My debate with Steven Dillon on whether objective morality can exist without God continues on Strange Notions. On Wednesday, they posted my rebuttal to Steven’s opening statement, and today, they posted Steven’s rebuttal to my opening statement.
From my rebuttal:
Is Agony Intrinsically Evil?In my opening statement, I suggested that non-theistic moral systems cannot be the source of objective moral claims. In his opening statement, Steven proposed what he described as an “exceptionally good” candidate for a necessarily true moral proposition: that “agony is intrinsically bad.”He defines “agony” as “an intense and extreme amount of pain.” But instead of defining what it means to call agony “intrinsically bad,” he simply gives “some paradigmatic examples of bad things.” For example: “It’s bad when parents have to live their lives in worry and stress because of inopportunity and an unfair society.”So what does it mean to call agony “intrinsically bad,” exactly? Do we mean simply that agony is extremely unpleasant or, in some way, painful? If so, that seems tautological, like saying “extremely painful things are painful.” Besides being uninformative, that’s not even a moral claim. [….]Let’s consider an alternative interpretation of the proposition “agony is intrinsically bad.” Since Steven tells us that this is a moral proposition, he may mean that agony is a moral evil, never to be intentionally committed. If so, is that true?At first glance, it certainly seems like good advice. But is it morally evil to intentionally suffer? Put more concretely, do we consider it morally evil for a woman to intentionally get pregnant, given the pain of childbirth? Or what about the surgeon who performs an agonizing (but life-saving) operation? Are high-stress jobs immoral? If so, what makes these things evil? Again, we’re left hunting for some sort of objective and binding moral code or system.So, understood in either sense, then, “agony is intrinsically bad” fails as an objective moral claim. It’s either a non-moral tautology, or a false (and non-objective) moral claim.
The Problem of IntuitionismIn the last section, we saw that under either interpretation of the proposition “agony is intrinsically bad,” we were left looking for some sort of moral code or system. Instead, Steven advocates something akin to what the utilitarian R.M. Hare described as “pluralistic intuitionism”: namely, belief in “a plurality of moral principles, each established by intuition, and not related to one another in an ordered structure, but only weighed relatively to each other (also by intuition) when they conflict.” There are several problems with this pluralistic intuitionism.
First, it’s not an objective moral code. Intuitions differ. Steven takes it as self-evident that “Racism, animal cruelty, human trafficking, all of these things are bad.” For centuries, Europeans and white Americans assumed the opposite, at least about racism. As the Supreme Court noted in the notorious Dred Scott v. Sandford case:“They [racist colonial laws] show that a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery, and governed as subjects with absolute and despotic power, and which they then looked upon as so far below them in the scale of created beings, that intermarriages between white persons and negroes or mulattoes were regarded as unnatural and immoral, and punished as crimes, not only in the parties, but in the person who joined them in marriage. And no distinction in this respect was made between the free negro or mulatto and the slave, but this stigma, of the deepest degradation, was fixed upon the whole race.”So the ordinary American today views racial equality as self-evident and racism as a morally intuitive evil. The ordinary (white) American of yesteryear viewed racial inequality as self-evident, believing it immoral to treat black and white people as equals. Upon what basis can we say that their moral intuition and judgment was wrong? Our own intuition? Or something more substantive?Second, pluralistic intuitionism provides no basis for rational moral decision-making. Russ Shafer-Landau, as Steven notes, says, “It seems to me self-evident that, other things equal, it is wrong to take pleasure in another’s pain,” etc. In saying that it “seems to me” self-evident, Shafer-Landau seems to be conceding the subjectivity of intuitionism. But in saying “other things equal,” Shafer-Landau is revealing a second problem: what do we do when we have a clash of values?Moral reasoning is simple when all other things are equal. What makes it so vexing is that this is rarely the case. Often, moral reasoning involves apparently-competing values, like justice v. mercy, private property v. equitable distribution of goods, etc. If your moral code is a hodgepodge of unsorted feelings, you have no tools other than gut feeling to decide these questions. As Hare said, these values are “only weighed relatively to each other (also by intuition) when they conflict.”Third, all forms of intuitionism point to (and rely upon) God. Mind you, I don’t doubt that moral intuitions exist. But as we’ve seen, they’re incoherent without reference to God. If these really are objective and binding laws of human behavior, where is the law-giver? Given that these laws exist, why do they exist? Steven quotes Erik Wielenberg, who treats these laws as an effect without a cause:“Such facts are the foundation of (the rest of) objective morality and rest on no foundation themselves. To ask of such facts, “where do they come from?” or “on what foundation do they rest?” is misguided in much the way that, according to many theists, it is misguided to ask of God, “where does He come from?” or “on what foundation does He rest”? The answer is the same in both cases: They come from nowhere, and nothing external to themselves grounds their existence; rather, they are fundamental features of the universe that ground other truths.”This is not an answer. It’s a shrug of the shoulders and a “Just because.”That’s not the case in the Christian answer that God is uncaused. We argue that God mustexist, since you cannot just have an infinite series of conditional and created beings. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas’ Third Way proves the existence of a Being (who we call God) who must exist necessarily, and who relies only upon Himself for His Being. Without Him, there couldn’t be a universe. We don’t assumethat God must exist: we show that He must.Further, this conclusion makes sense. After all, God is Subsistent Being (ipsum esse subsistens). Being could no more not-be than non-being could be. Asking who caused the Uncaused Cause is contradictory, and it makes sense to say that a necessarily-existing Being necessarily exists.That’s quite different when we’re dealing with moral principles: there’s no apparent reason or explanation why we would assume that they’re uncaused (other than the alternative requires God).And asking who or what causes these truths isn’t contradictory. On the contrary, it’s a question that anyone who insists on the existence of objective morality should be able to answer. Do these various moral truths exist apart from us? Or did we bring them into existence somehow? It doesn’t make sense to simply assert the existence of myriad uncaused and unrelated moral truths, and claim that these are each necessarily-existing, particularly when no two intuitionist philosophers seem to agree on what these principles are.Asserting that there are random incommensurable moral rules is no basis for establishing morality as binding. The origin of these laws is “just because.” Why follow these authorless laws? Apparently, just because. Needless to say, that’s hardly a sufficient reason to justify changing one’s lifestyle or moral behavior.When we describe something as “pointless,” we mean that it doesn’t have a purpose.It’s only in relation to a purpose that we can say whether something succeeds or fails. The most common atheistic cosmology is that the universe is an objectively meaningless accident, and therefore, pointless. But if the entire universe is devoid of inherent meaning, how can we possibly find meaning inherent in our moral behavior (or misbehavior)?