Morality: Making Simple Things Complicated

I believe in keeping up interstellar appearances.  If aliens from outer space ever do visit us, I don’t want to be embarrassed.  For example, it would be nice if they concluded that, given the rather short time since we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees, we are actually rather smart.  As things now stand, that’s most unlikely.  What is likely is that they’ll have a hearty laugh at our expense, especially when they discover that we refer to ourselves as “Man the Wise.”  In the first place, a large majority of us still believe in imaginary super-beings who plan to boil us in hell for billions and trillions of years for the paltry sins they knew we were predestined to commit and couldn’t possibly avoid during our brief lives, or who are divided up into a complicated mélange of “spirit” and human-like sexual characteristics.  In the second, they will notice that, even though we have known about evolution for more than a century and a half, we still ascribe all sorts of supernatural qualities to morality as well.  Shameful!  The snickers and knowing glances at interstellar cocktail parties will be unbearable.

It may be that a benign zoologist or two among them will observe what orgasmic pleasure we get out of striking self-righteous poses, and how addicted we are to imagining ourselves as “good” and the others as “evil,” and will frown at all this levity at our expense.  Such delicious pleasures are easy to rationalize, and hard to part with.  Besides, surely some of the very interstellar wags who laugh the loudest at our expense belong to species that commited follies in their “gilded youth” that were just as bad, if not worse.  Still, I’m keeping a paper bag handy to put over my head at need if the time comes.

The God thing is bad enough, but, as the sympathetic zoologists might point out, at least it’s understandable.  Our species has an inordinate fear of dying and, since we’ve also managed the whimsical trick of identifying our consciousness, an entirely secondary entity that exists because it promoted genetic survival, with our “selves,” we imagine there’s no way out.  We either have to face the fact that we’re going to “depart from among men,” as the historian Procopius always put it, or – we have to invent an imaginary super-being to save us.

The morality thing is a different matter.  We don’t keep up that charade to avoid death.  We just do it because it’s fun.  Members of our species love to imagine themselves as noble heroes in a never-ending battle against evil.  It “promotes high self-esteem.”  It enables us to do remarkably selfish things in the name of selflessness.  It even diverts our attention from our impending end and, when combined with the God illusion, offers an illusory way of escaping it.  Dealing with people who are enamored of their own righteousness is always an inconvenience.  Occasionally it’s much worse than that.  They become psychopathic, manage to convince others that they’re right, and commit mass murder as a way of eliminating the evil people.  It turns out that the God nexus isn’t even necessary.  Even people who avoid that first illusion usually fall victim to the second – that Good and Evil are real things, objects in themselves.

The rationalization of the illusion is always flimsy enough.  In the case of religious believers, we have been provided with an example by Christian apologist William Lane Craig.  It goes like this:

If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

Objective moral values do exist.

Therefore, God exists.

This is a farrago of nonsense.  What does the existence of a super-being have to do with objective morality?  Certainly, he can fry us in hell for billions and trillions of years for daring to disagree with him, but in the end, his opinion of good and evil is just that – an opinion.  His opinion is no more legitimate than anyone else’s by virtue of the fact that he can either torture us forever on the one hand, or shack us up with 72 virgins on the other.  In other words, there is no way in which moral values can become objects just because he wants it that way.  The existence of a God is irrelevant to the existence of objective moral values.

As for the second component of the syllogism, it is a statement of faith, not fact.  If objective moral values really do exist, how is it that, after all these thousands of years, we are still waiting for one of the moralists to catch one in his butterfly net and show it to us, neatly mounted on a pin?  As for the third component, it evaporates without the first two.

The attempts of the atheists are just as persistent, and just as absurd.  They often take the form of conflating a utilitarian ought with a moral ought.  A typical example that is actually offered as a “rebuttal” to the Christian syllogism above recently appeared at Secular Outpost.  The author, Bradley Bowen, starts out reasonably enough, noting that,

One obvious atheistic objection would be to reject or cast doubt on premise (2).  If one rejects or doubts that objective moral values exist, then this argument will fail to be persuasive.

