« SCOTUS Rules 5-4 to Uphold 'Muslim' Travel Ban | Main | David French on Justice Kennedy »

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Hi Bill,

Great post. I know we've argued about this before (and enough, maybe) but I wanted to mention a few things in the hope of getting further...


First, I should explain where I'm coming from. I think my view is basically yours: I have no objection to some idea of moral equality based on theology. That seems to work pretty well, or at least it's not a problem in the way that non-theological egaliatarianism is a problem. But when I press the question of an empirical basis for equality I'm mainly trying to put pressure on egalitarians; I want to convince them that they have to choose between accepting religion and rejecting equality. Because they don't even try to work out the problem. Almost none of them nowadays, whether left or right, notice that without God there is no basis for their equality principles. Almost all of them treat their equality principles as if they were just obviously true, while at the same time denying or ignoring the only thing that could make such a principle true.


Second, I agree that it would be "stupid or highly uncharitable" to interpret claims of moral equality as claims to the effect that "all humans are empirically equal as animals in nature" if that means that there are no important empirical differences--that everyone is equally intelligent or wise or virtuous or strong, etc. On the other hand, people like me are not (or not necessarily) imposing this interpretation. Instead, we are assuming that there must be some relevant empirical equality that explains or grounds principles of moral equality. Or, more precisely: there must be something like that if such principles are true, and if they are understood in the way that almost all egalitarians nowadays appear to understand such principles. Because, again, they almost never appeal to God or metaphysics or anything beyond the empirical. For example, Rawls says that moral equality is grounded in the fact that all normal adult human beings are 'moral persons' and this property is defined in terms of empirical capacities. Then his problem is to explain how equality in that respect is relevant and sufficient for the various rights he takes to be equal across all such human beings. Every egalitarian appeals to some set of empirical properties of human beings in attempting to ground equality. So people like me are being reasonable in thinking that equality principles, as these egalitarians understand them, have an empirical basis of some kind. And it's reasonable to be very skeptical that there is any such basis; it sure seems that all the candidates are either not really relevant or not really sufficient for any interesting form of human moral equality. But that's not to reject equality altogether. As you point out, there are non-empirical accounts of equality that make sense.

Jacques

I agree with your first main paragraph if by 'equality' you mean natural or empirical equality.

The Left hasn't drawn the consequences of the death of God. One consequence is the death of Man as a spiritual being, infinitely precious, with a higher origin who is destined for fellowship with God, etc. Man is just another animal, highly evolved no doubt, but just an animal in the end.

>>For example, Rawls says that moral equality is grounded in the fact that all normal adult human beings are 'moral persons' and this property is defined in terms of empirical capacities.<<

Can you explain how this goes in a bit more detail?

A question for you, Jacques. Would you grant that pre-natal humans and the elderly who can no longer take care of themselves have as much of a right to life as everyone in between?

If you say yes, what could be the empirical equality that grounds the moral equality?

Hi Bill,

I don't see why God would be needed for rights, and if there is a problem with rights without God, I don't see how God would be an explanation, so I would like to address some of the points you raise. In particular, you say

One could just insist that rights and norms are grounded in nature herself. But that would be metaphysical bluster and not an explanation.
I don't see how God would be an explanation rather than metaphysical bluster is grounding in nature is metaphysical bluster. Then again, for all I know maybe all "grounding" theories are metaphysical bluster - or at least, present-day ones. In any case, let me briefly consider briefly 2 different cases, before getting to morality, because I'd like to ask whether you think there is trouble for the two others (especially the second) if God does not exist.

1. Color.
We make color statements very often, and I don't see why one would need God to ground color. There are people who believe God is required to ground everything, so I guess also color, but I don't see anything persuasive about those arguments. More to the point (because the term "grounding" is also rather obscure), I don't see why we would need God for our color statements to be generally true.

Do you think there is any problem with color without God?

I would say that the meaning of words like "red" is determined by usage, and there is a sense in which human nature plays a role. There are some differences in color terms across human languages, but still, in general the differences in color vision are minor, there are ways of translating (if needed, by definining new terms), and there is objective color in the sense that, in the usual sense of the words, there is an objective fact of the matter as to, say, whether the driver ran a red light, or a tree's leaves are green, etc.
Btw (and this might or might not be a side issue, depending on your reply), I would not expect aliens (advanced, with language, etc.) from another planet to have the same or very similar categories to ours, as their color-like vision (much like the vision on nonhuman animals on Earth) would likely be considerably different from ours, their perception of the world would be in that regard pretty different from ours, etc.

2. Health and sickness.
We also make statements about these things very often. I don't see why we would need God for those statements to be generally true any more than in the case of color. Just as we have color vision, we have a mechanism that allows us to tell the sick from the healthy. That mechanism is fallible of course, but generally reliable. Other animals generally can tell the different too (though their categorization might be somewhat different). Btw, I would expect a greater degree of similarity (probably!) between some alien language and our human languages in this regard than in color (as we can see when we look at different species here on Earth), though probably their language would not have words with the same referent (thus, nor with the same meaning) as "sick" or "healthy"...just a very similar referent.

Now, I don't have a theory about "grounding" of either redness or sickness. But I don't see how God would play a role in making the statements true: we talk about stuff around us, communicate information, etc.; I just don't see any role for God there. As I see it, generally it's enough that we have a generally reliable means of classifying stuff (e.g., "red", "blue", "green", or "healthy", "ill", "very ill", etc.) and the ability to speak in order to coin terms and make statements that are generally true about those categorizations. We do that not by stipulative definitions, but generally by ostensive ones, and that seems to work. I do not know why "morally wrong behavior", "morally praiseworthy behavior", "morally bad person", etc., would not work just as well. Granted, there are cases in which the categories are widely variable from language to language. The concept of a motorcycle did not exist in Latin in the Roman Empire, for example. But as long as there is a species-wide, generally reliable system that can pick categories like that, why would the words we coin fail to refer in the absence of God?

A common retort is that normativity allegedly makes a difference. But as with the concept of "natural", that's not a clear term, and in any event, the arguments I'm familiar with do not succeed in my assessment, though if you'd like to make an argument (on the basis of normativity or something else), I'll gladly consider it.

Another reply is that evolution would not result in a species-wide sense that picks up some properties. I don't agree with that; it seems to me it clearly depends on the conditions on which the species evolves, but for a social species, it seems very probable that they will at least have a species-wide system of rules.

All that aside, and to be clear, I'm not claiming or implying the meaning of moral terms and expressions can be reduced to something stated in non-moral terms (by "moral terms and expressions" I mean here things like "immoral", "moral obligation", "morally good person", etc.), but then, I don't see how color terms and expressions (similarly defined) would be more readily so reduced, or for that matter terms like "healthy", etc. I'm taking no stance on whether there is any such reductions, even if I'm lean against it.

You are not addressing my question. To repeat: >>Perhaps someone can explain to me how my right not to be enslaved could be grounded in my being an animal in the material world. How could any of my rights as an individual person be grounded in my being an animal in nature? I am open for instruction.<<

The only possible outcome seems to admit that rights after all ARE conventional. After God's death we are left to our own devices and must forever question our moral attitudes and reap the consequences of implementation thereof. We are social animals by default, so common social fiat appears to be the only source of our moral standards being subject to change - otherwise it's hard to explain how it might come that yesterday's grave offenders and aliens (condemned to death by God's will - gays, atheists) are today's winners (entitled to same-sex marriages and universities' cathedrae).

