In a recent posting, Jewish Atheist offered a ‘morality test’ that attempted to collect empirical data that no two people are in complete agreement on a range of moral statements. What Jewish Atheist meant to imply from this set of data is not entirely clear.
It is not clear, in part, because I can come up with a similar set of statements about things that are totally objective, where people are in disagreement about the facts of the matter. Yet, they are still facts.
Argument from Differences of Opinion
For example, assume I construct a test where I ask readers to rank the following statements according to whether or not they are likely to be true. A score of ‘0’ means that the statement is definitely false, while a ‘10’ means that it cannot possibly be false. I suspect that I can come up with a set of statements where no two people will be in complete agreement.
(1) At least one God exists.
(2) Humans are the product of a phenomena called ‘evolution’ in a universe designed by God in such a way that evolution would create humans.
(3) Jesus rose from the dead.
(4) Mohammed was a prophet of God.
(5) There is at least one planet with multi-cellular life within 1000 light years of Earth.
(6) Earth will be hit by an asteroid or comet at least 0.5 km in diameter within the next 100,000 years.
(7) There were dinosaurs on Noah’s Arc.
And so on.
Given enough questions (and the right questions) I can guarantee that no two people will entirely agree on the answer to these questions.
But what does that prove?
It proves that people disagree.
It does not prove that there are no right answers.
The argument being made, when this form of reasoning is applied to moral claims, is that disagreement over the answers to a set of moral questions proves something profound. It proves that there are no right answers to be had to moral questions – as if the claim “there are right answers to these questions” is somehow supposed to imply, “everybody is in agreement over what those right answers are” (such that denying the consequent proves that the antecedent is false.
The implication is invalid.
I find it, at best, odd to note that people who not only object to religious people using poor arguments in defense of their favorite religious beliefs, but make them objects of ridicule and derisive laughter, so easily accept such a poor argument in defense of the claim that there are no right answers to moral questions. One would expect that a group of people who express such contempt for poor reasoning would say, “That argument doesn’t work. Throw it out.”
Argument from Imagination
Another argument that does not work, that is no less popular, goes something like this. “I can imagine two people who are in perfect agreement over all of the facts of the matter, who still disagree over a moral claim such as whether abortion is wrong.”
Well, I can imagine spaceships traveling faster than the speed of light, traveling from star system to star system in the time that it takes to run a string of 30-second commercials. I can imagine dragons, and sorcerers casting spells. I can imagine Jesus walking on water and curing blindness with a touch of his hand. I can imagine traveling back in time and meeting Thomas Jefferson. I can imagine quite a few things . . . but are any of them true?
“I can imagine” is, itself, a very poor argument.
The question to be answered is whether it can happen in fact that two people can be in complete agreement on a set of facts and still disagree on a moral conclusion.
This “I can imagine” argument is, in fact, completely question-begging. It does not prove truth but, instead, stands as a substitute for the beliefs of the person making the claim. Instead of, “I can imagine X; therefore X”, what the person who uses this argument is really saying is, “I believe X; therefore, X”.
There is a third problem with this line of reasoning that deserves a look. I have noticed a tendency among those who try to prove that there are no right answers when it comes to moral questions that they tend to cite David Hume with admiration – particularly Hume’s claim that it is not possible to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’. According to Hume, since ‘ought’ describes some new sort of relation from ‘is’, that the person giving the argument needs to explain his transition from ‘is’ premises, to an ‘ought’ conclusion.
Jewish Atheist, in part, defines morality as, an immoral act as an act that causes the individual committing the act any degree of guilt and/or an act that was done maliciously or selfishly that causes any degree of hurt or grief onto another living being.
For this part of the argument, I am going to focus on the first half of the argument – the claim that moral terms refers to that which is disposed to cause a sensation of guilt in the agent. Most moral subjectivists use a definition that is similar to this – that we call something right of wrong in virtue of whether it is something that tends to cause a sensation of approval or disapproval in the person making the claim.
However, it is often overlooked that the definition, “Is such as to cause in the agent a feeling of guilt” or ‘is such as to cause a feeling of approval or disapproval in the agent’ is an is statement. It is a description of a real-world state of affairs. It is a statement about a state of affairs that is either true or false.
From such an is premise, the subjectivist makes an immediate leap to providing us with an ‘ought’ conclusion. They tell us that, ‘If it is the case that forcing children to recite the Bible in school creates a sensation of approval in you,” then one is justified in inferring, “Then, the school system ought to institute mandatory school prayer.” At least, this inference is supposed to hold for those people of whom the antecedent is true.
What they fail to explain to us is how one can get from this ‘is’ premise to an ‘ought’ conclusion. What is it (if anything) that makes this inference valid? It is not sufficient to show that many people often make this inference – that it is second-nature to them and they do it without thinking. My question is, “Why is this inference not a mistake? What makes it valid?” I will assert, in this case, that no answer can be provided.
A Sense of Right and Wrong
The problem with this tendency to infer something like, “School systems ought to institute mandatory school prayer,” from “The thought of mandatory school prayer is such as to cause a sensation of approval within me,” can be illustrated in another way.
Speaking to my atheist readers, each of us probably knows of a lot of people who claim that they can look at a beautiful sunset, or at the face of their newborn child, and ‘see’ God. Their experience gives rise to certain sentiments, and they take those sentiments themselves as evidence of God’s existence.
The inference from “Being with my newborn daughter creates a particular sensation within me,” to “God exists,” is no less problematic than, “The thought of mandatory school prayer creates such a sensation within me,” to “School systems ought to institute mandatory prayer.” Yes, people are in the habit of making rash and unwarranted inferences from their private sensations. However, this does not prove that the inference is valid.
The person who uses this argument still needs to explain how it is that their sensation is a sensation that X is wrong.
So, here are four arguments that are often used to support subjectivism that do not work.
(1) The argument from differences of opinion
(2) The argument from imagination
(3) The argument from ‘is such as to cause guilt’ to ‘ought not to be done’
(4) The argument from sensing right and wrong.
These arguments do not support the conclusions that those who use them think they support. They are arguments that those with a devotion to reason should abandon.
This post does not prove that subjectivism is not true. It does, however, attempt to point out that those who use certain arguments in defense of subjectivism are ignoring basic rules of logic and reason in doing so. If there is an argument to offer in defense of subjectivism, it is not any of these