Very generally speaking, there are two families of moral theory: secular and theist. Secular moral theories discuss morality without referring to God-morality exists whether or not God does. Theist theories, on the other hand, derive their moral rules from God’s existence, and usually directly from God’s rules.
Theist theorists have often claimed that without God, morality would not exist. In common language, they ask “without God, why should we act morally?”
In logical terms, this theist stance is effectively: with God, we have moral obligations. Without God, we would not have moral obligations. To refute the theist, ask: what exactly does God’s existence entail that creates moral obligations, that cannot exist without God?
To understand this question, you have to understand what it means to be “obligated” to do something. So, when a moral theorist claims “you are obligated not to kill people”, what does that obligation mean?
There are two possible options for obligations:
1. You absolutely have to do or refrain from doing an action. You literally cannot choose not to.
2. There is a good enough reason for you to either preform an action or refrain from an action. The good enough reason obligates you to do so, even though you could choose not to.
#1 is not possible with either secular or theist moral theories. No matter what a secular theorist says or claims, I can always just say “I am going to do whats in my best interest” (the egoist’s position). I can then act on this, I am not impeded from acting immorally. Similarly, a theist cannot claim that I am obligated in this way. Even if God himself said “you must do X”, I could still choose not to do X. Eliminating this possibility eliminates free will altogether.
This necessitates #2 as the definition of obligation. I think this is fairly straightforward-no one wants to say that having an obligation means you literally cannot do otherwise. Instead, we think of it often in a dilemma situation-you can freely choose to do one of two different things, and one of them is morally superior enough to warrant a moral obligation.
So what, exactly, can warrant a moral obligation? Most attempts at this have been misguided- “you’re better off acting morally”, “you’re better off living in a moral society” still appeal to egoism. If you are only acting morally to benefit yourself, then you are not acting morally-you are acting to benefit yourself. As I have argued before, acting morally necessitates the ability or willingness to act in a way that benefits others, for the sake of others. To establish an obligation to others, moral theorists cannot cite egoist motivations.
To keep track of where we are, there are three possible situations I’m focusing on for the existence of moral obligations- 1. Moral obligations do not exist (nihilism or skepticism), 2. Moral obligations exist with God but not without God (the stance I’m refuting), and 3. Moral obligations exist with or without God (my stance).
I’m focusing my attack on stance 2, claiming that 1 and 3 are the only real options (I have and will continue to argue against #1 in favor of #3, but not in this post). In order for 2 to be true, using the “good enough reason for moral obligations” definition, there must be some trait God has or entails that necessitates moral obligations that cannot exist without God.
So what, exactly, does God have that could necessitate moral obligations that doesn’t exist without God? Possible candidates- the existence of the afterlife, his omnipotence (power), the existence of the afterlife, and his authority as a creator. I’ll refute each one individually.
1. Afterlife-The claim here is that the existence of some form of heaven or hell obligates us to follow God’s moral commands. But if we are to act morally simply due to benefiting our souls in the afterlife, then we are back at egoism-the only obligations you really have are to yourself. If you are only trying to get into heaven and/or avoid hell, then just act in a way that gets you that much, and do what you can get away with (like being Hitler for your entire life, then repenting before death). No matter how stingy the requirements are for salvation, the desire for the afterlife cannot be the source of moral obligations, as it is still an egoist motive.
2. Omnipotence-This idea basically claims that we are somehow obligated to God due to God’s omnipotent power. In simple terms, he is so far above us that we are obligated to obey him. But does obligation really follow from subservient power? Consider a much smaller scale-the difference in power between a poor grandma and a famous millionaire football linebacker. The linebacker has much more physical, economic, and social power than the grandma. Should the grandma accept that she is somehow obligated to the linebacker, as she is a “lesser” being of power? Obviously not.
An objection to this is that the difference in power between the two is much smaller, and on some scale the metaphysical “power” of humans is considered equal. God, on the other hand, has more metaphysical as well as literal power as he is a higher being. But still, the same objection holds. The scale of literal power is not directly linked to obligation-if there is zero moral obligation created by a small difference in power, then multiplying the difference of power is still multiplying zero. In terms of metaphysical power, the same holds true. Imagine that God existed but was evil in some way-he was the highest being in the universe, but enjoyed ordering people to hurt themselves. Would we be morally obligated to do so, solely because of the being’s higher status? Again, obviously not. The only obligation power can create is to yourselves-if the power threatens force (like hell), then you act for your own benefit in obeying. Without that threat, there is no obligation created from power or metaphysical status.