Bill,

The grounding question seems pretty obscure to me, as any "grounding" question (I find that term quite obscure). However, I was trying to address your claims or implications that right claims were a problem without God, and trying to discuss the matter, not to give a theory about "grounding". I don't see why one would need to address grounding. I don't have a theory of grounding color, or sickness, or for that matter anything. Is it not enough that it would be immoral to enslave you because of your nature, regardless of theories about grounding?

But why would it be immoral, you might ask?
It seems to me it's intuitively clear, once we consider the sort of mind that you have - or rather, it would be immoral in most scenarios. I can imagine scenarios in which enslaving a person would be morally praiseworthy, if the enslavers does it as the only available means to save the victim from a far worse fate. It's not so difficult to construct scenarios like those, if you want to - but I suspect you don't want me to do so, but to provide some theory of grounding not involving God?

I'm not sure about grounding, but I was getting at the issue of morality, and was asking for your take on the two analogies first in order to see what your objection in the moral case was. Still, I can develop the moral case as well.

1. Color: Some humans coin words like "red", "blue", etc. Those terms pick some properties of some sorts of things (e.g., trees and cats, but not human minds, laws or songs), perhaps reflective properties, but that's speculative: whatever the properties are, we have a reasonably effective means of picking them.

2. Health, etc.: Some humans coin words like "ill", "healthy", and synonyms. Those terms pick some properties of things (e.g., trees, cats and human minds, but not games of chess or Go, or buses). We have a reasonable effective means of picking the properties "healthy" and "sick", and their different degrees. What those properties are we could speculate, but what I'm saying is that God does not seem to be required at all for our terms to have referents, or for our having the ability to make successful statements about whether something is ill, etc.,

3. Moral obligations, moral rights, moral wrongness, etc.: this works as the previous cases. I don't see why God would be required. But I could speculate about what sort of properties they are: the property of being immoral (or morally wrong) seems to be a mental property: it's a property of the mind of the perpetrator. It's not a property of the behavior as can be observed from outside. The same applies to moral obligations. Moral rights are a bit more difficult, but
but they seem to be either properties of the mind of the person having them.
So, how does your nature as an animal give you the right not to be enslaved?
My answer would be that the actions of enslaving a being with your kind of mind (or more precisely, attempting to enslave a being that, on the basis of the available evidence, has that sort of mind) falls under the category "immoral", that the words coined as sketched above picks. I don't have a full description of the category, but what I'm saying is that nothing else seems to be needed for our moral terms to have referents, or for our successfully making claims of existence of rights, obligations, etc..

At least, that seems to be the usual way in which our language works (as in the case of color, or illness), and I don't see any good reason to believe this would fail in the moral case - though if you'd like to make an argument, I would be willing to address it.

Now, perhaps you think that that does not address your question about grounding. I admit I don't know for sure, since I find the concept of "grounding" pretty obscure. But I am addressing how it is that we can have words like "moral obligation", "moral rights", "immoral behavior", etc., that have referents in the actual world, and how we can make successful statements about that. Is that not enough? (and perhaps, that is "grounding" them; I just don't claim that it is or that it is not, due to the (in my view) obscurity of the concept of grounding).

Of course, you may well disagree with my assessment that the above is enough for there to be rights, obligations, etc. But since it is enough with our usual terms (from "red" and "blue" to "sick" and "healthy", to "water", "cat", and "human"), I would ask for some argument that would make moral terms different in a sense that is relevant. If you disagree, as I said, I'm willing to discuss it, though honestly, I fear there is a communication problem here, perhaps due to our having views that are very different on the subject and a number of related subjects. Your earlier reply indicates that perhaps there is a misunderstanding going on. If that's what's happening, I offer to go sketch why I think aliens with language would likely have moral-like language, but their words would have actually different meanings and referents from ours (even if with a big overlap in the actual world, in some cases), and they would successfully generally make statements about something similar to rights and obligations, but not quite the same. That might clarify some of my points sufficiently, but I'm going to ask you before I go on, because perhaps you will think it's also not relevant, or not addressing your question, etc.

Hi Bill. About Rawls: He claims that we are moral equals in virtue of moral personality, which (if I recall correctly) is defined by "a capacity for a sense of justice" and "a conception of the good". Or maybe it's a mere capacity for a conception of the good. Anyway, there are obviously varying degrees of capacity but he says it doesn't matter: every normal human has some degree of capacity, so is a moral person. This is an empirical basis for moral equality. Anton in his discussion says we are equally "free and independent" naturally, so again it's empirical.

I'm not sure about the idea of an equal right to life. I can think of some reasons why some prenatal human beings would have a stronger right to life than some adults, for example, but also reasons why some demented 90 year olds would have no right to life or a weaker one than mine. But if all human beings do have an equal right to life I can't imagine what its empirical basis would be.

Angra,

I'll try to unpack the problem for you:

Judging by your comment, I'm guessing you're an atheist committed to some form of metaphysical naturalism/materialism, i.e., the view that reality is exhausted by what exists in the space/time continuum. And regardless if God exists, he seems necessarily something outside the confines of the space/time manifold, right? He doesn't seem accessible to scientific and empirical inquiry like birds, bees, people, rocks, and atoms are accessible in that way.

Moreover, thanks again to scientific and empirical inquiry, we also know we're not equal--not in intelligence, athleticism, height, weight, health, success, wealth, ambition, etc. No matter how you slice it, we are not equal in any meaningful empirical sense, individually or collectively. Yet, according to the Declaration of Independence, "We're all created equal."

Now you could reply we're equal in the sense of dignity and worth, cashing this claim out in the terms of rights (that certainly seems to be a doctrine of modern liberalism. It seems to be the assumption underlying the moral hysteria about the Trump administration's separating children from parents at the border): We are equal when it comes to rights.

But natural rights, like God, aren't very empirically accessible either. We haven't seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched a right. Nor have we every bubbled one out of test-tube or glimpsed a right's atomic structure through a microscope. Whatever rights are, they seems to be "queer" objects in a similar way God is. Both elude detection by our most sophisticated scientific instruments and empirical methodologies. Yet, you seem skeptical about God's existence. Are you also skeptical about the existence of rights? Do you go one more abstract object further than most, or do you believe in rights, which in modern parlance is often how we talk about supposed human dignity and value? If the latter, then how do you account for them and accordingly our supposed equality of rights given what I take to be your naturalism?

I suppose you could answer by saying our rights originate in cooperation forged in tacit realization of mutual self-interest. I don't steal from you, kill you, and enslave your family because it ensures you or others don't try to do the same to me. That, we're all better off working together, or at least leaving each other alone, than trying to dominate one another in the long-run. Thus, over time, these attitudes became ingrained in us to form some evolutionary-honed moral instinct to act a sort of way to one another.

The problem with this is that this hardly seems robust enough to account for the rights and or equality of rights we talk about in moral discourse. For the reasons that I have not to just treat you as a means to my ends instead of an end in itself seem only prudential. I don't harm you because negative things are likely to happen to me because society is built in such a way where I would face repercussions for whatever dark action I took against you. But if I could get away with it, what's to stop me? All we have is a mutual non-aggression pact. If I foresee no consequences, why wouldn't it be in my best interest to "Crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of their women"? I'm only limited by my ability to do so. If I'm stronger, faster, and more cunning than my neighbor, why not exploit that inequality? We're not equal, and that gives me an advantage.

You may decry what I would be doing as wrong. However, as a relatively clever hairless ape among all the animals that ever existed on this planet, a rock that just cooled in a solar system barely out of its diapers in an indifferent billions-of-years-old universe spinning its way to heat-death, it would really seem what I'm doing is no more wrong or a violation of rights than the male lion that slaughters the cubs of his ousted predecessor so he can mate with his newly won harem of females.

