I recently tackled again the always fascinating Euthyphro dilemma, first proposed by Plato in the short dialogue by the same name. I have written about it in depth in my Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life, but it now seemed as good a time as ever to revisit the issue.
I did so in two essays for The Philosophers’ Magazine Online, and I welcome further discussion here at Plato’s Footnote. I begin by mentioning an excellent paper by my City University of New York colleague Michael Levin, which summarizes what the dilemma is all about, as well as a number of (unsuccessful) attempts to wiggle out of it (including the ever favorite one: accusing Plato of setting up a false dilemma — but it should be obvious that just because there are some false dilemmas out there, it doesn’t mean that all dichotomous choices are false. For instance: 2+2 is either =4 or it isn’t.)
The first thing to understand about the Euthyphro is that it is not an argument against the existence of God. Socrates — despite being on his way, at the beginning of the dialogue, to defend himself from the charge of impiety, for which he was later sentenced to death by the Athenian state — was no atheist. Rather, the question being posed concerns, as Socrates himself puts it about one third into the dialogue, the source of morality itself: “And what is piety, and what is impiety?”
The rest of the first essay is a detailed presentation of the dilemma, leading into the beginning of a discussion of various theological attempts to respond to it. One of the first was by none other than Thomas Aquinas. He conceded that something is good because God says so, but this is simply because it is in God’s nature to be good, which guarantees that his commands will in fact be moral. I discuss why the “it’s in God’s nature” defense doesn’t actually do the trick (e.g., to even claim that God’s nature is good you need some concept of good, and where are you getting that, if not by impaling yourself again in one of the two horns of the dilemma?).
The above mentioned paper by Levin does make a novel contribution to the debate, and is worth reading in full for a fresh perspective. Michael analyzes the concept of God’s “dependence” on a given standard of value, and provides reasons to “dissolve,” so to speak, the dilemma. I refer you to the second half of my first essay for a full discussion of his approach.
The second essay moves on to consider what modern theologians have been up to, when it comes to answering Plato, and they haven’t fared much better than Aquinas, in my opinion.
A sophisticated attempt at avoiding being impaled by the Euthyphro, for instance, has been made by Richard Swinburne. It takes the form of a compromise, suggesting that moral values come in two flavors: necessary and contingent. In other words, some moral rules are universal and absolute, while others depend on circumstances. Absolute values, according to Swinburne, hold in all conceivable worlds, examples being the prohibitions against rape or murder. Contingent values, on the other hand, are not applicable everywhere and at every time — let’s say the prohibition on eating certain kinds of foods at particular times of the year.
Swinburne’s stratagem has a serious drawback: if absolute values are independent of specific circumstances, then they can be arrived at by reason (which is of course the project of most ethical philosophers), and one falls yet again on the horn of the dilemma that says we don’t need gods to tell us what to do. In this scenario, God at best gets to tell us his personal preferences in terms of minor actions, like whether or not to eat pork on which days, which hardly seems the stuff of serious moral discourse.
The final section of the second essay discusses what I think is the most sophisticated attempt to date, by Robert Merrihew Adams, and I refer you to my summary of it over at TMP Online.
Incidentally, you may want to check out this little test based on the Euthyphro, courtesy of Jeremy Stangroom, and see how you fare against other readers of The Philosophers’ Magazine.
Which means that you have a prior commitment that the meaning of “good” and “evil” must be in line with human usage and feelings on the matter. In other words you are establishing a human-judgement standard and defining “good” and “evil” in terms of that standard.
That’s fine, I agree with you. But that is not DCT. DCT defines “good” and “evil” in terms of what God wants entirely irrespective of how humans feel.
It is a common misunderstanding that if something is universal then that makes it objective. If every child in the world liked chocolate then their liking for chocolate would still be subjective (that is, a property of their minds).
No, you could only label him evil by reference to human subjective judgement. There is no such thing as “the objective scale of morality”. There’s human opinion and God’s opinion, and in the counterfactual scenario this counterfactual-God would have designed the universe in line with his counterfactual-God morality.
In the counterfactual-God scenario the only “actual God” is the counterfactual-God.
You regularly expound on your theistic viewpoint (which is entirely ok with me), and yet you get huffy at me expounding on my atheistic viewpoint.
