The most basic distinction to make between morality and egoism is that morality demands that, at some times, you are obligated to do what is not in your self interest to do. If morality never made these demands, then it would not be anything additional to the doctrine of ethical egoism (always do what is in your self interest to do).
In daily life, people are generally expected to act within moral constraints. Most people would claim that it would be wrong for me to kill an innocent stranger, even if it was in my self interest to do so.
One variable in these types of cases is the law, which is basically an instrument to make moral constrains more self interested. So, when considering whether or not to kill someone for their money, the threat of lifetime imprisonment or death may make not killing in my self interest. However, the key in these cases: is there any constraint on me not to kill the person if I could get away with it? Morality would say yes, there is a genuine constraint on my actions that obligates me not to kill the person even if I could get away with it.
There are also other ways that morality can stretch beyond legality. There are plenty of things that people would consider immoral, but are not illegal. Cheating on your significant other, for example, is considered immoral even though is not illegal (though it is actually illegal to cheat on your spouse in some states).
Where I’m going with this: it seems that the rules of morality in daily life used to be, but no longer are, applied to businesses. As in daily life, there are certain things that are made illegal in order to get socially harmful actions to be contrary to self interest. If a business violates these laws, then the legal punishments are meant to be severe enough so that the action is not self-interested in the future (though I am skeptical that this ever happens).
Outside of illegal actions, however, businesses have become completely egoistic. The profit margin is an easy to understand marker of self-interest, comparable to utility as a marker of self-interest of an individual. It is the self-interested thing to do for businesses to maximize profit.
Nowadays, businesses are encouraged to maximize profit. Companies like Bain Capital were very, very good at maximizing profit for their shareholders. In egoistic terms, Bain Capital was incredibly successful.
The problem is that we have now come to accept that businesses will act entirely egoistically, regardless of the public interest. When thinking about individuals, we expect people to constrain their actions and to only pursue their own self interest when it does not conflict with the greater good to some extent. In effect, we expect individuals to behave morally. However, we no longer expect businesses to do the same. We no longer expect businesses to pass up a profit for the greater good. It no longer matters what effects businesses have on their employees, if they make a profit, they are praised and successful.
Though I am no expert on it, America used to have a concept called the “National Interest”. When a company made a decision, they were expected to take its effect on the national interest (social, political, economic factors) when deciding what to do. Companies were demonized if they did not do so, as they were expected to behave in a “moral” way.
The fundamental problem: either businesses need to be expected to consider the national interest in their decisions, or we need to stop asking individuals to consider the public interest in their decisions. Philosophers like Nietzsche argued that morality was a lie taught by the Jews/Christians/Powerful/etc. to keep the people in a herd-like mentality. Basically, individuals were simply sheep that were being fooled into giving up self interest for the sake of the herd. They were being tricked into thinking that what is good for the herd is good for them. Critics of Nietzsche, such as myself, reject his, and all other forms, of ethical egoism. People who believe in morality do not think it is foolish for people to care about the public interest, and further believe that individuals justly have obligations to not harm others and help them in certain cases. However, if the argument to apply the public interest onto the individual is successful, then it would similarly be successful on individual businesses.
Where we are left at: either we give up morality entirely (and stop pretending it has any real obligatory force), or we apply it to businesses as well as individuals. We can’t consistently maintain this obvious contradiction, pretending that morality exists for individuals but not for profit driven businesses. So long as we do, people really are just sheep, sacrificing for the public good when the truly powerful do not. But, as I will likely spend my life arguing, there is a way to justify morality, and we need to apply it to businesses.
Ayn Rand’s work (Atlas Shrugged) is famous for supporting the doctrine of ethical egoism, which claims that people should always act only in self interest. Several prominent politicians have endorsed Rand’s philosophies, notably Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand praises the wealthiest in society and looks down on the working class, especially those who use government forms of assistance. She argued that the rich would be best off by refusing to cooperate with the poor and the government, and going “Galt”. Galt is the hero of Atlas Shrugged, who completely frees himself of all burdens related to dealing with others/government.
It’s fairly obvious why most people would abhor this philosophy. However, the argument is prevalent enough in politics that it needs to be addressed. The argument is as following:
1. People have no moral obligations whatsoever (Ethical Egoism)
2. There are no moral obligations for the rich to help the poor in any way (derived from premise 1)
3. The government shouldn’t tax the rich to help the poor at all (libertarianism).
The above argument isn’t logically valid, and I want to show why. The problem with this argument is that it contradicts itself. The conclusion is a normative claim, about what certain people should, or ought, to do. The first premise, however, is a direct rejection of any and all normative claims that go against self interest. It isn’t logically possible to derive a normative claim that is against self interest from a claim that there are no normative claims that go against self interest.
So, what can the argument validly claim based off of the ethical egoist premise? The only thing that can be derived is that the rich are not obligated to help the poor at all (premise 2). However, consider how the egoist’s premise affects the poor. It is in their rational self interest to take absolutely everything from the rich. Combined with the egoist’s premise, this means that the poor should do whatever it takes to take absolutely everything from the rich. If this takes the form of a government that enforces taxation through force, then so be it. The poor have no moral obligations to not take from the rich without justification, as there are no moral obligations.
