The latest comment on my post documenting Leah Libresco's conversion to Catholicism is from an atheist with username "PhaseVelocity" (hence PV). By his tone he seems to be a typical strident, angry New Atheist (not to mention his sloppy grammar and usage) but he does trot out some standard objections to the moral argument so I want to take this opportunity to say a bit more about the grounds and strength of this argument.
Before going into that, let me just note the double-edged bulverism PV uses to dismiss Libresco's testimony:
Claiming you converted to a religion for rational arguments is common. Few people are willing to admit they converted for irrational arguments. Still this is usually the case. Humans base around 80% of their decisions on non-rational grounds. When somebody starts to accept faith for emotional reasons cognitive dissonance kicks in. A posteriori rationalizations are collected and most of the time the individuals involved actually genuinely believe the rationalizations were the main cause of the change in position.And just like that, PV sweeps the legs out from under every de-conversion testimony on exchristian.net and other sites (just replace 'religion' with 'nonbelief'). But even leaving that aside, it is clear from reading through the archives on Libresco's blog that her conversion really was motivated by intellectual concerns. In my post I document the progression in her thinking by linking to several posts across a period of several years. I invite PV to do his homework instead of tossing out unsubstantiated psychological speculation.
But on to his substantive criticisms of the moral argument:
I have never seen a theist posit even remotely convincing evidence for objective morality that is properly measurable or can be reasoned. They usually say: "Moral horror X is really always wrong therefore morals are objective." All this establishes is that most people have a strong personal preference for moral horror X to be always wrong. It basically is an argumentum ad populum. It does not get much more subjective than that.I don't recognize that syllogism, which is question-begging and trivial, from any of the prominent theists who defend the moral argument, and it certainly does not establish that most people have a strong personal preference for a certain moral horror to be always wrong (PV seems a bit flimsy on logical inference). Apologists for the moral argument will appeal to moral horrors about which there is a wide consensus, but then they go on to ask WHY there is a consensus about this. Even atheists will use such an appeal, as Greta Christina does when she contrasts the consensus surrounding perception of trees with the (alleged) lack of consensus surrounding perception of God. Unless you are a radical skeptic about subjective experience, believing that all we have access to epistemologically are mental representations that have no implications for understanding the way things are, you should grant that if there is a wide consensus about some perception, that is a strong indication that the perception is objective.
But we can be a bit more systematic about the reasons for thinking that moral perceptions are objective. Such a case can be made by considering the phenomenology of human moral experience. In his book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? secular ethicist Russ Shafer-Landau gives a convenient summary of the features of moral judgments that point to their being, at least in principle, objective:
- Human beings are committed to the possibility, and indeed reality, of moral error: there are certain acts and practices, such as infanticide or gladiator games, which we today condemn as not just outdated or different than our own moral practices, but as wrong (as in, people ought not to engage in them). Granted that these practices were once endorsed by those living in ancient times, and that we disagree about who is morally in error, the human race seems united in the judgment that some people ARE in moral error. And we make a clear distinction between matters on which people can differ without being in error (such as which side of the road to drive on), which would fall under the label of 'custom', and matters on which people cannot differ without at least one party being in error. I invite PV to try thinking of gladiator games or mass crucifixions as simply a different practice of a different culture at a different time, no more in need of justification and no more capable of condemnation than someone's taste in ice cream.
- As a corollary of the first point, human beings fundamentally reject moral equivalence: the conviction that no one person or society's moral judgments are better or worse than those of any other person or society. As Landau says, "When we feel strongly enough to denounce something-terrorism, spousal abuse, torture-we don't for a moment accept the equivalence doctrine. We think our opponents are just wrong. And they couldn't be (nor could we ever be), if moral skepticism were correct...who believes that slavers and abolitionists, for instance, are really holding views of equal merit? That slavery, or its abolition, are both equally morally acceptable?" (p.19) But this would be the logical implication of moral skepticism.
- A third aspect of the phenomenology of moral experience, again closely connected to the previous two, is our belief in the possibility of moral progress and the legitimacy of moral comparison. We consider abolition, universal suffrage, and civil rights to be genuine improvements over the state of affairs that existed prior to those movements. Society did not just change its stance on certain issues, it improved that stance. But moral progress would be impossible if moral judgments were mere expressions of opinion or preference, just as scientific progress would be impossible if scientific theories were all equivalent, none of them more accurately corresponding to the way the world actually works. Similarly, the world condemnation of Nazi Germany presupposes that it is possible to compare the moral standing of different societies and decide which one is morally superior or morally inferior.
