Morality Posts – Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma is a question that can be traced back to one of Plato’s writings where Socrates and Euthyphro are talking about morality and the gods.  The dilemma can be summarized in simple terms as such:

Something can be defined as good one of 2 ways:

1. It is good because God declares it to be good.

2. It is good independent of God and God loves it and commands it because it is good.

The above 2 options (sometimes called “horns” of the dilemma) are called a dilemma because each option offers problems for the theist.  Let me start by saying that I believe that horn #2 poses less of a problem for theists.  The main consequence stated for option #2 is that there is no longer a need for God if moral truths exist independently of God.  Actually, to be fair, I believe it could be argued that there would still be other needs for the existence of a God (and those could be debated as well), but it is correct that the full force of the moral argument would be gone.  Remember that the whole point of the moral argument is that objective morals could not exist without God, and because it seems that there are objective morals therefore God must exist.  If a theist were to accept option #2 above then they would clearly have to dispense with that strong form of the moral argument (because option #2 admits objective morals do exist apart from God).  As I noted in my previous post, there are theists who believe that there are standards of goodness apart from God.  Some of these theists believe that all moral standards exist as truths apart from God and others believe that only some moral truths exist apart from God, but either way, they are running into the consequence of the second horn, and some readily admit to that.

Ok, so now option #1, usually called divine command theory.  The problem with this option is sometimes described as morality becoming “arbitrary” because it is solely based on the whims of whatever God chooses to declare as good, even if they do not line up with what the vast majority of humans believes is good.  Examples might be the best way to show how this could cause major difficulties.  1 Samuel 15:3 and 1 Timothy 2:12 are both passages which express commands which do not jive with what the vast majority of humans would agree is good (unless they are interpretively manipulated of course).  1 Samuel 15:3 is particularly bad because what is described is clearly genocide (slaughter of infants is even included in the command).

I personally believe that theists do have an underlying feeling that option #2 is really what is going on, but they don’t realize it.  This came out in a debate I had with one of my Christian friends when I told him I had decided I could no longer believe in the Christian message. My friend told me that the truth of Christianity was obvious, and that all one needed to do was examine the major faiths to see this. What do you think was the first religion he chose to prove was obviously false? Why it was Islam of course. Why? He said it was obvious because just look at Jihad and suicide bombers!  Now this friend of mine actually believed in option #1 of the dilemma above, but this is very inconsistent with the fact that he felt that he was able to judge the truth of religions by moral standards.  Because if divine command theory is true then we would have no way to judge any religion by the morals that it espouses.  Suicide bombing could actually be morally good if we believe that God can declare it to be good.

Louise Antony in her debate with William Lane Craig also hit on another very important observation – many theists try to re-interpret bible passages like the ones given above.  If theists truly believed in divine command theory then there would be no need for interpretive gymnastics, they would simply leave the passages the way they are and accept that what they describe are good because God has commanded them.  The simple fact that theists try to re-interpret them shows that there is some moral standard that they are using to judge what is written.

Now another popular apologist response to the dilemma is that there is no dilemma at all because there is a third option: God’s nature or character is what is good, and he can only command whatever lines up with his good nature.  This is hard to think through, but it really is just a bit of sleight of hand trickery in moving the problem somewhere else.  The dilemma and it’s consequences still stand and it simply has to be re-worded:

Something can be defined as good one of 2 ways:

1. It is good because it is consistent with God’s nature.

2. It is good independent of God and it is part of his nature because it is good.

Personally, if I were to be a theist, then I would believe in horn #2 simply because the consequences of the arbitrary nature of divine command theory are so very ugly. Goodness would lose it’s meaning for me if absolutely anything commanded by a god or gods can be defined as good.


Morality Posts – Part 3

At the end of part 2 of this series I briefly discussed Shelly Kagan’s view that moral laws objectively exist and are universally valid independent of human choices.  This view is called moral realism.  Louise Antony and Erik Wielenberg are other atheist promoters of this view.  You can easily find others by googling “atheist moral realism”.

