I’m continuing this series on a moral argument for the existence of God. If you’re just joining, please start in Part 1!
Last time, in Part 2, I discussed how morality, at least how we all generally perceive it, must be either objective or illusory. I left you with my initial doubts; we couldn’t really tell the difference between the two. Why should we take a stance that morality is objective, even if we perceive it that way, when there would be no way to tell that it’s actually the case?
Do you know what else you couldn’t tell the difference about if it were an illusion, though? The entirety of reality outside your head. Seriously.
You couldn’t tell the difference if we actually lived in the matrix. You could do a test on it, but that test itself would be a part of the illusion and what you tested would be a part of the illusion. Any test on the world assumes its reality. Yet, no one would sincerely believe we are in the matrix. They might give lip service to the idea, but when they go to work the next day they’re treating reality for what it is: reality.
We believe the world is real based on our experience of the world, and we all agree it’s rational to believe our experience is trustworthy. This type of knowledge is called a properly basic belief. We don’t need to do a test on it, just like I don’t need to do a test to tell I’m not in the matrix. Properly basic beliefs are rationally held based on our experience. Examples of properly basic beliefs are my belief in other minds, my belief in the reality of the past, my belief in the trustworthiness of rationality, and my belief in an external reality. These are all, obviously, rationally held. Yet, technically speaking, they cannot be verified.
Properly basic beliefs are rational and should be held until there is a defeater for those beliefs. For example, we have the properly basic belief that a stick bends when we put it in water. However, we have a defeater for that belief in our understanding of how light works and feeling the stick; among other things.
So, do we have a similar defeater for our moral experience? We’ve seen one attempt so far in the previous post; sociobiological evolution. However, since it is possible that we discover morality through evolution (or discover despite it), not develop morality, we can grant evolution without there being a defeater. What defeater is left? I don’t think there is one unless we assume there is no objective moral values and duties; then follow that up with a description of how we came to have the illusion via evolution. This assumption, however, would be circular, let alone against our strongly perceived moral experiences.
Moreover, as I said in my last post, nature is red in tooth and claw. If we actually try to derive morality from it, it wouldn’t be difficult to justify the social darwinism that is the characteristic view of those committing genocides.
A kind of funny thing about appealing to evolution for our perception of a moral reality is that it’s ultimately a self-defeating counterargument. Evolution simply aims for survival. If you’re around today, your ancestors survived. And, although you have a strong experience of morality, it’s wrong. It helped survival. It’s a useful illusion. But if my properly basic belief of morality is illusory due to evolution, what about my other properly basic beliefs? How about the properly basic belief in the trustworthiness of my own rationality? Evolution is not aimed at discovering truth, it’s aimed at survival. How can I trust my own rationality, then? How can I know it is not a useful survival illusion? We couldn’t tell the difference! It’s the same with morality. If evolution justifies believing morality is an illusion, it also, on the exact same line of thinking, justifies saying our rationality is an illusion. But if we lose rationality, we lose every justification for every belief, including our justification for the counterargument.
We experience objective morality (and rationality). When you hear of another terrorist attack, or a genocide, or racism, or rapes, or a beautifully selfless act, or an awesome romantic gesture, you think of these as actually wrong or right.
Some still protest, suggesting another possible defeater for our moral experience. The suggestion is that moral values and duties differ from culture to culture. It can thus be inferred that there is no objective moral standard. However, keeping in mind the moral ontology/moral epistemology distinction explained in Part 1, a plurality of views, I think, doesn’t mean there is not a correct view.
Take a look at, say, our astronomical hypotheses around 500 years ago. Some believed in heliocentrism while others believed in geocentrism. For most of human history, the ability of any method to make a reliable call regarding the earth’s place in the universe was dubious. Here, there were a plurality of views and there were epistemological limits. Yet no one would say there was no objective truth regarding the earth’s relation to the sun. Similarly, it does not follow from differing moral views that there is no moral truth.
No one is claiming that our moral perception is infallible or perfect. People have been morally wrong, after all. Epistemological infallibility is not required for this argument. Often, when this argument is presented, someone will provide some extremely difficult moral situation or dilemma where it is very difficult to determine what is right or wrong. Being difficult to determine what is right or wrong doesn’t matter in relation to this argument, though. There just has to be an objectively correct answer. Whether I know that answer or not in a very specific and wildly unlikely situation is irrelevant. Plus, the very fact that someone considers it a moral dilemma should give us pause, especially if we think there’s no such thing as morality. Such dilemmas would be the moral equivalent of picking one piece of dirt over another, since there really isn’t any morality.
Still others suggest a third defeater. They claim there are people who are incapable of comprehending morality, like sociopaths, suggesting there isn’t one. Again, we need to keep the ontology/epistemology distinction in mind. It does not follow that if some people are unable to know morals that there are no morals. Does it follow from the existence of blind people that there is no external reality? Does it follow from deaf people that the phenomena we call sound is an illusion? Obviously not.