> Which means that you have a prior commitment that the meaning of “good” and “evil” must be in line with human usage and feelings on the matter.
Of course. I thought I answered this with the water=H2O, sound=vibrations and light=electromagnetic radiation examples, which you didn’t answer. You have to have such a prior commitment, and so does DCT. We are faced with the fact that we have these intuitions about good and evil and what DCT is trying to do is explaining what these intuitions are about. These intuitions are a starting point and constrain the domain of what we are discussing, but they don’t in themselves provide a clear account much less a definition of what is going on. That’s where DCT steps in.
> In other words you are establishing a human-judgement standard and defining “good” and “evil” in terms of that standard.
No, the standard is God. Humans may all agree that the slaughter of the Canaanites was evil and still be wrong as long as this slaughter was what God actually wanted. It is the fact that we have such opinions at all that we are trying to explain — there seems to be something out there that we are perceiving. We may however perceive it incorrectly. Such a mistake on the part of humans regarding the Canaanites would amount to humans falling prey to a moral illusion, akin to an optical illusion. Perhaps only well-trained theologians like WLC can see the truth.
Analogously, the fact that we perceive things with our eyes constrains the domain of what we are talking about when we discuss images and light. It constrains any reasonable definition of terms such as “dark”. But that doesn’t mean that our perceptions are the standard of what is actually happening. Humans may perceive one part of an image as darker
than another and be mistaken.
> It is a common misunderstanding that if something is universal then that makes it objective.
I don’t think I am making this mistake in this instance, though. It is objective because it is what we perceive with our moral sense, not because everybody agrees (which they don’t). It is universal in the sense that it applies to everybody in every situation, not in the sense that there is wide agreement.
> There is no such thing as “the objective scale of morality”.
There is on DCT. God built it into the universe along with physical law.
> In the counterfactual-God scenario the only “actual God” is the counterfactual-God.
So what? We’re not living in that scenario. So the words “good” and “evil” as we use them are defined by reference to the God that (on DCT) does actually exist. As such it is objectively true for me to say that the sadistic God is evil. In the counterfactual scenario, it would not be objectively true, but the counterfactual scenario is counterfactual so who cares?
We need to make a big distinction between explaining what “morally good” actually *means*, and explaining why humans have moral intuitions. Those are very different things. Here we are discussing the former. (The latter is an interesting issue, but is not what Euthyphro is about.)
If you are insisting that the meaning of “morally good” must be tied to human feelings and human judgements, then that is not DCT. DCT ties the *meaning* of “morally good” to *God*’s preferences.
If you’re accepting that humans could be entirely mistaken on what is “morally good”, then you are not insisting on tying the meaning of “morally good” to human feelings and human judgements. You need to choose one or the other! (Again, this is not about explaining why we have the feelings we do.)
As *we* use them! Yes, indeed. So, as judged by the standards in *our* universe (our-God’s view and our views) then counter-factual God is immoral.
And, as judged by the standards of counterfactual-universe (their-God’s views and their views) then our God is immoral.
And DCT gives no basis for choosing between out-God and counterfactual-God. And thus the scheme is, at root, arbitrary. What “morally good” then means is a local accident, contingent on the beings present in our universe.
Now, if you’re happy with that, as WLC is, then fine.
Hello Alan White,
Nice thought above, and I do hope to see more of you here. As a youngster I did enjoy how Socrates feigned seriousness with his questions to Euthyphro. Because I’ve had little reason to worry about “piety” myself however, I essentially packed the fable away until recently. It would seem however that philosophers take this as serious business from which to counter the “moral realism” found in standard religious beliefs. I find your scenario of a person willing to accept a “horn,” interesting.
It seems to me that many of us who are gainfully employed, do have bosses to tend, and the more perceptive of us realize it when he/she needs some ego stroking. Even though you may have what you think are better (but contradictory) ideas, you may generally be punished for showing up your boss. Observe that you may need to moderate your golf skills. So the religious person who accepts this first horn, I think, is analogous to the perceptive employee. And who knows? Just as the perceptive employee can do well, so might the “pious,” and even with no better definition for piety than “A means from which to reach Heaven.” Sounds like a good definition to me!
