I’ve been working pretty exclusively on meta-ethics recently, doing my writing sample for grad school applications on Korsgaard’s interpretation of Kant (I am actually writing this post as a way to procrastinate). When constructing a view of morality from Kant’s theory, I’ve been unable to form any theory that would be both 1. universally applicable, and 2. universally agreed upon. The problem is that most people’s intuitions say that morality has to be both universally applicable, and universally agreed upon. The reasons for this are pretty obvious: morality is about what is “right”, and we naturally make a clear distinction between what we think is right and what is wrong. Along these intuitions come the intuition that what is right is objectively right, more than just opinion that can differ between different people.
Without getting into a long-winded post about my entire view of morality, I want to make a few quick points for why morality cannot be expected to be either universal applicable or universally agreed upon.
1. Universally applicable.
-The easiest way to refute this idea is to consider the state genuine psychopaths are in. Genuine psychopaths, by definition, do not empathize at all with other people. The effects their actions have are only valuable in the way they relate to themselves, not other people.
A lot of theorists, including me, claim that the valuation of other people is a necessary condition for moral action. If I abstain from murdering someone, there are motives that are moral and ones that are not. If I abstained from murder because I valued the other person’s life, I acted on a moral motive. If I abstained from murder because I valued not being in jail, I did not act on a moral motive. Genuine psychopaths are incapable of acting on moral motives, and thus morality (and moral obligations) cannot be universally applicable. We can still say the action of the psychopath killing someone is morally wrong, but we cannot say that the psychopath has any real reason to act morally (for a defense of this claim, look up Bernard Williams’s Internal Reasons view, or ask me in the comments).
2. Universally agreed upon
-This is the harder point to let go. Even though there are psychopaths/people who will refuse to act morally, we still want to hold onto the idea that all rational people can agree as to what is right and wrong (see: the intuitions against Cultural Relativism). Rationalist theories largely base morality in rational thought-basically, you will obey moral laws so long as you are rational.
The problem I keep coming across is that this simply isn’t the case. Even if some form of morality could be justified (and I think it can), there are still so many conditions that must be met in order to go from rational nature to morality. Hume was right here: it is absolutely necessary for morality that we have empathetic emotions. Just think of rational beings that are immortal and have no emotions whatsoever-how could you convince them to adopt morality amongst themselves?
Even worse for our moral intuitions is the idea that there could be irreconcilable differences in moral judgments for people. So, we agree that our morality is unique to humans-but are we going to necessarily agree on what morality is for us? The problem is that no, we won’t agree. In order to fully justify this claim, I’d have to explain step by step my entire writing sample. But, there is a smaller argument that can be used to support it:
1. Moral laws must be autonomously chosen by people.
2. The process of autonomously choosing laws is not necessarily universal (people differ on what they think is important).
3. The laws that result from the autonomous process will not be necessarily universal.
You can see evidence of this in almost any “moral” debate: abortion, gay marriage, religion, the death penalty, etc. My personal answer is that we use the word moral for far too many things (denial of pleasure, anything sex related that isn’t rape/assault, drugs), and that the only way to solve differences is to trace back to the original justifications. Once you get to those original justifications, you get entirely different starting points (human value, religion).
The main problem: even if we could agree on the starting point (which should be human value), you will not get the same results. Only when people understand that morality is not some far off idea that is perfect/unchangeable will we able to get an honest discussion about what we think morality should be.
Atheism is often criticized for making people the final judge of moral issues. This stance is a response to the question: “who gets to decide what is moral?”. Theists answer with God, rationalists with reason, seemingly leaving atheists who reject rationalism with two options: deny morality exists, or claim that people decide what morality is. As an atheist who doesn’t deny morality, I am basically committed to thinking that people decide what morality is.
A lot of theists I have debated believe this shows a flaw with atheism (or to be more particular, a humanist form of atheism). The general idea goes like this: people fall short of what is required to be a legitimate source of morality, so atheism cannot establish a morality based in the judgments of people. This is intuitively plausible, and the intuition backing this argument falls in line with the intuitions backing arguments against Cultural Relativism (cultures shouldn’t be allowed to arbitrarily select what morality is) and the intuitions supporting the Euthyphro Dilemma (God shouldn’t be allowed to arbitrarily select what morality is).
What I’ve come to realize is that, despite the intuitions against all of these ideas, we are necessarily committed to the truth of one of them if morality is to exist at all. If there are rules in morality, then the rules have to come from somewhere. No matter what attributes you give the source of morality, such as omniscience or omnipotence, it still comes down to an arbitrary choice by one source to decide what morality is. Even if moral rules were written on every atom, we could still ask: what justifies the rules on the atom being imposed on us? Either it is justified by another set of rules we should accept (starting an infinite regress of “why should I accept these rules?” question), or it is arbitrary. This directly contradicts the moral intuition that any rules imposed on me must be justified. In summation, the intuitive demands of morality are too high to justify morality in the first place.
The first step to take, upon coming to this realization, is to either reject morality altogether or to accept the intuitively unappealing arbitrariness of your morality. If you want to maintain morality, then you have to be content with a source for morality that doesn’t appeal to another source for justification (as this would only push the question back, not answer it). As an atheist, I have to be content with saying “people are the final judge of what is moral”.
The hard thing to explain next is how any morality that is based on the judgment of people can be coherent. After all, what happens when people inevitably disagree on what is moral? Hume’s answer is that people agree enough to have coherent morality, and the agreements come from our similar sentiments (sentiments being what morality is based in). There can still be objectivity as to what is moral and what is not, in a similar way that similar sentiments for art appreciation have established some objectivity as to what is good art. Morality, like art appreciation, can only be understood by a combination of sentiments (possibly unique to humans) and reason. Our aggregate sentiments define what is moral as our aggregate sentiments define what is good art.
