Plato may have been the first philosopher to suggest that ethics requires a “foundation,” which ended up being his theory of the Forms: A realm quite unlike the physical world (eternal, unchanging, perfect, and so on). An action is virtuous if it resembles the nature of the perfect human being. The Stoics and Epicureans did not agree with Plato because they only believed in the physical world. They found the Forms to require unnecessary commitments concerning reality. The physical world seemed sufficient to explain ethics. Then for a couple thousand years Christians dominated meta-ethical philosophy and agreed with Plato that a special foundation is necessary for ethics. In particular, God must exist (which, like the forms, is eternal, unchanging, and perfect). An action is virtuous if it resembles the nature of God. The Christians argued that if God doesn’t exist, then nothing really matters.
The question is, “Do we need a foundation for ethics?” (Is Plato’s Forms or God necessary for anything to really matter? If we reject the Forms and God, will we then have to reject intrinsic value and become nihilists?) I will argue that we should prefer that the answer be, “No.” We should prefer to believe in intrinsic values even if the Forms or God doesn’t exist. It is preferable to believe intrinsic values can exist without the Forms or God for at least three reasons:
- The simplest explanation is preferable.
- We don’t want to be required to accept unproven facts about reality.
- Not everyone accepts the existence of the Forms or God.
I am not arguing that the Forms don’t exist, or that God doesn’t exist. Even if we reject that intrinsic values could exist without the Forms or God, these parts of reality might exist.
I am not even arguing that we don’t need the Forms or God in order for intrinsic values to exist. I am merely arguing that “if it is possible to rationally accept intrinsic values without the Forms or God, then we should prefer to do so.”
I will discuss the recent history of Meta-Ethics and then I will address why all things equal, we should prefer that intrinsic values can exist, even if God or the Forms don’t exist.
Recent Meta-Ethical History
Nietzsche’s saying, “God is dead,” reflected the fact that atheism was growing in respectability. An atheist would no longer be tortured or executed for heresy. In fact, God’s existence was not proven, so it was quite rational for people to question his existence. Unfortunately the dogma of the time was that “God exists, or nothing really matters,” so atheists could no longer justify morality. Thousands of years of Christianity (and the taboo of atheism) left atheistic ethical philosophy in shambles. No atheistic justification for morality was available. Of course, Nietzsche was only discussing facts about society. Just because people think God is necessary for morality doesn’t mean it’s true.
So, “God is dead” means that we are all used to relying on God, but some people of Nietzsche’s time wished to no longer rely on God anymore. Science seemed to be the most fruitful intellectual activity, and the idea of God was not helpful to it.
Nietzsche did not prove God doesn’t exist. The fact is that it is natural to question God’s existence just because it hasn’t been proven to exist. People aren’t certain that God exists, but we still want them to be certain that human life has intrinsic value. Therefore, it would be preferable to find out that God isn’t necessary for intrinsic value.
Even Christian philosophers at this point almost unanimously agreed that discussing God was not fruitful to philosophy precisely because of the practical considerations already mentioned. In particular, God’s existence is uncertain and disagreement about God’s nature could not be resolved through experience or argument.
The temptation to reject intrinsic values and believe “nothing really matters” became acceptable. It didn’t take long for many philosophers to officially reject intrinsic values. Hobbes, Nietzsche, Hume, Ayer, and Hare are among the most respectable philosophers who gave up on the idea.
We can still see the effects of “God’s death.” People often doubt whether or not anything really has intrinsic value. Some people even suggest that a rabbit or mouse might have just as much worth as a human being. Why? Because it’s all just meaningless, isn’t it? We just say human beings are more valuable because we are human beings and we want to have the right to eat and exploit other animals. But all of this talk is really little more than skepticism towards intrinsic value. Such skepticism doesn’t amount to much when given by someone with no understanding of meta-ethical philosophy.