Then as for this second horn, is this “deductively” reasoning through why your religious beliefs happen to be valid? Or from the assumption that they are true, then reasoning why they are true? (It who knows, maybe they are true!) So perhaps your boss gives you a business plan, and you use it to validate why it’s such a good plan?
Or perhaps it’s simply acknowledging that your supposedly all powerful god, wouldn’t be all powerful if you decide that He doesn’t regulate what’s good?
I see that Robin Herbert is a bit puzzled about this second horn business as well, so perhaps we’d each find your account informative.
> We need to make a big distinction between explaining what “morally good” actually *means*, and explaining why humans have moral intuitions.
I think sometimes you can do both at the same time, or that one entails the other. Explaining that “dark” means “emitting fewer photons” is pretty the same as explaining why humans perceive some things as darker than others (because they emit fewer photons). That doesn’t mean that human perceptions regarding darkness are the objective standard. Again, you’re failing to answer analogies which I think illustrate what I’m saying pretty well.
> If you are insisting that the meaning of “morally good” must be tied to human feelings and human judgements, then that is not DCT.
DCT explains the origin of the standard and that the standard exists. It absolutely has to be tied to human feelings to some extent because human feelings regarding morality existed before DCT and are the domain that DCT seeks to explain. In the same way, a model of water as H2O absolutely has to be tied to human experience of water as stuff in the sea and rivers and stuff that falls from the sky as rain (and so defining water as Hg will not do), but these items of experience do not define water. So your argument that this is not DCT just doesn’t work.
> If you’re accepting that humans could be entirely mistaken on what is “morally good”, then you are not insisting on tying the meaning of “morally good” to human feelings and human judgements.
I explained this with reference to optical illusion! Humans can be wrong about what is darker, but that doesn’t mean that the word “dark” does not have its origins in human experience. Human feelings and judgements define the domain we’re talking about and put some constraints on different hypotheses and accounts of morality. DCT is one such account. Like the germ theory of disease, the domain we are seeking to explain is known before the theory, but that doesn’t mean that the domain itself does not arise from the explanation in the theory.
So our knowledge of good and evil is prior to DCT. But DCT develops and refines this knowledge, makes definitions more precise and explains how it came about.
> And DCT gives no basis for choosing between out-God and counterfactual-God.
It does, because our God is real and the counterfactual God is not. In a counterfactual universe, the charge of an electron is different. Does that mean we have no basis for saying what the charge of an electron is?
I suspect you will say no, but it does imply that the charge of an electron is arbitrary. That is only so if it was not chosen for some purpose (e.g. fine-tuning for life). I think you may instead want to say contingent. And I will provisionally agree with you that DCT may imply that our morality is contingent (not arbitrary) as long as we don’t buy into ontological arguments about God being a necessary being and being necessarily just as he is.
Please can we decouple the definition of what “moral” means from the explanation of why humans think as they do?
If DCT is correct then it is logically possible that:
(1) God established an absolute morality and built it into the laws of the universe, and then — for some unfathomable reason — created humans with exactly opposite moral feelings. Or that:
(2) God established an absolute morality and built it into the laws of the universe, and then Satan created humans with exactly opposite moral feelings. It is logically possible that the “god” known and worshipped by theists is actually “Satan”, an opponent of the God that established the morality of DCT.
Thus, if you adopt DCT, you cannot insist, a priori, that “morally good” must align with human sentiments, you must allow that humans could be entirely mistaken, and that human feelings (such as “love” and “compassion” and “loyalty”) are utterly evil.
Which do you want? Do you want to judge morality by human standards (“our knowledge of good and evil”) or do you want DCT?
If your reply is that you want DCT-plus, being DCT with the added axiom that human sentiments align with God’s sentiments, then ok, but can we first settle raw DCT?
Alan, thanks for visiting. I kind of already tackled that; one has to ask how much omnibenevolence, or omnipotence, to give up in one’s beliefs.
Coel & DM:
I alluded to this above, but to reframe in more straightforward terms:
The charge of arbitrariness does not work for me for more or less the same reason that DM states here. What does work for me is the charge of subjectiveness: that is, even if I accept that God is the only subject (or Subject) whose opinion on morality matters, I’m still faced with two major problems, one ethical and the other epistemic:
1) ethical: “Might makes right” (as Massimo put it) is no more compelling a moral principle when it is ascribed to God, Nature, or a host of invisible superhuman beings than it is when ascribed to us mortals.
