This post continues my debate with the Christian blogger Anthony Freeland over whether moral values and duties are objective (independent of human opinion) or subjective (being reports of human opinion). See Anthony’s first post, my first reply, and then Anthony’s second post.
Was the Holocaust evil?
Anthony feels that I hadn’t properly answered his question: Was the Holocaust an act of evil? He also complains that “with subjective morality … nothing can be considered evil”.
It’s clear that Anthony and I interpret the word “evil” differently. I had considered that my statement: “most humans regard the Holocaust as among the vilest and most abhorrent crimes ever” answered the question. Yes, subjectively, most people feel the Holocaust to be evil. But Anthony is presumably asking something different.
So let’s turn to the Oxford English Dictionary. It gives the primary meaning of “evil” as (1) “profoundly immoral and wicked”. To me, morality is subjective and derives from human values and feelings. Someone regards something as “profoundly immoral” if they regard it as “vile and abhorrent”, and that’s why I gave my previous answer. Yes, most people regard the Holocaust as an act of great evil.
Another OED meaning (1.2) is “harmful or tending to harm”, but Anthony explicitly says that “I do not mean harmful”, so let’s discount that meaning.
Thus I presume that Anthony intended either the OED’s definition (1.1), that evil means “embodying or associated with the forces of the devil”, or that by “evil” he was intending something that was objectively immoral.
On the former, no, I do not consider the Holocaust to have been the work of the devil, since I don’t believe in any of the deities of the Christian pantheon.
On the latter, I repeat my previous stance that I don’t known what “objectively immoral” is even supposed to mean. To me morals are value judgements made by sentient beings, and thus by definition they are subjective. As before, I have no conception of what an “objective” moral scheme (one independent of opinion) would even mean. Being God’s opinion doesn’t really help, since that’s just the opinion of some other sentient being, and thus is equally subjective.
But, let’s return to Anthony’s complaint: “with subjective morality … nothing can be considered evil”. The one thing one can do in subjective morality is consider something to be “evil” or “profoundly immoral”. We humans all have opinions and feelings, and we’re generally keen on expressing them! Thus plenty of us do indeed consider things to be “evil” and say so.
The only thing we can’t do is appeal to a god or to an objective standard to back up our opinion. But nothing stops our opinion being sufficient on its own!
As I see it, a religious believer is also judging on their own subjective opinion, and is merely invoking a god constructed in their own image to add weight to their claim. The believer’s god’s opinion is nearly always a mirror of their own. Few people say: “I personally think gay marriage is fine, but God says no, so I guess we can’t have it”, and similarly hardly anyone says: “I abhor the idea of gay marriage, but God says it’s ok, so I guess I’d better accept it”. The god usually backs up whatever opinion the believer wants it to. In the same way, a boy squaring off with a rival might invoke an imaginary older brother to intimidate his opponent.
At this point, let me also say that I wouldn’t personally describe my view as being “moral relativism” (a phrase that Anthony uses about me several times). That phrase can mean several different things and can be misleading. For example a common definition is that “moral relativism is the view that moral judgements are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint”. Yet, I would say that any application of truth values to moral judgements is misconceived. Morals are a matter of how different people feel about how people treat each other.
For example, Anthony says: “But according to moral relativism, all that can determine right or wrong or good or evil is the consequences.” But that is “consequentialism”, which is not “relativism”. Consequentialism is a claim of objective morals, with the consequences being what determines objective right and wrong.
One of the big problems with arguing that morals are subjective is that people simply don’t understand the idea. That’s not aimed at Anthony in particular, but against humans in general, who are so used to their moral-realist intuition that they misinterpret what a subjective scheme of morals entails.
In a subjective scheme, morals are all about human feelings, values and opinions. Yet, that often gets interpreted as saying that humans are not allowed to have feelings, values and opinions!
For example, Anthony says:
If a man cheats on his wife with his own teenage daughter, according to Coel’s view, if they both think it’s ok then no evil has been committed. You see, there is nothing the Professor can say against the molestation of a little girl as long as they both think it’s ok.
Well no, there is plenty I can say! I can say that I consider the man’s actions to be harmful and that I want laws against such acts to deter them. Similarly, the man’s wife can also deprecate the man’s actions. So can anyone else. Just ask them! You’ll see that the idea that people can’t say anything on the matter is just wrong.
Ivan Karamazov said that, “If God is dead, then all is permissible.”