The libertarian philosophy can only be supported by those who are both rich and ethical egoists. However, they cannot make the claim that those who are not rich should support libertarianism as well. If you are poor or have any need whatsoever for government services (like public education, subsidized healthcare, police, firemen, national security), then the ethical egoist’s premise demands that you do whatever possible to ensure that the government keeps giving you aid.
Let me be even clearer: libertarianism can only be supported by ethical egoism if the rich are successful in convincing the poor of two contradictory views: no morality exists, but moral restraints exist on what you can take from others.
What this ultimately means: there is very little chance of libertarianism being justified. If there is no morality, then the non-rich majority should use whatever means necessary to take from the rich without the need for any justifications. If there is some morality, then the non-rich majority is justified in expecting the rich to contribute to help out (a claim not supported in this post, but one which I could defend in the comments if asked).
Either way (based on the law of the excluded middle, these are the only two logically possible options), libertarianism will not be justified. It makes no sense to claim that there are no actions that are immoral, but that certain actions need moral justification (such as taxing and redistributing money).
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.
Second Long Argument in my Ongoing Debate 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 covenant model shows a stark contrast between his and my own understanding of what morality is. The five questions in the model do not, as he is aiming to do, provide a complete understanding of what morality is. Before I get into this, however, I wish to address the questions in the model using my own account, so that the differences in our understanding is clear. To begin with, I’ll give quick answers to each of the five questions.
The first question of the covenant model is “who is in charge here?”
- My answer is simply “nobody”. Each individual person is in charge of him or herself so long as each individual remains free. Nobody has natural authority over any other person.
The second question is “to whom do I report?”
- The answer to this question is much more complicated. In short, people do not have to report to anyone on the basis of any proposed justification that is not consistent with the answer to the first question (as Mitchell noted, the answer to the first is primary, whereas this is secondary). This does not mean, however, that people do not have to report to anyone. I will get more into this later in the argument.
The third question is “What are the rules?”
- The answer to this question is ultimately what can be derived from the truth of the answer to question one. So, what rules can be derived from the fact that we are each in charge of our own actions? As I will show later in my argument, this answer does not lead to “there are no rules” or “we each can make whatever rules we want”.
The fourth question is “What happens if I obey or disobey?”
- Metaphysically, nothing. Any system of rewards/punishments could be introduced politically, but they are not inherent in the system of morality (side note: there are consequences of violating a moral obligation because of the way obligations are derived. However, these consequences should not be considered punishments.) While this answer may seem unattractive, I will show later in my argument how this answer is necessary for genuine morality.
The final question is “Does this system have a future?”
- Neither Mitchell or I can answer this question, and to attempt to would be fallacious. Neither of us can see the future, and neither of us can justly extrapolate from current or past trends to future expectations. The only question we can answer, that relates to this question: are our systems rationally justified? We can only hope that the system that is rationally justified lasts because people want to be rational.
Now that we have a basic sketch of the secular answers to the covenant model’s questions, I will critique Mitchell’s account before promoting my own.
First, Mitchell did not address the most serious of my objections in my first argument: are hypothetical people living under Bizarro God morally obligated to follow Bizarro God’s commandments? Recall that Bizarro God is a hypothetical being who created an alternate universe. Bizarro God has all the same morally neutral traits as the Biblical God: he is omnipotent, omniscient, and created the universe. The difference is that Bizarro God values things like torture, death, and pain. Bizarro God commands all the people in the Earth he created to torture each other and create as much suffering as possible.
The question Mitchell must answer: are the people living in an alternative universe morally obligated to follow Bizarro God’s commandments?
If, as Mitchell as thus far proposed, the status of God as a creator gives him authority to command morality, then the status of Bizarro God as a creator gives him authority to command morality in his universe.
If Mitchell is willing to admit that his system must treat both equally, then he is stuck with a clearly unacceptable conclusion: people in the alternative universe are morally obligated to torture one another.
If Mitchell tries to avoid this unacceptable conclusion, he must find a distinction between the Biblical God and Bizarro God that can differentiate the two cases. However, I contend that there are no such distinctions that Mitchell may allude to that do not completely undermine the covenant model.
I will now explain why each of my answers to the covenant model’s questions is preferable. First, the question of “who is in charge here?”. The question effectively asks: who has authority over whom? To answer this question, we must first understand what authority means. The most obvious type of authority is physical authority-I have authority over a bat when I swing it. I control its movements, and direct it the way I want it. Clearly, morality and the covenant model is not concerned with physical authority, as we maintain our own physical authority so long as we are free agents.
The other type of authority, that we are concerned with, is moral authority. Moral authority, simply put, is the authority to morally obligate someone to a certain action/set of actions. A secular humanist, such as myself, contends that no being can naturally have moral authority over another. Meaning, one being cannot have moral authority over another simply by virtue of its existence. Each individual can obligate themselves to certain actions due to their own moral authority over themselves (and, as I will show, this is the only possible source of genuine morality). Further, each individual can, if they desire, transfer moral authority to another for a certain period of time/set of actions. (The conditions necessary for this type of transfer are the topic of heated debates, especially in political philosophy. However, for the sake of simplicity, I will grant Mitchell the idea that people can in some way transfer moral authority)
So, in order to claim that God has moral authority over us as human beings, Mitchell must make one of two claims: God naturally has moral authority over us, or we transfer authority to God in some way.