The comparison of morality to art is what this post was originally meant to focus on (I probably wrote too much to lead into the idea). When understood in a way similar to art appreciation, morality can potentially be both objective (at least to an extent that it is usable) and be based in the judgments of people. This comparison faces the criticism I alluded to earlier: it makes people the final judge of what is moral (which many people believe is intuitively unacceptable). Making people the final judge of what is moral seems to give each person power to define morality for themselves. There are common sentiments that people can agree on, but also areas that they will have irreconcilable differences.
If my positions here are correct, then each person does have complete power to decide what rules they follow. I can accept the moral rules that are generally agreed upon, and I can also reject them entirely. I may have reasons to accept morality (as I am arguing in my Korsgaardian writing sample), but I still have the autonomous power to not live by those rules.
My original title “Being the God of Your Own Mind” alludes to this power. It’s a simple truth that I am making very complicated-what I live by is ultimately my decision. The complications are meant to show what this simple truth really means: I am the sole judge of what I should accept, and the sole judge of what things are worthwhile. Any agreements I have about morality with others stems from the similarities we share as human beings, not from a separate universal morality that we are both alluding to. It is entirely up to my own mind what meaning I find in life, what rules I allow myself to be subjugated to, and ultimately what type of person I want to be. In this way, I am the God of my own mind-I am the final judge of every matter about meaning and morality for my own perspective.
- Hopefully the flow of this post comes out clearly. Basically, I am trying to show why morality ultimately comes down to people’s individual sentiments (assuming atheism and not rationalism), and why this doesn’t eliminate morality altogether. From this, I want to make a basic point that I’ve had a hard time explaining: people have a lot more power in determining what rules they accept than they realize. I am optimistic that this supports morality, though it does not support many of the intuitions that we have grouped in with morality (such as the intuition that morality is somehow above human judgments).
The general idea of being the God of your own mind goes beyond just morality. It sounds pretty vague admittedly, but I genuinely do believe it is an important idea for understanding life in general. My own understanding of it has made me think differently about how I define who I am, and especially how I approach life. By defining my own rules, I choose what I value, and I choose how I let things affect me. The process of choosing what to value is how I understand the basis of morality, and choosing how I let things affect me justifies my “you always have a reason to be happy” stance (http://fensel.net/2012/02/27/understanding-why-we-should-always-be-happy/)
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.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is, quoted from a previous blog post of mine (http://fensel.net/2011/04/28/the-prisoners-dilemma-for-consequentionalism/):
“Imagine that you are one of two prisoners in police custody, being kept in separate rooms. The police officer tells you that if you confess to the crime, you will get an easier sentence. If you don’t, your sentence will be harsher. However, if neither prisoner confesses, the police only have enough evidence to put you away for a short time. So, to give this numbers, imagine that:
If neither of you confess, you both get 3 years in jail.
If you confess but he doesn’t, you get 1 year in jail and he gets 30 years.
If he confesses but you don’t, you get 30 years in jail and he gets 1.
If both of you confess, you both get 15 years in jail.”
The point that this case highlights is that, no matter what the other prisoner does, you are better off confessing (taking 30 years down to 15 if he confesses, or 3 years down to 1 if he does not). The problem is that, if both people do what is individually rational for them, both people are worse off than if neither did (15 years for each rather than 3).
I want to apply this concept to the idea of ethical egoism. Simply put, ethical egoism says that each individual should always do what is individually rational for them. Moral obligations, or obligations to help others in any way, do not exist. Several prominent philosophers, notably Ayn Rand and Thomas Hobbes, have pushed forth some form of egoism. Rand wrote “Atlas Shrugged”, which basically argued that people should act egotistically. Hobbes didn’t care much about what people should do, but rather thought that people acting solely for their own interest was a fact of human life. Basically, human nature is such that people will or should only act in a way that is individually rational for them.
One problem for the egoist, however, is the same problem that the prisoners in the prisoners dilemma case. If everyone in the world was an ethical egoist, and acted solely for their own interest, then we would all be worse off than if everyone acted under moral obligations. If everyone else acted morally, it would be most individually rational to be an egoist. If no one else acted morally, it would be individually irrational to act morally.
The situation, if it correctly describes our states in a moral or egoist world, mirrors that of the original prisoners dilemma. If you are an egoist, it is better for yourself to act egoistically whether or not the rest of the world acts morally or egoistically. But, it would be better if everyone decided to act morally than if everyone did what was individually rational for the. So, similar to the prisoner’s dilemma, how do you get the best outcome?
There’s a concept called the “iterated prisoners dilemma”, often acted out by sociologists, that sets up repeated instances of the prisoner’s dilemma. Patterns of behavior now matter, so it might be in an individual’s best interest to not confess (act morally) to establish a reputation for acting morally. This reputation might get people to act more favorably, resulting in the ideal both acting morally situation. The iterated prisoners dilemma might be a solution for the egoist. Act morally in general, as everyone should, to establish reputations that benefit everyone (but most importantly, yourself).
My last issue with this solution: even so, an egoist would come across many situations where acting morally does not result in this reputation (not all good deeds are recognized). In these cases, the original prisoners dilemma applies. How should an egoist get around this?
I do not have a solution to this yet. I am currently working on how to establish moral obligations for the ethical egoist, so I thought it’d be interesting to approach the problem from the other side.
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.