3. Being the creator-this is perhaps the most promising difference between God and not God that could create moral obligations. In a simplistic sense, we are obligated to obey God because he created us-we would not exist without him. Even then, are we really obligated to follow our creators demands? Think about the way we treat our parents. Are people obligated throughout life to their parents, because their parents created them and they would not exist without them? A theist could object and claim “but there is still some obligation to your parents”. But this obligation is not a result of the creation aspect. Possible candidates include “your parents know whats best for you”, “they have good intentions for you”, etc. But these are still egoist reasons for being obligated to your parents-they are not genuine moral obligations.
Think of an extreme case-parents make a child, and then make rules for that child. However, these rules are arbitrary and have no separate justification other than simply being the parents’ rules. These rules even hurt the quality of life of the child, and do not help anyone else. Is the child morally obligated to obey the parents? I argue that no, the child holds no obligation to their parents. If parents want to raise their children in a locked cellar, the children are not obligated to comply. The authority of parents to create obligations, therefore, must lie in something other than the simple “we created you” card. Therefore, creation is not sufficient for moral obligations.
The question of “what exactly creates moral obligations?” is still up in the air. In the terms used in this post, the question is what is a “good enough reason” to create moral obligations? I have recently been focusing on it, and am pretty interested in the work of Christine Korsgaard in “Sources of Normativity”. I think her account is pretty incomplete, but its a good start. The ideas I am currently working on is how humans evolved to have morality in the first place-is it an inherently human trait, and if moral obligations exist because of our human traits. I’ll write more on this later.
The main point of this post is pretty controversial, if not blasphemous. I am claiming, in no subtle way, that we have no obligations to God whether or not God exists. Even if an omnipotent, omniscient, creator being exists-we do not have obligations to advance its cause. We may (and I believe we do), have obligations to our own human species, but these obligations have objective standards that they adhere to-the benefit of humanity for instance. However, humanity is not and cannot be obligated to a set of arbitrary rules (rules that are not created to an objectively just standard) simply because of God’s omnipotence or creator status.
Christmas season is perhaps the biggest pinnacle of materialism/consumerism, so I thought it would be fitting to write about it now.
Originally, I think the attack on materialism was just: a lot of times, people value material things over more important matters and it is a moral negative. But, I think it has gotten to the point that the attack is being used too loosely. An example would be someone who condemns materialism/consumerism in all cases, such as condemning the mass spending for Christmas.
For my defense, I want to distinguish between two ways to condemn materialism: 1. Condemning when someone unjustly values materials over something more valuable (like people). 2. Condemning when someone highly values materials.
#1 is the original source of the attack on materialism, and I believe it is just. It falls in line with my consequentialist view and the utilitarian view. The key, though, is that the moral negativity comes in the overall harm in the situation-the thing being unjustly valued over. For example, if someone chooses a car over their children, the negative morality comes from the harm, whether direct or indirect, to the children.
#2 has become confused with #1, and I think this is unjust. Effectively, #2 claims that highly valuing materials is intrinsically a negative value-the negative moral value is no longer dependent on the harm that #1 focuses on.
To refute #2, I ask: is valuing materials an intrinsically negative moral value? I find this absurd-who is the victim when someone values an item? If there is a victim, the negative moral value lies in the harm to the victim. If there is no victim, why is it wrong? If the person highly values it, and isn’t hurting anyone with his/her materialism, wouldn’t the value be a positive moral value, since the material gives the person happiness?
Further, as I have argued for in my previous posts on meaning, life’s ultimate meaning lies in what a person values. If an individual values materials, and that value is not harming any other values, then the individual’s materialism is actually enhancing the meaning of their life. In simple terms, since what makes you happy gives your life meaning, materials can give your life meaning if it makes you happy.
So, ultimately, consider each condemnation of materialism. Does each condemnation refer to a harm separate from the materialism? If not, then the condemnation is unjust. These condemnations of materialism have wrongly put intrinsic negative moral value in materialism instead of the harm that materialism can cause.
-Note: I took a week off from my blog for Christmas, but will try to have an additional one soon to make up for the lost week.
The Implications, Dangers, and Realities of Haidt’s theory of Social Intuitionism (a theory of why we believe what we believe)
Last year in Moral Psychology I wrote a paper arguing that Haidt could not infer his theory of Social Intuitionism from his experimental data. To do this, I provided an alternative, rationalist account that could similarly account for the data. I still maintain this argument-Haidt cannot infer his theory from the data as truth, he can only assume it as evidence that leans in favor of it. So take some of this post with a grain of salt, but I’m coming to think that his theory is most likely true.