The first option is likely what Mitchell will attempt, and the problems with this idea is clear in the Bizarro God case. If a being of God status naturally has moral authority over us, then Bizarro God would as well.
There is also a much deeper problem with the first option that Mitchell cannot fix: how do you derive natural moral authority without physical authority? In the secular understanding, people derive their moral authority over themselves from the fact that they have physical authority over their actions. However, if God does not have physical authority over us, how can God have natural moral authority? Further, what does it even mean for God to have natural moral authority over us? God cannot control what we do, so how can he claim an obligation on our part to follow what he commands? (This is the same basic challenge of the “ought from an is” problem. Basically, how does a normative “should” claim follow from a descriptive “is” claim? So, how does the statement “God is the creator” lead to “I should obey God”?)
The second option is what Mitchell will be forced to accept. Basically, God only has as much authority over our actions, so long as we remain free, as we are willing to give to God. Let’s say, for example, that the Biblical God does exist and has a certain set of commandments. However to avoid the fall into ethical egoism, the Biblical God does not punish or reward actions. In this case, isn’t it fairly obvious that I may choose whether or not to follow God’s commandments? So long as I do not transfer moral authority to God, I am in no way obligated to follow God’s commandments. Only certain people, such as Mitchell, who already find the command to obey God compelling will be obligated by God’s commandments as they choose to transfer their moral authority over to God.
Here’s the difference between Mitchell’s and my own arguments for the first question, concerning authority:
1. People each individually have physical authority over their own actions.
2A. People derive their own moral authority from their physical authority over their own actions
2B. People’s physical authority does not prevent them from being subjected, in some way or another, from being under God’s moral authority.
2A derives uncontroversial claims from the indisputable truth of premise 1. 2B must solve both the “ought from an is” problem, as well as solve the “Biblical God vs. Bizarro God” problem.
The second question in the covenant model “to whom do I report?” does not have a necessary answer. In practical terms, this means that there are no such entities that I must report to irregardless of all other considerations. Mitchell noted that I am a social liberal, and he contended that this view is inconsistent with my “everyone is in charge of themselves” answer to the first question. To refute this, I simply make this argument:
1. Either people have moral obligations or people do not have moral obligations (Law of the Excluded Middle)
2. If people have moral obligations, then political obligations can be derived from these moral obligations.
3. If people do not have moral obligations, then there are no such political structures or actions that would violate a moral obligation.
4. Either political obligations can be derived, or there are no such political structures or actions that would violate a moral obligation.
In effect, this argument shows that there is no such case where social liberalism is necessarily inconsistent with any sort of moral obligations. In my own theory, I derive social liberalism from individual moral obligations. If these obligations exist, and my reasoning is correct, then social liberalism is justified. If these moral obligations do not exist, then we can do whatever we want politically, and no one can have a moral objection to what we do. Put simply, Mitchell double-spoke in his own objection: you cannot claim that people have no moral obligations, and then claim that we have a moral obligation not to implement unjust political institutions.
The answer to the third question in the covenant model “what are the rules?” is complicated. First, we must have a solid foundation for morality. If I am successful in proving that people are obligated to value others, then the rules of morality would be to follow this obligation. Knowing what exactly this entails is not necessary at the moment, though I can elaborate if Mitchell thinks it is relevant.
Finally, I want to focus on the fourth question in the covenant model “what happens if I obey or disobey?”. So long as people maintain moral authority over themselves, the answer to this question is absolutely necessary for Mitchell to claim that we should follow God’s commandments. In popular theology, the most basic reward/punishment for actions is the afterlife, where we end up in either heaven or hell.
Here’s the problem with this solution, and any solution that depends on “what do I get for following morality’s rules?”: it adds nothing to ethical egoism. The existence of rewards and punishments can make following God’s commandments in my best interest. However, I will only follow God’s commandments so long as they are in my best interest.
This understanding is simply not morality. It is ethical egoism: do what is in your best interest. All this account does is add the existence of an afterlife, that adds to the considerations of what is in my best interest.
So what is morality, and what is a moral obligation? Simply put, following a moral obligation must meet two necessary and jointly sufficient conditions: 1. The obligatory action is not the one that is in the agent’s own self interest, and 2. The obligatory action has some moral value that trumps the agent’s self interest.
The two conditions are pretty straightforward. People do not follow moral obligations when they are simply acting the way they think is best for themselves. Further, we are not obligated to do actions that hurt ourselves, and have no moral value (it is not the self sacrifice that is moral, it is the moral benefit that we are sacrificing for).
The first necessary condition is effectively a rejection of the claim of ethical egoism that we should always only act in self interest. So, how can we reject ethical egoism?
