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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Real Moral Objectivity and the Euthyphro Dilemma

Must Morality Be Objective to be Real? And Is God the Only Basis for Real Morality?

A common topic within the debate between Atheists and Theists down through the ages, but with a revitalized renaissance within the New Atheist Movement and the apologetical counter arguments, is the concept of morality: what it is, and what can account for and provide a basis for it. In this post I will argue that no matter what someone’s confession is, they will inevitably resort to objective morality, thus showing that all people believe in a kind of objective moral standard. In addition, I will argue that due to the fact that morality is universally accepted as objective, that the only possible basis for such a moral system is the eternal and immutable nature of God.

First, I must show that all people, regardless of what they may confess they believe about the nature of morality, will inevitably posit objective moral statements a) when they are backed into a corner logically, or b) when they are “asleep at the helm” so to speak. That is, when they are not conscious enough of the fact that they are making objective moral statements in order to maintain their counter position (such as relativism, subjectivism, or pluralism).

Let me first prove a). This can be done anecdotally (to show that they are not consistent with their own position) and logically (to show that each position actually leads to illusory morality and not real moral obligation) for each of the three major counter positions: Subjectivism, Relativism, and Pluralism.

Subjectivism – This is the position that morality is subjective to the individual. In my experience, those who hold this position will object profusely when they feel that they have been wronged. They are completely unable to maintain, consistently, their subjective position. Imagine that they were to have their car broken into. They would feel anger, violation, and victimized. But why should they feel that way if the robber is not under the same moral obligation that they are? If morality is only their own subjective reality, why should he expect that the robber should abide by his subjective moral code and not by the robber’s own code? Thus they are not consistent with their own position.

But how does this view lead to only an illusion of morality and not real moral obligation? Well if I am the measure of morality, why should I be expected to respect any other moral code? If I am the basis for my own moral code, then I am not even obligated to my own moral code let alone anyone else’s. I am not a being with the ontology or nature to create and mandate obligation. We see that Dahmer has an equal “moral” as his victims. His victims would be unable to say “you are wrong to eat me” because Dahmer was within his own moral code in doing so. The same goes for pedophiles, wife beaters, rapists, murderers, etc. When a moral theory can lead to the universalizing of moral right to actions such as murder, rape, and child molestation, then it seems obvious that no real morality exists.

We also see that even the subjectivist, not only in practice, but also in theory, end up positing objective morality. If you were to ask them why we must obey our own moral codes, they will form some kind of moral “ought” to answer. All people “ought” to obey their conscience. Now, the content of the conscience may have as many permutations as there are people, but notice that the subjectivist has actually sneaked moral obligation (and thus moral objectivity) in through the back door. We will see over and over again that when one removes God as the basis for morality, they remove the only possible basis for real morality.


Relativism – This position is similar to that of subjectivism, but is extended not to individuals but to culture, society, social contracts, classes, etc. So rather than being subjective to the individual, morality is subjective to a specific group (although those boundaries of the group may be vague). The relativist, like the subjectivist, is also unable to maintain a consistent practice of their position to varying degrees.

There are some who this can be seen with when they show their indignation at things like American Slavery, the Holocaust, Stalin and Mao’s purges, etc. Once they show their indignation they reveal that they believe there is a universal moral code that these other cultures are obligated to obey but had broken. Even though they may belong to 21st century, western, blue state, suburban culture, (for we must realize that “culture” is much more narrow than simply “American” or something of that order) they will find it completely acceptable to say that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc., had broken a universal moral code. Yet if moral codes are relative to the culture, then this should not be the case. They should be something like traffic laws; only those under the jurisdiction of the law is obliged to follow them. Why am I not guilty of the English traffic law every day that I drive on the right side of the street? Because I am not under the jurisdiction of the English traffic court. Why would Hitler not be obliged to keep our American moral sentiments about genocide? Because he is not a citizen of our culture.

Now, for some relativists who seek to be more consistent, they will actually admit that Hitler was moral in his own moral context. As was Stalin, Mao, and the American slave traders. This seems disingenuous however because you will only hear them toe this line when backed into a corner to defend their position. When they are not on the defensive or talking specifically about morality, they will often call down curses, so to speak, on the ills of the world and the crimes against humanity. They may seek justice for the oppressed in other cultures, they may support America’s actions in WWII, the Gulf War, or our Invasion of Afghanistan. In fact, within the New Atheist movement, and I have found this multiple times in my debates in the blog-o-sphere, the antitheist will actually say in the same post that Hitler was morally right within his own context 60 years ago, but that that God is morally repugnant for his actions 3000 years ago that are presented in the Bible. The inconsistency of these two positions should be obvious.

