "Does anything really matter?" Nothing matters unless there's somebody it matters to. So if nobody existed, then nothing would matter. Does it matter, then, that we exist at all? It seemed to me that life was completely meaningless, which I found to be a liberating idea. I don't think I was a completely full blow nihilist, though, because I didn't really think through all the consequences, especially in regard to morality.

But as I've said before, there are lots of things we assume we know but that can't be proved--memory knowledge, the trustworthiness of our physical senses, causation, you know, all the basic things Hume talked about. But although I can't prove any of these things, when I'm perfectly honest with myself, I don't really doubt these things either. I simply reflect inwardly and find myself believing.

The disagreements people have about morality do cause me to be skeptical that we perceive morality clearly, but they don't cause me to doubt that there is any morality to be perceived. And there are several reasons for that.

First, five people who all participated in the same event may disagree when they try to remember the details of the event later. That doesn't cause them to doubt the event happened. And it doesn't mean they can't get a general idea of what happened that's accurate. The same can be said about sensory perceptions. People are often mistaken about them. They experience hallucinations, mirages, dreams, etc. People often make mistakes in causal inferences. A common fallacy in logic is the fallacy of false cause, where a person sees A and B always happening together and falsly assume one is the cause of the other when, in reality, C is the cause of both. There are all kinds of examples of how our ordinary common sense perception of the world can be mistaken, but they don't cause us to doubt their general reliability.

Second, people have agreed far more than they have disagreed on morality. That's evident in the fact that cultural anthropologists (who usually subscribe to some form of relativism) have an explanation for the wide-spread agreement. They say the reason for the wide-spread agreement is that people have the same basic needs. We're all social animals, and there are certain morals that are more conducive to survival. Natural selection is what causes such wide-spread agreement on morals. Such an explanation wouldn't be necessary if it weren't true that people agreed far more than they disagree on morals.

Third, although people may disagree on the content of morality, everybody everywhere at all times have always demanded from others and expected from themselves to give a moral justification for their actions. It's universal. The idea of "justifying your actions," is what most (maybe all) morality is based on. So the idea of moral justification is natural and universal. It's built into us. It's just the way we are. One particular justification that seems to be universal is the idea that ought implies can. Everybody everywhere agrees that inability to act is a moral justification for not acting. A person can have no moral obligation to walk, for example, if they are physically incapable of walking.

Fourth, whenever we run into somebody who doesn't seem to make a distinction between right and wrong--who doesn't grasp the concept of moral justification--who doesn't see a difference between a brutal murder and a fun night of star-gazing--we consider those people to be mentally ill.

Fifth, a lot of what seem to be moral differences aren't really moral differences when you look more closely at them. The next time you run into somebody who seems to have a very different point of view than you do on some issue of morality, just ask them why they hold that position. Usually, for every "moral rule" we have, there's a reason we have it, and the reason is always some broader moral principle. When you ask people why they think certain things are right or wrong, you usually find out that they are working from principles you agree with. The reason they arrive at a different conclusion is either because they are working from different facts or their process of reasoning is different (and possibly flawed).

Sixth, when I look at moral debates, I don't see what you see. You said there's no way to resolve moral conflicts except for one person to express their view more strongly than the other. Instead, I see people reasoning with each other. One will say, "Such and such action violates such and such principle." The other person will say, "No, it doesn't violate that principle." So while they disagree on whether the action is moral or not, they're still working from the same moral principle, and there's room for debate. Abortion is a good example. Both sides agree that it is prima facie wrong to take the life of an innocent human being. They just disagree on whether the unborn are human beings or persons at all. (I'm speaking broadly here; I realize there are more nuanced arguments.) I even remember watching the video of Osama Bin Laden right after 9/11. Most people thought it was wrong because they killed innocent people without justification. But Osama kept saying over and over in that video, "They were not innocent. They were not innocent." Maybe he was wrong to say they were not innocent, but clearly the difference in morality didn't go as deep as one might think.

Monday, December 10, 2007

If theologians disagree, how can we know our interpretation is right?

I'm going to post some more of the message I sent to my friend. He said:
I think part of my skepticism on objective morality comes from seeing all the different variations and disagreement that people have on what constitutes it, and observing no real methodology for verifying whose claims are right and whose are wrong; it seems all people can do is just insist more strongly that their morality is the correct one.
I'm going to save the bulk of my response for the next blog entry. I separated this out because it's sort of a different subject. It was part of my response, though.

What I wrote here is about how I handled a problem that I've heard a lot of Christians complain about. I thought somebody might find it useful.

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I will admit, though, that broad disagreement sometimes does cause me to throw up my hands and say, "Nobody really knows." That's usually my first impression on subjects I haven't studied that much myself. I'm not saying you haven't studied morality that much, because I'm sure you have. I'm just talking about myself.

I remember when I first started getting interested in Christianity and theology. I looked at all the different denominations, and all the different interpretations of the Bible, and I thought it was hopeless for me to read the Bible and arrive at the truth--what it really means. I prayed that God would reveal the truth to me, but I didn't have any faith that God would answer that prayer because I figured most theologians had probably prayed the same thing, and yet they all disagreed with each other. Why should I be any different? The truth is, I experienced quite a bit of anxiety about it.

But the more I studied the Bible, the more I began to develope opinions that I thought were justified. I felt more strongly about some things than about other things, and there are still some things I have no opinion on. Since a lot of my views are based on what seem to me to be sound arguments, and those who disagree with me base their views on what seem to me to be bad arguments, I no longer have anxiety over the mere fact that a lot of people disagree. I readily admit that I could be wrong about some things, and I'm quite certain that I'm wrong on at least a few things, but I don't feel any anxiety about it just because there are what seem to me to be good reasons to think what I do.

I feel the same way about morality. While disagreements do sometimes cause me to be skeptical that anybody can really know the right thing to do in a situation, there are at least a few of what I think are clear case examples of moral wrong or moral right, and the mere fact that some people have disagreed with me doesn't shake my confidence in the least.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Good moral relativists and bad moral objectivists

A friend of mine who does not believe in objective moral values sent me a message today and said:
Btw... ever notice how the academics and philosophers who tout moral relativism are, for the most part, pretty harmless people? They might assert nihilistic ideas in published scholarship and in discussions, but in their actual behavior, most of them follow the same moral norms as the rest of us (going back to your idea that it's good that nihilists are inconsistent). Meanwhile, members of Muslim terrorist groups murder and torture civilians like it's going out of style, and they're all CERTAIN that an objective morality exists and that they are following the correct one.
He didn't seem to offer this as an argument against moral objectivism. I got the impression that he just found it ironic. But some people have used this observation as an argument against objective morals, so I wanted to post my response to it. This is what I said:
It is ironic that most moral relativists are fairly decent people, and that most terrorists are moral objectivists. But it's only ironic if you assume that moral objectivism is true. The reason is because only under moral objectivism can you say that relativists are "decent" and terrorists are "bad." It's only ironic if the way relativists typically live really is "good," and the way terrorists behave really is "bad."

Think about it. Suppose terrorist really think the way they behave is good, and the relativists are evil because they aren't joining in. They might just as well say, "Well this is exactly what we should expect. We moral objectists are good, but moral relativists are clearly shirking their duty, and they're bad." The only reason you and I see any irony is because we think the terrorists' morality is mistaken. But it can only be mistaken if there is a correct morality. And we both think the morality of the terrorists is mistaken, and the morality of most relativists is correct. That's why we both see irony. It's ironic that the relativists would be correct about morals, and the objectivists would be incorrect.
There was more about morality in those messages, so I might post some of that, too, since I haven't been blogging much and need something to keep this blog active.