Might makes right, and the law of the jungle reigns. The people who say that it doesn't and insist on all of us being equal are weaklings covetous of the greatness of others. They should face reality: God is dead. Rights are just the secularized leftovers of a religion--the foundation of which no one believes in anymore--that is centered on unhealthy self-flagellation and deference to the unextraordinary...

...Unless you have a way of securing our equality and our rights that doesn't require God's resurrection --> I believe it was for this puzzle that our gracious host was looking for an answer.

Hi Angra,
I'm going to take a stab at this. You write:

"I am addressing how it is that we can have words like "moral obligation', 'moral rights', 'immoral behavior', etc., that have referents in the actual world, and how we can make successful statements about that. Is that not enough?"

No, it's not enough if your goal is to answer the question Bill was asking. The question is what there could be in reality that grounds--explains, makes true--our claims about moral rights, equal rights, etc. (Which is a pretty good question, I think.) Here is an analogy: If I were an atheist I could offer some kind of story like yours about how it is that English words like "sacred" or "holy" or "demonic" had referents in the actual world. When people use words like "holy" they are often referring to things. But it's a further question whether any of the things they are referring to really are sacred, holy, demonic, etc. Even if naturalism were true there could be explanations like yours for facts about the use of religious or non-naturalistic language. So if a religious person were to ask "Is there anything in the world that 'grounds' our religious beliefs?" that would not be the same as asking "Are there facts about our linguistic practices that explain how are able to refer to things with our religious language?"

The situation with respect to moral language is the same. Even if there were no moral reality but merely a bunch of (false) moral beliefs or intuitions, it could still happen that people use moral language to refer to things. Even if no one has any rights, there could still be "rights" talk and it could be "successful" in some weak sense.

Thus, merely to explain how that might plausibly happen is not relevant to the question Bill asked. It would be roughly similar to answering the question of whether God exists by explaining how some people are able to refer to a certain Jewish man when they use descriptions like "God incarnate" or "the Son of Man" or "The Lord". Even if the explanation is correct, it could be correct even if God does not exist. And, of course, if we came to believe that the best explanation for such beliefs has nothing to do with their truth, that should undermine those beliefs. Likewise, if we came to believe that the best explanation for moral discourse has nothing to do with any moral reality corresponding to our moral beliefs, that should undermine our moral beliefs.

Conan,

I'm an atheist, but not committed to any sort of metaphysical materialism/naturalism, at least as far as I can tell. In fact, I find the words "materialism" and "naturalism" particularly obscure, if defined by stipulation. Moreover, I have not seen any stipulation that results in the sort of thing people want to debate about. If, on the other hand, they are defined by ostension, they're probably too imprecise for the sort of metaphysical work they're supposed to do. But in any event, I am not committed to any of them - at least, in the ostension cases and the stipulations I can understand; if there is some concept of "materialism" or "naturalism" that I can't understand, I do not know whether I fall under the classification in question.

As for whether God would be outside a space/time continuum, that's difficult to tell in particular with respect to time, though apparently he'd be outside space, or something (is there an outside)? At any rate, my atheism is not based on anything like materialism or naturalism of any sort. I might as well stipulate for the sake of the argument that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, unembodied person. Under that stipulation, I reckon God does not exist (the creator fails to be morally perfect, or even morally good). But we don't need to settle the question of whether God exist. Let's just assume the falseness of materialism, naturalism, or whatever, and it's fine with me.

That aside, you say that natural rights are


not very empirically accessible either. We haven't seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched a right. Nor have we every bubbled one out of test-tube or glimpsed a right's atomic structure through a microscope".

We have never heard, smelled, tasted or touched a right, or a moral obligation, or an immoral behavior, but we have seen, heard, touched, etc., morally good or morally bad people, people who behaved immorally, etc.
Similarly, we have never heard, smelled, tasted or touched cruelty, kindness, sexual attraction, pain, fear, suffering, bravery, etc., even if we have seen, heard, probably touched, etc., cruel or kind people, people who are sexually attracted to others, people who are in pain, or suffering, or fear stuff, or are brave, etc.
Similarly, we have never heard, smelled, or touched a mental illness, or generally any illness, though we have seen, heard, etc., ill people, including but not limited to mentally ill people.
For that matter, we have not even seen blueness or redness, but blue things, red things, etc.

I don't see why not being able to touch, smell, etc., those things is somehow a problem for empirical access. You might say that those things I mentioned are different from rights, obligations, etc., in some other sense. Of course they are, they're also different from each other, since they're different things! But they are not different from rights, obligations, etc., in the sense that we cannot smell, touch them, see them, etc., which is the relevant matter in the context of the argument for queerness you're advancing.
Thus, I reckon that the argument that rights are because of our not being able to smell them, touch them, etc. (rights or obligations, or immoral behavior, etc.) does not succeed. The same goes for attempts to use other detection means like sensors, microscopes, etc. in an argument.

This sort of argument is not going to succeed at linking rights or generally morality to theism, since it's based on the mistaken idea that rights are like God and unlike other, ordinary stuff, on matters one which rights, obligations, immorality, etc., are in fact like all sorts of other ordinary stuff, some of which I listed above.

Now, granted, you might think that perhaps some other property of rights, obligations, etc., sets them apart from other things in a way that supports the existence of God - or the nonexistence of rights, obligations, etc., without God. If you (or other readers) think so and want to discuss it, I offer to address any other arguments as well, but so far, I have read several theistic metaethical arguments, studied them the best I could, and reckoned that all of them fail.

Whatever rights are, they seems to be "queer" objects in a similar way God is.

For the reasons I've been explaining, I don't see why that would be so, just as I don't see cruelty, kindness, pain, suffering, love, etc., as queer either. I've given the details above.


Both elude detection by our most sophisticated scientific instruments and empirical methodologies.

Do morally bad people avoid detection?
How? And if so, do cruel people avoid detection as well? Mentally ill people? Red apples?

Sure, you can build a machine that detects red objects, if you calibrate it using the human visual system as a template. Potentially, the machine could detect red objects - or generally classify objects by color - even better than humans (e.g., by being able to see with less light, or avoid optical illusions, etc.), but for that matter, at least potentially, I don't see why future AI would not be able to also detect cruel people, or morally bad people, or people in love, or people in pain, or whatever, on the basis of their behavior. As in the other cases, you would need humans to teach the machine how to find the categories, or at least the machine could learn by looking at how humans do the classifying, and then the machine could do so as well.

You might say: but how can you get the advanced future machine to tell right from wrong without using a human moral sense as a compass, at least initially, directly or indirectly?
The answer is that you can't, but then, one can ask: How can you get the machine to tell red from green without using a human visual sense as a compass, at least initially? The answer is also that you can't (and the same for the other things, e.g., cruel behavior, etc.).

