Third and Final Long Argument With Mitchell Powell on the question “How is Morality Justified?”
Mitchell’s Opening Statement: http://fontwords.com/2012/03/23/by-what-standard-opening-statement-debate-with-john-fensel
Mitchell’s First Long Argument: http://fontwords.com/2012/04/02/first-long-statement-debate-with-john-fensel
Mitchell’s Second Long Argument: http://fontwords.com/2012/04/17/second-long-response-to-john-fensel
-Seeing as this is my last long response, I want to focus the majority of it on why my account is the only possible grounds for morality. I will first respond to the important points in Mitchell’s latest response.
First, and most importantly, Mitchell has still been unable to answer the Bizarro God objection. This is because if we are to take morally neutral factors about the Biblical God (like being the creator and omnipotent) as logically sufficient for moral obligations, then those factors are sufficient for moral obligations in all possible cases. There is no way around this, other than introducing an additional condition that would be jointly sufficient with the morally neutral factors about God. However, if Mitchell attempts this, he will be forced to introduce normative claims (the Biblical God is good) that are either meaningless (good is just defined by whatever God is, so Bizarro God is also “good”) or contradictory to his own stance (good is defined by something separate from God).
Mitchell made the claim that I am in a similarly unattractive position concerning Bizarro Humanity. This simply isn’t the case. My argument is that the reflective structure of rational beings is sufficient for obligations, and that these obligations are possibly moral in nature. If Bizarro Humanity has a reflective structure that obligates them to kill each other, then they are obligated to kill each other, but we would not call these obligations “moral”. A key distinction is between the word “obligation” and “moral”. An obligation is something that you are sufficiently compelled to do. In common language, we define “moral” as a negative condition of ethical egoism, where self interest is not all encompassing.
So why is Bizarro Humanity not a problem for me? All my account is required to claim is that Bizarro Humans obligate themselves to kill each other. There is no outside force that compels them to, it is their nature. This is no more unacceptable than claiming that tigers are obligated to kill their prey, as it is a part of their nature. The moral claim that I make is that regular humans are the type of beings that have a reflective structure that particularly skews toward normative obligations that are moral in nature. If this condition is not met, then we have no more moral obligations than animals, or Bizarro Humans.
Now we could ask: can Mitchell get out of the Bizarro objection in a similar fashion? The simple answer is no. Mitchell’s account of morality does not take into account our individual nature as reflective beings, but instead derives morality solely from the existence of an omnipotent creator being. He is attempting to argue that, regardless of who we are individually, we are all obligated to obey the creator God.
Why is this bad? Because in Bizarro world, Mitchell is committed to claiming that people are obligated to follow Bizarro God regardless of whether or not they find his commandments to be evil. Imagine that Bizarro God is ruling over perfectly utilitarian beings, who have no problems of self interest or desire to hurt anybody. Mitchell’s covenant account is committed to claiming that these beings are obligated to obey Bizarro God simply because Bizarro God is the “naturally” superior being.
The great sting of the Bizarro case is that it is not so bizarre. The Biblical God commanded mass genocide in the Bible, the enslavement of tribes conquered by the Israeli’s, did not outlaw slavery, and condemned homosexuality to death. In a very real way, if the Biblical God exists, secularists are living under a Bizarro God that is contrary to what we intuitively believe to be moral. If Mitchell’s account claims that we are obligated to obey God’s commandments on homosexuality even if we disagree with them, then it is similarly committed to claiming that people under Bizarro God are obligated to kill each other even if they do not want to.
I will now make a few notes on parts of Mitchell’s argument:
First, I define self interest as solely considering yourself as an end, and not considering anyone else as an end in themselves. Meaning, the benefits my actions have to you hold no value to me unless they benefit me. This does not claim, however, that I must think of my actions as bad. It only claims that I must value the effect my actions have on other people.