As I’ve shown, Mitchell’s account fails to reject ethical egoism. It either embraces it through heaven/hell, or assumes that everyone will willingly transfer their moral authority to God for no reason whatsoever.
Mitchell contended that I cannot provide an account of morality without rejecting my original humanistic premises, especially the claim that people are solely in charge of themselves.
To prove that my humanistic views are not inconsistent, I will provide a valid argument from the first humanistic premise to morality.
1. People are solely in charge of themselves (humanistic premise).
2. People derive their own normative rules that they are obligated to follow, if they are to maintain any reasons for action (Korsgaard, consistent with the humanistic premise)
3. Our status as human beings (a certain type of animal with certain traits, such as rationality) affects the normative rules we derive for ourselves. (Uncontroversial claim about how our humanity affects our decisions)
4. There is a certain trait consistent in all, or almost all, humans that leads to normative rules that are moral in nature, ie consistent with the two necessary conditions for moral obligations outlined earlier (Unsupported premise)
5. All, or almost all, people are obligated to follow certain normative rules that are moral in nature.
The above argument is logically valid. This proves that the conclusion (which is a system of morality) is not inconsistent with the humanistic premise.
The argument is not yet logically sound, as I cannot yet prove the truth of premise 4. I have two ideas on how to do this, but they are incomplete. As I’ve noted all along, I am openly admitting to not yet having a complete account of morality.
I must note that Mitchell has implicitly committed a mistake in his argument by trying to relatively compare our two accounts rather than look at the justifications for each. In effect, Mitchell is making this argument:
1. Morality is justified.
2. Christianity gives a better working account of morality than secular humanism.
3. Christian morality is better justified than secular humanism.
The obvious problem is in premise 1: Morality is justified. The point of this debate is to ask: is morality justified? We cannot assume that one account of morality has to be justified, as it could be the case that there are no justified accounts of morality.
Ultimately, we are left here: there are currently no complete, justified accounts of morality. Mitchell’s Christian covenant model cannot establish any justified authority for God, and further cannot solve the ethical egoist’s challenge. My account can potentially solve the egoist’s challenge, and does not unjustly place moral authority of one being over another. If my account is successful, then moral obligations exist. If my account is unsuccessful, then I am skeptical of any account being successful at establishing moral obligations.
Finally, my humanistic morality is best outlined by the 4 premise argument listed above. The first premise is the humanistic idea, supported in argument in my discussion of authority. The second premise is taken from Christine Korsgaard’s argument in “Sources of Normativity”. Mitchell has read Korsgaard’s arguments, so I am more than willing to discuss it if he believes the premise can be contested. The third premise seems uncontroversial to me, though I can similarly defend it if Mitchell asks me to. If Mitchell does not reject any of the first three premises, then he is left in the same boat I am: the truth of premise 4 determines the truth of conclusion 5. Whether or not premise 4 is true is up in the air, but its potential truth gives a clear route for how morality is ultimately justified and consistent with the humanistic premise.
Mitchell’s Opening Statement: http://fontwords.com/2012/03/23/by-what-standard-opening-statement-debate-with-john-fensel
The question “how is morally justified?” takes any proposed theory, such as Mitchell’s Christianity and my secular rationalism, and derives the conclusion (morality is justified) to the individual premises that justify it. This debate is focused on asking “who has a better foundation for morality?”, so to answer this question I am going to derive the necessary premises for each of us to come to our conclusion “morality is justified”.
First, answering the question “what is morality in the first place?” is not as straightforward as it may seem. Once both Mitchell and my arguments are analyzed, I believe it’ll show that we both have very different ideas of what morality is. In philosophical terms, we both have very different ideas of what the necessary conditions for morality to exist are.
Mitchell’s Christian philosophy is well outlined in his opening statement, and I like the phrase he used, “covenant model”, to describe his position. The covenant model asks five questions that must be answered in order to understand morality. Notably, I wish to focus on these three questions: “Who is in charge here?”, “What are the rules?”, and “What do I get if I obey (or disobey)”?
In Mitchell’s Christian philosophy, the answer to “Who is in charge here?” is obviously God. This answer further describes the answers to “What are the rules?”-since God is in charge, the rules are God’s rules.
The problem for morality is such: why should I, a free agent, choose to accept God’s rules? There are necessarily, by the law of the excluded middle, only two options: I have a separate, justificatory reason for accepting God’s rules, or I do not have a separate, justificatory reason for accepting God’s rules.
If I have a separate, justificatory reason for accepting God’s rules, then morality is justified by something other than God’s rules. Meaning, I don’t have to accept God’s rules because they are the rules of the being in charge, but I should accept God’s rules for “X” reason. “X” could be that it helps me out, it helps humanity out, etc. But, if it is any of these possible reasons, than the justification for morality is not in God, it is in the justificatory reason.
The above solution would be unacceptable to a Christian like Mitchell, so I’ll leave it at that (if Mitchell ends up liking the above solution, I will go into greater detail about why it doesn’t work).
So the option Mitchell is left with is that we have no separate, justificatory reason for accepting God’s rules. Meaning, Mitchell is committed to claiming that we must follow God regardless of whether or not his rules are justified by an independent, third party criterion.
