Monday, February 16, 2009

Morality debate, part 1 of 11

Several years ago, I had a debate on a message board about morality. We had a moderator/judge and everything. I lost the debate, but I figured I'd post it anyway since I hardly ever post things, and you might find it interesting. I'll post my opening, wait a few days, then post Cheetah's opening, wait a few days, etc.

At the end of the debate, the moderator/judge made comments about each post before giving his results. Then Cheetah and I commented on his comments. I lost some of it because the thread was deleted before I could copy it all. But you should read Phil/Weirdbrake's comments at the end. Smart guy, even if he did say I was the loser! :-)

If it's seems choppy, it's because we had a short word limit. I don't remember what the word limit was, but every time I wrote one up, I ended up having to cut about half of it out to get within the word limit. Each time, the number of words I left were exactly at the limit.

Topic: Do objective moral values exist? Is morality subjective?

Weirdbrake: Moderator and judge <--Phil
Ephphatha: Arguing for moral objectivism <--Me..Sam
Cheetah: Arguing for cultural relativism <--I don't know her real name.

Ephphatha's openinng statement

It's fun to play devil's advocate by questioning our most fundamental assumptions about reality. We speculate with our friends on whether any of this is real. Maybe we're all dreaming. Maybe we're all parasites in a giant goat's stomach. We don't usually take these things seriously, though. They're just fun games we play.

Nothing is more practical than a debate over the nature of morality, because our sense of morality guides our daily lives. It determines whether we choose to live as a Hitler or a Gandhi, so we cannot afford to play games with ourselves when it comes to morality. We must be honest with ourselves in our search for truth.

In this debate, we want to know whether (1) objective moral values exist, or (2) Morality is subjective.

There are two kinds of statements. Objective statements refer to objects independent of the perceiver. The statement, “Carrots are vegetables,” is an objective claim because it's about the objects, carrots. An objective claim can be either true or false, but it has nothing to do with our beliefs about it. The earth was round even when everybody thought it was flat.

Subjective statements refer to the subject making the statement. The statement, “Carrots taste good,” is a subjective statement because the statement is about the tastes of the subject making the claim. It can be true for one person and false for another. One person thinks carrots taste good, and another thinks carrots taste bad. Neither is wrong because they're expressing their own subjective preferences.

Moral objectivists and subjectivists both make moral claims, but they each mean something different by them. When moral subjectivists say, “Rape is wrong,” they're not actually referring to rape. They're referring to their own feelings about rape. They find it objectionable. But there's nothing wrong about rape itself. One person approves of rape, and another condemns it, but there's no objective truth to the matter. Moral subjectivism is a form of moral non-realism because subjectivists believe that morality only exists in your mind.

When a moral objectivist says “Rape is wrong,” he's not talking about his personal preferences, but about the act of rape itself. He may like rape and still think it's wrong.

Most find rape objectionable. The question you should ask yourself is what you mean when you object to it. When you say, “Rape is wrong,” are you reporting autobiography—that you don't like rape? Are you just describing your personal preferences? Or are you talking about the act of rape itself? If you're talking about the act itself, then you're a moral objectivist.

Suppose somebody says, “Rape is virtuous.” Would you say, “Different stroke for different folks”? Or would you think that person was mistaken? If you think he's mistaken, then you're a moral objectivist. The only way to be mistaken is if there is some objective truth to the matter.

I aim to demonstrate that most of us believe in objective morality (even those who claim they don't), and then demonstrate that our belief is rational. Morality cannot be proved or disproved, so I'll argue that it's more reasonable to believe in morality than not to.

There are five reasons I think we all believe in morality:

First, we all judge others. Judging involves measuring others by some standard. If morals are merely subjective, then these standards don't actually apply to other people. The fact that we apply them to other people shows that we don't think our standards are merely subjective. We think they're objective, because they can only apply to other people if they're objective. We judge ourselves, too. Sometimes, we're proud of ourselves, and other times we're ashamed of ourselves.

Second, whenever we're accused of wrongdoing, we hardly ever defend ourselves by rejecting the reality of the standard we're being judged by. Instead, we make excuses. If our lying spared somebody pain, for example, we feel justified. That shows not only that we believe lying is wrong, but that we think it's right to avoid hurting others.