Second, Mitchell misunderstands what physical authority means. I have physical authority over my body so long as I am the one who decides what directions my body moves. Physical authority is not physical strength, and therefore does not somehow grant God total moral authority due to his power. So long as God does not take over my mind, I maintain physical authority over my body. It is on Mitchell to explain how God has some moral authority over the actions of my body that trump my physical authority. As I’ve argued, there is no way for Mitchell to do this-you cannot infer a normative “ought” claim from a descriptive “is” claim, except in cases where the being creates the “ought” claim for itself.
Third, Mitchell makes the claim that the fact that morality must rise from individual people rather than down from aggregate society leads to anarchy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As I said in my previous reply, there are either individual moral obligations or there are not. If there are individual moral obligations, then we can justify any political structures that are consistent with these obligations. If there are no individual moral obligations, then all political structures are by default justified-there are no moral obligations that could be violated by any political structures. There is no logical lead to anarchism, unless the claim is made that we do have moral obligations, and these obligations are solely consistent with anarchism.
Mitchell has made the mistake of assuming the truth of two logically incompatible propositions: there are moral obligations, and there are no moral obligations. Meaning, people have no moral obligations that can be used for political obligations, but people also have some moral obligation to not impose unjustified political structures. This mistake is necessary for him to claim an inconsistency between my moral and political views.
As for the section “Moving the Boundary Markers”-I am doing no such thing. When you ask “which has more credible grounds for morality”, you test the grounds. In other words, you test the justification for the system (what the system is founded on).
Mitchell further made the fallacious claim that we all know morality exists. That is simply false. Ethical egoists exist, and they present a real challenge to any proposed system of morality. When we make normative claims about other people, we are claiming that they “should” act in some way. In order to convince an ethical egoist, you must convince them that they have reasons to act in a certain way. You cannot assume that some morality is already justified to prove to the ethical egoist that morality is justified-that is begging the question.
Next, about the question “does this outfit have a future?”-I am totally uninterested in this question. In effect, it is asking: how many people already accept these ideas, and how many can we get to accept these ideas? The reason I don’t care for either of these questions is that they are making either the bandwagon fallacy or the appeal to authority fallacy. The bandwagon fallacy is the idea that the more people who accept a certain idea, the more credibility it has. The appeal to authority fallacy is trying to make the claim “this person or institution thinks this way, so it is justified due to the status of the person or institution”. What is common to both these fallacies is that they provide no rational justification whatsoever for the theories that they support. Whether or not people think Mitchell’s way or my way is absolutely irrelevant to which of our accounts provides a more credible grounds for morality.
Finally, before I get into my positive argument, I want to make one thing clear: I am not claiming that Premise 4 in my previous argument is true. It is unsupported, meaning it could be either true or false. If it is true, then morality is justified in a certain way. If it is not true, then morality is not justified in any way. I am not yet taking a stance, meaning I do not know whether or not the claim is true.
The Argument for Secular Morality As the Only Possible Option
The main difference between Mitchell’s covenant theory and my own is that Mitchell denies the truth of Bernard Williams’ Internal Reasons Thesis. Williams argued that an agent can be said to have “X” as a reason for action if and only if the agent does in fact find X to be a reason for action, or if X can be derived from other reasons that the agent already has. If the agent does not find X to be a reason for action, and the agent has no reasons to find X as a reason for action, then X is not a reason for the agent to act.
The above might be a bit wordy, but the claim is straightforward and intuitive. Reasons are inherently subjective, and entirely dependent on our individual nature. Consider this: in an objective world with no subjective beings (no conscious beings, nothing to experience anything), where only atoms existed as non-living entities, would anything have a “reason” to do anything? Of course not. There are no normative claims about atoms, the way that atoms “should” act.
So, once we understand reasons as subjective to conscious beings, how do we describe who has reasons for what? To begin with, it is clear that we can find reasons for action on an individual basis. If I decide to value trees, and find trees to be reasons for action, then I have made the promotion of trees a reason for me to act. We are all clearly capable of this-we decide, at least in some cases, what to value and what to consider reasons for action.
The Internal Reasons Thesis claims that reasons are only capable of coming about in this fashion. I am the only one capable of giving myself reasons to act, and you are the only one capable of giving yourself reasons to act. If I do not already take a potential reason to act as compelling, then I can only be convinced to take the potential reason as compelling if it is derivable from a view I already hold. For example, consider the potential reason for action “the value of trees”. If I already have the reason for action “the value of plants”, and I can be shown that trees are a type of plant, then I can be compelled to have reasons for promoting trees.