2) epistemic: Long before there were scientific and historical reasons to doubt theistic claims about the world, there were logical reasons to doubt strong absolutist claims…not only of the theistic variety, but that is the one that’s on the table now.
None of this (even Euthyphro) rules out a pragmatic approach to morality…but it’s not for nothing that religious clerics often stress the importance of simple (as in: non-rational, unreflective) faith, because otherwise experience and reason won’t get us to where they’d like us to go.
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I really think you need to engage with the analogy of good/evil to bright/dark. If you did so I might better appreciate where you’re coming from. You’re asking me to decouple two things which on DCT cannot be decoupled.
> God established an absolute morality and built it into the laws of the universe, and then — for some unfathomable reason — created humans with exactly opposite moral feelings.
I don’t think that is logically possible because on DCT our moral feelings is the means by which he established a moral law. If he put a moral law in place but gave us no access to it at all then it would be meaningless to say it existed. It would be like having laws of physics in place to control particles which don’t happen to exist.
> God established an absolute morality and built it into the laws of the universe, and then Satan created humans with exactly opposite moral feelings
In that case it would be God’s moral law that would be irrelevant and Satan that defines good and bad. Satanic Command Theory would be true. We would hold Satan to be good and God to be evil. If this is actually the case (e.g. it is Satan who like kindness and God who likes cruelty), then the being you call Satan is just the being I call God and what you have presented is just DCT with the labels swapped. If it is a counterfactual then this scenario is equivalent to the sadistic God scenario.
> Thus, if you adopt DCT, you cannot insist, a priori, that “morally good” must align with human sentiment
It has to align with human sentiment to some extent, but that doesn’t make human sentiment or perception the standard. Just as with brightness/darkness (again, please consider this analogy as you seem to be ignoring it).
> Which do you want? Do you want to judge morality by human standards (“our knowledge of good and evil”) or do you want DCT?
Again, bright and dark. We knew of bright and dark before we know of photons and have been in the habit of making judgements regarding these for as long as we have existed. We judge bright and dark by human standards when we rely on our perception, but this is a subjective impression of the objective fact and so prone to mistake and illusion. To get an objective measure you’d have to measure the rate of emission of photons of visible light with some sort of instrument. Same goes for good and evil. We have some ability to perceive good and evil but it is flawed and so people often disagree on the facts. Unfortunately we don’t have an instrument to measure what is actually good or evil but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an objective fact of the matter.
> you must allow that humans could be entirely mistaken
All of the people can be entirely mistaken some of the time. Some of the people can be entirely mistaken all of the time. All of the people cannot be mistaken all of the time because that would entail simply redefining good and bad in a way which does not reflect usage. Like defining “bright” to mean emitting few photons and “dark” to mean emitting many photons. For the terms to mean what they do, people have to be right most of the time. There has to be a correlation between the precise account (photons/DCT) and everyday experience.
> If your reply is that you want DCT-plus, being DCT with the added axiom that human sentiments align with God’s sentiments,
DCT-plus is DCT, as far as I can see. For the reasons I’m explaining, it does not make sense to imagine human moral intuitions having no bearing on moral truth. The whole point of DCT is that our moral intuitions are imperfectly perceiving moral truth.
“Might makes right” to me implies we do what is asked out of fear of reprisals or because we are otherwise coerced. But that’s not the proposal on the table. The proposal is that we behave morally (for the most part) because God built us this way. We want to be nice and it comes naturally to us. We might as well use “might makes right” to explain why a program does what it is designed to do by its programmer.
The idea is not to give you a rational argument for why you should do as God says, it is rather to explain that being good is just to obey God. You will do so if being good is important to you, not because you fear reprisal or because he is forcing you to. The religious may be better at this because they consciously want to obey God (and so go to church and so on), but even most atheists are not so bad be cause we are naturally inclined to obey God anyway, viewing compassion as desirable and cruelty as undesirable and so on.