I mention this partially in case some of my readers are interested in pursuing these ideas further, but also to go on to show why it defeats a part of the moral argument for the existence of God.

William Lane Craig uses this argument in many of his debates, and one of his main premises is that “If theism is false, we do not have a sound foundation for morality”.  He further states that given atheism, morality is just an illusion.  I am not arguing here whether or not morality is an illusion, however I am very convinced that his statement in quotes above is false.  Moral nihilism is a possibility under atheism, but it is not at all a logical necessity, and Kagan and other atheists have clearly shown that in their description of the possibility of moral laws simply existing in the universe much like the law of non-contradiction exists.  To me this is a very real possibility and I haven’t heard theists properly respond to this objection to the theist premise above.

I see no logical reason to prefer the theist’s divine command theory of morality over the atheistic view of moral truths simply existing in our universe.  The second belief does not require a god to exist, yet still believes objective moral truths exist.  It seems to me that both of these statements are faith statements, and I have seen it argued that the second is more simplistic and runs into less dilemmas than the first.  Simply given the fact that this atheistic view of morality states less than the theistic view lends credence to that claim.  Both views claim that objective moral truths exist, but the theistic view also claims the existence of an invisible conscious entity.  One could very properly argue that both of these views are not grounded in logical necessities, but I don’t see a reason why the god based view is any more plausible than the atheistic moral view, and in fact to me it is the other way around.  One theist objection is “how is it possible these abstract laws simply exist floating outside of a mind?”, but this is really no different from the question that we could ask theists: “how is it possible that an invisible conscious mind can exist outside of space and time?”  Both beliefs are transcendental to our human understanding so why is it that the theist has such a hard time with the idea of moral truths simply existing in our universe much like the laws of logic.

The strangest thing of all of this is that there is a growing number of theist philosophers (not sure of the percentage) who hold to the view that there actually are moral laws which exist outside of God.  I haven’t researched this fully, but it seems that what they claim is that some moral laws are true because they are commanded by God and some simply exist within our universe apart from him.  My understanding is that this view arose out of a response to the Euthyphro dilemma (which I hope to talk about in my next post), and Robert Merrihew Adams is a strong proponent of this view.  Richard Swinburne is also a proponent of this view, and interestingly enough Swinburne does not see the validity in the moral argument for the existence God.  My purpose here is not to appeal to authority but to have people realize that there are differing views regarding this among theists as well and it is certainly nowhere near as cut and dry as the debaters make it out to be (yes this could be applied to both sides).

Morality Posts – Part 2

In my last post there were some very thought provoking comments about the question of objective morality.  I want to delve a little deeper into this topic and also give some references to people in case they want to learn more.

First, I do believe that it would be correct to state that if we begin with some basic foundational statements (call them axioms if you will) about human goals (such as a better world for humanity, a more fulfilling life for everyone, etc.) then we can use objective methods of reason, scientific methods and facts about us and the world in order to come to conclusions of moral rules (those rules would fit by definition into the moral category).  Two popular proponents of this view are Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape), and Richard Carrier (Sense and Goodness Without God).  Harris’ book is on my future reading list and I am currently reading Carrier’s book.  You can find many youtube videos of them presenting their view (e.g. here and here).

I thought the questions in Carrier’s Q&A session in the above link were better than Harris’, and it is interesting to note that in the Q&A of Carrier’s video he stated that the word objective ends up causing a lot of confusion and he uses the term objective only in a similar sense as I’ve described above, as well as the term universal (implying there is one morality for everyone given all the similarities between people).

Furthermore, as noted in the comments of the previous post, ethical rules can get very complicated once you have to weigh opposing needs against each other.  One could argue that adding a few more foundational assumptions to our list could solve this and thus lead us to objectively conclude what is right in those scenarios.  Obviously those assumptions could all be argued to be subjective thus making all of our conclusions subjective by association.  In this case my opinion is that if the assumptions are universal enough then in a practical sense it doesn’t really matter too much to label them objective or subjective because the rules we come up with help us achieve our goals of a better place to live.