What Mitchell’s covenant model is committed to claiming, by granting natural authority to God over people, is that people can have reasons for action even if they are not derivable to anything we actually find to be valuable. So, whatever God finds to be reasons for action can be justly imposed on us. Effectively, this is intellectual bullying. “You may not find X to be valuable, but I do, so X is valuable to you”. This clearly does not work, and God’s morally neutral factors do not get around this problem.
Consider how this works in practice: God claims that “X” is valuable. I do not care for X, and do not hold any values that logically lead to valuing X. How, exactly, does God make me value X? He could control my mind (eliminating my physical authority over my body). He could punish me for not promoting X, thus creating a situation where what I do value (myself) logically leads to promoting X. But it is not logically possible for God to compel me to value X simply in and of itself.
So here’s where we are left off: normative claims can only be made when derived from each individual person. Trying to get around this claim is logically impossible, as there is no possible way to circumvent physical authority without taking control of that authority. So long as people maintain physical authority over themselves, normative claims that do not fall in line with their individual conceptions of “the good” are absolutely meaningless. Imagine a Muslim trying to convince an atheist that he has reason to go to war with other people over their lack of faith. Would this make any sense?
My argument, that I largely draw from Christine Korsgaard, is that the Internal Reasons Thesis does not automatically lead to ethical egoism. We may be able to decide our own normative rules-but that does not mean that they are without restriction. These restrictions cannot be imposed by other people, but can be imposed by the individual himself.
So what could these restraints be? Clearly, our nature as human beings is the primary restraint on ourselves. If we were perfectly rational beings, then we would not have the same restraints we face as humans. However, we clearly do have restraints. It is not really up to us that we value what we taste. It is in our instinct to value certain tastes (like sugar), and any process done to change these aesthetic tastes cannot be done instantaneously simply through a decision by the mind.
The argument I have, if successful, is that these restraints will lead to certain normative rules that are moral in nature. There is some evidence in reality for this argument-people have developed moral structures for thousands of years, most notably in the Ancient Greeks. Mitchell may find this as evidence that God made us moral beings, while I consider it a biological trait that we share with several other animals (including monkeys and apes). I would wager that the reason animals like apes, and especially people, develop moral ideas is because we evolved in a certain way so that our natural tendencies are moral in nature. This is not a claim I think is proven beyond evidence, and is not what my system is based on. Rather, I am interested in the apparent contradiction between our biological reasons for morality, and the intuitively plausible idea of psychological egoism (we act only in a way that benefits ourselves). My argument is that psychological egoism is too strong, but gets at a good idea-we are rational beings, and we solely promote what we value, not what anyone else values (Internal Reasons Thesis). The question is now: what do we value?
I contend that there are potential reasons to value others, and that because we are rational we will then obligate ourselves to promote this value. This claim may be true or false, and I will not yet take a stance on it. However, so long as the Internal Reasons Thesis is true, no possible moral theory can claim that people have reasons for moral actions unless those reasons are derivable from that person’s individual values. Utilitarianism, deontology, the covenant model, virtue ethics, etc. all fail to meet this single criterion. All of them make the irrational jump from “is” to “ought”, and when dissected, all can be shown to take the reasons for action that one person has, and apply it without justification to be reasons for action for everybody.
Ultimately, I am proposing a path for morality to take from Internal Reasons to normative obligations that are moral in nature. This path is possible, though not guaranteed. So long as the path is possible, morality is potentially justifiable through entirely secular means. I further contend that Mitchell’s covenant model will be unable to refute the Internal Reasons Thesis, and that it is logically incompatible with the truth of the Internal Reasons Thesis. So long as these claims are true, Mitchell’s covenant model does not provide any credible grounds for morality. My own account, while not a complete justification from Internal Reasons to Morality, provides a path to morality that is logically compatible with the undeniable truth of the Internal Reasons Thesis.