I’d be inclined to agree with you on epistemic objections. Seeing as there is wide disagreement on the morality of, e.g. abortion, there doesn’t seem to be any way to tell what God wants in this case, so while DCT is fine in the abstract it doesn’t help us much in practical terms.
How does that follow from DCT, where by definition it is God who establishes morality?
If you’re insisting on “the most powerful being whose morality is aligned with human morality is the one who gets to specify what morality is”, then that is not DCT.
It makes entire sense! My scenario — that God created an absolute morality, and then a rebel against God, namely Satan, created humans with exactly the opposite morality — is entirely consistent with DCT.
And that is why, under DCT, morality is essentially arbitrary. That is why DCT is unattractive. If you’re insisting on adding on the axiom “and God’s feelings are aligned with ours” then that is an addition specifically designed to cover over the arbitrariness of DCT.
Why don’t you engage with the light/dark analogy? It seems to me it answers all of your concerns.
Ok, Coel, I’ll bite, but I want you to come back to me on light&dark.
> How does that follow from DCT, where by definition it is God who establishes morality?
DCT is an account of what morality happens to be. Counterfactuals don’t really change that. If the universe were otherwise then morality would be otherwise. I agree with you that morality is contingent.
But yes, if the God of DCT is by definition the establisher of morality, then whosoever gave us our moral sense is this God, by definition.
> God created an absolute morality, and then a rebel against God, namely Satan, created humans with exactly the opposite morality
In your scenario, the established morality is that of “Satan”, not of “God”, who didn’t really do anything because creating a morality without wiring it into anything is meaningless. If on DCT morality comes from God, then “God” is simply the entity who gave us our morals and you are positing that this is Satan. This is perfectly compatible with DCT, it just means that the God of DCT also goes by the name “Satan”.
If you want to posit a scenario that the God who created the universe or listens to our prayers is not the God who created morality, that is also compatible with DCT, but you’ve made it polytheistic (which is fine, because it was originally polytheistic anyway!).
It doesn’t matter if we call it God or Satan or Zeus or whatever. The essence of DCT is that moral laws were laid down by some divine (or supernatural) dictator. None of these counterfactuals challenge that idea. Christian or monotheistic DCT is just adding the axiom that the creator of the universe and the listener of prayers and the giver of morals is all the same entity.
Because I don’t see it as relevant. You can *either* define morality in terms of “must be in line with human concepts of it”, or you define it in terms of “must be in line with God’s concepts of it”. DCT does the latter; your light/dark analogy is all about the former.
Can you tell me, in your conception of DCT, who it is who gets to decide what morality is? Is it “the one who created the whole universe”? Or is it something else?
DM: Based on what I’ve read of your part of the conversation with Coel, I figured that the epistemic part of my last comment would resonate more with you than the ethical part.
On that note, and without getting too personal, let’s just say that I have an intimate history with an Abrahamic religion, in which fear of reprisal for disobeying the divine commandments was very much a feature of the system. By analogy, Buddhism features an impersonal version in the form of karmic rewards and punishments, but I do acknowledge that there are virtue-ethical strains to be found in both religious families, which emphasize acceptance and embrace of a more intrinsic sense of good and bad, and which seems closer to what you have in mind with your proposal that “we behave morally (for the most part) because God built us that way.”
That said, I nonetheless think Massimo’s citation of “might makes right” is apt here, insofar as the proposal merely points out a brute fact of nature (or creation, in theistic terms), without actually providing a rational justification for indulging it (as opposed to working against it via the usual means of cultural education and training). But if you prefer a different term, then the “naturalistic fallacy” seems equally apt here.
Just to be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no way to bridge facts and values…only that I find rational justification to be a more compelling bridge than simple faith…even as I admit that there is an emotional dimension to this assessment, which is itself a brute (psychological) fact. Still, it seems to work for me well enough in practice.
OK, here’s a scenario:
God created the overall universe and everything in it. We created a billion humanoid peoples on one billion worlds in a billion galaxies. He decreed absolute morality into the basic structure of this universe and into the billions of humanoid peoples he created.
Question, under that scenario and under DCT, who gets to decree what morality is? Obviously your reply is “the God you’ve just described”. Agreed?