Social Intuitionism is best described in Haidt’s essay title: “the Emotional Dog and its rationalist tail”. The title asks: what causes what, the emotional dog or the tail? Meaning, do the dog’s emotion’s cause the tail to wag, or does the tail wagging cause the dog to have happy emotions? Clearly, the dog’s emotions cause the tail to wag-to assume the tail wag caused the emotions would be incorrect.
Haidt uses this metaphor to describe how people come to their moral intuitions. The emotional dog is our moral judgments, and the tail wagging is our rationalizations for the judgments. Claiming that the rationalizations caused the moral judgments is no more valid than saying the tail wagging caused the dog to feel happy. This going directly against rational theories, that claim that people use reason to come to their moral judgments, however faulty their reasoning is.
Haidt’s Social Intuitionism, effectively, claims that people just accept certain ideas as morally right-either they were told to by their parents, church, friends, media, etc. Social context matters-if friends all seem for an idea that an individual currently has no feelings about, they will agree with their friends. What’s scary about this theory, if true, is that people by and large just accept what they’re told as true without judging it on its merit-, rather, they check to see how well it fits with the intuitions they’ve already accepted. Arguments for the intuitions, which use reason to infer the truth, are only searched for after the judgment has already been made and are only accepted if the argument supports the already made conclusion.
Haidt’s evidence for this theory is strong-he preformed large psychology experiments that tested people’s intuitions on incest, sex with chicken carcasses, and cannibalism. The participants ranged a lot, though there was a special emphasis placed on getting highly educated people-professors, doctors, lawyers, etc. The data showed that the participants had mostly similar judgments-incest, sex with chicken carcasses, and cannibalism are immoral. When asked for reasons, the participants were either unable to come up with any or cited reasons that directly contradicted the case (for example, on the incest case: the brother and sister were shown to take every precaution against pregnancy, decided to do it only once, and it made their relationship stronger instead of weaker. Still, participants claimed it was immoral because it would hurt their relationship or risk an incestual fetus). Haidt’s evidence is much stronger and more developed than I am going into, so if you are curious about the theory I would strongly recommend reading his article (https://motherjones.com/files/emotional_dog_and_rational_tail.pdf).
Social Intuitionism not only poses a danger to rational theories (which are extremely influential in moral philosophy, particularly from Immanuel Kant), it poses a danger to our very moral intuitions. If they are simple a result of reason-less judgments, why do they hold any weight?
The answer, I propose, lies in philosophy. Not to sound too biased, but Haidt does note that philosophers are the only group tested that were able to reason well. Not that philosophers are smarter than other professors, but this is true because of the nature of philosophy-making sure that every judgment you have can be validly traced back to true facts. If it cannot, the judgment is not worth having. By demanding valid reasons to have these judgments, you avoid having judgments that have no reasonable backing.
The answer, then, is to learn how to question every belief/judgment you have. I find this approach particularly useful in politics. Most people, I find, lean heavily to one side of each issue. Whether liberal, conservative, libertarian, etc., most people will find theories or arguments that support their side much more convincing than those that support the opposing argument (which, admittedly, I do as well).
So to solve this problem, ask yourself: what do I intuitively believe, and is this affecting what I accept to be true? For example, I lean heavily liberal in almost all cases. I am much more likely to believe that a study that shows that a “tax the rich, subsidize the poor” is an effective method of economic policy than a study that shows that a “tax the poor, subsidize the rich” is an effective method. To combat this, I try to make sure that the results of the study are sound, that there are no “correlation vs. causation” problems, and so forth. Further, I try to stick to the ethics part of the argument, which I have much more background in. As long as I keep my ethical theories to the philosophical process (making sure it stands to counterexamples and is logically valid), then I can reason my way in ethical debates.
One last note: Social Intuitionism does not, in any way, claim that no moral judgments are right, or that all ideas are relative. A common fallacy made is that, if some people can be proved to be unreasonable about moral judgments, all people are unreasonable or have wrong moral judgments. If anything, studying philosophy and learning of Haidt’s views has strengthened my resolve for certain liberal policies: that there is a clear justification to help the poor, that American free market ideals do not reward workers on merit, and that equating taxation with stealing shows a gross misunderstanding of property rights. Further, while most certainly not true of all conservatives, it absolutely scares me that a significant portion of the conservative base has the intuition “being poor is a sign of moral weakness”, or that “being rich is a sign of moral strongness”. If these intuitions weren’t present, then a large portion of the conservative base would not so easily accept the “empower the job creators” or “poor kids grow up around lazy people” rhetoric that gets thrown around.
So, ultimately, the question is: what intuition do you think you base your judgments on? If you can find them, are they justifiable? Why?
I strongly believe that, if everyone successfully played this game with their views, we’d have a much stronger government that could be held accountable to reason.