Ethical Realism

December 21, 2009

Does Morality Require God?

Some people believe that God is required or morality will no longer be justified. In particular, God has to exist or “nothing really matters.” Plato and many Christians agree that morality requires a foundation: The Forms or God. Either there is an ideal (Form) of the person that we must try to emulate, or God is the ultimate source of perfection that we must try to emulate. Without the Forms or God, supposedly there would be no intrinsic value. It is true that we want morality to be based on reality. We don’t want morality to be merely delusional or “just a matter of taste.” However, I will argue that the reality described by science seems to be sufficient to explain how intrinsic values can exist. (i.e. We don’t need a transcendent reality in order for something to “really matter.”) Pain seems to be bad and giving people an aspirin to help them avoid pain makes perfect sense, even if God doesn’t exist.

I will divide this post in the following sections:

  1. Introduction
  2. Plato’s Forms
  3. God
  4. The world of natural science
  5. Now what?

Introduction

What are intrinsic values?

The question is not, “Will we despise murder and punish murderers if God doesn’t exist?” Certainly that will continue to happen whether or not such “morality” has any real basis. Instead, the question is, “Will murder ‘really matter’ if God doesn’t exist?” or “Will anything have intrinsic value if God doesn’t exist?” I am only interested in a foundation for intrinsic value because human psychology and institutions involving “moral practice” could exist, even if they aren’t justified.

I have already discussed intrinsic values in “Is There a Meaning of Life?” but I will briefly describe them again. Most values are just about how useful something is. Money is useful to buy stuff, food is useful for staying alive, television is useful to attain pleasure, and guns are useful to help us kill people. Usefulness is not intrinsic value because such goods by themselves don’t really matter. Having money, food, television, and guns doesn’t make life meaningful without giving us something else which has real meaning. Happiness, knowledge, and human life might have real value. These are the kinds of things that seem to “really matter.” If they really matter and have intrinsic value, then they are not good because we desire them. Instead, they are desired because they are good. They are not only good if I have them; they are good no matter who has them. The more people with happiness the better.

So, food by itself is worthless. Food can be stored and never used. Food on a deserted planet won’t “really matter” in any sense. However, food can be used to help us survive. If human life has value, then survival has value. In that case food can help us attain something with intrinsic value.

Why is intrinsic value important for justifying morality? One reason is because morality doesn’t seem like something we can reject or dismiss. We can say, “I don’t want to be a good student” or “I don’t want to be a good artist,” but we don’t have the option to say, “I don’t want to be a good person.” We can reject being a student or artist without serious problems, but deciding not to be a good person does lead to big problems. We can opt out of our obligations as a student or artist, but we can’t opt out of our moral obligations.

What is a foundation?

In this case a foundation is what “makes something true” and explains how it is possible. What makes the sentence “George Washington was the first president of the USA” true are the actual facts in the world (including facts about human institutions). What makes the sentence, “There is a rock in front of me” true is the fact of an actual rock being in front of me. The problem is that morality doesn’t seem to be true because of facts in the same way that the above statements are true.

Russ Shafer-Landau suggested that it is possible that no foundation is needed for morality. To convince us of this he “would point to correct logical standards or physical laws… and claim that there isn’t anything that makes such things true—they simply are true (Moral Realism: A Defense, 47). However, I think it will be fruitful to take a look at what some people propose to be the foundation for morality and why they think such a foundation could be necessary.

Plato’s Forms

Plato lived at a time when people started to have doubts about intrinsic values and decided that morality was “just a matter of taste.” Justifying intrinsic value seemed out of reach. In order to combat this moral skepticism and show that morality can be justified, Plato introduced his theory of the Forms.

Plato was the inventor of idealism. His Forms were originally called “Ideas,” and these ideas were perfections (ideals) to be found as part of reality. So, Plato decided that part of reality is very little like the world as we experience it. The world as we experience is imperfect, it’s full of change, and everything gets destroyed. In contrast, the Forms are eternal, unchanging, and perfect.

One way the Forms could justify our moral beliefs is by having a Form of the ideal person. People who approximate the ideal person are good, and people who do not are bad.

Another way the Forms could justify our moral beliefs is by trying to embody various ideals, such as knowledge and happiness. To embody something that approximates knowledge would be good, and not doing so (being ignorant) would be bad. To embody something that approximates happiness would be good, and not doing so (to be miserable) would be bad. These ideals sound a lot like intrinsic values.

Plato decided that there are gradations between the eternal and the physical parts of the world. The closer something is to the eternal, the better. So, the eternal parts of the universe that embodies perfect knowledge and happiness could have the most intrinsic value. To embody an approximation of these ideals could have some intrinsic value as well.

