Tag Archive | "objective moral values"

The closest thing to objective moral values

[Continued from Do objective moral values exist?]

The Christian apologist William Lane Craig says that certain actions like rape and torture are not just socially unacceptable behavior but moral abominations. He also argues that the Holocaust would still be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them. And I agree with him on both counts. However, the term “moral abomination” does not necessarily mean objectively wrong since we have no way of finding out if our list of moral abominations would still be the same had we evolved in a different way, and I would also argue that we’re only able to make such judgment on the Holocaust precisely because we haven’t been exterminated or brainwashed by the Nazis and, more importantly, because evolution has “taught” us that genocide is not a very good way of perpetuating our species. The moral values that evolution has conditioned into our minds may not be objective since they cannot exist independently of our minds, but they are definitely more than just moral fads.

Not surprisingly, Craig expresses skepticism with evolution-based morality:

[T]here’s no good evidence that our perception of moral and aesthetic values has been programmed by evolution. Darwinists are extremely imaginative and creative in coming up with what are called “just so” stories in order to explain things via evolution for which there is no empirical evidence. Indeed, these stories are almost endlessly adaptable, so that they become almost irrefutable and, hence, unfalsifiable.

I admit that Craig has a good point, and I admire his skepticism. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to apply the same skepticism when it comes to the existence of objective moral values:

Why should I think that objective moral values exist rather than that evolution has made me believe in the illusion that there are objective moral values? Because I clearly apprehend objective moral values and have no good reason to deny what I clearly perceive.

This is the same answer we give to the sceptic who says, “How do you know you’re not just a body lying in the Matrix and that all that you see and experience is an illusory, virtual reality?” We have no way to get outside our five senses and prove that they’re veridical. Rather I clearly apprehend a world of people and trees and houses about me, and I have no good reason to doubt what I clearly perceive. Sure, it’s possible that I’m a body in the Matrix. But possibilities come cheap. The mere possibility provides no warrant for denying what I clearly grasp.

I think the key difference between moral values and the physical world lies not in the perception but in the applicability. The physical world applies to everyone and everything regardless of their sense capabilities and even whether they are sentient or not. For example, a blind zebra and a deaf bat will both hit a tree standing in their paths, and even the unconscious wind will have to blow around that tree. Lack of perception does not exempt anyone or anything from the reality of the physical world.

Moral values, however, apply only to the acts of those who are able to perceive moral values in the first place. Non-human animals do not commit murder when they kill other sentient beings, and even young children and mentally disabled adults are often excused from certain moral duties. It is only the mentally-fit humans who can perceive moral values, and it is only the mentally-fit humans to whom these values apply, making moral values doubly dependent on perception. How then, can we call such values objective with the same confidence that we say that the physical world is objective?

Now without objective moral values, what are we left with? It seems that no matter how we try to get some purchase for our morality, there is an is-ought gap we just can’t quite cross. Just what is it in life, or the flourishing of life, that makes us ought to act in certain ways?

Others are more qualified to answer that, so I’ll just try to approach it from the semantics angle, particularly with the word objective again, which happens to have another definition: undistorted by emotion or personal bias. In this context, objective moral values could mean something like the kind of morality Richard Dawkins says he wants: “thought-out, reasoned, argued, discussed, and based upon – you could almost say – intelligent design.” And I believe we have what is arguably the closest thing to objective moral values, and that is the objective reasoning of an evolved brain.

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Do objective moral values exist?

“If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist,” says an apologist. This will soon be followed by the contention that objective moral values do exist, leading to the inevitable conclusion that, well, God exists.

From my discussions with the resident theists in the FF Forum, I have come to understand moral values as the rightness/wrongness of certain human actions, while Collins English Dictionary defines objective as “existing independently of perception or an individual’s conceptions.”

The famous Christian apologist William Lane Craig defines it even more narrowly:

To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so. It is to say, for example, that Nazi anti-Semitism was morally wrong, even though the Nazis who carried out the Holocaust thought that it was good; and it would still be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them.

I think the fallacy of Craig’s argument lies in his use of the word objective. Craig says that objective moral values exist whether anyone believes them or not, and by anyone, that should include God, otherwise it would be special pleading. However, moral values themselves do not exist inherently with human actions; moral values exist only when someone judges the actions and establishes moral values on them. If moral values are established by God, they are only objective as far as man is concerned but they are actually subjective from the point of view of God.

And that’s why I don’t think it’s right to call the moral values allegedly established by God as objective moral values since they cannot exist independently of God’s perception or judgment. They should be called divine moral values instead, but I think I know why Craig would refuse to call them as such. That’s because his moral argument would turn into something like this:

1. If God does not exist, divine moral values do not exist

2. Divine moral values exist

3. Therefore, God exists

But the problem with the new Premise 2 is that it’s easier to refute than the original “objective moral values exist” because skeptics would then demand a list of moral values unmistakably coming from God, and I’m sure the Bible would fail miserably. (As for the existence of objective moral values, however, Craig doesn’t seem to offer much support apart from saying that the Holocaust would still be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and that we intuitively perceive certain acts like rape and torture to be wrong, but instead challenged skeptics that they could not prove that physical reality exists either and that even as one could only rely on his own sense perception to perceive reality, no one in his right mind would deny that objective reality exists, so it should follow that no one in his right mind would also deny that objective moral values exist even if he only had his own moral perception to rely on.)

I posted this objection on the FF Forum along with the Euthyphro dilemma (does God command something because it’s good or is something good because God commands it?) and got very interesting answers from our resident theists who call themselves Miguel and XIII. What they are practically saying is that God does not command the good nor likes the good but that God is the good, and being good, he cannot command something that is not good. I took the liberty of refining their argument to make it more relevant to objective moral values (Miguel and XIII, if you think I did not give justice to your views you may rebuke me at the comments section):

1. Objective moral values are moral values that exist whether anyone – including God – perceives them or not.

2. God is inherently good, so he cannot perceive something evil as good and vice-versa.

3. So even if moral values are directly dependent on God’s perception, such perception is not subjective because it is anchored on God’s goodness, which cannot be separated from him, and therefore the moral values established by God are ultimately grounded on his objective goodness.

While the conclusion seems logical, I’m going to try to refute Premise 2, that God cannot perceive something evil as good. In the Old Testament, God established extremely negative moral values on homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, and losing one’s virginity before marriage – and positive moral values on killing homosexualsSabbath workers and non-virgin brides. And in both the Old and New Testaments, God/Jesus never established a negative moral value on slavery but actually condoned it. So in order to honestly say that “God is the good,” one would have to agree with the above moral values established by God.

Otherwise, the moral argument will be gored by the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma (something is good because God commands it, making the good arbitrary), refuting the premise that if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist, because objective moral values are supposed to exist even if everyone – including God – does not agree with them. And that’s why I believe that not only do objective moral values not exist but the term “objective moral values” itself is an oxymoron, because moral values will always be subjective to the mind (whether man’s or God’s) that perceives them.

[Continued on The closest thing to objective moral values]

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