It is true that there is no supra-human authority to tell humans what is impermissible. But that does not mean that humans must permit everything! We can arrange human society as we see fit. If we consider something to be harmful based on our feelings, values and opinions, then we can prohibit it. Nothing stops us doing that. Indeed, that’s exactly what we humans do, collectively arranging society according to our feelings and values.
The Euthyphro Dilemma
Anthony next replies to my raising of the Euthyphro Dilemma. He gives the commonest theological reply, as done by Augustine, Aquinas and others. He objects that it is not simply the case that something is “good” because God commands it, he argues that something is “good” if it derives from God’s nature. He declares:
Something is good because it is in line with who God is. […] His commands are good out of necessity because they flow from His nature which is, by definition, good.
This completely fails to deflect the power of the dilemma. Yes, let’s grant that God issues commands that derive from his nature. That makes no difference to the dilemma, it merely re-phrases it:
Is God’s nature “good” because we have judged God’s nature against some supra-God standard and found it to be “good”? Or is it the case that, whatever God’s nature is, we label that “good”?
Well, Anthony is clear in going for the second of those, declaring that: “His nature … is, by definition, good”. At that point Anthony is thoroughly impaled on the second horn of the dilemma.
So, whatever God’s nature is, that nature is, by definition, “good”. So if God were a sadistic monster, then being a sadistic monster would be “good”. If God were the most hateful, vilest creature ever, then being hateful and vile would be “good”.
On what basis, then, would we decide between God and Satan? The term “good” here just means “whatever God’s nature has”, so doesn’t help to choose between the two. To do that you’d need to rank the two of them against some objective standard, independent of either God’s or Satan’s opinion or nature.
Of course what we actually do is decide between them based on human preference. Morality is, after all, all about human feelings and values. We choose love over hate, and so choose the deity associated with love over the one associated with hate (or, more accurately, we create a god embodying all the virtues that we like, and an anti-god embodying all the vices that we deprecate).
Later in his post, Anthony suggests:
I think that both the Professor and I will agree that … If God exists then objective moral values and duties exist.
Well, if we were to define “objective moral values” simply as “whatever God wants” or “whatever derives from God’s nature”, then I would agree. But I don’t accept that definition. I don’t see why “God’s opinion” or “God’s nature” is a better definition of “good” than “Satan’s opinion” or “Satan’s nature”. And if we’re just picking one of those two arbitrarily, then the system is hardly “objective”.
Anthony’s reply has been tried repeatedly since Augustine and Aquinas, but it simply doesn’t work. As I claimed, the force of the Euthyphro argument has not lessened in the 2400 years since Plato.
An argument from Anthony’s first post was that philosophers are the experts on morals, and that the majority of academic philosophers hold to moral realism. Anthony continues this line of attack:
Science cannot answer the origin of morality, the reasons that we have morality, or whether morality is objective or subjective. These are philosophical questions that the materialistic world cannot touch.
I simply disagree. The origin of morality is our evolutionary programming. We have been programmed with feelings about how humans interact with each other because that is a necessary part of living together in a social and cooperative way of life. Given that we have evolved to occupy a cooperative ecological niche (one in which we are more successful by cooperating communally, and sharing the proceeds, rather than by acting alone) we have been programmed with moral feelings as a social glue.
It follows from this explanation that morals are subjective (which means that they are human feelings, they are not about any supra-human standard of “morally correct” conduct). Note, also, that other social animals, such as chimpanzees, also clearly have moral feelings about how they interact with each other.
Let me end my rant about philosophy and science by posing a direct question to Prof. Hellier: If philosophers aren’t the “experts” on moral questions, then who is?
Scientists are. Our understanding of the above questions (“the origin of morality, the reasons that we have morality”) was first put forward by Charles Darwin in the Origin of Species, and then at greater length in Chapter 5 (“On the development of the intellectual and moral faculties during primeval and civilised times”) of The Descent of Man. That scientific understanding has been hugely developed since then. As Anthony quotes me saying, in science it is “taken for granted that human moral sentiments derive from evolutionary programming”.
On the difference between philosophy and science Anthony writes:
Philosophy is about using logic and reasoning to come to rational and coherent conclusions.
Yes, but so is science. Science uses logic and reasoning in addition to empirical evidence. Anthony’s tactic here is simply to assert that morality is outside the scope of science, but simply asserting it is not an argument.
Anthony notes that I base my understanding of human morality on evolution, but argues:
Until it’s shown to be true that macro-evolution is the best explanation for how we got here (and not because an evolutionist says so but because the evidence shows it to be true) then we have no reason to begin with an evolutionary “context.”
My reply is simply that is has been shown, and yes, shown overwhelmingly on copious evidence. That’s been known and accepted in science since at least the 1930s.