He thought we could learn about the Forms because our soul was a part of reality closer to the Forms. However, Plato never made it clear how we can know about the Forms. He suggested that somehow we already learned about the Forms (before we were born as free floating souls), but we have forgotten about them. So, we can somehow try to remember them. This answer is not compelling.

A major problem of Plato’s Forms emerges: We have intrinsic values, but it appears impossible for us to know anything about them. We have justified intrinsic value at the cost of moral skepticism.

God

Many Christians believe that God is the source of all intrinsic value in much the same way the Plato’s Forms were. Somehow God is the embodiment of all the Forms. So, instead of living up to the perfect (ideal) person, we should try to live up to the embodiment of perfection itself (God). These Christians seem to agree with Plato that the perfections are intrinsic values. It is better to exist than not to exist, so God exists. It is best to have knowledge, happiness, and virtue, so God has these perfections as well.

These Christians then agree with Plato that to approximate perfection is good, and not doing so is bad, and they agree with Plato that existing closer to the eternal realm is better than existing closer to the physical realm. The eternal realm is the source of all intrinsic value, and the physical realm is worthless.

So, the Christian justification for morality is little more than plagiarism of Plato. However, Christians have some additional answers to help explain our moral knowledge:

  1. Divine revelation allows us to know moral facts when God tells someone what those facts are.
  2. Jesus was God manifested on Earth so he could tell us moral facts.
  3. We are supernatural souls and God has given us a power to know moral facts through “intuition.”
  4. God has given us social instincts to help guide us towards intrinsic value and help us learn what has intrinsic value.

The world of natural science

I do not wish to argue that natural science is currently able to tell us about intrinsic values. I merely want to say that the world described by science (sociological, anthropological, economic, psychological, and physical) is the same world in which moral facts appear to exist. We know at least some moral facts through direct experience, such as the experience of pain. We know pain is bad because of how it feels, and pain itself is part of our psychology.

To say that pain is intrinsically bad appears plausible based on our experience, and God (or the Forms) do not seem relevant to our justification that “pain is bad.” It seems absurd to tell someone, “You can’t know that pain is intrinsically bad unless you find out God exists!” (If God exists, I don’t think it can even experience pain.)

Still, someone might argue, “Well, pain can’t just be bad for no reason because it’s subjective. It might be delusional.” The problem here is that pain would still be bad even if it was a hallucination. Pain doesn’t pretend to be something else. It can’t misrepresent reality. Pain is nothing more than a psychological experience, just like a hallucination.

It is true that some philosophers seem to believe that nothing but quarks, strings, photons, and/or electrons really exist, and everything else is a hallucination, and these philosophers will be unable to justify intrinsic values. Therefore, some other kind of understanding of reality is necessary to enable intrinsic values to exist. I propose that the foundation of intrinsic value is reality itself, but not all of reality. Moral facts are found in an emergent part of the universe. Just like many believe the mind emerges from the brain, it appears that morality emerges from certain conditions of reality as well.

There is nothing about the physical reality of quarks and strings that forces everyone to accept that they are the only real part of the world. It seems obvious enough that we have minds as well. (Try to disprove that fact!) Scientists and philosophers alike often accept that the mind is an emergent and irreducible phenomenon that is more than the sum of its parts. Morality might also be an emergent and irreducible phenomenon that is more than the sum of its parts.

So, how exactly might we get morality from the universe? First you have to get brains, which give us minds. Some mental activity is pain, which is enough to say that something intrinsically bad exists. The moral implications of pain isn’t reducible to nonmoral facts, just like mental facts don’t seem reducible to nonmental facts. The mind doesn’t seem to be “just the brain” just like we can’t explain what pain is to someone just by pointing to various brain states. In the same way we might be unable say that the badness found in pain is nothing more than nonmoral facts about the mind. (Pain is a morally relevant mental state.) It might be that all moral facts depends on the existence of mental activity, but nonmoral mental states, such as seeing the color green are not morally relevant.

The world of natural science is the most plausible foundation for morality

If intrinsic values require a foundation, then we don’t currently know for sure what it is. We can speculate that Plato’s Forms, God, or the natural world could be the cause of morality, but the natural world is the most plausible answer. Plato’s Forms and God should not be accepted as real without substantial evidence, and evidence of these things are difficult to provide given the fact that they appear to be separate from the natural world. (Even if we did accept that they exist, they might not help us know anything about morality.) It would be much easier to find evidence that intrinsic values from the natural world, and such a hypothesis only requires a view of the universe as a reality that causes some entities to emerge from other entities found in nature (e.g. the mind emerges from the brain).