Then, however, he begins wading into the swamp:

Another possible objection is to reject or cast doubt upon premise (1).  Some atheists accept moral realism, and thus believe that the non-existence of God is logically compatible with objective moral values.  I will be focusing on this particular objection to the MOVE (Craig) argument.

Religious people have a way of becoming very acute logicians when it comes to assessing the moral illusions of atheists.  William Lane Craig is no exception.  Bowen quotes him as follows:

I must confess that this alternative strikes me as incomprehensible, an example of trying to have your cake and eat it too.  What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value justice just exists?  I understand what it is for a person to be just, but I draw a complete blank when it is said that, in the absence of any people, justice itself exists.  Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as abstractions–or at any rate, I don’t know what it means for a moral value to exist as an abstraction.  Atheistic moral realists, seeming to lack any adequate foundation in reality for moral values, just leave them floating in an unintelligible way.

Reasonable enough.  Here, of course, it is obvious that Craig is referring to justice as an objective moral good.  He also points out the simple and seemingly obvious fact, at least since the days of Darwin, that, absent a God, moral values are “properties of persons.”  Well put!  While human morality can manifest itself in countless varieties of rules, systems, and laws depending on time and circumstances, the ultimate reason for its existence is a “property of persons.”  In all its variations, it represents the expression of evolved behavioral traits.  Absent those ultimate causes, carried about in the genetic material of each “person,” morality as most people understand the term would disappear.

Bowen, however, kicks against the goads.  For him, dispensing with “objective moral values” would be as hard as giving up chocolate, or even sex.  It would take all the joy out of life.  To preserve them, he comes up with a “proof” just as chimerical as Craig’s syllogism.  In essence, it is just a crude and transparent attempt to ignore the word “objective.”  According to Bowen,

Perhaps Craig is correct that some thinkers who accept AMR (Atheistic Moral Realism) believe that justice exists as an abstraction independent of any human beings or persons, but this is NOT a logical implication of AMR, as far as I can see.  Moral realism claims that moral judgments can be true or false, and that some moral judgments are in fact true.  It is hard to see how one can get from these claims to the metaphysical claim that justice is an entity that exists independently of humans or persons.

It is not hard to see at all.  If justice does not exist independently of humans or persons, then it is subjective, not objective.  Bowen has simply decided to ignore the term “objective.”  This becomes more clear in the following:

I think Craig is correct in being skeptical about justice existing as an abstract entity independently of the existence of agents or persons.  If justice is, first and foremost, an attribute or characteristic of actions, then it does appear to be implausible to think of justice as an abstract entity.  However, an attribute (such as ‘green’) may be correctly ascribed to a particular entity (such as ‘grass’ or ‘this patch of grass’) without it being the case that the attribute constitutes an independently existing entity.

In that sense, there certainly is such a thing as “green.”  No doubt if we were smart enough, we could dissect all the molecules, hormones, and atomic interactions that account for the impression “green.”  However, if there is really any distinction between subjective and objective at all, green remains subjective.  In other words, it is the impression left on the mind of an individual by certain real things, in this case, photons.  It is, however, not the things themselves.  Bowen is left with the burden of demonstrating how justice and all the rest of his moral subjects are magically transformed into objects.  That, after all, is the whole point of Craig’s use of the term “objective.”  How does justice, as described by Bowen, acquire the ability to leap out of his skull, or of any other skull for that matter, and become an “object.”  By what mysterious process does it acquire that legitimacy?

No, I’m sorry, Virginia, but I have more bad news for you.  Not only is there not a Santa Claus, but there is no God, and no objective morality.  Don’t despair, though.  Santa Claus was certainly a grievous loss, but we’d all be much better off without the other two.  In the end, lies are liabilities.  “God” motivates us to fly airplanes full of people into tall buildings, and “objective morality” convinces us that we are perfectly justified in murdering millions of people because they are Jews or “bourgeoisie.”

Well, in spite of these rather obvious drawbacks, just as we are certainly descended from apes, most of us are certainly still absurd enough to believe in Gods and “objective morality.”  When it comes to potential interstellar visitors, I can but paraphrase Darwin’s apocryphal noble lady and hope that these absurdities don’t become generally known.  I’m still keeping my paper bag handy, though.