Yes, there are a small number of “scientists” who dispute that, but only very few who are actually working scientists of any note, and nearly all of whom are motivated by their religious convictions.
The problem is that much of the public still doesn’t understand evolution. As an example, Anthony totally misunderstands evolution when he says:
Animals adapt to their environment and their features change according to what they need. But that does not mean that one kind of animal can give birth to another kind of animal. This may seem like a misrepresentation of evolution, but the fact is that if macro-evolution is true then at some point in the past, one kind would have had to give birth to another kind (or one species give birth to another species …).
That’s the “tyranny of the discontinuous mind” (to use Richard Dawkins’s phrase), the human tendency to insist that something must be one thing or the other. Biology is not like that, it is a matter of gradual transitions.
Have a look at the image on the right. Can you read it? It starts:
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.
That is the poem Boewulf in Old English, English from a thousand years ago, and likely you’ll have a hard enough time pronouncing it, never mind understanding it. Thus it is effectively a different language, though it led to Modern English.
Does that mean that one generation were speaking Boewulf English, and then gave birth to a generation who spoke Modern English, which was so different that parents and children were unable to understand each other? Of course not!
What happened was that in every generation children were speaking the same language as their parents and grandparents. But each succeeding generation spoke it slightly differently from their parents, not nearly differently enough to make it a different language (all generations alive could understand each other, just like now), but over time the differences accumulated. And so the language drifted over time such that an English speaker today would not understand the language of the time of Boewulf.
The two ends of the gradual transition are mutually unintelligible, and thus are a different language, but in no generation did people switch to a different language from their parents.
Similarly, at no point in evolution do animals of one species give birth to offspring of a different species. Rather, they give birth to a new generation that is very slightly different (though not nearly different enough to be a different species). Then, over time, the differences add up. The two ends of the gradual transition are different enough to be different species. But at no generation did parents give birth to children of a different species.
Anthony quotes a blog that says about natural selection:
However, no matter how long this process goes on, it will not transform those deer into another species. The weak deer are eliminated, the strong survive, but, since no alteration in their genetic data takes place, no transformation of a species occurs. Despite the continuous processes of selection, deer continue to exist as deer.
The claim “no alteration in their genetic data” is simply wrong. There are changes to genes, called “mutations”, in every new child. Each of us has about 50 new mutations that were not in our parents’ genes. That, in itself, is pretty insignificant (similar to the minor changes between how children speak English and how their parents speak it), and yet, over time, those changes accumulate. Over time, by the combination of mutation and selection, our genomes change. Deer can evolve into something that is not a deer (just as English can evolve into something that is too different to be called the same language).
Indeed, Anthony’s quote goes on to say this:
Darwin, too, accepted this fact, stating that “Natural selection can do nothing until favourable individual differences or variations occur.” That is why neo-Darwinism had to add the mutation mechanism as a factor altering genetic information to the concept of natural selection.
Exactly. The novel variation in each new generation is a key part of Darwinian evolution.
Anthony also wants to attack “macro-evolution” in terms of the scientific method. One has to be careful about what one means by “scientific method”. Quite often people, usually non-scientists, try to codify and teach a simplified version of “the scientific method”. Rarely do these accounts bear much resemblance to the range of actual practises in science. When it comes down to it, science is pragmatic, judging on whatever evidence it can get its hands on, but not rejecting perfectly good evidence just because it doesn’t fit into a narrow and over-simplified scheme.
As I see it, macro-evolution fails in requirements 2 and 3. That is that macro-evolution is not falsifiable and is not repeatable (or observable).
On the former, “macro-evolution” (which I put in inverted commas since it is a creationists’ term, not really used by scientists) is indeed falsifiable. Darwinian evolution makes a vast array of predictions about how the fossil record would be. “Fossil rabbits in the pre-Cambrian” was Haldane’s oft-quoted answer to what would falsify the theory. Further, evolution predicts that the patterns now discernible in the genes of today’s creatures would agree with the patterns in the fossil record, and they do.
As for repeatability, that is not a requirement of the scientific method. No, really, it isn’t, despite what various claims might say. All historical sciences would be ruled out by that criterion. Events over geological time or over cosmological time cannot be repeated, and yet geology and cosmology are valid sciences. Repeatability is a good thing to have if it is practical, but science is pragmatic, and if repeatability isn’t practical then science does its best without it.
Anthony ends this section with:
If Coel expects us to take his view of moral relativism seriously then he is going to have to give good evidence for the foundation of his view; namely, macro-evolution.