Additionally, the view that intrinsic values emerge from the mind give us a pretty simple method of attaining moral knowledge. If intrinsic values emerge from the mind, then we will avoid Plato’s problem of moral skepticism, and the Christian reliance of questionable sources of knowledge. We will not have to rely on the possibility that Jesus is God, that the Bible is historically accurate, that we have a kind of supernatural intuition, that the testimony of people who talk to God is accurate, that our social emotions are good, and so on. Such Christian forms of knowledge might be accurate, but we might never know for sure if they are.

Now what?

People have assumed God is the foundation for intrinsic value for hundreds of years, and many still do. This assumption is essential for an argument for God and an argument against intrinsic values, but these arguments don’t make sense given the fact that intrinsic value does not require God.

The moral argument for God

Some people have tried to argue that God must exist because intrinsic value exists. So far that argument appears blatantly unsound. The argument looks like the following:

  1. We know intrinsic values exist.
  2. Intrinsic values could only exist if God exists.
  3. Therefore God exists.

This argument fails for at least two reasons. One, there are other reasons that intrinsic values can exist, such as Plato’s Forms or the natural world itself. So far God doesn’t even appear to be the best explanation, so we can’t even conclude that “God probably exists” by realizing that intrinsic values exist. Two, we have to be sure that intrinsic values exist, but many people aren’t so sure.

The argument against intrinsic values

Many atheists who have rejected God’s existence have decided that they should also reject the existence of intrinsic values. They seem to accept an argument like the following:

  1. God doesn’t exist.
  2. If God doesn’t exist, then intrinsic values don’t exist.
  3. Therefore, intrinsic values don’t exist.

This argument given by atheists fails because intrinsic values don’t require God’s existence.

Conclusion

If my foundation for intrinsic values is plausible, then we have good reason to accept that morality does not require God. In that case an atheist can have a solid foundation for intrinsic values.

I have not proven that God doesn’t exist. If you believe in God or the Platonic Forms, it is still preferable to account for intrinsic values in terms of our experience rather than supernatural (or non-natural) phenomena with very questionable evidence. If something ordinary and full of common sense can explain and justify morality, that seems much more plausible than a demand for faith or questionable kinds of evidence.

To accept that intrinsic values exist from the natural world is much like accepting that lightning occurs from the natural world. To say that lightning is created by God doesn’t help a scientist do his job. I propose that we can know a lot about the foundation of intrinsic value within the world of natural science as well. People who argue that God must be the foundation to intrinsic value give up to fast, just like the people who argued that God is the cause of lightning.

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10 Comments »

  1. It makes sense to me that morality is absolute. Otherwise, it simply doesnt exist. As an abstraction it must be absolute, or else it is utterly meaningless. I cite relative morality as an example of a set of ethics which are as variable as the situation it is applied in. The individual is a hypocrite in that regard, for inventing a caveat, an exception, or what have you to justify an action that suits his or her wants at any given time. The old adage, “circumstances matter” is a universal “get out of jail free card” which exonerates everyone of anything they could possibly do. The notion of morality is cheapened to nothing more than social etiquette which no one is obliged to, except in the superficial threat of social ostracizing which isnt going to be neither unanimous nor eternal. Morality is absolute. And even if it isnt, it should be regarded as such until such time that it is conclusively proven otherwise. Or else be doomed to act immorally under absolute moral law, under the false pretense of moral relativism. If we are to pretend to be moral at all, we must be morally conservative and treat morality absolutely or else we are lacking rigor and risk compromising good moral sense in the process. And all for what? For the far flung hope that we are moral after all under “our own notions”? Society is hypocritical. The individual is as well. Who is to judge us except a society which compromises and degradates its standards continuously? We must be judged by an absolute standard or else any judgment is arbitrary and meaningless, invented on the spot. I wont pretend to know what the moral absolute laws are, nor do I pretend to know where such laws originate. But I do believe.. I must ethically default to… the notion that they are absolute and unwavering. Or else Id might as well be an amoral or immoral individual. Moral relativism is moral anarchy, its amorality or immorality rationalized as a virtue… a self-righteous virtue which yields unobstructed permissions to the individual and alleviates all sense of guilt, shame and moral responsibility.

    Comment by CogitoErgoCogitoSum — December 21, 2009 @ 5:43 pm | Reply

    • CpogitoErgoitsoSun,

      “We must be judged by an absolute standard or else any judgment is arbitrary and meaningless, invented on the spot.”

      This is something almost everyone disagrees with including the philosophical experts. It appears to dismiss other possibilities and all other possibilities must be considered.

