I periodically revisit some of the questions raised by meta-ethics in an attempt to better understand morality per se. This is one such occasion.
Suppose that there is general agreement that by "objective" we mean "existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality" and by "subjective" we mean "existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought." Put another way: objective reality is in some sense unitary, existing outside the mind, whereas subjective 'reality' is in some sense unique to each individual mind. So, where does this leave morality? That is, are there impartial morals facts (e.g., rightness or wrongness, goodness or badness, etc.), or are moral sentiments and judgments just the result of personal preferences that are based in emotion? (the inspiration for this particular iteration of my moral musings is this diavlog
between a couple of moral philosophers.)
At the moment, I'm inclined to say that talk of objective
"moral facts" is misplaced; that morality may be neither objective nor subjective; that morality is neither independent of
nor dependent on
an individual human mind. I tend to think that morality is a type of property that delimits certain actions; or rather, morals just constrain one's behavior vis-à-vis other people.
Additionally, "moral facts" (if you will) are coexistent with rational agents, human beings. But not merely
coexistent. Morality obtains if, and only if, there are two or more people in a certain relationship (broadly conceived). I'm thinking specifically of the actual and potential interaction
On this view, morality is analogous to logic in that, while logic modifies and constrains propositions, morality serves the same purpose for human behavior, insofar as such involves individuals other than the actor. Similarly, morality is analogous to language, in that both emerge and are useful only in the context of human interaction.
Moral intuitions are not uncommon. They are universal; they transcend culture. Take an extreme example: we naturally intuit that murder, say, is wrong. But why, exactly? We need to justify--or explain the reason for--such intuitions. In other words, what makes it the case
that murder is wrong? What about suicide--is it wrong? How about the death penalty? While all are clearly examples of taking a human life, it's less clear that all three share a common moral status.
My view is that the determining variable with respect to "moral facts" is the theoretical sovereignty of individual persons. In other words, each person is the sole legitimate owner of his/her life and, by extension, the rightful owner of all property acquired via mutual trade (i.e. absent force or fraud). Thus, the acquisition of property is also governed by moral principles, in that the taking without consent
would violate the sovereignty of the individual from whom it is taken, whether by force or fraud.
It's reasonable to assume, then, that the nature of morality is grounded in the requirement of individual consent. So, justifiable
moral acts (i) are those that conform to, and are constrained by, individual sovereignty; (ii) are adequately respectful of the right of consent of those at whom said action is directed; (iii) are neither objective (independent of minds) nor subjective (unique to individual minds) but are rather "intersubjective"--meaning that moral facts are wholly dependent, not on single individuals, but on a plurality of persons (literally two or more) interacting in some social context.
Now, while it's true that God is conspicuously absent from my view of morality, there's a logical explanation. The primary reason is that I just can't accept so-called Divine Command Theory
(DCT), according to which "things are morally good or bad, or morally obligatory, permissible, or prohibited, solely because of God’s will or commands."
Before jumping to conclusions, let me explain. Consider Plato's famous Euthyphro Dilemma
: “Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?” To choose the first option--that God's commands simply conform to a preexisting moral schema--is to face the Independence Problem
If morally good acts are willed by God because they are morally good, then it seems that they must be morally good prior to God’s willing them, otherwise God would not will them. If morally good acts are morally good prior to God’s willing them, though, then they must be morally good independent of God’s willing them. For if morally good acts are morally good prior to God’s willing them then God’s willing them is not a necessary condition for their being morally good. Rather, it is possible at least for acts to be morally good without their being willed by God.
Moral goodness, then, would be independent of God’s will, and divine command theory would be false.
However, choosing the second option--that morality just is
whatever God happens to command--is to suggest that God's commands are arbitrary or capricious. Neither option is acceptable to a serious theist, so DCT must be rejected. But that in no way entails that God ought to be rejected. Quite the contrary! It just happens to be the case that morality--that which guides intrahuman behavior--is a uniquely human
phenomena. After all, the bible is replete with instances in which God's commands and actions appear to be highly immoral, at least from a human perspective
. This is evidenced by the palpable difficulty even the most able philosophers of religion had in trying to defend God in a recent conference at Notre Dame entitled My Ways are Not Your Ways
. The title comes from a well-known phrase from the bible: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. (Isaiah 55:8) I might continue the thought by suggesting that God's morality is likewise not our morality.
Lastly, Mark Murphy, one of the theist philosophers participating in the conference, offered an interesting distinction between an anthropocentric (human-centered) conception of goodness vs. a non-anthropocentric conception of goodness. I'm paraphrasing him here: is expecting God to be subject to anthropocentric morality equivalent to humans being judged by insect-centric morality or plant-centric morality? Good question indeed! The failure of DCT, as well as Mark Murphy's concern, seems therefore to reveal the need for a secular
conception of morality. Unless I'm mistaken, I think I've found a plausible one: Intersubjective Morality.
Foreknowledge and Free Will
I recently posed the following question: Assuming for argument's sake that divine foreknowledge exists, does it meaningfully preclude the free exercise of the will? If not, why?
. The responses were thoughtful and reflect a deeply-held intuition, namely that free will is a given, divine omniscience notwithstanding. The impetus for the question was my reading of an article
in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entitled Foreknowledge and Free Will
. In it, fatalism is summarized this way:
For any future act you will perform, if some being infallibly believed in the past that the act would occur, there is nothing you can do now about the fact that he believed what he believed since nobody has any control over past events; nor can you make him mistaken in his belief, given that he is infallible. Therefore, there is nothing you can do now about the fact that he believed in a way that cannot be mistaken that you would do what you will do. But if so, you cannot do otherwise than what he believed you would do. And if you cannot do otherwise, you will not perform the act freely.