OK, so, in that universe, one powerful angel, let’s call him Satan, rebels against God. This angel is wicked and evil, as judged by DCT in that universe.
This angel flees to a far off planet in a distant backwater of the universe. There he creates his very own species of people — us humans. He instills in these people — us — his own ideas about morality, which are the very opposite of God’s ideas. Satan’s ideas are about “love” and “compassion” and selflessness”, which are the very epitome of evil as God created that universe.
Now, in that scenario, and under DCT, which of God or Satan gets to determine what this absolute, objective morality that you’re talking about actually is?
Your answer, under DCT, has to be “the God, not the Satan”. Agreed? Remember that God has the support of billions of peoples; Satan has the support of only one people, us.
> Can you tell me, in your conception of DCT, who it is who gets to decide what morality is? Is it “the one who created the whole universe”? Or is it something else?
It’s whoever wrote the laws by giving us a conscience, be that God or Satan or Zeus.
But he did so by giving us a moral sense, and we only know of it because of what we perceive with our moral sense, so it is not reasonable to posit that it has nothing to do with our moral sense at all.
The truth regarding morality has to be correlated (imperfectly) with our perception of morality. Because terms such as “good” and “evil” are primarily used with reference to what we perceive as good and evil, we are not free to define “good” and “evil” as we see fit. We cannot for instance define “good” as being against what the author of morality intends, unless he is incompetent, just as we are not free to define “dark” as being the emission of many photons. We must define “good” as being compliance with the author, because “good” is in common usage what our consciences would have us do and ex hypothesi this is what the author intends.
“One follows an authority because of blind respect, fear, love, or the like, maybe in combination.”
Good point. It should also be noted that top down monotheism has proven a useful validation for top down authority through much of the last few thousand years, as in divine right of kings, etc.
In contrast, it should be noted that the two ancient examples of pluralistic government, democracy in Athens and the Republic in Rome, were both established in pantheistic cultures. Rationally, if you have a religion based on multiple perspectives, a government founded on the same principles is logical. While modern democratic forms of government have had to explicitly separate religion from government. One only has to look at the various tensions currently in the Middle East to see this conflict bubbling under the surface.
So it’s the one who gave us our consciences? So, in my above scenario, for your “objective absolute” morality, out of one billion humanoids peoples, the only one who actually counts is us humans? It’s our feelings about morality that actually determine what “morality” actually is.
Which is the very epitome of a subjective, human-based conception of morality, and the very opposite of DCT.
I’m going to take that as a hypothesis for the actual world, which would mean that Satan is they guy that loves kindness and giving (since this is what aligns with human morals) and God is the guy who loves murdering babies (since this doesn’t).
In that scenario I would say (as a disciple of Satan) that Satan is absolutely good and God (and his disciples) is absolutely evil. I would say that God’s morality is a false morality, and the morality of Satan is the true morality because I sense that this is right and it jives with my intuitions, indeed this is what my intuitions enable me to be perceive.
This is still compatible with DCT because my morality would come from a godlike being (Satan).
It is also still moral realism, but now it’s a kind of multiple moral realism where there exist multiple moral systems which all objectively exist and are real. When a disciple of God says killing is good and a disciple of Satan says killing is bad, we are both right but we are speaking different languages, like an American insisting that water freezes at 32 degrees while an Englishman insists that it freezes at 0 degrees.
However, as you and I are both speaking the same language, being each of us humans on earth and disciples of kindly Satan, you should accept that it is absolutely correct for me to say that killing is wrong. It is not at all a subjective statement. You should also agree with me that the cruel disciples of God are evil.
A moral discourse with a disciple of God would be impossible unless we clarify our terms beforehand, like the American saying degrees Fahrenheit and the Englishman saying degrees Celsius.
Now, you might say that none of this will be very palatable to a Christian, but a Christian can just dismiss your scenario as counterfactual and so irrelevant.
> without actually providing a rational justification for indulging it
Absolutely. I’m not at all pretending to provide a rational justification for why you ought to do anything (apart perhaps from defining the moral “ought” with respect to God’s will), so I’m not engaging in the appeal to nature fallacy. I’m just explaining what morality is and what determines what is good and bad on DCT.