Moreover, the metaphor “God is dead” does not refer to rampant immorality from atheists, as some Christians seem to argue. The best way to make sure we treat other people well is to understand meta-ethical philosophy. To learn about intrinsic values and our experience of morality. Persecuting atheists and forcing Christian dogma upon the masses didn’t succeed in creating virtuous citizens because we can’t replace a philosophical understanding of intrinsic values with obedience to a church. The terrible crimes and wars waged by Christians during the middle ages is a good reason for us to doubt that their kings and priests could really believe that people have intrinsic value.
A sincere and philosophical understanding of ethics has proven to help us behave appropriately, even when we are tempted to harm others to benefit ourselves. Meta-ethics in particular can help remind us of the intrinsic value at stake when we have a chance to make a decision that impacts the lives of others.
Why we shouldn’t want intrinsic values to require God or the Forms.
The simplest explanation is preferable.
We could think of extremely implausible explanations for our experiences. You might think that you forgot your wallet at home, but really fairies might have taken your wallet out of your pocket. You might think that dinosaurs existed, but the bones might have been left there by aliens to trick us. You might think that the universe started to exist billions of years ago, but God might have created the entire universe two hours ago and inserted memories into each of our heads. What makes each of these explanations so implausible is that they are much more complected than they should be. They all require us to have more commitments about reality than should be necessary to explain our experiences.
As William of Occam said, “Don’t multiply entities beyond necessity.” If you posit the existence of new entities, like faeries, aliens, and so forth, but there are alternative explanations that don’t require us to posit their existence, then we should prefer the simpler explanation. It is more likely to be true.
It seems more likely that you forgot your wallet at home than fairies moved it. It seems more likely that dinosaurs evolved on planet Earth than aliens putting their bones here. It seems more likely that the universe came into existence billions of years ago than that God created it two hours ago.
The rule of Occam could be restated to say, “All things equal, don’t posit the existence of new entities.” That means that bigfoot, dragons, unicorns, and fairies shouldn’t be accepted unless they are required to explain our experiences. In the same way the Forms and God shouldn’t be accepted unless they are required for our experiences. If our moral experiences can exist without them, then ethics is not going to be a good reason to accept the existence of the Forms or God.
We don’t want to be required to accept unproven facts about reality.
Faeries, unicorns, aliens, the Forms, and God are not proven to exist. It is unreliable to base one belief on an uncertain belief. If you believe that there will be a hurricane based on the latest scientific research, then you have a good reason to prepare for a hurricane. If you believe there will be a hurricane based on the opinion of a fortune teller, then you don’t have a good reason to prepare for a hurricane.
If human life has intrinsic value, then we have a reason to help save lives. If this is true no matter what, then we will be certain that human life has intrinsic value and we will probably be willing to help save lives when we can do so at little cost to ourselves. However, if intrinsic values requires the Forms or God, which are not proven to exist, then we will not be certain that intrinsic values exist. We will then be ambivalent to save lives because we won’t be sure that human life has intrinsic value.
Given the choice: Either intrinsic values and God exists, or neither exists; philosophers are tempted to agree that neither exists. This is the position of Richard Dawkins as well as many respected philosophers. Dawkins argues that atheists are “moral,” which just means “atheists are nice people.” Dawkins just thinks we are moral because of our instincts, not because of our belief in intrinsic values or understanding of ethical philosophy.
Not everyone accepts the existence of the Forms or God.
It’s just a fact that not everyone believes in the Forms or God. We want everyone to believe that human life has intrinsic value, even if they don’t believe in the Forms or God. Therefore, it is preferable to find out that intrinsic values can exist without the Forms or God.
Simply put, we are uncertain that the Forms or God exists, but we want to be certain that intrinsic values exist. It is then preferable to be able to accept the existence of intrinsic values, even if the Forms or God doesn’t exist. We aren’t certain that the Forms or God exists, so if intrinsic values depend on these entities, then we can’t be sure that intrinsic values exist.
The more certain we are that intrinsic values exist, the more likely we are to behave appropriately. The more certain we are that human beings have intrinsic value, the more likely we are to try to save human lives.
All things equal, we should prefer to accept that intrinsic values exist, even if the Forms or God doesn’t exist. All things equal, we shouldn’t want ethics to require the Forms or God. However, we still need to know if intrinsic values actually do in fact require God. That is the subject of my next post.