There are two unsolvable problems with this claim. First, if I am the sort of being that does not already accept that “I should follow God’s rules”, then I cannot be compelled to “follow God’s rules”. The problem with self-justifying claims (morality is following God’s rules, God’s rules simply should be followed regardless of what they are because he is God), is that they are dependent on you already accepting them in order to be compelling. Imagine that I am a hardline egoist, meaning I only accept “this action benefits me” as a compelling reason for action. If the two rules “only do actions that benefit me” and “follow God’s rules” demand conflicting decisions for a given action, then I will, as a hardline egoist, choose the action that follows the “only do actions that benefit me” rule.
So long as I am a free agent, I can autonomously choose whether “only do actions that benefit me” or “follow God’s rules” are compelling reasons for action. If I choose the former, there is no possible way for a Christian, like Mitchell, to compel me to “follow God’s rules” without alluding to an independent criterion that I already accept.
The second problem with having no justificatory reason for following God is that, if the rule “follow God” was compelling simply in and of itself, then it would justify literally anything God commands. In the Biblical understanding of God, this might seem acceptable to some (though I would disagree). However, even if we agree that the Biblical God is a decent ruler, his status as “God” cannot be sufficient to compel me to follow. To prove this, imagine an alternate universe where the supreme being “Bizarro God” has the same morally neutral factors as the Biblical God: he is omniscient, omnipotent, created everything, and demands being followed. However, the difference is that Bizarro God demands that people do seemingly horrible things: kill 90% of their infants as sacrifices, torture people on a daily basis, etc. The question is: are people in this universe sufficiently compelled to follow Bizarro God because of his morally neutral “God” status?
The answer is clearly: no, they should not follow Bizarro God’s commandments. But why? If anything morally neutral about the Biblical God is sufficient to compel us to follow him, then it would likewise be compelling for the alternate universe to follow Bizarro God. If Mitchell is to maintain that we are compelled to follow the Biblical God but are not compelled to follow Bizarro God, then he must allude to a necessary condition for morality that the Biblical God has but Bizarro God does not.
This necessary condition must be that we consider Biblical God’s commandments to be good, but Bizarro God’s commandments to be bad (as this is the only difference between the two). However, this runs into the same problem as earlier: if God must command only good commandments to be sufficient for us to follow him, then we are ultimately only following the rule “do good things”, where “good” is defined by something other than “whatever God commands”.
The commonly proposed solution that Christians offer to the above problem is that the “good” that we allude to is an intrinsic part of God in some way. So our God cannot command a bad law, because “good” is simply part of God. This, however, runs into the exact same problem: God’s nature is “good” by what standard? If it is by a third party standard, then we run into the same problems. If there is no third party standard, then the concept of “good” is circular and provides nothing. What God commands is good, and what is good is simply what God commands. This logic could also apply to Bizarro God: what Bizarro God commands is good, and what is good is whatever Bizarro God commands. The only way to avoid this unacceptable conclusion is to provide an independent criterion, outside of God, of what is good-and Mitchell would not be willing to do that.
Here’s where Christian morality is left: God’s morally neutral status as God (encompassing factors such as omniscience, omnipotence, creating things, etc.) is both necessary and sufficient to justify morality. Morality is simply following whatever God commands, and you don’t need a reason to follow God because his status as God is already sufficient to compel you to follow him. The problem is, as I showed, if these morally neutral factors are both sufficient and necessary to justify morality, then Bizarro God’s commandments are also morally compelling.
Now I want to transition to how I think morality can be justified. To do this, consider the standard argument for ethical egoism:
1. People only value themselves when they are acting.
2. There is no way to compel people to act in a way contrary to what they value. (Ie there is no way for people to be obligated against what they value)
3. People are only obligated to act in self interest.
Premise 1 is psychological egoism (a claim about the way things are, not the way things should be). Premise 2 is strongly dependent on the “inferring an ought from an is” challenge.
Conclusion 3 is ethical egoism (a claim that people should only act egoistically).
The argument is logically valid, in that if people accept both premises 1 and 2, they have to accept Conclusion 3.
To refute the conclusion, we have to reject one of the premises. The “inferring an ought from an is” challenge in Premise 2 is hard to refute, though many have tried. Basically, the challenge asks: how do we derive a normative claim “you should do x” from a factual, descriptive claim “x promotes y”?
I think the only route to solve this problem necessarily lies in our own personal values. Meaning, to infer a normative claim at all, we need to ask: what are the sources of normativity? (Sources of Normativity happens to be the title of a great work by Christine Korsgaard, from whom I derive a lot of my arguments)
As Korsgaard argues, we derive every normative conception from the fact that we are reflective beings. Since we are reflective, we are capable of looking at desires and evaluating which are good reasons for actions and which are not. Meaning, if I naturally have a desire to eat healthy and naturally have a desire to eat a bunch of donuts, I can reflectively evaluate each desire and decide which desire should lead me to action. To be able to do this process, however, I must find value in something. I cannot choose one desire over another without valuing something, unless I am committed to have no reasons for actions. If I am committed to having reasons for my actions, then I must find value in something.
