Monday, August 6, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Objective Morality Debate

The debate over whether or not objective moral values exist—i.e., over whether it is absolutely right or wrong (for humans, at least) to do certain things, instead of this rightness or wrongness being somewhat or completely subjective/relative—has been going on for so long that one has to begin wondering about the persons involved on either side. It should not be so hard, after all, to determine whether or not these values at least likely exist; at very least, over two millennia of debating over these values ought to have got us somewhere more productive. Clearly, however, it is not clear whether or not these values exist, if these debates are still going so strong. And it would appear that we are left with some rather disquieting options: firstly, that these values do not exist, but that some of us would very much like them to, and this cognitive dissonance leads us at times to conclusions further-fetched than any dog’s Frisbee; or, secondly, that these values do exist, and some of us simply do not want to admit it, since admitting it would put some of us in an awkward position of ascertaining why these values exist and whether or not they truly are the non-independent product of evolution.
            I do not like either of these positions, and so I propose a third way.
            I do not know if objective moral values exist, firstly, but—so as to not be in a simple agnostic position—I propose that they probably do not. This is not a claim of said values absolutely not existing, nor is it evidence that I believe they do; it is simply an honest conclusion based on not being able to know that they absolutely do and informed additionally by many observations: the presence of many individuals throughout history who have not shown clear familiarity with these supposed values (primarily those who show some kind of disorder or psychopathy, such as serial killers); the existence of practices throughout history by large societies that appear to directly violate these values (the extraordinary daily mass-murder carried out by the Aztecs of thousands of people so as to make the sun rise each day; the slave trades that have existed throughout history, including the transatlantic trade, the so-called Islamic or Turkish trade, the systems of the Romans and certain Africans prior to the beginning of the transatlantic trade, etc.); and the fact that the idea that we primates on our little planet amidst the vastness of the universe would be given objective moral values (a claim that seems utterly out of proportion with the size of the universe—even just with our planet, considering we can only reside on a fraction of it. We are duped, constantly, into thinking ourselves the biggest and baddest things on the planet, if not in all the cosmos, when we owe our existence to, among much else, microbes whose population inside and on one human alone [trillions, literally] alone far outnumbers the population of humans worldwide. And what of Michael Ruse's scenario in "Is Rape Wrong on Andromeda," in which we find that it is possible that aliens on another world may be so different from us that "rape" may not be wrong to them--i.e., that our moral values are inherently grounded in our biology and thus that moral values become modified in the minds of differently designed intelligent creatures?).
Ruse, when not pondering alien rape.
If these values likely do not exist, there must be some non-objective reason(s), then, why our species has not died out already (indeed, why it has ballooned perhaps beyond a point clearly sustainable by the Earth, unless we learn to tap the planet’s less obvious resources). I think there are such reasons. It does not seem a leap to me to claim that it is possible to see that certain acts, such as not killing certain persons, as “good” and “useful” but without actually calling them “moral.” What I mean here by these terms is that an act can be beneficial to me and to someone else, by extension to a group associated with me and a group associated with the other person, and by our ability to understand this mutual interest and the pleasure perhaps afforded each of us by doing it, we can come to see that this situation is “good” and “useful” for us. But this is so simple a notion that it is easy to see how it can apply to a range of acts and practices.
            Basically: if there are probably no objective values, it is still possible, given the common humanity of humans across the world (i.e., the possession of human attributes), to see how we can come together to create systems of how one should act in a variety of situations so as to not cause unnecessary suffering or so as to promote well-being because those two things can often be beneficial to both individuals and groups associated with individuals. At the same time, the fact that these systems sometimes appear rather differently in different societies suggests that morality is not likely objective, but, rather, that these basic practices involving self- and mutual interest can evolve, via the construction of more complex civilizations (that may contain members of groups radically different from our own), into systems of morality such as we see in many legal systems today. (Or, there are many peaks on the moral landscape, à la Sam Harris, who I think is mostly correct in his book of the same name.)
In such civilizations, it is clear that random murder may simply cause problems for said society, such as creating a bad perception in the eyes of other civilizations that might trade with or otherwise help them, as well as potentially creating situations of minor or significant chaos within the civilization in which said random murder occurred. In other words, order and the veneer of respect, even when the interests I mentioned earlier may be in conflict between individuals, become more necessary in a more complex civilization so that it will not fall apart—and it is critical to note that not all members of said society will want to comply with the law not to kill, but may nonetheless do so out of fear or the apparent necessity to keep order. Here, then, we have the appearance of moral values in elaborate legal systems, and yet the values themselves may not concretely exist but merely be beneficial and useful was of acting.