Yet, you seem skeptical about God's existence. Are you also skeptical about the existence of rights?
I deny God's existence. I affirm the existence of bad people, cruel people, good people, red apples, and rights as well - though I don't know that they are basic properties; they may be derivative properties, reducible to simpler moral properties, like obligations, or just immorality. In any case, I take no stance on that. In fact, I suspect the language of rights makes moral matters usually more obscure, rather than clearer (but I take no stance on this; I just suspect it).
The problem with this is that this hardly seems robust enough to account for the rights and or equality of rights we talk about in moral discourse. For the reasons that I have not to just treat you as a means to my ends instead of an end in itself seem only prudential. I don't harm you because negative things are likely to happen to me because society is built in such a way where I would face repercussions for whatever dark action I took against you. But if I could get away with it, what's to stop me?
Some actions are cruel, and some actions are immoral. Maybe nothing will stop you from doing any of those. But that does not make them non-existent, or gives us any reason to think they are.
All we have is a mutual non-aggression pact. If I foresee no consequences, why wouldn't it be in my best interest to "Crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of their women"?
That's a good question. I think the heart of the matter is what it means for something to be "in your best interest". The fact is that you care about not being the sort of entity that does that. You care about the suffering of others, at least to some extent, and definitely you care about not being the one causing that sort of suffering. At least, you care if you're an adult human with a normally functioning mind. But what about a psychopath? Does he care? He may well not care. But psychopath is mentally ill. Would it be in his best interest do act in a way that serves only the goals he has due to his mental illness, or would it be in its best interest to do whatever goals he would have if he were not mentally ill? Perhaps, the expression "best interest" is not precise enough for the work you want to use it in this context. But at any rate, this does not seem to be about the existence of rights, obligations, etc., but if you think it is and you can elaborate on this sort of objection, I'm listening (briefly: I don't think it succeeds, either, because I've studied similar objections, but I do think it leads to a more interesting discussion than the arguments involving not being able to see, tough, smell, detect with microscopes, etc.)



You may decry what I would be doing as wrong. However, as a relatively clever hairless ape among all the animals that ever existed on this planet, a rock that just cooled in a solar system barely out of its diapers in an indifferent billions-of-years-old universe spinning its way to heat-death, it would really seem what I'm doing is no more wrong or a violation of rights than the male lion that slaughters the cubs of his ousted predecessor so he can mate with his newly won harem of females.

That does not follow. Nor is it made more probable by your arguments (or Craig's, some of which are very similar). It seems in fact it goes against our obvious assessment. It's pretty clear that some human behaviors are morally wrong. The lion does not have the sort of mind that can behave immorally. For that matter, we don't need moral concepts to make such differences: a crocodile cannot be cruel (not the right sort of mind), I'm not sure a lion can; a chimp very probably can be cruel, and a human can. A mosquito can't feel envy, but a chimp very probably can. The point is that we have concepts describing mental properties, actions, etc., that some sort of minds can have, do, etc., and others can't. From that, nothing seems to follow about the nonexistence of cruelty, envy, etc., withoug God - in fact, God does not seem to enter the picture here.

Might makes right, and the law of the jungle reigns. The people who say that it doesn't and insist on all of us being equal are weaklings covetous of the greatness of others. They should face reality: God is dead. Rights are just the secularized leftovers of a religion--the foundation of which no one believes in anymore--that is centered on unhealthy self-flagellation and deference to the unextraordinary...

...Unless you have a way of securing our equality and our rights that doesn't require God's resurrection --> I believe it was for this puzzle that our gracious host was looking for an answer.


I'm doing my best to address Bill's question, at least as much as time permits. I'm arguing that rights, obligations, immoral behavior, etc., are some of the things that our moral terms pick, just as our color terms pick some other properties of things, perhaps reflective ones, just as our language about illness or disease, about other mental properties, etc., pick different stuff. There is no good reason in any of the theistic arguments I've seen to link any of this to the existence of God. Here I have addressed your argument about what we can see, touch, etc., or detection methods, but I have considered many other theistic arguments, and I'm willing to discuss any of your choosing, or any that Bill might choose.

Other than that, rights are not leftovers of a religion, either. Human moral concepts, at least the basic ones in case rights aren't among them, are older than any present-day religion. As are, for that matter, the human concepts of pain, suffering, illness and health, sexual attraction, kindness, bravery, fear, cruelty, etc.


Hi Jacques,

Long time no see. Here's my reply to your points:

No, it's not enough if your goal is to answer the question Bill was asking. The question is what there could be in reality that grounds--explains, makes true--our claims about moral rights, equal rights, etc.

Bill was raising several points, and "addressing how it is that we can have words like "moral obligation', 'moral rights', 'immoral behavior', etc., that have referents in the actual world, and how we can make successful statements about that" is enough to address his concern about an alleged vacuity of rights talks, if God does not exist. More to the point, Bill said

Suppose there is no God. Then talk of equal rights is empty. We may continue to talk in those vacuous terms, somehow hiding the vacuity from ourselves, but then we would be 'running on fumes.' People may continue to believe in equal rights, but their belief would be groundless.

Well, I'm arguing that without God, talk about rights, obligations, etc., need not be empty, there could be referents - and, in fact, there are -, and so on. I don't need to address the specific point of what would ground rights, in detail - though given your explanation of the question, it seems to be I indirectly addressed it. I will get into more details later, but first, I'd like to say that I find the word "grounding" very obscure, but Bill's statement above suggests that without grounding, talk about equal rights (or generally, talk about rights, obligations, and generally moral talk) would be "empty", which clearly indicates that there would be no referent, an error theory would hold, etc. But I'm arguing that none of that happens. If that (i.e., that not happening) requires grounding, then I would say that our talk is grounded, regardless of God.

In fact, in light of your explanation that grounding is like truth-making, I would say this: However, much like color talk, I don't need to know what grounds something in order to know it's grounded.

For example, I do not know what grounds color talk. But I do know that if it is something that has to do with frequencies, wavelengths of light, and the like, no one ever knew what grounded color talk during most of history, and most people do not know it today. But that's not a good reason for them to doubt that color talk has some referent, is not empty, no color error theory obtains, etc. Finding the specific grounding is a complicated philosophical task, and at least throughout most of history, it was not known for color (unless it's grounded in something else? I'm listening to suggestions), but not knowing what grounds them is not a good reason to think they're groundless.

What I'm arguing (more precisely, part of what I'm arguing) is that there is no good reason to think that in the case of rights, obligations, etc., either, even assuming no God, and I'm arguing that by arguing that the way language usually works when defining terms ostensively would allow for there to be something - whatever it is - that grounds them.

Here is an analogy: If I were an atheist I could offer some kind of story like yours about how it is that English words like "sacred" or "holy" or "demonic" had referents in the actual world. When people use words like "holy" they are often referring to things. But it's a further question whether any of the things they are referring to really are sacred, holy, demonic, etc.
But this depends on how a word is defined. Is it defined by ostension, or in some other manner? If someone defines "sacred" as, say, "something important to God" (or whatever), then of course, the fact that people claim that things are sacred does not provide strong evidence that they are. I would argue that nothing would be sacred, in that sense. Similarly for "demonic". That word is derived from "demons", so what are demons? If people define "demon" as, say, the fallen angels defined in the Bible, then I would say there are no demons or demonic things, etc. But again, that's not an ostensive definition. In fact, I think in such senses, those words would have no referent. Statements like "that's sacred", or "that's demonic" would be false. Of course, we can still get information from them, because we may well know what sorts of things the claimaint believes to be sacred, demonic, etc. But they would not have referents.
Even if naturalism were true there could be explanations like yours for facts about the use of religious or non-naturalistic language. So if a religious person were to ask "Is there anything in the world that 'grounds' our religious beliefs?" that would not be the same as asking "Are there facts about our linguistic practices that explain how are able to refer to things with our religious language?"
I don't think that that sort of language refers. I think it provides information in context (in particular, because we know what people believe). But we do not need to settle the question of whether it refers here for the following reason: let's say that you're right and those things would still refer. Then, I'm in error about part of what it takes for a statement to refer, but no matter, the arguments I'm giving in my replies to Bill and Conan go further than that: I'm arguing that claims that someone behaved immoral, or has a moral rights, or moral obligations, etc., often would be true. I'm arguing that this is so by making a parallel with other terms we define by ostension (or how else do you think moral language is defined?), pointing out that there is something that the things we're picking have in common, and in general that's enough. Of course, even if it's enough in general, there might be exceptions. It might be argued that moral language includes some ontological commitments that would make the statements empty, etc. I'm familiar with several (or many, if you count variants) such arguments. I don't find them persuasive, but I'm willing to discuss them. But I want to point out that that would be the exception.