Even if that were not the case, as before, it seems that any moral system that leads to the logical conclusion that Hitler was morally right to slaughter 6 million Jews, for Stalin to kill, either directly or by consequences, nearly 100 million people or for American slave traders to forcibly relocate millions of Africans and force them into possibly the worst kind of slavery the world has ever known, just seems to be an invalid moral system because it allows such morally repugnant actions to be on par with helping an old woman across the street, sacrificial love, and generosity.

Furthermore, it is not only the adherents that cannot maintain a consistent application of their position, the position itself is untenable. Why? It again is inconsistent with itself in its attempt to create moral obligation. Why am I obliged to obey what my culture says? Is it because what is best for the culture? But why should I seek to do what is best for the culture just because the culture says so? The answer predictably comes, “because we ‘ought’ to seek the good of the society.” But notice that this comes in a form that is universal and objective. That all people ‘ought’ to act in such a manner that it benefits the culture at large. But in positing this universal statement, they must necessarily contradict their relativism.


Pluralism – This is the view that while there are objective morals, there are adjacent objective moral systems that are all equally valid. In this case the adherent is much more likely to maintain a consistent position because they are holding to what they believe to be objective morality. Yet their problem arises, just like the others, when they must practice moral evaluation. If each moral system is objectively true, but that the moral systems clash from time to time, what is the governing moral system that allows for one objective moral system to evaluate another? The argument here seems to be “morals are objective, except when they aren’t… but even then they are.” This position, it seems, tries to have its cake and eat it too.

And it again cannot account for its own moral obligation. What is the basis for the moral objectivity of each of the morally objective systems? What if one system says lying is objectively moral and one says that it is objectively immoral? The problems with this view abound, but I think the most problematic areas are that it is simply so muddled that it is beyond the pale of reason.


In his recent blog (http://rationalists.wordpress.com/2009/12/30/morality-got-god/) my frequent opponent, Courtenay Werleman, made the following argument. From his comments, I will launch into the body of my argument. The form will follow that of a negative rebuttals to the statements made by Werleman followed by a positive argument for my position.


He writes:

“With brevity in mind - here is the slam dunk against the argument that without God there can be no universal objective basis for morality:

1. Rape is morally wrong! FACT. Even if some group residing somewhere on the planet thinks otherwise, they are wrong.

2. Rape is morally wrong because it causes harm to another person. Inflicting physical and emotional pain. These harms are not justified by any benefit to anyone else. This an objective observation.

3. God commands us not to rape, in the Bible. But why should we obey God's commands? The theist will answer that God has good reasons for his commands and that we should obey. Thus God commands us not to rape because it harms another person, the victim. But then it is the harm that makes rape immoral not the command. Therefore rape would be just as harmful without God, and just as immoral without God.

Conclusion: Rape is immoral and God is superfluous.”


Now, does Werleman’s “slam dunk” argument actually achieve what he believes that it does?

Rebuttal #1. Notice that Werleman actually assumes his conclusion in his first argument. He concludes from “Rape is morally wrong” (objectively) to the fact that morals are objective without God. To those who are not familiar with logical fallacies, let me point out that this is what is called begging the question. Here the question being asked is “Why is morality objective” to which he answers “because morality is objective.” He has actually not accomplished anything for himself in the first argument. He assumes the rape is wrong absolutely and universally (for all people, in all places, at all times). Anyone who thinks otherwise are simply wrong. Now, while the theist would agree with this conclusion, the question that Werleman is supposed to be answering is not “what,” but “why.”

Rebuttal #2. Do the ends justify the means? We all know the cliché. No, they don’t. Is rape only wrong because it hurts someone or because rape, in and of itself, is wrong? If harm is the standard of moral wrongness, then there are many things that we know are actually very good that would then be turned bad. Tell someone the truth, though it may hurt them, would be immoral. Self-sacrifice would be wrong. War would always be wrong. etc. We could also imagine several scenarios where we could commit theft, lying, or any number of immoral actions that would not cause any known harm to another, that would then be morally justifiable.

Rebuttal #3. Werleman uses rape as his example, I assume (I could be wrong) because of a previous argument that he and I had on rustylime.com. He had argued for an evolutionary basis for morality to which I gave this example:

Imagine a culture (prior to modern medical science) where all the women refused to have sex with the men. (Maybe they believed that their tribal deity demanded it in order for the crops to grow; a kind of a-fertility god.) In order for a society to survive, there must be offspring (the Darwinian mandate) and so the men raped all the women. While this may have been harmful to the women, it was the only way to keep the society (and more importantly the genetic lineage of its people) alive. Thus if evolution is the basis for morality, then rape is not a wrong action, but only wrong as determined by its context and it would be logical to say that mass rape would actually be a moral imperative.