Third, moral reasoning is often difficult. It's hard to tell when avoiding grief in others justifies us in lying. Moral reasoning is only difficult if there's a correct answer, because then you have to go through the difficulty of discovering it. If there is no right answer, then decision making wouldn't be hard at all, because we can't go wrong.

Fourth, moral relativists are rarely consistent. They frequently assert moral values even while denying their existence. They say, “Everybody decides morality for themselves, so you shouldn't force your morality on others.” They're saying morality is relative to individuals while also saying it's wrong to push your morality on others. Within one sentence, they've contradicted themselves. Often the strong belief in the virtue of tolerance drives people to reject objective morality. They think it's wrong to judge other people and cultures. To avoid judging them, they say morality is relative, so nobody is better or worse than anybody else. They think tolerance is a real virtue that everybody ought to adopt. In Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch, Walsch records a supposed conversation between himself and God who continuously repeated that there is no right or wrong. However, as nihilistic as “God” seemed to be, she continuously made objective moral assertions. She had an impossible time being consistent with the view that there are no objective moral values. (See morality subheading.) Sociopaths are the only consistent moral relativists. The inconsistency of moral relativists doesn't show that they are wrong, but it does show that they don't actually believe what they claim.

Fifth, we find moral non-realism to be counter-intuitive. Here are some counter-intuitive implications of cultural relativism and individual subjectivism:

Cultural relativism:

No culture is better than any other culture. Nazi Germany was no worse or better than our own.

Laws cannot be immoral or unjust because the laws for any society would be moral by definition.

No society can improve morally. The abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement did not improve American society; it only changed it.

Moral reformers, such as Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and William Wilberforce, who led the abolitionist movement in the UK, were immoral because they went against the morals of their society and tried to change them. Contrary to being moral heroes, they were immoral villains because they went against the status quo.

Cultural relativism is self-refuting because it assumes a transcendent moral value that applies universally to all cultures—that you ought to act consistently with your culture's moral views.

Individual subjectivism:

You have no objective basis with which to criticize other people. Statements like, “Jim is a scoundrel,” reduce to “I don't like Jim.”

You can't accept praise or place blame. Since there's no good, bad, right or wrong, nobody deserves congratulations or criticism.

Nobody can improve their character since improvement implies an objective standard that one gets closer to as they improve.

Moral debate is meaningless since debating assumes that there's a right answer. Arguing over whose morality is correct is just as meaningless as arguing over whether or not broccoli tastes good.

Nobody is obligated to be tolerant of anybody else.

Some things seem so clearly wrong that to deny it seems crazy, yet that's what a moral non-realist must do. It's wrong to torture young children just for mere pleasure. But if we deny any objective moral values, then it isn't wrong at all.


We all perceive a world around us. There are two possible ways to understand our perceptions. Either they correspond to things that exist, or they're just illusions. Although both options are possible, our minds strongly prefer one option over the other. Our minds almost force us to believe the external world exists. If the external world doesn't exist, then our minds are deluding us.

It's the same with morality. We all perceive that there's a difference between right and wrong. There are two possible ways to understand our perceptions. Either they correspond to reality, or they're just illusions. Although both options are possible, our minds strongly prefer one option over the other. Our minds almost force us to believe in objective moral values. If there are no objective moral values, then our minds are deluding us.

Since the same cognitive faculties tell us both about the external world and about morality, if we doubt one, we must doubt the other. If objective moral values don't exist, then our cognitive faculties are faulty. And if they're faulty, then we can't trust them when they tell us that the external world exists. So doubting morality throws the external world into doubt.

Although it's possible that the external world is an illusion, it's not reasonable to believe. The only way it can be more reasonable to believe in the external world than not is if we assume our cognitive faculties aren't faulty. If we assume they aren't faulty, then it's also more reasonable to believe in objective moral values than to deny them.


Part 2


Paul said...

Good opening salvo. Nice broad coverage. I detect Koukl/Beckwith in there :)

Sam said...

There's a whole lot of Koukl/Beckwith in there, with a smidgen of Hadley Arkes, C.S. Lewis, and even Sabina Magliocco. Before the massive edit job I did on it, there was also a little J. Budziszewski. If you look carefully, there is also a little David Hume, William Sorely, and William Lane Craig. And, believe it or not, there is a little me in there.

Paul said...

Must be crowded in your head ;)