With regard to morality, I am in the same situation I might have been in before the eye was better understood. I receive certain sense perceptions which, instead of being ordered with regard to color and hue, are organized according to right and wrong. I can no more explain how I perceive these than I can explain exactly how I parse electrical signals, but, in my day to day life, these questions are not critical. I do know that I am at least as certain that my moral perceptions are meaningful and correspond to truth as I am certain that my visual perceptions do as well. In fact, I would go farther and say that I am as certain that my moral sense is attuned to something as real and urgent as the existence of physical matter.Or take the agnostic Robin Le Poidevin:
Conscience directs us to moral properties of the acts themselves: the act (of murder, theft, and deceit or charity, compassion, and sacrifice) is itself good or evil. That property does not appear to reside in the mind alone. It may be that an action must originate in an evil thought in order to count as bad, but the badness of the action is not the same thing as the badness of the thought...This is the (real or apparent) objectivity of our moral judgments. Now, if the conscience whose promptings give rise to these judgments is a result of a combination of biological and social selection plus psychological conditioning, where does this sense of objectivity come from?...
The mechanism is perhaps something like this: we witness, or think about, certain actions, such as deliberate deception, and they induce feelings in us, say of disapproval. This feeling is then somehow projected onto the act itself, resulting in what appears to be a perception of the act's badness. But this projection-if that is what it is-is very puzzling. It doesn't happen when things induce pain in us, for example. The experience of something may be accompanied by pain...but we don't then project the pain onto the thing that causes it. We may recognize a property in the object as the one that causes the pain, but the painfulness remains firmly fixed to the experience itself. Things are not intrinsically painful: it depends how they are presented to us. Why, then, when actions induce moral feelings in us, does the moral aspect of the experience not just stay fixed to the experience itself, rather than being projected onto the action, so that the action is seen as intrinsically good or bad, however it is presented to us?PV might howl at this point that all I've done is show that human beings are hard-wired to treat moral judgments as objective, not that they actually are. So the question then becomes, what accounts for this hard-wiring? One very good explanation is that this hard-wiring developed in response to certain real features of our environment. After all, unless you want to fall prey to Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, you should believe that in order to better survive and reproduce, human perceptions more or less accurately track important features of their environment. If moral facts do exist, they are supremely relevant to human flourishing and thus it would make sense that human beings evolved to perceive them. I submit that the burden of proof is on the moral skeptic to give good reasons why we should not at least prima facie trust our perceptions in this case.
Another objection PV makes is that "values, moral or otherwise, are by definition subjective. You value something, this is necessarily mind dependent."
But proponents of the moral argument are not arguing that the objectivity of moral judgments requires that they be mind-independent tout court. Indeed, the argument typically ends with the conclusion that moral facts do come from the mind of a Supreme Being. Rather, proponents of the argument reject human, or even better, finite mind-dependence for moral values and facts. Human beings just do not have the authority, knowledge or wisdom to make pronouncements about what they ought and ought not to do 'on their own steam', as it were. Finite, self-centered, survival-driven creatures that we are, our pronouncements would inevitably be driven by those preoccupations. Only the omnipotent, omniscient, magnificent Creator of all things could have the authority to craft and enforce moral facts. This pre-empts PV's further objection that a morality dependent on God would still be 'subjective'. It is, but not in the problematic way that a purely human morality would be.
PV's final objection is as follows:
Moral facts can only exist if the definition of morality is sufficiently precise to have a standard to measure morality by. I have never seen a theist give a meaningful definition of morality so they disqualify themselves even before any discussion would be possible.His first claim is just wrong. Moral facts would exist whether or not we have sufficiently fine-grained definitions to allow us to 'carve them at the joints', as it were. Definitions are things WE propose and see if they match what we observe in the real world. This is like saying gravity didn't exist before Galileo. The second claim is ambiguous at best, because it's not clear what exactly PV wants here. Unless and until he comes forward with that, he disqualifies himself from the discussion.