Also, in addition to the matter of referent, I said that we can make successful statements, but I see from your reply that that wasn't clear, and there's been a misunderstanding. So, let me address that too:

The situation with respect to moral language is the same. Even if there were no moral reality but merely a bunch of (false) moral beliefs or intuitions, it could still happen that people use moral language to refer to things. Even if no one has any rights, there could still be "rights" talk and it could be "successful" in some weak sense.
I didn't mean "successful" in a weak sense. I meant that statements assigning moral rights, obligations, blame, etc., would often be true. Sorry if that wasn't clear. Do you think that that would still not address his question?

Granted, you might think I haven't given a good argument for that, so we would disagree, but that's another matter. I offer to discuss it.

Thus, merely to explain how that might plausibly happen is not relevant to the question Bill asked. It would be roughly similar to answering the question of whether God exists by explaining how some people are able to refer to a certain Jewish man when they use descriptions like "God incarnate" or "the Son of Man" or "The Lord".
I think that depends on how they use the word, but generally, I would say they fail to refer. For example, suppose that someone says: "God incarnate prohibited divorce and remarriage". I think that the statement, at least in most contexts, would be false even if a certain Jewish man whose life part of the Gospel is based on, actually made that claim. And I think "God incarnate" fails to refer, even if the fact that someone makes such a claim may well (alongside other pieces of information) give us information that might be useful (e.g., about the beliefs of the person making the claim). But as before, if I'm mistaken about referent, that does not imply I'm not addressing Bill's question, since I'm arguing that moral statements can generally be true.

So, how can they be true?

Well, I'm saying, it's the same it's usually the case with words defined in that manner: people would say "wrong" (pointing at immoral behaviors), "good", "praiseworthy", etc., pointing at different behaviors. Now I'm saying that as long as we have a system tracking some feature of reality associated with those words, then we have successful (in the strong sense) statements, unless - unusually - when we start pointing at things, we are adding some ontological commitments that are not met by the things we're pointing at. But that would be unusual, and would have to be argued for. The default case is success in referring, and in making true statements about the stuff in question in case that requires more than successful reference. Of course, that has been argued for, at length, by many theists. I'm saying I don't find any of the arguments I've seen persuasive (and I've read several, including the most common ones); I'm also offering to address any that Bill or anyone else posting here might want to raise (as time permist; I can't dedicate several hours a day for months to this, but I am willing to dedicate a considerable amount of time), and I have already addressed some such arguments (see my previous reply to Conan).

But why would moral language not be culturally variable, as it happens with many things we define by ostension?
Well, I think that is because of human nature. I do not think intelligent, language-capable aliens would have moral language, but probably something similar (species-specific moral-like language), and they would also make successful statements, but not about the same things we do (of course, if the universe has infinitely many galaxies, there would also be aliens with moral language, and also if it's finite but sufficiently big; but I would not bet on the successor of our civilization ever running into any such aliens. They would run into aliens with analogues to moral language).

To be clear, I'm not suggesting we're somehow an oddity because we got the moral language and aliens would get moral-like language. Different species would get similar but not the same language, and "moral" language is ours.

Likewise, if we came to believe that the best explanation for moral discourse has nothing to do with any moral reality corresponding to our moral beliefs, that should undermine our moral beliefs.
Indeed. But on that note, I think color statements come in handy. What's the best explanation for color discourse? Very roughly (there are differences between languages, so it's not a perfect analogy in that regard, but it will do hopefully for the purposes I have in mind; else, I'll go with illness and health). Well, humans have a visual system that can pick up some differences in the reflective (or emitting, depending on the case) properties of objects. And so some humans found it useful to use different words when they saw those things with different properties. And bingo, we have color language, we succesfully make true color statements, etc. What if something like that happened with moral discourse? Let's say that also as a result of evolution, humans normally do care considerably about some of properties. And different societies coin words that they use when they reckon someone is exhibiting those properties (e.g., "morally wrong behavior", "morally praiseworthy behavior", "morally bad person", etc.). This is of course an oversimplyfication. There is also moral obligations and rights, which might be derivative from the basic ones (maybe "bad person", "immoral behavior", etc.), or maybe it's that humans have a species-wide set of rules, and of course a corresponding system to detect rules violations, etc., which is generally reliable but far from perfect, and of course it's subject to errors resulting from errors in assessments about what a person intends, believes, knows, cares about, and a long list.

Now, this is not to say that those words mean something about human evolved rules, etc.; neither do color statements mean anything like that. But in general, that way of picking properties and coining words succeeds. I offer to address any arguments to the conclusion that they does not succeed (strong sense; see above) in the case of morality (rights, obligations, immorality, or whatever one prefers) unless God exists.

If you are a realist with respect to ethics and a realist with respect to matter, I don't see why one requires God any more or less than the other. We fundamentally don't know what matter is, nor how it can be that matter affects other matter (physics can do nothing but explain the structure of matter and material interactions, it cannot explain how either is possible). If an atheist materialist is willing to accept ignorance in the case of matter, how is it any different from accepting ignorance in the case of ethics? He can consistently hold that matter and norms are both real things, and both fundamentally incomprehensible.

Of course, in practice most atheist materialists do not admit that nature is fundamentally incomprehensible.

Hi Angra,
Your approach is to begin by demanding arguments for every one of the assumptions that many other people find intuitively plausible, and complaining that concepts many other people find to be intelligible (enough) are just not clear to you. Obviously in this forum it won't be possible for me, or Bill, or anyone else, to simultaneously argue for all of these assumptions and clarify every concept to your satisfaction. Maybe there's just not enough common ground for a useful conversation?

But here's what I'll try: A brief account of how I understand some of these matters. At least you will know where I'm coming from (and maybe where Bill and others are coming from). If you find that the outlook I've described is just not plausible, or just not intelligible, maybe we can 'agree to disagree'.

(1) Take your example of color. You say this:

"...humans have a visual system that can pick up some differences in the reflective (or emitting, depending on the case) properties of objects. And so some humans found it useful to use different words when they saw those things with different properties. And bingo, we have color language, we succesfully make true color statements, etc."

This seems much too quick and easy to me. We seem to agree that whether claims are true depends on what they mean, not just on successful reference. (I would add that terms such as "meaning" and "reference" and "true" are also pretty mysterious and 'unclear'. Why are you entitled to use these terms if you quibble over "grounding"? Maybe I should point out that I don't entirely know what you mean when you say "refer" or "true", etc. But never mind.) Now I'm pretty sure that when people say things like "Fire hydrants are red" they often mean to ascribe a color property to the surfaces of objects--for example, they naturally think the red-ness is on the fire hydrants. And, as you emphasize, they do not normally mean anything about light waves or reflective properties of things. Especially in the past, or in cultures that have no science. And so I'm not sure that ordinary color claims are ever true _if_ the objects people talk about don't really have these surface properties that (I think) people often have in mind. So the case of color is not necessarily all that helpful to your position. It might be a case where we have weakly "successful" discourse that isn't really true, doesn't really represent the world as it is.

(2) Given that meaning matters, I'd propose that when people say things like "Murdering children is wrong" they are attributing some kind of property to certain acts--a property of intrinsic not-to-be-done-ness. At least that's what I myself have in mind! And I think it would be hard to explain lots of perfectly ordinary moral thinking and communication unless that's what most people have in mind. Now there might well be _something_ that people are referring to when they say "wrong" regardless of whether anything actually has the intrinsic not-to-be-done-ness property. If there is no God, or no higher dimension of reality beyond the physical, it seems likely to me that nothing has that kind of property. This is the puzzle, anyway. Are you suggesting that in a purely physical and Godless world there could still be a property of intrinsic not-to-be-done-ness? Because that seems utterly bizarre to me. Or are you saying that our moral claims about "wrongness" could be true even if there were no such property? Because that seems to me to imply either that meaning has nothing to do with truth, or else that we don't mean what we just do seem to mean.

