The CARM rejection of subjective morality

I’ve been pointed by a reader to a critique of the idea that morality is subjective written by the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry. CARM is the website of Matt Slick, a conservative Christian who believes in the infallibility and literal intent of the Bible, and thus, for example, in the literal existence of Adam and Eve.

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What struck me about Slick’s arguments against morality being subjective is that he doesn’t really address whether it is true that morality is subjective, he discusses whether he wants it to be the case that morality is subjective. He then sort of assumes that what he wants to be the case must then be the case.

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This is, of course, a hallmark of Christian apologetics, but is also symptomatic of those arguing for objective morality more generally. Having discussed the matter with many people, the main objection to the idea that morality is subjective is simply dislike of the idea or its consequences, coupled with an intuitive insistence that there must be some way in which we can regard morality as objective.

Slick argues:

But, we can justify our absolute morals that apply to all people; they [moral subjectivists] can’t. The Christians absolute morals are rooted in the character of God, not the subjective preferences of individual.

Of course rooting morals in the subjective preferences of the Christian god is just as subjective as rooting them in the preferences of Fred Blogs from Little Rock, Arkansas. Slick gives no reason why God (as opposed to anyone else) gets to be the one whose opinion counts. “Might makes right” is not an argument. And it doesn’t get you around Euthyphro: if a God were a sadistic monster who enjoyed torturing children for the fun of it, then — according to Slick’s account — torturing children would be the objectively moral thing to do.

Slick then gives six reasons for rejecting subjective morality:

1. Without absolute morals, nothing is really right or wrong

By “really” right or wrong, he means objectively right or wrong independently of anyone’s opinion. And he’s entirely right. But all he’s done is restate what morality being subjective means. He’s given no actual argument against moral subjectivity or non-cognitivism (the idea that moral claims do not have truth values). He is, it seems, assuming an implicit: “… and because this conflicts with my intuition and because I don’t like that idea therefore it is untrue”.

2. Moral values are assigned [by] individuals who often contradict each other

Again, he is entirely right. Again, though, this does not constitute any sort of argument against morality being subjective. People so often just misunderstand subjective morality. They are so intuitively wedded to the idea that moral claims have objective truth values that they then get all baffled as to how one gets objective morality and objective moral truth values out of subjective morality. The answer is of course, that one can’t, and the quest is misconceived. But Slick asks:

It would be a problem to determine what actually is right and wrong when morals are subjective and people disagree all the time

Yep! And that’s because there is no such thing and because the very phrase “what actually is morally right and wrong” has no meaning, it being the delusion of a preference that is objective and independent of anyone doing the preferring.

Furthermore, if people were to appeal to something “just being wrong”, then they are not appealing to the subjective preferences but to a standard outside of themselves. This would be inconsistent with the idea of subjective morality …

Again, that’s entirely correct! And yet none of this is an argument against non-cognitivism being the truth about morality. Slick is just giving his emotional reaction to the idea and rejecting it for that reason.

3. If moral values are subjective, there can be no moral absolutes

Yes indeed Mr Slick, well spotted! Slick is just re-stating the same thing again and again.

4. Moral subjectivity would work only in a world where people are nice

By “work” Slick presumably means “… lead to a world in which everyone was nice”. Again, indeed so! Slick correctly points out that only in a world where everyone was nice would everyone be nice. Subjective morality will indeed not automatically produce such a world. But, you know what, we don’t live in such a world! In asserting that morality is subjective, I’m trying to state the truth about how things actually are, not dreaming of a Utopia about how we’d like things to be.

5. History condemns moral relativism

Slick makes the usual apologetic claim that subjective morality leads to mass murder, pointing to Stalin, Mao and Hitler. But, he’s simply wrong. Hitler, for one, believed in an objective morality ordained by God, just as Slick does. It was precisely because he believed that objective moral standards ordained by God mandated the removal of Jews from society that he decided to kill them. After declaring that the Aryan race were the “highest image of God among His creatures”, Hitler stated in Mein Kampf that the state had: “a very high mission indeed to preserve and encourage the highest type of humanity which a beneficent Creator has bestowed on this earth”. Thus he declared that: “In opposing the Jew I am doing God’s will”.