      For practical reasons what you are saying sounds partially justified. If we know that killing is wrong, then it sounds “safe” to decide never to kill. It is especially difficult to justify killing on any intrinsic value other than the value of human life itself.

      But that’s a problem. It is pretty safe to decide to promote an intrinsic value as long as it is the only relevant value. Killing someone to save several lives can be reasonable as long as we are fairly certain that lives will be saved. Killing in self-defense is not as justified because we can suspect that excessive force was used and it might be less certain that a life is being saved.

      Another problem is the same problem that Kant’s general principals give us (from his Categorical Imperative). We end up with moral rules that conflict. “Killing is wrong” and “Saving lives is good” seem to conflict in the above example, but the rules “you should give people happiness” and “you should help improve people” also seems to conflict in an educational environment.

      A third problem might not be so bad, depending on how judgmental you think we should be: People should not be forced to be wise. It doesn’t seem possible for us to do everything perfectly. People have to be able to hurt others and learn from their mistakes to some extent.

      Comment by James Gray — December 21, 2009 @ 10:17 pm | Reply

    • You said, “It makes sense to me that morality is absolute. Otherwise, it simply doesn’t exist.” I didn’t reply to this statement yet, but it might be helpful to show you a little bit how I see it. I don’t agree that morality must be absolute in order to exist.

      My point is that “something has to really matter.” That is the most important factor in justifying morality, and it basically means that “intrinsic values exist.” I haven’t proven that any particular moral institution is justified, but “if pain is bad, then it makes sense to give someone with a headache an aspirin.”

      There can be more than one intrinsic value. Pain, pleasure, happiness, knowledge, consciousness, and human life are all candidates for having intrinsic value. If these things “really matter,” then morality can be justified, but the situation can still be relevant. I might have to choose between spending $5 on buying a book for school or spending that money to buy aspirin to alleviate my headache. In this case we have two things that matter: pain and knowledge. I might have to choose between which is more important given my current situation.

      Let’s say we agree that pain is bad, so “we should try to avoid pain” but we also agree that human life is good, so “we should try to save lives.” If I have to choose to walk through fire to save a child, I will violate the rule that we should try to avoid pain, but it still seems like the right choice to make. This is a pretty clear case when the situation has to be taken into consideration.

      Comment by James Gray — December 22, 2009 @ 12:42 am | Reply

  2. I guess then you failed to comprehend my point entirely.

    If you invent the moral code on a whim then its not really a morality at all, but some trivial rule instead. Even if society agrees to it. Because society could just as easily disagree to it later. The invention of exceptions and caveats, after the fact, to justify the action, is sufficient enough proof for me that the code wasnt abided by in the first place.

    You think it possible for society to invent morality. I dont. I disagree with all your so-called “experts”. The fact that you cite them to justify your position is just yet another rationalization to serve an end.

    I am talking about moral defaults. Moral conservativism. Given two options, I as an absolutist say take the road guaranteed to be less wrong… and in doing so, it being one of several choices you were forced into making, you are not wrong for making it.

    You on the other hand, an apparent moral relativist, believes in no real rule whatsoever. Given two options, one more wrong than another, you dont believe in faulting someone just so long as “they” or “you” can rationalize it in context.

    And thats all it is, really, just a rationalization. You believe that ignorance of moral certainty – but being aware of that ignorance nonetheless – is still justification for action in self serving ways.

    I fundamentally and wholeheartedly disagree. That mentality is deprived of morality entirely. Because anything can be justified. Anything can be made to have an exception. There is a caveat for all your rules. And circumstances always change your rules. Thus, there is no rule. There is just what you find comfortable in the moment, what you appreciate for your own agendas.

    I didnt say that I knew with certainty that morality was absolute. I said that if we are to pretend to be moral at all we are ethically bound to pretend that morality is absolute… in order to guarantee the most conservative approach and the most morally righteous choices. Or else we cant call ourselves moral, but instead a deluded rhetorician who have rationalized life choices.

    The nice thing about moral absolutism is that I dont necessarily have to agree with a choice it dictates to me. The fact that it can guide me in such a way is sort of what makes it morality, isnt it?

    Comment by CogitoErgoCogitoSum — December 22, 2009 @ 7:08 am | Reply

    • Thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts here and responding to my comments.

      If you invent the moral code on a whim then its not really a morality at all, but some trivial rule instead. Even if society agrees to it. Because society could just as easily disagree to it later.

      I never said I could invent a moral code on a whim. I am not a relativist. You can read my post, “A moral realist perspective” to get a better idea about what I think. I don’t know why you thought I was a relativist.

      The invention of exceptions and caveats, after the fact, to justify the action, is sufficient enough proof for me that the code wasnt abided by in the first place.