> I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no way to bridge facts and values
Well, I actually would. Despite all my devil’s (God’s?) advocacy, I’m no moral realist. I don’t think there is a God and I don’t think that there is any basis for believing in objective morality. I’m just saying that if there were a God there would be such a basis, and particularly that Euthyphro certainly doesn’t defeat the idea.
DM: I’m not much of a realist in any sense, besides pragmatically, so I did not mean to suggest that a rational bridge between facts and values affords us “objective morality.” At most, I would argue that it provides us with “intersubjective morality”, insofar as values are shared psychological facts and all facts (including scientific ones) are phenomena within fallible human sensorimotor experience, which vary along a continuum of privacy to publicity. What’s more, none of this knowledge really matters to me, except insofar as it bears on our prospects for survival and well-being. That said, I find philosophy and science to be hugely helpful in this regard.
> It’s our feelings about morality that actually determine what “morality” actually is.
No, God and Satan each created a moral system. Our feelings are what pick out which of these systems we are talking about when we make moral claims. It determines the meaning of the words in our language but it does not determine the moral systems themselves.
Exactly! So your standard of morality is actually … your own feelings and intuitions on the matter! (Or, the feelings and intuitions of humans in general.)
Which is the very epitome of a subjective, human-based morality. It is also the very opposite of DCT.
No! You are still confusing the distinct issues of (1) where human ideas of morality come from, and (2) who gets to decide what is objectively moral.
Multiple moral realism??? Yes, there are then multiple subjective moral systems, and it is indeed objectively true that those subjective moral systems do exist.
That does not make morality objective! It is objectively true that “Fred Phelps regarded being gay as sinful”. But Phelps’s opinion on the matter was subjective, it was his opinion!
The fact that you can make objective statements about people’s subjective opinions does not make their opinions objective!
> So your standard of morality is actually … your own feelings and intuitions on the matter!
Not really. I have a moral sense and an intuition which is directed at something real and independent of me, which is a moral law created by a divine being. What is subjective is my perception of this moral law. What is objective is the law itself.
> No! You are still confusing the distinct issues of (1) where human ideas of morality come from, and (2) who gets to decide what is objectively moral.
It’s compatible with DCT either way. (1) a god created my morals and (2) a god decided what those morals were. All that is subjective is my perception of those morals.
> Multiple moral realism??? Yes, there are then multiple subjective moral systems,
Right, but what DCT proposes is that there is an objective moral law which is out there in the ether and all we are doing is perceiving it. What you call a moral system is just a human convention, which is not the same thing. The moral law of DCT is really built into the universe and interacts with the rest of the universe via our moral intuition.
> The fact that you can make objective statements about people’s subjective opinions does not make their opinions objective!
Agreed. But still, even in your scenario, things can be objectively right or wrong because in the language we are speaking “right” and “wrong” refer to the code laid down by our divine lawgiver.
Fred Phelps’ opinions are subjective because we are not speaking a language where “good” means “what Fred Phelps wants”, because Fred Phelps didn’t give us our moral sense and wasn’t around when the meaning of the terms in common usage was evolving.
Speaking in the UK, it is objectively true that it is legal to drink alcohol. It is also objectively true that this would be objectively false if I were speaking in Saudi Arabia. “Legal” means different things in different contexts. If I’m having an argument with a Saudi Arabian over the Internet about whether drinking alcohol is illegal, we can each seem to say the opposite and both be right, because we are not speaking the same language. “Legal” means something different to a UK resident than it does to an Arabian resident.
Of course this is commonly understood, so this is not usually a problem. It’s usually implicit that “legal” means legal in a specific jurisdiction.
If there were multiple Gods each with their own moral systems, then DCT would require us to develop a similar understanding.
Having the possibility of multiple moral systems does not rule out the possibility of there being objectively real moral systems about which objective truths can be uttered. There would be a fact of the matter about whether something is right or wrong with reference to the moral system granted to humans by a divine creator, but this reference need not be made explicit because it is baked into the language we are speaking — this is just what “good” and “bad” mean to a human. That is all that DCT requires.
But I think you are perhaps getting too into this invented scenario. An actual theist would just dismiss it because it is counterfactual. For a real life DCT advocate, there is only one moral system, the system that was designed by God, it objectively exists and what we are doing when we make moral judgements is perceiving something about this system. Because there is only one moral system, your worries about multiple moral systems don’t really come into it.