[Since "fatalism" is such a such a fraught term, I'd prefer to use "determinism" instead, although they essentially mean the same thing.]
There are three major theories that fall under the umbrella of determinism: Causal determinism, Logical determinism, and Theological determinism. I'm particularly concerned with Theological determinism here, so I'll just give a thumbnail sketch of the other two.
Causal Determinism is the view that, a proposition P
that encompasses every true fact about the actual world at some point in the past (the very distant past, say one second after the Big Bang), in conjunction with a proposition L
that encompasses all known (and unknown) Laws of Nature, entails that only one unique future F
is possible. (P & L) -> F).
Logical Determinism is the view that, if a proposition P
is true today that a future event E
will occur, then it logically follows that E
must occur, or else P
is false today. For example, take Aristotle's famous Sea Battle scenario: if it is true today that a sea battle will occur tomorrow, then the sea battle cannot
fail to occur tomorrow because otherwise it would be false today that a sea battle will occur tomorrow, which is consistent with the law of excluded middle (i.e., that all propositions are either true or false, but not both).
Theological determinism differs with the other two in one important respect: it posits the existence of an omniscient God whose knowledge is not only complete, but also infallible. The basic argument, as described in the SEP, goes like this:
(1) Yesterday God infallibly believed T. [Supposition of infallible foreknowledge]
(2) If E occurred in the past, it is now-necessary that E occurred then. (Principle of the Necessity of the Past]
(3) It is now-necessary that yesterday God believed T. [1,2]
(4) Necessarily, if yesterday God believed T, then T. [Definition of "infallibility"]
(5) If p is now-necessary, and necessarily (p -> q), then q is now-necessary. [Transfer of Necessity Principle]
(6) So it is now-necessary that T. [3,4,5]
(7) If it is now-necessary that T, then you cannot do otherwise than you in fact do (/ have done). [Definition of Necessary]
(8) Therefore, you cannot do otherwise than you in fact do (/ have done). [6,7]
(9) Therefore, when you do that which you in fact do (/ have done), you will not do (/ have not done) it freely. [8,9]
To summarize, if (a) there is a God, (b) God is omniscient (c) God's complete knowledge is infinite (< past - future >) and (d) God's infinite knowledge is infallible, then the inescapable conclusion is that so-called future contingents are actually no such thing; rather, God's past
knowledge of specific future
events entails that those future events are immutable (i.e. constrained by God's foreknowledge).
Now, there are counterarguments, and most of them deny one or more of the premises above. One such argument, from the 6th century philosopher Boethius, suggests that God is "outside of time" and therefore His perfect knowledge is timeless. But this argument is also susceptible to the basic argument for Theological determinism, albeit in a slightly modified form:
(1t) God timelessly knows T.
(2t) If E is in the timeless realm, then it is now-necessary that E.
(3t) It is now-necessary that T.
Generally speaking, there are two camps: compatibilists and incompatibilists. As the labels suggest, the former argues that free will and determinism are compatible and the latter dissents. And each can be roughly divided further into two additional camps: theist and non-theist.
I tend toward the theist incompatibilist camp, but not only because I'm persuaded by the basic argument for Theological determinism. Actually, I think that the appeal to God's omniscience is weaker than--and subordinate to--God's sovereignty (the idea that God's will is supreme and therefore takes precedence over any other will, human or otherwise). That said, however, the conjunction of these two attributes, in my view, does in fact preclude the free exercise of the human will in a meaningful way. So, while what God knows
and when He knew
it certainly has implications for the human will, it seems to me that what God wills
and when he willed
it is of more consequence. In fact, the content of God's foreknowledge is the direct result of His sovereign will: the facts that God knows were, are, or will be the very facts that God has willed to be...before time began.
Suppose that, when God contemplated actualizing the material universe, He envisioned the totality of its history...from beginning to end. Further suppose, as many do, that God's desire is that humans, who were created in His image (Gen 1:27), live a life consonant with His, that is to say, sinless
. But as each one of can personally attest, a sinless life is impossible (Rom 3:23). According to the supposition, God was fully aware of this eventuality...before the universe existed
. In order to redeem His creatures, He sent His son Jesus (John 1:14) to be brutally killed as a sacrifice, which, once and for all, cleaned the slate of those who would be regenerated (Acts 26:18). But again, according to the supposition, God would have foreseen this as well. So, how can we reconcile God's supposed desires with the reality of human sinfulness?
It would be a mistake to conclude that God, having the future sinfulness of His self-styled creatures in full view, nevertheless desired in vain that they remain pure, because this is to assume that God is irrational. Likewise, the thesis that Jesus's incarnation is somehow "Plan B" is ill-conceived, in that it would effectively make God's will subordinate to the human will. That is, God would have had to mitigate His perfect will in order to accommodate the obviously imperfect will of innumerable human beings...who at the time didn't yet exist, but were merely potential objects of God's desire. But even if we suppose that God theoretically considered the future actions of future humans, free will is still problematic because those future actions would have to be objects of thought in the mind of God, and therefore beyond the control of the supposed actors (see the argument for determinism above).
Finally, I'll mention a couple of passages of Scripture that seem to support determinism and undermine human freedom. The first is Job 38:4..."Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand." (the entirety of Job, and especially the opening verses, speak to God's sovereignty). The other is Romans 9:14-21...
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
Alice, I knew you were talented, but your latest creations
are phenomenal. Your style aligns perfectly with my personal taste: my house has sort of a minimalist, naturalistic theme with lots of stained wood and earth tones. I might just be your next customer.
I'm tempted to say that you're 'gifted'...but that would presuppose a giver-of-gifts. Regardless, I'm awed by your craftsmanship.