      I’m not sure what this means. There seems to be universal rules, such as “Killing people for fun is wrong.” Such universal rules do not allow justification after the fact, but they can take consideration of the situation. Universality and generality are not the same thing. Absolutism says that the situation is irrelevant to ethics because for some reason moral rules must be simple.

      Given any situation X, an action Y either right or wrong, and anyone in a relevantly similar situation X will find that action Y has the same moral status.

      The situation need not “justify any behavior.” Rape is wrong not because “sex is always wrong” but because sex is wrong given the situation that someone is unwilling. Rape is always wrong, but it is a description of a universalized situation.

      You think it possible for society to invent morality. I dont. I disagree with all your so-called “experts”. The fact that you cite them to justify your position is just yet another rationalization to serve an end.

      You need to know what the actual experts have to say to know if what you are saying is true. The experts do not agree, and they aren’t all relativists. Philosophers spend their lives devoted to moral questions, and there are hundreds of years worth of moral philosophy. To know what philosophers thought throughout history is quite helpful for attaining moral knowledge indeed. The experts have to know moral philosophy’s history and they have to take into consideration objections.

      I am talking about moral defaults. Moral conservativism. Given two options, I as an absolutist say take the road guaranteed to be less wrong… and in doing so, it being one of several choices you were forced into making, you are not wrong for making it.

      That is not my understanding of absolutism, but I agree that “being one of several choices you were forced into making, you are not wrong for making it.”

      You on the other hand, an apparent moral relativist, believes in no real rule whatsoever. Given two options, one more wrong than another, you dont believe in faulting someone just so long as “they” or “you” can rationalize it in context.

      No, I agree with what you said. I’m a moral realist, not a relativist. You might want to see my post “An argument for moral realism” and/or “What is moral realism?”

      The nice thing about moral absolutism is that I dont necessarily have to agree with a choice it dictates to me. The fact that it can guide me in such a way is sort of what makes it morality, isnt it?

      Yes.

      It should be pointed out that I discuss “intrinsic values” here, which is the moral realist position. Intrinsic values aren’t just about desiring something. They are about “real value” and what “really matters.” I discuss the fact that some people thought that God or the Forms were necessary to be moral realists (and accept intrinsic values.) The third position states that there can be intrinsic values (and moral realism) even without God or the Forms. If I am right, then one can reject the Forms and God and still be a moral realist. In other words rejecting such things does not necessarily lead to relativism, which is basically a kind of anti-realism.

      Comment by James Gray — December 22, 2009 @ 7:43 am | Reply

  3. Morality and ethics provide maps that show us how to navigate the environment. No imaginary friend is needed. Through observation and experiment we find out what goes and what does not go. Ethics evolves and survives because ethical folks evolve and survive. Moralists and ethicists can explain to us the history of those who did not follow the rules of society.

    Glenn Borchardt

    Comment by Glenn Borchardt — January 3, 2010 @ 5:09 am | Reply

    • Glenn,

      Thank you for your comments. What you said sounds very pragmatic. No one should question if morality could exist without God in the sense that we will try to make good decisions and decide to have laws and so forth, but moral anti-realists, such as Richard Dawkins, agree with many Christans that moral realism (intrinsic value) requires God. Anti-realists include nihilists, emotivists, relativists, and so on. Do you agree that moral realism doesn’t require God?

      Comment by James Gray — January 3, 2010 @ 10:52 am | Reply

      • Well, moral realism exists and god does not. Therefore moral realism doesn’t require god. Moral realists, of course, like to claim that their statements on morality come from a “higher power” as edicts handed down from an imaginary friend. In fact, those statements, like their supposed god-authors, are all imaginary, being made up through generous use of the tools at hand. This is no different than what each of does every day: we continually prepare and revise ethical maps to guide us through an ever-changing macrocosm. You can call your inspiration what you will, but in any case, it better be right. Otherwise, you and your map may have an unfortunate ending.

        Comment by Glenn Borchardt — February 2, 2010 @ 2:16 am

  4. […] how intrinsic values could have nothing to do with Plato’s Forms or God in my essay, “Does Morality Require God?” However, some people think that intrinsic values could exist as some other strange entity in the […]

    Pingback by Mischaracterizations of “Intrinsic Value” « Ethical Realism — January 7, 2010 @ 7:54 am | Reply

  5. […] have already argued that intrinsic values don’t require God precisely because materalists don’t have to be reductionists. It is possible that the human […]

    Pingback by William Lane Craig’s Moral Argument for God « Ethical Realism — February 11, 2010 @ 3:13 am | Reply


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