Isaac and Abraham--sacrifice? Murder?
 It is clear that this primitive benefits-based system does not work objectively. While killing, generally speaking, can be shown relatively easily to be a dangerous act, particularly for small populations, it is nonetheless clear that ritual murder has been going on from the infancy of our species to today. Now, there is a possible distinction to be made between “murder” and “ritual killing,” since, in at least some cases, the persons to be ritually killed have 1) agreed to die and 2) may not even be looked upon as possessing the same degree of intrinsic human worth as those performing the ritual.
The idea (to make a bit of a hop) that values come from a god who simply is good (the way to get around the Euthyphro dilemma) is problematic. For one, it is hard to imagine that jealousy and genocide are “good” except in the minds of the sick or deluded, and yet the god of the bible—if we assume this is the being in question—is explicitly jealous and, on occasional, genocidal. That this god would regret making human beings and wipe them out (as well as the majority of land-based animals, Noah’s story regardless) with a flood is extraordinary, and yet it is this god, this god equivalent to “good,” who we are to believe is the source of our moral values? Please.
Furthermore, the idea that this deity is good really shows how desperate some philosophers and theologians can be. We have yet to objectively prove that this deity—any deity—exists, and yet we are ready to dress this deity with the most extraordinary attributes: omnibenevolence, omnipotence, omniscience. Now, clearly the “goodness” of god that precedes the existence of moral values is a nod towards his omnibenevolence. But god does not have to be any of these omni- attributes to create the universe, if you believe a god did. It is not necessary to even give god these attributes, and omnibenevolence, even if we focus on Earth (and there is no reason to), is either a lie or a ridiculous wishy-washy joke that only academics who have no sense of life (no sense that, for instance, when you talk of murder, you are speaking of actual people being murdered) can attempt to simply brush aside the horrors on this planet and claim omnibenevolent qualities in god. But say god is given these qualities. How do they even coherently work together? It is clear that these three, combined with the clear existence of pain and suffering on our planet, do not work together, unless god is also omni-retarded—but that, surely, is not a greatness-making property. There is a good reason Marcion believed the god of the Old Testament a different being from that of the New. And the god of neither demonstrates the omni-properties.
            One response, of course, is to say that we silly humans misunderstand omni-properties. By taking them to illogical extremes (like saying that omnipotence must mean the ability to not be omnipotent), we turn them into something other than what they are. The first problem here is that no one has witnessed or experienced these omni-qualities, so to claim that they cannot be illogical is a bit much. When someone says they are not logically coherent, this is because there appears to be a genuine issue of logic within their properties, particularly when all three omni-properties coexist in one being. Until we can examine such a being, it is rather audacious to claim that these properties even exist and that they further must be logically coherent even if they could exist.
It is still more troubling to see such claims when they coexist with the claim that god cannot be fully known or understood—and yet here we are trying to impose concrete properties upon a being we do not even know exists. The only properties that I do not at present contest in such a being, if it exists, are spacelessness and timelessness—not because I think they would describe a god but because they are not problematic in the same way if they do. (Though, seriously, what on Earth is a "spaceless" thing? This is quite literally impossible to imagine--nonsense in the Wittgensteinian sense and in other, more unkind, senses. Is God smaller than the smallest thing imaginable? If so--how pathetic. And I still don't understand what the devil the description is supposed to mean. "Timeless," similarly, if it is distinct from "eternal," does not make sense. Theologians and philosophers throw these words around, despite their not clearly meaning anything and thereby deceiving audiences with fancy-sounding empty words.) The most pressing property, connected most directly to omniscience, is the claim that god is or has a mind, despite not being composed of matter and thus not having a brain (which produces the mind, as far as we can tell) in any form that we on Earth are presently familiar with.
            At least some deists have the honesty to posit a god and leave it at that, not speculating on whether this god is good or evil or even anything like the god of theists. Not that that solves anything, per se, not least of all that trickiest of questions of how or what or where (we can continue) said deity is—but it’s better than the arrogant pretty-damn-near certainty of certain philosophers. 
Craig is trying wayyy too hard.
 I’m looking at you, Lane Craig. I respect a lot of your work, good sir, but--yeesh.

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