So I present you with a scenario with a billion moral systems, and ask you to pick out the “true” or “objective” one. And you pick out the one-in-a-billion that happens to match your own moral feelings. And then you deny that you’re choosing based on your own feelings?
Whenever I discuss morality I’m always astonished at the lengths people will go to to avoid accepting that morality is subjective, and the lengths people will go to attach the label “objective” to morality.
> So I present you with a scenario with a billion moral systems, and ask you to pick out the “true” or “objective” one.
Because that is the true one as the terms apply in our language. As a person living in such a universe I would have no way of knowing that any God other than mine existed, so I would believe my morality to be the true one, precisely because of my feelings.
However from an omniscient dispassionate objective point of view, it’s just that we would expect each speaker to pick out the moral system of that speaker’s planet. All the moral systems exist objectively and all are equally valid. The feelings are subjective but the objects they pick out (the moral values of their respective God/planet) are not. These moral systems all exist and have objective properties.
But as a human earthling speaker of English, the words “good” and “bad” refer to the moral system imposed on earth and so when I or any other human make claims about what is good or bad, we are making objective claims which have objective truth values.
Similarly, I am making an objective claim when I say water freezes at 0 degrees, despite the fact that other measurement systems exist and are equally valid.
You just need to take the context and the language of the speaker into account and it all makes sense. But we don’t even need to do this on classic DCT because on classic DCT there happens to be only one moral system and your counterfactual scenario can be dismissed.
> Whenever I discuss morality I’m always astonished at the lengths people will go to to avoid accepting that morality is subjective, and the lengths people will go to attach the label “objective” to morality.
But I agree with you! I’m just able to see the other point of view too, a point of view which happens to be incorrect because there is no God, not because DCT has fatal flaws.
DM to Coel:
DM: God-belief may be a product of human imagination, but that is only part of the problem with it (i.e. the epistemic part).
The other (ethical) part, which equates morality with divine will, is fine insofar as it works as an axiom for believers, but to personalize divinity in the way that theists so often do entails that they are subject to the whims of a supernatural agent (or Agent). To be sure, they can posit a second axiom (which runs counter to biblical accounts) that the Agent never changes his mind, but at that point it seems they’ve already abstracted most of the personality (or any coherent meaning of “mind”) out of the concept, leaving us with something more akin to Buddhist karma…that is, a prescientific concept of a moral universe, which is basically impersonal and thereby non-theistic.
Are these fatal flaws? Cumulatively, they were for me, but plenty of theists would testify to the contrary.
You are describing the very essence of a subjective system! What would a “subjective” system entail except exactly what you’re saying? If your idea what is “morally good” is what humans mean by it, then that is the very essence of a subjective, human-centered system and the vary antithesis of an objective or a DCT system.
Yes, the subjective moral systems do indeed objectively exist. And one can indeed make objectively true statements about those subjective moral systems.
Can we be clear:
“subjective” moral system: which acts go in to the category “morally good” depends at least in some way on someone’s feelings and opinions on the matter.
“objective” moral system: which acts go in to the category “morally good” does not depend at all on anyone’s feelings and opinions on the matter.
By your own testimony, you are describing a subjective scheme! The fact that humans, and their opinions and feelings, do objectively exist, does not change that.
As for all these schemes being “… equally valid”, I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean.
No it can’t. All that my counterfactual does is demonstrate that “what god likes” is logically distinct from “what humans like”. That was the only point of it, to rebut your insistence on defining “good” as being both of those at once. The flaw is there in classic DCT, and reveals DCT to be arbitrary in the sense of having no actual basis for morality other than “might makes right”.
Anyhow, we’ve both been round this loop about twelve times so I’ll leave things there.
“I see that Robin Herbert is a bit puzzled about this second horn business as well, so perhaps we’d each find your account informative.”
Not puzzled at all.
I can understand why people think it true. I used to argue that it was true myself.
But I am just pointing out that the conjunction of the antecedent and the negation of the consequent is not inconsistent in any demonstrable way.
And if that is not inconsistent then the premise is false.
It is, as Socratic says, simple classical logic.