(3) The specific issue here was the idea of moral equality--equal moral worth. And the associated idea that each human being has a 'natural' right not to be enslaved. I don't insist that theism can explain how people have such a right, or how they are equals; but I do find it plausible that this is more likely to be explainable under theism than under atheism or naturalism or physicalism. For instance, under theism it could be that each human being has a divine eternal destiny, or that each human being is equally loved by God for reasons that we can't understand in all cases. These kinds of theistic possibilities would go some way to explaining how people could be ultimately equal despite all the extreme and obvious differences. Without any story of that kind, what exactly would it be that would make some brilliant, moral and accomplished person merely equal in worth to some stupid, crass, immoral loser? You say vague things about "the kind of mind" that a human being has. I don't think that is very helpful. There are lots of very different kinds of human minds. Some of them are very impressive in every way that we care about, and others are very unimpressive. I don't see how we can rule out the Aristotelian idea that some people are 'natural slaves' even. Why not, given the great neurological (etc) diversity of the species?


Jacques,

I have to go now, so I don't have time to address most of your points. I will do so later today or tomorrow as time permits. But I wanted to briefly say that that is not my approach, for the following reasons:

a. I gave an argument explaining why usually when we define things by ostension, we do make successful statements, our terms have referents, etc. On the basis of that, I argued that that is enough to give a presumption of success in this case, and so claims to the contrary require some argumentation. So, yes, I'm saying the burden is on the side saying that there would be no morality without God, but I'm also arguing for it. Still, I think it would have been proper to just say that the burden is on the side saying that there would be no morality without God, but it would not have been conducive to having a conversation here. I gave those arguments precisely because I wanted to discuss the issue, but of course without taking up too much of a burden I consider improper - at least, not without arguing first why I consider it improper in the first place. That said, I will try to give more details (more below).

b. I sketched how things could go, in the last part of my previous reply to you, in which I compare it to color. That would give you and others who disagree with me a target to start giving arguments if you so choose.

c. I addressed some specific arguments presented by Conan (i.e., I'm not just offering to address arguments, I'm addressing them).

d. I'm not demanding that anyone give arguments; I'm offering to address arguments :), but perhaps more importantly, it's not about every assumption that others find plausible. If others say that they are making an assumption, then I would just say I see no good reason to make it. If, on the other hand, they find it intuitively plausible that there would be no morality (in the sense already explained) without God for some reasons (not by an assumption, or by an intuition not based on other, previous assessments), I offer to take a look at the reasons and address them, if they want to.

That said, I will try to give more of a positive account if you want me to, though I have to say I do not have anything specific - much like in the case of color, no one seems to have had anything specific and correct for most of history, and I think morality is much more complicated than color. So, when by "a positive account", I mean to explain more how some things might happen in an evolutionary context, but without taking a stance on matters such as - for example - rights and obligations are secondary and derived from more basic things (such as immorality, moral goodness, etc.), or - perhaps equivalently - whether we're tracking a system of rules in addition to some mental attitudes, character traits, etc., or the rules are derived from them, etc. Before I do that, though, I will address your points (1), (2), and (3) the best I can, so that we can see if we have enough common ground for a successful conversation (hopefully so!), so please stay tuned.

Jacques,

As I explained, I don't think my approach is as you say, but let me address your points:

(1) Regarding "grounding" I am explaining that I find the term pretty obscure. The reason is that it's a technical term - rather than one used colloquially -, and I've not seen a sufficiently clear explanation of what it means, or a definition, and usage by philosophers seems to be in my assessment quite variable. Now, perhaps there is a pretty good definition and I failed to understand it. I'm not saying people are making a mistake for using the term. But I'm explaining why I try to address the matter without addressing grounding, or addressing it indirectly (i.e., I might say something along the lines of 'if grounding is required for successful talk about a matter, then how about matter X? If it's not required, then...', or things like that). I am however willing to use the word as long as my interlocutor clarifies what they mean enough for me to understand it. Else, I address other points that I do understand.
Now you ask me why I'm entitled to terms like "meaning", "reference" and "true". Well, I think you're entitled to use "grounding" as well (or any term of your choosing). We will just have difficulty communicating. As for the terms you bring up, "true" should not be a problem at all. I just mean by that what people regularly mean what they say "true" about a statement. This is not to say that theories of truth are easy. That's a difficult matter. But understanding the ordinary term "true" is not. This is usually the case, by the way. Metaethics (including theories about the meaning of moral terms) is pretty difficult, but understanding words like "immoral", "morally good", etc. (at least, basic moral terms) isn't. The same for color, etc.
What about "reference", and "refer". Those are technical terms, and while I do find those terms generally useful, given that you say you find them mysterious, I will try to leave them aside, for the purposes of successful communication. I could try to do the same with "meaning", "mean", etc., but if I do that, I'm not going to be able to address your points, so I will try to use it for now. Let me know if you prefer to taboo them as well (i.e., stipulate that they are excluded from the vocabulary to be used).

Now, let's address color. I have to say that I used it as an analogy in part because usually, theists who argue that there would be no moral obligations, rights, etc., without God, do accept color statements (e.g., William Lane Craig uses this in his metaethical argument), and in part because in a number of ways, they're relevantly analogous, so they come in handy, at least when talking to someone who accepts that there are red things, blue things, etc.
Do people mean to ascribe a property to the fire hydrant?
I cautiously agree (there is a slight risk we might not be the same by "property"!), but on the other hand, I think there is in this case, and generally whenever we define things by ostension, very weak demands on what that property would be, other than whatever "one of those" (points at a red object), but "not one of those" (points at an object that isn't red) has in common and is guiding our judgments. Now, I'm not saying there are no demands at all, but they seem to be very weak, and in general, it would be pretty difficult to make conditions for ordinary terms not be fulfilled, so any claims in that regard have a very low prior, and so the burden on the person making the claim is very heavy. But let's consider the color case. Bob is given a ticket for running a red traffic light:


Bob: Your honor, I did not run a red traffic light, because there is no red. A color error theory obtains.
Judge: Excuse me?
Bob: You see, the word "red" in traffic laws does not have a specific technical meaning. On the contrary, the law is meant to be understood easily by the public, so the meaning is the ordinary one. But as it turns out, our colloquial talk of color is in error. And punishments may not constitutionally be applied by analogy, so in light of that, I have no legal obligation to pay a fine.
Judge: If you claim that nothing is red, well the burden is on you.
Bob: Why?
Judge: You're going up against common sense beliefs. Now common sense might be mistaken, but unless that is argued for in the specific case, I would hold that it's beyond a reasonable doubt that it's not, and in particular, that there are red traffic lights.
Bob: Well, I only need to create reasonable doubt. There are very intelligent philosophers who argue against color. That's enough to create reasonable doubt, so it's not beyond a reasonable doubt that I ran the red light.
Judge: I'm afraid the burden is still on you.