Since I must value something, I am obligated to adhere to those values if I am to maintain my reasons for action. In this way, we can solve the “ought from an is” distinction. However, this does not refute Premise 2 of the above argument. In fact, it supports the truth of Premise 2. Where disagreement could eventually lie is in Premise 1, or the claim of psychological egoism.
So here’s where my secular rationalism is left, and where I do not yet have a complete understanding of how to proceed. We are left with two potential choices, one where morality is justified, and one where it is not:
1. People are naturally egoistic (psychological egoism). Morality cannot be justified in any real sense.
2. People are not naturally egoistic, and they value other people in this actions. This value ultimately justifies morality.
I have an attempt to justify 2 over 1, but it is complicated and I need time to work out all the kinks before I put it forth. For the purpose of this debate, all I want is for this claim to be accepted:
If people are not naturally egoistic, then we can justify morality. This justification necessarily lies in our reflective values. It cannot lie in values of any other beings, since I am free, I can choose my own value system over any other value system. This includes God’s value system, and thus God cannot be used to refute the egoist’s challenge.
Where we are left:
The covenant model, proposed by Mitchell, cannot compel me to act against my own self-interest and follow God. The only possible way to compel me to follow God is through the covenant’s question ”What do I get if I obey (or disobey)”? If God punishes disobedience and rewards obedience, then the egoist’s rule “do what is in my best interest” can be satisfied by obeying God. If this is the case, then the covenant model defines morality simply in terms of self interest. Morality, under this understanding, is a meaningless concept-we act the way that is best for ourselves, and God’s commandments play a role in what is in our best interest because of heaven/hell/punishments/rewards.
The rationalistic model can potentially compel me to act against my own self-interest. If successful, then morality requires people to value others for their own sake, which I believe is necessary for morality to have any meaning.
I’m going to be doing a debate with my friend Mitchell on how morality can be justified. Basically, I’m arguing that morality can be justified through religiously neutral reasoning, while he is arguing for theistic morality. The rules for the debate are listed on his blog: “http://fontwords.com/2012/03/16/by-what-standard-a-proposed-debate-with-john-fensel“.
Ultimately this will end up in a 10,000 word debate that we’ll both post once completed on our respective blogs.
I think this debate is best framed as “how is morality justified?”. The best way to approach this question is from a logical standpoint, where we look at what should be necessary for morality, and what would be sufficient.
Potentially necessary conditions for morality:
-The negative condition of egoism (meaning egoism is not true). This is a practical rather than a normative claim, meaning I am arguing that “people are not naturally egoistic” is necessary for morality. If people are naturally egoistic, and we only value ourselves in our actions, then morality cannot exist. If people are not naturally egoistic, then morality potentially exists.
-If you wish to make the claim “God is a necessary condition for morality” (meaning morality doesn’t exist without God), then you need a necessary condition for morality that God has that could not be achieved without God. I argue that there is no such condition.
Potentially sufficient conditions for morality:
-This is where I will openly admit to not having a complete argument. I think the question “is morality justified?” is still unanswered, and I have only an incomplete attempt so far. But, I will introduce what I have. The goal to justify morality is to show that people naturally obligate themselves to “not egoism”. If I can successfully show that people cannot truly choose “egoism”, and I can show that people become obligated by their own practical identities (as Korsgaard aims to do), then I argue morality is justified. So there are two conditions that would be jointly sufficient to justify morality:
1. People naturally have the practical identity “not egoism”.
2. People are obligated by their practical identities.
-I contend that, if the above argument is ultimately unsuccessful, nothing would be sufficient for a justified morality. This argument has a few claims: first, notably, is that individual people are the ultimate judge of what they do or do not do. This means that, when two value systems (the rough approximation of what people value) are conflicting, an individual is justified in choosing his/her own over any other. I think this truth is a logical necessity-one cannot prefer one system over another without a third, separate value system to compare the two-and the same problem exists for comparing the first and third, and so on (til infinite regress).
From the above, I note that any concept of “should”, brought about completely, by an outside perspective, is lost.
Finally, I contend that it can be proven that there are no such conditions that God has that would be sufficient to justify morality.
I’ve talked a bit before about the nature of reasoning, and I think it’s best described as the ability to link truths to other truths. A really simple example would be reasoning from the truth that “it is raining” to “it is not not raining”.
I’ve briefly talked about how this provides an initial problem-how do we come to our first truths? Here we have to introduce the concept of “a priori knowledge”, that we can know without experience and without needing other truths. There might be only one piece of a priori knowledge (I exist), or more, but it at least provides a starting point to derive other truths from.
Value, however, is a different matter entirely. I’ve seen a lot of debates about the idea of “objective value”. This, almost by definition, means nothing. If value isn’t from a subjective viewpoint, what is doing the valuing? Is anything valuable to an atom?
The very concept of value entails that there is some entity that judges something to be a positive thing, whether intrinsically or instrumentally. Think of it-if no life in the universe existed, would anything be truly valuable?
Here’s the problem: how can we reason from objective truths to subjective value? The simple answer: we can’t. The long answer: seriously, we can’t.