One great thing about the 2016 US election is that no one can consistently claim morality is illusory. Everyone made profoundly moral charges for or against their chosen party. Are you willing to say Trump or Clinton were morally wrong? Protesters seem to think so. How can someone do that if they aren’t committed to the truth of objective moral values and duties? How can someone make judgements on opposing parties if morals are subjective or illusory? How can someone claim the opposing party’s leader ought not act the way they have or endorse the views they have? Our society often talks of moral relativism. Our actions, however, betray us.
Plus, if I were to walk up to you and punch you in the face, steel your wallet, and swipe your car keys — even if you said that morality is illusory — I’m pretty sure your reaction would give your true beliefs away.
Here, we find ourselves staring in the face of a key philosophical failure of those who deny objective moral values and duties. Let me explain with an analogy. I experience that gravity on earth makes things fall towards the earth. Now, let’s say with all my reasoning skills I determine, due to the very foundation of reality I have found myself at with said reasoning skills, that gravity makes things fly into space. What is the correct reaction? Do I say that gravity making things fall is an illusion or do I think I made a mistake somewhere? Clearly I made a mistake!
What the gravity-upwards-ist, like the moral skeptic, is using is what I will call (or rather, what some of my friends around me have called) a bottom up approach to epistemology. They think we must start at the very foundation of reality and reason up to where we are (in the middle somewhere). Here’s the thing: how’d they determine what the foundation is? Did they not start with their experiences? Did they not look at reality and reason to the foundation, not from it? Experiences like the reality of the past, that the past behaved similar to the present, that there is in fact a repeatable reality, that we’re not in the matrix, that rationality is trustworthy, etc. are all perceived from the middle!
Sure, try to determine the foundation of reality. It’s a fine pursuit! I do it all the time. Really, this whole series is an attempt at such an endeavour. Sure, take what you think is right and see what its logical conclusions are. But then, when evaluating this foundation, if it doesn’t align to reality (i.e. our experiences), then it’s wrong! Either we need a defeater from our experiences for our experiences (like observing an experiment, which is just controlled experiences), like in the case of our bending stick, in which case it will show our experiences of the stick are not really our experiences at all, or the view doesn’t actually align to reality. Experiments themselves, such as dropping a ball to see if it falls up or down, have properly basic assumptions in the background. It assumes my eyes are trustworthy, it assumes the ball is real and not a hologram, it assumes the rest of the external world is not a hologram, it assumes that the result will not switch from down to up when you go skydiving, etc, etc. All measurable data has properly basic beliefs underlaying that data. We can’t simply toss our properly basic beliefs to the wayside when it’s inconvenient.
Epistemology starts in the middle and we can reason from there either up (predictions) or down (foundations). But we can’t start at the bottom. The moral skeptic started at the middle to get to the bottom in order to undermine the middle. Such an epistemology is thus self-defeating.
Key buzz-lines you should listen for if someone is using thinking like described above in regards to objective moral values and duties are sentences like, “I do feel like things are actually wrong or right, but I know that I’m just being irrational.” Now, such people are quite right. They are being irrational. However, it’s not for the reasons they think! They’ve observed gravity makes us go down and seeing it’s inconsistent with their gravity-up worldview, beg the question and claim it’s an illusion! Where is their defeater for our experience? Evolution is wholly consistent with objective moral values and duties, even if it can’t account for them (similar to the trustworthiness of rationality). There’s no contradiction, so all that such information entails is that morality isn’t explained in evolution. Where’s the argument for illusion? There’s some attempts above. They’re very poor, as we’ve seen.
It is just as unreasonable to think our moral experiences are illusory as it is to believe we’re in a matrix. It seems to me, as with the belief that the external world is real, that objective moral values and duties are Moorean Facts. That is to say, they are one of those things that we know better than we know the premises of any argument to the contrary. In other words, the reasoning to think morality to be illusory will always be less obviously true than morality itself. The rational person will always believe, when given the choice of X or not-X, the option with the greatest warrant. In order to hold to moral skepticism, one must have a reason for it that is more obviously true then if someone were to rape your sister or daughter or friend or wife or mother it would be objectively evil. Good luck with that. Morality is a Moorean Fact. It therefore can never be rational to hold to moral scepticism.
The Holocaust was actually evil. The 60’s Scoop ought not to have been orchestrated. Parents’ selfless love is actually good. Human rights ought to be fought for. I shouldn’t randomly punch you in the face. All those statements are true whether someone thinks it or not. If you disagree I will randomly punch you in the face repeatedly until you come to your senses. If you feel appalled that I’d even write that previous sentence (or some of the other rather provocative claims written throughout this and previous posts), then you agree with me! Great! (I was uncomfortable writing those sentences. But the point needs to be made.) If you disagree with me but are still appalled by said sentences, then you don’t actually disagree with me. It seems there is such a thing as moral values and duties that are independent of human thought.
So what are they dependent on? We’ll begin to discuss this next time.