Another issue that can come up in this approach which hasn’t been mentioned is that the whole question of what makes more fulfilling lives for people seems to naturally lead to subjective conclusions.  For example, for me I feel very fulfilled and at peace when with a small group of family and friends surrounded by nature.  My wife however feels fulfilled and at peace when surrounded by a bustling metropolis with lots of different things to see and do.  I don’t believe either of us is wrong about the fact that those things bring us contentment, it’s just that we are wired differently.  This question comes up in the Q&A of the Carrier video (regarding differences in musical preferences), and his response is that morality is more universal than that, and what I believe he is saying is that there are rules we can conclude do apply to all humans and those would then fall under the umbrella of morality, and beyond that any conclusions would be subjective.  I can see however that the dividing line here would probably be fuzzy.  It is interesting to note that theists also deal with this problem as well, as can be seen in the proliferation of different religions as well as sects within religions.

I’d like to leave you with another very interesting approach that I heard in the debate between William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan.  You can see the entire debate here if you want (I believe it’s worth the time):

Kagan says a lot of interesting stuff in there, but I’d like to note a couple of things.  First, at about 18:40 in the video he notes the obvious fact that non-theistic philosophers have different approaches toward secular morality.  Clearly no difference from theists here.  Also, at 14:05 he describes an interesting approach to the theist objection that having moral requirements demands the existence of a “requirer”.  His response is that it could be that the laws of morality are analogous to the objective laws of reasoning such as the law of non-contradiction.  What he is saying is that just as there isn’t a logical necessity for there being an outside conscious entity for us to believe that the law of non-contradiction is objectively true, there also isn’t a logical necessity for there to be an outside entity for us to believe that moral laws are objectively true.  I haven’t thought through the details of this, but it does seem to me that denying the laws of logic would bring us much greater absurdity than denying the laws of morality, so the analogy could probably be broken down in that way.  For myself, I am agnostic regarding Kagan’s claim that there are moral laws that exist outside of humans, much as I am agnostic regarding the existence of a supernatural realm.

In the end though, for myself, I don’t believe this question of whether or not morality is truly objective ends up being a practical question.  Whether it is objective or not still does not change the passion that I have for following moral and humanist reasoning, and I believe there are good reasons to do so.  I am very happy that I am not the only one that feels this way.

In my next post I will try comparing theistic and atheistic approaches to morality.

The Morality Post(s)

So here’s the most popular morality question which is asked of atheists by religious believers – is morality objective?  Seems like a very simple question, but it turns out that the many different ways of interpreting the wording of the question makes this a very difficult question to have a precise answer to.  Am I dancing around the question?  You may think so, but what I am trying to do is be very clear because this question can be and is the cause of so many confusing debates that could leave your head spinning and feeling like you haven’t learned a thing. This often results in everyone simply continuing to believe what they originally did about this question.  I’m not going to say that I’m going to clear things up (chances are I won’t), but I’ll at least give it my best shot.

One important thing to realize here is that a lot of people (whether theist or not) have in their minds that morality is defined overall by some kind of golden rule statement or something like “do not harm people, but help them”.  So with this definition in mind when someone is asked “is it objectively immoral to kill children?” the very obvious answer is that of course it is objectively wrong to kill children, because it clearly falls under the category of “harming people”.  So if we begin with a certain definition of what morality is, then many things will objectively follow as being immoral from that definition.