The disconnect between objective truth and subjective value is similar to the “you cannot infer an ought from an is” discussion. The ought from an is discussion is about morality, and it basically claims that you cannot infer a normative statement like “you should do x” from any objective statement such as “y is the case”. I feel this boils down to one idea: we are each the ultimate decider for our own actions and viewpoints. It isn’t possible for their to exist an objective value outside my own subjective value system that could override my own judgments.
The answer to both, I argue, lies in the possibility of subjective value systems that people do not actually choose for themselves. Basically, people already value certain things, and then we can infer what people are obligated to do from the things they already value. We can infer an ought from an is, because the is involves subjective value rather than objective facts.
To clarify, the reason we need certain values that we did not choose is that reason cannot provide us with a justification for value in and of itself. So, consider the idea that I should value humanitarian work. I cannot derive “I should value humanitarian work” from only “this is what humanitarian work is”. I need something along the lines of “I value x”, “humanitarian work promotes x”, therefore, “I should value humanitarian work”. You then can take the question back to “x”. Why should I value x? Either I have no reason to (and I just do value x), or there must be some value y where “I value y”, “x promotes y”, and therefore “I should value x”. If the latter option is correct, then do the process again, and you’ll eventually either reach a value that has no reasons for it, or start an infinite regress. Since an infinite regress is impossible, there must be some value we hold for no real reason if we are to have any values at all.
Christine Korsgaard goes into this idea, and argues that the fact that we act at all proves that we are obligated to value ourselves as an end. After all, if we didn’t value ourselves, why would we act to promote that value?
What I am ultimately hoping to prove is that we already, in fact, have the value that we should value others. As I mentioned in my last post, it is impossible to derive “value others/morality” from “I only value myself”. If morality is to exist at all, then there must be a “I value others” trait that we have and do not need nor have reason to choose.
Ethical egoism is the doctrine that in all cases, people should only do what benefits themselves. The effect on others, regardless of degree, is meaningless to you. In terms of this post, being an egoist means already accepting the premise that you are the only end worth pursuing. In logical terms I’ll call this a person having already accepted the premise “P”.
Morality, as I have argued for before, necessitates that people value others solely for their own sake. Meaning that to me, you have at least some level of value as an end in yourself (benefiting you is valuable for your sake, it is not dependent on how it affects me). Since this means that you cannot only value yourself as an end, it is the negative condition of P, or simply “not P”.
Now here’s the logical problem in trying to establish moral obligations for an ethical egoist (this is the standard case you have to look at if you’re trying to justify morality in general). Since egoists already accept the premise “P”, you have to find a way to argue from ”P” to “not P”. This is logically impossible. It’s exactly like trying to derive “its not raining” from the premise that “it is raining”. It’s just not going to work.
So we’re left with three possible options: morality is impossible to justify, morality does not in fact require “not P”, or egoists do not in fact already have the premise “P”.
(Long side note: there is the possibility of the “should” route. Meaning, an egoist may already have the premise P, but we can say egoists have moral obligations because they should have “not P”. I find this route has one of two undesirable conditions: either morality means nothing, or it asks to do something impossible. Egoists who already accept P have the rational value system of P, meaning that options and choices are considered using a value system that only values yourself. We can either say you have to change your value system, or that you don’t have to change and should just acknowledge the superiority of another value system [ie morality]. However, both options allude to a possibly “objective” third value system that can compare P and not P, which doesn’t exist [and even if it did, it would have the same problem. How do you prefer the third system to P? Do you need a fourth to compare the third and P? And so on until an infinite regress] Since this is impossible, morality then becomes an optional set of rules that people can or cannot follow based on a whim. The concept of “should” is entirely lost.)
I’ll go over each of the possible options to find its plausibility:
1. Morality is impossible to justify.
-This is a potential solution, though obviously we don’t like it. Human societies are obviously better if morality is justified, so we want there to be a justification for morality. Further, none of the commonly brought up reasons for the lack of morality are convincing. It’s obvious that if ethics do exist, humans have to be the ones to make it (ethics are not ingrained in physical laws, as there is no concept of “should” or obligation for physical objects). This makes a lot of people uncomfortable for similar reasons that people still hold onto the concept of an immaterial soul-factual, physical explanations never seem as convincing or “special” as immaterial, vague ones. This results in a lot of people thinking there has to be some objective, outside of humanity ethical rules in order to be justified. But, how would this be justified in any way? Higher powers (why does power allow people to make ethical rules)? Not being human (obviously not enough)? Higher ability to reason (then wouldn’t the reasoning be there to justify morality)?
I’ve gotten into a couple long-winded side notes, but I felt they were necessary. Basically where we’re at: there isn’t a compelling argument for egoism yet, but there is yet to be a convincing one for morality as well.
2. Morality does not require “not P”.
-I find this option easy to think, but it reduces morality to nothing. If I am not required to value others at all, then I will always act in an egoistical way. I will only act along the rules of morality if they happen to coincide with what is in my rational self interest. Meaning, I will only refrain from killing you is if it’s in my best interest not to kill you. However, this means morality says nothing more than “do what you want”. If this were the case, then morality truly means nothing. If this were all morality could be, then we fall back into option #1. In this case, humanity has to structure strict laws that punish harm, so that the “moral” action is the egoistical action in as many cases as possible.
