Thursday, January 13, 2011

Discussion on the nature of objective moral values

Damion asked me some interesting questions about objective moral values, since I throw that phrase around a lot.  They are fair questions, so let me address them.

And by the way, thanks again to Damion for pointing me to The King And I blog.
I think WL Craig's explanation of what he means by "objective moral values" is very helpful.  Paraphrased from memory, it's "by objective moral values I mean that they are true independent of whether anyone believes them or not".  So that would more closely align with your former proposition:  if it is a statement which accurately describes the arrangement of objects in time and space. Close, that is, b/c although obviously I quibble with the "time and space" part of it, the truth value of the statement "I am sitting on a chair right now" (which has to do with the arrangement of objects in time and space) is equal to the truth value of the statement "idolatry is never morally justifiable".

This leads me to a question about your "time and space" comment - are statements about conceptual truths like "a is not non-a in the same way and at the same time (where a is an idea, not a materia object)" objective according to your definition?

Also, you said:
Most of the universe is merely matter/energy in motion

On naturalistic materialism, I am not at all sure that this statement can be substantiated.  It seems to be a hypothesis, but one for which, with anything close to our current level of technology and observational power, any level of nearly-complete evidence could be marshaled.  Do you disagree?
And on Christianity, the question is impossible to answer and not really that important.  God has not revealed how many angels and demons exist.  What if there were quadrillions of each, 1000s for each human that has ever existed or will ever exist?  We don't know how "big" they are.  The characteristics of the plane they inhabit.  How "big" Heaven and Hell are.  And of course, the number of dead humans whose souls are some"where" at least matches the number of humans currently alive.


Anyway, it's also interesting that the moral statements to which I refer, ie God's moral laws/commands, are also decisions in the mind of God, so in a way, they are both.
The missing element here might be the normative value, the applicability and authority that a command from God the Creator has over the entire creation.  If I say "idolatry is morally wrong", what normativity or authority does that have?  What obligation would anyone else have to follow it?  Thus it is merely my sentiment, my feeling.  It's ultimately a description of what I think, for whatever reason I may have to think it, not a PREscription of what others OUGHT to do or ought not to do.

For more on this, and at the risk of pointing you to something you've already read, permit me to refer to this post.

28 comments:

aztexan said...

Directed a new (to me) atheist fella (see comm-thread) your direction, Alan. "Kaa" seems like a pretty nice guy, so *try* to be nice. ;-)

zilch said...

Rho- unless you can prove that this God of yours exists, then you can't likewise prove that "objective" moral values exist.

Rhology said...

zilch,
Agreed. I've said as much many times.

zilch said...

Rho- then I guess there's no problem. Since I don't believe in God, I don't need "objective" moral values either. That simplifies things.

Rhology said...

We've discussed this many times, zilch. It doesn't simplify things at all. There is now no way for you to condemn anything as objectively evil, in a way that SHOULD matter to anyone else. You can't and don't live like that is really true. The critical thinker has to ask: Why don't and can't you live according to your professed position?

zilch said...

Why should I care what's "objectively" evil? That's your bag. You seem to think that if I can't make an absolute distinction between "good" and "evil", that I can't make any moral decisions at all. Sorry, I'm not a dualist: I can see shades of grey.

Your argument about morality is akin to saying, "if you can't distinguish between what is "objectively" good to eat and what's merely "subjectively" good to eat, then you have no reason to not feed your kids plutonium".

Not only that, but your position is illdefined. What exactly is a "moral value"? Is it a particular set of words in some particular language? Or is it some sort of imperfectly accessible state of mind of God? Do all "true" Christians agree on exactly what they would do in any postulated situation of moral import? How can you know if you have done the "objectively" right moral thing? You toss these words around, but I don't see much evidence that you think them through.

Rhology said...

That's fine.

I'd just ask you and anyone else who thinks this might have some validity to examine zilch's claims in light of my scenario.

zilch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
zilch said...

Yeah, Rho, I've read that already, and it's exactly as I said: your argument is the same as "if you don't know what's "objectively" good to eat, then you have no reason to not feed your kids plutonium". Sorry, the world is not divided up that way.

zilch said...

And how about answering my questions? What exactly is "objective morality"? Is it words? Thoughts? Actions?

Rhology said...

Answered in the first paragraph of this post, zilch.

zilch said...

So "objective moral values" are a "statement"? Does that mean in a particular language? Or do you mean a particular sequence of ASCII symbols?