Similarly, Stalin and Mao believed that they had an overriding moral duty to impose their system on society. It is the person who believes in objective morality, who considers that he has an absolute moral mandate, regardless of what other humans think, who is dangerous. A person who considers that morality is subjective, and that his moral opinions are his own individual moral opinions, and that he does not have objective or Divine backing to impose them on others, is much less dangerous.

Finally, Slick argues against the idea that:

6. Morals are based on reducing Harm

Slick says that:

… when reducing harm is the standard all that people have to adhere to, then the moral relativist is appealing to a universal moral standard. But that means they are appealing to something outside of themselves which contradicts their subjective morality.

Again, I agree, but there he is arguing against the objective system of utilitarianism. Many atheists, recoiling intuitively from the idea that morals are subjective, do indeed attempt to construct an objective utilitarian morality (Sam Harris is a prominent example). I consider all such attempts to be misconceived, and suggest that morality makes much more sense once we accept that it really is subjective. Thus morality is often about reducing harm simply because that’s the sort of society most of us want to live in.

There really are no problems at all associated with subjective morality — Slick has not pointed to a single one, other than his intuitive rejection of the idea.
Yes, one cannot start from subjective morality and then map it onto an Absolute Shouldness Scale, but that’s because the very request is a misconceived mashing together of subjectivism and objectivism. Many of Slick’s comments are actually entirely correct, but are in no way arguments against morality being subjective.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics made easy

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is one of the few scientific laws that has attained a status in wider culture, even featuring in rock tracks by Muse. Famously, C.P. Snow cited an understanding of the 2nd Law as something that every educated person should have.

The 2nd Law is often stated in technical language that makes its meaning hard to understand, but the basic principles are actually readily grasped. I was recently challenged to explain the 2nd Law at the level of a bright 13-year-old, and so here is my attempt. Continue reading

Can we please distinguish between speech and actions?

The distinction between speech and action matters. Shouting fire in a crowded theatre endangers people’s safety and so is not just speech but also an “action” that can rightfully be outlawed. In contrast, showing contempt by burning the US flag or a copy of the Quran is “speech” and so should not be outlawed. The act of burning an item of your own property is lawful, and the added contemptuous attitude amounts to speech. This is highlighted by the fact that the method of disposal of old flags recommended by the US military is … burning them, though respectfully. Likewise some Islamic authorities recommend burning as the method of disposal of old copies of the Quran that are no longer fit for reading.

Those in favour of free speech generally hold that any speech that stops short of incitement to violence, or otherwise putting people in direct physical danger, should be lawful and accepted. Those against free speech think otherwise. But they don’t want to admit to being against free speech; few people do. So they label those in favour of free speech as “free speech absolutists”, and begin their arguments with: “I am fully in favour of free speech, but …”. From there they muddy the water by trying to negate the distinction between speech and action. Continue reading

On Stephen Law on Scientism

scientism It’s good to see philosophers taking scientism seriously, and not just using the term as a bogey word. Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry are editing a forthcoming volume on scientism (Total Science, University of Chicago Press) and some of the essays are appearing on the internet.

I’ll discuss here the draft chapter by Stephen Law (Heythrop College, University of London) who writes, discussing the proper scope of science:

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As a philosopher, you might expect me both to want to carve out some intellectual territory for philosophers to occupy, and also to resist the thought that philosophical questions and problems are either non-questions and non-problems or else questions that will be answered and problems that will be solved, if at all, through an application of the scientific method. I won’t disappoint. However, while I acknowledge that there are limits to science, I will argue these limits typically offer little comfort to religious, New Age, and other folk looking for ways to immunize their beliefs against scientific refutation.

As that last sentence suggests, science has been so successful in generating knowledge that it can be threatening to other beliefs. Do other belief systems have an independent validity, in domains of knowledge that are simply not the business of science, or can a scientific approach prevail in all domains? As Law says, the desire to limit science often originates from a desire to indulge beliefs that derive from wishful thinking, without feeling any need to supply science-grade evidence to back them up.