I'm pretty sure the judge is right. Furthermore, I would say that even if Bob presents a philosophical argument for an error theory, he fails to create sufficient doubt. The problem with this sort of arguments is that they seem to assume a heavy ontological commitment in our color terms. By this I mean that they seem to assume that when we ascribe color properties, we put conditions on the sort of properties that they might be that are not met by things in our universe. But I don't see any good reason to think that. I'm with the judge on this. Moreover, this isn't about color. Let's consider - say - the water analogy.
When people ordinarily talk about water (even today, even more so in the past) they generally do not mean anything involving hydrogen or oxygen. But that's not the issue. The word "water" does not seem to impose conditions on whether water is a simple substance or a compound, or even whether it has the same basic composition (save for impurities) in all ordinary cases. And the fact that people do not generally know anything about H2O does not support an error theory about watery talk. My point is that this is generally the case, whether we're talking about water, color, cats, dogs, kindness, cruelty, etc. That also holds about time: most people (historically, and even today) believe time is absolute, but the absoluteness of time does not seem to make it into the meaning of temporal terms, as a constraint


So, I think if someone argues this is not so in the case of morality and there are heavy constrains, and in particular constrains that require the existence of God - despite the fact that there are plenty of human societies with no concept of God, but no known human societies with no basic moral concepts -, that seems to place a heavy burden on the person making the claim.

(2) While I agree that we're assigning some kind of property (with the caveat above, but still, I think we can agree on that, at least pro tanto), the property would be the property "moral wrongness" (or "immorality"; I think that's the same). I'm not sure it's the property "not-to-be-done-ness", though that might depend on what you mean by that. Granted, in a moral sense of "should", people should not behave immorally, but that seems tautological. In a moral sense of "should", "Agent A should not X" seems to mean that something like "doing X is immoral", or maybe something like "If A is not to behave immoral, then A should not do X". Now in a means-to-end sense of "should" that is not considering the goal of not behaving immorally, but other goals the agent might have, it's not necessarily the case that the agent should not behave immorally, at least as far as I can tell.
Now, it might be that for any moral agent, it is irrational overall (i.e., given the agent's evaluative function, which varies from agent to agent) to behave immorally. I think, however, that this is improbable.
As for a purely physical world, I think a first question is: are there minds? Do minds require something nonphysical? I'm not claiming one way or another, because I also find "physical" obscure! My points are about morality without God, and for that matter without souls if you like, but not without minds.
If there are no minds, I don't think anything in that world is immoral, but then, that is not our world.
If there are minds, then sure, why could there not be immoral behavior without God?
I mean, what's even the connection?
At least, the meaning of the terms does not seem to require it at all, because:

a. There are societies without the concept of God, but not known societies without moral terms.
b. When you say "God exists", you're saying there is something with some properties - yes, some philosophers would say God is not a being but Being, etc., but at any rate, you are ascribing properties to some (hypothetical) person. One of the properties is that of moral perfection, and thus in particular moral goodness. So, it seems to me it's pretty intelligible to understand the word without God.

In fact, I already sketched how I think this might happen. I made a parallel with color that you might not agree with (given your color skepticism), but I don't think it's bizarre at all. In fact, one would expect social animals who evolve big brains to have species-specific rules of behavior, and one would also expect that if those animals eventually evolve a language capacity and begin to talk, some of their terms will pick up those rules. Now, perhaps the rules are not rock bottom. Perhaps, the mental properties associated with them are, so "moral obligation", "moral right", etc., are less basic than "immoral behavior", "morally praiseworthy behavior", "morally neutral behavior", etc. But regardless of how it goes, I would say that that would be enough, as long as we do have a moral sense that can generally track those rules. I think we do have it: the best counter argument I'm familiar with is from moral disagreement (or disputes, if "disagreement" settles the question of meaning in some way), but while I used to think a long time ago that it was strong, now I think it's very weak. I offer to discuss it if you like.

Anyway, I'm not saying rules are all there is to morality. I'm saying that as long as they worked as sketched, they'd be good enough for moral obligations/rights (given nothing preventing that talk from being successful, anyway; I don't think there is anything like that, but I'm willing to discuss arguments for the opposite conclusion). Moral goodnes, praiseworthiness, etc., seems to require tracking some mental properties (or other mental properties, if the rules are actually at bottom some mental properties), but I also think we have that - and unsurprisingly so, given evolution.

Side note (or not, given the sketch I'm trying to make): If, say, smart aliens evolved from something like squid on a distant planet (let's call them 2-squid), and they eventually got language, science, technology, etc. (they'd have to become somewhat more social along the way), I would expect them to have some 2-squid-moral language that would pick properties like 2-squid-moral wrongness, 2-squid-moral goodness, etc., not to be confused with the moral counterparts (which are ours). Generally, I would expect advanced social aliens to have something akin to morality, but not quite the same, and also talk (successfully, and species-wide save for very sick individuals, very young, etc.) assigning moral-like properties, etc. If the universe is sufficiently big, there would be some aliens that would have morality as we do, but I would expect that future humans or post humans will never find any of them, if they ever find aliens (way too rare; fictional aliens like Klingons, Vulcans or Mimbari are essentially odd-looking humans with some behavioral quirks, and should count as humans for the purposes of this discussion. Actual aliens would likely be very different from them).

Now, you might ask, but if that's the story, why should a human being follow the rules in question?
Well, not following them is morally wrong, so in a moral sense of "should", it's a tautology that he should.
But if you're asking means-ends, or overall means-to-ends given an individual human being's evaluative function, we can discuss it. I would advance this: in the vast majority of cases, I would expect immoral behavior not to be rational when counting overall means-to-ends, though I also think sometimes it would be rational in that sense (philosophers disagree on whether this is possible, I know, if you like, we can discuss it).

(3) The idea of equal moral worth might not be a good way of supporting equal rights. I think rights and obligations might be about rules, not about value. Or not, but it's a difficult matter, even though the usual philosophical position today is to at least closely link them, if not conflate them. But I'll play along, and consider both the claim of equal moral worth and the claim of equal moral rights, and in particular, the right not to be enslaved. Before I go on, a comment on your claim it's more likely under theism than atheism. Of course, under theism, it follows that there are moral properties by definition (i.e., from the definition of God and the claim that he exists), so I guess in that sense, that would make it more probable all other things equal. But I think given the available info, atheism+moral properties is far more probable than theism. In any case, I would like to address your specific example, namely that each human being is equally loved by God for reasons that we can't understand in all cases. But why would that make it more likely that there is a right not to be enslaved? Would that also make it more likely that, on theism, there is a right not to be, say, imprisoned, regardless of what one did?

But regardless, I'm going to tackle the matters in a more straighforward manner. First, I say the claim that all human beings have equal moral worth is false. I will present hypothetical scenarios that support my claim:

S1:

Let's say that Bob and Kim are drowning. Paul sees them, but Paul can only save one, and can do so without taking any significant risks (e.g., he has a boat and can go and save one, but the boat can't hold 3 people, and there is no time for the other; if this does not work, please adjust the scenario as you see fit, so that Paul properly reckons he can save one without significant risk to his own wellbeing, but just can't save both). Paul properly reckons that Bob is a generally nice guy, not a hero or anything, but not a bad person. On the other hand, Paul also properly reckons that Kim is a serial killer, who kidnaps, rapes and then murders teenage girls, purely for fun. I would say that, all other morally relevant things equal (in particular no one else is drowing, no bad thing can be expected from Bob's survival, etc.):

I. Paul has a moral obligation to save Bob.
II. Regardless of whether I'm wrong about I (but I'm not:)), the action of Paul is morally better if he saves Bob than it is if he saves Kim.
III. If Kim drowns but Bob does not, what happened is better than Kim's surviving and Bob's drowing.


Points III. supports the assessment that Kim's and Bob's moral worth is not equal. I. and II. also support that if we insist on (or stipulate for the sake of the argument) linking moral value with obligations in such a tight manner (if not, then the argument from allegedly equal worth to equal rights also becomes weaker).