If you say "yes", then that means the consequences in people's brains and in their actions have nothing to do with "morality". If "no", then what do you mean? As I am well aware, and you perhaps are too, no two languages, and no two human brains, will interpret the "same" statement in exactly the same way. Where's the "objectivity" here?

Rhology said...

The objectivity is in their normativity, applicability (both of which speak to authority), origin, and unchanging nature of the origin.

zilch said...

Could you translate that into plain language, Rho? I don't speak "apologetic".

Rhology said...

OK.
Normativity = you should do this, shouldn't do that. Carries command and authority to tell others what to do.

Applicability = the Creator has the ability and authority to apply His commands to anyone He wants. And He wants to apply His commands to everyone.

Origin = it's not you telling me what to do. You have no claim on me. God does, since He made me.

Unchanging nature = if a parent tells a child "don't hit your brother" and later allows it, the consistency is lacking and the command is not only unclear but obviously not applicable. God's commands are unchanging (when you understand them correctly).

zilch said...

Rho, none of that explains your claim of "objectivity". If "objectivity" just means "what God says", then there's no basis for discussion.

Rhology said...

Why doesn't it explain it? And why doesn't WLCraig's explanation help? What specifically is the problem?

zilch said...

The problem here, Rho, is that your concept of "objective moral values" is based on the existence of God. As such, I don't see how your explanation of "objective moral values" can be the subject of a discussion with atheists. We don't have your "objective moral values" by definition.

And you've given us no reason to feel that we're missing something here, so there's no common ground. Why should I care that I don't have your "objective moral values", any more than you don't care that you don't have, say, Ganesh watching out for you?

All you've offered (over and over) is a transparent slippery slope argument, saying that since we don't have your "objective moral values", then we cannot defend any moral values at all. As I said, by that kind of "reasoning", if you can't define what's "objectively good to eat" (or can you?), then you have no right to protest someone feeding plutonium to their kids. Or will you claim that I, as an atheist, have no "objective" reason not to feed my kids plutonium? Please.

Not only that, but you have yet to define exactly what "moral values" are: are they a certain sequence of words? Or are they thoughts? Human or divine? If no one can agree on exactly what, say, "thou shalt not kill (or murder)" means (which I think is abundantly demonstrable), where's the "objectivity"?

If these "objective moral values" exist only as ideals in God's nature, who, if anyone, has access to them? Do you? If not, what exactly do you have here? I don't see that you are in any position to claim anything as an "objective moral value".

That being the case, you are in the same glass house as us atheists, and throwing stones is inadvisable. Luckily, most Christians and most atheists have enough "subjective" common sense to refrain from throwing stones, even if they don't have any "objective" way of defending their actions.

cheers from icy Vienna, zilch

Rhology said...

I really don't think it's a slippery slope argument. I'm saying there is no slope. You yourself are the slope, and that means there is none. Just saying you should do what you do is not morality and it's not normative. It's just what you do.

Why should I care that I don't have your "objective moral values", any more than you don't care that you don't have, say, Ganesh watching out for you?

To say "should" on your worldview is totally meaningless. I'm afraid you're still not really dealing with the issue at hand.
And I've told you many times, including in this very thread, why you should be concerned.


you have yet to define exactly what "moral values" are

Well, OK. I'm sorry, but I have to disagree. I think I've been pretty clear.


If these "objective moral values" exist only as ideals in God's nature, who, if anyone, has access to them?

Everyone, b/c He revealed them.

zilch said...

I really don't think it's a slippery slope argument. I'm saying there is no slope. You yourself are the slope, and that means there is none. Just saying you should do what you do is not morality and it's not normative. It's just what you do.

Er, okay. Thanks for sharing your opinion, but I don't see an "argument" here.

To say "should" on your worldview is totally meaningless. I'm afraid you're still not really dealing with the issue at hand.
And I've told you many times, including in this very thread, why you should be concerned.


Again, this is just your opinion. To you, "totally meaningless" means "not based on Scripture". So I remain unconcerned, and you still have no argument.

You have yet to define exactly what "moral values" are

Well, OK. I'm sorry, but I have to disagree. I think I've been pretty clear.

Clear as mud. I'll repeat my questions that you didn't answer: are moral values a certain sequence of words, or are they thoughts, and if so, human or divine? Those are pretty clear questions, and you've not answered them.

If these "objective moral values" exist only as ideals in God's nature, who, if anyone, has access to them?