Law discusses Stephen Gould’s proposal of “non-overlapping magesteria” of knowledge, of which science would be only one. In contrast, scientism is the wholesale rejection of NOMA and the declaration that knowledge is a unified whole, and that the basic ways of finding things out that we refer to as “science” apply universally.

Let’s also be clear that scientism is not the claim that science can answer all questions, it’s the claim that there are no independent “ways of knowing” that can answer questions that science cannot. It is easy to think of questions that are meaningful but which we will never be able to answer (I’ve previously given some examples, including: What did Julius Caesar eat on the day three days before his eighth birthday, and did he stroke a dog on that day?).

Law is sympathetic to much of scientism and I won’t address the many parts of his chapter with which I agree. I’ll focus only on two areas where Law dissents from scientism: Continue reading

Telling science from pseudoscience and the demarcation problem

demarcPhilosophers of Science have long puzzled over what they call “the” demarcation problem, of how to distinguish science from pseudoscience. In the early 20th Century the Logical Positivists proposed the verification principle, that a statement was meaningful and scientific only if it could be empirically verified. Karl Popper then proposed a similar idea, that a scientific idea is one that can be falsified.

There is a lot of truth in both proposals, but neither can be interpreted too narrowly. The problem is that no statement can be verified or falsified in isolation. Science constructs whole webs of ideas, and it is the whole construct that is then compared to empirical data, to be adjusted and improved as necessary. Further, a statement such as Newton’s law of gravity can never be verified in the general sense, all we can say is that it worked well enough — as part of the wider web of ideas — in the particular instance we tested. Nor is it straightforward to falsify such a law. If our overall model is inconsistent with an observation then we could indeed alter one of the laws; but we might also overcome the inconsistency by altering some other part of the overall model; or we might doubt the reliability of the observations. Continue reading

Lamenting the reburial of ancient bones

In 2015 ISIS captured the ancient city of Palmyra and proceeded to destroy ancient ruins that they regarded as pagan or polytheistic. The World Heritage Site monuments were typically 2000 years old. Did ISIS have a right to destroy them? Most of us would say no, and would lament the loss of a heritage that cannot be replaced.

In saying that we are being culture-ist. That is, we are placing the values of our culture above those of ISIS, who, after all, would regard their acts as virtuous and as mandated by the highest authority, namely their religion. I readily plead guilty to be unapologetically culturist.

This comparison might be considered inappropriate, but in Nature this week I read about a 12,600-yr-old skeleton, the “Anzick Child”, that had been passed to Native American groups for reburial. The article lists 12 other skeletons, all older than 8000 yrs, that have either been reburied or might be. Reburial here effectively means their permanent loss, since they would decay relatively quickly under normal burial conditions.

As a scientist I am saddened by the loss of irreplaceable material that could tell us much about the past history of humans. I would regard such remains as part of the common heritage of us all and am unhappy about one group destroying them in the same way that I am unhappy about a group taking it upon itself to destroy Palmyra or the Bamiyan Buddha statues. This is obviously very culturist of me, but then I’ve already pleaded guilty. Continue reading

What the Muslim Council of Britain unfortunately did not say about Louis Smith

Statement (unfortunately not) by the Muslim Council of Britain regarding the Louis Smith video and the resulting ban by British Gymnastics. (Link to BBC account)

As Muslims we greatly appreciate the freedom to practice and voice our religion in a country that has not traditionally been Islamic. Such freedoms can only exist in a country where people can dissent from, and indeed criticise, other people’s beliefs, political views and religions. We recognise that, from Swift’s A Modest Proposal to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Britain has a long tradition of satire and mockery that examines and holds to account both political and religious beliefs.

We maintain that truth has nothing to fear from examination, and that only falsehood and error seek the protection of censorship. Holding our religion to be the highest truth, we declare that it is far beyond being damaged by satire or mockery. We declare our truths to the world, openly inviting people to examine them for error. Critics please speak up, since we are confident that we can more than meet any challenge. If you want to mock us, go ahead! Continue reading