Friday, September 30, 2005

Moral Theory

Some things are so wrong that even God cannot make them right.

I did not have time to research any specific issue for today’s posting, so I thought I would quickly present a bit of theory.

Goodness and God

Many people – too many – state that we can only know about moral truth through God and whoever does not worship God cannot know the difference between right and wrong.

First, I need to point out the bigotry of this statement. Consider, for example, the difference between Christians and Jews. Some could argue that you can only know moral truth by looking at the teachings of Jesus Christ, and any who ignore his teachings cannot know right and wrong. This leaves all Jews as being immoral. Or, we could say that knowing the difference between good and evil requires understanding the word of the prophet Mohammed, and all who do not know his teachings are immoral.

Branding all atheists as immoral is bigotry – pure and simple. It is the same brand of bigotry that once branded all Jews as contemptible, or promoted violent bigotry between Christians and Muslims for a few centuries.

The theist will say that God is required for a tree to exist – no tree could exist without God. Yet, the atheist has no trouble seeing the tree. He simply denies that it comes from God. A theist will say that the wrongness of rape comes from God – rape could not be wrong without a God saying that it is wrong. Similarly, the atheist who knows that rape is wrong simply denies that this wrongness comes from God.

If God were to say, “I now make rape perfectly moral – go ahead and rape whomever you like,” this would not make rape moral. This would make God evil.

Plato presented this argument forcefully 2,500 years ago through his description of the words of Socrates (based on a historical figure). The argument can be found in his book Euthyphro.

Rape, murder, slavery, infanticide, genocide, the use of biological warfare (plague) to accomplish a political objective (“let my people go”) are all so very much wrong that they cannot be made right even by God. Those who forgive a God who does these things forgives evil. Those who worship a God who does and commands these things worship evil.

In short, there is a moral truth that even God cannot violate if God is good. Even God cannot torture a child for the purse enjoyment of listening to him scream and remain good.

So, if there is a goodness that exists without God – a goodness that even God must obey -- the next quest is to find it.

Desire Utilitarianism

The moral theory that I think holds the most promise in identifying moral truth is ‘desire utilitarianism’. Simply put, desire utilitarianism states that the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment are tools. We use these tools to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires (aversion to killing, a love of the truth, a love of reason, a thirst for knowledge, an aversion to non-consent, a passion for liberty, an unwillingness to do harm).

Our desires are malleable. Like our beliefs, our desires are molded in part by our interaction with others. The institution of morality promotes these good desires (desires to help others) and inhibits bad desires (desires to harm others).

This practice does not need a God. If one wants to say that God created desires and the relationships that exist between them, and the ability to use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to mold those desires, one may do so; just as one can say that God created trees. However, the desires that exist, the ability to mold them, and the relationships between them exist today. They are not invisible to the person who does not believe in God.

This practice also does not need to postulate intrinsic or absolute values. Within the context of this theory, we will only speak about beliefs, desires, states of affairs, and the relationships between them. There is some debate on the nature, or even the existence, of beliefs and desires. However, until the people working in this field of study actually come up with an alternative, I do not think that anybody can blame us for working with the concepts that make up the most widespread and easily understood theory of the day.

This practice is not compatible with common moral relativism – or, more accurately, agent- or assessor- subjectivism. What each individual feels is right or wrong has no bearing on what is right or wrong in fact. Subjectivism is like a moral test, where everybody gets to grade their own paper. Of course, this means that everybody is going to give themselves a perfect score, because the ‘right answer’ is whatever answer the person taking the test put down. I think that this is what makes these forms of subjectivism so popular – the fact that it allows each person to claim moral perfection. I think this is also what makes subjectivism as a theory so dangerous – the fact that any answer is the right answer as long as the individual believes it is right.

This practice also does not allow for any type of evolutionary explanation for ethics. It is true that evolution has molded our desires. It has given us an aversion to pain, a desire for sex, desires for food and drink, some level of concern for our children and close kin, and even some measure of compassion for strangers. However, desire utilitarianism is only concerned with desires that can be changed through the application of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. If evolution fixes a desire, then morality simply takes that as a non-moral background fact like gravity and the laws of thermodynamics. Eating is not a duty, it is just something that people do.

What this practice would allow is a way for people generally to better fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires, by using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, to promote desire-fulfilling desires and inhibit desire-thwarting desires.

Moral Language

While each person is promoting desire-fulfilling desires in others, those others are promoting desire-fulfilling desires in them. This will create a feedback loop, Person A seeks to fulfill his desires by promoting desire-fulfilling desires in B. Person B will do the same to A. However, now Person B is using these tools to fulfill desires that have been molded to become desire-fulfilling desires. These are the desires that he is molding A to fulfill. To the degree that their mutual projects are successful, each will be using the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to fulfill ever-strengthening desire-fulfilling desires, and ever-weakening desire-thwarting desires.

I recognize that there are those who would argue that I am hijacking moral language when I express this view in those terms. I, in turn, accuse those who advocate divine-command theories of ethics, intrinsic value theories, subjectivism, and evolution-based theories of hijacking moral language.

Yet, which of us is hijacking moral language really is not a very interesting question. When I speak against other theories, I do not consider the charge of ‘hijacking moral language’ to be very significant. I have more serious charges to level against them.

God-based and intrinsic-value based theories both make use of entities that do not exist. Subjectivism is an incoherent doctrine that says at the same time that each person is both morally perfect and significantly flawed depending on whose perspective one is using at the moment. Evolutionary claims, like physics and chemistry, are merely descriptions and tell us nothing about what ought or ought not to be done.

When somebody says that they wish to call one of these other things 'morality', I prefer to give a two-part answer; (1) it makes no sense to call that 'morality', and (2) if you feel strongly enough about it, then go ahead -- what you now call 'morality' is one in which all moral claims are false, incoherent, or irrelevant to the question of how best to use the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

Another Word about God

Anybody who says that those who believe in God are inherently better than those who do not, or that whose who do not are inherently better than those who do, are exhibiting overt signs of bigotry.

Belief in God isn’t a problem, except when a person thinks that God commands him to harm other people – to blow them up, kill them, destroy their temples, force them into the status of second-class citizens, force them to pay more in taxes or deprive them of equal consideration before the law in terms of both justice and benefits. The people who believe that God commands His followers to harm others are the ones we need to watch out for.

Belief that there is no God isn’t a problem. However, a person who does not believe in God can still believe that he has a right to harm other people – to blow them up, kill them, destroy their temples, force them into the status of second-class citizens, force them to pay more in taxes or deprive them of equal consideration before the law in terms of both justice and benefits. These are people we need to watch out for.

Belief in God, or belief that there is no God, is not the issue. The issue is their ability to live in peace with their neighbors.

1 comment:

Travis R said...

I'm only slightly familiar with desire utilitarianism but I ran across a quote from Einstein and couldn't help but recognize a desire utilitarian perspective. See the quote at

It would be dishonest to claim that Einstein was a desire utilitarian but it seems it's not much of a stretch.