I imagine that this is the reason for Werleman’s use of rape as his example. The problem however is that the objection remains unanswered. He gives pragmatics as the basis for morality, but no reason to assume that his narrow use of pragmatics is the only game in town so to speak. Why should societal pragmatics not take precedent over personal ones.

Rebuttal #4. Notice that He also sneaks moral objectivity in through the back door. Why is rape morally wrong? Because it hurts someone. Why is it morally wrong to hurt someone? ….cricket…. cricket… “because it just is!” He has actually not provided a basis for moral objectivity, he has only provided an example of a moral objective that basis another moral objective, thus merely pushing the problem back a step.

Rebuttal #5. He then makes God to be a god in his own image, that is, because Werleman is a pragmatist, he makes God a pragmatist as well. Why does God command us not to rape? Werleman answers, “because it harms another person, the victim.” Thus he assumes the truth of his own position and at the same time sets up a strawman of the theistic argument, for that is not the position of the theist. We do not say that God commands what is good based on the outcome.

Rebuttal #6. He then posits his own version of the Euthyphro Dilemma, also called the Divine Command Theory (although Werleman’s version is noticeably weaker than other versions of the argument.) For those unfamiliar with the dilemma, it is as follows.

P1) Is an action good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good.
P2) If it is the former, then it is arbitrary because god could have commanded otherwise.
P3) If it is the later, then God is not the ultimate basis for morality since there is a moral code outside of him that he ascribe to.
P4) Thus God is not necessary as the basis for morality.

Before dealing with this problem in the next rebuttal, let me first address another strawman that Werleman sets up when he puts words into the theist’s mouth. According to him, the theist can only responds to the dilemma by stating “that God has good reasons for his commands and that we should obey.” This is actually not the response of most theists familiar with the dilemma.

Rebuttal #7. This rebuttal will actually take the form of three responses (A, B, and C) to the aforementioned dilemma.

Response A – The dilemma is actually a false dichotomy. It only allows in two options for the relationship between morality and God. It assumes in the first case that something is good virtue of it being commanded by God, or that if God commands something that is good, that it is because that standard of what makes it good lays elsewhere from God. Neither seems to be the case. Is something good because God commands it? No, something is good insofar as it aligns with the immutable and perfect character of God. So then when God does command what is good, because it is in fact good, the standard is not something exterior to himself but is rather his own nature.

Response B – If God commands something, it does not necessitate that he could have commanded otherwise. As we say in the previous response, what God commands is actually very much established by his eternal and immutable nature. Thus God could not command something that is contrary to his nature. Since his nature is eternal and immutable, he could only have ever commanded honesty, love, mercy, etc. and forbade lying, stealing, murder, etc. because those are what are in-line with or contradictory to, his immutable nature. Thus the claim of the arbitrary nature of God’s commands s invalid.

Response C – The conclusion, then, no longer follows because the argument is no longer sound. But just because this argument fails, does not win the case for the theist. It simply means that the Euthyphro Dilemma is not a valid critique.

Rebuttal #8. Imagine that Werleman were correct in his assertion that morality is determined by its consequences. We would then never be able to act, because we would never be able to determine the value differential between the positive and the negative outcomes. This is the common response to all forms of philosophical pragmatism. We would need a kind of pain/happiness calculator and an exhaustive knowledge of the future to know what outcomes would be derived from our every action. Could I be moral and lie if I was almost certain no one would find out? Could cannibals kill and eat a person because their amount of cooperate joy outweighs one persons anguish? Say there are 30 fat and happy cannibals after they eat and only one dead person who is dead an no longer suffers. This does not even begin to address things like bio-ethics, media-ethics, and environmental-ethics.

Rebuttal #9. Werleman’s conclusion no longer follows from his false premises above. It assumes the truth of his position (that morality is determined by the volume of harm that results) in his premises and then argues to that conclusion.



My Position. Rape is objectively wrong. This is not because of the say so of culture or society, but because the act itself is immoral. It will always be immoral because it is a violation of a universal, immutable, absolute, and eternal moral standard; namely, the nature of God. This is the only possible basis that offers us real morals and not just the illusion obligation. It is the only position that can be consistently maintained that does not lead to contradictions in practice or in reasoning, and it is the only one that can establish real moral obligation without simply sneaking it in through the back door, but by actually providing a real causal basis for it.

For more on this, please comment with a specific comment or question and I will try to respond as promptly as possible.

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