Everyone, b/c He revealed them.

Then why is there disagreement about what they are, or if they even exist? And if they do exist, who understands them correctly, if anyone? You?

Rho, you are not really being responsive here. I'm really curious who, in your opinion, understands what do in every morally relevant situation (that's what "objective" must mean, right?), and if no one does, what it can possibly mean to claim that "objective moral values" exist.

cheers from snowy Vienna, zilch

Rhology said...

The very words "normativity" and "should" and "ought-ness" that I've been using are the very words that denote discussions of moral values. I can't make it any clearer.

You're mistaken about what I mean by "totally meaningless". Again, discussed many times. I'm not sure why you don't understand.

There is disagreement, at least partly, b/c of sin. You remember how Christianity has a doctrine of the depravity of man?
We discussed this recently too - here. The existence of disagreement has no necessary logical bearing on a given communication's lack of clarity.


you are not really being responsive here.

I'm trying to be as respectful as possible, but I find your questions puzzling in the density of mind they demonstrate. Sorry.


, understands what do in every morally relevant situation (that's what "objective" must mean, right?)

No, that is not what objective means. I defined it above. You might check the above comments.

zilch said...

The very words "normativity" and "should" and "ought-ness" that I've been using are the very words that denote discussions of moral values. I can't make it any clearer.

Yes, and as I've said, you've defined them all in terms of God, and thus out of the subject matter of a discussion with atheists. I don't see how I can make this any clearer either.

What you haven't done, as I've also said, is shown what I'm missing in not having your "objective moral values", whatever they might be.

You're mistaken about what I mean by "totally meaningless". Again, discussed many times. I'm not sure why you don't understand.

Okay, tell me what you mean by "totally meaningless", without mentioning God. Otherwise, you're in the same position a Hindu is with you, saying that without Ganesh, your moral values are "totally meaningless". I don't see any argument here, just an assertion.

No, that is not what objective means. I defined it above. You might check the above comments.

No, you did not define what an "objective moral value" is. Is it, for the last time, a sequence of words, or is it a thought, human or divine, or something else? And if so, who understands it? Can't you simply answer my questions?

Rhology said...

Otherwise, you're in the same position a Hindu is with you, saying that without Ganesh, your moral values are "totally meaningless".

What you're missing here is that even if atheism is true, your moral values are totally meaningless. So are mine. So are everyone's.
And yet you act as if they do have meaning. You're inconsistent.

As for the definition of "value", I'd hold to the plain vanilla dictionary definition of the word.

zilch said...

What you're missing here is that even if atheism is true, your moral values are totally meaningless. So are mine. So are everyone's.
And yet you act as if they do have meaning. You're inconsistent.


Can you give me some evidence to support this opinion of yours? I still don't see an argument here.

As for the definition of "value", I'd hold to the plain vanilla dictionary definition of the word.

Sigh. I'd really be curious to know what you think an "objective moral value" is, but I guess you're not really interested in telling me- otherwise you would have simply answered my questions, which are perfectly clear, and which I posed three times. I'm not such a glutton for punishment that I will try a fourth time, so I guess I will just sign off.

Rhology said...

Actually, as we've discussed recently around here, I believe the onus is on you who make the assertion that meaning exists to prove it does. Go for it!

zilch said...

Tell me what you mean by "meaning", Rho, and I'll give it my best shot. Meanwhile, you can prove to me that God exists.

Rhology said...

I've been trying to find where we discussed this recently, and I think I finally tracked it down.
Here. That's what I mean.

And w/o any reason to think that anything matters (ie, w/o meaning), the question of God's existence, like any other question, is uninteresting.

zilch said...

Rho- at the link you provided, you do not define what "meaning" is; you merely list examples of different meanings that different people hold, without saying a thing about what "meaning" is.

I'm sorry, but I'm going to bow out here. If you can't define what it is that you claim I don't have, then there's no basis for a discussion. And pointing me to a dictionary when I ask what you mean by "objective moral values" is risible. What part of my thrice-repeated question didn't you understand?

You accuse me of "not thinking critically", and of "living inconsistently with my values", and of being "dense"; but as far as I can see here, you've never given any critical thought yourself about exactly what it is you're talking about here- or if you have, you're being less than forthcoming with your thoughts.

You seem more interested in bamboozling with wordplay and scoring points than in rational discussion, and while that can be entertaining for a while, life is short- at least for me. Toodle-oo.