You might protest that Kim is morally guilty, so his moral worth went down because of his own fault. But even if that's true (I'll come up with more cases below), the fact remains that their moral worth is not the same. Of course, you might disagree with my moral assessments I-III. If so, please let me know.

S2:

Side note: I don't think embryos are human beings, even if they're human organisms. I don't think the term "human being" picks any human organism. But no matter, if you think they are (if not, please disregard this case), here's the scenario.


Imagine there is a burning building. Roger can save 10 years old Tommy without significant risk to his own life, but the frozen embryos in the other room will burn. Or he can save the 100 frozen embryos, leaving Tommy to die. As it happens, Tommy is under total anesthesia, so he Roger reckons rationally that he would not suffer. Roger has no personal relation to him, and no connection to the embryos or their progenitors, either. I would say:

IV: Roger has a moral obligation to save Tommy.
V: If Tommy burns to death, what has happened is worse than the alternative of the 100 frozen embryos burning.

This supports also that Roger has greater moral worth than each of the 100 embryos.

Regarding the right not to be enslaved, imagine a preindustrial society where there are no prisons - they simply do not have the technology or generally resources to imprison people. In this society, serial killers are condemned to force labor for life (i.e., they're enslaved). Would that be immoral? I don't know. Even if it is (but I doubt it), it's much less immoral than enslaving normal people. Now, serial killers do have the right not to be enslaved; at least, it would be immoral to enslave them just for profit (rather than as a proper punishment). But they don't have the right not to be enslaved as a punishment.

Now, in a sense, it might be said that they still have equal rights, as no one has the right not to be enslaved as a punishment when that punishment is proper. But if that's what one means by equal rights, then why is it surprising that they would be equal without God? (well, actually, I think it's not surprising in any circumstances, but that aside).

So, it seems to me that there is no absolute right not to be enslaved, and there is no equal moral worth, either.

Granted, you might still ask about "natural slaves"?

Well, we can tell by our own moral sense and reason that it's immoral to enslave people for profit. Would such a sense be surprised among humans? No, I don't see why. In social animals with the sort of social organization humans tend to have (and had in the ancestral environment), it's unsurprising that trying to enslave someone would be a norm violation, and it's hardly relevant their level of intelligence. Smart aliens might be different. What do I know?
Granted, I don't have the full story of why it developed in that way. I'm not arguing that I can tell how evolution gave us the moral sense we have, instead of some analogue. But I'm not using evolution to make moral assessments. I'm using reason and my moral sense for that. I'm saying that nothing seems particularly surprising - let alone bizarre or impossible - about us having the sense we have.

Hi Angra,
Of course I can't even begin to address more than a few of your points (without writing a book :)). But here are a few scattered points.

1. I'm not a color skeptic. I think colors are real. (I also think moral properties are real.) My point about color skepticism was merely that there are decent reasons for color skepticism, and that it's not as easy as you seem to think to defeat color skepticism or error theories, etc.

2. The story of Bob and the judge seems unimportant or irrelevant. Yes, the judge would be right in this silly exchange. But there are all kinds of reasons we might have for concluding that the judge is right. For example, even if the ordinary term "red" has as its meaning a concept that applies to nothing in reality (which, again, isn't my own view) the term does still have a generally accepted and stable reference for English speakers. A law against running "red" lights can be reasonably interpreted as a law against running lights in the ordinary extension the term, regardless of its meaning.

3. I agree that normally the burden of proof lies with the person who is rejecting common sense. But, arguably, it is common sense (or at least a very widely shared intuition) that if the only objective correlate or basis for color discourse is a set of facts about light waves, our ordinary color discourse is false. That was Galileo's reaction to the (seeming) discovery that there's nothing else out there in the world to which our color discourse could be applied. That is the reaction of almost all undergraduate students, in my experience. In fact, I'd even suggest that nowadays the 'common sense' belief about colors is some kind of error theory or at least a primary-secondary quality distinction. So if you are appealing to common sense, it's at least questionable whether common sense is on your side. My impression, anyway, is that most non-philosophers are not color realists, and do not regard our color discourse as "successful" in your strong sense. They also seem to hold similar views about moral judgments. Some kind of subjectivism or relativism is very common now. Maybe you are the one going against common sense at this point? (Although, again, I'm a realist about these things myself.)

3. There is a lot of evidence that ordinary moral discourse attributes intrinsic wrongness to some acts. Actually this is one of the ways that psychologists test for psychopathy. Even young children (who aren't psychopathic) have the intuition that hitting smaller children for fun would be wrong even if the teacher said it was okay. By contrast psychopaths find no difference between moral rules and social conventions. I guess you could say that the attribution of intrinsic wrongness to violations of moral rules is not part of the "meaning" of moral terms like "wrong" but merely a widely shared belief about morality. I don't know how you'd know that, though, and I'm skeptical that there is a deep difference between meaning and belief in this area. (And if you think there is, and that this point has to do with meaning not belief, then you are using "meaning" in some "technical" sense that requires clarification and justification...) But, again, it doesn't seem intelligible to say that a property of intrinsic badness or not-to-be-done-ness (or whatever it is) could be constituted by purely physical facts. If you find "physical" unclear, then let's just say: roughly the kinds of facts that are reported in physics textbooks. Now I'm not saying that this proves God is necessary for morality, but only that considerations such as these make it reasonable for thoughtful people to wonder whether God might be necessary--or how morality could have any basis in the real world if the real world is made up entirely of the kinds of facts reported in physics textbooks and other scientific literature.

4. "Now, you might ask, but if that's the story, why should a human being follow the rules in question? Well, not following them is morally wrong, so in a moral sense of "should", it's a tautology that he should."

It might be a tautology but it's not a very good reason. The question can be rephrased like this: 'Why should a human being regard the rules of moral discourse as having any particular authority?' Or, in other words: 'Why should the mere fact that I morally-should do X be a reason for me to do X?' Of course the answer is obvious _once_ I already accept moral rules, or regard moral reasons as reasons-for-me. But here the question is why I should accept anything like that. That seems like a reasonable question. Here is an analogy. If we're playing basketball, you have a reason for trying to sink the ball in the basket instead of passing it to me. Given the rules of basketball, it's "tautological" that you should try to put it through the basket. But there's no reason you need to play basketball, or care about what is good or worthwhile relative to that game. So if you're asking someone 'Why should I follow the rules of basketball?' in the sense of asking for some reason to play that game, it won't be a good answer to say "Because in the game of basketball, following those rules is the right thing to do".

5. "There are societies without the concept of God, but not known societies without moral terms."

I'm not sure about either of these claims. Almost every society I've heard of has some kind of religious worldview and, arguably, none of those religious worldviews ultimately make sense without positing God. (Though it could be that some people didn't actually posit God, or not consciously and explicitly.) There are lots of societies with "moral" beliefs so bizarre and alien that I'd hesitate to say they really had "moral terms". But this is beside the point. Even if all human societies have roughly the same kinds of "moral terms" that we have, it's possible that none of those societies have a coherent philosophical or reflective basis for their moral beliefs unless they posit God. I don't insist on that, but it might well be true. Whether they actually believe this seems irrelevant. But if something like that were true, morality would depend on theism conceptually or metaphysically; so even if your anthropological claims are true I don't understand why they matter. (Analogy: Some people and cultures have little or no conscious grasp of logic and arithmetic, but it's still true that nothing they believe makes any sense except in connection with logic and arithmetic.)

Jacques and Angra,

Thank you for your contributions, but it is now time for you two to continue your conversation via e-mail.

Comments on this post are now closed.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo
Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 10/2008

Categories

Categories

December 2018

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
            1
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31          
Blog powered by Typepad