As should be obvious to anybody who has followed this blog for any extended period of time, I am somebody who believes that there are true and false moral statements. There is a fact of the matter concerning the rightness or wrongness of particular acts, and we can discover these facts like we can discover the chemical composition of a substance or the facts about an ecosystem that existed hundreds of millions of years ago.
A more important (though, certainly, related) question is not whether moral statements can be true or false, but whether moral arguments can be sound rather than unsound, or at least strong rather than weak.
What follows is largely a summary post, meant to put a number of different issues I have written about into a larger context.
Logicians have their own particular vocabulary for talking about arguments. A sound argument is an argument where the conclusion logically follows from the premises (the ‘reasons for believing’ the conclusion), and all of the premises are true. A strong argument is one in which the premises render the conclusion to be almost certainly true, but does not guarantee that truth.
For example, the major problem with religious arguments is not that their conclusions are false. The problem is that their arguments are unsound, because many of the premises are false.
One of the important facts about logic is that, even though an argument is unsound, its conclusion can still be true. For example, I could wake up in the morning, see a bright red sunrise, and conclude that an airplane crashed last night. My argument would not be sound. It would not even be a strong argument. Yet, this does not prove that no airplane crashed last night. It only proves that no rational person, presented solely with evidence that the sunrise is red, would have any reason to conclude that a plane crashed last night.
So, take the moral prohibition against bearing false witness against others – a prohibition that I have defended as being more important than a prohibition on lying. It is a prohibition that, of course, covers lying (lying is one way to bear false witness against others). Yet, a prohibition against bearing false witness also prohibits rumor-mongering and making intellectually reckless accusations and associations – because of the risk of bearing false witness.
If a person bases a conclusion of the form, “It is wrong to bear false witness,” on premises that say there is a God and that this God frowns upon bearing false witness, then that argument is unsound. The premises are false. It is like basing a belief that an airplane crashed during the night on a red sunrise in the morning, when the morning was, in fact, covered with a thick fog.
However, once again, claiming that the argument is unsound is not the same as saying that the conclusion is false. This is where some theists make a significant mistake. They assert that, “Because you criticize my premises, you must be arguing that it is not wrong to bear false witness against others. It certainly is true that it is wrong to bear false witness against others, so my premises that there exists a God and this God disapproves of such things must be true.”
Of course, this defense fails. This would be like having a person argue, on a gray and foggy morning, “There must have been a bright red sunlight this morning because the news reported that a plane crashed last night.” It is a clearly flawed and question-begging form of argument.
Even though false premises do not guarantee a false conclusion, they certainly do not guarantee a true conclusion. Many theists are convinced through religious argument to do things that are actually wrong. They were not believed to be wrong by the tribesmen who created the holy scripture – but those were largely ignorant people with a limited understanding of the real world. Their moral science, as it turns out, was little better than their physical science.
Another form of argument commonly used rests their moral conclusions on fundamental, basic ‘ought’ statements that cannot be further reduced to anything in the real world. Here, I am also going to argue that these propositions do not exist. All premises of the form, “There is a basic, irreducible ‘ought’ that says ‘people ought to do X’ are false.
One of the most common arguments in favor of the existence of these fundamental, irreducible ‘oughts’ is that one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Here is where I insert my view that there is no distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. There is only a distinction between ‘is’ and ‘is not’ – and if ‘ought’ cannot fit in with what ‘is’, then the only place left for it is in the realm of what ‘is not’.
Surprisingly, it does not matter which category a person chooses. Regardless of whether ‘ought’ is put into the category of ‘is’ or ‘is not’, desires still exist. Relationships between states of affairs and desires are still real, and desires continue to provide agents with reasons for action in the real world. We may have to come up with a different name for these aspects of nature, but we have no basis on which to question their existence or the reasons for action embedded within them.
Another form of argument that is very popular, and also entirely unsound, is the argument from personal preference. It is an argument that states, “I desire that everybody do X; therefore, everybody has an obligation to do X.” In other words, a person makes a statement such as, “People should not bear false witness against others.” Then, when asked to defend it, the speaker merely asserts, “I have come to adopt the attitude towards bearing false witness that it is something that should not be done. If I had been raised differently then I would not now be a person who holds that this is something that ought not to be done. Similarly, somebody who was raised differently might not hold the attitude that this should not be done. Nonetheless, I have come to hold the attitude that it should not be done; therefore, it should not be done.”
This is much like adopting the attitude that God exists; then, when asked to defend this claim, asserting something like, “I have come to adopt the attitude towards God that He exists. If I had been raised differently, then I would not now be a person who holds that God exists. Similarly, somebody who was raised differently might not hold the attitude that God exists. Nonetheless, I have come to hold the attitude that God exists; therefore, God exists.”
This is clearly a very poor defense. Yet, it is extremely common among those who are trying to defend a moral conclusion. It effectively states, “If I have come to a completely unsupported and indefensible attitude that something is the case, then I am completely justified in asserting that something is the case, even though somebody else who acquires the attitude that something is not the case would be justified in asserting that something is not the case. In fact, if I were to acquire the attitude that something is not the case, then I would be totally justified in asserting that.
It is a nonsense position – and one of my main exhibits in defending my claim that religion is not the only source of absurdity in the world, and eliminating religion is no guarantee against eliminating absurdity.
I have discussed this option repeatedly over the past week. I add it here only to fit it into context. This is the view, “It is wrong to bear false witness because I have been programmed by evolution to adopt the attitude that it is wrong to bear false witness.”
So, what of the person who has not evolved a disposition to view bearing false witness as wrong. Or, what of the person who views the establishment of ‘in group’ loyalty and ‘out group’ hostility, manifesting an urge to attack out-groups and destroy them, taking their resources from them? What of the person who evolved a disposition to rape? If we (or to the degree that we) did not evolve altruistic dispositions, then is it the case that to that degree we are not good? Or does that imply that altruism is not good?
If we look at nature, we do not find an environment filled with cooperation and love. We see an environment that is a blend of cooperation and competition – with forms of cruelty by one creature against others that many people simply hope to ignore. Those people who argue that morality comes from evolution would have to have some place in the horrendous brutality and cruelty we also find in nature, and explain how, if morality comes from nature, that nature (and thus morality) does not and cannot command horrendous brutality.
None of these arguments actually have much merit. Yet, people appeal to them time and time again. They do so in defending conclusions that are as serious as deciding who to kill and who to let live, who to harm to who to help. There is a lot of talk given recently about how religion, with its false premises and invalid arguments, is used to ‘justify’ support for policies that bring death and suffering to millions. Yet, religion is not the only argument that can work this way. Religious people are not the only people who base moral conclusions on some very shaky arguments.
Here are three examples that fit beside religious-based ethics in terms of shakiness. Some of them are very popular, even among those who are the first to ridicule those who base moral conclusions on shaky premises.