The evidence is vastly too copious to fit in a blog post. But books such as Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” and Dawkins’s “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” are good starting points. It is fair to say that evolution is doubted only be those who either know little about it, or who have strong religious convictions that require them to reject evolution.
Am I being consistent?
Anthony’s last major argument is that people like me “take an objective approach to morality when it’s convenient”, and he says that reading my blog “it becomes abundantly clear that [I] believe that freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and tolerance are objectively good”.
Let me admit one part of Anthony’s claim. Since most people have been moral realists, our language is steeped in moral realism. Therefore, when writing about ethical issues, it is hard to avoid sounding as though you’re a moral realist. When discussing meta-ethics, as now, it’s easy enough to clarify what one means, but if we were discussing, say, equality legislation, such caveats and clarifications would just get in the way. The only way to write well is to use the normal language that everyone uses, and that can make one sound like a moral realist.
But, there is no inconsistency. It is equally easy to interpret such writing from the stance that morals are subjective. For example, Anthony writes:
If morality is merely relative then how can one say that anyone has a right to anything?
To people with my view, a human “right” is not something objective or granted by God; instead, a right derives from agreement among humans. We have a right to “free speech” or “religious freedom” because humans have collectively agreed to grant each other such rights. Documents such as the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights might specify lists of rights, but they do so as agreed by humans. The American Constitution outlines a Bill of Rights, but it does so on the authority of “We the People”.
Similarly, equality and non-discrimination legislation are collective agreements to set rules for how people treat each other. There is no need for rights to be “objective” for this concept to work.
When I argue that, say, religious tolerance is “good” I am simply presenting my opinion, arguing for the sort of society that I want to live in, and which I think would be best for humans. Again, there is no need for “goods” to be objective for this to work. Indeed, everyone influencing society by arguing for the sort of society they want is exactly how societies work.
The right of equality is not possible from a naturalistic worldview. Equality can only be a right if morals are objective.
But, again, the concept of “rights” as collective agreements works fine. For example, in many countries a worker has a “right” to a minimum wage, a set number of days holiday, and protection from unfair dismissal. Surely no-one would argue that these are anything other than collective agreements made by society? Surely, even someone who argues that morals are objective is not going to argue that the level of the minimum wage and number of days of holiday entitlement are “objective facts” set by God?
A second example is the UK concept of a public footpath over which the public has a “right of way”. Again, what is or is not a “right of way” is quite clearly an agreement among humans, not something drawn on a map by God.
Given [my] views, why should the religious and non-religious be treated equally? Why not bar atheist from holding public office like Sam Harris wants to do with theists? Why not make slaves out of the non-religious if that’s what society at large wants to do?
Quite simply, because it’s not the sort of society we want. The evidence is that such inequalities create tensions and strife that makes things worse for everyone. Further, in a society where such things were accepted, one might, in the future, find oneself on the receiving end. Accepting human rights protects oneself as much as others. The best way of securing those rights for ourselves is to secure them for everyone.
(By the way, I’m not sure that Sam Harris really does want to bar theists from public office, where did he say that?)
But if morality is subjective to one’s, or societies’, opinion then there is no reason why we shouldn’t.
There is no reason external to humans, no supra-human authority to direct us, that is true. However, the reason not to do those things is that we humans realise that it would be worse for us! We don’t want them.
Can we humans be trusted to make such judgements? To a large extent we can be proud of our record. Over the centuries we’ve undergone a gradual broadening and deepening of respect for fellow humans, and have granted each other more and more rights. Few of us would want to go back on that.
This process has also continued as Western society has become more secular. Thus the process is not dependent on belief in objective morals or in God. Places with the lowest levels of religious belief, such as Scandinavia, tend to have the highest quality of life and the highest levels of respect for fellow humans.
Of course humans have also behaved very badly at times. There is no supra-human authority that stops us doing that, and the evidence is that a societal belief in God doesn’t prevent that either. Indeed moral realism can be dangerous, since it can tell people that they ought to, for a higher cause, do what would otherwise be regarded as wrong.
The worst tyrants have tended to be ideologues who felt they had a Messianic duty to impose their warped ideology on society. Many armies have marched into battle claiming a moral mandate from their god, and many others have marched into battle claiming a moral mandate from some other absolutist ideology, such as communism.
Despite our flaws, most of us would judge that, overall, over time, we humans are making moral progress in the sense of producing societies that we regard as better. Placing our trust in our fellow humans is all we can do, and we have reason to be sufficiently optimistic about the outcome.