However, we seem to be hit once again here with a problem very similar to the problem of infinite regress that I discussed in my post about foundational beliefs.  Here in the case of morality, if we end up breaking down our beliefs about moral questions until we get to the basic building block of “do not harm people” (or something similar to that), then we are still left with the question of “why not harm people?”.  A simple answer to this question is that since we all want to live lives of peace and contentment, it follows that we want to create an environment such that we can all come as close as possible to attaining that goal and thus not harming each other helps us achieve that.  Furthermore, for myself (and I’m sure this applies to others as well) seeing other people feel bad causes sadness within me.  We all know this as “empathy”, and whether this is a trait which has evolved in humans or it is something put there by supernatural beings is one of those big questions which for me simply has to be answered “I don’t know”.  But either way that doesn’t take away the fact that I have that feeling, and so for me it is yet another reason to want to follow humanist reasoning – whether a God exists or does not exist.

So it seems there are objective reasons that we can have for acting in ways that people would define as moral.  But there still can be questions raised here – the reasons for acting morally I’ve described above are simply reasons applied for the express purpose of achieving a goal (in this case the goal of peace, contentment and happiness for humanity). Many people are still uncomfortable with this answer, and while they might see the reasoning behind it, they would much rather have a belief that things are morally wrong not because they prevent humans from achieving goals, but simply because they are wrong outside of ourselves…. in other words there is something ultimate and outside of humanity that sets rules of right and wrong.  Without this they feel there can be no good reasons for being moral.  I don’t agree there are no good reasons, but I see why the reasons I’ve given above might leave people dissatisfied – they left me dissatisfied for many years and again this was one of the reasons I fought so hard to stay with the Christian worldview in my last year or so as a Christian.

So this last paragraph above is where I believe the crux of the question “is morality objective?” arises from when a theist asks this question.  I believe they are really asking “is there an ultimate conscious entity outside of humans that determines what is right and wrong?”  My answer to this question should not surprise you: “I do not know!”.  But if the answer is no it still does not change the fact that I feel very strongly and passionately about following moral and humanist reasoning as I’ve described in this post and the previous one.

Once again I’ve written way more than I thought I would.  I originally wanted this to be one post on morality, but there is more to come.

Secular Humanism

In all of my previous posts I’ve focussed more on my methods and approach to finding out what is true in the realm of reality.  I’ve used some labels for myself such as implicit atheist, weak agnostic, and possibilian.  I haven’t yet mentioned a much more important description of myself which describes what I believe about morality and how to treat other humans.

I am a secular humanist.  This doesn’t mean I believe in every precept of the secular humanist movement, but since I don’t claim belief in any supernatural entities I fit into the secular category, and because I believe very strongly in treating every person as having inherent worth and dignity I fit perfectly into the humanist category.

I recently read “Good Without God” by Greg Epstein, and while I may lean more to the agnostic side in my openness to the supernatural or transcendant possibilities of reality, whatever differences I felt I had with his description of secular humanism was very minor.  His book is a good introduction to the subject for the layperson.  He didn’t dive deep into the epistemology of morality (although he did touch on it a little bit) and he did seem to go off on a few tangents, but otherwise I thought the book was a good intro.

The subject of morality is an essential one for a blog like mine and I think my next post will be the morality post (or series) that I have wanted to write for a while.  I’ve been procrastinating because I feel like I have only touched the surface of this very important topic, but I’m going to jump in because it is so important.

The importance of this cannot be underscored enough for me.  As I’ve described before, my doubts about the truth of Christianity grew as time went along and for maybe a year or more before I decided I could no longer call myself a believer anymore I was fighting very hard to push my doubts away.  While I’m sure there were a lot of factors for why I did that, I know very clearly of 2 – one was the feeling that if I left my belief I would no longer have my moral compass, and would in fact have no moral compass at all.  The other was a concern for the loss of meaning or purpose in life.

One just needs to peruse the blogosphere of Religious/Atheist dialogues (if it could be called dialogue 😉 ) for just a short time to see that these 2 things are very important big questions in humanity’s search for truth.

So not only do I have plans to post some of my ideas about morality I also plan in the future to post my ideas about meaning and purpose in life.