3. Egoists do not, in fact, already have the premise “P”.
-This is the route I am trying to take, which was strongly proposed by Christine Korsgaard in “Sources of Normativity”. I won’t get into how this could work entirely, because I haven’t made a completely convincing case yet. In effect, the argument is ultimately aimed at proving that people, due to their nature, already value others to some degree. Human nature might heavily involve higher cognitive functions, which might be relevant since it seems that the higher cognitive ability animals have, the more “morality” they seem to entail.
The next step in this route (if I can successfully show that people already have the value “not P”) is proving that people should keep the value “not P”. So an egoist could respond: I may already have the value “not P”, but why can’t I just reason that I should choose “P”? The only possible response is that the egoist cannot in fact choose “P”, when they already have the value “not P”.
Some line of though that could support this claim: as I will argue in my next post, we cannot reason our way to values. We only have values, and can use reason to determine what those values entail (this argument has to do with the idea that value is only subjective, and reasoning cannot determine subjective value. I’ll argue more for it in my next post). If this route is true, then an egoist cannot actually reason from “not P” to “P” for the same reasons I cannot reason from “P” to “not P”.
Finally, the egoist might respond: is morality really justified then, if I have no choice whether or not to value P? My response, at least so far, would be that: there comes a point where “I” has to be defined. While I would have to do more work to prove it, I think any concept of “I” is going to necessarily include certain values, which would include “not P”. Therefore, there is no way for “I” to be distinguished from “not P”, “not P” is simply one of the identities that makes up who I am as a person (Korsgaard’s argument is along these lines). It is clear, however, that people have to have some free control over their actions in order for morality to be justified. So, that free will could be in whether or not the individual chooses to listen to “not P” or not, and since the individual in fact does hold “not P”, we can justly hold him/her accountable for acting outside the confines of “not P”, or in effect, outside morality.
I’ve written before on the weak link between the existence of God and moral obligations (http://fensel.net/2011/12/31/do-moral-obligations-really-follow-from-gods-existence/). Basically, the post claimed that morality needs “x” to be justified/exist, but whatever “x” is isn’t something that comes from God. If “x” does exist, then it could exist in a God full or God less universe.
What I want to do in this post is ask a pretty controversial question: why would morality be any more justified from God, and not from the devil? I’m arguing that the answer to this question necessitates the existence of a moral standard separate from God.
Consider the famous Euthyphro dilemma, modernized: does God command morality because it is moral, or is morality moral because God commands it?
The first answer “because it is moral” refers to some other standard, potentially higher than God, that determines what morality is. An easy (although, in my opinion incorrect) example of a standard is utilitarianism. So if utilitarianism is correct, then God commands morality because it increases aggregate happiness, and aggregate happiness is what is moral.
Most theists find the first answer unacceptable. After all, if God is the source of morality, then there shouldn’t be a higher standard that God is acknowledging rather than creating. So they turn to the second option: morality is moral because God commands it. With this explanation, God’s commandments are what determines what is moral. Whether or not God creates a standard for him/herself or makes it up as he/she goes is up to God.
Critics of this answer claim that morality would be unacceptably arbitrary. I find most of these critiques a bit weak, but they do get at a good point. How would/should God determine morality, and why should we accept it?
To get at this question, consider the betrayal of Lucifer (there is some interesting philosophy on this that I’m just now getting into, but I’ll stick with the basic stuff). Lucifer, as a rational being, didn’t betray God for no reason. So, why would Lucifer betray a being like God? If rationalism is correct (at least to a minimal degree), then Lucifer simply thought: betraying God > not betraying God. The equation necessitates some sort of value system; after all, how would Lucifer decide that one option is better than the other? So Lucifer must find value in something, regardless of how he does it.
So we now have two different beings with two different value systems. God values things based on his own standard of what has value, and Lucifer values differently (assuming that God would not have decided that betraying God was the best choice, which I don’t think is too huge an assumption). It’s easy and intuitive to claim that God’s value system must be “better”. But why? More importantly, how? “Better” is a relative term, it means one thing has greater value than the other. But how can two value systems have their values compared? Each will most likely value itself higher than the other. The only way to differentiate and value them is with a third, preferably more objective, value standard.
So, which value system should humans adopt for a system of morality: God’s, or the devil’s? In order to rule out egoism (just choosing which best suits you), imagine that there is no punishment or reward for choosing either. Other than “by my standard your standard is worse”, how is choosing one more preferable than the other?
The obvious answer is: well, one is better than the other. And this obvious answer necessitates some other standard to value them by. Perhaps something like “God’s standard better promotes human welfare and protects people than the devil’s standard”. The “protecting people” is the standard for morality. It could be the case that God’s standard is better at doing the standard than a human made system that focuses on that standard (something like my own view). If this is the case, then morality simply is: “follow God’s commandments”. But, the important note is, morality still ultimately comes from “human welfare”.